(Photo: Paul Tripp)
Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
The LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons" (1 Sam. 15:34-16:1)
For anyone in ministry, this is an interesting and informative moment in the life of Samuel. Samuel was prophet in Israel. He clearly loved Saul. He clearly longed for Saul to be a godly king, but Saul was everything but. Now, God had turned his back on Saul and had torn his kingdom from him. It was a devastating moment for Samuel and all of Israel. Samuel was overcome with grief. At some point God comes to Samuel to say, "The time for grieving is over. My plan marches on. It is time for you to turn and be part of the new thing that I am doing."
Ministry, this side of eternity, will be marked by moments of grief like Samuel's. Perhaps it will be the death of a vision, the need to discipline a trusted and influential leader, the knowledge of someone plotting against your God-given authority, sinful division among leaders, a resistant congregation, or a catalog of other difficulties that can obstruct and divert the ministry of a pastor and his congregation.
Here are some practical pastoral observations that flow out of this passage.
1. God grieves. It is important to remember that the God you serve is a God who grieves. He is not stoic and without passion. 1 Samuel 15:35 makes this very clear. The regret in this passage is not about God wishing he could take back his decision (see 15:29). No, it is more grief at the sad outcome of the heart choices of Saul. The appropriateness of Samuel's grief and yours in these moments is rooted in the holy grief of God.
2. You should grieve. What kind of prophet would Samuel be if he did not look on this situation with great grief? The ungodly, proud, selfish, and unrestrained rebellion of Saul was this prophet's nightmare. Pastors, there are moments in local church ministry when it is not only right to grieve, it is your calling to grieve. You must, as God's representative, faithfully depict the heart of God in these sad situations. You must not be uncaring. You must not be happy. You must not take a proud I told you so posture. Your ministry should be marked by moments of mourning in the face of the damage sin continues to do.
3. Your grief always reveals your heart. In his grief, Samuel almost lost his way. Perhaps wary was a tug in his heart between his love for Saul, his grief at Saul's demise, and his loyalty to the work God had called for him to do. So, God says, "You've grieved long enough, now get up and do my will." The length and extent of your grief always reveals what is important to you. The size of your grief always depicts what you have attached your hope to. The nature of your grief reveals what you have attached your inner well-being to.
4. Some grief begins to question God. Because grief challenges you at the point of the deepest values of your heart, it can tempt you to question the goodness of God. The danger of grief in your ministry is that in it you may be tempted to doubt the one whose grief you are called represent. In these sad moments we must be on guard against mourning morphing from, "I am so sad that . . . " into a "Why, God, did you . . ." anger. The danger is that you cannot represent well one against whom you are angry and you do not run for help to someone you have come to doubt.
5. Your grief should motivate, not paralyze you. When your grief causes you to want to quit, you know that you are not holding your grief in a biblical way. Moments of pastoral grief should motivate you because they stand as stark and clear reminders of the important gospel work God has called for you to do. As long as sin remains, these moments of grief will stain the lives of all of God's people. It is only when God's powerful grace finally defeats sin that our lives will be grief free. Until then, grief calls us to proclaim the grace that alone has the power to defeat what we grieve.
6. There's grace for your grieving. We all need to remember that we never grieve alone. Because God is a God of tender mercy and grace, he weeps for and with his people. He always gives you the grace you need to do what he calls you to do in the places where he leads you. He is the God of all comfort who comforts us in our suffering so we can bring his comfort to others.
So let yourself grieve, represent the heart God in your grief, guard your heart against the dangers of grief, and remember the empowering grace that makes all of these things possible.