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A Pastor’s Reflections: Wisdom and Tough Choices

April 8, 2014


As I have grown older, and hopefully more mature (there are some doubts as I look at my personal collection of 45 Star Wars Lego clone figures lined up on my desk that my children may not, under any circumstance, touch), I have concluded that many young ministers see everything in black and white. On the other hand, older, mature, seasoned ministers see things in black, white, and grey. Young newly minted ministers learn about wonderful truths and amazing doctrines and they want to ensure that they and others around them unswervingly adhere to the hard line of orthodoxy. It’s personally amusing to me to watch a timid and humble lamb of a ministerial candidate who hopes and prays for leniency in his own ordination exam turn into a ferocious sharply-fanged lion of a minister who expects pinpoint accuracy as he sits in judgment over someone else’s ordination exam. As time passes, however, these same sharp-fanged predators, always on the hunt for heresy and the slightest deviation from the truth, began to age, mature, and recognize that there is another category within their arsenal of judgment—wisdom.

Without a shadow of a doubt most everyone in the church understands the categories of right and wrong. You read the law and recognize that there are certain things you should not do, and you hopefully recognize that the negative command (thou shalt not) implies the opposite (you shall). For example, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” also implies that you should love your wife! But in between right and wrong, between the law of God and the Christian life is a large grey area that calls for wisdom. Wisdom is a massive gaping hole in the corporate life of the church. People know what the law says, and many therefore want specific instructions for every circumstance in life. If you read the Mishna (the written Jewish oral law), for example, you find very specific instructions for what constitutes a violation of the Sabbath (the fourth commandment). You are not allowed to pick fleas off your coat—this is work and is therefore prohibited. If a beggar comes to the door, you may not extend your hand over the threshold to give him some money—this is work and is therefore prohibited. But! If the beggar extends his hand over the threshold, this is allowed because you have not extended your own hand over the threshold. The Mishna, as you can imagine, is massive—it’s like an old Yellow Pages phone book (google it if you don’t know what that looks like). But even as massive as the Mishna is, it can’t possibly account for every circumstance in life. This is why God has given us the category of wisdom. When do you answer a fool according to his folly? When do you refrain from answering a fool lest he be wise in his own eyes (Prov. 26:4-5)? The answer calls for wisdom. This is a grey area in life, if you will.

In life and ministry, the older you get you hopefully begin to realize that many decisions in life call for wisdom, and this is especially true when it comes to evaluating ministerial candidates or determining whether a doctrinal belief is orthodox. Of course there are some false teachings that are immediately out of bounds. If a candidate denies the deity of Christ, for example, it’s a no-brainer. You don’t vote for his ordination. But what if a candidate comes before the presbytery who was once previously married and divorced, and it’s not very clear at what precise moment he became a Christian. In other words, was he divorced before he became a Christian or after? How long has he been married to his present spouse? What were the circumstances of his first divorce? For some ministers, there is no question—divorce, regardless of the circumstances disqualifies a man from office. The details don’t matter—with the ferocity of a jungle lion they rip away at the moral dilemma and make their decision without hesitation. On the other hand, many might realize that the question is difficult and an immediate answer doesn’t present itself right away. This scenario calls for wisdom.

Where is wisdom found? Well, quite simply, in Christ, in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Col. 1:28). We must prayerfully consider the question and make a judgment call. And even then, you might make a decision and then after years return to the event in your mind’s eye and recognize you made the wrong choice. I think older ministers have lived through enough difficult decisions that they recognize that life is full of complexities and the law does not directly address every circumstance in life.

Sometimes you stand between two difficult options, like Solomon before the two women who claimed to the mother of the same child, and there is no playbook. This doesn’t mean that God has left you helpless. Rather, he has given you the wisdom of Christ. Therefore, seek Christ! Pray for wisdom. Draw near to Christ and ask that he give you wisdom to make the right decision. Also recognize that not every decision in life is black and white. Learn the lesson early and follow the lead of older and wiser ministers. Don’t be to eager to hack away at a tough decision like it’s black and white when it may call for the scalpel of wisdom and a steady prayerful hand to make a careful incision. This is good counsel both for the aspiring minister, young newly minted ministers, and anyone, really, who finds themselves impaled upon the horns of a dilemma.