A Pastor’s Antidote for Comparison

Comparison eats at pastors. We tend to to measure other pastors, categorize them in our minds, and rank ourselves accordingly. This leads to viewing other pastors and their ministries through a lens of either condescension or envy.

Peter had a problem with comparison. When Jesus predicted the disciples would abandon Him at His arrest, Peter claimed, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). Peter believed himself to be a better man than James, Matthew, Andrew, John, Thomas, and the rest of the twelve. We know how that turned out.

This comparison reflex did not go away when Peter reconciled with Jesus and was commissioned to spiritual leadership. We know this because, as usual, whatever was on Peter’s mind came out of his mouth. The exchange between Jesus and Peter is recorded in John 21.

After reestablishing fellowship with Peter (“Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you.”) Jesus oriented him toward his new calling (“Feed my sheep”). Peter’s shepherding vocation would take him down a hard path to a painful end. “ ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ This He said to show by what death He was to glorify God. And after saying this He said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:18-19). Although Peter may not have fully understood it then, Jesus was predicting Peter’s ministry would lead to prison and an agonizing death.

As they walked and talked, John lingered close by. He enjoyed a unique closeness to Jesus. As John recounted this event, he called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who also had leaned back against Him during the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’” (John 21:20). John enjoyed the privilege of being positioned in the number one spot near Jesus during the Last Supper and sharing very personal conversation with Him.

I wonder if the details of John’s proximity to Jesus are included to highlight John’s intimacy in contrast to Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. For some reason, Peter compared himself to John. Whether he was thinking of John’s privileged relationship, or just because he was in view, Peter blurted, “Lord, what about this man?” (John 21:21).

We all have our comparison traps. Other churches in your community have full parking lots and hold multiple weekend services while your membership has plateaued or is declining. Your friend from seminary days gets invited to speak at national conferences and your only outside speaking engagement is the local Rotary club luncheon. As you hear a bi-vocational pastor describe the struggle of meeting the demands of a full-time job, church responsibilities, and a growing family, you feel pity from the vantage point of your fully paid pastoral position with support staff. Or envy if the circumstances are reversed. You visit a church while on vacation and have a running critique going through your head of the facilities, the volunteers, and the sermon, affirming yourself for how you do it better, or wishing you could. 

The possibilities are endless as our naturally prideful hearts evaluate, calculate, categorize, and pass judgment on others or ourselves. We feel the Holy Spirit’s conviction in our hearts about it. How can we put off this unholy attitude?

Attack the comparison mentality with the truth Jesus spoke to Peter. He said, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). Jesus wasn’t stating that John wouldn’t die (see verse 23). He was making a point.

Jesus said to Peter in essence, “If God in His sovereign plan determines John will be exempt from the natural laws of aging and death, or maybe walk with God and disappear into heaven like Enoch, or a that a fiery chariot will pick him up and drop him off in glory like Elijah, but you, before you’ve even finished out your natural time on earth, will be tortured and executed as a criminal, dying in the worst, most shameful way, the difference is not your concern. You have no right to expect the same treatment as the other guy. Your circumstances may seem inequitably harsh. But I am the Chief Shepherd. Keep your eyes on me. Complete my will for you. You, Peter, you follow me.”

Your ministry setting, the people you shepherd, and the circumstances in each season of your ministry are all part of the Chief Shepherd’s assignment for you. Stop comparing yourself with others. You, pastor friend, keep your eyes on Jesus. You follow Christ.

Notice Jesus’ words, “If it is my will . . . you follow me” (verse 22). Literally the first part says, “If I am willing him.” Several translations say, “If I want him” (NASB, NET, CSB, NIV). Young’s Literal Translation captures the essence – “If him I will to remain till I come, what – to thee?”

Jesus claimed absolute authority over the circumstances of John’s life, even how long John lived, and by implication, over the circumstances and longevity of Peter’s life, and the manner of his death as well (verses 18-19).

Jesus revealed that He has a specific will for individuals and their ministries. He had a sovereignly determined plan for John and a different one for Peter. This reality applies to us as well. Jesus Christ sovereignly determines the circumstances of a pastor’s life and ministry. His will may include what we view as favorable circumstances or unfavorable circumstances. And His will for one pastor and ministry may vary significantly from another’s.

How can you gain control of your comparison reflex? Start with submitting yourself to the sovereign will of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Turn Jesus’ words into a daily prayer: “Lord Jesus, I bow to you and submit to your will for me and my ministry. Help me to not concern myself with the seeming advantages or disadvantages of others. Jesus, I’m following you.”

Then you can rejoice with and pray for others with a sincere heart. “Lord, thank you for how you are blessing my brother and his ministry. Give him wisdom to shepherd his flock through this season of prosperity. Guide him in using his gifts to minister for your glory. Keep Satan from gaining an advantage and tearing down what you are building up.” Or, “Lord, I see my brother struggling under heavy burdens. Channel grace to him for every difficult situation he faces. Strengthen him to fulfill your will for his ministry. Help him to follow you.”

Turn the comparison impulse into a reminder that Jesus Christ is preeminent in the church, it is His right to assign undershepherds where He wills, and each of us is responsible to follow Him.

A Pastor’s Antidote for Unworthiness

“Feed my sheep.”

These words were spoken in a beautiful outdoor setting. Early morning air. The lake’s glassy surface reflecting the pink edges of sunrise in the eastern sky. Warm fire crackling on the shore, the satisfaction of a full stomach, the comfort of friends. But for one man, the pleasure of these circumstances was overshadowed by deep, aching regret.

Sea of Galillee ©Dean H. Taylor

Peter’s self-preserving impulse came back to bite him hard as the One he had denied served him a cooked breakfast, then went right for the heart.

The familiar smell of woodsmoke triggered a painful memory – his refusal to be associated with the arrested Galilean. He could not unsay those words, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 27:74). Now here the friend he abandoned stood face-to-face, asking a strange question. Not, “Why did you deny me?” but, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15).

The Greek word for “charcoal fire” is used in the New Testament in John 21:9 and in one other setting. It is the word used of the fire outside the high priest’s house where Peter and others stayed warm while Jesus was interrogated inside (Luke 22:55).

There by that fire, Peter lied. He swore. He refused to be connected to Jesus.

Then his regret tore him up inside. He wept bitterly (Luke 22:62).

Now his friend is dead. But then – risen!!! And the message, “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Matthew 28:7).

Dread. But anticipation. Peter would face Jesus. What would He say?

“Catching anything boys? Try the other side of the boat!”

“It is the Lord!”

“Come have breakfast.” A fire.

“Peter, do you love me?” (John 21)

If the fire was not enough to signal to Peter this was an opportunity to move back toward Jesus, to right the wrong, then the question Jesus asked – three times! – was. Jesus laid out a path of restoration for Peter. The first step, really the one big step, was not mere acknowledgment or association, but loyal devotion – “Do you love me?”

Peter’s heart hurt at what he had done to Jesus (John 21:17), but he leaped at the opportunity to make it right, to renounce disloyalty and declare love. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15). Jesus could have justly disowned Peter. But instead He offered Peter the opportunity to declare his loyal love once and for all time, and to follow Jesus through his life, to the death. What grace.

Here, my pastor friend, is something we must all remember. Like Peter, we are in ministry, not by virtue of any goodness in us, but because of God’s magnanimous grace.

Not only at the time of our salvation, but again and again, we realize we don’t deserve the position we are in, that of being right with God. Those who are appointed to ministry are frequently reminded of this fact. Who are we, not only to benefit from God’s grace ourselves, but to be messengers of that grace to others and to have a leadership role in God’s work?

We remember the ways we have disappointed our Lord. We feel unworthy to fellowship with Him, much less to represent Him in ministry. But His grace superabundantly exceeds our sin (Romans 5:20-21).

Jesus’ instruction to Peter is His commission to every pastor: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). Three times He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter affirmed his love. Three times Jesus directed Peter what to do next. Jesus restored Peter’s fellowship with Him, then commissioned him to ministry. “Tend my sheep” (verse 16). “Feed my sheep” (verse 17).

The instruction, “Feed my sheep,” was referenced by the apostle Paul when he charged the Ephesian pastors as recorded in Acts 20:28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (NASB95).

Peter himself applied the same instruction to pastors in 1 Peter 5:2, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.”

In each case, the privilege of filling the role of shepherd – pastor – is in view. Pastors are not self-made, but Spirit-made (Acts 20:28). And we are not owners or masters. We care for “the church of God which He obtained with His own blood” (Acts 20:28), the “flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). Those terms marking out God’s ownership and authority are reminders that pastors are in their positions not by right, but by God’s gracious choice.

How does the fact that you, my pastor friend, are what you are by the grace of God impact you ? Is there a connection between Peter’s conversation with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and your position as a pastor today?

Here is one connection I see. God’s grace in saving you and putting you in ministry is the antidote for unworthiness.

During my 25 years as a pastor, I think I doubted my ability and right to care for souls every day. Who am I to tell people how to live? Memories of past sins and the sharp consciousness of present, daily struggles eroded my confidence for ministering to others. Do you experience this?

Satan, the accuser, reminds us regularly of our unworthiness. But the ever-cleansing blood of Christ removes the basis for our unworthiness. The great transaction of justification places us into a right relationship with God. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).

Justified pastor friend, you have peace with God. You have access to God. You stand in grace! You have hope as your source of joy. You were unworthy, but you are made worthy in Jesus Christ.

Take a few minutes and review these truths in your mind. Receive them as reassurances from God Himself individually to you. Allow them to purge out shame, doubt, guilt, regret, and paralyzing feelings of unworthiness.

I am justified by God’s free favor through my faith in the substitutionary death and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ the Lord.

I am right with God. My right standing with God is objective truth. Formerly an enemy, I am officially at peace with God.

I was unworthy to draw near to God myself, even less worthy to represent Him to others. But now I stand in grace. I am in God’s favor. My past performance did not earn God’s favor. My present performance does not keep me in God’s favor. My position in God’s favor is secure.

God’s gracious provision for me includes my place in the body of Christ. His free, unmerited and unmeritable favor that provided me with salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9) also granted my role as a pastor (Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-12).

I am a pastor by the grace of God. I am humbly grateful, and will move forward in confidence, not in my worthiness, but in God’s sovereign choice and limitless grace.

Allow these truths to saturate your soul, to fill your mind, to channel your thoughts. Review them regularly. Reflect them to God in prayers of thanksgiving. Speak them to your own soul. Step into your pulpit, drive to that visit, enter your next counseling appointment, in grace-based confidence.

Paul gratefully acknowledged he was in ministry only by God’s grace.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.

But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.   

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Every leader serves in Christ’s church-building work because of God’s overflowing grace.

Grace doesn’t deny our unworthiness. It overpowers it. It redirects the focus from us to God. Because of our unworthiness, Jesus can display His faithfulness, love, and patience. We and all who know us can exclaim, “To Him be the glory forever and ever.”

So, push aside those feelings of unworthiness, and go take care of your sheep.

10 Principles for Marriage and Family Life

Sometimes my wife and I are asked to speak at couples events and family conferences. These opportunities have increased over the past few years. Speaking on topics related to marriage and family has never been comfortable for me for various reasons.

A few days ago a brain flurry (whether coffee-induced or Spirit-led I am not certain) produced a list of simple principles based on biblical truths related to family living. These reflect what I understand the Bible to teach as well as our personal experience. I believe these principles will become the framework for material I will present in the future on the topics of marriage and family. I have developed and continue to formulate speaking material on each of them. As opportunities come, I can prayerfully select which of them to highlight in various settings.

Of course they are not new, but always relevant. I think in fairly simple terms, so they are stated accordingly.

Here they are for your encouragement and further meditation. I may do additional posts on individual principles in the days ahead.

1. Oneness in marriage is essential to a strong, stable, persevering home.
Genesis 2:24
Matthew 19:3-6 
Ephesians 5:31-33                       
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
1 Peter 3:7 – “heirs together of the grace of life”

“The one flesh in marriage is not just a physical phenomenon, but a uniting of the totality of two personalities. In marriage, we are one flesh spiritually by vow, economically by sharing, logistically by adjusting time and agreeing on the disbursement of all life’s resources, experientially by trudging through the dark valleys and standing victoriously on the peaks of success, and sexually by the bonding of our bodies.”       Dr. Louis H. Evans, Mastering the New Testament Commentary quoted in Preparing for Marriage by Dennis Rainey

2. Selfish desire produces sin, and sin divides people.
Genesis 3
James 4:1-6

3. God’s sovereign purpose in hard situations unfolds over time.
Genesis Chapters 37-50
Genesis 50:20 “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”

4. The home is a place of spiritual nurturing and growth.
Ephesians 5:25-29
Ephesians 6:4
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

5. Families grow through deep suffering and intense pain.
Job
James 5:10-11

6. As a creation of God, marriage and family should be valued, honored, and protected.
Hebrews 13:4

7. Marriage and family are catalysts for progressive sanctification.
Ephesians 5:18, 21, 22-26 

8. Forgiveness and reconciliation are a regular practice in family life.
Ephesians 4:32 
Colossians 3:12-14

9. Each family member has God-prescribed relational mandates.
Ephesians 5:22-33
Ephesians 6:1-4 

10. Christ-like humility is the key to relational harmony.
Philippians 2:1-8