If you’ve stuck with me for a while, you know that I’ve been obsessing about the idea of suffering. It’s a word that God put in my head a few months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since then. But, I promise that this will be my last post about suffering for some time. Maybe I’ll move on to some happier topic soon (ponies anyone?)
But today at the church office I was going through an old binder full of students’ medical release forms that have accumulated over the past few years. As I flipped through the binder, I passed the names and medical details of numerous students who are pursuing Christ and are making great strides in their faith, and I found myself encouraged by the lives and faiths represented by those names, birthdates, and medical policy numbers. But the longer I spent flipping through that binder, the more names I noticed that belong to students who I knew well, but who are no longer actively pursuing Christ in community. I don’t speak out of an arrogant assumption that just because they don’t show up to church every week it must mean they are off worshiping the devil. I speak from the knowledge I have through my passing interactions with them and their friends. I speak as an observer, witnessing their lives unfold via social media (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) I feel my heart ache a bit every time I see evidence against the Spirit of God guiding their decisions. I want so badly to see them re-enter the fold of their faith; to return from a prodigal journey all the wiser to the rich love and grace they nearly walked away from. I ache. I hurt. I suffer.
Now a confession, and a plea for forgiveness. I have been accused (rightly so) of being too pushy at times. My zeal to see students embrace the call of Christ has often taken on an unintentionally forceful tone, and my eyes are being opened to the fact that this may serve to push more people away than it draws in. And so I ask for forgiveness from anyone who has felt cornered or harassed by me. Please have grace with me. I beg you to bless me with the room I need to grow. And I beg you to try to see what is at the core of my “pushiness”: a desire to see the Church grow and Christ transform.
So, back to suffering. Today, I suffered. I experienced the suffering that is perhaps only shared by pastors and parents; the suffering that comes from seeing someone you have nurtured make a series of decisions that you believe will bring them harm. It is an awful feeling. I hate it. I don’t wish it on anyone…
…Except for every Christian pastor in the world.
A little while back, I was having lunch with a pastor friend/mentor. He imparted some important wisdom to me regarding the role of a pastor. “A pastor,” he said, “must be comfortable feeling like a victim. Being hurt. Suffering.” What a job description, huh? Who in their right mind would sign up for this? But as he expanded on the idea, my eyes were opened to the truth and beauty that exists within the call for a pastor to be constantly willing to suffer, and to expect it every day around every corner and in every situation.
There are two types of pastors out there, I suppose: those who are willing to suffer, and those who are not. And within the subcategory of those who are not willing to suffer, I suspect that there are two reasons that pastors do not suffer:
Because their church community is made up of perfect people (never mind, this doesn’t exist).
2. Because their hearts are not willing to be hurt by the losses they must necessarily witness regularly in ministry. They are either calloused or they are blind to the the people in their community who are attempting to wriggle free of the Father’s grasp.
As our culture grows progressively…”flexible” (I suppose that’s a nice way to put it), I suspect that we will see more and more people walk away from Christ when it becomes boring, inconvenient, offensive, or difficult. Any pastor who ministers in a church made up of human beings will experienced this from time to time, and will be forced to stand by and watch, feeling helpless, attempting to encourage and convict, but witnessing some people drift (or sometimes run) further and further from the God who loves them so deeply. The time to suffer has arrived.
A suffering pastor is, paradoxically, a healthy pastor. The moment I begin to feel completely content in the health of my ministry and my flock, I must be quick to check if my contentment is based on true health, or if it is a result of the fact that I have stopped caring for those who are lost, hiding, hurting, and/or escaping.
I want every Christian pastor to suffer, because suffering means that they are tuned in to their community; they see how many people are forfeiting their lives to gods other than Christ, and they are unwilling to let them go without a fight. And so they fight. And they suffer.
So may our pastors suffer, suffer badly, suffer long, and suffer well. But never stop suffering. Because when pastors stop suffering, they have closed their eyes to those who most desperately need a pair of loving eyes to rest upon them.