“Pray that I would not bomb so often when I preach,” said my friend after I inquired how I could pray for him.
My pen froze. I looked up, incredulous. I could not bring myself to write it down. But the expression on his face was serious; he was not joking. He wanted me to ask God that he not bomb so often when he preaches.
Mind you, this was not a seminary student in his first homiletics class or a rookie church planter halfway through his first sermon series. This friend is one of the best preachers I know. His name is instantly recognizable, since he is one of the most gifted expositors of our time. I demanded a different prayer request.
We left dinner and drove to the conference we were attending where my friend proceeded to preach an exceptional message. As he descended from the platform, I congratulated him: “Hey! You didn’t bomb!”
But later, as we navigated the parking lot, my friend began to lament that he had bombed once again. I sought to encourage him, but his countenance remained downcast. I reviewed with him all the ways I benefitted from his sermon: his model exegesis, his memorable illustrations, his pointed application. None of it seemed to resonate. I reached deep into my bag of encouragement options: “My friend, surely you noticed that no one coughed. That was a cough-free sermon!” When even this line of encouragement failed to restore my friend from his post-preaching malaise, I was forced to resort to my old fallback: name-calling.
“You are an idiot.”
Have You Lost Heart?
Later that evening, I reflected on this episode. While my friend is unique in his preaching gift, international influence, and writing ministry, he is not unique in his temptation to discouragement. In fact, no pastor is exempt from this temptation. I cannot help but wonder how many pastors who hoist this book do so because they are looking for something heartening. Maybe you have lost heart. Perhaps in the last few months, or few years, you have found your passion for pastoral ministry waning. Maybe you have remained faithful and even fruitful in your ministry, but you are no longer joyful.
What pastor doesn’t spend Monday (as well as Sunday afternoon and maybe Tuesday too) mentally reviewing and evaluating the sermon and the service? This is a useful barometer for a pastor’s heart: how are your Mondays? Do you find yourself regularly rejoicing in the privilege to serve God’s people, or discouraged over what you perceive to be a lack of effectiveness in ministry? The temptation to lose heart pulses predictably each week, does it not?
Friends, we are not alone as we confront this temptation. And while we may find it somewhat heartening that other pastors can relate, there is one pastor in particular whose experience can provide us with singular and significant encouragement.
I am referring to the apostle Paul. And in his second letter to the Corinthian church he describes his temptation to lose heart. I am not sure there is a more important letter for pastors to study than 2 Corinthians. And there is no more important chapter for pastors in 2 Corinthians than chapter four. Here Paul reveals his own temptation to lose heart—but he also provides a remedy for this pastoral malady. Read 2 Corinthians chapter four slowly and notice how Paul begins and ends with his resolve to not lose heart.
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowl- edge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (emphasis added).
“We do not lose heart.” We encounter this phrase at the outset of chapter four and it appears again in verse 16. Apparently, Paul was very familiar with this temptation to lose heart in the midst of the challenges and opposition that he encountered as he proclaimed the gospel, planted churches, and cared for pastors. In chapter 11, he concludes his extensive list of trials and suffering and hardship by referring to the daily pressure of anxiety he feels for all the churches. This was a man who was no stranger to the temptation to lose heart, and particularly with the Corinthian church, given his intense and difficult relationship with them.
In light of all he suffered, in light of all the responsibility he carried, in light of all the opposition he endured, these are remarkable statements. Though tempted to lose heart, he resolved by the grace of God not to lose heart.
Whether we are in the depths of Monday melancholy or we are currently heartened for the ministry to which we have been called, we can all learn from Paul’s resolve to not lose heart. What informed his resolve? How can we follow his example? What does a pastor do when he begins to lose heart for his role and task? In chapter four Paul provides us with three heart-protecting, heart-strengthening realities for the disheartened pastor.
1. The Call of Christian Ministry
No pastor will long retain a heart for the ministry if he loses sight of his call to the ministry. Paul’s awareness of the nature and purpose of his call strengthened and protected him from joyless ministry.
Paul references this call in 2 Corinthians 4:1 with the phrase, “having this ministry.” Then in rapid-fire succession, he describes the nature of this call. In verse two: “an open statement of the truth.” Verse three: “our gospel.” Verse four: “the gospel of the glory of Christ.” And finally verse five: “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Paul’s ministry—like every pastor’s ministry—was a call to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. It was a ministry of proclamation. And it was the call to “this ministry” that strengthened Paul’s resolve to not lose heart.
Paul’s personal history with the Corinthian church provides a vivid example of how the Lord strengthens a pastor’s heart by reminding him of his call to “this ministry” of proclamation. This made all the difference for Paul when he originally arrived in Corinth and experienced opposition to his preaching of the gospel. When he was tempted to lose heart, the Lord revealed himself one night in a vision and said to him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you and no one will attack you or harm you for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10).
And so Paul did not lose heart. He remained in Corinth so that through his preaching those whom God had chosen would come to faith. The Corinthian church was created by the grace of God, through Paul’s ministry of gospel proclamation. In effect, the Corinthians became a living illustration of verses four through six. And the glorious nature and effect of this call to proclaim the gospel sustained Paul in ministry.
Though Paul’s call and ministry were certainly unique, we too have been called to “this ministry.” As we declare the truth of the gospel to those who have been blinded by the god of this world, the same God who dispelled darkness at creation will dispel the darkness of their heart. And what a sight they will see: the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. As we proclaim him, God gives sight to them. Pastoral ministry is an ongoing confrontation with the god of this world, with blindness, with hardness of heart, and with remaining sin. But we do not lose heart, because we have been called to “this ministry” to proclaim this message of the gospel that gives light, reveals glory, and transforms lives.
And because we are called to preach this message, we must do so with integrity, as defined in verse two: “We refuse to practice cunning or tamper with God’s word.” This message must not be tampered with or altered in any way, and we must resist any impulse to do so. Those who tamper with or try to add to this message under- estimate it. We are not innovators. We are proclaimers.
Not only are we proclaimers, we are proclaimers of a particular message. We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord (v. 5). We don’t preach to draw attention to ourselves. We preach to draw attention to him. After being captured and captivated by the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who would want to preach about themselves? If you have been called to “this ministry,” you will desire to proclaim him, to please him, and to live aware that your call is purely by the mercy of God.
The mercy of God is where Paul begins. Look again at verse one: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God . . .” Paul’s resolve to not lose heart was informed by his awareness of the mercy of God in his conversion and call to ministry. He never stopped marveling at the mercy of God. Some thirty years after his conversion, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Though formerly I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and insolent opponent. But I received mercy” (1 Tim. 1:13). He never lost sight of mercy in his conversion and call to ministry so that he would never lose heart.
How about you? Have you lost sight of mercy? Have you gotten over it or become familiar with it? Are you still amazed? No doubt there was a time when you were very conscious that your call to “this ministry” is because of the mercy of God. Do you continue to live like Paul with this keen sense of the mercy of God in your life?
If you have lost sight of mercy and lost heart in ministry, let’s take a moment for a heart-strengthening review of how we got here. Though different in the details, I know that your story follows the same basic trajectory as mine. In light of my sinfulness and God’s holiness, the only explanation for receiving this call to “this ministry” to preach the gospel is the mercy of God. Every day, there is sinful stuff that takes place in my heart. Every day, I fall short of my calling as a Christian and a minister of God’s Word. I am not worthy of this task of proclamation. In fact, I am decidedly unworthy. But because of God’s mercy, I have been entrusted with this gospel and called to preach the gospel.
And when I do preach the gospel, God, in his marvelous mercy, dispels the darkness that captivates hearts because of sin and Satan. Because of his mercy, God gives sight to the blind. They see that bleeding sacrifice. They hear the cries of Calvary. They perceive his sacrifice as for them. They recognize him as their sin-bearing, wrath-absorbing substitute. They acknowledge Jesus as the one the Father raised from the dead, satisfied with his perfect life and substitutionary sacrifice. When sinners see these glorious truths, they turn from their sin and trust in the Savior for the forgiveness of sin and their lives are transformed. By the mercy of God, we have the privilege to proclaim this message. Friend, if you are discouraged in ministry, remember this!
We see the transforming effect of God’s mercy in verses four through six. If we only had verse four, the situation would indeed be hopeless: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” But look at verse six: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” From hopeless to glorious! God does what only he can do. And he brings this about through verse five: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
Pastor, you are in verse five. Do you see your face there? Do you see the mercy of God at work through “this ministry”? Through your ministry? The apparently hopeless individual experiences this creative act of God through the means of your proclamation of the gospel. The person whom “the god of this world has blinded” sees the light of the glory of God when you proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ. Here is powerful encouragement for every discouraged pastor. Keep this in view, and you won’t lose heart.
How do we put these verses to work in our soul? Quite simply, we resolve to think about our congregation in light of the truth contained here. As pastors, it is too easy for us to become preoccupied with the sins of those we serve. We can forget their conversion and lose sight of that moment when this creative act of God took place. All of this tempts us to lose heart, to become impatient and irritated. That is why we must constantly remind ourselves of the work of grace in their lives. We must recall the moment when they turned from their sins and trusted in the Savior for the forgiveness of sins.
God recently sent someone to me to help me to keep this in view. It was a friend of mine who was converted through my preaching. Every year, this friend has been faithful to send me an e-mail on the anniversary of the day he was converted. This year, he wanted to do more than send an e-mail. He wanted to meet with me and say, “Thanks again.” So in the midst of all that could have preoccupied my time and attention, all the difficulties and challenges related to pastoral ministry, I found myself sitting across from this friend. And as he described his experience of conversion to me again—his transition from verse four to verse six through my proclamation of verse five—his smile filled the room. He thanked me again for preaching the gospel and told me again of the difference it has made in his life. I went back to work that day with a fresh heart for the work, amazed at the privilege I have been entrusted with to proclaim the gospel.
Brothers, may we never lose this wonder. May we never lose the sense of wonder that we have been called to pastoral ministry, the wonder that we have been called to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, the wonder and marvel at the fruit of preaching the gospel.
This was one way Paul resolved to not lose heart: by remembering that he had been called to “this ministry” by the mercy of God. But it wasn’t the only way. For not only was Paul called to the ministry of proclamation, he was also called to a ministry of suffering.
2. The Context of Christian Ministry
Paul marveled at being called to “this ministry,” but he harbored no illusions that it would be easy. His resolve to not lose heart was informed and strengthened because he understood the context of pastoral ministry. We see this in 2 Corinthians 4, verses seven through fifteen: Paul understood that he was called not only to proclaim, but also to suffer and to serve.
This glorious ministry of proclamation takes place in the context of weakness and adversity. In verse seven Paul references personal weakness and then in verses eight and nine he details some of the harsh realities of ministry in a fallen world: affliction, bewilderment, persecution, being struck down.
These are the harsh realities of Paul’s ministry experience, not abstract hypotheticals. Paul had vivid illustrations of each of these from his own life and he provides more details in both chapter 6 and chapter 11. While Paul’s suffering was unique to his calling as an apostle, our ministry in this fallen world will, by definition, involve trials, suffering, opposition, and persecution.
If you are a young or aspiring pastor, I want to help you prepare for this. Too often, too many begin in pastoral ministry aware of the mercy of God and confident in the gospel, but unprepared for the suffering that awaits them.
It is too easy to assume that verses seven through fifteen apply to Paul and not to you. But glance again, and I think you’ll see your face in the photograph of these verses, for all those called to pastoral ministry appear in this picture of the Christian life. Even though Paul’s call and suffering were unique, we who are called to proclaim the gospel do so in the same fallen world. And “the god of this world” is opposed to the advance of the gospel. So in every place where there is genuine gospel proclamation taking place it will always be accompanied by some degree of opposition, persecution, and suffering. No pastor is exempt from this; but it is possible for a pastor to be unprepared.
My friend, you must have your own theology of suffering firmly in place prior to your experience of verses eight and nine or else you will be blindsided. “This ministry” isn’t just about proclamation. It also involves suffering. Don’t be caught unawares.
Wise pastors of all ages—but especially young pastors—will carefully consider these categories. Let them inform your interaction with more seasoned saints. Ask an older pastor: “How have you experienced affliction? How have you been bewildered? How have you been persecuted? How have you been struck down? And how do you respond in a God-glorifying way?” Learn from those with more pastoral experience, and let them help you prepare for suffering.
Young pastors need to learn these lessons because every pastor will experience affliction in different ways and to different degrees. What is your affliction? Perhaps it is chronic illness. Perhaps it is rejection by family members because of your commitment to Christ. Perhaps it is an economic hardship from the geographic location where you have been called to serve. It is probably whatever you are thinking about as you read through these categories.
Every pastor knows what it is like to be perplexed or bewildered. It is easy to come up with hypothetical but likely scenarios. Imagine, for example, that a much-loved member of your congregation dies in a car accident. He was a godly father of three, only twenty-nine years old. As you return home from conducting the funeral, you encounter your next-door neighbor. He is an ungodly individual, consumed with worldliness and selfishness. He is aging and prospering. So why is he enjoying a long and prosperous life while your friend’s widow and three small children are facing a future without a husband and father? No doubt, people in your church are looking to you for answers: why was this man taken from us? But you are bewildered as well.
Or maybe, you go the hospital to celebrate the birth of a child to a new family in your church. That weekend you conduct the funeral for that child. In a matter of days you have gone from rejoicing with that family to mourning with that family. And you are bewildered. Or it could be that for you, the bewilderment is even closer to home. Perhaps you have three kids. Two are converted; one is not. How did this happen? You preached the same gospel to them, and parented in a similar way. And now two of your children love the Lord, but one loves the world. You are bewildered. Frankly, I am so glad Paul was bewildered. I am so glad Paul understood what it was like to be perplexed and did not hesitate to tell us that this was his experience. It serves my soul to know that even the apostle Paul was some times stumped by his experience in ministry.
Paul wasn’t only perplexed; he was also persecuted. Persecution is more subtle in this country, but it is present. Perhaps an article appears in your local paper misrepresenting you and the church. Perhaps in your county, churches are banned from using school facilities. Maybe you minister in a community where there is some form of hostility to the gospel. Pastors experience opposition and even persecution because of our proclamation of Christ. And as I write, I am aware that many of our brother-pastors around the world are faithfully and boldly leading their churches, and proclaiming the gospel in the midst of severe persecution and suffering. May this passage remind us to pray that God would give these men strength to not lose heart.
And what pastor isn’t familiar with being struck down? You may not have been stoned like Paul in Lystra, but every pastor knows what it is like to be struck down in his soul. Maybe it is a friend from your pre-conversion days: a friend who was converted around the same time as you, helped you plant the church, and has served with you for years. Maybe that friend abruptly leaves the church, slandering you as he goes. You are struck down in your soul.
I think the most common form of being struck down for pastors is depression. Even some of the best and most well-known pastors through church history were familiar with this temptation, one of the most notable being my historical hero, Charles Spurgeon. This is why I think Spurgeon’s book, Lectures to My Students should be required reading for all pastors. If you don’t have the book, I would encourage you to buy it immediately and turn to the chapter entitled “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.”
Charles Spurgeon knew what it was like to be struck down in his soul:
“As it is recorded that David in the heat of battle waxed faint, so may it be written of all the servants of the Lord, all of them. Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down.”
Yes we must! This is not a possibility but a certainty. We will be cast down.
Spurgeon goes on in this chapter to explore possible reasons for pastoral depression, such as physical maladies. He then moves on to mental maladies, wondering, with a twinkle in his eye no doubt, “Is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off the balance?” But, as Mr. Spurgeon observes, there are some people who are more vulnerable to being struck down than others: “Some minds appear to have a gloomy tinge to their very individuality.”
Regardless of our individual tendencies, the prince of preachers provides wise pastoral counsel for us all:
“The lesson of wisdom is to be not dismayed by soul trouble. Count it no strange thing but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence. For it has great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise and overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future upon the Lord who forsaketh not his saints. Live by the day, aye, by the hour. Be content to be nothing for that is what you are. And when your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full except in the Lord. Set small store by present rewards. Be grateful for earnest by the way, but look of the recompensing joy here after. Between this and heaven, there may be rougher weather yet. But it is all provided for by our covenant head. Come fair or come foul, the pulpit is our watchtower and the ministry our warfare. Be it ours when we cannot see the face of our God to trust under the shadows of his wings.”
Friend, count it “no strange thing” when you encounter depression. It is not more than ordinary. Do not think that all is over with your usefulness. Whether you are persecuted for the sake of the gospel, or struck down in your soul, be not dismayed but
“Cast the burden of the present along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future upon the Lord who forsaketh not his saints.”
If you pursue pastoral ministry, you will encounter these harsh realities of bewilderment, persecution, being struck down. And be warned: it isn’t like they take turns. You will more than likely experience them all at the same time. You can be afflicted, bewildered, persecuted, struck down all in a weekend. They seem to run in packs!
But these harsh realities aren’t accidental or meaningless. They have a divine design. They are all purposeful. Every experience of weakness and suffering is an opportunity for God to display his grace and glorify himself in our lives.
That’s the point of verse seven: that the surpassing power of his grace belongs to God and not to us. His power is demonstrated most fully in the midst of our weakness. In the midst of affliction and bewilderment and persecution and being struck down, here is what we discover: we discover that God is wonderfully at work. Oh, what a happy discovery this is!
Not only do we discover that God is wonderfully at work, but so does our congregation. Listen: your congregation learns from you by more than just listening to your sermons. They are studying your life as well. If you never suffered, if you were never acquainted with your weakness, they wouldn’t be able to observe the power of God in your life. Your congregation is studying you all the time, but particularly when you are suffering. They want to see if the gospel makes a discernible difference in your life. They want to see if you trust God. They want to see if you remain charitable and cheerful. They want to see if you endure and don’t lose heart.
While we all encounter the harsh realities described in verses eight and nine, notice that the accent in these verses is not on the harsh realities, but on the grace of God. Read these verses again and notice the recurring refrain: “But not . . .”
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. Do you see how the accent in this passage is on the but not? Paul is certainly acknowledging the harsh realities of pastoring in a fallen world. He wants us prepared for the harsh realities, but he is actually drawing attention to and celebrating the grace of God that preserves us as we encounter the harsh realities. He is celebrating the grace of God that sustains us in the midst of these harsh realities. And this brings great strength to our souls when we are tempted to lose heart.
See, ultimately, these verses are not about Paul’s resolve. He is not focusing on my resolve or your resolve. The point isn’t that Paul had an unusually strong constitution. Neither do you or I. Ultimately these verses are about the power of the sustaining grace of God, because left to myself I would be crushed. Left to myself I would be despairing. Left to myself I would be forsaken. Left to myself I would be destroyed. But not . . .
The only explanation for why we are not crushed, despairing, forsaken, or destroyed under the weight of ministry trials is because of the sustaining grace of God. It is not our resolve, but his grace that preserves us in every perplexing, discouraging, experience of suffering so that we do not lose heart.
A pastor’s wife needs to be as certain of this truth as her husband—for the sake of her own soul and so that she can be best positioned to help you when you are struck down. As a pastor, there have been many times when I have been struck down. And over the years, my wife, Carolyn, has encouraged me, challenged me, and sought to bring a biblical perspective to my suffering. Sometimes her words help me immediately, bringing me right back to faith-filled joy. Other times, I have remained unresponsive for a time, and Carolyn has learned to speak the truth to me and then to wait patiently for the Lord to do this work in my soul. She is confident there will be a but not moment soon. Sometimes it is a matter of minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days, but she knows but not is going to happen in her husband’s life, because the grace of God promised in 2 Corinthians 4.
Every pastor has but not written over his life. Do you see it? Does your wife see it?
As we walk though these afflictions and bewilderments, persecution, and being struck down, we must return often to these two grace-stuffed words: “but not.” It is then we will discover that there is treasure in trial.
For in verses 10 through 12 Paul describes a great paradox of ministry. Mark Twain has famously said, “Most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand. But as for me I have always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those I do understand.” This is one of those passages for me. I find myself troubled by these verses because they show me that this ministry not only involves a call to proclaim the gospel, but also involves the sanctifying work of the gospel in our lives as we experience hardship, persecution, trial, and suffering.
We are . . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:8–12)
Murray Harris says it well: pastors are “always dying, but never lifeless.” So, verse 12, “Death is at work in us.” Pastors are called to proclaim and to perish. Sometimes they proclaim the most through their perishing. Some of the dying we experience is mundane, like weekly sermon preparation. There you are preparing a sermon on Saturday when you want to watch the Masters. Or it is a beautiful fall day and everybody is outside making memories, having a great time. Or you have to leave early from the wedding reception to finish the message. You must prepare. You must study. You must die. Pastor’s wife, you must die each and every time you give up your husband for the sake of that sermon preparation, or for that late-night hospital visit, or for that early-morning discipleship breakfast.
Some of the dying is more significant, like accepting a call to ministry in a difficult place or a dangerous place or a less fruitful place. Or serving as a support pastor on a pastoral team rather than a lead pastor. Death is at work in you as your preferences and priorities are set aside for the sake of serving the Savior. This is what the ministry is about. Pastoral ministry is weak and dependent pastors who are dying to themselves as they serve and suffer. But check out the result. How sweet is verse 12?
“Death is at work in us, but life in you.”
Spiritual life comes about through sacrificial death. Life in the form of conversion. Life in the form of growth in godliness. Life in the form of building up the church. Life in the form of the advance of the gospel. Life in the form of the transfer of the gospel to the next generation. Death at work in us, life in you.
This is how the local church is built.
If you look behind every genuinely fruitful church, you will find a dying pastor.
This is how it works. And this is the only way it works: “Death is at work in us, but life in you.”
It is easy to make assumptions about why a church is influential or fruitful. It is all too easy to assume that a church is fruitful because the pastor is gifted, or because they have a great building at a great location, or because they have a team of exceptionally gifted people, or because their website is attractive, their programs well organized. It is easy to miss the truth that behind that genuinely fruitful church is a dying pastor. Not a lazy pastor, or a pastor who desires recognition, but a dying pastor.
Behind every fruitful church is a dying pastor.
D. A. Carson makes this point so well:
[A]mong the people of God . . . it is frequently the leaders who are called to suffer the most. How could it be otherwise? We serve a crucified Messiah. . . . The more leaders are afflicted with weakness, suffering, perplexity, and persecution, the more it is evident that their vitality is nothing other than the life of Jesus. This has enormously positive spiritual effects on the rest of the church. The leaders’ death means the church’s life. is is why the best Christian leadership cannot simply be appointed. It is forged by God himself in the fires of suffering, taught in the school of tears. There are no shortcuts.
There are no shortcuts. Those are the conditions of ministry. Paul understood the conditions of ministry and the purpose of God in and through those conditions. That strengthened his resolve. And in the midst of those harsh conditions of pastoral ministry, he became aware of the but not sustaining grace of God in his life.
3. The Hope of Christian Ministry
Finally, Paul’s heart was strengthened by the hope of Christian ministry. We see this in verses 16 through 18. Paul does not lose heart because he maintains an eternal perspective. Endurance in ministry is rooted in an eternal perspective. Maintaining an eternal perspective protects pastors from losing heart.
The opposite is also true: the absence of an eternal perspective leaves you vulnerable to discouragement, disillusionment, and despair. Paul doesn’t lose heart because he realizes that the proclamation of the gospel and the service and suffering in the cause of the gospel are producing something in him—he calls it “an eternal weight of glory.” As Paul studied and gave careful attention to the unseen future, he became aware there was this inner work of renewal taking place that foreshadowed his future resurrection.
But as Paul contemplated the glorious future that awaited him, he also offered this poignant assessment of the present: “our outer self is wasting away.” At present we are not only experiencing all kinds of weakness and suffering, we are wasting away.
All of us over fifty are becoming increasingly aware of this fact! The sad thing is Paul’s wasting away probably had to do with being beaten and stoned and shipwrecked. I am just . . . wasting away. My friends are wasting away. In fact, this has become a regularly scheduled topic of our conversation. Every time we are together we give each other “wasting away” updates. “How is your back? Anyone have a new injury to report or an operation scheduled? I need a new prescription for these glasses.”
But look at the difference an eternal perspective makes to those who are wasting away. Here is the hope it provides as Paul contemplates his present suffering and compares it with future glory. He concludes that there is no comparison. Yes, he is experiencing severe suffering. Yes, he is wasting away as he seeks to advance the gospel. But as he peers into the unseen future, he decides that his present suffering is “light and momentary” compared to the eternal weight of glory that is to come.
This isn’t my impulse when making comparisons. When I encounter someone experiencing difficulty, I normally offer a different comparison: “Well, you know, it could be worse. I mean, I know you have it bad, but let me just tell you about somebody else I know . . .”
But Paul makes a completely different kind of comparison, a comparison that completely alters our perspective: light and momentary trouble vs. eternal weight of glory. No contest! One so far out-shines the other that there really is no comparison at all!
This comparison is all the more shocking if we keep in mind the nature and severity of his suffering. Keep in mind that Paul’s suffering was real and it was severe. Imagine spending a few hours listening to him describe his life. You would come away from time with Paul resolved never to complain about your sufferings again. Who has a story that can top his? When this man says struck down, you see the scars on his body from rods and stones. He can tell you firsthand what it’s like to be imprisoned. Shipwrecked. Starving. Sleepless. Paul’s life is like some kind of brutal reality TV show except that it was, well, reality.
And yet, after providing us with an extended list of all manner and variety of suffering, he goes on to identify his trials as “light and momentary.” Say what? This list doesn’t sound “light and momentary” to me! And neither do my own trials in ministry feel “light and momentary” at the time I am experiencing them. So how can Paul say this?
Paul can only call his significant hardships “light and momentary” because he is comparing them to future glory. And in order for you and me to have this perspective, we have to look. We have to look in the right place. We have to look where Paul tells us he is looking in verse 18: to the glories of an unseen future, purchased by Christ’s work on the cross. Paul endures the affliction of the present visible world by fixing his gaze on things unseen.
It sounds paradoxical to look at things unseen, and it is. But that is the essence of faith. It takes faith to look beyond our present sufferings, to see the eternal weight of glory, and to compare them rightly, so that we can say that our present sufferings are light and momentary.
If I do not consider my own troubles as light and momentary I am not looking in the right place. I am not focusing my gaze on the glories of the unseen future. The older you get, the more important this becomes. Because the longer you go on in pastoral ministry, the more you will suffer, the more you will find you are wasting away, and the more you will need to look to things unseen.
Contemplating this future glory transforms our perspective of the present and alters our assessment of affliction, bewilderment, persecution, and discouragement. But to lay hold of this sustaining grace we must look to the unseen, we must direct our attention to eternity future, looking to the eternal purpose of God and not preoccupied with the trials of life and ministry.
Pastor, where are you looking? The temptation for all of us is to look at our sin, our failures, our unfavorable assessment of our sermon, or our discouragement over the spiritual state of our congregation, our trials, our wasting away. The list is endless. But if you look in any of those places your circumstances will seem heavy and endless instead of light and momentary. And you will lose heart. But if you look into the unseen, into future glory, it will have a transforming, strengthening effect on your soul. When, by the grace of God, we look, we will not lose heart.
It won’t be long until you bomb another sermon. (And unlike the friend I told you about at the beginning of this chapter, I really do know what it is like to bomb when I preach!) It won’t be long until you feel ineffective in counseling. Or someone leaves your church. Or your church doesn’t grow numerically. Or you encounter suffering on some scale you didn’t expect. If we are not going to lose heart, we need to be constantly infused with the wonder of our calling to this ministry of proclaiming the gospel. We need to remember the context of our ministry: death at work in us, life at work in our church. And we need to fix our eyes on the hope of Christian ministry, that eternal weight of glory that far outweighs the sufferings of today. We will find fresh hope in the knowledge that we have this ministry by the mercy of God, and we won’t lose heart.
This post is part of a series entitled “When a Pastor Loses Heart.” It is adapted from a sermon I preached at Together for the Gospel 2012 entitled, “When a Pastor Loses Heart,” and was published by Crossway in The Underestimated Gospel, edited by Jonathan Leeman. Used by permission of Crossway.