I celebrate God’s goodness this year as I look back at a quarter of a century in pastoral ministry. When a pastor friend asked me how I did it, I wondered why 25 years in ministry was a big deal; I have friends who’ve done sales their entire 25-year career. He then shared a statistic: only one in ten ministers retire as church pastors (Ross and Blackmon, “Soul Care for Servants,” 2006). That is sobering.
I’m as “prone to wander” as the next person, so I feel fortunate God kept me in this calling as long as he has. Over the years, there are a few things He used to keep me on course. If ministry is like being shot into space, God’s grace has worked through certain guidance systems to keep me from doing what I’d do naturally: follow my foolish impulses and tumble off into the void.
Gospel Depth Defined
First and foremost, the underlying grace that sustains me is an increasing “Gospel Depth” of understanding and comprehension. I know, this sounds like something a Presbyterian/Reformed Baptist would say, but hang in there for a moment.
Obviously, you don’t get more comprehension (heart experience) without understanding (head knowledge); the two notions are inseparable and both equally gifts from God. It takes the Lord’s grace to want to study diligently and his Spirit’s power to move what we learn from our head to our heart. “Gospel Depth” is shorthand for seeing the message of the cross penetrate the entirety of our lives producing love for God born out of His love for us. Gospel Depth sees our sins and shortcomings as evidence of a lack of belief in what Jesus’ sacrifice declares true about us.
As a young charismatic Christian, I often thought the “gospel” was the start of the process and the other teachings of Jesus were the way I grew as a believer. There are metaphors in the Bible about Jesus being the cornerstone and the foundation, but I think it appropriate to see His Gospel as the super-structure of a building that grows in size each day.
For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
– 1 Corinthians 3:11-13
Humbled by Perspective
More than anything, my growing comprehension of the Gospel revealed just how broken and sinful I was and still am. For instance, when I began this journey, the pursuit of holiness was akin to what it might be like traveling to Mars, but basing the expectation of the travel-time on how long it takes to get to the moon. The force and explosive thrust of the launch makes it feel like we’d get there soon enough. However, as the earth gets smaller in the distance, and Mars doesn’t seem to be getting any bigger up ahead, we’d realize how badly we miscalculated the length of the journey.
In the pursuit of holiness, or just the pursuit of knowing Jesus, with each passing year I feel as if, in some way, I’m further away than when I started. While I may actually be more sanctified and know Him better than when I first ventured out in faith, my understanding and comprehension of God’s otherness gets exponentially bigger each year. As my perspective on how big God is grows, I feel further away than when I started because my perspective changed. To put it another way, when I started I thought the distance to God was a scale of 100. As I’ve slowly moved toward 100, the scale has grown to 1,000…and then 1,000,000…and so on. This changed view of scale produced a healthy level of humility that significantly impacted my relationships with both family and the church.
Do you feel as if you’re in many ways less holy than you were as a young Christian? Less zealous? Don’t feel as “close” to God as you once did? Perhaps it’s a good sign that you’re growing in your comprehension of God’s otherness – His vastness — which is a precursor to growing in the amazement of His grace, which is what produces a deeper love for Him, which in turn produces willing service to Him.
That is “Gospel Depth.”
The other three means of God’s sustaining ministry grace for me are born out of this growing comprehension of God’s grace and will be written about in the weeks ahead.