Monday, September 8, 2014

Ministry like Jeremiah (Part 2: Suffering is Inevitable)

God has recently prompted me to read through the book of Jeremiah. I'll admit, I wasn't too excited about the idea. This lengthy prophetic tome is filled with blistering passages about God's wrath for the sinful nations, as well as Jeremiah's suffering at the hands of his own people. Yet as I read, I am reminded over and over again of God's faithfulness, His covenantal love for His people, and the nature of ministry. It is this latter point--the nature of ministry--that I wish to unpack here more fully.

Ministry Lesson #2: Suffering is inevitable when you're obedient to God's calling. Jeremiah is criticized, ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned, and mostly rejected by his countrymen. Often God calls him to do things that make little sense to him, such as purchasing a field in the midst of a siege (chapter 32), or placing a yoke-bar on his neck to demonstrate the yoke of oppression and exile that is coming from Babylon (chapter 27). People don's listen to him; they call him a liar and a fraud and flagrantly disobey his exhortations and God's commands. It's not a glamorous job. When God calls Jeremiah in chapter one, he says, "They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you."

A few years ago, I wrote the following in Leading Up: Finding Influence in the Church Beyond Role and Experience:

In Romans 5, the apostle Paul makes a startling paradoxical statement that has huge implications for church leaders:

Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

For Paul, suffering leads to hope. It produces perseverance and character, and this causes us to rejoice out of the love that God has poured into our hearts. This steadfastness and integrity in leadership can only come from a complete trust in the God who loves us. We are to ultimately be guided by the Holy Spirit, not by leadership principles found in a book.

Leading up entails sufferings. I don’t want to lie to you; being in church leadership is not all fun and games. You will suffer long nights of wondering if your vision is even from God. You will suffer frustration at the hands of bureaucracy and church politics. You will suffer from people who question your authority and leadership capacity due to your job description, age, gender, or experience. You may suffer the pain of being fired. You may suffer from broken relationships and a deep doubts about the goodness and faithfulness of God. Remember that this suffering has the power to transform your character, to allow you to become an even better follower of Jesus, which will in turn make you a better leader in the church. Invite Christ to enter into the suffering with you. In Psalm 23, the Divine Shepherd leads the sheep through the valley of the shadow of death - not around, not away from, not over, but through the valley. On the other side wait green pastures and quiet waters and the calm rest of the soul.

More than ever, I believe leadership in ministry entails suffering. Since writing these words, I've had to come back to them multiple times in various moments where I wondered about God's love, my vocation, and whether this ministry thing was worth the sleepless nights and emotional toil. Yet I've always stayed the course, because obedience to God transcends the suffering. He doesn't abandon people to their suffering; he enters into it with them, walking with them through valleys of death and dark nights of the soul.

When God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet in chapter one, he says of the people and Jeremiah's fear, "They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you." Even in the midst of suffering, we can take heart and have courage, for the Lord is with us and for us. This doesn't mean we have to just put on a happy face and pretend everything is okay (more on that in a later Jeremiah post). It also doesn't mean God brings suffering into our lives with flippancy and malice (though it may be true that he allows suffering in certain circumstances, mainly for discipline and building endurance in us). This all simply means we can have confidence in the midst of pain, knowing our salvation is sure and we are not alone. Not only is he with us, he promises rescue and comfort, salvation and relief. Even if suffering is inevitable, it isn't eternal.

What suffering have you experienced recently? How have you experienced God's presence in the midst of suffering?

-Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (J.R. Briggs)
-Mad Church Disease: Healing from Church Burnout (Anne Marie Miller)

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