By Dr. James Carroll
In my previous article, I shared about the way my church ministered well to me and my family following my parents’ divorce. I return today to speak more directly to how our family’s trauma shaped my view of life and ministry. While I would not have articulated these lessons during adolescence or even in early adulthood, the circumstances of our broken home and my subsequent spiritual development illustrate and confirm several biblical truths. Here are five of the most obvious for me.
1) Religious activity does not guarantee godliness.
Now we all know this statement is true. We can quote Isaiah 29 and talk about lips that appear close to God while the heart is far from him. We can quote from Matthew 23 and talk about whitewashed tombs. I know this truth, but I’ve also seen it illustrated in my life and in others. Regular attendance and faithful service in the church do not make us immune to sin. In fact, the busyness can at times make us more susceptible. Pastors, you know it’s true, but let me remind you; guard your hearts and don’t be fooled by your religious activity.
2) Don’t blur the lines God has clearly drawn.
“Big” sins generally occur because “little” sins are ignored. We fall to family-breaking, life-altering sin because we made dozens of small concessions and compromises. We quit praying with our spouse. We stop preaching the gospel to ourselves. We counsel a young lady privately. We circumvent the church’s financial procedures because we’re in a pinch. We grow accustomed to irregular personal Bible study. We let our minds fantasize about ungodly dreams. We avoid accountability. We grow lazy in private prayer. We allow anger and bitterness to grow toward our spouse, children, church members, or even God. Long before sin wreaks havoc in our public lives, it wreaks havoc in our private lives. Pastors, guard your hearts and don’t concede an inch.
3) Teach identity early and often.
I made a profession of faith when I was very young. I think I was genuinely converted at that point, but I did not grasp that my identity was tied to who Jesus is and what He had done. While this lack of understanding is prevalent among young children, it is not exclusive to them. My parents’ divorce threatened my identity because it was not tied to my union with Christ. I was not first a pastor’s son; I was (and still am) first and most importantly an adopted son of God. But I did not understand that truth. Sadly, I still struggle to grasp and apply that truth. We are more than the church’s pastor. Our value is not tied to the church’s growth or even her health. Pastors, guard against the temptation to get your identity from any other thing, including your ministry.
In addition, we must shepherd our congregation well by preparing them for the day their secondary identity is gone. They are not defined by their jobs, their relationships, their incomes, their material possessions, their health, or their achievements. All of these things will fade. They will lose jobs, bury spouses, run out of money, lose their memory, and decline physically. Prepare them for the day that all other identities will fail them by teaching them and showing them how to get their identity from Christ.
4) War and warn against pride.
I’ve been on both sides of pride’s destructive power. Pride played a role in my parents’ divorce. Pride also grew in my heart. Back in those days, I moved quickly from the suffering one to the self-righteous one. And the temptation toward self-righteousness is always near. The Bible is replete with warnings against pride and exhortations to humility. I cannot hear too often that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 ESV). Pastors, fight for humility in your heart. Also, remind your congregation of these passages often and model this fight for them.
5) Preach the gospel to yourself.
Every single person needs to hear the gospel more often. The struggling sinner needs to hear the gospel. The suffering victim needs to hear the gospel. The ministering believer needs to hear the gospel. It grounds our lives. For in the gospel, we cannot avoid the holiness of God, the depravity of man, the love of God in Christ, and the necessity of faith. Pastors, preach the gospel to yourself and to your congregation every day.
In fact, the first four exhortations lead inevitably to the last one. The answer is the gospel because in it is the power of God to save! For in the gospel, God reveals his plan and work to rescue sinners from the penalty and power of sin. So, let’s preach the gospel to ourselves and to our congregations so that we and they will avoid replacing religious affection with religious activity, blurring the lines God has drawn, building their identity apart from Christ, and succumbing to pride.
Dr. James Carroll is Senior Pastor of Parkway Baptist Church in Bardstown, KY. James is married to Mikila and they have 2 children.