They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)
Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.
A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.
Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.
I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.
In Part II of his “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley challenges his fellow clergy to not be slack in their calling. He scolds the clergyman who sees no greater burden in his office than to preach once or twice a week and refuses the hard, continual work of shepherding the flock into spiritual growth and maturity.
He challenges them and us with a series of questions for clergy.
Have I not said, ‘Peace, peace, when there was no peace?’ How many are they also that do this? who do not study to speak what is true, especially to the rich and great, so much as what is pleasing? who flatter honourable sinners, instead of telling them plain, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ O, what account have you to make, if there be a God that judgeth the earth? … How great will your damnation be, who destroy souls instead of saving them!
Reading these lines from Wesley, I understand the appeal of those forms of theology that do away with the idea of eternal judgment and hell. Such theologies are soothing to people but even more are they soothing to pastors who no longer must carry the burden of risking their own souls if they neglect their work or turn aside when they see sinners rejoicing in their sins.
Wesley’s words certainly sting me today as I read them and consider my own answers.
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17, NIV)
I was reading in one of my pastoral care books that the point of pastoral care is not to solve people’s problems. This was a theme of my CPE experience this summer as well. We are told that when we encounter a person in spiritual and emotional pain our job is not to do anything but to be with them. Don’t try to solve their problem. Don’t try to fix them.
Of course, this advice is always offered with the assurance that “just being present” is actually doing something for them. Being there is actually doing something, but it is a kind of doing that is acceptable.
I understand the caution against running in and blindly imposing some sort of “fix” on people. I get that we at times try to “help” people when our real motive is to reduce our own discomfort with their suffering. I understand all that and appreciate the counsel to avoid such things.
But I remain unconvinced about the general stance of passivity in pastoral care. I have two primary reactions. First, it feels like it is born out of the sense that we don’t have anything to offer people who are in spiritual and emotional pain. The best we can do is be with them and affirm their experience. I just don’t buy that. We have Jesus and the gospel. Or rather Jesus has us. And since I believe this, my second concern is that taking the passive empathy approach feels like the person James writes about in the quotation at the top of this post. We have food. If we tell a spiritually hungry person, “I feel your pain. Bless you.” are we not falling afoul of James’ teaching?
I got my knuckles gently whacked in CPE this summer more than once for not being able to let go of these ideas. My new pastoral care book notices that such attitudes are the signs of an inexperienced pastoral care provider. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll grow wiser with more experience.