by Tom Flaherty.

conesI was late one day for a pastors’ cluster, so when the entrance to the parking lot was blocked by cones, I decided to sneak around. No one was watching, I thought, but as soon as I had maneuvered my vehicle to the other side of the cones, the worst possible person appeared as if by magic. It was a custodian, a friend of mine from the past when I was on staff at Lake City Church. I rolled down the window and told him how sorry I was for ignoring his cones.

He was genuinely upset. “Do you know what happens when people sneak around the cones?” he asked, not waiting for my reply. “It leaves tread marks in the grass that encourage others to do the same. How are we supposed to get people to do the right thing when even the leaders don’t do it?”

I told him how sorry I was and asked his forgiveness, which he gave (I think). After he left, I just sat in the car and let God deal with me. This small event, I realized, was a picture of my life at the time. I had become very busy running from one meeting to another – meetings at church, meetings with family, meetings at school, meetings with pastors. I didn’t seem to be able to stop. What was being cheated was my private time with God, where I don’t prepare sermons or plan anything but only worship and enjoy Jesus for His own sake.

I still prayed because I needed God to help me with all of my responsibilities. But I had lost the first love, that delight that finds its reward in who God is and not in what He can do for me.

No one else noticed except my wife and the Holy Spirit. I could continue on in this way and fool most people, but it was clear to me that if I did, it would lead to more and more compromise in private that would leave tread marks for others to certainly follow.

But I had a choice. It’s not too late, I felt the Holy Spirit say. I just needed to acknowledge my sin and seek a new passion for God.

This time of soul-searching reminded me of another experience during a 40-day fast many years earlier. We had called the fast for the purpose of seeking God for his power. I was hungry to see God do the things he had done in the Gospels and Acts. I was crying out for him to renew his deeds in our day, to do something that only God could do.

Around Day 20, I was given a sentence in my thoughts that completely changed the rest of the fast. I think it was from God, because it was so counter to how I was thinking at the time. It was this: “I never want your public anointing to be greater than your private devotion.”

I had to admit that my public anointing was already greater than my private devotion. I was praying for more anointing which, if answered, could have led to a disaster, because I didn’t have the private devotion to sustain more of God’s power.

All of a sudden I understood why God doesn’t do more through us. It’s not that He doesn’t want to; it’s that He doesn’t want to lose us in the process. Power, and the resulting recognition that comes from it, can quickly lead to spiritual pride and blindness. The Bible declares that many will say in that day, “Lord, we prophesied in your name; we did miracles in your name; we led meetings in your name; we preached sermons in your name…” And He will reply, “Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness, I never knew you.” These will be people who were genuinely anointed in ministry but at some point started using it for their own purpose instead of submitting to God’s. They probably had met Christ, but had never pressed on to really “know” Him.

Certainly a pastor couldn’t be at risk of missing heaven? Certainly this is just about being more or less fruitful rather than a warning of ending up lost after preaching salvation to others, right?

I don’t know for sure, but I read a Scripture recently that scares me with regard to pastors who neglect private devotion because of the “demands” of ministry and then find their hearts hardening. My advice is to not try to fit this passage into your theology but to simply let it release a fresh fear of the Lord in your heart, so that you never wander from the safety of a life focused on devotion instead of ministry. Here it is:

“Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time?” (This sounds like the job description of a pastor to me) “Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that evil slave says in his heart, ‘My master is not coming for a long time,’ and begins to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 24:45-51)

May God keep us in close fellowship with Himself.

Tom Flaherty is Lead Pastor of City Church in Madison, Wisconsin.

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