Ministry is Discouragement

I oftentimes tell people that ministry is discouragement. My point, in saying this, is not to suggest that ministry is only and always discouraging. There are, to be sure, times of great encouragement and blessing in ministry. Praise God that it is so! There are times when we know that God is evidently using us, when we see Him visibly blessing our labors or when we see people growing in their faith like never before. There are times when we serve and see a great deal of visible fruit. My point is not to deny or make light of any of these things. My point is simply to say that ministry forces us to face discouragement, to learn to minister through it and even to rejoice in it--and not just once or twice but continually over the course of our lives. Whatever else we may face in ministry, we can be assured that we will face discouragement. It is a constant. And that is why I oftentimes say that ministry is discouragement.

Sometimes discouragement in ministry comes from outward opposition. Trials and tribulations, losses and crosses, and mistreatment and persecution can definitely catch us by surprise and wear us down, to be sure. But I have found that the far greater problem comes not from the outward opposition but from one of two kinds of inward opposition. On the one hand, many of us--probably all of us--struggle with being content with the person God has made us to be. We don't like ourselves or our gifts and abilities. We want a different set of gifts than the one God has given us, or we want the gifts that we have in greater quantities and proportions than God has given us. If we are a 1-talent preacher (à la Matthew 25:14-30), for example, we want to be a 2-talent preacher instead; and if we are a 2-talent preacher, we want to be a 5-talent preacher instead. And so it goes. We struggle with ourselves, with being the people God has made us to be.

I once heard John Piper say in one of his biographical studies that we are all our own greatest trials; and, I think that is unquestionably true. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15:10 just may be the most difficult words to say about ourselves in the whole of the Bible: "By the grace of God I am what I am." Far too often we want someone else's gifts and someone else's life and ministry. We struggle believing 1 Corinthians 15:10, and, as a result, we struggle with discouragement in our ministries.

On the other hand, many of us--again, probably all of us--also struggle with our own perceptions of our usefulness in ministry. No matter how gifted we are, we tend to lose sight of the big picture of what God is doing in and through us. We lose sight of it in the messy details of every day ministry--the marriage breakups, the family dysfunction, the destructive consequences of addiction and abuse, and the difficulties of ongoing conflict and strife. This leads inevitably to discouragement. We do not see what the Lord is doing through the mess of life and ministry. We do not perceive that He is doing much of anything with all our sacrifices and investments of energy and time.

Sometimes this struggle is the greatest for those who are the most gifted among us. Sometimes less gifted men receive more encouragement because we sense that they need it more, and so less gifted men may labor with a clearer perception of their usefulness in ministry. More gifted ministers, however, sometimes receive little or no encouragement, simply because we think that they hear it from everyone and that it wouldn't mean anything to them to hear it from us as well. So they frequently go through their ministries with less encouragement and, consequently, less of a sense that God is using them and blessing their ministries when He actually is using them and blessing them quite significantly.

It certainly was that way for the great Scottish preacher Samuel Rutherford. A great preacher in an age known for great preachers, Rutherford struggled mightily with discouragement throughout his ministry. He regularly complained of having little or no sense of God's blessing upon him and his labors. At one point, he believed that the church was about to close down on account of all the resistance he was experiencing. Even after almost a decade of what was actually a very successful ministry, he looked back in discouragement and bemoaned the fact that he "had done little good." He couldn't see the big picture of what God was doing in and through him; the daily difficulties of ministry got in the way, and he struggled with discouragement because of it.

So what do we do with this kind of discouragement? How do we keep on ministering through it? And how do we rejoice in the midst of it, as Paul calls us to do in passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:16? In answering these questions and dealing with my own discouragements, I have found help from several passages that remind me of the tremendous privileges that God has given me. He has not given me (or you either) the basically fruitless ministry that He gave to the prophet Isaiah, whose ministry was to be characterized by hardening the hearts of the people and blinding their eyes so that they would not turn to the Lord (Isaiah 6:9-10). Praise God that He has given us some visible fruit to encourage us in our labors. Even if it is less than others see, it is still more than Isaiah saw in his lifetime.

I also strive to remind myself that everything I am and have has been given to me by the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:7; 15:10). He has given me the parents that I have; the personality, drive, and abilities; the education and experiences; the health and the wealth; the opportunities and audiences; everything. He has made me for a specific sphere of ministry, and He has equipped me for it. And He does all things very well.

But, most especially, I strive to remind myself continually that my joy is found in Jesus and not in the things of this world--not in my health or wealth, not in my accomplishments or successes, not in my gifts and abilities, not in what people think of me, or how many people read or listen to me. My joy is in Jesus, because God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for me so that I might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). My joy is in Jesus, because there is no condemnation for all those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). My joy is in Jesus, because God is for me in Christ; and if God is for me forevermore, then no one and no thing can ever really be against me (Romans 8:31ff).

Guy M. Richard is the Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Gulfport, MS. He is a graduate of Auburn University (B.I.E.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and the University of Edinburgh (Ph.D.). He has published two books, What is Faith? (2012) and The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford (2009), in addition to several other articles in various books and journals. You can follow Guy on Twitter at @GuyMRicchard.