Pastors are supposed to be thick-skinned creatures, called and equipped by God to withstand the fiery darts of Satan-whether they manifest in the outright hostility of an unbelieving culture or the thinly veiled criticisms of a dissatisfied churchgoer.
But, if you ask any pastor who’s been serving the Church for more than 10 minutes, he’ll have a handful of painful stories to tell. For too many, these stories have come to define their ministry. It doesn’t take long for the wounds of duplicitous friends, flighty church members, and even “rival” ministers to penetrate a pastor’s thick skin.
With his heart hardened, the pastor soon forgets what it means to forgive as Christ forgave him (Col. 3:13). In that bitter place, churches fracture, friends part ways, and entire congregations suffer the divisive burden of their respective pastors’ estrangement.
For at least one room full of pastors, however, God had a better story to tell.
A Pastoral Wake-Up Call
The following is a true story. I’ve omitted names and places to protect the anonymity of the people involved.
Not long ago, a group of pastors gathered for a weekend retreat.
Their district superintendent, eager to keep watch over his shepherds’ weary souls, enlisted the help of two outside speakers. He had no clear-cut agenda, only the humble request that these two men bring whatever message God laid upon their hearts.
On Day 1, the speaker got up and delivered a message about forgiveness. He weaved together all the usual biblical tropes but did it in so powerful a way that no one there could deny the movement of God’s Spirit in their midst.
The next day, speaker #2 arrived directly from the airport. Without any knowledge of what had taken place the day prior, he took out a bowl full of painted rocks and passed it around the room full of preachers: “Who does God want you to forgive today? Take a rock, write that name on it, and carry it with you as a reminder.”
“Who does God want you to forgive today? Take a rock, write that name on it, and carry it with you as a reminder.”
As the bowl made its rounds, this speaker delivered yet another message about the power and necessity of forgiveness in the Christian life. Personally confronted by the lack of forgiveness in their lives, nearly every pastor grabbed himself a handful of rocks.
When Day 3 rolled around, the invisible weight of spiritual conviction laid heavy on each pastor’s heart. They’d been challenged to reckon with the tension between the Gospel they confessed with their mouths, yet failed to believe in their hearts.
That’s when we showed them “I Can Only Imagine.”
We Need to Pray
Everyone was enthralled by Bart Millard’s story-the abuse he suffered as a child, the incredible transformation God brought about in his father, his struggle to forgive the man who abused him, the song borne out of their reconciled relationship.
By the end, these pastors were on their feet, hands raised and voices lifted in praise. The room was thick with God’s presence. In that holy moment, the leader spoke out:
“I feel like we need to pray. And, if the Lord tells you that you need to get up and talk to somebody in this room, then you need to do it.”
There was no hesitation. Heads bowed, and pastors raced to find estranged colleagues:
“I’m sorry for how I offended you.”
“I’m sorry I took your people.”
Forgetting is not Forgiving
As the sound of reconciliation echoed softly, yet sweetly through that room, the voice of one man gently asserted itself above all the others.
This pastor-retired from the ministry yet nonetheless respected by all- began to bear his soul. He had never shared this before, but he, too, had been abused as a child. This man’s abuser was his mother. She had died long ago and, with her, the memories of his childhood trauma.
Or, so he thought.
God used that weekend-the preaching of the Word, and the screening of Imagine to awaken this man to the fact that he had never honestly forgotten his mother’s abuse. He had merely suppressed it. In failing to deal with those memories and, yes, to extend forgiveness, he had allowed a root of bitterness to strangle his spiritual life for decades.
His final words rang out a necessary reminder, not just for pastors, but for everyone:
“Don’t be like me… No matter who it is, no matter how many people, you need to forgive.”
How Often We Forget
Of course, this isn’t just a story for pastors.
None is righteous here; no, not one. We’ve all, at some point or another, failed to extend the forgiveness to others that we know God has extended to us.
That’s why we need stories like these-the reconciliation of a child and his abusive father, the ‘awakening’ of a room full of pastors-to stir us in the same way they did that retired pastor.
“We’ve all, at some point or another, failed to extend the forgiveness to others that we know God has extended to us.”
Perhaps we need more “impossible” stories of forgiveness and reconciliation to experience secondhand those concrete moments when God reaches down to “make a wretch His treasure.”
We need to revel in the fact that, although we were enemies raging against Him on the field of battle, the radical generosity of our heavenly Father compelled Him to hike up his robe, charge out into the fray, and subdue us by His forgiving love.
Imagine what it’d be like in our churches if we could forgive one another like that.
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