The ministry of personal anguish

In this issue of Ministry we concentrate on some of the common and the less common fears and maladies we face within ourselves and among ourselves as ministers.

Willmore D. Eva, D.Min., is the editor of Ministry and an associate in the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

There is Jacob, alone, crying out in his storm of anguish, "0 God of my father Abraham... I am unworthy of all the kindness... you have shown your servant.... Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children" (Gen. 32:9-11, NIV). Jacob then prepares lavish gifts to placate Esau, who long before had vowed to kill him for fraudulently taking his birthright. Jacob sends his family and possessions ahead and, apparently unable to sleep, walks alone into the night near the Jabbok River, perhaps to pray again and to sort through the fragments of his life.

Then in the darkness of Jacob's despair a mysterious, terrifying stranger suddenly comes out of the night. Jacob, probably thinking it is Esau, sees no option but to throw himself at his "enemy," and they wrestle on and on through the night. Then as dawn begins to blossom into the disclosing light of day, the opponent touches Jacob's thigh so that it is painfully wrenched, and he seems to try to break free from Jacob, saying, "Let me go, for it is daybreak" (verse 26, NIV). With the exhaustion of the struggle and the excruciating pain in his leg, Jacob must have wanted to do just that. But he would not let go.

Somehow, a staggering realization begins unfolding: that this is not, as every commonsense evidence seems to indicate, just a mortal man with whom he has been wrestling, and this is not simply a horrible human experience through which he agonizes. Much more is present here. God, in His ever-surprising way, is attending Jacob's anguish. He has come deep within this man's conflict with His sovereign skill in such a way as not only to defeat the evil that has precipitated this awful night but to take the evil itself and use its essential parts to transform Jacob's suffering into the blessing he has always craved so passionately.

It is God's sovereign use of Jacob's paralyzing fear and God placing Himself creatively at the very center of Jacob's trial that brings to reality the greatest blessing of Jacob's life. Thus God's greatest favors come from the heart of Jacob's worst trouble. Indeed, the blessing would not have come to him without the dark night of fear, apparent doom, and exhausting battle. From the stuff of the devil's worst God fashions the very best.

In Western Christian cultures especially, evil is seen as evil and good as good. Except for an awareness of a kind of constant clashing between them, there seems to be a limited insight into how they in fact relate. Satan has his domain and God His kingdom. Everything negative comes from Satan, while all described as good comes from God. The story of Jabbok presents itself in puzzling conflict with this thinking. At Jabbok, and in the seminal event of the cross, good and evil are definitely distinct from one another and they certainly meet in combat, but good relates to evil in a much more dynamic way than simply in a kind of all-out opposition that ends predict ably in the immediately observable victory of good over evil. To Jacob at Jabbok, God seems to be very much a part of the trouble.

This is not only true at Jabbok. At Golgotha all that is evil and all that is good gathers in a certain cloud of obliqueness. Thus if the child of God asks the question "What is the worst thing that ever happened in our history?" the answer would have to be "The crucifixion of Jesus Christ." And if we ask the question "What is the best thing that ever happened?" it would have to be said, "The very same event."

As it was at Jabbok and Golgotha, so it is also, I believe, in every moment of the life of the child of God. Evil and good are ever present to mingle in the overall life of each of God's people. Yet in God's hand good has such a potent creative power that it actually exploits evil, using it as the raw material out of which to create the best that can be.

It is most truly, as John expresses it, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5, RSV). John is saying that not only does the darkness not overcome the light, but the darkness yields to the light because it is in the heart of the darkness that the sovereign, opportunistic Light seizes the moment to shine most brightly: "The light shines in the darkness."

This theology has an authoritative way of transfiguring how a believer views the evil of life, its trials, cruelty, injustice, sickness, sorrow, and even its sin. And in the hands of Christ nailed to the wooden bars, death, the ultimate evil, and even the fear of death are taken up and used by God to perfect us. In Christ God used death as a weapon to defeat the author of death and thus to defeat death itself (Heb. 2:14,15) and bring in everlasting righteousness.

As we face our mortality we are reduced to our most elemental state. There all we have trusted and found meaningful is largely diminished into a kind of nothingness. Facing death, we are stripped and confronted by our greatest fear, emptiness and destitution, with God alone presiding. Yet here God appears to us as a disquieting, disguised presence. It is the helplessness that comes with death that exposes us most completely to the greatest realities. Ironically, we can be confronted by these realities only in the anguish of our final, darkest moments. Exploiting the death that faces us, the sovereign God holds out to us that which we have always needed and most truly wanted, His full blessing. In this way, facing death, we arrive at the maturest and most meaningful point of life, looking without the distracting clutter of false security, into the face of God. The fear and the pain accentuate our consciousness, and in God's skillful timing it all arrives with the dawn's light, so we may see just what we most need to see. Thus we are prepared, as Jacob was, to cross over into the Homeland.

In this issue of Ministry we concentrate on some of the common and the less common fears and maladies we face within our selves and among ourselves as ministers. In these challenges we are given opportunity to open our eyes to see with what we actually contend (Eph. 6:12-18) and with whom we really wrestle (Job 38-42). In God's light the battles and even the skirmishes of everyday life take on a new and ever-blessed meaning, compelling us to grow into well-rounded maturity. At the heart of every aspect of life in Christ is the cross of Jesus. Gazing at that cross, its awesome meanings press into every facet of our living. Kneeling humbly there at the place of His agony, we achieve a perspective that does not always explain, but is nevertheless far-reaching enough to satisfy our most puzzling riddles.

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Willmore D. Eva, D.Min., is the editor of Ministry and an associate in the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

July 1997

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