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Leaders Bear Pain

Some years ago a friend, the leader of a large Christian organization, was talking with me about what it was like to oversee a process of downsizing. He spoke of the difficulty of knowing that many people who had worked with him for years were going to be out of a job, and of knowing moreover that the impact of the organization would be diminished for those who remained. It was his responsibility to respond to the directive of the governing board that expenses be cut, but the details were a matter of his own decision, in consultation with other administrators who also understood the human anguish and the programmatic loss that the details represented. He knew that he could distance himself from much of the specific pain of the lay-offs, since others would be delivering the bad news in their own departments. But he had come to understand that it was a part of his calling as a Christian leader, not only to make the difficult decisions, but to listen to and enter into the pain that those decisions inflicted—in short, to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

Paul’s challenge in Romans comes as one ethical injunction in a series that is remarkable for its emotional range (12:9-21). Paul was prompting the church at Rome to be “there” for each other, and for the broader society as well.1 Clearly part of that availability was an emotional availability; Paul commanded love for what is good, hatred for what is evil, affection in relationship and creativity in affection, zeal that is competitive, joy that is pervasive, and a readiness to feel the pain and join the sorrowing of others. I remember 20 years ago that our society’s self-protective instinct took the path of hoarding our time, even from our loved ones; “yuppies” were exploring how to give “quality time” to their children so as to have enough for other projects of self-maximization. Today I suspect that it is our emotional energy we hoard, with a pop psychology fear of vulnerability, over-extension, and burnout. It is precisely here that we lose the advantage that Paul was pressing for in Rome, and here that we must feel his challenge, that living for the gospel entails living in emotional vulnerability.

It is probably the book of Galatians that most exemplifies Paul’s own commitments to “bearing pain.” The letter starts with an exclamation of horrified disgust that this church is so quickly falling for “a different gospel,” and the whole epistle is dominated by Paul’s anger and urgency. His own reputation is also clearly on the line, and he launches into the tale both of his own sensational conversion (1:10-24) and of his acceptance by “the reputed pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem as apostle to the Gentiles (2:1-10). Climaxing the story in one of the richest brief expositions of Christian commitment (“I have been crucified with Christ, and it in no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” 2:20), he abruptly rounds on the Galatians again, asking, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1) He turns then to the theological heart of his message, the argument for justification by faith, grounding it in the history of Abraham himself with a passion that just as ardent but less specifically insulting (3:1-4:7).

And then comes the most remarkable passage in Galatians, at least from the perspective we are exploring. He starts to bring up his own history of relationship with them, speaking of his labor among them, of their early care for him (in illness? “You would have torn out your eyes and given them to me!”), of a shared sense of God’s blessing, of a solid relationship which he hopes is not now in jeopardy. What is astonishing is the degree to which he becomes vulnerable to them in this passage, injecting the relationship powerfully into the theological argument, almost as if a judgment for Paul and for the gospel might be made either on a theological or a relational basis. His language is so intimate that one or two phrases defy assured exposition today. “Become as I am, for I have become as you are” (4:12) may to echo to Paul’s missional strategy of being all things to all people, but in this instance seems to call the Galatians to take the responsibility to open themselves in the same way to him. “Where is your blessedness?” (4:15) may invoke their “good will” toward Paul (NRSV) or a wider “sense of blessing” (NASB) related to their experience of community or of the Spirit (3:2-4) which ought to guide them in this case. In any case Paul does not shrink from invoking the deepest kind of personal response despite the risk of that same very personal kind of rejection.

Paul’s letter moves on, caroming from exposition to exhortation, from endearments (4:19; 6:1) to the unkindest cut of all (5:12). His closing verses again express an annoyance that is personally felt and focused2—“From now on, let no one cause me trouble”—resolved in a personal and even intimate blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit—brethren.”

Paul reminds us that bearing the pain of the other, “weeping with those who weep,” involves our own emotional vulnerability. He also reminds us that emotional vulnerability does not really carry its own reward; rather it is inherently disagreeable. Its necessary place in ministry derives from the nature of the calling, to engage meaningfully with others in the context of imperfect human life, and to do so in the sacrificial path laid out by Paul: “It’s no longer I that lives, but Christ that lives in me.”

—Theopulos



1 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 278.

2 Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (WBC. Nashville: Nelson, 1990), p. 299.