Hope for the discouraged shepherd

Joey Eaton

Whether you are revitalizing a church in critical condition, planting a new church, or shepherding a flock in stable condition, you will experience the weight of the cross. How do we as shepherds of God’s flock minister with the zeal and the joy of the Gospel while inflicted with our own bone-crushing sorrows? How can we look at our people in the eyes and radiate with Gospel light when our own souls are barely flickering? How can we preach the hopes, promises, and delights of God’s Word when the faith of our own hearts hangs by a thread?

I have asked these questions myself lately while in the midst of a particularly discouraging season. In the past month, we have had a beloved member pass away unexpectedly. That same week, our former pastor (who desired to stay a member once he retired) had a massive heart attack, but thankfully survived. Then, a few days later his wife had problems with breathing and I found myself at the hospital again in the early morning hours. We were right in the thick of a delicate and painful church discipline situation which has been (and still is while writing this) very taxing. Less important but still weighty, our house was broken into. Intermingled are desires for church growth, maturity of the body, dissatisfaction with my own preaching, knowledge of a member who is not feeling connected, and the desire to be a faithful husband and daddy. And all of those weights seem to intensify personal struggles such as the need for approval, comparing myself to other larger churches and more successful preachers, and finding significance in lesser things than in my Savior alone.

If you are not discouraged right now, you will be. If you are coming out of a season of despair, then take a stronger hold of the confession of your faith while the seas are calm. And if you are feeling the weights and burdens of shepherding like I am right now, then marvel with me at these redemptive truths:

Cry out to the Lord because he always hears and redeems his people.

I cannot think of anything more glorious than the reality that God’s whole attention is inclined to the cries and groans of his people. Yet, it is hard for us to cry out to the Lord. It means we have reached our limits. It is a lethal blow to our pride. It costs us our control over every aspect and every circumstance. It demands a deep level of emotion and affection that is hard to display. Nevertheless, a glorious God has invited us to cry out to him in our distress and has promised that he will always hear us.

Jesus expected that a faithful life that displays the Gospel would produce seasons of weariness so much so that he promised we could cast our burdens onto him and receive rest (Matthew 11.28). When the Israelites groaned and cried for help in Exodus 2, God heard and remembered his covenant with them and delivered them from their distress.

Amazingly, for the believer, God hears a better and more righteous groan! As we groan and cry out for the Lord, the Son intercedes for us as our perfect High Priest (Hebrews 7.25). And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness to pray by interceding with groans too deep for words (Romans 8.26-27)! And, it is by the Holy Spirit that we can cry “Abba! Father!” as adopted sons confidently and boldly approaching the throne of grace (Romans 8.15; Hebrews 4.16).

Your people, who are also suffering, need a shepherd who cries out to God. As you cry out in your own suffering, you are leading your people to the source of all their hope and joy. As the God of all comfort comforts you in your suffering, know that he is equipping you to comfort your people in the midst of their afflictions with the comfort you have received from the Lord (2 Corinthians 1.3-7).

You are carrying in the body the death of Jesus in order to produce life in others.

A Shepherd of God’s flock is called to lay his life down for the sheep. They are not to lord over their faith. Instead they are to work and grind and suffer for their joy in Christ. Paul describes his own Gospel ministry strikingly,

“[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” 2 Corinthians 4.10-12

Paul saw the effectiveness of his own ministry to produce the life of Christ in others woven into his own sufferings and afflictions. They were not detached circumstances that he just had to fight through. Quite the contrary! He saw his afflictions and sufferings as the means that produced life in other people. This is a radical view of suffering and ministry to say the least!

Carrying Jesus’ death in his own body was sweet fellowship for Paul and was the foretaste to sharing in Jesus’ resurrection. Because of this glorious hope, we can minister in the midst of our afflictions knowing confidently that they are producing life in others and achieving for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4.17)!

Could it be that we bemoan the very tool that God uses in our life to transform those whom we shepherd? Are we too quick to turn away from the God of our trials and his promises when he means to draw us into deeper fellowship in the midst of all our afflictions? As you carry the death of Jesus in your bodies, friends, know that a full display of eternal grace in the presence of a radiant Savior awaits those who endure to the end.

Jesus is our sympathetic High Priest.

Jesus took on flesh in order to become our sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 2.14-18). He came in order to experience the same suffering and temptation of those he would rescue. And, though the seed of the serpent bruised his heel, he came out victorious by destroying the devil and delivering his people from lifelong slavery to the fear of death. This is absolutely spectacular.

Coming to Jesus in your own affliction is all-satisfying because he knows the loneliness you feel. He understands the counseling situation gone horribly wrong. He has experienced heartache when the crowds rejected his preaching. He looked into Satan’s eyes and resisted his most robust temptations and lies. He knows what it feels like to have your life threatened and taken. He has been misrepresented. His character has been drug through the mud. He carried his own burdensome cup to his Father in prayer while his friends fell asleep. And he suffered all of this in order to help all of those who are being tempted.

In your trials and afflictions be comforted by a Savior who experienced your trials and afflictions and has the life-giving power to rescue you and help you in your darkest hour.

Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ.

Paul proclaims with the zeal of heaven at the end of Romans 8 the eternal power of God’s undying love in Christ. The anchor of our souls is the the absolute power of God’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ.The Sovereign Creator of the universe is defending you by the blood of Jesus against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

There is no condemnation! You have been freed by the blood of Christ! You are more than conquerors through him who loved us! Jesus is seated at the right hand of God interceding for us, leading us, shepherding us, feeding us, crying out for us, and holding our faith and our lives together by the power of his own blood and resurrection.

Though we are being killed all the day long and are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39).

I know you have heard these things before. But afflictions have a way of inducing a lethal memory loss of the truths that are meant to sustain us. We are never promised separation from trials and afflictions while at home in the body. What we are promised is that we will never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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