Sinkhole

Several years ago, I read Gordon MacDonald’s book “Ordering Your Private World.” He begins by describing sinkholes in Florida. Water aquifers drain leaving a subterranean void that will, without any notice, give way. Suddenly a house sinks into a massive hole; all the while nobody expected it.

A little over a year ago, I fell into one of these sinkholes. It was a Sunday morning and I stood up to preach, as I had done hundreds of times before, but this particular Sunday, I lost control and began to weep. The next five minutes seemed like an eternity as I worked to regain my composure. The church was completely caught off guard (not to mention the fact that Brits have a reputation of holding a stiff upper lip). They had no idea that I had been under such stress. My internal anxiety had been increasing because of a combination of church finances, critics within the church, inability to minister to particular deep needs of people, exhaustion, mounting discouragement, etc. I remembered MacDonald’s sinkhole as I lay in this pit, depressed and lacking in faith. Simply put, I wanted out.

 Here are some of the early warning signs that I failed to notice.

  • I ceased to have vision for the church and found myself just trying to maintain.
  • I viewed myself as the servant, and therefore didn’t give others the opportunity to serve me in my mounting need.
  • My times of prayer decreased while my times of anxiety increased.
  • I began to use my creativity to look for ways to get out of full-time ministry.
  • I internalized my conflicts, rather than sharing with trusted friends/counsellors my struggle and fatigue.
  • I had begun to feel like I was a sermon machine, needing to birth a sermon every few days.
  • I found that I was being careful not to ruffle feathers of certain critics, seeking their approval instead of God’s approval.
  • I had put people’s spiritual needs above my own.

Here are some things that particularly helped.

  • I began to put my spiritual needs first. This seems antithetical. I had thought that I had what it took to minister to people. In order to serve others, I need to receive from the Lord. It’s like those pre-flight announcements. If the oxygen mask drops down, put your own mask on before you help your child. If you don’t, you will have no strength to help anyone. 1 Samuel 30:6 tells us that “David strengthened himself in the Lord.” One of the ways I began to do this was to take a monthly day of retreat to pray and seek the Lord. This isn’t for the church, but for my own soul. The great Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne said the best thing he could give his church was his own personal holiness.
  • I began sharing my struggles with the church (obviously what is shared requires discretion). One of the reasons for my sinkhole was a lack of help and co-labouring by the church body. Since the church felt I had everything under control, their involvement in the church had become passive. Since I began to humble myself and share my struggles and my perpetual need for God’s grace, the church has become far more active taking on ministry. This has also helped people see that perfection is not the benchmark for ministry, but availability to God is.
  • When I’m struggling I tend to isolate and internalize. This is not wise (Proverbs 18:1). I keep in regular contact with other pastors who keep me accountable and who have carte blanche to speak hard truths to me. My wife also, has the same right. When she sees signs, she will challenge me and will exhort me.
  • I purpose to serve for the pleasure of Jesus. If I’m pleasing people, my joy or energy rises and falls with their perception. I remind myself that I am already “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6 NKJ). Paul said in Galatians 1:10 that we cannot seek to please men and be Jesus’ servant.
  • I began to pray with thanksgiving. This is commanded in Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:18), but thanksgiving can easily be substituted with grumbling which essentially is an accusation against the Lord.
  • I began to say ‘no’ to ministry opportunities. I am free from doing things simply because people want me to do them. My place is not to do everything, but to do what God has called me to do. I pray about the opportunity and ask if this need is a need I am to meet. I am not the saviour; I serve the Saviour.

God is a gracious fountain who never runs dry. These changes have been helpful in keeping my feet from wandering from the fountain of living water.

 

By the way, we will be away on holiday (vacation) for the next 10 days, so if there are any comments, I may not get to responding to before then.

5 replies
  1. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Hi, Matt – glad to hear you weren’t swallowed by the sinkhole. Great post and analysis and self-correction. How did you maneuver around the mine-field of man’s approval?

    Reply
  2. Matt Kottman
    Matt Kottman says:

    Tim,

    Sometimes the line between deferring or making compromises in love vs. being unmoved by others because of firm convictions can be hard.

    It my case, it was asking myself questions. Questions like, why does this person’s opinion matter so much? How would I respond if someone else (say who’s approval I obviously do not matter to me) asked the same thing of me? I can tell who’s approval I’m seeking when I get nervous about how someone might respond to something I have said or done. Sometimes I’m a bit uneasy because of care for the person and I don’t want them to misunderstand, but sometimes it’s just a matter of caring more about what that person thinks than the Lord.

    I had to start asking myself a really simple question. Who is bigger, this man (these men) or God? I had to come to grips with the fact that in some capacities these people had achieved god-like status. God-like in the sense that I esteemed their affirmation or peace with them as much as or even more than I did that of Christ.

    I liked the simplicity of that question because the theoretical answer is obvious. God is bigger! But the practical answer was sometimes I see men as bigger. Peter struggled with a similar thing in Galatia where Paul rebuked him.

    I still step on those mines, so I ask myself that question when it seems I am nervous around someone or trying to work too hard for diplomacy, or being preoccupied with how someone might perceive me, or just not wanting to say the hard things that need to be said. Who is bigger, those people or God? I follow it up with a prayer, along the lines of “Jesus, help me to know your surpassing greatness more and more, and that all flesh is as grass.”

    How about you Tim. You’re older and wiser than I.

    Reply
  3. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks, Matt. For me, there’s a couple of dynamics at play.

    It has to do with approval. If so-and-so approves of me, it props me up. If so-and-so doesn’t approve of me, my standing is iffy. I want to be liked. And if someone doesn’t like me, there’s an uneasiness in my soul.

    It also has to do with influence. If so-and-so is influential in the church and his opinion has impact, I’m tempted to ‘pull my punches’ in order to maintain peace.

    My soul is attuned to both approval and influence and I have determined before the Lord to be God’s man and not man’s man. Yet at the same time I am grateful for the red light flashing on the dashboard of my soul because it alerts me to a drift that I’ve been unaware of. It’s like taking your hands off the steering wheel to test your front end alignment. If I begin to tailor my statements to please man, I am veering off the path.

    I’m also grateful for another reason – I want to (as much as it depends on me) to be at peace with all men. If I know that so-and-so doesn’t like a particular doctrine of the church or always bristles when a certain topic is discussed, I want to be careful to speak in a winsome way, in a manner where that person will have to deal with the Word and with the logic and with the content of the subject instead of reacting to me.

    For example, it’s amazing how many Christians change their understanding of the sinfulness of homosexuality when a son or a daughter announces they are gay. And with so many young people in the church and coming into the church who are ambivalent on the topic, for me to rail against it with fire and brimstone verbiage is to alienate an emerging generation. But if I can really capture the Lord’s heart within my heart and speak of it w/ firmness of truth and yet tenderness of heart, it will hopefully be a win-win situation. So often, it’s the messenger and not the message that offends. I hope to reverse that and if anyone is offended it will be because of the message and not the messenger.

    When man’s approval begins to weigh upon my soul, I know that I have not been as close to the Lord in personal fellowship. It serves as in incentive to draw near again and hear His voice which in the depths of your being you know is the only approval you ultimately need.

    Reply
  4. Matt Kottman
    Matt Kottman says:

    Good words Tim.

    We are created for approval and acceptance. The great news of the gospel is that we have both in the work of Christ. It’s that truth being worked into our hearts, so as you said, when the approval of man begins to weigh heavy on our souls, it’s a reminder that we are not finding in Christ our true acceptance and approval. This becomes clearer as we sit at his feet.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Don Steigerwald
    Don Steigerwald says:

    Awesome and freeing testimony. Thank you for being transparent. The truth doesn’t just set you free, it frees others as well.

    Reply

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