Shepherding Troubled Souls
Part of a pastor’s job is “pastoral care”—shepherding troubled souls that are dealing with the effects of sin and suffering. Life has amazing joys, but also a lot of suffering. Jesus says: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The pastor’s calling is to hear about and comfort people in the middle of “troubles” and to communicate the good news that Jesus has overcome all troubles by his atonement for sin and its effects. In the Gospel accounts, when people had troubles they ran to Jesus because they were desperate and he was compassionate. Compassion is a very good word to describe Jesus. The word literally means “to suffer with.” God’s solidarity with suffering is surprising, unanticipated, and unpredictable. It is not what religion expects. Other religions say suffering is either deserved as punishment from God, or it’s just the unfolding of karma. Only Christianity looks at suffering as a motivation for God’s love and care.
The good shepherd’s compassion for those suffering should influence our shepherding of troubled souls. Here are some examples we can learn from:
Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel
Ministry to troubled souls is a ministry of the gospel. Luther wrote letters of spiritual counsel to his friends and contemporaries in the midst of sickness, death, sadness, imprisonment, anxiety, famine, persecution, and despondency. Because of his role as the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, it is sometimes forgotten that Luther was a pastor. For Luther, pastoral care is always concerned with faith—establishing, nurturing, and strengthening faith. Because faith is about the gospel, when people needed pastoral care, his aim was not to get people to do certain things or disciplines so much as to get people to have faith and to exercise the love that comes from faith. Here is an excerpt from the letter Luther wrote to his dying father: “The longer a man lives, the more wickedness and sin and plagues and sorrow he sees and feels…I commend to you Him who loves you more than you love yourself. He has proved his love in taking your sin upon himself and paying for them with his blood, as he tells you by the gospel.”
Kierkegaard explains that we were made for relationship with God and that recognizing this is foundational to understanding oneself. Through self-deception and sin against God, we are consistently resisting our own true, God-given happiness and fighting against our own best interest. This leads to despair, which is “the sickness unto death,” and despair is connected to anxiety and sin. Kierkegaard discusses various expressions of despair: unconscious despair, despair of weakness, despair of defiance, despair over the earthly, and despair over the eternal. This is relevant to everyone: “Not being in despair, not being conscious of despair, is precisely a form of despair.” Kierkegaard’s talk of despair, anxiety, and sin is far from being pessimistic and nihilistic. It is deeply pastoral, because he calls for gospel despair. In his Concept of Anxiety, he writes: “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right has learned the ultimate.” If properly understood, anxiety can be excellent preparation for the gospel: “He who in relation to guilt is educated by anxiety will rest only in the Atonement.”