With God in Suffering and Weakness
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Pastors are not immune to the trials, suffering and temptations of this life. The current pandemic has highlighted this reality. Thankfully, God walks with us in our suffering and has graciously given us numerous ways to walk with him in the midst and to lean into his redemptive purposes.
Listed below are five means of grace that can help pastors respond to weakness, pain and suffering in life-giving ways. These are in contrast to how we normally react or how we ‘think’ we need to respond as leaders: denial, hiding, powering through or just working harder. I have gleaned these five points from various sources found below, as well as my own experience. As you read these examples, pay attention to the Holy Spirit highlighting one of these areas for your own life. Listen for God’s invitation to you.
- Embrace vulnerability. Contrary to popular opinion, vulnerability in ministry is a strength as it leads to utter dependence on God and the releasing of his power. Scripture reminds us that our God is a compassionate God who loves us in the midst of our vulnerability. Embracing vulnerability means being honest with ourselves and God about our struggles and acknowledging our need for him. As pastors, we can embrace vulnerability by learning to let go of the need for control, the desire for perfection and the focus on performance. We can train our hearts to trust God for the things we cannot control. What are some of the ways that you feel vulnerable or that you don’t measure up? Talk with the Lord about your struggles.
- Give voice to your emotions. According to Mandy Smith, “There are few things that make us feel more vulnerable than our own emotions. Anger, fear, sadness all knock us off our feet right when we’re trying to look like leaders. If we have been told that leadership is always strong, how do we respond to this breaking in of emotion?” (p.61). In Scripture we see that God experiences a full range of emotions: anger, sorrow, regret, rejoicing, delight. Since we are created in his image, we too experience a full range of emotions. In the midst of suffering, God encourages us to name and express our emotions in healthy ways. This can be done through art, music, confession and lament. When we hurt physically, we cry out in pain; when we hurt spiritually, we cry out in lament. A psalm of lament, like Psalm 13, is an address to God: a complaint, a request and usually an expression of trust. Specific psalms can be used to voice your lament or as a template to write your own. What ways might God be inviting you to voice your pain in these hard times?
- Monitor your thoughts and imagination. “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Have you ever noticed how worry is always future oriented? As pastors we can struggle with projecting negative outcomes: “What if this sermon bombs?” “Will our church survive financially?” “Will anyone return when we start regathering?” When you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, stop and listen. Follow your train of thought. Are you “traumatizing the future”? Are you creating a downward spiral in your mind? Become aware of those thoughts and ask the Spirit to help you take those thoughts captive. Try using your imagination to imagine positive outcomes and prayerfully release the outcomes to God and his faithfulness. What negative outcomes persistently arise in your thought processes? What disciplines might you use to help retrain your mind?
- Listen to your body. As pastors, it can be very hard to pay attention to our physical well-being. Busyness and constant demands leave little room for good physical self-care, until it becomes a necessity. Take time to learn to listen to the signals: those persistent headaches, GI issues, depression or chest pain. Begin practicing a regular exercise routine so that when suffering hits, you will have greater resilience to see you through. Another helpful practice, especially in the heat of the moment, is using the acronym HALT. When you sense yourself becoming tense or overwhelmed, halt and ask yourself, “Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired?” Then, prayerfully address those needs. Do you have a regular routine of good self-care? Are you able to recognize when you have pushed your body too far?
- Seek help from others. Another way to commune with God in suffering is through the gift of community. This can be extremely challenging for pastors and yet incredibly freeing as well. Community can simply be one other person with whom you can be honest about what you are experiencing, someone who can help carry the burden and speak hope into your life. This can be a trusted friend, a mentor, a therapist or a spiritual director. There are numerous resources for help available to you within and outside of The Wesleyan Church that are safe and confidential. Who is a person you can share deeply with? What’s keeping you from reaching out for help from others?
To learn more about life with God in suffering and weakness, see the following resources:
Smith, Mandy (2015). The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Nouwen, J.M. (1979). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Doubleday
Sarah Lebhar Hall, Why God Gives Us Weakness, Christianity Today, April 24, 2016.
Vineyard Church, Ann Arbor, How to Write a Psalm of Lament
Spiritual contributor and curator: Linda Gist is a spiritual formation director in Sacramento, California. She is a graduate of the Renovare© Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation and regularly leads retreats for pastors.
To contact Linda, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Linda’s website: Rhythms of Grace
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle