When a guy is drafted into the NFL, he is keenly aware that his future includes some serious pain. He knows the summer workouts will be hot and the coaches will grind him into the ground. He knows that opposing players are praying for the opportunity to slam him with violent force. And he knows his ligaments will strain and joints will feel pain. As if that’s not enough, he’s aware that his biggest mistakes will be replayed by ESPN, as millions of fans wag their heads over his gridiron buffoonery.
No doubt about it: if a guy is going to succeed in the NFL, he must be ready for the occupational hazards.
A man pursuing pastoral ministry must also be keenly aware of the occupational hazards awaiting him. Think about it this way. A church is a gathering of sinners being led by sinners. And whenever sinners gather, sin happens. Sometimes in bold with large font! The New Testament certainly confirms this. When the Corinthians weren’t justifying sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1) they were taking each other to court (1 Corinthians 6:1). The Galatians were drifting from the gospel, with Peter, the very disciple who witnessed both the transfiguration and the resurrection, leading the hypocrisy (Galatians 2:12-14).
I think it was Colson who said the local church is like Noah’s ark: the smell would be unbearable if not for the storm outside.
Here’s my point: If you’re hoping to enter pastoral ministry, you must be ready to deal with sin – yours, mine, ours, everyone’s! As a leader, there will be times when you find yourself in a familiar role of being sinned against. There will be judgements, anger, gossip, disloyalty, cruel emails, uncaring comments, cynical jokes, stabbing comments about your family. Sometimes it can be pretty ugly.
How a pastor responds to being sinned against determines the direction of his ministry. I think it’s because the way a pastor responds to being sinned against reveals his grasp of the gospel. This is why a man called to preach is a man called to understand a few things about forgiveness.
Let’s start with the most important thing.
A Called Man Is a Man Forgiven Much
In Matthew 18:21, Peter poses the following question to Jesus: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
It’s hard to know exactly what prompted Peter’s question. Had a friend ticked him off, and now he was wondering how many times he needed to forgive before he could wallop him across the head? Maybe we are being offered a little insight into Peter’s own vision of forgiveness (“Seven times, yes, but pity the fool who crosses me eight times!”). Whatever the reason for the question, Jesus rocks Peter’s entire paradigm when he responds by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22).
Then the mental tsunami comes. Jesus systematically destroys Peter’s entire forgiveness rubric with an incredible parable of debt cancellation. Let me summarize. In scene one of the parable, a king forgives an astounding debt of 10,000 talents. To understand the true scope of this cancellation, you need to understand that a single talent was approximately twenty years salary. A talent was a measure of the highest value. And Jesus didn’t pick the number 10,000 randomly. The number 10,000 was the highest Greek numeral. In other words, the debt that was forgiven was unfathomably, astronomically high. Jesus is trying to illustrate forgiveness at an almost incomprehensible level.
Jesus then moves into scene two, in which the recently forgiven debtor encounters a man who owes him a small amount of money. The first debtor goes postal on the second debtor, putting him in a serious choke hold and demanding repayment. The second debtor can’t repay the small debt, and the first debtor has him thrown into prison.
When the king finds out about the despicable actions of the man he had recently forgiven, he calls him to explain and then has him thrown into jail.
Jesus sums up the point of the parable to ensure that Peter doesn’t miss the point. He says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
What does this long passage have to do with pastoral ministry? Just this: Pastors are first (and most importantly) forgiven sinners, and forgiven sinners forgive much.
If you enter pastoral ministry, you will inevitably be sinned against. In fact, as a leader you will be uniquely sinned against. Because you will be plotting direction and speaking truth, people will react and respond in a variety of ways. Sometimes you will be the lightning rod for sin and criticism. You must live aware of all you’ve been forgiven so that you are quick to forgive when sinned against. Forgiven sinners forgive sin.
For forgiveness to be real, it can’t terminate upon you. For forgiveness to bear fruit in your ministry, you must pass it along to other people. The funny thing about forgiveness is that it comes with a divine redundancy attached to it. You are called to replicate the forgiveness you’ve received for others.
This raises an important question. As you consider the call to ministry, are you prepared to embrace the call to be sinned against and forgive? What about right now – are there any pockets of unforgiveness in your life? Are there people in your past against whom you bear some serious grudges? If so, now’s the time to deal with it. Unforgiveness, like gangrene, has a way of festering in our souls. Like slander for the soul, it speaks to us and murmurs at us. It reminds us of injustices committed and grievances unresolved. If you don’t deal with unforgiveness, it will seriously hamper your effectiveness in ministry.
But I’m not going to simply tell you to “get over it,” as if forgiveness is like a minor injury you can walk off. However, there are things to be done. For instance, I want to encourage you to meditate on Ephesians 4:32. It says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The path toward forgiveness lies in considering the great debt from which God has forgiven you. God has forgiven each of us an incredible, astonishing, incomprehensible debt. We’ve been forgiven much, but are we willing to love much (Luke 7:47)? Are you willing to pass that forgiveness on to others?
If you are going to move forward in pastoral ministry, you need to face this fundamental reality: forgiven sinners forgive sin. Your effectiveness as a pastor will require you to believe it and apply it that others can experience and enjoy it.