I’ve been reading Pastoral Letters of Robert Murray M’Cheyne—it’s a short book that I could probably down in a couple of hours, but I’ve been limiting myself to a letter per day to have a chance to absorb what he communicated as pastor on sick-leave to his congregation.
Letter three, dated February 13, 1839, included the following in its opening paragraph: Believe me, it is the foremost desire of my heart that Christ may be glorified in you, both now and at his coming; that you may be a happy and a holy people, blessed and made a blessing.
As I pondered his words it reminded me much of the pastoral heart of Paul. We often limit his “pastoral letters” to the Timothys and Titus, but really each letter overflowed with the love of a shepherd for the flock, no matter how long or short and no matter how much time he had spent among them. In particular, I thought of Philippians.
Likely one of Paul’s prison letters, his words both overflowed with joy and urged great joy in the life of the church. Yes he lacked the freedom he desired to spread the gospel (though he did all he could to spread it to the guards and fellow prisoners), and yes other preachers were going around mocking him for his situation, but he would not let those things rob him of his joy. Even if they threatened his life, he would happily proclaim, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”
In the midst of it all, Paul began by telling the church that he was thankful for them and how they brought a sense of joy to his prayers (1:3-5). Then shortly he said again how he will rejoice that Christ is proclaimed, no matter who proclaims him (1:18). He called them to a life of holiness—“Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”—walking in humility and the light of God (1:27-2:18). He warned of false teachers and those who twist the truth (3:2f). He asked them to follow his example (3:17). He rebuked the disunity and infighting between two ladies (4:2-3). And he urged them to a life of contentment (4:10-13).
And through it all he called them again and again to rejoice in the Lord (2:18, 2:29, 3:1, 4:4).
But also telling with this, in 2:2 Paul called the church to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Then in 4:1 he challenged and encouraged them with: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
As M’Cheyne desired for his church almost two thousand years later, so Paul desired that the Philippians live lives that glorify God through both happiness and holiness. Yet Paul also said to the church, “You are my joy.” This wasn’t a joy to replace his joy in the Lord, instead it flowed from it and especially due to how God continued to work through his church.
In essence, as Paul, they would experience more true happiness with lives set on pursuing God and holiness in Christ. And this would, in turn, produce further joy in Paul as well.
Far too often self and the world get in the way and both pastor and church seem robbed of joy. Yet when both pastor and church have eyes set on Christ, seek to live for his glory, and pursue holiness, then mutual joy builds between shepherd and flock. Instead of a downward, negative feedback cycle; we can create a positive, upward cycle.
So let mutual joy be our aim. Pastors, to take joy in God, grow in Christ, and to take joy in God’s work in his church; church, to take joy in God, grow in Christ, and seek to be a cause of rejoicing for your church leaders.