In many ways the nature of ministry is incorrectly depicted. A modicum of faith is amplified with a catena of formulae and a large dose of glib optimism to constitute a recipe for outstanding achievement. Legitimate exemplars in the service of God, and some dubious ones, are transformed into celebrities that trainees for pulpit and parish are exhorted to emulate for greatness and gratification. Idolatry can be an impulse for theological and pastoral pursuits. What a team an enthusiastic individual and God can be. Its straight ‘A’s all the way and triumphs until the end. We tend to praise and even flatter people when simple appreciation and genuine encouragement would suffice.
Paul’s doesn’t glamourize the ministerial role or extol it as a good career choice for a sense of self-satisfaction. If his lectures were merely elective he probably wouldn’t have a crowded class-room. His topics would be unthinkable and unattractive to those setting out to conquer the world and astound the faithful. For the sake of self “big time” ministry and the cosseting attention of admirers is imperative. Paul fails to cultivate this approach completely. His words are sobering: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Corinthians 12:10).The blows of God will break men down until they live for the sake of Christ. Immature belief deals with God as if he were a magician or genie there to make things permanently congenial for ourselves. John Calvin alerts us to God’s policy of downsizing his people.
*All who seek to elevate themselves, shall have God as their enemy, who will lay them low.
* Men ever swell with inward pride until God thoroughly cleanses them. . .This Satanic pride. . .is innate, and . . . cannot be shaken off by us, until the Lord regenerates us by his Spirit.
Boastful Paul found himself abased by providential afflictions. First he discovers his weaknesses. Armed with distinctions and accomplishments he was a “natural” for divine service. Who wouldn’t have recruited him to the cause? But Paul finds himself riddled with disabilities physical, psychological, and spiritual. He learns the lesson described by Calvin: As far as any man is satisfied with himself, so he raises an impediment to the exercise of the grace of God. He erects a blockage to grace and is unable to convey it. Instead of frustration and shame with his weaknesses Paul is content to know himself as he is and not to produce a false image. “Those who arrogate the least fraction of strength to themselves apart from God, only ruin themselves through their own pride”, comments Calvin. Paul was given a permanent reminder of his frailty through the thorn in his side, thrust there by God, and there to puncture his constitutional arrogance. “Who is sufficient for these things” he admitted.
The human spirit thirsts for compliments and appreciation but the servants of God must be ready to accept the insults of those offended by the gospel or moved by envy, ambition, or some residual rancour in the soul. Those who cannot share love, need cherishing, or feel undervalued can deal out hurt without warning. The love of Christ’s fellowship of people is an alien environment in which they function uncomfortably. Insults keep the servants of God grounded in the knowledge of their own unworthiness of honour. Hence Calvin opines: “It is an evil as it were innate in us, that we become elated and proud whenever God deals bountifully with us . . . . The best fruit of afflictions is, when thereby we are brought to purge our minds from all arrogance, and to bend them to meekness and modesty”.
Are ministerial candidates really warned of the hardships ahead? They plagued the lives of prophets, apostles, and “eminent” men and women of God throughout history. Analyse any famous biography and see if the lives recounted there could be envied in terms of the battles and disappointments they endured. Why should theology students anticipate a rosy future? a carnal kind of favouritism from God? Each person’s hardships will be unique and surprisingly unexpected and baffling. God is taking us out of ourselves and our cosy assumptions. Persecutions will assume different and sometimes undetected forms, and perhaps more within the faith community than beyond. Willie Still warns that often those most conspicuous for quoting Scripture and using the language of Zion can be the worst offenders.
Calamities seem impossible to the novice in ministry. He believes he is well intentioned and will be well understood and well resourced due to the promises of God. Ministries take an unexpected course. Paul found the rejection of his ministry by some personally calamitous as much as he found the dangers he encountered calamitous. Fears and failures will occur. We have our very fallible selves to deal with. Satan deals out his destructive opposition. God is dealing with us, and his providences are often mysterious. It is part of the ongoing teaching process: “The talents with which God has favoured us, are not excellencies originating from ourselves, but free gifts of God; of which, if any are proud, they betray their ingratitude” (Calvin). Readiness for divine service requires realism.