II Corinthians 6:3 We put no obstacle in anyoneâ€™s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
When you read the New Testament, you come across many chapters in Paulâ€™s letters to the Corinthians where the church-planting apostle talks about ministry. As Iâ€™ve moved through a life in ministry, these passages have become some of the most vital and personal parts of scripture for me.
Iâ€™ve never been reluctant to speak about my own negative feelings about ministry. Iâ€™ve been surprised, â€œFrankly,â€ to read the reaction of some to those posts where I said ministry has been difficult at times for me and on my family. One learns that the normal human reactions to suffering, disappointment and failure donâ€™t fit in well with the rhetoric of ministry that is common today.
If you listen in to the sound of ministry as its typically presented today (with some notable and welcome exceptions), youâ€™ll get a rather docile and cozy picture of an easy, successful life. Churches pay good salaries. Marriages have plenty of time to be enjoyed. Children are happy and well adjusted. Church leaders are supportive. Congregations adore you. Everyone wants you to be another Spurgeon or Piper. If you keep those expository messages coming, growth is sure to come, right along with invitations to speak at that big conference next year. Not one of your ideas is ever controversial as long as thereâ€™s a
Speaking of conferences, thereâ€™s always time off to go to as many conferences as you can and enough money to spend on books and DVDs. No one minds if you spend 40 hours a week in your study- like Jonathan Edwards- or if you preach a 5 year, 125 part series on â€œWhat is reformed theology?â€
When I read Paulâ€™s words about ministry, I think of how many young people who talk about church planting, pastoring and missions are unprepared to be despised, to suffer, to pay the price or to live with chronic difficulty and failure. They may not have read â€œYour Best Life Now,â€ but their views of ministry are a lot closer to Joel Osteen than to the apostle Paul.
It concerns me that so many of these young people believe that ministry is talking about theology and being cheered on for believing the right things and having the right heroes. Paul writes that ministry that is blood, sweat and tears. He was dealing with the Corinthians, and yes, he wrote them letters full of good theology. But how often in Paulâ€™s letters do we read about the part of ministry that has little to do with books or theological debate, and much to do with building relationships, setting an example, choosing the difficult way and nurturing the immature into new ways of living?
What is Paul talking about in II Corinthians 6 when he says he is poor, unknown, sorrowful, afflicted, imprisoned and has nothing? Heâ€™s talking about ministry. Alongside the peace, joy and power of the Spirit were persecutions, beatings, desertions and difficulties.
John Piper repeatedly says that God isnâ€™t glorified by the prosperity Gospel. Prosperity is glorified. God is glorified when the value of his son is demonstrated in our choice of Jesus instead of comfort. This isnâ€™t just a message for the young person choosing missions in the Muslim world. Itâ€™s true about much of ministry anywhere. Even where the enemies of the Gospel are no more dangerous than the Womenâ€™s Studies professor at the local university picketing across the street and the adversity is nothing more than a few carping phone calls, the price and pain of ministry is still real. And the opportunity to glorify Jesus by being faithful in those difficulties is also real.
In the almost 15 years Iâ€™ve served at a Christian school, Iâ€™ve watched hundreds of Christians come here to serve. Next week, we will recognize two beloved staff members who have lived and taught here for 32 years. Their lives shine with the beauty of Jesus…because they stayed with it, good times and bad. And there were plenty of bad times.
They raised their children in a dormitory. They were called out at all times of the day and night for emergencies. They were called names and worked for wages so low that no one could possibly understand why they would do it. Their health has suffered and their hearts have been broken. Yet these are among the most joyous, satisfied and Spirit-filled people I know. They have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living because they stayed with ministry in all seasons.
Iâ€™ve seen the other end of the ministry spectrum as well: those who were once certain of Godâ€™s call, but did not complete even a year of service. I do not know all the reasons why these leave so quickly, and I am in no position to judge anotherâ€™s stewardship of ministry. Some have good reasons I am sure. It would be undeniable, however, that among the reasons some leave is that actual ministry proves to be something they are not prepared for it to be. Perhaps we did not tell them everything that this ministry would demand. Perhaps we overlooked some of the more difficult aspects that we find it hard to discuss. Or the reality of ministry has proven much different than the rhetoric and the advertisement of ministry.
Evangelicalism has become a collection of niche groups that thrive on their own self-perceptions. A student recently told me that he had â€œmasteredâ€ the piano. In fact, he plays a bit by ear and knows little else. But heâ€™s happy with himself. So evangelicalism has â€œmasteredâ€ ministry. Instead of following Jesus into the unknown, we want to follow Jesus into what we know about ministry.
In the beginning of 2 Corinthians, Paul relates the difficulties of ministry to the ability to provide ministry to others. It is not out of comfort that a pastoral ministry grows, but out of affliction and difficulty:
2 Corinthians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christâ€™s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.* 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
The next paragraph is extraordinary, because Paul reminds the Corinthians just how much discomfort and affliction he experienced in order to one day minister to such a difficult, immature and sinful church plant.
2 Corinthians 1:8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
â€œ…We despaired of life itself…â€ This is ministry at times, and Paul openly tells all of us who are in ministry that, at times and seasons, this is what we can expect. And, from such soil, we can expect the faithfulness and joy of God to grow.
I pray that the Lord of the harvest will send many out, and I pray daily that our ministry here will be blessed with people who are willing to become servants of unbelieving students for the sake of the Gospel. But I also pray that God will raise up people who are prepared for adversity, difficulty and tough times. I pray that ministry is the service of Christ and not just the path to the evangelical version of the good life.