Dealing with regrets in ministry

21 Aug

Every once in a while you will hear someone who has been in the ministry for a long time and has achieved some measure of success asked whether or not they have any regrets.

Twice now I have heard different leaders sort of stumble as they try to answer that question, finally saying no, not really, they can’t think of anything in particular.

And I guess there’s a sense in which I understand what they mean if they are referring to the sovereignty of God over their lives and ministries. I have absolutely no regrets about the way in which God has treated me. How can you regret grace upon grace? But on the other hand I definitely have a hard time understanding their answer if they are referring to their own actions in the ministry.

No regrets?

Are you serious?

I have only been a pastor for twelve years now and I look back on the way I have served and I have all kinds of things I wish I would have done better. If I didn’t believe in justification by faith alone through grace alone, I would be wrecked (and I am not even naturally an emotional up and down kind of guy.) What makes my regrets so painful I think, is not so much the way my own failures have effected my life (because it seems to me God has often done the most amazing things in my life through those very failures), what makes these regrets so regrettable is the way I imagine my ministry failures have potentially impacted others. A failure to confront when I should have confronted, a lack of love, a failure in leadership, I can easily see how someone could be paralyzed in terms of service, because there are just so many ways to go wrong even when you are trying to do what is right. In fact, sometimes you are doing right and wrong at the same time and you don’t even know it.

I think this is a big part of why I am so thankful for the truth Paul expresses in Philippians 1:6.

He writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul was confident that God would finish what he started in these believers lives. Obviously that didn’t make Paul lazy and it didn’t cause him to be less careful about personal holiness, but I am sure it gave him confidence. It certainly does that for me. It means if the work in a person’s life is real, it is not something I began and it’s not something I can stop. Knowing that takes away undue pride in the results I might see in ministry, but I will gladly give that pride up, because knowing this also takes away undue anxiety over how my inadequacies might mess people up. I can’t stop the work of God.

Now any person who sees a truth like this as an excuse for a lack of spiritual growth and a lack of seriousness about the ministry needs a good kick in the pants. Of course. And any person who sees this as a reason for a complacent and apathetic attitude towards one’s actions in the ministry is seriously distorting this truth. I get that. But for others of us, for the kind of person who feels so inadequate to be representing the King of the Universe, not because of a lack of spiritual growth or seriousness about the ministry, but just because of the ways we see how we have failed to be exactly like Jesus the way we wish we could be and know we should be, this is exactly the kind of truth we can and must apply to our lives and ministries when we begin dwelling on our regrets.

Do you really think you are the only one who loves that person you want to minister to? God loves them so much more than you. And do you really think that you are so important that if you fail, God will fail to accomplish what He has planned? And knowing that transforms the way we think about our regrets. Instead of dwelling in self-pity or being paralyzed by the thought of making a mistake, we rejoice even as we sorrow in a gracious God who uses imperfect people as part of His great plan to glorify Himself and glorify His people as well.

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