Rejoicing in the Midst of Sorrow

Here's Life Inner City Fellowship Dinner | Minneapolis

The following is a lightly edited transcript.

What I would like to talk about for a few minutes is this question: How do you keep on doing ministry, in particular — though not only urban ministry — when life has so much pain and so much disappointment? How do you keep on doing it? If you stop doing it because there’s pain and disappointment, it won’t happen because that’s what there is in this world. That’s where I’m going. Let me give you a little background and set a stage, and then give you eight ways that the Lord keeps me going in ministry.

Blinded by Prosperity

There’s a mindset in the West, the prosperous West, that we deserve pain-free, trouble-free lives. And when life deals us the opposite, we feel we have a right, not only to blame somebody, but to feel really sorry for ourselves and devote our whole life to coping, while letting everybody else go to hell because we’ve been dealt a hard hand. So we think we have the right to blame somebody and feel sorry for ourselves and give all our energy to making ourselves feel better.

That’s a mindset I’m very concerned about. That mindset creates a trajectory in life — a trajectory away from stress, away from pain, away from risk, and away from discomfort. And it moves us toward comfort, toward ease, and toward security. You can just feel it happening. If that’s your mindset, that’s going to be the trajectory of your life. That trajectory of life tends to create ministries that find possible ways to serve within the boundaries of that self-protecting mindset. And it’s just a given in that mindset, or a ministry shaped by that mindset, that you don’t put yourself and your kids at risk.

You can develop whole theologies to justify this bubble of ease and comfort and security on the basis of a few passages of Scripture, thinking you shouldn’t put yourself and your family at risk. Churches can grow up around this mindset, and they do. It’s really sad that they can be a completely self-confirming church, where everything is happening within and people are caring and there’s a little bit of outreach going on, but there’s nothing radical — no big risks and no real abandonment of anything that might be very costly or risky to abandon. That kind of mindset finds it incomprehensible to get an email like the one I got some years ago from a YWAM team in India. I’ll read it to you:

One-hundred and fifty men armed with machetes, surrounded the premises occupied by YWAM India. The mob had been incited by another religious group in an effort to chase them off. As the mob pressed in, someone, at a key moment, spoke up on the team’s behalf and they decided to give them 30 days to leave. The team feels they should not leave and that their ministry work in the city is at stake. Much fruit has been seen in a previously unreached region and there is great potential for more. In addition to the future of the work, the situation is very dangerous. In the past when violence has broken out between rival religious groups, people have lost their lives.

The kind of decision that says “We’re staying” is incomprehensible to the mindset I’m speaking about. Now, that’s the backdrop for the alternative mindset that I want you to share with me — the mindset that I try to believe in, act out of, and strive against my bent towards that other mindset.

Through Many Tribulations

The mindset that I commend you is exactly the opposite and it assumes that life is hard and is going to be hard. It assumes that life is not pain-free or trouble free, but that life is full of groaning. Romans 8:22–23 says:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Or Psalm 34:19 says:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous…

That’s a given. Discipleship 101 in Acts 14:22 with the new churches was:

through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

There isn’t another route. If you try, in the American way or the Western way, to say, “We will find a way into the kingdom without afflictions!” then you will not walk the Calvary road of obedience with Jesus. So I am commending to you this truth: Frustration is normal. Disappointment is normal. Sickness is normal. Conflict is normal. Persecution is normal. Danger is normal. Stress is normal. Listen to Paul:

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).

That’s Paul’s description of his life. I especially love the phrase “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” We try to fly that as the banner over our church. So when I point out what normal life looks like and how difficult normal life is, I don’t mean joyless. Oh no, Christians are the people who have learned the secret of “sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” because in a city or in a church there’s always reason to be sad. There’s always reason to be sad and glad, and that’s the mystery of the Christian walk. We are the people who are constantly called to “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Those aren’t alternatives; they’re always the case in the ministry. We’re these strange people who have tears on our faces and smiles on our lips. This doesn’t make any sense. It’s just supernatural. It’s Christian.

So I hope that you will be granted great grace to put yourself at temporal risk because you are eternally secure. I want you to be able to say, “I’ve got such deep roots in eternity because of Jesus. I don’t need security here. I’ve got it there.” So we walk into hard relationships and hard situations and hard ministries. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The cross was not easy to bear. It was an instrument of execution.

Eight Suggestions for Ministering in the Midst of Sorrow

So that’s the background. Here are my eight suggestions for how to minister in a city, a church, or any place that’s simply shot through with pain and disappointment.

1. Glory in the Gospel of Jesus.

Marvel in the work of Christ to save you. Let me sketch the gospel that I’m referring to and why I say marvel. The gospel is the good news that before the Son of Man says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21), he says, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

If I don’t feel myself ransomed by an infinite price first, I cannot follow the command “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” You know where the Father sent him; it was to the cross. I am not going there unless I have first been stunned that I’ve been bought, that I’ve been ransomed, that my sin has been covered, that I’ve been forgiven, and that a righteousness that is not my own has been counted as mine, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

If that has happened then I am the freest man on the planet, right? My sins don’t count against me, his righteousness counts for me, and I will go anywhere with this man. I will do anything with this man. So we must come to own our sin. It is really ugly, but we don’t need to run from it anymore because, at the bottom of our cesspool of sin, we have grace, we have mercy, we have a cross, we have blood, and we have righteousness. And when I say marvel at this, that’s the key. At a conference in Louisville last week, CJ Mahaney said, “Marveling precedes imitation.” The imitation he had in mind was imitating the patience of God with people. And he said, “You will not be a patient person with other people’s sins until you’re marveling, not just believing, at your own forgiven sins and the grace that has forgiven you.”

May we pray for our city that those who believe in Christ this way, who believe this gospel, will be a marveling people — not just heady, believing people; that would get up in the morning and be amazed that we’re saved, amazed that we’re forgiven, and amazed that he would count us worthy of following him and impute his righteousness to us.

So that’s step one. It is really foundational. If we’re going to survive in urban ministry, or any ministry, where there’s pain and disappointment — and a lot of it comes from inside of us — you have to have a glorious gospel and a marveling experience of it.

2. Don’t expect too much from people.

I’ll give you a couple of Bible verses that prompt me to say that. Keep your expectations of your fellow Christians, ministry partners, and the people you’re ministering to kind of low. Here are the verses. In 2 Timothy 4:9-10, Paul says to Timothy:

Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.

Now, if Paul had put all of his eggs in the basket of Demas’s faithfulness, he’d be devastated. But he wasn’t devastated; he was broken-hearted but he kept on when Demas disappeared. Demas fell in love with the world, though he had walked with Paul and been his partner. Now he is gone. You’ve tasted it and I’ve tasted it. Few things hurt more than to be betrayed or abandoned.

Here’s another verse in that regard. This is amazing when you think about it. I don’t know how to believe this. Paul, writing to the Philippians, says:

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:19–21).

That’s horrible. Just think of it. Paul says, “Receive Timothy. He’s one of a kind. All my other partners seem self-absorbed.” He wrote that. What kind of leadership is that? It’s honest. But just let that sink in — Paul lived with disappointing ministry partners. Don’t put your hope in partners. Here’s a quote from François Fénelon, a 17th century French saint. He wrote this:

It should be remembered that even the best of people leave much to be desired, and we must not expect too much. Do not allow yourself to turn away from people because of their imperfections. I have found that God leaves, even in the most spiritual people, certain weaknesses which seem entirely out of place.

Isn’t that gloriously realistic? God leaves in the most spiritual person you know some traits, that could be little or large, that when you look at them you say, “That doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense.” And that’s right; it doesn’t make sense. Sin never makes sense. Imperfections never make sense. It’s just there in Christians and will always be there, which is why we marvel that we’re loved, right? We marvel, and this marveling enables us to press on into the lives of imperfect people.

3. We must look to God for the stability, security, and contentment that we long for.

In other words, take your eyes off of having excessively high expectations for your ministry partners and fix them instead on God with infinitely high expectations. God will never ever let you down. He’s always perfect and he’s always there. So fix all of your heart, all of your expectations, all of your satisfaction, and all of your longings on him. Look to him for your satisfaction.

I don’t know if you like these verses because they don’t make a lot of sense to some people, but let me try them out on you. This is 1 Corinthians 7:29–31, which is hardly ever quoted by anybody. Paul says to the Corinthians:

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

What does that mean? Here’s the least thing it means: Hold everything loosely. Do you buy things? Of course you buy; we all have to buy things. Do you sell? Are you married? Do you rejoice? Do you cry? Well, don’t let your crying be all. Don’t let your rejoicing be all. Don’t let your wife or husband be all. Let Jesus be all, and hold everything else loosely.

I don’t have any diagrams for that. I can’t give you any quantitative measure for how to know if you are holding your wife too tightly, holding your kids too tightly, holding your health too tightly, or holding your ministry too tightly. I just know that the verse says to buy as though you’re not buying and be married as though you’re not married. There’s a lot of other good things to say about marriage, right? Ephesians 5:25 says to love her like Jesus loved the church and died for her. However, there’s a kind of awesome, inner detachment. My citizenship is not Minneapolis. I intend to die here, but I’m not going to spend eternity here. My citizenship is in heaven, and from it I await a Savior — a King who will transform this lowly body to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20–21). That’s my citizenship. So it’s not marriage. There will be no marriage in heaven.

What does that do for kids who can’t wait to get married? Well, marriage is not going to last. It will be over someday. It’s for a season. It’s not the main thing. Jesus is the main thing, and serving him together in a solid, covenant marriage, if you’re married, is the main thing. Your husband or wife isn’t the main thing and neither are you — he is.

4. Be inspired by those who keep on giving out of brokenness and pain from their own God-dependent lives.

In other words, I’m asking you to have heroes. Be inspired from history or from the city here. Look to the people you know or you’ve read about who did it. They stayed in there and stuck it out to the end. Read their lives and watch their lives and be inspired like Hebrews 6:11 says:

And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. So find somebody to admire, and if they’re not on the planet then find them in a biography because God has appointed us to be encouraged by imitating the lives of others.

I’ll give you one example. I have lots of heroes; most of them are dead, but some are living and a lot of those are missionaries. I’m going to read you right out of my journal. We were in Africa some years ago, and I recorded this from our visit:

On the way to Kapchorua, we visited some missionaries who shared with us some of their burdens and let us pray with them. Their car was breaking down, their computer was broken, and just recently their landlord defaulted on a loan so that their house was about to be taken out from under them. Then add to all this that last year their 18-month-old daughter was backed over and killed by a visiting missionary friend in their yard.

In response to all of this, the young mother was radiant with hope that if God took away their home, it would be because he has a better place for them to live. I sat and marveled. They had not even gone home to America when their baby died. They buried her in Kenya and pressed on with their work.

This is the stuff that great testimonies of faith are made of. Know these people. They do live. Some of them are probably in your churches. You’re probably one of them. Know them and be inspired by them.

5. Keep reminding yourself that the greener grass on the other side of the fence is not nourishing, it’s deceptively green.

It is nutritionally bankrupt. It looks better and tastes better in the short run, but it doesn’t nourish the soul. If you jump the fence and go to that nice, peaceful, serene, idyllic, pastureland grass, you will near your grave feeling massively inauthentic. Your soul will begin to shrivel up and you’ll begin to think you sold your soul to a pasture. Don’t go there.

The grass that God intends you to eat is the grass of ministry. The deepest lessons, the deepest and most nourishing things in life, are learned in hard places and hard times. Nobody has ever said in my hearing in 64 years, “I went deep with God in the bright, sunny days, and drifted from him in the dark days.” I have never heard that testimony. People always say that the bright sunny days were tempting, luring, and drifting days, and the hard days drove them down into Jesus. That’s what you have to preach to yourself when the grass starts to look really green on the other side of the fence.

6. Take breaks into a bit of heaven now and then.

This is needed by most. I can’t tell you what those breaks should look like, how long they should be, how short they should be, or what you should be doing with them, but there come seasons in your life, besides the Sabbath principle of the weekend — which everybody should find a way to observe to turn off the steam every seventh day because you’re not God — when the soul needs to be tested and the vision needs to be tested. God will make that plain. Don’t be afraid of stepping back and taking a break, but be careful of this; don’t turn your life into a break. This life is hard. This life is disappointing. This life is painful. And if there’s a break, it’s a break to keep you going. It’s a break to get yourself reoriented. It’s a break to find the pace to finish the race. That’s what breaks are for.

7. Help each other with stories of God’s faithfulness and with prophetic words of God that arrive at the appointed hour to sustain.

Let’s see if I can explain to you what I mean. In 1993, our church walked through the darkest days of our 30 years together. Among other means, God sustained me with people’s timely, Bible-saturated words. And I’m just saying, be this for each other and avail yourselves of this. Do not think you can make this ministry trek toward heaven on your own.

God appoints not only that we go to the glorious, infallible, inherent, God-inspired word every day, but he also ordains that his word would come to us, not just by our own reading but by hearing from others. Somebody else is over there going deep with God and I need him or her. So you might be in a place where you think, “Come to me. Talk to me. I’m not seeing much. I am so discouraged I can hardly read. Talk to me.” You got it?

We must be there for each other. When one is weak, another is strong. When one is blank and hopeless, another is being given a ray of hope, and that’s not to be kept for yourself, it’s meant to go over to another person at an appointed time. That’s my understanding of prophecy — at an appointed golden moment, a God-given word arrives through the Bible and light and hope are given.

8. Remember: It is more blessed to give than to receive.

The devil will tell you otherwise. He will say a good night’s sleep is better, or watching this TV program is better, or playing with your kids at 8:30pm in spite of the suicidal call you just received is better. Paul Brand was a missionary surgeon to India. He wrote the following words. I’ll end with it and then give you a summary:

Some people voluntarily take on suffering as an act of service and these too find that pain can serve a higher end. I have met a few living saints in my time — men and women who, at great personal pains and sacrifice, have devoted themselves to the care of others. As I have watched these rare individuals in action though, any thought of personal sacrifice fades away. I find myself envying, not pitying them. In the process of giving away life, they find it and achieve a level of contentment and peace virtually unknown in the rest of the world.

That’s what we want isn’t it? In giving our lives away, we want to find our lives and a kind of peace and contentment that the world cannot have or comprehend.

Let me summarize these eight points and then I’ll pray. How is ministry possible in a life so permeated by pain and so permeated by disappointment in ministry? It will always be this way, so just lower your expectations. While this world lasts, through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom. Here are the eight points:

  1. Marvel at the Gospel.
  2. Don’t expect too much from people.
  3. Look to God for stability and security and contentment.
  4. Be inspired by examples of those who kept on giving in pain.
  5. Realize that greener grass is not nutritional.
  6. Take breaks as needed, but don’t turn your life into a break.
  7. Help each other with words, in season and out of season, that point to Christ.
  8. Remember the word of our Lord that it is more blessed to give than to receive.