Spiritual Formation for Preachers
Implementing key strategies will help you combat the temptations that come from pleasure, possessions, and position.
by Rick Warren
“For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16).
Since the days of Adam and Eve, Satan has used three basic temptations to trip up believers. He used these same temptations on Jesus, and he uses them to attempt to undermine your ministry.
The Bible describes these temptations as “the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do” (1 John 2:16, TNIV1). The King James Version renders them, “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” But no matter how you translate this verse, it comes down to pleasure, possessions, and position.
In ministry we can easily fall to these temptations. We are under constant pressure emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. And this increases the temptation to deal with the stress of ministry in a sinful way.
James Emery White, in his book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, gives this summation of what we can experience: “When you are in ministry, it is easy to confuse doing things for God with spending time with God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake the trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.”
If we do not take these temptations seriously, they will undermine our pastoral ministry. That includes our ability to bring the Word of God before our congregations through preaching. Falling to one of these temptations not only entangles us in sin, it is a sign that we have pulled back from intimacy with God.
Lack of intimacy with God will show up in the way you preach: perhaps because you avoid certain biblical passages that force you to face your sin; perhaps through illustrations you use that seem to constantly come back to materialism and money; perhaps through delivery that draws more attention to your ability to preach instead of pointing to God and His great love for us.
Here are some strategies for combating the temptations that come from pleasure, possessions, and position.
The Temptation of Sexual Pleasure
The Bible says we will be tempted by sex. We may not even see the initial temptation as sin. For instance, the enemy may use discouragement to encourage us to think we are entitled to indulge in pleasure. We start thinking we have worked hard, we are under tremendous stress, and we just need to let off a little pressure.
Here are some things I do to maintain moral integrity:
Be honest when you are fatigued, and take a rest. When you are tired, you are vulnerable to a lot of things: discouragement, depression, and temptation. The Bible says 6 days you labor, and the 7th day you rest. If you are not taking a day off every week, you are breaking the Ten Commandments. Take a day off.
It is particularly important to take time off after a spiritual or emotional high. Elijah, in 1 Kings 18, had a big God contest with the prophets on Mount Carmel. Right after that, he ends up in the desert saying, “God, I want to die. Take my life.” Fatigue is a hazard of being in the ministry, and it lowers our resistance to temptation.
Do not believe your own PR. In ministry, you are on a pedestal with lots of people admiring you. You may remember about 25 years ago Jimmy Swaggart fell into sexual sin. William Martin said in People magazine, “I’ve seen [Swaggart] change over the years. He seems to have been seduced by the power and the fame. … He says, ‘If I have an idea to build a Bible college or mission, it must have come from God.’ Next, he starts to say, ‘God told me this … God told me that. …’ Next, the tendency is to say, ‘I think what God meant to say was. …’ ”
Swaggart himself said, “I forgot that I was human. I thought I was more than human.” Never forget that you are human and just as vulnerable to sexual temptation as anyone else. There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
First Corinthians 10:12 says, “So be careful. If you are thinking, ‘Oh, I would never behave like that’ — let this be a warning to you. For you too may fall into sin” (TLB2). The morning I start saying, “I have conquered that problem,” is the morning I am openly vulnerable to temptation.
Continually guard your heart and mind. When I am tempted, I remind myself of God’s omniscience and omnipresence. God sees everything in my life, and He is always with me. The devil says, “No one will ever know.” Yet, knowing that God is always with me and sees everything is my motivation to practice His presence in the midst of temptation.
The battle for sin begins in your mind. If you lose the battle in your mind, then you have already lost the battle. Consider:
- James 1:14,15: “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
- 1 Peter 1:13: “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.”
- 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
- Romans 13:14: “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”
- Matthew 5:28: “But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NLT3).
Remind yourself regularly of the damaging consequences of moral failure. When you are tempted, think like this: Minimize the pleasure and maximize the consequences. Hebrews 11:25 says there is pleasure in sin for a season. Of course, sin is fun. No one would do it if it were not. You would not be tempted if there was no pleasure in it. But you must think about what sexual sin will do to your family, your congregation, your ministry, and your livelihood. Think about how it will hinder your relationship with God.
Take the necessary precautions to protect yourself. In Matthew 26:41, Jesus says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It is interesting that He does not say, “Watch and pray so you will not fall into sin.” He says, “Watch and pray so that you will not give in to temptation.” He’s telling you not to even put yourself in a situation where you can be tempted.
The Living Bible renders 1 Peter 5:8, “Be careful — watch out for the attacks from Satan, your great enemy. He prowls around like a hungry, roaring lion looking for some victim to tear apart.”
Let me be clear: Most sexual temptation in the ministry will not be from some brightly painted vamp. It will come from someone you genuinely care about, someone you love.
The Temptation of Greed
When the Bible speaks about the lust of the eyes, it is referring to materialism, the ungodly desire to increase what we have and to get all we can get. I faced a huge temptation in this area after the success of The Purpose Driven Life. In one quarter, the book earned $9 million in royalties. To insulate myself from the desires of materialism, I went to God and acknowledged this income came from Him and that it was up to Him to decide what I should do with it.
I prayed, “Okay, God, what are You doing with this? I don’t need this. I’m a pastor.” God reminded me that He does not give us money to fulfill our selfish desires. As I spent time in the Scriptures, God gave me several passages, including 1 Corinthians 9.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is talking to pastors about money and their salary and says, “Those that teach the gospel should make a living by the Gospel.” In other words, it is okay to pay your pastor. “But,” Paul said, “I will not accept that right because I want the free rein to serve God for free so that I am a slave to no man.” When I read that, I decided I want to serve God for free so I am a slave to no man. So my wife Kay and I made several decisions.
First, we decided we would not change our lifestyle one bit, no matter how much money came in. So, we still live in the same house we have lived in for 25 years, and I still drive a Ford truck. I have the same two suits; I do not have a guest home; I do not have a yacht; and I do not own a beach house. We said we were not going to use the money on ourselves.
Second, I stopped taking a salary from the church.
Third, I added up all the church had paid me over the past 25 years and gave it all back, because I did not want anyone thinking I was in ministry for money. I knew I was going to be under the spotlight, and I wanted to live a life beyond reproach. The next week a major news magazine interviewed me, and the first question was, “What is your salary?” I was able to say that I serve my church for free. I know a lot of pastors who would gladly do that, too, if God gave them the means.
I found that God was teaching me this: Every time I give it back to Him, it breaks the grip of materialism in my life. This is the best way to combat this temptation. I believe every time we give, it makes us more like Jesus. Every time we give, our hearts grow bigger.
Another way Kay and I insulated ourselves from this temptation was by reverse tithing from early on in our marriage. When we got married 30 years ago, we began tithing 10 percent. Each year we raised our tithe 1 percent to stretch our faith — we gave 11 percent after the first year, 12 percent after the second year, and so on. Now, we have the means to give away 90 percent of our income and live on 10 percent. Because we had already made a habit of giving, it was easy to see what to do with the money: just give it away.
The Temptation of Power
When the Bible speaks about the pride of life, it is referring to a narcissistic need to impress. Because people in our congregations are constantly putting us on a spiritual pedestal, we are vulnerable to assuming we belong on that pedestal. One thing I teach my staff is that always being in the spotlight blinds you.
When The Purpose Driven Life made it to the bestseller list, I found dealing with this temptation a bit trickier. I started getting invitations from everywhere. I spoke at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, and on Capitol Hill. Producers in Hollywood asked me to come and discuss the book.
That was not my plan. My plan was just to pastor Saddleback and train pastors. So I asked God, “What am I supposed to do with all of this new influence you are giving me?” He led me to Psalm 72, which is Solomon’s prayer for more influence.
When you read Solomon’s prayer, it sounds quite selfish. Solomon is the wisest, wealthiest, and most powerful man in the world. Yet he prays, “God, I want You to make me more influential. I want You to bless me and give me more power. I want You to make me famous. I want You to spread the fame of my name to many nations” (author’s paraphrase).
It sounds selfish until you also read that he says, “So that the king may support the widow and orphan, care for the poor, defend the defenseless, lift up the fallen, release the captive, help the foreigner, the immigrant” (verses 12–14, author’s paraphrase).
God taught me that the purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence. I had to say, “God, I’m sorry. I can’t think of the last time I thought about widows or orphans. They aren’t even on my agenda.”
It wasn’t like I was wasting my time. At Saddleback, we had baptized more than 15,000 new believers by the time The Purpose Driven Life was published. I had not just been goofing off. Yet I sensed God telling me that I still did not care about the people He cared about. I told God, “I’m sorry, God, and I will use whatever affluence and influence You give me for the rest of my life to help those who have no influence.” That was a significant change I made to combat the temptation to use the influence God gave me for my own purposes.
You probably have more influence than you realize. You wield it every week as you stand before your congregation and share God’s Word. You wield it when you mobilize your church toward a cause. You wield it as you sit in front of a couple with a struggling marriage. You influence people all the time. It’s what you do.
Yet, you can influence others in ways that dishonor God. A Christian leader gets the attention of the media with some outlandish statement, and it stains the entire church. Instead of the leader using his or her influence in a positive way, the leader turns people away from God.
Your authority to preach does not come from your skill as a communicator, your education, or the fact your job description says that is what you are supposed to do. Your authority to preach comes through your relationship with Christ, and that is why you need to be intentional in maintaining intimacy with Him and vigilant in combating temptations that will lead you into moral impurity, greed, or sinful pride.
God has called us to bring the Word of God into our congregations, and we can only do that with any lasting significance by staying focused on Jesus, the Word, and not the world around us.
1. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, Today’s New International® Version TNIV©. Copyright 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society®. Used by permission of International Bible Society®. All rights reserved worldwide. TNIV and Today’s New International Version are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society®.
2. Scripture quotations marked TLB are taken from The Living Bible © 1971. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
3. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.