With palpable darkness descending over Middle-earth, and the splintered fellowship driving east toward Mordor, the hobbit Pippin observes in Gandalf a glimpse of deep, stabilizing joy, a joy characteristic of good wizards—and good pastors—alike:
In the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently, he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.
Under all there was a great joy. Yes, indeed. Just as there had been, every step of the way, for the Man of Sorrows. Or, as the apostle Paul says, “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). And not faint joy, but a fountain. Great joy.
Christian pastors carry great sorrows. Not that others don’t. But to be a pastor means to answer the call to bear more weights, more burdens, more cares, more sorrows. Yet the work is also not without its multiplied joys. And not just joy that is icing on the cake, but an unshakable, subterranean joy that is essential for the work of the ministry, for keeping one’s balance in the most disorienting of days.
So, elders must aspire (1 Tim. 3:1). They must want to do the work, and then do it “with joy and not with groaning,” otherwise “that would be of no advantage” to the flock (Heb. 13:17). Good pastors look beyond the barriers of their present distresses to “the glory that is going to be revealed” (1 Pet. 5:1). Laboring as a team, they remind each other, when the chief Shepherd appears, we “will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4).
But joy is not just the promise of the future. Even now, there is a fountain of mirth. They “exercise oversight” with joy—“not for shameful gain,” says Peter, “but eagerly.” In fact, such ministry for joy, from joy, finds its roots in God himself: “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Pet. 5:2). He is our great fountain of mirth, ready to gush forth, beneath every care and sorrow in this age.
TENDING TO JOY
Joy is vital in the work of pastor-elders, and such joy does not endure or deepen apart from tending. Pastors are both well-positioned to pursue such joy and in peril of neglecting to do so. Because pastors are teachers (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 2:12; 5:17; Heb. 13:7), we are in grave danger of preaching and teaching consuming our meditation. Subtly, God’s Word becomes something for others rather than first and foremost for ourselves.
Under-shepherds in the church are first, and most essentially, sheep. Our calling is to rejoice more that our names are written in heaven than that we’re the instruments of fruitful ministry (Luke 10:20). And sheep need to feed. Not just to feed others, but to be fed by the chief Shepherd himself. We need to go out to pasture and fill our own spiritual stomachs, to maintain and nurture and deepen our own affection for Christ and our sense of nearness to him.
But more specifically, what is that “fountain of mirth”? What is the one well, among other sources of joy, from which the pastor must drink most deeply? It’s the Book. The very words of God that we have been entrusted to teach are the very words that are vital for feeding, sustaining, and merrying our own souls. We may marshal the full range of natural and spiritual means to tend our hearts, but we cannot minimize or ignore the most fundamental elixir of spiritual vibrancy: the Word of God.
ENJOYING THE BOOK
So, as pastors, we read, study, and meditate not just for our next teaching assignment, or even with a direct eye on future ministry. We come morning by morning to our God for food for our own soul. We seek to gather a day’s portion. We go out to pasture. We lose track of time. Later on, we’ll think about what and how to teach. There’s the rest of the day for that.
Healthy pastors aim to take in far more than we put out in public teaching. We want to die to any sense of thinking, If I read it, or think it, I need to use it. No, we don’t. Pastoral ministry is not so efficient, not so American. It’s human—not animal, not machine. We want our teaching ministry—in prayers, in devotions, in conservations, in counseling, in text messages, in letters, in sermons—to be just the tip of the iceberg of the movements and stirrings and delights and reverent meditations of our souls.
BE IN THE BOOK
The apostle Paul did not suffer lazy Christians (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6–15), and especially not lazy pastors (1 Tim. 4:10; 5:17–18; 1 Thess. 5:12–13). And Book work is often hard work. Paul writes to his protégé Timothy, and to all pastors, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). That right handling of God’s Word begins in tending to our own hearts with the truth, long before we stand up in public to reveal them. Christ means for his under-shepherds to be men of his Book—not mere academics of it but enjoyers of it.
Paul tells Timothy, and us, to devote ourselves “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). “Practice these things,” he says, “immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). Do our people see our progress over time, not because we’re studying to impress, but because we’re tending to our hearts in unhurried, even leisurely meditation in this Book? Is our love for God himself, through his words, becoming increasingly contagious?
“Immerse yourself in them”—literally, “be in them.” Brothers, let’s be in the Bible. We can’t commend what we don’t cherish. We can’t teach well, and for long, what we’re not immersing ourselves in. To be a pastor is to be called to “be in” the word of God, without leave. To be ready in season and out (2 Tim. 4:2).
KEEP A CLOSE WATCH
Tending to our hearts doesn’t mean peeling at the layers of our internal, subjective hearts with amateur analyses. It means standing daily before the reflecting glass of God’s Word for the sake of our own souls (Jas. 1:23–25).
And in tending to ourselves with the words of God, we guard our teaching and our people from error—both the error of untrue words and the error of an undue demeanor in handling God’s Word. As we tend to our own hearts with the truths of heaven, we are not ignoring our people but caring well for them. The two go hand in hand. Paul said to the Ephesian elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). And he said to Timothy who was in Ephesus:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim. 4:16)
Brothers, we have permission to set aside our next sermon, open the Book, and simply tend to our own heart for an unhurried season each day. Indeed we have a call—to drink at the fountain of mirth. Our people need leaders with great joy under all the many cares and sorrows.
This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission of NineMarks.