“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” James 1:2
I have a vivid memory of a talented friend reading this passage from the book of James in the Ridley College chapel when we were both bright-eyed young students. He put on a wonderfully joyous tone for that sober reading. Yes, it was a bit of hammed-up comedy. It got the laughs. Years later, still in ministry but broken, in tears, and suffering from shingles, he was only just clinging on to the truth of those eternal words. Gospel leadership entails deep suffering.
Stress, suffering, and opposition come from many quarters. In the minority world context, it’s mainly “friendly fire”, which is of course a complete misnomer. While Archbishop Ben and his wife Gloria Kwashi know all about persecution from Muslims and pagans in the Diocese of Jos in northern Nigeria, in the minority world we are more likely to experience white-anting from within and back-stabbing from the back pew. Or it might come from within our own ministry teams. When is something “bullying” as opposed to “firm supervision”? It is stressful enough to spend thousands of dollars on a car, only to discover that it’s a lemon—how much more stressful it is when you’re expending budget on an underperforming staff member. And what about the expectations of all those stakeholders?
There are of course two guaranteed ways of avoiding all of this pain: 1. Give in. 2. Stop caring.
But neither of these are faithful options for the gospel leader. So, all who want to lead a godly life in ministry leadership will experience stress, suffering and opposition. My dear sisters and brothers, rejoice! Count it pure joy. Why? I offer five reasons.
Count it all joy because it is a sign that the Lord continues to count us worthy not just to believe in him, but also to suffer for him (Phil 1:29). That God is still choosing to use me with all my weaknesses, my stresses, and my pains is a remarkable thing. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to use someone more talented? How about Michael or Gabriel? But the Lord chooses jars of clay to show off his immense grace and mercy and power—fragile and cracked pots to hold and to proclaim his wonderful news, and even to lead other cracked pots. What a privilege and joy! Our worth comes not from our strength, power, or ability, but from the fact that our Father continues to call us daughters and sons and to choose to use us, yes even us with all our weakness and propensity to sin. What a privilege!
Count it all joy because our pain causes us to pause. And pausing ought to cause us to pray. Pain, pause, pray. I’m always more prayerful when I’ve got the megaphone of pain in my ear. Why Lord? How long, O Lord? Won’t you do something about this Lord? Such prayer is designed by God to generate persevering faith. When the indwelling Holy Spirit drives me to prayer instead of despair God grows in my faith, empathy, understanding, perseverance, forbearance, a deeper trust in his designs… and yes, joy to be counted worthy to struggle for the kingdom. When God delays in giving me the swift answers and outcomes I desire, he’s actually gifting me with the space to contemplate grace and to grow in prayerfulness, patience, and trust, and in all the other ways he wants me to grow through this suffering. What joy at the wisdom and grace of my loving Father!
Count it all joy because these pressures can make us humble. This isn’t automatic— they can just as easily make us bitter, disillusioned and vengeful. But under God, our difficulties force us to throw ourselves upon his power and sovereignty. It is his church and world, not ours. He has the power to change things and make all things new and right, not us. We are but his slaves. A wise mentor gave me this daily prayer to use: “Lord, I am your slave.” Try praying that ten times every morning. It puts me in my place and teaches me to be humble in the face of the temptation to assert my worldly power and smarts to force the outcome that I want. I, I, I. Me, me, me. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Lord, I am your slave. And in your service there is fullness of joy serving a perfectly wise, kind, powerful and able master. ”Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” (Job 13:15).
Count it all joy because stresses about those we lead will grow our empathy and compassion. As a schoolboy leader, I used to yell a lot. Partly because teenage boys are deaf, and partly because in my school I was taught the controlled use of anger to motivate others. Nowadays, I’m more likely to have silence and patient listening as my automated response. I like to think I’m growing more like Jesus in this, which is indeed a joy and grace-gift of God! When confronted with difficulties in his ministry, Jesus invariably displayed empathy and deep compassion. He would ask searching questions instead of asserting his (correct) view. He prioritised the person over the presenting issue—unless you were a Pharisee. Instead of getting angry or upset, I am habituating my first response to be asking God what he is trying to teach me through difficulties and opposition, and how he is trying to grow me more into the likeness of his suffering Son. I embrace the struggle because it is transforming me ever more into the image of Christ who himself embraced pain with the words, “Not my will, but yours be done.” At the end of my leadership journey, I want to be found to be even more like Christ who is my life and my joy. What I may or may not have achieved by dint of my personality and effort will be irrelevant.
Count it all joy because in gospel leadership our pain is both real and redemptive. When we contemplate the Cross of Christ we see with absolute clarity the reality of pain, struggle, and sin. The gore and ugliness of the Cross is a constant reminder that sin and struggle this side of eternity are real and unpleasant, especially when we are single-minded in our pursuit of the priorities of the kingdom. We embrace it, as Christ embraced the Cross.
But the empty Cross reminds us that Christ has conquered and redeemed. There is joy in the journey because we know how the story ends. We know that God chooses the weak and foolish things of the world to confound and shame the wise and strong. This is true of Christ on the Cross, and it is also true of the ministers of Christ in the conduct of their lives and ministries here and now. God specialises in using his suffering saints to shine as lights in the world. Once we were used as Roman torches®literally. “See how they die”, onlookers proclaimed as Christians burned. We died well, “euthanatos”, with praise to Christ and joy on our lips. That, and our good works in his name, shook the mighty Roman Empire and their Eternal City. How might our sufferings today be redeemed by God to shine a light in our generation and world?
The Rev’d Dr Wei-Han Kuan
Executive Director, CMS
“…all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Tim 3:12
“…we also glory in our sufferings…” Romans 5:3
“…I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again…” 2 Cor 11:23
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1940), 91.