When pastors self-sabotage – three reasons why we do

There are three forces which are determined that you fail to follow Christ, and will show you no mercy in attacking you at the moment of of your greatest vulnerability.

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‘Self-sabotage’ is a trending phrase.  Psychologists use it to describe the actions we choose to take which trip us up.  There’s a deadline for some sermon prep, but somehow we still procrastinate.  The high decision on controlling our diet is counterbalanced by our sudden desire for chocolate.

Now there’s something in that, but I want to go a bit deeper. Why do we self-sabotage?  There’s been a tough elders’ meeting, and you get home discouraged and down.  What do you need? Sleep.  Or, a quick prayer and sleep. You know that that’s the proper answer.

But instead, a glass of wine and Netflix. And suddenly it’s two in the morning, and you’re aware that the next morning you’re going to be below par for your quiet time, study, meetings, or whatever.

And that’s assuming that what you’ve been watching has been harmless. If it hasn’t, you’re in that awful place where you need to do a deep dive into confession before you can start to think of yourself as exercising any ministry. Ever tried serving God when you’re hollow, and empty of grace and gratitude?

Have you ever tried serving God when you’re hollow, and empty of grace and gratitude?

That’s just us you and me, ordinary pastors.  Like me, you’ve watched, appalled, at senior ministers collapse their ministries and influence – not by a single bad choice one night, but by repeated patterns which are almost asking to be noticed.

Perhaps they are.

Don’t imagine, by the way, that I have one particular person in mind here.  As I write this, ministry collapses are happening so fast that the person front-and-centre when I started considering this issue has been displaced by another, equally heart-breaking.  

A loving, jealous God. 

It’s always possible, of course, that a pastor’s fall from ministry is engineered by God, for the church’s good (and, ultimately, for the pastor’s).  It is better that a secret sin is exposed, and the minister steps aside.  I immediately think of one man who almost ruined his marriage and did ruin his ministry by an affair that became public; God’s grace worked in his heart, and that of his loving wife, so that he was able to reflect hard on that, with repentance and faith.

And I’m sure you can think of examples where the issue was not marital unfaithfulness, but pride, or lying, or power, or something else.  God is jealous for his holy church.

But – it cannot be God’s will that a good pastor chooses to give into temptation and regular sin.

So let’s ask the spiritual questions. 

Whose best interests are served when a minister self-sabotages?  Who wins when the church is disgraced in public?

We need to recognise the pull of the world.  Sometimes, you find a pastor or theologian who lives in intellectual isolation; they are slightly odd fish, perhaps, although they are the people who are enormously productive.  You don’t get to write numerous 700 page books by watching Netflix.  

I was recently struck by my Twitterfeed during the Super Bowl (not something I watch, by the way, but I follow a number of folk who do).  Almost every one was lighheartedly commenting on the match, the players, the ads, the half-time show.  Almost everyone.  Because dear old John Piper just did his usual thing of quoting a bible verse and making me look at it freshly.  I doubt he knew or cared the game was on.

Now, I’m not knocking watching the Super Bowl; the equivalent for an Englishman like me was watching our rugby team being mashed by France that day.  I’d have have tweeted about that, if I’d had the heart.

But – let’s be honest – the world can dazzle, distract, fill our minds and hearts too easily.  It takes an act of will not to let that happen, to refuse to indulge our hobbies and interests because of the prize of the gospel and gospel ministry.  Its way of working is amusement (‘a-muse’, ‘without thought’), and it’s much easier to be amused than to think.

And that’s assuming that what it is offering is neutral; often, we know that it’s not neutral at all, but a determined refusal to focus on Truth, and to worship anything else. It’s wilfully mindless.

We need to recognise the matching pull of our flesh. Our fallen nature is forever tugging away in our hearts, nudging us, whispering to us.  The battle is not just external (the world); it is simultaneously, and in a matching sense, internal (the flesh).

That’s the reason we self-sabotage – our sinful nature wants us to fall into sin. And it remains operative until the day we die.  If you forget that, you fall into the trap of thinking that your desires are somehow inherently good, just because you’re a Christian.

But mull on this: ‘For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.’ (Gal 5:17).  You are a battleground, for life, and the reality is that your flesh wants you to self-sabotage.

It gets worse.

We need to identify the particular tactics of our enemy.  The one who really wins when pastors fall is the Evil One.  ‘Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’ (1 Pet. 5:8).  He is looking for an opening, a crack, a weakness, that moment when the call of the world meets the echo of our flesh, and he pounces. Yes, at 2am, on Netflix, after a glass of wine and a bad meeting.

Who wins when you’re set up for a lousy quiet time, short of sleep and crabby for the day?

In the second part of this series we’ll look at three biblical strategies to keep fighting this battle, and even when we slip, to regain our footing.

But for the moment, think about those three – the world, the flesh and the devil.

Those are the three forces which are determined that you fail to follow Christ, and will show you no mercy in attacking you at the moment of of your greatest vulnerability.

Where will those three meet in the battle for your ministry – and your soul – today?

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