It happens to almost every pastor at some point in his ministry. He may not even realize that he's working with this assumption. And if he becomes aware of it, he's probably too afraid even to admit it to himself, much less to accuse God of it. Some may get so angry that they directly accuse the Lord of it.
The pastor begins to think God has been lying to him.
Why would a pastor, of all people, think this? Because the man in the pulpit is the man within whom the devil erects his own pulpit. The Rev. Lucifer preaches sermons all day, and all night, to the pastor from this inner pulpit. They are homilies that praise the life of freedom enjoyed by those who aren’t encumbered with the crosses peculiar to his ministerial office. They are sermons about the stinginess of some of the people whom he serves, how spiteful some of his parishioners are to him, and how ungrateful they are for all that he is forced to do even when he is so overworked and underpaid. But these are the simple, everyday homilies.
The Rev. Lucifer saves his most eloquent, and most dangerous, sermons for those occasions when the pastor is at his lowest. These are the homilies from hell that depict God as the Grand Deceiver.
God promises that the Word which goes forth from His mouth will not return to Him void. “Indeed, He does,” the devil proclaims, “but look at the attendance over the last few months and years. More and more pews are empty, offerings are way down, and everyone is whispering that maybe…possibly… probably it’s the pastor’s fault.”
God promises that the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. But, though the pastor has preached the Gospel till he’s blue in the face, it seems to make absolutely no impact on his people. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more Gospel he preaches, the worse people become, the more people attack him, the lonelier he feels.
God promises all these great and wonderful things, but his ministry is anything but great and wonderful. It’s squeezing the life out of him. He feels isolated, a failure, and—worst of all—like the Lord whom he serves has lied to him. His God makes promises that He doesn’t keep.
These inner pastoral struggles are nothing new. Jeremiah the prophet struggled with the same temptation. At first all was well in his ministry. He says to God, “Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts,” (15:16). So it is with most pastors when they begin in the ministry.
But, over time, after doors are slammed in his face, brothers in the ministry betray him, his salary is cut, or the pews get emptier and emptier, he joins Jeremiah in lamenting, “I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you become to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” (15:17-18). That last sentence says it all, for behind that question is an assumption based upon real doubt. “Will you become to me like a deceitful brook—one that promises water but pours a cupful of hot sand on my cracked lips? Because, dear God, I’m dying of thirst down here. The river of joy and hope you once were to me has run bone dry.”
At this point it looks like all those sermons that the devil has preached have finally reached their climactic Amen. For surely when the pastor voices this lamentation—questioning God’s honesty if not outright calling Him a liar—the Lord will smite him. So all the devils are on their feet, like fans during the last few seconds of a game, ready to whoop and cheer for one more victory.
But instead of raining down fire and brimstone upon this called and ordained and doubting man; instead of unleashing His fury at this servant who dares call His integrity into question, the God whom we call Father addresses His child as only a Father can. “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before Me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as My mouth,” (Jeremiah 15:19).
In other words, our Father calls His son back to Himself. He has wandered away into the darkness of his doubting, got lost in his grief, confused by the pains he’s suffered. It happens. Shepherds sometimes become lost sheep as well. So the Shepherd of shepherds seeks them out. He bids them remove such worthless doubts from their mouths and once more find His words and eat them, so that those divine words became the joy and the delight of His heart (15:16).
But that’s not all. The Lord casts Satan out from that inner pulpit. He takes a hammer and crowbar and goes to work dismantling that pulpit within which the father of lies spewed forth his deceptive sermons. And in its place the Lord preaches His own sermon. He declares, “I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless,” (15:21).
I can just hear the Lord pausing to say these words more slowly, more emphatically, than all the others, “I. Am. With. You. To. Save. You.” Seven words that contains a week’s worth, nay, a life’s worth, of promise.
What are these words to Jeremiah, to pastors, indeed, to all people, but the promise embedded in two of our Lord’s names. “I am with you,” for He is Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.” And “to save you,” for He is Jesus, which in Hebrew is the name Joshua, which means, “the LORD saves.” I am with you to save you for I am Emmanuel Jesus, the saving, being-with-you God.
Emmanuel Jesus never lies. He is as true to His word as He is true to you. He has poured forth His truth in the crimson colors of love, baptizing you in the red sea of His cross, washing you in the Jordan of His compassion. He is no deceptive stream. He will bring forth water from the rock when the time is right. Indeed, He already has. The staff of justice struck that Rock and split it open, so that waters gushed forth from Golgotha—waters within which you were baptized, in which you quench you thirst, which desalinate the dead sea of doubts within you. God is not lying to you. He is the God who is with you to save you and deliver you. And He will. His promise is as certain as the scars that betoken His love for you.