Light to Live By

"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

Category: Suffering (page 1 of 4)

Preaching in Pain

In 1 Kings 18 we have the marvelous account of Elijah’s mighty encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. What a victory! What a vindication of the Lord’s name!

In 1 Kings 19 we have Elijah’s breakdown. He is threatened by Jezebel and flees for his life.

On day #1 of his depressed flight, he prays, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (19:4)

On day #41 of the same distraught struggle (v.8) Elijah has reached Mt. Horeb and prays, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (v.10)

At least the prophet is no longer asking God to kill him! But he isn’t much better off—full of self-pity, myopia, and wounded pride.

So here’s my question: If Elijah had been a local church pastor what would have done on those intervening five Sundays?

What would he have preached on those Sundays? Could he have preached on those Sundays? With what spirit would he have done so?

The average senior pastor has to preach at least every seven days, if not multiple times a week. He doesn’t have the time or the freedom to process freely some of life’s harder issues without needing to stand before God’s people as “the man of God.”

How is the pastor to keep pastoring when in the way of Elijah?

Here are a few questions to continue our exploration of this difficult topic:

  • How authentic is a pastor to be in the pulpit?
    • To what degree and at what depth is a pastor to publically acknowledge or share his own struggles—be they personal, spiritual, emotional, mental, relational or otherwise?
  • What is the precise calling of the preacher/prophet?
    • When does one’s personal struggle disqualify one from fulfilling a responsibility to faithfully preach the word of God?
    • Is a pastor in the midst of a personal crisis being faithful when he chooses to forge ahead in expounding the word to his people without dragging those struggles into the pulpit? Or is he being hypocritical in failing to acknowledge his own struggles and appearing to be something that he, in that moment, is not?
  • What role do the preacher’s emotions play in his faithfulness as a preacher? What about his doubts? His depression?
    • Are they irrelevant and to be ignored so he can be faithful to God and His Word?
    • Are they signally relevant and to be at least acknowledge publicly lest he be hypocritical and phony?

Paul could say to Timothy, “Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me!” (2 Timothy 3:10)

How could Timothy have “followed” Paul’s “faith” and “patience” and “perseverance” and “persecutions and sufferings” without being witness to his struggle as well? And how could he have been witness to how “out of them all the Lord rescued” Paul?

How does the local church pastor “preach the word” and “be ready in season and out of season” to do so when those seasons include things like Elijah faced? (2 Timothy 4:2)

There are few easy answers here, but it would seem that wisdom is found somewhere in the tension of holding these two points together:

  • If I am struggling significantly, someone needs to know. That is not the same as everyone needing to know. In my struggles I need the fellowship of solid, mature believers. But the exhibitionism of “telling all, all the time, to everyone” is helpful neither to me nor my people.
  • My people need to see me struggling in faith. What I show them needs to be a model of how they too can handle honestly and authentically their challenges as those living yielded to God and under the authority of His Word.

I’m sure there is a great deal more to be said on this topic. Please feel free to weigh in and share your thoughts.

Two Problems; One Solution

“Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!” (Job 31:35)

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

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This morning my devotional reading juxtaposed two men, both in deep woe, but for profoundly different reasons. My Old Testament reading concluded in Job 31, which is Job’s last gasp of complaint over what appears to him to be the injustice of his sufferings. My New Testament reading included Romans 7 and 8, where we find Paul crying out in despair over his struggle with sin.

Both men are tormented and distraught; both are crying out in anguish. Job goes through a litany of seven areas of sin, showing how thoroughly he has probed his heart for any evidence of sin as he tries to find a reason that makes sense of why God would let him suffer as he does (Job 31:35-37). Paul, on the other hand, is in anguish because everywhere he turns in review of his ways he finds nothing but sin. He sees sin everywhere in himself. He is looking for someone who can save him from God’s just judgment and the power of sin.

Job sees no sin anywhere in his life, yet he suffers. Paul sees sin everywhere in his life, yet he is powerless to deal with it. Both are beyond distraught.

The answer in both cases is: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25a).

Job repeatedly longed for someone to stand between him and God as a mediator (Job 11:33; 16:19-21; 19:25-26). Paul knows Jesus to be just that one, a perfect Mediator, who at the cost of His own life paid our sin penalty (Romans 8:3), whether we are able to discern those sins or not (Psa. 19:12-13). Jesus causes us to gladly cry, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1). Plus, Jesus sends His very own Spirit to reside within us (8:9), to deeply and personally make real our connection and fellowship with God (8:15-17), and to produce through us all that He requires of us (8:2-4)!

In Jesus we find the one and only Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5-6), in whom we may rest as life and its hardships do not make sense. In Jesus we find the one and only sin sacrifice, in which we may rest when our sins overwhelm us. In Jesus we receive His Spirit, in whom we may rest, trusting His empowering to free us from the power of sin.

Truly we cry, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The God of Our Pain

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“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in the imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouths dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. ‘The cross of Christ . . . is God’s only self-justification in such a world’ as ours.” –John R.W. Stott (The Cross of Christ, pp.326-327)

They Knew Not What They Were Doing

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“They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to his feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King come in. They thought to root out his doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had God with his back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated: they did not know that it was God Himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.” –James Stewart, The Strong Name (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 55.

The Fellowship of His Sufferings

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“It was sin that broke that fellowship, but it was suffering that restored it. And if we are to truly enjoy that fellowship with God once again, we must be willing to share in His suffering.” (M. Esther Lovejoy, The Sweet Side of Suffering, p.78)

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