I’m guessing that most of you probably own one of these (holding up a cell phone). It might even be fair to say that some of you are owned by one of these.
You can relax. I’m not about to go off on a rant against our overdependence on modern technology, although it wouldn’t be a bad thing if I did. Nor am I showing you my phone as a no-so-subtle cue to you to turn off yours, though that’s not a bad idea either.
Maybe you’re thinking I have a new phone and want to show it off. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m not one of those techies who rushes out to buy the latest gadget to fall from Apple’s tree. This is not an iPhone. In fact, it’s one of the cheapest phones on the market. It came with no plan. I get my minutes from one of those scratch-off cards they sell down at Kroger’s grocery store. I suppose all of that makes me something of a relic, a throwback, “one of those people.” And that’s all fine by me.
The reason I’m showing you my phone is because I’ve noticed that where the tiny icon at the top of my home screen used to say 3G, it now says 4G. I realize that still leaves me 1G behind, according to that sweet young lady on all those TV commercials. Nevertheless, I now have an extra G in this new phone that I didn’t have in the old one. It’s there to boost my phone’s processing speed and to reduce my risk of dropped calls.
Dropped calls. According to studies by the Alban Institute and Fuller Seminary awhile back, 50% of ministers drop out of ministry within the first five years, and many never go back to church again. Dropped calls. A Duke University study once found that 85% of seminary graduates entering the ministry leave within five years, and 90% of all pastors will not stay to retirement. Dropped calls.
As I understand it, the main reason that cell phones drop calls is because of a weak signal. They get too far away from the nearest tower. Whenever any of us begin drifting away from God, heaven’s signal gets weaker and weaker. Soon, we can’t hear God at all, resulting in, you guessed it, dropped calls.
I answered the call to preach just two months shy of my sixteenth birthday and began pastoring my first church at the age of twenty-four. I pastored two churches for a total of roughly six years before I felt the Lord calling me to return to school and begin a new path of ministry. Since then, I’ve served for twelve years as a juvenile correctional facility’s chaplain and taught ministers-in-training at a couple of small colleges.
A couple months ago in a denominational magazine there was an article by a pastor who was quite upset over the number of ordained ministers in his denomination who weren’t pastoring a church, despite the fact there were hundreds of churches in his denomination needing a pastor. He wondered if his denomination’s ordaining councils hadn’t grown lax in their duties for having ordained all those people or if those ministers without pastorates hadn’t dropped their call. He didn’t seem to realize that not all called ministers are called to pastor a church. He should’ve known better.
From the church’s start there has been a lot of confusion over what it means to be a minister. Many a minister has suffered terribly because of that confusion, the apostle Paul chief among them.
Over in Corinth where Paul started a church during his second missionary journey, people treated good orators like we treat rock stars and world-class athletes today. By virtue of being a preacher, Paul was judged by the Corinthians just as if he was any other orator. Their judgment of him was generally unkind, even among some of the people in that church he started. “He lacks presence,” they said (2 Cor. 10:10). “Not much of a speaker either” (11:6). “Such a lowly sort. His humility reminds me of those flatterers who’ll tell you whatever you want to hear, who are so self-deprecating, ‘Yes, sir; whatever you say, sir’ people, while it’s really all just an act. A show they put on to their own advantage” (11:7). “Why, he wouldn’t even accept my patronage! Told me that he wouldn’t take my money because he was afraid I’d get the wrong idea” (1 Cor. 4:9-12)!
It didn’t help matters any that there was a group of celebrity preachers who’d blown into town since Paul had left. “Super-apostles,” he calls them in 2 Corinthians 12:5. Kryptonian Christians. Bold, strong, flashy sorts of preachers, like you might see on cable TV. They weren’t shy about putting their hand out (2:17) or raising it to slap somebody’s face when they thought they needed it (11:20). They had charisma! They had machismo! Paul? Not so much.
Bigger, louder, faster. In terms of today’s technology, they were 5G ministers. That’s what the Corinthians respected. That’s what they craved! Who was Paul? Nobody! Nobody but a 3G minister in a 5G world. It was all enough, it is enough, to make a preacher want to cuss. Or quit. And many a minister has done both. But what about Paul? He wrote, “Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” He wrote it twice, perhaps as much for his sake as for his readers’ sake. In 2 Corinthians 4:1 and 16: “We do not lose heart.”
There used to be a professional wrestler years ago who went by the name Ox Baker. His finishing move was the Heart Punch, that he sometimes called the “hurt punch.” All it took from Ox was one punch to the heart, and it was lights out. It’s like that sometimes in ministry. One great blow, and it’s lights out.
Back when I was in seminary, one of my professors told of a student who’d passed that way years earlier. I want to think he said that the student served as a pastor while making his way through school. Regardless, his wife stood dutifully beside him through it all, until the night he graduated. It was then that she told him she was filing for a divorce. One punch. Lights out.
But that’s not how it goes for most people who end up leaving the ministry. It’s not one Ox Baker-sized punch to the heart but a constant barrage of little jabs, things they overhear, never sure whether they were meant to hear them or not. “Have you heard any of So-and-So’s sermons on YouTube yet? That person can really preach!” “Remember what a good pastor So-and-So was when they were here?” “Now don’t get me wrong. Brother Saul is a good man but just not much of a minister.” Jab, jab. Tap, tap.
But says Paul, despite it all, “We do not lose heart.” Why not? Who wouldn’t?! Well, let’s let Paul tell us.
(Read 2 Cor. 4:1-6)
We Have this Ministry by God’s Mercy. We Are Ambassadors of His GRACE.
No man or woman deserves to be a minister of the gospel, least of all, Paul. You will remember that he was the one who looked after the coats while their owners picked up rocks to stone Stephen, one of the church’s first deacons, making him her first martyr. He later acquired papers authorizing him to track down Christians for trial and, if convicted, punishment. Paul was a real-to-life, threat-breathing, death-dealing dragon, intent on destroying Christ’s followers wherever they might be found. But it was on his fatal march to Damascus that he saw the light, met the Lord, and was redirected for life.
Every minister has his or her own Damascus Road story. Some, like Paul’s, are dramatic. Others, like mine, are unimpressive. Either way, the effects of those encounters are undeserved.
Each and every one of us is a minister only by God’s great mercy.
When a minister forgets that, when our memory of the grace-based nature of ministry starts to fade, our resolve naturally melts. We become remiss in the conducting of our duties. When we forget that ministry is given as a trust for stewarding, we’re more inclined to take certain liberties we ought not take.
Some of those 5G ministers over in Corinth that upset Paul had already taken some of those liberties. Perhaps Paul had earlier felt the pull of those liberties himself before finally resolving not to take them.
For one thing, Paul was resolved not to mess with the message. Creativity is one thing. It’s good to be creative in the proclamation of the gospel. It may not be a sin to bore people with God’s Word, but it should be! Creativity is a good thing, a desirable thing; cunning is not.
Cunning is deception. It’s what the Serpent practiced in the Garden of Eden, according to 2 Corinthians 11:3, there translated “subtility.” The Serpent didn’t come right out and call God a liar. He was subtle; he implied it. Often it’s not what we say but what we imply or what we imply by saying nothing at all that communicates the wrong message. Holding back when we should speak up is a way of hiding the truth, like putting a candle under a bucket.
Paul resolved to keep his communication “open” and free from “tamper[ing].” The only time that word “tamper” appears in all of the New Testament is here. Outside the Bible, tampering was said to be what happened when merchants diluted their wine with water. The temptation to water down God’s Word has always been a strong one. “Why would anyone want to do that?” you might wonder. Well, when you’re not seeing the results you’d hoped for, it’s natural to question whether the message isn’t the problem.
“It’s not,” says Paul. “The problem isn’t the message. The problem is the blinded minds of those hearing the message. Satan has blinded them to the truth. They grope in darkness.” Messing with the message won’t make them see it any more clearly.
But when the message isn’t being heard, we feel like we’re not being heard. Our egos get bruised. When that happens, we’re forgetting that the message isn’t ours nor is it about us. The message is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” God’s glory is found in fullest bloom in Christ’s face. The message we’re to proclaim in word and deed is just that—Jesus is Lord. It’s not about us but him. Neither our secretiveness nor self-promotion will serve his cause.
Just be warned. People who live in darkness and love the darkness will be quick to holler, “Get that light out of my eyes!” They may even throw things at you, like they did at Stephen. That’s to be expected. It’s how most of us naturally reacted when we were first exposed to the gospel’s light, to Jesus’ lordship. It’s how Paul reacted at first, until he finally gave himself to the Lord of light.
That’s why we mustn’t mess with the message. The same message of God’s glory in Christ that enlightened and saved us is the message that will enlighten and save them. It’s all of grace! We have this ministry by God’s mercy. We are ambassadors of his grace. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Quite the contrary!
(Read 2 Cor. 4:7-12)
We Have this Treasure in Jars of Clay. Meaning, GRIT Is Required.
Angela Duckworth defines “grit” in her best-selling book by that same title as “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.” No, you won’t find the word “grit” in those verses we just read, but it’s there. How else does one endure afflictions without being crushed, perplexities without being driven to despair, or persecution without feeling forsaken? How does one get to their feet for the hundredth time after being knocked down ninety-nine? Grit! Or, better yet, grace-fed grit.
Grit is one-part tenacity and two parts resilience. Ministers must have the tenacity of a bulldog and the resilience of a dandelion. Ministry demands resilience because the Devil plays dirty. He’s notorious for chop blocks and blind side blitzes. He’s a cheap shot artist—always hitting below the belt and behind the head.
As much as we ministers need it, grit is something woefully lacking today, and not only among our young people. I once had a middle-aged co-worker to whom I emailed a handful of requests for several small projects. I sent him one email after the other, each describing a different task and how to perform it. Every one of those tasks fell within his job description, and my ability to do my job depended on him doing his. I intended for my requests to stack up in his inbox and for him to work through them one at a time, deleting them as he completed one after the other. Instead, when I went back later to check up on his progress, he told me, “I haven’t done any of them. I felt like you were dumping on me. So, I just sat down.” I was dumbfounded, shocked beyond words! People of his generation would’ve said he was being a flake.
The Apostle Paul was no flake. The hardships he endured for the cause of Christ fill not one list in 2 Corinthians but four. Besides the list here in 4:8-12, there are three more. Hang on tight because this ride is about to get bumpy.
(Read 2 Cor. 1:8-9a; 6:3-5, 8b-10; and 11:23-29)
Paul was one gritty man. What made him that way? What does he say in 4:7? “We have this treasure [this enlightening ministry of the gospel by God’s grace] in jars of clay [fragile, relatively unattractive vessels], to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Paul’s grit was directly related to God’s grace.
It has been my experience that God’s grace will make you gritty as you follow him faithfully. Each storm weathered by his grace prepares you for the next. By sustaining fragile, frazzled you through your suffering, God demonstrates his power. Or, to put it another way, it’s like the Lord told Paul after refusing three times to remove his thorn in the flesh: “My strength is made perfect in [your] weakness” (12:8). We are not Christ’s servants in spite of our weakness and suffering but because of his power manifesting itself in our weakness and suffering.
Authentic ministry requires fragility and vulnerability. Celebrity? Not so much. You can be a Christian celebrity, a super apostle as Paul calls them, from a position of strength and self-sufficiency, but it’s through the comfort God gives you in your weakness and suffering that he equips you to minister to others in their weakness and suffering (1:3-6). It’s A. W. Tozer who is credited for saying, “Whom God would use greatly, He will hurt deeply.” Suffering isn’t a sign of divine disappointment but an opportunity for divine intervention and engagement.
Those 5G ministers in Corinth didn’t get that. They saw Paul’s weakness and suffering as proof positive that he wasn’t a true apostle. Paul, on the other hand, saw it as proof positive that he was. Just as God’s resurrection power was made fully manifest only after Christ’s death, it manifested itself in Paul’s daily dance with physical death and his daily dying to self (Gal. 2:20). In those same ways Christ’s power and life manifest themselves through us jars of clay today.
Simply put, God’s grace comes with a side of grit. No substitutions allowed. Trying to separate grace from grit would be akin to ordering an Arnold Palmer drink without the lemonade. Expecting grace without grit is like ordering shrimp and grits, a Southern delicacy, without the grits. It isn’t the same dish. James says something similar when he writes, “Faith without works is dead.” Faith produces works. Grace makes us gritty. Paul did not lose heart because his ministry was by grace and grit unto glory.
(Read 2 Cor. 4:13-18.)
We Have Awaiting Us an Eternal Weight of GLORY.
If Angela Duckworth’s definition is sound, if grit is “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way,” then according to Paul, glory is the final achievement. Glory is the goal. First, there is the glorification that we will experience as faithful followers of Jesus, ministers of his grace, when we step out of time and into eternity.
You do believe in heaven, don’t you? Have you ever had a conversation to go something like this?
THEM: “How are you doing today?”
YOU: “I’m making it, I guess. It’s just this arthritis. Every morning I have a hard time getting out of bed because of this arthritis in my back.”
THEM: “Well, look at it this way. It’s better than the alternative.”
Hold on a sec! When I die, I’m going to enter Jesus’ presence in a new body. How exactly is living here with arthritis in my back better than living pain-free with Jesus? Oh, I get what they mean, and I appreciate that they’re trying to make me feel better. But to say life before death is better for the Christian simply isn’t true. For the unsaved person? Absolutely! This world is the only heaven that lost people will ever know. (Can you imagine that? This old, dysfunctional world being as close as you’ll ever get to heaven?! What a miserable thought!) But that’s not true for the faithful follower of Jesus, and Paul says a great deal about that in 2 Corinthian 5.
Glory is the goal. First, the glorification of the Christ-follower. Second, the glorification of those who receive our message of grace. On your mind’s music player, you can now cue the music to “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” That song gets to me every time I hear it. Just to think that there will be grateful people in heaven because God used me to minister to them in such a way that the light of the gospel finally broke through into their darkened minds! Amazing! And they will be thankful for eternity, just like I’m thankful for Everett Gentry, who drove me to church every Sunday morning for years, and for his wife Eva, who walked with me to the altar when I asked Jesus to save me. Everett wasn’t a preacher. I don’t know what he did for a living. Eva was a homemaker. But to me, they were ministers of God’s mercy.
Finally, there’s the ultimate object of all that thanksgiving, all that glory—God himself. Deep within us all is the desire to express love and appreciation. It’s hardwired into us. If you don’t believe me, go visit the pier at Mallory Square in Key West, Florida around sunset. Tourists line the railing there each day and watch reverently as the sun sinks silently into the western horizon. In its fading rays a spontaneous response follows—clapping! They may not realize it, but those folks are clapping for God. They’re giving him glory for his handiwork. When we minister faithfully according to God’s great mercy, whatever the results may be, the glory is ultimately his alone.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re a called minister of his grace. Don’t make that out to be something it isn’t, something big, flashy, and loud, like those 5G super-apostles in Corinth did.
Stay the course. No matter what may come, don’t lose heart. Don’t drop your call. By grace and grit fulfill your calling unto glory.
You may be thinking, “That’s good advice for a pastor, I suppose, but I’m no minister.”
Come on now. Surely, you know better than that!
Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.