Writings by Cole Huffman

Pastor Sisyphus and Filling with Kenosis

I’ve been at this long enough to say pastoral ministry is supposed to be self-emptying. If it’s not you’re not doing it right.

The Greek word is kenosis, used in Philippians 2 of Jesus’ own self-emptying. The word came to mind recently, almost serendipitously, talking with a friend about his pastorate. He was where a lot of us pastors have been (some of us still are): That place where you recognize in yourself the disappointment that is finding the church you got is not the church you wanted. (When the church feels this about her pastor is another post.) Most pastors can empathize. Like Jacob, we jumped into bed for Rachel. But behold, it was Leah!

Yes, laymen can and should take us to task for this—tell us we’re a selfish lot who ought to be more grateful to have any church. We are selfish and we should be more grateful. Precisely why I submit to you kenosis is the mark of pastoring rightly. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can put himself up for pastoring a church and many do so with little to no kenosis. We have more self-promotion than we need, more using of the people of God than personally serving them.

It’s not an achievement, kenosis. In experience it’s more like Sisyphus on a roll. Disregard that his sentence to repeatedly push a big stone uphill again and again was punishment for his duplicities. The pastorate is not a sentence or punishment. God is not Zeus, or Laban for that matter. But there is a big stone to push in pastoring people well, and pushing it is not monotonous but kenosis 

In his recent book The Pastor’s Justification, Jared Wilson puts it like this:

“When we seek the position [pastor] without its problems, we stifle our sanctification. Many times ministry feels like running on a treadmill. There are places I want to go, mountains I want to climb, objectives I want to reach. And the church says she wants to accomplish those things too. A couple calls for counseling. It’s an emergency. They are on the brink of calling it quits. He is too silent; she is too much of a nag. They’ve put years into their dysfunction, and it now feels helpless. We meet, and I listen and mediate. I give some insight, some instructions, and a good dose of gospel. Week after week, they make slow and steady progress. Something comes up that prevents us meeting one week, then perhaps a second. By week three, they are on the verge of divorce again. The stone has rolled back to the bottom of the hill….” (77)

Been there, done that, will again. But Wilson’s first line is worth repeating: When we seek to pastor without its problems it’s not just that we avoid the depletions of Jacob-versus-Leah marriage counseling, we stifle our own sanctification. We avoid the filling of kenosis, if I may put it so. Kenosis is in the dead center of pastoral sanctification.

As Ajith Fernando put it, you will suffer pain if you commit yourself to people. He, a Sri Lankan, has written about interacting with church leaders in the West and detecting a curious relief when they refer to some stretch of personal suffering now passed as if such stretches are the unusual experiences. Nobody wants suffering of course—in the East or West—and yet those stretches probably accomplish more pure sanctification in and through us than any other effort we make. Kenosis accepts a measure of suffering.

Are you in a church that doesn’t exactly “fit” you, like my aforementioned friend? I know. There is a kind of suffering in that. But praise God for it. He is filling you with kenosis, something you and I need more than we know and wouldn’t seek for ourselves if left up to us. Wilson punctuates it: “Evangelicals have so effectively promoted the idol of success that it is rare to find a pastor who understands that starting over each day is ministry.” (78, emphasis mine)

Starting over each day is ministry, Pastor Sisyphus. Understand this and you’re filling with kenosis. This doesn’t mean you settle for mediocrity or shrug if people don’t conform to the image of Christ. You’ll see people conform to Jesus by directing them again and again and again and again (Sisyphus) to draw into God’s grace for them. It’s uphill a lot but you’re not home yet.

You’ll conform to Jesus too, filling up on kenosis, and be less self-pitying, less self-pampering. You’ll learn how to love people for themselves and not for whether they flatter your sense of self. You’ll stop dismissing them and accusing them (see Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s timeless confrontation of pastors on this point in his Life Together) and believe in them. You’ll become a man in ministry, my son.

A man goes before us in this, such that talk of rolling stones isn’t really such an odd idea to us. With the stone rolled from the empty tomb His huddled disciples got full of kenosis—finally—and the world was turned upside-down. Jesus is building His church, full of misfits and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” (Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation”). Why, exactly, don’t you think this is you too?

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:42 AM
Share |