A number of things of late have prompted me to write this piece - the latest was meeting a friend who I hadn't seen for some time, to whom I had to offer advice because his life is falling apart. Having sat in the sun earlier for our socially distanced chat, I have been prompted to reflect a little more on some lessons gleaned from my reading in my morning daily devotions.
A General Truth
While there are always exceptional cases that serve to prove the rule, I think this general principal holds: that there is a deep connection between, and inter-relatedness of, those who are trained by brokenness and their pastoral effectiveness. Sadly, most novice efforts of self-proclaimed helpers of the "broken and bruised" are often sincere, give symptomatic relief, but rarely heal the wound of the underlying cause.
On the one hand, there is the earnest counsellor who employs learnt or self-taught dulcet tones, soft words, timed nods, or scripted sympathetic looks, to reach out to the crushed; on the other hand, there is the "been-through-the-mill" believer who has no need to advertise their pastoral understanding, who is able to point to the fountain from which they came distraught and drank to obtain relief for Christ.
A Pertinent Text
This seems to be one of the important points that Paul is making as he begins his second letter to the Corinthians: there is both spiritual nous and experiential depth to the words of the master pastor who has endured the tempest and furnace, having passed through fire and water, with the made-to-fit help of the God of tender mercies and all compassion, in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
In the sovereign purpose of God, brokenness and perplexity had straightened the life of Paul: time without number, the apostle, near-despair, was cast down to his knees; in utter distress, man offered no relief for tests that clearly surpassed the apostle's all-too-human strength; Saul of Tarsus learnt to cast himself on God and cry out for His grace; in darkest hours and trials, God the Father of all Compassion, through His once-derelict, "to-Hell-and-back-for-us", sympathetic, understanding, infinitely-experienced, Great High Priest, supplied overflowing comfort, by His Spirit, in abundance to His child. Having been to this font of Triune mercy, the pastor from Cilicia, knew where to tell the afflicted they could surely find relief.
An Application List
It would be hard to overestimate the number of potential comforting and challenging ways in which this principle can be applied to the benefit of God's sheep. Others, doubtless, spring to mind as this passage echoes in your head - before rounding off with vital caveats, note some ways we can work out this text:
- Never despise the trial that you face, whether as the common human lot, or particularly as the pangs of faith that you endure for the sake of Christ - each trouble you face was timed, ordained and designed, in love, before the foundation of the world: each was aimed to cause you to lean on the Lord for grace in order to train you to be of future help to rescued, fellow, sheep (though believer trials, no doubt, have many other uses too). Our gloomiest griefs may be vexing and painful but they are valuable and essential.
- Those who suffer the deepest, darkest, devastating trials, if they endure them by grace, and are trained and developed by them, are usually those who. by grace, are able to help similarly-tested souls most.
- Saints who long to be serviceable to Christ, in this matter of comforting and supporting the broken and distressed (whether persecuted or perplexed), are usually prepared for this ministry by their own deep distress, or a high degree or disproportionate insight into a lesser or smaller distress - it is rare in the extreme to find a man or woman untouched by great distress who will be of enormous help. In this counselling work, experience carries a disproportionate weight - it is doubtful that if Christ's depth of human sympathy had to be refined in the furnaces of Gethsemane, Gabbatha and Golgotha, that the skill of any infinitely lesser saint can be formed in any other mould.
- Those who are younger in life or less experienced in faith should be far slower and much less confident than they usually are to offer help to the broken and crushed: the early years are, generally speaking, times to listen and learn and study ways and woes that we may understand how to cope with trials that are sure to come along. The broken are often smashed by insensitive, thoughtless, words which have been far too rashly, rudely or readily proffered by a novice. The tragedy is the slow speed at which an unskilled counsellor often learns - there are few if any alive, but Christ, who do not need to repent of reckless or thoughtless words or become more acquainted with, and attuned to, grief to help.
- If and when you are called to pass through deep, dark, dread-filled valleys, be comforted by the fact that the deeper the pain the higher the power which can be sourced in Christ as an ever-present help. Learn to count it a privilege that you are learning, in your hardship, just a little bit more of what your redemption really cost Christ at the Cross, as you tread in the steps of (non-redemptive) sufferings for your Lord's sake. Expect in the darkness that light will fill you heart so that, whatever the circumstance, the grace of Christ will be more than a match.
- No doubt it will be hard to forget the sorrows that you experienced in the depths - yet make it your earnest plea during and after the grief, that God would sanctify your sufferings and make it a blessing to comfort others. Cry to Christ to fill you heart with sympathy, that you may reap the maximum yield from your own harrowing harvest of heartache which will sow seeds of grace to plant, grow and bear fruit in other broken, suffering, saints.
- Sometimes, by His providence, the Lord leads us into situations where we are called to comfort the afflicted and broken in a way that exceeds our current experience - in such circumstances we should pray for wisdom, balance, tact, kindness, discernment and faithfulness, in faith, and expect to see some fruit. Often the course that is best is to say the least and seek to enlist another, more-experienced, help.
- However, perhaps you've been on the receiving end of well-intended, but ham-fisted, ill-judged, badly-timed, inexperienced or insensitive attempts to comfort saints: if that is the case, ask for particular grace to forbear and not record the slight as too great an offence; and seek help to be taught, from an unintended hurt, how such reckless words pierce hearts of sheep for whom the Good Shepherd was struck.
And yet ..once we have said these things, some cannon shots need fired across the bows to warn off ever-present dangers of offering glib, over-confident, or supercilious, puffed-up counsel in the Church of Christ.
A Salutary Siren
We need to pay heed to a number of factors which will prevent grave errors of judgment that damage God's flock or bring Gospel detriment.
While there are some with little experience who foolishly proclaim themselves the helper of the broken without really doing good, there are also those who on account of greater experience, preach themselves and their church as the healer of broken hearts. In my judgment, both these approaches err on several levels - the chief failure, perhaps, is to preach the Gospel of "Me and My Ministry" or "Us and Our Church" instead of pointing to the Savior as the sympathetic High Priest - Jesus alone is the ultimate source of help. If we have been guilty of "virtue signaling", we should repent and renounce a "placarding my pastoring" approach.
We should be humble enough to recognize that the unvarnished truth is that all experience gained, and any help we might provide, comes by divine decree as a gift of sovereign grace, which is bundled up in Christ. Paul was both broken and humbled by his excruciating trials - the apostle was very sure that not He but only Messiah Jesus could help hurt. That surely implies that the greatest experience, tenderest words, kindest look, most-perceptive insight that any pastor or disciple of Christ can ever possibly have, falls lamentably short of the Lord who imparts these things to each as gifts. To think anything else, and perch our church or counsel in lofty crags above another pastor, is to proudly preach ourselves - that, in the end, is the kind of anti-Gospel or pseudo-Christ that was nauseating to Paul. The preach-self, puffed-up, pastor is a proud balloon that will likely deflate at the pin-prick of providence.
In such matters envy and cynicism can become the norm - be careful not to look haughtily or harshly on those who lack skills we have learnt through trial, or jealously dismiss those whose graces and gifts in counselling excel those we currently possess. Can you bear the cross God designed to bridge their back? Well the answer may be maybe, never or not yet! All graces and gifts bring spiritual stewardship for which each alone will give account. Look at yourself in the mirror and stop searching for others' motes!
There is a very real danger of mutilating the Gospel when we proclaim ourselves a church that helps and heals those hurt. One illustration will flag this up and help confirm the point. In recent days, while out on a walk, I met an old school friend. Her line of work brings her into regular contact with many tragic, broken, lives. In an attempt to offer support, she went along to a "young, restless, and reformed" church. When she inquired of the pastor about core beliefs of that church, she was told it was a church for those who had been "hurt" by other churches. How did this non-Christian react to the pastoral "sales pitch"? "Oh dear!" she thought "get me out of here quick." Her able, well-trained, mind has had far too many bitter, getting-fingers-burnt, experiences to take "hurt" at face value.
As with all single-stranded approaches to the many stranded Gospel of God's free grace in Christ, whatever truth the "help for hurting" Gospel contains, such is, at best, a lop-sided, approach - it also runs the risk of missing or mutilating the whole Christ that we preach. A "touchy-feely" tactic may seem to initially strike short-term oil in a narcissistic, "snow-flake", age: however, at very least, if called to bind up (spiritually) broken-hearts, we are also charged to bring sin to light and preach a Gospel that humbles pride, offers salvation to the damned, eternal life to the dead, and acquittal and adoption to the condemned and prodigal. More often than not, in our "victim" culture, we discover to our cost, that an apparent "victim" is really the villain. As we deal with both the miserably "afflicted" and manipulative "hurting", we need to crave more love, wisdom, discernment, patience, insight and impartiality that is fully-appraised of the facts before prescribing right cures for each case.
Finally, in all this, we will not make missteps if we remember not to put undue focus on self but direct the pained to Christ. What encouragement this gives to every disciple - it also equips them to offer wise counsel: not only does it allow the inexperienced to admit they just can't penetrate depths into which afflicted souls are cast; it also permits them to act as signposts to The One who plumbed the pits of human pangs and perplexity - it is at the artesian well of His dearly-beloved but also brutal, agonized, experience that they may draw up refreshing draughts of help; but it further enables the most seasoned, experienced, pastors to confess that all the help they have to offer was learnt when, in dire straits, they came to an end of self - thus, they can assure the broken-hearted that bent knees, open bibles and anguished pleas to the Father of all Compassion will surely obtain much-needed, all-sufficient, grace - it is this beyond-all-understanding peace which most certainly overflows into lives of God's elect, beloved, salvaged, sheep. In days to come, it is this that will empower a once-afflicted counselled case to become the provider of aiding counsel: they can now point the crushed to the consolation and compassion of the comforting, counselling, Christ.
In the last analysis, brokenness and usefulness, is essential in offering counsel - it is the Cross of Christ, endured by Jesus, whose power now, by grace, imputed and imparted to us, breaks the heart, brings death to self, proves useful to the flock and makes us climb the steep learning curve of being "competent to counsel".