Thistles and Thorns

I work with college kids, notoriously one of the most awkward ministries in the church. Yes, I knew that going in. Yes, I've even heard other pastors talking about the difficulty of pastoral ministry. Even so, there are still days when I'm just exhausted and somewhat surprised by the frustrations of ministry. Why is the ground so hard?

Thistles and thorns—that's what the earth gives up to Adam this side of Eden. Adam's work is no longer a joy but a toilsome chore. The sweat of his brow mingles with the dirt as he engages in the mighty contest, hand to the plow, wrestling life from the soil. Life after the Fall is hard, and nothing comes easy. Reflecting on life under the sun, without the hope of redemption, Qohelet's question in Ecclesiastes rings true today: "Who can make straight what he has made crooked?"

Basically, if you're breathing, you're frustrated.

Thorny questions

For some reason, I thought ministry would be different.

Groggy with exhaustion and the mildest tinge of depression, I roll out of bed after a night of ministry with my students. I wander over to the coffee machine for the fix that will get me through my devotions. After a passage from John and a little commentary by Calvin, I stumble into my prayers. I thank God for the good things he's given me; my adoption, my wife, and my call to ministry. Still, eventually the questions come:

God, what am I doing wrong? What needs to change? Why is it so hard? Where are the people? I did the thing the guy in the book said. I did the stuff the guy on the blog said. Why aren't more people showing up? Why are the ones I have not growing up? I thought you wanted this to work?

I'm sure I'm not alone. As a group, pastors typically know (and if you get to the right seminary are told) that vocational ministry is difficult. We are told the horror stories, alongside the glories of serving Jesus in the church. What we are rarely told to do is connect the character of our toil in the field of the Lord with the fallen condition of life for everybody.

We understand that our work is hard because the world is sinful. Our work even more so than some, as we are dealing with the epicenter of that corrupting curse, the human heart. Still, there's this sad, clerical tendency to separate our work from the rest of the world. We disconnect the weeds found in the soil of a congregant's aorta, with the weeds he's plowing up in his or her own work.

This is a mistake for a number of reasons:

1. Self-pity

Ministry is hard. It carries particular struggles. In Dangerous Calling, Paul David Tripp points out that if we forget that we too toil "under the sun," we can be deceived into thinking that we've been singled out for a burden that no one but another pastor can understand. From there it's just a short step to buying the lie that you are personally under heavier attack than your congregants, or that your church is especially difficult, or that God is particularly distant from you. When this is your attitude, you will be prone to even greater frustration, anger, bitterness, and a distinct lack of joy. A pastor without Gospel-joy won't preach the Gospel very well.

2. Disconnected preaching

What's more, when we believe our thorns and thistles are worse than the rest of the world's, we miss out on a way to connect to the people in our pews. For instance, if you separate out your work from everyone else's, you won't take what you've learned about, say, interpersonal struggles in the elder board to your frustrated people, who hassle with other sinners at work. Or maybe the struggle of handling financial doubts in struggling economy? Or the frenetic, inner voice that threatens to rob you of Sabbath rest because American work culture has even infected the church? Or prioritizing your family in the midst of a hectic career life? Even worse, we fail to sympathize with the difficulties that everybody walks through. We can begin to issue commands without compassion.

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