It’s no secret to those in pastoral ministry: some days and even seasons can be profoundly discouraging.
One enters the pastorate with high hopes — I’ll proclaim God’s word, we’ll live for Jesus, and build real community! And praise God, it does happen that way sometimes.
But not always. Not everywhere, and not all the time.
This is the reality not only of the contemporary church, but of the New Testament church. The presence of the Spirit of God in a congregation doesn’t automatically force out selfishness or pride, arrogance or gossip. And as we’ve seen repeatedly throughout the posts on First and Second Corinthians, this was Paul’s struggle in Corinth as well.
Reading between the lines of 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, one can imagine the rumors and false accusations Paul had to endure:
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. (NRSV)
We don’t do this, we don’t do that. The implication is, We don’t do the things people say we do, and quite possibly, like those hucksters among you (2 Cor 2:17). His opponents in Corinth found various ways to tear him down, most likely to build themselves up by contrast. He was accused of having hidden motives, and of tampering with God’s word. But he knew himself to be openly and in good conscience declaring the gospel, even if some rejected both the message and the messenger.
But how is he able to say, “We do not lose heart”? (note: Paul’s word isn’t the emotion of discouragement per se, but means something more like “responding wrongly”). How does he keep working with this difficult group of people, even declaring openly that he is their slave (2 Cor 4:5)?
As the saying goes, that’s what the “therefore is there for.” Much of the previous chapter was taken up by his wondrous exposition of the glory of God’s new covenant in Christ. And as we’ll see in the next post, Paul’s experience on the Damascus road is never far from his mind. His reference here to mercy echoes his continuing astonishment at the fact that he — Saul of Tarsus, enemy of the church! — could be an apostle of Jesus.
We have this ministry of the new covenant, a ministry of life, a ministry of the Spirit written on human hearts — even the hearts of those who behave in hurtful and discouraging ways. There is no question that Paul could in fact feel greatly discouraged by all that he suffered (cf. 2 Cor 1:8-9), and rightly so. But, he insists, we don’t give up. Instead, we remember by what inexplicable mercy we have this ministry in the first place, and what a glorious ministry it is.
May we remember the same.