?The recent presidential election served to remind us on a number of occasions that even in what is sometimes called “post-Christian America,” a pastor’s role can be a very influential one. The importance of pastors and preachers and their effect on people in powerful places is nothing new.
Stories abound of how, after the death of his 11-year-old son Willie, Abraham Lincoln went into severe periods of grief. In those dark days of early 1862, Lincoln looked often to Presbyterian preacher Phineas D. Gurley, whose church Lincoln attended but never joined, for a word of comfort. In the eulogy for Willie, Gurley preached that when tragedy comes, one must look to “Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well.”
He also said that when one trusts God, “our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing, ‘It is good for us that we have been afflicted.’” Dr. Gurley paraphrased Psalm 119:71. Such was the influence of Gurley’s words that it was reported that after Willie’s service, Lincoln asked Gurley for the words of the eulogy and that they became his life raft during his intense sorrow.
What a strange word this is: “It is good for me that I was afflicted.” I do not like it, but there it is. Despite it, it is amazing to me that there are still some people in the church who have bought into the erroneous notion that Christ always shields His followers from pain and heartbreak. Try telling that to the faithful pastors I know who have suffered through cancer with their children and lost the battle-at least for now. Or tell it to a dear friend of mine, head of the most effective cross-cultural program of evangelism I know, whose son was delivered brain damaged by a drunk obstetrician and lived with the effects of medical mistakes for over 30 years. Christ preserves us from suffering? Hardly!
In fact, the opposite is the truth, not just for presidents but also for preachers! Some of the best sermons I have heard were preached against a backdrop of the preacher’s personal heartbreak. Scott, one of my best preaching students at Erskine seminary, preaches from the wheelchair in which he spends most of his waking hours. He has a well-figured plan for how he will minister effectively from that wheelchair after graduation.
When Scott preached his junior class sermon on suffering, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the seminary chapel. I could only wish that more among the followers of Christ knew what Scott and some of the early saints meant when they spoke of the gracious wounds of the Holy Spirit. I told him after he preached, “Scott, you preach a better sermon without opening your mouth than I have ever preached!”
Another student of mine grew up with a withered arm and hand. He left his wife and family in God’s care in East Africa for three years while he took advantage of an opportunity to study in the United States so that he might be better prepared to go home afterward and teach students in his home country. He and Scott understand firsthand what I am trying to say to all of us here: Great saints of the church in every age have been more effective because they experienced personal wounds of body and soul.
In every generation, the people God has used most effectively have been those who have lived against experiences bigger than themselves and who, in such circumstances, have thrown themselves on the mercy and grace of a loving, purposeful God.
When affliction comes, we are faced with three choices, whether president or pastor. The first is to follow the counsel of Job’s wife and “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Thus, we might imagine, we can end our hard lot. The second is to abandon all faith in God and merely live on painkillers of the legal or illegal kind. The third is to put our energies into discovering God in the face of affliction. When we choose the third, we are ready to minister at a deeper level than ever before; and, I suspect, our best sermons will be preached before we open our mouths to speak. 

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