In my last two years of public high school, I was a zealous witness of Jesus Christ. I was always looking to give and stand up for the gospel, whether it was in class when the teacher spoke about evolution, at lunch when talking with friends, or at the cast party when I finished performing in my school’s musical. I was so thrilled to talk about Jesus and the Bible, and many people appeared receptive to what I had to say. Sure, there were a few who accused me of being “holier than thou,” but I suffered little persecution for my words.
I continued my lifestyle of enthusiastic witness in college; I attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick and lived on campus. I met only one other professing Christian in my dormitory, so I was excited to bring the good news of faith and repentance in Jesus Christ to my other dormmates. But then, one day, I had a startling experience. I was in the cafeteria having lunch with some dorm friends when one of them swore using God’s name. I told him. “Oh, you don’t need to say that,” thinking that this was a pretty polite way to express that I valued the name of my God.
But immediately after I said the sentence, I was attacked—not by the person I had just corrected nor by my other unbelieving dorm friends—but by the one other professing Christian from my dorm! She spat angry words of condemnation at me for about ten minutes, telling me (ironically) how judgmental I was and how disgustingly I was misrepresenting the love of Jesus. I could barely defend myself due to shock; the rest of my dorm friends silently watched or soon found another place to eat. I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but I remember what I did afterwards: I went back to my dorm room and fell asleep. I felt traumatized and exhausted, and I certainly did not have the same level of evangelistic enthusiasm for some time afterwards.
Has a bad ministry experience ever left you less motivated or even totally unmotivated to continue? Maybe you went to a church for years before learning that it was a cult; maybe a trusted ministry partner abandoned you or turned on you in a critical time; or maybe you poured yourself out trying to help a certain person, couple, or ministry but never saw any fruit. These ministry reversals can be so destabilizing because we feel like God’s people—and even God himself—have really let us down. We then feel inclined to withdraw: from church, from ministry, from people. We say: “I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to get hurt again. People will just have to get on without me.”
I think part of the reason these bad experiences pierce us so deeply is because we do not expect them, even though the Bible tells us that we should (1 Pt 4:12; 1 Jn 3:13). God does not hide the hard realities of life or of being a Christian; he tells us plainly that we should expect hard work (Gen 3:19; 2 Tim 4:5), frustration (Gen 3:18; Eccl 8:14), suffering (Jn 16:33), persecution (Mt 5:10-12; 2 Tim 3:12), false brethren (Mk 4:13-20; Acts 20:29-30), failing brethren (Acts 13:13, 15:38; 2 Tim 4:11; Lk 17:3-4), and ministry without immediately visible results or reward (Isa 6:8-10; Jer 7:27-28; Gal 4:11). Perhaps the strongest evidence of this is the life of our Savior: he dealt with each of these, especially during the passion week! Moreover, he told us that to be his disciple means to walk in his same footsteps (Jn 15:18-21; 1 Jn 2:6).
If all these are actually normal for Christian ministry, then how do we keep going? By taking hold of the truth by faith that Christ is worthy and that he will enable us to labor and endure (Rev 4:11; 5:9; 1 Cor 10:13). He will still show us good in our lives and in our ministries (Ps 4:6; 2 Cor 7:6-7). But whatever temporal good we do or do not experience, we know that we have Christ and cannot lose him (Phil 3:8; 2 Thess 2:14), that he is pleased with our faithfulness no matter the earthly result (Col 1:10; Heb 13:15-16), and that he will reward us at the end of our ministry race (Mt 6:19-21; 2 Tim 4:7-8).
Really, every ministry setback is a chance for us to ask, “For whom am I doing all this?” If ministry is motivated ultimately by self or others, we eventually will quit, and God is kind to show us when these have wrongly become our chief motivations. But if ministry is motivated by God and his everlasting reward, then not only can we do it, but we can do it with joy—even amid the pain.
2 Timothy 2:1-3, You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
Questions to Consider:
1. Has a past experience left you bitter against God and others or hesitant to return to Christian ministry?
2. What expectations did you have about ministry in the past that were actually naïve or unbiblical?
3. Is your ultimate motivation in life Christ and his glory? How does this manifest in your ministry right now?