For some bizarre reason, I found it easy to meditate more on pastoral discouragement. In so doing I was drawn to Paul’s exhortations to imitate him (1 Cor 4.16; 11.1; Phil 3.17; 1 Thess 1.5; 2 Thess 3.9; cf. also Heb 13.7). Certainly, Paul hoped the churches would imitate his zeal for Christ and his word. However, he also was a model for dealing with life’s pain and discouragement (more the context of Phil 3.17). As much as Paul taught Christians how to live, he modeled even more how they were to die (to self and the world).
Pastors should be worthy of imitation in areas like prayer, evangelism, mercy, etc. But we are also examples of how God’s people deal with despair. And how our people need such an example in an age where depression has become a Godless industry. In our own suffering we teach our congregation how to address the downcast soul (Pss 43-43). We exemplify how it is that God, through the gospel, restores the soul (Ps 23) and strengthens feeble knees (Is 35.3; Heb 12.12).
What does this mean practically? We must resist the urge, pressure and expectation that we always be “on.” There is a general perception that the pastor’s life is “together” and void of despair. We don’t help that perception by always appearing as though it is. We fear anyone thinking otherwise because we want to keep our job and reputation. Before long, our people assume from our example either (1) pastors must be better equipped to deal with despair or (2) we deal with it superficially and suffer it privately.
When we sense discouragement taking root then we should confess it before the brothers and sisters we serve. Then we share how it is that God is helping us through his word and prayer. Show them how the gospel is for more than tent revivals, toe-tapping music and happy faces. The gospel is both a scalpel and a soothing balm to heal the wound it often creates. Live out discouragement in front of the people so they can see Jesus is better than Dr. Phil and Mr. Pill. Show them that Ps 34.18 is really true: “God is near to the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in Spirit.”
I remember sitting at the knee of William Hughes at 2004 pastors’ conference in New Jersey. I had been recently voted out of my first church after only a year. He had been recently ousted from the Scottish church he’d served for several decades. I’ll never forget his example. In his intoxicating Scottish brogue and with his gift of story-telling (which seems true of most Scots!), he took me to a park in Glasgow. He said he still remembered the tree under which he sat, processing what had just happened. And then he said something I’ll never forget: “Barry, Jesus was close to me there.”
Dear brothers, let’s teach our people that a real Jesus really comes close to those in despair. In fact, pain is often necessary for Jesus to come close. If they don’t see that reality in their pastor, then they’ll lose most hope of finding it anywhere. They’ll resort to the empty means our world advertises, and lose out on the very purpose for which God gives Christ to us.