Certain Moral Challenges for Pastoral Care in Today’s Early Twenty-First-Century World


In the Judeo-Christian and Black church traditions, all acts, including acts of historical remembrance and forgetting and pastoral care, are grounded in God’s weakness, also known as God’s surrounding grace and power, glory and transcendence (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). God’s inescapable presence is evident in Psalm 139. According to Psalm 139 and 1 Corinthians 1:25, followers are morally challenged, every hour and every day, to discover anew that finite human realities are grounded in God’s creative weakness, inescapable presence, infinite grace and glory, and justice and unconditional love. Therefore, there is joy in being wrong, and we can learn from one another as well as from our own mistakes—if we move ahead with a discerning wisdom and moral courage. We need to be freed from our selfish ingratitude, shortsightedness, and affinity for deceit, certain fears, and dishonesty. This implies a transcending power that does not belong to humans. To be freed from dishonesty, pretense, and binding fears takes trust, imagination and power, and courage and wisdom. It also takes humor and a sense of mature self-other forgiveness (a final form of love) when facing certain undeniable human realities.

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  1. 1.

    One of those themes is “divine weakness.” See the Apostle Paul’s letter to Christians at Corinth in which he suggest that “divine weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:18–26 NEB).

  2. 2.

    I remember when Howard Washington Thurman (1899–1981) came to the pulpit at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California (in the late 1970s or early 1980s), placed both hands on the pulpit, tossed his head back and eyes upward (so to speak), and cited, from memory, Psalm 139. This was during an Earl Lecture worship service. Although the church was filled, I imagined that I could have heard a pin drop. Everyone in that sanctuary, it seemed, was transfixed by what Thurman was doing in the moment.

  3. 3.

    Also see C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘God of Grace and God of Glory’” in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), no. 577. Hawn was professor of sacred music at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. What on earth was Pastor Fosdick thinking in 1930 when he wrote the words that became the great hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory”? Was it a prayer of petition—“on thy people pour thy power,” “Grant us courage, grant us wisdom”? What provided the context for the words “the fears that long have bound us,” “Save us from weak resignations to the evils we deplore”? What were the fears, evils, and weak resignations? “God of Grace and God of Glory” was written while the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression between the two world wars. Fosdick was a champion of the social gospel, a movement that recognized the plight of the poor, especially in the urban Northeast during the industrial revolution. This hymn was first sung as the processional hymn at the opening service of Riverside Church in New York City on October 5, 1930, and again at its dedication on February 8, 1931. In the 1930s, the Riverside congregation was interdenominational and interracial, and the church promoted an urban social gospel ministry. What parallels does this hymn have for us today?

  4. 4.

    My usage of the term “mature forgiveness” refers to Paul Tillich’s sermon, derived from 1 Corinthians 14, titled “In All Things Be Mature.” I take “all things” to include forgiveness and reflections on historical memories as well as present-day endeavors—all acts. I make a distinction between pseudo-, premature, and mature forgiveness. Pseudo-forgiveness is often accompanied by unresolved and active anger and, perhaps, denial. It may sound like this: “You are forgiven, now get out of my face!” Premature forgiveness is often accompanied by self-surprise. It may sound like this: “Wow! I thought I had worked things through, but I recognize that I still harbor revenge.” Mature forgiveness is complex. It may involve historical memories. Typically, it is a development, an ideal, and it may take a while to achieve. When achieved, it is accompanied by balancing acts of gratitude for life itself and for love, power, and justice. I also base mature forms of forgiveness upon Paul Tillich’s Love, Power and Justice (1960). Love is positive self-other regard. Power is recognition that self and others need to grow, be affirmed and empowered. Justice requires a confession of wrongdoing, repentance, and calls for amends. Attempts to work out what this may mean can be seen in “Death and the Maiden: The Complexity of Trauma and Ways of Healing—A Challenge for Pastoral Care and Counseling” (Riedel-Pfäfflin and Smith 2015). That essay engages such questions as “How do we deal with the perpetrator’s confession and repentance?” and “Are their deeds so horrendous that mature forgiveness appears to be impossible?” The authors write, “In the process of achieving mature forgiveness we may learn to recognize our own limitations, and the complex levels of trauma that incorporate both our idealized and shameful selves” (p. 160). Also see “Complexity and Simplicity in Pastoral Care: The Case of Forgiveness” (Riedel-Pfäfflin and Smith 2004).

  5. 5.

    See chapter….for a fuller description of the suffering body of Christ…

  6. 6.

    Utopia is an imagined yet-to-be, an idealized space that does not exist in reality. There is no place for one to put one’s foot. This idealized space (utopia), a philosophical term, is closer to Buddhism than existential reality (xxxx, conversation with the author, September 15, 2019).


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Smith, A. Certain Moral Challenges for Pastoral Care in Today’s Early Twenty-First-Century World. Pastoral Psychol 69, 69–76 (2020).

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  • Courage
  • Fears
  • Gratitude
  • Mature forgiveness
  • Moral challenge
  • Critical questions
  • Discerning questions
  • Remembrance
  • Wisdom