What does a pastor do when he begins to lose heart for his role and task? In 2 Corinthians chapter four Paul provides us with three heart-protecting, heart-strengthening realities for the disheartened pastor. First, we considered The Call of Christian Ministry. The call to Christian ministry is not just a call to proclamation, but also a call to 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.
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.