By Michael Cooper
As a pastor, you have to endure a lot of stuff. One minute God uses you to lead someone to Jesus and the next you are receiving an email filled with criticism.
On a daily basis, the ups and downs of the pastoral work can grind against you. It is tough, but you persevere in faith, believing that your labor will promote joy among His people (2 Corinthians 1:24).
I empathize with the pastoral suffering you may be facing. Even in the few years of serving as a pastor, I have experienced the heartache of pain that comes from pastoring.
It can come almost out of nowhere, and at times you can see it coming from a ways off. You brace for impact and hope that you will come out without many scars. Either way, it hurts.
With the sleepless nights and endless prayers, there is no denying that each moment of pastoral hurt wears you down. The fact of the matter is pastoral suffering can come in various forms of hurt:
When They Force You Out
Though I was not a pastor at the time, I attended a church where the only option was to leave it behind. The leadership made it difficult to worship in good conscience, so I decided to leave. The pain of leaving friends was extremely difficult. A disagreement arose over a serious issue, choices were made, and the door was open to leave.
Some pastors have experienced the pain of being forced out of the church they love. This can cause resentment and anger at Christ’s Bride.
I know a good pastor a church ran off because he was winning too many people to Christ. It seemed the established members didn’t like it. Yes, seriously.
Needless to say, being forced out hurts.
Having People Leave the Church
When you see members leave, you can’t help but assume it was because of something you did. You take it personally, though you know you shouldn’t.
To know that a family or individual under your spiritual care chose to leave hurts deeply. You can expect that phone call or email from a concerned member questioning you why “so and so” left. The truth is that you can’t help but blame yourself.
It doesn’t matter the particular reason for leaving, honestly, it still hurts.
Facing Public Ridicule
In the age of social media, you must be aware that hurt people will hurt people. Often in the heat of the moment, a church member will post a comment that ties directly back to you. It may not say your name (because no one is honestly that brave) but you know it was about you.
This is the infamous “sub-tweet.” You can read between the lines of that passive aggressive comment. You see it on social media, the blood begins to boil, and you stew over it for weeks.
Unfortunately, mocking or ridicule can be part of the job, but it still hurts.
People Talking about You
People will talk about you behind your back. Whether it is slanderous or simply “sharing a concern,” folks in the church and community will speak about you.
Finding out this information is a bitter pill. It hurts worse when your staff adds to the fire. This may be due to disagreement, something you said in your sermon, or maybe something you did.
Knowing that the folks you love are speaking ill of you typically doesn’t sit well. It hits your pride and hurts your heart.
Poor Response to Preaching
We’ve all been there. You just preached your heart out, you extend the invitation, and no one moves. Deep down, you know the Spirit is working, but there is no visible evidence of His actions.
You try to take comfort in the fact that Jesus knows that people will not respond. However, it eats away at you. You pour over your notes seeking to understand why no one responded. Maybe you’ve hit a plateau.
In any case, you hurt.
Sin and Suffering
As pastors, we have a front row seat to witness human dignity and depravity. We see the good and the bad of the human experience.
When we look at sin and suffering among the people God has entrusted us with, it hurts. We strive to set an example, we preach on repentance, but it seems that nothing is getting through to them. We witness the suffering of others and desire to help, but, in reality, we probably can’t.
As our bodies and minds wear down, it is easy to slip into depression. Maybe that last doctor’s appointment resulted in an unexpected diagnosis.
When we experience our own suffering, pastoral work can come to a standstill. Throwing in the towel is tempting. It hurts.
Pastor, it easy to become resentful and have animosity whether the suffering comes from outside us or inside of our minds. However, the Bible is clear that pastoring will not be a walk in the park. You will suffer and experience hurt in various ways.
Theologically, we are experiencing the cross.
A “Cruciformed” View of Pastoral Suffering
We long to model Jesus in our preaching and when we talk about cruciformed preaching, we are speaking of preaching that has been shaped or formed by the cross. Because in a deep way, our suffering becomes a pulpit for the gospel. The model of this type of suffering is in Colossians 1:27:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church.”
This filling what is lacking in no way diminishes the redemptive death of Jesus.
However, as John Piper says, “Paul sees his own suffering as the visible reenactment of the sufferings of Christ so that they will see Christ’s love for them.” The suffering is probably referring to physical pain.
Nevertheless, by application, I believe it extends to various forms, as I note above. As we strive to love the church, we must come to grips with the fact that we will suffer. And this suffering is the visible reenactment of Christ’s suffering.
This is cruciformed pastoring.
When we embrace pastoral pain, we are “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” by putting on display the theology of the cross. As we hurt, we are experiencing the cross in our soul. We feel the nails in our flesh. We know the shame of the Tree in a way most may not know.
In this reality, we are representing Christ to His people in a profound way. As they revile us, we don’t revile in return. When they shame us, we don’t respond in anger. As we suffer, we embrace its death in us. It takes courage to stand in the reality of the cross and die.
This is cruciformed living.
As we publically display Christ’s suffering, we must keep in mind Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:10-16:
“We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh.
So then, death is at work in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith in keeping with what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke, we also believe, and therefore speak.
For we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you. Indeed, everything is for your benefit so that, as grace extends through more and more people, it may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day.
Pastor well, my friend. Fight the good fight. Suffer well because in doing so you are proclaiming the cross.
As Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, the joyous not always happy.”