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.

Lessons in Ministry Love

Ernest Thompson Seton was an adventurer, artist, and writer who recorded his journey to northern Canada in his book The Arctic Prairies. He tells the story of an Algonquin woman whose village starved to death in winter. She and her infant son, the only survivors set out from the camp, hoping to reach another village where there might be food. Along the way she discovered a cache of supplies in a hollow tree, including a small bone fish hook. She had nothing to use for bait so she used her knife to slice a strip of flesh from her leg, baited her hook with it, and caught a fish. They ate, and she used pieces from the fish to catch more, and so they survived the winter.

A mother’s love compels her to do whatever is necessary for the good of her child. Genuine ministry is compelled by love. When we love others we will do them good, even at great personal cost. The model for our love is not a mother, but Jesus.

In John 13 we find Jesus teaching His disciples lessons in ministry love. Notice how John sets the scene in verse 1. Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. John summed up the disciples’ experience with Jesus this way: “He loved His own.” Then he added another word of eyewitness testimony:  “He loved them to the end.”

This prepositional phrase, “unto the end,” can designate time, meaning up to the point of his death, or his departure for heaven. He loved them to the end of His ministry in their presence.

The Greek phrase eis telos can also indicate completeness, to the full extent, or even extreme. Several translations reflect this meaning with the phrase, “to the uttermost.” He loved them completely. He showed them the full extent of His love. He loved them to the extreme.

This may be one of those instances where human language struggles to capture the fullness of divine truth, and one word or phrase contains nuances of meaning.

Jesus loved His disciples while He was with them; loved them to the very last hour of His natural life; loved them to such a degree He died on the cross in their behalf; loved them as He was dying, loved them until He was dead; loved them with His whole person and every ounce of His being; loved them after He rose from the dead, and loved them until He ascended to heaven, and as we now know, that was just the beginning, because neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Loving them to the uttermost led to the cross. But there were thousands of instances before that when Jesus showed them His love. And there was one, just before the cross, that John wanted to be sure to include. He recounted an event so deeply impressed on the minds and hearts of these disciples they would never forget it. After Jesus and the disciples had finished what we call The Last Supper, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet. Love elevated Him to the cross in the place of supreme sacrifice. But love also put Him on the floor in a position of servitude.

Jesus did this not only to show love to His disciples, but to teach His disciples how to love. There are lessons here for us as well. Love is produced in us by the Holy Spirit. But Jesus gave us a model to follow.

The Divine Servant teaches us lessons in ministry love.

This is the introduction to a sermon I preached at the Refresh Pastors Conference in 2019. You can listen to the full message here.

MONDAY MORNING DEVOTION – FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS

READING Exodus 7

Do what God tells you to do. Say what God tells you to say. Trust God with the outcome.

When facing an overwhelmingly difficult ministry responsibility, you can proceed with confidence by following the instructions God has given. If the Word of God gives steps to follow, you can just take those steps and trust God with the result.

For example, a church member persists in known sin. He or she may be part of an influential family in the church or community. What should you do? Carefully, patiently, prayerfully follow the steps laid out in Scripture (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15-20). Or you believe you should develop disciple-makers in your church who can teach and mentor others in Christian growth, but volunteers are lacking. Select just one or two and follow Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 2:1-2. Or someone is infecting the church with discontent, gossip, and hostility toward the leadership. The instructions are clear in Titus 3:10-11.

Following instructions includes delivering the message God has given even when some people will not receive it. God told Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you” (v. 4) but instructed him to deliver the message anyway – “tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land” (v. 2).

There are certain people who will not listen to your message. Their minds are made up to resist and defy God. They may be in your church – the reluctant husband who attends because his wife nags him to, the surly teenager who comes to Sunday School and youth group because her parents make her. Their body language portrays the hardness of their hearts. In fact, it seems the more they hear, the harder they become. It is not your job, nor is it within your power, to make them listen. You cannot force conviction onto their hearts.

God made Moses’ responsibility clear: “You shall speak all that I command you” (2). He has made yours equally clear: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Tim 4:1-5).

Deliver God’s Word faithfully and fully. That is your responsibility. How people respond is theirs.

PRAYER
Today I feel overwhelmed by some of my shepherding responsibilities, especially _____________________ . I am wrestling with what to do next and my willingness to do it. With your help, I will follow the instructions in your Word. With wisdom you provide, and with grace in my heart, I will deliver your message to those who need it. You are my Chief Shepherd, and I serve you. You are Sovereign God, and I am here to fulfill your purpose. I entrust the outcome of this difficult situation to you.