How does ministry make you feel? The simplistic first response would be to say, “It doesn’t matter how it makes me feel, because I do it by faith regardless of my feelings.” There is a level on which that may be true, but it ignores the deeper reality of how emotions impact your ministry. Allowing our emotions to completely control our lives or ministries is, of course, a bad path to take, but in trying to avoid that path we can find ourselves taking the equally bad path of ignoring the place of those emotions in our life and ministry. When you look at the example of Jesus you see in his perfection a model of incorporating emotion and faith in a way that deeply empowered ministry. As a person who is deeply in need of better getting in touch with my emotions—hello, I’m a man!—I want to learn to be more like Jesus.
As I was reading through 1 Thessalonians a while back it struck me when I got to the end of chapter 2 and into chapter 3 how Paul was speaking clearly about his emotions as he discussed his ministry to the Thessalonians. Some are “negative” emotions, some are “positive,” all are important. Understanding these emotions is vital to understanding God’s direction and to gaining God’s power in your ministry. If you’ve been feeling directionless or listless in your ministry, there may very well be a key to unlocking new vision and strength in these emotions that Paul reveals.
THE EMOTION OF INTENSE LONGING
Paul writes, “When we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” 1 Thessalonians 2:17 (NIV)
When you see the words “intense longing” the first picture that comes to mind might be a big piece of chocolate cake being set down in front of you after you’ve been on a five month diet. We tend to equate the idea with physical appetites—but it’s obvious Paul is speaking of something much deeper here. It’s the longing that a mother has to be with her child, a father to see that child safe. With ministry, it’s much more than the desire to achieve or to be personally successful—it’s the desire to be fruitful, to make a real difference for Jesus’ sake.
As Paul describes the reasons for this feeling it is easy for us to connect with times when we’ve experienced this emotion. He says this desire grows out of times when you are torn away. There have been times when you were taken out of a ministry circumstance you wanted to stay in: maybe because of your decision, maybe someone else decided. The intense longing that you felt to continue that ministry caused inner turmoil you did not want to experience, but it is also an emotion that speaks loudly to your desire to be fruitful. If you didn’t care, you could have avoided the turmoil; but if you didn’t care you couldn’t have done the ministry. An example of this intense longing is in parents letting go of their children: the more you invest in them, the harder it can be to let go.
As Paul talks about this emotion in 2 Thessalonians 2:17-18 and 3:1-2 he indicates some other reasons we face this feeling. He speaks of times when Satan stopped him. There are times for all of us when we have to remind ourselves that Satan can stop us, but he cannot stop God. He talks about trying again and again to see those he loved. The emotion of intense longing grows out of times when you keep unsuccessfully trying. You keep trying to reach that person, you keep trying to grow the church, you keep trying to start that ministry—and nothing seems to get off the ground. You have the feeling of the disciples when they first met Jesus and were asked about their fishing business, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing” (Luke 5:5 NASB). The emotion you inevitably feel if you care can either hurt you or strengthen you. If you turn the emotion inward into self-recrimination or blame or bitterness you’ve shifted the focus from the ministry to yourself—and you’ll never be able to build a ministry on self-focus. Instead, this emotion is always an invitation to shift the focus from the current situation to eternity: from yourself to God. Far, far too often I’ve taken the route of self-focus when things aren’t working as I’d like—I’d have to say that it’s never helped me to do better ministry. When we’re struggling we are strengthened by doing what the disciples did—focus on Jesus and cast the net where he tells me to cast it.
At the end of his words about this feeling of intense longing Paul says, “So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 NIV). As you work through this emotion, it comes to a place where you can “stand it no longer.” You absolutely must do something! Often you will need to do what Paul did here—send someone else. Your frustration in something you are somehow prevented from doing could very well result in your invitation towards the person, or persons, God wants to do that ministry.
What is it that you can stand no longer?
THE EMOTION OF FEAR
“That is why, when I could bear it no longer, I sent Timothy to find out whether your faith was still strong. I was afraid that the tempter had gotten the best of you and that our work had been useless.” 1 Thessalonians 3:5 (NLT)
Ministry to others is a lot of effort—you’ve put a lot of your heart into it! It is very natural to fear that it will all be for nothing. That fear can be for others, that they may have fallen. It can be for yourself, that you may fail. How do you deal with fear in ministry?
Picture yourself as being at the top of a steep ski slope, ready to launch out. Ministry is a lot like that, it looks scary sometimes as you look at the course ahead but you know that it’s the only way to the goal. You’re tempted to look for the bunny slope where you can practice. There are no bunny slopes in ministry! There is only real life ministry to real people—and that’s difficult in every circumstance. So how do you deal with the fear of falling as you face the slope? There is a simple word of encouragement you need to hear. You will fall! Of course you’ll fall, ministry is difficult to do and much of it you’ve never done before. You’d be crazy to think that you wouldn’t fall into ministry missteps and mistakes. So where’s the encouragement in that? The encouragement is that every time you fall you are a little further down the slope. The encouragement is that with every time you get up you’ll have learned something so that you’re a little better at it. The only real failure in ministry is in never launching out at all.
Where has your fear kept you from launching out?
In Part 2, I’ll share the other three emotions of ministry.