We often talk about the physical suffering and persecution the apostle Paul endured over the course of his ministry. Sadly, we tend to minimize or ignore the emotional and relational pain Paul experienced. That leaves us with this sense that if we haven’t been beaten for the gospel this week, we really haven’t been all that wounded. But our hearts and the Scripture tell a very different story. Yes, Paul is very specific about some of the physical suffering and persecution he endured (go read 2 Corinthians 11:24-28). But, as we talked about in the last post, Paul is equally specific in 2 Timothy about the emotional and relational pain he experienced as a missionary, church planter, and pastor.
The pain Paul experienced leaves me asking a very basic question – how in the world did Paul keep going? Why didn’t he quit and just go back to being a member of the Roman upper class? That thought must have crossed his mind. He’s beaten by his enemies and deserted by his friends. He’s got people outside of the church throwing stones at him and people inside the church telling lies about him. It’s a mess. Yet, he still keeps going. How does he do it?
If you’ve served in ministry for any period of time, you know this is more than an academic or theoretical question. This is real. You pour your heart into leading a team at church and people bail on you. You love and serve people in your Community Group and then they ghost you. You mentor a newer Christian and they walk away from you over a minor disagreement. You preach your heart out and people find a new church because they want the sermon to be more…well, the answers to that one vary!
Fortunately, when it comes to how Paul endured, we’re not left guessing. If we jump back to 2 Timothy, we see that Paul keeps going for at least two reasons. I believe there are more but these are the two he highlights in this letter:
Strength From God
But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. - 2 Timothy 4:17
Paul’s knowledge of God wasn’t just theological, it was relational. God was an actual source of strength for Paul, who knew how to open the brokenness and woundedness of his heart to the healing and strengthening touch of God. Paul knew what it was to pour out His heart to God and allow the Spirit to make the love of God real in his soul. He didn’t just talk about God as a source of strength, He experienced God as a source of strength. There’s a huge difference between the two!
Encouragement From Others
We might be tempted to think 2 Timothy is one long venting session about all the difficult people who were making Paul’s life so hard. But that’s not at all the case. There are plenty of other names in 2 Timothy – and Paul recalls so many of them with tender fondness:
May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains - 2 Timothy 1:16 Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. - 2 Timothy 4:11 Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. - 2 Timothy 4:12 Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers. - 2 Timothy 4:19-22
Yes, community is risky. Today’s Onesiphorus can become tomorrow’s Demas. But Paul didn’t make the mistake of withdrawing into isolation. He knew community was a risk but he was also deeply convinced it was a risk worth taking. He knew he needed others to stay in the game for the long haul.
Putting It All Together
In 2 Timothy, Paul is not only showing us that ministry is filled with highs and lows but he is also showing us how to engage those realities in a way that enhances our endurance. If you read all the way through 2 TImothy, you will see how Paul juxtaposes verses about relational and emotional pain with verses about the faithfulness of God and his friends. Paul almost always acknowledges the relational pain of ministry first but then almost immediately follows it with a reminder of how he has been strengthened and encouraged. The order matters. A lot!
Paul is able to talk honestly about his pain and to grieve his losses. But he doesn’t stop there and allow himself to believe that everything is falling apart around him. He consciously brings himself (and us) back to the faithfulness of God and the blessings of community. We need to do the same – embrace honesty but also learn how to lead our hearts to hope in the power of God and the goodness of community.