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  • Dane Bundy

The Toll of Victory in the Hour of Great Success (Part 2)



Editor's Note: This is part two in a series of articles exploring Charles Spurgeon’s lessons to his students on the six occasions in which a pastor might encounter depression and despair. You can see all published articles here.

 

Last week, we reflected on a reality that’s easy to forget: we’re in a spiritual and cosmic war. Satan and his demonic forces truly exist, and so does God and his legions of angelic hosts. But this is not an equal match: God has already won the war through Christ!


However, as Christians we still face warfare, and one of Satan’s tactics is to discourage us. Addressing young pastors, Charles Spurgeon was clear that ministers are not immune to despair or depression. The gospel-centered pulpit is a fierce battleground.


In the chapter, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” from Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon offers six scenarios in which a pastor might encounter the darkest clouds of depression. Each scenario presupposes the sovereign hand of our loving and wise God. When disaster strikes, God is not reeling, wondering what just happened or fretting over how the war took this turn. No, for Spurgeon, it’s a bedrock principle that seasons of darkness, though terribly difficult, are for our growth and God’s glory.


In this installment, we’ll explore the first occasion in which a pastor might be downcast: during the hour of great success. We’ll then make an application, noting some principles that we can use to pray for our pastors and find encouragement for ourselves and those around us.


THE HOUR OF GREAT SUCCESS


Of all the occasions that Spurgeon lists, this one is the most ironic. We would expect that in seasons of failure, a pastor would face despair . . . but in times of success?


The idea is simple.


When God does great things through His people, He accounts for their frailty. He knows our tendency toward pride. Right after God does an incredible work, how easily we can be swept into thinking that we are the source . . . and we are pretty great! Thus, Spurgeon writes, "The Lord seldom exposes His warriors to the perils of exultation over victory; He knows that few of them can endure such a test, and therefore dashes their cup with bitterness" (159).


ELIJAH AND HIS DESPAIR


We can find many examples of the dashing of bitterness in Scripture after moments of victory. Spurgeon highlights Elijah who battles in spectacular fashion against the prophets of Baal (159). Do you remember that incredible faceoff in 2 Kings 18?


The question at hand was fundamental: Who is the living and powerful one: Baal or Yahweh?


The prophets of Baal go first, flailing themselves about and failing to rouse their god to do anything at all. Elijah then steps forward, prays, and God consumes the altar with fire! And lest some conclude this was a coincidence, Elijah first drenched the wood in liquid. God proves himself through Elijah as the mighty God of the universe. Israel then falls to their knees and Elijah slaughters the false prophets.


Victory!


And yet, the very next scene we see Elijah running away (2 Kings 19). Human thinking would lead us to believe that after a miraculous display of power like this Elijah would never doubt God again! But Jezebel sends him a death threat, and like lighting, terror strikes this warrior prophet, propelling him into the wilderness waving a white flag. In the trenches of despair and under a tree, Elijah proclaims that he wants to die . . . and then falls fast asleep exhausted and devastated.

But God is not absent.


He restores this weary warrior with sleep and food. After attending to his body, God moves to Elijah’s heart and mind, for he’s still in despair. It’s less exhaustion now, and more that he believes he is the only faithful man in all of Israel. And after this tremendous battle with Ahab, what is his reward? A death threat from a powerful and frightening woman. That would send me fleeing, too!


But God doesn’t let Elijah stew in his false thinking. He tells Elijah that he is not the only faithful one in Israel, and that he will save seven thousand from bowing down to Baal. Then, God sends Elijah on to his next mission.

What would have happened if all went well after the faceoff, if Jezebel never threatened him? Maybe Israel would have rallied around Elijah, showering him with praise! Maybe they would have tried to make him King like the people did with Gideon (Judges 8:22)? We don’t know.


What we do know, and what Spurgeon would want us to know, is that God did not waste Elijah’s despair. God knows that unrestrained pride is far more dangerous than a downcast spirit. For Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) and the Psalmist says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit . . .” (51:17). Humility and brokenness, though seen in our culture as weak and intolerable, are fresh soil for God’s good work.


PAUL AND HIS THORN


Spurgeon offers another way to look at why God would allow discouragement after victory (159): the answer is found in Paul and his thorn of flesh (2 Corinthians 12). The context of Paul’s letter here is important. In the Corinthian church, super-apostles had infiltrated the church and were trying to undermine Paul’s authority. These super-apostles were charismatic and confident in the spoken word, while Paul was not. These men looked powerful, and Paul–at least in person–looked weak. What a stumbling block this was for the Corinthians!


Paul addresses this by sharing that many years ago God gave him an incredible vision of heaven, and on the other side of it, God also gave him a thorn in the flesh. Why? Paul explains, “[T]o keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor. 12:7). Note here that Paul sees Satan as playing a role in his thorn, but it’s a secondary role, for Satan is an instrument in the hand of God. Just like in the story of Job, even Satan must seek permission from God to wreak havoc.


But the thorn was so painful that Paul pleads with God to remove it, and three times God declines. Why? God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). These false apostles and the Corinthian church were swept up in worldly thinking, for in the Kingdom of God, human strength is weakness and weakness is strength. Paul undermines these charlatans by boasting in his weaknesses, for through them God shows himself powerful!


MAN AND OUR BALLOON


This reminds me of a story: a number of years ago Megan and I rode in a hot air balloon. I can still feel the excitement of rising higher and higher in the air until whatever was holding us to the ground – probably large ropes – was fully extended. As a young twenty year old, I promise you I wanted to go higher and fly farther, but that never happened. For a variety of reasons, someone decided that that was high enough. And I appreciate that, because if they would have let go of the ropes, we would have flown away. And perhaps I would have been exhilarated for a moment, but eventually, we’d run out of propane and come crashing down in horror.


Human achievement is like riding in a hot air balloon. Moments of success can feel like God is sweeping us to the clouds in a balloon–and we want it to last forever. But God knows that without limits, we will fly away only to hurt ourselves and others. "Excess of joy or excitement,” Spurgeon explains, “must be paid for by subsequent depressions" (159). These depressions keep us grounded, preventing us from soaring far beyond the Tower of Babel.


Spurgeon continues:


Whirled from off our feet by a revival, carried aloft by popularity, exalted by success in soul-winning, we should be as the chaff which the wind driveth away, were it not that the gracious discipline of mercy breaks the ships of our vain glory with a strong east wind, and casts us shipwrecked, naked and forlorn, upon the Rock of Ages (159).


With eyes of faith, we can see Elijah’s death threat and Paul’s thorn as God’s merciful ropes, tethering them to the Rock of Ages. What an act of grace! As Os Hillman writes, “Remember, visions make leaders passionate, but thorns keep them authentic.”


HOW MIGHT WE APPLY THIS?


1. Pray for our pastor’s sustenance


God has not called me to pastoral ministry, but my guess is that when things from the outside look great in our churches – souls are coming to Christ, baptisms are taking place, buildings are expanding – we have no clue of all that’s going on inside. For our pastors, these moments of great exultation may be accompanied with a fierce Jezebel or a painful thorn.

We know God allows these things for our pastor’s good, but that does not make the burden any lighter! For our pastors, though gifted and equipped by the grace of God, are still jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7); they are still very much human.


So, pray that God might sustain them in moments when the church seems to be thriving! I’ve noticed there’s nearly always a burden on the other side of a blessing. Like Elijah, ask that God might restore their bodies and souls with things like sleep and good food and kind words, and plead that God might rejuvenate them with the hope and joy of Christ, so they might continue on when they find themselves weary and in the wilderness.


2. Don’t believe the lies


So, what about us laypeople? And those of us drawn to the creative arts?


Like Elijah, many of us battle a broken spirit and a discouraged soul after victories. While our call may not be to the pulpit, we’re laboring to raise families, create beautiful things, and be a light in the corridors of our businesses. Why would Paul tell the Thessalonians, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13)? Because following Christ–though full of joy and hope–is a call to lose our lives that we might gain them (Matthew 16:25). Faithful Christian living is wartime service.


And, in Ephesians 6, Paul offers us practical advice for thriving in this cosmic war–“Put on the whole armor of God,” that we might “stand against the schemes of the devil” (12). And the first piece of armor that Paul mentions is the belt– “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth . . . ” (14).


I have a dear friend–and also a pastor–who’s walked with me through many dark times. On frequent occasions, I’ve texted him for prayer and shared with him the obstinate cloud that hung over me. Always kind and quick to listen, this friend often responded with these words: don’t believe the lies.


When we’re facing a Jezebel in the wilderness or a thorn in our side, our frail bodies and raging emotions tell us things that are not true. Satan and his forces love to use these instances to deceive and dismantle.


“You’re the only faithful one in the church.”


“There’s no hope for me.”


“My child will never return to the arms of Christ.”


“I have no worth.”


“I cannot go on any longer.”


What must we do?


Step back and do not believe the lies. Fasten that belt around your waist. Return to the unfiltered Word of God; preach the gospel to yourself; meditate on the grace and mercy of our Lord.


In Christ, we are forgiven.


In Christ, we are called, justified, and glorified.


In Christ, we have all the riches of wisdom and power.


In Christ, we are beloved; we have meaning and purpose.


You may need help assembling the armor of God, keeping the belt of truth around your waist. I do! That’s to be expected. Look around you and ask for help.


Next week, we’ll explore the second occasion in which Charles Spurgeon says depression meets pastors: before any great achievement.


Talk soon, friends!

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