Pastoral ministry is the joyful labor of promoting others’ joy (Heb. 13:17; 2 Cor. 1:24). You can’t share with others what you don’t have. Therefore, faithful pastors must delight in God in order to do their joy-promoting work (Phil. 1:25). But there are many potential joy-killers in pastoral ministry. Envy, impatience, worry, busyness, fear, insecurity, pride, and selfishness (to name a few) diminish and deplete our gladness, grinding us into dull duty or the pursuit of lesser pleasures.
Pastors sometimes experience an oppressive awareness of our own inadequacy. We’re sobered by the flaws in the work we’ve done and suffocated by work yet to be done. I’ve felt this despair, and I know I’m not alone. Satan comes after me hard on Sunday mornings, reminding me of straying members, critical comments, incomplete tasks, and personal failures. He tries to bury me in a pit of discouragement so deep that I can’t climb out by the time I preach. My joy is all but gone before I have the chance to help others.
How can we pastors fight for joy? I’ve found help from my favorite poet, George Herbert, who pastored a small English church in the 17th century. In his poem “Aaron,” Herbert uses Israel’s first high priest as an image of a pastor in his local parish. I imagine Herbert crossing the street from his home to the church early on a Sunday, well before his parishioners have arrived. The building is empty; Herbert is troubled. He sits in the silence, fighting for joy in God. This poem expresses his pondering and praying. We’ll take a stanza at a time.
Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.
Israel’s high priest wore beautiful vestments—bells attached to his robe—when he entered the holy of holies. Herbert suggests all pastors (“true Aarons”) should be characterized by beauty and holiness. But watch what Herbert does next, contrasting this gorgeous vision with the grim realities of his heart.
Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.
Herbert considers himself a “poor priest”—profane in thought, defective and darkened in heart. His sinful passions don’t just diminish his ministry; they threaten to pull him from Christ entirely. Herbert knew his heart, and it gave him little reason to rejoice. What pastor hasn’t felt this way?
But thanks be to God, despair needn’t be the final word for sinful, overwhelmed pastors.
Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.
Herbert’s deliverance begins with a long look away from himself to “another” (the word appears three times in this stanza), who offers his clothing of righteousness. Of whom is Herbert speaking? The next stanza tells us.
Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.
Importantly, Christ is not merely Herbert’s head, heart, breast, and music but his only head and only music, his “alone-only” heart and breast. In his need and despair, Herbert doesn’t look to Christ plus his own remarkable ability with words, Christ plus his impressive pastoral gifts, Christ plus the promise of strong Sunday morning attendance. He looks to Christ alone.
Herbert’s deepest need is not pastoral but personal—he needs strong hope for his soul. Jesus doesn’t appear to him as a life coach, ready to make him a more effective minister. Herbert’s Jesus reminds him he’s been made new, clothed in Christ’s own righteous robes. In other words, Jesus hasn’t just made him a better pastor; he’s made him a new person. It’s from that position Herbert ministers:
So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.
In some respects, nothing has changed for Herbert at the end of his prayer. He’s still sinful and inadequate, still sitting in an empty sanctuary. Each line in all five stanzas of the poem ends with the same word (head, breast, dead, rest, drest). But Herbert’s meditation over five stanzas has changed his perspective.
Herbert sees that his holiness is not his own, but Christ’s. Because of this, he can rest (Christ “lives in me while I do rest”) even as he preaches and serves. Despair is conquered! As Herbert waits in the empty sanctuary, he’s suddenly confident. He eagerly calls his congregation to worship because he’s now ready for them: “Come people; Aaron’s drest.”
Herbert blazed a path from despair to delight. It’s a path every pastor (and every Christian) may follow. Our insufficiency can lead us to freshly embrace Christ’s sufficiency. In him, we are holy, perfect, light, alive, and restful. When our souls are satisfied in God, we’re ready to minister.