Pastor, God may lavish you with uncomfortable grace
The pages of Scripture overflow with the doctrine of uncomfortable grace.
A few years ago, I took a pastorate with the goal of shepherding that flock faithfully for at least 25 years. I told them as much after an overwhelming majority of members voted for me to occupy the sacred office. It was a mandate, and I pushed offshore for what I hoped would be at minimum a quarter century of preaching God’s Word and leading God’s people.
But the seas of local church ministry were hurricane-rough from day one.
My goal was not God’s goal.
I stayed for a little more than three years—each year more deeply painful than the one before. Every ministerial and theological “button” I pushed—including things clearly mandated in Scripture—seemed to be the wrong one. Every decision I made, every piece of vision I cast, every change I sought to implement—no matter how careful my approach—triggered an avalanche of discontent, dissension, and unrest. At one point I grew paranoid like the young Martin Luther, wondering if God was disciplining me for some unconfessed sin.
I questioned my call to ministry. I questioned my salvation. Toward the end I even questioned my sanity, as the tentacles of depression clamped onto my heart and mind, their iron grip wringing me dry of vigor and joy. Maalox and 5-hour Energy became dietary staples.
Surely, I was under the wrath of an angry God. I reflected wearily on Jonah’s narrative—I could run, but could not hide. It robbed all my strength, exposing a zero balance in my bank account of wisdom.
Over time, I’ve gradually realized God was actually pouring love and mercy on me. Those explosive elders’ meetings? Grace. Those awkward get-togethers with families abandoning us for the “going” church across town? Grace. The folks who thought my preaching was too dry, too theological, too pointed, and didn’t include enough homespun stories? Grace. My empty fund of wisdom and human resolve? Grace.
Amazing (Uncomfortable) Grace
But the form of grace God delivered wasn’t the kind our mind typically runs to when we ponder the term. It was what Paul Tripp calls “uncomfortable grace.”
When we think of God’s grace, we typically think of blessing, humanly defined: the savings account is full; the church is responding well to our leading and preaching; the children are excelling in school, music, and sports; there are backslaps and smiles all around for our competent service of God’s church. And yes, those things sometimes happen and are products of God’s loving-kindness.
But there’s a side to grace we seldom celebrate, a side that seems a little too dark for rejoicing. But God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). And in a day when a demonic prosperity “gospel” is spreading worldwide, we desperately need to recover a theology of uncomfortable grace.
What is uncomfortable grace? It’s when God gives you what you need, not what you want. I wanted 25 years. God wanted slightly more than three. Jonah wanted respite in Tarshish. God wanted revival in Ninevah. God won—and it was mercy all, immense and free.
In the Scriptures
The pages of Scripture overflow with the doctrine of uncomfortable grace, a subcategory of God’s loving and meticulous sovereignty.
Joseph wanted a friendly visit with his brothers in Shechem, but their murderous jealousy stripped him of dignity and left him a slave. In Egypt he was imprisoned, double-crossed by Potiphar’s wife and Pharaoh’s cupbearer. But God made him a prince and used him as an instrument of rescue for the Hebrew nation. What some intended for evil—it no doubt felt wicked to Joseph—God intended for good.
The Book of Psalms also bristles with the “other” side of God’s mercy. One psalmist sings of how God kept Israel’s foot from slipping, and brought them to a place of abundance, but not before:
You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water. (Ps. 66:10–12)
Paul wanted to preach the gospel in Asia (Acts 16:6)—a noble desire if ever there was one—but God slammed that door, and spirited the apostle and his companions to Troas, where Lydia was converted. Then it was on to Macedonia, where imprisonment and affliction awaited. There, the apostle was molded into a pastor.
And we see this at Gethsemane. Jesus petitioned the Father to let the cup of wrath remain upright. Yet “it was the LORD’s will to crush him” (Isa. 53:10). The cross of Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of uncomfortable grace.
In church history
Throughout history, God’s choicest servants—both well-known and unknown—have benefited from such grace.
Athanasius defended Christ’s incarnation and helped orthodoxy defeat Arius’s heresy. His reward? Exiled five times.
Martin Luther stood before the imperial diet at Worms in 1521, planted his feet on the rock of Scripture, and courageously faced down the unbiblical teaching and practices of the Roman church, risking his life. In his wake, God stirred up the most glorious revolution in the church since Pentecost. We celebrated the 500th anniversary last year.
John Bunyan spent a dozen years in prison for preaching the gospel, vowing he would be “preaching it again by this time tomorrow” should he be released. Behind bars and amid squalid, disease-ridden conditions, he wrote one of the best-known books in Christian history. Millions read it today and become more like Christ.
Charles Spurgeon waged war with severe depression and anxiety in the years following the 1856 Surrey Garden Music Hall disaster, which left seven dead and 21 seriously injured. A frightening stampede broke out as the young preacher stood in the pulpit delivering the gospel. Today, millions benefit from a man God made one of history’s most published and beloved preachers. The vessel was broken, but the ointment spilled has healed millions.
We see it in the life of Joni Eareckson Tada, rendered a quadriplegic at 18 when she dove into shallow water, fracturing her spinal column. Following this tragedy, Joni sought to build a path away from God, one paved with doubt, anger, and suicidal thoughts. But God arrested her as a herald for the good news of rescue through his Son. God broke her. God healed her.
We see it often in pastoral ministry because, as A. W. Tozer famously wrote, God must wound a man deeply before he uses him greatly. My three-year tour and the heartache it entailed is not novel. All of us in ministry and many in the pew can recall instances of believers whom God has shown sanctifying mercy by dashing them hard against the Rock of Ages.
In our hearts
Paul Tripp points out that uncomfortable grace is one of God’s choicest gifts. And it should reform the way we view God and ourselves:
You are tempted to think that because you’re God’s child, your life should be easier, more predictable, and definitely more comfortable. . . . [But] struggles are a part of God’s plan for you. . . . You must not allow yourself to think God has turned his back on you. You must not let yourself begin to buy into the possibility that God is not as trustworthy as you thought him to be. . . . When you begin to doubt God’s goodness, you quit going to him for help. You don’t run for help to those characters you have come to doubt. God has chosen to let you live in this fallen world because he plans to employ the difficulties of it to continue and complete his work in you. This means that those moments of difficulty are not an interruption of his plan or the failure of his plan, but rather an important part of his plan. I think there are times for many of us when we cry out for God’s grace and we get it—but not the grace we’re looking for. . . . It comes in the form of something we would never have chosen if we were controlling the joystick.
I am a far different man today, thanks to those three gut-wrenching years in my first full-time pastorate. God used it as dynamite to raze my foolish pride. He used it as a hammer to smash ten thousand idols that warred over the throne of my heart. He reminded me that he is big, and that I am small. It was awful. It was life-disrupting. It was jarring and painful in ways I may never fathom. But though I lacked the spectacles to see it then, it was also glorious.
It was uncomfortable grace, and I am grateful for it.
God is God and we are not—a liberating truth for sons and daughters of Adam. My own outcome could have been profoundly different. Monsters like anger, bitterness, and desire for revenge haunted my heart and mind’s darker rooms. But grace drove them out. I was tempted to question God’s wisdom. But through meditation on Scripture (especially the Psalms) and prayer, he eventually helped me to grasp experientially the truth of Isaiah 55:8: “My ways are not your ways.” In love for us, God takes us down roads we never would have traveled on our own. They all lead to him (Rom. 8:28).
Many circumstances will break into your life that you simply will not understand. In those times, don’t hesitate to praise your loving Father for humbling, transforming, uncomfortable grace. He knows how to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:7–11), even if they arrive in the wrapping of pain.
Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is editor of the Southern Seminary blog. He is pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Louisville, serves as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition, and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014) and co-editor with D. A. Carson of Coming Home: Essays on the New Heaven and New Earth (Crossway) co-editor with Collin Hansen of and 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway) and 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry (Baker). Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children.