Feed the Sheep by Any Hand: Fighting Envy in Pastoral Ministry
I often need to check myself as to whether I am placing the emphasis on “the Lord’s ministry through me” or “the Lord’s ministry through me.” I suspect most pastors and leaders know what I mean.
The weed grows quietly. How are my articles doing? How is my small group maturing? How is my book selling, my podcast rating? Are my Sunday-morning prayers especially encouraging? Is my preaching, my marriage counseling, my evangelistic effort particularly effective?
I am not talking about the holy ambition proper to a minister who loves souls and the glory of Christ (Romans 15:20). I am talking about a self-congratulatory spirit that pats oneself on the back and thinks better of the work simply because it is his. I am talking about tangled motives. The silent smirk or sunken shoulders. The slipping of some glory into one’s pocket. The temptation captured in John Bunyan’s response when someone told him he had preached a delightful sermon: “You are too late; the devil told me that before I left the pulpit.”
The success of others, even close friends, can reveal the drift. The warm sensation that washes over when they excel in the area where your strengths also lie. The gnawing suspicion, the feeling of threat, the envy, the bitterness, the embarrassment, the self-pity. Instead of rejoicing that God has advanced his own name and benefited souls, all is not well simply because the eternal God chose to use them instead of me.
The temptation stands to full height, however, when others succeed in the very place that we have failed. Someone else takes the people higher than we could climb, leads them farther than we could walk. We, like Saul, have conquered our thousands, yet the people sing of another who has conquered his ten thousands. We are the lesser light. The comparison drove Saul mad. He hurled a spear at David to kill him (1 Samuel 18:10–11). What is our response?
We might pray, however much ministry still lies ahead of us, that we have the shepherd’s heart that Moses did in his final days.
Looking at the Promise
Let’s appreciate the difficulty facing Moses at the end of his ministry. After Moses had “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter”; after he had chosen rather to be “mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24–25); after bringing Egypt to its knees, leading Israel through the Red Sea, climbing Mount Sinai, and wandering for decades in the wilderness, his journey ends overlooking — but not overstepping — the boundary to the Promised Land.
Old age, you may remember, did not bar the prophet from the land of milk and honey. “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). The Delilah of old age did not cut the lock of his strength; God did.
God kept Moses from the Promised Land because of sin. Frustrated with the people (who were yet again complaining and grumbling), Moses struck with his staff the water-giving Rock, a type of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4; Numbers 20:11). God told him to speak to the rock, but Moses went with a more aggressive approach (Numbers 20:8). Afterward, God said,
Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Numbers 20:12)
And he did not.
In his final days, God led Moses up a mountain and showed him the full breadth and length of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1–4). And there — overlooking the land he led the people toward for decades — Moses died. The privilege to lead the people across the Jordan fell to his assistant, Joshua. God himself buried his servant on that mountain, on the wrong side of the Jordan (Deuteronomy 34:5–6). He allowed Moses to lead them out of Egypt, but not into the land of promise.
Heart of a Shepherd
Disciplined and disappointed, how does Moses respond?
After the Lord calls him to go up the mountain and reminds him why he won’t enter (Numbers 27:12–14), Moses, the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3), answers,
Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd. (Numbers 27:15–17)
Here is the heart of a faithful shepherd. Here is an example for pastors and leaders to follow. Moses does not grumble. He does not accuse God of unfairness. He does not mope that God would not listen to his requests to enter the land (Deuteronomy 3:25–26). He does not sabotage Joshua or hurl spears at him. He does not consider his reputation, or his ministry, above the God he ministered for and the people he ministered to. He asks his God, in full submission to his will, not to leave the people shepherdless.
Then Feed My Sheep
This is not the last time we see Moses alive in Scripture. Do you remember where else he appears?
Many hundreds of years later, Moses would meet the great Shepherd of God’s people face to face. On a different mountain, the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses would speak with Jesus. What did they discuss? Jesus’s “departure” (literally, his “exodus,” Luke 9:31). Moses stands with Elijah, speaking to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, about how he would not abandon his sheep to the wolves as a hireling might, but would lay down his life for them. And about how he would rise, for he would not leave the sheep shepherdless.
This is the love that disentangles the nagging sense of self from our service.
We find due north again in our labors when we, like Paul, begin to yearn for the church with the affections of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:8), to be in labor pains until Christ is formed in her (Galatians 4:19). When we see her — in the small measure we get to labor in her service — as our hope and our joy and our crown of boasting before the Lord at his return (1 Thessalonians 2:19).
This love purifies our ambition for lasting influence while restoring the humble delight when greater success falls to another. We seek to do the church good while hoping others do more good than we ever could. Threats become brothers to us again when we learn to long for others’ success where we have failed, when we long for others to take God’s people across the Jordans we never could. When we begin to pray, “Feed the sheep by any hand.”
This love for Christ’s bride shakes us free from posturing for her attention and admiration. We play our parts, knowing that loving her is loving him, as Jesus himself reminds us: “Pastor, leader, minister, do you love me? Then shepherd my lambs” (John 21:15–17).