From Voice magazine, May/June 2016. Used by permission.
You started ministry enjoying the calling given by God to those who shepherd his flock. You enjoyed communicating God’s Word each week. You fell in love with the people. Every week you rejoiced that God would enable you to give your life to the very thing you love.
With time, however, the struggles mount and the discouragements continue such that ministry soon moves from a joy-filled activity to little more than a duty thrust upon you. You begin to see ministry as merely a task to perform rather than also a privilege and calling from God. While Paul saw ministry as a gift graciously given to him (Ephesians 3:7), when going through trials in ministry you begin to wonder if it is a curse. You soon lose the joy of ministry. But is that God’s intent? Did he call you to do something where there is no joy in the task? Are you to begrudgingly go about the day “suffering for Jesus” with the hope that you will only experience the joy of Christ in the eschatological future?
To maintain our perspective in the midst of the trials of ministry, we must recognize that not only is life a gift from God, but ministry itself is a gift God has given us to enjoy. We must learn to enjoy God’s gift, not by finding freedom from difficulties, but in the midst of them.
Life Is a Gift of God to Be Enjoyed
The book of Ecclesiastes has often been maligned as a book espousing man’s wisdom apart from God. However, such an approach not only does injustice to the biblical text, but it does a grave injustice to the book itself. The writer of Ecclesiastes points us not to the skeptic and natural man, but to all the incongruities of life and the search for meaning that continually seems to be thwarted by the apparent failures, struggles, and tragedies we face. But this directs us to find our purpose in God. Only in a relationship with God can one discover the true understanding of life.
This begins with the understanding that life is to be enjoyed regardless of the external events that happen in our life. For the writer of Ecclesiastes, life can only be enjoyed in the context of our relationship with God, and he masterfully weaves this theme throughout the fabric of the whole book. At every turn, after pointing out the paradoxes of a fallen world, he brings us back to this thesis (3:3; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:8-9; 12:13-14). He continually reminds us “there is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good” (2:24; cf. 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9).
Some might conclude that the writer is a hedonist or an Epicurean sensualist who espouses the philosophy “let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But this would contradict the very theme and conclusion governing the book: “Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13-14). For the sage, only in the context of our relationship with God can we find the true basis for fully enjoying the life God has given us. God, and only God, gives true meaning and understanding in life, for in the end every pursuit apart from God merely tries to grasp a vaporless cloud (i.e., vanity of vanities, all is vanity), one seen but lacking any true substance.
We live in a fallen world, where sin corrupted the enjoyment of the life God gave. But instead of shrinking back in discouragement and fatalistic despair, we recognize that even though broken by sin, God still gives us life as a gift to be enjoyed. Whereas Job confronts the paradox of faith by challenging us to let God be God, Ecclesiastes confronts the paradox of faith by challenging us to enjoy life as a gift of God with all its incongruities. This enjoyment comes, not by denying the reality of life’s pains, but by looking beyond them to see that meaning comes from our relationship with God rather than external circumstances.
We Find Joy in Ministry Because of Our Identity in Christ
Gaining a correct understanding of ministry begins with our identification with Christ. When Saul of Tarsus encountered and submitted to the person of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, it brought a radical change in his identity (Acts 9). Not only was his name changed to Paul, but also his whole persona was transformed. He was not only a believer and beneficiary of the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ, but a recipient of the character and nature of Christ, imparted to him so now he said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Because of his identification with Christ the world then directed their hatred of Christ towards Paul. Consequently, as we have already seen, Paul did not see his suffering and pain in ministry as a mark of shame and repudiation; rather, he saw his scars as a badge of honor, demonstrating his identification and relationship with Christ.
But the rest of the apostles shared this same view. In 1 Peter 4:13-16, Peter expressed the same when he wrote, “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.” This points to the certainty of suffering for all Christians. If the world hates Christians, how much more will they hate those who serve as leaders?
When we enter ministry, suffering becomes unavoidable and inescapable. Mistakenly, we tragically think that we should be exempt from suffering. For a minister of Christ to say that he should not suffer is equivalent to a fish saying he does not like to swim in water. Both are the inherent consequences of their true identity. Rather than leading us to despair, it should cause us joy, for our suffering reveals our true identification with Christ. While we do not rejoice for our suffering, we can rejoice in our suffering, for our suffering testifies of our position in Christ and points us to our future inheritance in Christ.
This future reward places the present difficulties we face in perspective. Our suffering is temporary; our inheritance is eternal. Our position as the object of ridicule is replaced by the shared honor of a son. Our present trials serve as a precursor to our future glory (Romans 8:18). When we experience times of difficulties, we often feel abandoned by God and we wonder if God’s promises remain true. However, rather than our sufferings being an indication that God has abandoned us, they serve as an affirmation of our union with Christ. Consequently, we can rejoice, not because of the sufferings themselves, but because they reveal our nature and position in Christ (2 Timothy 3:12). For just as his promise is true that we will suffer for Christ, so also it is true that we will be rewarded by participating in his glory (Matthew 5:10-12; 2 Corinthians 4:16-17).
This article series is an excerpt from Glenn’s newest book When Shepherds Weep: Finding Tears of Joy for Wounded Pastors (Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2015).