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Written by Daron Brown
From his column Pressing On

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (Gal. 4:19-20 NIV).

Over the course of our marriage, my wife has taught me many things. One of them is that a man should never compare anything he experiences to childbirth. Regardless of the situation, I do not have the personal experience to use such a metaphor, so I simply don’t go there. The Apostle Paul, however, had no spouse to provide such wise counsel. Consequently, in Galatians 4, he compared his ministry to birthing a baby.

In the first few chapters of this letter, Paul dealt directly with the debate regarding Jewish practices within the church. In addition to their division over ceremonial practices, Paul mentioned that some had been swayed toward a perversion of the gospel. Others apparently had questioned his authority as an apostle. In the middle of chapter four, Paul highlighted his personal pain in the process, suggesting that the problems were constant, and that the people often perplexed him by their behavior. The fact that he could not be physically present with them only added to his heartache and astonishment.

Like Paul, pastors today feel the perplexity and pain that comes with pastoral territory. In any ministry setting there are enough stresses and strains when things are going well. When things start to fall apart, pastoral pain intensifies. Differing points of view, absence of understanding, lack of harmony, and unhealthy attempts at control create a fertile environment for pastoral pain.

When the church receives people who are not well established in their faith, the lack of spiritual maturity can cause more contentiousness. And our mistakes and offenses often contribute to our own grief as pastors. While it takes various shapes and degrees, pastoral pain is a reality that can leave us feeling frustrated, helpless, and asking the question, “Why?”

In our passage, Paul not only named the pain, but gave purpose to it. As their pastor, he saw himself as their spiritual mother. As in birth, he believed his fleeting pain would result in new life for the baby Christians of Galatia, and his end goal was to see Christ formed in them. His sufferings were aligned with Jesus’ sufferings, to deliver his dear children into the fullness of Christian life. He suffered to see them sanctified.

Knowing that people were able to perplex the great apostle gives us as pastors some solace. Inevitably, there are times when people confuse and confound us, and no doubt Paul experienced Sunday stresses and Monday morning blues. But we can find more than comfort from Paul's sufferings. We can gain focus. Our pain is part of the process—a participation in the sufferings of Christ. We endure in an effort to move people from sin and death toward abundant life. We persevere to lead them toward full formation in Christ.

Christian suffering is redemptive suffering. God does not cause misery in ministry, but He is very much involved when we suffer and wants to bring about His purposes, which include the sanctification of his people. The Spirit of God who brings new life is at work in pastoral pain. He helps us discern how God wants to use our present circumstances, however painful, to lead others toward full formation in Christ. Our role, then, is to cooperate with the Spirit to lead our people toward wholeness in Christ. Although the pain we experience does not feel good, it can be for good.

Pastors, keep breathing. Know when to push and when to rest. Keep in mind that in time, the pains of pastoral ministry lead to birth, to new life, and to deep joy.

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.

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