If you sent your résumé to a pastoral search committee, what information would it contain? No doubt it would detail all your positive ministry experience. If you’d served as a pastor, you’d put that first, particularly if things went fairly well. If you worked as a youth minister while in college, taught a Bible class, or served a short-term mission stint overseas, you would include that information. You would add the contact information for several people likely to give a friendly assessment of your qualifications, character, and background.
Your aim would be to make certain your strengths stand out in bold relief so you would appear—on paper at least—better qualified than other candidates.
Paul offers us his résumé in 2 Corinthians 11:23–28, only his ministry qualifications read like the diary of a common criminal: imprisoned, flogged, starved, made to do hard labor—all things that portray him as a weak man. Why? Because, as Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians in chapter 12, he was called to suffer. The gospel’s work moves forward and the church gets built on the tracks of suffering, which demonstrate God’s power working through human frailty.
It’s clear from 2 Corinthians and other epistles that Paul expected all faithful ministers to experience some level of affliction. In 2 Timothy 2:3, he exhorted Timothy, his son in the faith, to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s ministry qualifications read like the diary of a common criminal.
As a herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I’m called to suffer.
Suffering Is Normal for Pastors
Throughout the history of the church of Jesus Christ, a pattern has emerged. Those God has used profoundly to build his church have suffered grinding affliction along the way. The church father Athanasius (AD 296–373) was exiled five times on accusations of heresy. Dozens of early believers were burned at the stake or fed to lions. John Calvin (1509–1564) lived much of his life under threat of death from the Roman Catholic Church. Puritan pastor John Bunyan (1628–1688) wrote Pilgrim’s Progress during a 12-year imprisonment for preaching the gospel. Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) lived in constant physical pain and suffered profound anxiety for boldly upholding God’s Word in the face of rising liberalism in the 19th century.
Those God has used profoundly to build his church have suffered grinding affliction along the way.
Scores of others, including those whose stories compose the remaining chapters of this book, lived out the famous dictum of A. W. Tozer (1897–1963): “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.”
It’s vital that ministers recognize this promise early in their ministries, else they may be tempted to quit when things don’t go as planned. Suffering will either confirm their calling or drive them from ministry.
Ministry through Suffering
My wife and I had never been able to relate to families who suffered failed pregnancies until our first son died in Lisa’s womb after five months in the fall of 1999. We were planning on naming him after my distant cousin, baseball great Brooks Robinson, in hopes God would give him that same baseball gene. In the years that followed, we were amazed at how many friends came to us for counsel and encouragement after losing a child in utero.
Previously, the best I could do was offer some Reformed-sounding platitudes featuring the Puritans, Spurgeon, and maybe Corrie ten Boom, assuring them that these saints suffered and we must too. But my words fell with a thud; I knew not of what I spoke.
We don’t fully understand affliction and God’s unbending faithfulness in the cauldron until we’ve spent time boiling in it.
We don’t fully understand affliction and God’s unbending faithfulness in the cauldron until we’ve spent time boiling in it. God remedies this lack in his servants as the apostle learned ad nauseam. Paul and Barnabas told Christians that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Christians become kingdom citizens through Christ alone, but also through trials.
God Is with Us
Paul assured his readers that God would be with them in the furnace of affliction—as he had been with the Hebrew boys in Daniel 3. In turn, they would then be able to assure anxious believers of the faithfulness, love, and mercy of God who promised never to leave nor forsake his people (Heb. 13:5).
Pastoral ministry isn’t a shelter from the storm of this fallen world.
It’s a call to plunge headlong into it.