One of the unique joys and curses of being pastor is that I have been invited into people’s lives for some of life’s most intimate moments. I’ve officiated weddings, celebrated the birth of a newborn, congratulated graduates, baptized new believers, moved people in to new homes, and cheered people on as they experienced victory over an obstacle. These moments are truly an honor and a privilege to be a part of.
As a pastor, I have also been a part of some of life’s harder moments. I’ve stood by the bedside of a young adult that was right up at the threshold of death. I’ve listened to the heartbreak of spouses going through divorce. I’ve sat with people experiencing debilitating health conditions with no hope for healing apart from a supernatural miracle of God. I’ve officiated and been to more funerals in a years’ time than I had my entire lifetime before ministry. Think about that.
Now, I know life touches everybody. The truth is, I am quite blessed. But, I have found that there has to be some way for me to empathize with people while also separating their life trials from my own. I have a personal life outside my pastoral role. I have family members walking through stuff. We’ve had difficult circumstances hit our home that not everyone knows about.
I was talking to my sister on the phone once about how heavy my heart felt with so much suffering. She said, “You’re sort of like a sponge instead of a towel rack.” Her point was that I tend to absorb the weight of people’s struggle and just carry it around like a sponge holding water. A towel rack on the other hand allows a wet towel that has also absorbed some water to dry out.
I have found that I can’t be a spongy pastor. When I just absorb the suffering and carry it like dead weight in my soul, I eventually get too saturated with grief to be useful. I get depressed. I get frustrated with God. But, when I show up and I am fully present with people in their joy and their sorrow, then I go to God and unload the weight, I allow my soul to dry out.
So, what does that look for me? I want to share some ways that I have been trying to process grief because, while not everyone is a pastor, everyone is going through something. Maybe these might be helpful for you too.
Limit Unnecessary Bad News I am actually a firm believer that as Christ-followers we should care about the suffering going on in the world around us. I should care about global poverty, sex trafficking, refugees, and persecuted Christians. However, more than any other time in history we are bombarded by live updates of almost every news breaking catastrophe that happens around the world! Not only that, while years ago I would have only known about the suffering of my immediate network of friends, social media feeds keep me in touch with every trial my most distant acquaintances are going through. I am convinced that this has an effect on our anxiety levels. So, I am working more and more towards limiting my social media time, not clicking on stories that I know will depress me, and selectively staying in touch with certain issues.
Pray or Journal The other day I wrote a list of concerns that each started like this: “God my heart is heavy with….” This list became my prayer list as I interceded for several different things I know are going on in people’s lives. Scripture tells us to cast our cares on God and Christians sometimes repeat the refrain “give it to God” (1 Peter 5:7). I’ll be honest, sometimes I just want to say back, “What does that even mean?” How do you disentangle your emotions from the knowledge of suffering and just “give it to God” as if that makes it all better? I think in part my journaling my concerns was so freeing because I realized all I could do for some of the issues was pray for them. And, I did that. I listed all the issues that were weighing on my heart and prayed as specifically as I could for them. Then, I could walk away from my journal feeling somewhat free of that burden because I “gave it to God.” Maybe there are anxieties, issues, and sorrows that you could journal or just speak in prayer to God. I have found that it is truly liberating and powerful.
Remember That There Is More Going Here I don’t think everyone observes the world through the same lens that I do. My wife doesn’t think at all like I do about life. There is a little philosopher in my head that is always asking the question, “Why?” I will probably write more about that in a later post on doubt, but I am constantly wrestling with some sort of philosophical or theological question in my own mind. Suffering raises a lot of questions for me. There are a lot of great thinkers and theologians who have written about this. My favorite is C.S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain However, no answer truly satisfies the tensions that exist in my own head. While other people may not think exactly like I do, I know other people may also struggle with questions and doubts in the face of suffering. I have come to believe that there has to be more going on here. Paul says it like this, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” While the suffering in life raises difficult questions, the beauty of life also raises questions for which the only satisfying conviction I have come to believe is that there is more going on here. There is certainly a great deal of mystery in this world. Paul’s point is that God’s future restoration of all things will put all of this into perspective. It’s sort of like the process of a new child being born. There is a new earth that will be born, but right now we are in the pregnancy stage experiencing the birth pains. The new life that is to come will make all of this pale in comparison.
Practice Gratitude and Embrace Joy Research professor and social worker Brené Brown wrote a little book that was so inspiring to me titled Braving the Wilderness. She writes about how vulnerability allows us to actually be present and connected with people in all the ways that matter. Vulnerability takes courage though because it exposes us to the potential of being hurt. We have all sorts of defense mechanisms that sometimes work against us to prevent us from being hurt. One of those mechanisms is to sort of downplay our own joy so that the potential disappointment won’t hurt as much. She writes:
…I believe joy is probably the most vulnerable emotion we experience. We’re afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel it, we’ll get blindsided by disaster or disappointment. That’s why in moments of real joy, many of us dress-rehearse tragedy. We see our child leave for the prom, and all we can think is “car crash.” We get excited about an upcoming vacation, and we start thinking “hurricane.”…I call it foreboding joy. The only way to combat foreboding joy is gratitude.
She goes on to expound that it is our gratitude that actually allows us to empathize with people who are suffering. See, grief is in itself a form of gratitude for we only grieve something we have lost that was once deeply meaningful to us. Gratitude allows us to be fully present in moments of joy and sorrow. Brown writes,
When you are grateful for what you have, I know you understand the magnitude of what I have lost. I’ve also learned that the more we diminish our own pain, or rank it compared to what others have survived, the less empathic we are to everyone. That when we surrender our own joy to make those in pain feel less alone or to make ourselves feel less guilty or seem more committed, we deplete ourselves of what it takes to feel fully alive and fueled by purpose. … The goal is to get to the place where we can think, I am aware of what’s happening, the part I play, and how I can make it better, and that doesn’t mean I have to deny the joy in my life.
So, don’t downplay your own joy, but rather give God thanks for every good and perfect gift you have in life. Allow worship music and praise be anthems that increase your gratitude. Don’t compare your trials to those of other people. Practice gratitude and embrace joy.
I don’t know about you, but I have to stop living like a sponge. I need to, as Brown states, acknowledge the part I play in other people’s suffering. I need to take it to God in prayer, embrace my own joy with gratitude, and seek to live fully present in moments of both joy and sorrow. I can’t do that if I’m waterlogged with discouragement.
 Romans 8:18
 Brown, B (2017).Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. (P. 144-145)
 Brown, B (2017).Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. (P. 156-157)