Big Idea: Don’t give up when ministry beats you up, because God uses your suffering now, and remove your suffering later.
Arnold Dallimore was, according to his granddaughter, a small man with a big voice. He was a world-renowned author, church planter, pastor, preacher, poet, and man of God. His biographies of Whitefield and Spurgeon have influenced many. D.A. Carson says of his two-volume biography of Whitefield: “Few books make me weep, but on occasion that biography did. For all its technical competence and heavy documentation, it made me pray, more than once, Oh, God, do it again!”
Dallimore’s story fascinates me, in part because he was one of us. He was father-in-law to one of our Fellowship pastors. He was close friends with Hal MacBain, one of the key figures in our Fellowship. He pastored a small church in Cottam, Ontario for forty years.
But his story also fascinates me because of something that happened: he was once so beat up by ministry that he completely disappeared for months. Not even his wife knew where he went.
In the mid-1940s, Dallimore became pastor of Briscoe Street Baptist Church in London, Ontario. It was known as a pastor-killing church. Dallimore himself called it “a ministerial graveyard, as ministers remained but a year.” Dallimore did better: he lasted thirteen months. It didn’t kill him, but it drove him into depression. He took a three-year break from ministry, and supported himself by buying and renovating houses. Things were so bad that they started selling their wedding gifts in order to buy groceries.
During this time, Dallimore disappeared for three months to New York State on doctor’s orders. His wife has no idea where he went or what he did, only that he seemed much better when he returned home.
I get it.
Pastoral ministry is one of the greatest privileges. I often think of what Paul wrote to Timothy:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service… (1 Timothy 1:12)
Nobody here deserves to be in pastoral ministry. It is an incredible privilege to be called to shepherd and love God’s people, and to devote our best hours to studying his Word and serving his church. It is an unbelievable privilege to be a pastor.
But make no mistake: pastoral ministry will beat you up. I remember my first summer as a student pastor in North Bay. My mother came up to visit me, and we walked along the shore of Lake Nipissing. She told me that he supported me and my call to ministry, but that she was also concerned. Her brother is a pastor, and she knew what I was signing up for. She wanted me to know as well.
That was almost thirty years ago. Since then I’ve seen pastors get beat up. I’ve seen pastors get fired — or even worse, not quite fired, but pushed out the door using passive-aggressive tactics. I’ve seen the bruises on the arm of a pastor’s wife that came from someone grabbing her in the aisle after church to confront her. I’ve seen pastors burn out, and I’ve come close myself. Pastoral ministry will beat you up.
To be honest, some of you are there right now. I attend an annual study week with pastors. Every year, about half the pastors arrive beat up. It’s never the same people. If someone comes saying what a good year they had, we laugh and say, “I guess it’s their turn next year!” So some of you are here, and you’re beat up. If you’re not, well, just wait until next year. None of us are going to escape unharmed.
And so we have to ask ourselves: if pastoral ministry will beat us up — and it will — how can we survive? And I’m so glad that Scripture answers this question.
I want to look at a passage of Scripture with you tonight written by the apostle Paul. If anyone knew what it was like to get beat up by ministry, it was Paul. Being beat up wasn’t a metaphor for Paul. He was actually beaten up multiple times. That’s on top of being imprisoned, shipwrecked at least four times. One of my friends says that if he lived back then, he’d check the passenger list, and if Paul was on the boat, he’d get off. Traveling with Paul was that risky. Paul would have been in constant physical pain because of all that he’d endured.
And then there was the church. “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches,” he wrote (2 Corinthians 11:28). Paul faced a number of challenges and hardships, and of all of them, this seemed to be the climactic burden—the primary burden—that he carried on a daily basis. He cared for the church, the church that loved him and responded to his teaching, but also the church that badmouthed him, rejected him, and caused him so much grief.
Ministry will beat you up. So why not give up?
In 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, Paul answers this question. I really appreciate what Paul does in this passage. He does us a great favor by telling us two things:
First, that ministry will beat us up. Expect it. We’re going to see in this passage that suffering is part of pastoral ministry. If you haven’t experienced suffering in your ministry, you’re doing it wrong.
Second, that we can not only survived the suffering, but we can thrive. Paul uses language like, “We do not lose heart,” we’re “not driven to despair,” “we are always of good courage.” And then Paul tells us how.
So let’s look at this. Why should we, knowing that we’re going to be beat up by ministry, not give up? Paul gives us two reasons:
Because God uses your suffering now (4:7-16)
In other words, don’t give up, because your suffering is purposeful. There’s a reason for it.
Notice that Paul begins by helping us understand that ministry is suffering. He writes:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)
The first thing that Paul tells us is that ministry will beat us up. You could almost make this the theme of every ordination sermon: Do you realize what you’ve signed up for? Kevin Miller of Leadership Journal once said:
If there were a binding contract to sign before entering ministry, the fine print would include: "The undersigned acknowledges that the pastoral ministry may be hazardous and subject the undersigned to expressions of animosity, including but not limited to calumny, slander, misrepresentation, and betrayal."
That’s what Paul is saying. He’s saying that we are fragile containers: mass-produced, ordinary containers that really don’t amount to much. We are fragile and ordinary — even the most impressive of us.
But then we enter ministry, and look what happens. Paul lists four terms that characterize ministry, before he gives us the qualifications that speak to how God uses these conditions. Listen to how Paul describes ministry in verses 8 and 9:
- afflicted but not restricted — a catch-all phrase that summarized all of Paul’s trials and persecutions; but Paul says that all of these afflictions have not ended his ministry
- baffled but not to the point of despair — meaning that Paul has faced times when he’s been baffled by what’s happened to him; but he’s never given in and permanently given up
- abused but not abandoned — he’s experienced beatings, imprisonments, riots, slander; but God stood with him in the worst of what he went through
- knocked down but not terminated — literally knocked down, but still alive
This is what ministry looks like! I love the way that Paul is brutally honest about ministry, and yet he refused to give up even when ministry beat him up.
Why didn’t Paul give up? I don’t think it was because Paul was naturally optimistic or persistent. I think it’s because Paul realized that his suffering had a purpose.
The thing that keeps me up at night sometimes is wondering if the suffering that we’ve been through in our ministry was worth it. You may wonder the same thing. Paul tells us here that it was worth it. It was worth it because it accomplished quite a few things. Here are just a few:
God uses your weakness to show his glory. Your weakness is a great backdrop to demonstrate the power of God. (verse 7)
God uses your suffering to advance his gospel (verses 10, 15). “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Our suffering is a prerequisite for the spread of the gospel. It mirrors the cruciform pattern of the gospel: life comes through death. We are following the pattern of our crucified Lord. If pastors didn’t suffer, no gospel ministry would ever take place.
To use an extreme example, the daughter of missionaries to the Congo Republic recounted how as a little girl she had participated in a celebration of the 100th anniversary of missionaries coming to the Congo Republic. Speeches were given, music was played, and at the end of the day a very old man stood before the crowd to speak. He said that when the missionaries first came, the people thought them odd and their message suspicious. The tribal leaders, seeking to test the missionaries, slowly poisoned them to death over a period of months, even years. Children of the missionaries died one by one, but the missionaries stayed and proclaimed the gospel, even as they died. The old man commented, “It was as we watched how they died that we decided we wanted to live as Christians.”
Spiritual life comes through ministers who are willing to die, so to speak, so that others hear the gospel. Your suffering follows the pattern of Jesus, who suffered so that we could receive the gospel. Your suffering has a purpose.
God uses your suffering to make you holy. Verses 16 and 17 say:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)
It’s almost like a line graph with intersecting lines. One line shows our outer physical deterioration the longer that we’re in ministry. Ministry and life took a toll on Paul, just as it does with us. The longer we’re in ministry, the older and more beat up we’re going to be. Life and ministry in a fallen world is no party. I used to have hair! Everyone used to ask if I was the youth pastor. Nobody asks that anymore. And I have scars from ministry— not physical scars, but scars that show. So there’s a line that’s going down.
But Paul says there’s another line: the line of vibrant, spiritual, internal renewal. The more that life and ministry takes its toll on us outwardly, the more God uses all of that to bring us alive spiritually. If you have suffered as a pastor, God can and will use that to change you.
Paul Tripp says, “We forget that God's primary goal is not changing our situations or relationships so that we can be happy, but changing us through our situations and relationships so that we will be holy.” God uses your sufferings in ministry to make you holy.
The fact that you are here today tells me two things. First: it tells me that you have suffered in pastoral ministry. Two: it tells me that you are still in the game. I want you to know that your suffering has a purpose. None of it has been wasted. God has and will use all of it to showcase his glory, to advance the gospel, and to make you holy. We suffer and die so that others can live, and it’s worth it.
As George Guthrie says:
Woe be to the minister or ministry that is always and only about winning, progressing, moving up, getting, succeeding—in short, “living!”… We “die” as we speak and explain God’s Word, but we speak and die in great hope, for “Christ is risen!” heralding our own resurrection and that of those to whom we minister, and the gospel advances in the world, bringing thanks and glory to God.
Why not give up when ministry beats us up? Because God uses our suffering now. He uses it to show his power, advance his gospel, and make you holy.
But that’s not the only reason that we refuse to give up when ministry beats us up. There’s another reason.
Because God will remove your suffering later (4:17-5:10)
If you know this passage of Scripture, you know that Paul begins to discuss eternity beginning in 4:17 and extending right into chapter 5:10. It seems like an abrupt change of topic. Why does Paul go from talking about suffering in ministry to talking about the intermediate state and eternity?
The answer is clear. Paul isn’t changing topics. Paul is making a point about suffering in ministry, and here it is: your suffering is pastoral ministry is worth it, because our suffering is insignificant and momentary compared to what’s coming next.
I love Guthrie’s translation of 4:17:
For our momentary, light bundle of affliction produces for us—in a way both breathtaking and immeasurable—an eternal tonnage of glory.
Everyone in ministry seems to like talking about “exponential growth.” They love talking about the things we can do that are small that will lead to disproportionately large results. Well, Paul gives us something that will lead to exponential growth in our ministries. A comparatively small amount of suffering for a short amount of time produces a staggering tonnage of glory.
And then he goes on. In chapter 5, he talks about the ultimate hope of those who are beat up in ministry. Although God uses our sufferings, it’s normal to want them to be over. Paul tells us that they will be over one day. Paul says that our suffering in ministry is worth it, because one day soon our suffering will be over. Our fragile, fallen existence will be over. The burden of mortality and the burden of ministry will be swallowed up in immortality. We will be resurrected and transformed. Contentious elders’ meetings will be over.
So, right now, Paul says, we can be of good courage. We won’t give up even when ministry beats us up, because God will soon remove our sufferings and give us the eternal tonnage of glory that we’ve been waiting for.
At the end of his excellent book Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, D.A. Carson writes about the life of his father, a man who was never famous and never achieved great ministry success, at least by worldly standards. Carson says, “Tom Carson never rose very far in denominational structures, but hundreds of people…testify how much he loved them.” His ministry was in many ways ordinary, and he suffered for the gospel. At the end of the book, Carson describes the final moments of his life:
When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again.
But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man— he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor— but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.”
All of his suffering was worth it, because God removed his suffering and brought him into his glory.
I’m here to tell you today what you already know. If you’ve been called to ministry, you’ve been called to suffer. You will be beaten up by ministry. But don’t ever give up. God will use your suffering, and God will one day remove your suffering and give you an eternal tonnage of glory that outweighs anything you’ll go through.
I want to close in two ways.
Lee and the band are going to come and lead us in a final song. It may be that you came really beat up and you need some prayer. I want to invite you to turn to one or two people around you and ask them to pray for you. You don’t have to get into details, but just ask them for prayer. Don’t leave tonight without asking for others to pray for you as you go through this period of suffering. I invite you to pray as we sing this final song, or right after. Before you leave tonight, tell someone around you that you’re feeling beat up right now, and ask for prayer.
Second, I want us to recommit. Some of us may be tired of suffering, so it’s time to recommit and resubmit to God. I want to close with this prayer from Blaise Pascal that’s a recommitment of ourselves to God, no matter what’s in store. Would you join me in this and read it together?
I ask you neither for health nor for sickness, for life nor for death; but that you may dispose of my health and my sickness, my life and my death, for your glory.… You alone know what is expedient for me; you are the sovereign master; do with me according to your will. Give to me, or take away from me, only conform my will to yours. I know but one thing, Lord, that it is good to follow you, and bad to offend you. Apart from that, I know not what is good or bad in anything. I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom.
As Lee leads us, let’s sing this final song together, and let’s pray.