Any pastor worth his salt (as the saying goes) must, at times, identify with the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was more than a preacher to God’s suffering people—he was a vicarious enactment of their plight, having to lay siege against Jerusalem (Chapter 4); eat “unclean” food; pack his bags for exile (Chapter 12), and lose his wife. Ezekiel suffered with God’s people. God told him from the beginning not only that he would be required to suffer with God’s people but that he would also need a head as hard as theirs in order to bear the suffering without seeing much of a reward. The people would mock him, scoff him, listen to him for the entertainment value, but not obey what he taught them. Ezekiel’s ministry was difficult indeed.
Pastors understand. Frequently suffering with God’s people, pastors surely understand what it is like to plead with folks to yield their full allegiance to a sovereign God—only to have those folks too often walk away toward a secular solution to a genuinely spiritual problem. That can be a tough assignment.
Lately, however, I have suffered an assignment that might be more difficult—suffering with God’s people who suffer well. OK, it isn’t more difficult. But pain is painful even when it is beautiful. Lately, I have experienced a kind of sweet agony as I have suffered with a people who portray the brightest ray of beauty from the clouds of pain.
For several weeks now, I have been preaching a series of sermons from Hebrews 12 on the discipline of the Lord. Basically, I have called us to trust God’s instructing love through suffering. God’s instructing love is His discipline. After first rejecting the suffering, we can be trained by God’s instructing love to learn something of the nature of God and thereby be humbled into what the Bible calls the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). The process must be something like the joy of a mother holding a new baby girl after suffering hours of labor.
So, here we are as a congregation suffering. Here I am as a pastor suffering. I am suffering with the weight of what I am preaching, knowing that in the congregation are mothers who have lost their daughters, fathers who have buried their babies, and a young man whose wedding party was crashed in the most inconceivably bad manner he could imagine.
I am also suffering my own setbacks, which on an agony scale don’t measure up to the loss of those who have buried children. Still, I am suffering a degree of agony, longing to know why I have 2 children in Africa who are being needlessly withheld from their home, their family, and their father who desperately wants them in his presence. How can I (a pastor) make sense of it all? I am so frustrated with the injustice of a bureaucracy which keeps my boys away from me.
I have some options available. My natural response is to fuel a deep-seated cynicism against my own government. Trust me when I say my Republican roots run deep! It would be easy to grow powerfully indignant against the current administration and buy into the fervor of adoption activism—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! But that isn’t my thing, not right now. For now, I am a shepherd of a suffering people who are listening and learning (by watching?) about God’s discipline.
I must receive the Lord’s discipline. So, what can I learn from my suffering, Lord? Surely, no good can come from the forces pulling my little boys from me and holding us an ocean apart against our wills. What is this situation saying about you, Father?
Perhaps you, Lord, are painting a picture of the church through my life (and the life of my boys). I am thinking of unexpectedly sober picture of the church presented in Revelation 6:9-11,
9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.
Here with the Lord are those who have run their race as faithful Christian soldiers. They have died as faithful witnesses, martyrs. Their concern is for justice—understandably so! They not only were killed unjustly on account of loving Christ, they are also now subjected to seeing others mistreated and even killed in the same unjust way. Like Abel’s, their blood cries out.
But what is God’s reply to them? It is wait. But it isn’t a simple wait to which God is calling His people. It is a specific wait. It is a redemptive wait. While the martyred saints are crying out for God’s justice, God is saying wait for my full mercy. They cry for justice because God’s mercy is taking too long.
What this means is that God is certainly as aware as they are of the injustices against His people. Heck, He is infinitely more aware of injustice than they could ever be! The reason He does not act in the face of such injustice is that He is more focused for now on accomplishing the fullness of redemption. “Be patient,” he tells His faithful. “I have more aliens and strangers yet to adopt into our family. As time welcomes them into history, I will be dispatching the Holy Spirit to give them eternity. In the meantime, while that is taking place for my children, other injustices will occur. Don’t worry. I am keeping track and will repay. Vengeance is mine. For now, trust me while I work through time to complete our family.”
We want justice while God is working redemption. To say it another way, the only reason God delays justice is so He can fully express His mercy toward His people. A God like that is worthy of our trust and our patient endurance.