Guard Your Conscience
There are a lot of things that could lead to failure in ministry, but essentially two things would be at the top of the list. One is sin. Sin is going to lead to failure. And I’m not talking so much even about behavioral sin, I’m talking about sin on the inside.
We have to deal with the heart. That is the issue. James writes that sin is conceived in the heart, it comes out of the heart, and it leads to death. When you see somebody fail in the ministry because of sin, that isn’t the beginning. That is the end of a long history of losing the spiritual battle on the inside.
That is why it’s so critical for people in ministry to guard their conscience. As a believer, your conscience is the mechanism God has given you to excuse you when you're doing the right thing or accuse you when you’re doing the wrong thing. You want to listen to your conscience.
The Apostle Paul defended himself to the Corinthians by saying in 2 Corinthians 1:12, “I have a clear conscience.” You’re saying all kinds of things about me that aren’t true, you’re accusing me of all things but my conscience is clear that I have lived in a godly way, in a faithful way before you.
The Lord uses adversity and difficulty to humble us. So we have to be very careful that we aren’t caught in pride, with unrealistic expectations of what we deserve.
That’s where the battle needs to be won and that means you have to do what the Apostle Paul said: you have to take heed to yourself. You have to win the battle on the inside and you have to have a clear conscience. If you’re winning the battle on the inside, you’re not going to lose it on the outside. So fighting sin at the deepest level of your heart is absolutely critical.
Guard against Unrealistic Expectations
The second thing that leads to failure in ministry is burnout. It’s really the product of unrealistic expectations tied to pride. If you think you deserve better than you get, if you think you deserve a bigger church, more faithful people, less criticism, if you think you're not being treated the way you should be treated, if somebody—maybe your wife even—is reinforcing how people are mistreating you, that leads to burnout.
Burnout doesn’t come because of effort, it comes because of disappointment. I don’t think I've ever heard about ditch diggers being burned out. I would think that would burn somebody out but that’s just manual labor. Hard work doesn’t produce burnout. Unrealistic expectations do. It’s important for us as people in the ministry to understand that the Lord is in charge of outcomes.
Even in the case of the Apostle Paul, the Lord allowed false teachers to go into the church at Corinth and tear it up. It was a thorn in Paul’s flesh. He prayed three times that the Lord would remove those false teachers and the Lord said no because when you’re weak, then you’re strong.
The Lord allowed difficulty in that church to make Paul strong. And he went even further than that. He said, “Because of the many revelations you have received, to humble you, the Lord has sent this thorn in the flesh.”
The Lord uses adversity and difficulty to humble us. So we have to be very careful that we aren’t caught in pride, with unrealistic expectations of what we deserve. That leads to disappointment and a kind of burnout that causes people to be unfaithful in ministry. Realize you don’t deserve anything, realize that it is a privilege, honor, and a mercy that you’ve even been called into ministry. Rejoice in the privilege, and let the outcome be left in the hands of God. Just be a faithful servant.
Paul’s deeply rooted understanding that his calling was a totally undeserved expression of God’s great mercy to him was itself one of the core convictions that kept him faithful to the end.
There are lots of people who are never really confronted by the wretchedness of their own hearts.
The reality of Christ’s vicarious, substitutionary death on our behalf is the heart of the gospel according to God.