I don’t especially like suffering, but I know it serves a purpose. The problem I have is that it’s often difficult to discern the positive way that suffering is going to work because while we’re going through it, we seem to mostly focus on the pain! Yet when I look back in my life, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I’ve grown the most while I’ve gone through difficult times.
I’m growing right now, apparently.
The past few weeks have been especially difficult for me. As only pastors will know, serving people is emotionally exhausting. For me, it’s totally an emotional roller coaster. I’ll have a few weeks of pastoral bliss, and then a few weeks of unimaginable stress. The amount of time that goes into praying and thinking about situations that we are privy to is enough to be considered a “full time job.” And that’s often before we’ve even cracked a book to work on sermon prep. I always thought that pastoral counseling would be easy because you would just listen to people and tell them your opinion. Little did I know that I’d actually love many of these people and would find myself thinking about them a lot more than just in that meeting. It’s not that I want to solve all of their problems because I know that I can’t. But I do care… deeply.
So it’s been difficult, which is an indication that I’m in the process of growing (hopefully!). It’s in times like this where I find myself doing a lot of soul-searching and where I find myself doing my best to discern God’s will for my life. How can I be a better follower of Jesus? Am I supposed to be doing something different? Would I be happier if I weren’t a pastor? How is my prayer life? Is my marriage healthy? Am I meeting the needs of my children? Do I have proper boundaries in my life? Is it time for a change? Do I need to buckle down and focus?
There are tons of questions. For me, there’s always the added weight of feeling like lots of people are relying on me and have expectations of me that I need to be aware of. No matter what kind of conclusions I reach for those questions, I want to do things graciously and in a way that points people clearly to Jesus.
Here are three things that have been giving me comfort while going through difficult times and when attempting to discern the answer to the questions that I often find myself asking:
(1) My identity is in Jesus. I assume that most pastors tend to struggle with having an identity outside of being a “man of the cloth” (whatever that actually means). In a small town, you’re almost never “off the clock,” so to speak. You can’t hide out at local sporting events because most people recognize you as a pastor. Everywhere you go, your known as a pastor. But being a pastor isn’t your eternal identifying mark. I’ve finally realized that if God decides that my time as a pastor is done, that’s okay. My identity is in Jesus. If I flip burgers or deliver packages or teach English in China, that’s okay. My identity is in Jesus. Once again, the Heidelberg delivers:
“What is thy only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”
(2) God is smarter than me. I know we all affirm God’s omniscience, so don’t pull my orthodox card. It’s just that I sometimes find myself in the same type of prayer-discussions as the Psalmists: God, I think you are wrong on this one… and I’d really appreciate if you would do something to help me out of this situation. If you are honest, you’ve had those conversations too. If you haven’t, you are weird, so go somewhere else (ha!). But God is smarter than me. And he has plans for my life. And he’s working things out. And I can trust him… even when it’s scary or frustrating. And I can tell him how I feel. But he is much smarter than me. So I need to keep that in perspective when I’m convinced that he’s lost his mind or is on vacation and that the situations I’m in must have slipped under his radar. In fact, God’s absolute sovereignty (yes, I’m a Calvinist) gives me a lot of comfort even while being difficult to understand.
(3) I am blessed. Last night and this morning our family sat together and read and discussed Scripture and then prayed. As I looked around the living room, I saw my four incredible children and my awesome wife (and my sister and niece too!). Even when I feel completely alone, I can’t really complain about it. Why? Because God has blessed me with a family. I have an awesome family. They love me and care about me. I also have some friends that I know my relationship goes deeper than my being a pastor. They are the kind of friends that I will always stay in contact with. They are the kind of friends that are there for me, even when life is difficult. These blessings serve as a reminder of God’s past and current faithfulness in my life.
When I stop and think about these three things, I experience such an overwhelming sense of God’s grace. And it’s good… really good.