Big Idea: Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, do whatever it takes, and repeat.
Late one afternoon Alistair Begg was meeting with a number of pastors. He wistfully quoted a passage that I want to look at with you this morning in this final session: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:5)
He said, “I increasingly find that verse to be the anchor point for all of my days. I wake up on a Monday, and say, ‘well, what will I do now?’ Then I say, ‘Well, I think I’ll try to keep my head, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of my ministry.’ And when I am lifted up by a little encouragement, which sometimes comes, I say to myself, ‘Well, what shall I do?’ The answer is keep your head, endure hardship, and so on.”
He paused, then went on, “And when the waves beat on me and I feel just like running away to the hills somewhere, what should I do? ‘Well, Alistair, just keep your head, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of your ministry.’”
Then he concluded, “So, that’s a word in season for us to take away and think of.”
As we get to the end of our sessions together, we’re also getting to the end of Paul’s life. In verses 6 to 8 he says:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
But before he’s gone, he leaves Timothy — and us — simple instructions on ministry. Ministry is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s also not complicated. As Paul passes the baton to Timothy, he leaves four simple instructions for Timothy and for us to follow. All we have to do is wake up every day and repeat the very same things. Nothing more than that. Here they are:
First: In your ministry, keep your head.
The first thing Paul says is this: “As for you, always be sober-minded…” (2 Timothy 4:5). Literally, it’s means to be clearheaded in every situation. Keep an unruffled alertness. Sober up. Stay free from the controlling influence of emotions and or desires in such a way that you are clearheaded and reasonable. Shoe presence of mind.
What amazes me about this instruction is how low the bar is set. As Paul is about to leave, his first instruction is pretty much to say, “Keep your sanity.” But as you think more about it, that’s not such an easy thing to do in life or ministry. Timothy’s about to lose his mentor. Empire-wide persecution is already underway. Precisely because people are unstable in mind and conduct, we must remain levelheaded. Show presence of mind in all situations.
Earlier on I mentioned the work of Edwin Friedman. His theory is that churches are family systems, and that anxiety spreads throughout the system naturally. If you’ve ever seen this, you know it’s true. The second church I pastored had severe anxiety about money. Money was never an issue, but there was always this anxiety in the air about the budget, about whether we’d have enough money to get through. Everyone in the church caught this anxiety like the cold. It’s like this.
As I was preparing to go on sabbatical a few years ago, one of my ministry friends — one of the best pastors I know — introduced me to the work of Friedman and the idea of becoming a non-anxious presence. Friedman writes:
To the extent that leaders . . . can maintain a non-anxious presence in a highly energized anxiety field, they can have the same effects on that field that transformers have in an electrical circuit. (Edwin Friedman)
In other words, tame your reactivity. Don’t catch the anxiety that’s in the system. Keep your head. Charles Stone elaborates on Friedman’s picture of a leader as a transformer:
A leader is like a transformer. By her responses, she can either defuse an emotional setting like a heated board meeting or can act like a step-up transformer by reacting and increasing anxiety, thus causing lots of not-so-cool sparks, as did Pastor John. Through a calm presence with emotional people, a leader can act like an emotional step-down transformer, decreasing the group’s anxiety by letting it pass through her without getting zapped. (People-Pleasing Pastors)
I’m struck with how similar this is to what Paul is saying. When others around you are losing their head, keep yours. Don’t get sucked into the anxiety and lack of clear thinking around you. Know what triggers you to lose your perspective, and what makes you begin to lose your head in ministry. There are all kinds of things we can do to keep clear heads in ministry — take breaks, get counseling, have safe friends, learn how to regulate your emotions. But I will tell you this: if you can keep a clear head in ministry, you will be miles ahead. It really is a game-changer.
This is not a lofty thought. Keep your head in ministry. Don’t allow yourself to be “under the influence” of the chaos around you. This is really good advice, though. It’s priceless.
Second: In your ministry, endure hardship.
If you’ve ever done marriage counseling, you’ve probably experienced the number one issue in couples that are about to get married. They are completely naïve about the challenges of married life. Most of them have this idea of the happiness of marriage, but not many of them have an idea about the hardships they’re experience in marriage.
When I was about to propose to Charlene, I happened to take a marriage counseling class at seminary. I was pretty excited about it until the first class. The man stood up in class and said, “Marriage is a steel trap.” That got my attention. He talked about his own second marriage after his wife had died. Within weeks of getting married, he realized he had made a huge mistake. They decided that they couldn’t separate so soon after the wedding, though, so they decided to stay together for a respectable amount of time before calling it quits. In that time they developed a healthy relationships and built a marriage that lasted. But this guy stood up and disavowed me of the notion that marriage would be easy. He said that marriage is potentially the best and most satisfying relationship you will ever experience, but at the same time it is the hardest and most frustrating relationship you will ever experience.
We need the same realistic picture of ministry. Ministry is hard, painstaking work. It’s supposed to be. That’s why Paul says, “Endure suffering.” Literally: endure every kind of suffering. So on top of keeping our heads, we’re also supposed to endure hardship. Don’t be surprised when ministry gets hard. That’s completely normal. If it’s not hard, at least some of the time, you may be doing it wrong.
One day I asked my brother — a firefighter — what the most stressful part of his job was. He looked at me for a while. He said, “Honestly, Darryl, I can’t think of anything.” Besides telling me that my brother is maybe not completely in touch with the realities of his life, I understand that his job is a little different than mine: union wages, lots of time off, the ability to check out when the shift is over. Apart from the running into burning buildings part, it’s a pretty sweet gig.
But that’s not ministry. The late Peter Drucker, one of the leading management authors and consultants of the twentieth century, once told a pastor friend that he viewed church leadership as the most difficult and taxing role of which he was aware. It’s rewarding, but suffering is involved. There are long hours. It’s all-encompassing. One pastor said:
Most people in our church have a life that is like a stool with three legs. They've got their spiritual life, their professional life and their family life. If one of these legs wobbles, they've got two others they can lean on. For us, those three things can merge into one leg. You're sitting on a one-legged stool, and it takes a lot more concentration and energy. It's a lot more exhausting. (Resilient Ministry)
So expect suffering. “If the apostle Paul knew fatigue, anger, and anxiety in his ministry, what makes us think we can avoid them in ours?” (Ajith Fernando). As one pastor says, “There’s no such thing as a faithful ministry that is not costly. A painless ministry is a shallow and fruitless ministry” (John MacArthur).
I’ve been running more lately. The coaching program that I’m following has an interesting approach. It’s built on cumulative fatigue:
The idea of cumulative fatigue serves as an underlying foundation of all of our training plans. Cumulative fatigue comes from a slow buildup (but not to the point of overtraining ) of fatigue via the days, weeks, and months of consistent training …Put simply, we’re looking to simulate running tired. (Hansons Half-Marathon Method: Run Your Best Half-Marathon the Hansons Way)
When I’m out on a longer run, and I’m feeling tired, that’s when I know the program is working. I’m supposed to feel that way. The same thing applies in ministry. When you’re feeling tired, and when you’re feeling that ministry is hard, then you know you’re doing it right. Keep your head and endure hardship, Paul says.
But that’s not all:
Third, in your ministry, share the gospel.
Paul says, “Do the work of an evangelist.” That’s a very confusing phrase. Does that refer to a particular office within the church? An article I read years ago said that Paul uses the term evangelist to refer to what we’d today call a church planter. I love that idea. I have no idea whether it’s accurate or not, but I love it. Philipp is called “Phillip the evangelist” in Acts 22:8, and Paul refers to evangelists in Ephesians 4.
I can’t be dogmatic about whether Paul is referring to a particular office or not, although I think so. Maybe it’s the role of pioneering and establishing new gospel works by someone who isn’t an apostle. Whatever Paul meant, I think it’s a good reminder of what we’re all about. The Jerusalem Bible says, “Make the preaching of the Good News your life’s work.” That’s exactly what we are called to do.
The problem is: it’s the very thing that we can easily stop doing if we’re not careful. One of the reasons I moved to church planting was that I became very concerned about how easy it was not to do evangelism if we’re not careful. Eugene Peterson writes:
American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries…
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists.
I have no interest in being a religious shopkeeper, and I hope you don’t either. So, Paul says, resist the urge to drift into other things. Make the sharing of the gospel your life’s work.
By the way, it’s a lot of fun. I’m finding that people outside of the church are often a lot more real and a lot more fun than the church people I’m used to hanging around. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that, but it’s true. I’m not a great evangelist, but it sure beats being a religious shopkeeper. We’ve moved into an area where there are hardly any Christians, and we have to make our ministry about sharing the gospel. And we’re doing so in a very cynical community in which Christianity isn’t even an option that they’ve considered. Last week we went to a local pub and invited people to come out and ask anything they wanted, no questions barred. My coworker Nathan has started a board-game group to get to know people in the community. We’re trying everything we can to get to know people, be real with them, and to do the work of an evangelist. One person said, “When I evangelize, I'm simply trying to describe people's deepest concerns and show how Jesus addresses them.” Don’t lose this from your ministry. Everything will try to squeeze it out, but we can’t let that happen.
Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, and one more thing:
Fourth: In your ministry, do whatever it takes.
I love this. Paul says, “Fulfill your ministry.” This means to accomplish something thoroughly and completely. Leave nothing on the table. Give it everything you’ve got. Bring it to completion holding back nothing. Stay at it until the task is completed.
Earlier on I mentioned Charles Simeon, the pastor of Trinity Church, Cambridge, England, for 49 years. He was asked one day by how he had surmounted persecution and outlasted all the great prejudice against him in his 49-year ministry. He said:
My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ's sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory.
When Simeon was approaching 60, he decided to retire. He went to what he thought was his last visit to Scotland. His voice had been bad; he had been through the wringer. But while there, he had an encounter with God. He felt that God actually said to him:
I laid you aside, because you entertained with satisfaction the thought of resting from your labour; but that now you have arrived at the very period when you had promised yourself that satisfaction, and have determined instead to spend your strength for me to the latest hour of your life, I have doubled, trebled, quadrupled your strength, that you may execute your desire on a more extended plan.
At sixty years of age, Simeon renewed his commitment to his pulpit and the mission of the church and preached vigorously for 17 more years, until two months before his death. He gave himself with all his might to the work till he died.
One of the people influenced under Simon’s ministry was Henry Martyn, a young man who went to India and who served only a few years before dying at the age of 32 of a fever. Simeon had a portrait of Martyn hanging in his dining room. Often, with friends there for dinner, he would look at the likeness and say, “There, see that blessed man! What an expression of countenance! No one looks at me as he does; he never takes his eyes off me and seems always to be saying, ‘Be serious. Be in earnest. Don’t trifle. Don’t trifle.'” Then, smiling at the portrait and gently bowing, Simeon would add, “And I won’t trifle. I won’t trifle.”
That’s it. In the end, ministry isn’t all that complicated. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated either. Stay calm. Endure suffering. Tell the good news. Do what’s required. Repeat. What do I do today? The same thing as yesterday. Keep at it and repeat to the end.
I love what Billy Graham said:
Every generation is strategic. We are not responsible for the past generation, and we cannot bear full responsibility for the next one; but we do have our generation. God will hold us responsible as to how well we fulfill our responsibilities to this age and take advantage of our opportunities.
You are strategic, and your work is important. Life is short. As someone’s said, “The years will fly by like the fence posts on a farm road in Illinois as you drive along—years quickly become decades” (Kent Hughes). We need you to play your role. Live every day as one who will give account. Get on with your work, because your work is important.
Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, do whatever it takes, and repeat. Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, do whatever it takes, and repeat. And in the end, you’ll find that you’ll be able to say:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
Lord, may we be faithful in the daily tasks of keeping our sanity, enduring suffering, sharing good news, and doing whatever it takes. We don’t ask for glory. We’re not even sure that we could handle glory if we got it. But we pray for lives and ministries that matter. We want to reach the end and say that we’ve fulfilled our ministry, that there was nothing more to give. We don’t want to trifle. We want to fulfill our responsibilities and take advantage of our opportunities.
So help us. Thank you for every person who’s here. Encourage them in their ministries. May each one of us hear the words that we long to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.