Paul’s ministry resume and yours, part 1
God’s servants will suffer, but he will not let them go. He is demonstrating his awesome power through their astonishing powerlessness.
If you sent a resume to a search committee to be considered for a pastoral opening in a local church, what types of information would it contain? No doubt, it would detail all the “positive” ministry experience you have logged. If you had served as a pastor in one place for a few years, you’d put that first, particularly if things went fairly well. If you worked as a youth minister while in college, you’d put that down. If you taught a Bible class or served a short-term mission stint overseas, that would certainly make the list. You would include the names and contact information for several people who are likely to give a friendly assessment of your qualifications, character, and background.
Your aim would be to make certain your strengths stand out in bold relief so you would appear—on paper at least—better-qualified than the other candidates.
A band of “super apostles” forced the apostle Paul to validate his ministry late in his second letter to the church at Corinth. Thus, in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul provided his pastoral resume, boasting in a rather lengthy set of qualifications that authenticated him as an apostle called and inspired by God. What made Paul’s ministry vitae? It reads quite differently than ours would:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Cor. 11:23-30 ESV)
Paul’s ministry qualifications read like the diary of an Auschwitz survivor: imprisonment on false charges, flogging, starvation, shipwrecked, hard labor, robbed, sleepless nights—all things that portray him as a weak man. Why? Because, as Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians in chapter 12, he was called to suffer as a pastor because the gospel’s work moves forward and the church gets built on the tracks of suffering which demonstrates God’s power working through the conduit of human frailty. When I am tempted to throw a pity party over some trifling anguish I’m facing in ministry, I go to Paul’s account here to put it in perspective. I will never suffer this way for Christ. Compared to this, all is well.
But as a herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I am called to suffer.
It is clear from Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians and in other epistles that he expected all faithful ministers to experience some level of affliction. In 2 Timothy 2:3, Paul commanded that Timothy, his son in the faith, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
Suffering is Normative for God’s Men
Throughout the history of the church of Jesus Christ, a pattern has emerged in which the men whom God has used profoundly to build his church suffered grinding affliction along the way. The church father Athanasius (296-373 AD) was exiled five times on accusations of heresy. Dozens of early believers were burned at the stake or fed to lions. John Calvin (1509-1564) lived much of his life under a threat of death from the Roman Catholic Church. Puritan pastor John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrote Pilgrim’s Progress during a 12-year imprisonment for preaching the gospel. Charles Spurgeon lived in constant physical pain and suffered profound anxiety for boldly upholding God’s Word in the face of rising liberalism in nineteenth century.
Scores of others, including those who comprise the remaining chapters of this book lived out the famous dictum of A.W. Tozer (1897-1963): “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” 1
That is essentially the thesis of this article—before (or often while) God uses his ministers, he first fits them for gospel work with a harrowing walk along the Calvary Road of suffering. The apostle Paul is something of a biblical paradigm of the suffering pastor. He detailed affliction in many of his letters, but teased it out in the greatest depth in 2 Corinthians. This chapter will make six arguments, mostly from Paul’s witness in 2 Corinthians, to show how God employs suffering both to fit his men for gospel ministry and as a means of proclaim that same gospel of grace to a lost and dying world.
Tom Schreiner crystalizes Paul’s self-understanding well:
We should not conceive of Paul as engaging in mission and experiencing the unfortunate consequence of suffering in the process, as his difficulties were unrelated to his mission. On the contrary, the pain Paul endured was the means by which the message of the gospel was extended to the nations. Suffering was not a side effect of the Pauline mission; rather it was at the very center of his apostolic evangelism. His distress validated and legitimated his message, demonstrating the truth of the gospel. 2
God promised Paul suffering in Acts 9:15-16, But the Lord said to him (Ananias), “Go, for his is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him him much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’”
It is vital that a man of God recognize this early in his ministry, else he may be tempted to quit when things don’t go as planned.
Pastors in the Hands of an Angry God?
When a season of suffering sets in, pastors tend to wonder if something in the cosmos is out of kilter. Perhaps God is angry with me. Maybe his hand is not on my ministry. Maybe I need to micro-examine myself as a young Martin Luther did to see if undetected sin has caused God to write “Ichabod” over the door of my life and ministry
The “super apostles” seemed to believe Paul’s troubles were ironclad evidence of God’s displeasure with him; surely one who boasts in such things as floggings and hunger have lost their minds and have in fact been abandoned by God. But Paul argued nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, affliction might very well provide key evidence that God is in fact with his man. Through suffering on an unconscionable level, Paul learned six key lessons about being a faithful minister, lessons every minister ought to take to heart early in his ministry.
1. Paul’s suffering taught him how to minister gospel compassion to others (2 Cor. 1:3-7)
My wife and I had never been able to relate to the many families around us that suffered through failed pregnancies until our first son died in Lisa’s womb after five months in the fall of 1999. We were planning on naming him after my distant cousin, Brooks Robinson, a baseball hall of famer in hopes God would give him that same baseball gene. In the years that followed, we were amazed at how many friends came to us for counsel and encouragement after losing a child in utero.
I had never really been able to relate to fellow pastors whose ministries exploded like Mount Vesuvius until mine did two years into my first pastorate. Previously, the best I could do was offer some Reformed-sounding platitudes featuring the Puritans, Spurgeon, and maybe Corrie ten Boom, assuring them that these saints suffered and we must too. But my words fell with a thud; I knew not of what I spoke.
We don’t fully understand affliction and God’s unbending faithfulness in the cauldron until we’ve spent time boiling in it. God remedies this in his servants as the apostle learned ad-nauseam. Paul and Barnabas strengthened the churches at Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch and instructed Christians to remain true to Christ, assuring them, “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). How were they to become kingdom citizens? Surely through Christ alone, but also through trials. But, Paul assured his readers, God would be with them in the furnace—as he had the Hebrew boys in Daniel 3. In turn, they would then be able to assure anxious believers of the faithfulness, love, and mercy of God who promised never to leave nor forsake his people (Heb. 13:5).
Pastoral ministry is not a shelter from the storm of this fallen world, rather it is a call to plunge headlong into it. God calls his servants to run to the battle, not away from it. And God sees us through difficult times so we can provide the sheep with the gospel comfort that comes from trusting fully in the kind purposes of the good shepherd. Calvin rightly referred to this as “the fellowship of suffering.”
[Paul], having come off victorious through heavenly consolation was for their sake and with a view to their advantage, that they may stir themselves up to fellowship in suffering, instead of haughtily despising conflicts. 3
Just as Jesus picked up 12 baskets full of leftovers from his feeding of the 5,000, he will not waste your suffering, but he will use it to make you a compassionate shepherd in the local church for his glory as you experience the very aspects of the fallen world as do members of your congregation.
God’s fashioning of his leaders through affliction is the gospel-centered path to maturity, Don Carson asserts: “The most mature Christian leaders want to absorb an additional share of sufferings so that their flocks may correspondingly be spared some suffering. In this, they imitate Christ.” 4
2. Paul’s suffering demonstrated human weakness and the power of God (2 Cor. 4:7-9)
There is nothing robust or fetching about paper plates—even those with “heavy duty” stamped on the package. They are utilitarian, designed for a single purpose—to hold food and allow the user to successfully consume it. Then, they are thrown in the garbage. They exist entirely for the sake of the food they will contain.
In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says pastors are kind of like that. They are cheap, Wal-Mart crockery—mere clay pots. God uses them to display and deploy a precious and powerful message—the gospel. Through this ordinary means, God proclaims his extraordinary gospel to show that it is the meal and not the plate that ultimately creates believers.
And the clay pots are vessels God subjects to suffering, but he brings them through it unspoiled and intact to demonstrate that the power to save sinners and preserve pastors belongs entirely to God.
Paul endured all manner of physical affliction, which he cataloged in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, adding that none of them destroyed him because of God’s grace: “afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed.” Like Paul, all human heralds are weak, but God’s power is not short-circuited by their weakness.
Why did God strike Paul with such angry waves? “To show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” By suffering on behalf of his Lord, Paul carries in his body the dying of Jesus. In Galatians 6:17, Paul makes clear that he “bears in his body the marks of Jesus.” Schreiner comments on this passage: “Paul’s commitment to suffer and die for Christ is the means by which the strength of Jesus and his life are revealed through Paul.” 5
John Bunyan, whom you will encounter in a later chapter, illustrates this point particularly well. The Puritan preacher was arrested in 1661 for preaching in a service outside the officially-sanctioned state church. He spent 12 years in a squalid Bedford jail and wrote many great works, including Pilgrim’s Progress, the second best-selling book of all-time after the Bible. Bunyan was not an educated man. He never spent a single day in seminary. He was a tinker—a repairer of pots and pans—who ministered in the rural town of Bedford, England. Yet, God continues to speak to millions today through his printed works. A powerful man? No. A clay pot? Yes. When told he could go home if he’d promise to stop preaching Christ as a separatist minister, Bunyan reportedly responded, “If you let me out of prison, I will be preaching Christ by this time tomorrow.”
By human reckoning, God’s entire project of redemption appears weak. Jesus was born in a lowly stable to unremarkable parents, lived an obscure life, was eventually nailed to a cross between two thieves, and buried in a borrowed tomb. Many throughout history, including the former wrestling superstar/Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura, an avowed atheist, have dismissed Christianity and its crucified Christ as “a weak religion for weak people.”
Indeed, in one important sense, Ventura is correct. Like Paul, like the tinker of Bedford, all of us are clay pots, weak men. If the transformation of sinners is to take place, God must do it. And he will strike the clay pot along the way to toughen it up for the work. Indeed, as Bunyan wrote, “A Christian is to be like a great bell, the harder you strike him the more clearly he rings.”
God saved sinners through the affliction of his apostle, but he also made Paul’s feet stand firm in the midst of it all.
Paul expresses it in a series of contrasting couplets: he was afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed. My favorite is the second one: “perplexed, but not driven to despair.” I have often been perplexed in the ministry. What is God doing? Why is he doing it this way? More times than not, I’ve been mystified at God’s ways. But each time, I have come to Paul’s words here and, like water from an oasis in a desert, I drew fresh stores of grace from “but not driven to despair” and was refreshed to persevere.
God’s servants will suffer, but he will not let them go. He is demonstrating his awesome power through their astonishing powerlessness.
1. Quoted in Nancy Guthrie, ed, Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 89. The quote has often been expressed as “It is doubtful whether God can use a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply,” because the context shows that to be close to Tozer’s meaning. The quote comes from Tozer’s work The Root of the Righteous: Tapping the Bedrock of True Spirituality.
2. Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), 87.
3. John Calvin, Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XX, John Pringle trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 110.
4. D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Evil and Suffering (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 81.
5. Schreiner, Pauline Theology, 96.
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.