Disappointing Sufferers as a Pastor

Culture is ubiquitous, or so says James Davison Hunter in To Change the World. I expect he means that culture, being present everywhere, shapes the way I experience the world and understand my own identity apart from any conscious decision I make to go with the flow. In our context, even though I am a Christian and reject secularism, I am more secular than I realize or like to believe (see Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age).

One of the reasons I love to study history, sociology, and philosophy is that it helps me to see what I unconsciously assume. This is also why I love pastor Tim Keller. He regularly gives insights into the modern context that explain the world and me in remarkably clear ways. I had such an experience reading the beginning of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I only just started but already had several “Aha!” moments. This one relates to my calling as a pastor, and it came from his discussion on suffering and the meaning of life. Let me outline his discussion and then show you how this helped me understand my calling and experience as a pastor in the modern world.

Suffering and the Meaning of Life

Keller argues that traditional cultures and religions all, in different ways, regard suffering as a necessary part of life that can be experienced in such a way that it helps the sufferer achieve the purpose of life. In other words, suffering will happen in life, and it requires a particular response on the part of the individual so that a “redemptive” outcome can occur. So, for example, in the pagan cultures of northern Europe, sufferers could face pain and difficulty with nobility and endurance so as to receive honor and glory. Or in some Eastern religions, suffering must be met with the abandonment of desire so one can achieve enlightenment. Suffering is awful, but it can be faced in such a way that life’s purpose is achieved.

Not so with secularism, says Keller. Secularism is uniquely ill equipped to address suffering (which, by the way, should make us suspicious of it as a worldview given the universal nature of suffering). Here’s my outline of his exploration of the role of suffering in secularism:

  1. According to secularism, life is objectively meaningless. There is no built in meaning to the universe since it came about through random chance.
  2. Meaning can only be invented subjectively by individuals. Life for any individual, at best, involves the freedom to live in a way that brings the most personal happiness.
  3. Suffering, by definition, hinders happiness and thus has no meaningful role in the achievement of the invented purpose of the individual’s life.
  4. Therefore, suffering can only be managed or eliminated, but it cannot be meaningful.

Keller supplies the arguments of secularists to demonstrate this logic. He isn’t imposing this on secularists. It’s something many honestly acknowledge. I think this is brilliant and insightful, but it’s what he said about dealing with suffering in a secular culture that helped me understand some of my experiences as a pastor.

Dealing with Pain in a Secular Age

Given the meaninglessness of suffering in a secular age, Keller observes that Western culture has become obsessed with managing or eliminating suffering and pain, and practically every academic field approaches this differently. Psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, political science, race theory, gender studies, medical doctors, essentially every field of study tends to reduce suffering to one material cause relevant to their area of expertise and then offers the appropriate external remedy.

This plurality of specialists has caused massive confusion in our culture as to what to do with pain. And since every expert reduces the causes of suffering to one fundamental cause external to us, a culture of victimhood has developed. Sufferers are now victims to material misfortune or social injustice in need of experts or social activists that can help sufferers manage or eliminate the cause. So the one thing an expert should never do is address suffering in such a way that the sufferer is blamed for or told they have contributed to their suffering. This is the culture in which we live and breathe.

Here’s my “Aha!” moment: Pastors have become just another specialist in the business of pain management and elimination. I never consciously thought of myself this way, and I doubt many of my congregants would describe my job in this way. But my experience tells me our cultural context has (wrongly) shaped expectations I have had for myself and others have had of me.

Keller goes on to explain how traditional cultures (and Christianity) understand suffering to be the result of conflict between the external and our internal world, which means that, rather than raging against the world, those suffering were to take responsibility to address their pain and use it to achieve a redemptive outcome.

Pastoring Sufferers in a Secular Age

Now I wouldn’t have put it that way when you asked me to describe how to pastor people who are suffering, but that is essentially what pastors are called to do. We must love people with our presence, help, and the Word of God, and we are called to love sufferers in that way so as to help them on the road of faith. And often, though not always, this means we have to help people face the ways they have caused or contributed to their pain. Pastors must help their flock understand and know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,” (Romans 5:3-5). We are not simply victims.

But in a culture that fosters a victim mentality, we all naturally want experts to take away the pain or help us manage it so it doesn’t hurt so badly. While pastors should aim to help in that way, that isn’t all we are supposed to do. And when we call people to examine their lives and consider how God might use their pain to transform them or how they might be causing some of their own suffering, it makes sense, given our context, that people will lash out in anger and accuse us of making things worse! It makes sense that I have been such a disappointment to some who have suffered greatly. We are more secular than we realize.

I must admit, I’ve been surprised in my pastoral ministry at how some who have suffered have lashed out at me and caused me to suffer! That has led me to self-examination, submitting myself to others for evaluation, and some needed repentance. But I have also come to see that sometimes those who are suffering lash out at me as a pastor because we have different ideas of what I am supposed to do. Consciously or not, some have looked to me to manage or eliminate their pain, and at this, I have completely failed. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer has been offended or outraged that I would suggest they might be responsible for some of their pain. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer thinks I haven’t done a good job at relieving their pain or doing the things they believed would help them manage or relieve their pain.

In either case, I need to remember my calling, and I must self-consciously reject the idea that I am just another specialist there to manage people’s pain. My job is to offer people the hope of the gospel in the midst of a broken world. No doubt, many will be disappointed. But I cannot let the disappointment and anger of some alter my job description.