The ministry of the presence of God

This post continues a series that examines key points in Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11.

In earlier posts we looked at Andrew Purves' view of pastoral work as the ministry of the spoken Word of God, the heard Word of God, and the grace of God. In this post we'll see what he says about pastoral work as the ministry of the presence of God.

Against the Wind by Liz Lemon Swindle
(with artist's permission)
As Purves notes, "through union with Christ we are bearers of the presence of God" (p. 193,  italics added). This is so because Jesus, by the Spirit, continues to come to us as Emmanuel (God with us). The Holy Spirit, called the Paraclete (Advocate, Comforter), then gifts believers, as members of the body of Christ, to be present with Jesus as he ministers to suffering people.

Bringing comfort and strength 

The ministry of God's presence, in Christ, by the Spirit, is fundamentally one of giving comfort. This ministry, as Purves notes, is "both a strength-giving ministry and a ministry of address [proclaiming the Word of God]" (p. 194). According to Scripture, because God has comforted us in our times of suffering, we have been enabled to join God in comforting others, thus sharing what we have received (2 Corinthians 1:4).

To join with God in this way is the essence of pastoral ministry. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (KJV), "comfort" and "consolation" translate the Greek word paraklesis, which is associated with the Old Testament's use of two evocative metaphors for pastoral work: shepherd (Isaiah 40:11) and mother (Isaiah 66:13). Note that when the God of Israel as shepherd/mother comforts his sheep/children, he calls them forth out of bondage to evil and sin. Thus comfort and deliverance (salvation) are closely linked. And so it is in the New Testament where the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ comforts his children by calling them forth into his salvation where they are gifted to share with him in bringing comfort (salvation-deliverance-healing) to others. Note these comments from Purves:
There is a power for ministry in those who are themselves wounded, who have received the comfort of God, and who now minister to others in the strength of healing. (p. 197)
We receive from Christ the paraklesis of God; but we share also in union with Christ his ministry of comfort. Aside from this participation, our ability to receive and give comfort is bereft of the power of the comfort that is abundant for us and for others. (p. 198) 
Purves makes three points about pastoral work as participation in the comforting-healing-transforming, personal presence of God in the lives of those who suffer:
  1. As ministers of Christ, we can be confident that God is at work bringing comfort to those who are afflicted. Thus we can (and should) confidently announce to them the sure word that God has not abandoned them and is present to console them. 
  2. We can proclaim to them that their suffering is neither meaningless nor purposeless. We can tell them that in and through Jesus Christ, God assumes their afflictions and redeems them, turning them into empowerment for ministry to others.
  3. We can announce to them that in suffering they are not alone, but part of the body of Christ, where when one member suffers, the whole body suffers and is there with them to bring comfort.

Sharing in God's loving care for persons 

As ministers, it is important we keep in mind that pastoral ministry is about what God himself is doing to bring comfort and strength to hurting people. Our job, therefore, is to point people not to ourselves, but to the divine Comforter. We do so largely by being present with them. As Purves notes, "encouraging people to cry out to the God who has already drawn near and addressed them in redeeming love and grace is a most significant part of pastoral work" (p. 200).

As we bring this encouragement through our presence, the Spirit will, at times, lead us to offer words of admonition and exhortation. We do so, "not as a moral appeal, but...on the basis of what Christ has done. Salvation is its presupposition and the [admonition] is ultimately for [the purpose of] fruit bearing" (p. 204). Purves continues:
Pastoral admonition... urges people to live within a framework or boundary, and it identifies behaviors and attitudes that are not acceptable, and other that are to be expected and encouraged. The Scriptures teach that right believing will lead to right living; but right living must be taught and people must be guided. (p. 205)
So we do have our part as pastoral ministers in the lives of those who suffer. However, we must always keep clearly in mind that it is God's ministry---he is the One who comforts, converts and when needed, disciplines. We then seek to participate with him with competence, in humility seeing our weakness, and recognizing that God himself makes us competent (2 Corinthians 3:6). As Purves notes, "It is in union with Christ that we share in Christ's competence and thus in his ministry" (p. 208). That said, Purves adds this caveat: "It would be wrong to think that ministry is an invitation to passivity [or incompetence], for that would be a misunderstanding of human weakness" (p. 208).

May the Father of comfort and strength, through his Son, and by his Spirit (the Paraclete), 
work in and through your ministry of presence to bring his comfort to many, 
so that they too may participate with him in bringing comfort to many.