The Relational Pain of Ministry
On Monday we looked at the topic of making shipwreck of the faith. What does it look like to make shipwreck of the faith? What are some personal examples of those whose faith failed? Why does it happen? And how do people shipwreck their faith today? It’s a common question, and we addressed it on Monday in APJ 1849. But we didn’t focus very much on the fallout.
Spiritual failure at this level — among those who love the world and thus abandon Christ for it — injects tremendous pain into families, into marriages, into friendships, into local-church communities, and into the ministries these people leave behind. That pain, that relational pain of ministry, was a theme taken up by Pastor John in a sermon in 2012 as he reflected on the harsh realities Paul faced, according to what he recounts for us in 2 Timothy 4:9–18. Here’s Pastor John to explain.
Christian ministry is relationally hard. And I’m thinking first about Paul and Timothy and vocational ministers. But I’m thinking of you too, because you are all, if you’re Christian, ministers called upon to love other people for their good according to your gifts. That’s what ministry is, and that’s every believer. So I think this is for you when I say Christian ministry — that is, Christian life — is relationally hard. And Paul seems to want Timothy to feel that because of how many he dumps on him. Here’s five.
Relational Hardships in Ministry
1. Paul writes, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10). I think Demas was once a faithful partner because, over in Colossians, Paul says, “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas” (Colossians 4:14). And now he’s gone and he’s forsaken Paul. That’s number one.
2. Just being alone in the ministry, not just forsaken, can be a trial. Paul says, “Crescens has gone to Galatia” (2 Timothy 4:10). I don’t think that means he forsook Paul. I just think there were some ministry things that Paul wanted him to do. “Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me” (2 Timothy 4:10–11). So once upon a time, there was quite a team here. And now it’s just me and Luke.
3. It gets worse. “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm . . . for he strongly opposed our message” (2 Timothy 4:14, 15). So ministry is relationally hard not just because there’s loneliness and sometimes abandonment on the inside, but there’s verbal opposition on the outside, and nobody likes to be verbally attacked. It’s hard to be verbally assaulted, even by people you expect it from. Every moment of unexpected silence from a friend, and every verbal blow from an enemy, wounds the spirit of the Christian. And it happens a lot. So ministry is relationally hard.
4. Verse 16 is perhaps the saddest sentence in the paragraph or the book. “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16). Now, I’m going to come back to this, but for now just feel the force of it. Luke, where were you?
5. Next, Paul writes, “Erastus remained at Corinth. And I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. Do your best to come before winter” (2 Timothy 4:20–21). So sometimes strategic deployments take away friends: “I left Trophimus.” Sometimes sickness interrupts a planned partnership: “I left him sick.” Sometimes seasonal changes make aloneness all the more difficult: “Please try to get here before winter.” Paul mentions those things, surely, to cause Timothy to feel that ministry is hard relationally.
Friends in the ministry can let you down and never return or care for you again. “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10). Now, I admit, I do not know if he repented. There’s nothing in the Bible that says he did or didn’t. There’s no evidence that he did. But surely all of us, at least those who are older, know ministers who have forsaken their partners and left the ministry, left the faith, and as far as we know never returned. We know people like that.
“Friends in the ministry can let you down and never return or care for you again.”
I think Paul wants Timothy to feel not only prepared for this sorrow in ministry — “This happens, Timothy; I’m telling you it happened to me so that you’ll be ready when it happens to you.” I think he also wants him to hear the cause so that he can avoid that and doesn’t ever do it himself. In other words, he’s not ever abandoned in ministry and doesn’t ever abandon because he’s seen the cause here. “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:10).
There is a love for the world that makes ministry impossible. There is a love for the world that produces either the abandonment of ministry or the making of ministry so worldly it’s useless. That happens often. So if a minister starts to become worldly, he has two choices: leave the ministry or make the ministry worldly. Then you can survive. Demas couldn’t. Why? Because of Paul. That wasn’t going to happen on Paul’s team.
Caution for Christians
So here’s a caution to young — and I say old, but I think especially young — culture-embracing, evangelical Christians. You need to ponder Demas a long time. In love with this present world, he found ministry with Paul impossible, and he left it. There is a love for the world, there’s a love for this present age — this God-ignoring, God-denying, God-demeaning, Christ-distorting culture — that is mutually exclusive with real, deep love for Jesus. There’s a love for this world that is irreconcilable with ministry to the world — the ministry of exposing the world, the ministry of witnessing to the world, the ministry of rescuing people from the world. None of that’s going to happen very well if you just love it so much that they think you’re one of them. So, young Timothy and young Bethlehem, remember: more people leave Christ and more people leave church and more people leave ministry out of love for the world than anything else.
“There’s a love for this world that is irreconcilable with ministry to the world.”
I’ve wondered, what was in Thessalonica? “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10). Was it a woman? Was it home? Maybe he grew up there, and he was just nostalgic and was tired of this missionary life and living with the apostle Paul and just wanted to go home. Was it a business offer? “I have gifts, for goodness’ sake. I can make money.” Or was it just a comfortably safe distance away from this maniac Paul?
We don’t know. Here’s what we know: Demas didn’t leave out of love for Jesus, but out of love for the world. That’s why everybody leaves. He didn’t leave to follow Jesus. He left Jesus to embrace the world, the pleasures of the world, the entertainments of the world, the kickback of the world, the praise of the world, the friends of the world. Some of your partners in ministry will do that.