Once, lumberjacks learned to break up logjams by walking out on floating, rolling logs with long pikes. Then logrolling became a two-person sport with the goal of dumping one’s opponent in the water through fancy footwork. It seems like an apt metaphor for the precarious work of keeping our balance in ministry; indeed in all of life. The unsettling news is that, sooner or later, the person on the other end of your log is God.
When I was young we’d sing, “Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.” Well, yes and no. Sometimes God’s assignment for us is defeat. Just ask Jacob, limping off into the sunrise. Or Paul with that stubborn thorn. Or Jesus drinking the bitter dregs of crucifixion.
Years ago my wife was stricken with panic attacks. She’d suddenly freeze in fear without knowing what frightened her. Mild anxiety could burst into terrifying alarm. She’d awaken at night too petrified to alert me. She wouldn’t drive more than a couple of miles lest she be unable to get home. Of course, we did everything we could to figure out the cause. We prayed and had others pray. She searched her heart and history. We stood against Satan. But nothing helped. The paralyzing ambushes continued for months.
Then one day I asked her, “What if these attacks aren’t because something is wrong? What if this is like Job’s experience: ‘Have you considered my servant Susan?’” So we changed our prayers: “Lord, we are going to assume that there is nothing wrong on our side. We’re going to assume that rather than some weakness or failure on Susan’s part you have chosen her to display her faithfulness to you, just as you did with Job.” After that, she bore the attacks with the resolve of a soldier on the front lines rather than someone with undiagnosed suffering or undiscovered sin. Eventually, the attacks ended.
Part of following Christ and part of pastoring is God-given defeat. There you are, running madly on that spinning log, when God puts his foot down in a hard stop and next thing you know, you’re underwater. African-American preachers had a great admonition for prodigals, “Son, your arm’s too short to box with God.” It’s also fitting for faithful servants.
When God throws us into deep water we are being watched. Apparently our faithfulness under fire bears witness to unseen enemies and friends, in heaven as it is on earth. Proving that we are not God’s fair-weather friends matters.
Over the years I have seen many pastoral friends suffer dreadful blows and long ordeals. Their flocks have watched, too. So have those unseen witnesses in heavenly realms. Our congregations don’t necessarily need to see us triumph, riding through trouble with a high hand. It is enough to see their bowed and bleeding brother or sister still whisper, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.”
Martyrs do not all die suddenly with a gunshot or slashing sword. Most dying for Jesus happens slowly, witnessing as we go. Then, like the sign of Jonah, we emerge from the watery depths resurrected. In the upside-down way of God’s kingdom, he defeats us in order to accomplish the very thing we signed on for—to glorify Christ and to shepherd the flock of God safely home.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Pet. 5:10)
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.