Shepherding & Suffering

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For the best several years I have been privileged to participate in The Grace Advance Mid Atlantic (GAMA) equipping conference.  The theme of this year’s conference was a biblical view of suffering (you can listen to some conference audio here with more to come in the near future) and I was blessed to give a seminar on shepherding someone in the midst of suffering.

Unfortunately this is something I know a lot about. My wife suffers profoundly from an MS-like demyelinating disease of the brain. She has significant gait problems, diplopia, bouts of optic neuritis among other symptom, but the most impactful symptom is chronic extreme neurogenic pain. I don’t just have a doctrinal understanding of the issue, I have an experiential one; I wish I didn’t.

Everyone suffers. It takes different forms and occurs in many different ways, but it is a fact of life. If you are a believer, whether you are a parent, or the child of elderly parents, or have an ill loved one, or you lead a relatively trouble free life, you will need to minister to someone who is suffering at some point. And I want to share the material from this seminar. I hope it is a blessing to you.

Key Text Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Romans 12:15 further develops the command of Romans 12:9 to “Let love be genuine.” Shepherding in any circumstance starts with love.  Genuine love.  Care or even teaching without love may be beneficial or even a blessing but it is not shepherding.

Agape – to have love for someone or something based on sincere appreciation and high regard.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:34-35

Care or teaching devoid of love is what the world does, it is not Christian and it is not shepherding.  Romans 12:15 is a command to tender empathy. 

Biblical love has an astringent ruggedness about it, mixed the tenderness of the deepest commitment of the will to the object of divine grace. It is holy love, free distinguishing and gracious[1]. – S. Lewis Johnson (on Romans 12:15)

  Love devoid of empathy is not genuine Christian love.

The example of Christ

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.  And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” – John 11:32-36

Jesus who loved perfectly was moved to tears not by the circumstances, but by empathy for the people he loved who were pained by those circumstance.  Even though He was about to “solve the problem” Jesus was moved to tears when He saw the distress of Mary (and others).  To be Christlike it to be empathetic! 

Synthesis: To shepherd someone with Christlike love is not a matter of fixing the problem or “doing things” at it’s root is empathy.  The essence of shepherding is not bringing the trial to an end but of going through the trial together. 

A Biblical Perspective on Suffering

Suffering is part of the human experience and condition, yet so often we bristle against it.  We somehow are surprised when suffering comes upon us or our loved ones, but that is a basic failure to understand what the bible says about suffering.

One of the most common questions/complaints is why does God cause or allow suffering. 

All suffering is a result of Sin, Adam’s sin:

 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which 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.” ~ Genesis 3:17-18

Because of Adam’s sin all of creation was subjected to futility and suffering.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. ~ Romans 8:22

Christians are not exempt from pain, suffering or the effects of the fall. In fact they should expect it

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. ~ 1 Peter 4:12

Synthesis: Suffering is a universal experience.  Pain is part of the curse, and will attend all of the days of the lives of men (and Women).  Christians are not exempt from that suffering.  Anyone who claims that the Christian life should be pain and suffering free is ignoring the plain teaching of the bible.

Theological Underpinnings of Shepherding in Suffering

Exalt God’s Sovereignty

The first thing we have to do in order to trust God is to determine if God is in control, if He is sovereign over the physical area of our lives.  If He is not – If illness and afflictions “just happen” then of course there is no basis for trusting God.  But if God is sovereign in this area, then we can trust Him without understanding all of the theological issues involved in the problem of pain[2]. – Jerry Bridges  

The greatest engine of misery in a physical trial, a trial of illness or pain, is uncertainty.  While you can’t know the future, you can know who is in control of the future.

Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? – Exodus 4:11

See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no God beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal. – Deuteronomy 32:39

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.  And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. – John 9:1-3

God is unequivocally sovereign over all physical matters, including suffering.  Furthermore He is not capricious, He has a purpose in sovereignly declaring suffering.  And while we may not know with specificity what His purpose is, we can know how suffering is used in the life of a believer.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5

Exalt God’s Goodness

God is not only in control of all things, He is entirely and perfectly good.  His sovereignty flows out of and is entirely consistent with His character.  And His character in no way changes according to our perception of our own circumstances.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:16-17

The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. – Psalm 145:9

Good and upright is the Lord. – Psalm 25:8a

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. – Mark 10:18

You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. – Psalm 119:68

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!  Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! – Psalm 34:8

It is not just that God is sovereign, it is that He is sovereign and He is good.  His sovereignty is not separate from His Goodness.

Exalt the Sufficiency of God’s Grace

Knowing that God is sovereign and good is encouraging.  Knowing that His grace is sufficient in all circumstances is key.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. –     2 Corinthians 12:8-10

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 (Note: Temptation translates the Greek word peirasmos translated as trial elsewhere; eg Jms 1:2, 1 Pt 1:6)

Exalt God’s Mercy

Sometimes someone who is suffering can fall into thinking they deserve the suffering. They are right, in fact they deserve much worse, we all do.

One great hinderance (to turning to God for comfort) is our sense of demerit – how very unworthy we are of comfort at all…About that unworthiness there cannot be the shadow of a doubt.[3] – P.B. Power

But all of the recompence for our sins was poured out on Christ on the cross.  In no way is any present suffering punishment for sin.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1

Believers are not objects of wrath or justice but of mercy, and God is a God of Mercy.

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. – Psalm 86:15

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. – Hebrews 2:18-18

Synthesis: God is sovereign, good, merciful and His grace is sufficient, and these attributes are inseparable.  It is not that we trust and rely on and rest in God’s sovereignty, goodness, mercy or grace, we rest in Him and all that He is.

Practical Shepherding

Prayer

Prayer is the cornerstone of shepherding.  Praying together is where leading in thinking theologically is most effective.  It is far better to teach theology by praying it.  Good theology is more best communicated as it as it is applied in prayer.

  1. In prayer praise God for who He is.
  2. Express thankfulness and contentment for the good material things that God gives you.
  3. Express supreme thankfulness for the gift of salvation.
  4. Confess the sufficiency of God’s grace and that His mercy is new every day.
  5. Pray for healing, focusing on God as the healer not the means of healing.

Love

Do not mistake service for love.  There can be a tendency in theologically conservative circles to make the leap from love not being simply emotion to love being expressed solely in terms of action, but that is simply not true.  Love is emotion + action, and sometimes tips one way or the other.  There are times when the person you are shepherding/serving benefits more from communication and display of affection than of service.  There are times when it is more of a blessing to sit quietly with someone than to load their dishwasher or cook a meal.

Remind

Every believer plays a vital role in the body of Christ, and that is a truth that people suffering need to be reminded of (see Eph 4:15-16).  P.B. Power, himself profoundly ill observed “there are few more distressing feelings than that of thinking ourselves useless[4].”

  1. When someone tells you in a specific way that the suffering person has blessed them, make sure to pass that along.
  2. When someone tells you a specific reason they missed seeing the suffering person at church or an event, make sure to pass it along.
  3. If the suffering person expresses a desire to serve you, let them, and tell them, how they blessed you.

[1] Discovering Romans S. Lewis Johnson (adapted M. Abendroth). P 200.

[2] Trusting God (Even When Life Hurts) Jerry Bridges. P.106

[3] A Book of Comfort for Those in Sickness. P.B. Power. pp 9-10.

[4] Power p. 35.

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.