What comes to your mind when you consider the call to pastoral ministry? Preaching God’s truth to a rapt audience? Delivering dazzling doses of sparkling oratory to a crowd? Unlocking the mysteries of marriage when counseling? Being a bold, dynamic, visionary leader developing a compelling model of ministry?
In 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, we are offered a glimpse into Paul’s journal, a slice of life for a man in ministry. And the glimpse unveils a surprising truth: the call to ministry is a call to suffering. These verses bring definition, clarity, and, perhaps most importantly, reality, to pastoral ministry. They serve as a calling gut-check. The call to ministry is not a call to celebrity, but a call to suffer. The call to ministry is not a call to comfort, but a call to weakness. If you aren’t willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel, you may want to consider another vocation.
Paul speaks of a time when he was crushed, burdened, and despairing. But Paul isn’t interested in garnering sympathy points. Rather, he wants to pull the curtain back on the Divine activity behind a leader’s affliction.
In verses 8-10, Paul introduces us to a horrific experience he had in Asia. He says:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.
Paul doesn’t specify the details of this trial. It could have been the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19); it could have been some sort of fight with wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32); or it could have been persecution or sickness. The precise nature of the experience is withheld from us, which is probably good news! Why? Because God speaks to us all through Paul’s words. We can, in a sense, import Paul’s trial into our turmoil.
We may not know the context of Paul’s affliction, but we do know that it was beyond Paul’s strength to bear. In fact, it made him despair of life itself! Think about what’s being said here. Paul is describing a kind of pre-suicidal period. He uses words that describe emotional carnage. It was an experience of incomprehensible weakness. Paul was crushed, with no means of escape. He was in such emotional distress that he felt like he had received a sentence of death.
Still want to be in ministry? If so, you too may spend time in “Asia”. There may be moments you feel crushed, trapped, and hopeless. Your timetable for fruit may slowly evaporate before your very eyes. The giant sucking sound could be the zeal leaving your heart as you battle against hopelessness. Are you prepared for that kind of experience in ministry?
Before you drop out of seminary, there’s good news. Paul didn’t pen these words simply as a therapeutic exercise. Paul preserved this story because he wanted to recount the deliverance he experienced. God also wants you to know that you too will experience that deliverance. Sure, there will be pain. Sometimes, like it was for Paul, the pain will defy description! But you can proceed towards ministry confident that God will fill your pain with purpose. Just like he did for Paul.
Look at the first few words in verse 9. “But that was to make us…” Paul is saying that the there was a Writer to his drama – One who was ordaining certain outcomes and giving meaning to the afflictions he was experiencing. That Writer was God himself. God intentionally brought Paul to a place of weakness in ministry, which actually led Paul to despair.
Why would God do this?
Because God cares very much about what and who we rely upon. You know what? We don’t take the issue of reliance nearly as seriously as God does. God is so serious about our reliance that he will create the worst moments in our lives in order to force us to rely upon him. Sometimes God’s best work happens when we are forced to stop trying to decipher God and have to start trusting God. It’s part of God’s plan for making a pastor.
There are times when God brings trials into our lives with the sole goal of teaching us to rely upon Him. In the midst of these trials, we don’t understand why we are experiencing them. For two years, Joseph was a shining example of purity, even as Potiphar’s wife was seeking to seduce him. Then, unexpectedly and inexplicably, he was jailed. No discussion, no explanation, no interpretation – God moves him from the palace to prison. Comfortably ensconced in a Starbucks and reading Genesis, we can see why God allowed it to happen. But Joseph was blind to the reason.
If you’re called to ministry, expect Joseph-like moments. Imprisonment in the fires of affliction, where the pain seems arbitrary and meaningless.
Sometimes it just pleases God to shake our lives. And, it’s funny, but He doesn’t feel obligated to explain himself to us. In these times, God’s goal will be, in part, to produce reliance in us. Reliance almost always involves pruning and stripping down.
Men considering ministry need to hear some sobering news. If you plant a church or become a pastor, God will inevitably bring you through trials where there is no clear answer to the question of, “Why?” A young elder may be afflicted with cancer. Why? An older couple will cause division in your church. Why? Your closest friend will leave the church. Why?
As you ponder the call to ministry, ask yourself, “Am I willing to suffer emotionally or mentally for the sake of the gospel?” Before you answer though, remember that this suffering is not random or pointless. God plants the gospel deep when he sows suffering in his servants. Pastors eventually discover that God not only causes all things to work for good (Rom 8:28), but He also causes the pastor’s suffering to work for the good of the people he serves.
Suffering will come. But the lesson of reliance and the experience of deliverance will be worth it!