Pastoral Care Under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering
Richard C. Eyer,
Concordia Publishing House, 1994
Twenty-five years ago pastoral care seemed indistinguishable from counseling in seminary training and in much practice. I felt inadequate in the counseling role; I wish there had been this kind of resource during my seminary years. In fact, all Lutheran congregations and pastors could have greatly benefited from this book by Richard Eye. At the time of writing Eyer had served as chaplain for 20 years, and the book reveals both his theological understanding of pastoral care and his practical application of that understanding. By doing so, he avoids writing that has that “dated” feeling, which permeates most “practical” books. Thus, the application of the book is not confined to a decade of experiences, but spans the experience of the Church, regardless of era. His writing style is fresh and simple, but never simplistic.
The structure of the book is both useful and theologically significant. The first part has four chapters that focus on the context of pastoral care, the second part has seven chapters in which he applies the truths of the first part to specific pastoral situations. He begins each chapter with a poem that he has written at various times during his chaplaincy, poems that are specific to the content of that particular chapter. I have never been a big fan of poetry, but a few of his poems struck me in the heart, not the brain, which I believe is what he intended. His typical pattern is to provide a key insight for the chapter, then mix practical examples and theology into a interlocking pattern for advancing his theme – he is very effective in doing so.
Eyer presents the over-arching theme of “the theology of the cross,” not in the sense of a dogmatic treatise, but rather as the foundation which informs and guides both parts of the presentation. Under this umbrella of the theology of the cross, Eyer offers insightful statements that set apart his book from most “pastor as counselor” writings.
Pastoral care has been understood traditionally to be the uninvited spiritual nurturing of those suffering some kind of helplessness and loss of control over life. It is modeled after God’s care of us following Eden… But this Biblical notion of the cure of souls and the spiritual care of others is a far cry from popular ideas of what today can only be called secular spiritual care (page 13).
In this introductory paragraph, Eyer sets forth that which is right and true of pastoral care and the dangers which intrude upon the pastor in fulfilling his responsibilities. In distinguishing pastoral care from psychology, Eyer writes: “Pastoral care is unique. It does not derive its substance from the culture nor its legitimacy from the medical profession” (page 23). In the Epilog, he reaches back to his original definition of pastoral care and amplifies it: “The uninvited aspect emphasizes the pastor’s initiative rather than the sufferer’s in addressing suffering. The pastor has an invitation from God, if not from the patient” (page 148). He could not have stated more clearly the distinctive calling that the pastor has in the midst of suffering.
Eyer declares that the cross is the paradigm for pastoral care. “The premise … is that pastoral care consists not in removing someone’s suffering but in helping the sufferer learn to interpret his or her sufferings in the light of the cross” (p. 24). Not only is that a crucial insight for his thesis, but it relieves a burden for the pastor, a burden that is sometimes placed by congregational expectations or even by conscience. This also helps the pastor move away from being “just another care giver” like the doctor, nurse, or psychiatrist. By doing so, Eyer shifts the focus of pastoral care to the theology of the cross rather than the theology of glory. The tremendous societal pressure to “heal the disease” causes even Christians to succumb to the temptation to get healing wherever – if not from the doctor or psychiatrist or pills, then at least from the pastor. Eyer writes, “If pastoral care consists not in doing something to remove suffering but in interpreting suffering in the light of the cross, then we must begin with what God chooses to reveal, not with what people want God to reveal.” If not reconsidered this way, many end up with this amusing, yet tragic state in which they do not justify themselves but demand that God justify himself concerning this suffering. As he shows, the question has to shift from “Why is God doing this?” to “Where is God in my suffering?” This provides the link between the suffering of this one, to the suffering The One, namely Christ.
Eyer then moves to a critical, often neglected or ignored topic, the pastor who gives pastoral care. That is, the spiritual state of the pastoral care giver is critical and must be addressed honestly in light of the theology of the cross. This is not a matter of baring our pastoral souls, which is really self-centered, but a matter of self awareness of our own needs, dependencies, vulnerabilities, and blind spots. The sense of helplessness that we as pastors experience in our pastoral is not something to be avoided, but recognized, even though “feeling helpless never feels good” (p. 36). Note the contrast in theologies: “To take charge is to succumb to the temptation to espouse the theology of glory, whereas a willingness to feel helpless in the face of suffering may be called faithful” (p. 36). Eyer urges Christians to examine their psychological makeup. But he warns, “Christians look inwardly, with the aim of repentance over what they may find there; whereas pop psychology invites us to look inwardly only to indulge and accept whatever is found there” (p. 37). The key according to Eyer is for us to understand where we are weak and what motivates us. Then as the theology of the cross applies to us in our weaknesses, we can model for our parishioners how to care for themselves spiritually, characterized by grace and faithfulness. That can seem monumental, but only if we are looking to ourselves for the answers, strength, and encouragement. And finally pastors are challenged to set the priorities of life: wife first, children next, and then parishioners. An emergency can rightly alter the priority, but we need to return to the above priorities as soon as possible. Behind all this looms the concern for the pastor’s spiritual growth. How often have pastors fallen into the “professional” trap of reading the Bible for a sermon, a Bible study, a visitation rather than for personal growth? Truly 2 Peter 3:17-18 applies to all Christians, including or especially pastors.
On the basis of this personal, pastoral evaluation and assessment, Eyer explores the reality of suffering and sickness in light of the cross. He makes two critical distinctions. First, for understanding pastoral care, pain and suffering are not the same thing. “Pain can be defined as a greater or lesser degree of physical comfort…. Suffering can be defined as the existential anxiety, fear, worry, or hopelessness that may or may not accompany pain. Suffering is a reaction to pain” (p. 44). In an age that is dominated by the need to control pain, we also live in a world that cannot seem to deal with suffering. Eyer notes, “opportunity to provide spiritual care to those who are suffering is greater than ever, and for pastors it can be an important aspect of pastoral care” (p. 44). For contemporary Christians the shift is evident in the question asked in the midst of pain; today the question is “Why am I suffering?” whereas in ages past the question was “What shall my response be to God in the midst of it?” Because the world encourages a fragmented view of the physical and spiritual, leading to life without meaning or coherence, the key for pastoral care consists in reuniting the physical and spiritual, not by forcing this upon the person, but allowing the person discover this unity for himself or herself.
Second, theodicy and theology of the cross are distinct. “Theodicy is the attempt to justify the ways of God to a suffering world” (p. 46). This theme exploited by Harold Kushner (Why Bad Things Happen to Good People) obscures the real need, namely for the suffering person to be justified before God, by God. Kushner’s view influenced Christian theodicy, which reasons:
* “God is just testing you to see if you will remain faithful.”
* “God is punishing you for what you have done.”
* “God is trying to teach you something.”
* “God has a plan for you, and this is part of it.”
Pastoral care does not follow the path of theodicy, for “who can know the mind of God?” (1 Cor. 2:16). The pastor can be most effective when realizing that “interpretation of suffering is better made by the sufferer than by another person, and retrospectively rather than prospectively” (p. 47). I think this approach challenges the pastor to focus on faithfulness during suffering. Can we do that? According to the theology of the cross, we can, and must, follow this course.
In light of the popularity of the “health, wealth Gospel” movements of today Eyer provides a Biblical response showing the connection between faith, healing, and the cross. Faith does not deny nor ignore the need for medicine and doctors. At the same time faith cannot not be a “last resort, since everything else has failed,” nor “it can’t hurt” kind of approach. Nor is faith twisting God’s arm to conform to our desires. Such statements ignore the connection between the physical and the spiritual, and the connections that God had established. And yet, as we can all attest, not everyone is healed when we pray for such healing. Not even in Jesus’ earthly ministry were all healed. As Eyer sets the perspective in eschatological context: “God sprinkles gracious ‘drops of healing’ from the heavens that fall on the just and unjust alike. Some are touched and healed, others are not; but all who experience or witness the healing of one’s many ills are given a hint of things to come in Christ” (p. 55). Sickness is related to sin and forgiveness of sins, but not as many think. “The connection between sickness, sin, and the need for forgiveness of sins is ultimately deeper than particular sins” (p.57). Finally Eyer connects faith, healing and the cross, “Faith is always an open receptacle, not the power line to control a heavenly computer” (p. 59).
In part 2 of the book, Eyer then applies the key understandings of the first four chapters to specific ministry opportunities. Each of these present the pastor with unique challenges to not shirk from the requirements of pastoral care, despite what the world or even the “organized church” proclaims. These circumstances reflect the “valley of the shadow of death,” and become the tempering fire in which to apply the theology of the cross.
* The Elderly
* Mental Illness
* Medical Ethics
Particularly helpful are his insights into the role of the pastor in ethical decision-making. The pastor serves as advocate, clarifier, communicator, and truth-sayer; this allows the pastor to function as pastor and to be a spokesman for God in the midst of circumstances and ethics that are shaped by a God-less world. Thus, the pastor is not just another member of the healing team but a vital voice for the patient, the family, and the team.
In light of this book, I was taken back, surprised, illuminated, and challenged by what Eyer wrote. At times pastoral care is given short shrift in pastoral training and continuing education, often being transformed into a cheap form of counseling. Many of the hard knocks I learned about pastoral care could have been avoided, had I had access to a resource such as this book. Eyer clearly and coherently summarizes the key point of this book:
What makes the theology of the cross absolutely essential in pastoral care is the danger each person faces who attempts to take matters of suffering and helplessness into his own hands and out of the hands of God…. Pastoral care… focuses not on the removal of suffering but on bearing one another’s burdens and pointing the sufferer to the cross (p. 149)
Book Review by Rev. R. Shields, August 2007