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