How should we deal with discouragement in ministry? Here’s some advice from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
I’m pretty sure that one of the most neglected New Testament books is 2 Corinthians. I can understand why. It’s very personal. It appears to be very situation-specific. Sure, there are some glorious purple passages, but as a whole, it tends not to be a standard go-to preaching series in church life.
For all kinds of reasons, I think that is a great shame.
And it is certainly a great shame for pastors and church leaders. I’m not sure we’re allowed to have favourite parts, but a go-to section for me (let the reader understand!) is chapter 4. Paul, remember, is up against it in Corinth, even in his absence. The super-apostles look good, sound good and act good.
Paul, in comparison looks a bit, well, ordinary – especially as he is separated from them by a great distance. The epistle is his reasoned and passionate defence.
One of the reasons I love chapter 4 so much is that it shows Paul thinking aloud as he tackles three of the main reasons why he might be discouraged. It’s extraordinary that he might be discouraged – after all, the glory of the New Covenant ministry is beyond words, as he has just been explaining in chapter 3.
He knows that he cannot, therefore, lose heart (2 Cor. 4:1). And yet the chapter seems to outline three ways he might do so. It’s instructive for us – first as a way of identifying with the apostolic ministry and seeing how we might suffer in the same ways; secondly in helping us understand what the answers are.
These are what I call ministry discouragements. What are they?
Not many get saved
The first discouragement is one of gospel fruitlessness in verses 1-6. It’s very easy to get discouraged when things don’t seem to happen. People don’t get saved. Christians don’t grow. And we feel blue and low as a result. These are the moments we are tempted to take a different path.
It seems, at one level at least, that this is precisely what Paul is talking about here. It’s almost certain that some of the so-called Super-Apostles were doing exactly the things that Paul renounces: deception, distortion and so on. Those tactics produce more apparent fruit and it would all look very impressive indeed.
But the reason that Paul does not embrace them is that he knows that his work is ultimately internal, not external. He is engaged in a spiritual battle with Satan and it’s only when God himself brings light that people will be changed (v5). That’s why Paul reminds himself of his own salvation story (and that of the Corinthians) in verse 6. We know that God does the saving, because he saved us. It is his work.
This is the answer to the discouragement of gospel fruitlessness. God saves. He always has and always will.
Christians don’t look very impressive
Given that the New Covenant ministry is so glorious, what is going on with Christians? In verses 7-12 they’re a pretty mean and miserable lot and – in case you hadn’t noticed – they suffer and die. Worse still, those to whom the message is entrusted can be the worst of the lot.
They’re less than impressive – sometimes they are unappealing too. I may think I’m the glorious exception, but the truth is most Monday mornings I think to myself ‘Who am I?’
Paul implicitly acknowledges that this may be a cause for losing heart by outlining two extraordinary truths. First, he says that it’s this very weakness that is necessary to make much of the glory of Christ himself. The fact that we are such clay jars demonstrates that the power at work cannot come from us, but only from him.
Secondly, he says something even more profound. We are joined to Christ and therefore, somehow, the death of Christ overflows into us because we are intimately and closely connected to him. Part of the glory of the New Covenant is knowing that ministry suffering now identifies us with Christ, just as one day we will share in his glory.
It is all worth it?
Finally in verses 13-15, Paul tackles a more general malaise. The glory of the New Covenant seems so far in the distance that it’s hard to keep going: is it worth it?
Who hasn’t felt like that at some point?
Paul answers this in three ways. First he quotes Psalm 116. That particular song is the cry of a man who has a crummy time of it, but is delivered by God. In other words, the testimony of others is that it’s worth it. We all need to listen to that testimony with the spirit of faith.
Secondly, the gospel itself brings confidence. There will be a day of resurrection (v14). It’s what we believe and proclaim to others. Thirdly, we need to keep reminding ourselves of the big picture. It is those very things which drag us down which God is using to draw more and more people to come to Christ (v15).
No wonder that Paul ends with the beautiful verses 16-18. Yes, we are getting weaker. Yes, we are unimpressive. But something bigger is going on and so:
“We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”