I recently had the privilege of meeting Dick Germaine, founder and director of Barnabas Ministries, Inc. Dick does a tremendous work among pastors in New England. He routinely sends out an email to encourage Christian leaders. With his permission, I wanted to share his latest with any who might drop by here. I think he captured a powerful truth in a way that can really encourage the Lord’s servants and anyone else who wants to faithfully follow Jesus. From this point forward, this post is a pure quotation of Dick’s email. (He quotes others as well.) Read it and be blessed:
“To Serve Is to Suffer. If the apostle Paul knew fatigue, anger, and anxiety in his ministry, what makes us think we can avoid them in ours? …Since the Cross is a basic aspect of discipleship, the church must train Christian leaders to expect pain and hardship. When this perspective enters our minds, pain will not touch our joy and contentment in Christ. In 18 different New Testament passages, suffering and joy appear together. In fact, suffering is often the cause for joy.” Christianity Today, August 2010, page 31
This article by Ajith Fernando, a Sri Lankan Christian leader, stopped me in my tracks and set me on a journey of pursuing the concept of suffering and joy being co-mingled in the life of Christian leaders. I thought, “Could it be true that one can experience suffering and joy at the same time?” I needed to know because for the past two years I have struggled with depression. I worked with my primary care doctor for over a year trying to pinpoint physical causes. We discovered one related to aging which he was able to treat medically. But the deeper waves of depression continued, and he suggested an antidepressant. I declined because I had become convinced that what I was dealing with was something at the spirit level. My goal became one of trying to understand the cause (or causes) of these waves of depression and how to be delivered from them. Or if not that, how to live with them without them driving the joy Scripture says belongs to believers out of my life.
Fernando said there were 18 passages in the New Testament where suffering and joy appear together. I set out to find and study them one by one. As I began my search I wrote down several questions, one of which was, “Is my depression the result of the burden of the ministry on me, or is it the result of anxiety over things in my life and ministry, or both?” A second question was, “Could it be that my Father in heaven wants me to learn how to live joyfully in him in spite of my sufferings?”
So far I have found and studied 10 passages, one of which is 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul had a tormenting “thorn” which was of such agony to him that he pleaded with the Lord to remove it three different times. It was making his life miserable, preventing him from carrying on his work as an Apostle in the way he had done in the past, and he was convinced that it had to go. Thorns hinder us in one way or another so that we can’t do what we want to do; this leads to frustration and depression. But each time he begged the Lord to remove it the Lord told him that his grace was sufficient for Paul regarding that thorn. Christ told Paul he would have to live with it the rest of his life, for it would become the means by which the power of Christ would be revealed in him.
If Paul was free of his thorn he would function more and more in his own strength and ability, and it would become less and less clear to others when he was actually functioning in the power of Christ. People would have a hard time differentiating between almighty Paul and Almighty Christ in Paul. By his own admission he said he would become conceited and get too high an opinion of his ability. His ministry would become more and more about Paul and less and less about Christ. Sadly, we see this far too often in the lives of Christian leaders.
The Lord made it clear to Paul that he was allowing this “messenger of Satan” to torment him so that Christ’s power could be made perfect in him in the presence of the thorn. He would not remove it because he wanted Paul to learn to live victoriously over it. The thorn would be present, but Christ’s power would be perfected in him so that he would become and do all the Lord had for him.
When he grasped God’s intention for him through the thorn he began for the first time to delight in it, for now he realized that nothing could prevent him from being and doing what the Lord had for him. His thorn, which he had seen only as an impediment to ministry, became the source of delight because as a result of it Christ’s power would rest on him far more fully then if he did not have it. Only through the things which made life and ministry difficult for Paul could the power of Christ be clearly revealed through him. So Paul wrote, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul saw beyond his thorn to how Christ was exalted through it, and he began to delight in it. The messenger of Satan was now serving God’s purpose in Paul.
The question for me was: “Could my bouts with depression be a messenger of Satan to torment me and over which I could have victory which would come as I surrendered them to Christ and accepted what he was doing through these things? ”
I began to see that to delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ’s sake in my life is to experience joy in the presence of these very things. But to grumble about them leads only to depression. Emotionally based depression was something for me to rise above by the way I handled the difficulties of my life. To fight against them, as Paul originally did his thorn, was to be miserable and depressed. But to see how Christ’s power rests on me through them leads to delighting in them because they are the means by which Christ’s power is made perfect in me.
The ultimate purpose of our lives in this present world is to demonstrate the power of Christ in us, not our own strength and ability. Thorns can come in many forms. Sometimes they are financial difficulties, or health issues, or setbacks in our ministry, or individuals who oppose us, or other circumstances beyond our control. Do you have a thorn (or thorns) in your life over which you have no control? Have you been crying out to God to remove it but it’s still there? Can you begin to see that though you want freedom from your thorn God wants the power of Christ to be revealed in your life through that thing?
“In a world where physical health, appearance, and convenience have gained almost idolatrous prominence, God may be calling Christians to demonstrate the glory of the Gospel by being joyful and content while enduring pain and hardship. People who are unfulfilled after pursuing things that do not satisfy may be astonished to see Christians who are joyful and content after depriving themselves for the gospel. This may be a new way to demonstrate the glory of the gospel to this hedonistic culture.” Fernando, page 33
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9