Every rose has thorns. So does every vocation.
While thorns (i.e., hardship, brokenness, sin, etc.) are a result of the fall, work itself isn't.
And like a rose, the presence of thorns doesn't mean that work can't be beautiful, even if it is frustrating and at times, painfully so.
Since work is a reflection of God's image in mankind, human productivity and creativity in itself is a good thing. (Read more about this in Tim Keller's book, Every Good Endeavor.)
Indeed, every field of labor that is not inherently sinful is a holy calling.
Teaching. Banking. Medicine. Performing arts. Sculpting. Painting. Writing. Politics. Farming. Athletics. Real estate. Cooking. Retail. Consulting. Sales, etc.
Robo calls are from the devil. Just sayin.
Due to the fall, each field now is infested with its thorns, providing plenty of cause for complaint.
While we laugh at the joke about preachers only working one day a week, we know it is not true. Taking even one 24-hour sabbath per week takes intentionality and pre-planning. Six days a week for work is standard, not to mention the early mornings, evenings, and emergencies that are often required.
For men like Paul, there were sleepless nights, shipwrecks, ans stonings. He suffered betrayal, abandonment, and slander. His very life was on the line everywhere he went. In fact, eventually, he would give his life, as would most of the other Apostles and countless other martyrs in the history of the church.
But what did Paul say about his ministry? In 2 Corinthians 2:1, he wrote, "Since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."
He didn't see his ministry as an obligation, duty, or burden, but as a mercy.
What about the trials he faced? Later in the same letter, he would say, "For Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
Paul wasn't a masochist. He was a realist. He knew about thorns in the flesh.
Yet in Ephesians 3:7, he could write, "I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace."
This isn't just Stoicism or stiff upper lip holy talk. His calling to preach the immeasurable grace of God in Jesus was a gift. A privilege far greater than what he deserved.
The same is true for all of us in vocational preaching ministry.
Those to whom we are called to preach the gospel are called sheep, and for good reason. Sheep are stubborn, stupid, and bite. Every pastor has the teeth marks to prove it.
Personally, I get tired of biting sheep that complain, gossip, set impossible standards, fail to encourage and are quick to critique.
Yet I suppose there is some irony in the fact that I complain about their complaints. I complain about the thorns of ministry.
I'm a sheep, too. Oh, yeah.
But what did I expect? The prophets. Jesus. The Apostles. Paul. They all had reason to complain.
But Paul refused. Like Jesus facing the cross, he endured all the thorns for the joy set before him.
Because just as the cross was worth it, so are the thorns we face in ministry.
Let's say that again. The thorns are worth the privilege of vocational ministry, which is a gift to prize and cherish.
Lest you think I am a Pollyanna Pastor who is writing from a field of poppies, I'm on meds for clinical depression that struck in 2002 with the loss of our third child.
But that was just the trigger.
Something broke in my brain that year that hasn't been "fixed." Thankfully, like prescriptions that help control high blood pressure and cholesterol, there is medication for chemical imbalances in the cerebrum. Without my beloved Zoloft, I'd probably still be curled up in the fetal position under my desk crying like a baby.
Additionally, though I haven't been formally diagnosed, I'm pretty sure that I suffer from pastoral PTSD. Yeah, it's a thing. "The Ministry" will mangle the emotions of even the most resilient of us. Flashbacks. Emotional detachment. Nightmares. Avoidance. Insomnia. Lack of motivation. Anger. Jumpiness. Substance abuse and addiction. All symptoms of PTSD, whether from the front lines of a geopolitical war... or a spiritual war.
I say this so you'll know that, out of a desire for gospel resiliency, I tell myself not to complain, there have been plenty of thorns in my field over 25 years of pastoral work.
But every pastor faces this thorny reality, regardless of how green someone else's field may look on Facebook or Instagram.
If you are a pastor in a broken place, I understand, and by no means want to minimize your pain or break a bruised reed.
If you need help, get it. I did.
If you need a season to heal and recover, take it. I did.
But at some point in the process, I needed someone to tell me it was time to get up and get back in the game. There would be soreness and fatigue. There would be sorrow. But there also would be singing. There would be lamenting over loss. But there also would be dancing in victory.
So, don't forget to sing and dance.
Yes, there will be thorns. But the thorns I face are NOTHING compared to the thorns Jesus wore for me. NOTHING.
This means that when I complain about being a preaching pastor, I can remember at least three things to encourage my heart. I hope they encourage yours.
- Preaching the cross is a privilege. It is a gift. I didn't choose it. It chose me. Kind of like Dr. Strange's cape. I may not always be the pastor of a church, but I'll always be a preacher of God's grace. I'll never shake it.
- Preaching the cross is the power to change lives. When I speak the message of Christ crucified for sinners, I wield the power of God to break down strongholds of gospel resistance and heal the deepest wounds. I become a doctor of the soul with the cure for spiritual cancer. My words are endured with supernatural power to heal, restore, convict, motivate, inspire, challenge, and renew. This is "the power of the gospel" to save.
- Preaching the cross is a means to glorify God. To preach the gospel is to confess my total inability to save myself and to magnify the sola gratia of God. To preach is to be the freshly rescued man showing others the way of deliverance. I am the former beggar showing other beggars where to find bread. I am the former orphan, telling others about the good, good, Father who will take them in, as well. Preaching is not self-help. It is about exulting in the glorious grace of God in the redeeming love Jesus.
If I forget these very simple preacher realities, I may allow bitterness of self-righteousness to be my cloak rather than the righteousness of Jesus and I will begin to drown in a pool of self-pity.
Soak in that pool long enough and, like water will prune fingertips, a spirit of complaint will erode my effectiveness as a preacher and kill my joy.
This is why Paul wanted us to see the gift of preaching grace, even in the midst of thorns. Lest we "lose heart."
For the hope of the world and the good of our local congregations, let's thank God for the thorns of Jesus so that we may not be discouraged by the thorns in the vineyard.
After all, there is a beautiful Rose in the midst of the thorns, and his name is Jesus. May we savor the sweetness of the aroma of his mercy and be strengthened in his grace as we preach the glorious gospel until our dying breath.
If you are a young(er) preacher/leader who would like more information about how to have the grace of God shape your life and ministry, check out The Timothy Fellowship.