On Not Losing Heart
The following message was written during Robert’s time at Tusmore Memorial Uniting Church between 1986 and 1993. Robert experienced a great deal of tragedy and disappointment in his life and career and his resilience and optimism was one of the things I admired about him most.
Corinthians was written around 55AD, probably from Macedonia. 2 Corinthians is the most deeply personal of Paul’s letters.
At the same time, its theology is as profound as Romans. In it Paul effects that remarkable symbiosis between human crisis and divine sufficiency, humanity in ministry and the all-sufficient grace of God.
So he has something to say to us about having this treasure of the Gospel in the earthen vessels of our human understanding.
In 2 Corinthians 4: 1-7, Paul speaks about not being disheartened as a minister of the Gospel. He does so as he wrestles with the treasure of the Gospel on one hand, and the earthiness of the Corinthians, and himself on the other.
If ever anyone had reason to be disheartened it was Paul. From Damascus Road to Corinth Avenue! What a change of direction.
Think of the accusations they made against him: even in this letter. He was unreliable (1:15). He said he would visit, but didn’t. And when he had visited previously, it was a failure, a painful visit. In addition they claimed he bullied them and lorded it over their faith (2:24). His letters caused them great pain (2:1). They were bold, but he was weak in their presence. In fact he was even a poor speaker (11:6) despite the message he confessed. In addition he commended himself (3:1).
And again, all the suffering and pain he went through, and the embarrassment of brushes with Roman authorities showed how ineffective his faith was. This devious man, according to his self-appointed enemies, was the man who was crafty and took advantage of them by guile (12:16). He was weak while these enemies were strong.
How many of us could stand up to Parish consultation that told us those things about our ministry?
A whisper of criticism can discourage us, even if we accept the definition that says criticism is the disapproval of people, not for having faults, but for having faults different from theirs.
I easily make the pastors mathematical equation: one negative comment equals in effect 150 positive ones.
I remember a woman I could not get on with. She accused me of being against most things she believed in. She made life so difficult because she was a leader. I spoke with her often, but our relationship became more and more inflamed. At one stage I prayed about her intensely, and asked the Lord what should happen. Well, within two months this 45 year old was dead.
That wasn’t what I expected, and I don’t think that provides an intercessory norm for dealing with critics, though it certainly muted any parish dissent for some time. But her criticism, calculated to hurt and divide came out of the Corinthian school.
She reminds me of a little cartoon. The pastor is holding the phone, and the clock reads 2AM. The voice on the phone says, ‘I know it’s early pastor, but I figured you’d be up praying anyway.’
My biggest fear with criticism is that the critic may be right!
Amidst all that the Corinthians said and did to Paul he says in 4:1 – ‘We did not lose heart.’ Why? Because what Verse 1 tells us, ‘We have this ministry by the mercy of God.’ The mortality of ministry is overshadowed by the mantle of ministry. We have this ministry through the mercy of God.
If God appoints, only God can dismiss. We may not have had a Damascus road experience or call, but whatever call we have had, has much in common with the Damascus road. It is based upon the gracious undeserving call of God to ministry. Therefore, if God has done the calling we need not lose heart.
To have this ministry by the mercy of God speaks not only of the mercy of his call but also of his sustaining mercy. His mercy is a form of his faithfulness. So we need not lose heart. Despite the odd critic, we are freed from the need to do what one preacher did at the end of his sermon.
He concluded with a disclaimer which said, ‘The sinners referred to in my sermon are fictitious. Any similarity to members of this congregation are purely coincidental.’
And this is what Verse 2 helps us to see. The mercy of God helps us to become mature in ministry. This relates to what Paul rejects in Verse 5, ‘For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. Whether it means filtering out the controversial, or playing eisegetic games, the mercy of God only sustains us in our humanity as we renounce underhanded, people-pleasing, perhaps Presbytery or Synod pleasing ways of dealing with God’s Word.
There is no future in any ministry, no future for any church, based upon distortions of the Word of God.
For many of us, the issues of our time, what the Scripture teaches about sexuality for example, is the starting point, not this week’s sociological certainties.
Maturity in ministry will not distort the Word to please people, no matter what the cost. Integrity with the Scriptures, the Old Testament and no doubt the tradition he was passing from our Lord’s life, was one reason why Paul did not become disheartened. He knew the truth and honoured it in his preaching. He knew no accusation about the untruthfulness of his message could be sustained.
Unearthed in Southern England was this ancient bill for repairs to the parish church: For renovating heaven and adjusting the stars; washing the servant of the high priest and putting carmine on his cheeks; for brightening up the flames of hell, putting a new tail on the devil, doing odd jobs for the damned and correcting the ten commandments.
Unlike the tradesman, we need not adjust the truth for it to be effective.
Fourth, this Scripture speaks of the mystery of ministry (Verse 3).
These frightening words acknowledge that some respond and some don’t, and we understand that. Paul has spoken of the mystery of non-responding Jews alongside that of responsive Gentiles.
As in Romans 9-11, he sees this as a part of God’s sovereign plan at work. So he renounces ‘underhanded ways of distorting the truth of God’, to make it easier for the Jews to enter the kingdom.
The Jew must be hit by the offence of the Gospel, a righteousness manifest apart from the law, a means of salvation beyond human achievements, a grace appropriated by faith and lived out as kingdom people.
We too find those who do not respond. When they don’t its ministry natural tendency to blame myself. A relative of a church family was dying of cancer. I just could not reach him or relate to him. But Tony Baker came in and had a deep and healing ministry to him. Humanity in ministry accepts that we are not the Lord’s solution to every problem, and so avoids the self-blame or criticism that all depends on us.
The resistance of some is within the sovereignty of God, and he will work in his way at this time to bring them home.
And as George Morrison once wrote, ‘God rarely permits his servants to see all the good they are doing.’
Fifth, this Scripture speaks of the God of this world, blinding the minds of people to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (Verse 4).
The god of this world is doing his best at present, and has had a measure of success.
In an age such as ours we take this world too seriously.
We come to live in an era of relative sinlessness. Psychology sanctifies every emotion desire, and feeling as valid and beyond any censorship.
Our political leaders so divinise individual rights that all is permissible; from the aborting of the defenselessness to the propagation of pornography and poker machines.
In an age of unbelief, the god of this world insists we take this world very seriously for this is all there is; this life is all that matters. The glory of Christ counts for nothing by comparison.
Yet we do not lose heart. The light shines in the darkness and has never overcome it. Or as Verse 6 puts it, ‘For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”‘
C.S. Lewis pointed out that those who do most for this world are those who take the next world most seriously. Through grace they relativise the absolutes of this age, and absolutise the values and faith which give this world and its people significance.
Therefore we are not discouraged; mercy is greater than blindness. What Paul teachers us overall then is something I for one am hesitant to hear.
As he wrote this great letter out of his pastoral suffering he discovered that his weakness, his powerlessness to quench the wild Corinthian spirit, his failures, represented the greatest opportunities for the Lord of the Church.
This is the letter in which he speaks of his thorn in the flesh, almost certainly not a parish stewardship program. His humanity becomes the means by which mercy is shared. Because God’s grace is sufficient, he says in 12:9, ‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about ministry weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.’
Do we, do I, have the humility to accept that ministry failures are the greatest opportunities for God to break through the silly ideas about ministerial perfections a few lay-people still believe in. And I want to minister out of success and victory, and the benefit of various doubts. I want to by-pass the cross and get to the resurrection.
Yet the Lord insists on working through the crosses of ministry, the tears and rejections, more than hallelujahs.
The thorns of the flesh are like the thorns of his son, part of the victory package. And even the critics, those in error, those who don’t see us in incarnational terms are included in the sovereign plan and mercy of God.
In the late sixties, James Baldwin wrote a play about a hand-clapping, gospel singing storefront church in Harlem. The play is called ‘The Amen Corner’. The church’s minister is a woman with a large voice and a flowing white robe. Everyone calls her Sister Margaret. When she first takes over as the Church’s minister, Sister Margaret’s life hits some very rough spots. She tries her best to get the message of the risen Lord through to her congregation but she’s a failure at it. She just can’t find the right way to do it. Then her husband walks into church and collapses, gravely ill. Her son walks out of the church, telling his mother that he just can’t ‘feel the Spirit’ anymore, now that she is the leader of the congregation. And the rest of the congregation begins to come up with reasons for rejecting Sister Margaret. In the play’s final scene, Sister Margaret is faced with the reality that her life is spinning out of control. She is losing everything. Her husband is dying. Her son is gone. Her people have decided to ask her to leave. In the midst of all the chaos, she prays to her Lord and Master for guidance. And, suddenly, it all comes together for her, and she says to her sister:
All these years I prayed as hard as I knowed how. I tried to put my treasure in heaven where couldn’t nothing get at it and take it away from me…. I asked the Lord to hold my hand. I didn’t expect that none of this would ever arise to hurt me no more. And all these years it just been waiting for me, waiting for me to turn a corner.
Then it’s Sunday morning and Sister Margaret must now go into church and face her people who are ready to tell her that they want her to leave. She steps up into the pulpit and says:
I come up here to put you children on your knees! But it doesn’t work… and everybody knows it. Children, I’m just now finding out what it means to love the Lord. It ain’t all in the singing and shouting. It ain’t all in the singing and shouting. It ain’t all in the reading of the Bible. It ain’t even… it ain’t even in running all over everybody, trying to get to heaven. To love the Lord is to love all His children… ALL of them! Everyone. And suffer with them and rejoice with them, and never count the cost.
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
By George Robert Iles