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Pastors in Pain, Christ Can Redeem Your Suffering

After many difficult years in ministry, I lost the strength to pastor. But Christ met me in weakness.
Pastors in Pain, Christ Can Redeem Your Suffering
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Cary Bates / Unsplash / Runstudio / Getty

Walking toward our church building one morning last year, I felt an emotional decoupling from the church. A void of affection and desire. The thought of walking into my church was now harrowing. The spiritual weight of souls was something I could no longer carry. The elders mourned with me, prayed for me, and gave me two months off.

The accumulated pain from the past two years had caught up with me: congregational loss, apostasy, ghosting, harsh criticism, and much more. Many of us in ministry have faced similar wounds. How do we address our pain while pastoring?

While it can be tempting to tuck away our hurt, Paul sets an example by bringing his pain out into the open. Some abandon the faith for the love of the word: “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Tim 4:10). I can’t think of a more disheartening sorrow. Some attack us: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm” (4:14). That hurt was deep. Others, after years of friendship, ghost us: “All who are in Asia turned away from me” (1:15).

Too many Christians treat their pastors like a religious commodity. Hot when they need them, disposable when a better prospect comes along.

Paul doesn’t brush aside his experience but vocalizes his pain. People have hurt you. Some intentionally, others out of neglect, but you have suffered. While Paul didn’t wallow in his sufferings, he did describe them in some detail. And that’s just his letter. Imagine what his conversations with Luke or Timothy would have been like.

In order for the wounds inflicted by others to heal, it’s important to identify what they have done and to share it with the Lord and a trusted friend. Paul was transparent about his hurt. He named it and grieved it. Often this takes longer than we realize. If we neglect our sorrows, they will eventually stretch us too thin.

During a season of intense heartache, I went to hear artist Makoto Fujimura speak. He described God’s work in suffering through kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of bowl-mending. Artisans reassemble broken tea bowls with costly, liquid gold, producing beautiful bowls marked by winding gilt rivulets. Fujimura insists, “They do not fix the bowls; they make them more beautiful.” God doesn’t merely want to fix us; he wants to beautify us through our suffering.

After hearing Fujimura talk, I turned to my friend and suggested we leave before the Q and A started. I was emotionally raw and didn’t feel like lingering, but we decided to stay. During the Q and A Fujimura’s wife, Shim, said, “Mako, you forgot to mention something important. Before the tea masters begin mending, they hold the pieces in their hands and honor the broken pieces. We have to sit with the broken pieces of our lives and honor them.” A lump formed in my throat, and I gasped aloud. This is what God was calling me to do: to honor the broken pieces of my heart.

Although I wanted to learn the lesson and get back to ministry, God knew I needed more time to sit with the pain and sorrow. Are there broken pieces you need to honor? What stories or hurts come to mind when you look back over your ministry? You may need to dig them up, name them, describe how you feel about them, and invite God into them. Create time for your emotions to catch up with those experiences in the presence of your heavenly Father.

Jesus took time to honor the brokenness he experienced. He wept. He was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). And on the night of his betrayal, he was “sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt. 26:38). It can be tempting to put up a strong front in ministry, to bury the pain; after all, there is so much work to be done. But God is also working on us. Paul let his guard down. Jesus wept. We can too.

After we face and grieve our pain, we have to do something with it. Even if we grieve well, hard memories can resurface. As I grieved my losses, I examined my wounds with the Bible open. Christ met me personally and profoundly in Isaiah 53, Lamentations 3, and Psalm 62. Jesus used this suffering to reveal more of himself to me. The weeping Messiah knelt down beside me. The man of sorrows comforted me—a priceless, redemptive experience. It was worth it all.

Through the pages of Scripture I entrusted my sorrows to Jesus. I relinquished them into his care and chose to trust his wise and caring plan. As a result, my sufferings became an opportunity for beauty.

Unaware that I was going to hear Fujimura speak that week, my mom sent me a picture of a kintsugi bowl that I had sent her years ago during her own season of suffering. She included the following message, “I see gold all over your life.” Really? I couldn’t see what God was doing in the darkness but others could. Brothers and sisters, God wants to heal your broken places with golden lines. Will you yield to his beautifying work? He uses extravagant grace.

As I have shared these experiences, God has extended their redemptive value into the lives of others. Many people do not know how to confront their pain or honor their broken pieces, and therefore remain sealed off from this hope. As we share Christ’s strength in our weakness, we fling the door open to Jesus’ redemptive work in suffering.

Of course, ministry is not all pain and suffering! God also loves to give us good gifts. While Paul acknowledged the hurt inflicted by others, he also recalled the companionship of Timothy, Luke, Mark, Priscilla, Aquila, and Onesiphorus. He spends triple the amount of words on Onesiphorus (forty-five words) than he does on the deserting Phygelus and Hermogenes (fifteen words). That is deliberate.

It’s important to make time for relationships that refresh us. Many of our relationships are mired in sin, suffering, and struggle. If unbalanced by refreshing relationships, we’ll become easily weighed down. Schedule meetings with life-giving church members and friends. Tell them you need encouragement. Pray together. Allow them to refresh you.

God’s good gifts are constantly available to us, but we must choose to delight in them. In difficult seasons, we often develop an ability only to see the hard things. If we’re not intentional, we will veer toward the negative things like a car out of alignment.

In the span of a particular week, some church members who had been with us for ten years emailed us to announce they were leaving for another church in town, a staff member decided to leave abruptly, a city group reported revival-like growth, a counseling session with a couple lurched towards divorce after thirty years of marriage, we read a significant report of gospel advance through our missionary partners, and our elders received powerful, prophetic encouragement.

But because I was focused on the negative stuff, I lost sight of God’s goodness. When God convicted me about this, I was freed not only to recognize but relish his goodness! As I recalled each grace, I paused to express gratitude for every one.

Another way I cultivate enjoyment of God’s gifts is to refrain from deleting encouraging emails. Instead, I move them out of my inbox to a special email folder for safekeeping. When I’m tempted to see only the negative things in ministry, I open that folder and scan through the emails, pause and read one. This practice helps me to cherish our church and see God’s goodness at work.

Finally, I am inspired by the way Paul prayed for the church. Although he was well acquainted with her problems, he frequently chose to thank God for the church. Regarding the Ephesians he writes, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (1:16). In the context, he is moved by reports of the church’s faith and love and responds by giving thanks for them.

Too often, when I think of the church, I recall her failures, see their absences, and focus on the untapped potential. But when Paul remembered the church, he was alert to God’s good gifts, turning his observations into opportunities for gratitude in prayer. May we also remember the church with gratitude, open our hearts to God’s redemptive work in pastoral pain, and relish his good gifts.

This article is adapted from The Unwavering Pastorby Jonathan K. Dodson and is published with permission from The Good Book Company.

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