Today I want to share with you a teaching I did for 12Church ministry on the whole issue of pain while we’re engaged in ministry. How do we continue in ministry when we’re experiencing pain? How do we carry on in ministry when surrounded and immersed in pain, especially working with people in pain? How do we do that?
Here are some thoughts: Can we engage on mission with Jesus when we’re in deep pain?
My mother died in August of 2020, not from COVID, but probably because of COVID. She was in the hospital and was unable to have very many visitors. We couldn’t go visit her, and as far as I can tell, she just quit eating and decided enough was enough.
I know that story’s not unique and a lot of people had relatives and friends in hospital they couldn’t visit and some died alone. There’s a lot of pain and anger that can be wrapped up inside of that kind of an instance.
It wasn’t until just recently, two years later, that we finally had a family get together to have a memorial service for her. Then just a week or two ago, we did a graveside service, which we attended via zoom to lay her to rest.
Two days after we had that first memorial, I found myself in a denominational conference where in the middle of the morning, before business meetings, they had a service of lament. As this was the first denominational gathering like that since before COVID, there was a reflection on the challenge of the last few years and all of the pain and disappointments.
On one level, I was already at a stage of enough is enough, let’s quit rehashing the past, move on, and let’s get on with it. But I engaged in this service, in the music and the reflections in the Psalms of lament and found it incredibly significant. I found the timing was absolutely ideal for me, as it was for a lot of people, to process some of the events of recent years. It was also a time to process some of the events of the recent weekend where we had that memorial service.
I’m sure our experience both in our personal lives and in our group has not been radically different from a lot of people’s circumstances. There’s been a lot of pain in these past few years. Out of our initial 12Church group of about 10 people, three of them lost parents, and that’s not counting my mom who passed away just before we got going with our group.
There were a lot of cancellations of celebrations and opportunities, holidays and trips that really were deep disappointments for a lot of people. In addition, there were the usual work, family and marriage crises all enhanced and amplified by the reality of the larger cultural challenges.
But the truth is we could actually say there has always been and always is a lot of pain going around. The particulars, the specifics, the context is different, but there’s always a lot of pain going around. In fact, one person has said, life is pain.
And if you’re like me, you might react to that initially and say, “Oh no, that’s not true. Life is great. Life is good.” And that’s true as well.
Life is woven through with pain. Pain is a defining factor of life as we know it in this time and this place. Yes, I believe John 10:10 is true where Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, but I’ve come that you might have life and have it to the full.” I understand that eternal life, a right relationship with our creator starts right now.
However, we are in that “already, but not yet” where we have received eternal life. We have been saved, but we have yet to be fully saved. We have yet to receive the full promise. There is still a hope in the future for us. Truth is, even life at its best right now is in heaven. This isn’t heaven, and death or its threat is always present, and because of that, pain is always present. Sometimes that pain gets intense and overwhelming and paralyzing.
So how do we engage on mission? How do we make disciples when we’re in pain? Can we do that? Should we do that or does the presence of pain in our lives mean that we have a reason to withdraw and be absent from mission until we deal with that pain?
While there are certainly seasons of intense pain in our lives that rightly cause us to withdraw from our normal routine and withdraw maybe in some measure, even from mission, it’s very clear if we reflect on the reality of life, as we know it, now that if we were to withdraw from mission until our pain was fully dealt with, until we didn’t experience pain, we would never reengage in mission. Let me say that again. If we wait till we’ve got no pain, we will never engage on mission.
So the reality of life on mission being a disciple who makes disciples, is that we are doing it in the midst of pain and through pain and surrounded by pain, our pain and the pain of others. How do we stay on mission while we are in pain?
Let me share with you three thoughts, three nuggets, or three discoveries about doing ministry, living on mission while in pain.
First of all, pain helps us identify with those that we are seeking to reach. It helps us identify with them because they’re in pain, often intense pain, and they’re in a pain that doesn’t contain the hope of eternal life that doesn’t contain the present comfort of the Spirit and the body of Christ. The fact that we too experience pain, even though we have all of the benefits of salvation, allows us to identify with that very real human condition.
There’s a saying that strength alienates, but weakness endears. What that means is that when we have it all together or pretend we have it all together or pretend that our life is perfect, people can’t identify with that because they don’t have it all together and their life isn’t perfect.
So we’ve got to get over the idea that as Christians, you’ve got to pretend everything’s just perfect because if you follow Jesus, everything’s just great. We’ve got to get over that and be honest, even with those we’re seeking to reach that life isn’t perfect, but we’re living this life and we’re walking through pain with the presence of the One who walks with us, died for us and offers us a hope.
You may have come across the idea that leaders are better leaders when they lead with a limp, and this is the same idea. Leaders who have been hurt, experienced pain in their lives and in their leadership make better leaders because they’re better able to empathize with those. They’re seeking to lead along the same lines.
I have to say disciple makers are better disciple makers when they make disciples from the place of imperfection, pain, or a limp. A limping disciple maker is a better disciple maker than someone who’s got their act completely together and has everything figured out, because the truth is none of us do. So recognizing our pain, acknowledging our pain does help us identify with those we’re seeking to reach, and it helps them identify with us.
A second principle for engaging in mission in pain or acknowledging pain is that we need to honestly process our pain. We need to deal with it. We don’t just ignore it. We don’t pretend it’s not there, but we take it out into the light appropriately and we deal with it. The way we deal with it is before God, before others, sometimes receiving formal counsel, but dealing with that pain and certainly not by ignoring it.
In my first little book I wrote many years ago, book called “Release: A Wilderness Adventure of the Soul” I talk about harnessing our history, learning lessons from our past and bringing them forward into the present. One of the lessons or ways of harnessing our history was to process our pain: recognize it, admit it, and openly deal with it. Yes, appropriately processing our pain may require us to withdraw from the ordinary rush, flow and routine of life and ministry in some measure, but it’s temporary. We process that pain and come to an appropriate level of wholeness, understanding and recovery that we can then reengage fully.
I’ve experienced that myself as I experienced a level of trauma that paralyzed me in many ways and made me emotionally completely frozen. I was able to process that with God’s grace and come through. The circumstances didn’t change the pain and the reason for the pain was and is in many ways is still there. However, there is recovery and there is grace and there is a way to move forward. Despite that we need to process our pain.
Thirdly, and this is a part of processing our pain, but it goes beyond that. We need to share our pain and our story with those with whom we minister and are walking with on a journey of mission with Jesus. This shows up when we gather, share and pray with each other, where we share our prayer requests and our real needs without apology.
Maybe this happens again and again and again, sharing whatever the issue is, whatever the load is with others, and not trying to carry it ourselves. It’s allowing them to come alongside us, allowing them to intercede from an understanding of what it is we’re facing. This is a part of being in a community where we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.
Sometimes it seems we’re maybe more willing to share the good stuff and rejoicing stuff, and less willing to share the mourning side of things. But that’s part of being in Christian community and part of being on mission together. Partnership in the gospel. Walking with others on mission includes sharing of life.
The word partnership and the word fellowship means sharing. Sharing life and doing life together. That when there’s something that is distracting me, that’s heavy on me, that’s hurting me, I let others into appropriately and in the right context. They can walk with me through it, lift me up in prayer, offer words of encouragement and wisdom, and sometimes their actual practical help.
So to recap, pain helps us identify with those we’re seeking to reach and helps them identify with us. We need to appropriately process our pain and share our pain with those with whom we minister.
So let me ask, what is your greatest pain? Maybe not the greatest pain you’ve experienced, but the greatest pain you’re carrying right now. What is the hurt that is present there right now? Maybe a disappointment, a broken relationship, a fear, a physical pain or some concern for the future that you have.
What is that pain? Have you processed it appropriately? Have you shared it with the Father? Have you shared it with some trusted others? Have you shared it, if necessary, with an actual formal counselor? Have you shared that pain? Have you shared that story on an appropriate level with those you’re seeking to reach? Do they understand you are a part of the human condition? Have you allowed them in so they can identify with you? That’s part of building relationship. That’s part of building a friendship, which is the avenue for the gospel.
Remember strength alienates, weakness endears. When people know you have challenges, they can identify because they’ve got challenges too. Are you open with those with whom you’re engaged on mission or maybe even with those you’re seeking to lead? Do they know the pain you faced? Do they understand the load you’re carrying? Are they aware enough to intercede for you in a focused specific kind of way?
In 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 the CEB translation puts it this way, “We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.” That’s a story of dealing with our pain. Not forgetting it, not pretending it’s not there, but walking through it, processing it, allowing others into it and carrying on with Jesus on mission.
So I encourage you process your pain. Allow those on your team and those in your ministry circle in. Allow them to carry the load and see how the Lord will harness it for His purposes in you and those whom you seek to reach for your good and for His glory.