Self-immolation in ministry

Gordon’s stirring and encouraging piece on Spurgeon finished with a typically Chengian twist of the knife: do we work hard enough these days in ministry? Has the pendulum swung too far towards stress-relief and self-maintenance? Do we worry too much about ‘overdoing it’, and thus fail to take up opportunities that come to hand?

The Chengster was even so ungrateful as to bite (or at least nibble) the hand that feedeth him by suggesting that Spurgeon’s attitude to his prodigious labours may be at odds with Matthias Media’s Going the Distance, which recommends that ministers learn to take care of themselves so that they can keep going for a life-time of ministry.

(By the way, Gordon, I am stunned at the tactical error you have made here. With my MM Publishing Director’s hat on, you do realize that I now have no choice but to double your workload and halve your deadlines. Come on, man! I want five new Bible studies by the end of next weak, and no lily-livered excuses!)

It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I fancy that Spurgeon would have liked Going the Distance, judging, at least, by his advice to his student ministers. Here’s a quote from his famous lecture, ‘The Minister’s Fainting Fits’, on depression and exhaustion in the ministry:

There can be little doubt that sedentary habits have a tendency to create despondency in some constitutions. Burton, in his “Anatomy of Melancholy,” has a chapter upon this cause of sadness; and, quoting from one of the myriad authors whom he lays under contribution, he says—“Students are negligent of their bodies. Other men look to their tools; a painter will wash his pencils; a smith will look to his hammer, anvil, forge; a husbandman will mend his plough-irons, and grind his hatchet if it be dull; a falconer or huntsman will have an especial care of his hawks, hounds, horses, dogs, &c.; a musician will string and unstring his lute; only scholars neglect that instrument (their brain and spirits I mean) which they daily use.” Well saith Lucan, “See thou twist not the rope so hard that it break.” To sit long in one posture, poring over a book, or driving a quill, is in itself a taxing of nature; but add to this a badly-ventilated chamber, a body which has long been without muscular exercise, and a heart burdened with many cares, and we have all the elements for preparing a seething cauldron of despair, especially in the dim months of fog—

“When a blanket wraps the day,
When the rotten woodland drips,
And the leaf is stamped in clay.”

Let a man be naturally as blithe as a bird, he will hardly be able to bear up year after year against such a suicidal process; he will make his study a prison and his books the warders of a gaol, while nature lies outside his window calling him to health and beckoning him to joy. He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy. A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours, ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive. A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.

“Heaviest the heart is in a heavy air,
Ev’ry wind that rises blows away despair.“

The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, the primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops—these are the best medicine for hypochondriacs, the surest tonics for the declining, the best refreshments for the weary. For lack of opportunity, or inclination, these great remedies are neglected, and the student becomes a self-immolated victim.

If I may summarize both Spurgeon and Peter Brain (author of Going the Distance): work hard, play hard. The body needs its rest and exercise as surely as it needs food and drink. The minister who neglects these is “a self-immolated victim”.

4 thoughts on “Self-immolation in ministry

  1. TP!

    Much as I agree with both what Spurgeon and you say, I can’t see why you would thus rip off my next Spurgeon quote and serve it up as your own post! I was feeling a bit better this morning and was all set to redouble my writing efforts in line with your directive, but I think I shall take your advice and retire early with a Spurgeonian cigar and some ‘fragrant hops’. Or maybe something more suitably Baptist.


    More seriously.

    I don’t see the two principles espoused in our two quotes as necessarily contradictory, of course, but we do have to struggle with the tension of them. Ian Carmichael’s comment on the previous post, about seeking the good-will of our own family in the ministry decisions we make on their behalf, was also a wise word.

    It seems to me that the wisdom of the cross, and the practical wisdom of living well in God’s creation, will mean that a variety of practical outcomes with respect to our living may meet with God’s approval—or, conversely, that our sinful minds may be inventing casuistic explanations why anything we do is OK!

  2. GC

    I think you’re right: these things do pull us in two directions—suffering and crucifixion for the sake of the gospel on one hand; enjoying the fragrant hops of God’s creation on the other.

    Here’s how I try to resolve it (although never perfectly):

    1. When you’re working, work hard, and expect suffering, persecution and hardship for your trouble.

    2. Take enough rest to allow you to keep working hard long-term; and when you do rest, receive the wonderful gifts of God’s creation with thanksgiving.

    3. Try not to mix the two.


  3. Where would you place family ministry in this?  In my feeble mind, it is both rest and work.  When I come home from the office, having studied a text for my next sermon and counseled brothers and sisters, etc., I still have my ministry duties in the home.  Those duties, though, can be both restful and work.

    Still learning,

  4. A belated comment, but I think we see this very tension in 1 Corinthians 7. In v 29, Paul says,

    the time is limited, so from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none [HCSB]

    We’re not to be engrossed in the things of this present world which are passing away. And this applies even to marriage (for in the new creation, we’ll neither marry nor be given in marriage).

    And yet, just a few verses later, he says in vv33-34,  that by contrast to the unmarried man who can be single-minded in concern about things of the Lord and pleasing him…

    a married man is concerned about the things of the world—how he may please his wife—and he is divided.

    And the context seems to suggest that Paul thinks that’s exactly how it should be. The married man should be concerned about looking after his wife and pleasing her. That’s certainly what he said in regards to sex back in vv3-5.

    So at one and the same time, we who are married are to live as if we’re not and yet we are to care for our wives. What Ian Carmichael said in the previous Spurgeon topic is helpful. We should be making our sacrifices in fellowship with our wives as much as possible.

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