December 2, 2020

iMonk Classic: The Sanity Verses

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From July 16, 2005

Sometimes, I don’t need inspiration. What I need is just my sanity. I don’t need verses that tell me I’m about to see a miracle. I need something that says God wants me to make it to tomorrow, and I’ll still be useful. Sometimes I need to know that God doesn’t always want me to be a martyr, but that he wants me to stick around, survive and serve him again.

Sometimes, I don’t need to know how to succeed in ministry. I need to know that there is something on the other side of failure. I need to know that the cause of Christ matters, but that I matter, too.

I’ve collected some passages that fall into that category. I’m calling them “The Sanity Verses.” All of them contain something that we don’t hear enough about in descriptions of ministry—the comforting truth that, in the midst of all the important, spiritual stuff that matters and in the middle of rejection and failure in ministry…..I matter. I matter, too.

Matthew 7:6
I spend a lot of time preparing and delivering messages to people who not only have no interest in what they are hearing, many actively oppose and despise what they are hearing. (Oh, the glory of required chapel at a boarding school.) If the month is a full, typical month, I’ll preach 20 times, with 16 of those to our students. The experience painfully embodies this verse at times. (My wife even had a shirt made for me with this verse on it as a motto.)

It’s not unusual for the students to sleep. Yes, I get reponses and compliments, but I also get frequent requests to dump preaching for all praise music, all the time. Visiting preachers will deliver bad, weird, incomprehensible sermons that ignore Christ, but it’s not unusual for them to be praised by students and adults as “the best sermon I’ve ever heard,” because “they kept me awake.” When I preach the gospel plainly, and magnify the grace of God and the wonderful gift of salvation in Jesus alone, I will often be told by more than one adult that I didn’t tell the students enough things they had to do to be forgiven. Less grace, more repentance, more principles to be followed and values to be embraced so we can call ourselves Christians.

Sometimes….I want to quit. I am discouraged a lot. I wonder what I am doing with my gifts. I get to feeling sorry for myself. But I also remember the many faithful gospel preachers that have stood in our pulpit for over a century and preached the Gospel to our students and staff. I am glad to have that privilege. I’m also glad that, every so often, I can feel that I’m preaching to pigs and Jesus doesn’t want me to be naive or sentimental about that. I can take a break from the pigs every so often so that I don’t get too emotional and whiney. I can even let someone else preach, not try to do it all myself, and take care of my body and spirit for another round with a more receptive, congregation of pigs in a few days. I can remember that I was once a pig, that they aren’t all pigs, and some of those swine will be changed by the very Christ I am preaching.

But it’s good to know that Jesus knows how I feel. Maybe he felt this way, and I’m not a bad person for needing to know that.

Mark 6:7-11
I’m fascinated by the fact that both Jesus and Paul were itinerants. They preached and they moved on. They didn’t stop, but they kept moving. That requires a certain way of thinking. Jesus trained the disciples to be like that. Don’t take a lot of things to be comfortable, because you will always be moving. It will be the nature of the mission to keep going. Don’t make plans to be a permanent resident; be ready to go at the drop of a hat. A new village every few days. New people and new opportunities. Preach, heal, announce the Kingdom, show what it’s like.

That’s good mission thinking. It’s also good sane thinking. It gives the messenger some value along with the mission.

If they don’t receive you, and if they won’t listen to you…shake the dust off your feet and go on. Those who listened had the opportunity to hear and believe. You delivered the message (clearly and in the Spirit, as Jesus taught.) The rejections are not your fault. It wasn’t your failure to love or your failure to entertain them. It’s not because they were bored and you didn’t do enough comedy and stories. It’s because they didn’t want the Gospel. They don’t have time for it. God’s new Israel has no appeal to them. Maybe it will some other time, but that isn’t your business. You are my apostles, Jesus says. Move on, for the sake of those who need to hear, and for your own sake, too.

So hold on to your sanity. Don’t volunteer for martyrdom (though it may happen, so don’t be surprised.) Don’t choose the slow martyrdom of mind, family and health that comes from staying too long where all you have is on the table and consistent rejection is the only response. You are a preacher and witness, and it’s not your job to wear them down with persistence. God opens hearts. There is a time to enter that village; a time to minister and preach the Gospel; a time to rejoice with those who embrace Jesus’ Good News…and a time to say, “We’re done. I’ve done what God asked me to do. Tomorrow there is another village.”

Acts 13:45-50
Just about the time I feel like saying it’s all my fault, then I hear Paul saying, Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. And guess what? The Gentiles were really happy to hear this. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” It actually seems that if Paul and company hadn’t said, “We’ve done all we can do here. We aren’t going to burn out and blow up on people who don’t believe,” then a lot of people in the next town would never have received the Good News. In God’s providence, there were many waiting to make Jesus Lord, but Paul and Barnabas had to say “We’re done here,” and move on. And to do that, they had to accept that things hadn’t gone well, and the mission wasn’t a “success.” They weren’t going to get an article in the denominational paper. Instead, they needed to say, “Finished. Thank you. Good-bye.” When they did that, it opened the door to the Gospel, to joy for new believers, and, of course, to opposition.

It seems they had listened closer to Jesus than a lot of us do: …they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. With their sanity, and with their ministry.

Acts 18:5-11
The same story. Paul listened to God, but he also knew how Jesus did ministry. He understood that the next breakthrough conversion might be right around the corner from a mob or a stone dead bunch of refusers.

My sanity gets all tangled up with holding myself responsible for being funny and relevant and hip. Paul saw things differently. “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Not that I need to use those exact words. It’s just good to know they are there. Because…they’re true. If I preach the Gospel and love people, I am not perfect, but I am innocent of disobeying the Lord or being silent.

See, when I was a young preacher, I used to hear my pastor say that if all my friends didn’t accept Jesus, their blood would be on my hands. But he wasn’t handling the scriptures very well when he said that. It was scary and effective in making us feel guilty and urgent, but it didn’t make me love God or people. Paul knew those verses in Ezekiel, but he also knew what Jesus said and did. After you’ve been faithful, you can say, “It’s on you now. I am moving on.” You can say that with a clear conscience. Then you turn the corner, and a whole household comes to Christ. Imagine that. It’s not a guarantee. It’s just the way God shows His power and grace from time to time.

When Paul moved on through this experience, God could say something to him that every Christian needs to hear. “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Go on. Go on. I need to go on, and not blame myself. I need to go on and not talk myself out of preaching and teaching, because God is doing his work through my life. Whatever he has in store, I can always know that God delights in making use of me as his instrument. And he will preserve and protect me to that end. There will be those who may reject the message, and there may be dangerous hostility or a believing response awaiting me. I need to “Go on,” so God can show me the excitement of the rest of the journey.

Philippians 3:12-16
If any passage deserves the title of “The Sanity Verses,” Paul’s words of determination to be free from the past through Christ certainly fit the bill. What strikes me about these familiar encouragements is the relation to “maturity.” If we are mature, we will think this way. Refusing to give the failures of the past- the ministry failures, the personal failures- to Christ is immaturity. It is the junior high boy who says he can handle everything himself. It is the twenty-something college student who believes his anger and brandishing words make a difference. It is the emotional immature Christian who lives off his personal dramas, forever portraying himself as a victim to manipulate the sympathies of his friends because he is afraid they really don’t like him.

The “mature” Christian moves on. He gives it to Christ- the mess, the garbage, the failure, the refusals to believe, the rejections of the Gospel- and goes to the next chapter. There is no maturity in punishing yourself. There is no maturity in burnout, broken health and divorce. There is no maturity in choosing to refight meaningless battles that amount to the raging of an undisciplined ego or a wasted war with fools. Listen to Christ. Move on, even if it’s hard. Even if it’s a strain. Listen to the voice of the Spirit telling you that God doesn’t hate you. He loves you. You aren’t garbage and you aren’t here on earth to waste your life in meaningless suffering. If there is to be suffering, let it be for joy, not for madness or bitterness.

Move on. Give Christ the mess and take the gift of another day, another chance.

Romans 15:20-22
This one is a little different. It’s not quite so intense. It’s a simple reminder that it should be my ambition, not to argue and berate and beat down someone to believe, but to go where Christ isn’t known, and to announce his Kingship with joy. The Gospel is a movement, and it goes where it hasn’t taken root. Yes, that means it goes where it is unlikely to ever take root without miracles, and it may go where some suffer and die because of opposition. Still, the heart of the missionary impulse, the missional, incarnational energy of the Gospel, is to go where Christ isn’t named. Not just to new countries or people groups, but to new coffee shops and neighborhoods and subcultures. That kind of optimism in the mature Paul is what I need. God isn’t done with me as long as I can seize the day of his grace afresh and see another avenue of usefulness.

I like the fact that Paul would rather be explaining the Gospel to those who don’t know it more than anything else. He wants the freshness and the possibilities. There are great blessings working with those who are already converted, but there is a kind of stress and staleness that can take over as well. Paul knew, I believe, that it was unlikely he would die of old age. In the time he had, he would rather be in Spain with the Good News than in a church giving lectures on the fine points of doctrine. That’s healthy and good. There is a place for both. Paul chose to keep running in Jesus’ footsteps.

The Sanity Verses aren’t often used as I’ve mined them in this essay, but that is because we are afraid of our weaknesses and easily duped by the enemy into blaming ourselves or elevating our self-abuse into piety. Take these passages and see that God loves the world, but he also loves his servants. He takes no pleasure in the pain of waste and endless frustration. He is the God of the “move on,” the “go on,” and the next, unwritten but hope-filled chapter of our journey. The accuser wants us to hate ourselves, sometimes by convincing us to believe that God has designed our torture solely to prove his sovereignty. We serve a God who says don’t cast pearls before swine, and don’t give what is holy to the dogs. In those words is part of God’s love for you as his servants. Take and enjoy that love, and be around to minister again.


  1. “You aren’t garbage and you aren’t here on earth to waste your life in meaningless suffering. If there is to be suffering, let it be for joy, not for madness or bitterness.”

    I love Michael’s writing. And this is a wonderful post to read and to put into practice.

  2. And in the part Michael talks about in Acts 13:45-50 I noticed, “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city.,”

    It’s interesting that the devout women of high standing are mentioned first. We know that women of means supported Jesus during his ministry. I think many of us (myself included) don’t have a clear understanding of the importance of women in Jesus’ time. We hear and read that women were not listened to and were of little consequence then, but I think this is very untrue.

  3. Off-topic, late, and a dollar short, but the following story appeared around the time of the “Creation Week” series, and should probably have been mentioned somewhere in the comboxes:

    “The Institute For Creation Research Gets Slammed, Rejected By Federal Judge”

    A link in the story takes you to the complete June 18, 2010, 39-page legal ruling, which is worth reading, IMO.

  4. I guess I’m kinda late to this party, and apparently not many showed up. I read this post after Help?‘s, and both of these have hit me square in the heart. I’m a Pastor who deeply struggles in this post-evangelical wilderness. Michael’s writings have been to me as a string of oasis in the desert, but I can’t get over the fact that this desert is huge and overwhelming and filled with death. While it is comforting to know Michael (and others) have felt my pain, it does nothing to help pay my bills or ensure a healthy life for my wife and kids.

    Someone once told me I should be a pastor, and I for some reason listened. There is a lot to the job that I enjoy and think I do well. I would like to model myself after what iMonk and Chappy have described as a good pastor; preach the gospel, visit people in need, and disciple the willing. However, this strategy apparently doesn’t equal church growth. So as our church maintains it’s “blended” worship and commitment to not kick out the old people, we attract fewer and fewer young families. There is after all an abundance of other churches with larger than life rock bands and children’s ministries, where kids and even teens will beg to go to church because of how fun it is. People searching for a church seem to prefer the a la carte style that only big churches can provide. As for our small church, not many of the members “effectively witness” to their friends and neighbors. To be honest I’m starting to suspect that most christians don’t really know how to effectively witness, but the best of them can invite some one to church. And hey if your church rocks your witness is more effective.

    So the solution for our church is it needs to rock. And what does every rockin’ church need? Executive do-it-all Pastors. The pastor who can entertain, speak to the heart, write his own curriculum, organize teams around various programs, develop new leaders, attract young people, and gather incredibly talented people to do the work of the church. This is not just a perception either, I went looking for pastor jobs and this description fits every church’s help wanted ad. There’s no room for a simple guy like me in ministry. Perhaps I would make a great small group leader in the mega church scheme, but it looks like I need to find a new career. Except I’ve spent my life in this career, what now do I do for my family?

    I feel like the proverbial farmer who should have planted corn when he saw “PC” in the sky, but instead I’ve sold everything to preach Christ. I would like to believe iMonk and say its not my fault, but apparently the Church disagrees and Mr. Spenser ain’t cuttin’ my pay check.

    • Brendan,
      I’m not a pastor nor paid for ministry, but I have been wondering what the head pastor of the big entertaining church I attend is thinking or can do. I don’t feel any judgement toward him and actually, I don’t even know him. But he speaks truth and has been willing to speak about brokeness and suffering and the real Jesus of the bible. As I’ve wandered out from the comfort of that glass house (that’s how I describe the organized church because it’s not all that comfortable when you’re really hurting), I’ve begun to wonder why our pastor is preaching truth while the church continues growing and attracting more people with rockin’ music and great preaching (a laser light show might be next) while people around the corner are homeless and hungry.
      I’ve been wondering if my pastor doesn’t really “get it” or if he really does but feels he cannot get out now that he’s devoted his entire life to the pastorate. Maybe I should make an appointment and ask. Or maybe I should continue seeking authenticity beyond the four walls. I think there is more for all true Jesus followers, even pastors who think they should have planted corn when they saw “PC” in the sky. I hope that doesn’t sound trite. It’s not meant as a pat answer. I’m just a broken American-prosperity gospel-organized religion survivor feeling pulled to radical life changes (like selling the house and moving into the inner city with the poor) as I move further away from “mere churchianity.”
      Thanks for sharing with authenticity.

      • I should probably clarify that I don’t think mega-church pastors “don’t get it.” Many of them probably do and I’m sure they’re great leaders with great desire for the gospel. I think the Kingdom has room for big churches, but I feel like a mom-n-pop business drowning in the sea of multi-national corperations. Can we have Wal-Mart churches as well as family businesses? I’m starting to think that in most cases the answer is no.

  5. Thank you. I needed this.

  6. Brendan,
    Don’t give up. Don’t measure your success by your church’s “bottom line” like many of the large churches do (attendance, collections, baptisms this month, etc.). Be faithful and God will place you where He wants you, which might be where you are. Follow Him.

  7. The collection of these verses and exposition is for me the best good news I have heard in a long time.