Over the last month, Jeremiah has been one of the four books in my Bible reading plan. Jeremiah’s ministry has long captivated my attention and affection. I think it’s because there are some pronounced similarities between his life and mine (and many more dissimilarities, of course). There was a magnificent and undeniable call to the ministry. Big dreams and ambitions flowed from the start. But over the years, the disappointments quickly come to outweigh the delights. There’s also an introspective nature that can cause us to forget the Lord’s work.
How true it is that an inward-looking Spirit can rob one of joy in God’s service.
A Groaning Conscience
I’ve long thought that Spurgeon was something like a modern-era Jeremiah. He knew great highs in ministry, but melancholy was a most-familiar friend. One would assume that the “Prince of Preachers” stepped down from the sacred desk each with glad confidence, but his experience was different. He once said of his world-famous preaching ministry, “It is a long time since I preached a sermon I was satisfied with. You cannot hear my groanings when I go home, Sunday after Sunday, and wish that I could learn to preach somehow or other; wish that I could discover the way to touch your hearts and your consciences.” If you are anything like me, you offer a weary, “Hear, hear,” to such sentiment.
What then are we to do in such a situation? How might we respond when the demands of ministry are like a wet blanket on joy in Christ? We find an answer in one scene from the life of Jeremiah—especially one verse: Jeremiah 15:18.
When Ministry Breaks Your Heart
Let’s remember the context. Jeremiah had reluctantly taken up God’s commission to be His mouthpiece around 627 BC, about five years before King Josiah’s famous reforms. There are two overarching matters worth remembering about his prophetic ministry:
- It’s length. The book represents Jeremiah’s forty-plus years in the Lord’s service. The words we find in chapter 15 are not the words of a novice. They are the soul-cries of a man who has ministered for around twenty years.
- It’s difficulty. Jeremiah is known as “The Weeping Prophet” for a reason. He experienced the siege and fall of Jerusalem, and Judah’s subsequent exile. He knew profound opposition, discouragement, and affliction.
It’s the second point that I want to meditate. In Jeremiah 15, we find the prophet entering what is likely his third decade of ministry. And he’s discouraged. He’s asked if there is any hope for Judah (14:19). He’s pained by the Lord’s subsequent promise of unrelenting judgment upon Judah in 15:1–9, and so he complains to the Lord in 15:10–18. Jeremiah recalls the original delight of his ordination, so much so that he says in 15:16, “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.”
Years of toil and trouble had taken such delight, however. Jeremiah was so pained in ministry that he goes so far to accuse God of having deceived him (15:18). Ministerial sorrows cannot only rob the pastor of joy but can also remove his hope.
How God Breaks Our Complaints
For weeks now, I’ve meditated on 15:19, which represents God’s answer to Jeremiah’s ministerial complaint. Notice what God says, “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. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them.”
When God calls us to the gospel ministry, He calls us to an office full of difficulty. Sometimes that difficulty is bearing the burden of grief, as church members suffer and pass on to glory. Sometimes the challenge is unrepentant sinners whose iniquity poisons the body. Sometimes the difficulty is obstinate sheep who continuously demand a surprising amount of attention. Other times it’s the difficulty of constant criticism. These are all in addition to the regular disappointments we encounter: apathy toward the means of grace, complacency toward Christ, and the continual struggle for unity.
The Enemy will tempt us to respond to such difficulty with many sins, perhaps none more consistent than anger and self-pity. Anger looks outward in sin. Self-pity looks inward in sin. Jeremiah commits both trespasses in chapter 15.
Let’s notice two things about 15:19. First, notice the conditions: “If you return . . . If you utter what is precious.” The answer to Jeremiah’s despair that has resulted in anger and self-pity is repentance and renewed obedience. Pastor, could it be that you need to hear the same conditions today? Are you on the brink of preaching this coming Lord’s Day with a spirit of anger or wounded complaint?
Second, notice the promises: “. . . you shall stand before me . . . you shall be as my mouth.” The first promise is one of God’s presence, while the second assures God’s minister of power. What kindnesses from the King!
If we are to minister Christ’s gospel to His people and our community, we will need God’s presence and power—we will need God’s Spirit. According to this text, a Spirit-wrought ministry is one that thrives on repentance and obedience.
A Precious Ministry
One of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century was Octavius Winslow. He was full of Christ and experiential wisdom. When Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle opened in 1861 none other than Winslow was found preaching behind its pulpit. His most famous work is probably the volume, The Precious Things of God. In it, Winslow meditates on twelve topics the Scriptures declare to be precious:
- The Preciousness of Christ
- The Preciousness of Faith
- The Preciousness of Trial
- The Preciousness of God’s Thoughts
- The Preciousness of the Divine Promises
- The Preciousness of Christ’s Blood
- The Precious Anointing
- The Preciousness of God’s Children
- The Preciousness of God’s Word
- The Preciousness of Prayer
- The Preciousness of Christ’s Sympathy with our Infirmities
- The Death of the Saints Precious
Do these twelve precious things of God saturate your preaching and pastoring?
God tells Jeremiah to “utter what is precious.” The prophet must take out the vile and worthless complaints from his mouth, iso thathe might be once again God’s mouthpiece. Oh, how convicting this is to me. My capability to complain too often drowns my delight in Christ. May the sweet nectar of God’s preciousness be my drink more than the bitter dregs of anger and self-pity.
May the Lord help us all to be faithful ministers of that which is precious.