Perseverance is a muscle widening aspect of the Christian marathon. The muscle is discernible to the eye yet to build it takes immense discipline. Developing it is usually a painful but eventually fruitful experience, which strengthens and stabilises the marathon runner. Persevering, especially when things are tough, functions in this sense for the Christian’s spiritual life.
Persevering is a painful but fruitful experience.
We dislike it, but we need it. We want to run away from it. Yet it is part of our running track. We speak of it loudly when it is far away, only when it comes near, we’re often silent.
The Christian Life is Hard
The biblical picture is that persevering is part of the Christian experience. Jesus’ half brother makes a countercultural claim that we should “count it all joy” when we experience trials of various kinds (James 1:4). This certainly betrays the type of Christianity that we are accustomed to hearing through our pulpits, radio stations, televisions and social media. The popular type of Christianity presents to us a Christian message that soothes us into material, emotional, psychological, and spiritual comfort, that is usually centred on maximising pleasure and prosperity.
Persevering in trials becomes the real currency in our spiritual progress.
But on the other side of the Christian coin, you will find many reminders that trials occupy a central place in the Christian journey. So count it “all joy” seems very countercultural when we go through various kinds of trials. While it helps to have perspective on the end goal of trials in our lives as the “real classroom” of building Christian virtue, going through trials is never an easy thing. Persevering in such cases becomes the real currency in our spiritual progress.
Persevering in Christian Ministry isn’t Guaranteed
If everyday trials are difficult for the everyday Christian, ministry trials can be exasperating for Christian leaders. How can the ministry leader make sense of the unique hardships of ministry and persevere in a God-glorifying manner?
Ministry trials can be exasperating for Christian leaders.
I once came across advice that those who serve in pastoral ministry should make it a habit of reading through 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus regularly. I have tried to do so. And, over time, I have valued what I find in these letters from a seasoned minister, Paul, to his younger protégés. 2 Timothy 2:1-13 is exemplary for a realistic view of what Christian ministry entails. Far from this otherworldly vocation that is all about serving Christ in an idealistic world unfamiliar to sin, hardships, trials and effort, Paul paints an earthlier picture of Christian ministry that can give us perspective to persevere through its travails.
From Paul’s pastoral epistles I will develop three themes. I pray that these will encourage and equip Christian leaders to persevere in difficult ministry seasons, contexts, and trials.
1. Pastor, Ground Yourself in Grace
It is easy in Christian ministry to unassumingly veer away from the axle of the Christian life and ministry: the gospel. It is easy to be passionate about the truth being twisted, or to be concerned for the people we shepherd, or to fight for particular ministry engagements or programmes, which in our view, will make the biggest difference! But by being overly concerned with the “doing” of ministry, we can negate the “being” in ministry.
While Paul invites his protégé Timothy to consider the unique tasks of ministry, he also reminds him of the greatest privilege in ministry. Paul writes: “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1).
By being overly concerned with the ‘doing’ of ministry, we can negate the ‘being’ in ministry.
Paul was able to encourage Timothy because both were participants in this same amazing grace. So Paul acknowledges how rich God’s grace and mercy has been in his own life, grace made real and tangible in the appearing of Christ Jesus and grace made real and tangible through his calling into Christian ministry (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Back in 2 Timothy, Paul then unpacks the grace that is in Christ, revealed through Christ’s resurrection (2 Timothy 2:8).
Here we meet grace in her apparels of power, revealing how she brings life to that which is dead. Thus grace isn’t only how we begin. It sustains the Christian. God’s grace doesn’t only initiate the Christian life, but also sustains us in Christian service. And this grace has a name, Jesus Christ. His life, ministry, death and resurrection, make all the difference.
2. Be Realistic, Anticipate Trials and Hardship
Suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life.
Here we find agreement between James and Paul, when Paul says: “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3). Suffering, according to Paul, is not something to be avoided as prosperity preachers intonate. It isn’t something that should be meditated away in a karma-like fashion, as some of the new age gospels propound. Nor is suffering connected to our great-great-grand-parents, as African traditional religions orally punctuate. Rather, suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life. “For it has been given to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).
This is the message of Jesus Christ himself. It is a message that is retweeted and rehashed by the apostles throughout the New Testament (John 16:33; 17:14-17; Romans 5:3-5). If Christ suffered, the argument goes, his followers will. That is why we share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
The language used in 2 Timothy 3 is also instructive for persevering, anticipating the reality of trials and suffering. Soldiers fight wars. Athletes compete rigorously. Farmers till the land. None of these pictures imply a laissez-faire perspective on the Christian life. But Paul doesn’t leave the images there (2 Timothy 2:4-7). In addition to expecting difficulty, he reminds us what lies behind and ahead in persevering: the soldier is sovereignly enlisted by God (2 Timothy 2:4); the athlete isn’t chasing medals but desires to honour the one already crowned; and the farmer tills with discernment. The Christian, while realistic of trials, views them in proper proportions, and usually with the eye on the prize.
3. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
The greatest temptation that can befall a ministry leader undergoing suffering is two-fold. First, one is tempted to turn inward and engage in various ways of self-pity. This kind of feeling sorry for themselves can breed a vengeful spirit or an entitled and proud spirit and if allowed to grow, sinful actions and habits.
Second, ministry challenges can turn one away from the Saviour and turn one towards a hurtful approach to his bride. While there may be merit in moving away from Christian circles where people have experienced hurt, one must fight turning away from the church’s heart: Jesus Christ.
I recall a particular season of my ministry where saying I was burdened by the travails of ministry would be an understatement. My dear wife would remind me of a quotation that I’m treasuring more and more each day: “Don’t let the imperfections and failures of men turn you away from the perfections and the triumphs of Christ, who will never, never fail you.” This has been water to my weary soul during seasons of ministry hardship.
I think this has been her way of contextualising Paul’s words to me: “Remember Jesus Christ.” Similarly, the Christians of old were fond of saying: “for every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” Different voices singing the same song: remember Jesus Christ. In the face of ministry hardships it’s easy to take self-glorifying looks at one’s innocence. It’s easy to take a condescending look at one’s opposition. And it’s easy to imagine God has forgotten you. So look often to Christ.
“Remember Christ” at All Times, but Especially When It’s Hard
Because it is a subset of the Christian life, Christian ministry isn’t easy. There will be trials, difficulties, and suffering. Therefore, consider the unique ways in which this present hardship is forming your muscles in ministry. Consider the unique way in which your challenges haven’t bound God’s word. And, it will be helpful to consider that this hardship in your present ministry is an instrument that the Lord is using to gather in the elect, and also to sustain them. Isn’t this ministry hardship a reminder that we carry this treasure in jars of clay?