It was not the most promising day. Fifty-nine degrees, light rain, and gusty winds were not exactly ideal for my daily bike ride. Yet, I dutifully hopped on my road bike and made my way through the scenic roads of Whatcom County.

I found myself praying that day for a trusted mentor who had faithfully served in ministry for nearly forty years, eleven of which we served together in the same foxhole. He recently planted the church of his dreams and was shepherding people, proclaiming the truth of God’s Word, and enjoying a harvest; all prompted and produced by the Holy Spirit. As I prayed for my friend, I found myself wondering if I would ever reach such a pinnacle. I wondered if I would ever reach a place where I was actually content in ministry. Would I ever enjoy the same kind of fruitfulness that my friend was experiencing?

Then a thought interrupted my prayer and ran sharply through my mind – or should I say, a thought ripped through my heart like a bolt of lightning: The future is now! In other words, my initial thoughts about reaching the “pinnacle of ministry success” were misguided at best. My suspicion is that I am not alone. Young seminarians dream of pastoring a thriving mega-church. They long to reach the nations for Christ and experience revival that harken back to the days of the Great Awakening. But sometimes dreams are cut short, plans are set aside, and the ideal future disappears. Sometimes the plans of God are different than what we aspire to.

As I continued to ride, I reflected over my ministry years, which began over twenty-five years ago in 1991. Over the course of those years, people trusted in Christ for salvation; disciples were nurtured, taught, and cultivated. Many hours were spent in biblical counseling. Sermons were preached. Classes were taught. Lives were transformed. Missionaries were sent.

Anyone who has served in pastoral ministry realizes that some seasons are filled with disappointment. They understand the brutal reality of pain and persecution, which is tied to this noble cause. Looking back, I have been slandered and ridiculed. Some have accused me of being “heavy handed.” Others lament a leadership style which is too soft. I have been mocked for quoting the Puritans and maligned for preaching about the wrath of God. One critic even referred to me as a “tyrant king!” To say that pastoral ministry is a daunting assignment misses the mark. Indeed, to admit that pastoral ministry is overwhelming and exhausting work is a massive understatement.

Stinging accusation and criticism prompt some pastors to seek greener pastures. Some of these bruised men look for a new church or ministry. Others abandon the ministry entirely. Once the damage is done, though, these wounded warriors will never be the same, usually with a family in tow and a suitcase filled with painful memories.

The Apostle Paul understood the pain and persecution of ministry. And his pain makes my story look like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood! After recounting his experience of being imprisoned and essentially having the snot kicked out of him, he continues to unfold his experience in ministry:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Cor. 11:24–27, ESV).

The Apostle not only faced these physical dangers; he also experienced the unceasing pressure and “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). The burden that Paul bore on behalf of the church was almost unbearable!

Four years later, his situation has not improved. For Paul finds himself in a Roman prison cell. Yet, strangely he does not focus on his dire predicament. He does not lament his surroundings. He does not focus on the persecution. Rather, he lives with a radically God-centered worldview. Paul’s paradigm was filled with hope; it overflowed with holy expectancy; it was informed by biblical truth.

Paul understood that the future is now. He writes, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11). The Greek word, aútárkeis which is translated content, means “having enough.” It means to be “satisfied with one’s lot in life.” If anyone had a reason to be disappointed with the turn of events in his life, it was certainly Paul. Yet, he is content. He is satisfied with his lot in life. He recognizes that the future is now.

Paul continues, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13).

Paul modeled what it meant to live with a Godward perspective. Notice two qualities in particular; qualities that help us to stay properly grounded and remind us that the future is now.

A Commitment to Stand Firm

Paul’s commitment to stand firm explodes in his letter to the Philippian believers: “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Phil. 4:1, ESV). And verses 2-6 present a framework for this unflinching stance.

Paul urges the believers in Philippi to stand together in harmony (vv. 2-3). He encourages them to stand together in joy (v. 4) John MacArthur adds, “Joy is not a feeling; it is the deep-down confidence that God is in control of everything for the believers good and His own glory, and thus all is well no matter what the circumstances.”[1] This confidence in God’s sovereign control over all things served as a sort of divine filter that governed Paul’s life, even in the midst of persecution.

But Paul also calls the saints to stand together in graciousness (v. 5). He calls them to stand together in faith (v. 6a). “Do not be anxious about anything,” says the apostle. While he never served as a pastor, C.S. Lewis experienced pain in his personal life and ministry. He writes about an anxiety that “gnaws like fire and loneliness that spreads out like a desert and the heartbreaking routine of monotonous misery” and the “dull aches that blacken our whole landscape or sudden nauseating pains that knock a man’s heart out at one blow … If I knew a way of escape I would crawl through the sewers to find it.”[2] Paul’s plea, then, is to stand together in faith.

Paul also called the believers to stand together in prayer (v. 6b). Instead of being anxious, we are to present every need to God in prayer with thanksgiving. This is to be the habit of our lives. John Bunyan observes, “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”[3] So when tragedy strikes, we pray. When grief overwhelms us, we pray. When fear invades our souls, we pray. When the stranglehold of anxiety threatens to squeeze the life out of us, we pray.

A Commitment to Persevere

Paul not only makes a commitment to stand firm; he makes a commitment to persevere. He instructs the believers in Galatia, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9, NIV). The word translated weary means “to lose enthusiasm; to become discouraged or disheartened.” He does not write from the safe confines of an ivory tower. He understands the discouragement that ministry can bring. But he challenges Christ-followers to persevere, especially in the face of adversity.

But he continues by telling believers that they will reap a bountiful harvest if they “do not give up.” The implication is that a pastor or Christian worker is “fatigued” or “out of breath.” The same word appears in 2 Thessalonians 3:13. Paul writes, “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.”

William Carey traveled to India in 1793 with the dream of preaching Jesus Christ to people who had never heard the gospel. He preached for seven years and never saw anyone repent of their sins. Yet, he continued to hope in God. He never gave up. He persevered.

On December 28, 1800, Carey baptized his first Hindu convert in the Ganges River. An eyewitness who saw this man delivered from the stranglehold of paganism wrote in his diary, “Ye gods of stone and clay, did ye not tremble when in the Triune Name one soul shook you from his feet and dust?” The first conversion was the beginning of a massive harvest – all because Carey refused to give up. William Carey persevered and so must we.

The Future is Now

Pastoral ministry is not for the faint of heart. Pastors are charged to feed, lead, and protect the flock. There will be days filled with the joy of fruit-filled ministry; days, where lives are transformed by the Spirit of God who takes up residence in the hearts of his people. But some days will be like that blustery fall day on the windy roads of Whatcom County. There will be days of adversity. There will be days of pain and persecution. There will be days of false accusation and betrayal.

We must resist the temptation to seek greener pastures elsewhere. We, like Paul the apostle must stand firm and persevere. We must learn to be content in every situation and trust that God will work for us as we wait for him (Isa. 64:4).

In 2007, I was riveted by a sermon preached at Grace Community Church by Dr. Steven J. Lawson. He admonished every man in the sanctuary, “Now is the time for the strongest men, to preach the strongest message, in the context of the strongest ministry.” After the message, I asked Dr. Lawson to pen those words in the front of my Bible. As I make my way into the pulpit each Sunday to proclaim the truth of God’s Word, my eyes always stare intently at the words inscribed in my Bible by Dr. Lawson. These powerful words remind me that the future is now.

Oh, that expositors would stand together and be emboldened by the truth and encouraged to stand firm and persevere. May they outlast their enemies. May they stand strong, even in the midst of their persecutors. May they endure all things for the good of the church and the glory of God. May these men desire nothing but the commendation of the sovereign Savior who strengthens them for every task. Indeed, the future is now!

[1]      John F. MacArthur, Philippians (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001), 273.

[2]      C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1940), 83.

[3]      John Bunyan, Prayer (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1662), 13.