FULFILLING A GOD-GIVEN MINISTRY
By Ron Staley
When a man answers God's call to preach the Gospel, he undertakes a task that will require the highest and very best he has to give. It is an all-consuming responsibility, with distinct challenges and burdens that are unique to his calling. He does not labor for worldly honor or reward, but out of love for his Lord and the people he serves. However, it often happens that with the passing of time, his labor is taken for granted, even by those who truly love and appreciate him. Moreover, there will be times when he will encounter great opposition in the line of duty. As a result, the man of God may become discouraged and weary, not of the work but in the work.
“Take heed to the ministry which thou has received in the Lord, that thou fulfill it.” (Colossians 4:17) This was the word Paul sent through the Colossian church to one named Archippus who had a ministry given him by the Lord. We are not told why he had this need of exhortation, but obviously the need was there. The only other hint we are given is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Archippus is called a “fellow-soldier” of the apostle. Was he battle weary from long labor and spiritual conflict, or tempted to cut short that to which the Lord appointed him? Perhaps he was. Many of God's servants do become battle fatigued at times. Ministry is a battle, just as Timothy was exhorted to “fight the good fight of faith,” a battle that takes place not only without but within. (1 Timothy 6:12) At the end of his course Paul could say, “I have fought a good fight.” (2 Timothy 4:7) But what a different kind of battle! It is not a fight to destroy one’s enemies. The purpose of the soldiers of Jesus Christ is to be an instrumental means of conquering the hearts of people. Then in pastoral ministry comes the long and often arduous task of leading, feeding, and establishing the people in the Word of God. Those who have been brought to surrender to Jesus Christ, coming to Him in a self-abandoned faith and trusting Him alone with their eternal souls, then have need of learning the way of life in Christ. The battle is not over when one is saved by God’s wondrous grace. It is just beginning. In the forefront of this battle are specially equipped and God-sent pastor/teachers. They are not super-men, but men of “like passions” with those to whom they are sent. (Acts 14:15) These men have their own inward struggles. They are subject to the exhaustion of continuous labor, disappointment at apparent failures, deep grief when those for whom they had high hopes abandon their profession of faith, and great stress when opposition arises. This battle in which the minister of Jesus Christ is engaged is so demanding that it can take quite a toll. He must first learn to diligently watch for his own soul before he can effectively watch for the souls of others.
The man of God is yet a man, a man with all the weaknesses of human nature. Like every other believer, he must fight temptation and is subject to faults and failures. Moreover, he often struggles with great disappointment, which can lead to depressive disheartenment. It is a noteworthy temptation for the man of God when he labors to exhaustion but success seems so often to elude him. When hopes are dashed and expectations met with disappointment again and again, he is tempted to ask himself, “What is the use?” Taken a step further, he may find himself on the verge of saying, “I give up!” In addition, some churches have unrealistic expectations of their pastor, as if the whole burden of ministry is on his shoulders alone. This can be especially true in smaller churches, causing the pastor to labor relentlessly until exhaustion takes its bitter toll. Few understand the all consuming nature of the pastor's work: the intense study required for sermon preparation and studies; the labor of prayer for his people; addressing the needs of others and bearing their burdens, while endeavoring not to neglect his own family. It is little wonder that many ministers of Christ fight with feelings of loneliness. Then there are those members who have the greener pasture syndrome, either eventually tiring of the faithful ministry of the Word or seeking what they think will be better for them. These are to be found among the fault-finders, the discontented, and those who are adept at turning molehills into mountains. In addition, the man of God serves on the forefront of a spiritual battle in which he is the object of specific satanic attack. No genuine man of God escapes this often subtle conflict, for the adversary aims his flaming arrows at the hearts of God’s chosen servants. How do we continue when there seems to be nothing but an unending battle within and without? With little to encourage and much to oppose, we can be tempted to feel like Jacob of old when he cried, “All these things are against me”? (Genesis 42:36)
If the above seems to be a bleak picture, it is still drawn in colors of truth; for statistically, approximately 1,700 leave the ministry every month. It is most likely that the vast majority of these were never truly called and equipped by the Lord, so that unlike Archippus whose ministry was “in the Lord,” their ministries were more a chosen profession than a divine calling. Yet the very fact that Archippus needed encouragement shows plainly that true men of God are not exempt from times of great discouragement that can come with the calling, including those times when the temptation to quit becomes very strong. It is to these men that this article has to do, to those who are truly called and who truly care for Christ’s sheep, men who remain steadfast and faithful through a great deal of opposition from within and without.
I have read many articles dealing with what is termed ministry or pastoral burnout, offering solutions to this all-too common problem. Most of them offer some good, practical advice. There are common-sense things that help alleviate exhaustion, things that certainly are useful to the pastor or missionary just as they are to anyone else with a pressing and relentless occupation. How could you argue that taking a full day of rest a week, taking time to recoup strength with a vacation, or even a lengthier sabbatical when severely depleted could not be helpful? It is a very unwise course to burn the candle at both ends, and even worse to do so without a break. When it comes, a burnout or crash can have severe consequences. But the usual solutions to burnout are those things that could be applied to any demanding profession. However, the pastor or missionary is not simply a professional with a job to do. He carries the weight of eternal things, the demanding care for those to whom he is charged to minister, and is actually charged in an instrumental sense to “both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (1 Timothy 4:16) He is called to do things impossible for him to do, things that can only be done by the Lord working through him. Only another God-called, God-ordained, God-equipped minister of Christ can understand the weight of the responsibility.
When problems arise unexpectedly in the church, things such as discontentment, fault-finding, criticisms of the ministry, surprise departures and the like, it poses a severe trial for the pastor. In spite of his best efforts to lead the people in biblical ways of resolving their problems, it often seems to no avail. Depending upon the severity of the situation, the pastor can become physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted as a result. It is in such times that many simply throw up their hands in despair and leave the ministry. Many others, myself included, have felt like throwing in the towel when facing such a thing. With a sense of helplessness and desperation, we turn to the Lord, literally weeping and crying for His help who alone can control, change hearts, and bring peace out of great trouble. That’s not a bad thing, but can be out of the need of hearing the corrective words of the Lord, “O ye of little faith.”
What is the Solution?
The solution for the servant of the Lord is not simply the need of more rest, which can be indeed absolutely essential, but is much deeper than this. The answer lies in the exercise of the God-given gift of faith, a submissive faith that leaves all in the hands of Christ while simply continuing to do what you have been commanded by the Lord. Sound simple? Not so simple! We are not exempt from the tendency to look at circumstances, experience great disappointments in people and problems, and be sidetracked from our main responsibility. We teach that God is an absolute Sovereign, that all things are in His hands and that nothing is going to ever fail of what He has purposed. But do we really believe and act upon it? Are we exempt from the tendency to be so moved and discouraged from disappointing expectations, when we look for a time of success and all then seems to fail? Have you ever in some way cried, “Lord, I’ve done all I know to do, endeavored to be faithful, to consistently preach and teach Thy Word, to care for those for whom I must give account, and all seems to be vain. Why is this happening”? Why indeed is this happening? Could God really have something to do with it? Yes! Maybe we should first admit that God is in control no matter how difficult the way seems to be, and that His decreed will is being done. Should that not be the first place we turn our thoughts? But often, I fear, it is not. Perhaps we would do well to listen to the motivation that kept the Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson standing when bullets were flying all around him. He said, “Duty is mine. The outcome is God’s.” Are you not charged to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ”? (2 Timothy 2:3)
The first responsibility of the pastor is to the One who called and sent him, as the apostle said, “not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4) His charge is to be faithful and his real success in obedience to his Lord, no matter the divinely appointed outcome. God is an absolute Sovereign, and accomplishes what He has purposed as He has purposed. Listening to an apt Adult Sunday School teacher in our church recently, he brought out an excellent application of this truth. The prophet Jeremiah was faithful and obedient, though at times greatly discouraged, and constantly filled with sorrow. He would have to watch those to whom he was sent come under great suffering, such as the dishonor of the aged, the rape of the women, the starvation of little children, and far more all the way to the captivity of the people. He obediently and faithfully gave forth the message of God, and how did he evaluate the results of his God-given task? He wrote, “To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken: behold, the word of the LORD is unto them a reproach; they have no delight in it.” (Jeremiah 6:10) On the other hand, God in His absolute sovereignty, whose perfect ways are unsearchable, used a disobedient prophet who despised the people to whom he was sent, to bring about a great awakening and city-wide repentance to the averting of divine judgment. His name was Jonah. God appoints the outcome of the ministries of His servants, and blessed is the man who remains faithful though he sees not the fruits of his labor. He may be a sower rather than reaper, and true spiritual fruit be borne long after he has fulfilled his God-given task.
Is it not quite possible to labor diligently in the ministry of the Word, endeavoring as fervently as possible to serve others, while failing to take care of your own walk with the Lord? When troubles inevitably arise, the hard things you face are going to be far more difficult if you haven’t made your own life in the Lord your first priority. The Lord through Paul made it clear that you must first be diligent in your own self-watch if you are to be in a proper position to watch for the souls of others. “Take heed unto yourselves,” and then “to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” is the charge to the elders of Ephesus. (Acts 20:28) “Take heed unto thyself” is the charge first given to Timothy, and then “unto the doctrine (teaching).” (1 Timothy 4:16) However, even if you have kept up your own prayer life, personal study, and devotion, it is quite possible to be sidetracked by unexpected trouble. The temptation is to be so distracted and overwhelmed by those really hard times that we allow them to rob us of spiritual strength. These times come to us all, even though we have endeavored to be as faithful as possible to our calling and responsibilities. In such times we can tend to forget that ultimately “the battle is the Lord’s” and that no matter the conflict within and without, His purpose shall not fail.
There is absolutely no greater encouragement, or more effective way to the renewal of strength, than our focused looking to Christ alone. It is He to whom you belong, He who counted you faithful, putting you into the ministry. When I was a very young pastor, I remember reading G. Campbell Morgan’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark. In the midst of an early battle in my own ministry, I found great encouragement from it that stays with me to this day. The gist of it is from memory. He was commenting on Mark 3:14-15, the choosing and equipping of the apostles, and drew from it a great application to all chosen ministers of Christ. You are His, first and foremost His servant, equipped and sent forth by Him, and in this He has taken the responsibility for you. Like those stars of the churches in the book of Revelation, you are in His hands. More than a great thought, it is a great truth that He is your Protector, Keeper, Defender, and will never relent on the responsibility for you that He has taken unto Himself!
One of the greatest battles we face is an inward one. Even though we don’t mean to do so, we can be so taken up with the work we are given to do, and the problems and oppositions that inevitably arise, that we are tempted to take matters into our own hands. We try to take control and fail to look to our Lord alone in a clinging faith. The great blessing is that even though sidetracked by adversity and distracted by opposing pressures, the Lord will not forsake you or let you go. At times it may seem like He does, but not so! He can make those very things that are so painful, discouraging, and strength-robbing to work to your far greater good. When Jacob fled from his brother’s fury to find refuge with his uncle Laban, God promised that He would be with Jacob and eventually bring him home to Canaan again. Then when through Laban’s anger against him he is forced to flee and go back to Canaan, God renews the command and the promise to be with him. He has and knows the promise of God to him, yet when hearing of the coming of his brother Esau with four hundred men, fear moves Jacob to take matters into his own hands. That’s when God, in the form of a man, wrestles with him and puts his thigh out of joint, so that all he can do is cling to the One who smote him. (Genesis 32:24-26) Hosea reports that “he wept, and made supplication unto Him.” (Hosea 12:4) And his clinging then only to his God was not in vain. It was for him a great victory. David, whom God had purposed for the throne of Israel, “encouraged himself in the LORD his God” and renewed his trust in God whose purpose cannot fail, when Ziklag was destroyed and his family taken captive. (1 Samuel 30:1-6) Peter ventured out of the boat to go to the Lord on the storm-tossed sea at the invitation of Christ to “come.” But when the storm increased and he began to look at the fierce winds and waves instead of to the Lord alone, Peter began to sink. The Lord had no intention of letting his faulty servant perish beneath the waters, but drew forth the cry, “Lord, save me,” and then “put forth His hand” and rescued him. (Matthew 14:22-33) The most difficult times of our lives often become the most important, especially when they weaken us so as to find our only real strength in the One who loved us, gave Himself for us, and promises to never forsake us.
We are not only to look to, but also at Christ our Lord, our Sender and our greatest Friend. Men can and will forsake us but He is a true Friend who “sticketh closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24) He is the genuine Friend who “loveth at all times” and from whose love we can never be separated, a Friend who is “born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17) We teach the believing children of God in their trials and afflictions that He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” (Hebrews 4:15) has a purpose in them for their eternal good, gives grace in the midst of them and is preparing them for an eternity with Himself. Glorious! But then it is quite possible under our own trials and tribulations to fail to make that glorious application to ourselves. The Lord doesn’t send you and then forsake you, even when weakened by long labor, trial, or even failure. He knows, as prophetically said of Him, how to “speak a word in season to him that is weary.” (Isaiah 50:4) By His wondrous sovereign grace He called us in some way according to the saving word, “Look unto me, and be ye saved.” (Isaiah 45:22) And now that we are set apart unto Him for the work of the ministry, we are to learn in a very experiential way what He says of fruit-bearing, “Without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Look at Christ your Lord, your Sender, your greatest and most faithful Friend. By looking at Him, learning of Him, and learning from Him, we learn to look to Him. We know that He experienced every area of temptation that we could possibly face, “yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) He knows every temptation that could possibly come against His own redeemed. Then He conquered every attempt of the forces of darkness and men to turn Him from the purpose for which He came. To all of His loved and saved ones, He alone is our Great High Priest who being “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrew 4:15) is “a merciful and faithful High Priest.” (Hebrews 2:17) It is then only from Him that we are to learn and believe that through prayer and supplication “He is able to succour (come to the aid of) them that are tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18) Dear pastor and servant of Christ, if by grace you look to Him and trust in Him in the midst of loss, grief, and disappointment, you will find that He has faced every subtle foe to ministry you face and is able to come to your aid.
Our Lord was completely submitted to the will of His Father, no matter how much opposed, no matter the cost to Him, and no matter the grief and sorrow that He knew more than any man. Do remember that though He is God essentially and now man inclusively, His Godhood never overruled His very real humanity. He experienced everything that could possibly discourage, and continued in perfect submission to His Father without flinching. So reverently we ask, did He know the pain of labors met with little or no success? Look at His life! Look at the rejections, oppositions, grief and sorrows that accompanied Him in His life’s purpose! Then listen to what He said prophetically in the prophecy of Isaiah, “Then said I, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain.” (Isaiah 49:4a) But He didn’t stop there! He finished the sentence with “yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God.” (Isaiah 49:4b) To the eyes of men it looked as if all was loss and the cross the end, but His greatest extremity was the hour of His greatest triumph. He continued in spite of every dread the cross presented, and cried, “Not my will but Thine be done.” (Mark 14:36) That is why all that the Father gave Him shall come to Him, and those He came to save shall cry, “Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9)
Unlike the Lord Jesus Christ, you may not know the outcome of your labors. But what you and I should know is that God does not call and send His servants without the infallible will to accomplish all He has purposed. It may well come with many dangers, toils, and snares, and there will be times of great loss as well as gain, times when sorrow accompanies the joy of salvation. But when all appears dark and discouraging to our sight, it is our part to simply continue in submission to the will of Him who sent us. We cannot know the extent of what God is doing through us now, and if we judge by what we presently see and experience, we could become so discouraged that we are tempted to give up the battle. May God grant you and me, like Paul, to look at things eternal rather than the momentary and temporary things of sight. To continue, no matter what sight and experience might argue against it. As we continue with our focused look upon Christ alone in faith and submission to Him only, we will surely find that He will come to our aid. When little or no success can be seen, when opposition comes in surprising ways and your strength seems to be gone, let the cry of your heart echo the prayer of David, “When my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:2)
“For Their Work’s Sake”
“Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame: He remembereth that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13) That is a very precious word applied to all of the Lord’s loved and redeemed ones. But take special note of that inclusive word, “all.” The Lord knows all of us, all of our tendencies to weakness and discouragement, and is merciful though we deserve not an ounce of it. God shows mercy to His people when He sends them pastors to feed them with knowledge and understanding, who are there to uphold and encourage when trials and afflictions come, to lead in the right ways of the Lord when he perceives spiritual dangers, to understand that the sheep of Christ are very needy and can tend to times of great discouragement. He is distinctly a divine gift to the church, as is clearly taught in Ephesians 4:11. But what about the pastor himself? Because he is the specially called and equipped servant of Christ, charged with the oversight of the souls of others, the thought can sometimes be that he doesn’t have the same needs others have. Nothing could be further from the truth. He can be merciful to the saints, weep with them when they hurt, rejoice when they prosper spiritually, encourage when they are discouraged, because he is subject to the same afflictions. He knows the needs of others because he has the same. The church, i.e., the people under his care is his life’s work and driving concern.
Pastors are often embattled as they stand at the forefront of the conflict, often having to “endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3) The labor itself is demanding, and often extremely tiring. Then there are those battles with unseen powers – the forces of darkness that oppose and often arise through unexpected means. Since the church is not generally aware of many of his struggles, he can feel very lonely, even though he is never truly alone because the Lord is always with him. And his family, his wife in particular, is not only by his side but shares in many of his conflicts. The pastor and his family need the church as much as the church needs them. They are not exempt from strong discouragement, especially when trouble arises in the church. Blessed is the pastor who has a faithful wife that bears the burdens with him.
Are you made to wonder why the Colossian church itself was charged to exhort Archippus, and encourage him to continue in faithful ministry until it was fulfilled? Obviously he was under some kind of discouragement, the source of which we are not told. He may have been on the verge of giving in to some strong and continuing conflict and was robbed of strength. Although the Lord is the great encourager, He sometimes brings that encouragement through the instrumentality of others. When “saints” and “faithful brethren” (Colossians 1:2) take loving and caring notice of a disheartened minister of Christ; when they show themselves with him by encouraging him to continue because they recognize his work as truly “in the Lord,” it can lift a heavy burden and be the means of God’s grace to strengthen this brother and specially appointed servant of Christ.
You can be the means of strengthening him when the work is long and hard, and the battles are wearisome. Your faithfulness to your Lord, since you are his work, will be encouragement to him and will return to you with great spiritual benefit. He can suffer wounds in this spiritual battle that go much deeper than fleshly wounds, and take longer to heal. When he knows not only by your lips but by your life in Christ that his work is not in vain, you can a means to his healing.
His greatest encouragement is in knowing that you are walking in the grace and truth of Christ, glorifying Him in life and witness. You are his work in the Lord. Your living godly in Christ Jesus is his greatest reward in this life.