A pastor confided in me that he loved to spend a short while reading the
newspaper in the morning, but felt it would be irresponsible. This was only one
of many things he either denied himself or felt guilty about doing because of
his perceived work load. He was burdened by the task of making a small church
succeed in circumstances that were very hard. No matter how hard he tried, it
would never be enough, so long as his attendance was not large and growing and
he did not have an appropriate building and cash flow.
In fact, however, the inner burden he carried is not much different in
quantity from that of many ministers prospering in larger, more
"successful" churches. The need to achieve is too great. Invariably,
it is the personal and spiritual life of the minister that suffers. And--like
doctors, lawyers and other professionals today--he often comes to feel strongly
that the circumstances in which he works are in conflict with the very goals for
which he entered the ministry in the first place. Heightened frustration and
disappointment go hand in hand with decreasing strength, peace and joy. The
conditions and habits of our work in ministry often seems incompatible with the
life that Jesus lived and surely offers to us.
But it does not have to be so. There is a way of getting hold of our concrete
ministerial situation and finding the joy, strength and vision in service which
obviously characterized Jesus himself, as well as many of his fellow-workers and
friends through the ages.
The One we work for and with has placed in our hands the keys to the Kingdom
of the Heavens. (Matt 16:19) Setting aside centuries of ecclesiastical
controversy over the meaning of this passage, we need to simply understand that
our confidence in Jesus as the one who "has say over all things in heaven
and in earth" (Matt. 28:18) can develop into practical access to the riches
of the Kingdom. These in turn make it possible for us to do the work we have to
do and to live our lives in the strength, joy and peace of Christ.
Having the keys is not a matter of controlling access to the kingdom, as is
often thought. Keys do not first mean the right to control access, but
the enjoyment of access. Imagine a man who carefully kept his doors
locked and his keys in hand, but never went into his house! Having access to the
kingdom, living in it, is what matters.
The meaning of Matt 16:19 is, therefore, not fundamentally different from
Matt. 6:33: "Seek more than anything else to act with the kingdom of God
and to have His kind of goodness, and all else you need will be added."
(paraphrase) Or Romans 8:32: "He who did not spare his own Son, but
delivered him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all
things." (NAS) Or the well-known Philipians 4:19: "And my God will
supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ
But if the abundance is here, enough even to defeat the "Gates of
Hell," why are we not thriving in it? The answer is that we have a key to
the keys. The abundance of God to our lives, our families and our ministries is
not passively received or imposed and does not happen to us by chance, but is
claimed and put into action by our active, intelligent pursuit of it. We must
seek out ways to live and act in union with the flow of God's kingdom life that
should come through our relationship with Jesus.
There is, of course, no question of doing this purely on our own. But we must
act. Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort. And it is
well-directed, decisive and sustained effort that is the key to the keys of the
kingdom and to the life of restful power in ministry that those keys can open to
What are some practices that will make "the keys" given in response
to our faith in Jesus as Messiah effective in our lives as ministers? We
strongly need to see the manifest hand of God in what we are and what we do. We
need to be sure He is pulling the load, bearing the burden--which we are all too
ready to assume is up to us alone. We must understand that He is in charge of
the outcome of our efforts, and that the outcome will be good, right. And all of
this is encompassed in one biblical term, "Sabbath."
The Sabbath, Jesus said, was made for man. (Mark 2:27) That is, it serves
human life in essential ways. Without it, life cannot be what it should be. That
is why it is given in the Ten Commandments, at the heart of the moral law. It is
not something we have to do because God has arbitrarily required it of us, a
pointless hoop He would have us jump through. It is His gift to us. At the same
time it makes clear that our life and our ministry is also His gift to us.
Sabbath is a way of life. (Heb. 4:3 & 9-11) It sets us free from bondage
to our own efforts. Only in this way can we come to the power and joy of a
radiant life in ministry, a blessing to all we touch. And yet Sabbath is almost
totally absent from the existence of contemporary Christians and their
What is Sabbath? Biblically, it is a day, once a week, when we do no work.
"Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a
sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work." (Ex
20:9-10) It was also a year, once every seven years, when God's covenant people
not sow seed, prune vines or store up harvest. (Lev. 25:4-7) And to the
question, "How are we going to eat in the seventh year?" God replied:
"I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring
forth the crop for three years." (vs. 21)
The moral principle certainly applies as well to our non-agrarian,
contemporary life, though our faith will be greatly challenged in working out
the details. Very practically, Sabbath is simply "casting your cares upon
Him," to find that in actual fact "He cares for you." (I Peter
5:7) It is using of the keys to the kingdom to receive the resources for
abundant living and ministering.
Three practices or spiritual disciplines are especially helpful in making
Sabbath real in the midst of our life: Solitude, Silence, and Fasting. These are
three of the central disciplines of abstinence long practiced by the followers
of Jesus to help them find and keep solid footing in the kingdom that cannot be
moved--in the midst of a busy and productive life, or even a life of trial,
conflict and frustration.
For most of us, Sabbath will not become possible without extensive, regular
practice of solitude. That is, we must practice time alone, out of contact with
others, in a comfortable setting outdoors or indoors, doing no work. We must not
take our work with us, even in the form of bible study, prayer or sermon
preparation, for then we will not be alone. An afternoon walking by a stream or
on the beach, in the mountains, or sitting in a comfortable room or yard, is a
good way to start. This should become a weekly practice. Then perhaps a day, or
a day and a night, in a retreat center where we can be alone. Then perhaps a
weekend or a week, as wisdom dictates.
This will be pretty scary for most of us. But we must not try to get God to
"do something" to fill up our time. That will only throw us back into
work. The command is: "Do no work." Just make space. Attend to what is
around you. Learn that you don't have to do to be. Accept the grace of doing
nothing. Stay with it until you stop jerking and squirming.
Solitude well practiced will break the power of busyness, haste, isolation
and loneliness. You will see that the world is not on you shoulders after all.
You will find yourself and God will find you in new ways. Joy and peace will
begin to bubble up within you and arrive from things and events around you.
Praise and prayer will come to you and from within you. The soul anchor
established in solitude will remain solid when you return to your ordinary life
Silence also brings Sabbath to you. Silence means quietness, freedom from
sounds except natural ones like breathing, bird songs and wind and water moving.
It also means not talking. Silence completes solitude, for without it you cannot
be alone. You remain subject to the pulls and pushes of a world that exaust you
and keep you in bondage, distracting you from God and your own soul. Far from
being a mere absence, silence allows the reality of God to stand in the midst of
your life. It is like the wind of eternity blowing in your face. Not for nothing
does the Psalmist say: "Be still and know that I am God." God does not
ordinarily compete for our attention. In silence we come to attend.
When we stop talking we abandon ourselves to reality and to God. We position
ourselves to attend rather than to adjust things with our words. We stop our
shaping and negotiating, or "spinning." How much of our energy goes
into that! We let things stand. We trust God with what others shall think.
Of course there is a time to talk, as there is a time to be with others. But
we are not safe and rich in talk and companionship unless our souls are strong
in solitude and silence. If we have heard the good news and have come to trust
our Savior, He will meet with us through extensive solitude and silence to
stablize his love, joy and peace in us. His character will increasingly become
ours--easily, thorougly. You rarely find any person who has made great progress
in the spiritual life that did not have much time in solitude and silence.
A pastor who has been discovering all this writes: "As I have slowed my
life down through silence and solitude, I have discovered both the wickedness
hidden by a hurried life as well as the wonder and delight my Father has in me.
Oddly, through intentional times of practicing spiritual disciplines my walk
with Jesus has become more spontaneous. He is present in more of my day. I have
loved others better, and seen progress made in overcoming anger and the desire
to have things my way. In a nutshell, Jesus has greater access to and control
over my life. I'm more in tune to the still small voice of the Spirit."
Fasting is another long proven way of finding our way into Sabbath, where we
live and do our work from the hand of God. In fasting we abstain from our
ordinary food to some significant degree and for some significant length of
time. Like solitude and silence, it is not done to impress God or merit favor,
nor because there is anything wrong with food. Rather, it is done that we may
consciously experience the direct sustenance of God to our body and our whole
person. We are using the keys to access the kingdom.
This understanding of fasting is clearly indicated by Jesus in Matt. 4:4
(with its back reference to Deut. 8:2-6) and in John 4:32-34. Fasting is,
indeed, feasting. When we have learned well to fast, we will not suffer from it.
It will bring strength and joy. We will not be miserable, and so Jesus tells us
not to look miserable. (Matt 6:16) Was he suggesting that we fake a condition of
joy and sufficiency when we fast? Surely not. He knew that we would "have
meat to eat" that others "know not of." I and many others can
report that we have repeatedly verified this in experience.
Fasting is one way of seeking and finding the actual kingdom of God present
and active in our lives. And because we are then more immersed in the reality of
the kingdom, practically utilizing the "keys," our lives take on the
character and power of Jesus. This will assure us that our work is his work and
that he is working. Though we act, and work hard, it is after all not our
battle and the outcome is in his hands.
Another pastor had this to say about his experience with fasting:
"Surprisingly, after the fast is when I began to realize something from the
fast. I came back from the fast with a clearer sense of purpose and a renewed
sense of power in my ministry. The anger which I unleashed at my wife and
children was less frequent and the materialism that was squeezing the life out
of my spirituality had loosened its grip."
Yet another pastor said: "It is now my regular practice to fast before
and during times I preach. I have a deeper sense of dependency and of the
immense power of the spoken word. This has been demonstrated by the dear
individual in my congregation who runs our tape ministry. She said that since
January of this year , her order
for sermon tapes has doubled. 'I can't explain it,' she said, 'but whatever it
is, keep it up!'"
Experimental, prayerful implementation of solitude, silence, fasting--and
other appropriate practices, such as fellowship, worship and study (there is no
complete list of spiritual disciplines)--will certainly liberate us into the
riches of kingdom living. We do not have to live under the thumb of our
circumstances. For many, it is a considerable test of faith to take control of
how they spend their time. But that is up to us. And putting time-tested,
biblical disciplines for the spiritual life into sensible practice will soon
lead us into an abundance of life that is eternal in quality and power.