We live in a fix-it society. Our culture assumes and insists on at least three unrealistic attitudes: 1) That anything painful can and should be fixed, 2) That the fixing should be done as soon as possible, 3) That nothing else of any value can be done until the fix occurs. I’m not complaining about our desire to improve or heal things. Many problems should be and can be remedied, and time is often of the essence in such situations. We should want to help others as much as we can and seek help of all kinds when we need it. Imagine what would happen in society, in health, in any area of life, if nobody repaired or improved anything!
On the other hand, in the area of spiritual formation (the primary calling in pastoral work) we usually need patience more than we need speed. Time is a vital ingredient in everything the Lord does. When pastors try to fix things too quickly it can backfire. Spiritual impatience accounts for a lot of frustration among ministers. It grinds away in the spirit of the shepherd, creating more heat in the mental gears than is healthy or beneficial to others. So, let me challenge the three assumptions I just mentioned.
Pain can Build
Is it true that anything painful can and should be fixed? No. Paul reveals several intractably hurtful situations in his own life and ministry. One in particular was a source of considerable discomfort to him (2 Cor.12:7-10). His “thorn in the flesh” is a perpetual encouragement to pastors that God’s design sometimes specifies unresolved difficulty for purposes of our own and others’ spiritual health. We are not failures for not being able to lift every burden, solve every marriage problem, answer every skeptic. God uses pain in all of our lives.
Is it true that quicker is always better in spiritual growth? No. Paul instructed Timothy not to “lay hands suddenly” on anybody (1 Tim.5:22). This is about appointing elders, but the principle of taking time, watching, waiting, and letting the Spirit bear witness to growth in grace is inescapably implicit in such instructions. The primary fruit of the Spirit is love and the first thing that came to Paul’s mind on that crucial subject was … patience (1 Cor.13:4).
Is it true that until a painful situation is fixed nothing productive will emerge in ministry? No. Good grief! If the Holy Spirit waited to bring salvation and maturity about until all the lambs were in a row where would the church be today? It’s interesting that among the Corinthians Paul affirmed much evidence of fruit and growth (1:4-9), yet that church was arguably the most raucous, carnal, frustrating church under his influence. We should seek reconciliation and healing at all times, but we should also realize that amazing ministry can and does happen against the odds and among seemingly difficult people.
Remember the Spirit
Two pieces of pastoral wisdom have helped me through the years. I offer them as personal advice to consider. First, take in stride the fact that there’s always more or less trauma within and between people in this age. Emotional tides ebb regularly. People hurt and get hurt…and heal over time. People are in process. Today’s happy family may be tomorrow’s meltdown. Today’s crisis may be tomorrow’s blessing. The same guy who was ecstatic about your ministry last Sunday might find you a heretic a year from now. The lady who literally shook her head during most of my sermon a few weeks ago may well be on the verge of conversion, fighting like a landed salmon. It has always been this way. I can’t think of any letter in the New Testament that does not deal with interpersonal friction and spiritual immaturity. Come to think of it, most of the letters wouldn’t even be with us were it not for the frustrations of living together in a fallen environment.
Second, give the Spirit time to work in all situations. Don’t leap frenzied to the oars every time you see the effects of evil. Pastors are often well versed in how the church (and the people in it) “ought to be.” They take classes, read articles, books and blogs, listen to YouTube clips, and generally absorb an enormous amount of idealistic critique regarding the sad state of affairs in the church and the culture. It ought to be better. People are immature, carnal, lacking in Christian worldview and generally goofed up. Just ask the Barna Group! I get it. Paul told Timothy to “…reprove, rebuke, exhort (which often can mean counsel rather than correct) with complete patience and instruction (2 Tim.4:2). There will never come a moment in this age when the body of Christ is so mature that instruction in faith, goodness and discipleship is a waste of time. This is job security for us! But remember, the Spirit is the one who is actually doing the work in people’s lives. This comforted Paul greatly (1 Cor.3:5-9). We must assume that the Spirit is using all the intransigent trauma for good things. Romans 8:28 is over-quoted by some, but it is still true.
Just a Thought,