Part 5 of a series on defining success for a missionary. Part 1 demonstrated that we, like Paul, can be confident in our ministry, despite all our detractors and critics. In Part 2, we saw in 2 Corinthians that Paul repeats the phrase “commend ourselves,” to identify key criteria that he uses to demonstrate that his ministry is credible and successful. In Part 3, we explored Paul’s first criterion of successful ministry, that of clearly proclaiming the Gospel. In Part 4, we looked at the second criterion, that of seeing lives changed by God’s power through our ministry.
Equipping the Corinthians to defend their apostle
What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. – 2 Corinthians 5:11–12
We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. – 2 Corinthians 6:3
Then we come to 2 Corinthians 6:4, where we find yet another instance of this phrase “commend ourselves.”
Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; – 2 Corinthians 6:4
What is even more remarkable is that Paul returns to this subject in chapter 11 (2 Cor 11:23-30) where he gives even more detail about the hardships he has endured. Here he lists the number of lashes he has received from the Jews (195 but who’s counting?), and the number of times he was beaten with rods, stoned, and shipwrecked. I count 28 phrases describing different types of hardship he endured. Some of them are actually self-imposed hardships, such as working hard, going without sleep, and fasting. But in this context, Paul does not see this discipline as a virtue, but rather just “things that show my weakness“ (2 Cor 11:30).
Why talk about your sufferings?
- His sufferings personified the message of the cross that Paul has been preaching. The Gospel was a message of foolishness and weakness (1 Cor 1:18-25) to a world that respected the might of the Roman Empire and the wisdom of the Greek philosopher. How could the shame of an execution by crucifixion be transformed into a message of life-giving redemption? This is the paradox of the Gospel. God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). The meek inherit the earth (Matt 5:5). The hungry are filled, and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:53). Paul says that he will gladly boast about his weaknesses so that Christs’ power will rest on him (2 Cor 12:9-10).
- Paul shared his sufferings with the Corinthians because he wanted to model vulnerability and an open heart (2 Cor 6:11-13). He wanted them to know about his troubles, including the emotional stress he was undergoing (2 Cor 1:8). He wanted them to know how painful it was for him to write a letter of rebuke to them (2 Cor 2:4, 7:5, 11:28). Why share his pain, fears, worries and sorrows if not to encourage the Corinthians to begin opening up to him as well? He wanted to demonstrate to the Corinthians how much he loved them, and in so doing, he had to get off his pedestal of authority and impeccability and let them see him in his weakness, warts and all.
- Paul’s sufferings demonstrated the transforming power of the Gospel in the midst of his weaknesses and sufferings. One who is constantly beaten up tends to hide and cower. But Paul was a confident, bold messenger, persuading others to follow. He was sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor 6:10). He was mistreated, rejected and slandered, and yet was characterized by understanding, patience, kindness, and sincere love (2 Cor 6:6). He was weak and helpless before the mobs and religious leaders that attacked him, yet he was confident in God’s power and saw himself as a person well prepared for whatever the Evil One might throw at him (2 Cor 6:7). He was poor, owning nothing of value, and yet he could contentedly claim that he had it all and had been able to enrich many (2 Cor 6:10). Either he was insane with no grasp on reality (and some did accuse him of insanity – 2 Cor 5:13), or his amazing triumphant perspective on life was due to God’s transforming grace.
- In enumerating his hardships, Paul displayed his commitment to this ministry. This was not a job, but a calling, and no sacrifice was too great to faithfully fulfill it. He believed the message he was preaching, or else he would not have been willing to suffer for it or for the churches that he had planted. Paul had counted the cost, and like Moses, “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb 11:25-26).
What does Paul say to us as missionaries?
- Success is not defined by the absence of opposition, but probably more by its presence.
- Success is not just enduring hardship, but enduring with grace.
- As in any other endeavour, success requires a deep commitment, a willing to pay the price.
- Success does not require an callous insensitivity to pain and stress, but rather a faith that draws upon divine resources to persevere while experiencing all of the normal human emotions.
Do you think that missionaries should talk about their hardships when they describe their ministry to their supporters?