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The Pain of Preaching on Pain

Helping our hearers see the life-changing, perspective-altering truths in God's Word.
The Pain of Preaching on Pain

At times we may look at the puzzling question of how pain and suffering can coexist with a good and loving God, like a student trying to figure out his calculus homework. But for the suffering Christians who assemble to hear us preach on the topic, the puzzle is not academic—it's personal, poignant, and emotional. We are not homework tutors or classroom professors, we must prove to be sympathetic counselors and skilled undershepherds who compassionately lead Christ's sheep through their dark, shadowy, and painful valleys.

Our ultimate help when we exposit God's Word on suffering is not to commiserate, but to instruct and inform.

If that image isn't challenging enough, we must consider that the act of preaching is not a one-on-one counseling appointment. If only it were, then perhaps we could deftly respond to the particular hurts and disappointments of the individual before us. But we preachers are called to stand and speak before a varied and diverse group of people. Some are hurting emotionally, some physically, some financially. Some are suffering through the depths of a dark valley unlike any they have ever experienced, while the people seated next to them may be joyfully ascending the sunny mountain top of their recent spiritual victories. This makes preaching to the hurting a particular challenge.

Recall the promise of pain

It may be true that not all of your congregants are suffering at the same time or in the same way, but it is guaranteed that they will all suffer. So when your preaching portion for the week brings you to a passage on pain and suffering you can be sure that some are in desperate need of that particular text, while others will need it soon enough. I've often reminded my congregation from the outset of a sermon on pain or persecution that if the sermon doesn't seem all that germane to what they are encountering this week, not to worry—it may be one of the most needed sermons they've ever heard by the end of next week.

God certainly has not promised his people an exemption from pain. On the contrary, he has repeatedly promised it to us. Any honest analysis of the experience of Christians through the years should promptly affirm the fulfillment of those promises. Consider the overarching forecast God delivered to Adam and his descendants way back in Genesis 3.

And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:17-19).

Not only is the "stuff" of which Adam and his progeny are made subject to "thorns and thistles," which manifest themselves in our bodies as tumors, viruses, and cancer, but consider that the guaranteed outlook for human beings (barring the return of Christ) is that we will all perish. Now there's a promise most Christians don't want to claim—sickness, diseases, and death! As others have rightly pointed out, when these things happen to Christians, or any other human beings, we should not wonder why God allows such things, we should, if possible, elevate our respect for a God who is faithfully at work keeping his promises. So then, God's faithfulness will ensure that when we preach to a segment of the human race each week there will be those who are suffering—eventually every last one of them.

But far more than the common ills that plague every human being, we as Christians were forewarned that we are particularly sought out to be the target of a mob of spiritual evildoers. Consider the following warning, and as you do remember how Satan worked to carry out his agenda against Job in the Old Testament.

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).

Add to this, the way our enemy rallies against us as he works through and "in the sons of disobedience" (Eph.2:2; 6:12):

"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:18-20a)
You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name's sake. (Luke 21:16-17)

through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22b)
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)

So many passages could be added to this list, but these should be sufficient to remind us that preaching on suffering, pain, and persecution will always be relevant to our congregants.

Take notes in your valleys

Effective preaching that truly helps the hurting will come from a preacher who has had their pastoral skills honed in the midst of their own trials. I am confident that the providential pain in my own life has enhanced the effectiveness of my exposition of those passages of Scripture divinely provided for the comfort of God's people. My most challenging "seminary of suffering" began when we were expecting our third child and I took my wife to a routine ultrasound. With two rambunctious little boys at home, my wife and I had selfishly prayed that this child would be a girl. But like so many other expectant parents, our prayers always ended with the admission that it really didn't matter—boy or girl, we just wanted a healthy baby. Little did we know when we walked in, that our appointment would go from the technician's gleeful announcement: "Yes, it's a girl!" to a sobering exhortation from the doctor: "You really should abort this fetus!"

That dark day fourteen years ago, when our pre-born daughter was diagnosed with a set of serious brain and spinal abnormalities, would lead us down a difficult and tearful path of "special needs," which cast a set of long and dark shadows on our Christian life. That was the entrance to a valley wherein God's Word and God's people were the essential tools the Lord used to give us the perspective and the comfort we so desperately needed. Joy would again dawn in our lives, and numerous hurts were comforted and fears were relieved, even though many lasting effects of my daughter's disabilities would remain. (I tell much more of this story and many of lessons we can all learn in the "seminary" of our pain in the book Lifelines for Tough Times, Harvest House Publishers, 2014).

It is impossible for me to preach on pain and suffering without drawing from the masterful and effective way our God ministered to me and my family during this time, through the truth of the Scriptures and the encouragement of his church. It is also invaluable when I preach on suffering to recall those short-sighted perspectives, the trite platitudes, flippant prayers, and off-handed comments that may have been sincerely offered, but proved to be discouraging, frustrating, and counterproductive. This, of course, is what the Apostle Paul was testifying to as he recalled his own journey through one of his many trials in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11.

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. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:3-11).

You're more than a fellow sufferer

It is essential for our preaching on suffering to be done with empathy, especially as we draw from our own experiences with pain and loss, but as preachers we must be much more than fellow-sufferers. God has called us to wield the word of God in order to bring surgical help and healing. We come into the pulpit before fellow-sufferers offering divinely powerful answers and a reorienting perspective. These should not be dispassionately offered or uncaringly preached, but they must be definitively presented. Our ultimate help when we exposit God's Word on suffering is not to commiserate, but to instruct and inform.

Think back to when the people of Israel were lamenting the loss of their comrades after their defeat at Ai, God said, "Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?" (Josh.7:10). Well, the answer would seem obvious—they were clearly in emotional pain. It seemed it was time to grieve. But the Lord revealed that this kind of pain was the pain of discipline. It was, instead, time for them to deal with their sin and make things right—starting with the confrontation of Achan's family. When Elijah slumped under a broom tree in Beersheba, mourning the state of his life and the evil aggression of Queen Jezebel, a divine messenger was dispatched to tell the prophet it was time to get something to eat and get back to advancing God's agenda in the nation. When Jonah was hating life and wishing he were dead because of God's "inconceivably" gracious dealings with Israel's enemies, God personally stitched together a living illustration to teach him something of his sovereign plan and merciful nature. It was time for Jonah to learn to accept the unsettling and painful realities that had been decreed as a part of God's merciful plan to Israel's enemies. When David continued to bitterly grieve the untimely death of his wayward son Absalom, God sent Joab to bring him a needed perspective about the compounding negative effects of his protracted mourning, and his mounting dereliction toward the living who depended on his leadership.

Yes, our congregants need our sympathetic hearts when they are hurting, but they also need the life-changing, perspective-altering truths we are commissioned by God to dispense. So let us work to become increasingly proficient in identifying and following the patterns of how the biblical text addresses the various kinds of human suffering. Let us enter our pulpits as compassionate pastors who are also informed teachers, well-versed in the divine principles of Scripture that inform, correct, and comfort the embattled people of God.

Mike Fabarez is the founding pastor of Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, California. Pastor Mike is heard on hundreds of stations on the Focal Point radio program and has authored several books, including Preaching That Changes Lives, Lifelines for Tough Times, and Praying for Sunday.

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