Trials of A Pastor: Swallowed by Doubt

I’m not a pastor yet, but even prospecting pastors face many trials of a pastor. It is a divine calling Satan does not want a man to fulfil. Thus, he throws every tool at his disposal upon prospecting and current pastors. As a future pastor, I face many trials, one of which has been being swallowed by a whale of doubt.

I experienced a trial a couple years ago that makes me relate to Jonah. God called Jonah to preach to the wicked pagan city of Nineveh. As he ran from his calling, he was thrown aboard a ship and a great fish swallowed him. Sunday school lessons often teach this great fish was a whale, but we don’t know if it was a whale. Yet for the sake of metaphor, let’s suppose Jonah was swallowed by a whale, since that is the only sea creature in our day large enough to swallow a full grown man (aside from a whale shark). 

Like Jonah, I first ran from my pastoral calling two years ago, although we both ran for different reasons. Jonah’s reason for fleeing was because he knew God is gracious and merciful, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). What a whiner! And what a strange thing to complain about! Of all things to whine about, Jonah complained about God’s grace and mercy! Yet is his complaining much different from ours? While atheists get angry with God when He doesn’t stop evil, they likewise get angry when God portrays His holiness and destroys an evil nation. (It’s irrational, then again they’re not rational but are dogmatic about their unbelief.) We Christians also get angry when God shows mercy to our enemies. In fact, we rejoice when our enemies fall.

I remember when Osama bin Laden was killed. It was May 2, 2011 and I was stationed with the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea. Like all soldiers and many Americans that day, I rejoiced when I heard the news. Yet while in the midst of my rejoicing, I came across the following Scripture, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and turn away His anger from him” (Proverbs 24:17-18). After reading this I realised it was rather sad because he died not knowing our Lord Jesus Christ. I know, it’s an unpopular opinion, yet it is attuned to God’s Word. God appointed Ezekiel as a watchman over his people. He said to him, “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 3:18). There’s a reason why we call God’s grace amazing, for it is by His amazing grace that He does not desire the wicked to perish but rather to turn from their ways and live in Him (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). As God’s people, we have the knowledge that the wicked will perish, and if we do nothing to proclaim God’s Word to them proclaiming that they turn from their wicked ways, we are responsible for their eternal deaths. Just as Ezekiel was appointed as watchman, so Christ has commanded us to go and baptise all nations, teaching them to observe what Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20). Yet as we proclaim God’s Word, we must do it with love. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). God’s amazing grace is that He desires all wicked people to know Him, and as a sinful human being, Jonah did not like this, and neither do we.

After God had led Jonah to do what He had called him to do, this led Jonah to confess his real reason for running from his call: he did not want the wicked pagan city of Nineveh to repent and receive God’s mercy. That was Jonah’s reason, but mine was different, yet I went through similar allegorical experiences. I was not swallowed by a whale (thank God!), but I was certainly swallowed by a whale of doubt. I didn’t realise the real reason for my running until after God had brought me back to my calling. Every time I recall this experience, it is always odd to me that I had such doubts because I never doubted until that point. I first felt my inward pastoral calling when I was 18 in 2008. In 2009, I enlisted in the Army with the intentions of making my way up to becoming a chaplain. In order to be a chaplain, I have to have a bachelor’s degree in any field, be a pastor in the civilian field for a minimum of two years, and be endorsed by my denomination. Since all this requires getting out of the Army, that’s what I did, but plans changed when I got injured during training in the last four months of my active duty contract. I had to settle for being a civilian pastor, which I was fine with.

I started my first semester in August of 2013, and it wasn’t until September 2014 when the doubts first began. I didn’t recognise what the doubts were until after God led me back to my calling. At the end of the semester—December 2014—I decided to leave the Pre-Seminary programme and study business marketing and human resources. I still went to church every Sunday and engaged Scripture on a regular basis, but I continued to run from my call. I didn’t return to the Pre-Seminary programme until February 2016. Between December 2014 and February 2016, God continued to work in my heart, unbeknownst to me. I work at my university as an academic tutor for Greek I-IV, Old Testament, New Testament, and Survey of Christian Thought. At the time, I only tutored for Greek and Old Testament, and I still had a passion for tutoring for these classes. Multiple times, the students would ask me, “Are you going to be a pastor?” Mind you, these were freshmen who had no idea what I was studying. When I told them I was studying business, they would say, “Oh, you would make a good pastor.” But of course, in my stubbornness, that wasn’t enough of a sign for me. God continued to work in me in fueling my original desire to learn the biblical languages, and every time I heard a sermon, that fiery passion I once had of bringing the Gospel to people would return. Then I started a blog (it was called Sheep of Christ, and I have transformed it into this one). Then, one night in February 2016, out of nowhere, I was lying in bed, unable to sleep, and I just could not imagine doing anything else other than being a pastor, bringing God’s Word and Sacrament to His people—being a shepherd to His flock. The next day was a Monday, and I went to my old academic advisor in the Pre-Sem programme, confessed everything to him that was going on, and I re-entered the programme.

It wasn’t until a couple days later until I realised what the doubts actually were. I’m a really introverted person (INFJ), and virtually every pastor I know is extroverted and jolly all the time. That’s the opposite of me. I’m a quiet, reserved person and I don’t portray a jolly persona, even when I am happy. I tend to have a serious persona, which is likely due to the military. So I viewed that as being unfit to be a pastor. At the core of it, I stopped trusting God to use the skills and the man He’s shaped me to be to be the pastor His people need. Throughout the months, He helped me to realise my strengths as a quiet, reserved introvert: One, I play close attention to detail and pick up on emotions others are not keen to notice. I remember a time when a close friend of mine was depressed. I didn’t know he was depressed, but I picked up that something was wrong. On a particular late night, I had an inkling to talk to him and the first place I went to find him was the chapel on campus, and there he was, praying. I walked up to him and asked him if he was okay, and that I’m here if he needs to talk. He said, “Wow. I came here because I’ve been thinking about cutting myself again, praying. And now here you are, being a brother in Christ.” I didn’t say anything, and he asked, “How did you know I was here?” I told him, “I didn’t.” We talked for a long time, and he did not revert to cutting, thanks be to God.

Two, as an introvert, I’m a great listener. I don’t like to talk much. If I do talk a lot, it’s likely because I’m talking about something I’m passionate about. My pastor at my home church is one of my mentors as I’m venturing to become a pastor, and one of the things he taught me is that most of the time, when people want to talk to the pastor, all you need to do is listen. A lot of the times, he said, they just need someone to talk to, even if you don’t have any advice to give. (I have found this to definitely be true in my own experiences when my friends have come to be to vent.) Every now and then you may have advice, but whether you have little or none usually doesn’t matter unless they specifically ask you questions, in which case giving advice is palpably needful. Basically, people just need someone to vent to, and a pastor can be that person a lot of the time. As an introvert, this makes me a great person to vent to.

This kind of ties in with the third strength. As an introvert, I’m sensitive to other peoples’ emotions. When a brother or sister is sad, I’m sad. When they have joy, I have joy. This may be true of extroverts as well, but introverts empathise with other people on a much deeper level. As an introvert, I’m a very introspective and analytical person and I take in as much detail as I possibly can. I have to internalise everything before I can give a proper response. Whatever experience a person may be having, I have the ability to understand what they’re going through even if I haven’t gone through the same experience myself. It is almost like a sixth sense; I cannot fully explain it.

Those are just some strengths of my personality God has shown me. Other strengths He has shown me not related to my personality are my proficiencies in the biblical languages, my ability to explain tough things about God’s Word to people in a simple way, and my overall passion for studying His Word and bringing the Gospel to people. This blog is fueled by that third strength.

I could be wrong, but I think going through a season of doubt is normal for all prospecting pastors, and perhaps even current ones. Mine just happened to last for just over a year. That’s a long time of running. If you’re studying to be a pastor, or you’re a current pastor, and your experiencing doubts about your calling and your skills as a pastor, I encourage you to pray and listen to those around you. That’s one thing I forgot to mention during my whale of doubt: prayer. I prayed a lot about what God wanted me to do. I prayed multiple times, “Lord, please show me what Your will for my life is. I am too dull to see what it is, so please make it blatantly obvious to me.” And indeed He did. Multiple people during this experience kept telling me I’d make a good pastor whether it was because of my personality, my passion when I spoke about God, or my academics. People—God’s people—made a huge difference in my returning to my call. I’ll never forget something my dad once told me before I left for the Army, “Whenever you believe a negative thing about yourself, find three people to tell you positive things about yourself.” I don’t always actively go out and find people to encourage me; sometimes the encouragement just comes without my asking. This experience of doubt is one such occasion. As you pray, find people of God whom you trust to talk about your doubts. If you’re not a pastor but are doubting your call in some other part of God’s ministry, do the same thing. It could be that God really does intend for you to be in that ministry, or He may have something else in mind. Just trust that God knows what’s best.

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