If January is the month to set new goals and resolutions for the New Year, February is the month to desert resolutions, like the abandoned cars on D.C. side streets packed tightly under the snow tossed from city plows.
Pastor John Newton (1725–1807) was familiar with this challenge of attaining lofty goals, a topic he discussed in a letter written in February 1772 to one of his friends.
Newton writes, “The Lord has given his people a desire and will aiming at great things; without this they would be unworthy of the name of Christians.”
The desire to aspire is very important to the Christian life. We are to aim high in so many great things. Newton notes four of them:
1. We aim to pray regularly. What greater privilege to approach the throne of grace and to cast all our burdens upon the King of Kings?
2. We aim to read and study Scripture diligently. What is more desirable than much fine gold, sweeter than the dripping honeycomb, but God’s Word?
3. We aim to delight frequently in Christ and live in his debt. What greater aim to live daily with a grateful heart for the Savior’s work on the cross?
4. We aim to trust God in all circumstances, whether prosperity or adversity. What events in life are not directed by the infinite goodness and wisdom of God?
… what often happens?
1. In reality, prayer becomes a mere chore. Our lips move, but our hearts are far from God.
2. In reality, Scripture gets neglected. We give our time and attention to other books, and magazines look more appealing.
3. In reality, Christ gets ignored. In an average day we show more gratitude for the people in our life than the Savior who saved our life.
4. In reality, God's providence over life is forgotten. When life gets hard we are quick to “complain, murmur, and despond.”
Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! how much weakness and inconsistency even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord!
Alas, we aim big—but we often miss big. We miss because we are weak sinners.
Divine Designs in the Missing
So is there anything to learn in the missing?
Again Newton writes:
By these experiences [the misses] the believer is weaned more from self, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely to rely on him, who is appointed unto us of God, Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption.
The more vile we are in our own eyes, the more precious he will be to us; and a deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts is necessary to preclude all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our salvation where it is due.
We mean well and we aim high, but we are sinful, inconsistent creatures. Our aims often fail like a field goal kick that lands on the 5-yard-line. So often we miss low—very low.
The solution is not to aim lower. The proper response is to continue aiming high. Rejoice in the successes and the periods of consistency. And then redeem the misses; let them remind you of your weakness and of your need for Christ, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
By continuing to aim high,
- we honor God in our aims
- we learn firsthand of our feebleness, weakness, and inconsistencies
- we are weaned from self-sufficiency
- we long to see Jesus and to be freed from this body of sin
- and we learn to boast in Christ alone
When a kicker aims high but fails, he hangs his head.
When the Christian aims high but fails, he learns to properly boast.
Tony Reinke serves as the editorial and research assistant to C.J. Mahaney. Reading Newton’s Mail is a series of blog posts reflecting on various published letters written by John Newton (1725–1807), the onetime captain of a slave trading ship, a self-described apostate, blasphemer, and infidel, who was eventually converted by grace. Newton is most famous for authoring the hymn “Amazing Grace,” or maybe for helping William Wilberforce put an end to the African slave trade in Britain. Less legendarily, Newton faithfully pastored two churches for 43 years, a fruitful period of his life when a majority of his letters were written. Reading Newton’s Mail is published on Fridays here on the Cheap Seats blog.
Source letter: John Newton, Works of John Newton (London: 1820), 1:439–444; Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh; Banner of Truth: 1869/2007), 88–92.
The sting of personal criticism is painful, and it can be very dangerous, too. When criticism arrives, many temptations arrive with it. Often for me, when criticism arrives, my response reveals the presence of pride in my heart.
Tim Keller is familiar with the temptations that come with personal criticism. He writes,
The biggest danger of receiving criticism is not to your reputation, but to your heart. You feel the injustice of it and feel sorry for yourself, and it tempts you to despise the critic.
David Powlison shares Tim’s familiarity with these temptations. At one point in David’s life, a man began publishing criticism of him and his ministry. During this time David grew preoccupied with the personal criticism. He says it exposed many sins in his heart—a love of reputation, his desire to be thought well of, a desire to be treated fairly, a certain idealism and a romantic idea of the unity of the Body. “This man was a professing Christian,” David said. “So why couldn’t we be able to all get along? Why does this keep happening?”
David further explains how the Lord used this criticism to expose the idols in his heart and how Psalm 31 served his soul in the process, in his excellent message at our 2007 Pastors Conference.
I am all too familiar with these temptations myself. Criticism can uniquely reveal my heart, and often what I see isn’t pretty.
I feel sorry for myself in the face of the “injustice.” Bill Farley, in his excellent article, “The Poison of Self-Pity,” writes that “the roots of self-pity are ‘pride-in-action.’ It is the propensity to feel sorry for yourself because you are not getting what you think you deserve.” The pastor will be tempted to think, “I deserve encouragement, and this person does not seem to understand or notice or pay attention to the countless ways I am serving!” . And through dwelling on what seems to be the critic’s ignorance of the pastor’s service and his withholding of encouragement, the pastor’s heart quickly moves towards self pity. This is pride, and I’ve seen it in my own heart.
I am tempted to despise the critic. I sinfully judge the motive of the one criticizing me, wondering if they’re offended with me, rather than focusing on the content of their communication. Worse, I am tempted to dismiss the content if it is imprecisely communicated or if the illustrations are not completely accurate. I did this just yesterday when someone kindly corrected me. This is pride, and I’ve seen it in my own heart.
When criticism arrives, temptations to sin come fast and furious in the heart of the pastor. And if a pastor isn’t prepared for criticisms, if he doesn’t prize growth in godliness, he will despise criticism rather than embrace it. Sadly I have many times.
But by God’s grace, there is an alternative. We can view personal criticism as a God-appointed means to produce humility in our lives, even if the criticism isn’t accurate. As John Newton wrote,
The Lord abhors pride and self-importance. The seeds of these evils are in the hearts of his own children; but rather than suffer that which He hates to remain in those He loves, He will in mercy pound them as in a mortar, to beat it out of them, or to prevent its growth.
Criticism is just one of the many ways God will pound the pride out of a pastor. But only when we have this perspective, will we humbly embrace—rather than proudly react to—the criticism when (not if) it arrives.
 William P. Farley, “The Poison of Self-Pity,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Summer 2007), 17.
 Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1869/2007), 377.
I have often been asked what it was like to pastor at Covenant Life Church for 27 years. Here is my immediate response: It was an unspeakable privilege and joy to serve this remarkable church. I’m not sure a single day passed that I did not receive encouragement from a kind member of the church.
And my experience is not unique. To pastor in Sovereign Grace Ministries is to be on the receiving end of encouragement every week and often every day. We have the privilege of serving grateful folks who love us and excel in communicating gratefulness. We simply do not deserve their support and encouragement. They make pastoral ministry a pure joy.
Well, most of them do.
In every church there will be those who are not particularly grateful, who normally communicate with you only in the form of criticism. And to some degree this is the norm for every pastor.
If you are a pastor you will be criticized. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually you will feel the sharp sting of critique.
Those within your church may criticize you, those who leave the church may criticize you, and even complete strangers may criticize you. The criticism will come from enemies and from friends. Some of the criticism will be true, some of it will be false, and some may be outright malicious. But it’s coming—if it hasn’t already arrived.
And there are many reasons why we can expect criticism:
- A pastor can expect criticism because of his own sin, which will inevitably be present in his heart and service, no matter how mature or well meaning he is (James 3:2).
- A pastor can expect criticism because there are limitations to his gifting, meaning there will always be weaknesses in his leadership.
- A pastor can expect criticism because we often preach below-average sermons. (After one sermon, a guy asked me, “So where do you work during the week?” My sermon apparently gave him the impression that preaching wasn’t my vocation.)
- A pastor can expect criticism because people can be proud and ungrateful.
- A pastor can expect criticism because, well, it is a sinful and fallen world.
But we as pastors often forget one more important reason:
- A pastor can expect criticism because it is part of God’s sanctification process—a tool that he uses to reveal idols and accelerate the pastor’s growth in humility.
God enlists many to serve us to this end.
Puritan Richard Baxter got this. In his book to pastors, The Reformed Pastor, he wrote,
Because there are many eyes upon you, therefore there will be many observers of your falls. If other men may sin without observation, so cannot you. And you should thankfully consider how great a mercy this is, that you have so many eyes to watch over you, and so many ready to tell you of your faults, and so have greater helps than others, at least for the restraining of your sin. Though they may do it with a malicious mind, yet you have the advantage by it.*
According to Baxter, the critique of many is actually a great advantage to pastors. This is a great mercy—at least I keep telling myself it is. And I have to keep reminding myself because criticism isn’t my personal preference.
I would prefer to mature through less painful means. I would prefer to mature through a flood of sanctified encouragement—that’s what I’m talking about!
But the reality is that I have grown far, far, far, far, far more from criticism and correction than from all the wonderful encouragement I have received over the years.
So God uses correction to mature pastors. That seems to be the norm. And this is God’s great mercy to help me see my own pride and sin. (If you’ve discovered a way to avoid criticism and still grow, please give me a call!)
If you are a pastor, you will be criticized and corrected. It’s coming. We must be prepared for it, and we must see it as God’s means for our sanctification. How we respond to criticism (both from friends and from less-than-friends) is absolutely critical. I regret the many times I haven’t responded humbly to correction. I desire to grow in perceiving correction as a great mercy from God.
So for the next several days I will be writing out some of my thoughts, biblical reflections, and personal experiences in this series: “The Pastor and Personal Criticism.”
[Note: In this series I will use the terms criticism and correction interchangeably. I recognize the distinction between these two terms: criticism is a voiced disapproval of faults without a concern for resolving those faults; correction is feedback to rectify an error. The difference seems to be in the intent of the observer: the one simply points out apparent flaws, while the other points to apparent flaws and seeks to help bring change. However, because the pastor’s response is similar in either case, I think a careful distinction between the words isn’t necessary in this series.]
* The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 14, The Reformed Pastor (London: Paternoster, 1830), 64–65.
January 21, 2011 by Tony Reinke
John Newton (1725–1807) referred to himself as “an apostate, a blasphemer, and an infidel,” and he wasn’t joking. Although he was born to a Christian mother, Newton’s early adulthood was marked by atheism, witchcraft, and blasphemy so vulgar that sailors blushed.
Newton was a sailor and spent much of his life on the sea, eventually working his way up to captain of a slave-trading ship. While on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1748, his life was jostled by a violent thunderstorm at sea. The storm nearly sunk his ship—it did wreck his pride.
That experience shook Newton to the core. He was eventually converted and would later write an autobiographical hymn, “Amazing Grace,” about God’s kindness that “saved a wretch like me.”
God’s dramatic call on Newton’s life pulled him out of darkness, into the light, and eventually placed him into pastoral ministry. Without formal training or education Newton entered the ministry, faithfully serving two congregations in and around London for 43 years. In these years Newton penned hundreds of hymns, sermons, and stacks of pastoral letters on topics of great value to the Christian life.
“Newton was indubitably one of the three greatest eighteenth-century evangelical leaders,” J. I. Packer writes. “As a warm-hearted pastoral counselor, in groups and by letter, he had no peer."
Those peerless letters cover a wide variety of topics and are biblically rich, pastorally wise, and—like Newton himself—street smart. And they offer rich pastoral counsel to any reader who is willing to snoop around in someone’s old outbox.
Today we launch a new blog series titled Reading Newton’s Mail. The series will feature a few highlights from Newton’s published letters. Although I plan to write most of the posts, C.J. may join the fun and contribute a post to the series on occasion.
Watch for Reading Newton’s Mail on Fridays here on the Cheap Seats blog.
Tony Reinke serves as C.J. Mahaney’s editorial and research assistant.
January 19, 2011 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Friendship | Fellowship
In conversations I often want to dispense with small talk—let’s just get to the point. But underneath this haste is an assumption that small talk or casual conversation is superficial and worthless.
No so, according to my friend David Powlison.
A while back I interviewed David about his ministry and writing, and at one point I asked him to explain the purpose of his book Speaking Truth in Love. As a way of summary, David made a point that I have returned to on many occasions since. David said:
When I use the word counseling I don't mean a Ph.D. in psychotherapy in an office. I mean the way the Bible talks about counseling, which is the effect of the tongue, and the effect of our lives on each other. We are changed by relating to each other when we relate wisely. And that may happen in an office. Every pastor is going to make appointments and there will be times that you sit down with someone, or you just say to a wise friend, “Can we get together?” You talk and counsel happens. Or it could be just the most casual kind of conversation.
In God's view there is never an inconsequential word that anybody ever says. Every word counts. We are not always aware of that. Jesus says you will be judged for every careless word you utter (Matthew 12:36). That means that when you climb into anything a person ever says you find profound things revealed about what they are about: what they are after, what their intentions are, what their worldview is. Even in small talk there is a revelation of the heart that God is searching out, and he weighs the intentionality of small talk.
Small talk: it is either a way for me to say, “I don't want to know you and I don't want you to know you and so I am going to keep it light and make it as quick as possible and see you later.” Or small talk is a way to say, “I care about you. I would like to get to know you.” We can talk about a football team or the weather and it is actually an expression of two human beings making that connection, but it is because we love each other or want to know each other.
Small talk is going to be judged by God for the kind of deep intentionality it is. In other words, small talk is counsel.
Then David introduced Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Thus, he says,
Let no word be spoken that is not nutritional, constructive, timely, appropriate, grace-giving. Every word. Never anything else. The Bible sets a very high bar. The way that we converse with each other is meant to be a means of grace so that we influence each other unto faith, unto joy, unto love, unto gratitude, unto honesty, and unto confession. All those things are meant to happen in daily life interactions.
David then referenced our dinner conversation earlier in the week, where we talked about the history of baseball (and of our mutual disdain for the New York Yankees!). He said,
We were not trying to avoid each other by talking about baseball. We are actually enjoying each other. It’s part of the pleasure of two men being friends that we had a ball talking about baseball for about 20 minutes and then we talked about lots of other things—yes, that were more substantial—but the baseball part of the talk was not inconsequential. It was part of our pleasure in being friends.
An excellent point! And David’s point is one that has changed my perspective of small talk and my practice of engaging in it.
You can listen to my full interview with David here.
January 5, 2011 by Tony Reinke
January is a great month for personal planning. It’s the one time of year when a majority of us study our twelve-month calendar and put some thought into how to best structure our time. And this means January is a good month to think carefully about our personal priorities and goals. Hoping to help Christians think through how roles and goals impact scheduling, C.J. wrote a blog series that can now be download as a 36-page PDF by clicking here: "Biblical Productivity" (0.6 MB).
[Update: Link fixed]