This article references 2nd Corinthians, the topic of our three-day live event 2nd Corinthians: Live with Prof. N.T. Wright, beginning August 3.
‘I’m just overwhelmed. I’m mad, frustrated, tired, and I feel betrayed’.
Sound familiar? I heard this recently from a close friend. But, truthfully, those words could have come from any Christian leader during the time of COVID-19. I do not think my friend is alone. In fact, in full self-disclosure, I recently had a conversation with another friend and the topic of ‘gratitude lists’ came up. I told her I was just not able (willing?) to enumerate thankfulness that day, because I was not yet ready to give up being angry about something.
There is a voice in my head that tells me, ‘Jennifer, it’s just not very Christian to think angry or anxious thoughts’. The voice goes on to tell me all of the things I should be thinking and feeling, which resemble lists of alternatives from Philippians 4:8.
One of the issues I experience as a trauma survivor is that I can be inclined towards catastrophizing life. This often happens when I realize (admit?) I have no control over situations, including people, places, or politics, or feel powerless over injustice, frustrated by conflict, or intimidated by things that trigger my insecurities.
As I have been studying the Apostle Paul’s passionate second letter to the church in Corinth, I have observed how Paul expressed some of his own painful emotions regarding the hardships and challenges of being a minister of the Gospel. In the case of the Corinthian church, suspicion and innuendo had set in and Paul’s authority as an apostle was being questioned.
What does Paul teach us about handling personal struggles in pastoral ministry, navigating accusations, and addressing complex issues from a distance?What does Paul teach us about handling personal struggles in pastoral ministry, navigating accusations, and addressing complex issues from a distance? Click To Tweet
Paul shares openly and boldly about his own depths of suffering.
As a former leader (and current participant) in Celebrate Recovery (CR), one of the things that resonates with me in 2 Corinthians is Paul’s openness and boldness in sharing about his pain. Writing from a distance, his first pen strokes are blunt: I don’t want to keep you in the dark about the suffering we went through in Asia: it was akin to ‘receiving the death sentence (1:8-9).
Paul is so vulnerable that I wonder if his first hearers fidgeted during the reading of his letter, as the depths of his despair were put on public display. While it is normative in my experience in the group, Celebrate Recovery, to share our hurts, habits, and hang-ups, perhaps some of the Corinthians had to resist the urge to hide their faces in their hands at the pain and the shame of it all.
In Corinth, many were beginning to question Paul’s qualifications as an apostle, precisely because his suffering seemed so antithetical to their expectations of apostleship. Yet, Paul tells it like it is when it comes to what he’s gone through in his ministry: so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (1.8).
Prof. N.T. Wright teaches that Paul likely returned to Ephesus after a painful visit to Corinth. Everything had gone horribly wrong. We are not sure exactly what happened, but he likely ended up in prison once or twice. Paul found himself carrying a load which was far too heavy. And now, people doubted his apostleship and he broke down. With what we know today, it is possible he was suffering with an aspect of clinical depression and believing and feeling that he had been utterly crushed by it all with no way back. It was just as he had written, a time when he despaired even of life (1.8).
So, how might a minister of the Gospel handle these painful issues related to misunderstandings or accusations? Somehow, we need to get closer to people, even if we are still physically distanced.
Paul invited them to help by joining in the bond of prayer in ministry.
Paul assures both himself and the Corinthians that this is all very normal; your role is to help by praying. This pastoral bond becomes ‘triangulated’, with prayers going up to God, and, in ways we do not fully understand, these prayers had their effects on Paul and the believers in Corinth. Thus, prayer becomes the vital link between the various members of the congregation and their pastors and leaders. Additionally, over time, the ‘triangulation’ repositions the conflict or issue so that the pastor and the congregation are united together in prayer against the issue, instead of disunited against each other.
The dynamic changes from:
- The congregation versus the pastor and the issue
- The congregation and the pastor versus the issue
Out of his great darkness, Paul acknowledges his own suffering, and, at the same time, affirms that they are in this together. What is going on with Paul and what is going on with the Corinthians are bound up together. And, they together must hold fast to each other in prayer, as they are all joined to the Messiah, and thereby, to God. By his transparency, Paul affirms that the depth of this relationship may involve sharing in his suffering and pain, which is part and parcel of church life together. Prof. Wright observes, ‘Everything that happens to Paul is somehow organically related to what is going on in the church’.
The key is in the ‘prayers of many’ (v 11). The Church must not underestimate the ways in which we can refresh our pastors and leaders and each other through our repentance and our own ‘godly sincerity’ (1.12). Knowing how or what to pray requires knowing how or what individuals are experiencing. It takes commitment to persons, and one’s own personal investment to develop empathy—the capacity to see things from another’s point of view.
So, how might we cultivate empathy that bridges various sorts of divides in the Church when we, like Paul, are going through one of the darkest experiences of our lives?
Paul relies on his diverse peers and partners in ministry.
It seems Paul knew deep in his bones that he must rely on the presence of diverse peers in his Gospel ministry. He writes,
When we arrived in Macedonia we couldn’t relax or rest. We were troubled in every way; there were battles outside and fears inside. But the God who comforts the downcast comforted us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his arrival, but also in the comfort he had received from you, as he told us about your longing for us, your lamenting, and your enthusiasm for me personally (7:5-7, Kingdom New Testament)
Often, when cannot be present—physically or even prayerfully—we can reach out to others and rely on God to empower them to work in the situation. I have found it can be especially helpful to have a diverse team of peers and partners—others who are ethnically, generationally, culturally different—because they see things in ways I do not and catch things I miss. In Paul’s case, it was Titus, a Gentile, through whom God brought the Corinthians’ sorrowful lament leading to their reconciliation and Paul’s comfort.
And, it would continue, as Paul writes, ‘So we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well (8.6).
In an article in Outreach Magazine on Building Bridges, Dr. Bryan Loritts writes about the challenges and benefits of a diverse, reconciled church that builds a more faithful future. Here and elsewhere he has said, ‘Proximity breeds empathy. Distance breeds suspicion’.Proximity breeds empathy. Distance breeds suspicion Click To Tweet
It seems to me that ‘distance breeding suspicion’ was happening in Corinth. Paul’s absence and his resume of hardships, coupled with the challenge of false teachers, was fertile ground for false accusation and distrust. Yet, Paul affirms that the true sign of his apostleship is precisely his suffering. He is not caught up in his status or his position, nor does he believe he needs to shoulder the burden alone. He understands that the ‘credentials’ that qualify him and his Gospel ministry are precisely the criteria of ‘weakness’ about which he will boast. Paul acknowledges and affirms we must become comfortable with, and develop acceptance of, our weaknesses through which Christ makes us strong (12:9-10).
Paul’s vision of apostleship all linked to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Therefore, the standard by which he measures himself is based on what Prof. N.T. Write has called, ‘Paul’s theology of weakness’:
Weakness and God’s Strength
The human weakness which reflects the death of Jesus and embodies that death through which God’s victories are won, and by which God’s strength goes to work.
A theology of ‘weakness’ also affirms the power of sharing our stories of suffering. In an article entitled, ‘The Power of Story’, Colum McCann reveals how storytelling has brought peace between individuals in modern-day Palestine: ‘Bassam and Rami had become the best of friends in a region where their birthright meant they were to be enemies.’
This can happen for us too when the power of God’s passion narrative intersects with our own local and personal stories in concrete interaction with those from whom we are divided.
So, how do we make this practical? We might start by praying for eyes to see and ears to hear about the situations and experiences of others, in their own words, and then resist the urge to cajole, correct, or condemn. We can begin to bridge the gap that divides as we build our knowledge and our empathy—the emotional quotient that asks, ‘tell-me-what-it’s-like-to-be-you’.
What we learn from Paul’s transparency as a man and an apostle ‘pastoring from a distance’, is that sorting out accusations and misunderstandings may involve sharing honestly about our experience of these difficulties. It involves corporate prayer. It involves a diverse team of people leading from a theology of weakness.
Prof. Wright teaches,
This is something Paul probably always believed in principle. But the terrifying experience he described in chapter one brought it home experientially. The way in which the Kingdom of God works is not by people sailing into town, preaching and then everyone is converted, and you now have a perfect society. It works through the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ type of people—people who normally don’t get noticed. What you need are people who are content for the Messiah’s sake to be shaped by the cross, and to discover when they are weak, they are strong.
May we prayerfully find opportunities to validate and encourage our brothers and sisters in personal places of human weakness by taking specific steps where God’s strength may be put on display.