OUR Lord’s illustration of the necessity of a previous counting of the cost in important undertakings forcibly applies to the Christian Ministry. Too often has the neglect of serious and prayerful calculation given awful power to the temptation to draw back from so momentous a work. Indeed no previous contemplation can give just apprehensions of its difficulties, any more than a spectator of the field of battle can realize the intense anxiety of the actual conflict. Whatever general notions of a serious and intelligent character may be attained, much will yet be left, that experience alone can supply—much that wll enforce the exhortation once given by a veteran to a young soldier—’Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’ Indeed the difficulties of this work to the considerate conscientious mind must exclude any expectation of temporal ease and comfort. Many other tracks in life offer a large promise of indulgence. But to this work is most especially linked the daily cross: and in it must be anticipated severe and sometimes overwhelming trial — arising from the professing church, the world, the power of Satan, and ourselves.
Our relation to the professing church is associated with no common difficulties. How instructive are the deep views of the apostolical Eliot on this work! He looked upon the conduct of a church, as his biographer (Cotton Mather) informs us, as a thing attended with so many difficulties, temptations and humiliations, as that nothing but a call from the Son of God could have encouraged him unto the susception of it. He saw that flesh and blood would find it no very pleasant thing to be obliged unto the oversight of a number, that by a solemn covenant should be listed among the volunteers of the Lord Jesus Christ; that it was no easy thing to feed the souls of such a people, and of the children and the neighbors, which were to be brought into the same sheep-fold with them; to bear their manners with all patience; not being by any of their infirmities discouraged from teaching of them, and from watching and praying over then; to value them highly, as the flock which God purchased with his own blood, notwithstanding all their miscarriages; and in all to examine the rule of scripture for the warrant of whatever shalt be done; and to remember the day of judgment, wherein an account must be given of all that has been done. It was herewithal his opinion (as the great Owen expresses it) that notwithstanding all the countenance that is given to any church by the public magistracy, yet whilst we are in this world, those who will faithfully discharge their duty as Ministers of the gospel shall have need to be prepared for sufferings; and it was in a sense of these things that he gave himself up to the Sacred Ministrv. We need scarcely remark, what dexterity of application, diligence of labor, ‘discerning of spirits,’ how large a portion of ‘the meekness and gentleness of Christ,’ of his yearning compassion, and persevering self-devotedness is here required! Except we realize a high estimation of the Church, the constraining influence of the Saviour’s love, and the upholding prop of Almighty grace, what is there to preserve us from sinking in despondency?
But perhaps here our chief burden lies in the recollection, that, like our Divine Master, we are ‘set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel.’ For if it be joyous to convert, how afflicting to harden, by our ministry!—specially in the fear, that the more lively is its energy for conversion, in the same proportion is its influence for judicial condemnation. And though even ‘in them that perish’ we ourselves are unto God ‘a sweet savor of Christ;’ yet under the sinking pressure we can but sympathize with the cry of the great Apostle—’Who is sufficient for these things?’ Truly our office is no negative institution. And who but one deeply conversant with the momentous realities of eternity can be duly furnished for it?
From the difficulties with the world, unfaithfulness to our Master furnishes the only ‘way of escape.’ The subject matter of our commission comes into immediate contact with latent and deep-rooted prejudices. The strongest feelings of a proud nature are brought into constant play against our unwelcome tale: so that we ‘become the enemy,’ instead of the friend, of our fellow-sinners, ‘because we tell them the truth.’ The sacrifice, which in our Master’s name we demand, of the cherished objects of misplaced affections; the exhibition of heavenly pleasures, far nobler in their character, and more permanent in their enjoyment—yet most distasteful to the natural mind; the certain endurance of reproach in the service of the Gospel—these component parts of our commission, even from the voice of the most alluring charmer, excite the enmity of the carnal mind to our message, and to the messenger for his work’s sake. Does not our personal experience furnish recollections of the mighty influence of this innate indisposition to the Gospel, and of the peculiar wisdom, patience, and faithfulness needed for its subjugation?
But sometimes the difficulties from the world are of a different character. We come to them ‘as a lovely song of one that playeth well upon an instrument.’ Their enmity, though not radically subdued, may be restrained, and even clothed with much of outward courtesy. To meet this aggravated difficulty with gentleness, and yet to detect and uncover the evil, requires a rare combination of firmness, wisdom, and consideration. To risk the almost certain consequence of a change of feeling towards us, demands the exercise of much prayer and faith. The kindness of the world is far more formidable than its enmity. Many, who were prepared to stern the torrent of its opposition, have yielded with compromising indulgence to its paralyzing kindness.
Difficulties must also be expected from the restless and subtle activity of the tempter. Apart from that baneful influence, by which, (as we shall afterwards show) he obstructs the general efficiency of the work his power over the tone of the minister’s mind is most distressing. Often indeed does he succeed in unhinging his spirit and paralyzing his exertions, by diverting his mind from the main design, or by bringing the dark cloud of unbelief over his soul, so that the Ministration of the Church, as Calvin observes, ‘is not an easy and indulgent exercise, but a hard and severe warfare, where Satan is exerting all his power against us, and moving every stone for our disturbance.’
But, after all, the greatest difficulties derive their origin and power from ourselves. The spiritual character of our employment no more than secular occupations—exempts us from the conflict with our corruptions. It is not easy to overcome our natural love of ease, our indisposition to self-denying devotedness, and our false tenderness in flinching from the declaration of unpalatable truths. Were we angels by nature as well as by office, the difficulty would be of little account. But, while we bear upon us the marks of our apostasy, we cannot advance without a constant, and sometimes most painful, effort. Many circumstances, from this exciting tendency, materially increase the difficulty. We must labor, when our hearts are in a cold and languid state. Hence the danger, lest the powerful energy of the word should be weakened in its application to ourselves; lest we should gradually lose our relish for our work, excuse ourselves from its self-denying exercises, and sink into heartless despondency. A course of opposition also to our message may stir up a selfish, unhumbled spirit. Popularity is yet more dangerous: the few, who escape its influence unhurt, have been exercised in painful conflicts, such as have shown their deliverances from this fiery trial to have been nearly miraculous. Symptoms of success, unless tempered with personal abasement and habitual watchfulness, excite to self-confidence. The want of these tokens, on the other hand, is too often accompanied with impatience or despondency; so that—assaulted at the extreme points and from opposite directions—we need ‘the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left.’
Perhaps with many of us the conscientious discharge of official duty furnishes the only anticipation of Ministerial difficulties. This want of acquaintance with the real difficulties in every part of the function, by failing to realize our entire helplessness, is one main cause of its unfruitfulness. None of us will find this ‘pleasure of the Lord to prosper in our hands,’ except every effort is grounded upon the practical conviction, that no strength but the arm of Omnipotence is sufficient for the work. Many of us, perhaps, had tasted in the prospect some of the delights and encouragements of the work; and in all the spring and freshness of youth had calculated upon a steady and uninterrupted devotedness rising above all opposing obstacles. But scarcely had we passed the threshold, before the dream of confidence passed away. The chilling influence of the world, and the disheartening effect of unsuccessful pains, soon made us conversant with disappointment, and dispelled our sanguine expectation of a harvest proportioned to our industry. Our constancy and love have been often put to a severe and searching trial; and though we can never forget the dignity of character and the principles of encouragement connected with the Ministry, we are made to feel that ‘if a man desires’ the office, he desires a toilsome and self-denying, as well as ‘a good work.’ We must work, like Nehemiah and his men, with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. The progress of the work would be stopped by the laying down of the trowel. The enemy would gain a temporary advantage by the sheathing of the sword. Nothing therefore remains but to maintain the posture of resistance in dependence upon our wise Master-builder, and the Captain of our salvation—waiting for our rest, our crown, our home.
We have, however, no reason to complain of a dispensation, so obviously fraught with important blessings to ourselves, and so subservient to the blessed ends of the Ministry. The discipline of the cross is most needful to repress the overweening confidence of presumption; to establish an habitual confidence in the Divine promises; to prove the power of faith, the privileges of prayer, and the heavenly support of the word of God; and to furnish us with ‘the tongue of the learned;’ that, from our own experience of the difficulties and supports of our Christian warfare, we ‘should know how,’ after the Master’s example, ‘to speak a word in season to him that is weary.’
Yet in our contact with Ministerial difficulty the enlivening views of faith are most important. Conscious helplessness sinks under the depressing weight of responsibility. Faith links our weakness in immediate connection with the promises of Almighty aid; and enables us to say to the mountain of difficulty ‘Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain.’ Thus discouragements, properly sustained and carefully improved, become our most fruitful sources of eventual encouragement; while love to our work bears us on above all our difficulucs.