The Indispensability of Discipline in the Devotions of a Pastor
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devils schemes (Eph. 6:10-11).
In the first article on the "Devotional Life of the Professional Christian," we saw that pursuing Christ must be the central aim of our lives, and that our devotions should help center our lives upon that aim.
Yet merely affirming this fact doesnt automatically produce a rich devotional life. We need discipline: discipline for having devotions and discipline for using the time well.
In this article, we shall consider the need to set aside time. In the future articles, we will consider how to use that time well. Only through our (grace empowered) struggle can we overcome the pressures of our busy lives, as well as the opposition of the devil, the flesh, and a world in rebellion against Christ.
1. UNPLANNED DEVOTIONS ARE SQUEEZED OUT BY BUSYNESS
Often, we blame our schedules for our lack of devotions. And there is certainly some legitimacy to this charge. Life assigns us tasks that must be completed, and tasks that must be completed immediately. Few people finish everything on their daily list.
So unless we appreciate the importance and the urgency of prayer and meditation on Gods word, we will leave it until tomorrow. When tomorrow comes we will leave it until the next day. Soon we find that days and weeks have passed without rich time in the word and prayer. As D. A. Carson writes,
We dont drift into spiritual life; we do not drift into disciplined prayer. We do not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray. That means we must set aside time to do nothing but pray. What we actually do reflects our highest priorities. That means that we can proclaim our commitment to prayer until the cows come home, but unless we actually pray, our actions disown our words.
For as much as we blame lifes busyness, notice that its not merely our short-term commitments that relegate our devotions; something more is happening. What?
2. DEVOTIONS ARE VITAL PREPARATION FOR SPIRITUAL BATTLE
To begin with, there are active spiritual forces opposing us.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12).
We must not just fall back on the busyness excuse, but realize that we are under attack.
Strikingly, Paul in this passage does not tell us how to engage in spiritual warfare as much as how to prepare for spiritual warfare. He tells us to put on the full armor of God today so that when the battle is waged, we will be prepared.
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand (Eph. 6:13).
Once the battle begins, it is too late to begin our preparations.
What foolishness for a soldier to be so confident in his years of military training that, on the day of battle itself, he enters the battle unarmed and wearing his pajamas! What foolishness for the pastor to be so confident in his Christian maturity that he enters the daily battles without the sword of the spirit or the shield of faith worked out in prayer!
The Christian life is a battle that should be fought not only reactively but also proactively. The battle will often be brought to us, but we must put on the armor of God through prayer and the study of his word before those times come. Otherwise, we are giving the devil a terrific advantage.
Satan knows what orders thou keepest in thy house and closet, and though he hath not a key to thy heart, yet he can stand in the next room to it, and lightly hear what is whispered there. He hunts the Christian by the scent of his own feet, and if once he doth but smell which way thy heart inclines, he knows how to take the hint; if but one door be unbolted, one work unmanned, one grace off its carriage, here is advantage enough.
Perhaps pastors, before they were pastors, thought that the discipline of prayer would come more easily once they were in full-time ministry. After all, few jobs list "prayer" as one of the two principle items on the job description ("We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word"; Acts 6:4).
Yet not only is it difficult for pastors to be devoted to prayer; in many ways it is harder than ever. The devil recognizes the transforming power of the word of God, and seeks to snatch it from peoples hearts. Will he not focus his attention on keeping those who feed others with the word from being fed by the word?
3. CONSISTENT DEVOTIONAL LIFE IS A STRUGGLE AGAINST THE FLESH
Not only do the devil and his forces oppose us, our fleshwhat the NIV translates "sinful nature"opposes us.
For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want (Gal. 5:17).
In order to mortify this flesh, this sinful nature, we must pursue knowledge of Christ through his word and through prayer. As one nineteenth-century Irish pastor wrote,
Knowing him, his grace, what he is to us, and what we are to him, what our life, our rank, our holiness, our inheritance, and our glory, all that as head he is to his members as revealed to us in the word, this is the power that enables us to mortify the deeds of the body, and makes us, with more and more emphasis, morally and practically what we are judicially crucified, dead to the world, dead to sin.
But the flesh has no desire to be mortified. Like the calf that spies the butchers knife, it bolts at the thought of studying Gods word. What that means, ironically, is that the flesh may not revolt against our ministry to others to the same extent that it revolts against our own devotions. The flesh is content for us to busy ourselves aiding others in their mortification, so long as it remains intact itself. After all, the flesh is not like the devil. It is not fighting a broad war against the whole church.
Each morning, we who are in the pastoral ministry must recognize that our desire to pursue ministry before we have pursued Christ is a desire of the flesh, which resists its own mortification. Recognizing this, we will see that there is no substitute for the discipline of placing our devotional time on the calendar as the most urgent of our daily appointments.
4. FEAR OF MAN IS A POOR SUBSTITUTE FOR THE FEAR OF GOD
In addition to the devil and the flesh, we must recognize the worlds opposition to our devotional life. Not only should we expect non-Christians to perceive the pursuit of Christ as foolish, we should expect a residual worldliness within our own congregations. They will neglect the tasks that Christ has assigned to the whole congregationsuch as visiting the sick or befriending the lonelyby expecting the pastor to carry the weight of those tasks alone.
I have never known a pastor to be fired for prayerlessness, even though I expect that many justly could have been (myself included). There are at least three reasons for this. First, congregations rarely hold a pastor accountable for his devotional life. Second, pastors themselves too infrequently seek such accountability. Third, pastors can conceal the neglect of private duties more easily than the neglect of public duties.
But what does such private neglect reveal? That a pastor fears man more than he fears God.
The solution is simple: pray and act. Pray for a humble, God-fearing heart. And then act accordingly. There is no substitute for self-control. Self-control that prioritizes the devotional life is the fruit the Spirit in one who fears God more than men. Such self-control recognizes that what others want us to do must be sacrificed sometimes out of love for the Lord.
Again, one might assume that of all people pastors will find it easier to resist the worldliness that kills the devotional life. But, once again, it is often harder. Many duty-neglecting demands from a congregation, like visiting the sick, still make for good, eternity-building opportunities. Yet a pastor must learn to refuse some of them lest he become a "professional Christian" with no vital walk with the Lord.
Notice the kingdom work that Jesus had to "neglect" in order to set aside time to pray:
Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:15-16).
Notice also what the apostles had to delegate in order to pray:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-4).
Jesus left himself open to the accusation of not preaching or healing those who had come specifically to find him. And the apostles faced major division among the only New Testament church in the world! Yet both Jesus and the apostles knew they had to pray. They loved their Lord more than they feared men, and this enabled them to love and serve men more than a worldly wisdom might have predicted.
CONCLUSION: THE JOYFUL GOAL OF DISCIPLINE
Amidst all this talk of discipline, its worth remembering that we do not exercise self-control in order to harm ourselves. Rather, self-control provides an opportunity to enjoy the riches of Gods graceas we all know full well based on the times when we have obediently set aside sufficient time for devotions. The world, the flesh, and the devil oppose our devotional lives precisely because not one of them wants us to enjoy fellowship with Christ. Yetpraise God!we can enjoy it, if only we will set aside the time.
Peter tells us that angels long to look into the things that God has revealed to us (1 Peter 1:12). Isnt it tragic that where angels long to look we cant always be bothered to glance! Perhaps we have begun to take Gods blessings for granted. If you come to your quiet times feeling weary and wanting to get them over as quickly as possible, stop and think about the privilege that you have been given! You are able to meet with your Creator, you are invited to encounter Almighty God, to hear from Him and worship Him. What better reason could there possibly be to set the necessary time aside?
It is no hardship to meet with our Lord. We were saved for him. Will we not enjoy him each day?
. Don Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation
, (Baker Books, 1992) 19
. William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour
, (Banner of Truth, 1964) 64f.
. Matthew 13:19
. Joseph Denham Smith, Life Truths
(Philadelphia: Rice & Hurst, [no date]), 15f.
. Simon Robinson, Improving your quiet time
(Day One Publications, 1998) 24
Mike Gilbart-Smith is the senior pastoral assistant for college ministry and evangelism at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
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