The gain of pain: Suffering as preparation for ministry

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We’ve all heard the words and likely said them ourselves many times, “No pain, no gain.”  We get (or should anyways) that most things in life that are worth accomplishing require some degree of effort and struggle in order to achieve them.  But if we default to thinking about that effort and struggle in one particular way only, we can miss an entirely different perspective with massive implications for life and ministry.

If you’re involved at all in pastoral ministry, that default perspective of effort and struggle likely begins with seminary or theological education of some kind.  It then melds into a mixture of personal devotion, sermon prep, and continuing education, all mixed in with the weekly duties of a pastor.  And – no mistake – that is a part of effort and struggle.

But the perspective on effort and struggle that is often missed, or completely passed over, in ministry is one that we actually have no control over whatsoever and that is more than likely one we’d just as soon forget and move on from:

 It is the perspective of pain.

The evidence of gain in pain

C.S Lewis once said in The problem of pain,

“We can ignore even pleasure.  But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

And yet – particularly for the pastor – our past (or even present) pain and struggles are often the very thing we seek to either forget or hide from those we want to minster to.  And I simply wonder if this is not an over-realized understanding of 1 Peter 5:3.  For what is it exactly that we are to be examples of? Moral superiority?  The fiction of “you can do it too if you just try harder like me”?  Or are we not more to be examples of 1 Timothy 1:16; of “redeemed-by-grace-alone sinners” like Paul?  Examples of “you can receive grace just like I have no matter where you’ve come from!”?

As I trace the biblical narratives – over and over again – it is the tools of pain and suffering that God primarily uses, to prepare His truly great ministers for truly great tasks of ministry.  Consider:

Abraham had to suffer under years of childlessness, to leave behind his home land, as well as be commanded to sacrifice what was most precious to him (Isaac), to be prepared to be the father of many nations.

Jacob/Israel had to be exiled from his family and pummelled by Jesus in a wrestling match to be prepared to bear the name Israel.

Joseph suffered the treachery of his brothers and Potiphar’s wife, as well as years of “hard time” in dungeons to be prepared to be the preserver of God’s people in Egypt.

Moses had to suffer under exile from Egypt and Israel as a murderer before God called him to be the one who would then lead Israel out of slavery Egypt.

Joshua had to wander 40 years in the wilderness, and watch every other Israelite but Caleb die in the wilderness before God called him to replace Moses and lead God’s people into the promised land.

Daniel had to suffer exile in Babylon and the threat of becoming kitty-kibble in order to come to the place of leadership he held.

Peter had to suffer under the pride-pummeling guilt and shame of denying his Lord that he had sworn allegiance to (as well as a humiliating breakfast with Him afterwards) to become the “rock” on which Jesus would build His church.

Saul/Paul had to be blinded and humiliated before a murderer of Christians could become the greatest Christian missionary the world had ever known.

Even Jesus had to humble Himself above all others (Phil.2) and take on human flesh, become the Servant of all, and die a humiliating, horrific death, in order to procure the salvation we have in Him.

You seeing a theme yet?

The hermeneutic of gain through pain 

Wes Furlong, in his article for Catalyst, “What makes a leader truly inspiring?” wrote,

“It’s the personal narrative behind their leadership that makes the difference. Inspiring leadership is undeniably biographical. “Why” they lead and “where” they’re going is firmly embedded in what has happened to them. We see the transformation in their lives and the vision that rises from their struggle and find ourselves resonating with their story and joining their journey from what is to what should be.”

We know that the sufferings of the apostle Paul – for example – were more than any average dude could endure in our day and age, let alone his own day and age.  But when we read 2 Cor. 4:17, For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (ESV)”, I wonder if we don’t see that “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” as only a future reality and not a present one as well?  I wonder if Paul is not describing the veritable “X Factor” of ministry as the very thing we so often seek to forget and hide away from others in order to “do ministry”?

I’m not saying we should be those who either a) seek out suffering as some “badge of honour” to flaunt, or b) those who air out their dirty laundry in order to appear “more relevant” to those we minster to.  But what I am saying is that maybe – just maybe – those places and circumstances of your life that you feel are a hinderance to your ministry, might just be the very places God took you through in order to make you an even more effective leader in your ministry than you could have ever been otherwise.

For once you’ve grown under pain and suffering as a leader, you know: it’s not about transparency or vulnerability anymore – it’s not even something you’re trying to “do” that people are drawn to.  It’s just something you are now.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, Who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God [emphasis added]. 2 Cor. 1:3-4 (ESV)

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2 thoughts on “The gain of pain: Suffering as preparation for ministry

  1. Great thoughts here! Thanks for this. I think it is your best post so far as it is filled with wisdom, raw-reality, gospel hope, and humility. I was blessed in reading it.

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