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. We have already looked at The Call of Christian Ministry and The Context of the Christian Ministry. The hope of Christian ministry is an eternal perspective. It’s all about knowing where to look.
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.