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 lightSpurgeon 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.