(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.])
Piper exhorts shepherd to “beware of sacred substitutes” if we are to remain non-professional shepherds—the sacred substitutes being time-consuming, valuable ministry activities that are menaces to extended concentrated prayer. A series of quotes:
And what opposes the pastor’s life of prayer more than anything? The ministry. It is not shopping or car repair or sickness or yard work that squeezes our prayers into hurried corners of the day. It is budget development and staff meetings and visitation and counseling and answering mail and writing reports and reading journals and answering the phone and preparing messages.
The effort to meet needs is, ironically, often the enemy of prayer. Literally, Acts 6:3 says, “Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this need.” The care of the widows was a real need. And it was precisely this need which threatened apostolic prayer.
But the apostles would not yield to the temptation. This must mean that prayer demanded a large part of their uninterrupted time. If they had thought of prayer as something you do while washing dishes or cooking (or driving a car between hospitals), they would not have seen table-serving as a threat to prayer. Prayer was a time-consuming labor during which other duties had to be set aside (61).
The more heavily engaged one is in battling the powers of darkness, the greater will be one’s sense of need to spend time in prayer. Therefore, the apostles combine “prayer” and “the ministry of the Word” and free themselves from time-consuming good deeds….
Prayer is also menaced by opportunities for ministry which demand fullness of the Spirit and wisdom. Even this we must forsake in order to devote ourselves to prayer (62).
[Luther:] “It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business in the morning and the last in the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering: Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish his or that. Thinking such thoughts we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us till the prayer of the day comes to naught.” (63)
Brothers, beware of sacred substitutes. Devote yourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. (64)
And all of God’s people said, “Amen and Amen!”
Update 2011: Yes, this is all true, and we all know it. Why then is the fight so hard? I find that I am concerning myself with what others think of the job that I am doing rather than doing the job the Lord has called me to do. O, Lord, please help me to do your work in the prayer closet rather than on the stages of men. May I long for you first thing in the morning, midday when the rush of the day is on, and in the evenings before I retire or waste precious moments of time. May you give me more grace to say “No” to the busyness taking place in the temple. May you give me more grace to say “Yes” to the soft call of your Spirit that competes with the roar of the demands of ministry. Cause me to make the hardest fight daily so that you might be pleased to win glory for Christ alone through me.