John Newton (1725-1807) was a former slave ship captain turned pastor in England. He is well-known for his famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” but during his lifetime, he was most known for the grace found in his letters. Newton shepherded many people, including those outside his parish, through writing letters. They are rich, doctrine filled correspondences to people facing all sorts of circumstances. Some of the recipients of his letters were other pastors and ministers. The most frequent subject Newton addressed with those pastors was suffering and trials.
As a pastor who is currently enduring trials in my own life, Newton’s words to pastors on suffering are incredibly timely and needful. They have been a balm to my soul during my trials. Newton is wonderfully pastoral, lodging the truths of Scripture into the hearts of hurting people with pinpoint accuracy. His letters show many reasons why God would permit His servants to undergo fiery trials of many kinds. I will highlight three reasons here that stood out to me.
1. We can speak from first-hand knowledge.
Innumerable are the trials, fears, companies and temptations which the Lord’s people are beset with; some in one way, and some in another; the minister must, as it were, have a taste of all, or it might happen a case might come before him to which he had nothing to say.1
People are hurting. Many of the people in our congregations are experiencing terrible trials and afflictions. As pastors, we must have our taste as well. It is one thing to hear of others struggles or to talk about them in an application of a message, but to know them first-hand is different. Newton shows that without these afflictions, we may encounter situations with congregants in which we would have nothing to say. This does not mean we must—Lord, willing—experience every possible affliction, but it certainly means we must experience enough to speak as a fellow-sufferers, not as those detached from the groans of those whom we pastor.
2. We will be sympathetic towards suffering people.
Newton instructs us,
And we need them [trials] likewise to bring our hard hearts into a feeling disposition and sympathy with those who suffer: otherwise we should be too busy or too happy to attend unto their moans.2
The pastorate is a busy profession. There are sermons to write, meetings to lead, ministries to support, saints to equip, and many other demands. Newton warns that if we escape the fiery furnace in our own lives, we may develop hardened hearts that fail to sympathize with suffering people. The busy life of ministry may keep us from tending to the moans of the hurting. Our own painless life may make us indifferent towards those with much pain. By knowing suffering personally, we find our own hearts more sympathetic and pastoral to those who are hurting. When we have been in the furnace, we can sympathize with those in it now, and be moved to minister the truths of the gospel to them.
3. We can demonstrate the truthfulness of what we preach.
Newton writes to one pastor,
May you rather be an example and pattern to the flock; and in this view, be not surprised if you yourself meet some hard usage; rather rejoice, that you will thereby have an opportunity to exemplify your own rules, and to convince your people, that what you recommend to them you do not speak by rote, but from the experience of your heart.3
Our trials and pains as pastors give us a chance to prove the truthfulness of what we preach. The old adage “practice what you preach” is able to be lived out amongst the watching eyes of those we pastor. We can show by our lives, that what we preach week-in-and-week-out is not the opinions of man or shallow self-help philosophy. No, we preach a gospel that saves. We preach a Christ that comforts the hurting, gives peace to those who ask, and provides rest for the weary souls who heed his call to “come.” We do not preach theory. We preach what we ourselves have found by experience is true. This powerfully undergirds our preaching with a validity that only afflictions can provide.
We should be willing to speak openly about our hurts and pains. Being transparent and vulnerable in front of those we lead fosters a culture of honesty within the church. Too many churches are levied with the charge of being fake and pretentious. Sharing about our trials openly, and demonstrating that Christ is more than enough for us in those times, combats this charge and ministers to our people.
1– Letters of John Newton. Banner of Truth. Reprinted 2015, p.145.
2– ibid p.145.
3– ibid, p.45.