Tossing and Turning
Few seminaries will include this truth in their recruitment drives: Ministry involves suffering. It is painful and uncomfortable, but it is true: struggling in ministry cannot be avoided.
For instance, if you are a pastor, you probably have had the experience of coming home from an elders’ meeting or a pastoral visit and knowing that once again you are not going to sleep very well. There is too much on your mind as you think about, agonize over, and pray for the people you are trying to help.
The lack of sleep may mean a low-grade headache and bags under your eyes in the morning, but it is actually not a bad thing. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that if someone genuinely cares about others and adopts a Christ-shaped model of ministry, this is to be fully expected.
As Paul reaches the end of his long list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:28, he says:
Besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.
He describes it as a heavy burden on him, something that constantly weighs down his heart. It is understandable why he had a “deep concern for all the churches,” for he was a mobile minister, wanting to go wherever the gospel had not been preached.
God used him effectively for this work, but it came with the anxiety of leaving behind groups of new believers in many places. These groups were often fairly unorganized, occasionally distressed, and sometimes had just an elementary grasp of the faith—to say nothing of all the tensions and challenges of being a holy people trying to live in the midst of a pagan world. So Paul wrestled with apprehensions and worries about his converts. He gives a glimpse of this struggle in 2 Corinthians 7:5, “We were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears.”
Paul cares intensely for the people of Christ, so when they face a challenge, it personally affects him. He describes his “deep concern” in 2 Corinthians 11:29,
Who is weak, and I am not weak?
There were some believers who were feeble in faith, prone to periods of doubting, and unsure of God’s will in certain situations. When Paul heard about those believers in the churches who struggled with their faith and service, he worried about them. Though he was absent from them, he longed to give help and guidance.
He continues, “Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” (v. 29). One can imagine Paul receiving reports about serious sin in the congregations—and of this Corinth was a prime example. The people he had once pastored were now stealing money, sneaking back to the prostitutes, and getting drunk.
When he heard this, Paul could not shrug indifferently, but he felt it keenly, as if it was his own stumbling. It made him upset, and he wanted to assist them in the battle against sin, to pray with them, to admonish and encourage them. Daily this was another suffering that afflicted him: “a deep concern for all the churches.”
Paul here gives voice to something that many pastors can relate to as they carry out a task that can be all-consuming. For a pastor, close engagement with people can take its toll. It is likely that the board of elders—and perhaps even the pastor’s wife—doesn’t know just how much a devoted pastor thinks of his congregation, takes on their struggles, and carries them close to his heart.
Now, when pastors do this, it is sometimes deemed to be a sign of weakness. An inability to detach oneself from people’s struggles and heartaches is considered regrettable, and a pastor might wish to become a little more emotionally detached. It is true that one might avoid this sort of relational pain, but only by surrendering to self-centeredness. The fact is, if a pastor is always focused on himself and his own interests, he probably will not care much for the weak and stumbling people in his congregation.
But is Paul’s lesson in 2 Corinthians that pastors should avoid a whole-hearted investment in other people and strive to be detached and aloof? Absolutely not! If anything, this was the mark of the rival pastors in Corinth, men who were too sophisticated to engage with the struggles of real people. If this kind of weakness set Paul apart from them, then he was glad. As he often insisted, for Christ’s sake he would willingly accept suffering in order to help others.
So when pastors today echo Paul’s anguished words about living with a “deep concern” for the believers, it is an indicator of being engaged in a proper, God-pleasing, and self-sacrificing ministry. It is also entirely consistent with what Paul commands all believers in Romans 12:15,
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
In Christ’s service, a pastor ought to share willingly in the struggles and joys of the people to whom he ministers. Maybe the struggle-sharing happens when a pastor visits a broken family, when he counsels someone with a burden of grief or a load of guilt, or when he gives guidance to a husband and wife who are wrestling with the challenges of marriage. Paul’s words warn that it is not easy to get close to people, that it can even be disturbing to hear the heart-breaking stories and see the bitter tears.
There is a burden that inevitably gets laid on those who help. Yet it is fitting for pastors to share deeply and personally in the lives of those in his congregation.
It might be perceived by some as weakness, but it is a Christlike weakness.
And when a pastor is tossing and turning in the early hours of the morning, when he is seeing once again his inability to change someone or his inadequacy to help them, he is hopefully learning to depend ever more on the strong Christ.
As 2 Corinthians teaches us, it is through human weakness that God delights to show his power. This is how Paul can say in 2 Corinthians 1:6, “If we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation.”
[Excerpted from my forthcoming book Weak Pastor, Strong Christ]