An elementary teacher was helping one of her kindergarten students get his cowboy boots on before leaving for home. He had asked her for help and she could see why. Even with her pulling and pushing, the boots just did not want to fit all the way – they seemed too small. She persisted and by the time she got the second boot on, she had worked up a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, “These are on the wrong feet.”
You know how boots can sometimes be hard to tell – so she looked closely and sure enough, they were. She tugged and pulled and finally pulled the boots off. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on the right feet. Finally, just as she was finished, he said, “You know, these aren’t my boots.”
She bit her tongue rather than scream. Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they gotten the boots off, when he said, “See, they’re my brother’s boots, but my mom said I could wear ‘em.”
She did not know if she should laugh or cry, but she mustered up what patience she had left to wrestle the boots back on his feet one more time. Finally, she finished. Helping him into his coat, she asked, “Now, where are your gloves?” He said, “I stuffed ‘em in the toes of my boots.” In two years, she will be eligible for parole (Davey 3).
If we are not careful as pastors and teachers of God’s Word, we will lose our patience, burden, and love for our people and get like Nehemiah (and the elementary school teacher) and want to do bodily harm to those to whom we minister. There is only one remedy in order to remain effective in ministry: cultivate a spiritual life before God.
Cultivation of the Spiritual Life
Charles Spurgeon, in his classic for pastors, Lectures to My Students, set a precedent when he entitled his first chapter “The Minister’s Self-watch.” He based this chapter on Paul’s exhortation to his apostolic representative Timothy who was serving in the role as a pastor: “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:16). Spurgeon wrote 28 chapters in Lectures to My Students on pastoral ministry. But before he instructed his pastoral students in his Pastor’s College in London on the call to the ministry, or sermon preparation, or the use of gestures and illustrations in preaching, Spurgeon warned each pastor not to “neglect the culture of yourself” (7).
In his second paragraph, Spurgeon quoted M’Cheyne’s advice to another pastor friend: “Remember you are God’s sword. In great measure according to the purity and to the perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents that God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God” (qtd. in Spurgeon 8).
Most of us reading these words from some of yesteryear’s great pastors know of men who neglected the culture of themselves or they sharpened their professional skills but did not “take heed” to their likeness to Jesus. Without hardly thinking, a half dozen names and faces come to mind of pastors who were once awful weapons in God’s hand. Now the words of David, in his lament over the death of backslidden Saul, describe these once cutting edge pastors: “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perish” (2 Samuel 1:27).
How can you and I as pastors “take heed” to ourselves? How can we stay spiritual? How can we love God with all our heart? How can we love our people as ourselves? A fellow minister who was recently in the process of writing his resignation said to me, “My heart is no longer in this ministry.” How can we keep our heart in what God has called us to do?
Conversion and the Cultivation of the Spiritual Life
Before we talk about what some writers call the “spiritual disciplines” or the “means of grace”, I want to start where Spurgeon started in his first lesson to his pastoral students. Before all other advice, Spurgeon wrote of the need for the pastor to be regenerated saying, “It should be one of our first cares that we ourselves be saved men” (9). Spurgeon quotes Richard Baxter’s stern warning to unsaved pastors: “Many a preacher is now in hell, that hath an hundred times called upon his hearers to use the utmost care and diligence to escape it” (qtd. in Spurgeon 12). Can you imagine entire congregations rising up in Hell and cursing their pastors for leading them there? Hopefully, few who read this chapter will need to trust Christ as their Savior, but again most pastors know pastors who preached for years the good news without having received it themselves. I re-baptized one such pastor who had preached for decades and had sinners come to Christ under his preaching before he was converted. The first and most obvious means to cultivating the spiritual life is salvation.
Spiritual Disciplines and the Cultivation of the Spiritual Life
Next, to cultivate our spiritual life we must “exercise or train ourselves” in godliness. Paul instructed Timothy to enter God’s gym in 1 Timothy 4:7 and spiritually work out. Paul uses an athletic word when he wrote “exercise.” This English word comes from the Greek word gumnazo from which we get “gymnasium” and “gymnastics.” Kent Hughes based his book Disciplines of the Godly Man on 1 Timothy 4:7:
The statement from Paul to Timothy regarding spiritual discipline in 1 Timothy 4:7 — “train yourself to be godly” — takes on not only transcending importance, but personal urgency. There are other passages which teach discipline, but this is the great classic text of Scripture. The word “train” comes from the word gumnos, which means “naked” and is the word from which we derive our English word gymnasium. In traditional Greek athletic contests, the participants competed without clothing, so as not to be encumbered. Therefore, the word “train” originally carried the literal meaning, “to exercise naked.” By New Testament times it referred to exercise and training in general. But even then it was, and is, a word with the smell of the gym in it— the sweat of a good workout. “Gymnasticize (exercise, work out, train) yourself for the purpose of godliness” conveys the feel of what Paul is saying. In a word he is calling for spiritual sweat. (Hughes 16)
The gym where I exercise has a wide range of ways to physically work out. Likewise there are different spiritual exercises that produce godliness. There are private spiritual exercises such as private Bible reading, study, memory, meditation, and prayer. Some would include fasting, silence, and solitude. There are also corporate spiritual disciplines, which include the public hearing of God’s Word preached and worship. Wayne Grudem discusses eleven means of grace within the fellowship of a church (these are in contrast to private means of grace) in chapter 48 of his Systematic Theology: teaching of the Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prayer for one another, worship, church discipline, giving, spiritual gifts, fellowship, evangelism, and personal ministry to individuals (Grudem 951).
Before the Greek athletes competed they removed every encumbrance. The author of Hebrews exhorted us “to lay aside every weight” (12:1) so that we can run the spiritual race that God has set before us.
Henry and Richard Blackaby discuss a series of sins that easily weigh down pastors. “Every year thousands of leaders shipwreck their careers, their organizations, and their families by making careless, foolish choices” (230). This is the opening line in their chapter entitled, “The Leader’s Pitfalls: What Disqualifies Leaders”? in Spiritual Leadership. They discuss ten pitfalls into which too many leaders crash: pride, sexual sin, cynicism, greed, mental laziness, oversensitivity, spiritual lethargy, domestic neglect, administrative carelessness, and prolonged position holding.
I want to focus on only one: mental laziness. “Good leaders never stop learning” (Blackaby 244). Homer Kent’s commentary on The Pastoral Epistles commented on Paul’s request that Timothy bring books with him (2 Timothy 4:13) when he comes to see him in prison before he is martyred for his faith. Kent wrote: “Books are tools. The quality of some sermons heard today makes one suspicious that some preachers haven’t read a serious book since they graduated from seminary” (301). Blackaby provides the following example from the ministry of D. L. Moody:
At the height of D. L. Moody’s success, he realized he had grown stale. He was leading enormously successful evangelistic campaigns in Great Britain and the United States, and he had become one of the most famous religious leaders of his day, but he had grown spiritually and intellectually malnourished. He had been continually preaching, but he had not been learning. Moody’s biographer, John Pollock, notes, “At the moment of reaching a height of influence in the United States he stood in danger of spiritual insolvency.” Moody realized he had told people everything he knew and that he had nothing new to say. Moody confessed: “My lack of education has always been a great disadvantage to me. I shall suffer from it as long as I live.” Moody moved to Northfield and refused to accept major speaking engagements until he felt he had studied enough to have
fresh, new insights from God’s Word to share with people. He set a rigid schedule that included six hours of study every morning. Even after he began traveling once again, Moody carried a small library with him. He was determined that despite the press of people and responsibilities upon his time, he could not afford to stop learning and still be effective as a spiritual leader. (246)
D. L. Mood overcame mental laziness. R. C. Sproul contends that many believers do not seriously study God’s Word: “Here then is the real problem of our negligence. We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy” (17).
Moody was willing to make serious life style and schedule changes in order to spend time in God’s Word for his own spiritual advancement and so he could advance others spiritually. Do you need to make this life altering change?
The Spiritual Discipline of In Taking the Word of God
One of the spiritual disciplines that God uses, and the most important, as a means of grace in our lives is the intake of God’s Word. We cannot be spiritual without the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God which is “profitable….that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Are we using every tool available to us to learn and grow with the passion of Paul for the Word of God? Paul wanted to finish his last few days studying and feeding his soul with the researched Word of God and the books. What precious times Paul must have experienced with God’s Word as he faced imminent martyrdom in that cold, damp Mamertine prison in Rome.
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) was professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887-1921. Warfield is considered the last of the great Princeton theologians before the split in 1929 that formed Westminster Seminary under the leadership of J. Gresham Machen. He delivered a sermon to the pastoral students at the Autumn Conference of Princeton Theological Seminary on October 4, 1911. The sermon was titled The Religious Life of the Theological Student. What Warfield preached to the pastoral students needs to be heard by pastors today who are still students of God’s Word.
Warfield began his sermon: “A minister must be both learned and religious [after reading the sermon one knows that by religious Warfield meant godly]. It is not a matter of choosing between the two. He must study, but he must study as in the presence of God and not in a secular spirit. He must recognize the privilege of pursuing his studies in the environment where God and salvation from sin are the air he breathes” (3). Oh that all of us students of the Word, whether students in preparation or pastors in their studies, had this appreciation. The theological student is training to be “apt to teach.” This requires learning. But he must also be godly.
There should be no antithesis between being able to teach and being godly. Warfield quotes someone who said, “Ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. What! is the appropriate response? Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God” (qtd. in Warfield 5)?
Warfield warns theological students (and pastors) of the danger of constant contact with divine things. They can become like the Old Testament priests who handled and moved the tabernacle furniture, around which God manifested His glory, as just mere earthly materials. If our study of theology and God’s Word has become commonplace, then we have become “weary of God” (8).
The Word of God is not a worker’s manual with which we become skilled technicians. Paul called what he preached “the Word of His grace which is able to build you up” (Acts 20:32). The Word is a means of God ministering His all sufficient grace into our lives. If our theological studies or sermon preparation is not causing us to grow in holiness, then we are hardening. Our study of God’s Word should be a “religious exercise out of which you draw every day enlargement of heart, elevation of spirit, and adorning delight in your Maker and your Savior” (Warfield 10).
The Word Feeds Meditation
How can our study of God’s Word, either in devotions, sermon preparation, or even in our general reading, usher us into the presence of God? How can our study and preaching of God’s Word actually be a means of grace as it was in Paul’s life (Acts 20:32)? One answer is meditation of God’s Word. It is easy for us who are bombarded with information not to meditate or process all the input to which we are exposed. We are inundated with news from our car radios, emails at work, texts and tweets from friends, web-site surfing, and podcasts and TV in the evenings and endless cell phones calls.
How can we overcome the endless competitors for our time and attention and grow in the grace and knowledge of God’s Word? Meditation! Donald Whitney in Spiritual Disciplines for The Christian Life defines meditation as “deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer” (44).
Whitney gives an analogy of enjoying a cup of hot tea. In the analogy you
are the hot cup of water and the Word of God is the tea bag:
Hearing God’s Word is like one dip of the tea bag into the cup. Some of the tea’s flavor is absorbed by the water, but not as much as would occur with a more thorough soaking of the bag. In this analogy, reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word are represented by additional plunges of the tea bag into the cup. The more frequently the tea enters the water, the more effect it has. Meditation, however, is like immersing the bag completely and letting it steep until all the rich tea flavor has been extracted and the hot water is thoroughly tinctured reddish brown. (44)
Spiritual success according to the Bible is only promised in relationship to the Bible and specifically in regard to meditating on God’s Word (Psalm 1:1-3; Joshua 1:8).
Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century theologian and pastor, cultivated his spiritual life through the meditation of God’s Word. Whitney related the following example:
When he was younger, Edwards had pondered how to make use of the time he had to spend on journeys (on horse back). After the move to Northampton he worked out a plan for pinning a small piece of paper to a given spot on his coat, assigning the paper a number and charging his mind to associate a subject with that piece of paper. After a ride as long as the three-day return from Boston he would be bristling with papers. Back in his study, he would take off the papers methodically, and write down the train of thought each slip recalled to him. (48)
Just like Jonathan Edwards, we have to discipline ourselves to creatively use our time wisely in order to meditate on God’s Word.
Meditation Feeds Prayer
Meditation equips us to apply God’s Word. Just as meditating should take place after hearing, reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word, prayer should be the practical application of meditation. Thomas Manton wrote of this process: “The word feeds meditation and meditation feeds prayer” (272-273).
Daniel, in the Babylonian Captivity, was meditating on Jeremiah 25 as Daniel 9:1-2 records. When he understood the significance of the passage to his life and circumstance, he set his face “unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fastings, and sackcloth and ashes.” Meditation fed one of the most remarkable prayers in God’s Word, found in Daniel 9:3-19.
David also benefited from his meditation, which led to this outburst of praise: “O how love I your law! It is my meditation all the day. You through your commandments have made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers: for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep you precepts” (Psalm 119:97-100).
One on my favorite Psalms is Psalm 103, which is a Praise Psalm. In this Psalm of pure praise (there is not one negative comment or complaint), David praises God for what He has done and who He is. Sometimes at night I join David in praising God. I simply meditate my way through the Psalm praising Him for His works in 103:1-5 (forgivness, healing, deliverance, and spiritual satisfaction) and for His attributes in 103:6-22 (holiness, justice, mercy, eternality, and sovereignty).
When I remember what God said through Asaph in Psalm 50:23, praising God becomes an act of worship: “Whoso offers praise glorifies me”. It is the mediation on God’s Word, however, that leads to prayer and praise that enables me to bring glory and delight to God.
As a result of his recorded meditations, Jonathan Edwards, being dead, yet speaks and impacts our lives to this day. If we would commit ourselves to this lost art of concentration, we also could be used of God to be agents of change in the lives of those God has called us to minister.
We pastors have the greatest advantage in cultivating our spiritual lives because we are privileged to study God’s Word as a major part of our ministry. We spend more time in God’s Word than administration, or counseling, and or visitation. When we study God’s Word as in the presence of God, mediate on it, delight in it, and then pray it back to God in praise, the Word truly is “the word of His grace which is able to build you [us] up” (Acts 20:32).
Blackaby, Henry & Richard. Spiritual Leadership. Nashville: Broadman & Homan, 2001, Print.
Davey, Stephen. “Surprised by the Appearances of Love.” wisdomonline.org. Web. 2007. May, 10, 2012.
Hughes, Kent. Disciplines of the Godly Man Wheaton: Crosway, 1991, Print.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, Print.
Manton, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Manton. Reprint, Worthingtion, PA: Maranatha Publications, n.d. Print
Sproul, R. C. Knowing Scripture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977, Print. Spurgeon, Charles. Lectures to My Students. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954, Print.
Warfield, B.B. The Religious Life of the Theological Student. Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing, 1992. Print.
Whitney, Donald S. in his Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life. Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991. Print.