Their child had only begun showing symptoms two days earlier. Deeply concerned from the beginning, they tried not to panic but called the doctor promptly, only to be told to take their son to the emergency room immediately. The staff made a valiant effort, martialing every medical resource to fight the meningitis, but to no avail. I stood with the parents as the mortician took their baby boy’s body away.
Theology never mattered more than when the heartbroken mother asked two questions. “Why did God do this? Will I see my baby again?”
A medical doctor can medicate that mother and numb her bleak agony. A psychologist or social worker can share coping mechanisms to navigate the overwhelming flood of anguish she feels. The task of a pastor, however, extends far beyond numbing or even coping with the pain. The pastor has the most difficult and most liberating truth to share. He has to point them to the glory of God in their pain. Nothing could be more inherently theological than that.
Done correctly, biblical pastoral ministry is inherently theological because, unlike secular counselors, psychologists, and social workers, pastors deal with the eternal and spiritual nature of things. When a married couple struggles, for instance, they can find many resources that might help them get along better or even lead them to the elusive goal of finding happiness—in this life. A pastor, however, has the task of pointing them to God’s design in the creation of the world as well as our destiny in the consummation of the age. Marriage looks back to the Garden of Eden and forward to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. No secular counselor will ever tell a married couple “Your marriage is not about you, or your happiness, or your fulfillment.” They will, in fact, tell them quite the opposite.
The pastor, however, knows a theological truth that the world does not acknowledge: the chief end of humanity is to know God and to enjoy him forever! That is a theological truth and that shapes the way we live our lives, perform at our jobs, choose and marry a spouse, live in marriage, have children, sorrow in our losses, bury our dead, and grow old and die. We will never see that the struggles and sorrows of this world are but a slight momentary affliction if we do not comprehend the eternal weight of glory for which they prepare us.
Not only is the pastor no different from secular counselors without theology, he is in some ways worse. He’s usually less trained and less experienced than his secular counterparts and cannot offer the expertise that others possess. But when he is equipped with the Word of God, grounded in the truth, filled with the Spirit, called by God, and yielded to Christ, he is able to point them to a transcendent God who is sovereign and faithful. Steeped in a Christocentric theology, the pastor can hold out a hope through the Gospel that transforms our suffering and our struggles so that we more than conquerors through him who loved us!
That theological understanding of the world has to saturate everything the pastor says and does. Expository preaching that teaches the congregation the Word as well as how to understand it is essential. Systematic and comprehensive teaching helps a congregation get on solid theological footing before tragedy comes. A church doesn’t need a theological world view only in sorrows but in everyday life. That theology shapes and sharpens our understanding of everything. The Bible has to be the filter through which we process every event and every thought. In other words, theology becomes ontological. God’s truth is the air we breathe, the thing that sustains our lives. The pastor has a unique role in helping his congregation think biblically and theologically about everything.
My answers to that mother’s questions were not glib nor trite. Her struggle to understand and to trust God in this moment was the same struggle that saints of God like Job, Habakkuk, David, and Paul felt millennia ago. She was not wrong to ask the questions nor to acknowledge the bitter sting of grief. But through the truth of God’s Word, I had real answers for her. They were not the kind of platitudes that purport to explain the secret things of God, but they did provide her with a definite hope that nothing but the Spirit of God could provide.
Theology is ultimately the story of God and his redemption. A pastor-theologian helps his people discover that their story—even in its struggling, painful dimensions—is part of that marvelous, grand story of God and his glory.
Hershael York is the Senior Pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is also the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching and Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.