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Five Motivations to Pray

For years, when I thought about prayer, I mostly felt guilty for my lack of a robust prayer life. Reading stories of great saints praying for two hours a day or more left me with a gnawing sense of defeat. I would often resolve to pray more. But the resolves didn’t last.
One day I realized that something had changed. While not exactly satisfied with my prayer life, I knew that I had one. I’m sure that I still don’t pray as much as I should. But I pray a lot more than I used to. And I’ve tried to think about why. What changed? On one level, of course, whatever prayer life I have is the fruit of God’s grace. He gets the credit. But God uses means. The Spirit’s work doesn’t bypass our thoughts, feelings, habits, and desires. No, he works in and through all these aspects of our personhood.
When I think about my prayer life in these terms, two kinds of things bubble to the surface. On one hand, I can identify certain things that happen inside of me that often trigger prayer. And on the other hand, there are several tools I’ve discovered that have helped me form better habits in prayer.  This post is on the triggers. The next will be on the tools.
1. Longing
“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1] Augustine’s famous prayer is my biography in a sentence. I first felt the sharp stab of desire as a child. I remember hearing a beautiful song that made me feel I hardly know what. It made me both happy and sad. It evoked longings I didn’t know I had and had no labels for. As I grew older, the longings became more acute.
We all feel this existential ache one way or another. C. S. Lewis wrote about this longing, calling it “the truest index of our real situation.” [2] The problem, of course, is that we usually mistake the object of our true desire. We try to slake our thirst with personal success, sexual fulfillment, meaningful relationships, the accumulation of cool stuff, and the approval of others. We forsake the fountain of living waters and try to drink from broken cisterns that can hold no water. [3] But the ache remains. And that ache is one of the key triggers for prayer. In the words of the Psalmist, 
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. [4]
2. Guilt
The second trigger that drives me to prayer is guilt. I don’t mean feeling guilty if I don’t pray. I mean the conviction I feel for having sinned against God and others. To echo a confession that Robert Murray M’Cheyne made in one of his letters, “None but God knows what an abyss of corruption is in my heart.” [5] Anyone who truly knows their own heart can say the same. I suppose I’ve prayed more prayers of confession than anything else. I’m so grateful for Psalm 51 and the other penitential psalms. These psalms, along with the promises of divine forgiveness, remind us that we don’t have to wallow in guilt or stay in our sins. With the tax-collector in Luke 18:13, we can pray, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
3. Stress
Perhaps nothing has helped my prayer life more than the pressure of difficult and painful circumstances. We call it stress, but the biblical word is “trial.” Sometimes our circumstances are almost unbearable. We feel like we’re about to sink. That’s why one of my favorite prayers in Scripture comes from the lips of Peter as he sinks beneath the waves: “Lord, save me!”  It’s short, simple, and to the point. But for someone desperate for help, it’s enough.
On one level, trials are – well – stressful! But when we can embrace our trials as instruments in our Father’s hands, intended for our good, they can lead us into a deeper dependence on him. In the words of an old hymn,
Trials make the promise sweet
Trials give new life to prayer
Trials bring me at his feet
Lay me low and keep me there.[6]
4. Love
Another motivation that triggers prayer is love. I especially have in mind love and compassion for others. When Paul asked the believers in Rome to pray for him, he appealed to their love, a fruit of the Spirit’s work in their hearts. [7] Love is the most effective spur to intercessory prayer.
As a pastor, I get a front row seat to people’s deepest needs and problems. More often than not, I feel inadequate to meet those needs. But I’m learning that the best way to love them is to pray for them, to ask the One whose sufficiency knows no bounds to meet their needs according to his riches in Christ.
5. Gratitude  
One more trigger for prayer is gratitude. I should feel much more gratitude than I do. As M’Cheyne, whom I quoted above, said in a wonderful poem:
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see thee as thou art,
Love thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know -
Not till then - how much I owe.[8]
Like M’Cheyne, I know that I don’t fully realize how much I owe to the Lord’s kindness and grace. Butsometimes I get a glimpse – often on the heels of a fresh sight of my sinful heart and the Lord’s unfailing grace and mercy in my life, and gratitude overflows into joyful thanks.
Longing, guilt, stress, love, and gratitude. There is nothing unique about these feelings. This is the ordinary stuff out of which all of our internal lives are made. But what I have slowly learned is to let these ordinary feelings be my starting place for prayer.
If you want to grow in your prayer life, just start where you are.
Does your soul throb with the dull ache for something more?  Take it to God. Is your conscience stained with the memories of yesterday’s sins? Bring them to Jesus. Are you worried about a loved one’s health? Anxious about how you’ll make ends meet this month? Unburden your heart to the Father.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re facing, start there. Bring your needs to the throne of grace, and you will have a prayer life.
This post was written for Christianity.com. 
End Notes

[1]Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 1, Ch. 1
[2]C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 2009), p. 42
[3]Jeremiah 2:13
[4]Psalm 73:25-26
[5]Andrew A. Bonar, ed., Memoirs & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004 reprint of 1844 edition) p. 637. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a 19th century Scottish minister renowned for his earnest pursuit of holiness.
[6]William Cowper, “Welcome Cross”
[7]See Romans 15:30
[8]From his poem, “I am Debtor,” quoted in Bonar, ed., Memoirs & Remains, p. 637.

Do You Think Biblically about Your Work?

Work is one of the most significant parts of our lives. Of the 168 hours we are given each week, most of us will spend at least 40 at the workplace.  Many spend closer to 60 or 70, sometimes juggling two jobs or more. One of the most pressing questions for a Christian to answer, then, is, “How do I think biblically about work?”
Created to work
The first thing to remember is that we were made for work. Work is implicit in the “cultural mandate,” the command given by God to the first man, recorded Genesis 1:28-31. Human beings were created in the image of God for the purpose of subduing the earth, ruling over the created order as the vicegerents of God.  In the words of J. I. Packer, “Man was made to manage God’s world, and this stewardship is part of the human vocation in Christ. It calls for hard work, with God’s honor and the good of others as its goal.”[1] Labor is, therefore, one of the most important ways in which we bear God’s image, for God himself is a God who works (Gen. 2:2-3). “In contrast to Greek mythology, where the gods live a life of celestial loafing, the Bible pictures God himself as a ceaseless worker.”[2]As John Stott writes, “Our potential for creative work is an essential part of our godlikeness.”[3]
This biblical perspective shows the essential value and dignity of human work. In Genesis 2:15 we learn that after creating Adam, God put him in “the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.“ Even in the pristine, unspoiled pre-fallen world, man had work to do.  “God has deliberately arranged life in such a way that he needs the cooperation of human beings for the fulfillment of his purposes,” observes Stott. “He did not create the planet earth to be productive on its own; human beings had to subdue and develop it. He did not plant a garden whose flowers would blossom and fruit ripen on their own; he appointed a gardener to cultivate the soil. We call this the ‘cultural mandate’ which God gave to humankind. ‘Nature’ is what God gives us; ‘culture’ is what we do with it.”[4]
This means that any attempt to shirk work, either through thievery, desperate attempts to get rich quickly (lottery, anyone?), or through mooching off others in lives of indolence, are wrong-headed from the start.
The purposes of work
Work is is both commanded and commended in Scripture. The command to work, for example, is implicit in the Ten Commandments (as the fourth commandment begins, “six days shall you labor, and do all your work,” Ex. 20:9) and explicit in the apostolic writings (“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need,” Eph. 4:28).
The whole of Scripture commends honest labor, viewing it as a source of personal satisfaction (Eccl. 3:22), the means of providing for our families (1 Tim. 5:8), benefiting others (Eph. 4:28) and especially as a serving the Lord, as we do everything in word and deed in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:1723-24). Weaving these purposes for work together, John Stott defines work as “the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfilling to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.”[5]
Work in a fallen world
But we all know that real life in the workaday world is often complicated, frustrating and unfulfilling. Work problems are real: stress, job dissatisfaction, unemployment, the question of fair wages, and other ethical concerns demand careful consideration that moves beyond the mandate of Genesis 1, but without losing sight of it.
The ultimate reason for the complexity of work and its attendant problems is the sin, reaching back to the fall of man in Genesis 3. Part of the five-fold curse following the fall is the curse on the ground, which now bears thorns and thistles, so that man now eats his bread “by the sweat of [his] face” (Gen. 3:18-19). Work, in other words, is now fraught with obstacles and etched with frustrations. As someone once quipped, “man was meant to be a gardener, but by reason of his sin he became a farmer.”[6] Work after the fall is not simply the creative work of construction and cultivation. We must now also push back against the effects of the fall. There are constant obstacles to overcome with the forces of entropy, disintegration, and decay constantly working against us. Work now involves not only planting, but weeding; not simply doing, but undoing. Like Jeremiah the prophet, we often have “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow” before we can “build and … plant” (Jer. 1:10).
   To use the lament of Ecclesiastes, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:22-23).  Work, like childbirth is not only joy, involves labor.[7] The problems of job-related stress, unjust labor laws, et cetera, are an index to our present condition: life in a fallen world.
The redemption of work
But the Scriptures also look forward to the final redemption and restoration of the created order, including the realm of work. In Isaiah 65, for example, the prophet records God’s promise of a “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17) where his people
    shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
    for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
     or bear children for calamity… (Isa 65:21-23a)
This hope of new creation is picked up in multiple places in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:172 Pet. 3:13Rev. 21-22). The apostles viewed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as the inaugural event in new creation, with Jesus himself as the firstfruits of the harvest and the gift of his Spirit as the guarantee that final redemption is coming. And its in this very context, having given his most eloquent and theologically rich defense of the resurrection, that Paul says to the early Christians, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58, emphasis added).
Though we continue to labor in a fallen world, we no longer labor without hope, but with the unshakable confidence that our work, done in service to the Lord Jesus, counts.
This column was written for Christianity.com
End Notes

[1]J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993), p. 236
[2]“Work, Working,” in Ryken, L., Wilhoit, J., Longman, T., Duriez, C., Penney, D., & Reid, D. G., ed.,Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 965. This article presents a well-rounded biblical theology of work that has informed the structure and content of my post.
[3]John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) p. 219.
[4]Stott, pp. 222-223
[5]Stott, p. 225.
[6]W. F. Forrester, quoted in Ryken, et all, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
[7]“In the story of the Fall woman’s pain in giving birth (Gen 3:16) parallels the curse on work (Gen 3:17). The Hebrew word for toil and pain in these verses is the same, and Forrester notes that “in language after language the same word is used for toil and child-bearing, e.g., ‘labour’ and ‘travail.’” (Ibid.)

Is the Christian Life about Running or Resting?

In 2009, Time magazine named “the new Calvinism” as one of the 10 ideas currently changing the world. The burgeoning movement brought several streams of conservative evangelicals together, ranging from Baptists to Presbyterians to Reformed Charismatics, best represented through organizations and conferences like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition. But in recent months an intramural debate within the movement made headlines when author, pastor, (and grandson of Billy Graham) Tullian Tchividjian, was asked to leave The Gospel Coalition.
The issues surrounding this rather public “break up” are complex, but at least part of the brouhaha concerns differing perspectives on sanctification. Some have accused Tchividjian of antinomianism [1] and denying the “third use of the law” [2] (charges he has repeatedly denied, most recently in an interview with Janet Mefford.)
Kevin DeYoung, one of Tullian’s main interlocutors, has compiled a list of agreements and possible disagreements between the two sides. These questions certainly deserve careful thought, as do the varied responses to the debate from voices as diverse as Rick PhillipsMark Galli, and R. Scott Clark.
Without responding directly to Tullian, his accusers, or defenders, I think one possible way forward in this debate is to pay closer attention not just to the distinctions between law and gospel (as important as these are) but to the metaphors and word pictures the Scriptures use when describing the lives of believers. For ordinary believers, who can easily get lost in the complexities of theological jargon, the vivid imagery of the Bible itself is both refreshing and a wonderful means of keeping us balanced.
For example, Scripture describes our lives in terms of a journey and an athletic competition. We are commanded both to walk and to run. These are strongly active metaphors that emphasize the need for continuous movement and strenuous effort. But Scripture also uses agricultural metaphors like remaining in a vine and bearing fruit (John 15). In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul seems to deliberately contrast the fruit of the Spirit with the works of the flesh, reminding us that developing the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, etc. isn’t merely a matter of self-effort and will power, but of supernatural empowerment.
But there’s more. In addition to the athletic and agricultural images, biblical writers employ metaphors from the realms of architecture (foundation, stones, buildings, edification), medicine (sin as a sickness, Christ as physician, his word as both a surgical knife and healing remedy), the military(soldiers, battles, discipline, armor), and more. We are encouraged to both labor (1 Thessalonians 1:3) and rest (Matthew 11:28-30), trust (Romans 15:13) and obey (Philippians 2:12-13), look out for others (Hebrews 10:24-25) and examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5), keep ourselves (Jude 21) and depend on the power of God to keep us (Jude 24).
These pictures are rich and diverse and we need all of them. If we take any one image by itself, we run the risk of becoming lopsided in our focus. For example, if we only emphasize the architectural and “body” metaphors in 1 Corinthians, people might be inclined to think the corporate dimensions of Christian living are more important than individual and personal responsibilities. An exclusive focus on resting in Jesus could lead others to infer that any call to effort or discipline is legalistic. On the other hand, the military and athletic imagery in Scripture, calling us to fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12) and run with endurance the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1-2), needs the balancing word-picture of abiding in Jesus, the true vine, apart from whom we can do nothing (John 15:5).
The Christian life, you see, is not dependence to the exclusion of discipline, or vice-versa. It’s both. It’s not just a me-thing or a we-thing. It’s both. It’s running and resting. Believing and obeying. Together and as individuals.
I believe that folks on all sides of the current sanctification debate desire to honor God and his word, rest in the good news of Christ’s finished work, and grow in grace. We all need to pay close attention to the text of Scripture and be careful to avoid rhetoric that is either theologically misleading or disparaging to others. Disagreements will likely continue. But whatever side of the debate we find ourselves on, let’s not forget that the Christian life involves both resting in Christ and his finished workand running with everything we’ve got for the prize set before us.
This post was originally written for Christianity.comFor more on this issue, see my latest book, Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life
Notes
1. “Antinomianism so stresses Christian freedom from the condemnation of the law that it underemphasizes the need of the believer to confess sins daily and to pursue sanctification earnestly.” S. B. Ferguson, J. I. Packer, ed., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 379.
2. In Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin distinguished three uses of the law: (1) to condemn sin (Inst. 2.7.6-9), (2) to restrain sin in society (Inst. 2.7.10-11), and (3) to instruct, in Calvin’s words, “the third and principle use” (Inst. 2.7.12-13).

God Provides, Even When We Can't See It


In his book Brain Rules, John Medina tells the intriguing story of Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, and one of his patients, an elderly woman who “suffered a massive stroke in the back region of her brain that left her with a most unusual deficit: She lost her ability to pay attention to anything that was to her left.” Medina explains the effect this had on her perceptive abilities:

She could put lipstick only on the right half of her face. She ate only from the right half of her plate. This caused her to complain to the hospital nursing staff that her portions were too small! Only when the plate was turned and the food entered her right visual field could she pay any attention to it and have her fill.[1]

Sometimes I think we’re like this in our spiritual perception. While it’s easy for us to recognize the hand of God on the right, we fail to see him working on the left. We’re grateful for the clarity of his guidance and the comfort of his blessings, but find it difficult to discern his hidden hand during times of discouragement, disappointment, suffering, and trial.

The Scriptures abound with examples of saints who had the same problem. Think of Naomi, bereft of her sons and her husband, now back in Bethlehem after a decade in Moab during a time of famine. She is soon the talk of the town, and the women of Bethlehem ask, “Is this Naomi?” But Naomi, whose name meant “pleasant,” retorts,

“Don’t call me Naomi…Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21)

Once she enjoyed fullness, now she is empty. Once she was happy, not she is bitter. Naomi is convinced that God’s hand is against her. But she doesn’t yet realize that Ruth, the young woman at her side, will be the Lord’s means of bringing an heir to her household, redemption to her estate, and ultimately redemption to the world. (Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David and one of only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1).

Or take the old patriarch Jacob. With his family facing famine, his sons had ventured to Egypt to find food. Now they have returned, leaving Simeon behind, and with the mandate from the prime minister to bring their younger brother Benjamin back with them. To make matters worse, the money they had paid for provisions in Egypt is now back in their bags! This isn’t good.  Are they being framed as thieves? In near despair, Jacob cries out, “Everything is against me!” (Genesis 42:36). What Jacob doesn’t know is that God is working behind the scenes through his long-lost son Joseph, to provide for the whole clan of Israel. As Joseph will later say to his brothers (who had sold him into slavery, thus landing him in Egypt in the first place), “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

We’re just like Jacob and Naomi. We misinterpret our circumstances. We feel hopeless, though hope stands right at our side. We feel like everything is working against us, not realizing that God is actually working everything together for our good (Romans 8:28). As poet and hymn-writer William Cowper said,

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His works in vain
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain.[2]

The problem is our limited perspective on the providence of God. The doctrine of God’s providence teaches that God governs over all things in creation. He’s not an indifferent watchmaker who made the world and then left it to tick away on its own. He is rather a good and wise king, who governs human affairs. “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all,” declared the psalmist (Psalm 103:19). But not only is he our king, he is also our Father, intimately concerned with the smallest details of our lives. For Jesus said,

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

My favorite definition of God’s providence comes from a 16th century catechism that asks, “What dost thou mean by the providence of God?” Answer:

The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but be his fatherly hand.[3]

This is good news, but we must have faith to embrace it. Neither our circumstances, nor our feelings, are reliable indicators of what God is up to in our lives. Sometimes everything will seem to be against us. Sometimes we will feel empty and bitter. But when we do, we should remember how limited our perception really is. Like Oliver Sacks’ patient who couldn’t see anything to her left, sometimes we can’t perceive the presence of God’s goodness or the wisdom of his plan.

Let’s remember, then, this wise exhortation from Cowper’s hymn:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace
Behind a frowning providence,
he hides a smiling face.[4]

This post was originally written for Christianity.com.

End Notes



[1] John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School (Pear Press, Kindle edition. Loc. 1106-1116).
[2] William Cowper, from his hymn, “Light Shining in Darkness,” better known as “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” 1774.
[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 27.
[4] Ibid.

5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult People


Pastoral ministry is people work and people can be difficult. Some folks seem to have the spiritual gift of pointing out everything you and the church could do better. Others have impossibly high expectations that despite your good intentions you never seem to meet. Still others are just plain ornery: cantankerous old (or young) cusses that fit the profile of grumpy goats, better than cuddly sheep. And speaking of sheep, well, you’ve probably read enough about them to know it’s not a flattering metaphor. In short, churches are full of individuals with flawed personalities, irksome quirks, psychological disorders, and good old-fashioned sins. Sometimes, after discussing some difficult situation, my wife and I look knowingly at one other and say (tongue in cheek), “Everybody’s weird except us.”
So, how do you deal with difficult people?
1. Remember they are people.
That they’re people is more important than that they’re difficult. Sometimes we can get so focused on the problems people bring to us, the inconvenience those problems pose to our schedules, and the anxiety and frustration it makes us feel, that we forget they’re people.  People created imago Dei – in the image of God. People with stories to tell, feelings to understand, and hurts to heal. They are people to be loved, not problems to be fixed. And the truth is, we’ll never help them if we forget this. Don’t depersonalize difficult people.
2. Pray and listen. 
We should never presume that we help people if we will not pray for them and listen to them. Pray for them. Pray for yourself. Pray for wisdom. Pray for the ability to hear and understand. Pray James 3:13-18 into your life and theirs.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)
Then sit down and talk with them, seeking first to understand, rather than be understood. This doesn’t mean every problem will be solved or every conflict avoided. But a prayerful dependence on the Lord, with a willingness to genuinely listen, and a sincere desire to understand, will always put you in a better position to love.
3. Sharpen your pastoral skills by learning from the great spiritual masters of the past.
This starts, of course, with regular reading and meditation on Scripture, but also includes the great pastors and spiritual directors of centuries gone by. There is biblical warrant for this: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
It’s tempting for pastors to only read books that are hot off the press, written by successful leaders of large churches and organizations, that focus largely on strategic thinking, innovative programs, and managerial technique. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. There’s much to learn from these kinds of books. But not the skills for soul care. For this, turn to Baxter’s Reformed Pastor and Christian Directory, or Bridges’The Christian Ministry, or Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, or the excellent pastoral series by Eugene Peterson.[1]
As an example of the kind of insight these older books can provide, consider these words from St. Gregory the Great’s classic sixth-century primer, The Book of Pastoral Rule. In Part III, Gregory warns that, “one and the same exhortation is not suited for everyone because not everyone shares the same quality of character.”
For example, what often helps some people will cause harm in others, just as herbs that are nutritious to some animals will kill others…Likewise, the medicine that cures one disease will spur another, and the bread that fortifies a grown man can kill a young child.[2]
Gregory then goes on to list over seventy different “traits” or conditions that the wise pastor should consider and differentiate between, including:
  • men and women;
  • young and old;
  • poor and rich;
  • joyful and sad;…
  • the bold and the modest;…
  • the impatient and the patient;
  • the healthy and the sick;…
  • the lazy and the hasty;…
  • the obstinate and the fickle;…
  • those who live in discord and those who are peaceful;…
  • those who deplore sins of action and those who deplore sins of thought;
  • those who bewail their sins but do not cease in committing them,
  • and those who cease but do not bewail past sins… and many more! [3]
I know. That’s an overwhelming list. But the ancient pastors knew that disorders of the soul are as complex and varied as maladies of the body. No one would respect a physician who prescribes aspirin for every patient. Panaceas are an illusion. There is no medicine suited to cure all conditions. The same is true in the spiritual life.
And this means that the pastor must always…
4. Be patient and kind, remembering that God alone is the one who changes hearts. 
Hear the advice of an aged apostle to a young pastor:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26)
I can’t change people. Only God can. What I can do, by God’s grace, is cultivate a kind and gentle heart, that is ready to listen, able to teach, quick to forgive, and prepared to point difficult people to the Savior.
5. Finally, remember that you, too, are a difficult person to someone! 
C. S. Lewis wrote an incisive essay called “The Trouble with X,” in which he describes the struggles we all have with certain people who have a “fatal flaw” in their character that causes us difficulty and frustration. But by the end of the essay, Lewis turns the tables on you, with the reminder that, “you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character.”
All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs…It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives others the same feeling of despair which their flaws give you.[4] 
The day that sinks is sobering and humbling. But unless we are growing in this kind of self-awareness, we will always tend to point out splinters in the eyes of difficult church members, while ignoring the Redwood trees in our own.

This post was originally written for ChurchPastor.com

Notes
[1] There are four volumes in this series, all published by Eerdmans: Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (1989); Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (1992); The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (1993); and Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (1994).  
[2] St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, George E. Demacopoulos, transl. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007) p. 87.
[3] Ibid., pp. 88-89.
[4] C. S. Lewis, “The Trouble with X…” in God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972) p. 153.