Glad Tidings and Cups of Bitterness
I was recently in Colorado Springs, speaking to some ministry leaders. As a friend and I drove past the complex of Ted Haggard's former megachurch, New Life, our conversation turned to various failings we've each witnessed in recent months at other large ministries.
As I young pastor, I believe it's healthy to reflect on such failures. I'd rather be a janitor in God's kingdom than rise to influence and disgrace his name.
The next day, when I returned home, I found myself deeply discouraged. Actually, depressed might be the better word. I was supposed to be preparing Christmas sermons about joy, peace, and glad tidings, but all I felt was grief, agony, despair—not only at those specific failures, but also at the gleaming Colorado Springs buildings I visited, the seeming gap between the wealthiest Church in world history (ours) and the New Testament church. Adding to my melancholy was my own seeming inability to lead myself or the ministries I serve as close to Christ's words as I'd like.
There is grief in serving Christ. Sometimes we grieve for persecuted believers or struggling ministries. Often, it's our own inadequacies, our unfulfilled desires to reach more souls, bear more fruit, or advance the Kingdom.
Every servant of the gospel will travel, eventually, through dark forests of grief, even despair. But judging by the popular books and "successful" ministries out there, you wouldn't know it. You get the impression that truly spiritual Christians are always well adjusted, smiling, high-energy successes. In some circles, grieving is proof positive you must not be trusting in God's providence and sovereignty.
But grief and faithfulness are not mutually exclusive. Didn't Christ trust the Father's sovereignty in Gethsemane, even as he groaned, "My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death" (Matt. 26:38)? Was Christ unspiritual when he fell to the ground in agony, begging God to let that bitter cup pass?
In America we rarely see models of ministry that discuss paralyzing sorrow, deep discouragement or lethargy. When we do, they're things to be conquered in a day of prayer, sure, but not embraced for a season.
However, if you've found yourself recently in a season of grief, you're in good company. Christ's example is enough. But God gives us many more. We know Jeremiah as "the weeping prophet" because of the agony he carried. Jeremiah did not bear this grief because he was running away from God's will and service. Quite the opposite. Jeremiah's weeping was the cost of doing precisely what God called him to do.
It's okay to mourn, to grieve, to sorrowfully long for redemption, to join the earth in "groaning" (Rom. 8:22) for Christ's return—even if your season of grief arrives during "the most wonderful time of the year."
How would Jesus feel about such spiritual agonizing during Christmas? Well, it may put us in the company of those few who saw Christ for Who He was in the Christmas story. Simeon and Anna held Christ the infant and praised God for Messiah when most people were looking for someone bigger, happier and stronger than a baby. Simeon and Anna touched Christ in the temple because they were "waiting for the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25) and "looking forward to the redemption" (Luke 2:38). In the same way today, sorrow and grief can knock our gaze forward to our coming consolation and redemption.