Staying faithful — even when it hurts
In this issue of Western Recorder, we were asked to pen encouraging words to our friends living in Kentucky and beyond about being Better Together. If you have paid attention to culture-making phrases within SBC Life, then you are familiar with the notable anthem Better Together. The words indicate a confessional principle within Baptist denominations concerning covenant making. Each church promises to cooperate with other affiliated churches to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ worldwide, if the mother entities keep the Great Commandment and Great Commission foremost.
I know of no other Baptist denominations that exemplify the power of missional cooperation between churches more than the Southern Baptist Convention. But, lately it seems that some younger Baptist leaders are questioning the motivations of those who have been given leadership authority on a larger scale within our denomination.
When I counsel these young leaders, I hear pain in their voices because they want to believe we are Better Together — even though they see the squeaky wheels getting the most oil — while they remain emotionally worn out. I listen and lament before leading them to remember all the good work the Lord is doing through churches on the margins who will never have a large platform, but are the bulwark of denominational effectiveness.
As a Kentucky Baptist servant leader, I know we are Better Together when we allow the words of Scripture to penetrate deep into our souls, forming a heart of compassion and action even when naysayers try to cloud out victory’s voice. I say “compassion and action” because these qualities fit the disposition of one of my favorite weeping prophets — Jeremiah.
Let us consider some lessons from the life of Jeremiah on staying faithful — even when it hurts — so that the generations to come realize we are truly Better Together.
Jeremiad of Jeremiah. Bryan Langlands said, “One of the most characteristic features of the biblical prophets is that they serve God on the margins, not enjoying official sanction by the people.
“The prophets are the ones blessed with the curse of seeing clearly because of God’s divine revelation and calling. They are the ones touched with the ability to interpret the semiotics of God and doomed with the charge to speak divine truth to people who would rather not hear.
“Thus, the vocation of a prophet is a dangerous one, rife with threats and violence. Indeed, one who speaks the truth to power and suffers the consequences for it is often said to have received ‘a prophet’s reward.'”
This was certainly true of Jeremiah. The members of his community group were named Isolation, Pain and Rejection.
At the beginning of his commission, YHWH made Jeremiah’s calling clear, saying, “Know for certain that I hereby give you the authority to announce to nations and kingdoms that they will be uprooted and torn down, destroyed and demolished, rebuilt and firmly planted” (Jer. 1:10). In other words, YHWH forewarned Jeremiah that his ministry would be fraught with disappointment on account of the hardness of Israel’s heart.
But, of course, unbeknownst to Jeremiah, the full spectrum of his ministry was not completely spelled out. This is true for every believer called to a life of spiritual formation. God calls us to know Him intimately, but He does not provide every detail concerning the means by which He will providentially accomplish our spiritual transformation. For some, it might be academic toil and financial struggle. For others, transformation may come through the pain of being misunderstood.
Our visceral love for the One who gave us life often brings us scorn and ridicule, an experience that is particularly familiar to many believers who lovingly seek to live among and engage the lost at state universities. I have experienced both sorrows on my journey towards Christlikeness.
Triune love and formative sorrow. What is the source of sorrow? Is it possible to live a life devoid of sorrow while living in a world fashioned by pain and manipulation?
Jeremiah answers the first question by saying that sorrow derives from a heart overwhelmed by love. Sorrow grows when we choose to love someone who has turned a deaf ear to truth.
Of course, there are other sources of sorrow in the lives of image-bearers, but it seems to me that this form of sorrow is best characterized as formative sorrow. The sorrow about which I speak has very little to do with losing something that one deems to be economically precious. Formative sorrow is conceived through the pain of abandonment and birthed when one learns to embrace the blessed touch of Christ, our fellow sufferer — “the man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3 ESV).
But how, you might query, did Jeremiah experience this touch prior to the incarnation of Christ?
The narrative reveals the answer through the prophetic formula: “And the word of the Lord came to me, saying …” It’s wonderful when readers see these words as the touch of Christ. For, in a very real sense, these words are Christ.
Johannine theology teaches us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
That is, the Word, who spoke to the Old Testament prophets during times of torment and testing, has now put on human flesh in order to speak, live, love and die for sinners who would lovingly embrace His message through the power of the Spirit.
In Jeremiah, however, the word serves its hearer in more than a functional sense. The word also consoles Jeremiah as a formational reality.
Quite frankly, my intent here is not to propose a Barthian paradigm. I am simply saying that the command and comfort to speak originates in the rational mind of the Triune God.
Someone, possibly J.P. Moreland, once quipped that the Logos of John 1 refers to the rational mind of God. If this is true, then we have here a fitting word picture for the second person of the Trinity, Christ, as being involved with the prophet’s vocation. The prophet speaks at the behest of YHWH, who eternally exists as three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and the three are fully God. There is one God.
The Triune God calls Jeremiah to a difficult task, knowing that He will eventually comfort Jeremiah’s tears. The burning that compels Jeremiah to move forward, as opposed to absconding, is the Word. I love envisioning this as the blessed touch of pre-incarnate Christ.
Jeremiah says, “For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has be- come for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:8-9 ESV).
There is only one way for our denomination to remain Better Together — walk in love and stay together. There is prosperity in pain when you stay faithful — even when it hurts (James 1:2-4).
Curtis Woods is associate executive director for convention relations of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.