Gospel ministry requires lament
Great joys turn to great sorrows
Just a few months ago, I rejoiced with some dear brothers in ministry at how God was blessing my ministry with fruit. One Sunday, I looked around and saw 5 different individuals I had connected with in the community, in all kinds of spiritual places, present during our Sunday morning worship. After the service, I was greeted with hugs and smiles. It felt so encouraging to see those far from Christ coming closer through intentional prayer and pursuit.
This last Sunday, I looked around and saw none of those 5 individuals present. Two of them had gotten into a fight with each other and had both stopped coming. Another felt the pressure from an unbelieving family member. Another relapsed into drugs and felt ashamed to come back, despite my encouragements. And the final one (a man with several mental disorders) had a breakdown, disrupted the service, and after talking with him for half an hour, he proceeded to storm out of our building in anger. I haven’t heard from him since.
Sometimes, the things that bring you the most joy can turn into the deepest sorrows.
Why is lamenting so necessary in gospel ministry?
1. Because our hearts are so invested.
So many fears and obstacles stand in the way of us bringing the gospel to others who need it. If we choose to follow Jesus in this way, it must be because we desperately love Jesus and we desperately love people. You bring Jesus to people because he has your heart and you long to bring him to others. The deepest recesses of our soul is involved in ministering with the gospel. So, when sorrows come, they cut deep.
2. Because the stakes are so high.
Gospel ministry is like bringing life-saving medicine into a village, full of sick people. It’s uncomfortable and scary. You can’t control how people respond but you hold out what can save them. When you minister the gospel to believers (and non-believers), there are eternal consequences. The call of the gospel is too important (the receiving and the experiencing of it in every aspect of life) to be unaffected by how people respond.
3. Because we are so inadequate.
All who come to Jesus are weary and burdened people (Matt. 11:28). All of us have weaknesses that limit us (2 Cor. 12). Without God’s strength, our flesh and hearts fail (Ps. 73:26). We are beset with anxieties that need casting on God (1 Pet. 5:7). There are times when I cry out to God just wishing I was better than I was. I wish I was a better father, preacher, counselor, and leader. I am so utterly inadequate, apart from God’s help. Our weakness is felt so closely when we do gospel ministry.
4. Because many will reject what we offer.
This defined Jesus’ preparation of his disciples. If the world hated Jesus, it will surely hate us (Jn. 15:18). To some, the aroma of Christ in us will smell like death to them (2 Cor. 2:15). No servant is greater than his master. If you do gospel ministry, be prepared to be rejected by the very ones you love and wish to see experience the joys of Jesus.
5. Because many will fall away.
Jesus promised that some of the seed we sow will fall into soil that has the appearance of being good but time will show it to be false (Matt. 13). Jesus promised many would fall away and betray us (Matt. 24;10). One of Jesus’ closest friends betrayed him. Paul lamented many of his dear friends who forsook him and fell away from the faith (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 4:10-16). Some of those we are sure of and encourage us will be the same ones that walk away and hurt us. What a deep sorrow this is.
Jesus’ ministry was filled with lament
As joyful and visionary and miraculous as Christ’s ministry was, his life was filled with sorrow and lament. He laments the rejection of his hometown (Luke 4). He laments the loss of his dear friend (John 11). He laments his suffering before and during his crucifixion (Matt 26-27).
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” Matthew 23:37
A pointed illustration of this is his lament over Jerusalem. When he drew near to the city, Jesus began to weep and lament (Luke 19:41). In Luke’s gospel, his focus is on the destruction they are heading for blindly. In Matthew’s gospel, his focus is on their rejection of him as their savior. As he pointedly prays, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).
When I read this passage recently, I was drawn to tears. For in Jesus’ words, I found the words of my own heart for those who I was ministering to. I lamented before God: God, why won’t they listen? Why won’t they receive you? Why are they falling blindly into sin? God, it seems that all my words fall to the ground and do nothing. I have prayed for them and wept for them and pleaded with them. What more can I do?
Hopeful trust: What lament leads us into
What do we do with these sorrows and struggles? Is it not to bring them to the Father? Is it not to cry out to him with our pain and heartache? If so, then because the sorrows are so many, a regular practice of lamenting is necessary. But lamenting is not simply airing our grievances to God. Lamenting is not just complaining, but complaining the right way.
As Mark Vroegop defines lament in his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy:
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. It is not only how Christians grieve; it's the way Christians praise God through their sorrows. Mark Vroegop
This is why we need lament in gospel ministry: Because in our frailty and limited perspective, we need a regular stream of hope. The sorrows of gospel ministry will overwhelm and crush us if we are not regulating casting them on God’s strong shoulders, letting him comfort us with his presence, and then resetting our gaze on what we know is true.
Jesus sees our pain.
Jesus knows our weakness.
Jesus loves our humble, yet faithful obedience.
Jesus will do all he intends to do, in and through us.
Jesus will one day make all things new.
And on that day, the time for lamenting will be over. Joy will come with the morning. We will receive the prize for which we run. And every sorrow will be gloriously overshadowed by the glory of our God. But now, in this world, we lament the sorrows. So, lament often. Cry out to God. Suffer with and for Christ. Then drink from the well. Let that painful prayer lead you to trust once again. It’s all worth it. Don’t give up.