The Samuel Complex

by William J. Stewart

When he was an old man, the elders of Israel approached Samuel, who served as a prophet, priest and judge among his people, and said, “make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). The prophet was broken up (Strong’s 03415) over their demand. The LORD assured Samuel, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me” (1 Samuel 8:7).

Years later, the king whom Samuel had anointed  showed himself to be arrogant and self-willed, failing to follow the LORD’s commands. After Saul failed to destroy the Amalekites as he had been commanded, Samuel went to Saul with this message:

Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king. (1 Samuel 15:23)

Samuel mourned for Saul (1 Samuel 15:35). It devastated him that the king he had installed for the people should fail as he did. He bewailed (Strong’s, 056) king Saul’s rejection of the LORD.

I believe “the Samuel Complex” is a common reaction in those who serve among the Lord’s people in a position of authority. It involves feelings of guilt, sorrow and rejection, not about things he has done, but over the failures of those whom he ministers to. He feels their failure as his own, or at the very least, that it reflects upon him and his work.

There are several Old Testament examples of spiritual leaders who were crushed to see God’s people walk in their own way rather than God’s way. In the New Testament, I believe we see the same very clearly in the apostle Paul. Those whom he taught had a special place in his heart. In fact, he uses phrases of endearment for them – even identifying them as his children (ie. Galatians 4:19-20; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-19). He was invested in them. He wanted to see them succeed in the faith, and when they did not, he took their failures personally (Galatians 2:2; 4:11; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 9:3-4; 12:20-21). In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul wrote, “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world.”  This man had been a fellow worker with Paul, but now, like Israel and Saul, had forsaken the Lord. But Paul took it personally.

When his fellow countrymen would not respond to the gospel message, it filled him with sorrow (Romans 9:2-4; 10:1-2). When he instructed his brethren, for their benefit, at times he was treated as though he was their enemy (Galatians 4:16). In a list of the hardships and difficulties he endured for the cause of Christ, his ‘last but certainly not least’ statement was “my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). In the next verse, he revealed that he internalized the struggles of others. He bore them as though they were his own.

One cannot read Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth without seeing the turmoil he endured. This was a church he had work with for 18 months (Acts 18:1, 11). He loved them and wanted to see them grow in faith. His first letter was basically one rebuke after another, for they were an immature group of believers (1 Corinthians 3:1-3) who were arrogantly ignorant of their spiritual condition (1 Corinthians 4:8-16). In his second letter, Paul laments that he had “sorrow over those for whom I ought to have joy” and had written to them “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” (2 Corinthians 2:3-4). He asked them to open their hearts to him, for sadly his love for them was not reciprocated (2 Corinthians 6:11-12; 7:2-3). And yet he affirmed “I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15).

Those who serve the Lord and the body of believers in positions of spiritual leadership are invested in your success. They yearn to see and rejoice in the times that you grow, but meet frustration and disappointment in your set backs and failures. When your spiritual life is not what it ought to be, when you say “good sermon,” but fail to apply it, when people turn back to the world, it is distressing to the preacher (and elders, if present). When preachers spend many hours preparing Bible classes, sermons and bulletin articles, only to have some brethren not show up; their absence tells him that he and his work are not respected or appreciated. Though we ought to know (and do realize) that it is actually the Lord who has been insulted and disrespected, it is hard for the spiritual worker to not take it personally, as Samuel, Paul and others before us have.

Perhaps the Samuel Complex is a good thing, since it is evidence of the care and concern ministers have for God’s people. Without it, we might find ourselves to be cold, detached and apathetic to the spiritual condition of others. And so those who devote their lives to equipping and edifying the saints willingly endure the lost sleep, the stress, the headaches, the tears, and the heartache. And yet brethren ought to be aware of these hardships which belong to those who are in leadership roles in the body of Christ. Hebrew 13:17 is likely written specifically about elders, but in principle is also true of preachers. It reads:

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

Friends, let those who watch out for your souls do so with joy and not grief. Be interested and attentive to their words, for it is a message delivered out of love and for your benefit. Let’s work together for God’s glory and our glorification with Him in eternity.

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