The following lengthy quotation has sat on my stand-up desk for over a year now. It convicted me then and, again, last week when I rediscovered it while cleaning my office. It is from A Portrait of Paul: Identifying a True Minister of Christ by Rob Ventura and Jeremy Walker.
Paul is sitting bound in jail. Things are not looking good for him. No doubt he is uncertain about his future. And what does he say? He declares that even while experiencing this difficult trial, he now rejoices. His language tells us that his rejoicing was a present and ongoing experience, not in spite of his sufferings, but rather in them. The caged bird is singing! It would be one thing if Paul managed to rejoice at the onset of his troubles but then gradually sank into discouragement after having endured them for some time. That makes sense to us, and all too often reflects our own experience. But these are sufferings that are associated with Paul as a minister of Jesus Christ. It is not masochism (“I rejoice because I am suffering”) or stoicism (“I rejoice despite my sufferings”). It is a distinctively Christian response to what are, in this instance, distinctively Christian trials and tribulations: it is the joy of a gospel minister in the midst of the sufferings associated with his gospel ministry.
The life of a faithful minister involves suffering. False prophets often win the affection of men; truth speakers will incite evil speech from many. Our Lord warned His disciples, “Woe unto you, when all men speak well of you” for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).
The Corinthian super-apostles spent much of their time insinuating and declaring all manner of falsehoods against the apostle, and Paul’s own spiritual children were believing the lies (1 Cor. 4:15). His good was declared to be evil; his sacrifices were called expressions of his worthlessness; his gentleness was called weakness; his humility was called emptiness. He declared himself ready “very gladly (to) spend and be spent for you” and in the same breath delivered this sad testimony: “”though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved” (2 Cor. 12:15). The Corinthians flung Paul’s love and labors back in his face. There are few things that cause more agony for a minister of Christ than to pour out his soul on behalf of Christ’s people, only to have his motives misinterpreted, all kinds of sin imputed to him, and his earnest entreaties and heartfelt efforts ignored, rejected, and even sometimes angrily despised and hurled back against him.
In addition to the physical sufferings he endures, over and above the opposition he faces, loaded on top of the lies told about him, and added to his groaning over the lost, Paul writes of “that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).
We might pause to ponder for a moment the heart of Christ. Here is one whose absolute concern is matched by absolute wisdom and power, who is never overburdened by the concern for all His redeemed that lies constantly upon His heart. He never ceases to pray for us with perfect insight and perfect awareness, offering up to His heavenly Father perfectly framed petitions for just those things that we need. Here is the great Shepherd of the sheep. While He is the confidence of all undershepherds, and they labor confident of His ability to bring all His sheep safely home (John 10:28-30), they—like Him—feel deeply the needs and concerns for the sheep.
Whether internal or external, whether on his own behalf or on behalf of others, the suffering of a servant of Christ is real and often brutal. However, the joy associated with such suffering is just as real and unusually sweet.
Paul’s own response is grounded in a grasp of the truth, for doubtless the thought of Christ’s glory and supremacy sustained him, together with a sense of his own gospel privileges and the honor of his ministry. It is grounded in humility, for there can be no rejoicing in the heart of a man who thinks he deserves far better than what he receives. It is grounded in a right recognition of the value of our sufferings, in the minister’s identification with Christ Himself and I the purpose of the sufferings that Christ has undergone and that he is experiencing.