Big Idea: To keep serving God when it’s hard, hold on to a big view of the gospel, and a big view of how God uses weak people.
Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to keep going in the face of all the obstacles against us.
Take the example of Helen Roseveare, an extraordinary woman who passed away in 2016. Roseveare was a missionary to the Congo. She promised God at an early age, “I’ll go anywhere God wants me to, whatever the cost.” So, in 1953, at the age of 28, she arrived in the northeastern region of the Congo (now called Zaire).
Roseveare accomplished a lot, but life wasn’t easy. Civil war broke out in 1964, and all the medical facilities she and her coworkers had built were destroyed. She describes what happened when she tried to escape:
They found me, dragged me to my feet, struck me over head and shoulders, flung me on the ground, kicked me, dragged me to my feet only to strike me again—the sickening searing pain of a broken tooth, a mouth full of sticky blood, my glasses gone. Beyond sense, numb with horror and unknown fear, driven, dragged, pushed back to my own house—yelled at, insulted, cursed.
She was held as a prisoner for five months. On October 29 of that year, she was brutally raped. She was devastated and felt that God had utterly abandoned her before, but experienced God’s goodness despite this great evil:
Through the brutal heartbreaking experience of rape, God met with me—with outstretched arms of love. It was an unbelievable experience: He was so utterly there, so totally understanding, his comfort was so complete—and suddenly I knew—I really knew that his love was unutterably sufficient. He did love me! He did understand!
But Roseveare didn’t just suffer from unbelievers. She also suffered in her relationship with believers. She experienced several trials and relational difficulties. God taught her that his work is done down in the valleys. God began to teach her.
My Lord wanted just daily, small obediences; He wanted me to do whatever needed to be done next, without needing to be thanked or recognized, without a pedestal or a halo.
On December 7, 2016, Helen Roseveare passed away at the age of 91. Before she died, she reflected on her life as a privilege:
So many of the things that we think of as price in a missionary’s life (giving up of home, culture, language, rat-race, salary, being married and having one’s own family, pension, whatever) is truly privilege. It is the amazing privilege of being identified with our Lord Jesus, who had nowhere to lay His head, and had to borrow a donkey, a penny and a tomb.
Helen Roseveare discovered something that made all the suffering in the world worth it. It’s something that I want myself, and it’s something that I want for you.
Here’s the question I want to ask you today: How do we serve with confidence when opposed, and when life is hard? What kept Helen Roseveare going through decades of sacrifice and opposition?
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that serving God is going to be costly. Jesus tells us as much. Jesus said:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24)
But if there’s anything I know, it’s that we have a hard time dying to ourselves. We are called to be living sacrifices, but we’re living sacrifices who keep crawling off the altar.
But God calls us to the incredible privilege of serving him even when it costs us everything. The question we have to ask ourselves is what will keep us going when serving God costs us everything.
Take the apostle Paul. If you’ve been with us these past few weeks, you know that Paul was going through a hard time. He’d already written in chapter 1:
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. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
We’re going to look at some of Paul’s sufferings later in this letter. Let’s just say they were intense. Paul suffered things that would have caused most of us to quit.
You even get a sense of this in the passage we just read:
When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 2:12-13)
What happened when Paul got to Macedonia? Paul tells us later:
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. (2 Corinthians 7:5)
Paul didn’t have an easy time! It would be very tempting to want to quit. There are far easier things than serving God.
What kept Paul going when things got hard serving God? What will keep us going when things get hard serving God? The answer is twofold: a big view of the gospel, and a big view of how God uses weak people.
A Big View of the Gospel
Read verses 14 to 17 with me:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)
If you were a Roman general in Paul’s time, the greatest honor you could receive was a Roman triumph. If you were a general, and you were personally in command of the field, and your victory over the enemy was complete, and the newly conquered territory was pacified, then the Roman Senate would give you this honor. You would ride in a four-horse chariot. A slave would stand behind you holding a victory wreath over your head. Senators, state officials, trumpeters, and conquered enemies would join the procession. Sometimes the captives would even be killed at the end of the procession.
So why is Paul bringing this up in this context? Paul is using this image to explain what the Christian life is like.
Jesus is the conquering general. When Jesus rose again, he defeated the devil, sin, and death. His victory was full and complete. This is what we talk about every single week here. This is what we will sing about for all of eternity. It’s what the angels can’t get over in Revelation 5:
Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation…
It’s all about Jesus.
We are part of the procession. Some people argue that Paul sees himself and us as one of the captives, but I don’t think that’s right. I think Paul refers to us as part of those who are rescued by Christ. Romans who were enslaved by enemies of Rome would often march in the procession to celebrate their liberator. That’s a good picture of who we are: we’ve been rescued by Jesus’ victory, and we exist to give him glory for how he’s liberated us.
We’re also an aroma. They would burn incense along the parade route. Paul uses this image to describe us. But the captives who are also part of the procession hate the aroma because they know it’s a sign that they’ve been defeated. But those who are being saved love the aroma, because they know it’s a sign of the conqueror’s victory.
In other words, Paul has a big view of the gospel, and it keeps him going in the middle of hardship. No matter how hard things get, Jesus has won, and we’re part of his victory procession. Not even the negative reactions can discourage us, because you expect that from those who don’t like the conqueror.
When we take our eyes off of our enemies and put them on Jesus and his victory, we’ll be able to handle all the setbacks. As Helen Roseveare said, “God graciously blessed as I took my eyes off myself and what I wanted or felt, and fixed my eyes back on Jesus and all He had done for me.”
I don’t know what you’re going through today. I get that life is often hard, even brutal. The harder life gets, the more we need to look at Jesus. If we’re going to keep going, we need a big view of the gospel, a big view of Jesus and the victory that he’s won and that we’re part of.
But that’s not all. We also need:
A Big View of How God Uses Weak People
I love where Paul goes next. Paul begins to describe his ministry. Paul begins with a big question: “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). Who is really qualified to proclaim God’s message to the world? It’s a privilege. None of us is worthy.
But then he goes on. He says that he’s not a peddler (2:17). He’s not in it for the money. Some people think that ministry is a good gig, but that’s the last thing that motivates Paul. He’s got a much greater motive.
Paul is motivated by two factors. He’s motivated by the difference he’s making in the lives of the Corinthian church. “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:2). He doesn’t carry a letter of recommendation like some leaders did then. He’s not trying to build a resume of accomplishments and accolades. He cares about one thing: the difference he’s making in the lives of real people. That’s enough for him.
He’s also motivated by the Spirit’s help. Paul knows he’s not sufficient, and that’s exactly what’s needed if any of us wants to be used by God. Do you feel inadequate? Good! Then you can discover what Paul did: that our sufficiency is from God, who makes us confident to be ministers of a new covenant (3:5-6).
Oswald Chambers said:
God can achieve his purpose either through the absence of human power and resources, or the abandonment of reliance on them. All through history God has chosen and used nobodies, because their unusual dependence on him made possible the unique display of his power and grace. He chose and used somebodies only when they renounced dependence on their natural abilities and resources.
Paul’s got a big view of how God uses weak people. When you have a big view of the gospel, and a big view of how God uses weak people, it has a way of keeping you going no matter what you face. No matter how difficult your life gets, you can keep going, because God’s gospel is true, and because God loves to use people who are completely dependent on him.
That’s what the apostle Paul learned. It’s what Helen Roseveare learned. And it’s what we must learn too. To keep serving God when it’s hard, hold on to a big view of the gospel, and a big view of how God uses weak people. God will use you in your weakness as you look to Jesus and rely on him more and more.
Small Group Questions
- Paul faced a lot of hardship (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28), and yet he seemed to keep going. What do you think gave him such perseverance?
- Paul spoke of us being part of Jesus’ triumphal procession (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). How does this help us when circumstances seem against us?
- Not everyone reacts well to the gospel. Paul gives the image of the prisoners of war who smelled the incense during the Roman Triumph (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). They obviously wouldn’t like the smell because it reminds them of their defeat. How does this give you perspective when people don’t react well to your faith in Jesus?
- Paul’s ministry is shaped by a number of values that come from his belief that serving Jesus is worth it even when it’s hard. Read 2 Corinthians 2:17-3:6. What are some of Paul’s ministry values according to this passage?
- What lessons from this passage can you apply to your life?