I Am My Own Greatest Hardship
One of the most acute and enduring struggles that I have experienced in my own life has been the struggle to be content with myself. The real problem, as I have discovered, is that deep down I don’t want to be the person God has made me to be. Deep down I want to be someone else instead. I want to be someone who is more gifted than I am or who has a different set of gifts and abilities altogether, someone who has a greater platform for ministry than I do or who has seen more fruit come as a result of that ministry, or someone who doesn’t have the same baggage that I do or who hasn’t made the same mistakes.
Deep down, I don’t like me. And, in that sense, I am my own greatest hardship.
I take comfort from knowing that the Apostle Paul struggled in a similar way with being content with himself. We know this because of what he says in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10: “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” This suggests that Paul struggled with his past failures at least to some degree and with how those failures impacted his ministry. Without reading too much into Paul’s comments, we can infer that he was grieved over what he imagined to be lost ministry opportunities that were caused by his past mistakes. We can imagine that he at least had thoughts about what his ministry may have been like had he not done the things he had done. It may even be that Paul struggled with his own giftedness to some degree, especially after facing the rejection of a number of people within the Corinthian church who preferred the ministry gifts of Apollos and aligned themselves with him instead of with Paul (1 Cor. 3:4-9).
But Paul learned valuable lessons through this process of struggling with himself. He learned to trust that God really did know what He was doing in making him different from Apollos and from others too. He learned that God had made and gifted him for a specific reason and task—for planting, as he says in 1 Corinthians 3:6—and that He had made and gifted Apollos for an entirely different reason and task—for watering. And he learned that the difference between the two really was immaterial because God was the one chiefly responsible for bringing fruit from both of their labors (1 Cor. 3:7).
Paul and Apollos were nothing more than servants of the King. The way that they served and the way that their service was perceived by the other servants in the kingdom was ultimately insignificant. The thing that mattered most was that the King was served and that His will was done. No doubt these things were still percolating in Paul’s mind when he said, “by the grace of God I am what I am.” He knew that God had made and gifted him just the way He intended him to be. He knew that God didn’t make mistakes, that His “grace…was not in vain.”
Coming to that place for ourselves is vital if we are going to be joyful servants of the King. God has made and gifted each of us in the way He has intended us to be. By the grace of God, each of us is exactly what we are. His grace to us really has not been in vain. The question that we need to ask ourselves is this: do we believe it? Can we say, with Paul, “by the grace of God I am what I am”? I pray that, as a result of our struggling with ourselves, we will be able to.
Guy Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.
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