Relational Pain of Ministry, Part 2

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.

Discipleship Defined

Discipleship Defined

Anytime we put how in front of what, we end up in trouble.
For example, imagine teaching someone how to bake a cake before they even understand what a cake is.  They might be able to memorize a series of steps – add eggs, milk, flour, etc…  But without a clear picture of what they’re trying to create, they’ll have no desire to make it.  Even if they do start baking, they’ll be slavishly devoted to the one recipe you’ve given them.  They’ll never be able to adapt to create a different kind of cake.  Or worse, they’ll try to adapt in a way they think will improve the outcome (ditch the flour, double the sugar) but ends up ruining the whole thing.
Many of us approach discipleship the same way.  We spend a tremendous amount of time debating the “how” without ever being clear on the “what.”  We’re all trying to follow a recipe we inherited or downloaded from a blog but we’re not entirely sure what we’re trying to bake.  Nothing life changing is going to emerge from that confusion.
At Restoration City, we’re walking through 2 Timothy this spring and allowing that letter to shape our understanding of discipleship.  As we move forward, I want to offer a simple definition to keep us anchored on the “what” of discipleship:
Discipleship is the process of heart change that leads to life change.
 
The more you read about discipleship, the more you realize there is no single widely shared definition among authors, pastors and theologians.  We all recognize that the mission of the church is making disciples (Mt. 28:18-20).  There’s even widespread understanding of the word disciple in the original context.  The word meant “learner.”  But when we move to questions of what a disciple is today and what discipleship is, things get a little murkier.  My goal with this definition is to give us common language as a church and some clarity on the “what” of discipleship.
In reflecting on John 8:31 and what a disciple is today, John Piper offers the following:
For Jesus “true disciple” is the same as “true Christian” or “true believer.” Jesus is not saying that “true disciple” is a second stage in the Christian life. First believer, and then later you attain the level of disciple.
– John Piper
 
Simply put, a disciple is a Christ follower who is actively learning to follow Jesus.
 
If that’s the case, we need a correspondingly broad understanding of discipleship.  That’s why I think the definition I offered above, the process of heart change that leads to life change, is so helpful.  It encompasses the entire process of us becoming more like Jesus (that’s the life change).  But it also clarifies that life change always comes about through heart change.  Therefore, anything that catalyzes gospel shaped heart change is a form of discipleship – whether it’s a mission trip, a close friendship, a Community Group or mentoring an at risk child.
Understanding discipleship this way breathes a tremendous amount of freedom into the conversation.  It makes us open to a wide range of “hows” and frees us from the need to settle on any one “how” as the right way to disciple someone.  The reality is there are many ways to disciple someone or to be discipled.
On the other hand, it also helps us see that getting together for coffee once a week with someone can’t really be considered discipleship if there’s no heart change that’s leading to life change.   We’ll talk a lot more about how the gospel leads to heart change and what that life change looks like.  But, for today, I just want to get us all thinking about the same definition:
Discipleship: Heart Change => Life Change