Summary: Suffering is a common human experience. But it doesn’t have to stop us ministering for God. In fact God can use our experience of suffering to help others by the way we offer them the support that we have received from God.
This week I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on depression by Arch Hart, who’s Professor of Psychology at Fuller Seminary in the US. One of the interesting things he said was a piece of advice he gives to ministers. He says never take your day off on a Monday if you can possibly help it. Why? Because that’s the day you’re most likely to be depressed and instead of being revived by a day off you’ll just waste it. And I can understand what he means. Imagine you’re the pastor of a church that’s wracked by divisions; where people are arguing over theology and how to apply it to their daily lives; where some of the congregation are involved in immoral behaviour and are even boasting about how sophisticated they are and the rest of the congregation just turn a blind eye; where every time you preach someone will complain that it was too long, or too simplistic or too complicated; where they point out that the other preachers are obviously far more gifted than you are; where they object to anything new. Monday would be a pretty depressing time wouldn’t it?
Now, I hope you realise I’m not talking about my experience here at St Theo’s. I’m actually thinking about Paul’s experience at Corinth, because that’s the sort of Church he had to deal with there. If you read his first letter to the Corinthians, you’ll get an idea of the issues they faced. They were a very gifted Church but they’d allowed all sorts of problems to grow up in their midst.
Now their theological and moral problems are largely dealt with in the first letter, but there was still one major issue confronting them. It wasn’t theological so much as sociological or cultural. They had a problem with their understanding of the nature of Christian leadership. Their background, of course, was the first Century Greco-Roman world where leadership was about strength of personality, being forceful, a great orator. Theirs was the cult of the hero, of Hercules and Zeus. In the first letter we read about the objections that were raised about Paul’s leadership, the way people compared him to Apollos, apparently a great orator, or Peter, whose strong personality comes out so clearly in the gospels. But Paul wants to draw them away from these models that derive from secular culture to a more Biblical understanding.
Now before we go any further let me suggest that the situation he addresses in 2 Corinthians is in fact not much different from our own. Think about it: what’s your image of the ideal leader? Whether it’s a politician or the captain of a sporting team or a business leader, what sort of attributes would you expect of them? Would you be looking for someone who was strong, purposeful, confident, high achieving, successful, eloquent? Now think about what you’d look for in a Christian leader. Does that word Christian make any difference? My guess is that for many it doesn’t. Even in the church we have an image of leaders who are strong, forceful, confident, eloquent. We hate the stereotype of the vicar as the bumbling idiot; sweet but inoffensive; kind but ineffectual. We want a leader who’s strong, who can do no wrong, who’ll be an example to the flock, who’ll lead us to victory over our opponents.