Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Crucial element of pastoral education: suffering

I've been needing to spend a lot of time in Psalms 25 and 119 lately, and was struck today by verse 92 of the latter:
If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.
If you've read me much, you know that I lament (and will continue to lament) how badly pastors neglect the sciences crucial to their ministry. Chiefly, that neglect of studying Biblical Hebrew and Greek is simply inexcusable in our land and in our day. With one mouth we affirm the verbal, plenary, inerrant inspiration of (hel-lo?) HEBREW AND GREEK Scriptures, and the primacy of preaching and teaching those Scriptures — and with the other we make excuses for failing to equip ourselves to do that very thing.

Having said that...

There is at least one other crucial element to pastoral education: suffering.

Let me start with a contrast. I listened for a time to a very popular, much-loved preacher. It was not a blessing to me. During a difficult time in ministry decades ago, someone gave me a cassette of his on why the Christian is an overcomer. I was worse-off afterwards than before. I have never heard him tell a story of which the point didn't seem to be how stupid or bad other people are, or in which he failed or was even slow to grasp something. Every assertion he made, I could only swallow by prefacing it with the words "theoretically," or "according to my calculations," or "it says here in this book."

I have no doubt that he had many true excellencies, and that he was perfect for other folks. His ministry just did not resonate with me.

By contrast, there's Charles H. Spurgeon.

Take as an example Spurgeon's comment on Psalm 119:92 ("If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction"):
That word which has preserved the heavens and the earth also preserves the people of God in their time of trial. With that word we are charmed; it is a mine of delight to us. We take a double and treble delight in it, and derive a multiplied delight from it, and this stands us in good stead when all other delights are taken from us. We should have felt ready to lie down and die of our griefs if the spiritual comforts of God's word had not uplifted us; but by their sustaining influence we have been borne above all the depressions and despairs which naturally grow out of severe affliction. Some of us can set our seal to this statement. Our affliction, if it had not been for divine grace, would have crushed us out of existence, so that we should have perished. In our darkest seasons nothing has kept us from desperation but the promise of the Lord - yea, at times nothing has stood between us and self-destruction save faith in the eternal word of God. When worn with pain until the brain has become dazed and the reason well-nigh extinguished, a sweet text has whispered to us its heart-cheering assurance, and our poor struggling mind has reposed upon the bosom of God. That which was our delight in prosperity has been our light in adversity; that which in the day kept us from presuming has in the night kept us from perishing. This verse contains a mournful supposition - “unless”; describes a horrible condition - “perished in mine affliction”; and implies a glorious deliverance, for he did not die, but lived to proclaim the honours of the word of God.
I have read numerous Spurgeon writings, sermons, and biographies. I never feel the need to preface his bold assertions with "Theoretically." None of this is Saul's armor to Spurgeon, fancy but untried. Spurgeon suffered, physically, socially, mentally, emotionally. He was derided, viciously criticized, and ostracized. He bore many cares. He suffered great bodily pain, without our modern medicines and analgesics.

So Spurgeon went to the Bible not as a book of theoretical knowledge alone, nor for some good advice for others. He went to it because he needed it, because he needed to find comfort and help and light and hope for himself. And he found it, and he reveled in it, he relished it. Then Spurgeon took what he found, and proclaimed it to others.

It minds one of Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 1:4-5, in which he blesses "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."

Someday I may start a series of post on my failings as a pastor. It would be a long series. One would have to be about my early-on aspiration to become one of those pastors who can devote all his time to study and sermon/lesson/book preparation. I could be off in my study all day, because I "have people" to handle people, to do the hands-on personal detail-work that I'm not so good at.

Now, that might have issued in some fine books, and some fine sermons. Fine theoretical books, and fine theoretical sermons. But is that the matrix God means for most of us?

What this reflection has brought back to my mind is along the lines of Peter's counsel: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12). But that is exactly how we (I) often react to suffering, as if suffering means that the train's off the tracks, and something has gone terribly wrong. But it hasn't, unless the suffering is a direct consequence of unrepented sin. It is as if we're in an English class, and panic at a spelling test. It's part of the curriculum.

Spurgeon could not have preached as he preached, had he not suffered as he suffered.

To go back to the psalmist again, we must learn this truth: "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes" (Psalm 119:71).

To know Hebrew is essential. To suffer, no less so.


Stefan Ewing said...

I don't really have any words. What a moving thing you've written. I'd give you a hug if we were in the same room.

"That which was our delight in prosperity has been our light in adversity; that which in the day kept us from presuming has in the night kept us from perishing."

Years and years ago, at the very outset of the quest God led me on to find him, at a time when I had no conception of a God that really existed and I struggled not only with God but with trying to figure out many other things in life (because I didn't know God!), the Lord intervened in my life forcefully several times, so that in the darkness that ensued as I went down so many wrong paths, I knew—even if only subconsciously at the time—that there was a way out, a way forward, another way.

I was thinking just a week ago that had it not been for his interventions, there are times when—coming from an atheistic background—I would have had no hope nor seen any point whatsoever to life.

Even So... said...

Luther said suffering was the touchstone of hermeneutics...he was right...

Kristine said...

Thanks, Dan. While driving home from church on Sunday, I was talking with my husband about the various and intense struggles God has allowed (and have acutally increased in measure, in multiple ways) in our lives during this last year.

It's been our mutual thought that one of the primary reasons for God allowing the intense hurts and frustrations, is to prepare us to help counsel and minister to others who suffer...for the very reasons you so wonderfully wrote of in this post!