One of the biggest dangers in the pastorate is growing bitter towards your church. Ministry can wear on you very quickly. Whenever I’ve heard a pastor tell me that they’ve served for twenty or thirty years, I always comment that I’m impressed. Why? Because years in the pastorate are dog years—they take a toll. As a pastor you can often feel like you’re sacrificing yourself for the ungrateful. The complaints and criticisms begin to pile up and slowly but surely you begin to get bitter about your service. You want to protect yourself from growing bitter, so you begin to withdraw and disengage. You figure that if you don’t make yourself vulnerable or sacrifice as much, then it won’t hurt as much when people criticize or reject you. It hurts less because you’re less invested. Such a strategy might be something to consider in the secular workplace. There’s a saying from an old Tennessee Ford song, Sixteen Tons, “Don’t sell your soul to the company store.” In other words, be careful how much you give of yourself to your job. But it’s a different situation when it comes to ministry.
Our natural human tendency might be to protect ourselves so we don’t get hurt, but such move is incompatible with the way of the cross. When Christ bids us to come, take up our crosses, and follow him, this type of cruciform existence must especially mark ministers of the gospel. But the source of living a cruciform life must come from the Spirit of Christ and his gospel, not ourselves. If we sacrifice in our own strength, we might make a good show of things at first. Our sacrifice will look very much like the gospel-powered sacrifice of other godly saints. But we will undoubtedly come to the end of our rope—we will run out of gas. And when this happens, we set ourselves up for letting the root of bitterness grow in our souls.
As Christians, and especially ministers, we must continually seek the grace of Christ to empower our sacrificial living. Only Christ’s gospel can sufficiently motivate and sustain our ability to give ourselves to others even if they don’t thank you for it, or even worse, criticize and complain to you about it. When you look to Christ and the love he sacrificially poured out upon you, his Spirit equips you to give this love to others. Christ’s “forgive them Father, for the know not what they do,” (Luke 22:34) freely flows from your heart when people complain or criticize. While such a response in the face of criticism can seem more like masochism, we can actually find joy in the midst of this cloud of negativity. We can find joy because we recognize that everything comes to us by the hand of God’s Providence and he is using these events both to conform us more to Christ’s image and to bring glory to his name.
Strengthened by the grace of the gospel, you can rejoice in the face of criticism and take it in stride. You can keep bitterness at bay. Christ’s grace can also carry you through the challenging times so that, whether in plenty or want, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you (Phil. 4:13).