From the Shepherd’s Nook: Pain

This series on pastoral theology is by our friend, a pastor, and an author: John Frye.

For whatever convoluted reasons, I avoided conflict for many years in ministry. I liked to think of myself as a “peacemaker,” but what I was really was a pain-avoider. Later in ministry I got some very wise counsel about my jitters regarding conflict. I avoided conflict because it kept me distant (safe) from my own personal pain. In an intense pain-avoidance, therapeutic culture, the idea of engaging suffering without either trying to explain it or trying to eliminate it seems blasphemous. Yet, according to EHP in his book, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, “pastors have no business interfering with another’s sorrow, or manipulating it. Suffering is an event in which we are particularly vulnerable to grace, able to recognize dimensions in God and depths in the self. To treat it as a ‘problem’ is to demean the person.” A good counselor helped me, not “fixed” me. I was guided into the pain in order to see the transforming grace of God resident in it.

Using the Book of Lamentations as the pastoral basis of “pain-sharing,” EHP unpacks the wonder and power of the acrostic form of Lamentations. The reader is intriguingly introduced not only to the importance of the content of Lamentations, but to the pastoral significance of its form. Suffering is given its full and rightful place in human experience, yet at the same time suffering is not given everlasting status. Suffering may feel eternal, but it is definitely bounded. In Lamentations, suffering is probed and explored five times from A to Z, we may say. “The acrostic is a structure for taking suffering seriously. … Every line of pain is traced in patient detail. Finally, though, it says, ‘Enough.’ Evil is not inexhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention.”

“Prayer is suffering’s best result. … If suffering is conceived as impersonal and abstract, it sends us to the philosophers for a ‘metaphysic of evil,’ or to the theologians for a theodicy, or to the psychologists for a diagram of the unconscious.” EHP sees suffering taking us to God, making the consequences of sins hidden in the heart glaringly evident in the streets and provoking repentance. God gets angry about sin, yet sin does not produce his anger, love does. “Anger uses the material of suffering to intensify the relationship of love. It breaks through indifference. It smashes through apathy. It confounds abstractions. It insists that God personally deal with free persons who are capable of rising above despair into repentance, into faith, into hope.”

For a long time a subterranean Christian triumphalism gripped the lives of Christians. “Christ is the victory that overcomes the world!” Christians were not allowed to acknowledge pain. If they suffered, they needed to suffer in silence. As a young pastor I remember being with an older pastor at a funeral. The seasoned pastor told the widow not to cry in public over the death of her husband because it would reflect poorly on the faith. I was gob-smacked. Who thinks up that kind of cheap, pastoral (?!) advice?

“The gospel that boldly sets the cross of Christ at the center of its message, also courageously accepts the cross of discipleship as part of its daily routines. Difficulties and sufferings are not problems for which the gospel provides an escape, but part of a reality which the Christian experiences and in which Christians share a faith by encouraging one another in hope.”

Peterson mourns the loss of communal lament in the church. The USAmerican church does not know how to lament because, in a big way, we know little to nothing about being a suffering community. So many people in our churches suffer alone. When we lose the ability to mourn together, we lose a significant feature of our humanity. When we mourn, we do not need “the bright, plastic cheerfulness of pastor or friend who tells us to cheer up ‘for everything is going to be ok.’” People and their pain need to be treated with the dignity they deserve. Jesus, we recall, was a man of sorrows and well-acquainted with pain.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rodney Reeves

    Thanks, John, for this. I look forward to your post every Friday. Thanks also to Scot, for being so generous with your blog. I so enjoy the variety of voices/persons that show up here–both in posts and comments.

  • scotmcknight

    Rodney, and how about some posts from you!

  • Tami

    It is through my own suffering and going through suffering with others that brings this idea of “depth of self” to mind. It is not ” me” that I need more of but it is Christ that draws me in and shows me his Love and grace through time with Him, through prayer and being with his people….community. Lovely post. Lovely words. Thank you.

  • PastorM

    First, I admit painfully that I would have been a better pastor had I not avoided conflict and the usually resulting pain. That did not help anyone, especially me.

    Second, what else would we expect from today’s church, a large segment of which, sings “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” songs and continuously offers “teaching” on how to have a better, more prosperous life? A good reading of Dallas Willard (and Scot) on the gospel as “sin management,” or as only “soteriological.” would help.

  • http://stephenmatlock.com stephen matlock

    A key part of humanity is experiencing Sorrow as well as Joy. We miss a critical element of God’s presence when we accept only one aspect. He is the man of sorrow as well as the lord of the dance. When we walk through grief and loss he walks with us, but he can’t unless we admit to the sorrow.

  • Allen Browne

    John (and Scot), this series (Shepherd’s Nook) is one of the best, practical, helpful, insightful, God-honoring series in the blogosphere. Thanks guys.

  • http://Www.theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    I Agree with Allen!


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