When in Doubt, Don’t Quit

It may be harder to be happy in life and ministry than it’s ever been.

From our earliest days, we have lived in an echo chamber, to varying degrees, of the voices of self-actualization. You can do whatever you set your mind to. Pursue your dreams. Find your passion — and make it profitable.

The voices speak in every sector of society, in casual conversation, in books and articles, on screens big and small, and sadly even in some quarters of the church. Work-life, and even ministry initiatives, become about peeling the onion of your heart to locate your passion, and then foist it on the world. The voices aren’t new to the Millennial generation, but the volume did perhaps come to fever pitch in the mouths of our Boomer parents and teachers.

Such quiet and all-pervasive expectations destine us to be discontent in the work and ministry we already have, as we dream idealistically about the role we want.

Called to Meet Needs

The very nature of the Christian gospel, however, would have us orient on work-life and ministry in strikingly different terms.

Rather, than first putting a finger on our own passions, often discerned in isolation, and then foisting it onto the world, we learn to find our vocational satisfaction in meeting the real-life needs of others. Ministry is not about self-actualization, but self-sacrifice in the service of others. The joy of ministry comes in helping others precisely where they need it, not in convincing them to buy what we personally find most satisfying to sell.

“Ministry is not about self-actualization, but self-sacrifice in the service of others.”

Which means a particular ministry, whatever it is — whether in the home or at the marketplace or on the college campus or in the church — is not achieved, but received. It is not from you, but from God. We don’t produce the circumstances in which our labors are needed, but in God’s good providence, he gives us his circumstances. Our calling is to see needs and meet them, and find satisfaction in fulfilling that God-given calling.

The backward assumptions of modern society have made us into what likely is the flightiest generation in the history of the world. In the midst of this confusion, the apostle Paul’s enigmatic charge to a first-century Colossian has surprising relevance.

Say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:17)

Ministry Meets Real Needs

Much ink has been spilled speculating what “ministry” it is Paul is referring to, but the surest thing we can say is that we don’t know. “All that we can conclude is that Archippus had been given a particular task related to his ministry, but what that task was — preaching? teaching young converts? — we simply cannot know” (Doug Moo, Colossians, 352). And there is a certain beauty to that. In this inspired epistle, God means for this straightforward charge to land not only on Archippus, but on all of us who have felt the temptation to abandon some difficult ministry before it was time.

It is important to observe that, whatever the ministry is, it was “received” — “fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.” The risen Christ himself, through providence and the confirmation of his people (whether Paul himself or simply the Colossian church), and through nurturing a corresponding aspiration in Archippus’s heart, gave this ministry. It didn’t originate with Archippus, but outside of him, in the needs of others and the grace of God.

Ministry Encounters Real Obstacles

What the charge to “fulfill the ministry” implies, then, is that Archippus has encountered some obstacle (or obstacles). Again, what these barriers are we don’t know — and it is perhaps better that we don’t, so that we draw the line to ourselves. When Christ gives us a particular ministry to fulfill, he emphatically does not promise that it will come easy. In fact, it is often precisely the opposite. You might even say that one way, among others, to confirm the genuineness of some specific calling is that genuine obstacles emerge.

Any ministry truly received from the nail-scarred hands of Christ will have its ups and downs. Every work in him worth doing in a fallen and sin-sick world, where the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, will encounter difficulties. Anything really worth doing will meet real frustration and friction.

See That You Fulfill Your Call

With resistance like this, though, Paul doesn’t encourage Archippus to seek out greener pastures, to actualize his ministry self in something easier and more “life-giving.” Yes, a time may come to transition, when his particular ministry expression has been completed, when a new specific calling has been plainly revealed. But Archippus is not there yet. For now, he needs encouragement not to find something else, but to stick it out when it’s tough. The breakthrough will come not in retreat, but in enduring under trial. It may even be that the increased obstacles and barriers signal that the breakthrough is near at hand.

“Every work worth doing in a fallen, sin-sick, and devil-haunted world will encounter difficulties.”

Which is a charge we all need in whatever ministry we have received. Whatever specific role, big or small, we have from the risen Christ, for the meeting of genuine needs for the advance of his kingdom, will encounter obstacles, and the day will come when we need to hear the clear apostolic charge to stick with it. Stay with something for the long haul, leaning on Christ, rather than fly the coup when it gets tough.

It doesn’t mean that we never transition, never take furlough, never make a career change or midcourse correction, never find ourselves in a new season of life. But it does mean that as we ponder transition, we ask ourselves, and those who know us best, Is my work here really done? Have I fulfilled Christ’s specific calling on me in this context? The whole work of the team or organization may not be done, but has God made it clear that my part — the ministry I received from him — has been truly fulfilled?

You might say, when in doubt, don’t quit. Buck the trend in our flighty society, and stay with it, for the long haul, in the strength God supplies (1 Peter 4:11). After all, ministry isn’t about self-actualization, but self-sacrifice — about finding joy in being poured out for the actual needs of others.