There is someone who would often ask me, “so how was work with God today?” This was of course referring to the fact that I am a pastor and with the assumption that I get the ability to spend every day in some kind of special divine fellowship. This is true insofar as we all, in some way, spend everyday in divine fellowship. However, my experience being a pastor of a church, so far, is not a deeply spiritual experience which is always life giving. I find much of my time as a pastor to be an experience of suffering.
I often wonder if suffering is part of the calling to ministry, something that we did not often talk about in seminary. I am often reminded of the biblical predecessors of ministers. It is important for me to say at the outset, that I am not attempting to equate myself or other current pastors or ministers with any of these figures. However, the following characters are the closest role to ministers.
Moses had a profound experience of pastoral burnout: Exodus 33:12-16. In this passage, Moses had it with the Israelites and Moses tells God very clearly that if God doesn’t show up and take care of the people, that Moses and the Israelites are not going anywhere. Moses told God that the Israelites were God’s people, and God better start acting like it.
Later, we can Elijah defeated and killed the false prophets of Baal and Jezebel sends a message to him that she is going to kill him. Elijah becomes afraid and flees to the wilderness where he sits under a broom tree with the intent to die (1 Kings 19:1-10). In fact, we can see that many of the biblical prophets were subjected to great suffering. Ezekiel and Daniel were taken captive from the land that God had given them to a foreign land that worshiped foreign gods. There was no other way to feel more distant from God than to be taken away from the promised land.
Jeremiah’s life was one long stream of horrible events. Jeremiah obviously suffered. If there is any doubt of this, chapter 20 puts this to rest. Jeremiah uses very strong language in his lament:
“O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
everyone mocks me” (v. 7, NRSV).
“Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father, saying,
‘A child is born to you, a son’,
making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb for ever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?” (vv. 14-18, NRSV)
Jeremiah spent much of his career proclaiming the destruction of Jerusalem, condemning them for their unfaithfulness. Obviously, people did not like him for this, for who likes to hear doom, gloom, and destruction? He was mocked, ridiculed, abused, imprisoned, and left for dead, and he was subsequently rescued from death so that he could continue his career of delivering denunciations.
Even further, it is quite clear that going to Nineveh was the last thing that Jonah wanted to do, and the outcome of his time there was also not very pleasing to him.
I find it interesting that terrific and terrible, although used in very different ways and have very different connotations, actually mean close to the same thing, in fact, they are from the same root. I realize that this is likely the result of a semantic shift, but I find it interesting that the meanings of these words, the way that they are popularly used, are often conflicting. According to Merriam-Webster, Terrific can mean very bad, very good, or extraordinary. Terrible can mean very bad, formidable, or great as in really big.
I think that ministry is a terrific, and terrible calling. It is something that is extraordinary, it is something that can be good, but is can also seem to be very bad, additionally, it is also something very weighty. At times, I wonder if I misinterpreted God’s call because I have so many challenges and sufferings, however, this need not be the case. Many ministers that I know go through similar sufferings, many prophets and others in the Bible called to similar ministries were also people of suffering. Perhaps suffering is not necessarily the symptom of disobeying God, but perhaps suffering can be also be a symptom of obeying God.
I think about the “dark night of the soul” that St. John of the Cross wrote about, and he wrote about it as a blinding light, which makes everything else look darker, and a person is, in a sense, blinded until the person can become accustomed to the brightness. In the story of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts, Paul (actually Saul at the time) witnessed the risen Jesus in a bright flashing light that temporary blinded him (9:3-9).
I find it interesting that amongst the prophets, almost no one responded to God’s call with excitement, and no one sought it out. There is something terrible, and terrifying about God’s call. A calling to ministry should be something that is acquiesced to, not sought after. Often the only thing that keeps me going is that I feel like there is nothing else for me to do other than ministry. People often ask me why I wanted to go into ministry. This is, of course, the wrong question. Rather than asking about my desire to be in ministry, the question should be why I felt as though I needed to go into ministry. I never desired to go into ministry, I desired to be used by God however God would desire, and ministry is the way that I felt God leading me so that I could be used by God. There is life to be found in it, but it is not all, or even mostly life giving, and these are some of the sacrifices that we must give for the sake of the gospel.