Many years ago I found myself in a very dark place. I had been in Cambodia and contracted something. No doctor could tell me what. I felt awful. I had an entire spectrum of symptoms. All the tests came out negative. This went on for a year. I was extremely frustrated. I was experiencing acute anxiety as my symptoms flaired. My future was uncertain. On top of it all, God seemed to have just up and left.
Not a Pretty Picture
When I tell the story, I describe that I felt like I was cruising down the road of life. Suddenly, God pulled the car over and told me to get out. So I did. Then he just drove away. I found myself in a barren, featureless land that I had never seen before. And there I sat. For 6 months. Long, dark, unpleasant months. On top of the physical symptoms and emotional angst, I was in a proverbial dark night of the soul. I hated it.
A Hard Answer
Initially I was furious with God. This was the second major illness I had contracted within two years. Angrily, I questioned God, “So I go to the hard places to care for your people and this is what I get?!”
For six months.
Nothing. Silence. Darkness. Isolation. Barrenness.
Eventually, the answer came. He answered gently.
That’s all he said.
Personal Suffering is Part of the Calling
Jesus said five times in John chapter 10, “The Good Shepherd lays his life down for the sheep.” Of course, he was speaking of himself. Yet, throughout Scripture the message is clear. Those God places in positions to lead and care for his people must lay their lives down for them. Good shepherds lay their lives down for the sheep.
An aspect of fulfilling the calling of shepherding souls is that the shepherd will experience hardships of all kinds. Just read 2 Corinthians and note all Paul experienced. And if it is true for Jesus, the True Shepherd, it is true for the under-shepherds. Personal suffering is an essential element of fulfilling the shepherding calling.
How About You?
What personal hardships do you find yourself experiencing as you go about your shepherding work? They might be relational, physical, emotional, spiritual – anything. These realities can be profoundly confusing. Questions and doubts can swirl within us. “Am I doing something wrong?” “Am I not hearing God?”
Adversity is not neccesarily a sign that something is “wrong” (other than we live in a fallen world). It may actually mean we are on the right track. Remember Paul’s words and be encouraged to tuck deeper into your Father’s care, “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you (2 Corinthians 4:11-12).”
Personal suffering as a result of tending to others is an aspect of the shepherd’s work. It may not ease the pain, but it is a comfort to know this clear and mysterious truth. May you be comforted by his presence in whatever adversities you find yourself in.
L. Ann Jervis’ At the Heart of the Gospel is a very worthy read. She looks at three of Paul’s writings observing the development of Paul’s understanding of suffering over the years. She exegetes 1 Thessalonians (an earlier letter), Philippians (written mid-career) and Romans (a seminal work of Paul’s) to describe the role of suffering in the life of the believer. This is a very rich book indeed.