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Introduction
Scene One: I’m in the kitchen on my knees, clinging to my wife, my arms wrapped tightly around her waist, pleading with her to hold me. My sense of desperation is tangible.

Scene Two: A few hours later, I’m lying face down on my bed with my forehead perched on my forearms, envisioning reading my resignation letter before the congregation on Sunday morning. My sense of shame is palpable.

These two scenes from nearly a decade ago sit in my memory like a houseguest you hope will get the hint that you’re ready for them to leave. But just as proper decorum requires you to entertain them until their departure, so likewise we must entertain (that is, give attention to) our wounds in order to wrestle meaning from them.

For what it’s worth, here’s the meaning I’ve been able to wrestle from a time when I was “sore-dismayed in mind,” to quote George MacDonald.

Prelude
To set the stage, you should know that one of my prayers as I embarked on ministry back in May of 2013 went something like this: Lord, don’t let me be a statistic. Let me make it through the first five years of ministry without quitting.

Notwithstanding my earnest and frequent pleas, by September 2014 I was ready to quit. A combination of unrelenting criticism, poor church attendance, and a significant budget deficit—to say nothing of adjusting to rural life in a small town, few friends, and a non-stop sparring match with my Imposter Syndrome—made me feel like an underwater swimmer trying to reach the surface to come up for air. I needed air. I needed God.

The morning following the two scenes described above, I did what I always do. I brewed my coffee and headed to where I feel most at home—my study.

My appointed reading for that day was Psalm 119. While I had read this lengthy passage countless times, on this occasion my eyes were fixated on verse 75:

I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

Illumination
Though I heard no audible voice, I clearly sensed that God was saying to me, “Joe, this is from me. I am doing this, and this is for your own good.” In his faithfulness, God was afflicting me.

But why, I wondered?

The heavens didn’t part with an answer. But since that time a handful of dead pastor-theologians have thrown me lifelines from their graves, and in turn have helped me make sense of a challenging season of life.

Diadochos of Photiki (400–486)
The first was Diadochos of Photiki—a fifth century Byzantine monk and theologian. He observed that God often takes his children through an “educative desolation.”[1] God brings us low to mature us. And maturity always hurts. But the hurt gets our attention, propelling us into self-reflection—a prerequisite for spiritual maturity. God had my attention.

Eugene Peterson (1932–2018)
Next, Eugene Peterson helped me see that my prayer life may have been to blame for this “educative desolation”:

“When we pray we have a more than average chance of ending up in a place that we quite definitely never wanted to be, angrily protesting, preferring death to the kind of life that God insists on recklessly throwing us into. . . . We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions. Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. . . . Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.”[2]

Prior to May 2013, I had been asking God to humble me. (Aren’t Christians supposed to pray for humility?) I had also been asking God to do with me as he pleased; to send me where he wanted to send me, and to use my life for his glory. But while I gave lip-service to wanting life on God’s conditions, once I realized what it entailed, I started having second thoughts. By that point, however, it was too late. My “educative desolation” was in full effect.

John Newton (1725–1807)
The third writer was John Newton. While reading his Letters in my study one morning, an audible yes! came rushing forth out of my mouth. Newton wrote to a young pastor:

“The Lord abhors pride and self-importance. The seeds of these evils are in the hearts of his own children; but rather than suffer that which he hates to remain in those he loves, he will in mercy pound them as in a mortar, to beat it out of them, or to prevent its growth.”[3]

I had no doubt about this. God was pounding me—in his mercy. He was beating pride and feelings of self-importance out of me.

Though I would not have verbalized it this way at the time, I know that in the subterranean parts of my heart I believed that God owed me a better life than the one I was living through. Putting my life on the line for God, I believed, warranted him giving me a growing church filled with people who loved, admired, and supported me.

I was wrong. I needed humbling.

The truth is that God calls all of his children (but especially pastors), to live with a broken will—a life marked by zero resistance to his call and direction.[4] But since no one signs up for this on their own, God often breaks our wills by breaking our hearts. Which is why Scott Hafeman was correct in saying, “A ‘pastor’s heart’ is a broken heart.”[5] Pastors can expect an extra measure of trials because they must excel others in humility, meekness, and self-denial.[6]

François Fénelon (1651–1715)
François Fénelon is the final author who helped me interpret my “educative desolation.” In a letter offering spiritual guidance to a friend, Fénelon urged:

“. . . you ought to give yourself up to his [God’s] just dealings, and accept his intention of nailing you to the cross in union with his beloved Son, Jesus.”[7]

Today we call this cruciformity—a term that captures the idea that the shape of our lives will mimic the shape of the cross. As theologian Michael Gorman notes, to be “in Christ” is to be a “living exegesis” of the drama of Christ’s life, where exaltation follows humiliation.[8] In order to know the power of Christ’s resurrection, we must first experience “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:11). If we want “the life of Jesus” to be “manifested in our bodies,” then we must always carry “in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10, 11). Hence, Paul’s conclusion: “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (v. 12).

Each “educative desolation” God brings into my life “must be interpreted as an opportunity to forsake self-reliance,” and “a reminder that there is nothing life-giving in this mortal body but only in Jesus risen from the dead.”[9]

Conclusion
If I had to choose a verse from Scripture to sum up that season of my life, I would pick Psalm 59:10:

“My God in his steadfast love will meet me.”

God showed up. God met me.

His Word connected to my life in a relevant way. His servants throughout history helped me understand what he was accomplishing in my life.

Let me ask you: What portion of Scripture has God used in your life in a significant way? How has God’s Word connected to your life recently? What authors have helped you make sense of the story God is telling with your life?

I’d love to hear your story.

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[1] Cited in John Starke, The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020), 87.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 44, emphasis mine.

[3] The Letters of John Newton (1986; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 377.

[4] For more on this topic, I recommend Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Brokenness: The Heart God Revives (Chicago: Moody, 2005).

[5] Scott Hafemann, “A Call to Pastoral Suffering: The Need for Recovering Paul’s Model of Ministry in 2 Corinthians,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4:2 (2000): 22–36. See esp. 32.

[6] Countless pastor-theologians have made this point throughout church history. See, e.g., St. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 77, 94; Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (1656; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 33; Charles Spurgeon, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” in Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), or read it online here.

[7] François Fénelon, “False and Real Humility,” in The Complete Fènelon, trans. and ed. Robert J. Edmonson, CJ, & Hal M. Helms (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2018), 10.

[8] Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), kindle (loc. 1057).

[9] William R. Edwards, “Participants in What We Proclaim: Recovering Paul’s Narrative of Pastoral Ministry,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 455–469. See esp. 463.