Night Terrors and Nearness: Real Comfort in Non-Solutions
One of my sons frequently suffers from night terrors. For those who don’t know, night terrors are like sleepwalking—the person is technically still asleep but acting like they’re awake. My son’s terrors happen a few times a week and usually manifest in his screaming for 5–10 seconds before calming down again and falling back into normal sleep.
But sometimes his terrors are so loud he wakes himself up. When that happens, I typically go into his room, rub his back, and ask him what he was dreaming of that scared him so badly. I reassure him that I’m there; and ten times out of ten, that simple fact brings him all the comfort he needs to fall back to sleep.
PASTORING LIKE PARENTING
Just as children sometimes need just their father’s presence, sometimes Christians need just a pastor’s presence.
The New Testament makes the connection between pastoring and parenting explicit in his list of elder qualifications. Paul tells Timothy that an elder must be able to manage his household well, and then observes, “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:5)
The word Paul uses for “care” only appears two other times in the New Testament. Interestingly, they’re both found in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. The compassionate Samaritan not only delays his journey to tend to the man, he remains with him.
Pastors, too, ought to manage God’s household by giving their people time and attention, like a father, and like the Good Samaritan.
THE GOD WHO IS THERE
As under-shepherds, we represent the Great Shepherd to our people. And our God is the God who is there. Over and over in the Bible, we see the Lord reassuring his people with his presence (Gen. 26:3, 31:3, Ex. 3:12, Deut. 31:23, Josh. 1:5, Ps. 23:4, Isa. 43:2, Matt. 28:20). Through all the trials and hardships that God knows a life of faith will bring his people, he doesn’t promise solutions; he promises presence. He promises to care not through unveiled plans but through unceasing proximity.
While this sounds wonderful, if you’re anything like me, it’s a pill that’s often tough to swallow. I’m a “fix it” guy. I tend to be able to find the challenges with a plan and propose solutions. That’s a useful instinct, but it’s not always helpful in the real world of pastoral ministry. Consistently, I find myself in situations where what is needed isn’t a plan but a person.
OUR PEOPLE ARE SCREAMING
Like my son screaming in his sleep, some of our people are screaming. Maybe anxiety overwhelms them. Maybe they’re concerned about the prevalence of a particular kind of cancer in their family history, so they research diet and lifestyle changes to eliminate the possibility of getting sick. Or maybe they wonder why they’ve not met that special someone, so they’re constantly at the gym or the mall trying to become more desirable to the opposite sex.
But what happens when they meticulously follow their diet and exercise plan and still get cancer? What happens when they do all they can to make themselves desirable, but no one desires them? What will you offer?
FIGHTING THE ‘FIX-IT’ IMPULSE
My first impulse in these moments is to quickly teach doctrine or point people to biblical texts of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Yet notice the word “fitly” in Proverbs’ instruction, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov. 25:11). Your congregation needs biblical words, but they also need them fitly spoken. What does that look like?
Rather than quickly saying, “The Bible says not to be anxious about anything,” sometimes it looks like slowing down, maybe rescheduling a day and spending time with them praying (Phil. 4:6b). Sometimes it’s just spending time with them offering no quick solutions but waiting.
Just think, our Great Shepherd doesn’t promise us a hasty exit from the valley of the shadow of death. Rather, he promises to be with us in it (Ps. 23:4–6). Job’s friends seemed to be doing all the right things, at least while they were still silent and simply with him in his misery (Job 2:11–13). Paul relays to Timothy how the Lord’s presence sustained him in times of need (2 Tim. 4:16–17).
WHAT CAN I DO?
Brothers, bring God’s Word. But be sure God’s Word comes in a setting of silver—a setting of compassion, grace, and presence. If you’re desperately looking for things you can “do,” try these:
- Pray: Contrary to the cultural winds of our day, the Apostle James tells us that the prayers of the righteous have great power and bring about healing (Jas. 5:16). Don’t let prayer be a last-ditch effort; make it an instinctual first response.
- Weep: Paul doesn’t give us requisites for when we should weep with the mourning among us. He simply tells us to weep (Rom. 12:15). Don’t neglect the uncomfortable ministry of tears.
- Show up: The truth of our faith hinges on an embodied Savior. The work of salvation is not accomplished if God doesn’t tabernacle among us (John 1:14). There’s a time to remain at a distance, but there’s also a right time to show up (Gal. 4:4–5). Like the Good Samaritan, be there, even when it costs you to do so.
What our people need in their moments of desperation is what my son needs in the middle of the night. He doesn’t need a lecture about his subconscious, what a dream is, and why it doesn’t need to be feared. Instead, he needs the comfort of knowing I’m there. As pastors, we have the distinct joy of simply being there with our members and, by doing so, reassuring them with the comfort, care, and compassion of God.