Instability in Ministry
Back in 2009, our family landed on the mission field—exactly one week after another family from our team arrived. In that first year, we became quick friends. Ever since, though, our lives have been worlds apart. They’ve experienced constant upheaval and uprooting. Their first business was shuttered by the government. The husband was arrested, the family deported. In the last dozen years, they’ve lived in six different cities and three different countries. Their family has endured team conflict and leadership turnover. To top it off, they hurriedly left their most recent country of service during a global pandemic.
You can imagine, then, the sorts of issues at the forefront of their minds: Where is God leading us? What does he expect of us? How do we maintain stability in our place of ministry and our personal faith? What’s to come of the relationships and churches we’ve left behind?
Not surprisingly, the apostle Paul faced similar issues, in addition to people questioning him for his constant suffering and changing itinerary, and while he wrestled with those worries and many more, Paul had another concern that relativized all others. What we learn from his Corinthian correspondence—letters where Paul bears his heart for all to see (2 Cor. 6:11)—is that he was striving to receive God’s commendation (2 Cor. 10:18). It didn’t matter how he or others evaluated his ministry because Paul was a missionary consumed by God’s approval (1 Cor. 4:3–5).
Forsaking the Approval of Others
One of the overlooked sufferings of a missionary is that of constantly being on the move. Our paths are regularly redirected. Our lives endlessly uprooted. We start out for one city only to end in another. We feel led to one country only to be given a different assignment. We pray about reaching one people group only to be denied residency among them. We learn one language only to need a different dialect. We start a business only to lose permits. We find the perfect apartment only to have our lease expire. We finally settle into effective ministry only to struggle with health problems. We plan our ways only to have God direct our steps.
Yes, this is God’s doing. Changing places or plans isn’t necessarily a sign of missionary failure. To be sure, we shouldn’t make excuses for a lack of preparedness. Missionaries too easily play the “flexibility” card to justify inadequate planning or reckless practice. However, what many Westerners struggle to realize is that everyday life in much of the world is still entirely unpredictable. Anything from riots to rabies can overturn a month’s worth of preparation in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, when someone is, like Paul, led by the Spirit and encountering opposition, their travels won’t necessarily look like the optimized route provided by a navigation app.
The Corinthians couldn’t understand this. They were frustrated that Paul reneged on his prior plans to visit them (2 Cor. 1:15–17). This was one reason why they began to question his reliability. Paul seemed fickle. And his sufferings made him look weak. After he left Corinth, Paul’s approval ratings dropped significantly. In later correspondence, he was forced to defend himself, insisting that his suffering authenticated the gospel and his willingness to change plans confirmed his credibility.
Paul earnestly wanted the Corinthians to understand this and to commend his ministry (2 Cor. 12:11), yet he refused to pursue their approval—or that of any human judge—to verify the worth of his work (1 Cor. 4:3–5). The Corinthians’ triumphalist categories of success and their worldly ways of evaluating his mission held no power over him. Instead, Paul was most concerned with the affirmation and commendation of God. Ultimately, he couldn’t worry himself with receiving the Corinthians’ praise. As Paul wrote elsewhere, if he were trying to please people, he would forfeit his service to Christ (Gal. 1:10; cf. 1 Thess. 2:4).
Seeking God’s Approval
Now, I doubt most missionaries consider pleasing people or receiving their praise as cracking the top ten dangers in their ministry. Instead, we’re generally concerned with risks more obvious and ominous, such as the lack of access to quality medical care, slumping financial support, difficulty maintaining residency, limited educational resources, challenges working with national partners, and disunity among expat workers. All of those—not to mention the possibilities of persecution, disease, political unrest, and natural disasters—combine to fill our minds with what truly threatens our ministry.
But if we granted, for a moment, that receiving God’s affirmation is of critical concern and one of the highest motivations for our mission, then wouldn’t we consider the antithetical desire for others’ approval to be a potential snare for Christian ministers? If the greatest missionary of all time found this temptation hazardous, shouldn’t we be alert to its perils?
Many missionaries today, oblivious to this threat, are caught unawares when it comes to trying to please others. In some cases, we’ve tweaked the gospel to make it more appealing. We’ve tampered with God’s word to make it more acceptable. We’ve connected Christ to opportunities for money and employment or attracted others through offers of goods and services. We’ve promoted a kind of belief that doesn’t come with a cost; we’ve encouraged a Christ-following that doesn’t expect an others-leaving. We’ve sometimes surrendered our witness and personal integrity for the sake of a business platform, governmental recognition, and long-term presence.
We do all this and more, thinking we’re serving Christ and his gospel. Such actions, however, are symptomatic of seeking approval from others instead of from God. Sadly, if we don’t actively pursue God’s commendation, we may not find it.
God’s Approval Is Our Guide
What I’ve found is that Christians rarely reflect at length on Paul’s desire for reward and approval from God. We also miss how the Bible supplies those same motivations to all church leaders (2 Tim. 2:3–10, 15; 1 Pet. 5:1–4). Subsequently, we rarely consider how this overarching motivation for honor and recognition on the last day can play a significant role in guiding our ministry efforts—just as they shaped Paul’s missionary approach.
Changing places or plans isn’t necessarily a sign of missionary failure.
For example, the hope of a future reward led Paul to sow the gospel (1 Cor. 3:8, 14). He was also willing to make financial sacrifices to increase his boast on the final day (1 Cor. 9:15–18). Paul even invited the Corinthians to support his work through prayer and generous giving, knowing they would share in his reward and reap the thanksgiving of others (2 Cor. 1:11; 9:11–12). In fact, his diligence to repeatedly write, visit, encourage, rebuke, and instruct the Corinthians was so that, on the last day, they would give thanks for and boast in him, just as he would them (2 Cor. 1:14). Paul didn’t merely see the last day as an opportunity to receive God’s praise (2 Cor. 10:18), but also to have others rejoice in him.
Paul says this hope of future glory is what enabled him to endure overwhelming hardship (2 Cor. 4:17). Since he believed in the resurrection—and the possibility for increased recognition in Christ’s presence—Paul boldly spoke the gospel in the face of opposition (2 Cor. 4:13–15). When others didn’t receive him or believe his gospel, Paul didn’t lose heart or tamper with God’s word. (2 Cor. 4:1–2, 16–17). Instead, he rested in the Spirit’s presence, the down payment of his future inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22).
However, Paul didn’t view the final day solely as an opportunity for honor. Since he also believed in the possibility of shame, he was careful and self-controlled as he ran the race, not wanting to be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). As a skilled builder, he didn’t want to use shoddy materials and have his work go up in smoke (1 Cor. 3:8, 15). The fear of one day standing before the judgment seat is what compelled him to persuade others with the gospel (2 Cor. 5:10–11). Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, Paul made it his aim to please God (2 Cor. 5:9).
Through his correspondence with the Corinthians, we have a clear window into Paul’s missionary motivation. We know what deeply moved him. It was a vision of the final day and his desire for God’s approval. In his ministry, Paul was constantly striving for future glory, for the joy of seeing God’s pleasure and hearing his praise in the presence of many witnesses. Outside the grace of the cross and the glory of God, it’s hard to imagine another impulse so powerful in the apostle’s life. The profound hope of receiving God’s affirmation is what guided his missionary ambition. I believe it can do the same for us today, wherever Christ’s mission takes us.
Elliot Clark is the author of Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivations of Paul.
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