When the Shepherd Struggles

Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16)

I am not able to carry all these people by myself. The load is too heavy for me! If this is how You are treating me, kill me now! If I have found favor in Your eyes, kill me please—don’t let me see my own misery!
(Numbers 11:14-15).

Unlike the other books of the Torah that record the history of the children of Israel in the wilderness, the Book of Numbers contains a very personal record of not only the peoples struggles in faith, but the leaders struggle as well. Torah portion Beha’alotecha (meaning “when you raise”) reminds us that even in covenant relationship with the covenant Lord and Creator of the Heavens and Earth, we are all still very much human and in need of his grace.

The rabbis have struggled with the Torah’s inclusion of the struggles of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, all of whom display moments of weakness in Beha’alotecha. Should the Torah have included the cry of Moses to the Lord of “kill me now” (Num. 11:14-15)? Or, Miriam and Aaron speaking Lashon Harah (evil speech) about Moses (Num. 12:1-2)? In my opinion, yes; but perhaps not for the reason you might think.

It is common today for members of a congregation or labors in a ministry to forget that a pastor (or leader, whichever language is comfortable for you) is human. They have personal struggles, areas of weakness, family concerns, economic concerns, and physical limitations just like every other human being. They have not graduated to a higher “level” of existence because of ministry calling – only a greater position of responsibility. The difference is that a pastor usually has dozens, if not hundreds, of other lives connected to him all in need of some type of continual care and counsel. When a pastor is overcome by the pressures of life and ministry, onlookers may view this as a weakness in character or a failure in vocation. For this reason many pastors are afraid to share their personal, moral or family struggles with their congregational elders or organizational overseers. Instead, many suffer in silence – their family suffering as well – which ultimately causes the congregational family to suffer, but they are just not as aware of it!

The apostle Paul demonstrates for us a proper way of handling our struggles, our shortcomings and our fears when he writes, “I pleaded with the Lord three times about this, that it might leave me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weakness, so that the power of Messiah may dwell in me. For Messiah’s sake, then I delight in weakness, in insults, in distresses, in persecutions, in calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:8-10). Paul struggled with an undisclosed “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). This thorn humbled him, and caused him to rely solely on the power of God in Messiah by the Holy Spirit – not in his own strength, wisdom or eloquence.

While we should certainly avoid glorifying the source of our weakness, we must recognize that the weakness is there, and that by the power of the covenant Lord we continue in weakness in order that his power might be perfected in us. The apostle Paul experienced many of the same struggles that pastors and leaders experience today: rejection, fatigue, resistance, obstacles, etc., yet he remained faithful by being sensitive and submissive to the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6) – not to the whims of men. This pattern has not changed. Still, there is more to this.

The Torah, and the entire narrative of the Bible for that matter, does not hide or diminish the failures of the “heroes” of the faith. The text is faithful to record their failures and triumphs. Moses, as we read above, has a terrible moment of weakness as he is confronted by the daunting task of shepherding the millions of the children of Israel. He cries out “kill me now” in that frustration. The Lord, in his grace, does not dignify this cry of desperation; rather, he asks Moses to “bring me 70 of the elders of Israel whom you know to be elders of the people and their leaders” (Num. 11:16). The remedy for the stress that Moses faces is a support staff of leaders to work closely with him, similar to the advice given by his father in law Jethro in Exodus 18:17-26.

Just as the people of a congregation need to have a shepherd in their lives to guide, advise and correct, a pastor needs trusted leaders (elders) to help bear the responsibility of ministry and advise them in times of struggle. Pastors need to be told to rest, delegate, seek the Lord in prayer and worship, take care of family first, and be free, at times, to be human just as Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, David, Peter, James, John, Paul, etc., were.

Now, some of you may be tempted to say, “I’ve read this devotional and it’s all about leaders and their needs.” As a pastor and overseer myself, I can tell you that I have witnessed too many good couples in ministry quit because rather than support in a season struggle, they received correction and rejection because they appeared too human to be solid or qualified shepherds. It is imperative beloved friends to remember that the under-shepherds of the flock remain sheep of the fold themselves, and are in need of the same love, support and help that you seek of them.

Leadership does not mean never facing challenges in life, it means being transparent before the Lord enough to admit that you need help – just as Moses and Paul did! This is not a weakness! Quite the opposite, it’s one of a leaders most important qualities – knowing that you need the Lord, recognizing that he is with you, and that you are trusting him with your life, your heart and your reputation.

Remember that the Holy Spirit lives inside you, and he battles on your behalf even when you don’t have the sense to. Remember too that in Christ you’ve already been given everything you need to be what you’re supposed to be and to do what you’re supposed to do in the place where God has positioned you. And remember that since Emmanuel is with you, it’s impossible to ever be alone in the moment-by-moment war that is pastoral ministry.”
Dr. Paul David Tripp

Do not be tempted to labor alone – the Lord always provides a plurality of eldership to labor beside the pastorate.

Be well, shalom;
Dr. J.D. Elwell