So what do we do with this kind of discouragement? How do we keep on ministering through it? And how do we rejoice in the midst of it, as Paul calls us to do in passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:16? In answering these questions and dealing with my own discouragements, I have found help from several passages that remind me of the tremendous privileges that God has given me. He has not given me (or you either) the basically fruitless ministry that He gave to the prophet Isaiah, whose ministry was to be characterized by hardening the hearts of the people and blinding their eyes so that they would not turn to the Lord (Isaiah 6:9-10). Praise God that He has given us some visible fruit to encourage us in our labors. Even if it is less than others see, it is still more than Isaiah saw in his lifetime.
I oftentimes tell people that ministry is discouragement. My point, in saying this, is not to suggest that ministry is only and always discouraging. There are, to be sure, times of great encouragement and blessing in ministry. Praise God that it is so! There are times when we know that God is evidently using us, when we see Him visibly blessing our labors or when we see people growing in their faith like never before. There are times when we serve and see a great deal of visible fruit. My point is not to deny or make light of any of these things. My point is simply to say that ministry forces us to face discouragement, to learn to minister through it and even to rejoice in it–and not just once or twice but continually over the course of our lives. Whatever else we may face in ministry, we can be assured that we will face discouragement. It is a constant. And that is why I oftentimes say that ministry is discouragement.
Sometimes discouragement in ministry comes from outward opposition. Trials and tribulations, losses and crosses, and mistreatment and persecution can definitely catch us by surprise and wear us down, to be sure. But I have found that the far greater problem comes not from the outward opposition but from one of two kinds of inward opposition. On the one hand, many of us–probably all of us–struggle with being content with the person God has made us to be. We don’t like ourselves or our gifts and abilities. We want a different set of gifts than the one God has given us, or we want the gifts that we have in greater quantities and proportions than God has given us. If we are a 1-talent preacher (à la Matthew 25:14-30), for example, we want to be a 2-talent preacher instead; and if we are a 2-talent preacher, we want to be a 5-talent preacher instead. And so it goes. We struggle with ourselves, with being the people God has made us to be.
I once heard John Piper say in one of his biographical studies that we are all our own greatest trials; and, I think that is unquestionably true. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:10 just may be the most difficult words to say about ourselves in the whole of the Bible: “By the grace of God I am what I am.” Far too often we want someone else’s gifts and someone else’s life and ministry. We struggle believing 1 Corinthians 15:10, and, as a result, we struggle with discouragement in our ministries.
On the other hand, many of us–again, probably all of us–also struggle with our own perceptions of our usefulness in ministry. No matter how gifted we are, we tend to lose sight of the big picture of what God is doing in and through us. We lose sight of it in the messy details of every day ministry–the marriage breakups, the family dysfunction, the destructive consequences of addiction and abuse, and the difficulties of ongoing conflict and strife. This leads inevitably to discouragement. We do not see what the Lord is doing through the mess of life and ministry. We do not perceive that He is doing much of anything with all our sacrifices and investments of energy and time.Sometimes this struggle is the greatest for those who are the most gifted among us.