Remedies for Ministerial Discouragement
Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not: ... For which cause we faint not...2 Corinthians 4:1, 16
The title of this paper by no means pre-supposes that half of men serving in evangelical churches are discouraged. It is well appreciated that many have seen rich encouragement over the long term and some even over the short term. Yet we must bear in mind two thoughts. There are many ministers preaching the truth who have experienced and are going through times of difficulty. This is an attempt to help such men. In God's eyes they are surely the excellent of the earth. That is the first thing to bear in mind.
The second is this, that none of us can see into the future. It may be that if today we do not know discouragement and have not experienced it in the past, we may yet know it in the future. Some men reap where others have sown before them. And again, some men are called on to sow where others after them will reap. Our callings differ not only from person to person but of course from place to place, from congregation to congregation and even from stage to stage of our ministry.
Second Corinthians is that Epistle by way of eminence in which this general theme of encouragement and discouragement is brought into special focus for us. Second Corinthians, not indeed the details here and there, but as a whole, is surely one of the most difficult books of the New Testament. One reason for this is that it deals with the pastoral situation of a minister of the gospel of Christ. Perhaps we should say that a person who is not in the ministry is emotionally unqualified to appreciate the moods which are reflected in the writing here of the Apostle Paul.
Let us make one or two cursory observations about some passages in this Epistle merely to substantiate this general statement. For instance, in the first chapter we see the Apostle saying this: 'We despaired even of life itself'. It was not merely that he was afraid for his ministry but even for life itself? Then consider the second chapter of this Epistle, Paul talks about the wiles of the devil and says: 'We are not ignorant of his devices'. Satan is always seeking to get the advantage over us.
Again, we see that in the fifth chapter he refers to something which is so germane to the work of the ministry in any age. Paul makes the great affirmation that 'we walk by faith and not by sight'. That truth could be illustrated in the case of men at this conference. Let us put it like this. If you are a gardener you can see where your spade was entered into the ground and after a few days of hard work you can see where the spade finished. You can also see the upturned earth and you know where you began, where you ended and what you did in between. But in the ministry what is there to see sometimes after many days? The walls of our studies sometimes become more lined with sighs, tears, sobs and groans even than of the books of theology that we cherish! That is in no small measure because we walk by faith. We do not see the immediate fruits of what we do.
One might refer to two further of these general things in this Epistle before coming more specifically to the text. There is a sublime section in chapter 6 where we meet those apparent contradictions, 'Sorrowful always rejoicing' and the like. It is the section in which he describes how we go on through good report and ill report, 'as deceivers and yet true'. We make sure that we never bring the ministry into disrepute.
Also he is showing us there that we have a bad press. How many times do Reformed ministers get on the radio or TV? We hear over the air these strange male and female Rabbis who are so entertaining. But seldom if ever do we hear men who have a real spiritual message going across the air. These are regarded as a laughing stock and as the scum of the earth. 'Who on earth would ever want to listen to a Calvinistic preacher in the 20th Century?' they would say. We are accounted as deceivers and yet we are true.
Then let us mention something in the eleventh chapter where Paul speaks about false apostles. Walter Chantry dealt with this in his excellent book, entitled Signs of the Apostles. How relevant this is to the ministry! There is a type of preacher who steals your new converts away from you. They come with some ingratiating message. They smile at you and join the fellowship only to steal your flock from you and they give them false teaching. That hurts a true pastor deeply. If there is anything that hurts the faithful minister it is to see his converts deceived. It is not just that your church roll is diminished by two or three but it is the way they become twisted. It can come about that those that ate out of your hands a few months or years ago are now the very ones who are spreading evil rumour behind your back falsely! That certainly discourages all ordinary men.
These are the general comments on this epistle. Let us now look especially at chapter 4 and these two texts in verses 1 and 16 in which he says that 'we faint not'. Discouragement in the ministry must surely be the theme of this chapter because he begins with it and after giving us certain details he reverts to it in verse 16. Dealing with discouragement is the burden of his soul. Paul is deeply concerned that his readers should understand that whatever happens to the minister he does not faint.
In opening up this subject and theme we shall first of all have a look at verse 1 in order to give some kind of definition of what we mean by discouragement. Then secondly we must look at some of the reasons listed for us in this chapter why we do not faint notwithstanding every inclination, temptation and inducement so to do. Then finally we may apply the teaching of the Apostle to particular situations in the day and age in which we live.
What is Discouragement?
So first of all let us consider the text as it stands before us in the first verse. He says: 'Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not'.
This little word 'faint' is enkakein or ekkakein. It can be spelt either way. It is not of frequent occurrence in the New Testament. In earlier versions before the Authorized, the translation varied between 'faint' and 'fail'. Here, as you see, the Authorized Version has 'we faint not'. NEB and NIV prefer something like this, 'We do not lose heart'. And the Good News 'we are not discouraged'.
Now the word before us occurs in about three other places of the New Testament. We need consider only one here. It is found for instance in Luke 18:1 where Jesus tells a famous parable concerning prayer and says, 'Men ought always to pray and not to faint'. It is the same word.
The expositors, whose names we respect, give such comments as these: Calvin: 'it means we are not deficient in our duty'. Charles Hodge: 'we do not fail in the discharge of our duty'. Philip Hughes puts it like this: 'there is no place for faint-heartedness for him who ministers the gospel ... there can be no question of abandoning the struggle'. Geoffrey B. Wilson's comment is equally worthy to stand with those and is to the same effect precisely.
Let us then try to make some kind of definition as to what are we talking about when we refer to discouragement in the ministry. It is anything which slackens the pace, anything which weakens the zeal, anything which dislocates the joints of our soul or anything which retards our concern to spread the Word of God. Whatsoever dampens our spirit, whatsoever makes us wish we had never begun, whatsoever causes us to groan and sigh to God like Jeremiah and say, 'Oh Lord, thou hast deceived me and I was deceived'.
What did he mean by that? Surely it was something like this, putting it into modern parlance, 'When I was training in the London Seminary or when I was in South Wales or when I was in Edinburgh or at the BTI Glasgow or at some other Bible College somewhere, I hoped I would see God's blessing. I did not come into this work merely in order to be a stipend-lifter. I did not come into the work for the manse and garden or just for the car and salary. I longed to see some good. But I have now been here five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, and yet, O Lord, what have I seen? Why hast Thou sent me? Thou hast deceived me, O God. Thou gayest me to think that I had some gift for this work or that I might see some good upon earth. But O God, what have I done to glorify Thee?'
There may be men like that here at this conference. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility. And, of course, the ultimate effect of discouragement is that we are tempted to resign. And it sometimes happens that men who began with great zeal drop out. In this warfare many soldiers are lost. The ministry can be a 'Dead Sea' of shattered human hopes. It can be a sink of broken reputations and even the best of men who get through can feel many a day as if they are being dragged backwards through a thorn-hedge.
It cannot be an accident that some of the greatest servants whom God ever raised up in the church were men who had to be forced into the ministry. The great Augustine had to be waylaid and virtually forced into the pulpit. John Chrysostom had to be arrested physically and thrust into the work. Ambrose shrank from it and had to be pushed into it by popular vote and election. John Calvin had to have the fulminations of William Farel almost calling threatenings down upon his head before he would give up his thought of private retirement and his desire for ease and study. John Knox tells us about his own reaction to the ministerial call which came at St Andrews. The Lord's people pressed the work upon him and he burst out crying. He was for some days in his room and could not come out. So great was the sense of vocation which these men had. So great was the sacredness and responsibility of the work in their eyes.
Now then, if such outstanding men of God were so apprehensive, it surely follows that the work of the ministry in its essential nature involves unusual strain and care. If we therefore feel these things it is no small wonder. There is great difficulty inherent in the work. If the Apostle Paul could say, 'Who is sufficient for these things?' what are we that we should find it otherwise?
If we have never felt any of this, if we are total strangers to these deep thoughts of the ministry, it may be we do not know the ABC of gospel service. One sometimes finds that those preachers in our day who feel most discouragement are those who have least reason to do so. They are the very ones who have most grounds for encouragement. These are the worthy men who weep in secret precisely because they see farther spiritually than others. They realize the preciousness of souls more than others and they are most aware of the dishonour done to God by current errors.
That brings me back to the meaning of verses 1 and 16 of 2 Corinthians 4. Notwithstanding all that we feel and suffer we do not faint and we do not fail. It is true we may feel despondent at times. We suffer that 'Monday feeling'. We are perhaps ill at ease on some days of the week more than we are on others. We feel that dreadful incubus of care settling upon us. Some men do not sleep on a Saturday night and some do not sleep on the Lord's Day evening. Some when they come out of the pulpit wring their hands and wonder what have they done. The best of men, even the most outstanding like C. H. Spurgeon, have suffered like that.
However, says Paul, in spite of all that we feel and all that we do not feel, in spite of all that we see and all that we do not see, we do not faint. We do not give up. We have put our hand to the plough and we dare not look back.
That is the first point to see. But we must turn now to the second which consists of a list of the reasons why the Apostle can make such a glorious affirmation even in the teeth of every problem and discouragement of the Christian ministry.
The Apostolic Remedies
If we were Puritans no doubt we would call this second section 'the minister's medicine chest'. Here Paul brings forward comforting cordials (to use an old phrase). One by one he presents the remedies. Each verse of this chapter consists of a fresh thought. Perhaps Paul was talking to himself first of all. He experienced all our dark thoughts. He needed the medicine which he prescribed. Let us look then at some of these verses.
In verse 1 Paul states that 'we have received mercy'. Now there is the first reason why we do not give up. We have received mercy. There is room exegetically for wondering what the mercy is. Is it our election and calling to be Christians? Is it our call into the ministry? Whichever way we take it we cannot eliminate the other possibility. Of course without grace we have no right to enter the ministry at all. Since Paul is talking about the ministry specifically perhaps we should take the two thoughts together of effectual calling and ministerial calling. But salvation is fundamental and it comes first always.
What the apostle is giving us then is the reason why we do not faint. It is that God has set His affection upon us from everlasting. Whatever we are and whatever we feel as Christian preachers God has loved us with an everlasting love and that is a unique gift. When you think of the darkness and declension of this nation and of the western hemisphere and elsewhere in the world, it is wonderful to recall that God had laid His hands upon us! To think that we are not passed by with that just reprobation that we deserve! It is wonderful surely that we are not left to go our own way or to suffer the damnation which God is going to vent upon so many millions of sinners like ourselves.
It is a greater thing to be a Christian than to be a minister and we must never forget that. When our Lord Jesus Christ sent out His disciples they came back and brought a report of having power over demons, sickness and so forth. They were rejoicing and ecstatic at the great gifts that God had given to them. But Christ quietened their minds as if to say that their excitement was for the wrong reason. He said,
Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.Luke 10:20
It is a greater thing to be a Christian than to be called to the work of the ministry.
Nevertheless, it is an unspeakable privilege that God has not only saved us but called us to be fellow-workers in His own saving purpose. We must take that comfort to ourselves. Whatever we are we can say, 'Thank God that I know Christ! I know Him and I love Him and He has chosen me for this great and high calling. So I have comfort in spite of my ministerial problems'.
Then we come to the second verse: We 'have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the Word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God'.
The second argument and reason why we do not succumb to discouragement is given to us in this verse. It is that we are fundamentally sound in what we preach.
Now we are not suggesting that in every single detail right down to the ultimate issues and the fine print that we are one hundred percent perfect in all our theological teaching and instruction. That is not what is meant of any of us. It was true of Paul but not of us. No doubt there are many points we do not see and do not explain correctly. But in the main what we evangelicals preach to the people is surely the very truth of God. We can say that with good conscience.
Although we have many infirmities in our presentation and in our understanding, in our knowledge of Greek and Hebrew and the like, yet with a godly sincerity we yearn to tell the truth to the people. We are not like the ritualists who deceive with a false gospel. We are not like the liberals who take the Word of God and tear it to pieces. We want men to hear from us the whole counsel of God.
So Paul reminds us that those who preach the gospel of God are the only light in this world. They are the only salt of the earth. They are the only ones who are in a position to bring the people back to God. Who else will do it if we do not attempt to do it? If good and sound men do not preach there is nobody else qualified to do so. 'We do not', he says, 'mishandle the Word of God'. We may reassure ourselves that we are fundamentally and in the main preaching what God Almighty has revealed to be the only method of salvation for a dying world. And that is great comfort. So when we think of resigning or when the devil tells us we are of no use and should resign, we refuse to do so. If we do not, then who will teach our beloved nation the Word of God?
At this point it would be profitable to digress a little in order to mention two things of considerable importance in church circles. Quite recently there has been produced a leaflet for 'The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity-1987'. It was called Our Pilgrim Way. It contained a reaffirmation of faith on the part of ecumenicals who met together at Easter this year. The participants were of different persuasions, views and theologies.
They had a hymn and an act of reconciliation. This consisted of a small group of people of various ages and from different churches joining hands at the front of the church. That was the start of it. Then the leaflet went on like this: 'The group then say this, "Through God's gift of water and of the Holy Spirit we are reborn to eternal life in the new creation, united in baptism in the faith we have inherited from the apostles and in the witness to a divided world we seek together the unity that Christ wills for His church..."'. Left like that these words have surely the ring of baptismal regeneration about them, to say the least.
But that is a fair specimen of current ecumenical thought and belief. That is what men are having purveyed to them in the churches of this and other nations as Christ's gospel. Is it not therefore a comfort to us that small as the Reformed movement is at present nevertheless we do not mishandle the truth of God as so many do?
Then there is another matter which we must notice of a similar kind. It concerns the 1988 Lambeth Conference. All the Bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion are due to meet in 1988 to consider the final proposals of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. The upshot then would be that if they so decide, as the Bishops may very well decide, then the Church of Rome and the Church of England would come together with the hope of an incorporating union as soon as that was feasible. The Church of England would then come under the Papacy and the Anglican Church would evidently become part of the Roman Catholic Church. We do not hear much about that in the news. Where are the men who should be speaking out against these evils? Thankfully some evangelical Anglicans are. All credit to them, but there ought to be many more standing with them surely. We must notice these important issues which bear upon God's truth.
So Paul says to sound preachers, 'You are the ones who are preaching the truth and there is no basis whatever for discouragement'.
We turn to verses 3 and 4:
But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.
Perhaps we do not immediately appreciate why the Apostle says that. Surely he is giving reasons why he and we should be encouraged in the work of the ministry. How is he doing that? The thought we often have is that if we shout loud enough or persuade convincingly enough we are bound to see converts! Many of us were already Calvinists when we began our ministry. We fully believed in sovereignty with the head but did we not inwardly think that if only we could get at these people we would shatter their unbelief to pieces for them? We thought we could argue them out of their unbelief.
It is quite a humbling thing when God shows us that that is sheer immaturity. Only when God shines in them do men see the light. The god of this world blinds men. So we cannot expect anyone to be converted until God does the work, and we must not immaturely imagine that because we do not see all that we hope to see in the first few weeks or months that therefore we are disqualified for going on in the work. It may be that after fifteen or twenty years that golden day of God's providence may dawn in which suddenly we shall see more in a few months than we saw in all the years before.
This is a common enough thing in the history of the church. Endless illustrations of that might be found. So Paul gives us this as an encouragement. We may not see success overnight because Satan, the god of this world, has blinded men. But all of a sudden Almighty God can break in and do that wonderful thing that needs to be done by the Spirit of regeneration.
In verse 5 we pursue this argument a little further. Here Paul says,
We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake.
Here he is giving us another of the reasons why we should not be cast down. It is based on the fact that we do not bring any personal message of our own.
We did not come into this work with some cultic, weird or strangely-invented doctrines which we ourselves had concocted. No! we preach Jesus Christ the Lord, the all-glorious God-man. We preach that person's glory who is at the right hand of the Father. We preach Him in His offices as Prophet, Priest and King. We preach Him as He entered into human flesh, as He fulfilled the law on our behalf, as He atoned by the propitiation of the Cross for us. We preach Him as He died, rose and ascended. He is now clothed with infinite power to turn the hearts of men and nations back to Himself. That is the Christ we preach, says Paul, and he means that it would be incongruous and ludicrous for people preaching Christ in all the excellence of His Godhood as the image of the invisible God and as the firstborn of every creature to get downhearted or discouraged. We have so illustrious a theme for our preaching that we do not succumb and we must not succumb to discouragement.
In verse 6 he comes to another facet of this same theme:
For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
What he is arguing now at this point is a further basis for our encouragement. He is referring to that subjective work of grace in our hearts and he compares it to the first act of creation when God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light.
The same God has shined into our hearts with illumination and we are now a new man. He has revealed Christ His Son in us that we may preach Him. So then his argument surely is this, that if that is the case we must be greatly encouraged.
No mere man could ever make a minister. That is impossible. We believe in learning, scholarship, and books. We respect the great institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and. Princeton. We believe in the necessity for learning and for education. But the argument is that only God can make a true minister. Only God can give that evangelistic passion and concern which is illustrated, for instance, in the case of the Apostle Paul recorded in Acts 17 when he went to Athens and saw the state of society. The spirit of Paul was provoked within him when he saw the city wholly given over to idolatry. None but God can create that spirit in man which yearns to see the lost brought to Christ. None can teach us to appreciate what it means to be a sinner without Christ.
You remember perhaps the very touching incident in the life of William Chalmers Burns when he was in Glasgow in one of those busy streets like Sauchiehall Street or Argyll Street. This is very touching. He was walking down the street when he tells us he was suddenly overcome by seeing the crowds of people passing by heedless of eternity. He had to turn aside to some alley and was in silent meditation. His mother very nearly walked right up to him before he recognized her. He was overcome with serious concern for the lost.
Are we not like that sometimes? Perhaps you have gone to the High Street. You begin in a comfortable frame of mind. You say you will take a few minutes of relaxation — perfectly proper — but when you see the state of the town and see the people in the High Street, you have to turn aside. Your eyes are blinded with tears when you see the lost. You say inwardly, 'Would to God that I could reach these people with God's Word!' No man can create so deep a thought in the heart of a human being. It is the work of divine illumination. No man can make us appreciate the value of heaven or the dreadful nature of hell. It is illumination from God. Well, says Paul, how can we consider being discouraged if God has opened our eyes to see the value of spiritual and invisible things)? Our calling is to press on to the end knowing that what we do is labour which will not be in vain.
We shall look simply at one or two other verses in this chapter. We have already seen the nature of Paul's argument and it would be tedious to work every detail out right to the end of this chapter. But let us see two further points briefly before we move on to the application.
Consider verse 7:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us.
He is talking about this question, why we do not faint and he refers to the discrepancy between what we are and what we possess. The treasure, of course, is Christ and our knowledge of salvation. It is the message of eternal life. It is the one thing that can change the human heart and bring the sinner to be reconciled to God. Well then, he says, if that is what we have, we must appreciate that though it is a treasure it resides in an earthen vessel. Our bodies and minds are like an earthenware jug or jar.
This is a many-sided illustration. He refers, for instance, to our health. How many excellent men there are who are burdened in their very body and in their health! They feel that the work of the ministry will wear them down and they are ground between the upper and nether millstone in their very health.
Fancy a man like Whitefield that God should afflict him with asthma! What a strange providence, one would say. He was called on to preach so many times a week in Britain and America and God gave him asthma! Or consider Robert Murray M'Cheyne, that seraphic young man, how God sent on him tuberculosis so that he would cough and he would have to lie down and rest. He went once even to Palestine for more sunny weather and yet all the time God was driving him on. His soul was like a dynamo burning with zeal for the glory of God and yet the treasure was in an earthen vessel. Or one might refer to the case of Calvin who is said by the biographers to have been a walking hospital!
lain Murray's recent book about Jonathan Edwards reminds us that a great man may suffer humbling in his own congregation where he has served eminently. Is it not astonishing that a man who saw those revivals, a man the like of whom hardly ever walked the face of the earth, should yet be voted out by his own people? And then there is that detail of when he was trying to write his books. He did not have enough paper and so he had to stitch pieces together and even to use small scraps! One can still see them in libraries of America, apparently. We may have the paper but not the genius! He had the genius but he did not have the paper. Is it not strange? The treasure was in an earthen vessel.
Paul then goes on with the argument. Our last observation in connection with this passage concerns verses 17 and 18:
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.
These are grand and gloriously rich words. The supreme and ultimate comfort of the Christian ministry is not something we look for in this world but something which will bring its true reward in the world to come.
So then, the Apostle did not find the ministry easy. He had to keep talking to himself and propounding to himself reasons and motives and directives why he should go on. His ministry was attended with problems. He was shipwrecked three or four times.
Then, how many times he was in prison, stoned, beaten with rods, attacked by Jews and Gentiles! All these toils and trials were incidental to the work of his ministry. And yet, he says, 'we faint not'. Martin Luther has this somewhere in his writings, 'God led me on'. It is as if Luther was saying, 'I was like a horse and God put the blinkers on me so that I should not see what was ahead'. When he nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenburg in 1517 he had little conception of all the terrible convulsions that were about to occur. God was going to shake the heavens and the earth through the nailing of those theses to the door. 'God led me on', he said. He did not know what the ministry was going to mean. The apostle tells us the same thing here. 'Come what may, though the heavens should fall, though an earthquake should shake everything, I do not faint'. Having received mercy to believe and having received this ministry from God, we do not fail. We cannot afford to be unfaithful to the Saviour who loved us.
We turn now to suggest ways in which we may make particular application of these things to ourselves and to our day. First of all we must stop to notice that there is importance in the very method which the Apostle Paul uses. Paul is in a way telling us that discouragement is not a thing. That is not to suggest it is nothing. But it is not a thing in itself. Discouragement is not a thing but a perception. It is not a thing in itself. Rather it is the way we look at things that brings discouragement. It is a relative thing. It has no objectivity.
You cannot quantify such a thing as discouragement. It is rather like pain. You hear some well-meaning people who talk about 'all the pain in the world'. They probably are thinking of the poor animals that are taken for vivisection and all the people that suffer pain. But can one really quantify pain in that way when there is no one to suffer it? It is a nonentity. The greatest amount of pain in the world is the pain that any one person is suffering. C. S. Lewis makes that point in one of his books. It is a nothing unless there is a conscious sentient rational being to feel it. So it is with discouragement. You cannot say there is so much discouragement in Britain today. The greatest discouragement there is is simply that which is in any one man. It is not a thing but a perception.
The Americans have coined a very useful word 'to reify'. That means to make an abstraction sound as if it were a concrete thing. That is what one can do when one talks about discouragement. Really, there may be nothing at all objectively to discourage you in the work of the ministry which God has given you. But it all depends on the way you look at it. So the remedy for discouragement is to look at it in a different way and from a different perspective. The secret is to change our orientation to what we are doing.
Now let us prove that this must be correct. There are several proofs. The first one is this. The very same situation in the ministry may discourage one man, and encourage another! This shows that discouragement is in the mind of the person who feels it and not in the situation which they are looking at.
We might refer again to Scotland. In Edinburgh years ago in the mid-19th Century, there occurred an incident like this. On George IV Bridge, which overlooked a slum area, there stood a young minister recently called from a country congregation where perhaps there had been valleys and mountains. But now he was faced with a depressing area in Edinburgh. The young man felt a tremendous blanket of darkness coming over him as he viewed the dreadful tenements and the squalor of their inhabitants. Just then he felt the grip of a hand on his shoulder. He turned round to see the great Dr Thomas Chalmers who was there to encourage him in some such words as, 'A capital charge, young man, a capital charge, an excellent place to begin'. It is so much a matter of how we look at the situation. The problem is not 'out there' but in our own attitudes.
The second reason for believing that discouragement is subjective and not objective is this. Some people are discouraged who ought to be encouraged and some encouraged in their situations who ought to be discouraged. That is not meant to be ungenerous. But this is a fact and it becomes very clear if we look at two churches in the Book of Revelation, the church of Philadelphia and that of Laodicea.
The Philadelphian church, we are told by Christ, had but a little strength. No doubt they were comparatively small and poor, but yet Christ says to them they were praiseworthy. Then He turns to the minister of the Laodicean church and we know very well what His verdict is there. They were rich and increased with goods and thought they had need of nothing. Yet they were really only lukewarm, blind and naked. Christ was ready to spew them out altogether. There was a sense of encouragement in the second situation where there should have been none. Congratulating themselves that all was well, they looked only at things on the surface. Perhaps they had impressive spiritual gifts. People were wealthy and contributed to the work, no doubt. They were a fashionable church.
The point Christ is making is clear to us all. His assessment depends on the measure of our Christian love, seriousness and spirituality. Some ministers compromise and lower the standards by receiving people to the membership who have no business to be members and by receiving people into office who have no gifts and no suitability for that work. By turning a blind eye to the rottenness that may be here and there and everywhere they convince themselves that all is well. Of course, they have wonderful encouragement! The statistics go up to headquarters and people say, 'That is a wonderful congregation. Look at the encouragement!' But all the time they are building with wood and hay and stubble.
Then again there are other men and they are faithful to the Word of God and yet they sigh and groan night and day because their faithfulness costs them dear. And yet God says to such people, 'Thou hast been faithful in a very little. Well done'. That is the man, surely, who should feel some encouragement, even though outwardly there may appear to be so much to break his heart. Encouragement is therefore related to the measure of our faith and expectation. Also, as Dr Lloyd-Jones would have reminded us, even a man's temperament comes into this. Some men are naturally extroverts. Some are pessimistic. They are inclined to look more gloomily upon the work than those who have a more sanguine temperament.
The devil tries, therefore, to get us always to see our work in a false light. This is his trade and this is his craft, to present our work to us in a false light so as to leave us discouraged. When we see our work in a true light, there is no cause for discouragement. But the craft of the devil is to get us to see our work in a false light.
Let us borrow a homely illustration. Suppose one goes to the shops with one's wife to buy a coat for her. What she does is to check the colour. The light in the shop is artificial. So she takes the coat to the door and looks at it in the daylight. In artificial light it appears to be the right shade. But that was because of the false light.
That is how the devil deceives us surely. Perhaps we are toiling away over our Puritans, reading Owen and Goodwin, Sibbes and Manton, Calvin and the other great books. Then, perhaps for physical reasons (lack of exercise, lack of sleep, or whatever it may be) everything suddenly becomes bilious in our minds. Our work seems to turn sour and we write everything in B flat minor We become depressed without any just cause! What has the devil done? He has shown us all our work in a false light and has convinced us that our work is worthless.
We must therefore always carry with us this rule that in the ministry nothing is as it seems to be. That is a golden rule.
At this point we ought to mention certain of the syndromes which the devil can bring the minister into.
Syndromes of Discouragement
The first syndrome of discouragement that the devil is so masterful at using from generation to generation is this — inferiority complex. 'You haven't got a degree, you haven't got a BD, you're not competent, you have very little Greek, no Hebrew, you couldn't read five words of Latin, who are you to be in the ministry?' This can be a real source of discouragement. The devil does not remind us that many eminent servants of God had small Greek, no Hebrew, no Latin. Of course, if we can, let us learn these things. But they are not one hundred percent indispensable. Men may do great work who never had much Greek, Hebrew or Latin. A Puritan writer once wittily said that Christ was crucified under Hebrew, Greek and Latin! Even Shakespeare only had a smattering. Yet he seems to have done well enough.
The second syndrome is this, the odious comparison. How many of us have suffered from this! In the ministry we must always write the script ourselves, so to speak. We must not let the script be written for us by the devil. Let the input be from our own minds and not from without, because the input we get from there will be a false light. In the gospel ministry we need to beware of the odious comparison. You have been reading about Spurgeon, Whitefield and some other great man. When you get to page 150 you begin to despair, saying, 'I have never seen anything like what this man saw. Why should I go on? I'm not worthy of the money I draw. I'm a stipend-lifter. I don't deserve to live in this manse, wasting these people's time. I will never be a man like that'. So you set yourself over against a Spurgeon or whoever it is.
But there precisely we have the odious comparison. The answer to this problem is that God made us to be what we are. We are all individuals. God had no intention of our being little Spurgeons, or miniatures of anyone else. We are called to be the man we are and to be the best we can be in that capacity. But you see how Satan casts on us this false light. Oh, how we suffer! We could wish that God had given us the genius of these other men. But, we have not got it. We may never get it and yet we must do what we can.
The third of these syndromes is that of the spurious ideal. Satan comes at us like this and he says, 'Now if you were what you claim to be, a real minister of the gospel, then you would have seen hundreds converted by now, or you would have seen some other thing. Instead you have not seen any of those things and so you can't be called by God'. The spurious ideal! Of course, we would love to see great blessing and we ought always to keep our expectations high.
But perhaps God has that for us tomorrow rather than today. David Brainerd, William Carey and many others laboured on in spite of colossal discouragement. Outwardly they saw little for a long time. Then all of a sudden in some cases the fire fell.
We must come now to our final conclusion. There is perhaps some reason for believing that the Reformed cause is passing through an important phase. Many of us when the reprint work began, had glorious visions of truth and hopes of revival. We saw things which exhilarated us. Truth became powerful to us and we saw not simply the hope of the conversion of this or that congregation but we saw the hope of a whole nation and generation being brought to God. There is perhaps therefore a special danger of discouragement for us in that we have not seen the revival we had hoped for.
Our final concern, therefore, will be with our particular discouragement and indeed our disappointment that the hoped-for revival has not taken place.
How are we to understand the situation today? This is perhaps only a subjective view. But may we not be so bold as to suggest that we today are like men in the eye of a storm? We are in between two mighty forces, as it were. On the one hand we see the promises of God and we recall what He has done in the past. Our souls are thrilled when we read about the former glorious revivals in America, England and Scotland and other places. Once you have caught that excitement you can never stop praying for it to happen again! The hope is ever with you. You eat it, drink it, sleep it, breathe it, live for it. That is what you want above all on earth. You see nothing more clearly than that one thing.
On the other hand, when you turn from God's promise to His providence, we have to say there is an extraordinary lack of apparent conformity between these two. The promise is glorious but where is the fulfilment? Perhaps we should say that God, at such a time as this, is squeezing us between the two arms of a vice. Promise and providence squeeze the souls of His people.
May it not, therefore, be our special calling to agonize with God in special prayer for the fulfilment of His promise? O! that He might make mighty and powerful in this generation His glorious gospel! O! that He would exalt Jesus Christ our Lord! O! that He would come down.
How can we rest until God makes His own truth glorious? When He does that all our discouragement will fade away forever. May He hasten that day in His own time!