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.
As I said in my last post, Paul thought he didn’t need to commend himself to the Corinthians. They knew full well what had been accomplished through his preaching in their lives and in their church. His ministry was credible in every way; in fact, it could be considered glorious (2 Cor 3:7-11)
Equipping the Corinthians to defend their apostle
But Paul was not going to set aside this question of his own credibility as a successful apostle and missionary. He wanted to be sure that the Corinthians had enough ammunition to be able to defend their apostle in front of his detractors in Corinth. It was not his personal honour that he was concerned about, but rather the reputation of his ministry.
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
Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; – 2 Corinthians 6:4
In 2 Cor 6:4-10, Paul uses 37 different words and phrases to describe his ministry. A little over half of them are negative, at least from our perspective. Hunger, beatings, imprisonments, sleepless nights, accusations of being a fake, slander, and poverty hardly would make a very good advertisement for missionary service. Anyone admitting to such a life would typically be suspected of having some type of chemical dependency and living on the street. Definitely not a respectable person with an global ministry impact.
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?
If Paul wants to convince the Corinthians that he is really God’s credible servant and messenger, why does he start talking about all the hardships that he endured in the course of his missionary career? What could possibly be gained from mentioned all the problems and opposition he had encountered as an apostle?
- 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 Christ’s 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?
Missionaries with SEND International do not typically undergo beatings, imprisonment and hunger. Missionaries who have served with us have been killed, imprisoned or deported but these are the exceptions. Our Director of Corporate Security tries to keep us out of danger, or at least prepare us to deal with dangerous situations that arise. Similarly, although we often think ourselves as poor and having nothing, our financial support system does provide for all of our needs, and we live much better than the poor in many of the countries in which we serve.
But we can identify with phrases such as “sleepless nights” (jet lag), “constantly on the move”, “in danger from bandits”, and “the pressure of my concern for all the churches”. Paul didn’t mention the stress of language learning, the frustration of dealing with visas and residence permits, the fear of electronic surveillance, the loneliness of living in a remote community in the Far North, and the pain of extended separations from children – things that he never experienced.
So suffering and hardship are part of the missionary “adventure”. There is no sense denying it. Some of the hardships we choose and can somewhat regulate their intensity (e.g. our travel schedule). Other hardships come with the territory and there is no way of controlling the timing of the hardship or it duration. The more we engage the unreached, the more difficult life will become, as the spiritual attacks of the Evil One intensify. Healthy, well-adjusted missionaries have developed coping mechanisms (vacations, retreats, days off, leaves of absence) to relieve the stress. But engage again we must, if we are to be true to our calling.
But we don’t often think of our difficulties as making any contribution to our success as a missionary. We see these hardships as hindrances to our success, as obstacles to what we want to achieve for God. Paul saw them as affirmations that he was doing what God wanted him to do, that he was that “good and faithful servant” that would hear the commendation, “Well done!”.
Now we must acknowledge that Paul does not only talk about the reality of hardship in his life. His enumeration in 2 Cor 6:4-10 also clearly describes his attitude in the midst of these hardships. Paul is confident of God’s approval because he has experienced God’s amazing empowerment to rejoice and love and maintain his integrity while suffering. He did not complain, wallow in self-pity, plot revenge or even look for a less stressful place of employment. If we use the criterion of hardship in our definition of success as a missionary, our response to hardship is just as important as the frequency, type or duration of hardship.
So here are a few quick conclusions about what we can learn from Paul and his attitude toward hardship and its application to our question about success for 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.
Would you add any other conclusions to his list? Do you think that missionaries should talk about their hardships when they describe their ministry to their supporters?