Prominent evangelical pastor C.J. Mahaney knows a thing or two about losing heart, having just returned earlier this year after temporarily stepping down from leading Sovereign Grace Ministries over allegations of character flaws by former SGM leaders. Mahaney delivered an emotional message on the opening day of the Together for the Gospel conference during which he immersed the attendees in studying the letter of Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth about not losing heart.
While Mahaney did not speak in detail or directly about his leave of absence and the drama surrounding that decision during his hour-long message on Tuesday, he did repeatedly talk about pastors being discouraged by opposition and at one point made a general statement that pastors can lose heart if the person that helped co-found the church leaves and slanders them, or if a staff member leaves and slanders them.
"Pastors, we can easily get discouraged. I find myself so easily discouraged. It is pathetic how easily I can be discouraged – easily discouraged by resistance, easily discouraged by opposition, easily discouraged by hardness of heart, easily discouraged by blindness," said Mahaney to some 8,000 pastors and church leaders gathered in Louisville, Ky., for the biennial event. "Look, pastoral ministry is a sacrificial call with unique challenges. We are called to take the Gospel to those with hard hearts and blind eyes. And we are called to proclaim and apply this message to those who have been regenerated, given sight, as well, for their hearts are prone to wander."
Because the conference is attended by pastors, Mahoney spoke as if to peers and co-workers, candidly addressing the common struggle of church leaders losing heart and wanting to leave ministry. Mondays, he said, are especially hard for pastors because they spend Sunday evening evaluating their sermon, and sometimes on top of their self-criticism, congregants send emails giving unfavorable assessments of their message.
"I can't help but wonder how many present feel this temptation (losing heart), or feel the effects of this temptation," the long-time pastor said. "You have perhaps in recent months been losing your heart for pastoral ministry, or you have remained faithful and skillful and fruitful, but you are no longer joyful. Gradually and perceptively, over a period of time, you have been losing heart…"
Mahaney's message at TG4 is titled "The Sustaining Power of the Gospel" and is based on 2 Corinthians 4. Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16 that despite all the hardships he faced, which he acknowledges in verses 8-9, that still "we do not lose heart." Mahaney walked the T4G attendees through the chapter to find out what was the secret or understanding that Paul had that allowed him to not lose hope despite the unimaginable persecution he faced.
First, Paul had a clear conviction of the ministry in which God called him out of the world to do. In 2 Corinthians 4:1, Mahaney pointed out, Paul writes, "Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."
Paul is keenly aware of his call and his purpose, which strengthens and protects him from losing heart, explained Mahaney. The reference to "this ministry" means his call to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, which is the same call of every pastor today.
"It is this ministry that made all the difference for Paul when he originally arrived in Corinth and experienced opposition to the proclamation of the Gospel at a time when he was tempted to lose heart," said the Sovereign Grace Ministries president.
"Pastoral ministry is about an ongoing confrontation with the god of this world, with blindness, hardness of heart, remaining sin. We do not lose heart, because we have this ministry. We do not lose heart, because we have this message that gives life and reveals glory; this message that transforms lives.
He added that pastors must not "tamper" with the Bible's message because they are proclaimers, not innovators.
Another understanding that Paul had that kept him from losing heart is the context and condition of ministry. Paul's resolve, Mahaney said, is his understanding and acceptance of the harsh realities of ministry in a fallen world. The apostle famously writes in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed."
Pastors should know and accept, Mahaney advised, that afflictions do not come in phases, but they all happen at one time to various degrees.
"Afflicted, bewildered, persecuted, struck down – all in a weekend, and it can be happening simultaneously," he said.
"[But] these harsh realities, they have a divine design. They are not accidental. They are all purposeful. All our weaknesses, sufferings are opportunities for God to display His grace and glory in our lives."
Mahaney, one of the four founders of T4G, stressed that while Paul acknowledges the suffering of ministry in verses 8-9, he celebrates the grace of God that sustains believers by putting the accent on the word "but": "but not crushed… but not in despair…but not abandoned…but not destroyed."
"Every pastor has but not written over his life," said Mahaney. "Endurance in ministry is rooted in the eternal perspective. The absence of an eternal perspective makes you vulnerable to losing heart."
His third and final point in what helped Paul not lose heart is that the apostle focused on the unseen and looked at the future.
In July 2011, Mahaney announced that he was taking a leave of absence from Sovereign Grace Ministries based in Gaithersburg, Md., to examine his soul after former SGM pastors and leaders accused him of character flaws such as "pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy." SGM is a network of local churches.
Mahaney had stated at the time that "These charges are serious and they have been very grieving to read.
"I believe I have by the grace of God perceived a degree of my sin, and I have been grieved by my sin and its effects on others."
In late January 2012, the interim Board of Directors at SGM released a statement announcing that after review of whether Mahaney was fit to serve as the network's president, it found that there was nothing in the reports that would disqualify Mahaney from that role or call into question his ability to serve in gospel ministry. The board had unanimously decided to immediately reinstate Mahaney to the office of SGM president.
"Listen, your congregation isn't just listening to your sermons and studying your sermons. They are studying your lives as well," Mahaney had told pastors Tuesday at T4G. "If you never suffer then they wouldn't be able to observe the power of God in your life. They are studying in particular when you are suffering and they want to see if the Gospel makes a discernible difference in your lives. They want to see if you trust God, they want to see if you remain charitable. They want to see if you endure and don't lose heart."
Other speakers at T4G, which concludes Thursday night, include Lingon Duncan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss.; Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.; David Platt, senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.; John Piper, pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn.; Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich.; Thabiti Anyabwile, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in Grand Cayman Islands; and Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, Texas.
The Together for the Gospel conference was founded by Dever, Duncan, Mahaney and Mohler, and held its first gathering in 2006.