The key in keeping the ministry from becoming an idol in your life is to keep up a deep devotional life and intimate personal relationship with God. The deeper your relationship and understanding of God goes, the less prone you will be to allow ministry to become an idol. Let me give you three suggestions that can help in this area:
1. Preach the Gospel to Yourself Daily
One of the best ways to keep the ministry from being an idol in your life is to daily preach the gospel to yourself. The more deeply the gospel takes root in our lives the aware we become of our own sinfulness and utter dependence upon God. This is essential in the life of the minister. The Gospel defeats all of my pride and dispels any myth of my own ability or virtue before God. It reminds me that apart from the grace of God, I am nothing and that every moment of my life I am utterly and completely dependent on His grace and mercy. The message of the gospel is a sin defeating, idolatry busting, self-dependence destroying force that drives me deeper into the arms of the savior. Therefore, I never grow beyond the gospel, only deeper into the gospel. By preaching the gospel to myself every day, the Holy Spirit inoculated me from the plague of self-centered idolatry that can so easily overtake the minister of the gospel.
2. Protect Your Time with God
When I started out in the ministry, my dear friend , mentor and Pastor, Warren Baker took me aside and said, “Joe, never let anything steal your time alone with God.” Back then I didn’t really understand what he meant but during the past twenty years of ministry I have learned that the first area that Satan wants to steal in every Pastor’s life is his time alone with God.
Satan knows that if we stop spending time with God we will soon become discouraged. Over the past twenty years, I have never met a Pastor who was discouraged and was still maintaining a daily time quiet with the Lord. In fact, it has been my observation that usually what happens is that Satan gets us to give up our time with the Lord in favor of some other ministry activity. He gets us investing our most precious time in the work of the ministry and not with the Lord of the ministry and thus separates us from the joy and the power of the ministry. So if you are so busy doing the work of the ministry that you don’t have time to spend before the Lord of the ministry, you will soon lose the joy and the power of the ministry. Whenever this happens, it won’t be long until you become discouraged.
Pastor, get your calendar out and clear some time to spend alone with God. Make sure that on your calendar you carve out time everyday where you can get alone before God and charge your spiritual batteries. Set up a time each month when you can get away from the challenges of ministry to spend the entire day alone with God getting some vision and direction from God. Finally, set up a time each year when you can get away for several days to a week to spend time in prayer, fasting, and study to talk with God. I guarantee you that Satan will make every effort to keep you away from this time, but if he is so against it just think about what God has in store for you.
3. Maintain your dependence on God
One of the tools that I have found to helpful in maintaining my dependence on God is to take a spiritual inventory of my life. Taking spiritual inventory of our lives is never a pleasant experience, but for those who will allow the Spirit of God to dig deep into their hearts, it can be powerful and life changing. There is no magic formula for how to conduct such an inventory; basically, you just need to set apart a time to get alone with God and His Word. The method you use for taking this inventory isn’t nearly as important as the attitude you have going into it. Taking a personal spiritual inventory requires a willingness to listen to God and to humbly see yourself as you really are.
The first step in conducting a spiritual inventory is to set apart a specific time when you can concentrate on nothing but your spiritual life. The amount of time you spend is not as important as the ability to focus exclusively on your spiritual life. Honestly, this can be the hardest part of taking a spiritual inventory because our lives have become so busy and cluttered with other things that we often find it difficult to spend time alone with God. Over the years, I have found it helpful to take either a morning or afternoon and to go out into the woods or a park where I can be alone, without the distractions of the office or technology around me.
Every year during the month of February, I attend a pastor’s conference in Jacksonville, Florida, and while I am there, I like to take an entire afternoon to spend on the beach, alone with God. The only items I bring for this afternoon are my Bible and a notebook. This is one of the highlights of my year, and God never fails to give me a new insight into my spiritual life. You will have to figure out what works for you, but I promise that getting alone before God does not happen by accident. You have to plan time when you can get away, which usually means saying no to something else. The key is to pick a time and place where you will not be disturbed and then give yourself enough time to really listen and hear God.
The second step in taking a spiritual inventory is to decide how you will use the time you’ve allotted to be alone with God and how you will conduct the inventory. I like to begin my time with God by spending fifteen to thirty minutes in praise and adoration. While I am definitely not a singer, I will usually pick out a few of my favorite hymns or praise choruses and sing them to God. On other occasions, I will spend some time just reading and praying some of the psalms back to God. The key here is to spend time really basking in the love, mercy, and presence of God. Once I’ve spent some time praising God, I will begin to pray, asking God to guide this time of self-examination and to show the deepest issues of my heart. Again, it is not so much what you say but the honesty of your heart that matters.
If you really want God to show to you what you are like, it is going to hurt. There have been times when I went out into the forest under the guise of spending time with God but honestly wasn’t ready to hear what He had to say. In those times, I wanted a deeper walk with God, but I was not ready or willing to face the deep issues and idols of my heart, so I came away with nothing more than I went in with. On other occasions, however, my heart was ready to listen to what God wanted to say to me. These experiences often began by feeling as if the weight of my sin would crush me. But I have learned over the years that this is where God is the most active and real in our lives. He sometimes has to hurt us to heal us. God reveals our sin, not to make us feel bad but to make us poor in spirit and to drive us toward confession and repentance. When the weight of sin threatens to crush our souls, the Holy Spirit points us to the cross of Christ where we can find freedom and forgiveness.