Staying Faithful in a World Like This

A friend of mine is the pastor at a church going through serious turbulence over sex and gender issues. He inherited most of the problem when he arrived there just a few years ago. Now he’s the one suffering the impact.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned I was writing an extended series on sex and gender. I knew he was in the thick of it, so I asked him the question: “What would you and other pastors find most helpful on this topic?”

His answer surprised me. I was expecting some technical question on the issues. Instead he said, “Write about how we can stay faithful to Christ in the middle of all this.”

It isn’t only about sex and gender. That tops the list, certainly. You can practically get boiled in oil over that. Honestly, though, it seems almost everything is harder these days. Very few Christian leaders started grad school thinking someday they’d be answering questions on vaccines, masks, critical theory, Capitol “insurrections,” or threats of “theocracy” and “Christian nationalism.”

Is it any wonder Barna Research reports that 42% of pastors have considered quitting in the past year? My friend’s question was a good one: How does a pastor stay faithful? How does anyone?

Surprising Question, Surprising Answer

My friend’s question was one surprise, and as I thought about it, I realized there was not just one but were actually two surprises in the best answer I’ve ever heard. It came from an unexpected source, and it was surprisingly simple.

This was a Christian leader who was sexually attracted to other men. Someone asked him how anyone under that temptation could stay faithful in life and ministry. From the way the question was worded, I got the sense the questioner expected him to wax long and eloquent on all spiritual tricks and techniques, on staying celibate, being accountable, and putting oneself under all kinds of spiritual self-protective measures.

I’m sure he could have answered on that level. Instead he said, “By following Jesus Christ with all your heart.”

Surprisingly Simple

I love the simplicity. That one answer settled for him how he would handle two huge temptations: Caving in to wrong desires, and joining the world in saying wrong is right. Neither option was open to him; not when he’d decided so clearly to keep Christ and His Word ahead of everything else.

It reminds me of another very simple message that has stuck with me: “Do the right thing. The rest is up to God. Be at peace.” Or one of my own: Stay anchored, and don’t accommodate to the world.

But that’s not really my message, is it? I’m only paraphrasing part of Paul’s point in Romans 12:1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

It Still Gets Complicated

You may ask, Is it really that simple? Of course it is. And of course it isn’t. Yes, it is absolutely the one core commitment that determines the course in which all other decisions will flow. It’s the one thing I have to remind myself of daily: That I do not live to minister, I do not live to write, and I do not live to be a “good Christian example.” I live to follow Jesus Christ, to walk in union with Him, motivated by His love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, determined to do as He commands. Miss that, and I miss everything. It really is that simple.

Except it isn’t. It’s one thing to know where you’re headed as you start the day. It’s another thing to keep aiming that direction when the world starts pelting you with every possible confusion, misdirection, frustration, distraction, and outright deceit.

How the World Almost Buried Me

That’s the complicated part, and let me tell you, I’ve felt it. A lot. This past summer was rough. I’d heard the word “burnout,” but in 40-plus years of ministry I’d never known what it felt like. Maybe I didn’t quite reach it this time, either, but I was close enough to touch it and know what it feels like. I wasn’t depressed, just overwhelmed. Overcommitted. Under-effective. Falling behind, and then even further behind.

Some of it had to do with a series of conference speaking commitments. Some of it was about the hole I fell into just before those conferences, when I finally caught COVID. Some of it was the complications of — for example — writing a series like this one for pastors, trying to wrap some sense around sex and gender controversies.

At no point during this time would I have said, “I’m about to lose grip on my commitment to Jesus Christ.” That wasn’t the question. The question was whether I was close to crashing.

At no point during this time would I have said, “I’m about to lose grip on my commitment to Jesus Christ.” That wasn’t the question. The question was whether I was close to crashing. (God only knows what kind of damage I might have fallen into after that.)

This is what I mean when I say it’s simple but complicated. I never let go of that one core conviction, but I sure was getting beat up by the complexities of living it out in real life. God only knows what would have happened if I’d gone over the edge. I’ve seen leaders make huge mistakes at that point, committing grave sin, or even walking away from the faith.

Emerging Alive

I’m emerging from it now, thank God. The turnaround has come in stages. First, it was a couple days away at the lake with my wife, taking long walks in the woods together, talking, praying, and reading, mostly just to get away for rest and healing. Sometime later I went back and did the same on my own, three days lodging at a nearby state park. I walked in the woods again, and I read and prayed on the lodge balcony overlooking the lake there. And I rested.

I can’t tell you how much good that did me. I came home … and promptly caught a nasty respiratory virus. I’m just about over that now, too, thank God. Seems like it never ends sometimes, though, doesn’t it?

But this morning I woke up feeling well, ready to dive into everything I knew I wanted to get done today. I opened my Bible to my reading list for today … and that’s when God reminded me. It’s about following Him. Today. It isn’t so much about “Doing what followers do,” either. It’s more about “Being who a follower is.” A follower is someone who looks to the leader, and … follows.

And now I see it going full circle, back to that one single, simple core commitment to following Jesus Christ. It starts there and it ends there. It’s what has kept me spiritually alive. Jesus Christ Himself kept me. By His grace, He’s keeping me faithful still today.

The World Is Good at the Bad It Does

The world wants to throw us off course, and the world is pretty darn good at it, too — better every day, actually, in all the wrong kinds of ways. When Brother Lawrence “practiced the presence of God,” it wasn’t over the noise and disruption of text tones and email notifications. He didn’t have the same access to pornography that you and I could have, if we chose. He didn’t have a whole culture insisting that the most obvious wrongs were right, and the most important rights were wrong.

Following isn’t so much about “Doing what followers do.” It’s more about “Being who a follower is.”

We do, though. That’s the new world you and I live in. To my mind, this is what defines the faithfulness challenge my pastor friend spoke of. To fall away is no new temptation, but I believe there is  something new about this day in which we live. The pressures come pulsing in on us from so many more directions, and at much higher intensity, than most of us ever expected. Staying faithful is harder for the same reason.

Take Care of Your Heart

How then do you do it? How do you stay faithful? Hold tight to the core. Follow Jesus Christ, no matter what. Do whatever it takes to keep centered there.

And keep an eye on your heart. Guard it for Christ. Guard it against the confusions of false teaching, against the temptations to go wrong, and against the distractions that want to knock you off course. And let the joy of Christ fill you even in the middle of it all, just as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:12-13:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.

Tom Gilson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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