Jesus, in Luke 14, instructs his disciples to count the cost of following him. After all, no one starts a tower without any idea of how much that tower would cost, right? They’d have to stop half-way through, an embarrassment to them and to their neighborhood. Or, take the king who hears of an approaching army. They wouldn’t rise against this foreign enemy without taking stock of their own army, would they? Otherwise, it would turn into a slaughterfest! Going into ministry is a lot like, I think.
Lately, I feel like I’ve made some sort of accounting error. On one hand, I feel like I did consider the cost of following Jesus into ministry. There would be loneliness, hardships, exhaustion, times when I would be running on Spiritual fumes, and other times where it would be straight up difficult. We definitely take that for granted, though, and these times are definitely more rough than I would’ve imagined. It makes me wonder if I counted the cost, but it turns out, I’m really bad at math. On the other hand, maybe I neglected to truly count the cost and jumped in anyway. I wrote the proverbial check that my spiritual life could not cash.
Paul seems to have experienced some of these difficulties as well. He was imprisoned, stoned, beaten, exiled – you name it. But Paul learned from these situations and leaned into Christ when the pastoral ministry became too difficult. In the middle of one of his darkest letters (2 Corinthians), he talks at length about the difficulties, and joy, of being a pastor (chapter 4). Paul’s words are a salve to those suffering under the weight of discouragement. By taking in Paul’s words, the minister can be encouraged again with a renewed vigor, able again to pay the cost of following Jesus.
First, the focus isn’t us, but Christ. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” I wonder if, a lot of times, we become jaded and burnt-out because we’re pulling the attention on ourselves. In the world of super-pastors and mega celebrities, we want to be known by our names and not Christ’s. This can manifest in how much we want to show off how much we can read, how many meetings we can conduct in a day, how many Bible studies we can pull off per week. None of these are bad practices and we should pursue these things as ministers, but we do need to check our hearts to see if we are pulling too much attention on ourselves. God, in Christ, has given us the freedom to not aim the spotlight on ourselves. We have something far more exciting and beautiful to show off in Christ than whatever meager offerings we can bring to the table. In the gospel, God has revealed life and immortality and the destruction of death. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I can offer anything nearly as exciting!
Second, none of our struggles are ultimate; instead, they allow the life of Christ to be manifest in us. “[a]lways carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” I think, too often, our struggles become the end-all-be-all of our thoughts. We can’t look beyond our current suffering, whether it is exhaustion or loneliness. In some ways, I wonder if we can be encouraged by the fact that Paul confirms that they will happen. Sometimes when we suffer in ministry, we may think that we are doing something wrong or that God has not blessed our ministry. Paul tells us that this isn’t the case: instead, we should think of suffering as the sign of ministry done well! We are “always” carrying the sufferings of Jesus within us. Not sometimes, not every once in a while, but always. Paul reminds us here that our sufferings aren’t the end: it is bad, and we can and should admit that! But this suffering does not destroy us because they open us up to the life of Christ. Paul later says that Christ’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Christ’s power will always be better than our own, so if suffering allows Christ’s power to be made manifest in us, we can rejoice in that suffering.
Third, whatever is happening in us is happening for the sake of our congregation. “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” One of our goals, as ministers, is to see the health and flourishing of our sheep as we shepherd under the leadership of our Lead Shepherd. A shepherd would have to, at times, sacrifice his well-being to fight off predators and attackers from the sheep. They would bear the weight of the attack, but the life of the sheep would be maintained and their general quality of life would be increased in this! What can be more encouraging for us to bear our sufferings than knowing that not only is the life of Christ being made manifest in us, but also in the people we shepherd?
Finally, we can be confident in our sufferings because we have the Spirit of God in us. “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring you into his presence.” This eschatological hope, that we will be raised with Christ and so will our congregations, is the ultimate motivation for what we will do. Yes, our suffering is real and ongoing; yes, it will hurt; and even more so, yes, the life of Jesus is made manifest in them, but there will come a time when those sufferings have ended and we will be brought into the presence of Christ in eternity in our resurrected bodies. This is all ours as long as persist in the faith that allowed us to speak in the first place.
So, weary pastor, take some solace from the same places I took solace from Paul. We do what we do to bring glory and honor to God in Christ through the power of the Spirit, and not to bring ourselves. This frees us from the need to perform and allows us to rest in the work God has ordained for us. We will suffer, but in this suffering, the life of Christ is made evident in us and in our congregations, showing us the fruit of our efforts when we don’t feel it. Finally, the promised hope of our future resurrection gives us the hope and love to continue through our sufferings for the day in which we are with Christ forever in our resurrected bodies.