In one of the most convicting, encouraging and challenging contemporary books I have read in many years on the pastoral ministry, Paul David Tripp (The book is titled Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry from Crossway. If you are a pastor and don’t yet own this book run—don’t walk— buy it and move it to the top of your summer reading list) reminds pastors that they are, like those to whom the preach, in the middle of their own sanctification even as they are called to preach to others. And of course, God’s Word reminds us in various places that sanctification entails suffering. One example is Paul’s sobering promise in 2 Timothy 3:12, “All that will live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Suffering is an irreducible part of the Christian life and an irreducible part of ministry in a post-Genesis 3 world.
In the same way that basic training cannot fully prepare a soldier for the hellish nature of actual war, seminary cannot fully prepare a future pastor for the bullets and hand grenades that will be thrown at him in the local church on the field of actual ministry. If I have learned anything in my first two years as a pastor, it has been that reality. My pastoral ministry has been a lot like the scenes that unfolded on the beaches of Normandy during the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the beginning of a battle known to posterity as D-Day. As soon as the gate dropped on my landing boat, the shells began to fly in my direction. In the pastoral ministry, you will be attacked by enemies both invisible and visible, but God’s Word tells us that it is the invisible powers that commandeer and use the visible enemies to war against you. Deacon Jones may be angry with you, call you a heretic or a Bible-worshiper and demand that you be fired, but it is an unseen enemy who is using Deacon Jones as a means of opening fire on you.
Suffering will, by God’s grace, sanctify you, and it will also do something else for you that no seminary training ever could: It will prepare you to comfort and sympathize with the suffering of those your congregation. Paul had this in mind in telling the church at Corinth, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
If you are suffering pastor, it is for your sanctification. It is also God’s way of putting you in the trenches on the front line of life alongside your people so that you may sympathize with them and learn how to apply the healing balm of Gospel comfort to their many and varied wounds. Basic training cannot simulate this reality; only war will teach you that.
Few Baptist pastors suffered more acutely and suffered better than the great Charles Spurgeon; I say he suffered better, because Spurgeon’s theology of sovereign grace fitted him with spectacles to see suffering as a gift from God’s hand and to view it as a means of training the minister for sympathizing with others in the academy of God’s grace. Best of all, for the sake of those of us who have been called to minister in his wake, Spurgeon preached and wrote often about his suffering and how God has wisely designed it to intersect with Gospel ministry. Hear the penetrating words of our dear brother Spurgeon from the May 1876 edition of The Sword and Trowel:
“It is good for a man to bear the yoke of service, and he is no loser when it is exchanged for the yoke of suffering. May not severe discipline fall to the lot of some to quality them for their office of under-shepherds? How can we speak with consoling authority to a situation which we have never known? The complete pastor’s life will be an epitome of the lives of his people, and they will turn to his preaching as men do to David’s psalms, to see themselves and their sorrows, as in a mirror. Their needs will be the reason for his griefs.
As in the case of the Lord himself, perfect equipment for his work came only through suffering, and so must it be for those who are called to follow him in binding up the broken-hearted, and loosing the prisoners.
Souls still remain in our churches to whose deep and dark experiences we shall never be able to minister till we also have been plunged in the abyss where all Jehovah’s waves roll over our heads. If this be the fact – and we are sure it is – then may we heartily welcome anything which will make us fitter channels of blessing. For the elect’s sake it shall be joy to endure all things, and to bear a part of – ‘that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church’.”
As Richard Baxter put so well, pastors are dying men called to preach to dying men, a reality I never truly understood until I began to stand behind the pulpit before the same congregation week after week after week. As a dying man, often I am prone to kick against the goads of suffering and, with a wayward heart clinging to its certificate of entitlement to the American dream, I far too often fail to see God’s good purposes for me and my flock when the warfare seems to grow especially hot. Spurgeon suffered along every contour of the human experience. He was wracked with pain from physical ailments. He was harried by theological opponents both within his doctrinal camp and without. He was battered by sinful church members due to false expectations. He spent many dark nights of the soul chained in the dungeon of Doubting Castle, tortured by the Giant Despair.
Spurgeon was broken by God so he could he bind the wounds of those under his care within the church. Spurgeon’s experience as recounted through his words to pastoral students should encourage all of us who have been called to come and die alongside God’s people on the front lines of ministry also known as the local church:
“One Sabbath morning I preached from the text, ‘My God, my God, who has Thou forsaken Me?’ Though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself.
On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand up right, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case, but on Sunday morning, you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.
By God’s grace, I saved that man from suicide and led him to Gospel light and liberty; but I know I myself could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell you the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants?
You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge . . . . You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with despondent minds.”