I Am a Sinner Too: What Pastors Need to Remember
January 15, 2008
My text is Ecclesiastes 7:19-22: “Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city. There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you–or you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.”
Seminary is wonderful but you can’t learn everything there. The year I graduated from seminary, Christianity Today published a humorous column called “Things They Didn’t Tell You at Your Seminary Graduation.” It was subtitled “Some aphorisms for the brand-new pastor.” I cut it out and saved it, and after all these years, I still have my copy, faded and worn, because the wisdom it contains seems timeless to me. Here are a few bits of advice from the column (with a few of my personal comments):
*If you don’t know what you’re doing, do it neatly. (Not one of my strong points)
*If you can’t tell a joke, don’t. (A really wise piece of advice)
*When you visit the hospital, don’t sit on the bed or discuss your operation.
*Leave your German shepherd at home when you go to the Sunday School picnic.
*Take your German shepherd when you go to the local ministerial association.
*Always remember to take the offering before the sermon.
*Don’t be late for wedding or funerals. (They didn’t mention this in seminary)
*Fifty-one Sundays of the year, preach so that the youngest child in your congregation can understand you. The fifty-second Sunday, preach so that the Ph.D, the Th.D, the Ed.D, and the M.D. are bewildered, awestruck, or filled with wonderment. (Good advice if you can do it)
*If a businessman phones you at 10:30 AM on Wednesday morning and says, “Pastor, I hope I didn’t get you out of bed,” don’t become paranoid. Just answer, “No, you didn’t. But come on over anyway after you’re dressed and my wife will fix some breakfast for you.” (I never used this line, but I wish I had.)
*When people comment on your sermon as they’re going out the church door, don’t take them very seriously. (Very true)
*There are limits to participation in community life. You don’t need to prove yourself by taking part in the annual rodeo.
*Love the teenagers in your congregation and they’ll love you. The same is true of young adults, middle-age adults, and elderly adults.
*Most old people will love you even when you goof. Maybe more then. (Amen)
*Never surprise the chairman of your board. (Double amen)
*Remember that being a pastor is like being the lead dog in a team of Alaskan huskies. You’re the only one who has a view and can see the horizon. So tell them what’s like.
You don’t learn stuff like that in seminary. This kind of “street wisdom” is learned by trial error,” mostly through the mistakes you make in the early years of your ministry. And we all need that sort of practical wisdom if we’re going to make it from Sunday to Sunday. In many ways preaching is the least of a pastor’s worries because he is well-trained in that regard. It’s the other things, the relational details, the thousand small decisions he has to make every week that are more likely to get him in trouble.
When I graduated from seminary in 1978, I went to a church exactly like most new pastors go to. It was a small congregation filled with wonderful people who were very patient and kind to me. We went to that church filled with optimism and high hopes. In the 4Â½ years we spent together, I would say that they helped us at least as much as we helped them. And probably they did more for us than we did for them. Along the way those dear people helped me learn a great deal of practical wisdom. While I was at that church, I stumbled across this text from Ecclesiastes 7. It happened one day when I picked up my Bible and it fell open to this chapter. At that particular moment I was facing some discouraging circumstances. These words were a great encouragement to me.
Solomon is here reminding us that there is a vast difference between knowledge and wisdom. Education can give you knowledge, but it won’t necessarily make you wise. You have to pick that up on your own. Which is not to say that you can’t get wisdom in school, only that it doesn’t come as a fringe benefit of paying your tuition.
Biology is the science of life; wisdom is the understanding of life. That roughly is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. You need both to be successful.
This passage occurs in a section of Ecclesiastes where Solomon wants to impress upon us the importance of wisdom. Between 7:1 and 8:1 he uses the words “wisdom” and “wise” fourteen times. And his emphasis is entirely practical.
I. A Clear Thesis
Here is Solomon’s main point in verse 19: Wisdom makes a man powerful.
What is it that causes one man to be successful and another man ordinary? Here are two men at seminary. Both are good students, they take the same courses, they sit in the same Greek and Hebrew classes together. Both men study hard and seem likable. On the outside they appear to be very similar. They work at the same company, listen to the same music, they even dress the same way. Their wives are good friends. While they are in school you can hardly tell them apart.
But when they graduate, they go their separate ways. One makes it to the top and they name him “Alumnus of the Year”; the other struggles and struggles and never can seem to get his life together. He’s listed in the “Whatever Happened to…?” category of the Alumni News.
The faculty has seen it a thousand times. In fact, it happens every year. At graduation time, everyone looks wonderful. But fast-forward the tape 15 years and the real differences become apparent.
What happened? Of this much we may be sure. It’s not the amount of education or the intelligence of the natural gifts. It’s not fate or personality that separates these two.
Our text suggests something else. Wisdom elevates a person above his contemporaries. Those who have it will rise to the top. Solomon suggests that we take ten men — any ten men — and study them carefully. Then consider one truly wise man. That one wise man will be more powerful than the ten men with their accumulated knowledge.
Now all of that is true. But it is intangible and misty. The real question is, How do you get this kind of wisdom?
Verse 20 suggests an all-important principle.
II. A Great Need
In order for us to gain the wisdom we need, we must have a proper self-understanding. From verse 20 we learn two things need to keep in mind.
1. There are righteous men on the earth. That’s good because it gives us hope.
2. There are no righteous men who do not sin. That’s good because it gives us humility.
Those serving in the ministry face many temptations, among them pride, excessive self-importance, power mania, laziness, envy, immorality, insensitivity, cruelty, hard-heartedness, procrastination, bitterness, hypocrisy, foolish talk, moral compromise, excessive isolation, and the love of money. These temptations are with us all the time.
This is not meant to discourage us but to chasten us and drive us back to God. We must confess that Solomon is telling the truth.
I make three crucial points from all of this:
1. When we make a stupid mistake…….as we certainly will.
2. When we do something smart……as we occasionally will.
3. When people exasperate us…….as they often will.
It helps to remember, as Matthew Henry said, that we deal “not with incarnate angels but with sinful sons and daughters of Adam,” and that’s all we have to work with.
It is altogether good for a man to remember that he is a sinner. A healthy sense of our own sin is a positive thing. It is a mark of wisdom. If I know that I am a sinner, I am driven to my knees in repentance and forced to run to the cross of Jesus Christ. This is where humility begins.
After all, if you never sin, you have nothing to be humble about.
But still, this all sounds rather theoretical even if it is true.
III. A Concrete Example
Suddenly Solomon gets extremely practical and down-to-earth in verses 21-22. He describes a situation that every pastor understands. Serve in any church long enough and you will be criticized. Even the best pastors have critics and second-guessers within the congregation. There is no escaping this fact. So what do we do about it?
A. Don’t pay attention to everything people say about you.
That much we’ve heard before, and it stands as a piece of good, solid advice. People are going to criticize you no matter what you do. My mother taught me to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” God bless her, my mother meant well, but that’s not really true. Words do hurt, sometimes much worse than broken bones.
Solomon’s point is that you shouldn’t focus on those hurtful things. But his reason may surprise you. “Or you may hear your servant cursing you” (v. 21). Just substitute “your secretary” or “one of your elders” or “your associate pastor,” and you get the basic message.
Don’t pay too much attention to what people say because if you do, you will sooner or later hear the people who are closest to you say things about you that will hurt you deeply.
Wow! This is reality. This is life. This is wisdom.
B. Remember that you are a sinner too.
He puts it rather bluntly in verse 22: “For you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.” It’s all true, even the “many times” part of it. If we haven’t literally cursed someone, we’ve had some terrible thoughts about them that we would prefer not be made public. I am reminded of the British author who remarked, “There is no man who, if all his private thoughts were made public, would not deserve hanging twelve times a day.”
I make three observations about Solomon’s advice:
1. A studied indifference to what others are saying is not the same thing as callous insensitivity. The Hebrew text says it this way: “Do not turn your heart to hear.” Don’t focus your heart on what people are saying about you.
2. Hearing a critical comment may not be helpful because it can lead to all sorts of wrong conclusions. The key is the word “Cursing.” You will hear your servant cursing and lose your cool. Why is my servant cursing me? You lose your peace of mind, become intimidated, angry, confused, distrustful, make rash decisions, and say things you later regret.
3. When other people fail him, the wise man remembers that he himself has failed others many times.
That one fact will produce patience in your life. You can’t have wisdom without it. It matters not where you are or who you are or what you do. People will fail you. Your best friends will fail you. Your co-workers will fail you. Your brothers and sisters will fail you. Your parents will fail you. If you live long enough, everyone you count dear in life will fail you sooner or later.
The wise man remembers that he too has failed many times.
—Remembering that will temper your anger.
—Remembering that will keep you from rash decisions.
—Remembering that will help you hold your tongue.
Let me summarize:
1. How can a man be successful in the ministry? He needs wisdom.
2. How does a man get wisdom He remembers that he is a sinner.
3. What does that do? It makes him humble before God and patient with people.
He Never Called Back
I’ve already mentioned the first church I pastored. I went there two months after graduating from seminary and stayed 4Â½ years. In seminary they told us that it was typical for a church to grow for about six months after a new pastor arrives, and then it normally begins to level off. That’s exactly what happened in my case. The church grew for a few months and then it leveled off. And it stayed level. Very level. Extremely level. Nothing I could do seemed to make any difference in the growth of the church. After a few years I began to think about leaving. One Wednesday afternoon I was in my office at church doing some work when the phone rang. The call came from the pastor of a very large church. His call was unexpected and unsolicited. It was “the call” that every young pastor dreams about. Someone had given him my name because he was looking for a man to join his staff and share in the preaching responsibilities at his church. It was a dream job in every way. He said he wanted to come and chat with me in person. He asked the size of my congregation. When I told him, there was a slight pause. He asked me to send him my resume and then he said, “I’ll get in touch with you soon.” I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my wife the good news. That very day I put my resume in the mail along with some printed sermons. After mailing the material, I began to dream about all the possibilities. The sermons I would preach, the vast crowds that would attend, the doors that would begin to open. Even though several decades have passed, I can still remember and even feel inside the incredible excitement, the euphoria of those days. My life was about to radically change for the better, or so I thought.
A few days passed and I thought to myself, “He’ll call me soon.” After a week or so, I decided that he was probably busy but would get around to it soon. After all, pastors of large churches have a lot to do, and he probably was just busy. Days passed with no word, and I began to get concerned. Every day I waited for the mail to arrive, anxiously flipping through the junk mail, hoping for a letter that never arrived. Days slowly turned into weeks, and as time went on, my joy turned to concern, and my concern turned eventually into frustration. Finally a month passed, and my frustration turned to despair. And after a few more weeks, the realization hit me, “He’s not going to get back in touch with me even though he said he would.” And my despair turned to anger. Who did he think he was to treat me that way? Maybe I pastored a small church, but I hadn’t asked him to call me. That was his idea. I didn’t ask him to recruit me with promises of a bright future. He was the one who said, “I’ll get back in touch with you.” The truth was hard to face.
He wasn’t going to write.
He wasn’t going to call.
He wasn’t going to talk to me at all.
I sank into a deep depression. Looking back twenty-five years later, it seems silly to be concerned about it. But I felt betrayed by someone who had entered my life, made a promise, and then not even bothered to call back to say, “I’m not interested.” Even if he decided I wasn’t qualified, didn’t I at least deserve the courtesy of a phone call?
I was inconsolable. My wife tried to encourage me but to no avail. This wasn’t the kind of thing I could share with anyone else. It was too embarrassing to mention to my friends in the ministry. I felt used and useless. Plus at that point in my life, I simply wasn’t mature enough to understand that these things happen all the time.
People make promises they don’t keep.
People say they will call you but they don’t.
People intend to stay in touch but soon forget you.
People ask for help and then never say thanks.
People tell stories about you and then deny it to your face.
People fail all the time in a million different ways.
People are people. We all fail in many ways. We overlook it when we do it, but we’re shocked when someone else (especially someone we thought we could depend on) turns out to be human. Sin seems to be evenly distributed in the sense that some of us sin more than others, but all of us sin a lot more than we think we do.
Months passed and I never heard from the man. Eventually I got over the disappointment, but the anger stayed with me for a long time. It was a low-level sort of anger that made me short-tempered, snippy, cranky, and generally a miserable grouch. Looking back, I am amazed that my wife stayed so positive while I wallowed in my self-pity. And beneath it all was a deep reservoir of self-doubt. This whole episode made me wonder about my long-term prospects as a pastor. Perhaps I had been weighed in the balances and found wanting. That was even worse than the residual anger I felt.
“You’ve Done the Same Thing a Thousand Times”
The turning point came rather unexpectedly. One afternoon Marlene and I went to a dollar store to do some shopping. Even though I can’t remember the name of the store, as I type these words I can clearly picture myself going up and down the aisles. Marlene was shopping and I was idly looking at the shelves. And of course, I was still thinking to myself about what had happened months earlier. And for the 5000th time, I was replaying it all in my mind. At that moment, God spoke to me. I can’t think of a better way to say it even though I didn’t hear an audible voice. But in that dollar store, as I meandered along the aisles, the God of heaven and earth spoke to me. He said something like this: “Ray, wake up. You’ve been stewing about this for far too long.” I remember the following phrase coming to my mind: “You’ve done the same thing a thousand times.” There it was. That was the bottom-line truth that would set me free. What that big-church pastor had done to me wasn’t so unusual. I had done the same thing over and over and over again to other people.
“You’ve made promises you didn’t keep.”
“You’ve started things you didn’t finish.”
“You’ve let people down who depended on you.”
“You’ve not made phone calls you said you were going to make.”
“You’ve led people to believe things you knew weren’t true.”
“You’re as bad as he is.”
Then the thought came: “No, you are worse. He sinned against you once. You sinned twice. You’ve done the same thing he did. And you’re bitter at him because he’s a sinner just like you.”
Just like that I felt a massive weight lifting from my shoulders. Once I could face the truth, then I could be set free. And the anger and despair and depression left my soul. I started laughing and singing right there in the dollar store. It was a moment of self-revelation. I saw myself as the great sinner that I am, and that sight set me free. It was no burden for me to forgive the pastor of the large church when I realized that he might pastor a larger church, but in my eyes I was a larger sinner.
There is one other detail to this story. Two months later I received a letter from the pastor who had forgotten about me. He apologized for his oversight and offered a reasonable explanation. It truly was just “one of those things.” I haven’t had a negative thought about him since that day in the dollar store over twenty-five years ago. Once I saw myself as a sinner, it was easy to forgive him.
For what it’s worth, I can see clearly the hand of God in all of it. The path I have taken since then, while not always easy, has been blessed of God in so many ways. I see now that I was in no way ready to help that pastor out. It was the grace of God that he never called me back. God was protecting me from something that seemed attractive but wasn’t his plan for my life.
But there is something much deeper that I needed to learn. It’s a message that we all have to learn over and over again.
I too am a sinner.
I am no better than the people I serve.
I make the same mistakes they do.
There is no greater or more important lesson for those in the ministry. The wise man remembers that he is a sinner too. If he remembers that, it will save him from much sorrow.
Here is wisdom. I will not focus on what other people do to me for if I am honest I must admit that I have done the same thing to others.
A health sense of sin is a good thing in the ministry—
It makes me humble before my God.
It makes me patient with my people.
Our Father, we thank you for calling us into the ministry.
It is not as if we deserved it.
It is all of grace.
When we are aggravated with others, help us to remember that we are sinners too.
May we never forget that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.
And may that truth humble us and make us patient and kind toward others.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.