Preaching Where It Hurts
Three questions to ask when church members suffer
Every pastor ministers to people in pain. When I served as a pastor, for example, one couple’s toddler died from a rare genetic disease. Several couples dealt with the pain of miscarriage and infertility. Many congregants lost jobs and struggled financially. Others were in relational turmoil — at home, at church, or at work. And still others led seemingly happy lives but secretly suffered from mental illness.
Ministry involves pastoring and preaching to people who are hurting. Within every congregation, there is grief, physical pain, emotional trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thinking.
You can probably recount numerous ways your congregants lamented some aspect of life over the past 12 months. They’ve faced a global pandemic, racial injustice, political turmoil, and various personal crises.
As pastors, we need to be more intentional about preaching to people who are hurting in our congregations. Each of us should ask three questions as we prepare our messages:
- How do I determine the pain points in my congregation?
- How can we share this pain in Christian community?
- How will God use our suffering to transform us and bring himself glory?
I’m not suggesting every sermon should focus on suffering. This would be unfaithful to the range of genres and emotions in Scripture. As Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
However, our preaching can be so focused on celebration and positivity that we fail to address the range of human experience, or we avoid the pain and suffering evident in particular Bible passages.
When the sermon text addresses pain, it can be an opportunity to connect with those who are hurting. This requires pastoral awareness of our congregation’s struggles.
One of the first questions a physician asks upon meeting with a patient is, “What brings you in today?”
Knowing the symptoms helps a doctor determine a diagnosis and treatment plan. Similarly, as pastors, we want to know what’s going on in the lives of our congregants — including where they hurt.
We can’t ask them directly as they enter the sanctuary, but we can consider some of their pain points during our sermon preparation.
People respond to pain differently. Some need to verbalize it to others, while others bite their tongues and groan silently.
Since we live in a fallen world, we can assume our parishioners are hurting in myriad ways. Insight from the Holy Spirit, the spiritual climate of the congregation, and direct knowledge of life situations, events, and tragedies can help us discern the kinds of pain we may need to address in our sermons.
During your sermon preparation time, reflect on various forms of pain, including painful decisions, painful finances, painful health issues, painful losses, painful relationships, and painful sins.
One of the ways to keep these in view is to sit down with a church membership roster once or twice annually and write down some of the ways your people are suffering. As you preach on a particular text, consider whether the biblical author or characters are experiencing similar types of suffering.
For example, suppose you’re preaching a sermon on the story of Hagar in Genesis 16. What painful circumstances do the biblical characters experience in this text? How do these pains relate to the pain your congregation is feeling?
The biblical accounts of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, might seem like sideshows or strange tangents to the main narrative of God’s promise to Sarai and Abram. Yet God is working even in the lives of secondary characters.
Life was hard for Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarai. Since Sarai was unable to conceive a child of her own, she gave Hagar to her husband, Abram. Regarded as property, Hagar had no choice in the matter. No one asked her whether she wanted to have a child with Abram. Adding to the injustice, Sarai resented Hagar for having sexual relations with Abram and ultimately giving birth to his child.
According to Genesis 16:6, “Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” There is no record of the specific forms of abuse, but we can imagine that Sarai — at the least — verbally accosted Hagar.
In your sermon, you might also explore the pain Sarai endured as Abram shared sexual intimacy with her servant. Even though it was Sarai’s idea, the situation caused her emotional anguish (Genesis 16:5). After years of infertility and unrealized hopes, Sarai probably felt God had abandoned and rejected her as well. Since having offspring was so important in this culture, Sarai probably thought she could escape some cultural shame by Abram having an heir, even if the heir didn’t come from her own body.
This narrative might hit home in different ways with hurting congregants. First, there is the pain of infertility. The story may also resonate with those who have experienced the betrayal of a spouse’s infidelity. Additionally, there are themes of shame and disappointment to which many can relate in some way.
Acknowledging the raw emotions in Scripture — both human and divine — will help hurting people connect with the text and open their hearts to the hope and healing available in Christ.
Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
However, in our individualistic culture, we often consider suffering and pain in isolation from others. Consequently, many churches today do not have a communal mindset.
We need to cultivate an atmosphere in which one person’s burden can become everyone’s burden. That begins with ending the stigma surrounding issues such as mental illness, abuse, and marital problems so people can name their pain and seek the support of the body of Christ.
We need to create safe, shame-free environments where people can acknowledge their suffering and pray for one another in worship services, small groups, and other settings.
Within every congregation, there is grief, physical pain, emotional trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thinking.
Opening up about our own painful experiences can give others hope and remind them they are not alone while walking through times of suffering. The evil one will try to discourage believers by telling them nobody understands their situation, and nobody cares.
When a pastor refuses to talk about pain, Satan can use that silence to prolong suffering. Hurting people may conclude they are the only ones who feel this way, or that their sin or condition is so terrible God has nothing to say about it in Scripture.
Wheaton College professor Mark Talbot, who became paralyzed as a teenager, says adversity can open doors of ministry to others, which in turn brings personal comfort. In When Suffering Is Redemptive, Talbot offers this insight:
Stop asking, “Why has God allowed this to happen to me?” Instead, be alert to those you can encourage because of how you are suffering, remembering that it is often only as we focus on relieving others’ suffering that we ourselves find significant relief.
One of the primary ways congregations can grow in freedom to share their struggles in community is by witnessing their leaders model such vulnerability. Using prayerful discretion, talk honestly about your own painful losses, struggles and mistakes.
Finally, there is the question of how God will use suffering to transform us and bring himself glory. This is probably not at the forefront of people’s minds during times of suffering — at least not immediately.
Yet one of the aims of preaching is to call people to spiritual transformation and a life that exemplifies and honors Christ. Some Christians might think, How cruel and selfish of God to permit or ordain suffering in my life just so that I can return glory to Him!
God wants to transform us, and sometimes the best way to accomplish this is to permit suffering in our lives. How will God transform us through this current and long-term circumstance or hardship?
When we contemplate the fact that God created the entire universe — including humankind — for His glory, we come to recognize that every part of life is an opportunity to glorify Him. We reflect the glory of God through how we react to both moments of celebration and trials.
While preaching on pain, take time to discuss how God can use suffering to bring about life transformation and how our afflictions can bring glory to God.
In the example from Genesis 16, perhaps God receives glory when people forgive those who have verbally, physically or sexually abused them. This is not an easy task. Only the Holy Spirit can enable Christians to forgive someone who has hurt them in such devastating ways.
Maybe the application of this sermon is to encourage couples to praise and thank God even if they remain infertile and cannot have biological children of their own. Rather than growing bitter toward God, they can choose to praise Him and trust His sovereignty. Again, only the Spirit can accomplish what is humanly impossible.
Perhaps someone can relate to the dysfunction Genesis 16 portrays because they have been a perpetrator of abuse. God also receives glory when people confess their sins and get the help they need to stop such destructive behavior.
Again, knowing our congregation well will aid in this process of guiding people to glorify God even amid such challenging topics, circumstances, and sinful behaviors.
Preaching to people in pain is not a simple, straightforward task. It involves wisdom, discretion, humility, courage, and much love and grace.
We all suffer in different ways. My younger brother, Timothy D. Kim, was brutally murdered in the Philippines on Nov. 7, 2015, the night he was celebrating his 36th birthday. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Tim. In fact, I don’t ever want to stop thinking of him, so I keep a picture of his beautiful, smiling face in my pocket.
Yet the reality is, the grief is always there at some level. The heartache erupts like a dormant volcano every birthday — not only on Tim’s birthday, but also on mine, when I remember how Tim used to call me from wherever he was in the world.
The harrowing aide-mémoire reintroduces itself every Christmas and New Year’s as well. It comes around anytime something reminds me of Tim: his intelligence, his creativity, his boldness, his selflessness, his warmth, his humor, his smile, his myriad talents.
The pain of losing Tim resurfaces and triggers even at random moments. The trauma is still painfully fresh and raw even years later. And I know the bite of suffering is infinitely more excruciating for our parents, especially our mother.
I confess I will continue to reexperience the pain of Tim’s death in this life. It would be hard enough if he had died from natural causes. Nobody deserves to be murdered and have his or her life cut short prematurely. We don’t have all the information and answers surrounding Tim’s death, as earthly justice came to a crashing halt after a mere few weeks due to local government corruption.
In the midst of this pain, I find comfort in the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
I am sustained by supernatural peace from God above, who whispers how He understands the pain of losing someone He loved — His one and only Son, who lived a perfect life and yet died a wrongful death, only on an infinitely greater scale.
Pain often comes in waves. Chances are, many of your people are experiencing a tsunami of trauma. How will you respond pastorally and homiletically to their difficult circumstances?
You can preach to comfort those in pain, but you should also remain close to them in their suffering. Preach on their pain as you pastor them through their pain.
As you plan your next sermon or sermon series, consider the ways in which your people are hurting, and ask God to use you to minister to the brokenhearted. We worship the triune God who intimately cares for His people.
The Father never leaves us nor forsakes us (Deuteronomy 31:6). The Son emboldens us with His reminder that He has already overcome the world (John 16:33). The Holy Spirit groans and intercedes for us (Romans 8:26).
We preach to people where it hurts because God desires not to leave them wallowing in misery. He wants to transform their lives for their good and His glory.
This article is adapted from Preaching to People in Pain: How Suffering Can Shape Your Sermons and Connect with Your Congregation (Baker Academic, forthcoming in May 2021) and is used with permission. This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.