As Good as it Gets?

From Mark Stevens, a pastor in Adelaide and student at Tabor Adelaide who blogs at The Parson’s Patch

In the 1997 romantic comedy ‘As Good As it Gets,’ the main character Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, turns to a room of people and asks, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Melvin is himself experience an upheaval of soul. He is a man tormented by his own self and his own weakness. In a recent dark night of the soul season, I found myself asking the exact same question; “What if this is as good as it gets?” What if a pastor’s continual struggle with self-doubt, tiredness, stress and anxiety are as good as pastoral ministry gets? What if this is it? What if this pastoral vocation will forever be dominated by the mundane and ordinary work undertaken in harsh and spiritually arid conditions? What if? Have we set up such a culture of performance and expectation that we have come to expect more whizz bang out of what we do as pastors? Do we fall short of God’s expectations or crumble under the weight of our own, or even those unspoken expectations of ministry culture?

In light of these questions I had cause to reflect on the words of Paul in 2 Cor 12:7-10, Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

As pastors I wonder if we can sometimes fall into the trap of expecting to much of our own soul. We are expected to be on all of the time. But when funeral follows funeral, crisis follows crisis and we are tired and stretched we can hardly expect to be on game. Furthermore, why do we think we will escape the same “thorn in the flesh” that Paul speaks of? I once heard a preacher say, “Never trust a pastor who doesn’t limp. It means he hasn’t wrestled with God”. “My Grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” I wonder if the sooner I come to accept that weakness and not power better describes the pastoral vocation and eve the state of my soul, the sooner I can experience God’s grace.

My daughter who is 5 recently asked me why some churches don’t have crosses on their building. She had observed one local church had large pictures of beautiful people, living life and having fun emblazoned across the side of their building. No cross. My daughter recognises the place of the cross in the Christian faith. She realises it is a central symbol of the Christian life. To her it seems odd that a church would advertise a way of life over a symbol of discipleship because in her mind, churches have crosses. I am told the cross is absent from some churches (and I don’t sit in judgement in this it is merely an observation) because the cross puts people off. It isn’t a symbol that attracts people. The cross disappears behind the life we have always wanted. I wonder if the cross has disappeared from the formation of the pastor’s soul. I wonder if we have let go of the cross in favour of another way.

The Christian life is life defined by death; the death of Christ and our dying to self. Week in week out we preach the way of the cross as the way of obedience in Christ. Jesus did not tell his disciples to take up a new way of life. He simply told them, take up your cross. If you want to find life, first you’ll have to lose it. There is no promise it will be easy or even successful. Resurrection life is not possible without death; then why do we forget about the way of the cross and death?

What is this, way of the cross, this life defined by death is as good as it gets? What if our life is constantly laid low in the dust? What if enduring hardships and being ready out of season is more frequent than times of blessing or preparing sermons in season? What if we get stuck with our thorns? Have we ever considered that these are the things that lead us in the way of the cross?

The promise of God to Paul was not relief from the messenger of Satan sent to torment him, but grace. Grace as God’s sufficiency. Grace as the way of life in Christ. Grace as that which carries us to the cross and sustains us when we have nothing more to give; grace that carries us through the dark nights of the soul. Grace. God’s grace, not our effort.

So, what if this is as good as it gets? What if our thorn, our messenger from Satan, is to be with us until the day we die? All that’s left is grace. All that is left is to trust in the Lord with all our heart; to lean not on our understanding. Perhaps all we can do is echo the words of the Psalmist, “Revive me according to your word”.

Being a pastor is no high and lofty calling. Being a pastor is our act of faithful discipleship. It is our faithful obedience to the call of Jesus to “follow him”.  And where does he lead us? To the cross. The way of the cross is the way of life in Christ. If we wish to save our lives, save our souls, as pastors maybe we should take seriously the words of Jesus to lay down our life. To hand over control. To follow Jesus. To accept that maybe we are going to have to carry this thorn in our flesh with us for the rest of our life. And even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though we are being battered and tormented by this messenger, we can trust that God’s words to Paul are just as true for us. His grace is sufficient for us. Even when we don’t believe it, even when we don’t feel it.  Perhaps this is as good as it gets for a reason. A reason we may never know.

The final words Paul in this pericope say it well, “For when I am weak, then I am strong”. Weakness is not the way of the world but for Christians it is as good as it gets because it leads us to his grace.

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  • What a great reflection. I hurt for pastors who are faced with expectations that they be “on” all the time. Congregations don’t like to face the anxiety of thinking their pastor is struggling but maybe that is what it will take—honest pastors like this—to awaken them to the reality of what it means to follow Christ.

  • Terry

    As a pastor who has wrestled with God, and now limps, I can testify that much of the church is uncomfortable (or worse) with this and will look for a means to escape rather than walk alongside the one limping. This response, related to the quest for the perfect-always-on pastor/church, exchanges the possibility or quality of maturity that may well be birthed from the bearing of burdens and limping alongside for the relative comfort of a spectator’s disinterested entertainment. The whole of the body of Christ suffers from its own inability to live in the abundant life of Christ in the context of a life limped (lived) right and well on this earth. 

  • Great stuff Mark. I’m going to float your article around my network. Spot on.

  • Terry thanks so much for your insiders view of the matter. I’d be interested to hear what you think is the way forward from here. My gut says that we as leaders need to step into radicl transparency regarding our doubts and fears and see what is left standing after the fires go out, but I also recognize that to do so for many pastors would not result in change but termination. I fear that our entire structure of church needs to change and I’m just not sure how to do that without burning the extraneous and starting again. Just don’t know exactly how to do that wisely.

  • Terry

    Hi Nate. I’ve been brailing my way along for some time now and have, on some level, done exactly what you wondered about. Having always been honest, even if not completely forthcoming (wisely so I believe), I have taken your radical transparency slow, perhaps never actually arriving at radical — but radical by comparison to my conservative fundamental tradition. Where I can (and I have reasonable influence as to direction within our congregation) I have moved further and further away from an absolutely-certain-about-everything-program-centric-talking-points-based-issues-oriented evangelicalism, to the relationally-based-gathered-disciples that I thought we had always purposed to be. I have moved from a “faith of certainty” to faith. I found my wrestle revealed a show of humility and simplicity, rather than a congregational life of humility and simplicity. However, it has taken years in our established congregation, to move towards one from the other. And we have watched very many people, too many, leave us for the greener pastures of every certainty, or activity, orvfinger-pointing, or… I don’t know exactly where tomorrow will lead, but gave up knowing all about that several years ago.

    To me much can be encapsulated in what I see to be the difference between “going to church” and “being the church” and no longer believe that the change in phrasing is really just semantics. In reading some of your commenting over the last weeks I do see some similarities of thought.

  • When we are weak, then we are strong, and in God’s wisdom that weakness takes us further than we can ask or imagine. Your weakness and honesty have strengthened me this evening and I am very thankful for your insight. As a Pastor, I am constantly tempted to somehow make the cross more attractive and self-serving to “grow” the church, but there is a real difference between growing and bloating, even though they may initially look the same.

  • Thanks for the feedback guys. I am lucky to pastor a church who is happy with a human pastor, one with many flaws and weaknesses but who strives to be the best he can and is always there for them. Unfortunately many don’t have a church like this.

  • Jesse

    This. Was. Excellent.

    Shared on Twitter. Thanks for the honesty and assurance of God’s grace.