The Last Idol

John Newton

Cotton Mather

I’m no longer in the “thick of it” as a pastor, having been retired as of this writing for over six years. The following quote from a letter of John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” articulates a truth that’s become more clear to me since my retirement from pastoral ministry.

John Newton writes concerning God and his own pastoral ministry, May he make me willing to resign it at a moment’s warning; and to sit quiet in my chair or my bed, and rejoice that his work is prospering without me, and that others are serving him better when I can serve him no longer! A sentence in Dr. Cotton Mather’s life struck me more than fifty years ago, and has been often upon my mind from that time — ‘My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with — but now I can part with that, and am content to be laid aside and forgotten, so that he may be glorified.’”

The fact that I gain great value from the writings of John Newton from centuries ago is good enough in and of itself, but then he gives a quote from Cotton Mather that meant much to him for more than fifty years! It’s a keepsake quote handed down from Mather to Newton, from Newton to Claassen, and now from Claassen to you! In this quote from Mather, John Newton reminds us that one of the idols we may worship is the idol of usefulness!

Now retired, I sometimes don’t feel as useful as I did when I was in the mad rush of ministry. In my occasional lamenting concerning this perceived diminished usefulness I’m learning that the Lord Himself is to be my all in all. While doing ministry it was always tempting to make the Lord’s work my all in all. Making work, even the Lord’s work, our all in all, turns it into an idol. I see this with greater clarity now that I’m retired.

It’s easy to see how the business person, the athlete, or the entertainer makes their work their idol. Not so easy is seeing how we as pastors can make our calling our idol.

Here’s a short checklist I’ve come up with to determine if ministry might be an idol (you probably can add to the list): Do I find it difficult to relax and feel like a whole person when I take a day off or take some vacation time? Am I jealous of other pastors who seem to be succeeding more than I am? Am I disappointed when I don’t get the affirmation I expected? Am I debilitated by criticism? Is all of my study and spiritual reflection geared to putting it into a future sermon or teaching?

Productivity and usefulness are highly regarded in our culture. There’s no doubt that they have their place; we certainly should attempt to be productive and useful, especially for the Lord. But they can be overrated! Undoubtedly the Lord having given us one day in seven to rest from work should help us grasp this truth and live it out. Unfortunately for us pastors the designated day of rest, Sunday, is one of our busiest days. Yes, we can find another day of the week for our Sabbath, and that’s good. But keeping productivity and usefulness from becoming idols will require a change of heart and attitude.

I’ve always been amazed that Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate, waited until about the age of 30 to begin His active, public ministry. Here He was, God come to earth, and He was comfortable working in his stepfather’s carpenter shop from around age 15 to 30. If anyone could have been a child prodigy preacher it would have been Jesus. He was not; He was a carpenter. He obviously didn’t look at productivity and usefulness in the same way as we often do.

“My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with,”  Cotton Mather observed of himself.  If we’re honest with ourselves it’s probably a stubborn idol in our lives too.  I suspect, however, that once we stop making our productivity and usefulness an idol, we’ll be more productive and useful to the Lord!