Since stepping aside from full-time pastoral ministry, the Lord has allowed me to befriend several young men who are fresh in the faith and eager to serve the Lord. A recent conversation with one of them left an indelible impression.
As the young man shared with me his conversion experience and how God is working in his life, his enthusiasm was boundless. I was impressed with his maturity at such a youthful age as well as with the prayerful planning he had entered into as a young man with desires for and a sense of calling to the ministry.
As we talked, I found myself listening and observing much more than speaking, and as I did, I was able to recall myself decades earlier when I was at a similar stage in life and in my Christian walk. I was honored when he asked if I would consider discipling and mentoring him toward his ministry goals.
Later that evening, while alone in my conversation with the Lord, I thought about the sincerity of this young man’s commitment to serving his Savior whom he had known for such a short time. It struck me when I compared it with the waning zeal that had begun to characterize my ministry of nearly 50 years. I asked myself, “Why is this the case?”
When I was my young friend’s age, I too was ready to jump into the service of Christ, whatever and wherever that meant. Bible college and seminary only heightened my desire. My devotion to and affection for Jesus couldn’t have been higher. And when I finally entered a ministry role, the joy of serving God’s people through the local church was literally a dream come true.
Somewhere over the next few decades, however, the line on the graph of my enthusiasm began to level out. I was aware something was amiss, but I wasn’t clear enough in my thinking to identify the cause. As the decades passed, I found myself settling into a weekly routine of prayer, preparation, and presentation without giving as much thought as I should to my personal spiritual health and growth—not only as a pastor but as a follower of Christ.
Oh, I loved Jesus deeply, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything other than teaching and preaching his Word. But deep into the demands of ministry, I had lost sight of what was most important.
Deep into the demands of ministry, I had lost sight of what was most important.
That brings me back to the recent conversation with my young friend. Being able to see my younger self in him surfaced a familiar phrase from Scripture—one that can be passed over too quickly if we’re not prodded by God’s Holy Spirit to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Addressing the messenger of the church in Ephesus, the Lord issued this familiar word of caution: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4, NKJV).
As if with a sudden awakening, that phrase now loomed large before me. I felt convicted, not because I no longer loved Jesus, but because I didn’t sense the depth of love that I’d known years before. Was it possible I had somehow “left my first love”?
The ESV reading added a measure of clarity for me: “I have this against you, that you abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4). The more I meditated upon those words, the clearer their meaning became. They were written to a local assembly largely made up of believers. The church was probably three decades old at the time, and it seems already their spiritual fervor was on the decline.
Mine was as well. Although I’d been involved in Christian ministry since long before my friend was born, it was his zealous energy and enthusiasm that shouted love for Jesus more than I could credibly declare. I was tempted to chalk this up to having exhausted myself in ministry opportunities; after all, wasn’t there a famous quote about preferring to burn out rather than rust out in service to the Lord? But honesty prevailed and I knew there was more to the matter.
I felt convicted, not because I no longer loved Jesus, but because I didn’t sense the depth of love that I’d known years before.
It would be too dramatic to say my ministry life flashed before my eyes, but I had an “aha” moment. I thought of days and weeks when my heart was not solely devoted to the Lord’s work. Days when I made excuses for pursuing my own agenda or seeking others’ approval more than God’s favor. Times when I yielded to temptation and devoted less time and effort to my sermon preparation. Subtle things, perhaps, but over the course of time they had become patterns.
Without my young friend knowing it, the Lord used him to reawaken me to wholehearted investment in service to Christ. I read and reread God’s warning from Revelation 2:2–5. The words fit me to a tee.
Yes, I had steadfastly maintained sound doctrine and called out false teaching. I had persevered in pastoral service. But over time, I’d allowed the work of ministry to become stifling and unfulfilling. I was forced to admit and confess that my love for Jesus had grown cold.
As I considered my circumstances, God suddenly illuminated his Word to me. I honed in on the Lord’s charge to “Remember . . . [and] repent.” Rarely had a text of Scripture struck me with as much immediate force. Brought face-to-face with ugly and heretofore buried-beneath-the-surface truths about myself, I earnestly cried out to God. I asked him to hear my confession and not to extinguish my “lampstand” of service, but rather to cause it to burn more brightly than before.
Although I’m no longer in full-time ministry, I’m indebted for the divine appointment with this young man and for how the Lord used him to expand my vision for the opportunities I still have to serve church and community. My prayer is to encourage and exhort him to carefully guard his first love, making certain that his lampstand continues to burn with white-hot intensity until Jesus returns.