Pain in Ministry

Note: nothing in this post is meant to be used as an excuse for us to avoid dealing with our pain; it is meant as an encouragement for those times when we just feel bad about stuff; when our emotions take over without rhyme or reason. Problems, when possible, should always be fixed, but sometimes we’re just bummed out as humans, and that’s what this is for, when people in ministry find themselves bummed out and feel it disqualifies them from participating in ministry. My goal is to show that, biblically, humans suffer a lot, and that it’s fine to have feelings, but God’s promises transcend our present experiences.

Pain in Ministry

For the last few years or so, and especially this last spring and summer, I have often found myself coming to a dilemma. During that time, I have done a few different biblical training courses and outreaches, all with the goal of sharing what I believe about God and the hope I have in Jesus with others. But so many times during that time, I found that I was in pain. A deep unhappiness, that I didn’t understand, and didn’t know how to reconcile it with what I was supposedly sharing with people, which essentially was a message of freedom. How could I feel so burdened and weak and cripplingly unhappy, when I’m supposed to be encouraging others in their freedom and strength and joy in Christ? What was I doing wrong? And more concerning still, what does this mean for who I am? Am I incapable of doing any truly good, lasting work because of this pain? As time went on, this is how I came to see myself, as a hypocrite who doesn’t deserve whatever opportunities were given to me to teach and share what I know. If I can’t see evidence of change in myself, how dare I convict others in their need to change? All of this was built on the idea that pain can’t be present, or at least shouldn’t (or shouldn’t be so burdensome at least), while one is in ministry. But I’ve recently come to a different understanding of myself, and how what I feel fits into what I feel God has called me to do. I don’t expect my experience to be that useful for many of you, but maybe it will, and the chance to help others is worth the risk of being vulnerable.

How I came to understand my experience was, as with most things, shaped by Scripture. I have long appreciated the emotional aspect of the Bible, and I more often identify with characters that lived lives of struggle. I had never really examined their lives before to see how they might understand their own struggles, and how that fit into their view of God. In Mark Masucci’s Biblical Seminar Courses we were encouraged to identify the ‘core’ theology of a given topic. If you’re in the Old Testament, what is the ‘core’ of what the authors are communicating about God? If you’re looking at Paul’s writings, what is at the ‘core’ of who he understood God to be? Once I started looking at some of my favorite biblical characters, I started to see that their lives, looking from the outside, should have been defined by their pain and suffering. So what was it about their belief in God that enabled them to become the heroes of our faith that we remember them to be? What is the ‘core’ of their theology that made life a little easier to swallow? And ultimately, what can that mean for me?

So what I will be doing here is looking at three of my favorite characters, trying to identify what the core of their theology ‘might’ be, and how that might relate to the lives of modern folk. I stress ‘might’ because these are just my interpretations, and I suspect I may be wrong about some things, to which I am sure the many excellent scholars on campus will happily call me out (and to which I welcome any corrections you might have). I also want to note that my friend Caleb Powers has been helping me process these things, and some of what I discuss is his input and not mine alone. The characters I will be examining are Peter, Jeremiah, and David. I will be looking at them in reverse chronological order, because my main point is made with David, and I want to ‘build the need’ as teachers say.

Peter, The Broken Apostle.

Out of all the people of the Bible (excluding the members of the godhead), I have thought about and appreciated Peter the most. He has, for me, always captured the struggle of what it means to be a human in relation to God, i.e. he screws everything up a lot. But aside from that, you almost always know what Peter is feeling any time he shows up in the text. He is passionate, he is bold, he is shortsighted, and in John 21, he is broken. After Peter had denied Jesus leading up to the crucifixion, and seeing the man he knew to be the Messiah, and also his friend, die up there on the cross for reasons he probably felt he could’ve helped to avoid, he left the ministry. When he says “I am going fishing,” he is basically walking away from what Jesus tells him in Matthew 16:13-20. He, I believe, no longer feels worthy of what Jesus has promised for him, because of his own guilt. But the rest of John 21 shows that Jesus doesn’t let Peter wallow in guilt, but instead seeks him out and confirms his role in ministry. Since Peter was human, I have a hard time believing he was absolved completely of what he felt. He still probably felt horrible about his actions, but as church history goes on to show, Peter was able to overcome whatever he may have felt about what he had done, and gave his life to building Christ’s church.

who am I that I could stand in His way?

How I believe he was able to do this, and what I see as the core of his theology, is found in Acts 11:17: “…who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” I believe this to be the core of how he saw himself, because no issue seems to come up more in his life. Going back to Matthew 16, in vss. 21-23, Jesus rebukes him in the famous “Get behind me Satan!” line. Peter then goes on to infamously deny Jesus three times. Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians shows that at least in one other instance in his life, he appears to stand in the way of what God is doing. But I believe Peter’s remark in Acts 11 goes back to that day on the beach in John 21. I don’t know if Peter was ever emotionally or mentally the same after his denial of Jesus, but I believe Jesus’ pursuit of him on that beach showed him that if Jesus (God), pursues him in spite of his own denial of him, how could he possibly deny God (again)? In the case of Acts 10 and 11, if God gives him a ‘new’ theology, how could he deny it? Spiritually, he understood that he was God’s, and regardless of his mistakes, he knew that Jesus wasn’t going to let him go, because Jesus proved he would pursue him always, and “who am I that I could stand in His way?”

This is how I believe Peter was able to function in his ministry. I believe he endured great personal strife and, because of his humanity, was perhaps from time to time struck by his guilt. But Spiritually he knew where he was, which was beside Jesus’ side, because that’s where Jesus wanted him and Peter knew that he could not deny Him.

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Jeremiah, A Buttress of Hope

Jeremiah is often remembered as the Weeping Prophet, but I don’t particularly like that moniker. I realize that it is literally true, but I think it loses sight of part of who Jeremiah was. Even though he wept, it never clouded his sight of God. Even though he often cried out in confusion about the things God was doing in his life, he always held firm. He was unshaken by his own emotional nature, and even amidst great physical, emotional and probable mental anguish, he held on. How? Why?

I believe the core of Jeremiah’s belief system comes from Lamentations 3, verses 24 and 31-32. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love;…” Incredible! Just a few verses before, in 3:16-18 he said: “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.” How can Jeremiah make all of these statements so close to one another? Again, appealing to Jeremiah’s humanity, I believe the answer is found in the difference between his spiritual and emotional states. Emotionally, Jeremiah often seems to be a wreck, often totally distraught about what he is experiencing, which is understandable given what we see of his life. But I believe spiritually, he always comes back to what he says in vss 24 and 31-32. He knows who God is, and he knows that even in his suffering, surely he isn’t being cast off forever. He lives day to day in what appears to be utter heartbreak, but at the same time, with the spiritual fortitude to understand his soul has hope in the LORD. He may never see the compassion he speaks of in his life, at least not in a way that we would understand it, but he seems to know that his physical woe means nothing compared to the love of God, even if he has to take the long-view in his own life to see that, as he looks upon the rubble of Jerusalem.

David, Making Sense of Chaos

What does it mean to be in the valley of the shadow of death? What does it feel like to be sitting at a table with your enemies?

The whole basis of this little essay, and the process that God used to start healing me, started with David, and only a few weeks ago. It was in a meeting where Psalm 23 came up, and the focus was on the peace that David talks about that God gave him. But during that time, I was struggling, because I again found myself in a place of deep unhappiness and a sort of self-loathing for being so unhappy while I’m supposed to be ministering. I was hearing what everyone was staying about the Psalm, and the peace it gave them, and I just couldn’t relate, because I don’t think peace is the point of Psalm 23. Or at least not in the way it is often presented. This started me thinking on what David believed about his life, and how he could say the things he says in Psalm 23, about being led by still waters, even though his life was often non-stop chaos. Even Psalm 23 itself speaks of this chaos. What does it mean to be in the valley of the shadow of death? What does it feel like to be sitting at a table with your enemies? Are we really saying that David felt totally cool with both of those situations on a mental and emotional level? I have a hard time saying ‘yes’ to that last question, because David was human, and at the very least he would’ve been stressed if he was having salad with some Philistine generals while they casually discuss how they want to offer the Israelite army to their god Dagon (that isn’t biblical, it’s just what I imagine Philistine generals probably chatted about). Even Jesus felt stress and emotional turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36ff). Is David stronger than Jesus? Nope.

So what is going on here? Well, I believe Psalm 23 is critically important for explaining how David viewed his life. But I don’t believe it has much to do with verses 1-5. I believe 23:6 is the core of everything he believed, and how he was able to get by day to day with all the struggle and strife that filled his life. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” The key idea there being ‘forever.’ Everything in that Psalm that comes before that last line is all temporal imagery, of finding peace in the physical world. But dwelling in the house of the LORD forever is something different entirely. I think David is able to give us that delightful, peaceful imagery earlier in the Psalm, because he knows where he truly dwells. His body may be in these places of chaos and torment, but he knows who God is and how he relates to God, which is as his friend, destined to dwell in his house. Personally, I look to Psalm 25:16-18 for how I see David to generally understand his position, and that is probably the section I identify with the most currently in my life. And, for me, the only way I can reconcile all of these different Psalms where David presents a life totally contrary to the tranquility presented in Psalm 23 is by, like Jeremiah, seeing them split their lives into physical and eternal realities.

I believe David and Jeremiah, and probably most if not all Old Testament characters, were constantly looking beyond their present circumstance. Their lives, for all intents and purposes, really sucked. But they somehow carried on. Hebrews 11 speaks of Abraham being able to live out his life in tents because he was looking forward to a city with foundations. For Jeremiah, he knew the Lord wouldn’t cast him off forever; there had to be an end that resulted in compassion, because he knew who God was. And for David, the great sufferer and sinner, he knew he was ultimately always going to be coming back to the house of the LORD, and one day, forever.

Josh Miller, The Humbled Child

What I’ve been talking about is essentially just one of the hip Christianese topics of the day – “Eternal Perspective”. But for so long I understood that as a theology that sort of stood outside of day to day life. What I found when I went to Scripture and looked at the lives of my heroes, I saw that eternity was something that they applied to their daily lives to make sense of their realities. How else does Jeremiah endure without believing there has to be something beyond what he has spent his whole life seeing? How does David possibly ever recover from Nathan’s rebuke of his actions with Bathsheba and subsequent death of his child without believing he has a greater house than his own to come back to? Peter fits into this, because as humans we are sometimes tempted to believe that we can, or are, wandering away from God. But like Jesus in John 21, I believe he pursues us, pursues me, and if that is true, who am I to stand in his way? And if I am sometimes brutally unhappy, if my emotions say my reality is terrible and I am temporarily discouraged with this existence, I can return to the house of the Lord, where I know there is always room for me. Eternal perspective when understood as an applied theology, brings us to a place of looking past ourselves and onto the face of Jesus, who is making pie for us all to enjoy when he finally calls us all to come over to his house forever.

He found me on the beach, wallowing in my humanity and my failure, and has said ‘feed my sheep’

I again find myself humbled by God. I am still in pain and often unhappy, for reasons I am still trying to figure out, but believing that pain means I can’t serve God effectively no longer cripples me. He found me on the beach, wallowing in my humanity and my failure, and has said ‘feed my sheep’ (many of whom are themselves dealing with a lot of pain.) I don’t necessarily feel great doing that sometimes, but Jesus wants his sheep to hear his voice, and who am I to stand in his way? The joy of the Lord doesn’t necessarily mean we are completely happy with life, I know now; I find my hope and joy in the Lord right now, getting me through each day, because I know that soon, and eternally, my joy will be made complete as I dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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