This installment of “The Minister’s Workshop” marks the beginning of a new series. The series just concluded offered practical help on preaching. This one will offer practical help for the day-to-day pastoral counseling ministry, with articles on such problems as marital discord, alcoholism, homosexuality, pre-marital planning, child-parent relations, business ethics, retirement stresses, and spiritual-psychological problems such as guilt, anxiety, depression, and hostility. We hope the new series will help pastors to provide the intelligent and compassionate counseling distressed people rightly expect when they look to the Christian Church for help.
The first visit I made in my first parish was to a man of sixty dying of cancer. Although he was under continuous sedation, the sedation wore off while I was there, and the terrifying pain reasserted itself. I can still see his anguished face and his groping, grasping hands pleading for the next needle. I did not know what to do. I had never experienced pain, and the man was a stranger to me. The words that suggested themselves to me seemed an utter irrelevance, almost an impertinence.
Since then, I have been by countless beds of pain. Since then, too, I have come to know what real pain is. Whether dull or sharp, pain is always accompanied by the fear that it may become overwhelming. And sometimes the fear seems as terrifying as the pain.
What can a minister say to one who is suffering crippling pain? Sometimes very little—sometimes the less said the better. One of the things I learned to appreciate was the consideration of some who lingered for only a few moments and said little.
Yet when opportunity comes, God’s message must be given. What is it? It must be the same message given to those not in pain. We have won the right to speak to sufferers only if we have witnessed to them faithfully while they were well. One can have only contempt for the man who thinks he can wait till some member of his congregation is laid on his back before he confronts him with his need for God and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. If our preaching is biblical, we speak often about suffering and pain, for it is in every page of the Bible.
Even so, there may be some special emphases, and here the guidance of the Holy Spirit is essential. Some time ago a minister friend and I visited a police officer who had been in an accident with his cruiser and was in great pain. He said to us: “I wish I knew why this has happened to me.” It was hard to know what to say, but eventually I hazarded this: “You know, sometimes God has to put a man on his back in order to get a look at his face.” We could not say more, for pain demanded quiet; so we left with a handclasp, a smile, and a prayer.
If the sufferer is not a Christian, it is doubly hard to know what to say. The Holy Spirit must give the right word, though the general bent of our witness may be clear. We can certainly say that God can use trouble as a means of revealing his grace. We can also say that even under the assault of pain, Jesus Christ can reveal himself as a living reality, and can transform the suffering so that it does not become a hardening influence. For this is really one of the greatest perils confronting people who pass through pain—that it should anesthetize them against the knowledge that God is near and able to help. I always try to get the sick one to join me in earnest and honest prayer, and I always try to leave behind the promises of God. God alone is a refuge and strength in the midst of catastrophe. And his Word has an uplifting, transforming power that defies analysis.
I have never known a deathbed repentance. Others have—I know and I am thankful. But my own experience has taught me that a suffering man is too taken up with his pain to think of higher things. How necessary that we be faithful in dealing with our people about their sin and their Saviour!
Speaking about pain to a true believer is easier. One can look ahead to a day when sin and suffering will be no more, and one can also point out that all the woes of humanity are scanned and probed and enlightened by the Scriptures. No other book mirrors human suffering—its intensity, its universality, its varied forms, its perplexities—as the Bible does. Yet through it all there is no hopelessness or despair. On the contrary, a vein of sacred joy runs through all the pages of revelation, and the ultimate issue prophesied by the Bible is a new creation from which suffering and pain are banished. I can recall some moments of unsurpassed blessedness as I have talked of these wonders in a sick room.
Then, too, it is right to recall that the men of faith revealed in the Scriptures do not demand that God justify his ways to them. Inevitably they ask questions about suffering. They wrestle with the problem of such an intrusion into a universe fashioned by a God whose name is love. But they do not blame God. They do not angrily demand that he explain or defend his conduct. God is real to them, even in the valley of suffering, and we hear them singing even there.
In the midst of heartache Habakkuk utters some of the noblest words ever spoken: “Yes I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (3:18). Job is perplexed at his suffering. There is no rational category into which he can fit it. But, though for a time it seems he is going under, he doesn’t. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (13:15a). This is his answer, similar in spirit and content to that which Peter gives in one of the New Testament’s most glorious passages on the question of pain: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you. But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:12, 13). This is Christian realism and optimism at its best. Faith trusts in God and knows that mercy and truth are one, that chastisement is always in the end God-glorifying, that “all things work together for good to them that love God.”
In the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, when one of the mission’s members is overtaken with sickness the report is always phrased in this way: “God has entrusted our fellow-worker with suffering.” This seems to me to be the right approach. From suffering God can extract multiple blessings. The Lord wants us prepared for the highest service; therefore he tests us in a thousand ways. Testing can be a true token of his love, his confidence that we are strong enough to endure it and will remain true to him even when he has withdrawn the outward evidences of his care.
And how wonderful it is to experience the reality of his presence with us through days of pain. “I will never leave thee.” “When thou passeth through the waters I will be with thee.” Amy Carmichael has said, “Joy is given, sorrow is only lent.” Let it be our counsel to all we meet in the valley of suffering that they use this lent thing to draw them nearer to their Lord and to make them more tender toward others who will pass that way.
—WILLIAM FITCH, Minister, Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto, Canada.
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