Reluctant Rejoicing

My Dear Shepherds,

It’s no secret that pastors are hurting these days but here’s something I don’t ever remember hearing a pastor say: “I rejoice in what I have suffered for you.” Except for Pastor Paul, that is. But then, he could claim some serious suffering.

What we’ve been through in ministry may not seem to qualify as suffering, at least not of biblical proportions. Yet ministry has exhausted many of us. Sticks and stones might have been less painful than the blunt force trauma of the words we’ve heard and the abandonment by people we’ve loved and served. Such things qualify as suffering.

So back to Paul’s rejoicing.

I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Col. 1:24)

Paul was able to see his suffering as a significant contribution to gospel progress, whereas most of our pastoral hardships seem to be nothing but useless and fruitless setbacks. But “the daily pressure of all the churches,” like the lovelessness in Corinth or the legalism in Galatia, wore upon Paul as they do upon pastors now. They hurt us. All of it is suffering for the sake of the gospel.

So, where’s the joy in that? In some mysterious way, when Paul suffered there in prison he was absorbing into his body, in league with Jesus, the burdens of that faraway church.

In Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s short story, “Ragman,” a young man early on a Friday morning takes to the streets “pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new.” He called out, “Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!” He comes to a brokenhearted young woman, poor and hopeless, weeping into her handkerchief. He slips away her handkerchief, replacing it with “a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined.” Then as he walked on “he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.”

In that same way he took on a girl’s blood-soaked bandage, his own head becoming bloody when he put it on. And a one-armed man’s jacket, becoming one-armed in his place, and the filthy army blanket of a drunk who went away in new clothes. At the end of the story, now three days later on a bright Sunday morning, the observer of all this “said to [the Ragman] with dear yearning in my voice: ‘Dress me.’”

As pastors, we absorb the wounds of ministry for the sake of Christ, his people, and the progress of the gospel, and we do it dressed in his resurrection life.

When I became a servant in this church, I experienced this suffering as a sheer gift, God’s way of helping me serve you, laying out the whole truth. (v. 25, The Message)

Some of us have agonized in prayer. Some have wept or persevered in ways our church never saw nor could ever understand. We have sacrificed greatly for the Lord’s people whom we serve. They are learning, at least some of them, the inexpressible wealth of “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” not only because we preach it but also because we’ve suffered in serving them, whether they know it or not.

So dear pastor, rejoice. I mean it. Sit down with Jesus, take a deep breath of his peace, and rejoice that all those hurts were actually God’s “sheer gift.”

Be ye glad!

Pastor Lee

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