Nov 14

Suffering and Leadership

Article by Brandt Van Roekel

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:71

Ever since I was 15 years old, I wanted to be a pastor. 

I was a bit of a strange teenager. While my friends read the newly printed Harry Potter books, I remember reading stories of missionaries who gladly risked their lives in service of Jesus Christ and saw people freed from sin, personally transformed, and filled with the love of Christ (for the record, I read and enjoyed Harry Potter too—I was just late to the party). To me, there was nothing more exciting and meaningful than giving your life in service to Jesus. I had tasted and seen that Jesus was good. Incomparably good. He was gentle and kind. He was brave and courageous. He cut through the lives that held sinners captive, with the truth. He confronted unjust and hypocritical authorities and left them dumbstruck by his wisdom and wit. He stilled storms, cast out demons, and healed dead children whose grieving parents had turned to him for help. He forgave sinners, healed the blind, and instructed anxious, leaderless crowds of people searching for meaning, for healing, for hope. He hated what is evil. He loved what is good. He was the most winsome of Kings, who threw his body wholeheartedly into the fiercest fighting to save the lost. He gave himself to be betrayed, falsely accused, mocked, tortured, and murdered… for me. So that I could be forgiven of the sins I was all too conscious of. To free me from the life of misery I was already so good at making for myself. He loved me. And pursued me. And rescued me. And I wanted to share his love with others. 

I wanted to be a pastor. 

But I didn’t think it would be this painful. 

In 2020 I watched my daughter have seizure after seizure after seizure. I grew accustomed to the change in her complexion as she would deoxygenate. I navigated a heart-wrenching pastoral transition. One that I still grieve. I’ve had relationships strained and broken that I longed to keep. We went through a pandemic. All the while I was struggling to learn how to shoulder the load of leadership God had given to me 

It turns out, life is hard. Leadership is hard. Being a pastor is often hard. 

I knew Jesus’s words “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 26:24 – 25). I even preached this passage as my first sermon at Christ City Church. My problem was that I was aware of the possibility of suffering in leadership in theory. But, like an old professor of mine used to say, “Some things are better felt than tell’t.” 

Those first couple of years weren’t easy. But they’ve been so good. God has been teaching me lessons I would never have learned otherwise. “It was good that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” In no particular order, here are 3 lessons God has been teaching me: 

First, when you are young, you might be aware that you will suffer in this life. But no one can tell you how painful that suffering might be, or how long it will last. And when it comes, you begin by crying to God for escape: “Please God, bring relief!” But as the suffering progresses, you can become depressed. Bitter. But even in these circumstances, God is with you. His right arm hasn’t stopped upholding you. His Spirit hasn’t left you. His faithfulness and His love for you haven’t stopped—Not. For. One. Second. 

When I was most depressed and bitter over the little bit of suffering God allowed me to experience, I remember reading Deuteronomy 2:7: “For the LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing.” I was struck because I couldn’t help thinking of the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. It was their parents who refused to obey God and earned them this long desert retreat. It would have been so easy to become bitter. But God, in his kindness to a suffering people, spoke words of truth. “For the LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing.” 

I stopped and read those words over and over. 

And in that moment, the Holy Spirit cut through my bitter heart to the core. I knew it was true for me too. God hadn’t left me. And I hadn’t lacked anything. The first thing I’m learning through suffering is that God is with us. And he is enough. He doesn’t let his children lack anything. He is a God so good that he’s worthy of our praises even when the suffering is profound, and the pain is deep. He’s a God who can be obeyed when he tells us “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). He is the God who will certainly fulfill his promises. And works all things for good for us, his children—even our suffering. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). 

Second, I’m learning that suffering is the best teacher to train a pastor (or any other Christian!). In seminary, you can learn theory. But you can’t hold a grieving saint, as you cry with them, and pray that God will help you be a little bit like Jesus to them. And you can’t cry with them unless God has first tenderized your heart and made it soft and vulnerable to his love for you, and to the pain of others, so that you can love them too. And for that to happen, you first need to suffer. You need to know a little of the desperate cries to God for deliverance that they experience, yourself. You need your ambivalence and self-protection stripped from you. You need to have your comfy margins removed, so that you have no one to turn to in your own pain, but God. 

But there you’ll taste the sweetness of pure honey. The glory of God will shine through the illusions of comfort this world offers and expose them for the poison they are. You’ll see that there is no one like Jesus. You’ll be able to comfort others with the comfort you yourself have received from God—the God of all comfort, and the Father of mercies (2 Cor 1:3 – 4). 

Third, I’m learning that suffering is a tool God uses to sanctify me. 

Looking back, I see sin and sin and sin. I see my bitterness about what I felt I should have had, but didn’t. I see my selfishness. I see my anger. I see the way I compared myself to others. I see how much I tried to survive off the praise of human beings, rather than God. I see how quick I was to judge, and slow I was to grant mercy. I see how poor a Father and a husband I’ve been.

Lose your margins in life, and you’ll find you’re pretty good at being awful. But, the Bible teaches (and I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say it’s true for me) that sin isn’t caused by circumstances. All that sin was there all along—it’s just been exposed, like the mussels and starfish here in Vancouver are exposed at low tide.  

There are so many things I wish I’d done differently this year. But I don’t get a mulligan. What I do get is grace. So much grace. I get is a tender Father who disciplines me for my good, so that I might share in his holiness (Hebrews 12:10). I get the forgiveness and acceptance of a God who is so much more loving than my own internal voice telling me I’ve failed. I get a God who is persistently and steadfastly committed to growing me into maturity in Jesus. “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it,” wrote Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:24. God is passionate about our holiness. And I’m learning that one of his tools to make us holy is suffering. He uses it to gently peel off the sinful callouses of the old man, and leave the skin of the new-birth in its place. 

I’ve always wanted to be a pastor. I never knew it would be this hard. And yet I wouldn’t change what God has allowed me to go through.  

God is faithful. He is making me more like Jesus. He is filling my heart with songs of thanksgiving and praise—not because I have perfect circumstances, but because He is so good. You see, it’s because of suffering that I am growing to know that the Jesus I was compelled by as a teenager is exactly who he says he is. It’s because of suffering that I love him more.