A Word for the Discouraged
Discouragement. Fear. Doubt. These three harbingers of anxiety may not have been Paul's “thorn in the flesh” but for most of us they remain as constant reminders of a fallen world still in need of mending. At the same time these negative emotions give us ample opportunity to look to our God of grace who wastes no suffering, but uses it instead to grow us in ways we would have never chosen for ourselves.
At least that was Paul’s experience at Corinth (Acts 18:1-17).
After finishing up in Athens, the apostle Paul continued on to Corinth. There he planted a church to which he would write two significant epistles that find a place in the biblical canon. Those epistles contain some of the strongest pastoral language against sin and in defense of the gospel that appears anywhere in the Bible. And so it is somewhat surprising to find that Paul’s ministry in Corinth, as recorded by Luke, contained a good deal of fear and doubt. At the same time it's encouraging to us as Christians to look to the apostle Paul, hero of the faith that he was, and find in him the common discouragement that befalls many of us at times. In addtion to his experience in Corinth, Paul inisted that there "was no rest" in his spirit when he came to Troas hoping to find Titus--who apparently never showed up (2 Cor. 2:12-13).
Regarding his experience in Corinth, as was his custom, Paul sought the audience of Jews worshiping in the Synogogue. As He did elsewhere, he sought to convince them that Jesus was the Christ; and as was often the result, his message was met with a mixed reaction. Some believed; others responded with disgust, hatred, and accusations of blasphemy. In that moment, the apostle Paul was experiencing three realities of Christian Ministry and Christian living.
1) Fighting – The apostle Paul faced a conflict that followed him from city to city. It was a conflict driven by love. It was a conflict he couldn't escape. He loved the Jewish people. He longed to see them believe in Jesus as the Christ promised in the Old Testament (Rom. 10:1). Conflict that isn't asked for--or that surfaces around things about which we are dispassionate--is conflict that can easily be avoided. But conflict that comes from proclaiming the most important message to important people in our life, it is conflict we cannot avoid. So it was for the apostle Paul; his ministry and calling as an evangelist first to Jews drove him from city to city, from fight to fight, and now into weariness.
2) Fearing – As the obvious assumption from God's encouragement in verse 9 (and Paul's blanket admission in 1 Corinthians 2:3), we find that he was “much afraid.” We don't know of what he was afraid. Was it physical harm? Was it the failure of this church plant? Was it something else known only to the apostle Paul and his Lord? In the end, we don't have to know all the reasons in full. In the self-explanatory weaknesses of the Apostle Paul, we find someone we can relate to as we face the fears and anxieties of everyday life.
3) Faltering – We also find the Lord encourages the apostle Paul to continue speaking. Therefore, we can assume that God saw in Paul the temptation to give up. Again, we do not know the nature of Paul's doubt. Was he simply tempted to give up on the church plant in Corinth? Or was he nursing some particular temptation to speak less about the gospel in general? There were times when he asked churches to pray for him that the Lord would enable him to "open his mouth" and "speak the Gospel as he ought to speak" with boldness. Again, we don't need to know all the specifics relating to Paul's weaknesses. We can take heart that if the great Apostle Paul looked at extremely difficult circumstances and wondered, "should I give up?" we are not alone in those seasons of life and ministry.
I have been a Christian for 20 years. I have been in ordained ministry for 10 years. I have been laboring at this church plant in Culpeper, Va for 4 years. Through life and ministry, I have more occasions than I can count in which I felt the things that the apostle Paul felt in Corinth. There have even been times where I have wished and longed for God to show up and give me an audible, tangible word of encouragement. God does just that for the apostle Paul here--and, in so doing, does it for us in the Scriptures. One evening, the Lord comes to Paul and offers three sweet promises (Acts 18:10):
1) “I am with you.” This is the promise of God’s presence. Is there anything more glorious than the presence of God? If a man has the entire world and has not God, what in the end does he have? If a man knows poverty and pain and yet has God, what does he lack? In that moment of need, God provides for Paul a reminder that the Lord has already given to Paul his greatest gift, the gift of himself. Out of all the things the Lord could've said and all the things he could've done what a gift that God would assure Paul of his presence.
2) “You will not be harmed.” This speaks to the protection of God. It's important for us to ask whether this protection was a momentary promise or something that Paul could hold onto for the rest of his ministry. We have to conclude that it is both. Sosthenes, Paul's brother in Christ, would be the victim of mob violence. But Paul, unlike his experience in other towns, escapes without physical punishment. And yet we know that Paul would suffer in other occasions and would later be martyred for his faith. So what of God's protection there? God's promises of momentary, and sometimes miraculous protection, in this life are merely appetizers--signposts pointing to that great resurrection that every Christian will experience. Our resurrection will usher us into a life where sin and sorrow are no more--where God himself will wipe away every tear. It is that promise of protection that the apostle Paul clung to (2 Cor 4:16-18) and that God used to encourage the fearful saint in Corinth.
3) “For I have many in the city who are my people.” This last promise is the promise of productivity or fruitfulness. This promise speaks to God's purposes in election. Election is the doctrine that teaches that God has saved a specific number of people who, in time, will believe; some of the elect were those who would believe through Paul's 18 month ministry in Corinth. But the doctrine of election is only a subset of the doctrine of predestination, an elaboration of God's decree expressed in providence. God has not only ordained the ministerial productivity of pastors and evangelical work--He has also ordained the fruitfulness of every Christian. They are all his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared in advance that they should walk in them. It is God who works in them to will and to do of his own good pleasure. Fruitfulness is not a possibility for Christians it is a promise. And it is a promise that Paul needed to hear in his discouragement.
With all of the deep heart stirrings that these three promises—presence, protection, and productivity—produce in our hearts, it’s important to note how the rest of Paul's ministry ended in Corinth. It was the same mixed bag of results that precluded God's audible encouragement. There were encouraging conversions and discouraging persecution; and that is why God's promises remain promises. They do not rescue us from our circumstances; instead they rescue us through our circumstances.
And the reason why God, holy and just, is able to make such outrageous promises to sinners like us is because of the doing and dying of his son Jesus. God can offer us his presence that cannot be lost because in time Jesus experienced the removal of God's presence because of sin (Matt 27:46). God can provide for us a protection that is sure no matter what our failings because Jesus in time receive the punishment of God for sin (1 Pet 3:18). When the time came for God’s redeeming work to be done, Jesus did what was apparently the most unproductive thing he could do—suffer and die. But in doing so he empowered suffering and death to be the very means by which his kingdom would come (John 12:24) through his own example and through those who would follow him.
So, when you’re staring discouragement, fear, and the temptation to give up in the face, think of Paul’s experience in Corinth and look instead to your Savior, Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross scorning it’s shame.