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Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

The Mingling of Les Mis with Ministry Grief

The Mingling of Les Mis with Ministry Grief

Unexpected Dealings in Unexpected Places for one Pastor’s Wife

Les Miserables held much more for me than simply a lovely Sunday afternoon shared with my husband and daughter. I did not anticipate that God would use the musical to help me face the grief that difficult years of ministry can bring.

The song “I Dreamed a Dream” began the flood of emotion. Fantine, the character broken by life’s hard journey, sings her account of her progression from youthful, naïve optimism to the harsh realities of living in a broken world. I, too, had started ministry with ideals and expectations 20 years ago. Kingdom work would be exciting. Love would conquer all.

As I sat in that movie theater and took in Fantine’s haunting words from her bleeding heart of crushed hopes, my whole being resonated with her as I reflected on my expectations for ministry. Her words were my words:

“There was a time when love was blind;
and the world was a song; and the song was exciting;
I dreamed a dream in times gone by;
when hope was high; and life worth living;
I dreamed that love would never die;
I dreamed that God would be forgiving;
then I was young and unafraid;
and dreams were made and used and wasted;
there was no ransom to be paid.”

Ransoms to Be Paid

There is always a ransom to be paid. Fantine had surrendered her idealism as she sang from her despair, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.” Her hopes and dreams were as sullied as her dress as she paid her high ransom.

After a few long, hard years of ministry, I felt like I had been paying the ransom too. There are seemingly unavoidable relational ransoms to be paid in ministry. These costs have been the cause of indescribable grief for me through the years. Young Marius, of Les Mis, describes this well in his song:

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken;
there’s a pain goes on and on;
phantom faces at the window;
phantom shadows on the floor;
empty chairs at empty tables;
where my friends will meet no more.”

Those words sting.

Relational Ransoms in Ministry

I have attempted (at times failing) to love people well in ministry. In spite of my effort, I have lost many friends over the years. Some have gone simply because they have left our church. Many feel better completely cutting ties when they leave, and so leaving the church means leaving the relationship with the pastor and his wife. Others have chosen to make sinful choices and they knew I, their pastor’s wife and friend, would attempt to hold them accountable for those choices. In choosing the path of sin, they chose to remove all of the obstacles. I was an obstacle.

I have also borne relational losses over the years from misunderstandings, theological differences, false accusations, speaking the truth in love, to name a few. Sadly, there are many friends through the years that are now “empty chairs at empty tables; where my friends will meet no more.”

I, with Fantine and Marius, cannot deny the impact and hurt of these losses. I have to fight a grueling battle with cynicism. I wholeheartedly believe that we were created for relationships and are meant to experience the blessings and beauty of true fellowship. In this, we reflect the relational beauty of the Trinitarian love of God (John 17). But often the brutal realities of relational losses in ministry overshadow what I profess to believe.

The Calling That Keeps

It is an understatement to say that these losses are painful; it can feel like one “death” after another. However, ministry is a calling and that calling does not allow those who are called to forsake it even if given the option to do so. We could not, because at some point, ministry truly became our life. Life without ministry would not be life at all. As a missionary friend put it, “There is no other life for us. There is no option. We can have the easy way, it’s there for the taking but by the amazing grace of God, we won’t.” She is right.

What keeps me pressing on even when I feel like running for the hills? Jesus Christ is the only One who has truly comforted me in all of my afflictions and given me the grace I need to persevere in love. I would have thrown in the towel years ago and begged my husband to do anything else were it not for Jesus.

Jesus Gives Greater Graces

There is no experience in ministry that Jesus has not already known in deeper ways.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

He knows the pain of searing loss in ways I will never know or endure. He poured His life out in love for His friends and was rejected, despised, forsaken, discarded, falsely accused, mistreated, and finally killed in response. I must “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that {I} may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3).

The ultimate ransom must be paid and “Jesus paid it all.” He understands deep suffering in the path of love; “but for the joy set before him, he endured, though he despised the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). My suffering is light in comparison. Because of His endurance through suffering, I can draw comfort from Him and endure. I can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” to receive “mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

These losses have been a means of transformation in my life as God has faithfully and gently used my grief to show me my own sin. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). He has not allowed my pain to be wasted; rather, He has used it to conform me into His image from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18) by allowing me to see how much hope I put in created things for ultimate happiness. I am grateful that He has used ministry disappointments to “discipline {me} for {my} good, that {I} may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).

There are times in the crucible of ministry that I have felt like I can’t do what I know I must. Everything in me cries, “I can’t!” These are the moments that I have truly learned that apart from Him I can do nothing (John 15:5). Yet I have also experienced His strength buttress that weakness. “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,’” and I can be “”content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). There has been nothing like ministry that has caused me to acknowledge, accept and own my utter inability, cling to His strength, and say, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Jesus has faithfully comforted, changed, and strengthened me through every excruciating ministry loss. He has met me with more grace, encouraging me to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees” (Hebrews 12:12), to “not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3), but rather to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Will You Give All You Can Give?

With every experience of loss from the brokenness that results from sin, let us be emboldened to speak louder and bolder about the liberating gospel that frees us from the slavery of sin. Let all who are angered by this brokenness sing the closing song of Les Mis together:

“Do you hear the people sing;
singing the song of angry men;
it is the music of a people;
who will not be slaves again;
will you give all you can give;
so that our banner may advance;
some will fall and some will live;
will you stand up and take your chance?”

At the end of the day, it’s worth it because He is worth it!

Join the Conversation

When life killed the dream you dreamed, how did Christ’s resurrection power bring you new life and hope?

This entry was posted in Bitterness, Christian Living, Grief/Loss, People in Need of Care, People Who Offer Care, People Who Train Caregivers, Sadness, Sanctification, Shame and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • LTutt

    Keri, I relate to this more than I can say. Ministry to the Body of Christ has been unspeakably painful for me – it’s primarily been a process of laying down idol after idol, being forced to to let go of relational and church expectations over and over again, often good things that I never imagined God would require us to lay down. Hurt after little hurt adds up to a mountain of grief. At times I find myself fighting despair because of the “Dual Evils” of sin without and sin within. I cling to the promise that someday we will be fully and wholly made NEW because Jesus has already conquered. I take comfort in Romans 8 and the truth that we are not alone – all of creation is also groaning with us, awaiting the day when our identity will be finally and fully realized and Jesus will make all things right.

    • Keri Seavey

      You said it so well… idol after idol, hurt after hurt, adding up to a mountain of guilt. I understand. Really, I do. Sometimes, I am helped just knowing that someone else really does “get it” because often it feels like such a lonely road. But, you are not alone. More importantly, we are not alone. He is with us and he understands! And he is making all things right, as you said. Praying for you!!

  • RB

    Thank you for making this connection. Watching Les Mis I was also struck by the aloneness of Fantine & Jan Valjean. Watching soul after soul flee from the Light of the World, dreams dying, and then–so many solo pastors, so alone in their passion, their sorrow. Oh there is indeed a fellowship of Fantines out there! But, as you so abundantly outlined–it is ultimately a fellowship in which we can say: ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.’ For I marvel, not every day but surely every year, that the ‘righteous on falls seven times, and [by the cheering grace of Jesus] rises again’! Thank you

  • SW

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been at such a similar place in ministry and I too sat crying through Les Mis for similar reasons. I love the Gospel in this latest version of Les Mis. It is everywhere! Thank you for sharing your heart in this. The Lord has used your words, your brokenness, your heart for people, to ministry to me and get me back on my feet. Praise God!

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