Each of us tends towards optimism or pessimism, and both present dangers. It is certainly possible to lose heart in ministry due to pessimism. The difficulties and trials can seem intractable, the fruit all too scarce, and we lose heart. It is also possible to lose heart in ministry due to over optimism. When the courageous vision collapses around us it is crushing, and we lose heart.

Paul knew all too well that Christian ministry has both its tribulations and triumphs. In 2 Corinthians 4 he makes it clear that losing heart in ministry is a very real phenomenon (2 Cor 4:1, 16). However, he is equally confident that he and his co-workers will not lose heart. Our aim here is to consider the theology and philosophy of ministry that fuelled Paul’s persistence in ministry.

What Paul holds out is a realistic optimism grounded in his understanding of the gospel itself, his own commission, and a clear grasp of the season of salvation history in which we live. He knew and expected the tribulations of ministry, but he also knew and discerned the glorious triumphs of ministry.

In 2 Corinthians, his most personal letter, the apostle Paul identifies death as a metaphor for the normal experience of ministry. His ministry is an ongoing slow death, but one that brings life to others:

We are afflicted in every way… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:8-12)

When facing the temptation to lose heart as he was confronted by disdain, division and discord, Paul could say to himself, “Of course it’s like this, ministry is death.” Ministry is a long death march that simultaneously and gloriously brings life, and we must not fall for the lie that it was ever supposed to be anything else. The normal reality of Christian ministry is to feel like a useless clay pot, and yet nevertheless look around and see signs of life because of the all surpassing power of God at work (2 Cor 4:7). For Paul the link between ministry and suffering goes back

to his commissioning. God declares through Ananias that Paul “is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). He is transformed from the one actively engaged in causing suffering for those who bear the name of Christ, to the one who himself suffers for the name of Christ. His commission came with a cost, but a cost he is willing to bear.

It is Paul’s particular role as the initiator of the mission to the Gentiles and their apostle that especially connects him with suffering. Paul makes the link explicit at a crucial turning point of his first missionary journey in Acts 13. He quotes from one of Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ songs and claims that his ministry is a fulfilment of those prophecies. Paul and Barnabas’ heightened focus on Gentile mission was driven by theological and not just strategic or pragmatic considerations. In quoting from a servant song (Isa 49:6) Paul declares, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47). In Isaiah 49 the ‘you’ refers to the suffering servant, but here Paul and Barnabas take it as directly referring to them. It is what “the Lord has commanded us”—that is, Paul and his missionary coworkers. The commission to the servant has become for them a command to engage in Gentile mission. As he and Barnabas are engaged in that ministry of the servant, as they plant Gentile churches, Paul unequivocally sees them as fulfilling the ministry of the suffering servant to be a light for the nations and bring salvation to the ends of the earth. In his commission God set Paul apart to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and as he does the work of the servant, so he will also bear the stripes of the servant. Furthermore, God includes in that commission those who partner with Paul in the work.

As Paul addresses the Corinthian church he can say “we do not lose heart”, and this despite his “light momentary affliction” (2 Cor 4:16-17). A life dedicated to sharing the truth about Jesus to the ends of the earth is hard, but in the context of eternity Paul can brush aside these tribulations. Such things as being beaten up and whipped, thrown in prison and shipwrecked, abandoned by some of his closest friends and co-workers, watching as churches he worked hard to build are torn apart by false teachers, and seeing people abandon Jesus, are but light and momentary troubles (see 2 Cor 11:23-29).

It is instructive that the culmination of his list of sufferings is the “daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches”, for in the midst of the beatings and imprisonments it was Paul’s passionate burden for the health of the church that was his most abiding trial. When they faint, he faints; when they rejoice, he rejoices; and when they wander, he is downcast. And yet as we read on with Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, we see that in the face of eternity these trials are light and momentary; they are preparing us for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). It is on that reality that the believer must fix their eyes. Paul grounds his ministry philosophy and self-understanding on the figure of the suffering servant, and the way that frames his own experience in the light of the experience of Christ.

The tribulations of ministry are real, but temporary. The triumphs are often unseen, but they resound for eternity. And so we do not lose heart.