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Pastoring by Grace, Section 2

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Part 3 of series: Grace in the Rearview Mirror: A Pastoral Retrospective
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In my last post I explained my conviction that my pastoral work at Irvine Presbyterian Church was by God’s grace. The gifts and talents that enabled me to be a pastor are themselves evidence of grace. Moreover, in many and various ways I experienced God’s grace in the form of extra help when I most needed it.

Let me cite two common examples. There were many, many times when, as I was preparing a sermon, I’d get stuck. Either I couldn’t figure out the precise meaning of a biblical passage, or I knew the meaning but was lacking a strong illustration to bring home the point. In these times I’d call out to God for extra help. Sometimes I’d have to wait on Him for a while before that help would come. But there were many times when the Holy Spirit would immediately respond to my request. All of a sudden I’d see what was really going on in a biblical passage. Or in a moment I’d have a fantastic illustration. There was no question in my mind that God was helping me by His grace. Was I working hard to be a truthful, relevant preacher? Yes, indeed. But it was also God’s grace working through me. (Photo: I’m holding forth in the sanctuary of Irvine Pres.)

There were quite a few times during the past sixteen years when I became discouraged. Often these were associated with overwork, and with my subsequent neglect of my family, my devotional time, and my personal health. But they usually began with some negative event, or perhaps with a harsh word of criticism from somebody in the church. When my heart felt heavy, I’d call out to God for help. Sometimes this process of crying out went on for days or even months. But there were other times when the Lord answered my prayers quickly. For example, dozens of times when I was feeling discouraged, a member of the church would come up to me and, out of the blue, tell me a story about how something I had done really helped them in their faith. Similarly, there were many times when encouragement would come in the form of thank you notes or e-mails. These were such obvious instances of God’s grace helping me to keep going as a pastor.

Yet I want to add a word of caution. The examples I have just given might suggest that most of the time I was pastoring in my own strength. Then, in special moments, God helped me. I would admit that it sometimes felt like this. I can be rather dull spiritually, I must confess. But when I look back upon my ministry, I can see clearly that God was at work in and through me even when I was completely unaware of it. The special gifts of grace, like preaching illustrations or notes of encouragement, were simply times when God’s goodness to me was so obvious I couldn’t miss it. Besides, I believe that the natural talents that I used as a pastor were themselves gifts from God. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”

From this perspective, everything I invested in my ministry at Irvine was a gift of grace. This doesn’t deny the fact that I worked hard. But it sees even my very ability to work, my health and personal energy, as God’s grace active within me. Thus, as I look back at the last sixteen years of pastoral ministry, I rejoice in God’s grace, and I am filled with gratitude. I’ll have more to say about gratitude in my next post.

Topics: Pastors and Churches |

5 Responses to “Pastoring by Grace, Section 2”

  1. ChrisK Says:
    September 19th, 2007 at 6:35 am

    There’s no doubt the work Pastor Roberts did was wonderful, and he’s a blessing to his community. I think this is just one area, though, that hints at why agnostics and maybe atheists will find a loveliness and transcendence to life that Christians can’t.

    I have trouble wording it, but I think it’s that we non-believers take the idea of free will far more seriously than Christians. We believe more in the human heart and human potential.

    At least for me, the interesting parts of Pastor Roberts’s posting here is where he doesn’t seem to be able to take credit for his own decency, goodness, strength, and his unique contribution to the world. He thinks it’s an invisible being that did it. I think it’s as plain as the nose on my unbeliever face, though. It’s not God, it’s this man who we’re lucky enough that he somehow also fits blogging into his day.

    “The special gifts of grace…were simply times when God’s goodness to me was so obvious I couldn’t miss it…” I guess I just don’t buy it. I think it’s the culmination of hard study, hard work, and love Pastor Roberts put into social work and social justice over his lifetime. It’s him. He’s not just some conduit (almost like a puppet) of a supreme being. (I guess our parents were right! It’s hard work that gets us somewhere.)

    We’ll disagree. Maybe as a nonbeliever I just don’t get it—but also consider you Christian folk just don’t get it, and you’re missing something lovely. I feel great when I read about Mark Roberts’s very human & humane work and now have another example of just how high a level of decency, hardwork, and goodness I or any other human can aspire to, if we choose to work and love as hard as he did.

  2. DaveD Says:
    September 20th, 2007 at 9:19 am

    Maybe I just didn’t understand you point, Chris, but it brought on thoughts of an emptiness that scares me more than anything. My question would by “why bother” in an eternal sense. I am not being selfrighteous (your post was magnificent), but I am just stating what void that my faith fills in my life. The hole that would be there without it would disallow me to feel the way you do. Agnostics/Atheists who consistently desire to do good amaze me.

  3. Joel Frigon Says:
    September 20th, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Dear Mark,I have found in my life that while mountaintop experiences feel great, it is struggling in the valleys that makes me grow. Ever since I read Dr. Boyd’s “Prevenant Grace” I have been drawn to presbyterian philosophy. We are blessed to have pastors like you that are not afraid to be themselves and to allow us to see God working in their lives

    I was shocked to hear that some thought it was terrible for Mother Theresa to admit she sometimes doubted. I hope you may have a few words on the subject (Perhaps, I may have already missed them). Everybody doubts from time to time but have you ever noticed the solution does not come as a surprise. There may be doubt but then one day there is no more doubt and that is when the solution arrives. I love that period between no more doubt and the surprise solution.

    Thanks Paster Mark for you years of study, preparation and leadership and your inspiring Blog,

  4. real live preacher Says:
    September 21st, 2007 at 9:49 am

    Grace is such a deep thing. And I think it works over time. I resonate so with your words of the times of discouragement. I’ve never gotten a very thick skin, and you need something of that to be a pastor. But by grace, I’ve survived even the times that hurt.

  5. Robert Christopulos Says:
    January 31st, 2010 at 6:41 am

    Dear Mark,

    I read the response from Chris K. and found it interesting. Even though the post is 2 1/2 years old some of us still find it. He speaks to the human spirit and the magnificent deeds to which it can aspire, and as an athiest/agnostic seemed magnanimous in his approach to Christians, seeing little more than we, ourselves involved in self fulfilling activities. The problem is that he misses the point.

    It isn’t just that we believe God influences us mentally, but that God, the Sovereign God, reaches out from the Heavens and He will materially affect the universe around us while keeping the balance of natural law intact in the process. I have known The Lord Jesus now for nearly 63 years with more than 40 years spent in ministry. As I’ve learned to listen to the voice of God I’ve seen the miraculous so many times that I’ve come to expect it as a matter of course. This is not the venue to elaborate on the thousands of things I’ve seen but they are impossible to explain apart from God! No amount of good will can or could explain them. In Deuteronomy 1-4 Moses basically brings vivid expression of the things the nearly 2 1/2 million people saw and even Jesus uses this same methodology in Matthew 11 when he told John’s disciples to go back and report what they saw.

    Chris is trying to live without God. It doesn’t work. For those of us in partnership with Him we know the surpassing power of His Grace and the victory that is in Jesus. This is not accomplished by the human spirit but by His Spirit that is at work within us, around us, through us, and some times in spite of us.

    We do not ignore the horrors and hopelessness that so many feel, but rather allor Him to bring His Presence to bear upon the issues. This dramatically overpowers any humanistic/godless view of life.

    God Bless,



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