“Imagine that you have the following choice to make for your listeners,” writes Matthew D. Kim in the opening paragraph of Preaching to People in Pain: “(1) They can listen to sermons that only address the topic of success in the Christian life, or (2) They can listen to sermons that only discuss the issue of pain and suffering?”
Kim acknowledges that this hypothetical presents a false dilemma. Pastors can and should preach about the full range of human experience, both its highs as well as its lows. But do we?
In my experience, the answer is no. (My experience is limited to American Christian preaching.) I have listened to thousands of sermons over the course of my life time, not to mention preaching several hundred. Most of them—including most of mine—rarely touched on pain.
The absence of suffering from American preaching is remarkable. Experiences of pain pervade Scripture. In the Old Testament, for example, scholars estimate that laments comprise 40% of the Psalter. And in the New Testament, the Cross is the inflection point on which salvation turns. Our salvation depends on Christ’s suffering.
The Cross is also the model of Christian discipleship, however. As Jesus said in Matthew 16:24–25:“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” In other words, Christ suffered, and so will we.
So, why don’t American preachers pay more attention to pain? The answer is complex. For one thing, Kim calls preaching about pain “an evangelistic turnoff.” No one wants to listen to a steady diet of bad news, it seems.
More deeply, American culture is shot through with the dream of prosperity, and this affects what American Christians want to hear. “We, in the twenty-first century, internalize a love/hate relationship with the prosperity gospel,” Kim writes. “We surreptitiously covet what it claims but hate what it stands for (i.e., what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’).” In other words, we know the prosperity gospel is bad theology, but deep down, we still want what it promises. And so, we turn away from pain.
By doing so, Christians skip across the surface of life and fail to apply the gospel where it’s most needed—at the point of brokenness. All Christians need to turn toward pain, and pastors need to lead the way. The Word of God cannot heal what we refuse to address.
What kinds of pain are we talking about? Kim focuses on pain that arises from six dimensions of life: decisions, finances, health issues, losses, relationships, and sins.
Some of these pains are chosen, even if only indirectly. As Albert Camus put it, “Life is a sum of all your choices.” All decisions have consequences, we might say, but some decisions have bad consequences. And some of those bad decisions are sins, for which we suffer the consequences of guilt, shame, and judgment.
We do not choose some of our pains, however. I didn’t choose to suffer a chronic rheumatological illness, for example. My genes made that decision for me. I just live with the consequences.
Regardless of whether chosen or not, our pains demand a response. Pastors can help their church members and themselves by sharing their suffering. For Kim, sharing means two things: First, it means “communicating with others regarding our pain and suffering.” Second, it means “participating in, feeling, and experiencing the turmoil of others and encouraging them and empathizing with them in the midst of it.”
In other words, pastors help people process suffering through a combination of meaning-making and community-building. Sermons focus on the meaning-making side of the equation, but action outside the pulpit shapes the community-building side. Preaching is an important aspect of ministry, but to truly pastor requires “presence” among the suffering.
To help pastors with both activities, Kim identifies nine questions pastors should ask as they respond to pain in their congregations:
- Which passage will I preach on?
- What type of suffering is revealed in the text?
- How does the Bible character or Biblical author deal with the pain?
- How does this pain in the text relate to our listeners’ pain?
- What does this pain say about God and His allowance of pain?
- How does God / Jesus /the Holy Spirit help us in our suffering?
- How can our preaching show care and empathy?
- How can we share pain through Christian community?
- How will God use our suffering to transform us and bring himself glory?
Not every sermon needs to be about suffering, of course, any more than every sermon needs to be about success. Even so, American Christians need to hear more sermons about pain. As Kim points out, “suffering is ubiquitous, success is not.”
I recommend Preaching to People in Pain to any minister privileged with the opportunity of opening God’s Word to God’s congregation week after week. It will help you help others respond to pain with the hope of the gospel.
Matthew D. Kim, Preaching to People in Pain: How Suffering Can Shape Your Sermons and Connect with Your Congregation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021).
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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.