Monday, July 15, 2013

The pain of numbness

This is a personal, confessional piece. My hope is that it will offer comfort and clarity to those who shepherd God's flock.

Being a pastor is not just spiritually intense. Whether it is our job, or something we do over and above our careers, it is a relationally and emotionally intense calling, often for prolonged periods of time. And one of the most serious consequences of living with this kind of intensity is that you can begin to feel numb after a while.

By numb, I do not mean that you cease to care. Hopefully not.
By numb, I mean that you are unable to feel with the appropriate depth of emotion in a particular situation. And it's not for lack of trying. Try as you may, feeling seems beyond your grasp.

You may find yourself listening to someone in your flock. They may be experiencing the agony of betrayal, the discouragement of hope deferred, the shame of their own unfaithfulness, or the grief of losing a loved one. Sometimes they are sitting there because they are disappointed with you. Other times it is someone telling you about the joy of answered prayer, the wonder of freshly-found freedom, or the mystery of a deep encounter with God.

And as they speak, you are attentive, trying to empathize, doing your best to say something helpful, and yet you are thinking at the same time, "I am not feeling what I should be for this person."

It is not that your heart is empty. If your heart were a cup, the cup is actually too full. Full of people's sorrow, frustration, shame, joy, wonder. There is no more room in the cup. You so desperately want to feel. But you feel, well, numb. Maybe another helpful metaphor is painting a picture. I remember learning to paint at pre-school. The more colors I used together, the less colorful the painting seemed to get. They smudged together for a generally gray hue. That may describe the emotional landscape of a numb pastor - just kind of gray.

This is serious if our ministry is priestly. Being priestly means that like Jesus, we sympathize with people's weaknesses, aiming to see them reconciled to God and people. If we are unable to sympathize we are really unable to reconcile. We will just regurgitate principles and remedies according to a prior situational template. And it will leave people feeling like projects.

The question to ask then is, "What is an  appropriate and sustainable way to feel?"

I have known some pastors that have been unable to reign in their emotions. They almost feel too much. They are empathetic in an unsustainable way. They blow out or burn out in some way.  That is for another blog. I am talking about drying out, I guess.

So how to come back from the pain of numbness?

Firstly, I would say avoid a Messianic complex. We are called to be priestly, but we are not the Priest. The Priest is Jesus, who feels more deeply than we could ever feel, and who ultimately mediates between God and  the people we are pastoring. We are not their Savior. We are not indispensible.

Second, we need to learn to empty our cup; to develop a prayer life that casts our cares upon Jesus because He cares for us and our people, who are actually His people. The Lord is our Shepherd as shepherds. When He promises that His yoke is easy and His burden light, it is a promise for those who have committed to plough with Him. It is a ministry promise. Jesus' yoke of ministry is not meant to crush us. When we empty our cup, we make room to feel for others.

Third, we need to learn to guard our heart for from it flow the springs of life. Proverbs 4:23. Guarding our heart seems like a counter-intuitive way to recover form numbness. But it is not about shutting down our hearts. It is being vigilant so that when someone throws trash down the well of your heart,  it is not left there. We cannot allow the trash of people's criticism, flattery, bitterness, disappointment or envy to to remain and poison our hearts. We need to filter what people say to us carefully, through prayerful discernment, sober reflection, a wise team around us and repentance if needed. This will keep our hearts from being puffed up or beaten down. Both are a poison to the heart.

The beautiful mystery is this. A guarded heart does not mean a closed, numb heart. When we live with guarded hearts, the spring is fresh and clear so that it can nourish and refresh many.
May God keep us from the pain of numbness.


  1. This is raw, Alan. Much appreciated, probably my favorite blog you've written.


  2. Very good, very honest, and very needed blog, Alan. The only other one I would add is that when you pour, ministry, support, teaching and preaching, leading ~ the list goes on and do need to put back in, in areas that feed your soul as well as your body. It is a bit like vegetables: McDonalds and In-and-Out are easier on a busy schedule and you may feel full but you will not be restored. I found, when Ed and I were pastoring, that it is too easy to "dry up" is gradual and since pastoring is so NOT self focused you often miss the signs and danger signals till you are already dry. The Lord showed me that care for the body (physical), mind, spirit and soul are all needed. Everyone in ministry, I suppose, has found that they need to spend more time in prayer ~ no matter how much they think is enough before they begin to pastor. The same for time in the Word. But He showed me I also needed ... like I needed vegetable and protein . . . beauty, and laughter, and delight and learning for my soul's sake. Layne told me once that pastor's wives are particularly susceptible to neglecting themselves in these areas. This is the blog I wish we had been given BEFORE our first Sunday.

  3. Thanks Barbara. beauty, laughter and delight...excellent and much needed. The lessons they never taught us at bible college.

  4. I'm not so sure that I sense that I am numb. I am overwhelmed with information and what to do with it, as if I feel too much. It's not that I am wondering if I am apathetic or not able to 'feel' what is occurring, it's that I don't have the ability to respond in a manner that is appropriate to the situation...even with prayer and the request of the intervention of spiritual wisdom. It's at these times I feel extremely human and inadequate. Objectivity, which may be perceived as numbness, is something I often pray for. Your blog as well as sermon creates much to think and ponder over.

  5. I agree, 'feeling too much' can cause the 'smudged gray of too many colors on a painting' feeling.
    Thank God we are not alone in the range of what we feel, and that the bedrock of God's word is our solid place to stand.