Semeia 34

Biblical Hermeneutics in Jewish Moral Discourse

Peter J. Haas, ed.

Copyright © 1985 by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Decatur, GA.


Contributors to This Issue


Moral Values and Literary Traditions: The Case of the Succession Narrative (2 Samuel 9–20; 1 Kings 1–2)

Douglas A. Knight

Response to Douglas Knight But How Does It Happen? a Note on “Predecessors and Successors”

Lou H. Silberman

To Speak, How to Speak, and When Not to Speak: Answers from Early Rabbinic Stories

Joel Gereboff

Response to Joel Gereboff When Speech is No Speech: The Problem of Early Rabbinic Rhetoric as Discourse

Jack N. Lightstone

Toward a Semiotic Study of Jewish Moral Discourse: The Case of Responsa

Peter J. Haas

Response to Peter Haas Semiotics and Jewish Ethics

Daniel Patte

Jewish Legal Interpretation: Literary, Scriptural, Social, and Ethical Perspectives

David Ellenson

Response to David Ellenson a Living Tradition: Ongoing Jewish Exegesis

Elliot N. Dorff

Response to David Ellenson Law, Ethics and Ritual in Jewish Decision Making

Daniel Landes

Contributors to This Issue

Elliot N. Dorff

University of Judaism

15600 Mulholland Drive

Los Angeles, CA 90077

David Ellenson

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

3077 University Drive

Los Angeles, CA 90007

Joel Gereboff

Department of Religion

Arizona State University

Tempe, AZ 85287

Peter J. Haas

Department of Religious Studies

Vanderbilt University

Nashville, TN 37235

Douglas Knight

Vanderbilt Divinity School

Vanderbilt University

Nashville, TN 37235

Daniel Landes

Yeshiva University of Los Angeles

9760 W. Pico Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90035

Jack Lightstone

Department of Religion

Concordia University

Montreal, Quebec H3G 1M8


Daniel Patte

Department of Religious Studies

Vanderbilt University

Nashville, TN 37235

Lou H. Silberman

Department of Oriental Studies

The University of Arizona

Tucson, AZ 85721


This volume is a study of rabbinic moral discourse. It proceeds from a single proposition, namely, that the moral system of any generation is fashioned out of the legacy it receives from the past. This statement has two ramifications which we shall explore in the following pages. The first is that each new generation is born into a community which already has a system of moral rules and which presents these rules to the new generation as part of its heritage. The second is that this new generation must receive that system and give it its own compelling articulation. Moral socialization then is a two-part process. The older generation articulates its moral code and presents it to the rising generation. This generation receives these standards, interprets them in light of its own realities, and accepts them as its own. This particular appropriation then becomes the legacy passed on to the next generation.

It follows from this model that understanding the moral universe of an ongoing tradition, such as Judaism, requires that we pay attention not only to how moral rules and standards are stated by the canonical authorities of each generation, but also how these are taken over and modified by succeeding generations. Our program here is to make a preliminary trace of the outlines of that process within Judaism from its beginnings in Scripture, through the earliest rabbinic literature and to classical rabbinic responsa of the medieval and early modern periods. In all cases our focus will be on the processes by which an older articulation of morality is received, adapted to new circumstances, and then transmitted to succeeding generations. Our goal is to begin to understand the rhetorical devices that characterize the Judaic attempt to express moral truths.

The essays collected here can be read in a number of different ways. They present first of all, as we said, a literary history of rabbinic moral discourse from Scripture to modern times. This is accomplished by examining representatives of the major literatures in which Scriptural and rabbinic ethics are articulated. They survey begins with Scripture, since this is foundational to all later systems of Jewish ethics, rabbinic or otherwise. It is in this document, itself a composite, that our problematic receives its first articulation. We next turn to Mishnah, the foundational document of rabbinic Judaism. The Mishnah, edited in its received form in the early third century, establishes the tradition of discourse that stands behind the Talmud, and so becomes characteristic of rabbinic Judaism. Along with Scripture, it provides the literary foundation for all later rabbinic moral speculation. Classical rabbinic Judaism emerges in the tenth century and develops as its particular mode of literary expression the legal rescript (responsum). These texts attempt to frame legal and moral rulings that carry forward the perceived principles of Scripture and Talmud, while articulating these in contemporary terms. Our last two articles examine this literature, using a medieval text (the third essay) and an early modern one (the fourth essay). In all cases, the reader is asked to consider not the moral issues at hand, but more particularly how each text proposes to communicate those issues. The theory here is that we learn as much about a culture’s ethics from how it frames matters as from its actual concrete decisions. We have, then, a literary history of rabbinic moral discourse that begins in the roots of the tradition, Scripture on the one hand and Mishnah on the other, and traces the development of ethical rhetoric through the characteristic rabbinic moral texts, the responsa.

On a second level, the authors of our essays want to explore how such texts from various epochs of the rabbinic tradition are to be read and studied as moral texts. That is, each essay has as its task to focus on a particular text and to show how that kind of text can be studied in an academically responsible way. It is for this reason that each major essay is followed by at least one response. We wish not only to present these texts to the reader, but we wish to have the authors, and the reader, engage in thinking about the methodological issues raised by these diverse documents.

For this reason, each contributor was asked to concentrate on a single methodological problem raised by the text at hand. Douglas Knight raises the seminal issue of this volume in relation to the Scriptural corpus, namely, how can the process of the transmittal of morality be adduced from ancient written documents. His answer, which is a theorem for the rest of the volume, is that any generation’s view of the world can be passed on only if it is done in a way that makes it self-evidently true to the receiving generation. We need to see the Scriptural material as a sort of snapshot, showing us how, at some point in time, one generation proposed to transmit its wisdom to the next. But, as Professor Knight points out, the process of the transmission of moral values requires a receiver, not just a transmitter. The passing generation may formulate matters well, but they still must be accepted and absorbed if they are to continue to live. So the transmittal of moral values in literature does not happen in a generation, but between generations. It is to this problem, and the methodological issues it raises, that Lou Silberman so eloquently directs our attention.

The dynamics of ethical transmittal stand also behind the analysis of Mishnah, and its companion Tosefta, by Joel Gereboff. Here we see the process at work in the other great literary pillar of rabbinic Judaism. As was the case in Scripture, we see the early rabbis struggling here to formulate their moral insights in a way that will compel the reading generations to accept these as their own. In this case, as in Scripture, moral virtues are not proffered as philosophical truths, but as exemplary deeds and sayings of the heroes of the rabbinic tradition. There is, Gereboff points out, a deeper literary, and so symbolic, structure at work here. It is in light of this assertion that we are to read Jack Lightstone’s reponse. It has all too often been taken as granted that the deeds and sayings recorded in Mishnah (and the other rabbinic texts) really happened. That is, these texts are not literary structures, but objective reports of the truth. Professor Lightstone’s response makes explicit what Professor Gereboff assumes, namely, that we are dealing with a mode of symbolic transmittal of values, not with what “really” happened. Our attention must be not on whether or not Aqiba really said X, but on what it means (or is supposed to mean, Professor Silberman’s problem again) for us to say that Aqiba said X. Attention remains on literary strategy as a mode of moral teaching.

This brings us to the last two essays of the volume, both of which deal with the classical, and characteristic, rabbinic literature, the responsum. These texts assume the utter validity of Scripture and Mishnah-Talmud, and attempt to create legal and moral rules on the basis of these texts. To do so, of course, requires the creation of a new literary genre, one in which Scripture and Talmud on the one hand, and contemporary realities on the other, can be brought into conversation. Again what both essays point out is that the important issue for understanding moral discourse is not what the rulings are, but how they are expressed. As in Scripture and in Mishnah, the very format of the text communicates moral values, quite independently of the particular ruling at hand. The receiving generation is instructed in the meaning and nature of the moral life simply by being presented with moral rules in just this way.

These last two essays approach the methodological problems of studying this literature from two different angles. The first deals with the literary character of these documents. It proposes a way of reading these texts which will reveal the common assumptions about the nature of morality which the author (and presumably the reader) hold. There is, this essay asserts, a common universe of discourse established by the text, and so between the comprehending reader and the author, which gives a certain content to the notion of what ethics is. For the text to work, certain convictions about ethics must be held in common by the writer and the reader, or at least be transmitted by the writer to the reader. The response by Professor Patte points out how these symbolic and subterranean characteristics of the text can be understood in terms of structural literary analysis. In so doing, he sharpens the methodological grid through which the structure of these texts might be adduced and understood. The last easay returns us to the generative problem pointed out by Douglas Knight, namely, how a moral statement, in particular a responsum, is appropriated by the receiving generation(s). David Ellenson powerfully reminds us that the creation of any moral value always takes place within a concrete social setting. Moral principles and rules are not simply received from the past but are interpreted, adapted, and reused by successor generations. The way in which these forces impinge on the creation of a new moral text is examined in Professor Ellenson’s study. His essay thus provides the woof to Professor Haas’s warp. In Professor Haas’s essay we see the structural elements that shape the character of other responsa literature in general. In Professor Ellenson’s essay, we see how this form is given content and texture by a particular person at a particular time dealing with particular problems. In terms of this dynamic, the responses by Professors Dorff and Landes are helpful. They remind us that the process of adapting and adopting moral discourse from the past is a complex business. The warp that is the received tradition is hardly uniform or univocal, as Professor Dorff reminds us. The rabbinic decision to shape its own morality in terms of the tradition opens up a whole range of problems. Texts must be chosen, interpreted, and applied, none of which activities have self-evident solutions. There is always interaction between the text to be chosen and the context of the chooser. What this means is that the successor generation never receives a tradition empty-handed, but as the successor always has a system of convictions which must affect him even at his first reading of a text from the predecessors. This is a point brought out by Professor Landes in the last essay of the volume. In its own way it brings us back to the starting point, the difficult question of understanding how morality is passed on from generation to generation. These essays are an attempt to identify and articulate that problem, and also to search for avenues of solution.

This volume can be read in a third way as well. It is designed to serve as a textbook for the study of Jewish ethics. In this it departs radically from existing models for doing so. Our reasons for formatting matters as we have needs explanation. The emphasis on literary form explored here carries with it the conviction that any attempt even to explain Jewish ethics must take account of how Jewish moral discourse actually is structured. As we shall see in the last two essays, Jewish ethical discourse takes the form of a careful analysis of the logic of the dilemma in light of Scripture and other religious literature. It is a discourse which forces the reader him or her self to struggle to find the proper meaning of the classical texts. This volume is designed to duplicate that process. It begins in all cases with a specific text. This text is studied to determine what light it can throw on our general understanding of the problem. These studies are themselves subjected to critique and analysis. The effect, then, is to lead the reader through the mental process of Jewish learning while engaged in the study of Jewish ethics.

It is concerning this last point that this project hopes to break new ground. Studies of rabbinic ethics routinely take one of two forms. Most writing on Jewish ethics has been descriptive, “the” Jewish view of this or that. In some cases (I am thinking here especially of authors like J. David Bleich, Fred Rosner and David Feldman among others) these are written within the framework of classical Jewish ethical writings. That is, they describe the content of the tradition from within the tradition itself. While this gives us an accurate account of what has been said, it does not provide a framework for useful comparison with systems outside of rabbinic Judaism. On the other hand, there are accounts of what Jewish moral views are, or should be, written largely from the perspective of people outside the classical system. While these form good bases for comparison, since they are written in the semantic universe of modern American academia, they do not, for that same reason, accurately represent the nature of the tradition. So only a filtered rendering of Jewish ethics is available for comparison. The most blatant example of this are those attempts to find the “essence” or “core” of Jewish ethics and present these as disembodied philosophical postulates. This not only presents Jewish ethics in terms of an alien ethical system, but distorts the very character of what Jewish moral discourse is all about.

The project presented here is an experiment. It hopes to discover a way of presenting Jewish ethics that is both faithful to the style and content of the tradition and that allows for some meaningful comparison. Our theory is that the most satisfactory way of doing comparative ethics is to compare system to system, not this ruling to that ruling or this axiom to that axiom. Our assumption, then, is that the studies undertaken here have found a mode of discourse that accurately reflects the nature of the subject matter and yet partakes of a larger universe of discourse that allows for comparison. That is, we want to be able to study what is particularly Jewish about Jewish moral discourse, and yet also be able to use this to help us better understand the nature of moral discourse in general, and so better to appreciate the ongoing human attempt to shape a moral life of which the Jewish effort is a part.

Moral Values and Literary Traditions: The Case of the Succession Narrative (2 Samuel 9–20; 1 Kings 1–2)

Douglas A. Knight

Vanderbilt University


A study of the ethics of the Hebrew Bible embraces not only the final written text but also the long process during which the traditions behind it originated and developed into their ultimate form. The process reveals a continual effort by all generations to respond to their own particular situations both through recourse to the past and through creative engagement with their present circumstances. Moral values are thus seen to emerge as moral problems are faced, and the literary traditions convey these values from one period to the next. Using the Succession Narrative as an example, this essay analyzes the different roles played first by the predecessor generation and then later by the successor generation in the use of tradition to affect moral conduct. Such a process of moral determination throughout the course of biblical history, it is suggested, can be seen as a precedent of the ways in which Jewish ethics in the postcanonical period draws creatively and critically on biblical norms and principles.

I. The Context

There are two main alternatives, set at opposite ends of a continuum, for approaching the Hebrew Bible as a literature of ethics. On the one hand, it can be viewed as a product or entity that is fixed, final, and—for some—authoritative. Focus thereby falls on its present state, its facticity as written text rather than any prehistory of contextuality which it might have had. Moral values can accordingly be seen to inhere in it as objective realities, ascertainable through careful study of the text without reference to the multiple social realities which might have produced these value statements. As the primary authority and guide for the moral life of believers, the text has often been and still is probed for principles and specific directives, and any objectionable positions or inconsistencies on a given moral issue in the Bible can in the process be harmonized, over looked, or denied. Thereby the Bible is made to function as a repository of ethical truths which need only to be identified or discovered and then applied. To be sure, it is possible for any given group of people to accumulate a set of interpretations about what these moral principles are and how they are to govern behavior, and such a set can in turn assume an importance alongside that of the Bible.

At the other end of the continuum is an approach which emphasizes the process which led up to the Bible as a fixed and final product. This view, in a strict sense, is a result of the rise of the historical-critical method since the Age of Enlightenment, although it is hardly the case that this approach has been dominating the scene among all persons who make use of the Bible in moral decision-making. By “process” we mean the historical development of the biblical literature in light of all the varying factors which affected it. Accordingly, the moral aspects of this literature are seen to be not fixed truths solidified in canonical form but rather the variable decisions and values of innumerable people throughout some thousand years of Israelite and early Jewish existence. While an objective value theory tends to underlie the perception of the Bible as product, a historically relative value theory—whether these values are considered to be subjective or relational—seems more often to be operative when one focuses on the Bible as process. As the social and economic situations changed for the ancient Israelites, their moral responses to specific problems could correspondingly change also. The Bible which emerged at the end of the process has, by choice and circumstances, retained ample evidence of this variety, an intricate complex of moral postures and judgments which an ethical study of the biblical tradition must fully consider.

The two alternative approaches which have just been schematized are, it must be stressed, opposite ends on a continuum, and in reality it is more common to see some modified version of one or the other than to see either in its pure form. The above description, however, should serve to highlight several aspects of both approaches. The present essay, in its preference for the second approach, advocates that the ethics of the Hebrew Bible encompasses the whole range of the biblical period—to the extent that it can be reconstructed—from the earliest evidences of moral judgments and conduct on down to and including the final text of the canon. While Jews, Christians, and others since then have tended to consider only the canonical text as authoritative, it is equally possible to elevate in importance the values, attitudes, and practices evident in earlier traditions. To be sure, the final form of the text is itself a dynamic entity with power to stimulate creative response among those who turn to it, but this power is in no small measure due to the process in which many people in various generations contributed to the makeup of potentially any page of this text. In a word, the formation of tradition and the formation of values tended to go hand in hand, and the final text is in a real sense a monument to this process.

The details of this developmental process interest us at this point, and for a very clear reason. Just as we ourselves tend to look to past tradition—such as the Bible, among other things—for direction and legitimation as we reach our moral decisions, so also did the ancient Israelites rely on their own heritage. To state this more directly with respect to the subject of this volume, religious leaders in the Jewish community have since earliest times looked to the Torah for moral guidance, and this use of their heritage has been comparable to how the Israelites themselves—i.e., the very ones who were involved in producing this Bible—appropriated the revered traditions from their own past. Jewish ethics, just as biblical ethics, is a coordination of past and present. Moral problems in any given epoch tend to be resolved through appeal to cases and values of the past, and if the new situation presents new moral problems or new dimensions to old moral problems then the resolution is reached through a creative appropriation of this moral tradition. This occurs through a dialogue with the tradition—searching for ancient indications of how to resolve the new problem while at the same time bringing contemporary ideas to bear on the way the tradition is to be understood. In the early rabbinic period the heritage was the Hebrew Bible together with oral traditions of its interpretation; for the medieval and modern periods of commentaries and responsa-literature the Mishnah-Talmud took on an authoratative role second only to that of the Bible. Yet, the interpreter in any such case introduces new perceptions and cultural values which can create—even if only to the slightest degree—a novel moral position which adds to the ever-ongoing stream of Jewish ethics. The old is infused with the new, just as the new is informed by the old.

As indicated, there is precedent for this in the growth of the biblical tradition itself. While it may appear that the learned rabbi is approaching the Bible (later also the Mishnah-Talmud) as if it were a fixed “product” in the sense described above, this moral interpreter is a participant in a “process” similar to that which brought the Bible (and the Misnah-Talmud) into existence. There may, nonetheless, seem to be a difference of some import. Prior to the canonical fixation of the biblical text, new interpretations could become incorporated into the literature, and in fact this is presumably how the literary traditions grew. After canonization, however, the interpreter could not add to the biblical text itself (except perhaps through textual variants) but only to the history of its exegesis.3 This difference, while correct in its formal sense, nonetheless does not detract from the similar dynamics which prevail in both cases of appropriation: looking to past revered tradition as a source for moral values and directives and yet also allowing new factors or perceptions and even new values to assist in interpreting—and thus changing—the old morality because of the contemporary moral dilemmas typeically this occurs through an effort to discover in the past the truths which may previously not have been known but which the new generation can now stipulate as having been implicit from the beginning. In both Israelite and Jewish history the process of moral socialization is complemented by creative appropriation of the past. One is born with a heritage and learns to affirm it, yet one also necessarily, though usually unknowingly, modifies this legacy in the very act of appropriating it. Such a process accounts, in part, for the powerful resiliency of both biblical ethics and Jewish ethics.

A word about moral discourse is in order at this point. As usual in this context, moral discourse comprises all discussion, explicit as well as implicit, about good or right conduct, the nature of the moral agent, the nature of the moral community, and the place of principles and norms in moral judgment. Since the Bible is not intentionally designed to be a guidebook on morals or a philosophical treatise on ethics, statements related to the world of morality must be sought in a vast array of different literary forms: laws, judgments, narratives, contemplative discourses, proverbs, pronouncements, disputations, parenetic speeches, prayers, songs, and more. In most of these cases the given form will have other purposes beyond that of making moral judgments or engendering moral conduct. Narratives, for example, can also entertain, instruct, record historical events, account etiologically for present-day phenomena, provide biographical information, explore existential matters, and serve other purposes. Prophetic utterances can, in addition to addressing moral problems, also interpret historical events, announce God’s word, present a vision of the future, and comment on religious practices. Any given text can have multiple intentions, and by positing a moral level in it one is not thereby necessarily arguing that this is its main or only intention. Often the primary purpose of the text in question may be wide of ethics, but careful examination could reveal that a story about a revered ancestor is in fact also presenting moral conduct paradigmatically, or that a law which regulates societal structures is at the same time suggesting indirectly that human nature is such that pragmatic controls need to be exercised, or that a hymn praising God’s righteousness and justice is also affirming the orderliness of the moral universe. Such levels of meaning contribute in a major way to the makeup of biblical ethics. Moral discourse occurs also in a more direct fashion through both categorical and casuistic rules. The Ten Commandments are the best known examples of the former, while the latter are prime instances of the abovementioned “process” of moral decision-making: a specific case arises which presents extenuating circumstances so that a categorical principle needs to be modified in some respect. Exodus 21:13–14 represents such a case law in relation to the categorical laws of Exodus 21:12 and 20:13. Through all such means—whether direct or indirect—moral discourse is occurring.

Much reference has been made above to moral problems. In one sense many of these dilemmas may seem to recur more noticeably throughout the history of Israel than do specific moral principles, and one can appreciate the proposal of Rudolf Unger to key the history of literature to the history of fundamental human problems. Ethical values are rarely formed and delineated in the abstract; rather, people face specific, concrete difficulties to which they must respond. Thus are values articulated and tested, always potentially different for each new generation and in each distinctive context. The following are examples of the range of areas in which ancient Israelites faced moral problems: the relationship between men and women; the relationship between adults and children; licit and illicit sexual behavior; the terms of marriage and divorce; the importance of family; the rights of the individual in relation to the rights of the community; the treatment of those who are defenseless or oppressed in society—specifically the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the slave; the distribution of wealth; the use of money and capital, as in loans; the rights of ownership; the value of inheritance; the need for release from oppressive structures (e.g., the exodus theme and the sabbath- and Jubilee-year laws); order and security within society; the rights and obligations of leaders within government; the structure of societal governance; obligations to foreign rulers; warfare and military service; relations to non-Israelites; the administration of justice; the system of punishment and restitution; blood vengeance; truth-telling; legal commitments and contracts; hospitality; character; motives and intentions. In the face of these the Israelites developed the moral values which eventually became registered in the Hebrew Bible, and in nearly every case these values and requirements were understood to be founded in the very nature and will of God.

In sum: The ancient Israelites faced moral problems in the various areas of their life, corporately and individually. Throughout the course of their history the changing circumstances often required new moral responses to old problems as well as decisions about unfamiliar dilemmas. Their discourse about morality tended to use the forms of everyday speech rather than the language of philosophical, analytical inquiry. At most points moral decision-making relied heavily on the traditions and values of the past, but these could also be scrutinized, reinterpreted, or replaced. The Hebrew Bible incorporates into itself much of this process, even though it is also the end-product of this process and is susceptible of being used now in only its final form as a moral guide and authority. However, the gradual process by which both the literature and also the moral norms and judgments developed is equally of importance for the ethics of the Hebrew Bible, and this process can similarly constitute a precedent for the ways in which subsequent adherents to the Judeo-Christian heritage can make use of the biblical tradition.

II. The Problem

To maintain that morality is related to historical process discloses a range of substantive issues, among them: the formation or discovery or moral value within a specific but fluid cultural context, the extent to which value can reside in traditional materials or may even be the substance of these cultural traditions, the process of transmitting and receiving value and tradition, the roles of the community as well as individuals in constituting both values and traditions, and the reasons for continuity and discontinuity in these areas over a span of time. For our purposes here we will focus on only two issues, which can be described quite simply. For the sake of convenience we will take a cross-section of the tradition process and call one generation the predecessor and the next generation the successor. Our two problems are:

A.    What interest does the predecessor have in the values and traditions of the successor? Why should one generation attempt to transmit—or even unintentionally transmit—material to the next generation? What is it that is being passed on, and by what means? What investment does the predecessor have in these values and traditions, and what control does this first generation have over the appropriation by the next? This issue presents us directly with the problem of historical-critical investigation, i.e., of attempting to discern the activity and intent of the predecessor when we possess only the statement that the successor has preserved for us. Stated more dramatically, why should we even be interested in the values and traditions of persons in the early periods when we possess the canonical statement of the last ones in the line?

B.    What is at stake for the successor in appropriating values and traditions from the predecessor? Why should one thing be accepted, another abandoned, and a third significantly modified? How are we to understand the function of convention and the role of innovation? Does the successor generation realize that it in turn will eventually become the predecessor to a new generation, and how does this affect the formation of its own values and traditions, in short the way this generation constitutes meaning for itself in its own time?

It should be apparent in these two problems that we are purposely leaving aside questions concerning the individual agent and value, for the very existence of tradition necessarily means that more than one individual is involved. To be sure, the creative genius, functioning as pioneer or catalyst, can initiate a new course in moral thought as well as any group can; however, it is necessary for a later generation to appropriate these moral insights or norms if they are to have any effect beyond their first appearance. The focal point for us in this context thus becomes the intersubjective community in temporal duration. We have stated the two problems very schematically and theoretically; the process of transmission is much more complex and gradual than what we have protrayed, for generations overlap and merge into each other. There are many more than just two stages in actuality, and indeed each person or group is simultaneously both a successor of those before and a predecessor of those who follow. Furthermore, the intentions of the predecessor are, in a very real sense, at the mercy of the actions of the successor, for ultimately the future must attend to the past if the past is going to have an impact beyond itself. It will rarely be possible for us from this distance to observe one generation’s acts of transmitting values and traditions to the next—even though it was continually happening, we posit, throughout the course of Israel’s history. Our purpose here is to use this simplified schema as a means of highlighting the ground that moral values and literary traditions hold in common.

III. The Succession Narrative

Comprising the block of materials in 2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2, the “Succession Narrative” deals with events in the later life of David and the question of who will succeed him on the throne. Since the landmark work of Leonard Rost in 1926, it has been common among most scholars to view this narrative as a unified literary whole deriving from the early monarchic period. Martin Noth (Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien: Die sammelenden und bearbeitenden Geschichtswerke im Alten Testament 1943) concurred with this judgment, identifying only a few isolated verses (mainly in 1 Kings 2) as Deuteronomistic. Indeed this narrative is commonly considered one of the earliest examples of Israelite historiography (see, for example, Gerhard von Rad), presumably in written form already in the Solomonic era, although Sigmund Mowinckel (22f.) has suggested that the exilic Deuteronomist might have had to rely on oral sources in writing the whole “Deuteronomistic saga,” as he calls it, because the previous written sources were likely to have been lost in the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation. Only recently have some critics begun to question the literary integrity of the Succession Narrative, either by postulating varying stages in its early development (so Ernst Würthwein; also James Flanagan, who maintains that the bulk of this material originally formed a “court history of David,” to which the texts about Solomon’s succession were later added), or by finding evidence of a Deuteronomistic redaction (Timo Veijola) or even rather radical compositional work on these narrative materials by the exilic “D-group” (R. A. Carlson). For those who still dispute any such late reworking of these materials and who prefer to consider these chapters solely as the literary product of an individual or group near the time of Solomon, there has been considerable divergence in determining what might have motivated its original writing—whether it intended, e.g., to glorify Solomon (Rost: 128; similarly Tomoo Ishida, 1982), or to express national pride (Edmund Jacob: 29), or to portray YHWH’s power and control over the human sphere (von Rad: 12–41, or to supply moral instruction for later generations (Morton Smith), or to meet possible threats to the stability of the Davidic dynasty (R. N. Whybray), or to underscore the importance of the wise courtier and the prophet in counseling the king (Frank Crüsemann: 180–93).

To be sure, this narrative whole may seem to be an unlikely choice as an example for our suggestions about the possible relationship between tradition and value, for this text does not appear to have undergone as long and intricate a growth as many other parts of the Hebrew Bible. However, every text is unique in some respect, and the thesis must be able to hold good over a wide range of biblical materials. The practical usefulness of the Succession Narrative for us is that we do not need to consider a limitless series of predecessors and successors, for the composition probably attained relatively fixed form very early and was not substantially reinterpreted again until the exilic period. We will thus be able to see somewhat more distinctly the role of both the predecessors’ values and the successors’ values in the tradition process. My comments will necessarily be quite brief on each point.

A.    The Predeccessors

Considered first from the perspective of the predeccessor generation, the fundamental relationship between moral values and the growth of tradition appears especially at two points:

1). Those experiences of a people which hold an importance for their ongoing societal, political, economic, religious and moral life need to become interpreted and rendered in the form of linguistic traditions (possibly also in institutional structures) if they are to be remembered and are to have an impact on later generations. This is the process of “Sedimentation,” in which the predecessors contribute to the heterogeneous “stock of knowledge” which a society or an individual possesses and which allows these people to understand and attribute meaning to their own experiences. Any given predecessor generation itself has a stock of knowledge derived from its own past, and this antecedent meaning structure provides the basis for the newly sedimented layer of interpreted experience. In preserving the memory of any such event or experience, the predecessors display—explicitly or implicitly—their own moral values not only in the form of interpretations which are incorporated into the traditions but also in the very process of selecting, ordering, and preserving the materials. These values either may be embedded and indirectly communicated, or they may be more explicitly stated as norms or judgments. When the traditions have to do with social realities and institutions, the interpretations often take the form of legitimating or, on the other hand, criticizing these phenomena (Berger and Luckmann: 92ff.). The net result of this activity of sedimentation and interpretation, therefore, is to inform and socialize the successors not just concerning what they should do, but especially also about why things are as they are. In the terms of Clifford Geertz (126), there is within such a cultural system both an “ought” and an “is,” and fundamentally the former is seen to grow out of the latter. The predecessors thus pass on a context for moral action, specifying the possibilities and limitations present in that community’s life in the light of certain important experiences. How intentional this is in the predecessor’s consciousness will vary, but such intentionality is not a necessary condition for the inevitable occurrence of this process.

So perceived, the Succession Narrative embodies values associated with national identity, political principles, the functioning of governmental leaders, the nature of a dynastic monarchy, and the relation of subject to king. To theology and ethics are given the chief interpretative roles. The predecessors who first sedimented these political experiences in narrative form were likely contemporaneous—or nearly so—with David’s and Solomon’s reigns, observers of the tumultuous events, rivalries, and intrigues which accompanied the onset of the dynastic line. The actual identity of these predecessors can only be speculated. It is not unlikely that they had some official position at the court, perhaps as some type of annalists; there is at least circumstantial evidence of such a position in later monarchic periods. Yet they were not mere ideologues or propagandists acting at the behest of the state. While the markings normally associated with oral tradition are not as visible here as in other biblical literature, the stories themselves, with their vivid descriptions of corruption and tension in high places, are the kind which would have had great popular appeal and would likely have circulated among the people during the time of David and Solomon, and even much later after they had been rendered into a written narrative (see also D. M. Gunn). The composers of such a narrative, in other words, were probably reflecting, indeed incorporating, popular values and sentiments, not simply propounding state dogma.

Most remarkable in the Succession Narrative is a decided ambivalence in assessing David and Solomon. A common way to account for this has been to posit that the narrative was at the outset either pro-Davidic or pro-Solomonic propaganda. Würthwein even suggests that the traditions originally were very critical of both of them because the two rules established an absolute monarchy and a dynastic line rather than leaving the choice of king to the free citizens of the land. Such an attitude could underlie especially 2 Samuel 11, the story of David and Bathsheba, and also 1 Kings 1–2, the account of Solomon’s elimination of rivals and threats to the throne. For Würthwein these traditions expressed old premonarchic values of tribal autonomy and egalitarian social structures. Only later were the materials reinterpreted theologically to give divine approval to the Davidic dynasty. Würthwein’s suggestions are not implausible, although he seems to be underestimating some of the positive aspects in the stories that surely are mostly directed against David, maintains that this was done by Solomon’s supporters in order to defend the legitimacy of Solomon’s place on David’s throne. Carlson also concurs in finding the anti-Davidic element the strongest in 2 Samuel 9–24 although he attributes it instead to the Deuteronomists writing from the perspectives of the exile. Veijola, on the other hand, considers the early narrative to have been in opposition to Solomon’s succession to the throne, while David is generally pictured in a better light throughout the Books of Samuel (132–33). Such diverse readings of the material—and there are numerous other interpretations in the scholarly literature—are to a great extent a result of the effort to determine the primary intention of the original narrative or of its authors. Too often the intention which is posited has a monolithic character, as if there could only have been one single or dominant purpose for the narrative; indeed, this in turn often becomes used as a source-critical or redaction-critical criterion. This overlooks the multiple roles which a narrative can play. Whether the early authors sought to praise David or to legitimate Solomon or generally to revel in the existence of the new empire, moral values could very much be at play in the narrative as well. What is notable is that the predecessors included both praiseworthy and offensive behavior in this account of the momentous beginnings of the Israelite dynasty.

Rudolf Smend has stated that “the most productive periods [in the development of literary traditions] are when something is not yet self-evident or when something is no longer self-evident but is perhaps threatened by loss or even lost already” (65). This would fit equally well for the two periods when the Succession Narrative was being formed—the time near the United Monarchy when the future of the great empire and of the new dynastic line was not yet known and, much later, the period of the exile when Israel’s political fate appeared dismal. In each case the respective generation sedimented its experiences in the form of literary traditions which could provide its own and later generations with the means for understanding and responding to such realities as the political institution of the monarchy. The accomplishement of the predecessors living near the time of Solomon is especially noteworthy, for they were preserving the record of Israel’s initial experience with their own kings. It was a momentous shift from the social structures of the premonarchic world, and the people of that generation were bound to be somewhat uncertain about its implications. Perhaps this accounts for the narrative depictions of the monarchs as alternatively devious and heroic, unjust and benevolent, manipulative and victimized, frail and powerful. The royal institution itself is not considered unequivocally good, yet also not as something which must be eliminated. Moreover, royal succession, whether along dynastic (see Tomoo Ishida, The Royal Dynastties in Ancient Israel: A Study on the Formation and Development of Royal-Dynastic Ideology 1977), “democratic,” or usurpative lines, is shown to be as intricate and complex as it can in reality be—a political process with direct implications for the people living at the time, but also an ideolgical matter pertaining to the self-understanding of the ongoing state. On moral, religious, and political levels, the narrative seeks to deal with the legitimacy of Solomon to replace David as the leader of the Israelites.

2). The predecessors not only preserve and interpret experiences and phenomena for the successors; they also attempt to guide the successor generation in specific courses of action. This we tend to associate more directly with morality, although we do not always realize that such suasion can sometimes take very subtle and indirect forms. Moral guidance will only on certain occasions occur through such explicit forms as directives, laws, proverbs, or exhortation. Narratives can be extremely effective in conveying the principles of right and good which the predecessors want the succeeding generations to claim as their own. Thus traditions of various sorts become the means of inculcating and guiding those who follow.

The Succession Narrative contains no norms or directives explicitly aimed at the Israelites as a whole, yet it is replete with implicit and very effective moral judgment. Is there a more forceful description of lust and manipulation than the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah (2 Samuel 11)? Or again, consider the inexorable path from ambition to demise in Absalom’s quest for the throne (2 Samuel 15–18). Or, observe the sickness that occasions rape, with the poignant insight about Amnon afterwards that “the hatred which he had for [Tamar] exceeded the love which he had had for her” previously (2 Samuel 13:15). Or, can one read the whole Succession Narrative without realizing by its end in 1 Kings 2 exactly what can happen to those who dare to go counter to the wishes of kings? The latter lesson remains intact whether the persons behind these stories are in favor of or are opposed to the monarchic and dynastic principle which David inaugurated.

Yet these stories also contain positive paradigms. Thus we see in dramatic form such virtues as kindness (2 Samuel 9, David’s generosity to Mephibosheth and thus to Saul’s line), compassion even in the face of malice (2 Samuel 18:5, David’s concern for his son Absalom who has tried to usurp the throne), loyalty (2 Samuel 11, by Uriah in contrast to David’s exploitation; and 2 Samuel 15:21, Ittai’s Ruth-like pledge), the importance of principles (2 Samuel 10, the result of the Ammonites’s disgracing David’s messengers), shrewdness when facing opposition (2 Samuel 15:34, David’s sending his counselor to subvert the opponent), or the rending sympathy for a misguided loved one (2 Samuel 19:1 [H], David’s lament over Absalom). These are among the most effective biblical statements concerning some of the marks of the ideal moral person.

Just as powerful are the two cases which demonstrate moral reasoning. In both cases the narrator carefully develops the scene so that David convicts himself. The one is Nathan’s well-known parable about the rich man’s exploitation of the poor man, and the result is that David sees he has wrongly manipulated Bathsheba and Uriah to his own benefit (2 Samuel 12. The other is the intriguing interchange between David and the woman of Tekoa, as a result of which David realizes that he must bring about a reconciliation between himself and Absalom (2 Samuel 14).

Whybray and Crüsemann have suggested that the Succession Narrative stems from wisdom circles in the royal court. While their arguments are not convincing, it can nonetheless be noted that, even if they are correct, the traditions are still functioning in a directive fashion similar to what has just been described. Thus, according to them, the literature serves to guide new generations of courtiers in the proper way to counsel kings and to act in the royal court. The predecessors thus inculcate their successors in the appropriate manner of functioning in the king’s presence, and thus how best to enjoy life in all its aspects.

More likely, the intent of the predecessors is to present later generations of Israelites, not just the court counselors, with these traditions about David and Solomon and to do so in a manner whereby these successors will acquire moral values while at the same time learning about their national and religious heritage. As such, the human figures in the stories become—among other things—paradigms for moral virtues to be emulated or counter-examples for vices and practices to be avoided. With such indirect narrative means the predecessors can hope to socialize morally the following generations.

B.    The Successors

Considered from the other perspective of the successor generation, the relationship between value and tradition assumes again a double contour. We will be much briefer in our references to the Succession Narrative since many of the examples will be recognized from the foregoing discussions.

1). The successor generation appropriates and internalizes tradition from the predecessor in the natural and inevitable process of socialization. This may be more apparent for the individual than for a larger group or the society as a whole, but it occurs at the latter level as well. As Berger and Luckmann describe it (129, the individual “is not born a member of society. He is born with a predisposition toward sociality, and he becomes a member of society.” While the society is not simply the individual writ large, a culture does develop a character, distinctiveness, and ethos—all of these quite complex and often with divergent internal elements—which can maintain some continuity over a lengthy period of time. Thus each generation, viewed schematically, will learn from its predecessors key perspectives and values which allow the society to continue to function with a sense for its heritage yet also with an alertness to new historical situations. Tradition thus becomes constitutive, life-giving, grounding. The successor generation finds in it an identity as well as a means for interpreting and responding to the world—for “reality-maintenance,” to use Berger and Luckmann’s term (147ff.). Yet also a part of this is value-maintenance, insofar as these successors assign normative meaning to sedimented experiences of their predecessors.

Taking our example of the Succession Narrative, we can sense the social and religious role it must have had if it in fact was—ex hypothesi—transmitted relatively unchanged for three and one-half centuries, from the time of Solomon on down to its exilic appropriation by the Deuteronomists. It is not difficult to imagine, although we have no direct evidence to verify it, that the intervening generations of Israelites saw in this narrative a rich variety of materials and interpretations appropriate for their own response to life. As mentioned earlier, the values embodied here relate to the nature of the political structure, the national heritage and especially the national hero David, and moral standards of good and evil. For instance, a given successor generation would be able to perceive in the story of David and Bathsheba not only the power and prerogatives which adhere to the monarchic office, but also the higher moral principle of justice to which even the king, as much as everyone else, is subject. In the innocent loyalty of Uriah one sees the dutiful commitment that is owed to the king, even in the face of one’s own total vulnerability. Successor generations could see in the story models for their own behavior, while the traditions could also serve to remind the monarchs of their limits and ideals. In this way institutions are legitimated, moral and political values are articulated, the communal context of living is preserved—in short, reality is maintained and managed successfully by the new generation just as it had been by their predecessors.

2). However, the successor’s appropriation can also take a critical or a creative turn if the new historical situation encourages it. There are times when old values and understandings are not adequate if the new generation is to meet the demands of its own time. There are among those occasions identified by Schutz (103–32) as disturbances or interruptions of the process of sedimentation, points in which a “topically rele relevant theme of experience” is “dropped” or “covered” because attention is shifted away from it: “Our own history is nothing else than the articulated history of our discoveries and their undoing in our autobiographically determined situation” (132). We can see this most dramatically in times of crisis or radical social change, for in such periods an unusual literary activity is likely to occur. Consider how many of the Israelite traditions either began to appear, or were developed substantially, or were rendered into written form during such nodal times as the premonarchic consolidation of the Israelites, the establishment of the monarchy, the decline and fall of first the North and then the South, the Babylonian exile, the restoration, and the Hellenistic period. If the people had not been able to adjust to the new social demands, they would likely have perished. To the adaptability of the Israelites as much as to their constancy we owe the Hebrew Bible. While tradition is constitutive and grounding, it is not simply handed over to traditionalists, to those who aim to control and limit its meaning. Not only can totally new traditions or new values be introduced in order to deal with new demands, but also it is very possible for the community instead to find a new depth of understanding in the sedimented past (see Barr: 190; also Stanley Hauerwas). For the view of life in the Israelite literary traditions is itself not simple, nor does it encourage premature or naive action, no more than does any good literature (Wellek and Warren: 36). It is addressive, inviting engagement, commitment, and creative response.

We can see this to some extent in the Succession Narrative. As indicated, the bulk of the creative formation of this text occurred very early, probably during or soon after the Davidic and Solomonic reigns when the various stories would have been recounted to describe the character of the two monarchs and also the nature of the emergent institution of the monarchy. It may be that some of this was prompted by opposition to beginning a dynasty, as Würthwein has advocated. At any rate, the next creative stage may not have occurred until the time of the Deuteronomists in the exilic period. Even then it did not experience an in-depth reworking, but a theological reinterpretation which needed to be entered by the redactors at only a few points. The narrative itself already managed more than adequately to portray the exemplary heroism of the good king as well as the pernicious temptations of power. What was not adequately articulated for this generation in exile was that YHWH had wanted the earthly monarch to rule more in keeping with the divine will and that the very continuation of the dynasty was to be understood as an indication of the divine presence in Israel. As Veijola has reconstructed the Deuteronomists’ contributions, not all of their additions were intended simply for the literary purposes of tying together the narrative materials in the books of Samuel and Kings through a system of foreshadowings and flashbacks. The Deuteronomists were above all theo theologically moved to underscore the religious, and thereby also the moral dimensions of the ideal king. Thus David is pictured as forgiving and manganimous (2 Samuel 9), as piously humble and willing to suffer for religious virtues (2 Samuel 15:25f; 16:11f.), and as law-abiding (1 Kings 2:3f.). Solomon is morally exonorated for his punitive acts against challenges to the throne; this is accomplished through several insertions which implicate the opponents themselves (1 Kings 2, passim). And above all, new additions emphasize that the dynasty is established by divine will and proclaimed to be eternal (1 Kings 2:7, 33, 45; also note especially 2 Samuel 7:8b, 11b, 13, 16, 18–21, 25–29). Thereby the catastrophe of 587 is interpreted not as the end but as the actual beginning of hope (Veijola: 137. The Succession Narrative must surely have had clear religious intentions from early times, but it fell to the Deuteronomists to develop fully the theological interpretations, as they often did elsewhere in the biblical literature. Through this means they spoke a word of encouragement to the exiled people while at the same time making their faults apparent to them. This exilic appropriation of ancient materials was designed not only to reestablish continuity with the past but also to aid that generation in dealing with the harsh new realities which they faced (see also Peter Ackroyd).

In conclusion, we should reemphasize that the Hebrew Bible was intended to be neither an ethical treatise nor a handbook of readymade, easily accessible moral values. It has, of course, existed for two millennia as a fixed product from which people could draw rules and norms for the moral life. Yet one can also look deeper into the text and observe some of the gradual process which brought much of this literature into existence. Such literary parts will potentially be vested with the values of the many people responsible even in the remotest way for their growth, and these prior layers in the literature—just as also the very process of continual appropriation and reinterpretation—also belong to the makeup of biblical ethics. In light of the varying functions which the traditions had for the people over time, perhaps the best way to understand moral values is to relate them to the fundamental meanings which are constituted, instituted, inculcated, internalized, and reformed among the people. The traditions give people a basepoint for self-understanding and a guide for proper conduct. They relieve each new generation from the need to create a moral universe de novo. Yet old answers are not always sufficient for new moral problems. Just as the generation near the time of David and Solomon sought to come to terms with the moral implications of the new monarchy, so also did the Deuteronomists seek to cope with life in exile. In both cases they drew on their respective heritages while also creating their own new response to their circumstances. The above analysis has purposely focused on the creative work of the Davidic and Solomonic generation and the acquisitive act of the exilic people, although it is clear that both generations are in fact carrying out both roles. Endlessly, the predecessors socialize and the successors appropriate—but critically and creatively, commensurate with their needs. In this dynamic process persons search, collectively and individually, for proper moral conduct in the face of their own dilemmas and ambiguities. This is a fundamental characteristic of the moral history of the ancient Isrelites leading up to the fixed text of the Hebrew Bible—just as it is of Lewish ethics in the two millennia since that period.

Response to Douglas Knight But How Does It Happen? a Note on “Predecessors and Successors”

Lou H. Silberman

The University of Arizona

The proposal or, rather, the proposals offered by Douglas Knight are deserving of close attention, beginning with his suggestion that the alternative approaches to Scriptures he describes as a source of ethical insight are at opposite ends of a continuum. He is certainly correct as he views these positions from the vantage point of a contemporary biblical scholar, but it is evident from the reading not of scholarly literature but the daily press that not all share his irenic view that those who see the Hebrew Bible (and the Greek New Testament as well) as not “product” but “entity,” “fixed, final and … authoritative,” are merely at the other end of his continuum. “A high administration official,” to use the unsavory euphemism foisted upon the public by the venal media, seems to think that, to quote Knight: “Moral values … inhere in it as objective realities, ascertainable through careful study of the text without reference to the multiple social realities which might have produced these value statements.” All one need do is thump the “Book” and proclaim that the answers to the questions of complex urban technological society in the declining years of the twentieth century are here. There is a midrashic colloquy between God and Abraham in which the former chides the latter: “You want to hold on to both ends of the rope.” What was not possible for him is not possible for us.

Left with the “development process” Knight turns to the problem with which such a position confronts someone who is yet convinced that although the Hebrew Bible does not offer push-button answers, it is nonetheless a potent source of insight into, understanding of and even solutions or clues to solutions of those ineluctable questions confronting contemporary society. Here he offers a particularly meaningful and helpful pattern in his analysis of the process by means of which value is transmitted. His portrayal of the “tradition process” in terms of “predecessors” and “successors” sets the inner life of Scriptures in sharp focus but it does more than that as it illuminates our role as successors. If we are able to grasp the dynamic of the predecessor-successor process in Scriptures we may, at the same time, be enabled to learn how we as successors receive or may receive what the generations of predecessors—here again we face the continuing process in which Scriptures are appropriated in ever new contexts—have transmitted to us.

The choice of the “Succession Narrative” to exhibit this action is itself interesting. One would think that an examination of the way in which legal ideas moved out of their pre-Israelite contexts into an emerging Israelite context and what happened to them in that context would have been the way to go. For example, one thinks of the background of the “Hebrew Slave” material in Exodus 21; of the added nuance in Deuteronomy 15:15: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you this day”; and of the existential application in Jeremiah 34:8–16. (See, too, its continuing echo in Nehemiah 5:5.) Yet by choosing a more intricate structure, Knight did himself and us a good turn, for he demonstrates that the movement of values can and does take place at a deeper and more subtle level than ordinarily anticipated. The double discussion of 1) the Predecessors’ preservation of an interpretation of experiences and phenomena for their successors and their concern “to guide the successor generation in specific courses of action,” and 2) the internalization of appropriation of tradition by the successors and the critical or creative turn that appropriation may take “if the new historical situation encourages it”; that double discussion is a valuable contribution to our further understanding of the inner workings of Scripture. We recognize that this indeed is what may have taken place. What, however, is missing, what could move that “may” closer to a more positive affirmation, is how this transmission and interaction is accomplished. What is called for is an analysis of the rhetorical moves of the predecessors, intended to presuade and to convict the successors, and parallel analysis of the response mechanisms by and through which the predecessors’ intentions—are in large or small measure fulfilled in the successors.

A paradigmatic case is indeed to be found within the Succession Narrative in the Story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah to which Knight refers. In it, it seems evident, the confrontations of David by Nathan and most particularly Nathan’s parable, may well have had a wider intention than the immediate situation. In a forthcoming value of Semeia Studies (Text and Reality: Aspects of Reference in Biblical Texts by Bernard C. Lategan and Willem S. Vorster) the authors examine and debate the way or ways in which the parable may have convicted David. It is then the “how” of that “may” I am calling for. Without it, in this case as in other, we may recognize that the literary tradition does provide the means by which the predecessors forward to the successors their experiences and their concerns in the hope or in the expectation that these will inform the latter’s ethical behavior, but we shall not understand how this happened and thus be deprived, as predecessors, of ways of continuing the process.

As a postscript let me add a warning. The predecessors’ intentions may be of no avail! The ethical values preserved and sent forward may, despite rhetorical excellence, be unheard, partially heard or misheard. Again the case in point is the episode noted. When one goes in search of the re-echoing of the ethical judgment in Nathan’s parable in Rabbinic literature, one is hard put to hear any such. The transformation of the role of David, in much of that literature, into a pious scholar has filtered out the dissonances of this and other questionable episodes in his life. The rabbinic readings of this episode summarized on pages 103–104 of Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, IV and the notes thereto on pages 264–266 of volume VI make it clear that the successors often do not hear what the predecessors are saying. That, too, may be our problem or our fate.

To Speak, How to Speak, and When Not to Speak: Answers from Early Rabbinic Stories

Joel Gereboff

Arizona State University


This essay examines how early rabbinic documents embody moral precepts. The methodological starting point is Sol Roth’s emphasis on role-modelling as an important tool for nuturing moral development. Both Mishnah and Tosefta—the earliest documents of rabbinic Judaism—present many stories or conversations which portray the rabbis acting in certain ways. Here we examine stories that throw light on a particular theme: the proper use of speech. Through a study of how their heroes use speech, we adduce the implicit values of the rabbinic redactors. For this story, Mishnah and Tosefta are studied separately. The wisdom of this choice appears as we find that the two documents have different theories as to the character of proper speech. Mishnah wants speech to be used to achieve reconciliation. Tosefta sees proper speech as that which confronts and corrects. These studies shows us how moral values are passed on through narrative discourse.

The recent comments by Sol Roth on the Jewish methodology for solving social problems stress the importance Judaism places on role modeling for moral development. Roth states:

Fundamentally two approaches to the solution of social problems are possible. One is sociological. Society’s social structure can be transformed in such a way that the impact of specific problems may be reduced or even eradicated. This might be done by the restructuring of old institutions or the introduction of new ones. The other is moral. Alternatively, the individual member of society, through a process of education, may undergo changes in character which could also lead to the same result … Greater emphasis is placed by Judaism on the building of moral character than on the creation of new institutional forms. Judaism’s definition in terms of commandments means that even the realization of the social objective is ultimately dependent on the development of moral character. (150–51, 155)

Roth goes on to note how the combined efforts of the school and the family contribute to moral development. He remarks:

One important consequence of Judaism’s emphasis on the practical form of education is that the family becomes the crucial instrument in the process that leads to the cultivation of the sense of morality and the development of a commitment to the moral principles. The burden of education does not belong exclusively to the school. It must be carried by the family as well, in the Jewish view, must even assume the greater share. The school will fulfill the purpose of communication of knowledge and provide the explanation, even the justification, of principles. But the practice of precepts must be prompted and supervised in the home and by parents … It is necessary that children be taught to practice the precepts of conduct into which the principle of respect is translated and which have the capacity to instill the attitude of respect into the hearts of the young. When children are trained to avoid sitting on a seat reserved for a parent, to refrain from contradicting parents, never to respond to a parent with abuse, they learn, in practice, the sense of reverence that constitutes respect for a parent. (151–52)

Roth’s claim that for successful moral development children and their parents must observe the moral precepts is quite accurate. Roth, however, draws too sharp of a contrast between parents and teachers; for teachers, and the people they teach about, also provide role models for children. When teachers act in certain ways, when they tell stories about authoritative personalities, or when they relate narratives found in normative or sacred texts, they provide the students with data that may greatly shape their moral characters. In this paper we discuss the moral values conveyed by the actions of individuals in stories in the two earliest rabbinic documents, Mishnah (edited circa 200 C. E.) and Tosefta (edited circa 250 C.E.).

The redactors of Mishnah and Tosefta have included most narratives because of their relevance to the legal concerns of their redactional contexts. Most of the accounts, moreover on their own, focus upon legal issues. As a result, only a small number of narratives in Mishnah and Tosefta describe what can be called “moral actions.” These few accounts, furthermore, focus upon a number of different moral matters, with only one or two sources pertaining to each issue. It, therefore, would be inappropriate to reconstruct the ideas of Mishnah and Tosefta on these issues based on such meager evidence. Several narratives, however, explicitly deal with the same theme, the proper use of human speech. Since many of the other narratives, and all of the debates, contain discourse, we shall examine all of them. This large body of data allows us to describe the various views of Mishnah and Tosefta on the most common interpersonal activity of rabbinic society. What rabbis and students of Torah do most is talk. Through the stories they relate, the composers of rabbinic literature provide role models indicating the proper conduct of this action.

We separately examine the materials in Mishnah and Tosefta. Recent work on rabbinic literature stresses the importance of a documentary approach. One should not homogenize diverse ideas from different rabbinic documents and create an artificial composite entitled “the rabbinic view of x.” We shall emphasize the accounts in Mishnah and then, for purposes of comparison, introduce the reports in Tosefta. In our discussions of the narratives we concentrate upon their literary structure, as well as their substance. Meaning comes from form, not just from content. We pay particular attention to the syntagmatic structure of the narratives, to word plays in them and to the formulaic features of their rhetoric.


The narrator of the first account that we examine from Mishnah locates a key difference between rabbis and ignorant people in their employment of speech. This story thus indicates the importance given to the question of the nature of proper speech.

A.    He who slaps the ear (htwq’) of his fellow gives him [for compensation for embarrassment] a sela.

B.    R. Judah says in the name of R. Yose the Galilean, “A maneh.”

C.    He slapped him (sŒtrw), he gives him two hundred zuz.

D.    With the back of his hand, he gives him four hundred zuz.

E.    He mutilated (s\rm) his ear, plucked out his hair, spit and his spit touched him, pulled his cloak off of him, loosened the hair of a woman in the market [C, N, K, P, Pr, Pc lack: in the market], he gives four hundred zuz.

F.    This is the general rule [C, N, K, P, Pr, Pc lack: this is the general rule]: All [assessments are made] in accordance with his [a person’s] honor.

G.    Said R. Aquiba, “Even poor ones in Israel, they look upon them as if they are freemen who have lost their possessions.

H.    “For they are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

I.    M’SH B: One who loosened the hair of a woman in the market [C, N, K, P, Pr, Pc lack: in the market].

J.    She came before R. Aquiba,

K.    and he obligated him [the one who committed the act] to pay her four hundred zuz.

L.    He [the guilty party] said to him, “Rabbi, give me some time.”

M.    And he gave him time.

N.    He observed her standing by the entry to her yard, and he broke before her a cruse, and in it was about an issar of oil.

O.    She uncovered her head, scoped up [the oil] with her hands, and placed her hand on her head.

P.    He had set up witnesses [to observe] her.

Q.    And he came before R. Aquiba.

R.    He said to him, “Rabbi, to this one I should give four hundred zuz“?

S.    He said to him, “You have said nothing.

T.    “For he that wounds himself,

U.    “even though he is not permitted [to do so],

V.    “he is exempt

W.    “And others who wound him, they are liable.

X.    “And he who cuts down his plantings,

Y.    “even though he is not permitted,

Z.    “he is exempt.

AA.    “And others who cut down his plantings, they are liable.” M. B.Q. 8:6

The story consists of four scenes: 1) the initial act in the market, I; 2) the first appearance before Aquiba, J–K + L–M; 3) the trick played by the convicted man, N–P; 4) the second appearance before Aquiba, Q–R + S–AA. The narrator tells the first part of the story almost entirely through descriptive sentences. In the opening sections only the man speaks at L. He also talks first in the final scene, at R. The silence of Aquiba then is dramatically reversed at S. Aquiba’s initial comment reinforces the picture created by the narrator; he tells the man, “you have said nothing.” Aquiba then proceeds to state the correct lesson. The utilization of a law in standard legal form at V–AA, instead of a simple descriptive remark, “and R. Aquiba obligated him to pay,” dramatically brings to the surface the rabbinical role of a judge who is an authoritative teacher. The rabbi, who is reticent to start, knows how to reveal effectively his knowledge; he knows how to speak. The man who wants to expose the woman ends up revealing his own poor character and ignorance of the law. P further underscores his last point. The man thought he was clever and well-versed in the law and, accordingly, set up the required witnesses. But his efforts were for naught since his entire plan was misconceived. In the end, the man looks like a fool, the woman degrades herself (O), and the witnesses are duped. Only Aquiba emerges as a positive figure.

The above analysis accounts for a curious omission in the story. Nowhere in the narrative does the storyteller have Aquiba say, as a remark attributed to him at G–H does, that the woman should receive the compensation because she, like all Israelites, are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This claim could have been appended to K, if the latter had read, “Said R. Aquiba,’You must pay her four hundred zuz, for even she is a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ ” The failure to include this statement in D–G allows the narrator to avoid portraying her, at any point, in a positive light. The sage is the sole individual who conducts himself properly and who knows how to use his words correctly.

The following three separate accounts also deal with the effects of the words of different kinds of people. In the first story a common person, through his statements, foils his own well designed plans. Because of their use of language two different sages, in the second and third reports, are able to bring events to positive conclusions.

A.    He who sanctifies his field [that he inherited] when the Jubilee is not [in force]—

B.    They say to him, “You declare first [how much you wish to pay for the redemption of the field.” Since when the Jubilee is not in force the field is redeemed at market value, and not at the fixed rate of fifty sheqels per homer of land, an auction must be held]

C.    For the owner pays an added fifth.

D.    But no other man pays the added fifth

E.    M’SH B: One man sanctified his field because of its poor quality.

F.    They said to him, “You declare (pth) first.”

G.    He said, “Lo, it is mine for an issar.

H.    Said R. Yose, “This one said, ‘Only for [the value of] an egg.’ ”

I.    “For what is sanctified is redeemed by money or by something worth money.”

J.    They said to him, “It is yours.”

K.    He turned out to lose an issar, and his field was before him [still his]. M. Arakh. 8:1

A.    A woman suffered five miscarriages that were in doubt, five issues that were in doubt, she brings one sacrifice, and she eats from animal offerings, and the remainder [of the sacrifices] is not incumbent upon her.

B.    [If she suffered] five miscarriages, five certain issues, she brings one sacrifice, and eats from animal offerings, and the remainder is incumbent upon her.

C.    M’SH Sû: A pair of birds (qynym) in Jerusalem [went up in price and] stood at a gold denar [twenty-five silver denars].

D.    Said R. Simeon b. Gamaliel, “By this sanctuary (hm’wn hzh), I shall not rest tonight until they shall be at [silver] denars.”

E.    And he entered the bet din, and taught that:

F.    [If] she suffered five certain miscarriages, five certain issues, she brings one sacrifice, and eats from animal offerings, and the remainder is not incumbent upon her.

G.    And the pairs of birds stood on that day at one-quarter denar [each]. M. Kerit, 1:7

A.    If there is a wound [covered by a scab] on her [a woman who has found a bloodstain on herself], and it can open again and bleed, lo, she can blame it [the bloodstain] on that [wound].

B.    M’SH B: One woman who came before R. Aquiba.

C.    She said to him, “I have seen a bloodstain.”

D.    He said to her, “Perhaps there was a wound on you”?

E.    She said to him, “Yes, but it has healed.”

F.    [He said to her,] “Perhaps it can open and bleed”?

G.    She said to him, “Yes.”

H.    And R. Aquiba declared her clean.

I.    His disciples did he see staring at one another.

J.    He said to them, “Why is this matter hard in your eyes? For the sages stated the rule not to produce a strict ruling, but to produce a lenient ruling.

K.    “as it is said, And if a woman have an issue and her issue in her flesh be blood [Lev. 15:19]

L.    “not a stain but blood.” M. Nid. 8:2–3

The common person in M. Arakh. 8:1, wishing to be rid of his field of poor quality, dedicated it to the Temple. But because of the procedure used to insure that the Temple receives money, and not land, the person ended up owning the field and losing money. The speech of the person, ignorant of the law, causes him double losses. By contrast, Simeon b. Gamaliel in M. Kerit. 1:7 and Aquiba in M. Nid. 8:2–3 use their words for constructive purposes. Concerned that the price of birds needed for sacrifices had become prohibitive, Simeon b. Gamaliel threatened to filibuster in the court and to call for a change in the law until they became cheaper. To accomplish this goal he was willing to change the number of required sacrifices. The story underscores his sensitivity to the plight of the poor, as well as his verbal skills. Aquiba in M. Nid. 8:2–3 plays the role of the sagacious judge who knows how to frame inquiries in order to arrive at correct decisions. He conducts careful and meticulous investigations conforming to the spirit of the law. In addition to rendering the proper ruling, Aquiba knows how to instruct students. He is cognizant of their reactions and precedes his formulation of the reasons for his decision (J–L) with an appropriate question that articulates their perceptions and thoughts. The three above stories, along with the first one we analyzed, M. B.Q. 8:6, show that proper speech is the mark of a wise person. The correct use of language is instructive and beneficial. On the other hand, improper and inopportune remarks have detrimental results.

Knowing how to speak also includes knowing when it is best not to say anything. The next accounts are the two mishnaic narratives that center upon the idea of silence. In one, a sage refused to disclose the teachings of a colleague. In the other account, a priest wished to reveal information that should have been kept secret.

A.    [“An important general rule have they said concerning the Seventh Year: Whatever is gathered solely as food for man may not be used as an emollient for men … or cattle; and whatever is not solely for food for man may be used as an emollient for man, but not for cattle; and whatever is not solely either for food for man or for food for cattle—if he intended it for food for man and for food for cattle, they place on it the stringent rules regarding man and cattle …” (M. Sheb.-8:1)].

B.    A hide which one has anointed with oil for the Seventh Year—

C.    R. Eliezer says, “It is to be burned.”

D.    And sages say, “He should eat [produce of] equal value (y’kl kngdw).”

E.    They said before R. Aquiba, “R. Eliezer used to say, ‘A hide which one has anointed with oil of the Seventh Year—it is to be burned.’ ”

F.    He said to them, “Silence. I shall not say to you what R. Eliezer says concerning it.” M. Sheb. 8:9

A.    Further, they said before him, “R. Eliezer used to say, ‘He who eats the bread of Samaritans is like him who eats the flesh of a pig.’ ”

B.    He said to them, “Silence. I shall not tell you what R. Eliezer says concerning it.” M. Sheb. 8:10

A.    Thirteen shofar [shaped chests for donations], thirteen tables, thirteen places for prostrations were in the Temple.

B.    Those of the house of Rabban Gamaliel and Hananiah the Prefect of the Priests used to prostrate themselves fourteen [times].

C.    And where was the extra [place]?

D.    Opposite the storage bin for the wood.

E.    For they had a tradition from their fathers that the ark was hidden away there [at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, see 2 Chr. 35:3].

F.    M’SH B: One priest who was occupied (mt’śq) [therein],

G.    and he saw that [a piece of the] floor was lower than the rest.

H.    He came and told his fellow [priests].

I.    He did not have sufficient (hśpq) [time] to finish his remark before his soul departed.

J.    And they knew assuredly (byḥwd) that the ark was hidden away there. M. Sheb. 6:1–2

In the two identically reports, M. Sheb. 8:9E–F, Sheb, 8:10, Aquiba strongly reacts to the students’ remarks and suppresses the teachings of Eliezer. Neither of the reasons for this response, nor the exact rulings of Eliezer are clear. But it is certain that, according to Aquiba, Eliezer’s views are more lenient than those attributed to him by the anonymous “they.” According to Aquiba, Eliezer in Sheb, 8:10 either agrees with the opinion of sages, D, or holds the even more lenient position that the hide may be used without paying any fine or redemption fee. In the case of Sheb. 8:10, Eliezer’s opinion may be that one may eat Samaritan bread. We can only speculate why Aquiba would not want to transmit whichever of these possible notions are the real ideas of Eliezer. Perhaps Aquiba did not want Eliezer to come across as a lenient judge, or perhaps he did not want anyone to know that any sage held a most liberal view. In spite of these uncertainties, these stories do show clearly that at times silence is an appropriate action. Without knowing the motivations for Aquiba’s alleged response, we cannot generalize regarding the proper use of silence.

M. Sheq. 6:1–2 does not leave us with the above uncertainties. In this instance the reason for suppressing information is clear: the hiding place of the ark should not become public knowledge among the priesthood. This well crafted story indicates that a discerning priest will garner this information and keep it to himself (J). The narrator reinforces this message through the literary features of this unit. F–J is somewhat atypeical for mishnaic narratives in its complete avoidance of discourse. Remarks could have been assigned to the individual single priest at H and to the group of priests at J. The narrator also creates suspense by not revealing, until the conclusion of the account, the identity of the location noticed by the priest. The reader realizes from D that the information gained by the priest is of great significance and potentially dangerous. But the reason this knowledge is threatening is not cited until J. The secrecy is maintained even at the end of the story, for it nowhere reveals the exact location of the hidden ark.

The crucial word in J, yhwd, with its double meaning of “assuredly” and “individually” conveys the notion that discerning priests know how to treat the information they acquire. Each priest kept his discovery to himself and did not make it a topic of conversation. A play on words in F and I also underscores the theme of this unit. F. describes the priest by the infrequently used term, mt’sq, “occupied.” The use of this term yields the lesson that the priest, who should have kept to his business, did not, and as a result, he never had the opportunity, hspq, to finish stating his ideas. The implication is that sticking to one’s affairs, and not talking about inappropriate matters, allows a person to finish his or her tasks.

The few accounts we have just examined concern themselves to some degree with aspects of the proper use of speech. The majority of the narratives, debates and dialogues in Mishnah do not center upon this matter. Nevertheless, the way in which they portray interpersonal communications provides insight into mishnaic views on speaking. The rhetorical features of the sayings and discussions in these materials suggest that people should address each other straightforwardly, respond directly to questions and avoid harsh criticisms and ad hominem attacks. In most accounts people either simply state their opinions, ask their questions, advance arguments justifying their views or reject the positions of others by showing their logical flaws, their detrimental results, their opposition to established facts or their lack of support from an authoritative document. The items in Mishnah containing discourse indicate that discussants must have an opportunity to state their cases without interruption. Conversations should be based upon mutual respect. People should not vilify others for asking poor questions or for putting forward weak or unfounded ideas. They also need not defer to their superiors in learning or office. Thus in no mishnaic sources does a person request permission from someone else to speak. In only four narratives (Ber. 2:5, Pes. 6:2, Ned. 9:5, Bekh. 4:4) people refer to the titles of the person they address. In all four cases a party questions the views of another person, and we shall return to these reports in our comments upon mishnaic opinions on offering criticisms and correction. Debates in Mishnah similarly omit all reference to titles. Discussions focus upon the issues. Personalities and statuses are irrelevant considerations.

In the course of interpersonal communications people often have to correct one another. They also often have the opportunity to relate uncomplimentary incidents. From the mishnaic accounts under analysis we can reconstruct the views of the redactors of Mishnah on the manner for correcting people and on the propriety of transmitting negative reports. Mishnah omits almost all reports that reflect poorly upon people. It also contains only a small number of sources in which people castigate others. These silences suggest that according to Mishnah one should not discuss the negative aspects of people. In all of Mishnah only nine reports seem to depict unfavorably individuals or groups. Even in these accounts, especially those that are brief, people simply state the pertinent facts without adding an evaluative commentary about the person under scrutiny. For example, in M. Suk. 2:7 the House of Hillel simply relate to the House of Shammai tht the elders of the latter group once did not correct one of their members who was following Hillelite practices. The House of Hillel do not add anything to the details of the report. They do not even state that the House of Shammai were inconsistent. Facts are allowed to speak for themselves, and the reader must deduce that the people acted incorrectly. Similarly, when people note an error in the recollections, opinions, exegeses or arguments of others, they just describe the mistake and do not accentuate the grievousness of the fault or the stupidity of the person. Only five narratives (Suk. 2:7, Ket. 8:1, Ned. 5:6, Naz. 7:4, Makhs. 3:4) and five debates and discussions (Ber. 1:3, Pes. 6:2, B.B. 9:10, Nid. 6:14, Yad. 4:6–7) contain rebukes or explicit statements that the person has erred. Not even all of these ten items contain remarks that actually attack a person. In five cases (Suk 2:7, Naz. 7:4, Makhs. 3:4, Nid. 6:14, Yad. 4:6–7) one party simply states explicitly that the other has erred. As noted, Mishnah generally just records responses without adding introductory comments specifying that the person has made a mistake. The statements of masters in two of the five remaining reports, Ket. 8:1 and B.B. 9:10, are expressions of frustration, not of anger. Through these remarks these sages indirectly note the weaknesses of their own views. The three remaining pericopae, Ber. 1:3, Pes. 6:2, Ned. 5:6, are the sole harshly critical statements in Mishnah. People familiar with all of Mishnah would undoubtedly conclude that they should use their words only to correct or question and not to rebuke or speak unkindly of others.

Three fairly lengthy stories in Mishnah detail tensions of preand post-70 C.E. eras. M. R.H. 2:8–9 records an incident pointing to strife between the Patriarch Gamaliel and rabbis; Ta. 3:8 is an uncomplimentary story about the miracle worker, Honi; Ed. 5:6–7 suggests that the pre-70 figure Aqabyah was excommunicated because of his refusal to retract three opinions opposing majority views. All of these accounts about controversies, however, end with a reconciliation of the conflicting parties. Speech serves as the means for achieving this resolution of tensions. The reports against Honi (Ta. 3:8), which through its narrative indicates that he was not totally successful in having God respond to his raininducing rites, end with a comment by the pre-70 prototypeical rabbi, Simeon b. Shetah, that criticizes Honi and, at the same time, accords him the status of a member of the group of sages. In a similar vein, the critical account about Aqabyah, Ed. 5:6–7, concludes with that figure advising his son to reconcile himself with the majority of the sages. The narrator allows Aqabyah to explain his recommendations. Aqabyah bases his counsel on important rabbinic principles, and he also does not contradict his own actions. A remark by Aqabyah at the beginning of the account further tones down its negative force, for according to that comment Aqabyah claims that he persisted in holding to his opinions in order that he could not be accused of retracting for self-interested motives. Finally, the overall redactor of the unit includes a comment by a sage that disputes the claim that Aqabyah was ever excommunicated. The speeches by Aqabyah and by this sage thus smooth over the noted tensions. An examination of the report about Gamaliel’s harsh tretment of Joshua, R.H. 2:8–9, will show that this narrative also concludes on a note of reconciliation. This account is as follows:

A.    Rabban Gamaliel had pictures of the shapes of the moon on a tablet and on the wall of his upper room, which he used to show to the untrained people (hdywtwt) and say, “Did you see it in this way or in that?”


1.    M’SH Š: Two came and said, “We saw it in the east in the morning and in the east in the evening.”

2.    Said R. Yohanan b. Nury, “They are false witnesses.”

3.    When they came to Yavneh,

4.    Rabban Gamaliel accepted [their evidence].


1.    Again, two came and said, “We saw at its expected time, yet in the night of the added day it did not appear.”

2.    And Rabban Gamaliel accepted [their evidence].

3.    Said R. Dosa b. Harkinas, “They are false witnesses: how can they testify about a woman that she has given birth if the next day her belly is between her teeth”?

4.    Said to him R. Joshua, “I approve your words (rw’h ‘ny ‘t dbryk).”

D.    Rabban Gamaliel sent him [a message], “I charge you to come to me, with your staff and your money, on the Day of Atonement as it falls according to your reckoning.”


1.    R. Aqiba went [to R. Joshua] and found him troubled.

2.    He said to him, “I am able to learn that whatever Rabban Gamaliel has done is done,

3.    “for it is written, These are the set feasts of the Holy Lord, holy convocations, which you shall proclaim [Lev. 23:4].

4.    “Whether in their time or whether not in their time, I have no other set feasts but these.”


1.    [R. Joshua] went (b’ lw) to R. Dosa b. Harkinas.

2.    He said to him, “If we come to judge [the decisions of] the court of Rabban Gamaliel, we shall have to judge [the decisions of] every court which has arisen from the days of Moses until now.

3.    For it is written, Then went up Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel [Ex. 24:9].

4.    “And why are the names of the elders not spelled out (ntprsûw)? Rather, it is to teach that any three [judges] who arise as a court over Israel are like the court of Moses.”

G.    He took his staff and his money in his hand, and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamaliel on the day which fell as the Day of Atonement according to his reckoning.

H.    Rabban Gamaliel stood up and kissed him on his head.

I.    He said to him, “Come in peace, my master and my disciple: my master in wisdom, and my disciple, in that you have accepted [K, P, C.: upon yourself; N: upon himself] my words.” M. R.H. 2:8–9

Even this most critical report, which has a Patriarch command a sage to violate the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar, ends in compromise. Through his words of peace in I, Gamaliel overcomes his harsh order of D. In addition to its explicit claim that Gamaliel comes to terms with Joshua, Gamaliel’s speech subtly makes him take on the characteristics of a rabbi. I is the only point in the narrative where, like the various rabbis throughout the account, Gamaliel explains his rulings and statements. Until I, the storyteller simply records Gamaliel’s decisions and commands. By playing on the double meaning of the term “words” (C4 vs. I), the narrator brings out the conflict between Patriarchal rule by fiat and rabbinic rule by reason and exegesis. From the perspective of the Patriarch, the authority of his court rests on the office and person of the Patriarch. Patriarchs need not give their reasons for their rulings. Rabbinic decisions, on the other hand, are correct because of the quality of the arguments supporting them. Good arguments convince Joshua that he should accept the Patriarch’s decree, and he does just this. But the Patriarch, through his own words, at I, indicates that also he needs to explain his actions. Consistent with the impression left by the rest of Mishnah, this account, and the other two lengthy narratives, imply that humans should use their ability to speak to bring people together, not to create disharmony among them. Harmony does not, however, mean agreement. People may differ on matters. But their remarks should not be phrased so as to make future conversations difficult or impossible.

We now turn to one final aspect of Mishnah’s use of speech. The claim that silence is an important value for the redactors of Mishnah and therefore that the silences of that work are important indicators of its concerns may explain its only limited reference to biblical figures. Consistent with the general lack of citation of biblical verses as prooftexts for its claims. Mishnah uses as precedents only a small number of narratives that detail the actions of biblical figures. These few items sharply contrast with the numerous reports about rabbinic figures that serve as precedents for mishnaic assertions. A remark in one of the stories about a biblical personality, M. Qid. 4:14, may provide insight into these redactional preferences. According to this text, “Abraham, our father, performed the whole Torah before it was given.” This remark, with its de scription of Abraham as “our father” and with its specification of “the whole Torah,” gives the impression that a strong continuity exists between Abraham and the heroes of Mishnah, the rabbis. Rabbis are like biblical figures, and as a result, the readers of Mishnah could not conceive that the actions of rabbis oppose those of biblical personalities. This remark establishes the continuity of the biblical and rabbinic figures, but it and the few other remarks about early Israelite figures, do not cause the latter personalities to overshadow the importance and authority of rabbinic masters. Rabbis, and not biblical individuals, are central to Mishnah, and they provide role models for other Jews. The redactors have achieved this effect by their careful use of speech, particularly by their purposeful silences.


The narratives, discussions and debates in Tosefta generate a more complex set of opinions than Mishnah regarding the use of speech. The nature of the discourse contained in most of these sources is similar to that in Mishnah. People generally state their views without adding extraneous comments, raise straightforward questions or advance arguments unencumbered by derogatory remarks. Tosefta also contains several accounts that indicate that silence is at times an acceptable response.15 While Tosefta in these ways continues the mishnaic patterns of rhetoric, it augments Mishnah on one aspect of the use of speech and differs with that earlier rabbinic document on three others. Several accounts in Tosefta revolve around the correctness of using evasive or false language. Mishnaic sources provide no information on this matter. Tosefta first differs from Mishnah regarding the appropriateness of relating uncomplimentary stories and of strongly criticizing people. A person exposed to Tosefta would conclude that one may make harsh comments and retell negative reports. The inclusion of a number of accounts in which people defer to their superiors is consistent with this view found in Tosefta that speech can be utilized to highlight differences between individuals. This is the second area of divergence between the two documents. Speech in Mishnah brings people together; in Tosefta it sometimes divides them. Tosefta finally diverges from Mishnah by recording more stories about biblical characters. Our ensuing remarks take up these alternative views of Tosefta.

In four accounts in Tosefta (Suk. 1:8–9, Yeb. 3, Hul. 2:24, Hag. 2:11–12) masters respond to questions in indirect ways. The narrators of the first three incidents treat these answers as appropriate replies. The sage who uses such tactics in the fourth report is condemned. We first present the three accounts that positively evaluate circumlocution.

A.    A large courtyard surrounded by pillars, lo, the pillars are like sides [for a Sukkah].

B.    One may make its fellow [pillar into a] side so that he may drink and sleep.

C.    And moreover, one may stand up a bed [on a festival] and spread a sheet over it so that the sunlight does not come in either on those who eat or on a dead [body].

D.    Sages admit to R. Eliezer that they do not make tents to begin with on the festival, and there is no need to say [that they do not do so on the Sabbath].”


1.    [E, Lon., ed. prin. add: About what did they disagree? About adding (to a tent); for R. Eliezer says, “They do not add (to a tent) on the festival, and there is no need to say (anything about) the Sabbath.”]

2.    And sages say, “They add [to an already existent tent] on the Sabbath, and there is no need to say [anything] about the festival.” [D–E = Tos. Shab. 12:14]

F.    M’SH B: Eliezer was sitting in the Sukkah of R. Yohanan b. Ilai in Caesarea,

G.    and [E, Lon. lack: and] the sun came into (hgych) the Sukkah.

H.    He [Yohanan] said to him, “What is [the law] about spreading a sheet over it?

I.    He said to him, “You have no tribe in Israel [E, Lon., ed. prin. lack: in Israel] that did not put forth (h’myd) a prophet [E, Lon.: a judge].

J.    The sun reached the middle of the Sukkah.

K.    He said to him, “What is [the law] about spreading a sheet over it”?

L.    He said to him, “You have no tribe that did not put forth a judge [E, Lon.: a prophet].

M.    “The tribe of Judah and Benjamin put forth kings according to the instruction of prophets.”

N.    The sun reached the feet of R. Eliezer.

O.    He [Yohanan] took the sheet and spread it over the Sukkah.

P.    And R. Eliezer stretched out his feet (hpšyl) and went away. Tos. Suk. 1:8–9

A.    They asked R. Eliezer, “A mamzer—may he inherit? He said to them, “may he perform halisah.”

B.    “May he perform halisah” He said to them, “May he inherit”?

C.    “May he inherit”? He said to them, “May one plaster his house”?

D.    [Should be: “May one plaster his house”?] He said to them, “May one plaster his grave”?

E.    “May one plaster his grave”? He said to them, “May one raise dogs”?

F.    “May one raise dogs”? He said to them, “May one raise pigs”?

G.    “May one raise pigs”? He said, “May one raise roosters”?

H.    “May one raise roosters”? He said to them, “May one raise small cattle”?

I.    “May one raise small cattle”? He said to them, “May one save the shepherd from the wolf”?

J.    “May one save the shepherd from the wolf”? He said to them, “It seems you have asked me only concerning the (kbśh) lamb”?

K.    And as regards the lamb, “May one save [it]”? He said to them, “It seems you have asked only about the shepherd.”

L.    “So-and-so, what is he as to [does he enter] the world to come? So and so, what is he as to the world to come”? He said to them, “It seems that you have asked only about so-and-so.”

M.    “And so-and-so, what is he [= his status] as to the world to come”?

N.    R. Eliezer was not putting them off, but he never said anything which he had not heard. Tos. Yeb. 3


1.    M’SH B: R. Eliezer who was seized on account of matter of minut [heresy],

2.    and they brought him up before the court (bmh) for judgment.

B.    That hegemon said to him, “Should an elder like you involve [himself] in these matters”?

C.    He said to him, “The judge is faithful for me (n’mn dyn ‘ly).” [= “I rely upon the Judge.”]

D.    That hegemon thought that he spoke only of him [himself], but he meant only his Father who is in heaven.

E.    He said to him, “Since you have relied upon me, so have I said, ‘Is it possible that these white hairs should err (hsybwt hllw tw’ym) in such matters’? Dimissus [= Pardoned (dymwš)]. Lo, you are free.” Tos. Hul. 2:24

Eliezer for three different reasons does not directly answer the questions posed to him in these three narratives. In the case of Tos. Suk. 1:8–9 the narrator does not supply Eliezer’s motivation for not telling R. Yohanan that it is wrong to spread a sheet over the sukkah. One, however, can deduce from the failure of Eliezer to correct Yohanan, after the latter had spread out the sheet (O–P), that Eliezer did not wish to tell his host that the latter’s actions were incorrect. Now the nature of Eliezer’s response here opposes that of his and other sages’ replies in other narratives. He and other rabbis correct colleagues elsewhere when they err. We, therefore, cannot determine from this evidence when it is appropriate not to answer a question directly so as not to embarrass or correct someone. The reasons for Eliezer’s course of action in the other two accounts are clear. The author of Tos. Yeb., in N, gives Eliezer’s motivation: Eliezer did not want to offer an opinion on a subject about which he received no tradition. The narrator, however, does not explain why Eliezer did not simply state that he had not heard any teaching on the matter. In a number of accounts in Mishnah and Tosefta (M. Bekh. 6:8, Kerit. 3:7–9, Neg. 7:4, 11:7, Par. 1:1, 3, Tos. Ed. 1:6, Bekh 4:15, Neg. 6:1, Nid. 1:5) he and other masters reply in just this way. Eliezer in Tos. Hul. 2:24 employs a third type of evasive reply for dealing with a difficult situation. Here he uses a double entendre (C) to outwit the gentile judge. The hegemon’s own comments in E further highlight the contrast between the wise Israelite sage’s use of speech and the stupidity of the locution of the foreign judge. The latter misunderstands Eliezer and, in E, also ironically and unknowingly mischaracterizes himself and Eliezer. This report suggests that it is appropriate for an Israelite to use misleading language to extract himself from a dangerous situation involving non-Jews.

Eliezer in none of these reports actually lies. These accounts indicate only that, at times, it is permissible to answer questions in a non-direct manner. A story in Tos. Hag. 2:11–12, involving Hillel, shows that one should not tell falsehoods. This account contrasts the actions and statements of Hillel with those of a Shammaite, Baba b. Buta, and it reads as follows:


1.    M’SH B: Hillel the Elder [b. Bes. 20a: who brought his whole offering to lay hands on it] who laid hands on the whole offering in the courtyard.

2.    and [E, Lon. lack: and] the disciplines of [E, Lon., ed. prin.: House of] Shammai collected against him.

B.    He said to them, “Come and see that she is a female, and I do prepare it [as] peace offerings.”


1.    He put them off (hyplygn) with words,

2.    and they [E adds: went out] went their way.

D.    Immediately, the hands of the House of Shammai became strengthened, and they sought to establish the law according to them [E, Lon.: according to their words].

E.    And there was there Baba b. Buta,

F.    who was of the disciples of the House of Shammai and knew that the law in all places [E, Lon. lack: in all places] is according to the House of Hillel.

G.    He went and brought all the sheep of Qedar, and set them up in the courtyard, and said to them, “Whoever needs to bring whole offerings and to bring peace offerings let him come and take and lay on hands.”

H.    They came and took the beasts and offered up whole offerings [Lon.: and peace offerings], and laid hands on them.

I.    On that day the law was established according to the words of the House of Hillel, and no one protested the matter. Tos. Hag. 2:11–12

A–I is a unitary account, which as Jonah Frankel (146–49) has argued, is a fictional story created to teach the lesson that a person’s actions must overtly conform to his/her thoughts and values. Success depends upon living up to this standard. The failure to carry out one’s view, even in the face of pressure, yields negative results. Hillel succumbed to the threat of the crowd, tried to deceive them, and as a result, his actions almost led to the supremacy of the House of Shammai. By contrast, the Shammaite Baba b. Buta acts in a straightforward manner and does what he knows is right, even in the face of the opposition of his colleagues. Just as Baba claims should be the case, the law, accordingly, is established in agreement with the opinion of the House of Hillel. A closer look at the literary traits and substantive background of A–I will support these assertions.

The story draws upon the Houses’ dispute in M. Hag. 2:3. That passage reads:


1.    The House of Shammai say, “They bring peace offerings [which may be either male or female animals, on a festival day] and do not lay hands thereon,

2.    “but [they do] not [bring] whole offerings [which are only males].”

B.    The House of Hillel say, “They bring [both] peace offerings and whole offerings, and they lay their hands thereon.”

In light of the above opinions, the only thing Hillel can do in B, if he wants the Shammaites to believe that he follows their view, is to claim that his offering is a female, a peace offering. If he claimed that it was a male, then the Shammaites could still think that his sacrifice was a whole offering. Now while Hillel’s response should have satisfied the Shammaites with regard to their view about the kind of sacrifices one offers on a festival, they still should have objected to Hillel because he laid his hands on the animal. The Shammaites thus seem to know that Hillel really did not act in conformmity with their view. They, however, are quite happy not to challenge Hillel further, for he had already caved in to their pressure. The storyteller in the first section, A–D, of the narrative, A–I depicts both Hillel and the House of Shammai as people who do not completely stand up for their convictions. Hillel lies to the Shammaites, and they overlook part of his actions. In the end, neither Hillel nor the Shammaites succeed in having matters follow their views. D and E–I make it perfectly clear that the Shammaites sought to establish the law in accordance with their opinion, but did not accomplish this. Only Baba b. Buta, who is consistent in thought, statement and deed, realizes his goals.

The storyteller has set up his neat contrast between Hillel and Baba by dividing the account, through the repetition of language at D and I, into two portions. A chart listing the parallel sections of A–D and E–I demonstrates the artistry of the narrator.



1.    Hillel lays hands on his whole offering in the courtyard, and the Shammaites collect against him.

1.    There was Baba b. Buta, a a disciple of the House of Shammai, and he knew the law is in accordance with the House of Hillel’s opinion. He went and broughtll all the sheep of Qedar and set them up in the courtyard.

2.    He said to them, “Come and see if it is a peace offering.”

2.    And he said to them, “Whoever needs to bring whole offerings or peace offerings let him come and lay hands on it.

3.    He put them off with words, and they went on their way.

3.    They came and took the beasts and offered them up as whole offerings gs and laid hands thereon.

4.    Immediately the hands of the House of Shammai became strengthened, and they sought to establish the law according to their words.

4.    On that day the law was established according to the words of the House of Hillel, and no one protested the matter.

In section 1 both Hillel and Baba, under pressure, conform actions in conformity with their convictions. At 2 both individuals must explicate the meaning of the deeds in 1. Hillel tells the people to come and see that em the animal is a peace offering. Baba tells them to come and take the animals and lay hands thereon and offer them as either whole or peace offerings. Because Hillel avoided a Shammaite attack by deceiving them with his words, not with his deeds, which as I have argued above, they knew were not in agreement with their view, the Shammaites sought to establish the law according to their words. By contrast, when Baba’s actions and words are consistent, he succeeded in having the law established in accordance with the words of the House of Hillel. At that point no one said or did anything else; no one protested the matter. They used their ability to speak correctly by not saying anything.

Having examined the issue addressed solely by Tosefta, we now turn to the three matters about which it and Mishnah differ. Mishnah, as we have noted, downplays conflict. It contains only a few uncomplimentary stories and a very small number of dialogues with highly critical retorts. By contrast, the editors of Tosefta include numerous narratives that reflect poorly upon people and many dialogues with harsh remarks.17 Accordingly, readers of the two sources would develop different views regarding the correctness of speaking in these ways. Nearly seventy pericopae in Tosefta are uncomplimentary narratives or accounts with highly critical sayings. A fair number of these reports (thirteen) have parallels in Mishnah that omit these negative elements. In these cases, Tosefta, in its role as a commentary to Mishnah, modifies the latter by accentuating conflicts ignored by the earlier work. The redactors of Tosefta clearly differ from their mishnaic counterparts regarding the propriety of discussing such matters.

There is a pattern to the kind of actions for which people are condemned in the accounts of Tosefta. About one-half of these items speak negatively about groups whose views oppose the positions of rabbis or their predecessors. Nine anti-priestly, eight anti-Sadducean,20 eight anti-Shammaite, five anti-Patriarchal22 and three anti-heretic (minim) reports compromise this collection of materials. In most of these instances people are criticized just for adhering to the views of these groups. The presence of these units of tradition in Tosefta indicates that its redactors maintain that one need not suppress uncomplimentary reports about one’s opponents. One may rebuke a person who engages in practices in accordance with the views of a group whose opinions are incorrect. Some of these reports also criticize the followers of these groups for specific failings. These people are inconsistent, insensitive to the feelings of others and ungrateful. Failings of these sorts warrant strong condemnation.

Rabbis criticize each other or tell uncomplimentary reports about one another in twenty-six accounts. Individuals are rebuked for either acting contrary to the view of the majority or using their minds poorly. In the latter instances rabbis commit serious errors of reasoning, offer poor arguments, pose inappropriate questions or fail to remember traditions. Because Tosefta contains numerous reports in which rabbis are not castigated for similar failings, we cannot generalize regarding the views of the editors of Tosefta concerning the use of harsh speech in such situations. But they clearly do not advocate its total avoidance.

By including in Tosefta negative reports and debates with harsh remarks the redactors of that work leave the impression that one should not avoid making comments that may lead to tensions within the people of Israel. Divisions exist and they need not be downplayed. The use of titles (master/student), relational terms (father, son, brother) and personal names in nearly forty remarks in Tosefta similarly accentuates differences between people. Furthermore, in several of these accounts, people explicitly seek permission from another person to speak.26 All of these accounts create the impression that society is not a homogeneous, undifferentiated mass of equals. Hierarchical relationships exist and should not be overlooked. The narratives and dialogues combining these terms, that leads to distancing people from each other, suggest that when individuals address people other than their peers they should underscore their unequal statuses. Speech, in this way as well, serves as a crucial device for restating and reinforcing the structures of the society.

Tosefta differs from Mishnah also with regard to its more frequent citation of incidents involving biblical characters. This predilection is consistent with Tosefta’s general tendency to comment upon Mishnah by citing biblical verses in support of claims in that earlier document. Several of the reports in Tosefta, found in chapter three of the tractate Sotah, are relevant to the issue of this paper.28 This section of Sot. cites a series of biblical cases to illustrate the theological proposition that God repays people in kind. In three cases the narrator records the alleged corresponding speeches of God and humans. These sources maintain that the respective arrogant comments of the generation of the flood, of the inhabitants of Sodom and Nebuchadnezzar precipitated a reply in which God stated that a punishment fitting the sin would be forthcoming. Through these materials the redactors of Tosefta indicate that wrongful speech by itself is sufficient cause to warrant retribution. People must use their gift of speech with care.


This investigation has yielded mixed results, and we will explore briefly the implications of this outcome for the use of rabbinic sources for the purposes of reconstructing rabbinic views on ethical matters. We have reached firm conclusions only on some points. Our discussion shows clearly that the editors of both Mishnah and Tosefta are concerned about the proper use of speech. Both works contain stories that pertain to this topic. These documents also include anonymous and assigned sayings, which we have not examined, that address this concern. Our analysis conclusively yields a second finding: the editors of Mishnah and Tosefta have different views on several matters relating to the issue at hand. These divergencies reinforce our opening methodological position that historical studies of rabbinic materials cannot ignore the documentary divisions of that large corpus of writings. One can no longer talk about “the rabbinic view of x,” for much recent scholarship has shown that the compilers and authors of different rabbinic works hold divergent opinions.

While we have reached firm conclusions on the above matters, we could not generalize regarding such issues as when one should not reply to a question and when one should speak harshly and negatively. It is once again the traits of the documents in which the individual units of tradition, we have examined, appear that inhibited our efforts. The editors of Mishnah and Tosefta often ignore the original meanings of the narratives they cite and utilize them in relation to other matters. The reports generally serve in these two earliest rabbinic documents as illustrations and precedents for legal assertions, and as a result, their non-legal themes are not permitted to the issues of their redactional settings. No effort has been made to smooth over inconsistencies and unclarities resulting from the divergent and conflicting conceptions implicit within these narratives. For example, because the editors did not systematically attempt to work out a position on the manner for voicing criticism, they include narratives that together report different treatments of people under similar or identical circumstances. The inconclusiveness of some of our findings underscores the idea that limited results may follow from research that does not pay sufficient attention to the organization structure of individual rabbinic documents. The assertion that each rabbinic document has its own agendum, however, should not preclude research that seeks to uncover something other than the central purpose and message of each work. The nature of the composition of these texts, in many instances, may make it impossible to extract the view of a particular rabbinic document on a specific issue. Our study shows that even with these limitations there is much to be learned from these documents about the ethics of rabbinic Judaism.

Response to Joel Gereboff When Speech is No Speech: The Problem of Early Rabbinic Rhetoric as Discourse

Jack N. Lightstone

Concordia University

The discourse portrayed in Mishnaic and Toseftan stories functions, according to Professor Gereboff, as a model for communication among rabbinic sages and between the rabbi and the common folk. These narratives are said to convey specific norms for discourse about legally appropriate behavior. Mishnah, for example, via these stories indicates that the sages ought to “address one another straightforwardly, respond directly to questions avoid harsh criticisms and ad hominem attacks”. Gereboff’s other claims about the meaning of discourse in Mishnaic stories are of the same vein.

Gereboff, quite rightly deals separately with Toseftan evidence. But the type of conclusions differ little. Most of the implied norms Tosefta shares with Mishnah; on others, according to Gereboff, Mishnah and Tosefta part company. Some few norms appear idiomatically Toseftan.

One must laud his caution in not assimilating Toseftan and Mishnaic evidence. However, since I shall not address his interpretation of specific pericopae, but rather query his methodology in general, I shall largely restrict my remarks to his treatment of Mishnaic evidence; one may take my analyses to hold, with some qualifications, for Tosefta as well.

My claim, simply put, is that Gereboff’s use of Mishnaic evidence fails to take seriously the degree to which the content of Mishnah is couched in forms and formulary patterns. This highly formalized language of Mishnah is in evidence not only in unattributed legal statements and in dispute and debates bearing attributions to named rabbis, but also in much of the putative discourse of Mishnaic stories. In other words, the Mishnaic story-precedent, itself a form introduced by the formulary uses for its actors’ dialogues the same language in which almost all of Mishnah is formulated. The rhetoric of Mishnah’s disputes can (1) reflect no real speech (Neusner, 1981; Green, 1979), and (2) cannot be taken to have been intended as a model for real speech of real people. The same holds for the discourse of Mishnah’s stories, insofar as their discourse displays the same formalized traits as disputes, debates and anonymous statements.

A further look at M. R.H. 2:8FF, a pericope adduced by Gereboff, will help illustrate these claims and occasion their elaboration.

A.    Rabban Gamaliel had pictures of the shapes of the moon on a tablet and on the wall of his upper room, which he used to show to untrained people and say, “Did you see it in this way or in that”?


1.    Two came and said, “We saw it in the East in the morning and in the west in the evening.”

2.    Said R. Yohanan b. Nuri, “They are false witnesses.”

3.    When they came to Yavneh,

4.    Rabban Gamaliel accepted them [as true witnesses].


1.    Again, two came and said, “We saw it at the expected time,” yet in the night of the additional day it did not appear,

2.    and Rabban Gamaliel accepted them.

3.    Said R. Dosa b. Harkinas, “They are false witnesses.

4.    “How can they testify that a woman has given birth, and the next day her belly is between her teeth”?

5.    Said to him R. Joshua, “I approve your words.” [based on Gereboff’s trans.]

The putative story in B and C show remarkably little in the way of narrative features. The circumstances (B.1 and C.1) that engender response by the rabbis simply define two legal problems. In both substance and form the direct speech at B.2 and C.3 are apodases to the antecedent legal problems. Gamaliel’s responses (B.4 and C.2) to the two situations resemble commonplace rulings in which operative verbs rather than lemmas provide a sage’s view. In other words, the dramatic context of the story and the actions and statements attributed to rabbinic figures are all couched in the same language in evidence throughout Mishnah’s other legal pericopae. I shall not argue that several standard Mishnaic disputes lie behind this part of the story; I maintain only that the language of the narrative so well reflects the forms and formularies found elsewhere in Mishnah, that one could easily construct two disputes out of B and C. Thus:

1.    [If] two came and said, “We saw it in the east in the morning and in the west in the evening,”

2.    R. Yohanan b. Nuri says, “They are false witnesses,”

3.    and Rabban Gamaliel accepts them.


i.    [If] two came and said, “We saw it at its expected time, yet in the night of the added day it did not appear,”

ii.    R. Dosa b. Harkinas says, “They are false witnesses,”

iii.    and Rabban Gamaliel accepts them.

iv.    Said R. Joshua, “I approve the words of R. Dosa b. Harkinas.”

Here we have what would pass as two typeical Mishnaic disputes. They use the language, virtually unchanged, of the story. Gamaliel’s acceptance of witnesses in each case is expressed in participial form, rather than in the perfect tense. The attributional formulae typeical of Mishnaic debates I have changed to those found in disputes. Even the gloss at iv. attributed to Joshua is commonplace in Mishnah.

In other narratives cited by Gereboff rabbinic dialogue reflects not Mishnaic disputes, but rather simple declarative, legal statements typeical of Mishnah’s unattributed materials. So M. B.Q. 8:6, S–AA (trans. Gereboff):

S.    He [Aqiva] said to him, “You have said nothing.

T.    “For he that wounds himself,

U.    “even though he is not permitted [to do so],

V.    “he is exempt.

W.    And others who wound him, they are liable.

X.    “And he who cuts down his plantings,

Y.    “even though he is not permitted,

Z.    “he is exempt.

AA.    “And others who cut down his plantings, they are liable.”

Gereboff himself here draws attention to the statement’s form. But of its formal traits he makes the following comment: “The utilization of a law in standard legal [Mishnaic] form at V–AA … dramatically brings to the surface the rabbinical role of a judge who is an authoritative teacher”. I see quite other ramifications to the rhetorical features of this and other exemplars. Namely, one must interpret the significance of direct speech in narratives in the context of the more salient, general features of Mishnah’s language.

The editors of Mishnah have imposed upon their materials a surprisingly limited number of forms and formulary patterns (Neusner, 1981). What is more, Mishnah’s rhetorical patterns have a clipped, truncated character. Concise stichs and pericopae are organized paratactically (Green, 1983). Relations of subject to predicate and to modifying clauses appear borne by this parataxis, because of the truncated nature of the language. In pericopae bearing the names of rabbis, such as disputes, one or another standard attributional formula interposes between stichs. Thus “He who … shall …” becomes [Concerning] him who …, Rabbi x says, “He shall …” The result is the appearance of direct speech. In reality, names separate two contradictory apodases to a single protasis (Green, 1979).

Mishnah, then, not only imposes its limited repertoire of forms and formularies throughout, leaving no hint of idiomatic speech (Neusner, 1981). That understates matters. Mishnaic editors deny individuality and personal identity to the rabbis whose names appear across every chapter. Mishnah’s rhetoric leaves little room for speech emerging from the individual rabbi’s will and intellect. Thus the same words may be put in the mouth of Yohanan b. Nuri as were attributed to Dosa b. Harkinas. Or the same stich might appear anonymously. Gamaliel may be made to parrot the same language, such as, “He is liable,” in response to a variety of cases.

Where no room is left for the aspects of personal identity, the category, moral, as normally understood, remains problematic. In Mishnah the denial of individuality extends to speaking; the mishnaic corpus, therefore, does not portray acts of speech. Most of what Mishnah puts in the mouth of rabbis, then, cannot be read as functioning as a model for moral discourse. For neither “moral” nor “discourse” would appear apt categories.

Mishnaic rhetoric in the final analysis devalues rabbinic dialogue and speech. Mishnah favors an artificial, entirely uniform and rather other-worldly language to anything that could be deemed personal, and therefore potentially moral, expression. Mishnah uses a timeless, non-human and utopian mode of communication (see Neusner, 1981). Perhaps its editors thereby bolster the claim for Mishnah’s divine origins, while retaining a role for individual human tradents, the rabbis (see Neusner, 1981).

One must seriously consider that much of the discourse in Mishnah’s narratives exhibits the forms and formularies in evidence throughout the non-narrative materials. If so, what Mishnah denies to the rabbis of attributed legal sayings, namely, personal identity and speech, the document also withholds from rabbis in narrative contexts. Their individuality too Mishnah eliminates; their putative speech too has none of the qualities of idiomatic identity and of human will. The Aqiva of the narrative speaks in the same Mishnaic rhetoric upon which no real interpersonal communication could be modelled. One cannot say of such narrative discourse that the editor counsels succinct speech of this type, for the rhetoric of Mishnah is too truncated to function as real, effective, interpersonal communication; that precisely is the point of Mishnaic rhetoric.

To a large degree what I maintain about Mishnah’s narratives holds as well for Tosefta’s. To be sure the editors of Tosefta have played a comparatively minor role in the formulation of pericopae (Neusner, 1977). But the forms or formularies of Toseftan pericopae appear determined in the main by the language of correlative Mishnaic passages (Neusner, 1977). Tosefta, however, preserves as well materials independent of Mishnah. Perhaps here my claims may warrant significant qualification. That remains to be seen, following careful and detailed analysis of the source at hand.

In the final analysis, then, I caution those who would see in earliest rabbinic narratives norms for interpersonal communication in any real sense of the term. These narratives share in the overall linguistic and formal traits of Mishnaic sayings. And for this reason I must judge narrative discourse as part and parcel of Mishnah’s rejection of real speech by real people.

Toward a Semiotic Study of Jewish Moral Discourse: The Case of Responsa

Peter J. Haas

Vanderbilt University


The characteristic rabbinic format for casting moral discourse is the responsum. In these texts, specific moral or legal issues are addressed and proper actions defined. This essay shows that we can adduce rabbinic morality not only from the content of these discussions but also from the very way in which they are framed. The case at hand concerns a terminally ill woman, in great pain, who is begging her family to pray for her quick death. The author Hayyim Palaggi, concludes that such a prayer is inappropriate but that the family may stop praying for her continued life. This essay examines how this point is argued and articulated. Two aspects of responsa writing in particular are examined. One is the legal character of the language used. This, it is claimed, links the discussion to the Talmud and so ultimately back to Sinai. The other is the use of rabbinic tales as paradigms of virtuous lives.

A translation of the responsum considered here is provided at the end of the essay.


All religions attempt to shape the lives of their followers: to prohibit some activities and to encourage others. Although countless attempts have been undertaken to study and compare what kinds of lifestyles these communities define as good, we do not yet have an adequate understanding of what a conception of “the good” is and how such a conception is passed down from generation to generation. Thus we know a good deal about the content of various ethics, but we still know very little about what it means to have an ethic. The purpose of this essay is to investigate what an ethic is by examining how ethical values are transmitted through moral discourse. That is, if we can achieve insight into how moral knowledge is formulated and transmitted, we will have a better idea of what constitutes moral knowledge. This will help us in turn develop a more sophisticated definition of the nature of ethics as a human and cultural creation.

The methodology proposed here make certain assumptions about the nature of ethics and moral discourse. In particular it assumes that moral rules define a system of behavior that is the surface expression of an interlocking grid of deep-seated convictions. Thus moral rules are not simply random adjudications, but are more or less adequate expressions of inarticulated patterns of thought and value. It also assumes that moral discourse is moral discourse because it expresses its conclusions in a way that links them to the grid of values and principles which implicitly constitute the hearer’s notion of the good or proper life. This means that moral discourse consists not only of what is said, but also of how and in what context it is said. In short, the rhetoric of moral discourse is itself an integral expression of that culture’s moral universe. That is why moral discourse itself is a relevant subject for the study of religious ethics.

One purpose of this enterprise is to rethink the way in which comparative religious ethics is done. All to often this has been a matter of collecting rules on one or another theme and setting these next to another list of rules for comparison. While interesting differences or convergences do at times appear, this kind of study is not able to account for these. Most explanation along these lines is little more than a restatement of the data. What is missing is a systematic attempt to get at the culture’s deeper mental and emotional structures which bind the diverse rules together into a coherent whole. The claim advanced here is that a comparison of these fundamental systems of convictions offers a much more fruitful activity for understanding how one moral system differs from another and finally for understand what a moral system is at all.

In what follows, I shall examine classical rabbinic moral discourse as found in the responsa literature. The responsa literature is particularly apt for the kind of study proposed here for a number of reasons. It is, to begin with, the most characteristic mode of classical rabbinic moral discourse. Responsa arise in the ninth century as a vehicle for the central Jewish authorities in Babylonia to issue and justify rulings on legal or moral questions addressed to them from distant parts of the Arab empire. In this they resemble the older Roman rescripts and the Moslem fatwa. By the Middle Ages, these documents were being produced by the thousands by local rabbinic authorities, dealing with every imaginable question. Insofar as responsa became in effect the standard genre of rabbinic moral writing, I take them to be the appropriate subject for a study of classical rabbinic moral rhetoric. These texts are useful also because they not only state the ruling, but routinely justify it with lengthy argumentation. They thus show us how the rabbis supposed that moral rules are to be explained and warranted to their public. In light of the discussion above, we shall want to study not the content of these rescripts, but rather their rhetoric, the values and logic which give them structure and meaning to their readers. As we shall see, these documents offer rich insight into the grammar of Jewish moral discourse, that is, into those features that make Jewish ethics systematically different from other ethics. Before turning to our analysis, however, I want to establish the methodological parameters within which we shall work.

We begin by noting that there are two ways in which our investigation might proceed. On the one hand, anthropologists of law, such as Leopold Pospisil, attempt to discern how a legal system implicitly defines legal relationships. That is, they want to discover what precisely a legal system means by words or concepts such as ownership, acquisition, liability and so forth. [The aim, we might say, is to discover the content of the law.] On the other hand, philosophers of law have focussed on what we might call the structure of law, that is, how these concepts are brought meaningfully into play. The aim is to discover the rules of the game, that is, how actual legislation and adjudication are to take place. In short, this line of research asks how a society structures and institutionalizes its legal speculation.

The methodology proposed here focusses on these latter issues, the structure of the law. In particular, it asks how rabbinic Judaism organizes and controls the production of legal and moral norms. Our approach, then, is to be distinguished from the field of “Hebrew Law” (Mishpat Ivri) which has to do with the content of Jewish legal terms and concepts, and so is a part of the field of anthropology of law. We are concerned rather with the values and convictions which determine how Jewish law is to be produced, justified and adjudicated in the first place. We want to determine what can count as a Jewish law, and why. For this reason we shall draw heavily on the philosophy of law.

Before framing our techniques of analysis, we must have a clear conception of what it is we want to learn. My inspiration in this regard comes from H. L. A. Hart. According to Hart, any system of rules, such as a legal system, can be understood to operate on two levels. On the one hand are what he calls the primary rules, the overt regulations the system imposes. Behind these stands a set of “secondary rules”: the procedures and norms according to which the primary rules are legitimately established. These may be written out explicitly, as in the U.S. Constitution, or may be part of a generally accepted understanding of how the creation of rules and the adjudication of disputes ought properly to take place. In either case, these secondary rules reflect the values and principles which define that society’s notion of good and evil. In other words, secondary rules spell out, in practical terms, how good is to be distinguished from evil, who is empowered to make that decision, and how that person is to do so and so forth. Any study of a legal system, Hart says, must aim to uncover those hidden “secondary rules” which stand behind and legitimate the group’s overt norms of behavior.

For guidance in devising a methodology for getting at these rules, we go back to the pioneering work of John Ladd on Navajo ethics. In his study, Ladd wanted to produce a description of the Navajo system of ethics that would capture the unique logic of that system and not merely transfer it into Western philosophical terms. Whether he succeeded or not is not our concern. What is of interest is the methodology he proposes for carrying out such an analysis. He proposed to base his investigation on the way the Navajo actually talked about their own moral code. That is, he proposed to study the linguistic universe in which their ethics found expression. His insight, which I follow here, is that moral decisions are not episodic, but reflect a deeper system which is organized by, or at least reflected in, language. His methodology, then, was designed to work with actual Navajo discourse and to uncover the rules and presuppositions which give it structure and meaning. Consequently, he focusses on those features of moral speculation which predominate in language: vocabulary, the structure of moral arguments, the warrants that are invoked and so forth. Ladd explains his choice this way:

[I]t is clear that our primary evidence for determining a person’s ideas, whether they be ethical or nonethical, must be that person’s statements. Such statements are a sine qua non and, as such, the obvious starting point for an investigation of his beliefs. This follows from the philosophical consideration that a belief cannot be defined in terms of readiness to act or some kind of operational efficacy … (p. 15)

In other words, to get at the basic convictions and beliefs held by members of a society about the good life, we must first see how members of that society talk to each other about the good life. This is not only a matter of seeing what people claim they should or should not do. It is, more importantly, a matter of seeing how people explain their decisions and what values and beliefs these explanations assume others already accept as self-evident. It means adducing the precise connotations conjured up by words such as good, evil, warrant, sin, intent, act and the like. It means also describing how these words function in relation to each other in the speakers’ and hearers’ minds. In short, it means describing the linguistic universe in which a culture’s moral discourse takes place.

There are several adjustments we must make in applying Ladd’s methodology to medieval Jewish responsa. Ladd fashioned his method on the assumption that he could interview his informants. He could hear their responses and probe for clarification when the logic or vocabulary used was not clear to him. This gives him a mechanism for controlling his interpretation. We do not have this control available when dealing with responsa. All we have at our disposal are essays, the authors of which are long dead and the content of which we can only partially reconstruct. Further, we cannot even read all of these essays. We must choose some small sampling and hope that these adequately represent how Jews in a certain time and place actually discussed moral issues. Thus while I am attracted to Ladd’s basic approach, I recognize that it must be modified to be appropriate for our evidence. Let me explain how I propose to make that transition.

I begin by noting that despite the drawbacks of the literature, responsa have a number of features which recommend them for such an analysis. First of all, they are as close as we are likely to get to how their authors might actually discuss moral questions. They take up actual moral dilemmas. That is, they deal with issues of immediate and practical concern, not primarily with academic or philosophical concerns. They are discursive and so reflect the syntax and logic of moral discourse in a way that a code of law, or a philosophical treatise, does not. With such texts we are at least within hailing distance of the kind of moral talk that Ladd could hear. Finally, they are the characteristic format for medieval rabbinic moral writing. That is, they are the commonly accepted way, at least among the intellectual elite, for discussing ethics. Responsa thus match in many ways the characteristics of moral discourse that Ladd found so compelling.

Having selected responsa as a promising corpus of literature, reflective of actual discourse, however, we must still devise a scheme for dealing with them as literature. Because the responsa are highly legal in character, I turn to philosophers of law for aid in constructing an analytic strategy. For this, I rely primarily on Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin claims that any legal argument or decision is an act of judicial discretion. That is, the judge, at least in interesting cases, never mechanistically applies the law to some situation. Rather, he uses his taste and judgment to determine what the law ought to do and then fashions an opinion with its warrants in light of that determination. A correct analysis of any legal brief, on this view, must look behind the surface of the law to the penumbra of values and principles which surround the judge’s decision and upon which he draws. These values and principles, Dworkin goes on to say, are part of the cultural baggage the judge brings to his office. It follows that correct analyses of a number of more or less contemporary cases will illuminate the general expectations and values current in a culture at that time. The upshot is that Dworkin forces us to shift our focus away from the surface of the argument used to warrant a decision, and toward the deeper convictions that determine and shape that argument. This description of matters provides us with an analytic scheme. We carry on the methodological parallel to Ladd’s interviews by reading each text and asking ourselves what the basic values and principles behind it must be. That is, we look for the deeper convictions at play in the writer’s mind as he reaches and then justifies a certain point of view. To confirm our reading, we of course can not ask for the writer’s reaction to our conclusions. Rather we will have to analyze a number of comparable texts to see if our results are replicable over a number of “interviews.”

An analysis of the type called for by Dworkin requires that we have some familiarity with how legal arguments are put together and made to function. For understanding the character of argumentative texts, I find Chaim Perelman to be convincing, and, as we shall see, appropriate to the responsa literature. Perelman claims that any legal argument is ultimately a kind of syllogism. At some point in the argument, the judge asserts some good which the law is meant to establish. This functions as a major normative premise. The particular interpretation given to the issue at hand becomes the minor premise. The resulting argumentation simply shows that if one reads the conflict at hand in this way in light of the asserted goal of the law, then one particular adjudication naturally follows. For example, a judge might posit as a major premise that a goal of law is to prevent the taking of innocent human life. This assertion would reflect, in Dworkin’s terms, the values of the society in which the legal adjudication occurs. It would appear to be more or less self-evident. The next step is to read the case at hand, say a question of abortion, in light of this premise. An abortion might be described as the taking of an innocent human life. This description of matters, in effect a minor premise, is a matter of judicial discretion. It is not explicitly written into the law (or there would be no case), but is asserted by the judge. This reading will once again reflect broader cultural values. Once matters are presented in this way, Perelman argues, the judge’s decision appears to flow logically. Abortion appears self-evidently illegal.

The important point to note here is that according to Perelman both the major premise (the basic good the law seeks) and the minor premise (the character of the issue) are subjective determinations. That is, in each case they are posited by the judge on the basis of what he, and supposedly the consensus of his culture, deem to be self-evidently the case. Perelman’s analysis helps us conceive more precisely a strategy for analyzing a responsum and adducing its underlying penumbra of values and principles. We must first identify the basic structure of the responsum’s argument, especially noting its major and minor premises. This done, we then reconstruct from the wording and logical use of these premises, the values, principles and assumptions which they instantiate. This, in turn gives us evidence of the broader system of convictions out of which the responsum grows.

Applying the Method

My intention in what follows is to test out this methodology by applying it to a particular responsa text. I want to see what insight I can gain into the rabbinic universe of moral discourse by reading their responsa. The text I propose to use is Hikkeka Lev 50, written by Hayyim Palaggi (1788–1869) in the early nineteenth century. Hayyim Palaggi was the scion of a well-known rabbinic family in Izmir, Turkey. His father held the office of chief rabbi (haham bashi) of Izmir, a position Hayyim took over in 1852. Because of his position and his own reputation as scholar, Palaggi received questions from Jewish communities all over the Near East and North Africa. A first collection of his responsa was published in Salonika in 1840, entitled Hikkeke Lev (i.e. “searchings of the heart”, cf Judges 5:15). It is from this volume that our responsum is taken. A second volume appeared in 1853. Scholars agree that these two volumes include but a small portion of Palaggi’s total writings.

I choose the responsum before us for a number of reasons. First of all its topic is accessible to us. The text does not deal with an obscure point of Jewish law but with a problem of medical ethics that is still with us, namely, the extent to which one must go to save the life of a terminally ill and dying patient. Second, it treats its subject in such a way that non-specialists can follow its argument. It does not presuppose rabbinic familiarity with Jewish law. Finally, it does all of this in reasonable length. Combined with the fact that Palaggi was widely recognized as a competent spokesman of Jewish law make this text ideal for the study proposed here.

We begin our analysis by examining the values and presuppositions that stand behind the responsa qua responsa. That is, we begin by asking what we can learn about rabbinic moral discourse from the fact that we have responsa at all. Once the broader features of the literature have been reviewed, we can turn to their particular manifestation our text. I want to focus attention in particular on three major formal aspects that our text shares with all responsa: the character of the writer, the character of the audience, and the program of the text, i.e. what it is meant to communicate.

A responsum, as we said earlier, is a written brief dealing with some aspect of Jewish practice, custom, belief or interpretation. It is composed in answer to specific questions which are addressed to the author and which are deemed of general interest. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the time of our earliest extant responsa, such questions were addressed to the Geonim—the deans of the great Talmudic acadamies then flourishing in Abbasid Babylonia. As heads of these centers, they were held to be the ultimate authority as regards the proper understanding and application of Talmudic law. Their responsa, which survive by the hundreds, are very brief, often consisting only of a precis of the question and a word or phrase to indicate the answer.

By the eleventh century this pattern is changing. From this time forward, questions are more and more likely to be addressed to local rabbinic authorities in North Africa or Europe rather than to the distant Geonim. This shift is a result of a number of factors: the political tensions between North African and European rulers on the one hand and the Abbasid Caliphate on the other, the rise of local rabbinates, the general decline of the Babylonian academies. In all events, we see responsa from this period forward as exercises in local rabbinic authority rather than as official pronouncements of policy issuing from a centralized “bureaucracy.”

This shift in venue has important implications for the analysis to follow. The Geonim had authority by virtue of their position in the Jewish world. They headed the recognized centers of Talmudic study. The local rabbis who emerge as authors in the eleventh century and following have no such natural base for claiming authority. They depend on whatever reputation they can build as to the reliability of their work. Their work is known, however, solely through the responsa they author. It follows that now the argumentation of the responsa will become crucial for establishing and projecting rabbinic authority. It is for this reason that I find responsa such convincing sources for discovering the nature of classical rabbinic views on the moral life. Responsa are designed, as it were, to gain public acceptance by providing arguments and warrants that are in accord with what the readership—primarily other rabbis, rabbinic students and educated laypersons—expect. To sum up, classical responsa will always be written by rabbis, i.e. experts in Talmud. This establishes the rabbi as the kind of person who has the authority to make moral decisions. They are written to educated laypeople (or even other rabbis) to deal, generally, with real life situations. Their program is not only to state the ruling, but logically to tie that ruling into the larger structure of Jewish tradition. We shall return to these themes later and see how they are manifest in our particular text.

Let us now turn to the specifics of the text at hand. The question, as I said, deals with a family’s obligation toward a dying wife and mother. The question as it comes before Palaggi is of course not framed in medical terms, but as a question of religious ritual. The family wants to know whether or not they may, or even must, pray for the continued life of the dying woman who is suffering greatly in the final stages of a terminal disease. Since the family clearly thinks prayer is efficacious, their request is equivalent, in our terms, to withholding medication or the like. The moral question is whether or not these may ever purposely be denied to a patient. In particular, are we morally justified in withholding them if the patient requests that they be withheld? It is with this issue that Palaggi must wrestle.

The responsum yields data on several levels. To begin with, we have Palaggi’s own solution to the dilemma at hand. He declares, as we shall see, that the family may indeed stop praying for the suffering woman’s continued life, although they may not pray that she actually die. Strangers, on the other hand, may pray for her quick and painless death. It is in order to adduce and justify this rather delicate balance that the responsum is written.

There are, however, at least two other levels of analysis. The first has to do with how the responsum puts together its argument. This is the level of analysis pointed to by Perelman. In fact, as we shall see, the real work of the responsum is in warranting the decision, not in stating it. What we see in this text, then, is an example of what counts as legal (or moral) argumentation and proof in classical rabbinic Judaism. What we are looking for is not only the answer, but how Palaggi establishes the answer: how he defines the problem, what evidence he marshalls, and how he manipulates the evidence to produce his results. In short, we are looking for the logic and structure of Palaggi’s moral discourse.

These results lead to our last level of analysis, the level dealing with the “subconscious” convictions that make the structure and logic of Jewish moral discourse self-evidently true for Palaggi and his readers. It is here that we get to the questions pursued by Ladd and Dworkin. At this point we ask why the moral discourse as we find it in the responsum takes the form that it does. To help us at this stage of inquiry, I propose to draw on some of the methods of structuralism. To anticipate my conclusions, I shall argue that Ḥikeke Lev 50 is effective because it shows that what appears as a conflict on the experiential level is resolved within the semantics of the rabbinic universe of discourse. Thus the answer is shown to be already inherent in the world of rabbinism while the power of that world to solve apparent conflicts is reaffirmed. This occurs because the author is able to manipulate linguistic symbols according to accepted rules and patterns. We shall return to this presently.


The function of a responsum, as we noted, is to advance and justify a legal decision when two apparently irreconcilable demands come into conflict. The first step in analyzing a responsum, then, is to note the conflict out of which it grows and which it is meant to bridge. In the case before us, the family is caught between the humanitarian need to end the woman’s suffering and the religious-moral obligation to preserve life at all costs. As the case is presented to us, these two obligations are mutually exclusive. That is, family members must either fulfill their obligation to do whatever they can to preserve her life, thereby extending the woman’s agony, or they can accept her wishes to stop praying for her life, thereby violating their obligation to maintain human life. The problem is urgent because the woman is suffering daily and begging for death. Being presented with this situation, Palaggi has two tasks before him, as we have seen. He must make some decision as to what they ought actually to do. But he must also demonstrate to them that his decision does not violate any of the basic moral principles of Torah to which they adhere. Let us now see how Palaggi does this.

Our first step in analyzing the responsum is to note the general structure of its argument. We can discern fairly easily three stages in his presentation. The first stage (2:21–4:19) sets forth the basic legal and moral principles which are relevant to this case and with which we shall be working. The large central section of the text (4:20–9:21) examines the particulars of the case at hand in light of these principles. Here Palaggi concludes that the normal restraints against praying for another’s death do not apply to the case at hand. The last section of the responsum (9:22–11:23) adduces the practical advice to be given the family. Since the normal restraints do not fully apply here, the family can at least stop praying for her continued life.

Even this brief overview makes it clear that the organization of the responsum corresponds to the logical scheme that Perelman sees in all legal arguments. Part one of the responsum presents what Perelman would call the major premises—the legal and moral principles—with which we shall be working. Part two presents the minor premises, that is, the relevant descriptions of the case at hand. It also includes part of Perelman’s third stage, the drawing of syllogistic conclusions. In this case the results, as we said, are negative. The major premises presented at the outset do not apply. Part three draws the obvious conclusion which follows upon applying the minor premises to the major ones. Since the major premises do not apply, we are allowed to do what they prohibit. Our analysis so far shows that each of the text’s major segments employs its own logic and makes its own fundamental moral decisions. It will be necessary, then, to examine each individually.

We begin by looking at how Palaggi defines the whole question. This will allow us to identify the specific considerations and moral rules that will be relevant. As we noted, there are two principles that come into conflict here: relieving agony and preserving life. In his responsum, Palaggi hardly discusses the first topic at all. He simply assumes the legal and moral imperative to relieve pain. He takes it to be self-evident. He finds it necessary to discuss only the second principle. How far must one go in preserving life, especially if one is dealing with a dying patient in terrible agony? The responsum, it turns out, is in fact an essay concerned with this latter point, namely, on the moral obligation to continue life beyond a certain point. By simply framing the question in this way, Palaggi has predetermined at least the general character of his decision. He is looking for a loophole in the imperative to continue preserving life, not in the imperative to stop pain.

His examination into the nature of the imperative to preserve life runs roughly as follows. He notes, first of all, that it is a general principle in Jewish law that one may not hope that other people come to harm, and especially one may not hope that others die (2:21–3:7). This principle applies with special force as regards one’s spouse (3:7–4:9). So far, then, it appears that there is a clear prohibition against the family’s doing anything to hasten the death of the sick woman. To do so would violate not only the general command to protect the lives of fellow human beings, but runs against the specific obligation towards one’s spouse. This will be the major premise of the discussion to follow.

The second stage of the responsum examines the specifics of the case at hand in light of the major premise posited above. In the following paragraphs, Palaggi will argue that the case at hand does not fall under the rule of the major premise. This is so, he argues, for several reasons. First of all, we need to understand the rationale behind the prohibition wishing harm or death to one’s spouse. The prohibition assumes, says Palaggi, that the husband would harbor such a wish for his own benefit—he might wish to marry his wife’s sister, for example. (see for example 5:15–17; 6:10–15, 6:24–28). This clearly is not the case here. As we have seen, his wish grows out of concern for the welfare of his wife. Further, the prohibition assumes that the wish is formed without the spouse’s knowledge and consent (see 7:1ff). This is also clearly not the case here. The wife is in fact begging the family to pray for her death. The results of our analysis of the case, then, shows that it is in fact not covered by the general rule laid down in part one. We can conclude at this point that there is no reason for preventing the family from praying for the victim’s quick death.

There is another consideration, however, which Palaggi wishes to take into account before rendering a final decision. What Palaggi has shown so far is that the normal prohibitions against praying for another’s death do not apply to the case before us. But there may be other reasons for prohibiting such prayers. In particular, there is concern that allowing prayers for death in some cases might lead to a general softening of the prohibition, and thus to sinful prayers, in the future. For this reason Palaggi counsels caution. Prayers for the woman’s quick death might be allowable in principle, but practical considerations stand in the way.

Let us pause briefly to sum up our results so far. First of all, Palaggi wants to emphasize that the prohibition against wishing harm to others is real and deserves serious consideration. But he also finds it perfectly permissible to limit this prohibition by considering intent. For Palaggi, and he assumes also for his readers, the law is not only what is done but what is intended. Third, public appearance is regarded as a legitimate moral concern which can limit what might otherwise be permitted. We see a number of assumptions about the nature of ethics and moral speculation being rather routinely drawn into the discussion.

Let us now turn to the third section of Palaggi’s answer, namely, his own conclusions as to what the family and others can do. He rules that the family may grant her entreaties and withhold prayers that postpone her death. This follows from the first section of the responsum. We cannot, however, allow the family to pray explicitly for her death. This is because of the practical considerations discussed near the end of part two. In other words, while the family is excused from praying that she live, they may not pray explicitly that she die. Such prayers for death are prohibited for practical reasons. Palaggi is afraid that if they were allowed to pray for their relative’s death, this would become a precedent for other families with less lofty motives. To avoid all ambiguity, he rules that no family member may ever explicitly pray for the death of another family member. Strangers are another matter, however. We can allow friends or strangers to do what is unseemly for a family member to do. The former may openly pray for the victim’s quick release from suffering.

Looking Beyond the Text

We have seen the particular assumptions about the logic of the good life that Palaggi himself makes. There is however a wider range of principles and convictions of the moral life within which Palaggi’s decisions occur. The responsum-form itself establishes certain parameters which shape the nature of Jewish moral discourse, parameters which Palaggi takes for granted. It is to these contours, set by the responsum-form, that we now turn.

By establishing its discourse in this way, the responsum allows Palaggi to accomplish several things. He is able, first of all to leave intact the moral values which generated the problem to begin with. The family’s feeling of pity is validated. The principle of not invoking death on others is likewise reaffirmed. Yet a workable compromise between the two is adduced. This reconciliation is not presented, however, as the private opinion of Hayyim Palaggi. Rather it is presented as an entailment of the logic of the law. That is, through its stylized language and patterns of argumentation, the responsum presents Palaggi’s compromise as in complete continuity with the received legal tradition. This is of vital importance because at one and the same time, it validates the received tradition, offers essentially new legislation, and affirms the power and integrity of the entire rabbinic system of moral speculation. I want at this point to examine some of the elements of discourse which enable the responsum to do this. That is, I want to understand how it is that a responsum can allow the family to stop praying for the woman’s death with a clear conscience, something they could not do before.


The responsum-form structures moral discourse in a number of ways. Because of limited space it will be impossible to deal with all of them. I do however wish to reflect on two aspects of this responsum’s moral discourse which appear to be of special importance. The first is the use it makes of the story of Rabbi’s death (7:5–17). The second is the legal nature of its language and discussion. I claim that both of these elements represent convictions about moral discourse that Palaggi’s Jewish readers were assumed to hold. That is, the discussion which makes up the responsum draws on notions about the nature of the world such that its conclusions appear to be self-evidently true. We turn first to the story of Rabbi’s death.

This story seems particularly appropriate to the problem at hand. Rabbi is in the process of dying. He is prevented from doing so by his students, who continue to pray for his life. A loyal member of his household (in this case, a maidservant), moved by his agony, interrupts these prayers and so allows Rabbi to die. The fact that this incident is relayed without negative comment indicates to Palaggi that the maid-servant’s actions are deemed to be appropriate. The point of the story, in his view, is that it is permissible to pray that a suffering person die so as to find rest from agony.

Having rehearsed the story, we must now ask how it functions as a morally persuasive argument for Palaggi’s nineteenth century readers. The answer I believe lies in the symbolic value that Talmud has for the family. For classical Judaism, the Talmud is more than a collection of arcane laws and unusual stories. It is a sacred text which through its very logic and structure reveals the logic of the universe. What happens in Talmud, then, is never trivial or of mere antiquarian interest. It is, by definition, of cosmic significance. The story of Rabbi’s death then, contains in it a cosmic truth. If its story is your story, then its resolutions are, by the nature of things, your resolution. Put in these terms, the story here is, in History of Religion terms, a myth. That is, it is a description or model or paradigm for a general truth. By bringing this story into relation with the issue at hand, Palaggi establishes a powerful pattern for organizing moral discussion. We see the logic of the issue at hand in terms of the structure of canonical stories. The dying rabbi is our woman, the loyal students are the members of her family, the maidservant is the person behind the question. The relationships these people bear to each other in the story indicate the relationships that ought to obtain in real life.

Just as this story helps organize the facts in our case, the legal language of the texts sets the rules by which any ethical dilemma can be discussed. Legal language is of course characteristic of responsa. For this reason it is often taken for granted. My claim, however, is that this mode of discourse is so widely adopted because it reflects very basic assumptions about the character of revelation, ethics, and so the kind of discourse appropriate to making moral decisions. I therefore wish to examine this language in some detail.

A given fact for rabbinic Judaism is that when God spoke to Moses at Sinai, he uttered the Ten Commandments, that is, God spoke in the language of law. For rabbinic Judaism this does not mean that God simply chose to talk that way that morning. Rather God’s language at Sinai reflects a fundamental truth. Torah, that is revelation, is to be articulated and evaluated in the language of law. Or, to state matters another way, the fact that God spoke through law is itself an indication of an even higher reality, namely, the structure of Creation itself. Legal reasoning recapitulates the logic of the cosmos. Thus when God creates the world, he does so through the utterance of regulations. When he creates the holy people of Israel at Sinai, God does so also through the utterance of regulations. It follows that humans following God’s pattern of speech, are to structure their own society on the basis of legal discourse.

This reasoning became especially important to the rabbis of the first centuries of the Common Era. They witnessed the destruction of God’s holy Temple in Jerusalem and saw what they took to be the dissolution of the Holy people Israel. Creation, in their view, was reverting to the primordial chaos. It was of cosmic importance to them to reverse this process. This conviction was that this could be done only by carrying forward actively and consciously the work of Torah. The people must be reconstituted and the structures of creation reenforced. The model for so doing is Sinai, and the means, clearly, is law. Rabbinic legal activity, then, is understood to be a continuation of that seminal act at Sinai. Given these basic assumptions, the legal nature of responsa becomes religiously powerful. The issuance of a responsum is a kind of giving of the law at Sinai. Not that it is infallible and open to no question. It is still a human endeavor. But insofar as it is an effort to bring into human terms the principles which stand behind Torah and to do so in the semantics of Torah, it has a Sinaitic character.

This discussion of language throws light also on the use of the story discussed earlier. Although the story of Rabbi’s death is not Scriptural, it nonetheless protrays the logic of Scripture. Sinai reveals to us models of the good life as well as a language for analyzing and applying those stories to our lives. It provides basic paradigms for structuring our relationships. A responsum provides a forum in which both paradigms—story and discourse—are brought into play so as to include a particular situation within the bonds of Torah. Symbolically, then, a responsum refers us back to Sinai and its role in the founding of the people. It is through symbolic appeal to this myth that the reader is made to feel an obligation to do as the responsum says.

This characterization allows us to make broader claims about responsa as exempla of religious rituals. The responsum, we have said, draws upon the symbols of the Sinaitic revelation and uses them in historical time. Further, we said that it is this ritualistic use of symbol that allows responsa to induce certain moods and motivations in the reader. Clifford Geertz describes this power of religious ritual in his essay “Religion as a Cultural System:”

As we are to deal with meaning, let us begin with paradigm; viz., that sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos—the tone, character and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood—and their world-view—the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order. In religious belief and practice a group’s ethos is rendered intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the actual state of affairs the world-view describes, while the world-view is rendered emotionally convincing by being presented as an image of an actual state of affairs peculiarly well arranged to accomodate such a way of life. This confrontation and mutual confirmation has two fundamental effects. On the one hand, it objectivizes moral and aesthetic preferences by depicting them as the imposed conditions of life implicit in a world with a particular structure, as mere common sense given the unalterable shape of reality. On the other, it supports the received beliefs about the world’s body by invoking deeply felt moral and aesthetic sentiments as experiential evidence for their truth. Religious symbols formulate a basic congruence between a particular style of life and a specific (if, most often, implicit) metaphysic, and in so doing sustain each with the borrowed authority of the other (Lessa Vogt, p. 167).

A responsum, in short, is a kind of oracle. It motivates me to do as it says because it speaks in the way I know revelation to occur. At the same time it reaffirms my basic religious convictions that the Sinaitic revelation is able appropriately to organize and render meaningful all of my day-to-day activities. There are no conflicts in life that Sinai cannot comprehend.

The story of Rabbi’s death and the juridical language of responsa both point, then, to the same transcendent reality. The particular lives of people down here are to be shaped according to the logic which is characteristic of the heavens above. This cosmic structure is made known to people in three ways. It is first of all revealed in the explicit words of Scripture. It is demonstrated, second, in the deeds and actions of the great masters of Torah. Finally, it is developed and articulated through proper legal thinking. Our task is to adduce through these methods the behavior appropriate for dealing with the problems we face in our everyday lives.


We conclude by considering what our investigation into responsa tells us about moral discourse in general. What is required for an imperative to be considered moral, and so binding in a way different from say practical advice or etiquette? The answer seems to lie in the nature of the symbols and values being invoked. Practical advice is meant to produce concrete results. Failure to follow that advice, or failure of the advice to work, does not threaten the stability of the whole culture. The same is true of etiquette. But this is not the case for ethics. The rejection of a society’s morals entails the rejection of basic values in that culture.

Responsa shed important light on the relationship between foundational values of a culture and that culture’s moral discourse. Consider again the case that comes before Palaggi. We have here a moral dilemma precisely because two foundational values in classical Jewish culture come into conflict. It is at least possible to conceive of a society in which the case before Palaggi would not present moral problems, either because the death of terminally ill people is held to be a promotable good or because suffering in death is understood to be of positive value. The problem is a moral problem for Palaggi (and the family) at all, then, because of the values put forward by their society. The crux of Palaggi’s problem is that he must adjudicate between the foundational values without denying either one. He must affirm the validity of the whole system even while dealing with its contradictions. His way of doing this, in the responsa, is through legal argumentation. This mode allows him to take both values seriously and yet, through logical analysis or precedent, create room for an adjudication. It allows him to do this, most importantly, in a way already sanctioned by the system. The result is that everyone wins. The basic values that come into conflict are both upheld. A practical solution to a new problem is legitimately generated. And the process by which this magic is effected is once again shown to be effective—it has allowed us to maneuver through the shoals without accident. In short, the integrity of medieval Jewish legal/moral discourse is maintained. Our foundational values are not only left intact, but are proved and reaffirmed.

The conclusions of a responsum are morally binding, then, in at least one sense, because to ignore the conclusion is to reject the explicit entailments of foundational values, principles, and convictions of that culture. I can, of course, reject his argument and propose another in my own responsum. In this way I still maintain the integrity of the system, focussing my rejection on how the system was used. But if I reject the responsum mode in general, then I am rejecting the system as such. The entire social framework which the system maintains is thrown into doubt. I am bound by the values of the culture, then, to conform to the arguments and adjudications of its responsa, for the alternative is the loss of the culture’s values entirely.

Considered in this way, we can describe the writing of responsa as a religious ritual. It is, first of all, a symbolic act which establishes a certain relationship between petitioner, rabbi, and the tradition. That is, responsa act out and reaffirm the flow of power within the community. In addition, by participating in the ritual—asking a question, writing an answer, conforming to its judgment—each party reaffirms his or her own membership in the society. Further, the all-encompassing knowledge of the sacred books and traditions is reaffirmed. A seemingly insolvable dilemma is shown to have a clear resolution in terms of the logic of the sacred. Finally, this act is a ritual insofar as it is resorted to time and again in substantially the same form as crises arise in the lives of people.

We stated at the beginning of this paper that any religion presupposes some system of good and evil which it wishes to legislate. Our goal was to discover the logic and structure of that system. We claimed that this was not to be found simply by restating the content of Jewish law, but rather by analyzing the universe of discourse within which Judaism articulates and justifies its rules. We then proposed to use semiotics as a starting point for devising such a strategy and then to see what results it would yield when applied to a responsum.

The results of our exercise are encouraging. We have in fact been able to adduce data about Jewish moral thinking by analyzing how responsa texts, as examples of moral discourse, are structured. The results of this study are hardly sufficient in themselves, however. We have dealt briefly with only one responsum. Not only could we do more with this one text, but we need to check the method and corroborate our results with similar studies on other texts. In essence then, this essay proposes a program for further study and research. Only through a sustained and systematic study of other responsa, and other types of responsa, can we hope to make a solid advance in the study and understanding of Jewish moral discourse.

Translation of the Text

QUESTION: A god-fearing scholar has a pious wife. Because of our many sins this woman has been afflicted with a long-term disease. For more than 20 years she has been crushed and burdened with pain. Her arms and legs have shrivelled up, forcing her to be confined to a corner of her house. This woman suffers greatly from these afflictions. Her husband, however, accepts the suffering of his wife with patience, never troubling her even for a moment. On the contrary, he shows her special affection and love so that she may have no worry on this account.

Because of her unbearable pain, the aforementioned woman has already prayed that God take her. She prefers death to life because in death she will find rest from her pain. Her husband and children, however, may God bless them, comfort her and continually bring her physicians and medicines in the hope that a remission might occur. They have even hired a maid to wait on her so that she should have no worries. Now, as if the continual pain and bitter suffering she has had up to now were not enough, her condition has worsened, bringing with it terrible agony, such as accompany dreadful diseases, leaving her totally stricken and invalid. Even the physicians have given up hope, especially since the disease has affected her internal organs, an event which occurs twenty days before death, as written in Tractate Semaḥot III:11: “For this is the death of the righteous as opposed to the other kinds of plagues, wounds, afflictions and diseases.” Recently she began to ask others as well to pray for her death. She especially pleads with her husband and children to intercede on her behalf. But her husband and children, though they are worn out with her suffering, do not listen to her because of their love and affection, she being a righteous and pious woman. On the contrary, they seek scholars who would teach on her behalf so as to bring healing and they increase their giving of charity and paying redemption and atonement money and buying oil for the lamps—all in order to obtain healing for her.

Let our master in righteousness now instruct us as to whether or not there are any grounds for prohibiting prayers that she find rest in death. If there is no prohibition—what if her husband and sons are so concerned with her life that they do not want to see her die? May they pray that she not die, ignoring her own wishes; or, since according to the physicians there is no way she will live and there is no longer hope that she will recover naturally, would this be against her well-being (such that they must pray for her death)?

May the master instruct us and may his portion in heaven be doubled.

ANSWER: First of all, it is clearly forbidden in all cases to pray that another person die. This is so even if one is praying only that some misfortune befall an enemy. Torah commands, for example, that if you see the mule of one who hates you collapse under its burden and you refuse to help, you will be abandoned just as you abandoned the animal (Deut. 22:4). Torah is concerned here that you not cause the animal’s owner any material loss. How much the more is Torah concerned that you not cause your enemy to lose his life. Thank God no Jew is suspected of doing this!

There is another prohibition involved, namely, that this kind of curse, in fact any curse on one’s fellow, is forbidden. This is so even if done without explicitly naming the intended victim. In fact, if one pronounces a curse on another by name, the curser is flogged, as it is written in (Babylonian Talmud) Temurah 4b. See also Mishneh Torah “Sanhedrin” 27:1 and the Tur Shulchan Aruch and the Shulchan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 27:1.

We turn now specifically to wishing harm to one’s spouse. Our masters, may their memories be a blessing, say in BT Qiddushin 82a, “It is forbidden for one to marry a woman before he sees her lest when he sees her he find something detestable in her and she be disgraced by him—for the Merciful One said, ‘You should love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” This verse, a central rule in the Torah, applies also to one’s husband or wife. (Its point is that you should not get yourself in a position in which you might wish harm to your spouse). We learn this same thing from BT Yebamot 37b, “One should not marry a woman with the intention of divorcing her, for it says (in Proverbs 3:29), ‘Do not plot evil against your fellow who lives trustingly with you (i.e. your spouse).’ ” See also the writings of the legal scholars, the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer top of #119. It is also stated in Avot de Rabbi Nathan (hereafter ARN), chapter 26, “Rabbi Aqiba says, ‘Anyone who marries a woman who is not suitable for him transgresses five negative commands: 1) “Do not take vengeance (Lev. 19:18)”, 2) “Do not bear a grudge (Lev. 19:18)”, 3) “Do not hate your neighbor in your heart (Lev. 19:17)”, 4) “Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18)”, 5) “That your brother may live with you (Lev. 25:36).” Further, insofar as he hates her and wishes she would die, he refrains from the command “Be fruitful and multiply.”

(All the above speak about wishing harm to one’s spouse. But the law also speaks specifically about wishing for the spouse’s death.) Our masters report in the beginning of Chapter 3 of ARN, for example, “He used to say, As for one who wishes his wife to die that he may marry her sister, or anyone who wishes his brother to die that he may marry his wife, his end will be that they (i.e. the intended victims) will bury him during their lifetimes. As regards such a person, Scripture says (Ecclesiates 10:8), ‘The one who digs the pit will fall into it; and a serpent will bite the one who breaks through the wall.’ ” This is to say that if one hopes his wife will die so that he might marry another woman, heaven will arrange for the opposite to occur.

(Can a mere thought be the concern of the law, however?) R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai writes in Kise Ra hamim,”If one merely has an evil thought, the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not consider it to be an evil deed, and so does not punish that person on its account.” This means simply this: that a thought, being insubstantial, that is, without any overt expression, material effect or outward appearance (is not subject to legal punishment). However, on the other hand, BT Sota 9a (bottom) says, “Whoever looks greedily upon what is not his—that which he wants will not be given to him and that which he has will be taken away.” (Here Talmud implies that in fact the mere thought is subject to divine punishment.)

Now, in my humble opinion, (the cases assumed by the above rulings) are different from the case before us. All of the aforementioned rulings are based on a particular prohibition from the tradition. The rabbis take the command “Do not devise evil against your fellow (Proverbs 3:29)” to apply to one thinking about divorcing his wife; all the more so to one hoping that she will die. There is also the positive command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” which our rabbis, may their memories be a blessing, apply especially to one’s wife. Besides these there is the prohibition of “not hating your brother in your heart (Leviticus 19:17).” This applies not only to brothers, for it is clear that one must love one’s wife also and show affection for her—as written in BT Yebamot 72b (bottom), “One who loves his wife as himself … (is blessed).” See also what our master and teacher Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg wrote in his collected responsa 81:30, “As for one who beats his wife, I have learned that we deal with him more harshly than with one who beats his neighbor. For he is not obligated to honor the neighbor, but he is obligated to honor his wife.” There is also the prohibition against casting the evil eye on his wife, especially so as to cause her to die. There is also the prohibition recorded in BT Baba Mezia 107a and in Baba Bathra 2b: “It is forbidden for one to cast the evil eye on his neighbors field when it is full of standing grain.”

There is an additional danger as well when he fantasizes that his wife dies so that he can marry her sister, or that his fellow dies so that he can marry his wife. In so doing he may have sinful thoughts for he may think about her (i.e. the one he wants to marry) and this thought will bear evil fruit when he has sex, for his children will be surrogate children. Or he might suffer a nocturnal emission. This prohibition comes from BT Nedarim 20a. The legal authorities address this issue, as does AT and SHA in Orah Hayyim 260.

I am inclined to say that what the rabbis, may their memories be a blessing, had in mind when they said, “One who fantasizes that his wife die so that he might marry her sister …” was not meant to apply only to her sister. For the law is the same even for one who fantasizes that his wife die so that he might marry any other woman. They take up this case of the sister only because in the time of the Talmud the Ban of Rabbenu Gershom was not in effect, nor was the prohibition of the wedding vow, both of which prohibit one from marrying another woman while married to the first wife. A man could marry another woman, in addition to his first wife, without his first wife having to die. Therefore they cite the case of the wife’s sister because he is in all events prohibited from marrying this woman during his wife’s lifetime. That is, he must wait for his wife to die before he can marry one of her sisters. Nowadays it is all the same, since he may not have more than one wife, both because of Rabbenu Gershom’s Ban and because of the prohibition in the wedding vows. Thus any evil thought that he has that his wife might die so that he can marry another is prohibited. See Toldot Adam #4. They also said in Tractate Derekh Erets Rabbah 11:13, “Ben Azzai says, “One who hates his wife is a murderer, as it is said, ‘He will falsely accuse her and will finally hire witnesses against her and bring her to the execution place’ “. They also say (Derekh Erets Rabbah 2:12), “One who lives in an obscene manner with his wife or one who tells false tales about her in the neighborhood in order to divorce her, about such a one Scripture says, ‘I the Lord investigate the heart and examine the innermost parts (Jeremiah 17:10).’ ” It turns out that from all that has been said it is forbidden to wish that one’s wife die because of hatred. This being so, we deduce (further) that it is absolutely forbidden to pray that anyone die, especially as regards a wife, who is like one’s own self.

However, all this appears to apply only if the wish comes from hatred and without the wife’s knowledge and consent. But when, to the contrary, she acquiesces to this wish because she no longer can bear the suffering of the body, then we can say that such a wish is permitted. I say this with BT Ketubot 104a in mind:

On the day that Rabbi died, the sages declared a public fast and they prayed saying, “If anyone says, ‘Let Rabbi die’—let that one be run through with a sword.” The maidservant of Rabbi went up on the roof and said, ‘The angels seek Rabbi and the creatures seek Rabbi. Let it be Thy will that the angels give way to the creatures.’ When she reflected on how often Rabbi had entered the privy and taken off his teffilin and put them on and how he was now suffering (she had a change of heart). She prayed, ‘Let the angels have way over the creatures.’ But the Rabbis did not stop praying (and so Rabbi still did not die). She finally took a jug and threw it among (the praying disciples) from the roof. They stopped praying and Rabbi (immediately) died.

It is clear from this passage that the maidservant of Rabbi, when she saw how he was suffering, prayed for his death. Furthermore, we find in BT Moed Katan 17a and also in some of the pertinent commentaries in Rosh, Tur Shulchan Aruch and Shulchan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 40:34, that the ancient authorities adduced legal rulings from what Rabbi’s maidservant did because she was his servant (and so would surely conduct herself as he instructed her) and also because they deemed her to be a scholar in her own right, being filled with wisdom and the fear of heaven. This being so, we may adduce from this story the following: that it is permitted to pray that the sick person who is suffering greatly might die and so find rest. Were this not so, the Talmud would not have cited this story. Or, had the Talmud meant only to report the event (but with the understanding) that the maidservant acted wrongly, it should have said so explicitly.

Now you might want to argue that, on the contrary, the fact that the masters prayed for Rabbi’s life without regard for his suffering ought to be the legal precedent. In response, I would argue that they at first did not pay any attention to his sufferings, while his maidservant did. Later, when they realized how much he was suffering, they in fact did stop praying. Further, it is clear that the rabbis did not disagree with what Rabbi’s maidservant did, for had they disagreed they would have rebuked her straightaway, especially since they had just decreed that anyone who said, ‘Let Rabbi die’ was to be run through with a sword. Surely this should include one who prayed that he should die. Further, had her act been wrong, you would think that the Talmud would not remain silent but would protest that what she did was improper. But since the Talmud does remain silent and since the rabbis appear in fact to agree with the maidservant’s actions, the inevitable conclusion is that in the case of the afflicted woman who is ill and suffering much pain and who is begging others to pray that she die, it is certainly entirely permitted to do so. This is now clear.

I also saw in the writings of Rabbenu Nissim to Nedarim 40a: “that we do not need to pray for him at all neither that he live nor that he die.” It seems to me that this means that at times one may pray that a sick person die, for instance when the sick person is suffering greatly from his disease and cannot go on living much longer anyway, as we have read in BT Ketubot 104a that when Rabbi’s maidservant considered how he entered the privy regularly and always took of his phylacteries and was now suffering, said, ‘May it be Thy will that the angels have way over the creatures,” that is, that Rabbi be allowed to die.’ Thus it is that the prayers of one who visits the sick are efficacious (whether they be for life or for death).” …

After several days I came across Gur Aryeh Judah by his Excellency Our Master and Teacher Aryeh Judah Leib Teomim and saw that he wrote in Hiddushe Yore Dea 260:52, “As regards a sick person for whom they have given up hope and who is suffering greatly—is it permitted to pray that he die?” I looked up the place but I could find no clue as to his answer because the relevant part of the book was missing. In fact, I found that on page 55c at the conclusion of #50—where we should find #51 and #52, in the middle of the column—he begins immediately with #53. The other two paragraphs, namely #51 and #52 are missing from the printing plate. Thus I have no idea what he had written in #52 on this matter—whether I agree with his opinion that it should be permitted to pray for the patient’s death, or whether I disagree because he prohibits such a prayer.

It appears in my humblest of opinions that because of all this it makes sense to do as (follows): if she is suffering very much from her many bitter afflictions, and if the physicians all say that there is no hope that she will live and they have given up in despair, then as regards even her husband and children and relatives, if they do not want to pray that she live, let them not pray explicitly that she die, either. Rather, let them sit and do nothing. For if they pray that she die, there is the chance that, heaven forbid, one out of a thousand will see this and come to the unlikely conclusion that he is praying for her death so that he might be free from her and from her demands. That is, someone might assume that he has an interest in her death. This is especially so as regards the husband, for there is always room for the suspicion, heaven forbid, that he desires her death for his own benefit, even if he is pious and a proper scholar. For Scripture says, “I am the Lord who searches the heart and investigates the innermost parts.” (That is, only God can know what one really is thinking.) This is referred to several times in ARN.

In all events, the best, in God’s eyes, is to make no prayer or petition that she die, even if by refusing to pray for her death he does not show proper respect or compassion for her or the family. He should refrain from praying that she die even if he has her best interests in mind. Now there is something to be said for this view. One surely can make a distinction between what Rabbi’s maidservant did in openly praying for his death and what we today may do. If the Talmudic masters could say (in BT Shabbat 112b), “If the earlier sages were sons of men, we are like asses, and not even like the ass of R. Pinhas b. Yair (which was exceptionally pious—Cf BT Hullin 7a–b), but like ordinary asses,” then surely one can say, “We are not like Rabbi’s maidservant and so can not do what she could do.”

Now to pray that she live is hard because of the pain she must suffer and the bitter agonies she must endure. If you reflect on the matter you will see that it is not always preferable that she continue to live. On the other hand, as we noted, it is really not proper for them openly to pray that she die, either. However, as for others, who are strangers and not under any of the aforementioned suspicions—if they pray that she die so that her soul might find rest, they may do so. All is according to what is written, “God searches the heart and the innermost parts, the Lord is righteous.” Our rabbis, may their memories be a blessing, have said that all that is in the heart is to God as if it were spoken. Therefore fear the Lord.

Now all this applies when the sick person is not actually in the throes of death. However, if that person is in the throes of death, there is no way that one may pray (for continued life). It is written in The Book of the Pious #234 that one ought not cry out at the time when the soul leaves the body. The reason for not doing so is that the soul not be induced to return to the body and cause the patient more suffering. Why did Ecclesiastes say there is a time to die? Because when a person dies—when the soul is leaving the body—they ought not cry out loud that the soul return, because the patient cannot live but a few more days anyway and during those days would suffer nothing but agonies. (This line of reasoning is not negated by the fact that Ecclesiastes) also says “a time to live” because human beings have no control over the time of death. We may conclude, then, that according to The Book of the Pious, one is not to pray for a person who is in the throes of death. See also what Isserles writes in his gloss to Shulchan Aruch Yore Dea #339.

That is what, in my humble opinion, I must write, although in haste because the strength of the sufferer is weak. May Almighty God say “enough” to our troubles and save us from error and show us wonders from the Torah. May this be God’s will. Amen.

Response to Peter Haas Semiotics and Jewish Ethics

Daniel Patte

Vanderbilt University

Peter Haas is to be commended for his pioneering essay which proposes a program for studying Jewish ethics “that will reveal the systematic logic at work behind a moral system, the processes of thought that bring its particular rules, definitions, and decisions together to form a meaningful and coherent whole.” The very goal of this project distinguishes it from the field of “Hebrew Law” (Mishpat Ivri); the focus is no longer on the content of Jewish law, but on how it is to be “produced, justified and adjudicated.” Consequently, the vast corpus of Jewish legal material needs to be viewed from the “outside” rather than from the “inside.” Rather than staying in the boundaries of the Jewish legal discourse so as to “understand it in its own terms,” Haas strives to elucidate what these “terms” are which govern it, and for this purpose he needs to stand outside of it by considering the Jewish legal discourse from the perspective of general theories concerning legal discourses and ethics (or, more specifically, religious ethics). Thus, Haas calls upon works on philosophy of law by H. L. A. Hart, Ronald Dworkin, and Chaim Perelman, on Navajo ethics by John Ladd, and on religious ritual and ethics by Clifford Geertz.

This is a pioneering essay in a twofold sense. First, although such theories have already informed in various ways studies of the Jewish legal corpus, Haas proposes to bring to bear upon this corpus all these theories at once (and not merely one or the other). This demands several interrelated levels of analysis that he briefly illustrates in this essay, and which allow him to progress systematically from the surface organization of the legal argument to its symbolic function, and, in the process, to elucidate characteristics of the Jewish legal/ethical discourse. Yet, Haas’s proposal is also pioneering in the sense that he needs to devise a methodology for the study of legal discourse (in general). Indeed, as the diversity of his methodological sources shows, there is no ready-made methodology for this kind of study. Thus he had to become involved in the field of theoretical research about “how legal discourse (in general) functions,” so as to help develop the theory upon which a sound methodology could be based, constantly making sure that the theory and the methodology apply adequately to the Jewish legal corpus (and, more specifically to the Responsa, an ideal test case). By confronting theories about legal discourse to the responsa, he contributes to the elaboration of these theories; a general theory of legal discourse needs to be able to account for all types of legal discourses, including Jewish legal discourses.

Since semiotics is a research field aiming at developing a theory accounting for meaning in any discourse (and signifying phenomenon) by constantly confronting its model to new corpora which raise new questions, it is clear that the semioticians have much to learn from Haas’s work. It demands that they reconsider semiotic theory so as to make sure that it can account for the characteristics of legal discourse and ethics and, more specifically, of Jewish legal discourse and ethics. In turn, semiotics might provide some insights which could help the research on legal discourse and ethics to progress, and thus help develop analytical/exegetical methods which could apply to any (not merely Jewish) ethical discourse; such methods are much needed in biblical studies (and especially, in my field, New Testament studies).

The fact that the Jewish ethical corpus is a corpus of legal discourses throws a peculiar light on the phenomenon “ethics,” that we define broadly as the process through which decisions affecting one’s behavior are made (a process which can be described semiotically, since it is a “signifying” process). At the outset, the Jewish corpus as discussed by Haas suggests that any decision-making should be viewed as somewhat similar to a legal argument, and that it always involves something like a “law.” This can be understood when one notes that making a decision is truly needed only “when two apparently irreconcilable demands come into conflict,” the very situation which Haas describes as prompting a responsum (and, more generally, a legal argument). Thus, the categories Haas uses should help us better understand the phenomenon of ethics.

Yet this form of the Jewish ethical discourse also suggests that there is something specific about Jewish ethics which demands that it be expressed in the form of legal discourse, rather than in another form of decision-making. Haas’s proposal that Jewish ethics takes the form of legal discourse because it appeals to the Sinai/Torah myth which posits a “cosmic structure” characterized by a legal form, is certainly moving in the right direction. Yet this proposal (in part III of this essay) comes somewhat as a surprise for the reader. One is then led to raise the question: what is its relation with the preceding discussion and analysis of the legal argument in terms of various categories?

A review of the categories Haas found useful in describing the legal discourse of the responsa is therefore in order so as to try to perceive how they could help us better understand Haas’s proposal concerning the legal form of Jewish ethics, and eventually refine it. For someone trained in semiotics, it quickly appears that these categories correspond to certain “dimensions of meaning” that semiotics recognizes in any signifying phenomenon (discourse, behavior, etc.), dimensions of meaning that semiotics strives to identify more precisely so as to understand their places and roles in making this phenomenon “meaningful.” Looking at these categories from this semiotic perspective helps both clarify the contribution of Haas’s essay and refine the semiotic theory in light of his research. Because of space limitations, we cannot present here the far-reaching implications of Haas’s work for a semiotics of ethical discourse. We will primarily be concerned to specify the status of the “law” and of the “legal form” in Jewish ethical discourses, in an attempt to clarify further what, in Judaism, requires that the ethical discourse take a legal form.

A. Haas distinguishes, following Ladd, “what people claim they should or should not do” from “the values and beliefs” which are “the linguistic universe in which a culture’s moral discourse takes place.” This distinction—which applies to any ethical discourse—corresponds to the one made in semiotics between “syntax” (in the case of moral/legal discourses, the logical syntax which is the argumentative concatenation of points through which we express what we should or should not do) and “semantics” (in the specific sense of the holistic system of convictions, values, and symbols which forms the “universe” in which our moral/legal discourse takes place, called in semiotics a “semantic universe,” a concept broader than “linguistic universe”). This first distinction is essential because without it, as Haas expressed in his own words, one could be misled into thinking that “what people claim” (the syntax) is the entire meaning of a moral/legal discourse. In fact, such a claim would be meaningless if it was not taking place in a semantic universe. Conversely, a semantic universe (one’s convictions, values, symbolism) needs to find expression in a syntax, otherwise it remains a pure virtuality; it would not truly be the semantic universe of the people involved in the moral/legal discourse. Yet, as Haas would agree, the semantic universe is primary; as the universe in which a meaningful discourse unfolds, it imposes constraints upon the syntax or, more specifically, upon the form the syntax can take.

B. In a legal system, Haas distinguishes, following Hart, “primary rules” (overt regulations) from “secondary rules” (the procedures and norms upon which the primary rules are based). We can relate this distinction to the preceding one by noting that a legal system is, insofar as it is accepted, what people in a society (or group) view as expressing “what they should or should not do.” In other words, in view of the preceding observations, a legal system, the law, is syntactic in nature, and not semantic. This remark suggests that Haas’s proposal involves a confusion of syntax and semantics. According to him the convictions (semantic universe), which give to the Jewish moral discourse its legal form, is a Sinai/Torah myth (a system of convictions) which has a legal form (“the giving of the law at Sinai”). Indeed, the Sinai/Torah myth has a syntactical expression (“the giving of the law at Sinai,” a legal form). It is also true that the Jewish moral discourse replicates the syntactical form of the myth (“rabbinic legal activity, then, is understood to be a continuation of that seminal act at Sinai”). Yet these insightful observations still do not elucidate the “basic religious convictions” that both that myth and the Jewish legal discourse embody in their syntactical expressions.

We also need to note that this second distinction emphasizes that the legal system (as “what people claim they should or should not do”) is a consensus, i.e., the expression of what the speaker/author and the audience should (hopefully) agree upon. In terms of moral/legal discourses, this is a dimension of the meaning of the argument that the speaker assumes the audience will readily accept, a feature of what is called in semiotics “discursive syntax” (the syntax as establishing the speaker and the audience in a successful discursive communication). In it one needs to distinguish two dimensions: the main argument (the “primary rules”) and the warrants of this argument (the “secondary rules”). As Haas notes, and as semiotics has also found, this distinction is important when one wants to elucidate the “semantics” which finds expression and undergirds a legal system (and any discursive syntax). It is the warrants (the “secondary rules”), and not the main argument (the “primary rules”), which are the most direct expression of the main convictions and values that define a “society’s notion of good and evil” (what semiotics calls “discursive semantics”). These remarks, prompted by Haas’s work, help us understand the dimension of meaning to which “laws” belong, namely, discursive syntax as expression of a discursive semantics, a point which semiotics needed to see clarified.

C. Following Perelman and his view of legal discourse as a kind of syllogism, Haas further distinguishes between, on the one hand, the major normative premise which “asserts some good which the law is meant to establish,” and, on the other hand, the minor premise which is the particular interpretation given to the issue at hand, an interpretation which predetermines the judicial decision (which then “appears to flow logically”). This distinction is related to the preceding one but goes one step further. In the argument (the syntax), it distinguishes, on the one hand, what belongs to the consensus between speaker and audience (the discursive syntax), namely, the major normative premise as reexpression of aspects of the law, and, on the other hand, the creative contribution of the speaker (judge), namely, the minor premise. While the major premise is “subjective” (as Haas says) in the sense that the judge chooses it, and while the minor premise (the interpretation of the issue at hand) is expressed in such a way as to be acceptable to the audience, it remains that the minor premise is a primary expression of the speaker’s (judge’s) view. This distinction allows, therefore, envisioning another level of the syntax, that level which expresses the speaker’s creativity, his/her own ideas and moral values (views of what one should or should not do), that is, what Greimas calls the “semio-narrative syntax” (using a vocabulary which betrays the fact that he started his research on narratives). This distinction is important when one wants to elucidate, as Haas wants to do, “the broader system of convictions out of which the responsum grows,” that is, “the consensus of the (Jewish) culture.” One should avoid confusing the idiosyncrasies of an author (judge) with this consensus. In practical terms, it means that the minor premises should be handled with great care in the analysis, since they are heavily loaded with the speaker’s personal views and perspectives.

D. Following Dworkin, Haas makes a distinction between the “values and beliefs” which belong to the judge (or speaker), the judge’s “taste and judgment” (on the basis of which is determined what the law should do), and the “values and principles” which are assumed to be accepted as self-evident by the intended audience. This distinction is similar to the preceding one, although it now distinguishes two “semantic” levels (instead of two syntactic levels); on the one hand, the “consensus” or discursive semantic system, i.e., the convictions and values which the judge and the audience share; and on the other hand, the semio-narrative semantic system, the judge’s taste, his/her own system of convictions (or micro-semantic universe).

Granted the judge’s or rabbi’s convictions (most directly expressed in syntactical form in the minor premise) and the shared convictions (most directly expressed in a syntactical form by the legal system and the major premise) necessarily overlap, but one cannot simply identify them, as Haas tends to do. Otherwise it would be useless for the people to go to a rabbi; if the rabbi’s system of convictions were the same as theirs, he would not be able to help them resolve the tension between what they perceive as two irreconcilable demands.

In order to understand the respective roles of these two semantic systems (the system of convictions of the rabbi, and that of the people) in a responsum (or legal argument), let us consider how the need for such a responsum arises. People have a semantic universe (convictions, values) which finds expression in the law that spells out what they should or should not do. Yet they are confronted by a new situation such that they cannot ignore it (an existential situation, in the sense that it is an integral part of their existence). Now this situation poses for them self-evident truths (convictions, values) which are in tension with those of their original semantic universe (expressed by the law). As a consequence, they find themselves with a divided semantic universe, or better with two (partial) semantic universes in tension and on the basis of which two conflicting kinds of behavior are envisioned (the potential syntactic expression of these semantic universes); what they should or should not do according to the convictions expressed in the law is in tension with what they should or should not do according to the self-evident truths posited by the existential situation. On the other hand, the rabbi also has a semantic universe which finds expression in the law, but in his case this semantic universe is, so to speak, “larger” in that it can integrate the new existential situation and the self-evident truths it poses. In other words, for the rabbi, the self-evident truths posed by the new situation (the feeling of pity according to which people should not suffer excruciating pain when there is no hope for relief and survival) are perceived as congruent with his original convictions and thus can find their place in his system of convictions.

The point of these comments is that a legal argument (and for that matter any moral discourse) is not the mere resolution of a practical problem (what one should or should not do in a specific situation, a syntactic problem) through the correct application of shared convictions. It will only bring this resolution insofar as it first transforms the system of convictions of the audience. We can go as far as saying that a moral problem, despite its syntactic formulation in terms of what one should or should not do, is always fundamentally a semantic problem; it arises from a “deficiency” in the audience’s (or a person’s) system of convictions. In the case of the responsum, note that the people who ask the question are devoted to the law; but they are unable to interpret it appropriately in the new situation. In other words, they know and accept the “primary rules,” but do not know the appropriate norms and principles (the “secondary rules”) that allow the application of the primary rules to the new situation. Now, as we have noted, these secondary rules are the most directly related to basic convictions. Thus, their problem arises from a “deficiency” in the basic convictions concerning the fundamental character of the law, indeed in the convictions which give rise to the law (or, more generally, to moral imperatives, in the case of other moral discourses).

It appears, therefore, that by identifying in the Jewish legal discourse the way in which the rabbi strives to transform the convictions of the intended audience, one would be in a position to elucidate the most characteristic (and fundamental) convictions in Jewish ethics, indeed those which demand that the Jewish ethical discourse take a legal form. I believe Haas’s essay contains observations which suggest what these basic convictions could be, although he does not spell them out.

In the case at hand, Haas notes that Palaggi “simply assumes the legal and moral imperative to relieve pain.” Two observations are in order. First, the imperative to relieve the dying person’s excruciating pain arises from the confrontation of people with the concrete situation; its convictional basis is a “feeling” of pity, the spontaneous (self-evident) perception that such a situation is bad (or evil), what we can call, using Greimas’s terminology, a “thymic” conviction, i.e., a conviction concerning the “quality” of the life-situation in which one is, and the “mood” resulting from the perception of (moral or aesthetic) values in it. This second observation follows from the first: such “thymic” convictions make up what Geertz calls “ethos” (note that the above explanation of “thymic conviction” is basically the same as Geertz’s explanation of “ethos”). Furthermore, Geertz distinguishes “ethos” from “world-view,” that he defines as “the picture (people) have of the way things in sheer actuality are.” Using Greimas’s terminology, we can say that a “world-view” is made up of “veridictory” convictions (what is self-evidently perceived as “truly being”).

Coming back to Palaggi’s responsum, we can thus note that by assuming the imperative of relieving pain, he recognizes as self-evidently valid the “thymic conviction” which arose in the concrete situation. This suggests that, for him, “thymic convictions” would be the most fundamental (they cannot be discussed or questioned), and consequently that “veridictory convictions” would be less fundamental.

Of course, such a suggestion should be verified by an analysis of the responsum aimed at distinguishing the respective roles of “thymic” and “veridictory” convictions, or, and this amounts to the same thing, of the “ethos” and the “world-view.” Obviously, such an analysis cannot be done here. Yet, a few additional (and concluding) remarks seem to support this suggestion.

Any system of convictions (semantic universe) involves an “ethos” and a “world-view.” Geertz presupposes that the overall organization of a system of convictions is provided by the “world-view” (since he says that it is for the people “their most comprehensive ideas of order”). This is certainly true in many cosmological and western cultures. In such a case, the hierarchic organization of the system of convictions (the “world-view” and its “veridictory” convictions being primary, and the “ethos” and its “thymic” convictions being secondary) leads to the common moral discourses which base arguments about decision-making (the syntactic expression of the ethos) upon theological or metaphysical arguments (the syntactical expression of the world-view). But, as is well known and further shown by Haas’s work, Jewish ethical discourse is not based upon a theological argument; this is what gives it a purely legal character. This could be understood if indeed the Jewish system of convictions received its overall organization from its “ethos” and “thymic” convictions, rather than from its “world-view” and “veridictory” convictions. In such a case, the ethical discourse can take the syntactic form of a purely legal discourse, which can stand on its own (without the help of a theological discourse). In fact, in such a case, theological arguments would need to be based upon ethical/legal arguments, which seems to be the case in the early Jewish literature.

These suggestions, if they are verified, could open a way of pursuing the research on Jewish ethics beyond Haas’s essay. But, obviously, they are not to be taken as a negative critique of Haas’s work; indeed, without his excellent pioneering work, these suggestions could not even be conceived.

Jewish Legal Interpretation: Literary, Scriptural, Social, and Ethical Perspectives

David Ellenson

Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles


Moral decisions in Judaism occur when specific texts are brought to bear in specific contexts. This proposition is explored in the following essay. Again attention focusses on a responsum, this time by the late nineteenth century Orthodox rabbi Solomon Kluger. He is asked about the acceptability of Passover Matzah (unleavened bread) made by machine. His answer, that we are not to use such matzah, is ostensibly based on the received texts of the tradition. But Ellenson shows that contemporary social and economic issues are also at stake. A step by step analysis of Kluger’s argument shows that Jewish ethics is always text-focussed. Yet this fact means that multiple interpretations are always possible. The choice as to which interpretation is correct is linked to social, historical and/or psychological factors.

A translation of the responsum considered here follows this essay.

The liturgy of the Synagogue expresses the reverence Judaism holds for Jewish sacred scriptures when, in the words of a daily evening prayer, it states of them, “For they are our life and the length of our days, and upon them we will meditate day and night.” The holy texts of Judaism—both Written Law (biblical) and Oral Law (rabbinic)—are seen as divine in origin and timeless in their import and meaning. Their messages are viewed as comprehensive and valid, guiding and normative forever. Commitment to these texts, and to the elucidation of their meanings, ensures that they will be dealt with exegetically ever anew—albeit that the interpretations such efforts yield are said to be contained in God’s original Sinaitic revelation. Jewish tradition expresses this paradox concerning the comprehensive nature of Torah in the statement of a tannaitic (early rabbinic authority of the first two centuries of the Common Era) authority, who is reported to have said of Torah, “Turn its pages over and over again, for all is in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). The hermeneutical task—the goal of permitting the texts to speak and, thereby, be enduringly relevant to every generation—is thus one which has confronted the believing Jew and one in which the believing Jew has engaged for over two millenia.

This exegetical challenge has been met in Judaism not only through commentaries upon the Written Law, but through the development of the Oral Law as well. Central to this development for over a thousand years has been the genre of rabbinic literature known as She’elot u ‘Teshuvot (Questions and Answers—Responsa), in which leading rabbinic jurist-legislators have issued authoritative renderings (piskei din) of Jewish Law (Halakha) to rabbinic colleagues for application and, sometimes, public dissemination in specific cases. Responsa are thus elite, technical documents—case discussions and their “holdings” in modern Western jurisprudential nomenclature—and rabbis throughout the centuries have used them to apply the insights, meanings, norms, and precedents provided by the literary and legal texts of the Jewish past (Bible, Talmud, Codes, and other responsa) to the pressing and often novel issues of the present age. Consequently, a single responsum must be seen as part of a vast body of Jewish case law which stretches over the centuries. It is the crossroads where text and context meet in the ongoing tradition of Jewish legal hermeneutics. As such, each responsum is an autonomous text, to be analyzed synchronically, written in a particular milieu by a specific author. However, and equally important, each should also be viewed diachronically as an individual reflection of a continuous body of Jewish literature with its own style, language, and logic. These idiomatic expressions of Jewish thought therefore provide an excellent lens through which to witness the role of the classical Jewish literary tradition (Bible, Talmud, and occasionally Midrash) and later rabbinic texts (Codes, Responsa, and occasionally Commentaries and philosophical literature), as well as the input of contemporary social, psychological, and ethical factors, in the development of Judaism.

The author of the responsum chosen for analysis and discussion in this essay is Solomon Kluger (1763–1869) of Brody, a prominent Galician Orthodox rabbi. Kluger played an active role in the guidance of Jewish communal affairs in Eastern and Central Europe and Orthodox rabbis throughout these regions frequently turned to him for advice. One of the most prolific authors of responsa in history, Kluger published literally thousands of opinions. All of them, including the one under consideration here, are written in classical rabbinic language and style, and they serve as models for this type of scholarship. As such, they reveal the role that text and tradition assume in this mode of Jewish legal writing. On the other hand, Kluger’s responsa bespeak a man deeply embroiled in the European Jewish world of the 1800’s. Keenly aware of the social, scientific, and religious transformations the nineteenth century brought to European Jewish life, Kluger, in this as well as his other responsa, becomes paradigmatic of the contemporary religious authority struggling to adjust—either through resistance or compromise—to the realitiescreated by a new age. Consequently, his legal opinions indicate the significance that must be assigned the contemporary milieu in assaying the nature of the responsa literature.

The particular responsum selected for discussion in his essay is the first in a collection of responsa Rabbi Kluger published under the title, Moda’ah l’Beit Yisrael (Announcement to the Household of Israel), in Breslau in 1859. The responsa in this volume deal with the question of whether it is permissible to use machine-baked matzot (unleavened bread) during the Passover festival. Traditionally, of course, all matzot were baked entirely by hand. However, in Austria in 1857 a machine was invented for this purpose. Its use quickly spread to other countries, especially Germany—the birthplace of both Reform Judaism and a modern Jewish Orthodoxy receptive to contemporary cultural currents. Indeed, the pace of Jewish acculturation in Germany, even among the Orthodox, caused Eastern European Orthodox rabbis like Kluger to view German Jewry with suspicion and made them hesitant to depend upon German-Jewish innovations (such as machine-baked matzot) in religious customs as authoritative for their own practices. This point is significant, as it contributes an important context for understanding the Kluger responsum analyzed in this paper. For, as we shall see, Kluger opposed this departure from traditional European Jewish religious practice, in part, on these grounds.

The responsum itself is addressed to Rabbis Hayyim Nathan and Lebush Horowitz of Cracow, and the arguments Kluger advances in this document are the first to protest this particular change in European Jewish life. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Kluger’s positions, as put forth in this responsum, became the basis for Jewish legal arguments against the employment of this machine among those rabbis who opposed machine-baked matzot for Passover usage. Indeed, this clearly testifies both to Kluger’s mastery of traditional rabbinic literature and his influence on the Orthodox rabbinic world of the nineteenth century. In sum, this responsum embodies a number of literary, legal, social, and historical features essential to a discussion and analysis of this form of Jewish legal literature.

This paper, through such discussion and analysis, will provide the reader with an understanding of the nature of the responsa literature and delineate several possibilities for future research in this field. It will do this by exploring four areas. The first, a literary one, will simply outline the form of the responsum so that the reader will grasp the nature and role of literary structure in the responsa. An explication of the statutory position Bible and Talmud occupy and the precedential purpose codes, commentaries, and other responsa serve in this literature will then be offered. In this way the place of Scripture in the millennium old tradition of Jewish case law will be highlighted and the semi-autonomous nature of Jewish legal method will be illuminated. However, because responsa are not issued in a vacuum, but are the products of particular authors writing at a specific time, the social-historical context of the document must be considered. By viewing the Kluger responsum in this manner, another way of understanding the interpretations and decisions advanced in the responsa can be gained. Finally, as the point is often made that the Halakhah represents the “concretization” of Jewish values, this paper will consider the role of ethics in Kluger’s responsum and, in so doing, show how a responsum can be employed to adduce something about the nature of the relationship between law and morality in Judaism. Through such an examination and analysis of the Kluger responsum, this paper will both introduce the reader to the responsa literature and provide insights into the nature of Judaism itself.


The Kluger responsum, representative as it is of this genre of Jewish legal literature, follows a uniform literary structure that marks the responsa literature. For despite regional differences which may have characterized the formal conventions of the responsum in earlier historical epochs, the responsa had come to assume a standard literary style long before Kluger authored his opinions in the nineteenth century. Indeed, these uniformities of style, structure, and convention combine to make the responsa a distinctive and easily identifiable type of literature.

In form, Kluger’s responsum, like others of this genre, is an epistle. However, as an epistle, it is vital to note that it is also a legal instrument. The employment of this epistalory style for a legal document is certainly medieval in origin, as it was a common convention in the Middle Ages to utilize letters as legal devices (e.g., papal bulls and royal decrees in Christian Europe and the fatwa in the Islamic world). Thus, the Kluger responsum begins with an identification of the author and the addressees, which includes a captatio benevolentiae, or flourish, designed to flatter and signify the importance of the addressees. This “honorific apostrophe,” hyperbolic and ornamental in tone, is a standard literary device employed in virtually all responsa. In addition, the date and place of origin is cited at the beginning of the responsum. Again, this is a common hallmark of the responsa literature, though other writers of this legal genre will place the date and locale at the end, not at the beginning, of their responsa.

It is in the corpus of the responsum that narration of the issue begins. In this instance, Kluger himself relates the issue in a summary, declarative form, though, in other cases, the matter may be put forth in an interrogatory style. The reader is now aware that a discussion of legal precedents and sources relevant to the disposition of this particular matter is about to ensue. Consequently, throughout the body of the responsum, Kluger cites and analyzes biblical sources of Jewish law (e.g., the reading of the Megillah on Purim), numerous passages from the Talmud (e.g., BT Megillah 4b and BT Pesachim 36–37), later medieval rabbinic authorities (Rishonim and the Tosafists), and Codes (e.g., Tur, Shulchan Aruch and the Shulchan Aruch) to arrive at and buttress his decision in this matter. In addition, where disputes might arise about the proper exegesis of one of these sources (e.g., the penultimate paragraph of the responsum), Kluger offers a resolution to the difficulty so that a definitive ruling may emerge from the source in question. Following this discussion and analysis, Kluger is able to render a decision in the matter before him. Thus, he concludes, “It is proper to say that all matzot which are not made by an adult Jewish man are forbidden, and God forbid that one should assert that those made by a machine are permissible for use.” With this final declaration, the corpus of the responsum is completed, the classical literary structure of this section of the responsum (citation and discussion of relevant sources, resolution of difficulties in the sources, and final decision) having been observed.

The eschatocol (concluding section) of the responsum now proceeds in a fashion that leaves no doubt that the communication is over. The moral and religious exhortations (“Therefore, do not veer from the customs of your fathers …) in the final paragraph, the protestation of weakness and humility, and the signature of the author indicate that the responsum is concluded in a standard rabbinic legal form.

In addition to the literary conventions already cited, it is significant to point out that Kluger employs a typeical rabbinic diction. The language of the responsum is Hebrew with a smattering of rabbinic Aramaic, and the linguistic style itself is rabbinic-Talmudic. These factors clearly testify to the elements of continuity between this literature and the classical sources of Judaism. Morever, this choice of language and style, as well as the formal literary conventions of the Kluger responsum, are all paradigmatic characteristics of the responsa literature from the early Middle Ages to the present day, and they combine to identify this document as a “normative” one within this area of Jewish jurisprudence. These accepted patterns of literary structure and diction, far from being incidental to the responsum, are thus critical in establishing Kluger’s, or any other rabbinic author’s, credibility within this chain of Jewish legal tradition. As such, the form of the responsum—its style, language, and conventions—is an essential part of the authoritative posture a rabbi assumes in rendering a legal decision to his colleagues. Knowledge of the literary components of the responsa consequently provide a valuable means for comprehending and identifying the meanings and messages of this literature.


The responsa, as mentioned above, are, in fact, judicial opinions issued by legal authorities in specific cases. The issue of legal hermeneutics is thus one that cannot be avoided in dealing with these texts. For each responsum, as part of a mature legal system that stretches back over a thousand years, claims to be an authoritative rendering and/or application of Jewish sacred texts and the principles derived from these texts to the problems of a contemporary situation.

The Jewish legal system, in making such claims, is not unique. Indeed, the legal exegesis evidenced in the responsa literature is comparable to the process of legal reasoning that takes place in other systems of law. This process, as David A. J. Richards has observed, displays two major characteristics. The first is that the decisor, or judge, “infers the legal standards applicable to a particular situation from (a) body of so-called primary authority.” In American law this “body of so-called primary authority” includes both the Constitution, which assumes a “statutory” role in the American legal system, and an ongoing process of judicial opinions which function in a “precedential” way. Here the interpretation of the law offered in a previous case (its holding) is seen to have a bearing on the adjudication of a contemporary case dealing with the same issue of law. A second feature of legal reasoning, related to but not identical with the first, is that of “reasoning by analogy.” The court, in this instance, not only takes prior holdings on a comparable issue into account when rendering its decision, but extends “principles of law found applicable to one set of fact patterns … to other fact patterns which are in relevant respects similar.”

The Kluger responsum, representative as it is of this genre of Jewish legal literature, evidences both these traits. The statutory role occupied by Bible and Talmud in the Jewish legal system is obvious throughout the responsum. Indeed, the obligation to eat the matzah of commandment on the first night of Passover, which undergirds the discussion in the last three-quarters of the responsum, is derived from Exodus 12:18 (“In the first month on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread …”) and the Talmudic exegesis of that passage in the Bible, located in BT Pesachim 120a. Interestingly, however, these statutory passages are not even cited in the Kluger text. This is because Kluger, writing as he is to rabbinical colleagues, assumes their knowledge of these scriptural verses, thus obviating the need to cite them directly. The elite, technical nature of this literature, as well as the statutory status of Bible and Talmud in it, is revealed in this manner. Furthermore, Kluger bases his opposition to the use of machine-baked matzot on Passover upon passages in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 36b and 37a) which detail some of the supervisory requirements that must be fulfilled if matzah which is ritually fit for consumption on the first night of Passover is to be baked. As matzah produced by a machine—in contrast to that made by hand—could not, in Kluger’s opinion, meet those Talmudic standards of “strict and careful supervision,” it was to be prohibited. The correctness of Kluger’s readings of these texts aside, the crucial point to be made here is that Kluger arrives at his decision on the basis of his citations and interpretations of these “statutory” Jewish legal texts.

Moreover, Kluger, in issuing his opinion, also relies upon “precedential” literature found in the Jewish legal tradition. This literature, seen as authoritative in its own right, allows Kluger to cite, among others, the teachings and rulings of the early medieval rabbinic authorities (the Rishonim), the French and German medieval commentators upon the Talmud (the Tosafists), the Tur, Sulchan Aruch (the law code of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, 1270–1340), and the Shulchan Aruch (the great legal code of Joseph Caro, 1564) in arriving at his decision. His efforts in this direction also permit the reader to see precisely how it is that a later court is, in some sense, always engaged in a process of interpretation and reformulation concerning the law itself. This is because the legal process, by its very nature, is a dynamic one which requires the later court, through its ruling, to both determine what the actual holding was in a previous case as well as the weight to be assigned that holding in determining the contemporary one. Thus, in the penultimate paragraph of his responsum, Kluger notes that the Tur, Shulchan Aruch holds, “All Syrian cakes are forbidden, whether those of bakers or of private persons.” The cause for concern regarding such “cakes” is revealed in the Talmudic passage referred to by Kluger himself. There, in TB Pesachim 37a, it states:

Rab Judah said: This thing Boethus b. Zonin asked the Sages: Why was it said that Syrian cakes shaped in figures must not be made on Passover? Said they to him, Because a woman would tarry over it and cause it to turn to leaven …

This fear that there would be a delay in the baking, and that the “cakes” would subsequently rise and leaven, led the rabbis of the Talmud immediately to the following story. The passage in Pesachim thus continues:

R. Eleazar b. Zadok said: I once followed my father into the house of R. Gamaliel, and they placed before him Syrian cakes shaped in figures on Passover. Said I, ‘Father, did not the Sages say thus, One may not make Syrian cakes shaped in figures on Passover’? ‘My son,’ he replied, ‘they did not speak of (the cakes of) all people, but only those of bakers’ (Note—who bake for sale. They are more particular for the shape to be exactly right and so may take too long over it. But private people are not so particular.). Others say, he said thus to him: ‘They did not speak of those of bakers, but (only) of those of private people.’

Thus, in the Talmud, the issue remains unresolved. Some authorities might assert, on the basis of one statement, that “only (the cakes) of bakers” are forbidden. However, others might contend, on the strength of the final statement, that those of bakers are permitted, but that “those of private people” are forbidden. It is for this reason that Kluger, quite correctly, observes that “there is a dispute among the rabbinic authorities” of Talmudic times on this matter. Nevertheless, for our purposes it is critical to note 1) that the Tur, Shulchan Aruch resolves the dispute, forbidding Syrian cakes produced by bakers and private persons alike, 2) that Kluger accepts Jacob ben Asher’s resolution of the dispute as authoritative, and 3) that Kluger assigns this later, precedential holding weight in issuing his ruling in the case before him. While the earlier, “statutory” text (the Talmud) is theoretically more authoritative than the later, “precedential” code (the Tur), in reality the “precedent,” i.e., the ruling of the Tur, defines the meaning of the “statutory” text, i.e., the Talmud. To assert on this basis, however, that fidelity to the Talmud as the source for Jewish law is cast aside would be misleading. Rather, this example demonstrates that in Jewish law, as in many other legal systems, a later interpretation of a “statutory” text earns a precedential status because it claims to embody the legitimate reading of the earlier text. Moreover, in so doing it clarifies the purpose and meaning of the statutory text itself. It is in this way that the later text assumes a weight of its own in the legal system, albeit that it would claim nothing novel for itself. The process of Jewish law as reflected in this use of “statutory” and “precedential” texts thus clearly conforms to the first major feature, that of inferring “legal standards to a particular situation from (a) body of so-called primary authority,” which Richards sees as characterizing “the process of legal reasoning.”

The second feature, that of “reasoning by analogy,” reveals once more the text-centered nature of Jewish law and is evidenced at the very outset of Kluger’s opinion. Here Kluger cites BT Megillah 4b, which holds unequivocally that the Purim reading of the Book of Esther is not to take place on the Sabbath. The reason for this is that matanot l’evyonim, “gifts to the poor,” are dispensed to indigent members of the community, in accordance with Esther 10:3, immediately after the reading of the Scroll, “and on the Sabbath these could not be given.” The principle of public policy established here, i.e., concern for the poor, is deemed relevant by Kluger to the case before him. For if machine-baked matzot are permitted for Passover use, then all the poor workers traditionally engaged in the enterprise of baking matzot by hand would be left unemployed, though they “anxiously await this (task) in order to earn wages for Passover” necessities. While the moral considerations evidenced here will be discussed below, the item of note at this juncture is that Kluger applies “principles of law found applicable to one set of fact patterns … to other fact patterns which are in relevant respects similar.” Just as the Talmudic rabbis forbade the reading of the Megillah on the Sabbath out of concern for the poor, so Kluger would forbid the utilization of a machine for the baking of matzot because of the untoward economic consequences it would have for the needy.

In sum, an analysis of the Kluger responsum demonstrates that Jewish law is text-focused. The decision rendered in a responsum, to be authoritative, must justify itself explicitly in terms of either a principle or a text found in the Bible/Talmud or later rabbinic tradition. The responsum’s conformity to these canons of legal reasoning bespeaks the integrity and semi-autonomous nature of the process of Jewish law, and a sensitivity to this process heightens the reader’s awareness of the responsum as part of a legal, and not just religious and/or moral system. Moreover, it is this legal context which must be kept uppermost in mind in comprehending and appreciating the nature of this literature.


The Jewish legal tradition, as indicated above, possesses an integrity of its own. Kluger or any other respondent, must, if he wishes his responsum to be accepted as authoritative, defend his interpretation of the Law in light of the texts of the Jewish tradition. His opinion must be unimpeachable from a textual perspective. Indeed, the biography and historical context in which the author lived is not a substitute for analyzing the style, logic, and canons of jurisprudence the legal author employed in the writing of his responsum.

This should not obscure the fact, however, that an exclusive focus on the literary and legal features of a Jewish legal opinion would ultimately be distorting if a fuller comprehension of the responsum would be attained. For Jewish law, like law in other systems, is not totally self-contained. Texts do not produce a univocal reading. Rather, in the hands of different interpreters, conclusions can be drawn in a variety of ways. Moreover, there can often be disagreements in the Jewish legal tradition—again as in other such traditions—as to the “right” a specific text has to be “heard” in a given case. One rabbi, in rendering a decision, will cite a certain text in support of his opinion, while a second rabbinic authority will deem that text irrelevant in arriving at a decision on the same matter. An examination of the social-historical context in which a rabbi authored a responsum, as well as an investigation into the personality and psychology of the decisor, will aid in understanding the motivations and stimuli which led a rabbinic authority to issue a specific judgment in a given case. A probing of several aspects of the Kluger responsum will illustrate the nature of these observations.

Kluger, in arriving at his conclusion that “… it certainly is not permissible to fulfill one’s obligation concerning the consumption of matzah on Passover through those produced by a machine.” bases it, in part, on the contention that “… the Law has established for us the ruli ng that one is not exempt from fulfilling this commandment if a deafmute, an idiot, or a child produces it (the matzah), as none of them are mentally competent.” This “Law” is contained in a passage of the Shulchan Aruch, which states, “One neither kneads (the dough necessary) for the matzah of commandment nor bakes it … under the supervision of a deaf-mute, an idiot, or a child” (Orach Hayyim 460:1). On the basis of this passage, as well as later rabbinic exegesis upon it, Kluger continues by pointing out that an adult, intelligent Jew must literally participate in and supervise the baking of the matzot from the moment the flour is kneaded until the matzah itself is finally baked. As matzah produced by a machine, which has no intelligence, could not fulfill this criterion, machine-baked matzot are by definition not ritually fit to be eaten on the first night of Passover. On the other hand, Joseph Saul Nathanson (1810–1875), Rabbi of Lemberg, in his Bittul Moda’ah (Annulment of the Announcement), published in 1859 as both a response and refutation of Kluger, claims that this text, and the exegesis which flows from it, does not disqualify the machine for use in the baking of ritually acceptable matzot on Passover. As the machine is operated by an “intelligent person,” this dispenses altogether, in Nathanson’s view, with the issue of the machine’s “mental competence.” It simply becomes an irrelevancy. Moreover, the real intent of the Orach Hayyim passage, Nathanson contends, is to emphasize the need for constant and strict supervision in both the preparation and baking of the matzot, so as to guard against the danger of the dough’s leavening. Yet, the possibility of this happening is lessened, not heightened, by the employment of the machine. For the machine works more rapidly than many persons, thus reducing the chances that the dough might rise in the baking process. In short, Nathanson reads the same text differently than Kluger, utilizing it to justify the use of the machine for the baking of matzot on the eve of Passover.

In addition, Kluger, reasoning by analogy, views the text in BT Megillah 4b as providing a decisive argument against the utilization of machine-baked matzot during Passover. His logic for employing that text in this fashion has been discussed in the preceding section. What is of interest here is that Nathanson, in the same responsum noted above, states that the Megillah text cited by Kluger is totally irrelevant to the question before them, claiming that the issue is not one of providing for the poor on Passover, but of determining whether matzah produced by a machine is fit for ritual consumption on the holiday. As the two cases—the one under discussion and the one in Megillah—are, in Nathanson’s opinion, dissimilar, he will not grant the “right” of the Megillah text to be “heard” on this matter.

The point, in citing these two examples in the preceding paragraphs, is not to determine whether Kluger or Nathanson is right. This can certainly be left to Jewish legal authorities. In addition, these examples neither demonstrate that a text necessarily possesses more than one inherent, objective meaning, nor that Kluger, or Nathanson, purposefully read these texts in light of certain contextual realities. However, they do demonstrate that a text, e.g., Orach Hayyim 460:1, can be read by two authorities in different ways and that these same authorities may disagree as to the applicability of a given text, e.g., Megillah 4b, in the adjudication of a contemporary case. Thus, a key to understanding the nature of these differences, as well as why an individual rabbi read the tradition in the manner that he did, may well lie in an investigation of the social/historical context in which the responsum was written and in an examination of the psychological profile of the individual decisor. For rabbis, like jurists in any system of law, “come to their questions with propensities to interpret matters leniently or stringently, and to emphasize some principles at the expense of others.” Indeed, this, in part, is precisely what has happened here. To comprehend the Kluger responsum, and the way in which he has interpreted the holy texts of the Jewish legal tradition, it is vital to see it in its social, historical, and/or psychological contexts, as these provide important clues for apprehending the motives which may have caused Kluger to read these texts and render this decision in the form that he did. To assert this is not to commit the genetic fallacy. It is to understand the text in other than a purely literary or exclusively jurisprudential way.

Turning then to Kluger himself, it is important to keep in mind that historians have labelled him “an extremist in his orthodoxy, vehemently opposing the maskilim (Jewish Enlighteners), whose influence was already making itself felt in Brody, and fighting against every endeavor to change the least important of religious customs prevalent in Eastern Europe.” Indeed, the truth of this observation appears to be borne out by an examination of several other responsa Kluger issued. In one case Kluger held that a woman who publicly violated the Sabbath was to be “treated as if she were a Gentile,”16 while in another, highly revealing one, Kluger replies to a query posed him by Rabbi Jonah Ashkenazi of Presswork. In this instance, Ashkenazi asked whether it was permissible to learn German in order to pass a government-administered examination in that language. Such an examination was required of every candidate for the rabbinate, and failure to pass it meant that the individual could not serve as a communal rabbi. In responding, Kluger stated that the language itself was “hateful to him,” as the study of German “leads almost inevitably to heresy.” Indeed, many people proficient in German, even when they observed the Law, still had “heresy lurking in their hearts.” Thus, Kluger wrote:

It can be seen that the spirit of the Lord was in the Rabbis. They gazed by means of the holy spirit into those times when it was impossible to obtain a rabbinical position without seeking intimacy with the ruling powers in order to win their favor by studying their sciences. Consequently, the Rabbi says, “Hate the rabbinical office and seek no intimacy with the ruling powers.” I advise you to refrain from it. Is the hand of the Lord powerless to help you to earn a living by other means?

In short, Kluger was painfully aware of the changes that were beginning to transform the nature of traditional Jewish life in nineteenth century Europe and the assimilatory tendencies that were emerging as a result of these transformations. Consequently, he was concerned to erect barriers against these changes and to maintain a sense of traditional Jewish boundaries. While his policy in this regard may or may not have been a prudential one, it certainly provides an indispensable key for grasping both his mindset and the world in which he lived. Representing an embattled position, Kluger was determined to preserve his brand of “authentic Judaism” against the onslaught of the modern world. He was, in Peter Berger’s terminology, an advocate of “resistance,” not “accommodation,” to the demands of the larger Western world.19

This motive, which undoubtedly was a factor in explaining his rulings in the cases cited above, also clearly surfaces in the responsum under discussion in this paper. At the outset, Kluger maintains, “One does not learn from the Germans for several reasons.” The major one, quite obviously, is that virtually all German Jews, who responded to the relentless pressures exerted upon them by modernity in a manner which enthusiastically affirmed the worth of Western culture were, in this sense, an anathema to Kluger. Consequently, these German Jews could not possibly provide, in Kluger’s opinion, a proper model for how Jewish life ought to be led in the contemporary period. Machine-baked matzot intended for Passover usage—inasmuch as they had been introduced originally in “the German states”—were thus simply another indication of German Jewry’s unfortunate tendency to compromise the integrity of the Jewish religion in response to modern societal influences. For the German Jews, as Kluger observed them, will simply “do as their heart desires, as is their way.” This trend toward laxity in religious observance and the disinclination to defend the “custom(s) of (the) fathers”—hallmarks, in Kluger’s view, of German Judaism—caused Kluger to contrast himself, as well as the efforts beliefs of his followers, to those of the German Jews. As he writes at the conclusion of his responsum, “However, we will walk in the footsteps of our fathers and depart from them neither to the right nor to the left.”

In sum, an awareness of the social-historical situation in which Kluger found himself and the psychological state he experienced as a result of that situation, clearly reveal that Kluger was predisposed to read the texts of the Jewish tradition on the matter before him in a manner which would allow him to rule negatively on the consumption of machine-baked matzot during Passover. This does not mean that his exegesis of the holy texts of the Jewish legal tradition on this matter was not a correct one. Nor does it indicate that his readings of these texts were in any way contrived. Rather, it demonstrates that the social, historical, and psychological contexts provide the student of the responsa literature with important signals for seeing the unconscious and, at times, conscious motives a rabbinic authority brings with him in arriving at a decision on the basis of certain texts. As a result, an awareness and analysis of these contexts allow the student a clearer understanding of the exegetical process which takes place in the continuous tradition of Jewish legal hermeneutics. It thus permits both a different perspective on the Kluger, or any other, responsum to surface and a deeper, more complex understanding of the Jewish legal process to emerge.


Scholars of law have frequently noted that there is a close relationship between morality and legal reasoning. Richards, in writing on this phenomenon, has observed, “Legal reasoning … importantly draws upon and invokes principles which courts slowly develop through a long process of precedent and reasoning. These principles are often moral ones … (Consequently), moral principles play a central role in legal reasoning.” It is hardly surprising, or unique, then, that the Jewish legal system, including the responsa, display the same characteristic of morality as do others. Indeed, it has often been argued that Jewish law elevates ethics to the status of law and that individual cases become specific opportunities for rabbis to operationalize the ethical values of the Jewish tradition by applying them to concrete matters. Steven Schwarzschild, for example, contends, “Equity is not a factor additional to the jus strictum, but a judgment procedure which makes sure that the application of the law in each individual case is proper (i.e., moral).” Furthermore, Menachem Elon, in a less sweeping statement, echoes Schwarzschild’s sentiments and, in speaking of the responsa literature, observes, “The respondant in his responsum … included the moral imperative—to the extent that it was involved in the question before (him)—as a part of (his) rulings.” Finally, Shubert Spero, writing in the same vein, states, “… In the writings of the later commentators, and particularly in the responsa literature, we find a tendency to incorporate these ‘extra-legal’ considerations into the Halakhic process so that these moral imperatives become actionable by the courts.”24

This ethical feature of Jewish law, of which all these men speak, is unmistakably revealed in the Kluger text. At the very outset of his responsum Kluger, in arguing against the employment of the machine, declares, “Behold, the reason for the prohibition against this appears first and foremost to be that it is not within the framework of the upright and the moral to plunder the poor who are anxiously awaiting the performance of this commandment. For from the assistance they provide in the baking of matzot, they have a significant source of income for the many Passover expenses which accrue to our people.” Fearful that mechanization of the matzah-baking process would leave many poor unemployed, there is little doubt that moral considerations played a primary role in moving Kluger toward the decision he rendered. Indeed, the significance of moral concerns as an integral part of the Jewish legal process is further revealed in Kluger’s chastisement of prosperous members of the community for their failure to observe the practice of Me’ot Hitin (a collection made before Passover to supply for the holiday needs of the poor). Their neglect of this commandment establishes, in Kluger’s words, “a standard of idolatrous conduct.”

In light of this, it is crucial to note that Kluger grounds his moral objection to the use of a machine for the production of Passover matzot in a text taken from the Babylonian Talmud (i.e., Megillah 4b). This is significant for several reasons. First, it indicates that the Talmud itself, the source of Jewish law, embodies moral concerns and makes them, in legal parlance, “actionable.” Secondly, it reveals that such concerns are taken up by the Tradition and may be employed by later authorities as legitimate considerations in rendering a contemporary decision. Finally, Kluger’s citation of the Megillah text as a warrant for his decision underscores the point that the Kluger responsum is part of what is essentially a legal, and not a moral, system. That is, Kluger can raise this moral consideration precisely because he is able to cite a statutory case from the Jewish legal tradition which supports it. He functions as a judge, not as a moral authority. Indeed, without suh a prooftext, it is interesting to speculate on whether he would have, or could have, raised the issue at all. Moreover, the haste with which Kluger provides other textual arguments of a non-moral nature, and the thoroughness with which he discusses them, may well imply to the reader that the moral considerations advanced by Kluger are ultimately “divre musar,” words of ethical sensitivity, which, while important, possess, in the end, a secondary status.

The issue is an important one because it touches upon the larger question of the relationship between law and morality in Judaism. No scholar of Jewish law would dispute the above-cited statements of Elon and Spero about the appearance of the “moral imperative” in many Jewish legal matters. Certainly, the passage from Megillah and Kluger’s appropriation of its sentiments in his responsum testify to the fact that this imperative frequently operates within Jewish law and that, at times, it is “actionable.” As Aharon Lichtenstein, in his piece, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?,” puts it, “the ethical moment” in Judaism is “in its own way fully imperative.” Eugene Borowitz, commenting upon this statement, observes the following:

The critical yet easily overlooked part of this statement is the qualifying clause, “in its own way.” That is, Lichtenstein does not say: “and commitment to an ethical moment that though different from Halakha is nevertheless of a piece with it and fully imperative.” No, the “ethical moment” … is “fully imperative” only “in its own way.” Just what is that distinctive way? And what are its implications?

Borowitz, by posing these questions to Lichtenstein, causes the reader to wonder whether Schwarzschild’s claim—that Jewish law offers “a judgment procedure which makes sure that the application of the law in each individual case is proper (i.e., moral)”—is phenomenologically correct. For as Borowitz points out, Lichtenstein himself makes plain the fact that rabbis throughout history have not operationalized ethical values in issuing all their decisions. At times, it is true, these values are of prime import for a rabbinic authority in deciding a case. On other occasions, however, they are either ignored or overruled. In this way, Lichtenstein’s scholarship and Borowitz’s interpretations sensitize the student of the responsa to the fact “that though the ethical impulse is there” in Jewish law, “it has,” or may have, “much less imperative status than the din (a law) … Moreover, it only gains ‘the full force of obligation … once it has been determined’ that an ethical issue is involved. This determination is not a matter left to the general conscience, but is assigned to competent decisors and permitted to function by them only in a limited number of cases.” In sum, Borowitz feels that when there is a tension in Jewish law between the demands of morality and the imperative of the law, it is the “legal” and not the “moral” imperative which is authoritative. As Borowitz concludes, “The ethical must make a case for itself should there be a conflict between them (the legal and the ethical). Even then its legitimacy and functioning will be defined by legists.”29

The onus, then, in a case such as the one in the Kluger responsum, is upon Kluger, and not Nathanson, to demonstrate the legal relevance and, therefore, the imperative nature of the moral concern. Since the “legitimacy and functioning” of this concern is, in the end, defended through legal categories, it may, as we have seen in the case of Nathanson, be rejected altogether. Ethical values, as independent standards, apparently do not have a prima facie claim to authority within Jewish law. Of course, as Borowitz observes, “All this is not astonishing for a legal system. Rather, an open-minded student would probably show great admiration for the Jewish community in creating a legal structure which is so highly ethical. (However), the ethical, which ought to come (from a Liberal perspective) as a categorical or unmediated imperative,” may well operate “within Judaism,” at times, as a “subsidiary consideration.” The point of this discussion is not to resolve the debate over the exact nature of the relationship between law and morality in Judaism. Indeed, the evidence of the Kluger responsum and the mention of Nathanson’s response to it hardly provide enough material to even attempt such a resolution. Rather, the purpose of these considerations is to sensitize the reader to this issue and to indicate that it is a subject for continued debate and interest.


In examining the Kluger responsum from several perspectives, it has been the aim of this paper to present the richness of one aspect of the Jewish legal tradition to the reader. The complexity of the responsa literature, and the numerous angles of investigation it demands, bespeaks both the ongoing vitality of the process of Jewish legal hermeneutics and the need for continued research in this all too often neglected field. This essay, through its analysis and exposition of the Kluger responsum, has hopefully stimulated further inquiry into the nature and processes of the legal tradition within Judaism.

Translation of the Text

A responsum of His Excellence of Excellencies, Paragon of the Generation, the Chief Shepherd, the One Who Gives Joy to All the Earth, the Light of Israel, and its Holiness, its Chariot and Horsemen (2 Kings 2:12), May his light shine, Servant of the Lord, Glory of the Sages, Rabbi of all the Children of the Exile, His Holy and Glorious Name, Our Teacher and Rabbi, Rabbi Solomon Kluger, May his light shine, Head of the Exile and Head of the Yeshiva in the Distinguished Holy Community of Brody, May the Lord found it well.

With the help of God, Monday of the Weekly Torah Portion “And these are the statutes which you shall place before them,” in the year 5718, (1857–1858) in Brody.

Great peace and blessing from the One Who dwells in the Heavens to His Honor, my Friend, the Rabbi, the Great Light, Learned and Sharpwitted, the Perfect Sage, the Crown of Torah, Our Teacher, Rabbi Hayyim Nathan, May his Light shine, Who Sits on the Seat of Justice in the Holy Community of Cracow, May the Lord found it well; and especially to my friend, the Eminent Rabbi, (Scion) of the Prominent Family, the Famous Lord, Prince of the Congregation, Crown of Torah, Our Teacher, Rabbi Lebush Halevi Horowitz, May his light shine, Redeemer and Rescuer of the Holy Community of Cracow, May it be founded well.

Behold, I received your letter today, Sunday, towards evening, and although I was troubled and weary, I resolved to answer you immediately tonight, for the matter is pressing, as the days of Passover, with the help of God, are imminent. And in an enormously large city [like Cracow] it is necessary to begin to ask and to investigate [at least] thirty days before Passover. Now, concerning your question as to whether [it is permissible] to bake matzot for Passover with the [type of] machine that has been introduced into the German states; behold, that which was told you, that we do so here in our community, is a total lie, completely unfounded. Indeed, it would not occur to anyone to do this for several reasons, which I will clarify [below]. Furthermore, one does not learn from the Germans for several reasons.

Behold, the reason for the prohibition against this appears first and foremost to be that it is not within the framework (geder) of the upright and the moral to plunder the poor who are anxiously awaiting [the performance of] this [commandment]. For from the assistance they provide [in the baking of] matzot, they have a significant source of income (sa’ad gadol) for the many Passover expenses which accrue to our people. Thus, it is stated in the first chapter of Megillah (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 4b), “But at any rate, all agree that the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) is not be read on the Sabbath … Rabbi Joseph said, “It is because the poor are anxiously awaiting the reading of the Megillah.’ ” Refer to the Tosafot (medieval rabbinic commentators upon the Talmud), who commented on this Talmudic passage, “that even in a place where there is no fear that [the prohibition], ‘Lest one carry it,’ ” be violated, it is still forbidden [to read the Megillah on the Sabbath] for the reason cited above. For while the reading of the Megillah is an obligation, the words of the Oral Tradition (divrei kabbalah) cancelled it on account of the poor who anxiously await the reading of the Megillah. All the more so, then, with this [practice], where there is no custom [to perform] this commandment with a machine. Therefore, one should not do this, as the poor anxiously await this [task] in order to earn wages for Passover.

In addition, several middle-class householders and, all the more so, common people, do not contribute Me’ot Hitin—as is customary among [the people] Israel, and the source of which [is derived] from the words of the early medieval rabbinic authorities (rishonim), may their memory be for a blessing. Therefore, [by employing the poor in the baking of matzot], they thereby fulfill somewhat [the practice of Me’otHitin], for at least they give the poor the opportunity to earn wages [for the purchase of Passover necessities] through their help [in the performance of] the commandments. Yet, it will not be so if they also stop [the poor from assisting in the baking of matzot], as they have [already] neglected the commandment of charity and the practice of Me’otHitin for Passover.

Aside from this, it seems to me that there are three reasons why this is forbidden according to the Law. One is that it certainly is not permissible to fulfill one’s obligation concerning the consumption of matzah on Passover through those produced by a machine. This is because the Law has established for us [the ruling] that one is not exempt from fulfilling this commandment if a deaf-mute, an idiot, or a child produces it, as none of them are regarded as mentally competent. Moreover, even if an adult Jew stands beside one of them [in order to supervise their baking, the matzah] still cannot be produced by one of them. And if this is so, certainly the workings of this machine are not to be preferred to the labor of a minor who possesses no mature reasoning faculty, nor from the others, even if a mature adult stands by [and oversees their work]. For it has been the intention of rabbinic authorities [throughout the centuries to see to it] that the matzah of commandment (matzat mitzvah) requires careful supervision by an adult Jew from the first moment [the flour] is kneaded until the process is completed in the final moment of its baking. As this is so concerning the matzah of commandment, clearly (Jews) are not exempt [from fulfilling the commandment with machine-baked matzah]. Moreover, the majority of our people, who are unable to draw a distinction between most matzah and that of mitzvah, will consume machine-baked matzah as matzat mitzvah and will not fulfill the commandment through the eating of genuine matzah mitzvah. Thus, they will recite a blessing in vain. Therefore, it is fitting to decree—inasmuch as matzat mitzvah is a decree from the Torah—that one does not fulfill one’s obligation concerning the commandment of matzat mitzvah with this machine-baked matzah. Also, from this it would follow that if one forgot and did not eat the afikomen as legislated in the Shulchan Aruch—where it states that if one did not eat matzat mitzvah which has been supervised from the moment of reaping there is no need to return and eat, as one can rely upon the matzah one has eaten during the festive meal—, and as our “regular” matzah is called “matzah,” since the worker (haozer) knows that he is producing matzah which is to be likened to those of mitzvah, for in his view all of them are for mitzvah; however, it would not be so if they were produced by a machine, as one would certainly not thereby be exempt from the mitzvah of matzah and a sin would thereby come from this. This is the first reason.

Secondly, it is stated in the second chapter of Pesachim (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 36b), “And they all agree that dough may not be kneaded with lukewarm water.” And the Talmud raises an objection there, as it is written, “Why is it different from meal-offerings, as it is taught in the Mishnah, ‘All meal-offerings are kneaded with lukewarm water and the official in charge guards them so that they will not become leaven’ “? And they rebut, “If this was said of very careful men (priests), shall it also be said of men who are not so careful”? Behold, it is proven from this that it would be permissible [to knead the dough] in lukewarm water as it is possible that it would not leaven. Rather, it is only because it requires supervision that it is forbidden [to knead the dough] in lukewarm water. This implies that “regular” matzah does not require such careful supervision since those who work the dough do so with their hands; and the entire time that the workers do so the matzah dough will not ferment by itself. Moreover, there is no reason to suspect that the worker will overheat the matzah dough later without actual effort, as why should he do this? However, when it required both strict attention and supervision, we are not free to depend upon it. And if this is so, certainly one must insist upon strict attention and supervision with matzah baked by a machine. For first, who knows, if a machine breaks, [that the dough] will not leaven? We find nothing concerning this [in the legal rulings] of the rabbis. Instead, only the work of a man with his hands [is discussed], as this has more validity. And who is able to control nature? For even if one insures that it will not leaven [during the kneading], since the machine first kneads [the dough] and then, by necessity, forms circular matzot through a round mold [presumably the matzah could leaven during the midst of this procedure as there would be a lag between operations]. Aside from this, many crumbs and pieces of dough remain stuck in the machine. Thus, it is certainly forbidden to include these extra bits in a later batch by mixing them in with the rest of the dough, as those bits which remain even a short time after the preparation leaven immediately. Since this is so, it is necessary to burn the crumbs from the machine in order to be certain that they will not be mixed in with the dough as well as to insure that these extra bits will not sometime later be mixed in with other dough. And behold, all this requires extra supervision. Certainly, matzah baked by a machine is no better than kneading in lukewarm water, for even though this might be considered possible with [proper] supervision, it is forbidden. In addition, we know that frequently whole or broken wheat [which is more likely to leaven and is, therefore, forbidden], will be found in the matzot. For time testifies that God has granted me the merit of serving as a rabbi in various cities for fifty years, and not one year has passed in which questions such as these have not arisen. Thus, these issues arise when the worker, utilizing his hand, feels something and asks a question. However, if a machine is used, who will feel if there is a [piece] of wheat or a portion of it in the matzah? How can we rely upon someone checking upon this later? Rather, we fear it will be overlooked. And as we are not among the “meticulous men” mentioned in the Talmudic passage (Pesachim 36b) cited above, one does not rely upon us for a matter that requires strict supervision.

And there is a third reason, as cited in the second chapter of Pesachim 37a, concerning the statement that one must not make Syrian cakes (pita bread) shaped in figures on Passover. “And Boethus ben Zonin objected, ‘It is possible to make it in a mold which would form it without delay.’ ” And they taught, “Then shall it be said, all Syrian cakes shaped in figures are forbidden, but the Syrian cakes of Boethus are permitted”!? Behold, in this matter, there is a dispute among the rabbinic authorities. However, the Law, as established in the Tur, Shulchan Aruch,. states “All Syrian cakes are forbidden, whether those of bakers or of private persons.” As this is so, then this is the authentic law of the Talmud. And if, in this case where all the work is done by a Jew, and only the shape was in a mold, it isstill forbidden—as it is said, “All Syrian cakes shaped in figures are forbidden, but the Syrian cakes of Boethus are permitted”!?—then all the more so if all the work will be done in a mold. Thus, it is proper to say that all matzot which are not made by an adult (Jewish) man are forbidden, and God forbid that one should assert that those made by a machine are permissible for use.

Therefore, do not veer from the custom of your fathers. The Germans will do as their heart desires, as is their way. However, we will walk in the footsteps of our fathers and will depart from them neither to the right nor to the left. May their merit protect us and cause us to return quickly to the land of our fathers in our own day.

Your friend, troubled in soul and weak in strength, (begs your) leave. The Young One, Solomon Kluger

Response to David Ellenson a Living Tradition: Ongoing Jewish Exegesis

Elliot N. Dorff

Univeristy of Judaism, Los Angeles

A.    The Status of the Bible in Jewish Legal Development

Christian readers are probably somewhat perplexed after reading Dr. Ellenson’s article by the proliferation of sources which he cites. What happened to the Bible in all of this? And how is any of this the word of God?

The problem at its core is a familiar one in the history of both Christianity and Judaism. Paul wanted to replace observance of the Law with adherence to the Spirit, but even he had to spell out the demands of the Spirit in rather legalistic terms when it became clear that the Galatians had no idea of what he meant by living by the Spirit.2 The later Roman Catholic Church carried this further by developing a body of canon law every bit as complex as Jewish law. The Protestant Reformation was, in part, a reaction to this and an attempt to get back to living by the Spirit, and Protestant sects to this day talk about living by Scripture. At the same time, however, they have developed their own interpretations of what living by the Bible means, and that often entails specific requirements and prohibitions. In some cases Protestants have established rules governing virtually all of life, including the clothes one wears, the books one reads, the food one eats, and the people with whom one socializes—to say nothing of more distinctly “religious” things like the service one gives to the community and the activities from which one refrains on the Sabbath. Puritans, Mormons, Amish, and Seventh Day Adventists come readily to mind, but the same is also true for most other Protestant sects in one degree or another.

My point is not to call into question the seriousness of the Christian claim to live by the Word instead of the Law. It is rather to indicate that anyone who wants to live by the Word—Christian, Jew, or Muslim—must first interpret and apply it for sometimes the Biblical text is ambiguous, and sometimes it does not speak about a given situation at all. Even when its meaning is clear, its application to present circumstances may not be. To take a Christian example, should Paul’s pronouncements about the status of women be understood as the inviolable Word of God, or are they merely a reflection of proper conduct as understood in his society with no Biblical authority for ours? Living by the Bible is clearly not as simple as it first seems; interpretation is required.

But as soon as one admits human interpretation, the divine authority of the results is at risk. For even if the interpreter links the interpretation directly to a Biblical text, who is to say that an alternative explanation is not preferable? Canons of interpretation have been developed, but they rarely preclude an interpretation or enable even an outside observer to judge between alternatives because they generally do not give sufficient guidance in the all-important task of weighing the options. Matters get even worse when reasonably plausible interpretations of two Biblical passages produce diametrically opposite results—not, unfortunately, an uncommon occurrence. Whenever there is even the slightest disagreement about the meaning of a verse, human beings inevitably must decide what it mens, and then one must wonder whether it is the word of God that one is hearing or the word of a human being.

The Jewish tradition faced these issues head-on. It claimed that revelation in the form of direct comunication with God had ceased after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. Even before that time, the revelation to Moses (i.e., the Five Books of Moses known as the “Torah”) was superior to all other revelations because the other Prophets “looked through nine lenses whereas Moses looked only through one; they looked through a cloudy lens while Moses looked through one that was clear.” Consequently, after the First Temple period God’s word was to be communicated through interpretation of the original, authoritative revelation contained in the Torah.

Rabbi Abdimi from Haifa said: Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, the prophetic gift was taken away from the prophets and given to the Sages.—Is then a Sage not a Prophet?—What he meant was this:although it has been taken from the prophets, it has not been taken from the Sages. Amemar said: A Sage is even superior to a prophet, as it says, “And a prophet has a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12). Who is (usually) compared with whom? Is not the smaller compared with the greater?

This, of course, opens the door to a variety of different readings, and, indeed a characteristic of Judaism is the lively debate it fostered in the proper interpretation of its sources. The price that one pays for that is consistency and coherence: a multitude of interpretations inevitably means that some disagree with each other, at least in emphasis, and that ultimately challenges the integrity of the tradition and its ability to speak in one voice. But the Rabbis were willing to tolerate problems in those areas because they believed that the various, ongoing interpretations were all the authoritative words of God.

Lest a man say, “Since some scholars declare a thing impure and others declare it pure, some pronounce a thing forbidden and others permitted, some disqualify an object while others uphold its fitness, how can I study Torah under such cirumstances”? Scripture says, “They are given from one shepherd” (Eccles. 12:11): One God has given them, one leader (Moses) has uttered them at the command of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He, as it says, “And God spoke all these words” (Ex. 20:1) You on your part must then make your ear like a grain receiver and acquire a heart that can understand the words of the scholars who declare a thing impure as well as those who declare it pure, the words of those who declare a thing forbidden as well as those who pronounce it permitted, and the words of those who disqualify an object as well as those who uphold its fitness … Although one scholar offers his view and another offers his, the words of both are all derived from what Moses, the shepherd, received from the One Lord of the Universe.

It is for this reason that so many texts of interpretation are developed in Judaism and that the Bible is rarely quoted directly. As the Rabbis put it,

“For your beloved ones are better than wine” (Song of Songs 1:2). This means that the words of the beloved ones (the Sages) are better than the wine of Torah. Why? Because one cannot give a proper decision from the words of the Torah since the Torah is ambiguous and consists entirely of headings … From the words of the Sages, however, one can derive the proper law because they explain the Torah.

In this Jewish law is similar to American law. Legal briefs rarely cite the Constitution; they rely instead on the most recent precedents relevant to the case. That, of couse, does not mean that the Constitution becomes irrelevant to American law. It continues to function as the foundation of the law, giving it its fundamental principles and mode of operation. Similarly, in Jewish law the Bible continues to be studied and understood as the basic norm that provides its essential standards, methodology, and authority.

In other words, what Dr. Ellenson says about the Talmud is true of the Torah too. The Biblical “statutory” text is theoretically more authoritative than the later, “precedential” discussions and decisions, but in reality the later sources define the meaning of the Bible for the Jewish tradition. That might well be different from the meaning of the Bible as understood in Christian, Muslim, or secular circles, and that is why Judaism is very much the religion of the Bible as interpreted by the Rabbis, just as Christianity is the religion of the Bible as interpreted by the Church Fathers and their successors. And just as it would be misleading to assert that the Talmud is cast aside when the responsum cites the Tur for its authority, so it would be misleading to claim that the Bible is ignored when its later interpretations are used and not the Bible itself. None of the three Western religions relies on the Bible alone, but none of them is totally independent of it either. In each the Bible functions as the foundation of the principles, methodology, and authority of the later tradition. And, of course, each claims that its understanding and expansion of the Bible carries the authority of God.

B.    How a Text Means

Dr. Ellenson artfully points out the interlocking textual, social, psychological, and moral factors which go into formulating a responsum. The way in which legal precedents are read depends upon the situation of the reader as well as the precedents themselves.

There are several points here which I would like to underscore. First, the contextual factors which influence the decisor do not form a base of authority independent of the texts; if anything, the reverse is true. The Bible, Talmud, codes, and responsa constitute a body of sacred literature whose imperatives can be ignored as little as God can be. Moreover, from a positivistic, legal point of view, those texts are both definitional and legally operational: any rabbi who intends to issue a decision in Jewish law must link his decision to that corpus of literature, for it both defines the decision as a part of the ongoing tradition of Jewish interpretation and gives it authority within the Jewish community. The parallels to American law are obvious here: no matter how much a court wants to deviate from the substance of previous decisions, it must somehow link its decision to the precedents, however tenuously. In most cases the linkage will be strong and logically cogent; that what gives any legal system continuity and coherence. Consequently, as Dr. Ellenson says, the law can attain a “semi-autonomous” state in which decisions are made without reference to anything but legal precedents. On the other hand, contextual factors can never replace the mooring of a decision in the legal sources.

If relativists are blind to the necessity of connecting a decision to the previous literature, absolutists and literalists are equally blind to the interaction of the law with the society for which it is intended. Dr. Ellenson points out the operation of contextual factors in the formulation of this responsum, and I would stress that the same is true for the Talmud and, indeed, for the Bible itself. The import of applying historical methods to the study of the Bible is precisely that one recognizes that cultural factors influenced both its mode of expression and its content. That is why traditionalists object so strongly to such analysis: it becomes hard to discern in the Bible where the human hand stops and the divine hand begins. Then one questions the authority of the whole document. That is a hard problem, but modernists struggle with it because they know that, like it or not, they must confront the truth that the Bible was written for a given historical society with its needs and customs in mind. As a result, the Bible and Talmud, as well as the responsa, must be understood against the background in which they were created.

But then the genetic fallacy must be avoided: the original meaning of a text is not necessarily its most important meaning. Ongoing traditions of interpretation impart new, and often more interesting, meanings to the text as people in later generations see new things in it and apply it to new contexts. That is why the Bible is not the end of the matter but is rather the source of living traditions.

All of the above considerations are true not only of legal texts like responsa; they apply equally to all genres of literature. On the one hand, the original text and all subsequent texts that interpret it occupy an ontological realm independent of ours and have an integrity all their own. On the other, their original and later meanings can only be discerned if one is aware of the contexts in which they were written and read. For those serious about reading the Bible, both points must be embraced and balanced.

C.    Law and Morality Within Judaism

Christians are used to thinking of Jewish law in the way in which the New Testament describes it. For Paul the law is spiritually and morally dangerous, and the path to salvation is therefore not through law but rather through being born again into faith. The Pharisees are portrayed as nasty, legalistic people who lack compassion and moral concern.

Jews have never seen it that way. They rather have resonated with the words of the Psalmist:

The law of the Lord is perfect, renewing life;

the decrees of the Lord are enduring,

making the simple wise.

The precepts of the Lord are just,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord shines clear,

making the eyes light up.

I have hurried and not delayed

to keep your commandments …

I arise at midnight to praise You

for Your just rules.

I am a companion to all who fear You,

to those who keep Your precepts.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, fills the earth;

teach me Your laws.

In sharp contrast to Christianity, for Judaism the law is the most explicit expression of morality and the primary educational tool to inculcate moral knowledge, intention, and action. Jewish sources recognize a realm of morality beyond the law, and they demand that Jews follow moral rules; but they also assert that the law is itself the most trustworthy and adequate articulation of what it means to be moral.

Because Jewish law so thoroughly assumes that the law is moral there is one section of Dr. Ellenson’s paper that I would question. He points out that in Kluger’s responsum, “The ethical imperative, the realization of the ‘upright and the moral,’ plays a determinative role.” In contrast, “Ethical postures, in Nathanson’s view, simply have no bearing in the case.” Is it that, or is it that Nathanson simply thinks that the Jewish moral and legal concern for the impoverished bakers can be met in other ways? I doubt that Rabbi Nathanson was any less moral than Rabbi Kluger; it simply was Nathanson’s judgment that care of the poor, which Judaism unreservedly demands, could be accomplished without prohibiting machine-baked matzot. The issue is not whether ethics is relevant to a legal decision in Jewish law; it always is. The issue is rather whether the moral concern which the two rabbis share should be met in this way or some other.

Aside from the question of the existence and authority of a realm of morals separate from the law, Jewish philosophers debate another question: to what extent does morality play a role in the very formulation of the law? Some Orthodox and Reform theorists deny that it plays any role at all. From that they draw opposite conclusions. The Orthodox, taking a literalist approach, say that only those moral concerns which are already encased in law can be the basis of any future decisions; morality on its own has no independent authority. The Reform use this denial to claim that the law should have no authority at all; only morality should be our guide. Conservative ideologues maintain that moral concerns have always influenced the rabbis charged with shaping the law, and they should continue to do so.

However that issue is resolved, the pervasive concern for morality in the sources of Jewish law insures that it will continue to be the fount of moral wisdom and instruction that the Psalmist appreciated.

Response to David Ellenson Law, Ethics and Ritual in Jewish Decision Making

Daniel Landes

Yeshiva University of Los Angeles

The relation of law (Halakha) to ethics and ritual in Judaism has long bedeviled precise formulation. To this potent mix has been added, recently, the influence of the social-historical context upon sacred and legal text exegesis. These four factors are interwoven within Rabbi Kluger’s responsum. In David Ellenson’s lucid exposition the ritual is the baking of the matza. Halakha governs the requirements of that procedure, ethics is the concern for the poor potentially disenfranchised by the machine process of baking, and the social-historical context is the perceived disintegrating impact of Western modernity upon Jewish religious life.

Dr. Ellenson carefully unravels the strands of the responsum and concludes that while the Halakha possesses an “integrity of its own” how it is to be interpreted bespeaks, to a high degree, a motivation properly found in the social-historical context of the period and within the personality and psychology of the decisor. It is there where a “deeper, more complex understanding of the Jewish legal process (to) [may] emerge.” Following Eugene Borowitz he recognizes the existence of “moral considerations” in Halakha but sees it, and this responsum is one example, to be “utimately divre musar, words of ethical sensitivity, which, while important, possess, in the end, a secondary status.”

Underlying this argument is an assumption that the traditional process of Jewish decision making is based upon a formalistic Halakha. Texts function as a set of rules of law in a highly structured and basically static system which is paradoxically (or perhaps due to this formal objectivity) actually prey to very subjective interpretation. On this basis, Dr. Ellenson separates Halakha, and for that matter ritual, from ethics and religious feeling. I believe, however, that beneath the placid looking waters of the surface codified Halakha are powerful and turbulent currents. They exert a great pull upon the “elitist” swimmers in “the sea of the Talmud,” and must be plumbed by later analysts in order to discover motivation in decision-making and the complex and dialectical relation between law and ethics and between those two and ritual.

To understand the motivation underlying the second and the apparently more technical half of the responsum one must ascertain the relation between Hametz (leaven) and Matzah (unleavened bread) and the nature of ritual supervision that the latter demands. Hametz and Matzah are reciprocally defined categories.

The Mekhilta explicates:

Seven Days Thou Shalt Eat Unleavened Bread (Ex. XII: 15). I might understand this to mean unleavened bread of any kind; therefore it says: ‘Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it’ (Deut. 16:3). The Law, then, applies only to such kinds as could be leavened as well as unleavened. And which are those? They are the five species, namely: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. Rice, millet, poppyseed, sesame and legumes, which cannot be leavened as well as unleavened, but which decay, are thus excluded.

And there shall No Leavened Bread Be Seen With Thee, etc. (Deut. 16:4). This compares leaven to leavened bread and leavened bread to leaven … just as the one, leavened bread is forbidden only when it is made of one of the five species, so also is the other, leaven, forbidden only when it comes from one of the five species.

The preparation of Matzot (plural) therefore is a risky and potentially dangerous ritual undertaking. One must use grain which could become hametz in the very process of kneading or baking. Worse still, the grain itself if subjected to water prior to the baking process might undergo undetected leavening. It is not surprising that the storage of grain and the preparation of Matzah is customarily prohibited on Passover itself. Preventing the Matzot from becoming hametz falls under [the precept of eating] unleavened bread.” The two types of guarding guarding of the preparation of the Matzot so that no leavening occurs. The Talmud, however, understands this to be a guarding “for the sake of [the precept of eating] unleavened bread.”103 The two types of guarding function together as Rashi (1040–1105) explains “intend all guarding from Hametz [of Matzah] as being prepared to serve as commanded Matzah [eaten on Passover night of first day].” For the nonobligatory Matzah of “filing one’s belly” only the “guarding from Hametz” is needed. While distinct the conscious guarding of intent [to serve as the commanded matzah] “always requires the practical “guarding from Hametz” as its content of action.

Both guardings exhibit in their Halakhic development a wide degree of elasticity. Guarding from Hametz is at its basis an assessment of fact—that this bread in preparation is and remains unleavened. On this basis Rav Huna, in an accepted statement in the Talmud, claims that even the kneaded dough of a Gentile can be considered perfectly fit to be consumed on Passover-presumably if one can ascertain (makir) by a sight test that it is hametz free. Later authorities, however, required an actual guarding by a commanded individual fully sensitive to and bound by the prohibition of Hametz. This activist approach contributes a profound conservation to the Matzah preparation—everything possible must be done to prevent absolutely any leavening from occurring. At the same time activism exists in tension with the conservative desire. Thus the Talmudic Sage Raba, as interpreted by Ramban (1194–1270), considered the controversial practice of washing the grain prior to its grinding, hereby producing a finer flour to be obligatory. He actually desired the danger of leavening to be increased in order to necessitate a more sophisticated and active guarding. But the conservative tendency prevailed. Not only was Raba’s bold requirement denied as obligatory in the Talmud but in succeeding generations the Geonim (589–1038) in an act of religious reticence went so far as to forbid the practice and to eliminate with it a possible avenue of leavening.

What is the source of this almost obsessive expansion of guarding from hametz which as its base was only an assessment of fact? Paul Ricoeur offers a suggestive interpretation of the rabbinic propensity for increase observance: The scrupulous conscience is an increasingly articulated and subtle conscience that forgets nothing and adds incessantly to its obligations; it is a manifold and sedimented conscience that finds salvation only in a movement; it accumulates behind itself an enormous past that makes tradition; it is alive only at its point, at the forward end of tradition, where it “interprets,” in new circumstances, equivocations or contradictions. This is not a conscience that begins or begins anew, but a conscience that continues and adds to. If its work of minute and often minuscule innovation stops, the conscience is caught in the trip of its own tradition, which becomes its yoke.

Ricoeur’s bluntly worded, judgmental but useful analysis needs to be balanced by the parallel expansion of increased religious devotion through further development of guarding of intent. The Talmud itself minimally mandates a guarding of this type during the kneading process. This guarding14 was extended by many back to the time of grinding and even by others to the harvest itself. It was extended forward to include the baking itself.16

The double guarding was domesticated into a generally moderate and reduced formula in the codified Halakha that Rabbi Kluger appeals to. Nevertheless the more radical potentialities still exist latent within the exposited texts. As Judaism is a learning centered tradition this presents an ever renewed encounter with these options of observance. And these options lose their theoretical nature when they become actualized possibilities in the supererogatory gesture.18 In fact, some practices in this manifestation have greatly exceeded the possibilities we outlined above. With this expansion of the double guarding in mind, we can well understand the prime motivation for Rabbi Kluger’s resistance to modern technology’s twin challenges contained within its mass means of production—the effective removal of quality control from the individual product and the separation of the craftsman from his handiwork.20 The former represents a clear danger to the requirement to guard each Matzah from Hametz; the latter is a serious and perhaps fatal impediment to the guarding of intent. The machine process of baking is more than a difficulty for a formalized set of rules; it represents a movement away from that inner dynamic of Halakha which is the oft quoted statement of Rav Hai Gaon (939–1038) which admits that while “an Israelite is permitted to eat matzah baked by a Gentile under the proper supervision of an Israelite, nevertheless men of [exemplary] deeds, the pious and those who are stringent upon themselves, will themselves knead and bake [the matzah] …”

The first part of the responsum assessing the delitorious effect that replacing the hand baking with machines would have upon the poor is what Rabbi Kluger considers his “first and foremost” reason for prohibiting that innovation. Furthermore, the last three reasons (previously discussed) are introduced by the phrase ‘aside from this [concern for this poor which mandates retention of handbaking]’ clearly labelling them as secondary to the ethical considerations not only in chronology but in their contribution to decision making. Dr. Ellenson, nevertheless, considers that the “moral considerations advanced by Kluger are ultimately divre musar, words of ethical sensitivity, which, while important, possess, in the end, a secondary status.” He sees this as evidenced by its being bolstered by a legal text from the Babylonian Talmud (i.e., Megillah 4:6) that functions as a “statutory case. Within Halakha, Ellenson observes, ethical values never exist as “independent standards” with a “claim to authority.”

Upon examination this case cited as an analogy by Rabbi Kluger proves the opposite. The obligation to read the Megillah on the day Purim falls including the Sabbath “is an obligation which stems from the Oral Tradition (divre Kabbalah).” Its postponement from the Sabbath is not put forth on the basis of any legal text or any argumentation but according to Rabbi Kluger they solely “cancelled it on account of the poor who anxiously await the reading of the Megillah” (and who cannot for logistical reasons attend its reading on the Sabbath).

Rabbi Kluger employs that tenet in our own case to maintain the radical thrust of this ethical imperative concern for the poor would by analogy, Rabbi Kluger implies, override the use of machines even if the latter had a compelling obligatory basis (as reading the Megillah in its proper time does). But the fact is that there is not the “least adhesion to a mitzvah” (my translation) in machine baking, lacking any religious claim which the ethical consideration for the poor needs even to contend with. This is a relevant point for if one attempts to demonstrate—as Rabbi Nathanson did, reading the situation differently than Rabbi Kluger but generally agreeing with the same legal principles—the machine process does not impair the guarding for intent and that it significantly improves the guarding from hametz, this would render its use preferable for ritual reasons. Rabbi Kluger makes it clear, that nonetheless, ethical concern for the poor would even override any such ritual argument.

Having established this power of the ethical concern for the poor within Jewish decision making, Rabbi Kluger now moves to solidify it through institutionalization. Here, ritual, law and ethics converge. Rabbi Kluger ingeniously identifies handbaking with the practice of Meot itim (literally, “money for wheat,” that is the special charity collection for Passover necessities) which is customary among (the people) Israel and the source of which is derived from the words of the early medieval rabbinic authorities (rishonim).” Motivated by sensitivity to the plight of the needy, the Jerusalem Talmud regulated how the communities, if they elected to do so, should levy a special tax from its citizens and to whom it should be distributed. By the time of the Or Zarua (1180–1250) this tax developed into an established “custom for communities” to exercise. As an authorized yearly tax this custom had the formality of law with ethical considerations emerging to soften some of its formal requirements.26 Eventually this customary community tax evolved into a personal obligation mandating all individuals to contribute their fair share seemingly irrespective of what the community does or mandates.

This triumph for personalizing and deepening ethical obligation evidently did not fare well in Brody where “a number of middle-class householders and, all the more so, common people, do not contribute Me’otḤiṭim” (my emendation of Ellenson’s translation). While Rabbi Kluger would have obviously preferred that people discharge their ethical obligations fully and directly, he was able to consider the handbaking process which benefitted the poor as a contemporary—if second rate—manifestation of Me’otḤiṭim.

The baking of matzah is in itself not a commandment—it has no blessing before it and no sanctity accrues to the resulting product. It is merely the way in which one prepares an item to be used for ritual purpose. But given the precise requirements for baking, the guarding from the ever present danger of Hametz and the need for a continual manifestation of intent, it is akin to a ritual act. Indeed the baking process did gain that aura within pietistic circles. Infused with this new designation of Me’otḤiṭim, handbaking is Halakhically fully institutionalized as a ritual. Rabbi Kluger, at the end of the responsum, can now refer to it as ‘a custom of your fathers.’ And as an established custom it has been rendered impregnable from attack by any competitor.

Does Rabbi Kluger function in this case as a ritual judge, moral authority or religious leader? The answer would seem to be all three. This is due to the nature of the decision-making that needed to be brought into play here. Rabbi Kluger was responding not merely to a problem of limited Halakhic analysis concerning the presence or absence of leaven in machine made matzah but more fully to a question of public policy—whether to employ a new procedure which would have immense legal-ritual, religious and ethical repercussions. He functioned as a judge but also as a Rabbi whose role in the words of the pre-eminent scholar-rabbi of the subsequent generation is “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” As a question of public policy, the decision making process utilizes halakhic reasoning in dialectical relation to ethical sensitivity, along with ritual considerations and religious feeling.

If Rabbi Kluger found little difficulty in synthesizing these apparently disparate elements it is due in some measure to the inner connections of ethics, religiosity and law found within Passover and matzah ritual and symbolism. The Bible characterizes matzah as lehem ‘Oni—’bread of affliction’ (Deut. 16:3). The Talmud renders it (among other readings) as lehem ‘ani—poor bread. This is taken in two ways: either as bread that is poor containing only flour and water as opposed to the enriched Matzah ashirah; or the bread of those who are poor. In both sense poverty and matzah are intertwined.

The seder ritual exemplifies historic identification with the poor and powerless. “We were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt” is a recurrent theme of its liturgy. There is also a motif of emulation of the poor in the preparation of matzah as found in the conclusion of Rav Hai Gaon’s observations on the minimal and the ideal standards:

An Israelite is permitted to eat matzah baked by a Gentile under the proper supervision of an Israelite, nevertheles men of [exemplary] deeds, the pious and those who are stringent upon themselves, will themselves knead and bake the matzah and this is what is meant: “Poor Bread—just as it [The Talmud] says: “just as a poor man fires [the oven] and his wife bakes, so here too, he [the observant] heats, and she bakes.”

The Halakha moves beyond identification and emulation of the poor—which left alone could mean excessive idealization and quieticism—to active concern for their plight. This concern lies within the celebration of all the holidays. As Maimonides puts it:

When one eats and drinks [on the Holidays, in fulfillment of the commandment of celebrating its joy] he is obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan and widow along with the rest of the wretched poor. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks, along with his children and wife, and does not feed and give drink to the poor and those of embittered spirits—theirs is not a [celebration of the] joy of the commandment but rather a [celebration of the joy] of one’s belly.

The ethos of Passover, the feast of liberation, is this preoccupation with the poor. The declaration “all who are hungry let them enter and eat” begins the seder rite and in a real way permeates the entire holiday. Additionally, the memory of the Egyptian experience is the source of the obligation to protect the powerless in society—the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the poor. Rabbi Kluger’s refusal to rely upon the Westernized German community for sanction to initiate a new technological procedure was not a kneejerk reaction against modernity. It was ultimately a decision that the preparation of poor bread should benefit the poor and not be enriched by their very lifeblood.

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Published: November 17, 2014, 11:15 | Comments Off on Jewish Moral Discourse and Biblical Hermeneutics, by Peter J.Haas, via Uwe Rosenkranz
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Library of Christian Leadership

Deepening Your Ministry Through

Prayer and Personal Growth

30 Strategies to Transform Your Ministry

Marshall Shelley, General Editor



Nashville, Tennessee

A Division of The Ballantine Publishing Group, Random House, Inc.

Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc./Leadership

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Moorings, a division of the Ballantine Publishing Group, Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

The material in this book was previously published in Leadership, by Christianity Today, Inc.

Scripture quotations marked (niv) are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

The “NIV” and “New International Version” trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society. Use of either trademark requires the permission of International Bible Society.

Scripture quotations marked (nasb) are from THE NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, © Copyright The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (nkjv) are from the THE NEW KING JAMES VERSION. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, 1990, 1994, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.

Scripture quotations marked (nrsv) are from the NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION of the Bible. Copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (tev) are from the TODAY’S ENGLISH VERSION—Copyright © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976, 1992.

Scripture quotations marked (kjv) are from The Holy Bible, KING JAMES VERSION.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Deepening your ministry through prayer and personal growth: 30 ways to transform your ministry/Marshall Shelley, general editor.—1st ed.

p. cm.—(Library of Christian leadership)

ISBN: 0–345–39599–9

1. Clergy—Religious life. I. Shelley, Marshall. II. Series.

BV4011.6.D44 1996




First Edition: May 1996



Ed Rowell


Section 1: Deepening Your Ministry Through Prayer

Part 1

Making Time

1. A Driven Pastor’s Pursuit of God

Wayne Gordon

2. The Pastor’s Sabbath

Eugene H. Peterson

3. How to Spend the Day in Prayer

Lorne C. Sanny

Part 2

Moving In

4. Fatal Omission

Ben Patterson

5. A Heart Close to God

Maxie Dunnam

6. Thankful in a Thankless World

Terry Muck

Part 3

Exercising Discipline

7. The Disuse, Misuse, Abuse, and Proper Use of Prayer

Fred Smith Sr.

8. Runaway Mind

Roger Barrier Jr.

9. Disciplines for the Undisciplined

Charles Killian

Part 4

Enlisting Others

10. The Most Challenging Prayer Partner

Louis McBurney

11. Contagious Prayer

Em Griffin

12. Keeping Connected to the Power

Jim Cymbala

Section 2: Deepening Your Ministry Through Personal Growth

Part 5

Evaluating Risk

13. Perils of the Professionally Holy

Mark Galli

14. Pulling Weeds from Your Field of Dreams

Dave Hansen

15. The Approval Addiction

John Ortberg

16. Big Shoes to Fill

Gary V. Simpson

Part 6

Taking Measures

17. Reading Your Gauges

Bill Hybels

18. Finding a Spiritual Director

Eugene H. Peterson

19. Getting Good Advice

Fred Smith Sr.

Part 7

Managing Time

20. Slaying the Sly Saboteur

John Maxwell

21. Feeling Good About the Non-Urgent

Steven L. McKinley

22. Renewing Your Strength Without a Sabbatical

Greg Asimakoupoulos

Part 8

Building Character

23. Going to Your Left

Kent Hughes

24. Developing a Christian Mean Streak

Steve Brown

25. Preaching the Terrors

Barbara Brown Taylor

26. Expanding the Mind

Don McCullough

Part 9

Stepping Up

27. What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

Gordon MacDonald

28. Being Holy, Being Human

Ben Patterson

29. Renewing Your Sense of Purpose

Ed Dobson

30. Role Call

William H. Willimon


If we don’t put in the hours when no one’s looking, we can’t expect decades of fruitful ministry.

—Ed Rowell

Nolan Ryan is the patron saint of aging baby boomers.

His twenty-seven-year reign as a major league pitcher inspired all who want a long, productive career. When he retired at age forty-six, his fastball still made the rookies step back in disbelief.

Everyone who talked with Ryan during his final season wanted to know the secret of his longevity.

“My secret is mostly just a lot of hard work,” he told reporters. His conditioning routines had changed little over nearly three decades: aerobic conditioning on the stationary bike increased his endurance; weight training kept tendons and muscles strong and flexible; ice therapy after each start quelled inflammation and promoted healing. For Ryan, every moment of glory on the mound was the distillation of hours of sweat in the training room. When it came to conditioning, there was never an offseason.

Nor is there an off-season for pastors and church leaders.

Our ability to minister effectively is acquired through regularly scheduled hours of toil in the gym of the soul. Those still throwing heat after decades of ministry have adhered to two major conditioning strategies: staying close to God and keeping a keen edge on ministry skills. Ministry tends to pull us away from our spiritual center, and the constant pressures of ministry tend to dull the practice of it.

Deepening Your Ministry Through Prayer and Personal Growth helps a leader both stay close to God and sharpen ministry skills. Both require conditioning—or, as Nolan Ryan put it, a lot of hard work. If we don’t put in the hours when no one’s looking, we can’t expect decades of fruitful ministry.

The contributors to this volume share the time-tested theology of the spiritual disciplines. If you sit close enough to any one of them, you will hear the rumbling of a hungry spirit, one never satisfied with enough of God. It’s not that they never struggle, but that they do, in fact, struggle. We believe their wisdom will strengthen you for the seasons of ministry yet to come.

—Ed Rowell

Associate Editor, Leadership


Greg Asimakoupoulos is pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Naperville (Illinois). Before that he pastored Crossroads Covenant Church in Concord, California. He is coauthor of The Time Crunch.

Roger Barrier Jr. is senior pastor of Cases Adobe Baptist Church in Tucson, Arizona. He has written for a number of periodicals and was a contributing author of The Power and the Glory.

Steve Brown is president of Key Life Network, Inc., and Bible teacher on the national radio program “Key Life.” He is also professor of communications and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He formerly pastored Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Florida. He has authored books such as When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough and How to Talk so People Will Listen, and coauthored A Voice in the Wilderness.

Jim Cymbala is pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in Brooklyn, New York. The church is home to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, which is directed by his wife, Carol. The Brooklyn Tabernacle has planted several churches in other parts of New York City and features a Tuesday night prayer service attended by more than 1,000 people each week.

Ed Dobson is pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Before that he served as vice president for student life at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. With Jerry Falwell and others, he has written The Fundamentalist Phenomenon, and with Ed Hinson, The Seduction of Power. He is also the author of Starting a Seeker Sensitive Service.

Maxie Dunnam is president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Before that he pastored Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He has been an editor with The Upper Room and has served churches in California, Georgia, and Mississippi. Among his many books, mostly on spiritual growth, are two volumes in The Communicator’s Commentary series. He is also coauthor of Mastering Personal Growth.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christian History magazine and the Preaching Today tape series. Before that he pastored congregations in California and Mexico. He is coauthor of Preaching That Connects.

Wayne Gordon is founder and copastor of Lawndale Community Church on the west side in Chicago, Illinois. He is also founder and president of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, an economic and housing arm of Lawndale Community Church. He has written Real Hope in Chicago.

Em Griffin has been professor of communications at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, since 1971. He has written A First Look at Communication Theory, Making Friends and Making Them Count, and The Mind Changers: The Art of Christian Persuasion.

Dave Hansen is pastor of Belgrade Community Church in Belgrade, Montana. Before that he pastored yoked congregations in western Montana. He has written The Art of Pastoring.

Kent Hughes has been pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, since 1979. He is author of Disciplines of a Godly Man, Disciplines of Grace, and Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, and coauthor of Mastering the Pastoral Role.

Bill Hybels is founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. He is the author of, among others, Descending into Greatness and Rediscovering Church, and coauthor of Mastering Contemporary Preaching.

Charles Killian has been professor of preaching and drama at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, since 1970. He has written several dramas including “Francis Asbury on the Kentucky Frontier” and “Wesley on Wesley—I Believe.”

Gordon MacDonald is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. Prior to that he served Trinity Baptist Church in New York City and was president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. His many books include Ordering Your Private Word, The Life God Blesses, and Mastering Personal Growth.

John Maxwell is founder and president of Injoy, an international leadership development institute. Before that he served as pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, California, for fourteen years. He has written, among others, Developing the Leader Within You and Developing the Leaders Around You.

Louis McBurney is founder and medical director of Marble Retreat, a counseling center for clergy in Marble, Colorado. He serves on the advisory boards of Leadership, Marriage Partnership magazine, and Called Together Ministries. He has written Every Pastor Needs a Pastor, Counseling Christian Workers, and Families Under Stress.

Don McCullough is president of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Before that he pastored Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in Solana Beach, California. He has written Finding Happiness in the Most Unlikely Places and coauthored Mastering Personal Growth.

Steven L. McKinley is pastor of House of Prayer Lutheran Church in Richfield, Minnesota. He is the author of I’m Glad You Asked and coauthor of The Time Crunch.

Terry Muck is professor of comparative religion at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. Before that he was editor of Leadership and executive editor of Christianity Today. He has written, among others, Alien Gods on American Turf, The Mysterious Beyond, and Theology and Ministry in a Global Age.

John Ortberg is teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Before that he pastored Horizons Community Church in Diamond Bar, California. He has written articles for both scholarly and popular journals. He is coauthor of Dangers, Toils, & Snares.

Ben Patterson is dean of the chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Before that he pastored Presbyterian congregations in New Jersey and California. He is contributing editor to Christianity Today and Leadership, author of Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, and coauthor of Mastering the Pastoral Role and Who’s in Charge?

Eugene H. Peterson is the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. His many books include The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English and The Psalms: The Message.

Lorne C. Sanny has been on staff with The Navigators for more than fifty years. During thirty of his years there, he served as international president, general director, and chairman of the U.S. Board of Directors. Though semiretired, he continues to serve The Navigators as a consultant.

Gary V. Simpson is senior pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York. Before that he served Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, New Jersey.

Fred Smith Sr. is a business executive living in Dallas, Texas. He is a recipient of the Lawrence Appley Award of the American Management Association. He is a contributing editor to Leadership and serves on the board of directors of Christianity Today, Inc. He has written You and Your Network and Learning to Lead.

Barbara Brown Taylor is rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. Her books include Gospel Medicine, The Preaching Life, and The Seeds of Heaven.

William H. Willimon is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He has served United Methodist pastorates in Georgia and South Carolina. His numerous books include Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized, and A Voice in the Wilderness.

Section 1:

Deepening Your Ministry Through Prayer

I don’t want to dispense mimeographed hand-outs that describe God’s business; I want to witness out of my own experience. I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

—Eugene Peterson

Part 1

Making Time


A Driven Pastor’s Pursuit of God

Feeling close to God is important. It makes our relationship with God fulfilling and our faith contagious.

—Wayne Gordon

Our church had met in a storefront for five years when we decided we needed more room. For several years, we had eyed the property across the street, a building that needed major remodeling. We offered $25,000 and finally settled on a price of $35,000.

Any mortgage would seriously tax our church budget, and the cost of remodeling still lay ahead. We needed to paint inside and out, erect walls for office space and classrooms, fix the roof, and lay new carpet. To save money I served as general contractor and carpenter. We were anxious to move in, so the remodeling was a high priority for the church and my daily schedule. After a quick morning devotion—a fast reading of a psalm and a “Bless me today, Lord!”—I rushed to the job site, where I hammered nails, called subcontractors, took estimates, and directed volunteers, often until eight o’clock at night.

Only after that, when I was done with the building project for the day, did I start my pastoral work: writing sermons, visiting in homes and at the hospital, and phoning leaders to plan services.

After a few weeks of this schedule, I paid the price. I wasn’t just tired; my body screamed for rest. I felt emotionally distant from my wife and children, and they were obviously unhappy about not getting more of my time. Worst of all, I felt as though God were a star system away.

But I also felt I had to finish the project soon. To reach the neighborhood as we had envisioned, with a medical clinic, gym, and larger facilities for Sunday services, we had to sacrifice. I kept telling myself, I have to pay the price. So I kept pushing.

Around that time, I bought Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald. (I didn’t have the time to read, but I knew I needed help!) The book stopped me in my tracks. As I read one page in his book, I was sure MacDonald had been looking over my shoulder for the past several months:

A driven person is usually caught in the uncontrolled pursuit of expansion. Driven people like to be a part of something that is getting bigger and more successful.… They rarely have any time to appreciate the achievements to date.… Driven people are usually abnormally busy. They are usually too busy for the pursuit of ordinary relationships in marriage, family, or friendship … not to speak of one with God.

The scales fell from my eyes. I had pursued the building project like someone who was driven, not called. But that was only the symptom of a deeper problem.

I realized that I knew a lot about God—I had a master’s degree in Bible—but I didn’t know God intimately. Like stars and planets in the night sky that I only occasionally lifted my head to wonder at, God was distant. But I wasn’t content with that, so in the fall of 1985 I launched out on a journey toward a deeper walk with God.

Quest for intimacy

Elder Christian statesmen like John Stott and John Perkins inspire me because they show that intimacy with God can keep growing throughout our lives, that greater intimacy is indeed a journey. Since that fall, I have gradually discovered a deepening sense of closeness with the Lord. Perhaps some of what I have learned can help you.

Follow your feelings. Pastors often must tell Christians not to follow their emotions (they are the caboose, and all that). But intimacy is a feeling. Though we can’t base our assurance of salvation on emotions, feeling close to God is important. It makes our relationship with God fulfilling and our faith contagious.

What helps me feel closer to God? For years the mainstay of my daily devotions was Bible study. Although vital to true knowledge of God, Bible study doesn’t normally foster intimacy for me. The key for me is waiting quietly on God until I sense his presence.

Get born again. Bill Leslie, pastor of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago for several decades, felt burned out at one point in his ministry, so he went to a Catholic retreat center. He talked to a nun about how he felt. She listened patiently, and then she said, “What you need is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Ouch! Bill was a card-carrying evangelical. That experience jarred him and convinced him he needed to deepen his relationship with the Savior.

Ministry is more than constructing buildings and leading people to Christ. It is knowing God and being the person he wants me to be. Out of that flows ministry. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus didn’t begin, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rather, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37 niv). I wasn’t exempt from this command just because I was doing ministry. I needed to make first things first.

Follow the cycle of intimacy. Knowing God is a process that can no more be exhausted than the exploration of the universe. There is always another blazing aspect to discover in God. John 14:21 describes the stages in the cycle: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (niv).

Stage one: if we love God, we obey his commands. Stage two: if we obey his commands, he reveals himself to us. Stage three: when he reveals himself to us, we know him better and love him more. Then the cycle repeats itself, with our love and knowledge of God growing ever deeper and stronger.

Unless accompanied by obedience, prayer and Bible reading cannot bring intimacy. At one point in their history, the Israelites rigorously practiced spiritual disciplines. They were fasting, worshiping in the Temple, seeking the Lord. But God told them, in Isaiah 58, that he had another kind of fasting in mind. They needed to follow the spiritual discipline of obedience: to stop oppressing their workers, to feed the hungry and set prisoners free. God promised to come near those who obeyed him.

Of course, no one obeys perfectly, but deliberate, ongoing disobedience breaks the cycle of intimacy as surely as eating the apple sent Adam and Eve packing from the Garden of Eden.

Journal morning thoughts. I am not a natural writer. Journaling is the last spiritual discipline I gravitate toward. But a number of writers I had been reading recommended the practice, so I decided to try it. I’ve never stopped. Ten years later I’m still journaling nearly every day. While the streetlights are still shining bright on Ogden Avenue, I wake up, walk the cracked and vaulted sidewalks to church, crank up the footrest on my easy chair, and sloppily write in a spiral notebook things (unlike John Wesley) I never want anyone to read.

The thoughts I have when I wake, shower, and shave are the first thing I record in my journal. Early morning thoughts are significant. Worries, anger, new ideas, plans—they cluster at dawn, before the press of daily events, and in my journal I process them. My journal is one place where I can be completely honest with God.

Where I journal, pray, and read Scripture is important. On Saturdays I have tried to wake up early and journal at home, but even though I’m up before my family, it doesn’t work. I don’t get the same settled feeling in my spirit. I’m restless. My best times with God come when I’m at my right place: my office.

Don’t unnecessarily upset family rhythms. For one six-month period, I fasted one day a week. My family eats together every night, so on fasting days I sat at the table and talked. That was awkward. Then I tried cloistering myself in the bedroom to read and pray during meals. “For a while I’m not going to eat with everyone on Mondays,” I explained to the kids (trying not to sound super-spiritual). “While you’re eating, I’m going to be alone with God because I want to know God better.” My spiritual quarantine upset everyone. My wife was frustrated at having to handle the meal and children alone, and the kids wanted to see me.

After six months the fasting hadn’t helped me feel significantly closer to God, but it had increased family stress. That spiritual discipline finally went out the window.

I still believe in the benefits of fasting (which I have since concluded benefits me most when I fast in three- to five-day stretches). Fasting over important decisions helps me stay focused. I have never come down from Mount Sinai with tablets in my hands, but I usually get a deep, settled peace.

I also fast about specific needs. When I taught high school, I met with another coach in the athletic equipment room during lunch hour; instead of eating, we prayed for the troubled marriage of a friend. After nine months, that marriage had recovered.

My most refreshing spiritual discipline is keeping an agreement made with my wife years ago. We have promised each other to take a week away together every year with no children, no agenda; we want to simply enjoy each other. We pray and read the Bible together, rest, and play tennis. It is the highlight of our marriage and my spiritual life.

Get quiet and make time. To have intimacy with God in my quiet time, I can’t do without two things: (1) quiet and (2) time.

As a student at Wheaton College, I was a fellowship fanatic. I loved being with people. One year I went on a wilderness retreat. Retreat organizers told us to bring only three things besides our clothes and toiletries: a Bible, a notebook, and a pen. For three days they required participants to spend their time alone with God. I had never spent half a day away from people and alone with God! I quickly learned how dependent my relationship with God was on others. I also learned that spending quantity time with God enhances intimacy, and that I could enjoy the quiet and the luxury of time with God alone.

There is no substitute for time. I can’t rush intimacy. When I have been away from my wife for several days, five minutes of conversation at the dinner table does not restore our sense of closeness. We need one or two hours together. What we discuss isn’t as important as spending the time with each other.

I have a friend who talks about how much he enjoys “wasting time” with God, that is, spending unstructured, unhurried periods with the Lord. Although I often use a prayer list, I also like following no agenda, just as one of my favorite activities with family and friends is just hanging out together. Fellowship with God has to be led by the Spirit and informed by the concerns and feelings on my heart at the moment.

In some of the most intimate moments my wife and I have shared, we haven’t said anything; we sit or lie together, holding hands or arm in arm, enjoying each other’s presence. So it is with the Lord. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10 niv) is a verse that shapes my time with God as much as any other. Such stillness energizes me. Along with journaling, my greatest sense of closeness to God comes when sitting in silence before him until I feel his presence.

Differences for pastors

Bringing up the subject of “spiritual disciplines” usually brings up guilt in people. We all feel we could do more in this area. In addition, pastors are often troubled because they feel that the pressures of pastoral life encourage them to cheat God.

I believe, however, that we need to accept that our practice of spiritual disciplines will be different than the practice of our parishioners. In particular, there are three areas that trouble us, but here’s how I deal with them.

First, I’ve come to accept that pastoral life is a ride on the Screaming Eagle. One day I’m ministering to a young man in prison for murdering a storekeeper; the next day I perform a wedding; the next day, a funeral. We can talk about balance and order, but pastoral life isn’t balanced or ordered!

I’ve decided I’m not going to feel guilty when I miss a day of devotions. If I don’t do them before 7 a.m., they don’t happen, or at least they don’t have the same benefit. When I can’t fit in my quiet time, I feel cheated. I miss my time with the Lord. But if I am legalistic about spiritual disciplines, they no longer are spiritual disciplines for me, just mere duty.

Second, I merge daily devotions with sermon preparation. I know some consider that a problem, but it works well for me. I often read and meditate daily on my preaching text for the coming Sunday. My best preaching is a reflection of how I’m growing and what God shows me in my times with him.

Third, I allow myself to think about church during my quiet time. For some, this becomes a temptation to refuse to get personal with God, to keep playing pastor even in his presence. But I am a pastor, and so much of what I do is pastoral. Often as I wait in God’s presence, ideas come to my mind like a meteor shower, and many are from the Lord. I write them down in full when the inspirations come and sometimes act on them immediately.

Recently, as I was praying, the name of one woman in our church came to me. I wasn’t sure why, but I sensed I was supposed to call her. When I did phone, she told me she had been struggling for several days. She desperately needed someone to talk to. She was shocked that I called just when I did.

Closing the open door

It’s no surprise that my spiritual lows come when I’m busy, preoccupied, focusing my attention on everything but God, and my spiritual highs come on “Sabbath” days of rest and relaxation. God instituted the Sabbath not only because the human body needs physical rest, but more so because human activity frustrates intimacy with the Creator.

That means that at times I’ve had to take forceful steps to make this happen.

As a people-person and activist, I’ve prided myself on having an open-door policy. So for years, people regularly interrupted my devotions, but it didn’t bother me much. When I started my journey of knowing God, I knew something had to change; I had to find uninterrupted time with God. So I started coming to church earlier for my morning devotions.

Then people who wanted to see me learned a good time to catch me was early in the morning. Still, I kept my door open and kept coming in earlier and earlier to be alone.

One early morning as I was in my office praying, a drug addict named Norman, to whom I had been ministering for months, came to my door and said, “I don’t have any money for the train. Can you give me a ride to work?”

“I’ll give you some money,” I said.

“I’ll be late for work. I need you to give me a ride.”

He pressed his plea, and so finally I drove him. When I returned to the office, I was never able to resume my devotions.

I woke early the next morning looking forward to my devotions. I settled into my chair at the office and began reading the Bible. Minutes later Norman showed up again at my door. Same request. Again I refused. He begged me, and once again I grudgingly interrupted my time with the Lord to drive him to work. Once again I couldn’t resume my devotions later in the day.

The next morning, Norman reappeared at my open door. “I’m not driving you to work,” I said firmly. “I have a commitment.”

“Coach, you have to! I’ll be fired if I don’t get there on time.”

“That’s too bad. I have a commitment.”

Norman pleaded and pleaded with me. Finally I said, “Okay, okay, I’ll drive you to work, but if you come to my door tomorrow, I’m not driving you. You’ll just have to lose your job.”

The next morning I was not surprised when Norman stuck his head in my office (with that kind of persistence, how could he not succeed in life?!). But this time I held firm. Angrily he rushed out to take the train, and he didn’t lose his job.

That experience was a turning point for me. Though contrary to my nature, I started saying no to people to guard my time with the Lord. I now close and lock my outer office door during devotions. When someone knocks, I don’t answer, nor do I answer my phone. I have told the congregation, “If you come knocking on my door early in the morning, I’m not going to answer. I need to be alone with God. I don’t want to know about God, I want to know God.”

Just a couple of years ago, I found myself deeply discouraged about the work at the church. Frankly, I debated quitting ministry at Lawndale. So, feeling like the despondent Elijah when Jezebel had designs on his prophetic skin, I went off by myself to a retreat. I fasted, prayed, and waited for three days to hear from God.

There were no tremblors or bolts of lightning, but when the three days were up, the tide had come back in. I sensed God saying, Be still. Know that I am God. You don’t have to solve all of Lawndale’s problems or save everyone you meet. Love me, and we’ll work together. Just keep going.

Returning home, I talked it over with my wife, and we decided to stay. My eight-year journey in pursuit of intimacy with God is what enabled me to work through that dark night of ministry. Often finding time for God is difficult in the midst of church life, but closeness with God is the basis for lasting ministry.


The Pastor’s Sabbath

If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week, we take ourselves far too seriously. The moral sweat pouring off our brows blinds our eyes to the action of God in and around us.

—Eugene H. Peterson

Question: “Do you take a day off?”

Answer: “Unthinkable! In a world where a cobalt bomb might detonate any moment, how can the very people entrusted with the Word of Life to this doomsday population take a day off?”

This interchange took place in a seminary classroom while I was a student. The answer came from a prominent pastor whom, I thought, I had every reason to admire and therefore emulate. Thus, when I became a pastor, I practiced what had been impressed upon me: long hours, seven-day weeks, year after year. Most of my friends and mentors did the same. The only alternative I could imagine was sloth, by far the deadliest of the ministerial sins.

After a few years, pressure from my wife and children got me to take an occasional break. I began to realize I worked far better and got more done in six days if I had a change of pace on the seventh. Remarkable! The arguments and evidence mounted: I was persuaded to take a regular day off.

Then I noticed something (why it took so long I’ll never know): my practice was not at all the same as the biblical practice of Sabbath-keeping. I had more or less assumed I was being biblical, but actually I stood in stark and utter contrast. My day off was basically utilitarian, a secularized Sabbath, making it possible to get more done on the other six days. It was also a commonsense contribution to family harmony and emotional health.

At that point I set out to keep a genuine Sabbath.

No other behavioral change has brought so many unintended but welcome benefits to my life of faith and my work as a pastor.

Daily and weekly rest

Sabbath means “quit.” “Stop.” “Take a break.” The word itself has nothing devout or holy in it. It is a word about time, denoting our nonuse thereof, what we usually call “wasting time.”

The biblical context is the Genesis week of creation. Sabbath is the seventh and final day, in which “[God] rested [shabath] … from all His work which He had done” (Gen. 2:2 nasb). As we reenter that sequence of days when God spoke energy and matter into existence, we repeatedly come upon the refrain “And there was evening and there was morning, one day.… And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.… And there was evening and there was morning …” (Gen. 1:5–31 nasb)—on and on, six times.

This is the Hebrew way of understanding day, but it is not ours. Our day begins with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness and closes, not with evening but several hours past that, when we turn off the electric lights. In our conventional references to day, we do not include the night except for the two or three hours we steal from either end to give us more time to work. Because our definition of day is so different, we have to make an imaginative effort to understand the Hebrew phrase evening and morning, one day. More than idiomatic speech is involved here; there is a sense of rhythm.

Day is the basic unit of God’s creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But it is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening, “I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep” and drift off into semiconsciousness for the next six or eight or ten hours, a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive and have no cash value.

Then I wake up, rested, jump out of bed, grab a cup of coffee, and rush out the door to get things started. The first thing I discover (a great blow to the ego) is that everything was started hours ago. All the important things got under way while I was fast asleep. When I dash into the workday, I walk into an operation that is half over already. I enter into work in which the basic plan is already established, the assignments given, the operations in motion.

Sometimes, still in a stupor, I blunder into the middle of something that is nearly done and go to work thinking I am starting it. But when I do, I interfere with what has already been accomplished. My sincere intentions and cheerful whistle while I work make it no less a blunder and an aggravation. The sensible thing is to ask, “Where do I fit? Where do you need an extra hand? What still needs to be done?”

The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep he develops his covenant. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous and primary. We wake into a world we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn.

Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated.

Creation and covenant are sheer grace and there to greet us every morning. George MacDonald once wrote that sleep is God’s contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake.

We read and reread the opening pages of Genesis, along with certain sequences of Psalms, and recover these deep, elemental rhythms, internalizing the reality in which the strong, initial pulse is God’s creating/saving Word, God’s providential/sustaining presence, God’s grace.

As this biblical rhythm works in me, I also discover something else: when I quit my day’s work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God’s genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service, and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for a while. I get into the rhythm of salvation. While we sleep, great and marvelous things, far beyond our capacities to invent or engineer, are in process—the moon marking the seasons, the lion roaring for its prey, the earthworms aerating the earth, the stars turning in their courses, the proteins repairing our muscles, our dreaming brains restoring a deeper sanity beneath the gossip and scheming of our waking hours. Our work settles into the context of God’s work. Human effort is honored and respected not as a thing in itself but by its integration into the rhythms of grace and blessing.

We experience this grace with our bodies before we apprehend it with our minds. We are attending to a matter of physical/spiritual technology—not ideas, not doctrines, not virtues. We are getting our bodies into a genesis rhythm.

Sabbath extrapolates this basic, daily rhythm into the larger context of the month. The turning of the earth on its axis gives us the basic two-beat rhythm, evening/morning. The moon in its orbit introduces another rhythm, the twenty-eight-day month, marked by four phases of seven days each. It is this larger rhythm, the rhythm of the seventh day, that we are commanded to observe.

Sabbath-keeping presumes the daily rhythm, evening/morning—we can hardly avoid stopping our work each night, as fatigue and sleep overtake us. But the weekly rhythm demands deliberate action. Otherwise, we can go on working on the seventh day, especially if things are gaining momentum. Sabbath-keeping often feels like an interruption, an interference with our routines. It challenges assumptions we gradually build up that our daily work is indispensable in making the world go.

But then we find the Sabbath is not an interruption but a stronger rhythmic measure that confirms and extends the basic beat. Every seventh day a deeper note is struck—an enormous gong whose deep sounds reverberate under and over and around the daily percussions evening/morning, evening/morning, evening/morning: creation honored and contemplated, redemption remembered and shared.

Reasons for remembering

In the two passages where the Sabbath commandment appears, the commands are identical but the supporting reasons differ. Exodus says we are to keep a Sabbath because God kept it (Exod. 20:8–11). God did his work in six days and then rested. If God sets apart one day to rest, we can too. There are some things that can only be accomplished, even by God, in a state of rest. The rest/work rhythm is built into the very structure of God’s interpenetration of reality. The precedent to quit doing and simply be is divine. Sabbath-keeping is commanded so that we internalize the being that matures out of doing.

The reason given in Deuteronomy for remembering the Sabbath is that our ancestors in Egypt went four hundred years without a vacation (Deut. 5:15). Never a day off. The consequence: they were no longer considered persons but slaves. Work units. Not persons created in the image of God but equipment for making bricks and building pyramids.

Lest any of us do that to our neighbor or husband or wife or child or employee, we are commanded to keep a Sabbath. The moment we begin to see others in terms of what they can do rather than who they are, humanity is defaced and community violated. It is no use claiming “I don’t need to rest this week and therefore will not keep a Sabbath”—our lives are so interconnected that we inevitably involve others in our work whether we intend it or not. Sabbath-keeping is elemental kindness. Sabbath-keeping is commanded to preserve the image of God in our neighbors so that we see them as they are, not as we need them or want them to be.

Every profession has sins to which it is especially liable. I haven’t looked closely into the sins that endanger physicians and lawyers, woodworkers and potters, but I’ve had my eye on the snare from which pastors need deliverance: it is the sin of reversing the rhythms. Instead of grace/work we make it work/grace. Instead of working in a world in which God calls everything into being with his word and redeems his people with an outstretched arm, we rearrange it as a world in which we preach the mighty work of God and in afterthought ask him to bless our speaking; a world in which we stretch out our mighty arms to help the oppressed and open our hands to assist the needy and desperately petition God to take care of those we miss.

That, of course, is why so few pastors keep a Sabbath: we have reversed the rhythms. How can we quit work for a day when we must redeem the time? How can we pause when we have a fire in our mouth? How can we do nothing for a whole day when we have been commanded to be urgent in season and out of season, and there is never a season in which the calls for help do not exceed our capacity to meet them?

Perhaps that is why the Sabbath is commanded not suggested, for nothing less than a command has the power to intervene in the vicious, accelerating, self-perpetuating cycle of faithless and graceless busyness, the only part of which we are conscious being our good intentions.

Of all the commandments, not one is treated with such disregard by pastors as this one. We are capable of preaching good sermons on it to our parishioners, and we take great care to provide them a Sabbath of good worship and holy leisure. But we exempt ourselves. Curious. Not many of us preach vigorously on the seventh commandment and then pursue lives of active adultery. But we conscientiously catechize our people on the fifth commandment and without a blush flaunt our workaholic Sabbath-breaking as evidence of an extraordinary piety.

Pure preaching but Pelagian practice

Sabbath: uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been doing and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week, we take ourselves far too seriously. The moral sweat pouring off our brows blinds our eyes to the action of God in and around us.

Sabbath-keeping: quieting the internal noise so we hear the still small voice of our Lord. Removing the distractions of pride so we discern the presence of Christ “in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces” (G. M. Hopkins).

Sabbath-keeping: separating ourselves from the people who are clinging to us, from the routines to which we cling for our identity, and offering them all up to God in praise.

None of us has trouble with this theologically. We are compellingly articulate on the subject in our pulpits. It is not our theology that is deficient but our technology—Sabbath-keeping is not a matter of belief but of using a tool (time), not an exercise for the mind but the body. Sabbath-keeping is not devout thoughts or heart praise but simply removing our bodies from circulation one day a week.

We are, most of us, Augustinians in our pulpits. We preach the sovereignty of our Lord, the primacy of grace, the glory of God: “By grace are ye saved … not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9 kjv). But the minute we leave our pulpits we are Pelagians. In our committee meetings and planning sessions, in our obsessive attempts to meet the expectations of people, in our anxiety to please, in our hurry to cover all the bases, we practice a theology that puts moral effort as the primary element in pleasing God.

The dogma produces the behavior characteristic of the North American pastor: if things aren’t good enough, they will improve if we work a little harder and get others to work harder. Add a committee here, recruit some more volunteers there, squeeze a couple of more hours into the workday.

Pelagius was an unlikely heretic; Augustine an unlikely saint. By all accounts Pelagius was urbane, courteous, convincing. Everyone seems to have liked him immensely. Augustine squandered away his youth in immorality, had some kind of Freudian thing with his mother, and made a lot of enemies. But our theological and pastoral masters agree that Augustine started from God’s grace and therefore had it right, and Pelagius started from human effort and therefore got it wrong. If we were as Augustinian out of the pulpit as we are in it, we would have no difficulty keeping Sabbath.

How did it happen that Pelagius became our master?

Our closet Pelagianism will not get us excommunicated or burned at the stake, but it cripples our pastoral work. And it is catastrophic to the church’s wholeness and health.

Making good nonuse of time

The technology of Sabbath-keeping is not complex. We simply select a day of the week (Paul seemed to think any day would do as well as any other—Rom. 14:5–6) and quit our work.

Having selected the day, we also need to protect it, for our workday instincts and habits will not serve us well. It is not a day when we do anything useful. It is not a day that proves its worth, justifies itself. Entering into empty time, nonfunctional time, is difficult, for we have been taught that time is money.

Our secularized age is so fragmented that no consensus in the details of Sabbath-keeping is possible. We cannot prescribe a practice for each other. But lest the command dissolve into a fog of good intentions, I will risk autobiography. The risk is that someone will try to imitate the details of my practice, or (more likely) will say, “That’s sure dumb; I don’t see the point of that” and dismiss the whole business on the basis of my inept practice. I excuse my example with Thoreau’s precedent: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

Monday is my Sabbath. Nothing is scheduled for Mondays. If there are emergencies, I respond, but there are surprisingly few. My wife joins me in observing the day. We make a lunch, put it in a daypack, take our binoculars, and drive anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour to a trailhead along a river or into the mountains. Before we begin our hike, my wife reads a psalm and prays. After that prayer there is no more talking—we enter into a silence that continues for the next two or three hours, until we stop for lunch.

We walk leisurely, emptying ourselves, opening ourselves to what is there: fern shapes, flower fragrance, birdsong, granite out-croppings, oaks and sycamores, rain, snow, sleet, wind.

We have clothes for all weather and so never cancel our Sabbath-keeping for reasons of weather any more than our Sunday churchgoing—and for the same reason: we need our Sabbath just as much as our parishioners need theirs. When the sun or our stomachs tell us it is lunchtime, we break the silence with a prayer of blessing for the sandwiches and fruit, the river and the forest. We are free to talk now, sharing bird sightings, thoughts, observations, ideas—however much or little we are inclined.

We return home in the middle or late afternoon, putter, do odd jobs, read. After supper I usually write family letters. That’s it. No Sinai thunder. No Damascus Road illuminations. No Patmos visions. A day set apart for solitude and silence. Not-doing.

Being-there. The sanctification of time.

We don’t have any rules for preserving the sanctity of the day, only the commitment that it be set apart for being, not using. Not a day to get anything done but a day to watch and be responsive to what God has done.

But we do have help. Sabbath-keeping cannot be carried out as a private enterprise. We need our congregation’s help. They need our help to keep their Sabbath; we need their help to keep ours. From time to time I say something like this to my elders and deacons: “The great reality we are involved in is God. Most of the people around us don’t know that and couldn’t care less. One of the ways God has provided for us to stay aware of and responsive to him in a world that doesn’t care is by Sabbath-keeping. At regular intervals we all need to quit our work and contemplate his, quit talking to each other and listen to him.

“God knows we need this and has given us a means in Sabbath—a day for praying and playing, simply enjoying what is, what he is. One of my tasks is to lead you in the celebration of Sabbath each Sunday. But that is not a Sabbath for me. I wake up on Sunday morning with the adrenaline flowing. It is a workday for me. Monday is my Sabbath, and I need your help to observe it. I need your prayers; I need your cooperation in not involving me in administration or consultation; I need your admonitions if you see me carelessly letting other things interfere with it. Pastors need pastors too. One of the ways you can be my pastor is to help me keep a weekly Sabbath that God commanded.”

And they do it. They help. I don’t think there are many congregations who would not help us do it if they knew we were committed to it and needed their help to carry it out.

My wife has been keeping, off and on, a Sabbath journal for many of the years we have been doing this. The journal is labeled, “Emmaus Walks.” You wouldn’t be greatly impressed, I think, if you read the sporadic entries. Bird lists, wildflowers in bloom, snatches of conversation, brief notes on the weather. But the spareness records a fullness, a presence. For Sabbath-keeping is not primarily something we do, but what we don’t do.

We got the phrase “Emmaus Walks” from Douglas V. Steere, who told us the story of an old Lutheran retreat master he once knew, very Prussian, whose speech was thick with German gutturals. He specialized in men’s retreats. As the men would come into the lodge, he would make them open their suitcases, from which he would confiscate all the whiskey. Then he would pair them up and send them off on what he called ee-mouse walks.

Steere told us that for a long time he wondered what ee-mouse walks were, and then realized one day that the old Prussian drillmaster was sending his men out on Emmaus walks: two disciples walking and talking together and Jesus, unrecognized, with them. But afterward they knew: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32 kjv).

It is this kind of unobtrusive alteration in perception that happens quietly but cumulatively in the practice of Sabbath-keeping.


How to Spend the Day in Prayer

The test of such a day is not how exhilarated we feel when the day is over but how it works into life tomorrow.

—Lorne C. Sanny

“I never thought a day could make such a difference,” a friend said to me. “My relationship to everyone seems improved. Why don’t I do it more often?”

Comments like these come from those who set aside a personal day of prayer.

With so many activities—important ones—clamoring for our time, real prayer is considered more a luxury than a necessity. How much more so spending a day in prayer!

The Bible gives us three time-guides for personal prayer. There is the command to “pray without ceasing”—the spirit of prayer—keeping so in tune with God that we can lift our hearts in request or praise anytime through the day.

There is also the practice of a quiet time or morning watch—seen in the life of David (Ps. 5:3); of Daniel (Dan. 6:10); and of the Lord Jesus (Mark 1:35). For the growing, healthy Christian, this daily time specified for meditation in the Word of God and prayer is indispensable.

Then there are examples in the Scripture of extended time given to prayer alone. Jesus spent whole nights praying. Nehemiah prayed “certain days” upon hearing of the plight of Jerusalem. Three times Moses spent forty days and forty nights alone with God.

How to go about it

Having set aside a day or portion of a day for prayer, pack a lunch and start out. Find a place where you can be alone, away from distractions. This may be a wooded area near your home or your backyard. An outdoor spot is excellent if you can find it; but don’t get sidetracked into nature studies and fritter away your time. If you find yourself watching the squirrels or the ants, direct your observation by reading Psalm 104 and meditating on the power of God in creation.

If an outdoor spot isn’t available, try a quiet corner of a library.

Take along a Bible, a notebook and pencil, a hymnbook, and perhaps a devotional book. I like to carry with me the booklet Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds and read a chapter or two to challenge me with the strategic value of prayer.

Even if you have all day, you will want to use it profitably. So lose no time in starting, and start purposefully.

Divide the day into three parts: waiting on the Lord, praying for others, and praying for yourself.

Waiting on the Lord

As you wait on the Lord, don’t hurry. You will miss the point if you look for some mystical or ecstatic experience. Just seek the Lord, waiting on him. Isaiah 40:31 promises that those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. Psalm 27:14 is one of dozens of verses that mention waiting on him, as does Psalm 62:5, “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him” (niv).

Wait on him first to realize his presence. Read through a passage like Psalm 139, grasping the truth of his presence with you as you read each verse. Ponder the impossibility of being anywhere in the universe where he is not. Often we are like Jacob when he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16 kjv).

Wait on him also for cleansing. The last two verses of Psalm 139 lead you into this. Ask God to search your heart as these verses suggest. When we search our own hearts, it can lead to imaginations, morbid introspection, or anything the enemy may want to throw before us.

But when the Holy Spirit searches, he will bring to your attention what should be confessed and cleansed. Psalms 32 and 51, David’s songs of confession, will help you. Stand upon the firm ground of 1 John 1:9 and claim God’s faithfulness to forgive whatever specific thing you confess.

If you realize you’ve sinned against a brother or sister, make a note of it so you won’t forget to set it right. Otherwise, the rest of the day will be hindered. God won’t speak to you if there is something between you and someone else that you haven’t planned to take care of at the earliest possible moment. As you wait on God, ask for the power of concentration. Bring yourself back from daydreaming.

Next, wait on God to worship him. Psalms 103, 111, and 145 are wonderful portions to follow as you praise the Lord for the greatness of his power. Most of the Psalms are prayers. Or turn to Revelation, chapters four and five, and use them in your praise. There is no better way to pray scripturally than to pray Scripture.

If you brought a hymnbook, you can sing to the Lord. Some wonderful hymns have been written that put into words what we could scarcely express ourselves. Maybe you don’t sing well—then be sure you’re out of earshot of someone else and “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” God will appreciate it.

This will lead you naturally into thanksgiving. Reflect upon the wonderful things God has done for you and thank the Lord for these: for your own salvation and spiritual blessings, for your family, friends, and opportunities. Go beyond what you thank the Lord for daily.

Prayer for others

Now is the time for the unhurried, more detailed prayer for others that you don’t ordinarily get to. Trace your way around the world, praying for people by countries. Here are three suggestions:

First, ask for specific things. Perhaps you remember or have jotted down various needs people have mentioned. Use requests from missionary prayer letters. Pray for spiritual strength, courage, physical stamina, mental alertness, and so on. Imagine yourself in the situations where these people are and pray accordingly.

Second, look up some of the prayers in Scripture. Pray what Paul prayed for other people in the first chapters of Philippians and Colossians, and in the first and third chapters of Ephesians. This will help you advance in your prayer from the stage of “Lord, bless so and so and help them to do such and such.”

Third, ask for others what you are praying for yourself. Desire for them what the Lord has shown you.

If you pray a certain verse or promise of Scripture for a person, you may want to put the reference by his or her name on your prayer list and use this verse as you pray for that person the next time. Then use it for thanksgiving as you see the Lord answer.

Prayer for yourself

The third part of your day is prayer for yourself. If you are facing an important decision, you may want to put this before prayer for others.

Again, let your prayer be ordered by Scripture and ask the Lord for understanding, according to Psalm 119:18. Meditate upon Scripture you have memorized or promises you have previously claimed from the Word. Reading a whole book of the Bible through, perhaps aloud, is a good idea. Consider how it might apply to your life.

“Lord, what do you think of my life?” is the attitude of this portion of your day of prayer. Consider your main objectives in the light of what you know to be God’s will for you. “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34 niv). Do you want to do God’s will more than anything else? Is it really your highest desire?

Then consider your activities—what you do—in the context of your objectives. God may speak to you about rearranging your schedule, cutting out certain activities that are good but not best, or some things that are entanglements or impediments to progress. Strip them off. You may be convicted about how you spend your evenings or Saturdays, when you could still get the recreation you need but make better use of your time.

As you pray, record your thoughts of your activities and use of time, and plan for better scheduling. Perhaps the need for better preparation for your Sunday school class or a personal visit with an individual will come to mind. Or the Lord may impress on you to do something special for someone. Make a note of it.

During this part of your day, bring up any problems or decisions you are facing and seek the mind of God on them. It helps to list the factors involved in these decisions or problems. Pray over these factors and look into the Scriptures for guidance. You may be led to a promise or direction from the passages with which you have already filled your mind during the day.

After prayer, you may reach some definite conclusions upon which you can base firm convictions. It should be your aim in a day of prayer to come away with some conclusions and specific direction—some stakes driven. However, do not be discouraged if this is not the case. It may not be God’s time for a conclusive answer to your problem. And you may discover that your real need was not to know the next step but to have a new revelation of God himself.

In looking for promises to claim, there’s no need to thumb through the Bible looking for new or startling ones. Just start with the promises you already know. Chew over some old familiar promises the Lord has given you before, ones you remember as you think back. Pray about applying these verses to your life.

I have found some of the greatest spiritual rewards from a new realization of old promises, ones I already knew. And the familiar promises may lead you to others. The Bible is full of them.

You may want to mark or underline in your Bible the promises the Lord gives during these protracted times alone, and put the date and a word or two in the margin beside them.

Variety is important during your day of prayer. Read a while, pray a while, then walk around. A friend of mine paces the floor of his room for his prayer time. Rather than get cramped in one position, take a walk and stretch.

As other things pop into your mind, simply incorporate those items into prayer. If it’s a business item you must not forget, jot it down. Have you noticed how many things come to mind while you are sitting in church? It will be natural for things to occur to you during your prayer day that you should have done, so put them down, pray about them, and plan how and when you can take care of them. Don’t just push them aside, or they will plague you the rest of the day.

At the end of the day, summarize in your notebook the things God has spoken to you about. This will be profitable to refer to later.

Two questions

The result of your day of prayer should answer two questions Paul asked the Lord on the Damascus road (Acts 22:6–10 niv). Paul’s first question was, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord replied, “I am Jesus.” You will be seeking to know him, to find out who he is. The second question Paul asked was, “What shall I do, Lord?” The Lord answered him specifically. This should be answered or reconfirmed for you during the part of the day when you unhurriedly seek his will for you.

Don’t think you must end the day with some new discovery or extraordinary experience. Wait on God and expose yourself to his Word. Looking for a new experience or insight you can share with someone when you get back will get you off the track.

True, you may gain new insight, but often this will divert your attention from the real business. The test of such a day is not how exhilarated we are when the day is over but how it works into life tomorrow. If we have fully exposed ourselves to the Word and come into contact with God, it will affect our daily life. And that is what we want.

Days of prayer don’t just happen. Besides the attempts of our enemy Satan to keep us from praying, the world around us has plenty to offer to fill our time. So we have to make time. Plan ahead—the first of every other month or once a quarter. Do it soon! You too will probably ask yourself, “Why not more often?”

Part 2

Moving In


Fatal Omission

Our prayer is our work! Only when that is true for us will our work be prayer.

—Ben Patterson

Great baseball catcher Yogi Berra played a game in which the score was tied with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The batter from the opposing team stepped into the batting box and made the sign of the cross on home plate with his bat. Berra was a Catholic, too, but he wiped off the plate with his glove and said to the pious batter, “Why don’t we let God just watch this game?”

That is good theology when applied to the outcome of a baseball game. It is terrible theology when applied to the way we live our lives and carry out the work of the church. Worse than that, it is fatal.

But too often that is precisely the outlook we bring to our vocation as Christian elders, deacons, and pastors. God is in attendance at the game, but only as our honored spectator. Our prayers are merely ceremonial functions: tips of the hat, verbal recognition over the loudspeaker between innings, or requests to throw out the game ball. God may even have the best seat in the stadium, but he rarely, if ever, gets on the playing field.

Am I overstating things a bit? Not if I am to believe half of what I hear from my colleagues about the weight and frequency assigned to the role of prayer in their work. Prayer is always getting nudged aside, neglected, or perfunctorily performed as more pressing concerns take center stage. Many of us feel we just have too much to do to make time to pray. That is the problem. At bottom, we don’t believe we are really doing anything when we pray—other than pray, that is.

It is this attitude I would like to address, for I believe it is one of the most subtle and pernicious forms of worldliness in the church today. Why don’t we believe we are getting anything done when we pray? Two reasons: the world’s view, and the world’s pace.

The world’s view

The world’s view is basically a philosophical issue. It is the view of secularism: the view that this material world is all there is; that we live in a closed system of cause and effect with nothing outside; that official reality is only what is accessible to our senses. The secular worldview is what Peter Berger called a “world without windows.” There can be no such thing as prayer in that kind of world.

Of course, any Christian can see that that worldview is at odds with faith. For the church, however, what is more significant than secularism as a formal philosophical system is secularism as a sociological phenomenon. For secularism as a sociological reality, says Os Guinness, is the notion that religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations are losing practical social significance.

For instance, it is fine to pray in your support group, for it can be a warm exercise in intimacy. But pray as a means of doing the business of the church? When we must get something done, we need to start talking, writing, telephoning, spending, budgeting, mobilizing, organizing, and mailing. Those kinds of things take time. So prayer gets preempted. It is a pleasant luxury that would be wonderful to spend more time on, if only we did not have so many necessities pressing in. After all, we must complete the budget and formulate policies and act on the proposals from the fellowship committee.

God’s view couldn’t be more in opposition to that fatuous notion. Our battle is not with those so-called necessities, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12 niv).

We therefore fight our battle with truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the Word of God. And we “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph. 6:18 niv).

That places our work in a totally different perspective, doesn’t it? That demands an entirely different agenda of what things must get done, does it not?

What if every church business meeting began with a reading of that passage from Paul? What if we pastors, elders, and deacons really believed we were in the midst of a raging spiritual battle in which the stakes, the territory being fought over, are none other than us and our people? What confidence would we place then in our organizational charts, lines of accountability and authority, budget reports, and plans for the Labor Day picnic? My hunch is we’d all be too frightened not to pray. We’d all become foxhole Christians. Can there be any other kind?

It isn’t that those business items are trivial; they are to be included in the responsibilities of Christian leaders. They are, however, trivial in comparison to our vocation to be men and women of prayer. To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge’s famous remark about the business of America being business, the business of the church is to pray.

The world’s pace

The world’s view leads to the world’s pace. There is a sign reputed to be on the Alaskan Highway that says, “Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next 200 miles.” The view that sees the material reality as all there is, or at least all there is that is worth bothering with, creates a pace that is frantic at times, monotonous at others.

I read an article that created a great deal of anxiety in me. It was entitled “If You Are 35, You Have 500 Days to Live.” Subtract the time you will spend sleeping, working, and tending to personal matters such as hygiene, odd chores, eating, and traveling. In the next thirty-six years you have 500 days of leisure. If this world is all there is, then none of us should waste our time praying. We should literally be grabbing for all the gusto we can get.

We see precisely that all around us. Yet, as leisure time increases, so do the problems of emptiness, boredom, and restlessness. We have, as a culture, a frantic determination to relax, unwind, and have fun. Where an earlier generation may have been compulsive about work, we are compulsive about what we do with our leisure time. Martha has become the patron saint of American recreational life.

Of course, this affects the church. Activists that we are, we all feel there is so much to do and so little time to do it. A sign of our times, religiously, is the fact that Hans Küng’s otherwise brilliant theological work On Being a Christian did not have a chapter in it on prayer. When asked about its absence, he apologized and admitted it was a serious oversight. But, he explained, at the time of writing he was so harassed by the Vatican and busy trying to meet his publisher’s deadline that he simply forgot. That is my point exactly. Prayer is always the first thing to go when we get caught up in the world’s pace. And only prayer can deliver us from that pace.

We would do well to take our clues from St. Benedict of Nursia. He founded his Benedictine order as a reaction to the worldliness of the sixth-century church. His slogan was Ora Labora, from the Latin ora, pray; and labora, work. He taught his followers that to pray was to work, and to work was to pray. Following that rule, the Benedictine order broke down the artificial dichotomy between work and prayer. From there they also bridged the gap between the manual arts and the liberal arts, the physical and the intellectual, and the empirical and the speculative. A great tradition developed in which learning, science, agriculture, architecture, and art flourished. Much of what is thought of as beautiful nature in Europe today, particularly in France, was created by the Benedictine monks who drained swamps and cleared forests.

We must learn that prayer is our chief work. Only then can our work become prayer: real service, real accomplishment, real satisfaction. This simple truth alone explains why so many workers in the church find themselves exhausted, stretched to the breaking point, and burned out.

The apostle Paul, when writing to the church at Colossae, wanted to encourage them by telling the things being done on their behalf. He mentioned one of his colleagues, Epaphras, whom he described as “always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured … he is working hard for you” (Col. 4:12–13 niv, italics mine). Epaphras’s hard work for the church was his earnest prayers on their behalf!

How often has our telling someone we’ll pray for them been a cop-out? Meaning we won’t do anything that really matters, anything concrete, or meaning we want to maintain a safe distance from them and their need.

Our prayer is our work! Only when that is true for us will our work be prayer: real worship, praise, adoration, and sacrifice. The classical postures of prayer, arms stretched out and hands open, or head bowed and hands folded, are gestures of openness and submission to God. They express perhaps the greatest paradox of prayer: that only when we give up on our human efforts can God’s work begin and, mysteriously, human effort can come to fulfillment. As Dr. Hallesby puts it in his book Prayer, “Wherever we touch his Almighty arm, some of his omnipotence streams in upon us, into our souls and into our bodies. And not only that, but, through us, it streams out to others.

Ora labora.


A Heart Close to God

At the heart of ministry is a heart close to God.

—Maxie Dunnam

After I finished seminary in the late 1950s, I organized a new church in Gulfport, Mississippi. From one perspective, it was a huge success. With rapid growth, a new building, and suburban prosperity, the church was the Cinderella of our conference.

But increasingly I was miserable. I felt like an organization man, not a man of God. In the midst of a thriving church setting, I felt far from God. For a while I thought seriously about leaving the ministry. In retrospect, I see I was running on my own power, relying on my own resources. But I didn’t know how to do otherwise. There was no question about my commitment to Christ or my call to preach. It was a matter of power, spiritual power: the inner resources for living with a strength not my own. My relationship with God was hardly more than a formality.

Few things are as hollow as a relationship intended for passion that instead is marked by mere duty. When the heat of a couple’s romance and honeymoon is cooled by concerns over mortgage payments, child raising, and household chores, the relationship becomes drudgery: husband and wife don’t kiss each other at the door; they make love as a matter of routine; they stare past their dinner plates with nothing to talk about.

So it is in ministry. A love relationship, which is what God intends us to have with him, is necessary for a vital ministry. At the heart of ministry is a heart close to God.

More than a feeling

While serving the church in Mississippi, my spiritual rebuilding began. A major step in my pilgrimage came several years later when I found myself with another dilemma—and an opportunity to get closer to God.

I was in California, pastoring another church. I was increasingly getting invitations from across the country to lead conferences and retreats on the subject of spirituality. Then I received two invitations, each to join a parachurch ministry, one as the leader of a retreat center and the other as a staff member of a mission organization. I found myself perplexed: Should I remain in pastoral ministry or move into the parachurch service? What would I do with the rest of my life? I took a retreat to pray through and find direction.

The result was as dramatic as my conversion experience: I felt the Lord telling me to stay put, to remain a pastor. With as much confidence as I’ve had about anything, I refused both invitations and continued pastoring the California church. In that period, I felt as close to God and as centered in his will as I’ve ever felt. It illustrates what it means to me to be close to God: at the core, it means having an internal sense of harmony with what God wants me to do.

Early in my spiritual journey (and to some degree now), I depended on the feeling of God’s nearness. Though feelings are wonderful and beneficial, I don’t want to be dependent on them. Instead of considering how I feel at the moment, I try to discern how centered I am in God’s leading. For example, when I pastored in Memphis we elected our first black mayor. Unfortunately, people voted along racial lines, Memphis being 52 percent black. To help unify our city, I felt the white community needed to show our support for our newly elected mayor. So I persuaded the pastors of some of the largest white churches in town to pay for and sign an open letter of support in the local newspaper.

We took some heat for doing that. A few members resigned from my congregation, and the mail and calls from outside my church were pretty tough. That dampened my emotions. Frankly, I didn’t feel particularly close to the Lord at the time. I knew, however, I was doing what was right. That certainty assured me that I was with God even though I did not feel close.

Even when I don’t know God’s will, if I’m at least seeking it earnestly, that is enough. A man and woman who struggle to “get on the same page” often feel closer after they’ve worked through their difficulties. Waiting on God does the same for me.

I identify with a friend who, after being asked to consider becoming a candidate for bishop in the Methodist church, said, “I’m in the middle of that decision right now, and I’m not getting any direction, but I’m feeling close to the Lord because I’m struggling. I’m dependent. I feel in resonance with the Spirit; while I don’t have an answer, I’m where God wants me to be because I’m focused on him.”

Distant warning

If feeling close to God is not a sure indicator of one’s closeness, neither is a feeling of distance to be equated with a poor relationship with God. So I must have some other signs that signal the strength of our relationship. Here, for me, are some signs the relationship needs help.

I have no heart for ministry. This is key for me. In fact, I’m more concerned about losing my appetite for ministry than I am about burnout; loss of heart can be so spiritually deceptive. A pastor who has lost appetite may perform well, do everything required with finesse and professional skill, and succeed at keeping the church going. But there’s no excitement. There’s no sitting on the edge of one’s seat to share something great God has done recently.

Furthermore, there’s no heart for doing the hard thing and no burning concern for missions or outreach, unless the church rolls start to suffer. The void in the pastor’s heart may not even be perceived and certainly not confessed.

My church members in Mississippi thought everything was tremendous—after all, we were the fastest growing church in the local Methodist conference. Because the church was doing well, they thought I was doing well. With all the “success” surrounding me, I was tempted sometimes to ignore my inner warning signals and assume that was as good as ministry was going to get.

Although this is perhaps the largest and brightest warning light we should notice, others less ominous are worthy of our attention.

I feel depressed about my spirituality for a significant period of time. In late 1991, I was confronted with a major decision about the course of my ministry. Although I spent extended time daily in prayer and Scripture reading, for two months I was unable to sense any direction from God. I finally got to the point where I was simply numb, unable to progress in my thinking about the decision. I knew then that something was wrong.

My decisions are not well thought through. In this regard, my wife serves as a barometer of my relationship with God. She has an uncanny way of asking the questions that show I’ve not given enough thought and prayer to certain decisions. She also shows me how I take a simple decision and complicate it, sometimes because I’m seeking to evade God’s way of doing something.

My emotions are on edge, inappropriate. I’ve discovered that the way I respond to telephone calls can be a signal. When I begin to think, Oh no, another phone call, or start procrastinating returning phone calls, it’s time to stop and assess what’s going on. It’s likely I no longer have the spiritual resources to meet the demands of my calling.

I have a chronic problem with sleeplessness. Sometimes sleeplessness is God’s way of getting our attention. I have been awakened by God to receive some message that I haven’t received during my working day. Some of my most meaningful times of prayer and spiritual reflection have come in the early hours of the morning.

But chronic sleeplessness is often a sign to me that I’m not only overworked but also working on my own steam, without depending on God’s power.

One recent month was particularly hectic. I spent ten days in Russia, followed by three days at home—one of them a Sunday with full preaching responsibilities—and then two weeks in a demanding denominational General Conference. Though in the weeks following I had time to recover physically, I was still waking up in the middle of the night. That signaled my busyness had affected me spiritually.

Role danger

Just as marriage can both enhance and detract from the romantic passion between a man and a woman, so the pastoral role is both a boon and a bane to spirituality. We are wise to be alert to its possibilities. Being a pastor hinders closeness to God in at least two ways.

First, busyness. Shopkeeping chores, as Eugene Peterson so aptly describes church administrative tasks, and constant interaction with people, all to keep an organization humming, take time, attention, and enormous amounts of energy. That often leaves us little concentrated time to spend with God. If we do attend to the spiritual disciplines in such a ministry, we often do so less because we desire closeness with God and more because we are supposed to: it’s our job, all duty and no delight. We can conduct spiritual disciplines like a factory worker punches the clock. We pursue spirituality as a military man pursues stripes on his uniform.

Second, the professional side to ministry. Pastors, in order to do their jobs well, need to learn certain professional skills: how to conduct meetings, how to be diplomatic in all kinds of situations, how to juggle family and ministry, how and when to take community responsibilities. In addition, if we seek to expand our ministry by serving larger and larger parishes and provide increased security for our family, we have to build relationships in the denomination and, probably, attain another advanced degree.

In the process of jumping through all the hoops toward becoming a “professional,” though, we may begin losing our passion for prayer. Although no one makes a deliberate decision to eliminate prayer or to stop depending on the Holy Spirit, walking on the path of pastoral professionalism has a way of making us feel less dependent on God.

Hazardous tools

Some of the benefits associated with being a pastor can enhance our relationship with God—or, if misused, can actually damage it. For instance:

Scheduling freedom. Pastors, more than most professions, have the ability to set their own schedules. Except for Sunday morning worship and the monthly board meeting, our time is pretty much ours to manage.

In some church settings, if we are content to do so, a pastor can cover the required bases without working especially hard. Pastoral ministry can be the most demanding work or the most cushy work on earth, depending on what we make of it.

Lots of affirmation. When we do our jobs well, especially when we respond with compassion to our people, they will affirm us lavishly. But the amazing thing is we often don’t have to do well for people to praise us. No matter how poorly we do, in fact, there are always some kindhearted souls in the congregation who will tell us we’re doing great. Whether the praise is due or not, if we hear enough of it, we may assume that we’re God’s person, that all is well with us, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Regular contact with the sacred. Whether it’s leading a Bible study or preaching a sermon, opening a meeting in prayer or closing worship with a benediction, baptizing people or serving Communion, we’re constantly handling holy things. But continual absorption in spiritual things breeds a dullness toward the sacred. Unless we are humble and pay full attention to what we are saying and doing, the holy can become routine, and that can lead to a spiritual dullness that is hard to sharpen.

Relationship builders

Fortunately these spiritual hazards are balanced by the unique opportunities ministry offers to the spiritual life.

We are regularly confronted with our need for God. My daughter is a hospital chaplain. She became well acquainted with an older woman who was a cancer patient. One day my daughter went into her room and sensed she was near death. At a loss what to do, she sat beside the woman’s bed and prayed silently for her. Almost unconsciously she began to caress the woman’s hair. After a while she started singing to her, singing an old lullaby my wife and I sang to our children when putting them to bed.

In the middle of her singing, my daughter felt a presence in the room and assumed someone had come in the room behind her. She was embarrassed about her singing and hesitated to turn around, but when she did, nobody was there. Kim quickly realized she had sensed the presence of Christ.

Such life-and-death situations, in which human limitations are so apparent, remind us of our utter dependence on God and our need for prayer.

Constant contact with the holy. This, as I mentioned, can be a challenge, but it is also a blessing when approached in the right attitude. For me that means humility.

Take my preaching, for instance, an opportunity to study God’s Word and proclaim it to others. To keep this holy event from becoming routine, I’m intentional about being confessional in my preaching. I have found that if publicly I’m fairly vulnerable about my shortcomings and my desires to walk more fully in God’s will, that puts demands on me to follow through.

Interaction with “saints.” I regularly call on several people in our church for prayer and advice; I especially value their spiritual insights and discernment. One is an older woman with a vocation of intercession. Another is a young couple with a special freshness about their walk with God. In many ways I look to these people as models of spiritual maturity. In my role as pastor, I am privileged to speak with such people often, and that only encourages my spirituality.

Drawing nearer

I have found six things especially helpful in keeping me close to God. Granted, we are each different when it comes to spirituality, but here is what has worked for me.

Attend to the emotional. Pastors can be hindered spiritually by emotional and personality hang-ups. For example, when I first moved to California, I became increasingly insecure about myself. Having been raised in poverty, I felt I lacked education and sufficient exposure to the finer things of life. I felt inferior to others, and that hampered me both emotionally and spiritually. Eventually, I sought a professional counselor and attended a therapy group, which turned things around for me. Getting my emotions straightened out really helped me spiritually: I was able, for instance, to accept God’s acceptance of me, no matter my background, and that freed me to start using the gifts I did have for his service.

Practice spiritual disciplines. I often find it helpful to hear how others do this so that I can fine-tune my approach. Here’s my procedure: I get up at 6 a.m., put on a pot of coffee (the first discipline!), and go to my study, which is in my home. I begin with intercession for those on my prayer list. Devotional reading follows; often I use a devotional guide along with the Scriptures. Then I spend time in reflection, pondering what I’ve read, examining my life, listening to the Lord.

Naturally, sometimes this morning time is tremendously rewarding and exciting, with things popping off the page and insights coming left and right. At other times it’s dry and seemingly fruitless. But overall, it’s worked for me.

Retreats. I schedule two personal retreats a year as “regular maintenance” for my soul, one around my birthday, and another about six months later. In addition, I sometimes need an unscheduled time away to break through a prolonged dry period. Short retreats of one day are usually sufficient.

Practice the presence. When I don’t feel God’s presence, I’ve learned the importance of practicing God’s presence. For me this most often means sharing God’s presence—his love and goodness—with someone else.

A woman in our church was admitted to the Mayo Clinic to await a liver transplant. I wanted to convey the presence of God to her, but I hesitated at first because at the time I wasn’t feeling God’s presence in my own life. I didn’t want to sound artificial to her. But I decided not to wait until I was “in the mood,” and I deliberately phoned her to assure her of God’s presence in her situation. I practiced God’s presence by reaching out to someone else.

John Wesley encouraged Christians to practice “acts of mercy” partly because in many ways we act our way into Christlikeness more than we pray, study, or worship our way into Christlikeness. So by practicing the presence, I incorporate it into my life.

Keep stretched. After preaching and administrating a church for a few years, I face the danger of feeling I’m in control, that I can through mere technique bring about effectiveness and success. To counteract that, I welcome ministries that take me out of my control zone.

On Sunday nights our church holds healing services, where we partake of Communion, anoint people with oil, and pray for them. It’s something that has not been usual in my tradition, so I’m on a learning curve as to how to minister through it effectively. Besides, when praying for the sick, I can’t feel anything but dependent on God.

Nurture relationships. John Wesley used the term conferencing to describe intentional reflection and sharing with others about what God is doing in your life. The most important person with whom I do this is my wife, but I also conference regularly with others.

Two questions I find helpful when meeting with others are: (1) When this week did you feel closest to God? and (2) When did you have a discipleship opportunity, the chance to experience growth yourself or to help others grow, but ignored it? The first question leads to a greater awareness of our experience and relationship with God, and the second sensitizes us to opportunities for growth.

Once in a while I ask my family and fellow workers for feedback. I ask what, in their view, is going well with me and what things I should be cautioned about. Especially when I’m making decisions about God’s direction for my life, consulting others helps me accurately hear from God. With big decisions, I can easily get sidetracked by my emotions and desires. In the throes of one major decision, I called a friend and during our conversation asked, “Do you think I’ll be happy if I do this?”

“You don’t have any right to ask that question,” he replied.

That shocked me. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw his point; the question was not happiness but rather fruitfulness and meaning and obedience. I needed to hear that.

I’m happy when the church I serve grows, when ministry expands, when what I do is “successful.” But I’ve learned to see that as secondary. What really sustains my life and ministry is God. The closer I am to him, the more fruitful and satisfying my work is for him.


Thankful in a Thankless World

If we gauge gratitude by the way God has worked in our lives, then nothing the world withholds can dispel our thanksgiving, and we can even rejoice in the pettiness of those around us.

—Terry Muck

An old man wistfully reads the Hebrew Scripture’s promise of a Messiah to come. Night after night he reads until the light or his energy wanes. Each night he prays, O, that I could see the Messiah before I die!

Silence is his only answer. Still he prays.

Then one night he prays and, instead of silence, God answers: I have heard your prayer. You shall see the Promised One.

Not sure he has heard correctly, the old man continues his yearning prayer on the nights that follow—yet the answer grows stronger, more firm. You shall see him. You shall hold him and touch the Messiah.

Simeon’s joy was great. He was probably already an old man when God told him he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. The promised coming of the Savior was ancient, and few really believed it anymore. For a man of Simeon’s age, it was too much to hope for. Yet God said it would happen—and the promised day did come.

In the temple Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people” (Luke 2:29–30 niv).

Simeon’s experience is the paradigm of true thanksgiving. What better reason for giving thanks to God than the fact that we have all been given the chance to see the Savior? We have not held the baby Jesus in our arms, but we have been given the joy of holding him in our minds and hearts. If every other facet of our lives were negative—if we were poor, homeless, and friendless—we would still have this reason to be thankful: the fact of Jesus Christ.

Our human nature being what it is, however, very often we find the fact of Jesus Christ is not enough to help us maintain an attitude of thanksgiving. Gratitude is one of the most difficult emotions to express and maintain.

Perhaps our culture is partly to blame. Gratitude is particularly hard when everything comes easily, when our relative wealth makes us think we can, by birthright or the sweat of our brow, get whatever we need. Why should we be thankful when we’ve earned it on our own?

For Christian leaders, the problem is even more complex. Leaders are victims to all the gratitude-limiting pressures of a wealthy society, but as helping professionals they also suffer the ingratitude of those they serve, both lay workers and fellow leaders. Christian leaders are assailed from two directions: a sated society and a sometimes thankless Christian community.

Victims of prosperity

Wealth is not a worldwide phenomenon. Other cultures still have to struggle to earn their daily bread, to keep their families warm and safe. Westerners who live in those cultures for even a short time discover new meaning to the word gratitude.

Missionaries are typical.

Franklin and Phileda Nelson went to Burma as missionaries in the 1940s. They served there eight and a half years before the government closed the country to further missionary work. They returned to the United States where Franklin served several churches in various pastoral roles.

While in Burma they worked among remote tribes, and Franklin found his sense of gratitude for God’s providence rekindled:

In the Burmese hill country, the only way to get to remote villages was by “shank mare.” (That’s walking, in case you’ve never heard the phrase.) It was not at all uncommon for me to walk twenty miles a day in the dry season. When I got back to the States and worked as a pastor and church leader, I rarely walked a mile a day; the telephone and car made walking unnecessary.

In Burma, if one of us got sick, the nearest hospital was ten days away. In the States, medical care is minutes away. In Burma, we’d go months without bread. Once we asked our daughter Karen to say grace before a meal, and she said, “Why do I have to pray for my daily bread when I don’t ever get any?” I have often coveted that experience for our youngest daughter who never had to wonder where her food came from. It’s hard to have that sense of helplessness and humility so vital to prayer when you sit down to your daily bread and don’t even think about how you got it.

I don’t in any way blame people here for not knowing what God can do. We’re victims of our prosperity. But I sometimes wish we had a few more hard times so people could experience firsthand how wonderful it is to be totally dependent on God.

Thankless followers

One denominational official lamented that for him one of the hardest things about leadership has been developing lay and professional leaders in churches, only to have them quickly forget “from whence cometh their help” and turn their backs on their benefactors as soon as they begin to make it on their own.

I asked my father, who recently retired after thirty-five years of teaching at a Christian college, if he had any regrets about his fruitful professorial career.

“I guess it would have to be the lack of gratitude by students,” he said. “I never had very high expectations about students thanking me. They are in school at a difficult age—late teens and early twenties. Their identity crisis makes it a hard time psychologically for expressing thankfulness. But I did notice a steady decline over the years in what gratitude there was. It was almost as if students were never taught to be thankful. And even though I didn’t expect much gratitude, I missed it all the same.”

Gratitude is one of those curious emotions that grows or shrivels in direct proportion to the amount we receive from others. Pastors, especially, seem to get caught in the middle of a two-flank attack: our wealthy society discourages it, and the nature of the pastoral task often seems hopeless, helpless, and thankless. Over the past generation or two, a subtle devaluation of the pastoral role has occurred that rivals the devaluation of the dollar. In the same span that has seen the dollar shrink in buying power by almost half, the role of the pastor in the local community has probably shrunk even further. The natural respect once shown is a thing of the past. The gratitude that goes with respect is even less.

Interestingly, you don’t find many pastors publicly bemoaning their reduced status. But in terms of their functioning in the community, in terms of their spiritual lives, the danger is that cynicism about the task can subtly creep in and rot the roots of thankfulness.

God-based gratitude

What’s the solution? Perhaps to focus on the natural opportunities of Christian leadership, not its shortcomings. The call to ministry is not strictly parallel to other professional career paths. God guides his chosen leaders in profound ways. We sometimes feel frustrated with our inability to discern God’s will for our lives. The factor most often overlooked in such cases is that gratitude for guidance is actually one of the things that increases its intensity. Recognition that God has directed in the past is what increases the volume of his voice in the future.

Some helpful insights for gratitude can be found in Deuteronomy 26, which outlines three elements to thanksgiving. The first is a concrete expression of thanks. “Take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land … and [the priest shall] set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God” (vv. 2–4 niv). God says that when the Israelites arrive in the land and have conquered it and are living there, they must present to the Lord the firstfruits from each annual harvest. They are to take it in a basket and hand it to the priest at the temple.

It is almost paradoxical but still true today: giving increases gratitude. Psychologists tell us that the human mind grasps the concrete far more easily than the abstract. By giving a concrete expression of thanks, the abstract reality (our feeling of gratitude), the crucial part, becomes more real to us.

Sometimes the concrete gift is prayer itself. Gib Martin, pastor of Trinity Church in Burien, Washington, said, “Bonhoeffer wrote that the Psalms were God’s gift to the church, and when we have nothing else to give God, we can give those back to him in the form of prayers. I have tried that and reaped the benefits.”

The second element is to remember difficulties God has seen you through. Verses five to nine say that after the priest has accepted the gifts in the name of God, the people should recite a brief history of their being freed from Egypt and given a new fertile land. In this illustration, the children of Israel remember what it was like to live in Egypt. For us it is the remembrance or recognition of what we are like without God. After all, that is the crucial factor. What is it like not to hold the Messiah in our hearts and minds? Bleak, desolate, hopeless.

One Christian leader said she uses the harder times of her life to combat current crises: “I’m a person who is always ready with plan B or C if plan A doesn’t work out. I think my experiences have forced me to develop that attitude. I once had three major surgeries in three months. I had no control over what would happen with my life then. Remembering those brick walls helps me understand God’s sovereignty and the potter-clay relationship.”

Perhaps for today’s Christian leaders, fellowship needs are greater than any other. Most local churches, for example, are one-person pastorates, and most are operated in entrepreneurial fashion. Fellowship languishes under such conditions. No camaraderie with staff, no employer to unload on, no evaluation sessions to tell you how it’s going. Ministerial associations usually turn into bragging rather than brainstorming sessions. The minister feels cut off from the warmth of peer support.

Again, Franklin Nelson’s experience on the mission field is instructive:

Like the pastorate in the States, the mission field can be lonely. I remember when our first daughter was born. Several days after her birth I had to visit some villages. It would take two weeks. After a couple of days out I began to feel sorry for myself. I was alone, climbing steep hills, no one to talk to and tell about my new daughter.

I asked the Lord for some sign that he was with me. I didn’t know what I wanted him to do because I didn’t know what would help me. As far as I knew, it was impossible to cheer me up. But I asked God to do it anyway.

The middle of that afternoon I came to a village. It was a new Christian village that was just beginning to get grounded spiritually, so I didn’t expect the warm welcome of old friends. But to my surprise, they came out en masse singing a welcome song. I hadn’t planned on spending the night there, but they asked me to. They took me to a hut they had cleaned up very nicely. I decided to stay. This overwhelming hospitality and love, totally unexpected, answered my prayer. It was simple, something we expect almost as a matter of course back home. But it was just what I needed at that time.

Remembrances of God’s love in good times and bad can stimulate our gratitude.

The third element is to be grateful for what the Lord has made out of us. After reciting the litany of our once-lost-now-found status, the Lord says to “rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household” (v. 11). Like Simeon who held the baby Jesus and rejoiced, we should be ever aware that God has worked, is working, and will continue to work in our lives.

For Christian leaders, then, the key to developing a deep thankfulness is not to base our gratitude on the uncertain status of wealth and prosperity or the fickle gratitude of those we serve. The Christian leader’s gratitude must be based on a deep satisfaction in ministries faithful to God’s will.

Gordon Johnson pastored College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego. Before coming to California, Gordon had been dean of a Christian college and had held several pastorates. He said:

Gratitude for me comes only when I focus strictly on what God has done in my life. For example, I pray for guidance more often than anything—and God has always answered. When I was serving a church in Chicago, I had two job offers at once. One was to become dean of students at a Christian college. They asked first, and after interviewing there, I was pretty convinced I would go if the college trustee board approved the call. I went back to Chicago and preached in my church on Sunday morning. After the service representatives from another church in the area came up and asked if they could take me and my family out to dinner. We had no other commitments, so I agreed. At dinner they asked me if I would come to pastor their church. I was thrown into a terrible confusion. Why is God doing this? What is he trying to tell me?

That week an official letter of invitation came from both the church and the college. I prayed about both at length and finally wrote a letter of acceptance to the college and a letter of rejection to the other church. My wife typed the letters, and I remember sitting on the edge of my bed that evening looking at them both. I felt sick, plagued by inner doubt. You’re just getting emotional about this, I thought. Get them in the mail and that will give you some peace.

I walked to the corner mailbox and dropped the letters in. But when I got back home, I felt sicker and sicker about the whole thing. About eleven o’clock that night I called the post office to see if I could get the letters back. “Too late,” they said. They had already gone.

The next morning I called the college president and asked if he would please ignore the letter he was about to receive from me. I did the same with the pastoral search committee. Then I got on a train and went back to the college for one more look. By the end of that visit, I decided being dean of students wasn’t for me, and I turned down their invitation. I also declined the invitation from the other church.

Looking back, I think God used the invitation from the church to get me to rethink the way he was working in my life.

Had Gordon not asked the fundamental question of What is God trying to tell me in this? his prayer for guidance might have been the much more self-centered—Please, God, which of these offers will be the best for me?

If we gauge our gratitude on worldly wealth and opportunity, we may someday find ourselves in Franklin Nelson’s shoes in Burma with no worldly wealth to celebrate. If we gauge gratitude on the thankfulness of those around us, human nature will disappoint us. Nine of ten healed lepers ran away without even thanking Jesus.

If, however, we gauge gratitude by the way God has worked in our lives, then nothing the world withholds can dispel our thanksgiving, and we can even rejoice in the pettiness of those around us because we can say, “Lord Jesus, thank you for the opportunity of working with these your children so obviously in need of your love.”

To those who seek, God provides the grace to be gracious.

Part 3

Exercising Discipline


The Disuse, Misuse, Abuse, and Proper Use of Prayer

When I’ve done my best, only then in prayer can I peacefully accept failure and success and, with Kipling, “treat those two impostors just the same.”

—Fred Smith Sr.

Prayer alone will not produce a leader. Paul was a leader but leading in the wrong direction before he learned Christian prayer. Chuck Colson was a great leader in politics before he ever prayed.

But neither can someone be a competent Christian leader without prayer. As healthy plants require rain, so powerful leadership requires prayer. Prayer and Christian leadership unite to bring the blessings of God.


Leaders face unique temptations in the area of prayer, and the first is to let it fall into disuse. When spiritual leadership becomes anemic or arrogant through lessened prayer, then prayer gets pushed farther and farther down the organizational agenda. Inevitably comes a leanness of soul even in times of outward success. A current writer says it well: “If I am so successful, why do I feel so phony?”

The problem is, success often lessens our urgency for prayer. As a work gains momentum, the needs in prayer change but not the need for prayer. An organization on a roll needs prayer for direction; a struggling work needs prayer for support to keep it alive. But both organizations need prayer just as much.


Busy leaders can sometimes misuse prayer. For example, using prayer for persuasion is a misuse. I served on a corporate board whose president always started the morning meeting with a devotional. Late one night, giving his “good-night prayer,” he thanked God for the devotional I was to give the next morning, which he knew he had not mentioned to me. I felt no disrespect to God to interrupt and say, “God, you know I didn’t know about this and I’m not going to stay up all night preparing.” Everyone laughed after they got over the shock of my interrupting his “prayer.” He was not praying; he was making an announcement.

Recently I heard a speaker ask the audience to pray while he spoke. I think this too can be a misuse, for a preacher should ask people to listen, not pray.

Neither can improper lead time be overcome with prayer, for only once do we know of the sun standing still. Leadership through great sermons and Sunday school lessons will not come without preparation, no matter how sincerely we pray. Sermons are preceded by prayer but developed through work. Study to be informed; pray to be wise.

Nor can we pick the wrong people and make up for their incompetence with prayer. Prayer will not turn a donkey into a racehorse, no matter how much we prefer the racehorse to the donkey.

Finally, when leaders become hesitant to make a crucial decision, prayer can be misused as a pious way to procrastinate. Who can criticize a leader who asks for more time so he can pray—even though he is really hiding his fear and indecision? A leader needs to face his fears and indecision, not cover them with a prayer shawl.


Stepping over a fine line from misuse is abuse. I see a difference between the two. Misuse comes from ignorance, while abuse comes from the wrong attitude and motive.

I have heard leaders instruct God to bless their plans. This, to me, is abuse, for it is proper to request something from God but not to instruct him.

Sometimes a leader lets followers listen in while he thanks God for telling him what the organization is supposed to do. Often such prayers claim knowing God’s will in order to line up followers. I once heard a leader ask for discussion of a program that according to him was the will of God. I refused to enter the discussion, for it is not mine to argue with the will of God.

Prayer is not a substitute for intelligent effort, careful planning, efficient selection of people, or adequate financing. A Christian business leader resigned from a college board because of the repeated calls for “seasons of prayer” to get the college out of financial difficulties. The businessman believed in prayer but not as a substitute for responsible financial management. He told me the board was never given any financial statements or operating figures; in fact, none existed other than the depleted bank account and the unpaid bills. As leaders, we have no right to pray for what we can do, for God has already supplied that need.

Proper use

As important as these dangers in prayer are, however, as leaders we must accent the positive powers of prayer properly used. When I became chairman of the board of Youth for Christ, I remember hearing the old-timers talk about the tremendous blessings that accompanied all-night prayer.

What is the responsible use of prayer?

To ask God to do what we can’t do. For example, we cannot permeate our projects with his Spirit, and so we ask him to. Often we are unaware of the need to change direction, so we ask God for wisdom to be given at the right time and to guide us in the right direction.

Other responsible uses of prayer include these: to recognize God as the ultimate leader; to seek his will together, being willing to do it when it appears; to dedicate ourselves before God to our maximum effort.

I have found that proper leadership prayer involves four steps, which often overlap:

1. Positioning. Prayer positions me. It reminds me I am not the ultimate leader; the Lord Jesus is. I am a steward, not the owner. Sometimes kneeling physically helps me with this step.

2. Shifting into neutral. Prayer becomes most effective when I get fully into “neutral,” where I will accept divine leadership. This is the most difficult part of my prayer life.

Leaders usually are strong-willed, opinionated persons who feel awkward and uncomfortable in neutral. It is so much easier to ask God’s approval of what we want to do than to say “Thy will be done” and truly mean it.

I’ve found I must still my thoughts, honestly separate my interest from the ministry interest, and then test in my mind and spirit various options and how they feel to me. If there is time, I let the options simmer overnight or longer. Then I repeat the options, and if one seems to serve the cause better than the others, I know I am ready to get out of neutral and put the machine in motion with a clear conscience.

3. Dynamic peace. Tournament golfers settling over a crucial putt block out the amount of money on the putt and think only of making a pure stroke. Often as leaders we must block out our fear of failure or our second-guesses as to what we have decided.

Prayer helps us find a dynamic peace—not a sleepy peace but an exhilarating peace. There is confidence in dynamic peace, and confidence lets me concentrate fully upon the task. Prayer does not improve our basic skill, but it gives us concentration that permits us to do our best.

4. Acceptance. When I’ve done my best, only then in prayer can I peacefully accept failure and success and, with Kipling, “treat those two impostors just the same.” A leader prays himself into the conscious presence and will of God so that he accomplishes “my utmost for his highest” and hears the welcoming benediction, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


Runaway Mind

My discovery that the human spirit is our organ for God-consciousness gave me not only the power to survive but the energy to thrive in the ministry!

—Roger Barrier Jr.

I am cursed with a runaway mind. Some call me a worrywart. Others brand me as overly anxious. I’m constantly wondering What if? Maybe I inherited the tendency from my mother. More than likely, though, I did it to myself. Maybe it doesn’t matter where I got the tendency.

One Saturday night I found myself sitting in tears behind the couch in our den. Sunday morning sermons were fast approaching, and I was in no shape to preach. Something was wrong. My emotions were frayed. I had four ulcers. I had high blood pressure. I had to cry out for help.

Relief techniques

The first call I made was to the head of our church’s counseling center.

“I’ve been waiting for this,” he said. “I’ve already arranged for you to see a counselor who specializes in executive-level stress.”

During our fourth session, my new counselor mentioned my tendency to worry. He predicted that, unless I got help, my out-of-control mind could one day destroy my ministry. Ministerial stress is bad enough, he said, without adding self-induced anxiety to it.

“You have what I call a runaway mind,” he began. “Every thought initiates a physical circuit of chemical changes in the brain. The more we think the same thought over and over again, the deeper we entrench that circuitry. I like to think of it as a racetrack with horses going around and around. The more we worry, the harder it is to stop the horses.”

My counselor equipped me with all sorts of mental tricks for dealing with anxiety. One was to worry as hard and as much as I wanted for ten minutes—but only for ten minutes. After that I had to put my worries into an imaginary file cabinet and move on. This has often brought relief.

A second approach was to imagine the most idyllic scene. Immediately I pictured an oak near a stream in central Texas. Now, when my mind fills with anxiety, I mentally go to the shade of that tree. The water is cool, and the breeze is steady. In my mind I’ve erected hammocks, napped on pallets, enjoyed picnics, and read books under that tree. When tension strikes in the ministry, a few moments under that tree quiet my heart.

Aided by such techniques, my runaway mind began to come under control, and I got through the crisis. But I soon discovered willpower alone isn’t enough.

Slowing the pace

We live in a society of frantic activity. Pastors often seem to be the most hurried, harried people I know. Seventy work-hours per week were normal for me when I began pastoring. My fatigue—and worry—increased daily. My near collapse showed me my pace could not last forever. Fortunately, I had wise leaders who helped slow me down.

As a result, we developed a plan limiting every minister at our church to a fifty-hour workweek (including Sundays). The plan includes time compensation, because stress is cumulative. If some weeks require more than fifty hours, the ministers must balance with fewer hours over the next several weeks. In addition, our pastors must be home seven nights out of every fourteen. Each of us must take off a full twenty-four-hour day each week. It took several months, even years, for some of us to adjust. But we did it.

Soon after implementing the plan, several of our ministers’ wives quietly thanked me. They were seeing more of their husbands than they ever thought possible.

As my pace slowed, my overactive mind slowed too. My runaway thoughts were easier to corral. But I had more to learn.

Spirit to spirit

Slowing my work life was one thing, but quieting my mind was another. It’s hard to listen for God’s still, small voice when I’m thinking about tomorrow’s lunch appointment, or next Sunday’s sermon, or the balance in my checkbook, or Deacon Jones’s surgery that I forgot. On and on go the thoughts. I can travel from my driveway to the rings of Saturn in seconds.

I found some help when I discovered that our brains run at different speeds. When we’re in a deep sleep, for example, the brain runs at zero to three cycles per second (the delta wave). As it speeds up to four to seven cycles per second (the theta wave), the brain moves toward increasing levels of wakefulness. The alpha wave, at eight to thirteen cycles per second, is best for our creative and contemplative side, for communing with God and hearing him speak.

Most Americans, however, spend the bulk of their waking hours in the beta-wave level of brain activity. This speed (fourteen to twenty-five cycles per second) is perfectly suited for baking casseroles, going to meetings, and solving problems. However, as we approach the levels above twenty-one cycles per second, we find ourselves operating in a hassled, hurried, frenzied state. I do some of my best worrying here.

Part of the problem is the rapid-fire sensory images of our society, which overload our circuits. Remember when television commercials lasted a full sixty seconds?

Now they last for fifteen with four or five visual images flashing at us per second! The visual and auditory bombardment reminds me of the radio jamming during the Cold War. No wonder we can’t hear God’s voice!

The journey out of extreme beta-wave living began when my wife and I were sitting at a red light in Pittsburgh. She asked, “Have you ever heard a sermon about the human spirit?”

I hadn’t, and I didn’t know much about it. So we began to study the Scriptures. I was intrigued by Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:15 (niv): “I will pray with my spirit … [and] with my mind; I will sing with my spirit … [and] with my mind.” And in 1 Corinthians 2:10–13, Paul writes how the Holy Spirit expresses spiritual words to our human spirit—the Holy Spirit to our spirit.

The study changed my life. I discovered that the human spirit is our organ for God-consciousness, the seat of our communion with God, the deepest part of our innermost being. In this I discovered not only the power to survive but the energy to thrive in the ministry! It gave me access to spiritual power like never before.

Paul encourages us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to take every thought captive for the glory of Christ. That is essential advice for controlling a runaway mind. But to shut out the distracting noises, I had to acquire new skills to focus my listening habits. I began by sitting quietly in meditation for minutes at a time. Soon minutes turned to quarter-hours, then half-hours, and occasionally an hour. I concentrated on praying slowly through the Scriptures. Then I would sit quietly and listen for God’s Spirit to speak.

I believe this is part of what Paul meant when he testified to praying “with [his] spirit.” I still pray with my mind—working through a prayer list and consciously considering the things for which I pray. But when the list is complete, I quiet my mind and begin to pray in my spirit. Again and again, God prompts me in my innermost being to pray for people and situations that would normally never come to mind. The most precious times in my life are when God speaks through the Holy Spirit to my human spirit.

The calm in the storm

I no longer need to find a special place to quiet my mind and listen for God. The practice has become a habit I can enjoy at any moment.

Several months after I began the practice of gaining control over my mind, I was leading a particularly difficult elder meeting. My anxiety increased with the tension in the room. Opposite viewpoints were being expressed—and with force. My mind was awash with worry about the outcome. I felt nervous and uncomfortable. I had been here before.

Suddenly, I quieted my mind like I had practiced and sought God deep within. Right in the middle of the fireworks of that elder meeting, the peace of God washed over me and calmed my heart. I was amazed at what God had begun to do in my life.

Later, I began to see how God could speak to me for the sake of ministry. A young mother in our congregation was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain aneurysm. I stopped outside her hospital room and prayed for ministry wisdom. As I was praying, I had an impression deep within my spirit that she was going to be fine. I sensed that God told me she would survive with no complications and be able to raise her children.

She was awake and conscious when I entered. “Surgery is scheduled for Monday,” she said. “The doctors must wait for the swelling to go down. There is no guarantee that the artery will hold until then.” Fear filled her eyes.

I relayed carefully what I sensed God had told me moments before. Then I stepped out and said, “This sickness is not unto death. Whether the doctors need to operate on Monday or not, you are going to be fine. Be at peace.”

I prayed for her healing and recovery with no “ifs, ands, or buts.” Over a decade has passed since then, and she has watched her daughters grow up and marry.

The above story is unusual. Usually I have no idea what God intends to do when I pray for the sick. It is not that I do not ask; God seldom tells me. But occasionally, deep in my inner spirit, I sense his peace, and then I am able to pass it on to someone else.

God’s voice patterns

Over the years I have developed a checklist to help me distinguish when God is speaking to me. I don’t want to be led by my own imaginings. I certainly don’t care to be fooled by Satan’s temptations, accusations, or deceit.

The following list is not complete or foolproof. No one point, of course, is sufficient in itself to prove or disprove the voice of God. But these principles have helped me discern more accurately the voice of God.

God tends to speak gently. Remember how God spoke to Elijah? God was not in the whirlwind, earthquake, or the fire. “And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12 niv), and God spoke in the whisper.

Whenever the voice within me drives and demands like a pushy, used-car salesman, God is not speaking. Many times I have discovered that my drivenness to minister for God has more to do with my own agenda than the prompting of God. Either self or Satan tends toward compulsive clamor and loud demands.

God is never pushy; he seldom urges sudden action without giving us time to reason through the issues.

God’s voice produces freedom. In Matthew 11:30, Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (niv). How often I hear, “God gave me this heavy burden to reach this city for Christ.” I used to pray for big burdens like that—but not anymore! The city needs to be reached for Christ, but the burdened attitude may be more of a hindrance than a help. Satan loves to put people into bondage; God loves to set us free.

God tends to speak while we are consciously seeking him. I remember shaving one morning when I heard this voice tell me that the way to expand our church was to buy the six neighboring houses, bulldoze them, and use the land for parking.

What a disaster that turned out to be! It had not been God’s voice. Remember the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house” (Exod. 20:17 kjv).

Later, while listening for God’s Spirit, I sensed his leading in another building matter. This time I followed the promptings, and God opened several doors for us to purchase and pay off many acres of land.

Both self and Satan often inject thoughts or impressions into my mind when I’m not seeking God. But God’s voice usually is heard when we’re diligently listening for it.

God speaks with truth. I often say in moments of despair, “I’m no good” or “Nobody loves me” or “I can’t do anything right.” These are half-truths that come from either self or Satan, but not God.

In marriage counseling, I often meet Christians convinced that God has told them to marry a nonbeliever. That runs counter to God’s Word. Whatever voice or prompting they hear is not God; God will never—and cannot—contradict his Word.

God convicts of specific sins. John 16:8 teaches that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. When God convicts us of sin, the sin is usually specific: “Yesterday at 4:00 p.m. you did such and such.” I know exactly what I did and when I did it. Self or Satan, on the other hand, brings a haunting guilt not tied to specific sins. I’ve often felt accused or had a nagging feeling of guilt. Why do I feel so guilty? I think. I don’t know; I just feel guilty. These feelings are not from God’s Spirit. Often they are from the “accuser of our brethren” (Rev. 12:10 kjv).

God does not confuse. When the trumpet of God sounds, it does not play confusing melodies. When I finished seminary, I began looking to pastor full-time. While I was headed out the door to fly to Denver to candidate at a church, the phone rang. The call was from a pulpit committee in Tucson.

While talking on the phone, I had a deep impression that I was to pastor the church in Tucson. I hung up the phone, turned to my wife, Julie, and said, “We are going to pastor in Tucson.”

“I know,” she replied. “God told me the same thing while you were on the phone.”

Within two weeks, we had moved to Tucson, and we’ve been there ever since. Since then, I’ve felt that clarity in other settings. When I feel confused or uncertain about something major, I tend to wait until God’s will can be discerned more clearly. Satan, not God, is the author of confusion.

Today my runaway mind is under much better control than the time when I was crying behind the couch. I still worry more than I’d like. But I no longer wonder whether I will survive ministry. I have fingernails again. My ulcers are gone. My blood pressure is down. I know how to relax.

Just ask my wife.


Disciplines for the Undisciplined

The greatest need of unstructured people is to accept and celebrate who we are in Christ.

—Charles Killian

Igrew up with a profound sense of inadequacy at practicing spiritual disciplines.

I remember weeping myself to sleep many nights as a boy, apologizing to God for failing to read enough of the Bible, for not praying enough, or for just not being the person I thought I should be. I saw God as a referee in a black-and-white-striped shirt, ready to call a technical or throw me out of the game. At best, I saw him as a taskmaster shouting, “Back to the yoke. You haven’t measured up yet.”

I wanted so much to earn the smile of God’s approval, and as hard as I worked for it, I never sensed God say, “Good boy, Chuck.” I felt as if I failed the test of what a spiritual person should be.

I was raised in a good home; my mother took us to church twice on Sunday and once during the week. Her heart was right, but there was a certain rigidity about our faith. We were scrupulous about religious activity, and every time an altar call was given, I responded. I went forward so many times to be born again I ended up with stretch marks on my soul.

I remember one evening when our small church was holding revival meetings. The evangelist preached that we were the ones who nailed Christ to the cross. That image stuck in my mind, and that evening I cried myself to sleep, apologizing to God for killing his Son.

I didn’t understand the unconditional love of God that motivated Christ’s sacrifice, that my sin was completely covered by the Atonement, and that grace meant God was neither angry with me nor blaming me for the death of his Son.

For the next thirty years, I labored under perfectionism. This played into my understanding of spiritual disciplines. I always seemed to be a brick short of a load. Regardless of how much or how often I prayed, it was never good enough.

The turning point for me came during a “dark night of the soul” as I realized what my perfectionism was doing to my work, my family, and myself. I began to explore the meaning of grace. For years I had asked, “God, what can I do to be holy?” I struggled, sweated, manipulated, and worked to please God. But I never escaped feeling like the bad little boy who helped kill God’s Son.

What finally brought stability and peace to this unstructured person, who today is still somewhat unstructured—and delighted to be so—was the realization that my salvation was Christ’s work, not my own. I couldn’t save myself, only he could. It was liberating to realize I no longer had to “do” in order to please God, but could simply “be” in Christ, which included my devotional life.

I was forty before that happened, but once I realized what grace was all about, I began to laugh with a holy laughter. My desire to please God through the practice of spiritual disciplines was replaced by a desire to become conformed to the image of Christ. I no longer felt God was holding a whistle or ready to charge me with a foul for failing to measure up in my prayer life or Bible study.

New image

In my long journey to grace, I learned that I was not alone. Many pastors—but not all—struggle in the same area. For some pastors, practicing spiritual disciplines comes naturally. They get up at 5:30 a.m., read five chapters of Scripture (translating one from the original languages), then pray for an hour before their morning run. They journal daily, fast twice a week, and take an annual retreat to a monastery for a week of silence.

For other pastors, perhaps most, it’s not that simple. While they pray frequently, both publicly and privately, most of the time their prayers are on the run. They struggle to read the Bible cover to cover in one year, despite the latest systematic reading program they ordered in the mail. They live with persistent feelings of inadequacy over their devotional lives.

Some of the guilt pastors feel results from a distorted view of God.

My wife, Jane, helped me see the true meaning of grace. During one particularly difficult time in our lives, I came home and found our oak coatrack standing in the middle of the hallway. It was covered with yellow ribbons.

A note attached to the tree read, “So what if it’s not a real oak tree? Any old tree will do. I love you.” Her unconditional love and acceptance broke through to me. I saw for the first time that God loved me in the same way my wife did. It was a marvelous realization.

Naturally spontaneous

When a pastor has difficulty maintaining daily spiritual disciplines, many regard that as the sign of a spiritual problem or character flaw, and for some that may be the case. But for others the explanation may be their basic temperament. Structure comes more naturally to some personality types than others. Some people naturally prefer order and discipline, while others prefer a more spontaneous and unstructured approach to life.

In their book Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types, Chester Michael and Marie Norrissey suggest a relationship between our basic temperament and the type of spirituality or prayer that works best for us. I’ve certainly found that true in my pilgrimage. I am an “unstructured personality,” and I have discovered there is more to spirituality than discipline.

Our personality structure is a gift from God, and we ought to celebrate its strengths and potential rather than agonize over its weaknesses and shortcomings. Learning to do that, however, hasn’t been easy for me.

The unstructured and the structured person are both healthy and balanced if their life is in Christ. For me to understand and accept my resistance to structure is a measure of balance. I will always be that way to a certain degree, and I need to thank God for the way he made me, even as I struggle for bringing more order to my life. The structured person will always be striving to some degree to break out of a box.

As a result, today my definition of the spiritual disciplines includes but goes beyond the traditional fasting, Bible study, and prayer. It involves any activity that helps me better understand the nature of life in Christ.

For example, when the Mona Lisa was on tour in Washington, D.C., I found myself sitting transfixed for nearly half an hour, engaged by this moving portrait. I sensed I was in the presence of greatness.

How did that help me in my walk with Christ? Two weeks later when I was working on a sermon about the divine mystery and presence that invades us and draws us to God, my experience in Washington, D.C., helped me explain the concept of mystery and presence to my congregation.

I don’t mean to suggest God is present in paintings; that’s pantheism. But I try to be continually sensitive to the surprising places where God can meet me and teach me more about life in Christ. Engaging in that type of ongoing spiritual observation of life, the “God-hunt” as David Mains calls it, is one form of spiritual discipline.

Unstructured people still should pray, study, and fast on a regular basis, but they shouldn’t be in bondage to any particular method or regimen. As soon as maintaining the method becomes more important than knowing Christ himself, it becomes idolatry.

I don’t have the same degree of discipline in prayer that John Wesley did. I don’t get up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. as he did. But I do get up early enough to be alone and spend an hour of quiet in the presence of God, away from the telephones, the noise, and the confusion of life. It’s such a peaceful time, and I’m reluctant to bring it to an end.

Prayer shouldn’t be restricted to a certain length of time or time of day. It encompasses the totality of life. Jesus said we ought always to pray and never faint. So I’m always praying, whether I’m preaching, teaching, loving my wife, or counseling a student. When I communicate with God even as I go through the routines of life, there’s a holiness and sanctity to these moments.

Forced weakness

There is a danger, however, of such a devotional life becoming too experiential and subjective. That’s where spiritual accountability is important. While unstructured people resist expectations, they need to put goals and structure in place. A soul mate or friend needs to love me enough to say, “Hey, Chuck, you’re copping out. You need to get back to the program.”

Like most unstructured people, I resist structure until it’s forced on me. One hallmark of my personality is that I don’t usually see what God is doing until he’s done it. That was the case when I was asked to take an interim pastorate in a neighboring state, while continuing my teaching load. It lasted four years. During that time, I virtually never used an old sermon; everything I preached was fresh that week. The pressure of that situation created a need for a fresh discipline of Bible study, meditation, and prayer that proved enormously beneficial.

While I still try to avoid what I consider the bondage of the predictable, my devotional life was enriched by the structure forced on me by that assignment.

The effort we make to overcome the weaknesses of our personality types does have value. I was the adviser for a student in the doctor of ministry program who wrote his dissertation on the relationship between obesity and spirituality. He studied an aspect of his personality that had given him tremendous difficulties.

When graduation day arrived, I stood next to him and couldn’t believe my eyes. In just one year, he had lost ninety pounds. For him, controlling his eating became a spiritual exercise.

You be you

Pastoral ministry presents unique challenges and opportunities for the undisciplined personality.

Pastors who struggle with consistency in their devotional lives may feel like hypocrites when they preach about spiritual disciplines. But we all preach beyond our experience to some degree, particularly if we’re preaching the need for radical discipleship to Christ. I don’t know anyone who is the full embodiment of what that means. But if we preach desire rather than attainment, we aren’t being hypocritical. If I want more structure, even though I haven’t attained all that I want, I can legitimately preach.

I used to see the ministry as a place where I could be God’s workman. “Watch me today, Lord, and tell me what you think.” Now I realize what happens in authentic ministry is the exact opposite. God says to me, “Hey, Chuck, come along and watch me work today.” Whatever measure of spiritual consistency I achieve is the result of God at work. I don’t have to have a spiritual walk that matches someone else’s expectations; I just have to be in Christ and allow him to do his work.

The downside to our pietistic tradition in the Western church is that devotionally minded people can become lost in themselves. My spiritual development should not be just for my own sake, but for the sake of the church as well. It is the church that calls me into ministry, that confirms my ordination. It is the church that Jesus is coming for someday.

Those of us who like to fly our own kite need to remember that we don’t exist for ourselves but for the glory of God and for the good of the church. That’s why growth groups, Bible studies, and Christian education can all have a vital part in building up the spiritual life of the unstructured person.

The greatest need of unstructured people is to accept and celebrate who we are in Christ.

The story of Suszi of Anitole has helped me. As he lay dying, he called one of his disciples to his bedside and whispered, “I shall soon stand before the Great Tribunal. I will not be asked, ‘Why weren’t you one of the prophets?’ or ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ No, on that day I will simply be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Suszi? You would have made a good Suszi if you had just let go.’ ”

My desire is not to be another Praying Hyde or Martin Luther. I simply want to make a good Chuck Killian. That’s all God is asking of me.

Part 4

Enlisting Others


The Most Challenging Prayer Partner

I’ll never forget the relief I felt when my wife said, “I just want a spiritual companion, not a leader.”

—Louis McBurney

A sick feeling takes over the pit of my stomach. The pastor’s wife I’m counseling has just brought up a topic I’d rather avoid. Nancy is registering hurt at the hands of her pastor-husband—and nailing me in the process.

“I remember how excited I was when we fell in love, and I realized I was going to be married to a minister,” she says. “I had always prayed for a godly husband, a man who would be a spiritual leader for me and our children. I was sure Joe would be God’s answer to those prayers. We even prayed together on our dates. It gave me such a secure feeling.

“I just don’t know what happened. After we married, all of that stopped. Oh, sometimes we still pray together or read the Bible, but only if I insist. That doesn’t feel right. I want him to take the leadership for our spiritual life together.”

I’m gulping hard and nodding knowingly—too knowingly. I’ve heard my wife echo similar concerns. One of my frequent failures: not taking initiative for spiritual closeness in marriage.

Why is spiritual intimacy with my wife so easy to avoid?

Reasonable excuses

I’ve discovered I’m not alone. Most of the ministers we counsel at Marble Retreat also struggle with this problem. Some common explanations have emerged.

The first is the professional exhaustion defense. It goes something like this: “I have to keep up this mask of religiosity almost all the time. From morning till night I’m ‘the minister.’ I can’t just be me. I’m always the one called on to pray everywhere I go. The only other guy who has prayed at Kiwanis in the past four years is Father O’Roarke. Men in the locker room at the health club apologize for cussing in front of me. I’m always expected to have scriptural answers for every question and deliver them with a loving smile.

“I get sick of it. Home is the only place I can relax and be real. I want to share spiritual things with my wife, but quite frankly, when she says, ‘Can’t we pray together?’ I feel attacked. Then I feel guilty. Then I feel angry. Then I just want to escape.”

I can’t use this excuse, however; I’m a shrink, not a man of the cloth.

However, the second one, the hypocrisy factor, does fit. My wife, Melissa, sees me offering sound spiritual counsel to others, but she knows I’m no saint. Sometimes I’m reluctant to pray with my wife because of this rationale:

“Melissa knows the real me. It’s fine to offer holy solutions and wise biblical advice to others, but I can’t get away with that at home. She knows I’m not very disciplined. She’s seen my temper. She puts up with my pouts.

“She remembers the ways I’ve hurt her through the years by my selfishness or lust or thoughtless actions. She knows what I’ve been like as a father to our children. I’d feel like a total hypocrite expounding some Scripture verse to her or offering some pious prayer. She’d crucify me.

“No, it’s safer to just play the game. She knows me too well. Maybe someday when I get my act together …”

Of course, the problem with that is, I’ll never get my act together. I need at least one place I can let down and be real. That seems more necessary than devotions.

The third factor is the spiritual-dwarf syndrome. Many ministers believe, often accurately, that their spouse is a spiritual giant compared to themselves. They feel dwarfed by her deep faith. She doesn’t seem to agonize with the same gut-wrenching doubts and questions as he.

Her quietly committed prayer life shines compared to his hasty, often desperate prayers fired off on the run. The Word really seems to speak to her. Ages have passed since he has even read the Scriptures to find God’s message for himself, and she wants him to be her “spiritual leader”?

How can he risk the vulnerability that spiritual union would bring? She’d find out how shallow he really is. He feels less dwarfish behind the pulpit. Better stay there. It’s definitely safer.

The other day a pastor friend told me, “I hate it when my wife asks me what the Lord has been saying to me. I’ve been feeling so spiritually dry I’m not sure the Lord even remembers me. He seems to talk to her all the time, and that just makes it worse. I’m ashamed for her to know how far ahead of me she is spiritually.”

Entering into real spiritual togetherness is a distinct threat to him.

Holy disharmony

Another obstacle to spiritual intimacy is holy disharmony. Distinctive belief differences or style preferences may create dissonance when you try to pray, worship, or interpret Scripture together. Rather than unifying, it divides. You both agree with Paul that your joy would be complete if you were only of one mind, but that’s about all you agree on. Common areas of disagreement include preference for time of day, interpretation of Scripture, devotional style, and issues of trust.

Melissa is a morning person, for example. For her, the most meaningful devotional experiences are flooded by the first rays of the rising sun. I’m pretty convinced, however, that God doesn’t wake up till midafternoon. I’m sure the splendor of starlight was created to bathe our expressions of worship. That difference seems trivial until we try to adjust our biological clocks to find a time for devotional togetherness.

If your devotional time together includes reading Scripture, you may find tension in how you interpret what you read. One of you may thoroughly enjoy a lively debate, discussing various interpretations. The other may shrink from such encounters, preferring to find a practical application or an inspiring devotional thought. It is easy for a win-lose dynamic to emerge that quickly poisons the wellspring of shared spirituality. For example, a couple at our retreat just had a doozy of a battle over what Ephesians 5 means regarding a husband’s giving himself up for his wife. Her list of ways that apply was much longer than his.

Another difference is style. When praying together, this includes the volume of words, the use of the language of Zion versus the vernacular, who does the praying, what resources are chosen, and what physical posture is preferred. Listening to public prayers in church, I realize the importance of these elements. Just as in corporate worship liturgy, our private devotional styles create a sense of comfort. If our mate’s style is too divergent from our own, the feeling of genuine contact with God may be destroyed.

A friend of mine told me once that he couldn’t pray with his wife. By the time they finished, he felt his prayer had been rated like an Olympic diver. He usually got only about a 6.0. His wife went on to a 9.5 performance.

The issue of trust encompasses concerns about what to ask God for or depend on yourself to do. Whether God wants to heal our physical illness may raise anxiety. How to seek God’s will is often understood differently. Should we take risks in life trusting God to provide for our plans or should we not extend ourselves beyond the provisions God has already provided?

Most of the aspects of trust carry intense emotion, since this is such a foundational element of our personality. Taking a cautious approach seems to be showing a lack of faith for more adventuresome souls, while to more “practical” believers leaps of faith seem irreverently presumptuous.

Is it wise to confess?

Another obstacle is the fear of confession. “Confess your sins to one another so you may be healed” sounds pretty good delivered from the safety of a pulpit. Applying it with your mate is a different matter. Just how confessional can you be without creating hurt or anger or doubt?

I want to be totally open with Melissa, but at times I’m reluctant to disclose all of the sins of my thought life. Can she hear about my lust without feeling rejected? She faces the same dilemma. Can I face her admissions without defensiveness?

Quite honestly, I’d rather confess to God or to my buddy Doug than to my wife.

Let me mention a final, common explanation of why pastors avoid spiritual intimacy with their spouses: spiritual stone-throwing. At times, the only time marriage partners feel safe to confront each other is in prayer or through Scripture.

One pastor’s wife told me recently, “I hate to have prayer with John. He begins right away to beseech the Almighty to reveal to me my sins: ‘Lord, help Susan with her laziness. Reveal to her how she can be more organized. Create in her a spirit of submissiveness so she can be the godly woman you want her to be. Protect her, Lord, from the evil influences of television and the covetousness that stalks her in the mall.’

“I come away from our prayer time together feeling flagellated and condemned. I think I’d rather be slapped in the face than deal with the guilt he heaps on me disguised as prayer. One of these days, I’m going to pray that the Lord will reveal to him his judgmental attitude and lack of love. In the meantime, I don’t want family devotions. Thanks, but no thanks!”

Digging out

So what’s to be done? Most clergy couples agree they need the sense of spiritual oneness. Wives particularly crave the feeling of closeness nurtured in those moments of bondedness before the Lord. Avoidance or a frustrated acceptance of failure doesn’t bring much peace.

You don’t have to remain stuck, though, in the ditch of spiritual estrangement. Here are some steps Melissa and I have found helpful for ourselves and others.

1. Identify the problem. Clear an afternoon or evening in your schedule to discuss this area of your relationship. Allow no interruptions, and covenant together to make understanding (not agreement) your goal. Enter the time without your usual agenda of proving who’s right and who’s wrong. Believe me, you both are—right and wrong.

Since who is in control is such a common marital conflict, it’s particularly important to take conscious steps to avoid that dynamic. Lay ground rules giving each person time to speak and the responsibility of listening.

I frequently observe marital breakthroughs, when couples suddenly release their old perceptions and assumptions. I hear, “Oh, so that’s how you’ve been feeling,” or “I didn’t realize you wanted that.” When defensiveness is abandoned, it’s possible to hear and really understand each other.

Trace the history of your spiritual relationship, recalling the times it went well and the times it didn’t work for you. Then try to identify how you’ve felt inside about having a time of spiritual conversation.

Try not to let time demands be the rationalization. As difficult as it is, I find most people make time for the things that reward them. Push beyond your busy schedules, and search for deeper problems.

Your goal is to understand each other in a nonjudgmental way. You may be uncomfortable with how your mate feels, but accept her perception as the truth from which she acts.

2. Clarify expectations. I used to believe Melissa wanted me to be something I’m not. She would talk about her desire for me to be more of a spiritual leader. That sounded pretty overwhelming. So rather than risk embarrassment or failure, I’d avoid even trying. I interpreted her expectation as wanting me to lead in deep discussion of the Scriptures or to expound on some dramatic vision the Lord had given me (a fresh one for each day, of course).

When I finally told her what I thought she craved, she was flabbergasted. I’ll never forget the relief I felt when she said, “Oh, that’s not what I want. I just want a spiritual companion, not a leader.”

Compare your childhood experiences with family devotions. Most of our expectations germinate in the rich soil of the family garden. The seeds of a disciplined but oppressive system may bear blossoms in marriage that look like weeds to a mate whose family had a freer style. Families who had no devotional patterns at all can create either a hunger for times together with God or a fearful resistance. When your childhood memories clash, then the bouquets of togetherness can lose their fragrance.

Often our expectations are totally unrealistic or simply indescribably vague. We may have developed an image of what spiritual sharing is supposed to look like from some conference or a book we read, but never stopped to define it clearly with our mate.

When our vision doesn’t materialize, we get bummed out. Nothing leads more quickly to frustration and disappointment than unmet expectations. When those ideals are present as a hidden agenda and not spelled out clearly, you can predict failure.

3. Renegotiate a contract. When I had a clearer idea of Melissa’s expectations, I felt more comfortable working toward an agreement. What would “spiritual companionship” look like to her? What were specific things I could do that would invite her into my soul-life?

As it turned out, what she’d been wanting was much easier than what I’d been assuming. We began to spend a short time at breakfast reading Scripture (usually a paragraph or maybe a chapter), then praying together briefly about our individual concerns. It also helps when I talk about how the Lord is working in my heart. At times we get together for a longer period of prayer or discussion, usually when life’s pressures seem to be closing in.

For Melissa the keys were two: that I would show enough interest to initiate spiritual conversation and that I let her peek inside my mind and heart. The first is accomplished by my reaching for the Bible when we finish breakfast. That’s not too hard. The second is satisfied by my letting her know my prayer concerns. Looking back, it’s sad we made such a difficult problem out of such a simple task.

4. Avoid criticism. You can be sure you’re going to blow it somewhere along the way. You’ll get busy or be angry with each other, or somebody will have the flu, and then you won’t do it the way you intended. When that happens, refuse to place blame and judgment anywhere. That’s deadly.

A couple at our retreat struggled with bringing some positive change into their lives. Just yesterday, Joe said, “I’ve discovered I’m really resistant toward trying to change. I find myself feeling a lot of anxiety. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it right, and then Sue will point out my failure. When that happens, I think, What’s the use? and look for somewhere to run.”

Whatever you do, don’t get into a courtroom debate over whose fault it is, or who wants to quit. You can express your sadness that your time has been interrupted. “I really miss our spiritual time together” is enough. You might ask, “How can we get things going again?” If some of the old resistance has redeveloped, start over identifying the causes. Focus on yourself and what you may have contributed. Then apply grace to each other where it’s needed.

5. Celebrate your steps toward spiritual oneness. Every time Melissa tells me how good she feels when I initiate sharing, I get a renewed commitment to the process. Our unity is reinforced each time we tell others about the importance of having a soul mate as our spouse—for example, when we’re with friends and I tell them that Melissa and I were praying together for them the other day, or when she says, “Louis and I were just reading that Scripture recently.”

Those comments are ways we let each other know how satisfying our spiritual closeness is.

Ours has been a rocky pilgrimage to this area. But we’re finding a new sense of freedom and safety. Our growing spiritual oneness is helping us enjoy more fully the other dimensions of our lives together, whether long walks hand in hand or our sexual intimacy. It’s still not easy, but the strength and joy we experience together make the struggle worthwhile.


Contagious Prayer

Effective ethical influence is best served by giving the group plenty of space. It’s okay to try to persuade. But never short-circuit the other’s freedom to respond.

—Em Griffin

We met the train at three o’clock Sunday afternoon. I went in my official capacity as president of our university chapter of InterVarsity. Joyce, our vice president, was with me. We’d received word that our new IVCF field rep would visit our group that night. We’d been told to pick her up at the train station and spend time with her until the meeting.

To say we were apprehensive is putting too heavy a cast on the situation. But our executive board was used to flying solo. We hadn’t seen a staff person for six months, and we weren’t sure exactly what it was we were supposed to do with “our leader” until seven o’clock. It turned out that our vague unease was well founded.

As she stepped off the train, she announced, “My name is Angela Thompson. Please call me Angie because we’re going to be very close. I’m ready to give you the counsel and advice you’ve been needing this past year.”

We took her to the student union for coffee. She told us she felt Christians shouldn’t purchase anything on Sunday so she’d pass. But, she said, we could feel free if we wanted some. As we sat down at the table, she leveled me with an intent gaze and asked, “How’s your quiet time?”

Angie meant well, but it was a long four hours.

It would be easy to read these paragraphs and conclude that I see any attempt to influence someone else’s devotional life as misguided, foolish, or wrong. Not so. I’ve told the story of Angie because it introduces the topic of a leader’s legitimate attempts to persuade others. As I recall my own spiritual journey, I can see the influence others have had on me. Three separate people have had an impact on my quiet time with Christ, each through a different process of persuasion.


I became a Christian through the influence of a girl named Ruth. She wasn’t the stated leader of our young people’s group. As a matter of fact, I was! But in terms of real influence, Ruth had the clout. She was attractive and vivacious, with a contagious enthusiasm for God. For most of us, high school is a time of cliques—trying to be part of the “in crowd,” avoiding the outsiders. But Ruth moved from group to group with ease. To her, everyone was a neat friend.

I dated Ruth once or twice at the end of my junior year. It was all very casual, just some good times together. But I wanted it to be more. At the beginning of our senior year, she suggested we go together on a weekend retreat. “We’ll have lots of time to do some serious talking,” she suggested. My mind was flooded with images of us lying against a Lake Michigan sand dune gazing at the stars, our heads together in deep conversation. “I’m for it,” I said.

Surprise! The serious talking we did was about Jesus Christ. Ruth assumed I was a Christian and wanted to help me draw closer to the Lord. She gave me the InterVarsity booklet Quiet Time. As we went through it together, she showed her excitement that God not only allows us to pray to him, but he actually desires it. She encouraged me to block out some time each morning to read the Bible and pray. So I did—just as simple as that. And I became a Christian in the process.

I obviously wasn’t convinced so much by what Ruth said as by who she was. I was attracted to her and wanted to have a relationship that would go beyond the weekend. I hung on to her every word, the result being that I heard a lot about Jesus. Did I believe what I heard? Yes, but that wasn’t the motive for entering the faith. The impetus came from my desire to be close to Ruth.

Now, identification isn’t the most noble reason for changing your whole life around. And yet it’s often where the action is. Not just in guy-gal relationships, but among friends of the same sex. Paul reminded the Thessalonians that they became followers of him, and through him, Jesus Christ.

A few things have to happen for identification to produce lasting change. You need a leader/persuader who’s viewed as attractive and desirable. There’s no absolute standard. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. The more winsome the source, the greater the pull of identification. Second, the one to be influenced has to define himself in relationship to the attractive person. Sometimes it’s a whole-hog desire to be just like his hero, like a star-struck Little Leaguer modeling his every action on Pete Rose, including the way he combs his hair. Other times it’s a reciprocal role—lover, employee, disciple, daughter—in which the influenced party tries to live up to the other’s expectations. Either way, he has to know what’s wanted. Finally, the attractive source will hold sway only as long as the relationship is important to the admirer.

Note that Ruth didn’t even know how greatly she affected me. It was only weeks later when I told her that she realized the impact she’d had. That’s typical of change that occurs through a process of identification. It appears to happen in an offhand manner.

Identification poses two problems for a leader: the first is that people may have trouble getting past the person to the issue at hand. The man can get in the way of his message. Remember that the other person swallows the point of view whole because it was given by someone he admires. But opinions need to be chewed and digested if they’re going to affect the body. Unless the leader makes a point of encouraging folks to question, probe, and even doubt his opinions, that vital nourishment may be lost.

The second problem is an ethical one. When the leader is irresistibly attractive, persuasion through identification is seductive. Søren Kierkegaard tells the parable of a prince who falls in love with a peasant maiden. First he thinks he will bring her to the castle so he can woo her. Plan B is to go to her humble cottage accompanied by his chariots, soldiers, and horses. But he realizes that neither course would be fair. How could she help but be dazzled by such princely splendor? So he resolves to cast off all royal advantage. He dons the garb of a poor woodsman and proceeds to her home to plead his cause.

Kierkegaard presents this story as an analogy of Christ stripping off his prerogatives as God and coming to earth as a mere mortal so men would not be roped into the kingdom of God without an honest chance to say no. But it is equally appropriate as a warning to the attractive leader. You may be held in such high esteem that your idle musing is instantly accepted as gospel truth. It’s not a power most of us have, but I’ve seen it happen once or twice.

But if you avoid these two problems with identification, it can be useful. “If you love Me, keep My commandments,” says our Lord (John 14:15 nkjv). That’s a pure case of trying to persuade through identification. We’ve seen that it’s a rather simple, straightforward approach to influence. It drew me into the kingdom, so I know it works.


I wish I could say I remained constant in my prayer life after becoming a Christian. The first year, I faithfully blocked out fifteen minutes each morning to read Scripture and talk to God. But when I went away to college, I became much more sporadic. I was like the third kind of soil in the parable of the sower. The seed took root, but trouble and persecution choked it out.

I was still a firm believer; it was just that I was totally bankrupt in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and witness. I came face to face with this problem at the end of my sophomore year.

I’ve always had a high need to exert influence. I decided I wanted to be president of the Michigan Christian Fellowship. I noticed that the two previous head officers had attended an InterVarsity camp in the summer, so I decided that I’d go to the Campus-in-the-Woods, a remote camp on an island a few hours north of Toronto. The camp schedule called for a forty-five-minute quiet time every morning before breakfast. I thought I’d go nuts.

I’m an activist. Given my spiritual state, there were a number of things I’d rather have done than sit on a rock and pray: swim around the island, play volleyball, repair the door on our cabin, read a novel, write my girlfriend, talk with people, canoe—almost anything was preferable to silent meditation. But I was out of luck. There was a strong pietistic emphasis the whole month. The main speaker stressed that God was more interested in who we are than in what we do. While everyone else nodded solemnly, my every nerve fiber shouted, “No!”

It soon became obvious that I wasn’t playing the game. The camp director took me aside and made the following offer: “Em, I notice that you aren’t taking advantage of our scheduled quiet time. I’ll make a deal with you. You want to speak when we go off the island to conduct church services in Bracebridge. If you’ll settle down each morning like everyone else, I’ll let you give the children’s sermon next week and the sermon the following Sunday.”

I was hooked. I wanted to speak in those services so badly I could taste it. I dutifully climbed up on a rock and read Scripture for a half-hour. I then shut my eyes to pray for the final fifteen minutes. Once or twice I’d hear the director tiptoe past.

Surprisingly, it turned out not to be an empty Pharisaical practice. Despite my poor initial attitude, what I read was helpful. I began to study the life of Christ. I was intrigued by his encounters with people, his teachings, his miracles. My prayers became more balanced. Besides a lot of requests, I began to praise God for who he was and to confess to him who I was. So all in all, it worked. The director had what he wanted, and I complied with his desire that I not disrupt others during the quiet time and that I engage in prayer and Bible study. And I had what I wanted—I spoke in the church services.

What I’ve described is a pure case of compliance. In order to make it work, the leader has to have control over something the group member wants. It can be a teacher with grades to give, an employer with money, or a pastor with the promise of a church office. The desired reward is conditional on proper performance. It’s really a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” proposition.

Many of us are uncomfortable with this type of behavior exchange. We see this as nothing less than an overt bribe. But let’s be honest about it. What really sticks in our craw is the blatant nature of the transaction. We wouldn’t be so bothered if it were done in a more subtle manner.

Each term I ask students in my persuasion course to enlist a new donor to give a pint of blood. Ideally, a person could be recruited by an altruistic appeal: “Think of the life that might be saved by your contribution.” As a practical matter, most students resort to compliance. All sorts of incentives are offered: chocolate chip cookies are high on the list, although back rubs, typing services, and cash are not unknown. I once overheard the conclusion of a successful transaction: “So it’s agreed,” a girl in my class said to a guy. “You give a pint of blood this afternoon, and I’ll go out with you tonight.” It’s the blatant nature of the agreement that makes us squirm.

Personally, I don’t have any trouble with compliance as a persuasive technique as long as the behaviors are ethical, both parties openly agree, and there’s a parity of power between them. The last condition does not always hold. As leaders, we often operate from a position of privilege. Any time we make an offer that can’t be refused, we’ve violated a person’s freedom of choice. But barring this abuse, compliance seems ethically neutral.

There are problems with compliance, however, which trouble me. The first is that it may touch the body but not the soul. There were a number of days when I just pretended to read the Word. Once I even put my Bible cover around a paperback novel. I gave outward compliance to the director’s will, but there was no inward conviction that this was really the way to go. Early missionaries to Asia found this compliance with the phenomenon of “rice Christians.”

Surveillance is another problem. Persuasion lasts only as long as the guy with the goodies is monitoring our performance. “I have to watch him like a hawk” is the lament of many supervisors who operate by compliance.

I have a final hang-up with using compliance as a habitual style of influence: it can turn us into hypocrites. There’s a place for merit badges, brownie points, and cash bonuses; but self-fulfilling prophecy holds sway. If you’re convinced I’ll only be moved by continually dangling baubles in front of my face, I’ll be glad to oblige. I’ll toss intrinsic motivation out the window. For the long haul, there has to be a better way. What we need is a way to have influence that will last—even after we’re long gone. We want internal commitment that’s not dependent on external props. There is such an animal, and it’s called internalization.


There’s a twenty-year gap between my college experience with InterVarsity and the time when it would significantly touch my life again. In many ways I was the same person: an activist who continued to find it easier to talk to someone about Jesus than to get down on my knees and pray to him. There were some significant differences, however. I no longer wanted to get to the top of the organizational mountain just because it was there. People had become more important than programs or power. Close friendships had first call on my time.

I also had what I considered a second conversion experience, a new insight into the kingdom of God. I became convinced that our Lord had a special identification with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the hurting. It was this conviction that led me to attend Washington ′80, an Urbana-type convention sponsored by InterVarsity. Instead of dealing with worldwide evangelism, the conference focused on the concerns of the city.

I came to Washington ′80 with my own agenda. I knew God wanted me to get involved with the plight of the poor, but I was struggling to figure out how to serve without falling into the trap of paternalism. I had an even greater need. I was pretty well strung out in terms of energy. The demands of teaching, family life, friendships, writing, competitive sports, church responsibilities, and speaking had brought me to the point of emotional burnout. I wanted some relief. It was with these needs very much up-front in my life that I was influenced by Bill Leslie, pastor of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago. It’s a church whose programs include evangelism, discipling, tutoring, an emergency food pantry, care for the shut-in elderly, job training and search, legal aid services, and aid for unwed mothers. All of these services are offered not only in the name of Jesus Christ, but in a spirit of love that has brought many to the Savior. This is why InterVarsity brought Bill to Washington to lead a seminar.

I sat in on Bill’s session; it was good. Afterward I sought Bill out and said I’d like to get together and talk. We met twice within the next day and a half. The last morning, we had breakfast together. We sat at the table so long after eating that the waitress offered us a luncheon menu. Most of the time I talked and Bill listened.

I shared the changes that God had begun to work in me. Although I started with an account of my journey toward helping the poor and hurting, Bill’s sensitive ear soon picked up the fact that I was hurting too. The continual hectic pace of life I had adopted was beginning to take its toll. Our second time together, Bill shared his own tendency to overschedule, overextend, and to be overwhelmed by the pressures on him. He suggested that the only way he could survive was through some periodic times of concentrated prayer and meditation. He stressed also that social action unaccompanied by an inner worship would quickly degenerate to an empty do-goodism. Times of contemplation were necessary as a wellspring of power.

I was impressed. But I figured this was a special gift he had. Different strokes for different folks, you know, and that was one ability that was far from me. We agreed we had the start of what could be a budding friendship, and vowed to get together along with our wives when we returned to Chicago.

The exhausting work pattern didn’t let up. If anything, I was dashing from one thing to another more than ever. It was a month before the Leslies and the Griffins could mesh their schedules. During that time I thought a lot about what Bill had said. I picked up a book on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and fasting. I was intrigued by the spiritual depths promised to the believer who pursued these means of grace. I was ready to give it a try.

When we finally met together as couples, I pumped Bill for advice on the specific route to go. He recommended blocking out a day or so for a personal retreat. While it would be possible to do this on my own, perhaps I’d find it helpful to have some direction. I agreed, not knowing exactly where he was going. Then he laid out a specific proposal.

He knew of a conference center where you could stay for various lengths of time. In fact, it was less than ten miles from my home. I could make a thirty-six-hour silent retreat without the interruptions of phones, upcoming appointments, or classroom responsibilities. He suggested the name of a person there whose vocation was spiritual direction. Bill didn’t push it; he just gave me the center’s phone number and suggested I consider the possibility. So that’s what I did, and ended up taking his advice—length of time, place, spiritual director, and all.

It turned out to be a turning point in my prayer life. For the first time, I was able to meditate on a verse of Scripture and listen for that still, small voice of God. Instead of flooding heaven with a bunch of junk mail, I learned to concentrate on a single attribute of God and to taste that for a long period of time. I came away edified and refreshed. I will do it again without Bill’s urging. More important, I’ve incorporated some of the meditation techniques into my daily quiet time. That’s internalization.

The first thing to notice about the process is that it’s made me a true believer. This is different from compliance, in which internal conviction doesn’t match outward behavior. Or from identification, in which the belief is more in the person than the idea. Nor is continued belief or action dependent on Bill Leslie hovering over my shoulder to check up on me. Obviously, this is the kind of influence a leader would like to have.

In the pecking order of persuasion, compliance is at the bottom. It borders on the raw use of power and takes continual use of resources and energy to maintain. Identification is a good step up, but is dependent on the desire for a relationship. Internalization is the home run of influence. It’s the ultimate aim of a sensitive Christian leader. The person really believes.

How does it work? In the first place, it takes a credible leader. He has to have some recognizable expertise so his words will have the ring of truth. That was Bill. He’d won my respect by the quality of his deeds. His actions spoke louder than words.

The next requirement is that the person being changed has to have some specific needs or desires that are up-front in his life. In my case, I desperately wanted to be effective over the long haul in serving the poor. Equally important, I wanted to get off my high-speed treadmill. Bill’s suggestion tapped into these felt needs. It wasn’t just a happy coincidence. By being a good listener, he was able to spot these desires. He then tied his advice into my overriding values. Even though his solution was outside my previous experience, I was hooked.

Unless you see yourself as a mere coordinator, at least part of your job as a leader involves persuasion.

You have to select a strategy of influence. It is necessary for you to put yourself into the shoes of the persons you’re trying to move. From their perspective, compliance doesn’t look too great. Sure, they get something they want, but their actions are in no way linked to their conviction. They could easily turn bitter or cynical when they see themselves going through motions they don’t believe in. It’s not wrong per se to try to induce compliance. It may be the only option open to the leader who hasn’t had the opportunity to develop a friendship with the group. But it would be wrong to stay there. Part of loving people is appealing to the highest, most noble thing that turns them on.

Can action taken through compliance turn into identification or internalization? Sure. This happened to me when I took a seminar in “Integration of Faith and Learning” at my college. The school decreed that it was a necessary part of getting tenure. So there I was—sheer compliance.

The leader of the seminar was an exciting scholar. I was attracted by his quest for learning, his encyclopedic knowledge, his ability to ask a penetrating question. I wanted to please him, to look good in his eyes. Compliance gave way to identification.

My topic was ethics of communication. As I got into the subject matter, I forged an ethical position that for me had the ring of truth. I felt a growing urge to translate this ivory-tower theory into a moral stance that would grab the man on the street. It became an obsession. The last two weeks of the seminar, I’d sit down to eat with a book in my lap. I’d wake up in the morning having dreamed about the stuff. Identification with the instructor was no longer the issue. I wanted to do it because I thought it was worth doing.

The conversion of my motivation to a higher plane happened because I had some freedom within the requirements of the seminar. Suppose the leader had put together a lockstep assignment that left no room for deviation. I would have done what was demanded in order to get tenure—but moaned and groaned every step of the way. I think my work would have been rather slipshod. But he gave me some room, and it made all the difference.

It doesn’t take a son of a son of a prophet to conclude that effective ethical influence is best served by giving the group plenty of space. Freedom of choice—that’s what Bill Leslie really gave me. It led to the most lasting results. It’s okay to try to persuade. But never short-circuit the other’s freedom to respond. Responsible means able-to-respond.

Too bad Angela Thompson didn’t realize that when she stepped off the train.


Keeping Connected to the Power

Spiritual power comes through experiencing God’s presence, and God’s presence is found in sustained prayer.

—Jim Cymbala

One Sunday in our church services, a choir member—a former drug addict who was HIV positive—told how she came to Christ. She described in raw detail the horrors of her former life. A street person named David stood in the back, listening closely.

The meeting ended, and I was exhausted. After giving and giving, I had just started to unwind when I saw David coming my way.

I’m so tired, I thought. Now this guy’s going to hit me up for money.

When David got close, the smell took my breath away—a mixture of urine, sweat, garbage, and alcohol. After a few words, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a couple of dollars for him. I’m sure my posture communicated, Here’s some money. Now get out of here.

David looked at me intently, put his finger in my face, and said, “Look, I don’t want your money. I’m going to die out there. I want the Jesus this girl talked about.”

I paused, then looked up, closed my eyes, and said, “God, forgive me.” For a few moments, I stood with my eyes closed, feeling soiled and cheap. Then a change came over me. I began to feel his hurt, to see him as someone Christ had brought into the church for that moment.

I spread out my arms, and we embraced. Holding his head to my chest, I talked to him about his life and about Christ. But they weren’t just words. I felt them. I loved him. That smell—I don’t know how to explain it—it had almost made me sick before, but it became beautiful to me. I reveled in what had been repulsive.

I felt for him what Paul felt for the Thessalonians: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:7–8 niv). God put that kind of love in me.

The secret to Paul’s ministry was what I felt that night. That divine love became supernatural power.

The minute my attitude changed, David knew it. He responded, and the gospel got through to David that night.

No matter where you serve or what challenges you face, no one can sustain a life-giving ministry without spiritual power. But how do we define spiritual power? What is it like to experience it? Can we do anything to seek more of God’s power?

Baptism of love

When I think of spiritual power, I often think of a baptism of love. My wife and I have found that without the new baptisms of compassion and love God gives us, we would leave New York City and all its problems in a second.

Paul urged the Ephesians to be filled constantly with the Spirit. I have no desire to argue doctrinally about what that means; all I know is, if God doesn’t do that for me, I stop caring. Often, when I hear about one more child molestation case, I want to say, “I don’t want to deal with this anymore.” Left to Jim Cymbala, I am not capable of continuing to care.

We deal with stuff that is so overwhelming. A guy said to me, “Pastor, what do I do? I killed this guy five months ago, and I don’t know if the cops are looking for me or not.”

“Killed a guy! What do you mean you killed a guy?”

“I shot him. You know, I needed money—the crack thing.”

Hear enough of those stories, and you build a wall. You don’t want to take the pain home because it will affect your wife and your children, but if you don’t feel the pain, your ministry becomes mechanical.

When I’m looking at people through God’s eyes and I’m feeling how Christ feels, then spiritual power can flow through me to them.

At the end of one church service, a fifty-year-old, three-decade alcoholic named Victor walked forward to the altar area. I knew him fairly well. He lived in the parks.

His hair was matted; he’d been drinking. He had been in a fight with a cop and gotten hurt. The gauze on his hand was so filthy he would have been better off with none.

It was the end of our third Sunday service, and I was seated on the platform. I didn’t have the energy to get up to go to him, so I waved for him to come and sit beside me. As we were talking, I noticed a bulge in his ankle. I said, “Victor, what in the world …”

He pulled his pants leg higher, and his calf was so hideous I couldn’t look at it. It was like elephantiasis.

“You’re going to die,” I said. “You’re going to die, Victor. You’re going to die.”

Victor just nodded.

I didn’t know what to do. So I held his hand and silently prayed, God, what do I do? I don’t even know how to pray. As I waited on God, I began to experience what Paul described: “I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19 niv).

I began to weep, and then so did Victor. After we sat holding hands and weeping for several minutes, I referred him to one of my associates. I never said a word in prayer.

But minutes later Victor committed his life to Christ, and he has never been the same. Somehow the truth we had told him so many times before about who Jesus was and what God could do finally got through. For the past three years, he has worked for the church in the maintenance department.

Power surge

When I came to Brooklyn Tabernacle at age twenty-eight, the church numbered under twenty people. The situation at first was so depressing, I didn’t want to come to services, and I was in charge!

We struggled to make ends meet. The first Sunday offering was $85. I made $3,800 my first year here and $5,200 the second. I had a second job, and my wife had to find work.

After two years I got a cough in my chest I couldn’t shake. For weeks I was spitting up phlegm, unable to go to a doctor because we didn’t have money or health insurance. Finally I went to my in-laws’ home in Florida to see if the sun and some rest would help me.

One day, sitting in a fishing boat, I prayed, “Lord, one book says buses are the key to building a church. Another book says cell groups meeting in homes is the key. Another, multiple eldership. Another, releasing people from demons.

“Lord, what do I do? I’m in New York City with people dying all around me. You couldn’t have put Carol and me here to do nothing. But God, how can we get their attention? How can we get conviction of sin?”

Then God spoke to me in the closest thing to an audible voice I’ve ever experienced. The Lord told me if my wife and I would lead the people to pray and to wait on him, he would take care of every sermon I needed to preach (which I was very insecure about), he would supply all the money we needed, both personally and as a church, and no building we used would be large enough to contain all the people he would send in.

When I returned to New York, I told the congregation, “The barometer of our church is now going to be the prayer meeting. The key to our future as a church will be our calling on God to release his miraculous power among us.”

We need continual outpourings of the Spirit. Jesus promises, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13 niv).

When God does pour out his Spirit, expect for him to also save souls. Acts 11:21 (niv) says that when a group of Christians went to Antioch and preached the gospel, “The Lord’s hand was with them.” What was the sign that the Lord’s hand was with them? It says “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” That’s what we want to pray for.

At that time our prayer meeting had maybe fifteen people attending. In that weekly meeting, we began to wait on the Lord, and God gave us the gift of prayer. Worship and praise took hold. We saw that in direct proportion to the liberty God gave us in prayer, things happened: unsaved loved ones started getting converted. Other people came in—we didn’t know from where.

Every Sunday since that day eighteen years ago, we have announced that on Tuesday evening the doors open for our most important service, the one we look forward to most, the prayer meeting.

Spiritual power comes through experiencing God’s presence, and God’s presence is found in sustained prayer.

Arrow to the heart

One misunderstanding about spiritual power is that grace comes to people primarily through the sermon or through understanding sound doctrine.

I talk to pastor after pastor who is sound in doctrine and teaches it well but who admits something is missing. Their churches are plagued by rampant divorce or young people slipping off into a worldly life style.

The spiritual power the church needs is not released primarily through the sermon but by coming to “the throne of grace” in prayer. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (niv). The sermon is supposed to be an arrow that directs the heart to God so he can minister fresh strength at the throne of grace.

I was at a meeting where the preacher gave an outstanding message. I could tell God had dealt with him through this passage. When he finished his sermon, the congregation applauded, and it was quickly announced that a special luncheon would immediately begin in another room.

What! I thought. We’re leaving? After that sermon we’re going to go out and have a meal?

I was thinking, I would almost jump off this balcony in order to have somebody pray for me. Let me call out to God. Let me ask God to forgive me for what I’ve been convicted of. Let me get to the throne of grace.

We truly lift up Jesus when our preaching leads people to call out to Jesus, when we point them to prayer and his personal dealing with their souls.

How can you have a New Testament meeting without a time for prayer after the sermon? Making the sermon the centerpiece of a service doesn’t seem to fit with Jesus’ words in Matthew 21:13: “My house will be called a house of prayer” (niv). R. A. Torrey, former president of Moody Bible Institute, wrote that the Word of God alone will not break a self-righteous, proud person. You have to get him or her into the presence of God.

Too many church services have become a lecture series. The Christian church was born not in a clever sermon but in a prayer meeting. The difference between a lecture and a sermon is that the sermon calls for response, and the response must include prayer.

Irresistible force

Until age sixteen, my oldest daughter was a model child. But then she got away from the Lord and became involved with a godless young man. She eventually moved out of our house and later became pregnant.

We went through a dark tunnel for two and a half years. While wonderful things were happening at the church—we were renting Radio City Music Hall for large outreaches and starting other churches, and many were coming to Christ—no one knew I was hanging by a thread. I often cried from the minute I left my house till I got to the church door, thinking, God, how can I get through three meetings today? My daughter

But I didn’t want to make my need the focus. People are coming to the church because of their needs. Many live in ghettos, in violent, non-Christian homes.

During those years when Chrissy was away, the verse “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 niv) became real to me, though I was weak emotionally.

My wife went through an especially dark time. The enemy attacked her with the thought, So you’re going to stay in New York City and influence a lot of people? Fine, but I’ll have all your children. I’ve got one, and now I’m coming for the other two.

Carol told me, “I can’t take this sitting down. You can leave the church with me or stay, but I’m taking my other two kids. I’ve got to get out of this environment. I’m going to save our children. You can’t do this to them.”

I half agreed. But then I thought, If I move, not knowing for certain that it’s God’s will, what will my next move be? If you violate God’s will, where does that end?

Carol’s dad, a retired pastor, counseled her to stay: “Carol, it doesn’t matter where you go. It won’t change Chrissy.” Somehow God held us there and overruled our weakness.

During those days, whenever the phone rang, my stomach tensed. I didn’t approach the situation right with Carol most of the time, which made it worse. Many Sunday mornings I woke up feeling I couldn’t go to church.

It’s scary how many times while driving to the church I thought, I’m making a U-turn, and I’m not coming back. I can’t do this anymore.

But when I got into the church building, a peace would hold me, and I could get through the day. Then Carol had to have a hysterectomy. There in the hospital at her lowest moment, God ministered to her, and she wrote a song called, “He’s Been Faithful,” which of all her songs has had the greatest impact on people.

That was a turning point for her.

After Chrissy had been away for two years, I again spent some time in Florida. I said to God, “I’ve been battling, crying, screaming, arguing, and maneuvering with Chrissy. No more arguing, no more talking. It’s you and me. I’m just going to intercede for my daughter.”

I told Carol to stay in touch with our daughter, because I was no longer going to talk to Chrissy; I would only pray.

I stayed in Florida until God brought me to a new realm of faith. When I returned to New York I stopped reacting as before to the discouraging things Chrissy did. I found I could praise God even though the news from her was getting worse. It wasn’t positive thinking; it was faith.

Four months later, in February, we were in our Tuesday night prayer meeting (the choir and the church leadership now knew about Chrissy), when an usher passed a note to me. It was from a young woman in the church whom I felt was spiritual: “Pastor Cymbala, I feel deeply impressed that we are to stop the meeting and pray for your daughter.”

Lord, is this really you? I prayed within myself. I don’t want to make myself the focus.

At that moment Chrissy was at a friend’s home somewhere in Brooklyn with her baby.

I interrupted the meeting and had everyone stand. “My daughter thinks up is down, white is black, and black is white,” I said. “Someone has sent me a note saying that we are to pray for her, and I take this as being from the Lord.”

Some of the leaders of the church joined me, and the church began to pray. The room soon felt like the labor room in a hospital. The people called out to God with incredible intensity.

When I got home later, I said to my wife, “It’s over.”

“What’s over?” Carol said.

“It’s over with Chrissy,” I replied. “When we went to the throne of grace, something happened in the heavenly places.”

Thirty-six hours later, I was standing in the bathroom shaving. My wife burst into the room. “Chrissy’s here,” she said. “You’d better go downstairs.”

“I don’t know …” I said, having intentionally kept my distance from Chrissy for four months.

“Trust me. Go downstairs,” my wife replied.

I wiped off the shaving cream. I walked to the kitchen, and there was my daughter, nineteen years old, on her knees, weeping. She grabbed my leg and said, “Daddy, I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against you. I’ve sinned against myself. Daddy, who was praying on Tuesday night?”

“What do you mean? What happened?” I said.

“I was sleeping,” she said. “God woke me up in the middle of the night, and he showed me I was heading toward this pit, this chasm, and Daddy, I got so afraid. I saw myself for what I am. But then God showed me he hadn’t given up on me.”

I looked at my daughter and saw the face of the daughter we raised. Not the hardened face of the last few years. So Chrissy and our granddaughter moved back into our home.

That was several years ago. Today she’s directing the music program at a Bible school and was married this past year to a man from our church.

If a church sincerely calls out to God week after week, “God, come and help us,” is it possible, is it feasible, that God will ignore that plea? I don’t think so. He’s drawn by that. His ear is always open to our cry.

Our prayers are an irresistible force. I’m not what I ought to be, our church isn’t all it should be, but there’s something about calling on God that changes everything.

Section 2:

Deepening Your Ministry Through Personal Growth

People grow old only by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. Worry, self-doubt, self-distrust, fear, and despair; these are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.

—Douglas Macarthur

Part 5

Evaluating Risk


Perils of the Professionally Holy

The call to pastoral holiness, then, is right. It’s reasonable. It’s also ridiculous.

—Mark Galli

Pick a century, any century, and you’ll find lots of good advice given to pastors. In the sixth century, for instance, Pope Gregory, “the Great,” wrote a whole book for pastors called Pastoral Care, in which he outlined the ideal pastoral life style, or what some might call pulpit-committee utopia.

The pastor, he wrote, “must devote himself entirely to setting an ideal of living. He must die to all passions of the flesh and … lead a spiritual life.”

All well and good if you stick to generalities. Gregory doesn’t.

“He must have put aside worldly prosperity; he must fear no adversity, desire only what is interior.… He is not led to covet the goods of others, but is bounteous in giving of his own.”

Certainly. Well, most of the time, anyway.

“He is quickly moved by a compassionate heart to forgive, yet never so diverted from perfect rectitude as to forgive beyond what is proper.”

Let’s just say we manage this delicate balance, uh, every so often.

“He does no unlawful act himself while deploring those of others, as if they were his own. In the affection of his own heart he sympathizes with the frailties of others, and so rejoices in the good done by his neighbor, as though the progress made were his own.”

No tasty resentment of spiteful elders? No gossip or jealousy of Pastor Homogeneous at Mega-Growth Community Church?

“In all that he does, he sets an example so inspiring to others, that in their regard he has no cause to be ashamed of his past. He so studies to live as to be able to water the dry hearts of others with the streams of instruction imparted.”

Yeah, and the Pope is Protestant.

Yet Gregory is right. This is precisely what it means to be a pastor or Christian leader, because this is what it means to be a Christian. It’s only reasonable to expect teachers of Christian virtues and leaders of Christian congregations to be first to model Christian behaviors.

The call to pastoral holiness, then, is right. It’s reasonable. It’s also ridiculous.

Not because Christian leaders are slothful, though sometimes we are. Not because we don’t care, though sometimes we don’t. No, most of the time, we fall short of holiness because we strive so diligently for holiness. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan leader, put it this way: “The devil is most eager to worm his way in where he recognizes that people are trying to live virtuously; he wants to seek out the innocent man and destroy him just where he was hoping to give himself to God’s service.”

This is especially true of those involved in “full-time Christian service.” In his book The Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson writes, “The moment any of us embarks on work that deals with our fellow humans at the core and depths of being where God and sin and holiness are at issue, we become at that same moment subject to countless dangers, interferences, pretenses, and errors that we would have been quite safe from otherwise. Socalled ‘spiritual work’ exposes us to spiritual sins.”

Spiritual sins

Christian leaders usually fret about the sins that stroll down the center of Soul Boulevard:

“I need to forgive the chairman for those remarks.”

“If I were more disciplined during the week, I wouldn’t have to come in on my day off.”

“Can’t I counsel an attractive woman without fantasizing about her?”

Fleshly sins—anger, sloth, lust—are at least obvious. No mistaking what’s going on here. These are SINS.

Spiritual sins, though, come disguised as virtues—virtues we Christian leaders long to attain. But they are sins nonetheless. I’m talking about hypocrisy and pride.

Take hypocrisy, which comes in a variety of forms.

In some cases, for instance, we start calling evil good. Gregory the Great said that with pastors “vices commonly masquerade as virtues. Often, for instance, a niggard passes himself off as frugal, while one who is prodigal conceals his character when he calls himself open-handed. Often inordinate laxity is believed to be kindness, and unbridled anger passes as the virtue of spiritual zeal.”

We’ve all seen “prophetic” preachers who are just angry young men. Some who dally at men’s breakfasts and women’s coffees (“I just love to be with my people”) are merely procrastinating necessary paperwork. Others who lock themselves in their offices, scrutinizing commentaries (“Just honing my gift of teaching”), are simply avoiding hospital calls.

Euphemisms are another form of hypocrisy. Since real Christian leaders never get angry, we can go for months without calling it such. The chairman of the board has undermined my proposal for a new midweek youth program. Afterward, flushed with emotion, I say, “I’m not angry with the chairman, just concerned about the youth.” Or “I’m just grieved for the chairman’s attitude.” Or “I’m burdened for the future of the church.” Right.

Euphemisms quickly slide into lying. In a sermon, I say, “I just read Prayer by Richard Foster, and he says …”—in fact, I skimmed only the first and last chapter searching for a sermon quote.

I say, “I couldn’t reach you today”—actually I never tried, so of course I couldn’t.

I say, “I think you would make a wonderful fifth-grade Sunday school teacher”—I really mean, “You’d make a wonderful, warm-bodied baby-sitter for a class I’m desperate to staff.”

The pressures to be holy, to lead righteously are so enormous that we sometimes start practicing a double standard—the ultimate form of hypocrisy.

One youth minister tells about hearing a speaker at a youth convention who gave a well-reasoned sermon arguing that the Bible is without error not only when it talks about faith, but also when it speaks about history, geography, science, or any subject. The speaker didn’t qualify the statement; he allowed no exceptions.

Later in a small-group session with leaders of the conference, the speaker was asked if you could really claim the Bible is authoritative on all scientific matters. The speaker replied by talking about the parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus described as “the smallest seed you plant in the ground” (Mark 4:31 niv).

“We know, of course,” the speaker said, “that a mustard seed is not the smallest seed. The celery seed is smaller. We know that. You have to use common sense when you read the Bible. God is just saying in that parable that a very small thing becomes a very big thing.”

The group sat in stunned silence, says the youth minister. The speaker didn’t realize he had contradicted what he had argued in his sermon. Suddenly, there were qualifications and exceptions. When asked about the apparent contradiction, the speaker said, “You cannot tell the general population those kinds of things. If common people feel you have doubts about one part of the Bible, they might perceive the Bible is not accurate.”

Many clergy feel that part of the “holy” side of their calling is to pose as an authority figure, to state things categorically even when they themselves have questions and doubts. Some proclaim a tithe and give only 5 percent (“But my whole life is given to God”). Others condemn gambling and then buy lottery tickets (“Well, it’s not as if I’m poor and can’t afford it; it’s just a harmless diversion for me”).

And so grows the spiritual sin of hypocrisy.

The other spiritual sin is pride. Like hypocrisy, pride often looks and feels like commitment, devotion, and sacrifice for the kingdom; like hypocrisy, self-righteousness takes many wily forms.

Holier than them

One October, our worship committee meeting began on a sour note: the senior pastor of our southern California church fumed while he waited for tardy committee members. The Los Angeles Dodgers were battling in the World Series, and the committee members were—he just knew it—catching the last few innings of game three.

“These people!” he sighed to me, an intern at the time. “I like baseball as well as the next guy, but if I can take the trouble to be here on time, they can too.”

In a few minutes, the members drifted in, chattering about this hit and that catch. “Do you mind if we get started now?” the pastor snapped.

This incident and others convinced me this pastor thought himself superior to his parishioners. He tried to be patient with their interests in sports and crocheting and drag racing, but it was clear that since his priorities were kingdom priorities, he was more committed to Christ than they were.

I looked down on this pastor (snubbing the spiritual snob!) until I became a pastor. Members went skiing on winter weekends; they chose the garden club over prayer meetings; they thought themselves sacrificial when they tithed 2 percent of their income. Some days, I was furious.

Noticing the difference in commitment isn’t the problem; it’s getting angry about it that signals self-righteousness. Most pastors are, in fact, more committed than church members to the church, and for good reasons: one, they wouldn’t have entered the pastorate otherwise; two, pastors get paid to eat, sleep, and breathe the church.

In the course of my ministry, then, I noticed people’s lesser commitment, and my usual response was understanding (“These people have their own callings, and being on this committee is just one facet”), and compassion (“I’ll bet after working a full day, it’s no fun to come to a church meeting”).

When I became angry about the difference, that should have signaled a problem in me, not them. And the problem more times than not was pride and self-righteousness.

I also noticed a holier-than-them attitude creeping within me when I thought about my colleagues in ministry.

In my first call, I served as an associate pastor of the largest Protestant church in the city. Without my knowing it, I began to equate the social dynamics of my setting (dynamic demographics, oodles of programs, sophisticated parishioners) with the spiritual dynamics of ministry.

I once took a drive to the country and passed through a small town with only one church. I was depressed as I left and tried to figure out why. I discovered I pitied the pastor of that church. He ministered to the same, simple people for years on end (no one was moving into this community!). He could offer few dynamic programs to his tiny congregation. He had no hope of church growth. How does he keep himself motivated for ministry here? I wondered. Poor guy.

It took me a few years—and a move to a small church—to realize how patronizing I had been. I couldn’t imagine that ministry could be effective except based on my suburban assumptions. Unfortunately, I felt I was on the cutting edge of Jesus’ work in the world. Pity the rest of the church.

Since then, I’ve become more sensitive to the patronizing comments of pastors of large churches: “Ah, yes. My favorite years in ministry were when I served that rural church in Sycamore, Illinois.” (Then why didn’t you stay in small-church ministry?)

“The pressures in the large church are so enormous. Sometimes I long for the simple days of pastoring a smaller church.” (Ergo: “Now I’m sophisticated and adultlike, and someday you will be, too, if you work as hard as I do.”)

“I admire those brothers and sisters who labor in the small vineyards without much recognition.” (In other words, “You’re good little pastors.”)

I once interviewed a pastor of a large church whose view of small-church pastors (“Bless their hearts. I love them,” he said repeatedly) could be summarized in three words: those poor jerks.

After my move to a small church, though, I noticed the opposite self-righteous dynamic take effect. Suddenly, pastors of large churches were success driven; they were infatuated with numbers and graphs and indifferent to people and their spiritual needs; they strove to build organizations rather than kingdom communities. Et cetera, et cetera. I, of course, ministered out of purer motives.

Regardless of size of church, we’re pretty good at finding ways to put ourselves above others. This is an especially strong temptation when we hear that another pastor has fallen morally, let’s say, committing adultery. Our initial reaction is shock: “I can’t believe it! How could he have done that? He seemed like a man of integrity.”

For some, this is the healthy shock of recognition. Just as another’s death suddenly reminds us of our mortality, another’s adultery dramatizes our moral weakness. When a colleague falls, some of us fall to our knees, begging God to keep us from such sins.

For others, shock comes because a mentor has fallen. They may be saying, “I thought better of this colleague, whom I’ve always looked up to.” This may lead to a new appreciation of the doctrine of sin. Or it may lead, as it did for me once, to despising the fallen mentor: “All these years I looked up to him while he was doing that. That fraud!” In my bitterness, I assumed I would never do such a thing.

For others still, shock is an act, especially if a prominent minister has fallen. Underneath the righteous facade runs a smug and triumphant jealousy, which somehow justifies our relative righteousness. I know whereof I speak. The old moral insight remains valid: hearing of others’ more blatant evils tends to make us feel good. Unfortunately, this is especially true of those whose very identity and calling is tied to living holy lives.

Possessor of gnosis

Pastors spend a lot of time with knowledge, with truth. We read about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty; we ponder biomedical ethics; we scrutinize God’s revelation in holy Scripture. You would think that an intense acquaintance with truth would nurture humility. Sometimes it does; often it does not.

Helmut Thielicke, the great German theologian and pastor, spoke of the dark side of knowledge when he addressed students of theology:

Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that. I have greater possibilities and also greater temptations. Anyone who deals with truth—as we theologians certainly do—succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self-giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself.

Though this temptation is stronger in the early years of ministry, I’m not convinced we’re ever through with it. It doesn’t help that church members defer to you when, in casual conversation, the subject concerns the Bible, morality, or theology: “Pastor, you’re the expert. What do you think?” Nor does it help that, in fact, we know a lot more about these “sacred” subjects than do our people. We’re acquainted with truths that should make living the Christian life easier.

It’s not the fact of our greater knowledge that’s the problem, but the posture we assume as a result. Take a related example: table manners. It bothers me to eat with a man who chews with his mouth open. If I’m loving, my attitude is, He doesn’t know what he’s doing. I wonder how I can gently tell him. If I’m haughty, I think, Boy, is this guy ignorant. What a slob! When it comes to spiritual knowledge, our congregations can become to us either lost sheep who need a gentle shepherd or just stupid goats.

Worse still is to use knowledge as a weapon to show people, especially opponents, their utter ignorance, at least compared to you. If someone tries to argue a fine point from Romans 9, I can trounce her with, “I see what you’re saying. But C. K. Barrett wouldn’t agree, nor would the great Ernst Kasemann. I will grant you that C. E. B. Cranfield is ambivalent here. But I think the most incisive argument comes from Karl Barth’s classic theological commentary …” Game, set, match.

Thielicke notes:

Truth is employed as a means to personal triumph and at the same time as a means to kill, which is in the starkest possible contrast with love. It produces a few years later that sort of minister who operates not to instruct but to destroy his church. And if the elders, the church, and the young people begin to groan, if they protest to the church authorities, and finally stay away from worship, this young man is still Pharisaical enough not to listen one bit.

The ground of all ministry

Perhaps the most subtle form of self-righteousness is described by Eugene Peterson in his book The Unpredictable Plant:

In our ministerial vocation we embark on a career of creating, saving, and blessing on behalf of God.… It is compelling work: a world in need, a world in pain, friends and neighbors and strangers in trouble—and all of them in need of compassion and food, healing and witness, confrontation and consolation and redemption.

Because we are motivated by Christ, by his grace and forgiveness, because our goals are defined by kingdom values, it rarely occurs to us that in this spiritual work anything could go wrong. But something always does. For some reason, in our zeal to fulfill the agenda of our Savior, we forget our own need of daily salvation.

At first it is nearly invisible, this split between our need of the Savior and our work for the Savior. We feel so good, so grateful, so saved. And these people around us are in such need. We throw ourselves recklessly into the fray.

Our ministries begin to deteriorate from there, says Peterson, so that it isn’t long before we end up identifying our work with Christ’s work, so much so

that Christ himself recedes into the shadows and our work is spotlighted at center stage. Because the work is so compelling, so engaging—so right—we work with what feels like divine energy. One day we find ourselves (or others find us) worked into the ground. The work may be wonderful, but we ourselves turn out to be not so wonderful, becoming cranky, exhausted, pushy, and patronizing in the process.

In substituting our power for the power of the Holy Spirit, our goals for the goals of Christ, our all-too-human work for the work of God, we’ve succumbed to pride—at its most subtle, perhaps, but also in its most malevolent disguise.

Graceful attention

Hypocrisy and self-righteousness, then, are the special sins of ministry, so it shouldn’t surprise us that these were the sins that most concerned Jesus. When he criticized religious leaders—really the only people he was severe with—he never chastised them for sloth or lust. Instead, he pointed to their hypocrisy and pride, the dangerous sins.

Part of the reason they’re dangerous, of course, is that spiritual sins are not easy to defeat. They cannot be attacked directly. The more we make humility our aim, for instance, the more we’re tempted to become proud of the humility we attain. One step forward, two steps back.

There is a more excellent way. The key, at least according to the church’s best spiritual guides through the centuries, is graceful attention to our souls. Some have called it spiritual direction, others contemplation. In any case, as Eugene Peterson notes, it’s the antidote to pride, and its cousin, hypocrisy: “The alternative to acting like gods who have no need of God is to become contemplative pastors.”

Contemplation includes prayer and worship, but more centrally, it means taking time regularly to pay attention to what God is doing within and around us. To practice it effectively requires two things.

First, we need to find time to be alone, no small achievement for the modern pastor. Still, it is a minimum requirement. In his classic, The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis writes:

Whoever intends to come to an inward fixing of his heart upon God and to have the grace of devotion must with our Saviour Christ withdraw from the world. No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could.

Later he adds:

Our Lord and his angels will draw near and abide with those who, for the love of virtue, withdraw themselves from their acquaintances and from their worldly friends. It is better that a man be solitary and take good heed of himself than that, forgetting himself, he perform miracles in the world.

Second, and even more critical, we need to practice a graceful contemplation. The spiritual sins are not conquered with gritted teeth. The harder we try to conquer them, in fact, the more we’ll despair. A baseball player doesn’t break out of a slump by swinging harder and harder.

Instead, contemplation, in the classic sense, is a graceful attention to our lives. For instance, let’s say I’ve made a vow, as I often have, not to live a hurried life. I want to manage my days so I have time for prayer and for people, and for the many interruptions that may be divine opportunities.

A phone call one afternoon, though, leads me to teach my son’s midweek Bible study class. Sunday, I agree to join a task force planning the new Christian education wing. The next week, I promise a friend I’ll help him move.

Soon, I’ve packed my schedule as I always pack my schedule. I find myself rising early not to pray but to get to work. I don’t chat with coworkers but stay huddled in my office. At home, I snap at my children and am cool with my wife.

Then I remember: I wasn’t going to do all this! So I start browbeating myself: You idiot! How did you get talked into all these commitments? What were you thinking? Now you’re hurried, you’re impatient, and you’re angry. Some Christian!

I’ve become impatient with my impatience, and angry with my anger. I had somehow imagined that I could, by a mere act of the will and in a few weeks, conquer a lifelong pattern. That’s pride multiplied.

Instead, graceful attention means gentle recognition. Gentle because we’re noticing something that a gracious God knew all along. Since he didn’t condemn us for it, neither do we need to condemn ourselves:

“Well, Lord, I see I’ve packed my schedule again, and there is hardly time for prayer anymore, let alone the important people of my life. This was certainly foolish. Forgive me. Help me to sort out exactly why I do this. Help me to accept my foolishness and your grace.”

Only when grace is the first and last word of contemplation can the scars left by spiritual sins be healed. James I. Packer, in his book Rediscovering Holiness, writes:

Pride blows us up like balloons, but grace punctures our conceit and lets the hot, proud air out of our system. The result … is that we shrink, and end up seeing ourselves as less—less nice, less able, less wise, less good, less strong, less steady, less committed, less of a piece—than ever we thought we were. We stop kidding ourselves that we are persons of great importance to the world and to God.… We bow to events that rub our noses in the reality of our own weaknesses, and we look to God for strength quietly to cope.

Two areas to contemplate

Everything is open for graceful contemplation, for the omnipresent God can meet us anywhere in our lives. We can examine our motives and desires. We can reflect on the language we use to describe our ministry to others. But in particular, here are two areas worth examining regularly.

Pastoral activities. In The Minister and His Own Soul, Thomas Hamilton Lewis writes:

The minister’s daily routine, so comforting, so helpful, so blessed to his people, may be his own spiritual vampire. The surgeon becomes increasingly insensitive to suffering in his intentness upon removing it. And that is well for the surgeon and for us. But it is not well for a minister to become dulled in his spiritual sensibilities by ministering so constantly to keep alive the sensibilities of others.

The most troublesome state comes when a pastor,

praying so much for others finds his prayers not moving his own soul, preaching so much to others and bringing no message to his own soul, serving constantly at the altar and failing to offer up sacrifices first for his own sins.

As a fresh graduate from seminary, having just arrived in the community I was to serve, I met the local Episcopal priest. I was taken aback.

He denigrated preaching: “Don’t get your hopes up, young man. It doesn’t make much difference.”

He made fun of one of his parishioners in the hospital: “Maybe he’ll learn a little humility.”

He made jokes about Communion, which I won’t repeat.

As I was to discover, he was a pastor who administered efficiently the many programs of his church. He visited his people regularly in the hospital. He was a fine preacher, but he had pastored so long, had done these holy tasks so often, he was oblivious to the sacredness of his calling.

Pastors spend a lot of time with the holy: reading the Bible, performing baptisms, serving Communion, praying here, there, and everywhere. The old adage applies: familiarity breeds contempt, more so when it comes to handling things holy.

The only way to throttle familiarity is to pay attention afresh to what has become familiar. Many pastors, therefore, periodically use their own messages to inventory their spiritual lives, or their denomination’s prayer books and liturgies as devotional guides. Others meditate on the sacramental elements of water, or wine and bread. Others contemplate the mystery of words, how such intangible things can connect people and God.

God’s presence. When we start paying attention to what is going on in and around us, we start to become aware of God. All contemplation is, in the end, a fresh discovery of God’s activity in one’s life.

“Spiritual direction is the act of paying attention to God, calling attention to God, being attentive to God in a person or circumstance or situation,” writes Eugene Peterson. “A prerequisite is standing back, doing nothing. It opens a quiet eye of adoration. It releases the energetic wonder of faith. It notices the Invisibilities in and beneath and around the Visibilities. It listens for the Silences between the spoken Sounds.”

One warm summer night, I lay awake, restless, and lonely for my wife and children, who were away. Rather than picking up a book or writing or watching late-night TV, my first three lines of defense, I went outside and lay on our lawn. I started to pray but then decided just to pay attention to what was going on around me.

I decided to look up. I spend most of my day just looking at my level and below. I see doors and windows and people and cars and the bottom half of buildings. So I consciously tilted my head and looked up. I saw the branches of our maple tree swaying, swaying against a sky dotted with a thousand stars.

I decided to listen. I spend most of my day in my head, listening to my own agenda whirl away, or at best, hearing the words of others. Now I listened to the wind, to rustling leaves, swooshing, brushing, rushing here and there.

I decided to feel, which I rarely have time to do. The warm air glided over my skin. Grass tickled my neck. Firm ground pressed against my back.

Suddenly, and for no more than a few seconds, mystery and beauty were manifest. The universe seemed so fragile, like a glass ornament, yet so wonderful, like a best present of all. I felt insignificant. Yet love pulsed through me, around me. The glory of God. I lay there for many minutes, nearly in tears.

I relate this experience not because it’s unusual, but precisely because it is so very usual. Not that it happens to us everyday, but most Christians have had these little epiphanies. The great spiritual teachers of the church tell us that though we cannot control such encounters, we can lead lives—of graceful attention—that can prepare us and make possible such epiphanies.

Paying attention is more than an exercise in moral vigilance. It is not the making of resolutions and willful activity. It is mostly making room for God, and making room for love. The first commandment is not to obey God or to be righteous. It is to love God, which means first to be loved by him.

Only then will we have the courage to contemplate our hypocrisy and gently probe the pride that snakes its way into our souls. Only then will we obtain eyes to see God in, with, and under us, even the ugly us. Only this love makes the moral demands of ministry bearable, even joyful.

“Love is a great and good thing,” writes Thomas à Kempis, “and alone makes heavy burdens light and bears in equal balance things pleasing and displeasing.… The noble love of Jesus perfectly imprinted in man’s soul makes a man do great things, and stirs him always to desire perfection and to grow more and more in grace and goodness.”

In the end, the right, reasonable, and ridiculous call to pastoral holiness is mostly the call to know and share this love.


Pulling Weeds from Your Field of Dreams

Toxic weeds thrive in visions for ministry. A fertile spiritual imagination is just as good at growing weeds as a crop.

—Dave Hansen

In western Montana, a weed imported from France, spotted knapweed, plagues some of our best agricultural areas and is moving swiftly into wilderness areas. Only sheep will eat it. Cattle, deer, and elk won’t touch it. A meadow of knapweed won’t support a cow. A hillside of it will not feed elk. An infestation of knapweed can destroy a hay- or grainfield.

Beekeepers imported the plant for its purple blossoms that produce copious nectar even during drought years. The weed is unbelievably hardy, thriving in the driest of weather. It competes unfairly with natural flora; it grows over three feet tall so it shades shorter grasses. But if you clip it, knapweed will blossom at two inches off the ground.

Its most pernicious characteristic, however, is that knapweed is allelopathic. Knapweed’s roots secrete a toxic substance that stunts and even kills the plants in its vicinity.

Toxic weeds thrive in visions for ministry too. It is just as true of spiritual tilth as it is of good dirt: “It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3:18 niv). A fertile spiritual imagination is just as good at growing weeds as a crop. I’ve noticed at least three weeds that can flourish in my pastoral visions.

The dream weed

I love being somewhere long enough to watch the kids grow up. I love preaching through whole books of the Bible. I love watching a church grow and change over time. I love presiding at funerals for people I’ve called on and loved for a long time.

But I really dislike receiving phone calls, back to back, one from Euodia telling me that we should have vacation Bible school in June because that’s the only time we can get any teachers, and one from Syntyche saying that we should have VBS in August because three years ago at a Christian ed meeting, didn’t we decide always to hold VBS in August to promote Sunday school?

What gripes me is that I know the real problem: these two don’t like each other and are playing a game to see with whom I will side.

In such moments sprouts the dream weed, a mental flash, a phantasm from a subconscious reservoir of restlessness. It speaks to our disgust with the mess of the ministry. It shows us a place of benefits without blahs. It may be another church, another career, or just winning the lottery—my kingdom for a day without human foolishness! And of course, it can all be had in a moment, enjoyed in rush-hour traffic or in the middle of a fight at a council meeting.

The dream weed is only a dream away: “I gotta get outta here!”

I’m not naysaying daydreaming. Daydreaming can be an ally of ministry. Put to good use, the ability to live through experiences mentally is great for running through sermons, thinking through pastoral calls, and imagining what might be possible. God gave us the ability to “see” things in our minds.

However, I know this: the mental ability we use for daydreams, which God uses for visions, can be marshalled by our frustrations, our doubts, our anger, our self-pity, and our boredom. When these emotions control our mental scenery, our field of vision fills with dream weeds.

The dream weed is my weed of choice; I know it best. No other weed is this much fun. At Dream Weed University, I’ve gotten any number of Ph.D.s, been a professor at every seminary in the country, and published hundreds of books and articles.

I’ve pastored big churches, the mythical kind where all you have to do is hang around with a totally cool staff who do the down-and-dirty work with all the messed-up people. I’ve had offices where I didn’t have to answer the phone, and where three receptionists stood between me and Mr. McBlab, the parishioner with the personality disorder of critiqueophilia.

How do you subdue such weeds?

The best way is through confession and repentance. Confession is simply recognizing a false vision for what it is and speaking to God about it: “Here it is again, Lord; the old dream weed is back.” Repentance is simply returning to prayer for the right thing: for people, for the church, for stamina and joy.

Other strategies help. Dream weeds are intolerant of contact with anything specific. Jesus tells us to wash one another’s feet. There’s nothing dreamy about that. So I call a grump. I go out and bless a curmudgeon. I immerse myself in the details of church work. I fix the leaky toilet in the men’s room. I pick the popcorn off the floor from the Wednesday night program. We have a custodian for that. But sometimes I need to do it.

Every Sunday morning before people arrive, I sweep the outside walks as metaphoric prayer. God talks to us in parables and metaphors, so I return the favor. I talk to him in a metaphor: “Lord, as I sweep this morning, help me commit myself to washing the feet of this church.” Then I take the broom and go up and down the concrete walks, brushing away the gravel, dirt, and bird droppings. I’m sweeping away daydreams. As I sweep, I am parabolically committing myself before God to care for this particular church and these particular people.

With the dream weed gone, I find a reappreciation for my church. With my field of vision cleared, I can see that God has truly been in this place, and that he calls me to work here.

The greed weed

My fifteen-year-old son and I were hunting white-tailed deer on a local cattle ranch. Evan was sitting quietly on a knoll overlooking a hayfield, waiting for game to appear. I sneaked around a section of cottonwood trees, willows, and brambles adjacent to the hayfield and walked through it, hoping to flush a nice buck into the field.

I didn’t disturb an animal, but I got covered with burrs. I don’t remember seeing the burr-bearing weeds, but when I emerged, my hunter’s-orange sweatshirt was covered with spiky burrs the size of Ping-Pong balls. Sharp-pointed foxtails coated my socks; they lost no time working through my cotton socks into the flesh of my ankle.

Rambling through a river bottom, praying for my congregation, I hope to flush out a vision for our corporate life. I never stumble upon a burning bush. I see cottonwood trees and a red-tailed hawk. I hear wind, rushing water, and a Clark’s nutcracker.

Visions come like Elijah’s still small voice—gentle-whisper visions, unobtrusive projections upon my imagination. They present themselves with the utmost modesty. They don’t demand faith; they inspire it. I don’t propel them; they propel me. I don’t need to flesh them out; they flesh themselves out in me and in my congregation.

When I pray for a parishioner, often I “see” the person in my mind. As I pray for people, often I see them not as they are, but as they could be. I see possibilities for them. I see what their life might become under the lordship of Christ. These little visions don’t intrude or demand; they suggest and propose. They are the working capital of my pastoral calling.

Such visions are good, but opportunism clings to them like burrs. In the middle of “seeing” the building made new, the pews full, and our Sunday school bursting at the seams, I also see a mental image of a new fly rod that I could purchase with the raise I’d get if my ministry thrived. It sickens me.

When my spiritual imagination is at its best, I am also at my worst. Hedonism works its way into the fabric of my visions like foxtails into socks.

Too often greed sprouts are treated like playthings, harmless plants. They are not harmless. Greed was the sin of Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli. They looked with “greedy eye” at the sacrifices and offerings of the people of Israel, “fattening themselves” on the choicest parts of the offering. Their sins brought down the house of Eli and destroyed their own lives.

Calling on a ninety-six-year-old blind woman who lives in a tarpaper shack doesn’t present a conflict of interest. But put the same woman in a richly decorated home three times bigger than she needs, and visions of discipleship can become stuck with burrs and foxtail visions of big donations.

If the power of ministry is the love of God working in and through us, what happens to our power for ministry when we cast a greedy eye on the sacrifices and offerings? We stop seeing the person; all we see is her money.

Before I make a pastoral call on people with financial resources, I pray through my motivations vigorously and relentlessly. I have to pull the greed weeds. When my mental landscape is congested with greed weeds, I try resetting my timetable for the things I want. Greed has a crude intolerance for delayed gratification. Greed wants it now. I want a new fly rod (they aren’t cheap). So I reset my goal for getting a new fly rod by a year. We want to put new windows in the church. Not this year. We must wait. A new computer! Wait. A nice fat raise? Let the little ones build up over time.

Patience pulls greed weeds, and a patient heart is an inhospitable environment for greed weeds. Funny thing is, once the greed weeds are cleared away, love appears. The fruit of the Spirit grows best in a well-cleared field of vision.

The hero weed

An older lady stuffed a note into my hand as she greeted me in line after church. She winked at me. Five years later, serving a different church, I have that note taped to the window in front of my office desk. It reads: “There is no limit to the good you can do, if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

I don’t keep that note for sentimental reasons. It’s there because, like most of us, I like being a hero. I like getting credit when things go right. Maybe my sagacious friend knew it.

When we desire hero status in our churches, we become allelopathic to the people who serve with us. Like that toxic weed from France, we may come off as sweet as honey, but we stunt the growth of those around us. The poison of our pride places a limit on the good that we can do, and the good that those around us can do.

My visions are saturated with my face. It is repelling and embarrassing, but I must admit it: I can take a wonderful vision and muddy it with a mental image of my getting credit. What a glorious vision to see a little country church on the brink of closing its doors come to life! What a sad splotch of spilled ink to see myself in front of packed pews basking in the glory of being the one the people came to hear. It’s repulsive. But I can’t seem to eradicate the problem. Is the answer throwing out vision? If a vision is spoiled by an ego spill, must the picture be thrown out? Can any part of a vision in which I project myself as the hero ever be from God?

It’s not a matter of throwing out visions, however. It is a matter of extracting our egos from them. What pulls the hero weed is private prayer.

A parishioner was going through an especially acrimonious divorce. Of course, there were darling children involved. Of course, the couple fought over everything, including the Jimi Hendrix albums. I prayed for all parties involved, but one of them attended church regularly, so I felt for him a special pastoral responsibility.

I wanted to save the day. I felt like it was my job to go in and make a difference. I knew well how my pastoral capital would go up if I had a profound impact on this person’s life and he shared it with people. I could “see” their accolades. I became more concerned with the glory for being a good pastor than being filled with love and pity for my suffering friend. That’s hard to admit.

A couple of times, I decided to give an afternoon of prayer to the guy. I can’t sit still and pray, so I walk. Well, when I took a long walk and prayed for him, I saw myself staying away from him. The vision was odd, unusual. My impression, though vague, was that my whole responsibility was to pray and stay away. Over and over I asked, “Is this right? Am I just supposed to stay away?”

I didn’t hear a voice; I just saw myself staying away. “But what if I get called on the carpet for not reaching out to him? Staying away makes me look uncaring.” Fear entered in. Ultimately I obeyed the quieter picture of my staying away and just praying for the person. My interest piqued when, after his divorce, his church attendance picked up. A year after the dust settled, I visited the gentleman. We talked about his divorce. As he began, a deep confidence filled his eyes. The bitterness was gone. I knew he’d lived through hell. He recalled the difficult times. He did not dismiss the pain. But he went on to tell me that whenever he was at his lowest point, for some unexplainable reason, God had always shown up.

“When I was all used up and had nothing left, God was just there. He comforted me in my very darkest hours. God has been so good to me!”

This man, who few would have mistaken for a mystic, had learned to pray. He could hardly contain himself.

I could hardly contain myself. I wanted desperately to shout out “I prayed for you! I prayed for you!” Thankfully, I held my tongue and smiled.

Private prayer is therapy for allelopaths.

A cleared field of vision

As we pull the dream weeds, greed weeds, and hero weeds, we find a cleared field ready to produce a crop. True vision for ministry can grow.

In my mind, I can still see nails protruding from badly weathered siding. If you pounded them in, they popped back out. The eighty-year-old wood wasn’t worth another coat of white paint. The sanctuary was so poorly insulated that the water in the Christmas tree stand froze every December. Of course, the water pipes froze every winter too. The windows were cracked. The ceiling tiles bore yellow-veined stains from the leaky roof. The concrete steps and sidewalks were decomposing.

I did not pray for the renovation of the sanctuary. Frozen pipes and peeling paint were the least of our problems. But as I walked through the woods praying for the church, in my mind I saw not a broken-down church building, but a clean, white renovated sanctuary. I did not realize it then, but “seeing” the renewed sanctuary was a vision. It was so modest a spiritual phenomenon that I barely took it into account.

These little visions never came as announcements, prophecies, or revelations. At no time did I feel a message had arrived from God to oversee the renewal of the sanctuary. I never thought that seeing a pretty building in my mind constituted a vision. But that gentle, unobtrusive Spirit-whisper became a focus for my ministry at that church.

So I never announced to the church council, “I have had a vision: our sanctuary is going to be made brand new, and we need to start working on it right away.” Fixing up the place never became an intentional goal, but for whatever reason, at council we began to talk not about my vision or anybody else’s vision; we just started working away at fixing up the building.

Over nine years, little project by little project, the church was made new. We got a new roof. We applied new siding, insulated the walls, installed new exterior doors and double-paned windows. We added handicapped access. We poured concrete sidewalks and steps and painted the sanctuary walls and ceiling. We relandscaped the front yard, planted a new sign, and even insulated the crawlspace under the building so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. The sanctuary is now the brilliant white building I saw in my vision. Actually it is prettier than I thought it would be. The fulfillment exceeded the vision in beauty.

No aspect of church life is too spiritual or too material for visions. We need visions for deeper spirituality, more functional buildings, greater passion for God, steadier finances, and more effective Christian education. Seeing these ahead of time (even if not recognized as visions from God) constitutes the pastor’s spiritual field of vision. We simply need to clear that field of its weeds.


The Approval Addiction

Most of us in ministry have the same set of ego issues as people in any other profession. We just have a different way of keeping score.

—John Ortberg

Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was as celebrated in Chicago for his malaprops as for his ability to get votes out of corpses, once said of his opponents, “They have vilified me, they have crucified me, yes, they have even criticized me.”

Mayor Daley could have been speaking for those of us in ministry. Whether it’s politics or the pastorate, not everyone will believe we’re wonderful. Criticism, especially “friendly fire,” can pull the plug on our motivation and energy. Generally we pastors have a fairly high need to be liked. While not a bad thing, the need for strokes can set us up to have difficulty dealing with criticism.

But if the actions of Jesus and the prophets are any indication, then giving effective spiritual leadership will surely mean doing things that displease the very people whose approval we desire. For most of us, it’s only a matter of time (and usually not very much time) before the people we’re supposed to serve have vilified, crucified, or even criticized us.

Our strong reaction to such criticism reveals, I believe, a serious addiction problem. It has nothing to do with substance abuse or chemical dependency. It is, rather, a craving for approval. Its primary symptom: the tendency to confuse my “performance in ministry” with my worth as a person; to seek the kind of approval from people that can only satisfy when it comes to God.

This addiction has been around at least as long as the church. Paul thunders against it to the Galatians: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?… If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10 niv). Even more disturbing is the diagnosis from John about people who were blocked from faith because of this addiction: “They loved praise from men more than praise from God” (12:43 niv).

Addiction shows up in odd ways and at unwelcome times.

It’s four o’clock in the morning. I am awake. Recently I left a secure job with a real church to plant a new one, with no buildings, no offices, no secretaries, no handbell choirs, no professional scaffolding at all, and only six weeks’ worth of expenses (including my salary) in the bank. I do some of my best worrying at 4:00 a.m.

Something disturbs me about this particular concern, however. It occurs to me that a good chunk of my apprehension over this venture is not just that if we don’t succeed, many people will not meet God, although that’s part of it. My anxiety is not just over the financial needs of a family with three small, ravenous children; if worse comes to worst I can fall back on a degree in psychology. (There will always be enough rich, neurotic people to counsel.)

Part of the fear nagging at my heart—a bigger part than I want to admit—is that if we don’t succeed, I won’t look successful. Recognition, paradoxically, is the first step toward liberation. At least when I become aware of my need to appear successful, I can say, “I refuse to make decisions or hold back on risks based on something as stupid as my need to impress people who most likely are not even thinking about me anyway. I refuse to allow the approval or disapproval of others to determine my worth as a person.”

But recognition doesn’t make it go away.

The voice within

When I get up to speak on Sunday morning, the congregation hears my voice, but I hear another, more confusing voice in my head. It’s also my voice. Sometimes it shouts, Thus saith the Lord. But at other times, more often than I care to admit, the voice is less prophetic.

What will they think of me? the voice wonders.

Sometimes I feel less like the prophet Amos and more like Sally Field at the Academy Awards. I find myself desperate to be able to say as she did when she’d won her second Oscar: “You like me! You really like me!” I do not like this Sally Field voice. I wish I had more of a Rhett Butler voice and could greet evaluations at the door with, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a … rip.”

When Jesus spoke, he was free from the need to create an impression, free to speak the truth in love. But the voice within me is not free. It is driven by ego and pride. It is ugly to me, and I’d turn it off if I could, but turning it off proves not to be so simple. Where does this voice come from?

In Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor writes about growing up without praise under the theory that compliments cause swelled heads. But the years of emotional malnourishment, far from weaning him away from the need for approval, instead created an insatiable appetite for it:

Under this thin veneer of modesty lies a monster of greed. I drive away from faint praise, beating my little chest, waiting to be named Sun-God, King of America, Idol of Millions, Bringer of Fire, The Great Haji, Thun-Dar the Boy Giant. I don’t want to say, “Thanks, glad you liked it.” I want to say, “Rise, my people. Remove your faces from the carpet, stand, look me in the face.”

This would make for a rather awkward benediction, however.

Approval and anger

Sociologist George Herbert Meade wrote about the “generalized other,” the mental representation we carry inside ourselves of that group of people in whose judgment we measure our success or failure. Our sense of esteem and worth is largely wrapped up in their appraisal of our work.

Your generalized other is a composite of all the Siskels and Eberts in your life whose thumbs up or thumbs down carries, for you, emotional weight. This may include parents, seminary professors, key lay leaders, or other pastors. My guess is that most of us in ministry have the same set of ego issues as people in any other profession. We just have a different way of keeping score.

When my identity is wrapped up in whether I am perceived as successful, I am set up for the approval addiction, for it is my very sense of self that is on the line.

“Who am I?” Henri Nouwen asks. “I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated, or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman, or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world.”

And when my drug of choice is withheld, I respond with the same anger as any other addict: Don’t these people know I have the best interests of the church at heart? Don’t they know I could have gone into some other profession and made lots more money? It’s as if I’m entitled to universal trust and consideration.

Nouwen goes on to write:

Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church, and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm.

They are angry at their families, who make them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart.

If there is anything that makes the ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.

Wherever it comes from, whenever my craving for approval makes itself known, I’d better pay attention.

One Sunday morning, as I was greeting people at the door, a visitor handed me his card.

“I usually attend Hollywood Presbyterian,” he said. “But we’re visiting here today. Give me a call sometime.”

I looked down at his card—”Speech Instructor.”

Hollywood Presbyterian is the home of Lloyd Ogilvie. Lloyd Ogilvie is perfect. His hair is perfect, his robe is perfect, his smile is perfect, but above all, his voice is perfect. Deep as the ocean, rich and resonant, Lloyd Ogilvie sounds like what I expect God will sound like on a really good day. Next to his voice, mine sounds like I’m in perpetual adolescence. It’s difficult to feel prophetic when you hear yourself chirping like Mickey Mouse: “Okay, now, let’s repent.”

When I catch myself comparing myself to others or thinking, I could be happy if only I had what they have, then I know I need to withdraw for a while and listen for another voice. Away from the winds, earthquakes, and fires of human recognition, I can again hear the still, small voice, posing the question it always asks of self-absorbed ministers: What are you doing here?

I reply by whining about some of my own Ahabs and Jezebels. And the voice gently reminds me, as it has reminded thousands of Elijahs before me, that I am only a small part of a much larger movement, and at the end of the day there is only one King whose approval will matter.

The voice also whispers, Do not despise your place, your gifts, your voice, for you cannot have another’s, and it would not fulfill you if you could.

Celebrating solitude

To truly care for people requires not caring too much about their approval or disapproval. Otherwise the temptation to give their preferences too much emotional weight is almost inevitable. To effectively lead people—without being damaged in the process—requires regular withdrawal from the very people I’m trying to lead.

Thomas Merton wrote that the desert fathers considered society to be a shipwreck from which all individuals must swim for their lives. The very pecking orders and ladders of success that I naturally find myself climbing, they fled in horror. In solitude I see the career successes and failures—which look so huge in my day-to-day life—take on a much smaller look from an eternal perspective. (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster,” Kipling wrote, “treat those two imposters just the same.”) And the development of my soul, which I can lose sight of altogether in my routine strivings, is revealed as the one great task of my life.

Approval addiction involves some irrational thought processes, which solitude helps clear. Psychiatrist David Burns notes it is not another person’s approval or compliment that makes me feel good, it is my belief that there is validity to the compliment. Suppose you were to visit a psychiatric ward, he imagines, and a patient approaches you: “You are wonderful. I had a vision from God. He told me the thirteenth person to walk through the door would be the Special Messenger. You are the thirteenth, so I know you are God’s Chosen One, the Prince of Peace, the Holy of Holies. Let me kiss your shoe.”

Most likely your self-esteem-o-meter would not rise. Why not? Because between other people’s approval and your pleasure in it is your assessment of the validity of their approval. You are not the passive victim of others’ opinions. In fact, their opinions are powerless until you validate them. No one’s approval will affect me unless I grant it credibility and status. The same holds true for disapproval.

Several years back, at a previous church, I used to get regular complaints from a parishioner about all aspects of the service, mostly that the music was too loud. When he couldn’t get satisfaction from me, he hounded other staff and board members. One afternoon my secretary informed me that I had a visitor from OSHA, the federal watchdog agency. It turned out this same parishioner, as a last resort, asked for government assistance to get the sound system turned down on Sunday mornings. By law, OSHA was required to send someone out.

“Can you imagine the kind of ridicule I’ve taken all week,” the OSHA representative said apologetically, “with people knowing I’m going out to bust a church?”

Though dramatically stated and strongly disapproving, these complaints didn’t bother me at all. They originated from a character who lived on the fringe, as far as I was concerned. I realized from this incident that no one’s disapproval can emotionally affect me without my authorization. For me to allow disapproval to subtract from my sense of worth as a human being is both irrational and destructive.

Getting guidance

In addition to solitude, I find it helpful to have another person or two to whom I regularly go for guidance on these issues.

Some time ago I heard from an attender that our church doesn’t talk enough about sin.

“Can you imagine that?” I said later to one of my spiritual guides in my nondefensive, emotionally open way. “What he really wants is a sermon series promoting the legalistic, superficial, developmentally arrested approach to morality that will condemn outsiders and reinforce his own self-righteous spiritual smugness.”

I waited for my friend to agree with me that this guy had obviously fixated at Kohlberg’s lowest stage of moral development (preconventional level—heteronomous morality).

Instead he asked me two pointed questions:

“Well, do you preach about sin enough?”

Then, after I had squirmed, he added, “And what is this need you have for everybody to agree with everything you do?”

He forced me to reexamine my own understanding of sin and to proclaim it in a clearer way. He also reminded me that ministry is not about getting people to like me.

A certain amount of discontent is inevitable, and probably even healthy, in any group of people. Not every infection calls for a massive dose of penicillin. Many of the personal hits a pastor takes will be absorbed in the natural flow of events. But at least two types of situations call for criticism to be confronted and refuted.

One is if the criticism affects the health of the body.

I have a friend who pastors with as much sensitivity and integrity as anyone I know. Because of several changes going on in the church, however, he was accused of (among other things) being a megalomaniac. This has about as much validity as charging Mr. Rogers with inciting violence. This criticism, however, went far beyond what his psyche could tolerate. It struck directly at his ability to serve effectively and at the church’s trust in its own leadership process. Because it affected the health of the body, this attack had to be handled head-on.

The other time I probably need to respond directly to criticism is—unfortunately—when I don’t want to. Recent studies on self-esteem suggest that most issues involving our sense of worth revolve around approach/avoidance tendencies.

That is, when we sense ourselves avoiding something out of fear, we interpret ourselves as wimping out, and our self-esteem drops proportionately. On the other hand, when we approach directly a situation we’d rather avoid (even if we’re not particularly effective in it), our sense of esteem rises because we did the difficult thing.

At one point early in my ministry, we had a particularly difficult EGR (“extra-grace required,” as Carl George calls them) person on the governing board. When his term finally expired, I breathed a prayer of thanks. Sometime later I was engaged in what was supposed to be an extended time of prayer, when I realized I was deep into an anger fantasy involving this former board member.

In my anger fantasies, I never torture my opponents too brutally, because then I would feel guilty (and that would rob my sense of revenge of its purity). Usually in my fantasies, whomever I’m angry at suddenly realizes with painful, shame-ridden clarity the massive, unfair hurt they’ve inflicted on me and my family.

“I hope you’re satisfied with what you’ve done,” I always say, pouring hot coals upon their too-late repentant heads until they feel like scum.

“I hope when you go home and look in the mirror tonight you can live with what you see.”

It occurred to me that I might still be angry with this guy. I realized then I needed to meet with him and discuss it, even if all issues didn’t get resolved (they didn’t). Otherwise, there would always be that suspicion lurking in the back of my mind that I had avoided a confrontation I needed to have.

The discipline of secrecy

We have yet another weapon in the battle against the approval addiction: the discipline of secrecy.

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them,” Jesus warned. “If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1 niv).

His particular examples relate to financial contributions, fasting, and prayer, but they reflect a deep insight into all of human nature. I used to think Jesus meant God had a reward stored up for me in heaven, but if my motives were self-serving, I would lose it. What he’s really talking about, however, is losing the intrinsic power that these good deeds have of helping me enter the life of the kingdom. He was talking to people who were addicted to having their righteousness admired—so addicted, it was impossible for them to enjoy righteousness for its own sake.

If I give my money away, I have less opportunity to become a slave to it, and I can experience true freedom and joy. If I choose to impress people by making sure they know about my generosity, however, the nature of my action changes. I settle for the narcotic of approval, and instead of becoming a little more free, I become a little more enslaved.

On one particularly busy morning at our house, I voluntarily emptied the dishwasher before my wife got up, even though it wasn’t in my job description. That evening, when she still hadn’t commented on it, I tactfully mentioned how fortunate she was to have such a thoughtful husband. At this point, the fundamental character of what I had done was altered. Instead of one tiny action helping me become more like Christ, more like a servant without feeling I had done something extraordinary, it became one more item on a quid pro quo checklist.

Jesus says to do good things without telling anybody about it. Eventually you’ll find you lose the need to let people know. And you’ll also find you can do good because it really is the most liberating, joyful way to live.

I try to implement this discipline of secrecy regularly in my own life. If I’m going to a meeting where there will be people I perceive as important (my “generalized others”), I try ahead of time to identify the things I’ll be tempted to say to impress them, and declare those topics off limits. (I don’t get carried away with it, though. You’ll notice this chapter didn’t get published anonymously.)

Weaning myself from the approval of others is a lifetime project. Its viselike grip on my soul can be broken, however, enabling me, when vilified, crucified, and even criticized, to rest in the approval of the One I serve.


Big Shoes to Fill

I want the Lord to burn my mouth. If my mouth is burned with a heaven-sent fire, then the result will be the work of God.

—Gary V. Simpson

When I became pastor of Concord Baptist Church, in the heart of Brooklyn, I had an idea of what would be expected of me.

I was not coming as a stranger. I had served as associate pastor there for five years before taking a senior pastorate in New Jersey.

For 149 years, Concord Baptist has had a vibrant community-centered ministry. It has enjoyed a long tradition of positive pastor-congregation relationships. I am only the tenth pastor in the church’s history.

Recent history is most impressive. Concord has had as many pastors in its first fifteen years as it has had in the 132 years since. Since 1863, I am the fifth pastor. In all these years, thanks be to God, there have also been no splits nor schisms.

Most of my predecessors enjoyed recognition and accomplishment during their pastorates. My immediate predecessor, Gardner C. Taylor, served for forty-two years, instilling a vision for the church and community from the Concord pulpit. He is a master preacher, an effective leader, my former boss, a friend, and a second father.

Each of these identities presented me both a blessing and burden. I could not help but feel the pressure to live up to such a record.

When I first came to this historic pulpit, I wanted to live up to the legacy of eloquence and profundity that emanated from this station. For five years, I had heard Dr. Taylor preach Sunday after Sunday. I studied him closely. He preached with grandeur and power, eloquent beyond words, and the most awesome part of it was that it appeared almost effortless.

I knew, at least I thought I knew, that this was what the church wanted and needed each Sunday. During my first two years, I worked hard to make my preaching profound. People quoted Dr. Taylor. I wanted to be quotable. I figured that’s what it meant to be pastor of Concord Church.

I worked so hard to say something memorable every week that I almost forgot the central focus of the gospel—to say something salvific. But another sermon haunted me, one I heard my father—another great preacher—preach during my youth. It was based on 1 Samuel 17, where Saul gave David his armor and the shepherd boy was dwarfed by the king’s equipment that did not fit.

My father’s point: “You’ve got to wear your own armor.” That sermon stayed with me as I struggled to make the transition into this historic parish.

Then something happened that redefined my preaching course. For our Watch Meeting on the last night of 1992, I planned to preach from Psalm 51: “Renew a Right Spirit Within Me.” I had been very ill over the Christmas holiday. In fact, I had lost my voice after preaching the Sunday before Christmas, and I was not even sure I was going to be able to preach at all for our Watch Meeting.

Besides my feeling physically subpar, I also began to question the message I was going to deliver. Somehow I felt an unction to return to Isaiah 6. I changed the message to “My Prayer for the Church.”

In this sermon, I conveyed my earnest sentiments as a pastor—What was it I saw and believed the church should become? When I got to the verse referring to the angels placing the live coals on Isaiah’s mouth, the Scripture seemed to be speaking directly to me. That’s it! That’s what I want. I want the Lord to burn my mouth. Never mind profundity for profundity’s sake. If my mouth is burned with a heaven-sent fire, then the result will be the work of God.

Since then I have been preaching more freely from the fire in my soul, using the gifts—music and a peculiar sense of humor—that are unique to me.

The wall of the church lounge displays pictures memorializing each of my pastoral predecessors. Underneath the commissioned oil portrait of Dr. Taylor is a frame containing a well-worn piece of the carpet from right behind the pulpit where he stood for thirty-five years.

Before anchoring in and beginning to speak, he had a habit of moving his left foot over the carpet. Many a legend began from this small movement. Some said he was making the sign of the cross with his foot and thereby standing in the power of the crucified Lord. Others said he, like a batter, was clearing his own place and digging in to take his best swing.

On the framed carpet, you can clearly see where his feet made their impression in the fabric. The engraved label reads: FOOTPRINTS OF THE PREACHER, 1955–1990.

Looking at my own size 9s, I am humbled by the reminder of Dr. Taylor’s size 12s that stood firm and strong for so long.

Shortly after I assumed this charge, I walked through the sanctuary and saw one of our custodians behind the pulpit. The scent of freshly cut carpet filled the air, and there was a new red carpet where the framed carpet had been. The custodian looked up and said, “Reverend, it’s your carpet now!”

Now, as I step up to that historic pulpit, I have to dig in too. I know that I’ll have some misses and a few hits. But I am firmly planted and I know I must take my own swings.

Part 6

Taking Measures


Reading Your Gauges

The spiritual and physical aspects of life were important, but I had failed to consider another area essential to healthy ministry—emotional strength. I needed a third gauge on the dashboard of my life.

—Bill Hybels

For many of the years I’ve served in ministry, I monitored myself closely in two areas, continually checking two gauges on the dashboard of my life.

I thought that was enough.

First, I kept an eye on the spiritual gauge, asking myself, How am I doing spiritually? Apart from Christ I can do nothing. I know that. I don’t want my life’s efforts to be burned up because they were done merely through human effort, clever tactics, or gimmickry. I am gripped by the fact that I must operate in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To keep my spiritual gauge where it needs to be, I have committed myself to the spiritual disciplines: journaling, fasting, solitude, sacrifice, study, and others. Like many Christians before me, I have discovered that these disciplines clarify spiritual issues and pump a high-octane fuel, providing intensity and strength for ministry.

Even though the pace of ministry has dramatically quickened in the past few years, I honestly don’t think I often misread my spiritual gauges. Looking at my life’s dashboard, I can tell when I am spiritually half-full, three-quarters full, or, sometimes, full.

When I’m full spiritually, I can look at my life and honestly say I love Jesus Christ and I’m attending to my spiritual disciplines and keeping myself open to the leading of Christ. When I’m spiritually full, I don’t need to apologize for my motives. I can truly say: “I’m not in ministry because it gives me strokes. I’m excited about the fruit being borne through the ministry of Willow Creek.”

Second, I have monitored the physical gauge—How am I doing physically? I know that if I push my body too hard, over time I will experience a physical breakdown or psychosomatic complications associated with high stress.

If I don’t exercise, eat properly, and rest, I will offer the Lord only about two-thirds of the energy I have the potential of giving. The Holy Spirit tugs at me to be wholly available—mind, soul, and body—for the work to which he has called me.

Consequently, I have committed myself to the physical disciplines of running and weight lifting. I closely watch what I eat. And I receive regular medical checkups.

Near crash

Since these spiritual and physical gauges—the only two on my dashboard—have consistently signaled “go,” I have pushed myself as hard and fast as possible. But then a different part of my engine began to misfire.

While preparing for a particularly difficult series of sermons, the message that week wouldn’t come together. No matter how hard I tried, no ideas seemed worth saying. Suddenly I found myself sobbing with my head on my desk.

I’ve always been more analytic than emotional, so when I stopped crying, I said to myself, I don’t think that was natural. People who know my rational bent laugh when I tell them that. Individuals more aware of their feelings might have known what was wrong, but I didn’t.

All I knew was, Something’s not right with me, and I don’t even have time now to think about it. I’ll have to journal about this tomorrow. I forced my thoughts back to the sermon and managed to put something together for the service.

But the next morning as I wrote in my journal I considered, Am I falling apart in some area spiritually? My gauges said no. My practice of the disciplines seemed regular, and I didn’t sense a spiritual malaise. Physically, am I weak or tired? No, I felt fit.

I concluded that maybe this was my midlife crisis, a phase I would simply have to endure. But four or five similar incidents in the next few weeks continued signaling that my anxiety and frustration could not be ignored.

Then I noticed I was feeling vulnerable—extremely temptable—in areas where I hadn’t felt vulnerable for a long time. And the idea of continuing on in ministry seemed nothing but a tremendous burden. Where had the joy gone? I couldn’t bear the thought of twenty more years of this.

Maybe God is calling me to a different kind of work, I thought. Maybe he’s getting my attention by these breakdowns in order to lead me to a different ministry. Maybe I should start another church or go back into a career in the marketplace.

At that time, the church was deciding whether to take on a major building expansion, which intensified my feelings. I knew that if we moved ahead, it would be unconscionable for me to leave the senior pastorate until the expansion was complete. Yet when I looked honestly at whether I wanted to sign up for another three or four years, the answer scared me. It was a big fat no.

You don’t feel like it anymore? I asked myself in disbelief. You want to bail out? What is happening to you? Maybe I did need a change of calling.

Whatever it was, I was astounded that I could be coming apart, because I put so much stock in the spiritual and physical gauges, and neither of them was indicating any problem.

Overlooked gauge

After a Christmas vacation that didn’t change my feelings, I began to seriously inspect my life. After talking with some respected people, I learned that I had overlooked an important gauge. The spiritual and physical aspects of life were important, but I had failed to consider another area essential to healthy ministry—emotional strength.

I was so emotionally depleted I couldn’t even discern the activity or the call of God on my life. I needed a third gauge on the dashboard of my life.

Throughout a given week of ministry, I slowly began to realize, certain activities drain my emotional reservoir. I now call these experiences IMAs—Intensive Ministry Activities.

An IMA may be a confrontation, an intense counseling session, an exhausting teaching session, or a board meeting about significant financial decisions. Preparing and delivering a message on a sensitive topic, which requires extensive research and thought, for instance, wear me down.

The common denominator of these activities is that they sap me, even in only a few hours.

Every leader constantly takes on IMAs. I didn’t realize, however, that I could gauge the degree of their impact on me. As a result, I was oblivious to the intense drain I was experiencing.

For example, many times while driving home from church, I would feel thin in my spirit. Sensing something wrong, I would examine my two trusted gauges.

In the spiritual area, I’d scrutinize myself: Did you give out the Word of God as best you knew how? Did you pray? Did you fast? Did you prepare? Were you accurate? Did the elders affirm the message? If that gauge read normal, I would proceed to the physical area: Have you kept to your diet? Yes. Have you been working out? Yes. I must be okay. Buck up, Bill.

But something was wrong. I needed that third gauge—an emotional monitor—to determine my ministry fitness.

Often we attribute our discouragement to spiritual weakness. We berate ourselves: “I’m a bad Christian,” or “I’m a lousy disciple.” And sometimes our problem does signal that we are not rightly connected to Christ. Yet some problems in ministry stem not from spiritual lapses but from emotional emptiness.

Gauge reading

I have now committed myself to installing an emotional gauge in the center of my dashboard and learning how to read it. I take responsibility to manage the emotional reservoir in my life.

When my crisis hit, I didn’t realize my reservoir was depleted until I (1) began to feel vulnerable morally, (2) found myself getting short and testy with people, and (3) felt a desire to get out of God’s work. Suddenly I knew the tank was nearly dry.

Now my goal is to monitor my emotional resources so I don’t reach that point. What signals do I look for?

If I drive away from a ministry activity and say, “It would be fine if I never did that again,” that’s a warning signal. Something is wrong when I look at people as interruptions or see ministry as a chore.

Another indicator: On the way home, do I consciously hope Lynne isn’t having a problem and my kids don’t want anything from me? That’s a sign I don’t have enough left to give. When I hope that the precious people in my life can exist without me, that’s a sign of real trouble.

A third check for me is how I approach the spiritual disciplines. I journal and write my prayers. For months I found myself saying, day after day, “I don’t have the energy to do this.” I journaled anyway, but more mechanically than authentically. I dislike myself when my Christianity is on autopilot.

Each person has to find the warning signals for his or her own life. But after an intense ministry activity, it helps to ask some questions of yourself: Am I out of gas emotionally? Can I not stand the thought of relating to people right now? Do I feel the urge to take a long walk with no destination in mind? Am I feeling the need to go home, put on music, and let the Lord recharge my emotional batteries?

Reserve recharge

My next discovery was humiliating: I found that when my emotional fuel was low, I couldn’t do an Indy pit stop and get a fast refill. Replenishing emotional strength takes time—usually more time than it took to drain.

The best analogy I can offer is a car battery. If you sit in a parking lot and run all your car’s accessories—radio, headlights, heater, horn, rear defogger, power windows—you can sap that battery in ten minutes. After that massive drain, suppose you then take the battery to a service station and say, “I’d like this battery charged. I’ll be back to pick it up in ten minutes.”

What would they tell you? “No, we’re going to put the battery on our overnight charger. It’s going to take seven or eight hours to bring it all the way back up.” It has to be recharged slowly or else the battery will be damaged.

A slow, consistent charge is the best way to bring a battery back to full power. Likewise, to properly recuperate from an emotionally draining activity takes time.

When I first learned I couldn’t get a quick emotional recharge, I shared my frustration about that with another pastor friend. He said, “Bill, you have found a rule you’re not an exception to. You can fast and study the Scriptures and lift weights and do whatever you want, but there’s no shortcut to rebuilding yourself emotionally. A massive drain requires a slow and steady recharge.”

That discouraged me. I looked at my average week, and almost every day had an intense ministry activity—preparing a message, delivering a message, meeting with elders, or making some tough decision. I would find little snatches of refreshment during the week, but I finished most weeks with an emotional deficit. Then my family wanted me to have some fun and exciting things planned for them, but I was totally depleted.

I’m going to overload the circuitry, I said to myself. One day I’m going to find myself in the proverbial fetal position.

It has been humbling to take an accurate, honest reading of my emotional gauges. When I see my emotional gauge is reading low, I take time to recharge. Some people recharge by running, others by taking a bath, others by reading, others by listening to music. Usually it means doing something totally unrelated to ministry—golfing, motorcycling, woodcarving. The important thing is to build a ministry schedule that allows adequate time for emotional recharging.

Gifting priority

I’ve learned a second thing about maintaining emotional resources for ministry. The use of your major spiritual gift breathes life back into you. When you have identified your spiritual gifts and use them under the direction of Jesus Christ, you make a difference. You feel the affirmation of God, and many times you feel more energized after service than before.

I think of when Jesus had that important conversation with the woman at the well. The Twelve came back from buying food and said: “Jesus, you must be famished. We had lunch, and you’ve just worked through your lunch hour.”

Jesus responded: “I’ve had a meal. I had food you’re not aware of. I was used by my Father to connect with a woman who was in trouble.” Jesus found that doing what the Father had called him to do was utterly fulfilling.

Conversely, serving outside your gift area tends to drain you. If I were asked to sing or assist with accounting, it would be a long hike uphill. I wouldn’t feel the affirmation of the Spirit, because I wouldn’t be serving as I have been gifted and called to serve. This is why many people bail out of various types of Christian service: they aren’t in the right yoke.

The principle is self-evident, but unwittingly I had allowed myself to be pulled away from using my strongest gifts.

About the time Willow Creek was founded, I conducted an honest analysis of my spiritual gifts. My top gift was leadership. My second gift was evangelism. Down the list were teaching and administration. I immediately asked two people with well-developed teaching gifts to be primary teachers for the new congregation. God had given me a teaching gift, but it was far enough down the list that I had to work very hard at teaching—harder than a gifted teacher does. Both people declined to teach, however, and we had already set our starting date. I remember thinking, Okay, God, I’ll start as primary teacher, but I’m doing it reluctantly. Please bring a teacher and let me lead and evangelize as you have gifted and called me to do.

Recently, when I hit emotional bottom, I decided to do another gift analysis. The results were exactly the same as before: leadership and evangelism above teaching and administration. But as I thought about my weekly responsibilities, I realized I was using teaching as though it were my top gift. Seldom was I devoting time to leadership or evangelism.

I have talked with well-respected teachers across the country, and I have never had one tell me that it takes him more than five to ten hours to prepare a sermon. They have strong teaching gifts, so it comes naturally and quickly to them. If I, on the other hand, don’t devote twenty hours to a message, I’m embarrassed by the result. I was willing to put in those hours, but slowly and surely, the time demand squeezed out opportunities to use my gifts in leadership and evangelism.

In order to adequately prepare my messages, I had delegated away almost all leadership responsibilities. And too often in elder or staff meetings, I was mentally preoccupied with my next message. My life became consumed by the use of my teaching gift, which wasn’t my most fruitful or fulfilling ministry. Yet people kept saying, “Great message, Bill,” and I wrongfully allowed their affirmation to thwart my better judgment.

As a result, we implemented a team-teaching approach at Willow Creek. It has been well received by the congregation and has allowed me to provide stronger leadership in several areas. It would be difficult for me to describe how much more fulfilled I’m feeling these days.

I have also found new opportunities for evangelism. Recently I met with three guys at an airport. One is a Christian, and the other two are his best friends, whom he is trying to lead to Christ. As we talked, I could feel the Holy Spirit at work. After our conversation ended, I ran to my gate, and I almost started crying.

I love doing this, I thought. This is such a big part of who I am. I used to lead people to Christ, but I’ve been preparing so many messages in the past five years that I’ve forgotten how thrilling it is to share Christ informally with lost people.

If I’m using a third- or fourth-level gift a lot, I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t feel emotional energy for ministry. We operate with more energy when we’re able to exercise our primary gifts. God knew what he was doing as he distributed gifts for service. As we minister in a way that is consistent with the way God made us, we will find new passion for ministry.

Eternal and earthly balance

Finally, becoming emotionally depleted retaught me a lesson I had learned but forgotten. I learned the hard way that a Christian leader has to strike a delicate balance between involvement in the eternal and involvement in the mundane. The daily things of life provide needed counterweight to timeless truths.

When we started the church in 1975, I had discretionary time that I used to race motorcycles, fly a plane, golf, and ski. I had relationships outside the congregation and interests other than the church.

Since that time, the needs of the church inexorably squeezed out these earthly pursuits. I became consumed with the eternal. I’m an early riser, so from 5:30 in the morning until I crash at 10:30 at night, barely one moment of time is not related to something eternal. I don’t exercise at the YMCA anymore; I work out on equipment in my basement. While I’m cycling I read theological journals. When I pump weights, I listen to tapes or think of illustrations for a message. The eternal co-opted the daily routines.

In Jesus’ day, people approached life differently. In the Bible, after Jesus ministers or delivers an important discourse, usually you’ll find a phrase like this: “Then Jesus and the disciples went from Judea into Galilee.” Those small phrases are highly significant. Such journeys were usually many miles long, and most of the time Jesus and his disciples walked. You don’t take a multimile walk over a lunch break.

What happens on a long walk? Guys tell a few jokes, stop and rest a while, pick some fruit and drink some water, take a siesta in the afternoon, and then keep going. All this time, emotional reserves are being replenished, and the delicate balance between the eternal and the mundane is being restored.

It’s a different world today, and I wasn’t properly aware of the changes. Put car phones and fax machines and jet airplanes into the system, and suddenly the naturally forced times for the mundane disappear.

Once I made a commitment to speak in northern Michigan. Later the person who invited me called back and asked, “Can you give two talks while you’re here?” I agreed. He called back several weeks later and said, “Bill, we need you to give three talks while you’re here, and if you could meet with some of our people for breakfast, that would be great too.”

“How am I going to get there in time?” I asked.

“We’ll send a plane for you.”

Not too long after that call, another person called me from Texas.

“Bill,” he said, “I’m in deep weeds. I’ve got a thousand college kids coming, and the speaker we had lined up bailed out. Most of these kids have read your book Too Busy Not to Pray, and we built the whole thing around your book. Could you help us out?”

“When is it?” I asked. He told me, and I said, “I don’t think that’s going to work, because I’m going to be in northern Michigan that morning.”

He asked, “How are you getting there?”

“This guy’s sending a plane,” I said.

He said, “Well, could you call the guy and see if the plane could bring you down here?”

The result was that I got on a plane at 7:00 on a Friday morning and flew to northern Michigan, met with the leaders, gave three talks, and had a meeting over lunch. Then I got back in the plane and flew all the way to southern Texas, with a person pumping me for information most of the time. I met with another set of leaders over dinner, gave two talks, got back on the plane, and arrived home at 1 a.m. Saturday morning. Then I preached Saturday evening and twice on Sunday morning.

The point is that spiritually, I was fine—I had maintained my disciplines and was striving to obey Christ. Physically, I held up fine—it wasn’t like running a marathon. But I was totally depleted emotionally. I was filling my life chock full of eternal opportunities.

What’s wrong with that? Besides the emotional drain, I realized two other hidden costs of such a ministry-centered life style.

First, if you are concerned only with spiritual activities, you tend to lose sight of the hopelessness of people apart from Christ. You’re never in their world.

Second, you lose your wonder of the church, of salvation, and of being part of the work of God. You can overload on eternal tasks to the point that you no longer appreciate their glories.

I should have known this, because what has saved my ministry are my summer study breaks. During those weeks away, in between studying, I jog or sail, often with nonbelievers. That’s when I feel a renewed compassion for them, for I see afresh the hopelessness and self-destructiveness of life outside of Christ. During these breaks I also start missing worship at our church, and I begin craving relationships with the staff and elders.

Having enough of the mundane in my life makes me see the futility of the world and the wonder and delights of the Christian life. I cannot continue to work seventy- and eighty-hour weeks for many reasons, not the least of which is that they don’t allow enough time to be away from the church so that I love it when I come to it.

Knowing this, I have renewed my commitment to integrate into my life more activities that are not church related. I’m golfing more. I recently enrolled in a formula-racing school and learned to drive race cars. This past summer I learned how to barefoot ski. I want to fly airplanes. If I don’t schedule these things—if I wait till my calendar opens up—they don’t happen. In Christian ministry the needs of people are endless.

At a certain point I have to tell myself, Bill, you had better wake up to the fact that you’re not going to get all your work done. It will be there tomorrow. I’m determining to live a healthy life so that I can offer more than a few short years of frenzied activity.

My goal is to monitor my spiritual, physical, and emotional resources so that I can minister, by God’s grace, for a lifetime. I often think of Billy Graham, who has been a high-integrity leader for the cause of Jesus Christ for more than fifty years. He’s humble, pure-hearted, and self-effacing, and every day he draws on the sufficiency of Christ.

It was a penetrating thought for me to think, What if God wants to elongate my ministry? If God doesn’t change his call in my life, can I continue to live at my current pace for another twenty years?

I knew I couldn’t.

I’m convinced God wants us to live so as to finish the race we’ve started. That’s the challenge of every Christian leader. And monitoring all three gauges—spiritual, physical, and emotional—plays an important part in our longevity.


Finding a Spiritual Director

It is not wise to treat lightly what most generations of Christians have agreed is essential.

—Eugene H. Peterson

Many years ago in Baltimore I heard Pete Seeger play the five-string banjo. I was seized with the conviction that I must do it too. I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University at the time and had little money, but poverty was no deterrent in the rush of such urgencies: I went to the pawnshops on East Baltimore Street the next morning and bought a banjo for eleven dollars.

I found an instruction manual in a used-book store for fifty cents. I was on my way. I applied myself to strumming and frailing and three-finger picking. I had neither the time nor the money for formal instruction, but in odd moments between seminars and papers, I worked at making the sounds and singing the songs Seeger had introduced into my life.

In the years following, the impetus of the first enthusiasm slackened. I repeated myself a lot. From time to time I would pick up another instruction book, another songbook.

Occasionally someone would be in our home who played the banjo, and I would pick up a new technique. At such moments I became fleetingly aware of a great pool of lore that banjo players took for granted. I recognized some of the items from the footnotes and appendixes in my instruction books. Eventually I realized if I was going to advance, I would have to get a teacher. It wasn’t that I lacked knowledge—my stack of instruction books was now quite high. It wasn’t that I lacked material—there were already far more songs in my books than I could ever learn well. But I didn’t seem to be able to get the hang of some things just by reading about them.

I have not yet gotten a teacher. It was never the right time. I procrastinated. I am still picking and singing the same songs I learned in the first few years. My crisp, glittering banjo sound that used to set feet tapping and laughter rippling now bores my wife and children to tears. I am not a little bored myself. I still intend to find a teacher.

Soul instinct

A desire for prayer was kindled in my early life. When the embers cooled, as they did from time to time, I applied the bellows of a lecture or a book or a workshop or a conference. The evangelical movement, in which I grew up, gave frequent exhortations to pray. I was told in many and various ways that prayer was urgent. There was also a great quantity of didactic material on prayer, most of it in books. I responded to the exhortations and read the books. But useful as these resources were to get me started and established, there came a time when I felt the need for something else—something more personal, more intimate.

But what? As I groped for clarity, I found out what I did not want. I didn’t want a counselor or therapist. I was not conscious of any incapacitating neurosis that needed fixing. I did not want information; I already knew far more than I practiced. It was not for lack of knowledge that I was unsettled. And it wasn’t exactly a friend I wanted, a person with whom I could unburden my inner hopes and fears when I felt like it.

My sense of need was vague and unfocused. It had, though, to do with my development in prayer and my growth in faith—I knew that much. But I didn’t know how to get it. I began to pray for someone who would guide me in the essential, formative parts of my life: my sense of God, my practice of prayer, my understanding of grace.

I knew from my books that in previous centuries, spiritual directors were a regular part of the life of faith. I also knew that in other traditions it was unthinkable for persons with any kind of leadership responsibilities to proceed without a spiritual director. Spiritual intensities were dangerous and the heart desperately wicked: anyone entering the lion’s cage of prayer required regular, personal guidance. But this knowledge, like the footnotes and appendixes in my banjo books, was outside the orbit of my associations.

Besides, I like doing things on my own. Figuring them out. Mastering skills. Fasting. Frailing. Double-thumbing. Meditating. It was all right for a person who was uninstructed or unmotivated to get help, but I was neither. It was better to strike out through virgin territory on my own. “Just Jesus and me” was deeply embedded in my understanding of the mature Christian life. The goal was independence from every human relationship and intimacy with Christ alone.

All the same, going against the grain of training and inclination, I found myself with a focus prayer: “Lead me to a spiritual director.”

I considered various friends and acquaintances. Somehow no one seemed right. I sensed they would not understand my needs. I may have been wrong in this—in one instance, I know now that I was. But no one seemed to be the answer to my prayer for a spiritual director.

I was in no real hurry. I kept alert. In the course of this waiting and watching, I met a man whom I gradually came to feel was the right person. The more I knew him, the more confident I became that he would understand me and guide me wisely.

At this point I greatly surprised myself: I didn’t ask him. I was convinced I needed a spiritual director. I was reasonably sure this person would help me. And suddenly I felt this great reluctance to approach him. We were together quite regularly, and so I had frequent opportunities to approach him. I procrastinated.

It didn’t take me long to get to the root of my reluctance: I didn’t want to share what was most essential to me. I wanted to keep control. I wanted to be boss. I had often felt and sometimes complained of the loneliness of prayer, but now I found cherished pleasures I was loathe to give up—a kind of elitist spirituality fed by the incomprehension or misunderstanding of outsiders but which would vanish the moment even one other comprehended and understood. I wanted to be in charge of my inner life. I wanted to have the final say-so in my relationship with God.

I had no idea I had those feelings. I was genuinely surprised at their intensity. I tried the route of theological rationalization: that Christ was my mediator, that the Spirit was praying deeply within me, beyond words, and that a spiritual director would interfere in these primary relationships. But while the theology was sound, the relevance to my condition was not. What I detected in myself was not a fight for theological integrity but a battle with spiritual pride.

It took me exactly one year to ask John to be my spiritual director. But it was not a wasted year. Now I knew at least one of the reasons the old masters recommended a spiritual director and why they insisted that we never grow out of the need for one. It was because of pride, this incredibly devious, alarmingly insidious evil that is so difficult to detect in myself but so obvious to a discerning friend. At the same time, I understood one component of my spiritual loneliness, of not having anyone appreciate the intensity of spiritual struggles and disciplines.

Again, pride: pride isolates.

Soul benefits

In our first meeting, John asked what my expectations were. I didn’t have any. I had never done this before and didn’t know what to expect. I only knew I wanted to explore the personal dimensions of faith and prayer with a guide instead of working by trial and error as I had been.

In reflecting on what has developed in these monthly conversations, three things stand out.

1. My spontaneity has increased. Since this person has agreed to pay attention to my spiritual condition with me, I no longer feel solely responsible for watching over it. Now that someone experienced in assessing health and pathology in the life of faith is there to tell me if I am coming off the wall, I have quit weighing and evaluating every nuance of attitude and behavior. I have always had a tendency to compulsiveness in spiritual disciplines and would often persist in certain practices whether I felt like it or not, year in and year out, in a stubborn determination to be ready for whatever the Spirit had for me. I knew the dangers of obsessive rigidity and tried to guard against it. But that was just the problem. I was the disciplinarian of my inner life, the one being disciplined, and the supervisor of my disciplinarian. A lot of roles to be shifting in and out of through the day.

I immediately gave up being “supervisor” and shared “disciplinarian” with my director as well. The psychic load was reduced markedly. I relaxed. I was no longer afraid that if I diverged from my rule, I would be subject to creeping self-indulgence, quite sure it would now be spotted in short order by my director. I trusted my intuitions more, knowing that self-deceit would be called to account sooner or later. The line that divided my structured time of prayer and meditation from the rest of my life blurred. I no longer had the entire responsibility for deciding how to shape the disciplines. I found myself more spontaneous, more free to innovate, more at ease in being nonproductive and playful.

2. I have become aware of subjects I rarely, if ever, discuss with other people in my life that I regularly bring to my director. These are not shameful things, nor are they flattering things about which I am modest. They are the mundane, the ordinary things in my life. I don’t bring them up in everyday conversation because I don’t want to bore my family and friends. I don’t want people to lose interest in me and look for a more exciting conversationalist in the same way they have gone looking for a better banjo player. But these matters take up a great deal of my life. My director expressing interest in who I am (not what I do) and directing attention to what is (not what ought to be or what I want things to be) makes conversational reflection possible in these areas.

I am used to looking for signs of God’s presence in crisis and in blessing. I must be forced to look to God when I have failed or sinned. I am already motivated to look to God when everything comes together in an experience of wholeness and arrival. But the random ordinary? That is when I am getting ready for the next triumph. Or drifting into the next disaster.

My director keeps exploring everyday ordinariness for the presence of God and the workings of grace. When “nothing is going on,” is there, perhaps, something going on? The flat times, the in-between times, the routine behaviors are also charged with the grandeur of God. I have always known that but have been fitful and sporadic in exploring the territory.

Now, because there is this person with whom I don’t have to hold up my end of the conversation, I have space and leisure to take expeditions into the ordinary. I remembered James Joyce’s insistence that “literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belongs to journalism,” and saw the analogy to what was going on in these conversations.

3. I have been struck by the difference of being in touch with an oral tradition as compared to a written one. I discovered prayer masters of the church at an early age and subsequently immersed myself in their writings. Their experience and analysis are familiar to me. I profit from reading them. Some of them seem very alive and contemporary. For a long time that seemed to suffice. But there is a radical difference between a book and a person. A book tells me about the dark night; the person who comments on my dark night, even though the words are the same, is different. I can read with detachment; I cannot listen with detachment. The immediacy and intimacy of conversation turn knowledge into wisdom.

There is also the matter of timing. Out of the scores of writers on prayer, the hundreds of truths about faith, and the myriad penetrating truths of the spiritual life, which one is appropriate right now? Searching through indexes to find the page where a certain subject is presented is not the same as having a person notice and name the truth I am grappling with right now in my own life.

In meetings with my spiritual director, I have often had the sense of being drawn into a living, oral tradition. I am in touch with a pool of wisdom and insight in a way different from when I am alone in my study. It is not unlike the experience I have in worship as I participate in Scripture readings, preaching, hymn singing, and sacraments. These are not so much subjects you know about as an organic life you enter into. In spiritual direction I am guided to attend to my uniqueness and discern more precisely where my faith development fits on the horizon of judgment and grace.

Quite obviously none of these experiences depends on having a spiritual director. None of them was new to me in kind but only in degree. I do not want to claim more for the practice than it warrants. Some people develop marvelously in these areas without ever having so much as heard of a spiritual director.

Still, for most of the history of the Christian faith, it was expected that a person should have a spiritual director. It was not an exceptional practice. It was not for those who were gifted in prayer or more highly motivated than the rest. In fact, as responsibility and maturity increase in the life of faith, the urgency of having a spiritual director increases.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript that spiritual direction “must explore every path, must know where the errors lurk, where the moods have their hiding places, how the passions understand themselves in solitude (and every man who has passion is always to some degree solitary, it is only the slobberers who wear their hearts wholly on their sleeves); it must know where the illusions spread their temptations, where the bypaths slink away.” The greatest errors in the spiritual life are not committed by the novices but by the adepts. The greatest capacity for self-deceit in prayer comes not in the early years but in the middle and late years.

It strikes me that it is not wise to treat lightly what most generations of Christians have agreed is essential.


Getting Good Advice

The first step in getting good advice is deciding to seek it.

—Fred Smith Sr.

Years ago I remember listening to Arthur Godfrey do a radio ad for a cure-all medicine. The ad went, “At last, hope for middle age.” Godfrey paused and said, “Hope? I’ve got hope. What I need is help.”

At times, most of us could echo Godfrey’s words. We need help. Especially in the complex situations we encounter in church life, we often need wise counsel. There’s never any shortage of opinions, but how do we get good advice?

Here are the principles I’ve discovered.

Becoming a seeker

Some time ago I had an experience that let me know, particularly in the business world, how difficult it is for some people to seek advice. I was with executives from a major oil company, discussing a troubling problem the company faced. I remembered a friend of mine had faced a similar problem, and so I called him.

Within fifteen minutes, he told me exactly what I needed to know. After I hung up the phone, one of the executives turned to me and said, “Fred, you just did something I could never do.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I couldn’t have asked for help like that,” he admitted. “My ego wouldn’t let me.”

“Getting advice is a way of life with me,” I said. “It never occurs to me not to ask for it.”

The first step in getting good advice is deciding to seek it. This, of course, is very scriptural. The Bible is full of words about how one’s strength can be multiplied with the advice of others. I especially think of the proverb that says, “But in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 8:14 nkjv)

But you must differentiate between asking for advice and asking other people to make your decisions. I will never let anybody else take the responsibility of making my decisions. I am asking their advice, not delegating the decision to them.

Figuring out your need

The second step is to decide what specific help you need. The president of a company came to me the other day and said, “I’m in my early forties, and I’ve done well in my business, but now I’m thinking about changing careers. Tell me, how do you see me?”

“In relation to what?” I said. His question was so general, it was impossible to answer with any substance. Before asking for advice, you need to do your homework, getting your questions as specific as possible. The question I test myself with is, If these questions were answered, would my problem be solved? Then, when you’ve focused your questions, you need to know when to ask them. Timing is crucial. There’s no reason to ask how to close the barn door after the horses are out. Many people who are afraid of asking for advice tend to procrastinate.

Also, to get good advice, you’ve got to give the one you ask some lead time. The person may need to think about the answer for a while. Rarely will spur-of-the-moment advice be good advice on big decisions. I had just completed my talk at a church and was beginning to greet the people when a man came up and asked, “My brother and I are in business together, but we’re not getting along. Should we continue our business or separate?”

He was asking a life-changing question in the midst of hi-how-are-yous. If he was serious about getting advice, his timing was poor. I told him I couldn’t give that question its due. I didn’t want to shoot from the hip. And if he was serious, he wouldn’t have wanted any advice I could have given him in that setting. Unfortunately some people want a guru, not thoughtful advice.

Validating the adviser

A woman came up to a pastor friend of mine and said, “I have the gift of correction.” I run from people like that. Unsolicited advice is usually criticism, not advice. This woman is just couching a critical spirit as a spiritual gift. Since good advice seldom comes unsolicited, whom do we ask?

In seeking someone for advice, one of the biggest temptations is to assume that a person who verbalizes well also analyzes well. It’s not true. Good talkers aren’t always good thinkers. When I evaluate my advisers, I ask myself several questions.

Is the person technically qualified? If I go to a doctor, I want to make sure he or she is licensed in the specialty. If I go to a lawyer, I want to see a diploma. I want evidence that the person is technically qualified.

Does this person have a good track record in handling the type of problem I’m asking about? For example, if I ask a man about an investment, I want to be sure he’s been successful in his own investments. If I ask about personal relations, I want to be sure he is not in divorce proceedings with his spouse.

Some people assume that because I’m a businessman, I fully understand international trade or leveraged buyouts. I don’t. That’s not my specialty. I can give an opinion in those areas, but it wouldn’t be good advice. Good advice is specific, informed advice. In this day of specialization, I want to know whether the person is competent in the area I’m talking about.

Next, I have found that those who give the best advice have a personal empathy for me. So before seeking advice, I ask myself, Does this person care about me or the cause I represent? If he does, he will listen well. One way to tell if someone is being empathetic is to mention a problem. If the person asks a question that helps me to express the problem more clearly, I begin to sense empathy, and I’m more likely to seek and to trust this person’s understanding of my question.

Does the adviser take his responsibility seriously? I’ve been involved on some organizations’ boards on which board members don’t do their homework. They come without thinking through the issues before the meeting. They don’t take responsibility seriously. Not only does that lack integrity, in my opinion, but it invalidates the reliability of their advice.

On the other hand, I was working on a corporate matter with the chief loan officer of a bank, and he said, “Fred, I hope you don’t think my questions are too nitpicky. I really want to understand this thing, and you need to know I don’t plan to help the company halfway across the river. I want to be in the boat with you all the way across.”

I appreciated his sense of responsibility. I was much more likely to accept his advice because he took his charge seriously.

Then, I want to know if the person has the time to do what I’m asking him to do. I often will ask, Do you think this is going to take more time than you can commit? I realize I’m asking the person for a favor, and I want to give a graceful out if he’s too busy. If a person says, “No, I’m interested and willing to commit whatever time is required,” I am much more willing to bare my problem.

Building your bench strength

One of the more important ways to make the foundation of your life secure is to build your list of advisers before you need them. I call it “building my bench strength.”

Wherever I go I meet interesting people. If I meet someone who is an expert in some area, I’ll write down his or her name and file it. If I ever need to talk to somebody about that area, I want to remember that person. But not all good advice comes from outside experts. Don’t overlook the advice that can come from your own family. I’m at the wonderful time in life when my children are old enough to become my mentors and advisers.

Perhaps the first time I realized this was many years ago when I was getting ready to speak to a few thousand students at a denominational university chapel program. My oldest daughter, still in her teens, was with me. Just before my talk, she said, “Dad, I hope you’re not going to tell them the world is waiting for them.”

Well, that was basically what I had intended to say. Her comments shook me so much that I quickly altered my talk. The result was perhaps the best talk to a student body I’ve ever given. My wife and our children have been extremely helpful advisers. I often ask their opinions on books, people, causes, and ideas. We exchange all types of information.

Besides my family, I have a few trusted friends to whom I’ll go for their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual synopsis of a given situation. I stay in close contact with these people because I want them to be current with where I am in life.

For example, I have several categories or areas in which I have one or more advisers: theology, business, investments, relations (family/social), speaking, writing, legal, tax, and humor. I include humor separately because it’s so essential to my emotional well-being.

Jack Modesett, president of Cornerstone Investments, and I feel responsible for each other’s humor quotient. Once I sent him a humorous critique of an item he had sent me. His reply was simply a Bible reference: Psalm 50:9a. I looked it up and laughed—”I will accept no bull from your house.”

For theology, one of my mainstay advisers was Ray Stedman. For business, Harry Peckheiser, former executive vice president of Mobil. For speaking, there are several, but I was greatly encouraged and enlightened by Oswald Hoffmann. I’ve benefited from my advisers in all these areas of my life.

Timing for advice

There are several situations that may suggest it’s time to seek advice. Among them:

When you face a problem you’ve seen others experience. There’s no point in learning something the hard way if someone else has already been through it. Of course, you want to be sure that the other person truly dealt with the problem. That doesn’t mean he came out of it as success personified. It means the person saw the situation through to a reasonable conclusion, and he understands the principles involved, not just the technology.

When you fear a negative pattern might be developing in your life. If you have three or four failures in a row and you don’t know why, there’s probably a poor pattern developing. A friend could advise you on how to break the pattern and get back on the right track.

Russell Newport, one of my favorite Christian singers, once told me how he regularly seeks out his voice coach to make sure his vocal reflexes are correct. He doesn’t want careless habits to creep in.

When you’ve been on a plateau too long. Nothing is changing in your life. Everything is status quo. You may be comfortable, but you might be in a gradual deterioration.

If you feel a loss of confidence. A good adviser can probably see the bigger picture better than you.

When you have a change in personal relationships. You’re having too many confrontations, you begin to become estranged from friends, and you don’t know why. It may be time for a good conversation with a trusted adviser.

When you realize you’re rationalizing. Sometimes it’s difficult to spot your own rationalizing. For example, I asked a pastor friend whose church wasn’t doing well, “Why do you think people aren’t coming to hear you preach?”

“People will not stand sound doctrine,” he replied.

He was rationalizing his poor preaching. People were going to other churches where sound doctrine was preached. He needed somebody to help break his rationalizing. If you find yourself rationalizing, it’s good to talk it over.

When you’re ready for a candid answer. Candor is a compliment, but we’re not always ready for it. Sometimes hearing the truth is painful. Sometimes we’re not ready to act on the advice even if we know it’s true. But when you’re ready to face the issues, then you’re ready to accept good advice.

Maximizing the advice

How do you help your advisers give you their best advice? In addition to giving them sufficient time, I follow these ground rules:

1. Let the person know what you want. Don’t ask for advice if you just want somebody to listen. Often I’ve gone to a friend and said, “Look, I need to hear what I’m thinking about. Can I use your ears to practice on?” And I’ll refine my thoughts simply by expressing them. But I’m right up front with him. I’m not looking for advice or correction; I’m just practicing my material. I want him to know he’s doing me a favor by listening.

Other times, however, I want advice. I’ll tell my advisers, “Your responsibility is to evaluate my opinions,” or “I’d like you to evaluate my situation and identify my options.” Advisers are useful in increasing options.

A physician once told me that great diagnosticians know more symptoms and so can more correctly diagnose. Similarly, experienced advisers know more options, so when we’re under the gun and fail to see alternatives, they can help us.

For example, people in grief need advisers to help them think through what they must do. Likewise, in periods of success we sometimes need someone who can point out the dangers success brings. So many young businessmen in Dallas have crashed because they couldn’t foresee the dangers in success. One of our most successful Christian organizations recently asked several “older heads” to help think through the dangers it would face in success. It was a wise move.

2. Never argue with your adviser. When you argue with advice, a contest starts. When advisers sense resistance, they’ll tend to back off. They may agree with me just to avoid conflict, and that isn’t the reason I asked their opinion.

We should examine the advice we’re given. We can ask some questions. But we should never ask in an argumentative way. I also try not to lead the adviser—subtly tipping off what I want him to say. An adviser who is empathetic can be vulnerable to saying what you want to hear. I don’t want to be caught leading the witness.

My friend Steve Brown, president of Key Life and a marvelous speaker, had the opportunity to do professional inspirational speaking for a large fee. He asked my advice. He could have said, “I’m sensing God’s call to do this. What do you think?” He would have been leading me to an affirmative answer.

But he asked, “Do you think a preacher should do inspirational speaking?” I suggested that inspirational speaking, in which everything rides on audience approval, and Bible teaching, which may or may not win audience approval, can conflict. He agreed and passed up the money such speaking would have brought him.

3. Don’t ask for advice just to compliment someone. Many people will ask for advice when they really mean, I’d like your support. That, of course, lacks integrity and plays the person for a sucker. If I want to make someone feel good, it’s better to compliment his tie or his suit than ask his advice.

4. Don’t be casual in asking for advice. I find it’s important in serious matters to write out my thoughts and questions rather than to verbalize them in an impromptu manner. One friend wrote me for advice, and at the end of his letter he summarized, “It’s been helpful just writing you this letter. Writing sure burns the fuzz off your ideas.”

5. Shun quick fixes. The temptation is to seek some bit of advice that will solve the problem immediately. Many creative people can come up with cute answers. But the long-term effect isn’t valuable. Quick fixes are seductive but ultimately damaging. Good advice usually points you in a direction. It demands time, a process, a commitment.

A bright young executive called from Michigan and said, “I’m addicted to my work. I can’t let go. It has me.”

I’ve known enough workaholics that I asked a few simple questions such as, “Following an accomplishment, no matter how large, do you feel depressed?” He gave an emphatic yes. After a few more questions, I suggested he might be adrenaline addicted, a fairly common condition in high accomplishers.

I suggested a good book and a few experiments he could try, and passed on the name of two or three individuals who have come through the problem. Even though I didn’t solve his problem, he was relieved to have a start toward a solution.

Advice, I’ve discovered, is mutual. Those who learn to seek good advice will be better able to give it to others. Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “It’s better to borrow advice than money. Advice you don’t have to pay back; money you do.” Yes, you can keep advice, but those who are recipients of good advice are obligated to pass on good advice when asked.

Good advice, unlike Arthur Godfrey’s tonic, can provide both hope and help.

Part 7

Managing Time


Slaying the Sly Saboteur

Procrastination is easy to rationalize, and tough to overcome.

—John Maxwell

We pastors are tempted to put off tough but necessary tasks. We need to confront a member about gossiping, but that could get ugly, so we visit someone in the hospital.

We need to propose some cuts to balance the budget, but the trade-offs will be painful, so we read a book.

We need to clarify the church’s ministry philosophy, but the more specific we get, the greater the risks appear, so we return phone calls and visit with staff members.

We’re working, but we’re letting important, difficult priorities slide. That’s procrastination, and the cost is high. Procrastination is easy to rationalize, and tough to overcome.

Why we do it

Reasons to procrastinate abound, some obvious, others subconscious. The more we uncover and understand them, the better we can develop a game plan to defeat the delay habit. Here are four of the more common causes.

Poor self-confidence. When we know we can do a good job, we can’t wait to do it; when we feel inadequate, we procrastinate.

We’re poor, say, in administration, so we avoid it every way possible, neglecting even fundamental planning. Or a past failure paralyzes us. Mark Twain said that once a cat sits on a hot stove, it won’t sit on a hot stove again. Of course, he said, it won’t sit on a cold stove either.

Our failures are the hot stove. You squared off with a stubborn board member at your last church and lost your temper. You forgave him superficially, but bitterness settled in, poisoning your ministry there. Now you’re gun-shy of confronting strong personalities. The stakes are too high, the emotions too volatile.

After too many failures, a person won’t attempt anything, like the Little Leaguer who has struck out again and again. Now he just keeps the bat on his shoulder and hopes for a walk. The kid who has belted some home runs can’t wait to get to the plate and take his cuts. When the game is on the line, he wants to be the hitter.

Success breeds confidence and aggressiveness.

New situations can also intimidate us—a new church, a building project, a novel program, a counselee with a problem never encountered before. When I face things not routine, not habitual, I have to fight consciously the tendency to hold back.

Lack of problem-solving skills. Many pastors who don’t normally procrastinate do so in the face of problems. They don’t know how to work through problems systematically: how to ask key questions, accumulate pertinent information, create and explore and weigh options, move forward even when the options aren’t perfect, and make midcourse corrections.

Building limitations, for example, are one of the most common and intractable problems we face. So naturally, we’re inclined to drag our feet rather than begin dealing with the countless details that a building project entails. Since the problem usually doesn’t become a crisis, people drift away because of overcrowding or substandard conditions—or they never come back once they’ve visited.

Problem-solving skills, though, can be learned, and such skills are one of the surest ways to liberate a pastor from procrastination.

Distaste for certain tasks. The big three sour balls are confrontation, money, and vision. Often our distaste causes us to delay important action.

No one enjoys confronting others, yet from time to time the church’s health depends on it. When I speak at pastors’ conferences, pastors regularly say, “I’ve got a troublemaker in the church. What should I do?”

My first response is “Have you sat with this person one-to-one and talked through the issues?”

Ninety-five percent of the time the answer is no. By avoiding the problem we aggravate it, allowing bitterness to fester, misunderstandings to occur, and falsehoods to spread.

Subject to emotions. We’re tempted to follow feelings rather than priorities. If I wake up asking myself, “Okay, John, how ya’ doing, buddy? You ready for the day? What do you think you can handle?” I’ll put off many essential tasks, because many days I don’t feel like getting much done.

Strong leaders are priority based rather than feeling based.

Unresolved emotions like anger and guilt also weaken us to the point where we drag our feet. Soon after arriving at my first church, I had a run-in with Joe, a church leader. Joe’s mother painted a picture that hung in the foyer for years. The first time I laid eyes on it, I decided it had to go. I took it down and put it in a closet. Joe didn’t say a word. He just retrieved it from the closet and rehung it.

When I noticed it the following Sunday, I asked various people, “Who put the picture back up?” Joe admitted, unapologetically, he’d done it.

I stewed for two months about what to do. I knew I had to confront him, but because I was new, I felt insecure in the church. My feelings not only inhibited my dealings with Joe, they had me so tied in knots I put off other important tasks. Eventually I went to Joe’s work and confronted him about it. I didn’t convince him of my views, but from then on I was free from anger.

What it steals

Someone has called procrastination the thief of time. That’s certainly true, but procrastination also steals things far more dear to a pastor.

Putting off ministry tasks is like neglecting maintenance on a new car. If you don’t change your oil every 3,000 miles, your car will still start and run. The doors will still open, and the brakes will work. You’re getting away with it!

But after 8,000 or 10,000 miles, the engine oil has been saturated with dirt. Those particles are now grinding like liquid sandpaper at the lining of the cylinders, pistons, and rings. Eventually the metal wears away to the point that the car burns oil, the engine knocks. Left unattended, an engine designed to run over 130,000 miles is ready for the junkyard at 80,000 miles.

The cumulative effects of procrastination in ministry are similar. For quite a while, you don’t see what’s happening. But eventually a blue cloud starts billowing behind you. Here are a few of the costs of doing first things last.

We lose productive people. One pastor I know is an effective preacher but a weak administrator. He has pastored small churches that can’t afford secretaries. Although he prepares his sermons well, he usually doesn’t get around to organizing announcements or planning worship services until Sunday morning. His pulpit ministry attracts some sharp people. But when they start working in the church, many grow frustrated with the disorganization and eventually leave.

If we procrastinate, we immediately lose respect from our leaders and activists. Such people are not leaders by accident. They succeed in work and life because they have seized opportunities; they see openings and run for daylight; they size up situations quickly.

When leaders try to work with laissez-faire pastors, they go nuts. They’re thinking, We could have done this. We should have done that. Eventually they decide the pastor is not going anywhere, so they go elsewhere. The people a procrastinating pastor first loses are the ones he needs most.

We squander opportunities. Opportunities abound for those who do the right thing at the right time. Alfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, first espoused the 80/20 principle of effectiveness. Eighty percent of your productivity, he said, comes from doing well the top 20 percent of your priorities, while only 20 percent of productivity comes from doing the bottom 80 percent of priorities.

Based on this principle, Pareto said to work smarter, not harder. Those who work the bottom 80 percent of their priorities but neglect the top 20 percent can work four times harder but only be one-fourth as productive as those who work the top 20 percent.

It follows, then, that if we procrastinate on our top 20 percent, we squander our biggest opportunities. It’s not only that we procrastinate, but what we procrastinate. Some pastors pay a much higher price for dallying because of what they dally.

Preparing the Sunday bulletin, for instance, is busywork with little return for a pastor. I have never met anyone who attends a church because of the bulletin, yet every week pastors spend important hours doing something that could be delegated.

We lose momentum. Momentum is one of a pastor’s best friends, easily worth five staff members. With it, you’re bigger than life. You walk up to the pulpit and say, “Good morning,” and everyone says, “He’s deep.” Without momentum, or when you experience downward momentum, you’re swimming against the current. You say, “Good morning,” and people say, “He’s shallow.”

Procrastination murders momentum. If we drag our feet, we slow the wagon. People excited about starting a new program quickly lose interest if we procrastinate getting them a budget. They may decide never again to take initiative. If we don’t get around to calling (or getting someone else to call) the couple that visited last Sunday, they’ll likely go elsewhere next Sunday, taking their network of unchurched friends, spiritual gifts, tithes, and winsome personalities with them.

Much of that inaction and the wagon stops, and it’s a lot harder to start again.

Decisiveness and prompt action are like the solid fuel boosters that propel the space shuttle into orbit. Doing first things first energizes a church. People sense the can-do faith, the let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-go enthusiasm.

We lose self-respect. Pastors can only lose so many productive people, so many opportunities, and so much momentum before they lose their sense of worth.

On the other hand, even if results don’t flower immediately, self-regard takes strong root when we do what’s difficult, face daunting challenges, smooth rocky relationships, begin solving thorny problems, organize work, and plan a significant future.

How to break it

Procrastination is a habit, but we can break it. The first step is listing your priorities. This keeps us from procrastinating where it costs most. Prioritize based on the three R’s.

The first R is requirements. Ask, What is required of me? What must I do whether I like it or not? What tasks, if neglected, will cost me leadership, credibility, even my job?

A pastor decides that visiting members in the hospital isn’t bearing much fruit. So instead of visiting members every other day, as he has customarily done and as the previous pastor did, he visits them only once a week, without ensuring that someone else in the church visits them at other times. Before long, people complain, “Pastor Robinson doesn’t care about us. He’s too busy trying to build himself a big church to take time with the hurting.”

So I encourage leaders to sit down with their staff and ask, “What must I do that no one else in the church can do? When is it critical that you see my face and touch my hand?”

When the search committee of Skyline Wesleyan Church interviewed me for the senior pastor position, I asked them what I had to do as senior pastor of Skyline that they would not be willing to have anyone else do.

After much discussion we concluded that only I could (1) cast the vision, (2) be the primary preaching pastor, (3) take responsibility for the progress of the church, (4) live a life of integrity as senior pastor, and (5) teach leadership to the pastoral staff.

The second R is return. What brings the greatest return to the church? What do I do better than anyone else that helps the church? I’m not talking about just what you do well. You may file better than anyone in church. You may coach basketball better than anyone. But those jobs pay low dividends. What do you do well that significantly benefits the congregation?

My church gets the greatest return when I (1) communicate the vision and direction for the church, and (2) equip key people for leadership and strategic planning.

If our first and second Rs clash severely, we’ll suffer. For example, if the church requires us to begin and maintain an abundance of programs, but we’re weak in administration, both we and the church will be unhappy. Unless we resolve the tension through give-and-take, negotiation, and education, such a problem will continue to plague us.

The third R is personal reward. We need jobs that we look forward to, that rejuvenate us, that we thank God someone actually pays us to do. Usually these jobs we’re good at.

I get the greatest reward from watching people grow, sensing God’s presence when I communicate, sharing Christ with others, and developing and equipping people to lead.

After listing your three Rs, take all factors into account, weigh the trade-offs, and prioritize your pastoral tasks.

By the way, procrastination isn’t all bad. It’s healthy to leave lower priorities undone to ensure we’re covering what’s most important. Rather than trying to fix everything at once, overcome procrastination in the top 20 percent of priorities and then move down from there.

The second step is to develop accountability. When I pastored in Lancaster, Ohio, I decided one of my highest priorities was to model an evangelistic life style for the church. Given my other pastoral responsibilities, that wouldn’t be easy, so one December I told the congregation, “Next year I’m going to lead 200 people to Christ. I want you to hold me to that.”

A few weeks later on a Saturday night, I went to the church to study and pray for the next morning’s service. In the lobby, I met one of our members. “Pastor, I’ve been praying for you every day,” he said, “that God will help you win people to Christ. And every time I pray I wonder how you’re doing.”

Good night! I thought. I’m done for. “Well,” I said, “I haven’t won anyone yet this week, but there’s still time.”

Instead of going into my study, I turned around and went to the car. I had one prospect card, Larry and Sue, living on Fair Avenue. I drove to their home, introduced myself, sat down in their living room, and before the night was over they prayed to ask Christ into the center of their lives. They attended church the next day and walked the aisle in a public dedication.

Accountability changes behavior. In the case above, of course, God was gracious enough to allow my effort to be fruitful. In any event, if I had a serious problem with procrastination, I would sit with trusted church leaders and admit my struggle. I would show them my list of priorities and ask if they agreed that those priorities were best for the church. Then I would ask them to hold me accountable for my top priorities.

Often these leaders sense that if you are to handle the top priorities, you will need someone to handle lower priorities. They may, in fact, volunteer to help.

The third step is to do things that develop confidence. As a boy I wrestled almost daily with my brother Larry. He always pinned me. He was two years older, strong and husky, and at that time I was literally anemic.

My dad watched Larry pin me over and over, and he saw what it was doing to my confidence. One night he told Larry, “You can’t wrestle with John this week. I’m going to wrestle him.”

My dad let me win every match. Then he would wrestle Larry and beat him. As I got wins under my belt and saw that Larry was beatable, I gained confidence. After a week he turned us loose to wrestle again. This time we wrestled to a draw. My brother never pinned me again.

Did I gain strength in one week? No, I gained confidence. And we can gain confidence the same way: by getting small wins under our belts. We can find things (no matter how small) we can succeed at, stay with them long enough for confidence to grow, and then build from there.

Another way to develop confidence is by learning from others. Almost everything I know I learned from somebody. At my second church, we grew beyond anything I had experienced before. We were seating people in the aisles, and frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I called up Bob Grey, pastor of a large church in Jacksonville, Florida. “My name is John Maxwell,” I said. “You don’t know me. I’m a pastor, and I’m coming to Jacksonville on vacation. I need to talk to you. I’ll give you a hundred dollars for an hour of your time.”

Bob agreed to see me. Several weeks later I walked into his office with a tape recorder, a yellow legal pad, and a list of questions. I punched the recorder and fired away for an hour, asking him about the aspects of ministry that puzzled me most. To correct our overcrowding, the problem I was most concerned about, he suggested two Sunday morning services, a novel idea at that time. When we were finished, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the check, but he refused it. In fact, he took me out to lunch, and we became good friends. That went so well, I did the same with other prominent pastors. These sessions developed my confidence. Not only did I take home pages of great insights that boosted my know-how, their faith-filled attitude rubbed off on me.

The fourth step is to develop a problem-solving mind-set. Along with developing the problem-solving skills mentioned earlier, we need continually to nurture a creative attitude. The more creative we are, the more we’ll find solutions.

We can learn to be creative. Creativity isn’t anatomically fixed in our brains, solely dependent on whether we’re dominantly left-or right-brained. It’s a way of thinking, an outlook, a habit. We find creative solutions to problems when we (1) think outside of the rigid boxes we’re accustomed to, (2) step out of our security zone, and (3) sometimes move forward before we completely figure everything out.

The piano player in a small church moved out of town, leaving the congregation without a replacement. For a few weeks, the congregation sang a cappella, but people began complaining. “The worship just isn’t the same. One off-key person throws everyone off.”

The pastor thought about hiring a pianist, but the budget was too tight. So they did nothing, and attendance slowly declined.

How did one Chicago church solve that problem? With a boom box and worship cassettes available in any Christian bookstore. No one had heard of a church worshiping along with a tape, but they tried it. The church grew, and eventually another pianist began attending.

We can’t wait till we have all the answers before we start moving. After we take the first creative step—even though we don’t know what the second will be—we often get new insights and answers.

The fifth step is to break large projects into small steps. The toughest part of tackling elephant-sized projects is getting started. Facing the entire task before us, we’re intimidated and overwhelmed. The key is to break the project into small pieces and start with what you can do best. Doing the small job you feel most able to conquer may not be the project’s logical first step, but it’s the emotional first step. Getting that done encourages you to start the next most doable step. After that, you’ve got momentum, and before long you’re a few steps from the finish.

For example, you may see the need to develop a written statement of your church’s vision and goals. Setting ten-year goals and settling on an overarching theme for your vision can’t be done in a snap. But sitting down and listing needs doesn’t take deep thought. Once that’s out of the way, thinking about your strengths is encouraging. Then the pieces of the vision start to fall in place naturally.

The sixth and final step is this: work in imperfect situations. On a flight with a staff member, I opened my briefcase and starting working. I noticed he read the newspaper the entire flight. I thought, We may have a problem here. I didn’t say anything; I wanted to see if that was an exception. It wasn’t. On the next flight, he did the same thing. An hour or two into the flight, we began to discuss things to be done, and I asked him to call someone in the church. He wrote it in his calendar to do when he returned home. I asked, “Dick, when are you going to call him?”

“Well, you know, we’ll be back in the office in two days,” he answered. “I’ll call him then.”

“Dick, why don’t you call him from the airport when we land?” I said. “We’ve got an hour layover. You can handle it in five minutes.”

Dick got the point quickly. He was used to working in an ideal setting.

As pastors, we wait for uninterrupted time to do our sermon preparation, and it never comes. We intend to work on the church’s vision when we can get away for a few days at a cabin, but those days never become available. Looking for the perfect setting to do a task usually leads to procrastination.

The best time to arrest procrastination is now.


Feeling Good About the Non-Urgent

There is a balance, a happy medium between wearing out and rusting out. Embracing the work ethic need not mean we never do anything but work.

—Steven L. McKinley

It was a Friday night, 6:15 p.m. I sat in my car waiting for the green arrow so I could turn left into the church parking lot.

A stream of cars heading north paraded past me, away from the city. Many were pulling boats, a clear sign they were headed for a weekend at “the lake.” The golf clubs in the backseats of others suggested they were heading for the Friday night league at a nearby golf course. Still other cars were driven by commuters whose faces showed relief. The busy work-week was over. The weekend was here.

Or so I fantasized.

I was heading for a wedding rehearsal, then a rehearsal dinner. I knew I wouldn’t see home before 10:00 p.m. Most of my Saturday would be tied up with the wedding and reception. Sunday morning there would be the usual three worship services, then worship at two local nursing homes in the afternoon, and an orientation session for new church members that evening.

As I waited for the light to turn, watching the cars passing me, I felt envious, depressed, maybe even bitter. Everyone else had the weekend free (at least, that’s how I imagined it); I had a full weekend of work ahead. I do not hate my work—far from it. The folks getting married were perfectly pleasant; the reception would be at one of our favorite places; Sunday morning worship is a joy; there is satisfaction in worship at the nursing homes; it is always exciting to welcome new members. But it was still work, and I was more in the mood for kicking back. I had already put in a solid week of work, without a day off. And when the next Monday morning rolled around, I would be at my desk.

Why the urgent tyrannizes

What is it that keeps us pastors so earnestly plugging along? Why do we live urgently, ignoring our own bodies, spirits, families, and relationships—all for the sake of our work (or so we say)? After I reflected on my own drivenness, I came up with several reasons.

1. What will “they” think? I assume they would think less of me if they found out I wasn’t at my desk. Avoiding that feeling is difficult. I feel uncomfortable when I bump into a member of my congregation at the golf course at two o’clock on a weekday afternoon—even if I had worked twelve hours the day before, spent 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. earlier that day on church business, and planned to be back at church for an evening meeting.

But would they really think less of me? Some might. Some might not. After all, “they” are something I sometimes create in my own mind. When I ask myself, What would they think? what I am often asking is, What would I think? I take my expectations of myself and project them onto the people I serve.

Over the years, when I’ve dared to raise this with members of my congregations, I’ve found invariably they’re not nearly as demanding of me as I am of myself. They really don’t care if I take time off. In fact, they expect it. They might not stand over me weekly, insisting I take one day of rest each week, but they do expect me to be responsible enough to do that on my own.

And if they did get irritated with me for taking an afternoon on the golf course, so what? Every congregation has a few people who will never be satisfied with the pastor. Saint Paul has a few not-so-nice words for those trying to be “people pleasers,” rather than “God pleasers.”

2. The work ethic. Our teenage daughter, Meg, is mentally handicapped. One afternoon I wanted her to help me prepare a congregational mailing, the kind of work she can do well. When I raised the topic with her at lunch, however, Meg said she didn’t want to work that afternoon.

Then I did a terrible thing about which I still feel guilty. I asked her to bring me her Bible. When she did, we looked up 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “While we were with you, we used to tell you, ‘Whoever refuses to work is not allowed to eat’ ” (tev).

Meg takes her Bible seriously; she also takes eating seriously. No more argument. She worked that afternoon. And ever since, when she or some other family member tries to avoid work, she occasionally refers to that verse. This makes Meg a typical American Christian. We take that verse so seriously that it becomes in our minds an admonition to work all the time.

I subjected Meg to what is sometimes my underlying philosophy of work: I’d rather wear out than rust out. I’ve come to see this motto for what it is: self-righteous. Why? Either way, I’m out! It’s like saying, “I’d rather drive my car 100 MPH than 10 MPH.” Neither one is a particularly good choice—and they are not the only choices. It is possible to drive my car 50 MPH. A car at 50 MPH will both get farther than the car at 10 MPH and outlast the 100-MPH car.

There is a balance, a happy medium between wearing out and rusting out. Embracing the work ethic need not mean we never do anything but work.

3. The myth of indispensability. You’ve probably heard the story of the small-town pastor who regularly walked away from his work to watch the trains that passed through his town. When asked why the trains fascinated him so, he answered, “I love to see something that moves without my pushing it!”

Often it seems as though things happen in the church only when we prod and provoke and push them along—and maybe wind up doing the work ourselves. Always there are church people who need us to help them make their way across life’s battlefields. Convincing ourselves we are indispensable is not difficult.

We are not. The time will come when I’ll no longer serve my current congregation. It will survive my departure. The life of the church is carried along by the power of the Holy Spirit, not the skills and personality of any one pastor.

Saw sharpening

Once we have broken the shackles of “their” expectations, the relentless work ethic, and the myth of indispensability, we’re ready not only to grant ourselves time off but to start feeling good about doing the non-urgent: prayer, reading, putting up our feet and dreaming, recreation, rest.

Indeed, because doing important-but-not-urgent things can make us better pastors and better persons, we can feel good about indulging in the non-urgent.

For several years, I’ve given myself permission to spend time on the non-urgent. Recently I read a book that helped crystallize and clarify for me its importance: Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Many of the ideas in the balance of this chapter are derived from Covey’s book.

Covey tells this story:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

This man’s foolishness is apparent. But when the man with the saw is me, when I’m hip deep in work, claiming I’m too busy to sharpen the saw, it isn’t so apparent to me.

Covey proposes that saw sharpening has four dimensions: mental, spiritual, physical, and social/emotional. Reading, prayer, exercise, being with friends, rest—these are ways of sharpening the saw. They are as essential as the work we do. They are, as a matter of fact, what makes it possible for us to do what we do. (I can’t help remembering the famous quote of Martin Luther: “I’m so busy today that I don’t have time not to pray.”)

Taking time for saw sharpening is how we maintain what Covey refers to as the P/PC balance. P stands for production. As pastors, we are responsible for producing certain things: sermons, lessons, programs, the newsletter, spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, worship leadership.

PC, on the other hand, stands for production capability, the ability to produce those things. In the story, the man in the woods is so geared to his production—cutting down the tree rather than taking the time to sharpen his saw—he is neglecting his production capability.

I can certainly identify with that. There have been times in my ministry (and probably will be again) when I have been so caught up in my production that I have ignored my production capability. You know the scenario: one or two sermons a week, two or three adult classes, confirmation classes, four meetings; a funeral, a wedding, a cancer surgery, a fragile newborn; a weekend retreat, a newsletter to get out, a worship service to plan, that “must-go-to” denominational meeting, a few counseling appointments; start the day early, end it late, too busy for a day off—everybody has a week like that now and then.

But sometimes a week like that is followed by another like that, and another, and another. I find myself snapping at my family, flinching when the telephone rings, laboring to produce a sermon that does not have my heart in it, wondering if I really have anything to offer the people I meet. When that happens, I’ve ignored my production capability. As a result, I am working harder and harder, producing less and less.

P/PC restructure

Covey proposes looking at the organization of our time via a “Time Management Matrix.” This matrix is divided into four quadrants on the basis of urgency and importance.

Something that is urgent requires our immediate attention. If I’m in the office by myself, for example, and the telephone rings, it is urgent. Something that is important, on the other hand, might not require my immediate attention, but it does contribute substantially to my priorities.

In quadrant I, Covey places that which is both urgent and important. If the church custodian informs me that the sanctuary is on fire, that is both urgent and important! If the hospital calls to tell me that a child from the congregation was just struck by a car and is in critical condition—that is both urgent and important.

In quadrant II, Covey places that which is not urgent but is important. The care of my own spiritual life, for example, may not be urgent, but it is important. Sitting down with the rest of the church staff to plan a special series of Lenten services may not be urgent (as long as I do it, say, before February 1), but it is important. Much of the professional reading we do is not urgent, but it is important.

In quadrant III, Covey places that which is urgent but not important. If I’m alone in the office and the telephone rings, it is urgent. But if the call is from a firm trying to interest me in doing a new church pictorial directory and my church just finished doing a church directory, it is not important. Often telephone calls, visitors, mail, and other requests make themselves sound urgent without being important.

It was Good Friday at 11:00 a.m. We were winding down from the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday, taking care of the last-minute details for the Good Friday service, and making certain everything was ready for Easter Sunday. I was polishing the Easter sermon and anticipating home services of Holy Communion with several of our shut-ins that day. All of a sudden, my office doorway darkened, and Randy emerged.

“Pastor,” he said, “I need to talk to you right now.”

“Fine, Randy, come on in. What’s up?”

“We’ll, I’ve been thinking about the congregational golf tournament we have every August. I think we should have trophies this year, and my wife and I would be willing to donate them. But I’d like to know what you think of the idea and what we should put on the trophies. I have the day off today, and I’d like to get everything taken care of.”

Randy’s appearance in my office was urgent. He wanted attention right away. But ordering trophies for an August golf tournament is definitely not an important part of my April priorities—definitely a quadrant moment! But I must tell the truth. I did, in fact, plan the trophies that day. I’m not proud of it, but I did it.

Even when that urgency does not correspond to importance, it is hard for us not to respond to urgency. Since urgency has a way of getting our adrenaline pumping, many of us thrive on emergencies and feed on urgency. But feeding on urgency can make us neglect the more significant nutrition of importance.

In quadrant IV, Covey places that which is neither urgent nor important. We call it trivia. The trivial can become alluring, an escape from the day’s pressures. Few of us avoid quadrant IV totally. I confess to having a quadrant-IV machine in the family room of our house. It is called a television set. Of course, there are times when the television set brings me something urgent (a tornado warning) and/or important (a debate between presidential candidates). But most television programming is neither urgent nor important. It might be entertaining, and there is nothing wrong with entertainment as such, but it is not important.

A few years ago, I had lunch with a pastor named Earl. Those of us who were his neighbors heard rumors that things were not going well for Earl in his congregation, that his church members were unhappy with him. During lunch, I began to sense the reason. Earl’s conversation was packed with reports on the guests Phil Donahue had on his program last week and the incredible plots of some of the daytime soap operas. It became clear that Earl was spending an inordinate amount of time in front of his TV set!

We all visit quadrant IV from time to time. But when we start to live there, we’ve got problems.

Quadrant II living

In keeping with Covey’s advice, I’ve made it my goal to spend as much time in quadrant I—the urgent and important—as I have to, and as much time in quadrant II—the non-urgent but important—as I can.

I try to be discerning about quadrant III—the urgent but not important; mistaking urgency for importance can be tempting. I do visit quadrant IV—neither the urgent nor important (as when one of my favorite teams is playing a crucial game)—but I refuse to live there.

Spending time in quadrant II—the important but not necessarily urgent—can make me a better preacher. I’ve always admired those preachers who have a keen insight into a complex portion of Scripture, a good quote, an illumining story. But powerful sermons don’t happen by accident.

I’ve been playing golf since I was a teenager. I love the game, but I’ve never gotten very good at it. I admire those golf professionals who play the game close to par. Each year the LPGA—Ladies Professional Golf Association—plays a tournament in our area. One summer I went to one of their practice rounds.

When I arrived early in the morning, some of our nation’s finest women golfers were on the practice tee. I watched a while then walked over to the practice green to watch others putt. Then I headed onto the course and followed a group around the first nine holes. When I returned to the clubhouse, I checked the practice tee again, and some of the same women were still there—three hours later.

Then I walked the second nine holes. After those nine holes, I found that many of the women who had been on the practice tee earlier in the day were now working on their putting, and vice versa. They weren’t playing that day, but they were practicing—for hours!

Practicing was not an urgent task for them that day, but it was an important task. This experience made clear to me why they are great golfers and I am a duffer: practice. They work at it, constantly. I just step up to the first tee and assume that I should be able to play as well as they do.

Much of the difference between the great preachers and average preachers may be the time taken for study, reflection, prayer, and reading. This is not time spent grinding out the sermon for next Sunday, but rather it is time spent sharpening the saw, a quadrant-II activity. When the time comes for actual sermon preparation, they are sharp.

Sharpening the saw—spending time in quadrant II—includes the kind of mental and spiritual sharpening described above. It also includes the social/emotional and the physical. Recent ministry studies have highlighted the tendency of some pastors to be “Lone Ranger” types, seeking to carry out their work in isolation from partners and colleagues. That often leads the Lone Ranger to get saddle sore, to run down and burn out.

When I spend time with those whose professional adventures are similar to mine, we are each sharpened. Once a month I attend a lunch with pastors whose congregations are like my own. Many of them are facing the same issues I’m facing. Some months my urgent pressures make me wonder if I can afford taking the time to attend this meeting. But I do attend most months. I find that when I do, I am encouraged, even if it’s only because I’ve shared my frustrations with others who understand them perfectly well.

Likewise, I am more effective when I care for myself physically. Some months ago, my energy on the wane, I could tell I was being less effective than I wanted. My wife suggested that perhaps arriving at the church office before seven every morning was not essential. I took her advice. I began sleeping one hour later each day and discovered I was getting more done than I had before.

When I shove a daily walk or ride on the exercise bicycle off the schedule, I lose my sharpness. When I never step away from work to play golf or go bowling or see a movie or go to a concert, I get “flat.”

The call that never came

When a few years ago I decided to wean myself from the tyranny of the supposedly urgent to practice what I’ve just described, I braced myself for the fallout. I expected that at least some of my church members would be unhappy with me, that I’d hear complaints about what was not getting done. I wondered how long it would take to get the first phone call of complaint.

I’m still waiting. That phone call has never come. My annual performance evaluation that year from the church council, in fact, was the best I’d ever received. Apparently my people affirmed Covey’s principle. Sharpening the saw and spending time in quadrant II can make you a more effective pastor.


Renewing Your Strength Without a Sabbatical

Instead of taking off on a three-month getaway, I embarked on a day-to-day hike through the wilderness of weariness.

—Greg Asimakoupoulos

Twelve years of task-oriented ministry had taken its toll. I was battling pastoral burnout, and I was losing. The very week the Allied Forces were claiming victory in the Persian Gulf War, my own spirit was surrendering to battle fatigue. Emotional exhaustion. Physical weariness. Spiritual anorexia.

In a conversation with my superintendent, I confessed despair. He suggested a four-syllable remedy: sabbatical.

An extended time away from the never-ending responsibilities of the church (with full pay) was not a foreign concept to me. Two of my closest colleagues had been granted twelve-week sabbaticals the previous summer. For both, the experience was one of travel, rest, family reunions, and solitude. No degree was pursued. No article published. No manuscript written. Yet each returned home focused, fresh, and infused with a renewed desire to preach.

The thought of “getting away from it all” had presented itself as a welcome hope even before the superintendent’s call. His endorsement fanned my flickering fantasy into a burning desire. I approached members of the congregation whom I was close to. I confessed my hopes that the church leadership might endorse a sabbatical leave.

Their responses were less than encouraging.

“A sabbati—what?”

“For how long?”

“You’d still collect a check?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

Although mentally I had begun packing my bags, their negative reactions stalled my sabbatical flight on the runway. The word sabbatical did not translate into the vocabulary of my congregation, who were largely blue-collar workers and middle-management lifers. The concept was utterly foreign.

Even the one person with whom I had attended college (whose father was a university professor) protested the proposal.

“I know all about sabbaticals for educators,” he said. “But I’ve never heard of it in the ministry. Besides, if you take off for three months, the church’s finances will plummet.”

His words characterized the feelings of those I approached. My superintendent’s prescription for emotional survival was viewed as an unjustified vacation.

I felt betrayed. I thought my church cared for me. Resentment stirred the waters of my already troubled spirit. Once the anger dissipated, I devised an itinerary for survival. Instead of taking off on a three-month getaway, I embarked on a day-to-day hike through the wilderness of weariness. I developed what turned out to be twelve ways to take a sabbatical in the midst of work.

Pack only the essentials

A wilderness hike is a survival course. It demands living lean.

Christian management consultant Fred Smith learned firsthand what it takes to survive: “I ought to be able to write down the two, three, or four major things I simply cannot slight and be sure only to work on them. These are my current majors, the items of greatest importance today. Everything else has to be pushed aside.”

Realizing a sabbatical would not be forthcoming, yet realizing my need for refreshment, I took the initiative and informed the pastoral relations committee what areas I would attend to for three months (and what areas I planned to neglect). They agreed. The essentials in my backpack included worship planning, preaching, writing, and emergency pastoral care.

Office mail that I normally would have dealt with, I stuck, unopened, in the boxes of board members. When a couple phoned late one day and asked if they could meet me that night to discuss their marriage problems, I made a judgment call. I decided their problem was not an emergency and said we could schedule an appointment (normally I would have forgone my planned family time and counseled them that night). It turned out that the problem was a temporary flareup that passed, and we never needed to meet.

The weight of my pack proved just right.

Secure a reliable guide

I sensed that I should avoid solitary climbing along the edges of burnout at all costs. Emotional exhaustion can disorient us. We need others to point us in the right direction.

I took the advice I had given to scores of hurting people and sought out a reputable Christian therapist. His penetrating questions and tested observations provided weekly guidance as I kept trudging the seemingly insurmountable mountains of ministry. I had the security that, no matter how lost I felt, he would help me stay on the trail.

Guides come in all shapes and sizes. Whereas a therapist helped me, so did my wife, a colleague across town, even my church chairman. The only prerequisite for trustworthy guides: they need to provide unconditional acceptance that allows you to climb out of your pit at your own pace.

I had to struggle against false guilt during this time of healing. For instance, though I feel called to write and find it fulfilling and therapeutic, I felt guilty about taking time away from church-related ministry. My guide assured me that writing was part of my calling, part of what my church supported me to do in its outreach not only to our local area but to the larger world. Talking this through gave me a whole new sense of assurance and peace.

Take along binoculars

It’s so easy to fix my focus on the trail that I forget the songbirds overhead that originally called me to ministry. I found it essential to take my eyes off my desk to daydream or drink in the beauty of God’s creation at least once a day.

For six weeks I limited the length of my daily to-do list. Not everyone in the hospital got visited. Letters remained unwritten. Some phone calls weren’t returned. And I recycled a newsletter devotional from two years ago instead of writing a new one.

As a result, I recaptured enough time to reflect on what I had done and to enjoy the good feelings that accompanied these accomplishments. The field glasses of discretionary time allowed me to see the world that existed apart from next week’s sermon.

Pitch your tent nightly

I gave myself permission to sleep in for a week or two. Adrenaline can camouflage how tired we really are. I figured that if I felt the need for a sabbatical, I most likely needed to catch up on my sleep.

Archibald Hart from Fuller Seminary’s School of Psychology suggests a way to determine how much sleep your body demands: if you hide your alarm clock in your nightstand for a week, your body will wake up on its own without artificial stimulation. When I followed his advice, I discovered how weary I really was. Much of my depression was actually my body’s muffled cry for rest.

At first I felt guilty for sleeping in and watching the Today Show while sipping coffee (or catching a few warm rays of sunshine while reading the paper on the deck). But after two weeks of not meeting anybody for early morning meetings or worrying about what time I clocked in at the office, I got rid of both my guilt and the accumulating luggage under my eyelids.

Grab your walking stick

I also needed to establish a realistic exercise routine. My therapist suggested that my life was in need of balance. For me that meant incorporating an aerobic workout into my daily regimen. I’m not an athlete by profession (or life style), and my body gave ready witness to the flabby truth. I began to walk briskly for an hour a day. (I could afford an hour because of my scaled-down demands.)

Ironically, that hour away from my desk was most productive. It gave me time to pray, which I hadn’t been doing much of in my depressed state. Walking also gave me time to reacquaint myself with the exhilaration of muscle fatigue, to be alone with my thoughts, or to catch up on the news. I’d often wear my Walkman. After two months of power walking, I began jogging. (I’m up to four miles a day and actually enjoying it!)

I’ve discovered there is something refreshing about achieving personal goals (like exercise) that don’t have to pass by the board first. Of all the steps I’ve taken to survive without a sabbatical, regular exercise was the most immediate salvation. At the end of the first week, I was sleeping better and awaking rested. After two months my head cleared considerably, and I felt more optimistic.

Remember your whittling knife

What do you mean you don’t know where your knife is? That’s just the point. Your whittling knife (or whatever your forgotten knife is) most likely hasn’t been handled for far too long. But making it through ministry requires making time for you.

Organize an expedition to find your buried golf clubs. Dig out that ol’ fishin’ pole. Invest in a new tennis racket. Start a stamp collection. I chose to pursue a latent interest in photography, which developed into a meaningful expression of my captive emotions.

With the pressures of people’s problems, pessimistic pew sitters, and sermon preparation, factoring joy into a pastor’s journey makes perfect sense. Call it a hobby. Call it a divine diversion. Just call it fun, and call it often. But don’t give up because of a busy signal.

There will always be a legitimate excuse for not relaxing and having fun. But such excuses are no excuse. Recreation by definition is a means of being recreated from within. Besides, who ever heard of a hiker who didn’t pack a knife, harmonica, or camera?

Carry along a hiker’s log

Journal your journey. When emotions and thoughts held me hostage, I learned that a pen and notebook are a way of escape. Getting my feelings onto paper relaxed their strangulating grip and let me look at the invisible.

I’ve heard it said, “Thoughts untangle and make more sense when they pass through articulating fingertips.”

In addition, documenting the difficulty of present circumstances became a valuable testimony to my tendencies and God’s faithfulness. My journal from seminary days reminded me that discouragement and drivenness have shared my berth before. As I reread my restless seminary journal, I found reason to believe God would rescue me once again.

I didn’t follow a schedule or place demands on myself to journal. When needed, I used it as an emotional catharsis, not a diary, usually for about fifteen minutes at a time.

Look out for the lookouts

Take time to pause in the midst of the climb.

Howard Thurman from Harvard Divinity School first introduced me to the concept of “minute vacations” in his book The Inward Journey. There’s something to be said for a wee pause for our network of nerves to identify themselves and relax. Reclining in a chair. Feet on the desk. Eyes closed. Meditation. (Almost sounds spiritual, doesn’t it?) Three or four times a day, such an inner panorama can recalibrate one’s perspective.

But minute vacations can be enlarged to include an afternoon of antiquing with your wife, a day at an art museum with your son, going away on a solitary retreat for a night or two to read and pray, or religiously taking a minivacation from work once a week. Some call it a day off—now there’s a novel idea!

Listen to the waterfalls

Emotional exhaustion is often accompanied by apathy and dulled feelings; life loses its song. If music could make a difference for someone as tormented as King Saul, how much more for a pastor.

I incorporated my car stereo and boom box into my daily grind, turning on the music that fueled my feelings. I discovered my Walkman to be more than a source of news. It was my emotional jumper cable. Praise music and classical masterpieces, even the big band sounds of the ′40s lifted my spirits.

I cranked up the volume and luxuriated in melodies that ministered to my shriveled heart. The sounds of these alpine waterfalls helped keep this hiker on the hoof.

Pull the snapshots out of your pack

Update the photos on your desk. Those framed faces remind me whom I’m providing for, and that my provision is more than just bringing home the bacon; my wife and kids want the whole hog. They need someone to hug and spend time with.

An occasional glimpse at those we love helps us focus on what ultimately matters most (and it’s not Sister Jones’s hernia). Remembering my identity as a husband and father keeps me from being too compulsive about my role as pastor.

One night, when we were sitting around the dining room table together, out of nowhere my seven-year-old daughter said, “I’m so happy when we’re all together as a family.”

Now there’s positive reinforcement!

Collect firewood

In other words, build altars of praise. I practiced the discipline of personal worship even when the desire to do so was absent. If ever an awareness of God is needed, it is in the blindness of burnout.

On the mountain trail in the withering midday heat, the need for firewood is not as obvious as it will be come nightfall. It means doing what we don’t feel like doing at the time.

When I annually explain the process of confirmation to our sixth-grade parents, I suggest that in confirmation we are laying the logs of truth in the fireplace of Christian community, so that when the Holy Spirit ignites a flame of faith, there is something to sustain a fire. That is similar to what I experienced in my times of quiet before the Lord. Upon the cold hearth of my cold heart, I placed the logs found in poetry, music, silence, Scripture.

At first I was tempted to go through the motions of a routine quiet time. But my ability to fake it soon faded. I resisted benign devotions in favor of honest communication with God. No regimented Bible study. No protracted periods of prayer. At times just thoughtful sighs and audible groans in an empty sanctuary were the only twigs I could find. But God was there.

He also found me in King David’s diary of depressions, the Psalms. He even spoke to me through a couple of those radio Bible teachers our congregations compare us to. Through simple and sincere expressions of friendship with the Father, I collected a pile of logs for when the flame of passion would return.

As of now, those spiritual flames are still in the process of returning. It’s been a slow recovery, with emotional restoration coming far more easily than spiritual. I feel more loved and accepted by God, though, than at any time in my ministry.

Keep in contact with the lodge

When paraplegic park ranger Mark Wellman climbed Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, he maintained regular contact with the lodge. His supporters anxiously waited on the valley floor because of the precarious challenge facing their friend. Mark complied with their need to know how he was doing and used his walkie-talkie often.

I chose to share with my board my ups and downs. I disclosed my own need for pastoral care from a therapist. I distributed articles on the phenomena of pastoral burnout and ministerial stress. Their willingness to believe the despair to which pastors are prone was not only enhanced by the articles, it was strengthened by my willingness to be up-front about myself. The trust that emerged from my continual communication actually quieted most of my insensitive critics.

Still, a few critics pointed to my nonsabbatical as evidence of my shortcomings. Our church had been going through a conflict of sorts before and after this period. My candid approach of dealing with my needs lost me a few more credibility points with them.

But for most in our church, I gained credibility. Many people repeatedly thanked me for handling the situation as I did, and they were more open about their own struggles as a result. If I were to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Well there you have it, a hiker’s handbook to which I’ll probably refer again. Following these guidelines gave me a refreshed spirit apart from a sabbatical. If I turn to this survival handbook again in the future, I will probably never need a sabbatical—while my church leaders might see the value of giving me one!

Part 8

Building Character


Going to Your Left

Strengths alone do not a ministry make.

—Kent Hughes

Most basketball players are right-handed. They find it easier to dribble to the right than to the left. Going to the left requires them to use their other hand, which isn’t natural. Only the best players are ambidextrous, able to play well with either hand.

Sometimes even pastors have to go to their left.

Soon after I became a Christian in high school, I was certain God wanted me to preach. But I had a problem: shyness. Even today, when I’m with new acquaintances, I’m not the type to assert myself. I’m perfectly happy to sit at the back and follow other people’s leads.

Since I had been called to preach, though, I knew I would have to deal with this weakness. So as a teenager, I intentionally took leadership positions: I was a student body officer in high school and a leader in my church youth group. In front of such groups, I felt terrified. At times I achieved the illusion of being a confident, articulate leader, but I wasn’t. Nothing I did was spontaneous. Even with announcements, I’d prepare a script.

As a seminarian, I remained nervous when up front. When I led devotions, I made sure not to look at my wife, because if I caught her eye I would be distracted by how I was doing. At times I’d get twithces in my cheek, my eyes would water, and I’d blush. Yet I still felt called to public ministry. Today people tell me I’m an accomplished preacher, and I’ve been a pastor so long they think I naturally fit the role. Many in my congregation would never suspect my basic shyness.

All this convinces me that pastoral ministry means more than using one’s strengths for Christ. In fact, I’ve come to believe that Christ uses our weaknesses in ministry as much as our strengths.

Some people wonder, Isn’t it poor stewardship to work on a weakness? Doesn’t God create us with strengths so we can major on them, and by doing so, work most efficiently and fruitfully for him? Others think, Doesn’t God want us to enjoy ministry? And won’t we receive the most joy in ministry when we go with the things we naturally do well?

These questions contain a kernel of truth, of course. But I’ve found that strengths are only part of the pastoral picture. To be effective, I’ve had to work out of my weaknesses too. Here’s what I’ve noticed along the way.

Strength’s downside

It’s fun to work in areas of strength. I find ministry less toilsome and more enjoyable when I do. But strengths have a downside.

I’ve seen many gifted high school athletes, for example, who quarterback the football team, pitch and hit superbly in baseball, or score high in basketball. Then they go to college, and I never hear of them again. Why? The gifted young athlete had become uncoachable. He was so confident in his abilities, he didn’t relish advice or practice. Soon he was passed by less gifted, more coachable athletes.

I’ve also known some gifted preachers who didn’t go far. It was apparent that even in seminary they knew how to use language. Their timing was superb, and there was a magnetism about their physique and bearing. But because they met so much early success, they stopped honing their preaching skills. They stopped studying. They wouldn’t take seriously others’ comments. Instead of relying on the Lord in prayer and working hard, they began to rely on clichés and technique. They calcified. Giftedness doesn’t last without effort.

We don’t have much problem giving our weaknesses to God. Since we don’t think we have much choice, it’s easy to tell God, “I’m not good in administration. Lord, help me.” The problem is giving him our strengths. Oswald Chambers says, “God can achieve his purpose either through the absence of human power and resources, or the abandonment of reliance on them. All through history God has chosen and used nobodies, because the unusual dependence on him made possible the unique display of his power and grace. He chose and used somebodies only when they renounced dependence on their natural abilities and resources.”

Of course, God has also chosen to use people with great gifts—Augustine and his intellect, Spurgeon and his eloquence—but only when they renounced dependence on their natural abilities and resources.

But strengths don’t lend themselves to such humility. In some ways, they make godly ministry more difficult. Up to this point I’ve used strengths and gifts as synonyms. Ultimately I know they are not. Some people are strong communicators but not gifted by the Spirit to preach. Others are efficient administrators, but they don’t have the gift of godly administration. The difference is simply this: a strength is something we do well or easily and enjoy doing. A gift is a skill, strong or weak, that God uses for bearing spiritual fruit.

I’m a good administrator, but I’m not naturally gifted in or motivated to do administration. I don’t find it enjoyable. The constant drudgery of the task makes it difficult to face. However, the daily discipline of intelligently attacking a task I naturally dislike has made me a competent administrator. In fact, my staff says I run a “tight ship,” and by God’s grace, lives have been blessed. I’ve overseen programs and guided staff people well enough to minister indirectly to others—many more than I could have through my direct contact.

But if early on I had determined that because of my lack of interest in administration I shouldn’t spend much time at it, I would have missed this God-given opportunity to minister.

Another danger of focusing on strengths is procrastination, personal and corporate. I often hear that a church should wait for the gifted, meaning those with natural talent, to come forth before it undertakes a ministry. Again, there’s a measure of truth in that logic, but it can be turned the wrong way: if such-and-such isn’t my gift, then I have no responsibility to get involved. I’ve been in too many situations, however, where waiting for talented people to come forth led to procrastination of obedience to Christ.

There are too many needful things to be done to wait around for someone to feel gifted. In fact, I’ve noticed that when some things need doing—like cleaning up after Sunday school or doing dishes after a church dinner or putting away chairs or repainting the choir room—there is an acute shortage of people who feel gifted! Nonetheless such things need to be done.

Strengths alone, then, do not a ministry make.

Needs first

I’ve found it much more helpful first to determine not my strengths but rather the areas of greatest need in the church and community. When I do that, I’ve noticed that much more of Christ’s work gets done.

The most obvious case in point is the need for people to hear about Christ. Evangelism has never come easily for me. But in each of my ministry settings, I’ve made it a point to evangelize and to train others to do it.

When I was a youth pastor, I’d take my kids with me when I would preach on the streets. Such preaching was hard for me, but I knew I was called to do it. In my last church, I taught Evangelism Explosion and then regularly went calling with people. In homes I would sit, sometimes so nervous I’d be sick to my stomach, and talk to people about their souls.

In both cases, evangelism needed to be done. I didn’t feel I could wait until people who thought they had the gift of evangelism came along to lead us. I was the pastor, so I was responsible for leading in evangelism.

Now if it’s not my strength, I may not make a lifetime commitment to train people in Evangelism Explosion. But strength or not, I may have to commit three, four, or five years of time and energy to get the ministry started. In this context, I often think of Mother Teresa. I doubt if she thinks of herself as gifted at changing bedpans. I doubt she finds that fun, but she’s called to meet the needs of the dying, so she does what needs to be done.

Ministry is like war, and ministers like platoon leaders. Sometimes platoon leaders give orders; sometimes they fire on the enemy; sometimes they clear minefields; sometimes they carry the wounded; sometimes they bolster the frightened with horseplay. Platoon leaders don’t spend a lot of time deciding if they’re talented at shooting or good at carrying the wounded or gifted at finding mines. Likewise, when you’re fighting principalities and powers in high places, it’s usually more productive for the kingdom to do things that need doing when they need doing, regardless of one’s strengths.

Renaissance pastor

Almost all pastors have to give leadership in more areas than they can possibly have strengths. To be an effective pastor, then, I must be a Renaissance pastor: I have to be an administrator, managing well the life and business of the church; a communicator, teaching my people the good news; a visionary, leading people to new vistas; a contemplative, listening to the voice of God; a compassionate person, hearing the hurts of people; a decision maker, making the many hard choices of church life.

If I were to concentrate my ministry in one or two areas of strength, I think my ministry would become flat. I’ve known ministers who think of themselves as primarily communicators. The problem is, when they are away from a pulpit or lectern, they are not very interesting people. They are even less effective pastors. Because ministry for me is an occupation that demands my attention in many areas, it stretches me—about as much as I can be stretched!

In addition, I’ve found that working on one skill often improves another. For example, I wouldn’t say I have the gift of mercy. I don’t enjoy, as some do, going from room to room in a hospital, ministering to the ill. But I regularly do hospital visitation, though I could easily delegate the entire task to the rest of my staff.

And I’ve never regretted going. First, I get to know my people. And second, by knowing my people, I’ve become a better preacher, one who can connect with their real struggles.

A Renaissance pastor is not only a more interesting person, but a better pastor.

Weakness strengthening

If needs come before strengths for the Renaissance pastor, it means weaknesses need to be attended to. But how do we improve our inadequacies? Here’s what I’ve done.

Solicit honest feedback. A turning point in my ministry occurred one Sunday afternoon when I was in my early thirties. I wasn’t feeling good about my sermon. So I asked my wife, “What did you think of the sermon?”

She began to tell me, and I didn’t like what I was hearing. So I started arguing with her. She was small of stature but forceful in her response: “If you want my opinion, don’t argue with me when I give it. If you don’t want it, please don’t ask me.”

I was steamed. It took me half a week to come to grips with what she said. I finally told her I did indeed want her feedback. Since then my wife tells me the absolute truth, both good and bad, about how I do in the pulpit and in the ministry. By God’s grace she’s not a critical person, and we know not to discuss the bad report when I’m already feeling down!

But her honest feedback has remarkably improved my ministry, especially my preaching. Consequently, I’ve expanded my feedback pool over the years. Our staff now evaluates weekly the Sunday morning service. I encourage new staff members to question why we do what we do in the service so we won’t fall into empty worship routines. And I try to foster an atmosphere where we can freely say when we think an idea won’t work. Sometimes the atmosphere gets thick with disagreement, but that’s okay.

On occasion I also solicit feedback from my staff about the sermon. I know they are careful about what they say, so I have to read more between the lines, but they too have helped me learn and grow.

Getting feedback isn’t always pleasant, especially when I’m seeking to improve a weakness—after all, it’s going to be weak, especially at the beginning of the process. But it’s never going to improve if I don’t know the truth.

Delegate and train. I was a youth pastor for nine years, and if you can’t do funny things with a banana, there’s little hope for you in youth ministry. But I’m not a funny person. I don’t know how to make people laugh spontaneously, which may explain why I like zany people and comedians like John Cleese. (Maybe I’m gifted at laughing.)

So what did I do? I began developing some of the high schoolers who were funny. I’d also find other adults who could do the zany stuff well and simply delegate that part of the meeting. Naturally, there were many other factors in the success of the youth ministry, but if we hadn’t been able to make youth laugh part of the night, I don’t think ninety to one hundred kids would have kept coming every Wednesday night for years.

Use strong resources. Today entertainment so pervades our culture, sermons must not only be interesting but captivating. Consequently, stories and humor are essential. At a minimum, they keep people interested, and at their best, they drive home serious points. But I’m not a natural storyteller. So I compensate by drawing on strong resources—that is, material that is genuinely engaging.

After I was in youth ministry for about five years, I began receiving invitations to speak at youth conferences. That didn’t happen because I had suddenly been transformed into a funny person; I had simply learned to make use of good material. I used to tell the story about Jonah getting spit out on the seashore, and I’d tie in the kids’ beach experiences (getting greased up with cocoa butter, having sand stick to your body), and allude to Jonah’s likely aroma, texture, and appearance. No wonder people repented! Not a lot of that shtick was original—most of it was material I’d heard here and there and pieced together. But it worked to make youth groups laugh.

For my sermons, I memorize good stories, knowing that otherwise I’ll forget key parts. In fact, if you ask me to relate the humor or story I told in a sermon from two days earlier, I can’t remember it. But, when practiced for timing and delivery, stories work beautifully in a sermon when the material itself is good.

Deal quickly with what you hate. I hate confronting people. While some people thrive on that sort of encounter, exhortation is plainly not my strength. Nonetheless, when I must confront, I find it best to attend to the matter as soon as possible. If I procrastinate, the situation only becomes worse, and since I’m not particularly gifted at it, the encounter also becomes worse.

A couple of times in the past, I’ve delayed confronting staff members who weren’t performing well. For instance, once I failed to convey adequately to a staff person the intensity of what was being said about him—how much people were dissatisfied with his inability to follow through on assignments.

Because I let my dislike for confrontation dictate relative inaction, it became worse for everybody. A little dissatisfaction slowly grew into a mushroom cloud of frustration for many people—members became more angry, and I finally had to let the staff member go—which was utterly distasteful to me. Had I confronted my colleague with more specifics, he would have had a chance to improve or bow out before the situation became so painful. Not only that, our relationship would not have undergone increasing strain.

Now when a small concern presents itself, I immediately see the person in question. That way little things don’t build and become even harder to deal with.

Practice makes much better. If a man of moderate athletic ability shot five hundred free throws every lunch hour, he’d get better at free throws. If he hired a coach to critique his technique, he’d get even better. Because this hypothetical man is not particularly gifted, he will never be as proficient as Michael Jordan, but he’ll be very good.

I know lots of pastors who are effective communicators. They’re not particularly gifted—not in the same league as Billy Graham or Chuck Swindoll—but they have exercised a profound dependence on God. In addition, they’ve asked for critiques of their preaching; they’ve written out their sermons to avoid clichés; they’ve memorized their transitions; they’ve attended preaching clinics. As a result, they’re able to engage their listeners and drive home the Christian message.

Practice may never make us perfect, but it certainly makes us much, much better.

Certainly there is a place to talk about the effective use of our God-given strengths. But in my ministry, it’s been equally vital to work on my weaknesses. When Paul talked about God using our weaknesses, I’m sure he meant that in our weaknesses we tend to depend more on God, allowing God to work more through us. Without denying that, I would also add that by God’s grace, our weaknesses can be improved and be used effectively by him.


Developing a Christian Mean Streak