4 Debilitating Fears
Four fears tempt every pastor. They are:
1. My fear of me.
Few things better reveal the full range of sin, immaturity, weakness, and failure than ministry. Few things will expose your weaknesses so consistently. Few endeavors will put you under such public expectancy and scrutiny. Few things are so personally humbling. Few endeavors have the power to produce in you such deep feelings of inadequacy. Few things can be such a vat of self-doubt. There is a great temptation for your ministry to be sidetracked and harmed by your fear of you.
God finds Gideon threshing wheat in a winepress, because he was afraid of the Midianites, and greets this fearful man with one of the most ironic greetings in the Bible: "The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor." Gideon essentially says, "Well, if you're with us, why is all this bad stuff happening?" God responds, "I have chosen you to say Israel from the Midianites." Gideon says, "You have to have the wrong address. I am from the weakest clan in Israel, and I am the weakest person in my father's house. You can't really mean me." And God said, "I will be with you."
God's response to Gideon's fear of Gideon is very helpful. He didn't work to pump up his self-confidence. He didn't work to help Gideon see that he brought more to the table than he thought. Gideon's problem was not first that he feared his inadequacies. His problem was awe. Gideon failed to fear God in the sense of "God is with me, and he is able." So Gideon was terrified at the thought of leading Israel anywhere.
My pastorate in Scranton, Pennsylvania, exposed the full range of my immaturity and weakness, and in ways that had been very painful, these were often on public display. I thought I was so ready. I had done very well in seminary, and I was ready to take on the world. But God called me to a very broken, very difficult place, and used this place to yank me out of my pride and self-righteousness to a place where I would find my hope in him. I was hurt, disappointed, tired, overwhelmed, angry, and a bit bitter. I felt God had set me up, and people had treated me unkindly. All I wanted to do was run. I had an education degree and thought I would move somewhere far away and run a Christian school. I had announced to my board my plan to resign. They pleaded with me not to go, but I was determined. So the next Sunday I made my announcement and had a momentary sense of relief. My little congregation was not relieved, so I had many conversations after the service. Much later than I normally left the church, I made my way out the door only to be greeted by the oldest man in our church.
He approached me and asked if we could talk. "Paul," he said, "we know that you're a bit immature and need to grow up. We know you are a man with weaknesses, but where is the church going to get mature pastors if immature pastors leave?" I felt as if God had just nailed my shoes to the porch. I knew he was right, and I knew I couldn't leave. In next several months I began to learn what it means to minister in weakness but with a security-giving, courage-producing awe of God. I am still learning what it means to be in such awe of him that I am no longer afraid of me.
2. My fear of others.
Most of the people you serve will love and appreciate you and will encourage you as they are able. But not all of them. Some will love you and have a wonderful plan for your life. Some will assign themselves to be the critics of your preaching and leadership. Some will be loyal and supportive, and some will do things that undermine your pastoral leadership. Some will give themselves to the ministry in sacrificial acts of service, and some will complain about the way they are being served. Some will approach you with loving candor, and some will give way to the temptation to talk behind your back. Some will jump in and get involved, while others will always relate to the church with a consumer mentality. You will connect with some easily, and with others you will find relationships much more difficult.
Because your ministry will always be done with people and for people, it is vital that you put people in the right place in your heart. You cannot allow yourself to be so afraid of them that you are closed to their perspectives or unwilling to delegate ministry to them. At the same time you cannot be so afraid of them that you let them set the agenda and wrongly control the direction of the ministry to which God has called you. You cannot allow yourself to minister with a closed door, and you cannot be so sensitive to the opinions of others that you are unable to lead.
Because all the people you minister with and to are still dealing with indwelling sin, relationships to them and ministry with them will be messy. People will hurt you and damage your ministry. People will demand of you what they should not demand and respond to you in ways they should not respond. In the middle of all this, particular people---the influential and vocal---will loom larger than they should in your thoughts and motives. They will be afforded too much power to influence you and the way you do ministry. Rather than working for the glory of God, you will be tempted to work for their approval. Or, rather than working for the glory of God, you will work to disarm or expose them. In both cases your ministry is being corrupted by an ancient human fear: the fear of man.
The power of the fear of man to divert or delude ministry is vividly portrayed in Galatians 2:11-14. Peter not only compromises, but he actually forsakes the ministry to the Gentiles to which God has called him (Acts 10) because he was afraid of "the circumcision party." Paul observed Peter's conduct "was not in step with the truth of the gospel," so he confronted Peter. How much ministry is diverted by actions, reactions, and responses not rooted in fear of God but fear of man? How often does this compromise the work of the gospel? How often does this cause people to stumble? How often are we tempted to act in a way that does not accord with what we say we believe? How much is fear of man setting the agenda in our churches? With openness and humility we need to keep asking these questions.
I wish I could say I am free of this fear, but I'm not. There are times when I have found myself thinking, as I was preparing a sermon, that a particular point would finally win over one of my detractors. In that moment my preaching was about to be shaped, not by my zeal for God's glory, but by my hope that what I said would cause someone to finally see my glory. I understand that this is an ongoing war for the rule of my heart for which I have been given powerful, ever-present grace.
3. My fear of circumstances.
Since you don't author your own story, and since you haven't penned the script of your own ministry, life and ministry is constantly unpredictable. In this world of the unexpected, you are always living in the tension between who God is and what he's promised and the unexpected things on your plate. In the intersection between promise and reality, you must guard your mediation. You have to be very disciplined when it comes to what you do with your mind. Permit me to explain.
Abraham had been told by God that his descendants would be like the sand on the sea shore, and he had staked his life on this promise. Normally his wife, Sarah, would give birth early and often. But that did not happen. All throughout Sarah's child-bearing years she could not conceive. Now both she and Abraham were old---way too old to seriously think they would be blessed with the promised son. Old Abraham was now living in the tension between God's promise and his circumstances. When you're in the intersection between the promises of God and the details of your situation, what you do with your mind is very important. In this intersection, God will never ask you to deny reality. Abraham did not deny reality. Romans 4 says that he "considered the deadness of Sarah's womb." Faith doesn't deny reality. It is a God-focused way of considering reality.
But the passage tells you more. It tells you what Abraham did with his meditation. He didn't invest himself in turning his circumstances inside out and over and over. He considered his circumstances, but he meditated on God. And as he meditated on God, he actually grew stronger in faith, even though nothing in his circumstances had yet changed. For many people in ministry, waiting becomes a chronicle of ever-weakening faith. Meditating on the circumstances will leave you in awe of the circumstances. They will appear to grow larger, you will feel smaller, and your vision of God will be clouded. But if you meditate on the Lord, you will be in greater awe of his presence, power, faithfulness, and grace. The situation will seem smaller, and you will live with greater confidence even though nothing has changed.
Have the circumstances captured your meditation? Are there ways in which you have grown weaker in faith? Or do the eyes of your heart focus on a God who is infinitely greater than anything you will ever face?
4. My fear of the future.
You always live and minister in the hardship of not knowing. In both life and ministry you are called to trust, obey, and believe that God will guide and provide. You and I do not know what the next moment will bring, let alone the next month or year. Security can never be found in our attempt to figure it all out or in trying to divine the secret will of God. His secret will is called his secret will because it is secret! Yet we still desire to know, to figure things out ahead of time. The more you concentrate on the future, the more you'll give way to fear of the future, and the more you'll be confused and de-motivated in the here and now.
Not knowing is hard. It would be nice to know if that elder is going to succumb to the temptation of being divisive. It would be nice to know if the finances of the church are going to rebound. It would be nice to know how that new preaching series will be received, if those young missionaries will make all the adjustments they need to make, or if you'll get the permits to build that needed worship space. We find questions of the future hard to deal with because we find it difficult to trust God. The One we promise to trust knows everything about the future, because he controls every aspect of it. Our fear of the future exposes our struggle to trust him, and in trusting him, to rest in his guidance and care, even though we don't really know what comes next. Awe of God is the only way to be free of fearing what is coming next. When my trust of God is greater than my fear of the unknown, I will be able to rest, even though I don't have a clue what will greet me around the corner.
Do you load the future on your shoulders, with all of its questions and concerns? Or do you give yourself to the work of the present, leaving the future in God's capable hands? How much are you haunted by the "what ifs"? Do you greet the unknown with expectancy or dread? Do God's presence and promises quiet your unanswerable questions about the future?
Meditate on the questions posed on this article, honestly answer each one, then humbly cry out for the grace that can free you from the fears you have not yet escaped. Then celebrate the patient King you serve, who lifts your burden of fear rather than condemning you for it.