Fearing man is common among pastors, but the struggle is not new; it’s been a temptation since the days of the prophets and the apostles. Paul confessed in the book of Galatians, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men?” (1:10)
Wedded in the pastor’s heart and mind as he preaches are the two desires to honor God and be helpful to his listeners. The first grows out of his divine call to the ministry (he knows he must preach to please God), the second from his shepherd’s heart (he longs to see God’s sheep grow in grace and truth). When the second desire becomes more important than the first then he is sure to lose his way.
Paul Tripp writes of “losing our way” in his wonderful devotional through Psalm 27, which is entitled A Shelter in the Time of Storm. In his typically transparent manner, Tripp confesses his own heart’s struggle with valuing man’s opinion of him above fearing God. He does this by giving testimony of a time when he was a young pastor and the Lord used the gentle words of an older saint to steer him back to finding his joy and satisfaction in God.
I was a young pastor. I was doing everything that I could to grow and exercise the teaching gift that God had given me. But there was a critical man in our congregation who seemed never to be satisfied. One evening he came to me and said, “Paul, your preaching is killing us!” Now, these are happy words for a young pastor to hear. I said, “Well, what do you suggest?”
He handed me a set of tapes and said, “I suggest listening to these.” Naïvely I said, “And what do you think I should get out of the tapes?” He said, “Just mimic the preacher on the tapes and that will be better than what we have been getting.”
I don’t think I realized how hurt I was. I know I did think I had lost my way. But the very next Sunday, when I got up to speak and looked out at the congregation, everyone’s head was the normal size, except for my critical friend. To me his head looked to be the size of a fully inflated beach ball. I seemed unable to ignore his reactions. It seemed impossible to avoid his critical gaze. I think I hated that man, and I know I was determined to do anything I could to convince him that I was a good preacher. But in so doing, I was no longer preaching to honor God and his calling. I was no longer preaching for the spiritual benefit of the congregation. I was no longer working to prepare content that was true to the text; I was preparing content that I thought would finally silence my enemy in the fifth pew.
But my preaching got worse. I was fearful and nervous. I stumbled over my words. I was not confident with my content. I was a mess, and I was increasingly discouraged. I didn’t know it, but in my hurt and distress I had run from the Lord rather than to him. I thought winning would heal my heart, but my heart would only be healed, confident, and satisfied when it was filled with the love of the Lord. The acceptance of this man would never be achieved, and if it were, it would not satisfy my heart.
At the end of the morning service one Sunday, I noticed the oldest lady in our congregation hanging around, waiting to talk. I waited until the crowd had cleared and asked her what she wanted. She said, “Paul, I don’t want to talk about me; I want to talk about you. Over the last few weeks I have become concerned about your preaching. You have lost all of your confidence. I have become convinced that someone has gotten to you and that you are preaching to please that person and not the Lord.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Then she said, “Monday, you get up, forget that person, and study God’s Word, and then you preach what God has given you with confidence and joy or we’re all in trouble.” And she turned and walked out of the church.
At that moment I knew she was right. In the face of mistreatment, I had lost my way. I had not run to the Lord. I had not allowed my heart to be healed by his grace and my confidence to be restored by his presence. I had decided I would beat my “enemy” at his game. I had decided that I would win. And it left me with an empty heart and a mouth that was unable. I did get up the next morning and confess my sin. And I did enter that next Sunday with excitement at the truths that God had given me to share.
“The fear of man is a snare;” pleasing people above God becomes a crippling prison, “but he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted” (Proverbs 29:25). This promise is not only for pastors, though. No matter who we are or what we do, we will fight against the temptation to please others above God—until we go to the grave. What is the answer, then; what is the solution? To love the Lord thy God above all else and be fully satisfied in Him. We lose our way when we forget to find our true identity in Christ and our relationship to God through Him. Only then will we find the joy of serving Him, the One who is our greatest treasure. Let us run to Him!
NOTE: For more help to pastors, I enthusiastically recommend these resources from Practical Shepherding.