Chapter 21

Preaching Through Personal Pain

If you have a crisis, should your sermons discuss it?

"Two days ago my daughter Laura died."

So opened the most difficult sermon I have ever had to preach. In that message, titled "God on the Witness Stand," I put myself in the place of Job, who, when assaulted by horrible personal tragedy, declared, "But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God."

That morning I preached a dialogue between myself as the prosecutor and God as the defendant. For nine months I had helplessly watched my 3-year-old lose her physical and mental abilities to a malignant brain tumor, and I had a strong case against God.

Friends questioned the wisdom of my decision to preach so soon after my daughter's death. Could I withstand it? Could the congregation handle the emotional impact?

But if I did not use my personal life as the basis for preaching during this time of crisis, would I have either an audience or a message for someone else's time of pain?

Exegeting our experience

Those who caution against becoming too personal in preaching raise necessary questions. Does a preacher have the right to carry his or her own confusion and pain into the pulpit? Doesn't such transparency focus more upon the preacher than the Lord? Does not personal exposure in preaching turn the pulpit into a soap opera and denigrate the ministry of proclamation into self-aggrandizement? Certainly discretion must be employed in what the preacher says about personal matters from the pulpit. However, in response to these cautions, a counter question must be asked: Shouldn't a human preacher be human in preaching?

That sermon preached two days after my daughter's death was one of many messages composed at my daughter's bedside in the hospital and her deathbed in our home. Those sermons constituted a collection of feelings and convictions as intimate as private prayers. I must confess that little biblical exegesis went into them. My own life became my primary source. My prayers and reflections became my commentaries.

As I preached in the midst of my pain, I was unaware of particular features of my sermons that later proved healing and directive for my congregation. Looking back, however, I can identify four characteristics of preaching that should be present whenever I attempt to preach through pain.

Vulnerability: admitting the pain

Vulnerability heads the list. While this has become an overworked word in the jargon of pastoral ministry, it has no suitable substitute. Openly expressing sorrow in the pulpit does not constitute professional sin for preachers. On several occasions, I couldn't keep back the tears. Controlling my pained emotions proved no problem when I stared at myself in the mirror. But somehow my control dissipated as I stood in the pulpit looking out at faces visibly suffering with me. It was painful for my congregation to see me cry, yet it was tremendously healing for them and for me. One member whose earlier years had been clouded by drug abuse confided in me, "Your tears helped free me to face some painful things in my life that I've tried to hide behind a fake wall of strength."

The greatest resource in preaching through my own pain was the Old Testament Prophets and Wisdom Literature. I mined those writings thoroughly, for I found therein faith's best reflections upon the injustices of life, placed beside the reality of God and the futility of attempting to categorize and control him.

Arthur Gossip, a Scottish preacher from the early 1900s, lost his wife suddenly. Upon his return to the pulpit following her death, he preached "When Life Tumbles In, What Then?" In that message, Gossip announced that he did not understand this life of ours. But still less could he understand how people facing loss could abandon the Christian faith. "Abandon it for what!" he exclaimed. Speaking from the darkest storm of his life, he concluded, "You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else."

Honesty: equal access for anger

A second necessary characteristic of preaching in the midst of personal pain is honesty. Honesty holds vulnerability accountable, adding the following caution: We must not talk about our struggles from the pulpit unless the thoughts and feelings expressed truly belong to us. If hope and strength characterize our emotions, let that be known. However, if hope and strength have abandoned us, then in the pulpit we must not pretend to possess them. People will see through our veneer and therefore doubt our integrity.

As grief must be given access to the pulpit, so also must anger and doubt. Here I balked. I had often used the sovereignty of God as an excuse for allowing life's loose ends to remain untied. Now, when I spoke of hope, I found I was ignoring my own strongly felt doubts. Unwilling to face honestly my inner anger toward God, I bailed out when opportunities arose to address my indignation in the pulpit. In the year following my daughter's death, I put together a book that was my "pulpit journal" during those nine months surrounding my family's travail. A counselor friend offered this comment after reading it: "While I appreciated the insights you shared, I think you let God off the witness stand too soon. Your anger was not allowed to present fully its case against God."

In retrospect, I believe I was too polite with God. I've become convinced of two things in this regard. First, God can handle anger, even a preacher's. Second, a congregation needs to hear how the preacher deals with those angry feelings we all have toward God in times of tragedy. When crisis strikes, anger toward God is one of the truly honest emotions we feel. Describing how we as pastors feel in such situations validates the emotion for others and also provides a model of how to deal with it.

Though the expression of my anger was masked in my preaching, a few people discerned it. They told me that the inflamed questions I fired at God in the sermon immediately following Laura's death provided them some emotional liberation.

One mother, who read that sermon nearly two years after I preached it, wrote expressing her gratitude. She said I had given her an invitation to face the anger she still carried over the loss of her son three years earlier. The gist of her discovery was that if a minister could get mad at God, it must be all right for her to do the same. That helped her begin to work through her anger.

Hope: looking at the moment and beyond

A third element in preaching through personal pain is hope. Hope stands as the supreme gift a preacher can offer a congregation while speaking from the shadowy valleys. In its simplest form, God's redemptive hope means that good can come out of bad.

In another sermon following my daughter's death, I looked at the lives of Joseph and Paul. Joseph told his brothers, "What you meant for evil. God meant for good." Despite the pain of his thorn in the flesh, Paul heard God say, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

At Laura's birth I witnessed the serenity of her being placed in her mother's warm arms. At her burial I witnessed the severity of her being placed in the cold arms of the grave. In reflecting on my experience and that of Joseph and Paul, I concluded a message about holding onto hope by saying, "Our faith is built upon a severe mercy—an innocent man being executed on a cross. What person, at the time, thought the death of Jesus was anything but a senseless and severe tragedy? Who now would see it as anything but the mercy of God at work on our behalf? When so many strugglers would seek God's mercy only to deliver them from the severe events, we would do well to seek God's mercy to teach us through the severe events. These latter works of God, the severe mercies, become the lasting ones."

Near the time of Laura's death, a friend showed me some verse from Emily Dickinson that helped me and my congregation look at the moment and beyond:

I shall know why—when Time is over—
And I have ceased to wonder why—
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky.
Patience: The grace of unanswered questions

The fourth trait needed is patience. Impatience enticed me to seek a quick and easy explanation for the suffering that befell my family. My greatest temptation in the pulpit is to view my call to preach as a command to offer definitive explanations. I feel far more comfortable concluding a sermon with an inspired call to arms than with an unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question. Personal tragedy has taught me the answer to human suffering is not to be found immediately—if it is to be found at all.

When a parent is confronted with the diagnosis of cancer in his child, the inevitable question "Why?" demands a hearing. How could I reconcile my 3-year-old's cancer with an all-powerful, all-loving God who, I believed, ruled this world? In one sermon I addressed the why of evil and the goodness of God by setting forth the classic and contemporary attempts to resolve the conflict. People of faith who encounter a tragic injustice gravitate to one of the following options:

  • dualism, with its universe governed by co-equal good gods and bad gods
  • demotion, in which only one God exists but is seen as limited, mighty but not almighty, and doing the best he can in the face of evil
  • denial, as in religions like Christian Science that deny the harsh realities of illness, death, and evil
  • despair, which gives up on God when he fails to live up to naive and magical expectations of him or
  • self-damnation, with its guilt-laden question, "Is God punishing me?"

A final option exists, however, which I believe is the only choice consistent with revelation and reality. The simultaneous existence of God and evil is an unsolvable dilemma. Job, Habakkuk, and countless others immersed in personal pain and confusion have attempted to use theology to control the situation, but in the end, our human explanations all come up empty-handed. However, there is a grace in the unanswerable why, for it leads us to the very heart of faith, which is patient trust in God.

I recall a conversation I had with a man several weeks after the sermon in which I "prosecuted" God. This was a compassionate person whose heart had been deeply pierced by Laura's death, and he also wanted answers to the why of her suffering. He reviewed a portion of that sermon in which I accused God of willfully refusing to heal my daughter. Then he confessed, "I have struggled with faith all my life. My conflict with God intensified with Laura's illness. But now I keep thinking back on what you said about us wanting God's absolute control and life's absolute freedom. I never thought of it that way before. We want two things from God that by their nature cannot exist together. I'm beginning to see that to have faith does not mean to have all the answers. Faith is holding on to God in spite of the confusion."

What greater gift can a preacher give a congregation than the picture of trust in the Lord even though grief and confusion remain?

Knowing our limitations—and theirs

Having explained some qualities needed when preaching through pain, I must offer a word of caution about when not to bring crises into the pulpit. During the three months prior to Laura's death, as her condition rapidly deteriorated, I was unable to make reference to her from the pulpit. At other stages of her illness, tears were somewhat under my control. At this stage, however, my emotions were so strained I feared I might not be able to regain composure if tears began to flow. I knew my congregation would have welcomed my reflections on Laura's status, but when the pain is too fresh or intense, wisdom advises avoiding references to our personal plight.

Another occasion when not to preach occurs after the crisis has passed. I failed to realize that my congregation's grief over my daughter's death did not linger as long as mine. Having conducted countless funerals and having been involved with the grief of many families, I was quite aware of the degrees of grief different people experience. However, when the deceased was my daughter, I somehow thought the rules would change. Surely others would have the same intensity and duration of feeling I carried! Such was not the case.

Following a sermon I preached long after my loss, one church member politely said to my wife, "I think Dan has talked about Laura from the pulpit too long after her death."

When I first heard this, I felt the person was being unfair to my feelings. However, I now realize my prolonged airing of my grief was unfair to my congregation's feelings. Had the Preacher in Ecclesiastes envisioned the theme of this article, he would have added this line to his description of life's cycles: There is a time to preach through our pain, and a time to preach beyond it.

I preached in such a manner on Memorial Day weekend nearly two years after Laura's death. Addressing the necessity of the grieving process after any major loss, I read a note I had received from a young mother. She had lost one child at birth and had a second child who had the same kind of tumor that took Laura. This mother enclosed the following prayer, which serves as a good reminder when we have to preach through our own pain: "Dear God, teach us to laugh again, but never let us forget that we have cried."