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The Spiritual Cobra Effect

There were far too many venomous cobras in New Delhi. And so long as that means there were more than zero venomous snakes there, we can all agree, yes, there were too many snakes in New Delhi. The colonial government of Great Britain was concerned about the presence of these nightmarish pests and so they devised a scheme to rid themselves of the problem. They would throw money at it.

The plan was to offer a cash reward for each and every snake killed. People are motivated by money and therefore this would incentivize the systematic removal of snakes by a grateful populace. At least that was the plan. However, a strange thing began to take place over time. We’ll let Wikipedia explain what happened next:

Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

This incident encapsulated a common issue where a good intentioned solution actually contributes to the problem. It is known as the “cobra effect.” The effect was highlighted as an economic problem in the early 2000’s and skillfully explored by a Freakonomics podcast a few years ago.

So, why are we talking about obscure economic principle named for snakes? Because it is painfully easy for pastors to fall into cobra effect like thinking when it comes to our spiritual lives. Specifically in reference to spiritual disciplines, it can be tempting to believe that a lack of self-control or a lukewarm desire to prayer or lackluster private worship will be fixed by throwing money at it. It is possible that the apparent solution for the problem will only make the problem worse.

This is devastatingly deceptive and potentially ruinous for the pastor. Anyone who has been in ministry for any length of time has felt this unsettling paradox. It is often more difficult to maintain a vibrant spiritual life when you take on a professional role. Yes, more difficult. You think you’ll rid yourself of the snakes but in the end it will only get worse. John Owen describes this devastating problem well.

Men whose calling and work it is to study the Scripture, or the things revealed therein, and to preach them to others, cannot but have many thoughts about spiritual things, and yet may be, and oftentimes are, most remote from being spiritually minded. They may be forced by their work and calling to think of them early and late, evening and morning, yet their minds be no way rendered or proved spiritual thereby… And the reasons of it are manifest. It requires as much if not more watchfulness, more care, more humility, for a minister to be spiritually minded in the discharge of his calling, than for any other sort of men in theirs… because the commonness of the exercise of such thoughts, with their design upon others in their expression, will take off their power and efficacy. And he will have little benefit by his own ministry who endeavors not in the first place an experience in his own heart of the power of the truths which he doth teach unto others.

The first and most important calling of any man is to Jesus Christ. It must be the lifeblood of his existence. No amount of knowledge or persuasiveness or funding can overcome a nonchalant approach to private worship. You must have a consistent and growing longing for the presence of God and know how to repent when you lack.

This means that those who assess calling must dig deeper and discern more sharply the heart of a man. We must listen closely to the account of a man’s desire to pastor. Somewhere in the story ought to be a stirring simply to be caught up in God. Many a man has been enamored by the esteem of a public life without a corresponding soul enraptured by Jesus. They do not understand that the most amazing thing is to be recorded in the Book of Life (Luke 10:17-20) If they want a pulpit and a platform and a parsonage but do not want God, they are not called to ministry. Full stop.

It also means that those considering ministry must not rush past the need for a genuine spiritual life. You cannot pursue a professional spiritual life in order the get a personal spiritual life. If you do, you are in peril of losing both. In fact, you may grow to resent ministry altogether. Puritan Henry Smith once commented on ministry void of spiritual life.

If the tongue, or the hand, or the ear, think to serve God without the heart, it is the irksomest occupation in the world, the hour of tediousness, like a long sickness; he is tired before he begin, and thinketh himself in the stocks until the sermon be ended, and until his prayer be done.

Did you hear the man? Irksomest! There is no greater irk than the irk of proclaiming Jesus publicly while neglecting Him privately. God designed it this way. It will be tempting to think that laziness in private worship will be fixed when you throw money at it. If you only had a ministry job you would be passionate about meeting with Jesus. It simply does not work like this. Think of it as a kind of ministerial cobra effect. In the end, you must minister from the heart.

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