From the pace at which you tell a joke to the pause before the punch line, comedians know that you get a laugh if you get the timing right. And they know that even the best jokes can be ruined by a bad delivery.
Something similar, I suspect, is true of the pastoral care of individuals.
Imagine this. You rush to your local hospital after a phone call from a couple in your church. Their first-born baby has been admitted to the emergency department with a raging temperature and a rash that is spreading rapidly and which their GP didn’t like the look of.
By the time you arrive the diagnosis of meningitis has been confirmed. You are still gathering information from them in a private room when the casualty doctor arrives. He looks close to tears himself. He is so very sorry … there was nothing they could do … their baby is dead. A gasp from the mother, a stifled cry of anguish from the father. And then the tears begin.
Then, as you put your arm around their shoulders, you speak the words you feel sure they most need to hear: ‘Don’t cry, it will turn out well. You’ll see. Remember Romans 8.28: ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him.’
Sensitivity to the moment
Well, actually, no. You don’t say that. At least not if you have an ounce of pastoral compassion in your body. It’s neither wise nor loving. Indeed, if this is your pastoral strategy for such moments, you might want to consider getting some body armour for protection!
But Romans 8.28 is true, isn’t it? And these are the words of the living God, aren’t they? Which means that, hard as it may be to fathom, we do believe even a tragedy like this is within the compass of our sovereign and loving God. So, what, exactly, is the problem with using this verse?
The problem, of course, is in the timing.
Jumping in too soon
In due course this may be the very verse to which this grieving couple turn to find comfort and hope. But even if it will one day be a balm to their hurting souls, as they hold their dead baby it is more like a knife turning in the wound. Why? Because it is coming too soon. There is a time to speak this verse, but that time comes after you have sat with them in stunned silence, after you have heard them speak of their anguish and pain and after you have wept with them (after all, even Jesus wept in the face of loss). All those things need to come first.
Getting the timing right is vital in every kind of ministry. There is, as Ecclesiastes puts it, a time for everything (chapter 3.1). Wisdom means knowing when that time has arrived and when it hasn’t. If we treat Romans 8 like a quick fix panacea, we will speak it too quickly and it will sound trite and glib. As though the God who stands behind this truth neither understands nor cares about our suffering and pain.
The same is true of all sorts of biblical truth. We are more than mouthpieces, we must also embody the love of the one of whom we speak. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was like that of a nursing mother caring for her children. He shared with them not only the gospel of God, but also his very life as well. (1 Thessalonians 2.8). We must do no less.
A good comic is in tune with their audience, each joke perfectly timed, building on the laughter of the one before. Wisdom in pastoral ministry means being in tune with those to whom we minister. We aren’t distant experts, dispensing biblical truth in relationally wooden ways. To care well for others, we first have to understand them. For it’s not just knowing which truth is needed, but knowing when it is needed as well. Because it is all in the timing.
No wonder Gregory the Great said that the care of souls was the ‘art of arts’.
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