As a brand-new pastor, some things surprise me. Chief among them is the stride in which senior pastors take bad news. I’m in an older congregation, and news regarding physical health in an age of COVID is sometimes bleak and usually disheartening. That’s not to say everyone is dying all the time, but there is plenty of bad news to go around, more than once. Indeed, the bad news seems to be compounded daily. As I was getting used to my new role as solo pastor and watching the previous solo pastor say his goodbyes, I noticed that he would react to bad news like a coach watching the opposing team score a goal. There was a momentary wince and frown, but it was always short-lived. Sometimes it was to be quickly followed by a question or topic completely unrelated.
Perhaps it’s my relative youth or plain ignorance, but I expected a pastor to grieve in dust and ashes when he finds out one of his congregant’s siblings passed away. I thought he would weep as Jesus did at Lazarus’s tomb. I thought he would call an emergency prayer meeting. But he’s asking me about my plan for next week’s service instead.
Some pastors, it seems to me, get so much bad news they become like soldiers pinned down under enemy fire. If a bullet zinged past your head right now, you’d justifiably freak out. But if you had been fighting a war for years and bullets flew by your head like flies on the freeway, you would, sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later, learn to react much more calmly. When the enemy’s onslaught is constant, we learn to adjust our adrenal response. To fail to do so it to ensure adrenal fatigue. I’ve learned that in this call specifically, I just can’t wail and mourn every time something bad happens to someone. If I did, I’d never write a sermon. Ironically, to be in a continual state of mourning and empathy is to fail to help those who are mourning themselves. People who mourn need people who don’t bring them what they need. We can’t all be crying all the time.
Much the same in the world today—we are all constantly bombarded by bad news, and we are all officially desensitized. We can hear about thousands of people dying in Haiti and respond as if our neighbor’s dog died. Bad news, to be sure, but it won’t affect my lunch plans, or even what I order for that matter. My stomach doesn’t churn like it used to. It seems Sartre was right in the wrong way—if we grieved equally for every tragedy, hell would really be other people. Their pain would be our pain, and the pain would be endless.
The natural question at this point, it would seem, would be to ask where we should draw the line. We know we shouldn’t be sociopaths, and we know we can overreact to the opposite side of the spectrum and become empaths to the point of never experiencing a grief-free moment. We should feel some grief but sure, not all of it. But how much?
This question is like many asked by seminarians of older pastors. It’s a question seeking a definite answer, but the answer is indefinite by nature. Sure, a wise pastor could shade the edges in and show how being too close to either extreme is unadvisable, but just where one should be in that extensive, unshaded middle section is a challenging question to answer. How sad should we be over the news of those dead in Haiti? Utterly distraught, significantly, not much?
I may have youthful ignorance, but I’m not ignorant enough to try to answer that question. What I am qualified to talk about is not how other people should feel but rather how someone else does. It is not just fascinating but actually incomprehensible to imagine that Christ, as per His human nature, knows exactly how every grieving person feels and completely sympathizes with them (Heb 4:15). I don’t know how that works for the saved and unsaved, respectively but, for the sake of argument, if we assume Christ only sympathizes with believers, then He grieves with millions of people each day. Thousands if not millions of Christians grieve over cancer diagnoses, deaths of family members, and even earthquakes, and in each second of pain, Christ responds the way a perfect man should—with complete empathy. He does not shield Himself from the pain of empathy as I do. He does not need to. He can simultaneously match our grief—no grieve beyond our grief—and not become a sniveling wreck in the process. He is perfect grief and perfect joy. He brings together the poles of transcending pain and being overcome by it. His right hand bore the stake of indifference, and the left was pierced by the nail of soul-crushing grief. And now, He brings them together in His bosom of love. What love is this?
I don’t know how to behave. Pastors seem like they do, but I don’t. I generally don’t know what I’m doing on a daily basis. I chalk that up to being a rookie, but I’ve heard from some veterans that the change brought by the years isn’t a decrease in ignorance. It’s an increase in acceptance. Pastors learn to accept that they don’t have the answers and that they don’t know how to handle the deep mystery of death. What do you say to a man whose 5-year-old-son has inoperable brain cancer? What is a word in the midst of that tragedy? Shakespeare’s sonnets or Spurgeon’s sermons would be like puffs of smoke in a hurricane. There are thousands more books written on Christianity and grief than there should be, and the ones that should have been written all say the same thing—you can’t fix it. The books, however, keep coming, and the mountain of words keeps growing, but the problem still remains. The answer to the problem isn’t coming from Crossway; it came from the cross.
In a past lifetime, when I was in charismatic churches, we used to pray this prayer often: “break our hearts for what breaks Yours.” Perhaps this is what the Reformed should pray as well. Let’s not get bogged down in the abyss of divine impassibility—trying to communicate the incommunicable—and let’s look to the grieving heart bleeding upon the cross. Let’s not spend all our time looking to the right hand or the left, but at His heart. If we’re honest, we don’t know how we should feel much of the time. But God does. Like the disciple whom Jesus loved, we should lay upon the bosom of Christ and listen to His beating heart (John 13:23). His pulse rate isn’t to be found in exegesis or academic precision but in intimate communion with the living God. For this reason, it is often children who are closer to the heart of God than preachers, pastors, and professors. Degrees don’t reveal God’s heart; discipleship does. Are we discipled by Christ? Do we pester Him with questions like the disciples did? “Lord, what does this mean? Why did you say that? Where are you going? What should we do? Why was this man born this way? Oh, God, please, what should I do?”
Only the One who is above pain and under it can lead us through the labyrinth of human grief. He knows both ends of the spectrum and just where we should be. But, we will never get there unless we follow Him. And we can’t follow Him unless we ask Him where we are to go. Is He calling you to board a plane and go to Haiti? Have you asked? Don’t be afraid like me of His answer. Peter was afraid at first, but then he asked that his cross be turned upside-down as he hung on it. He didn’t want people to think that his suffering—his death upon a cross—was even remotely comparable to His. Even if we are to die in our efforts to alleviate the pain of others, we will never know the pain of God’s eternal wrath. What is there left to suffer, then, that has not already been placed on the bosom of Christ? There is no answer to the problem of human pain that can be found outside the bosom of Christ. Look intently, there.
Oh God, break our hearts for what breaks yours.