One great truth about the Christian pastoral ministry that comforts me, a pastor, is this: my devotion, passion, or piety is not ultimately what makes my sermons edifying or my ministry successful (in the biblical sense of the terms). I should pray for growth in devotion, passion, and piety, but if my sermons are edifying and my ministry is a success, it is first and foremost because of God’s amazing grace (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10).
I learned this truth from John Newton, a man who preached scores of Christ centered sermons that God used to convert sinners and sanctify saints. At the same time, he suffered long bouts of what we might call spiritual depression. Here’s what he said once about his passion and devotion:
“My inward frame I know not how to describe. In general I seem unable to get near the Lord, and yet by grace am restrained from wandering very far away. Coldness in prayer, and darkness, and formality in reading the word are almost my continual burden. I want to be more lively, feeling, and affectionate in spiritual things, but I feel the dead weight of unbelief and indwelling sin keeping me low. I think my desire is towards the Lord. My hope, my trust is in Jesus; other refuge I neither have nor desire.”
Even when Newton was spiritually cold he stood behind the pulpit and preached the gospel of grace. His passion didn’t always drive him to the pulpit; the gospel did, so he could preach even when he was spiritually cold. On the same theme, here’s a note he wrote to a young pastor who was struggling with spiritual depression.
“…If the Lord is pleased to keep us short of those comforts which he has taught us to prize, and, instead of lively sensations of joy and praise, we feel a languor and deadness of spirit, provided we do indeed feel it, and are humbled for it, we have no need to give way to despondency or excessive sorrow. Still the foundation of our hope, and the ground of our abiding joys, is the same. And the heart may be as really alive to God, and grace as truly in exercise, when we walk in comparative darkness and see little light, as when the frame of our spirits is more comfortable. Neither the reality nor the measure of grace can be properly estimated by the degree of our sensible comforts. …Your experiences will vary, but his love and promises are always unchangeable.”
So as a pastor, I should desire and strive for more passion and devotion to Christ; I should (and do!) pray for more godly zeal. However, my hope is not built on my passion and devotion. I do not preach my passion and devotion; they are not my refuge, they are not the gospel. My devotion does not fuel my ministry. The gospel of grace does. And again, back to where we started: my sermons and ministry depend not upon my passion and personal devotion, but upon God’s unchanging grace.
In other words, my feelings and passion wax and wane, but the gospel does not! So I can preach through the “spiritual winters” of my own life – and encourage Christians to press on through their “spiritual winters.” And I tell them what Newton said, “Your experiences will vary, but his love and promises are always unchangeable.”
The first quote above is found on page 145 of But Now I See: The Life of John Newton. The second is found in “Letter Five” of Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. If this topic interests you, I highly recommend reading “Letter Five” of Wise Counsel.