A Word of Encouragement to Pastors of Small Congregations

Mark Dever recently cited (44:30-45:13 in the video) John Brown, a 19th-century Scottish Pastor, in a letter of paternal counsel to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation:

I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at His judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.

Danger Without and Danger Within: The Hutaree and Pride

Danger Without: The Hutaree

By now, you have very likely heard of the Hutaree, a Michigan based militia group.  They have been operating in relative obscurity until the last several days.  Hutaree means “warriors of God.”  This group allegedly concocted a scheme to kill police officers.  They were raided and seven people from the militia were arrested.    

Military-style training videos are found on the home page of their website, not too far under the John 15:13 header, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Sadly, the Hutaree identifies itself as a Christian group with Jesus as their General.  As with so many groups like this one, their doctrine seems to be based on an unhealthy preoccupation with end time events coupled with bad interpretation.  This is true of them as I read the “Doctrine of the Hutaree” page on their website which primarily deals with the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-12.

It deeply disturbs me when radical groups like this call themselves Christians.  I despise it.  This is a group of end-time absorbed, pathetic, pseudo-patriot, zealots.  When Jesus was betrayed, He was met at night by a band of Roman soldiers.  John 18:3 says, “So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.”  Peter responds with violence, “Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right” (John 18:10).  Jesus’ response?  “Put your sword into its sheath” (John 18:11).  As Jesus stands before Pilate, He tells the Roman leader plainly, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.  But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).  To be involved in the cause of Christ is not a call to arms.  At least in Peter’s case, it was a defensive strategy.  In the case of this militia group it was a preemptive strike.  Jesus’ Petrine rebuke indicates that violence is counterproductive to advancing His mission.  John Piper fittingly said,  

We Christians are ashamed of many of our ancestors who did not act in the spirit of Christ. No doubt there are traces of this plague in our own souls. But true Christianity—which is radically different from Western culture, and may not be found in many Christian churches—renounces the advance of religion by means of violence. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36). The way of the cross is the way of suffering. Christians are called to die, not kill, in order to show the world how they are loved by Christ. (John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ, 14). 

Groups like the Hutaree remind us that there is danger without.  I’m grateful that this alleged plot was thwarted.  My other concern is to simply communicate: The Hutaree ≠ Christianity.

While there is danger without, there is also danger within each of us. 

Danger Within: Pride

Speaking of John Piper, you may have heard of the announcement he made this weekend to Bethlehem Baptist.  He plans to take an eight month leave from ministry to examine his soul and strengthen his marriage.  Thankfully this is preventative, to keep him from committing a ministry-disqualifying sin rather than restorative, to deal with an already committed ministry-disqualifying sin.  He says,    

But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. How do I apologize to you, not for a specific deed, but for ongoing character flaws, and their effects on everybody? I’ll say it now, and no doubt will say it again, I’m sorry. Since I don’t have just one deed to point to, I simply ask for a spirit of forgiveness; and I give you as much assurance as I can that I am not making peace, but war, with my own sins.

 You can read the entire statement here.

The flesh says to us, “be a sponge and soak in the glory.”  Grace says, “repent and be a mirror—reflect the glory of God to those around you.”  To be sure pride has a powerfully seducing quality to it—not one of us is exempt from this.  This commendable action by John Piper is a simple reminder that pastors are sinners under transformation like every other Christian.  All of the comments I quickly perused on the Desiring God blog rightly praise him for his decision.  What he did took guts and humility.  His ministry of the word is special, no doubt.  But a life that moves the battle with sin from the pulpit to the heart and home is nothing short of God’s grace at work a human heart. 

May God grant him clarity of spiritual sight to deal with the danger within and may we learn from his example to do the same, especially for those of us who are pastors.

Church Attendance: Natasha-Like Faithfulness

The following account of Natasha is moving.  The power of her testimony is seen in her profound commitment to gathering with other Christians, not assuaged by the most difficult of circumstances.  The story is lengthy but powerful and worthwhile.  This heartrending testimony is told by Sergei Kourdakov, who was commissioned by the Russian secret police to raid prayer gatherings and persecute believers with extraordinary brutality.

I saw Victor Matveyev reach and grab for a young girl [Natasha Zhdanova] who was trying to escape to another room.  She was a beautiful young girl.  What a waste to be a Believer.  Victor caught her, picked her up above his head, and held her high in the air for a second. She was pleading, “Don’t, please don’t.  Dear God, help us!”  Victor threw her so hard she hit the wall at the same height she was thrown, then dropped to the floor, semiconscious, moaning.  Victor turned and laughed and exclaimed, “I’ll bet the idea of God went flying out of her head.”

On a later raid, Sergei was shocked to see Natasha again.

I quickly surveyed the room and saw a sight I couldn’t believe!  There she was, the same girl!  It couldn’t be.  But it was.  Only three nights before, she had been viciously thrown across the room.  It was the first time I really got a good look at her.  She was more beautiful than I had first remembered—a very beautiful girl with long, flowing, blond hair, large blue eyes, and smooth skin, one of the most naturally beautiful girls I have ever seen . . .

I picked her up and flung her on a table facedown.  Two of us stripped her clothes off.  One of my men held her down and I began to beat her again and again.  My hand began to sting under the blows.  Her skin started to blister.  I continued to beat her until pieces of bloody flesh came off on my hand.  She moaned but fought desperately not to cry.  To suppress her cries, she bit her lower lip until it was bitten through and blood ran down her chin.

At last she gave in and began sobbing.  When I was so exhausted I couldn’t raise my arm for even one more blow, and her backside was a mass of raw flesh, I pushed her off the table, and she collapsed on the floor.

To Sergei’s shock, he later encountered her at yet another prayer meeting.  But this time something was different.

There she was again—Natasha Zhdanova! 

Several of the guys saw her too.  Alex Gulyaev moved toward Natasha. Hatred filling his face, his club raised above his head.

Then something I never expected to see suddenly happened.  Without warning, Victor jumped between Natasha and Alex, facing Alex head-on.

“Get out of my way,” Alex shouted angrily.

Victor’s feet didn’t move.  He raised his club and said menacingly, “Alex, I’m telling you, don’t touch her!  No one touches her!”

I listened in amazement.  Incredibly, one of my most brutal men was protecting one of the Believers!  “Get back!” he shouted to Alex.  “Get back or I’ll let you have it.”  He shielded Natasha, who was cowering on the floor. 

Angered, Alex shouted, “You want her for yourself, don’t you?”

“No,” Victor shouted back.  “She has something we don’t have!  Nobody touches her!  Nobody!”

. . . For one of the first times in my life, I was deeply moved . . . Natasha did have something!  She had been beaten horribly.  She had been warned and threatened. She had gone through unbelievable suffering, but here she was again.  Even Victor had been moved and recognized it.  She had something we didn’t have.  I wanted to run after her and ask, “What is it?”  I wanted to talk to her, but she was gone.  This heroic Christian girl who had suffered so much at our hands somehow touched and troubled me very much.

The Lord opened Sergei’s heart to the glorious good news of Jesus Christ.  As he later reflected on Natasha, whom he never saw again, he wrote:

And, finally, to Natasha, whom I beat terribly and who was willing to be beaten a third time for her faith, I want to say, Natasha, largely because of you, my life is now changed and I am a fellow Believer in Christ with you.  I have a new life before me.  God has forgiven me; I hope you can also.

Thank you, Natasha, wherever you are.

I will never, never forget you.

(Sergei Kourdakov, The Persecutor [Carmel, N.Y.: Fleming H. Revell, 1973], 192, 194, 195, 199, 200, 251 in John Piper, Desiring God, 275-8).

How Do We Pray Without Ceasing?

1 Thessalonians 5:17 “Pray without ceasing.”

The text is short in our English text, three words, and even shorter in the original, two words.  The word “pray” is an imperative and in the plural. The imperative means it’s a command, and the plural identifies who is being commanded, namely the church at Thessalonica and by extension all believers.

Paul reminds believers regularly about the centrality of prayer.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer (Romans 12:12)

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf (Romans 15:30)

You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:11)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6)

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2)

Of course, our Lord both instructed His disciples how to pray (Matthew 6:5-15) and commanded them to pray (Matthew 26:41; Luke 18:1). He also practiced extensive and intense prayer Himself (Luke 6:12; 22:44).

Prayer is labor, nothing less than expending mental, physical, and spiritual energy.

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God (Colossians 4:12)

The anecdotes provided below encourage us to and remind us that we need to persevere and discipline ourselves in prayer.

Perseverance in Prayer: George Müller

While I was staying at Nailsworth, it pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, irrespective of human instrumentality, as far as I know, the benefit of which I have not lost, though now…more than forty years have since passed away.

The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit.

Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed in the morning. Now I saw, that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental, communion with the Lord. I began therefore, to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning.

The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God; searching, as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word; not for the sake or preaching on what I had meditated upon; but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer.

When thus I have been for awhile making confession, or intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it; but still continually keeping before me, that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is, that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart. Thus also the Lord is pleased to communicate unto me that which, very soon after, I have found to become food for other believers, though it was not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word that I gave myself to meditation, but for the profit of my own inner man.

The difference between my former practice and my present one is this. Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer.… But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees, before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began really to pray.

I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father, and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it!) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word.

It often now astonished me that I did not sooner see this. In no book did I ever read about it. No public ministry ever brought the matter before me. No private intercourse with a brother stirred me up to this matter. And yet now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything, that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man.

As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time, except we take food, and as this is one of the first things we do in the morning, so it should be with the inner man. We should take food for that, as every one must allow. Now what is the food for the inner man: not prayer, but the Word of God: and here again not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.…

I dwell so particularly on this point because of the immense spiritual profit and refreshment I am conscious of having derived from it myself, and I affectionately and solemnly beseech all my fellow-believers to ponder this matter. By the blessing of God I ascribe to this mode the help and strength which I have had from God to pass in peace through deeper trials in various ways than I had ever had before; and after having now above forty years tried this way, I can most fully, in the fear of God, commend it. How different when the soul is refreshed and made happy early in the morning, from what is when, without spiritual preparation, the service, the trials and the temptations of the day come upon one!
(Autobiography of George Müller, comp. Fred Bergen [London: J. Nisbet, 1906], 152–4 in John Piper, Desiring God, 155-7)

Discipline in Prayer: J. Sidlow Baxter

Better to commit yourself to a total of fifteen minutes and maintain it—with perhaps five minutes of Bible reading, five minutes of meditation, and five minutes of disciplined prayer. A regular time of devotion and prayer will become a habit, and the habit of prayer will give wings to your spiritual life.

In this respect, Dr. J. Sidlow Baxter once shared a page from his own pastoral diary with a group of pastors who had inquired about the discipline of prayer. He began telling how in 1928 he entered the ministry determined he would be the “most Methodist-Baptist” of pastors, a real man of prayer. However, it was not long before his increasing pastoral responsibilities and administrative duties and the subtle subterfuges of pastoral life began to crowd prayer out. Moreover, he began to get used to it, making excuses for himself.

Then one morning it all came to a head as he stood over his work-strewn desk and looked at his watch. The voice of the Spirit was calling him to pray. At the same time another velvety little voice was telling him to be practical and get his letters answered, and that he ought to face up to the fact that he was not one of the “spiritual sort”—only a few people could be like that. “That last remark,” says Baxter,” hurt like a dagger blade. I could not bear to think it was true.” He was horrified by his ability to rationalize away the very ground of his ministerial vitality and power.

That morning Sidlow Baxter took a good look into his heart, and found there was a part of him which did not want to pray and a part which did. The part which did not was his emotions; the part which did was his intellect and will. This analysis paved the way to victory. In Dr. Baxter’s own inimitable words:

As never before, my will and I stood face to face. I asked my will the straight question, Will, are you ready for an hour of prayer?” Will answered, “Here I am, and I’m quite ready, if you are.” So Will and I linked arms and turned to go for our time of prayer. At once all the emotions began pulling the other way and protesting, “We are not coming.” I saw Will stagger just a bit, so I asked, “Can you stick it out, Will?” and Will replied, “Yes, if you can.“ So Will went, and we got down to prayer, dragging those wriggling, obstreperous emotions with us. It was a struggle all the way through. At one point, when Will and I were in the middle of an earnest intercession, I suddenly found one of those traitorous emotions had snared my imagination and had run off to the golf course; and it was all I could do to drag the wicked rascal back. A bit later I found another of the emotions had sneaked away with some off-guard thoughts and was in the pulpit, two days ahead of schedule, preaching a sermon that I had not yet finished preparing!

At the end of that hour, if you had asked me, “Have you had a ‘good time’?” I would have had to reply, “No, it has been a wearying wrestle with contrary emotions and a truant imagination from beginning to end.” What is more, that battle with the emotions continued for between two and three weeks, and if you asked me at the end of that period, “Have you had a ‘good time’ in your daily praying?” I would have had to confess, “No, at times it has seemed as though the heavens were brass, God too distant to hear, the Lord Jesus strangely aloof and prayer accomplished nothing.”

Yet something was happening. For one thing, Will and I really taught the emotions that we were completely independent of them. Also, one morning, about two weeks after the contest began, just when Will and I were going for another time of prayer, I overheard one of the emotions whisper to the other, “Come on, you guys, it is no use wasting any more time resisting: they’ll go just the same.” That morning, for the first time, even though the emotions were still suddenly uncooperative, they were at least quiescent, which allowed Will and me to get on with prayer undistractedly.

Then, another couple of weeks later, what do you think happened? During one of our prayer times, when Will and I were no more thinking of the emotions than of the man-in-the-moon, one of the most vigorous of the emotions unexpectedly sprang up and shouted, “Hallelujah!” at which all the other emotions exclaimed, “Amen!”And for the first time the whole of my being—intellect, will, and emotions—was united in one coordinated prayer-operation.
(R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, 103-4)

The Puritan Thomas Brooks said,

Our Saviour in the text takes it for granted that every child of God will be frequent in praying to his heavenly Father; and therefore he encourages them so much the more in the work of secret prayer. ‘When you pray’; as if he said, I know you can as well hear without ears, and live without food, and fight without hands, and walk without feet, as you are able to live without prayer (Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven, 5).

May these anecdotes exhort us as we strive for relentless communion with God.