In a time of tumult and crisis, a bishop writes to encourage his friends and colleagues in ministry. There is much to discourage them: their perceived lack of ability; biblical and theological illiteracy in their congregations; interruptions to their busy schedules; and scandals rocking the church. As he writes, he looks for a golden thread that will tie together his advice and will call them back to faithfulness in their task.
That bishop was Augustine of Hippo.
Though he wrote a millennium and a half ago, his words ring true today. In a remarkable section of Instructing Beginners in Faith, “How to Avoid Discouragement,” Augustine addresses a number of challenges pastors face. He binds his encouragements together under one theme: the call to follow Christ in the simple and humble work of love. His advice is timeless, and we would do well to listen to it.
It worries us what was imbibed by the mind in one swift draught takes long and convoluted by-ways as it comes to expression on our lips . . . and, because our utterance differs greatly from our insight, we find that speaking palls and we would rather remain silent. (40)
Augustine knows what it’s like to be gripped by an insight from Scripture and to long to express it to others—and to feel incapable of putting it into words. When we feel frustrated in communicating the joy of the gospel, Augustine invites us to see ourselves caught up in the condescending love of Jesus.
In the same way that the Eternal Son “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7), we too move from delight that seems inexpressible to humble words that pale in comparison. “If our understanding finds delight within, in the brightest of secret places, let us also find delight in the . . . ways of love” (41–42). We leave the peaks of our insight to speak simple, comprehensible words of love to people who need to hear them above anything else.
What then of situations in which we are more attracted to reading or listening to an address that has already been prepared and is better worded than our own? (42)
In Augustine’s day, as in ours, people circulated the sermons of the most eloquent teachers. Then and now, this provided an opportunity for pastors to compare—and then despair—over their abilities. Augustine counsels us to embrace the humbling truth that our abilities are limited.
As we do, we also rest in the God who promised to use his servants: “We will also have more confidence in entreating God to speak to us in accordance with our wishes, if we cheerfully allow him to speak through us in accordance with our capacities. Thus it comes about that ‘for those who love God, all things come together in the good’” (45).
Back to the Basics
We find it distasteful to be constantly rehearsing familiar phrases that are suited to the ears of small children. (45)
We long for our people to know “the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10)—the intricacies of covenant theology or the beauty of the Trinity. Instead, we find ourselves impatient and discouraged as we repeat the basics with a biblically and theologically illiterate congregant.
Augustine invites us to see this impatience as an opportunity for our love of these “spiritual children” to restore to us the joy of our salvation. When we let compassion motivate our teaching, we’ll find ourselves stirred by delight in the truth: “As a result of our empathy with them, the oft-repeated phrases will sound new to us also. For this feeling of compassion is so strong that, when our listeners are touched by us as we speak and we are touched by them as they learn, each of us comes to dwell in the other.” (45)
Lack of Fruit
When we see no reaction from our hearer, it is really tiring to continue. (47)
We plan, prepare and teach, but to no apparent effect. How do we persevere when our people yawn or stare blankly back at us? Augustine’s answer is disarmingly practical. Love calls us to the concrete details of delivery and communication. Can we tell that someone is distracted? “We should awaken his attention by making a remark spiced with seemly good humor and appropriate to the subject under discussion” (47).
Can we see that someone’s attention span is waning? “We should then move quickly . . . promising that we will soon be finished—and keeping our word” (51). These pastoral disappointments are our invitation to the practical work of humble, simple love.
Disappointments are our invitation to the practical work of humble, simple love.
You may, however, be dejected because you have to leave aside another activity which in your view was more essential and upon which you were already intent. (51)
Who has not known the frustration of a pastoral interruption that spoils a morning of study and preparation? Our scheduled work seemed essential, but the day had other plans. Once again, Augustine reminds us of love’s character. The needs of the people entrusted to us are the real work to which God has called us.
“Call to mind that—apart from knowing that in all our dealings with people we should act compassionately and out of an obligation of the purest love—for the rest we do not know which tasks we might benefit from continuing to work on and which we might do better to interrupt and abandon altogether” (51). We trust providence to guide our day and love to direct our path.
It can also happen that our mind is in such turmoil as a result of some scandal or other that we find ourselves unable to deliver our address calmly and congenially. (52)
Every day there seems to be a new report of moral failure, abuse, or deconstruction. How do we serve when our hearts are discouraged by these scandals? Scandals should spur us to care for the souls who might stumble because of the failures of others. When we fear that scandals will drive people away from the faith, “this fear should not be a reason for holding back but rather for rousing ourselves and intensifying our efforts” (53).
The obstacles in our work are many, and the temptations of discouragement are perennial. But in Augustine we find a faithful friend and mentor, a guide who calls us away from our frustration to the simplicity of humbly loving those who have been entrusted to us by God.