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Handling Discouragement – Part I

Category Articles
Date February 16, 2004

Paul’s farewell message to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:18-35) is warmly affectionate, yet full of solemn warning. Acts 20:28 is the heart of that message, and shows how we ministers must overcome wrong attitudes toward ministry with regard to ourselves and to our work. Acts 20:28 says, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”

Paul gives three directives to consider as we face opposition in the ministry: take heed to yourselves, take heed to your flock, and take heed to feed the church of God. He enforces each mandate with persuasions to persevere in our work. “Take heed,” Paul says. Stop whatever you are doing. Pay close attention. Deny yourself, and consider what I say, for it is most important.

In this address, I want to focus on one aspect of Paul’s first directive, namely, that we should take heed to ourselves regarding our attitude toward ministry. Within this theme, I want to focus with you on our need as ministers (1) to fight pride, (2) to cope well with criticism, and (3) to develop a positive attitude toward ministry itself.

Fighting Pride

Ministers can develop two paralyzing attitudes to the ministry: pride and pessimism. Both are worldly at heart, for both show that the world is not crucified in us.

God hates pride (Prov. 6:16-17). He hates the proud with His heart, curses them with His mouth, and punishes them with His hand (Ps. 119:21; Is. 2:12, 23:9). Pride was God’s first enemy. It was the first sin in paradise and the last we will shed in death. “Pride is the shirt of the soul, put on first and put off last,” wrote George Swinnock.

As a sin, pride is unique. All sins turn us away from God, but pride is a direct attack upon God. It lifts our hearts above Him and against Him. Pride seeks to dethrone God and enthrone itself.

Pride is complex. “It takes many forms and shapes and encompasses the heart like the layers of an onion-when you pull off one layer, there is another underneath,” wrote Jonathan Edwards.

We ministers, who are always in the public eye, are particularly prone to the sin of pride. As Richard Greenham wrote, “The more godly a man is, and the more graces and blessings of God are upon him, the more need he hath to pray because Satan is busiest against him, and because he is readiest to be puffed up with a conceited holiness.”

Pride feeds off nearly anything: a fair measure of ability and wisdom, a single compliment, a season of remarkable prosperity, a call to serve God in a position of prestige-even the honor of suffering for the truth. “It is hard starving this sin, as there is nothing almost but it can live upon,” wrote Richard Mayo.

If we think we are immune to the sin of pride, we should ask ourselves: How dependent are we on the praise of others? Are we more concerned about a reputation for godliness than about godliness itself? What do gifts and rewards from others say to us about our ministry? How do we respond to criticism from people in our congregation?

Our forefathers did not consider themselves immune to this sin. “I know I am proud; and yet I do not know the half of that pride,” wrote Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Twenty years after his conversion, Jonathan Edwards groaned about the “bottomless, infinite depths of pride” left in his heart. And Luther said, “I am more afraid of Pope ‘Self’ than of the Pope in Rome and all his cardinals.”

Pride spoils our work. “When pride has written the sermon, it goes with us to the pulpit,” Richard Baxter said. “It forms our tone, it animates our delivery, it takes us off from that which may be displeasing to the people. It sets us in pursuit of vain applause from our hearers. It makes men seek themselves and their own glory.”

A godly minister fights against pride, whereas a worldly one feeds pride. “Men frequently admire me, and I am pleased,” said Henry Martyn, but adds, “but I abhor the pleasure I feel.” Cotton Mather confessed that when pride filled him with bitterness and confusion before the Lord, “I endeavoured to take a view of my pride as the very image of the Devil, contrary to the image and grace of Christ; as an offense against God, and grieving of His Spirit; as the most unreasonable folly and madness for one who had nothing singularly excellent and who had a nature so corrupt.” Thomas Shepard also fought pride. In his diary entry for November 10, 1642, Shepard wrote, “I kept a private fast for light to see the full glory of the Gospel… and for the conquest of all my remaining pride of heart.”

Can you identify with these pastors in their struggle against pride? Do you care enough about your brothers in ministry to admonish them about this sin? When John Eliot, the Puritan missionary, noticed that a colleague thought of himself too highly, he would say to him, “Study mortification, brother; study mortification.”

How do we fight against pride? Do we understand how deeply rooted it is in us, and how dangerous it is to our ministry? Do we ever remonstrate with ourselves as did the Puritan Richard Mayo: “Should that man be proud that has sinned as thou hast sinned, and lived as thou hast lived, and wasted so much time, and abused so much mercy, and omitted so many duties, and neglected so great means?-that hath so grieved the Spirit of God, so violated the law of God, so dishonoured the name of God? Should that man be proud, who hath such a heart as thou hast?”

If we would kill worldly pride and live in godly humility, let us look at our Savior, whose life, Calvin said, “was naught but a series of sufferings.” Nowhere is humility better cultivated than at Gethsemane and Calvary. When pride threatens you, consider the contrast between a proud minister and our humble Savior. Confess with Joseph Hall:

Thy garden is the place
Where pride cannot intrude;
For should it dare to enter there,
T’would soon be drowned in blood.

And sing with Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died;
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Here are some other ways to help you subdue pride:

Stay in the Word. Read, search, know, memorize, love, pray over, and meditate upon such passages as Psalm 39:4-6, Psalm 51:17, Galatians 6:14, Philippians 2:5-8, Hebrews 12:1-4, and 1 Peter 4:1, all in dependency upon the Spirit. The Spirit alone can break the back of our pride and cultivate humility within us by taking the things of Christ and showing them to us.

Seek a deeper knowledge of God, His attributes, and His glory. Job and Isaiah teach us that nothing is so humbling as knowing God (Job 42; Is. 6). Spend time meditating on God’s greatness and holiness in comparison to your smallness and sinfulness.

Practice humility (Phil. 2:3-4). Remember how Augustine answered the question, “What three graces does a minister need most?” by saying, “Humility. Humility. Humility.” To that end, seek greater awareness of your depravity and the heinousness and irrationality of sin.

Remember daily that “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). View your afflictions as God’s gifts to keep you humble. View your talents as gifts of God that never accrue any honor to you (1 Cor. 4:7). Everything you have or have ever accomplished has come from God’s hand.

View overcoming pride as a lifelong process that calls you to grow in servanthood. Be determined to fight the battle against pride by considering each day as an opportunity to forget yourself and serve others. As Abraham Booth writes, “Forget not, that the whole of your work is ministerial; not legislative-that you are not a lord in the church, but a servant.” The act of service is intrinsically humbling.

Read the biographies of great saints, such as Whitefield’s Journals, The Life of David Brainerd, and Spurgeon’s Early Years. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones says, “If that does not bring you to earth, then I pronounce that you are just a professional and beyond hope.” Associate, too, with living saints who exemplify humility, rather than arrogant or flattering people. Association promotes assimilation.

Meditate much on the solemnity of death, the certainty of Judgment Day, the vastness of eternity, and the fixed states of heaven and hell. Consider what you deserve on account of sin and what your future will be on account of grace; let the contrast humble you (1 Pet. 5:5-7).

Coping With Criticism

A pessimistic attitude in a minister is no better than a proud one, for pride is usually the root of pessimism. Ministers become pessimistic when they think they deserve better treatment than they’re getting. At times they may be right, but they may also be failing to exercise self-denial as their Master did, who suffered far worse at the hands of men than they will ever suffer, yet did not retaliate (1 Pet. 2:23).

Resentment and criticism are the maidservants of pessimism. A complaining spirit produces negativism, depression, bitterness, and disillusionment in the ministry. It also promotes smugness and blindness to one’s own condition. Bitter ministers often don’t see their unforgiving spirit, their habit of backbiting, or their tendency to judge others and magnify their deficiencies (Matt. 7:3-5).

If any minister had reason to be pessimistic, it was the imprisoned Paul. Yet Paul wrote his most joyous epistle, Philippians, from prison. Paul knew times of inner gloom and depression (2 Cor. 1:8-9), but his epistles show little evidence of it. He could say, “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11). People have enough troubles and burdens without having to endure the ministrations of a pessimistic, discontented pastor.

Part of the problem of pessimism is that few ministers know how to respond to those who criticize them. Being on the receiving end of criticism for many years often results in pessimism, cynicism, exasperation, insomnia, and even resignations. Here are some helps to cope with criticism without letting it lead to pessimism:

1.Consider it inevitable. In a recent study, 81 percent of American clergymen said they have experienced hostile criticism. Twenty-five percent felt that coping with criticism was the most difficult problem of ministry. It is futile to think that you can avoid criticism in the ministry. If you proclaim the whole counsel of God, as you should, you are bound to become a target of criticism. As Jesus says in Luke 6:26, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you.” Expect criticism; don’t be devastated by it.

2.Consider the motive. It is critical, first of all, to listen well. Don’t only get the facts straight, but also ask: Have I heard and understood the criticism rightly and accurately? Have I heard the real problem or just a symptom of something deeper? Unresolved anger, depression, changes in life situations, frustration in relationships, jealousy, shattered expectations, and dissatisfaction with church work can lead to criticism. So ask yourself, “Does the person who is criticizing me have a proper motive, or is it indicative of something else? For example, does the critic enjoy finding fault because it somehow makes him feel superior?” Understanding the person’s motive will help you respond and cope better with the criticism.

3.Consider the source. Who is criticizing you-an office-bearer, a mature believer, a babe in grace, an unbeliever, a highly critical individual, or a fringe member of the church? James Taylor writes, “Those who criticize are usually those on the fringe, who stand back and are deaf to every appeal for service.” Criticisms from such persons seldom merit change or any other investment of energy on your part.

On the other hand, if the critic is a mature believer or an office-bearer who is usually supportive, you should seriously consider the criticism and will often find some truth in it that calls for change. What’s more, you should encourage constructive evaluation from such people. Generally speaking, the more you can sincerely welcome constructive criticism, the more your ministry and relationships with others will benefit from it.

4.Consider the context. The physical setting, timing, and situation out of which criticism comes may help us determine whether the criticism is helpful. As a general rule, don’t respond to criticism for at least twenty-four hours to allow yourself time for prayer, sifting through your feelings, getting past some of the hurt, and consulting others whose wisdom you respect.

Forcing solutions to issues too hastily may make a bad situation worse. Some situations will yield only to the healing touch of time. Truth has a way of eventually vindicating itself. Luke 21:19 says, “In your patience possess ye your souls.”

5.Consider yourself. Critics are often God’s gifts to guard us from self-satisfied and self-destructive tendencies. The Holy Spirit uses our critics to keep us from justifying, protecting, and exalting ourselves. Although critics often exaggerate their case and are seldom entirely right, they are often partially right.

Ask yourself, “Am I responding appropriately to criticism?” Remember, those who have an ear for Christ learn to have an ear for others also. If you find yourself habitually feeling slighted, neglected, and mistreated, view your feelings with suspicion. Let yourself be more vulnerable. Complain less by considering how little criticism you receive, though you are unworthy, compared with Christ, who is perfectly worthy.

Find some accountability partners to monitor your reactions. Seek the wisdom and courage needed to penetrate the insulation around your ego. Don’t be afraid to say, “I was wrong; will you forgive me?”

6.Consider the content. You can learn valuable truths about yourself from critics. Be grateful for that. Some of our best friends are those who disagree with us lovingly, openly, and intelligently. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). Helpful criticism is like good medicine.

David Pawlison writes, “Critics, like governing authorities, are servants of God to you for good (Rom. 13:4). He who sees into hearts uses critics to help us see things in ourselves: outright failings of faith and practice, distorted emphases, blind spots, areas of neglect, attitudes and actions contradictory to stated commitments, and, yes, strengths and significant contributions.”

Please continue with Part II of this article.

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