In a sin-broken world that doesn’t function as God intended there are reasons for every pastor to be afraid. It would be silly and unwise not to be. But you must guard your heart against being ruled by fear. So let’s take an honest look at fear and pastoral ministry.
In relationships with flawed people there are reasons to be afraid. Every person you minister with and to is a flawed human being in need of redemption. No one around you has a completely pure heart. No one is totally free of sinful thoughts, desires, cravings, or motives. No one always says the right thing. No one always makes the right choices. No one is always noble in his or her intentions. No one is free from acts of selfishness or self-aggrandizement. No one is completely loyal. No one always has your back. Because of this, relationships in the body of Christ are messy and unpredictable. There we experience some of our most gratifying joys and heart-wrenching pains. It is godly and responsible to be afraid of how sin can create power struggles, divisive ally groups, critical and judgmental attitudes, self-centered complaining, disloyalty, and ultimately division.
Fear can be a very good and godly thing. Fear that leads you to protect the people in your ministry from the dangers of the real evil that exists both inside and outside of them is a very good thing. Eyes-wide-open, gospel-driven, sin-warring fear that at the same time rests in the grace of Jesus is a very good way of living in a world that itself is still groaning waiting for redemption.
Fear can be an ungodly and dangerous thing. Fear can overwhelm your senses. It can distort your thinking. It can kidnap your desires. It can capture your meditation so that you spend more time worrying about what could be than considering the God who is. Fear can cause you to make bad decisions in the short term and fail to make good decisions in the long run. Fear can cause you to forget what you know and to lose sight of who you are. Fear can make you wish for control you will never have. It can cause you to distrust people you have reason to trust. It can cause you to be demanding rather than serving. It can cause you to run when you should stay and to stay when you really should run. Fear can make God look small and your circumstance loom large. Fear can make you seek from people what you will only get from the Lord. Fear can be the soil of your deepest questions and your biggest doubts. Your heart was wired to fear, because you were designed for life shaped by fear of God. But horizontal fear cannot be allowed to rule your heart, because if it does, it will destroy you and your ministry.
Fear is only ever conquered by fear. Awe of God really is the solution here. Only fear of God has the spiritual power to overwhelm all the horizontal fears that can capture you heart. These relational-situational-location fears are only ever put in the proper place and given their appropriate size by a greater fear—-fear of the Lord. Perhaps this is a good portion of what is being said in Proverbs when it declares, “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Allowing yourself to be twisted and turned by whatever fear seizes you at the moment is an unwise, unstable, and unproductive way of living. Living to alleviate fear never leads to being fear-free. It simply makes you more afraid of fear, more fear-alert, and ultimately more fearful. Only when God looms larger than anything you’re facing can you be protected and practically freed from the fear that either paralyzes you or causes you to make foolish decisions.
Wise, stable, and fear-free living doesn’t require you to deny what you’re facing. Rather, such life looks at whatever you are facing from the perspective of a gloriously freeing and motivating fear of the One who rules all the things that you would otherwise fear. Functional awe of God really is the key to your heart not being ruled by fear. Only when grace causes the fear of God to rule your heart can you be full of faith and rightfully afraid at the same time.