This week we have Beth as our guest blogger:
A life characterized by holiness should be the aim of every Christian. Some, however, never recognize the value of this endeavor, choosing instead to settle for a half-hearted experience of faith which is characterized by ongoing struggle and frequent defeat. John Wesley, quoted in New Testament Holiness, summarized this condition in this manner:
From long experience and observation, I am inclined to think that whoever finds redemption in the blood of Jesus—whoever is justified—has the choice of walking in the higher or the lower path. I believe the Holy Spirit at that time sets before him the “more excellent way”, and incites him to walk therein—to choose the narrowest path in the narrow way—to aspire after the heights and depths of holiness—after the entire image of God. But if he do not accept this offer, he insensibly declines into the lower order of Christians; he still goes on in what may be called a good way, serving God in his degree, and finds mercy in the close of life through the blood of the covenant.’ (Cook, p.3)
I choose the higher path. My personal life mission, “I will focus on personal spiritual growth and development which will allow me to assist others in doing so in their own lives”, is a guiding principle which reminds me of my obligation and privilege to exemplify integrity as I remember that my life impacts that of those around me. Choosing the higher path (developing Christian virtues, godly character, and an uncompromising sense of moral direction) undergirded by the Holy Spirit is an intentional, deliberate submission of my will to God.
While studying at Asbury Seminary, my Vocation of Ministry class explored some of the elements which have led to personal and moral failure, particularly as it relates to ministry. These failures exist in the lives of church members, of course, but are much more shattering in the life of the pastor. I still recall the sense of confusion and disillusionment I felt as a young college student when I learned that my youth pastor had left his wife and children for another woman. Decades later, this act still has an impact on that congregation, and on my own ministry.
So, how may I be intentional about cultivating integrity in my life and ministry so that my influence helps rather than hinders the walk of others? The answer, I believe, lies in the cultivation of personal holiness and full release of selfhood to the power of God. Built on the foundation of a personal holiness experience, developing the Christian virtues in a deliberate manner is the goal. These habits, nurtured consistently over time and with the help of the Holy Spirit, will build what ultimately becomes our character.
As we do this, however, we discover that “we face a battle with sin in our desire to develop habits of virtue” (Holeman, 1, p. 3). The deadly sin of pride is one of the first to be addressed in this battle. When we rely solely on our own strength, with a sense that we are immune to the temptations around us, we set ourselves up for impending failure. Thomas Cook, in New Testament Holiness, rightly warns, “It is a mistake to suppose that there is any state of grace this side of heaven which puts a Christian where he is exempt from temptation. So long as a soul is on probation, it will be tested by solicitations to sin” (Cook, p. 12).
An exaggerated view of our own abilities and strengths will lead, as Proverbs 16:18 states, to our destruction. This, for me, is my biggest struggle – I am often at fault in thinking that I can do everything in my own strength. Philippians 4:13 was my “life verse” as a young person, and for whatever reason, I tended to abridge the text, overlooking at times the all important “through Christ” component. This is a recipe for defeat – which I often experienced and was compelled to bring to the Lord for restoration. In their pivotal treatise, Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct, Grenz & Bell address this specifically in the area of self-sufficiency that leads to sexual failure, “The pastor who does not understand his vulnerability is either naïve or consciously courting a fall” (p. 55), but I think it applies to all areas of life.
In Betrayal of Trust, they rightly pinpoint one key factor in moral failure – stagnation in one’s prayer and devotional life. Such “spiritual coldness” (p. 59) should be a warning sign to a Christian leader that they are becoming more vulnerable, and are in need of intentional intervention. This may be done through the ministry of an accountability partner or group which is deliberate in its regular and consistent challenge for self-examination.
When we acknowledge our weakness and see ourselves realistically, we recognize that we need the help of God, as well as that of the faith community to stand firm. This essential element of community provides the face-to-face accountability that is so necessary to effective spiritual growth and development. I have found this helpful as I have honestly confessed my own struggles and challenges in the safety of a recently developing mentoring partnership with another female pastor.
While moral failure in the area of sexuality is the most shocking and damaging, failures in any area of virtue can be detrimental to our ministry. Each must be carefully nurtured and developed to build godly character. It is out of this consistency that our calling may be lived out before our congregation. I agree with Grenz & Bell that integrity in the life of the pastor is the most important element of who he or she is and is a prerequisite for the ordained office (p. 60). The old adage which I have heard spoken on many occasions to the ministry students I help train of, “the most important thing you can do is to love your people”, is incorrect. Our most important role is to live a transparent life of integrity which exemplifies the power of the Holy Spirit over and in us. It is out of this life of integrity that we may truly love our people and seek the best for them in our ministry.
It is in this outgrowth of personal holiness that social holiness extends in an awareness of the needs and struggles of others – both from a spiritual and material perspective. Wesley defines Christian Perfection as “loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love” (Wesley, #19). As Jesus taught, His followers were to be in right relationship with God and with others. When both of these relationships are guided by the virtue of love, we cannot ignore the needs and circumstances of those around us.
Compassion makes us sense the pain of poor immigrants, the despair of homeless people, the loneliness of prisoners of war, the suffering of the unclothed and unsheltered – to say nothing of the silent rage of victims of discrimination in every walk of life (Muto & Van Kamm, p. 98).
Once we are aware of these conditions and inequities, we are then challenged to take steps to address them. James 1:27 enjoins us to care for the vulnerable as we live holy lives. A life of integrity seeks opportunities to advocate for others who cannot speak for themselves. It is in these experiences that we learn how dear and indispensable is the community of faith. God uses us to bring comfort and care to the least of these, His brethren. As an ordained minister for more than thirty years, I have had multiple experiences in this area. Beyond the typical material assistance (food, energy, rent), the most fulfilling have been when I have been outside of the “normal” pastoral or congregational role. For example, when I was called upon to represent a battered woman to the court system so that she could obtain the care and protection she and her children needed, or when I was part of a state-wide task force that raised awareness of human trafficking and promoted legislation for its prosecution. These were tangible acts of mercy in which God allowed me to participate – they brought a great sense of satisfaction and completeness in ministry that complemented the usual congregational activities.
We are not in this alone – we are enabled to work together to be His hands in the world. Guinness, in The Call, describes this as being “bound together by a covenant and living out a corporate calling that both complements and transcends their calling as individuals” (p. 97). Being a participant in what God is doing in the world includes obedience to His call to meet the needs of the world around us. When we do this together, in community, we understand the vitality and importance of the body of Christ of which we are a part.
All of these aspects of calling – from these here described – to the preaching – to the counseling – to the weddings and funerals – to the endless and ongoing catalog of duties on the unwritten “to do” list of the pastor – can be undermined in one moment of unguarded speech or action that lacks the presence of Christian virtue. With that reality in mind, I consider the simple prayer a friend of mine voiced on her Facebook® recently, “Father in heaven, today I give you all that I am. I invite You into the weak places in my life so that You can turn them into strengths” (Tami Rogers Smith). By starting each day in this mindset, may I also be open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit as He helps me examine myself through His eyes.
Cook, T. (database 2006). New Testament Holiness. WordSearch Corp.
Grenz, S. J. and Bell, R. D. (2001). Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Guinness, O. (1998). The Call: Finding and fulfilling the central purpose of your life. Nashville, TN: Word.
Holeman, T. (n. d.). Lectures 1, 2, and 3 – Cardinal virtues and deadly sins. Prepared for Vocation of Ministry Course, Asbury Theological Seminary. Wilmore, KY.
Muto, S & van Kamm, A. (1994). Divine guidance. Ann Arbor, MI: Charis Books.
Wesley, J. (database 2006). A plain account of Christian perfection. WordSearch Corp.