08 May 2008

Transparency: ...and more good... (part 2 of 3)

by Dan Phillips

In the Transparency: the good... (part 1 of 3) we saw that God entrusted the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord to actual human beings and not to steel automata. He did this for a reason. The Biblical writers were equally candid about their wayward weaknesses and their Godward zeal.

Though we focused on Paul, we could easily do a lengthy series on the humanity of Moses, of Elijah, of Elisha; of Mark, of Peter, of Timothy. But I trust the premise is sufficiently laid to do a little building.

Such candor did not cease with "tongues." We see it in Augustine's Confessions among the earlier church fathers; we see it in spades in Martin Luther, who not only boldly expressed his faith, but openly admitted his fears and weaknesses.

In fact, in his very readable (but maddeningly under-documented) book Walking with the Giants (Baker: 1976), Warren Wiersbe devotes a chapter to the topic "The Minister and Discouragement." Some of the big names who were familiar with dark times as well as bright included Alexander White, John Henry Jowett, Andrew Bonar, and G. Campbell Morgan.

The great Charles Spurgeon was particularly open about his own weakness. "I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to," he said in a sermon titled "Joy and Peace in Believing" (1866). He meant it, too. This isn't hyperbole. An entire chapter of his Lectures to My Students is whimsically titled "The Minister's Fainting Fits." It is devoted to the reality of discouragement and depression in pastoral ministry. Towards the start, Spurgeon explains his purpose in being so open:
Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon, that younger men might not fancy that some strange thing had happened to them when they became for a season possessed by melancholy; and that sadder men might know that one upon whom the sun has shone right joyously did not always walk in the light
Spurgeon knew that his students would look up to him, and be tempted to think more highly of him than they ought. Rather than accepting that (in service of his pride), Spurgeon exposed his inclination to melancholy (in the service of their lasting good).

Elsewhere Spurgeon suggests a reason why servants such as he are subjected to such times of darkness. In the chapter "How to Meet the Evils of the Age" from An All-round Ministry, Spurgeon asks —
Is not this the reason why God’s servants are made to pass through so many trials, that they may really learn many truths not otherwise to be apprehended? Do we learn much in sunny weather? Do we not profit most in stormy times? Have you not found it so — that your sick-bed — your bereavement — your depression of spirit, has instructed you in many matters which tranquillity and delight have never whispered to you? I suppose we ought: to learn as much by joy as by sorrow, and I hope that many of my Lord’s better servants do so; but, alas! others of us do not; affliction has to be called in to whip the lesson into us.
Such seasons are no less essential pastoral training than Hebrew or Greek. Like the high priest, the pastor should be able to "deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness" (Hebrews 5:2). And so, having received his "whippings," Spurgeon is eager to turn them to his people's profit. His motivation was also Paul's, who observed that...
...the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 ...comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer (2 Corinthians 1:3-6)
We lesser mortals take courage to know that even those we look up to as the "greats" have also gone through great discouragement and darkness. It is as Pilgrim thought, when he walked in the darksome valley and heard a voice before him saying "Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me" (Psalm 23:4). He took courage, "Because he gathered from thence, that some who feared God were in this valley as well as himself."

This has been an important factor to me throughout my Christian life and ministry. I think of one man, who I've never yet heard to give an illustration of which he is other than the hero, and others the fools. He's informed me, but seldom been an encouragement to me. But Spurgeon has been my friend and counselor, for the very reason of his equally vivid candid admission of personal weakness, and his robust boasting of the greatness of Christ, and His riches of grace and mercy — mercy of which I know Spurgeon himself drunk deeply.

Now, some theoretician, on learning that Spurgeon was inclined to melancholy, might have advised him to avoid ministry. But this counsel would not have reflected Scripture, which clearly reveals that men of differing temperaments are used by God. The servant's very humanity is the anchor-point in pointing other humans to Deity.

Even as I learned much from J. I. Packer, I was helped by his admission of the shipwreck that holiness teaching nearly brought him to, and how John Owen saved his sanity. Or his humble preface to the study guide for Knowing God: "As fools long to play Hamlet, so I have longed to write a book of theology. This, however, is not it" (from memory).

It struck me again at the Together for the Gospel conference this year, during the conversations these evangelical leaders held for our benefit. In one in particular, these great men — R. C. Sproul, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan — all were agreeing about how often they'll preach a sermon, and feel that it was an abject, colossal, thudding failure. They admitted that they will slink to the back of the church, almost dreading to hear what anyone will say.

I'm sure I wasn't the only preacher in the room who thought — "You? You've felt this? Even you?" Followed by: "Well, then, maybe there's hope!"

(Then they added the same I've found: that those are often the sermons the Lord chooses to use most graciously. The fancy ones? Not so much.)

Or then again Ligon Duncan, with great feeling, spoke about how he's enjoyed watching a car assembled from all the disparate parts. Then it's done, it's complete — which never happens in a pastor's ministry! Never! The pastor is never done, can never see his completed work, never sees the finished product. "We always want to see that interim report card," Duncan said. Hearing this successful, fruitful, blessed man speaking my own heart so eloquently stirred me deeply.

And it encouraged me. It turned me to Christ. That is the positive effect of godly transparency, as I've been fumbling to sketch it.

But before this sketch is done, such as it is, I'll have to break out the charcoal and draw some dark lines of caution.

In the next post.

Update: Part Three.

Dan Phillips's signature


Caddiechaplain said...

Great read. It was nice to meet you and your lovely bride at T4G while in the famous Starbucks line.

Ron from Riverside, CA

James Scott Bell said...

But, according to Osteenism, any discouragement is simply a temporary lack of faith. It can be overcome in an instant if you'll only think the right thoughts.

I guess all these men you mention in this post didn't have such great faith after all. If only Spurgeon would have smiled a little more, and not had such a stinkin' attitude, he might have really contributed to the Christian Living section of the bookstore.

donsands said...

Wonderful teaching. Thanks.

I remember when my senior pastor took the church on a Saturday work shop type of thing, and we learned the Scriptures, and worshipped the Lord, and it was great.
But one thing stood out above all the rest was when he confessed he hated how he didn't pray like he should.
He confessed that he was disgusted with his prayer life, and wanted to have a better prayer life. It was humility on display.
And yet I used to meet with him and we'd pray for an hour strait, which I never did, until I met him.

Funny how it's the Spurgeon's, and those that are the most godly servants who are the ones to confess their lack, and their shortcomings, and weaknesses.

That combination of transparency and holiness is what encourages me to strive to be more like Christ in the midst of our weakness, and not give up, but fight the fight of faith.

danny2 said...

chalk me up as one of those who also was encouraged and surprised to hear their confession.

thanks for reminding me of it again.

Lisa said...

I love this series, Dan.

John said...

Very encouraging of you to point this out. When we are discouraged the general reaction of others it to rebuke, not encourage.

One preacher that I love and respect had one time told an older minister that he felt like "the worst preacher in the world." The older pastor said, "That's fine. It's when you feel like the best preacher in the world that you need to worry."

I'm thankful for transparency in those men whom we respect. It's easy to get discouraged when you think that you are the only one that formerly lived a life of sin.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Excellent post and great series DJP! I appreciate the transparency displayed in the Cookbook thread yesterday.

Can't wait for the third installment!

Anonymous said...

Your recalling Duncan's comments at T4G reminded me of similar comments made by MacArthur there as well: Ministers of the Gospel are the only profession in which they get none of the credit for the results, and all of the blame for the failures. This can be very discouraging at times, but very encouraging at others.

Chris said...

I visit this blog often but these have been the most enjoyable posts. It has truly served as pastoral counsel and encouragement knowing that I am not alone in what so frequently befalls me. The more I read the Bible, study and reflect on God the more I feel weak, naked and ashamed. My only recourse is to run under the wing of Christ that he may cover my nakedness.

Nash Equilibrium said...

One can also wear clothes. That works, too.

Transparency is good, especially for a jellyfish like me.

Dan, you are precious!

Ryan Donovan said...

Thanks for this series. I'm enjoying it a lot. And finding myself challenged and reminded all at the same time.

If I were a voting member of TeamPyro, I'd vote for more posts like this and less of the "watchdog"/"emergent police" sort. But I'll take what I can get and smile.

(I can already hear the retorts - it's okay, I promise I already know that it is "necessary". I read it all just the same, and appreciate many great points that are made in those kinds of posts, too.)

~Mark said...

Thanks Dan,

this one will be printed up and placed on my desk for my low times.

Solameanie said...


I have one question. This will determine whether my jealousy over not being able to go to T4G will rise to fever pitch.

Did TeamPyro hand out free Costco meat chubs while at the conference? When I saw Phil at last year's Shepherd's Conference, he was kind enough to give me a TeamPyro sticker. But I always miss out when the handouts get upgraded. The sticker is cool, but it's not very sturdy and wouldn't hold up well if I had to beat someone with it.

Skitter said...

Good read thankx to my sister sending me the Link. Myself struggling with Godly sorrow and contemplating how much of it you make transparent to others. Read 2 Cor 7;10 this morning and is so fitting here: Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regrets, but worldly sorrow brings death

ramona said...

Thanks for this great thread! Over the years and through the trials of miscarriages, parenting lots of teens, and generally along the path of sanctification, it has seemed that folks have been most willing to listen to the Gospel when we have been transparent regarding our struggles. One of the biggest hurdles our own teens face as they consider the message of the Gospel are the "what ifs", as a matter of fact. (What if I mess up and don't do things "right"...) It helps them so much to hear others whom they respect share the stories of their own struggles.

Willem Bronkhorst said...

Is it possible to have the reference to where Packer tells of "the shipwreck that holiness teaching nearly brought him to, and how John Owen saved his sanity"?

DJP said...

I'll try to find a hard-copy reference later. In the meanwhile, it is alluded to here and cited here.

Mark Farnon (Tartanarmy) said...

Very good and encouraging posts.


DJP said...

Willem, I'm having trouble putting my hands on my copy. But I'm pretty sure it was from J. I. Packer's introduction to The Mortification of Sin.