Paul’s ministry resume and yours, part 2
And like Paul, you may fervently and repeatedly pray for removal from your circumstances, but God will not change them due to a larger—and infinitely more glorious plan—that you do not see.
Here’s four more ways Paul’s ministry served as a resume for his calling and the calling of every pastor.
3. Paul’s suffering illustrated the gospel he was called to proclaim
[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 Corinthians 4:10-12)
I’m not a big fan of the aphorism often (and erroneously) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says something like, “Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” It’s a well-intended cliché, and I get the drift, but God has commanded gospel heralds to use words. He has invested his Word with transforming power. Paul’s call to proclaim Christ certainly required words, but to his mind, it also entailed something else: a willingness to die for Christ. Gospel proclamation, for Paul, was a call to both preach and die because the words were illustrated by (and explained) the actions.
Paul was committed to suffer and die for the cause of Christ, and such a willingness turned out to be the means by which the death of Jesus was revealed through Paul. 1 The so-called “super-apostles” argued that signs and wonders were certain proof that the Spirit of God was at work. But Paul maintained that one must suffer for the life and death of Jesus to be illustrated. 2 God was using Paul’s suffering as an agent of life in the Corinthians. Schreiner writes:
Paul is again, therefore, the corollary of Jesus, for just as Jesus died to convey life to his people, so too Paul must suffer for the life of God to be communicated to others. 3
The apostle was willing to sacrifice his own life to see the Corinthians converted, thereby providing a living parable of the very good news he preached. Death was coming to Paul’s body, but life was coming to the Corinthians through Christ. Contrary to the “super apostles” and their modern-day successors in the prosperity movement, every faithful gospel minister must be willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the call to preach Christ. Acts 20:24 is something of a ministry manifesto for Paul which we see lived out in 2 Corinthians: “I do not count my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
Paul’s doctrine here came home to me during the final weeks of my first pastorate. My church faced a terrible financial crisis. It could no longer afford my salary. I could find neither supplementary work nor full-time employment. After many weeks of prayer and counsel from other godly wise men, I realized my only option was to resign. This text suddenly loomed large on the landscape of my life—was I willing to lay down even the ministry? In my farewell sermon, I preached John 12:24-25, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” I prayed the congregation would see my point—I was seeking to live out Paul’s words here in 2 Corinthians 4:10-12. It was painful, and in many ways it left me perplexed, but it wound up allowing the church to continue to exist.
As Paul’s ministry proved, and as I pray my actions in some small way affirmed, suffering is not a denial of the gospel, but a confirmation of its truthfulness.
4. Paul’s suffering was a means of reorienting his gaze to eternal things
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self if being renewed day-by-day. For this momentary light 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. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
As fallen humans, we tend to live for the moment. Our lives very easily shrink down to the spontaneous thoughts, emotions or needs that are dominating our lives at a given place and time. Every crisis, no matter how small, can take on weight in our lives that far outstrips its true significance. As Paul Tripp well put it, “In a moment, your thoughts can seem more important than they actually are. In a moment, your emotions can seem more reliable than they really are. In a moment, your needs can seem more essential than they truly are . . . It’s hard to live with eternity in view. Life does shrink to the moment again and again.” 4
This type of thinking often leads a pastor down the dark road of discouragement and rather easily draws him through the doors of the dungeon of discontentment. A single e-mail, text message or phone call from a church member or deacon can push him into a mental spiral that leads to ten thousand speculative disasters. Or an off-hand comment from an elder about his preaching can cause the man to question his call to ministry.
Pastors are an insecure lot. Like all sons of Adam, they easily succumb to the world’s pressure to succeed. Faithfulness is the biblical barometer of success in ministry, but the siren song of the world with its chorus of “more, faster, bigger, shinier” often clouds the mind of God’s man.
In his mercy, God rescues his under-shepherds from these dangerous roads by reorienting their gaze from temporal things to heavenly things. In Paul’s ministry, affliction was the instrument God employed to change the apostle’s focus. Though he suffered grievously, as the laundry list of trials in 2 Corinthians 11 shows, Paul dismissed his terrible circumstances as “momentary light affliction” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Multiple imprisonments for the cause of Christ? Momentary light affliction.
Countless beatings? Momentary light affliction.
Often near death in service of the gospel? Momentary light affliction.
Shipwrecked three times? Momentary light affliction.
Adrift at sea a day and a night? Momentary light affliction.
Often without food and water in cold and exposure? Momentary light affliction.
Under a threat of death from Jews and Gentiles alike? Momentary light affliction.
Obviously, God did not waste Paul’s affliction; it was the catalyst that took his eyes off this world and fixed them on another. Suffering enabled him to see that this world is a dress-rehearsal for another world. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, the Lord’s mercy often rides to the door of our heart on the black stallion of affliction. Through suffering, God gave Paul eyes to see the dangerous, uncertain, transitory nature of the kingdom of man over against the glorious, certain, eternal nature of the kingdom of God. Compared to the glories of another realm, the personal disasters of this one are nothing.
5. Paul’s suffering proved the integrity of his ministry
But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)
My dear friend and ministry hero Harry Reeder often says, “Circumstances do not shape character, they reveal it.” In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul says his response to suffering showed the kind of man he was because only a Spirit-empowered person could suffer with joy, trusting that God had ordained his circumstances for good. Such joy could only be produced by the Spirit of God (1 Thess. 1:6). Paul was an authentic Spirit-filled, divinely-called herald of God.
Schreiner rightly argues that the effectiveness of the message relies heavily upon the integrity of the messenger: “The effectiveness of the message of the cross is evacuated if the messengers are hucksters. On the other hand, proclaiming the gospel with integrity in the midst of suffering commends the gospel to the hearers.”
Second Corinthians 6 is another curriculum vitae setting forth Paul’s ministerial qualifications. There, he lists ten elements of suffering in verses 4b and 5, then he follows in verses 6 and 7 with nine elements of holiness. 5 In verses 8-10, he toggles back to nine additional types of suffering he’s experienced. Paul’s ministry is not so much validated by affliction as by the holiness it produces.
Just as the presence of semi-trucks and other heavy vehicles will eventually reveal the cracks in the bulwark of a rusting, decaying bridge, so will extended bouts of affliction unmask a fake Christian or a false teacher. Paul had been broken, bruised, and battered. God’s grace caused him to stand anyway, thus proving his calling as a genuine apostle of God.
Seminary students and pastoral interns often ask me to help authenticate and discern their calling. Certainly there are marks and proofs that a man is indeed called, and, of course there are the qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But one certain indicator that God has called a man is that he stands firm and perseveres in the ministry after he has been thoroughly battered by a hurricane of affliction. Paul suffered profoundly, but pressed on in planting churches and proclaiming the gospel. This, he told the church at Corinth, separated him from the so-called “super apostles.” It proved the integrity and authenticity of his ministry. Again, in his inimitable pithiness, Spurgeon summarizes this memorably: “The Lord gets his best soldiers out of the highlands of affliction.”
The men profiled in subsequent chapters of this volume give further credence to Spurgeon’s notion. Calvin was run out of Geneva, but continued in the ministry until his death. Like Paul, Bunyan was jailed, but wrote the second most famous Christian book in history from behind bars and later returned to shepherd his flock. Simeon persevered in the face of a congregation that despised him.
6. Paul’s suffering served as dynamite that destroyed self-glory
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Few Christians in the history of the church have experienced an encounter with God on par with that which Paul discusses in 2 Corinthians 12. Yet, such an ecstatic vision of another world did not buttress Paul’s pride—it slayed it. How? After God gave Paul a preview of heaven, he afflicted the apostle with what he called a “thorn in my flesh.” Scripture is not clear as to the thorn’s identity, but it was given for Paul’s humility, to remind him that all his strength lies in the grace of God and not in himself. The thorn was God’s loving dynamite that destroyed Paul’s will to self-glory. 6
Such a vision would certainly tempt even the most mature man of God toward seeking his own glory. Tweet about my experience. Facebook it. Shout it from the roof-tops for my own fame. But the parasite of self-glory—so endemic to fallen man—drains the life blood and ultimately buries authentic gospel ministry. Self-glory builds self kingdoms, but it also brings opposition from God: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).
Paul realized that one of the most important weapons a pastor must possess in ministry is humility. Problem is, none of us are “naturally humble.” Thus, God in his grace gives us thorns to wage war on self-glory and promote humility.
It may be an irascible deacon board, a physical malady (many think that was Paul’s issue), a prodigal son, slim financial resources, depression and anxiety, cancer, the tragic death of your wife or child, or any of a thousand other devastating realities. While our thorns may vary, God’s intent is the same—to humble us and to remind us of our utter dependence on him.
And like Paul, you may fervently and repeatedly pray for removal from your circumstances, but God will not change them due to a larger—and infinitely more glorious plan—that you do not see. Namely, your decreasing and his increasing. But God will give you something even greater than removal of the thorn: his strength that shines through your weakness.
God exposed my weakness and exploded my self-glory very early in the ministry.
My first pastorate lasted barely three years. At times, it was a nightmare. One of my elders falsely accused me of wrongdoing. A woman in the church plotted to plant pornography in my vehicle (overheard and confronted by another member, thankfully). Seven families conspired to have me removed and replaced with a more “reformed” man. Two weeks before I resigned, another elder called for a vote of confidence before the entire congregation (Mercifully, they rejected his attempt) as my wife and children watched from the second row. There were thorns galore. But from the vantage point of a few years, I see how God used all of them to show me his power and my weakness. In ministry, as in all things, all glory belongs to him alone.
Grueling, Glorious Calling
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, senior writer for The Gospel Coalition, reports that pastor suicides climbed 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. 7 This trend serves as further confirmation that the difficulties that accompany pastoral ministry only increase over time. It was anything but easy for the apostle Paul and it is anything but easy for today’s pastor. Atop your job description as a pastor is suffering and if you serve a local body in this capacity for more than three weeks, it will become part of your resume.
The apostle Paul’s ministry, particularly as he outlined in 2 Corinthians, is inspired proof of that the pastorate is, in the words of Paul David Tripp, a dangerous, grueling calling. Dangerous, yes, grueling, sure, but glorious as well for the work it accomplishes both in and through God’s man. The same apostle that wrote 2 Corinthians also penned, under the Spirit’s inspiration, Romans 5:3-5a:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.
1. Schreiner, Pauline Theology, 96.
4. Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), xx.
5. Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy & Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 105.
6. For a longer exposition of the minister’s war with self-glory, see Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 167-181.
7. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Why Pastors Are Committing Suicide”, The Gospel Coalition thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-pastors-are-committing-suicide, accessed January 5, 2017.
Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from the book 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry (Baker/TGC, 2018) edited by Jeff Robinson and Collin Hansen.
Part 1 may be found here.