Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #8: Prophet or Priest?

I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.

 The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11).  The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).

 Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them.  Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.

 The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?

Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.

Challenges Pastors Face-#4: Ministry to those in Distress

Trouble is Heaven’s goad. God applies it to good purpose in the life of the believer and unbeliever alike. For the unbeliever suffering often serves as God’s rude awakening, a sharp slap intended to bring the sinner to his senses. It is a measure of the deceitfulness of sin that this aim cannot be achieved unless suffering is also accompanied by the grace of God. When suffering enters the believer’s life, it functions like the potter’s hand that shapes the clay. Distress is the discipline which proves that God is treating us as his children.

This means that those who seek the pastor are usually hurting. Alexandre Vinet notes: “the principle occasion of religion and the ministry is suffering.” The pastor is exposed to the difficulties of the church more than anyone else. Many who come to him are suffering from self inflicted wounds. Often they expect the pastor to repair in a few minutes what has taken years to tear down. The nature of the difficulties the pastor must deal with run the entire gamut from physical to emotional to moral problems. The pastor sees people at their worst and is aware of the church’s deepest flaws, exposure that  can lead to depression or disillusionment. There is no “magic bullet” that will eliminate distress from the lives of those to whom we minister. More often than not our place is not to offer a quick fix but to exercise the ministry of presence. It is enough to be with people in their distress and serve as a reminder of God’s presence with them. Even if we could make the trouble disappear, we might not be doing them a favor.

But the natural discomfort we feel over their discomfort makes us especially vulnerable to what Jeremy Begbie has called “the pathology of sentimentality.” The sentimentalist, Begbie points out, cannot engage in another’s pain as pain or face up to another’s negative features. Those who sentimentalize the distress of the congregation are compelled to “keep on the sunny side of life.” Begbie is writing about the effect of this pathology on worship and notes how music in the contemporary church has sometimes been “deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-to-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them.” In the same way, the pastor is tempted to speak when he ought to be silent, offering up platitudes in the face of distress. Such words, though well meant, can blunt the sharp edged lesson God intends to teach through distress. In such cases it would be better if we were silent.

Perhaps it is time that we crossed over from the sunny side and joined God in the shadows.

See Jeremy Begbie’s excellent essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (InterVarsity): http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2843

 

Four Reasons We Are Disapponted With Jesus

We know God is perfect. We know that he can do no wrong. So why is it that we are sometimes so disappointed with Jesus? Four of the most common reasons include:

1. Unfulfilled Expectations: This is the fundamental cause of all disappointment with God. He does not act as we expect him to. He does not do what we want. This is so common as to be universal. Ocassionally we are disappointed because our expectations were unrealistic. But often they are not. The single who wanted to be married, the childless couple that wanted to be parents, the parents who hoped their child would walk a different path all have reasonable expectations. What makes this especially difficult is that the ordinary nature of these expectations means that every day we are confronted with examples of others for whom these same expectations were fulfilled. This kind of disappointment is often related to God’s plan for us. (cf. Luke 24:21 the two on the road to Emmaus who said, “We had hoped…”).

2.  Misinterpretation of my Circumstances: We may be disappointed with God because we look at our circumstances and draw wrong conclusions either about God’s motive or his intent. Things go badly for us and we see this as a sign that God hates us or that he ignores us. Or our circumstances are difficult and we think that all of this is working for our destruction. Jacob thought this way when his sons tried to take Benjamin back to Egypt in Gen. 42:36. “All these things are against me” he said. In fact, the opposite was true. God was orchestrating these things to preserve his life and keep his promises.

4. We blame God for what others have done: Often we blame God for things that others have done. Sometimes it’s Christians who have hurt us. We attribute to God the bad behavior or evil motives of those who represent him. Or we may suffer at the hands of those who are evil. God’s plan for our lives may mean that we suffer at the hands of others. We are right in concluding that God is ultimately in control but wrong about the motive. Job is a good example of this (cf. Job 2:3).

4. Drawing the wrong conclusions about answers to prayer. We may think that we or someone else is God’s “court favorite.” When our requests are not granted or if there is delay, we become embittered. In a wonderful essay entitled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” C. S. Lewis points out the folly of such thinking. “Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God” Lewis writes. “It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that.”

Lewis points to the “hard saying” he once heard from and older Christian. The Christian said: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion or soon after it. AS the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”

“Does god then forsake just those who serve Him best?” Lewis asks. “Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God at his greatest need.” Lewis rightly concludes that there is a mystery here and urges those whose prayers are sometimes granted not to draw hasty conclusions. “If we were strong, we might be less tenderly treated” he warns. “If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far  more desperate posts in the great battle.”

The Problem with the Problem of Evil

Recently a colleague asked my opinion about a theological explanation for the origin of evil. Many Christian writers answer this question by appealing to free will. They argue that the potential for evil is a necessary concomitant to free will. God wanted humanity to love him freely and so necessarily permitted the possibility of choosing evil.

While this may be true, I find little comfort in this argument. I cannot think of any statement in Scripture which confirms the widespread assumption that God was especially anxious to protect the free agency of those who worship him. This seems to be a human rather than a divine concern.

 For my part, I do not think the Bible answers this question about the origin of evil in a way that elimnates the tension we feel. It is clear that the Bible separates God and evil. Evil does not originate with God. Yet God’s redemptive plan anticipated the existence of evil. He incorporates the evil actions of “free” agents.

Unless we take the radical position of those who claim that God’s knowledge is limited, I have to conclude that God decided to set something in motion out of which evil eventually sprang. He is not the source of evil but evil would not exist if he had not chosen to create. God will destroy evil in the end but does not spare what he created from its effects. There are many casualties who suffer the consequences of someone else’s evil choice. They do not “deserve” what they experience.

 The Bible does tell me that God is not evil. That he is greater than evil. That he has born the brunt of that evil himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And that he “subverts” evil so that what others intend for evil somehow works to further his ultimate purposes. I do not know how this can be so. I do not think I am supposed to understand it or explain it. It is something I affirm. Not a very satisfying answer to the modern mind which feels it is owed an explanation for everything.

What do you say when you are asked how a good God can permit evil to exist?