Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 9

Ministry & Suffering in the Life of Paul

By Deans Buchanan.

Like many a church building, the shape of Christian life, and Christian service, is cruciform. Christian ministry, whatever its setting, is a calling to stand under the cross, in the power of the resurrection. There can be no escaping this essential fact - service and suffering are Siamese twins. The life and ministry of Paul the apostle amplifies this truth.

Exploring the theme as a Christian minister is a humbling experience, especially in our generation, in Western society. Persecution and affliction, of the overt and hideous kind, are unfamiliar territory. The literature of martyrdom, ancient and modern, portrays courageous faith of a measure that inspires, disturbs and threatens even the sincerest servant of God. Ernest Best, commenting on PaulÕs litany of affliction, reacts by saying

that what Paul writes is true, we can observe when we read of those who suffer in pioneer mission areas and in fascist and communist countries. Perhaps we shall only understand it in our own lives when we take our faith more seriously, when we allow it to disturb us more deeply. Then we will know a greater fellowship with others when we support them.  1

In fact, rather than allow it to disturb us, we trade in the persecution model for the power model. Seduced by the drive for success, Christian servants adopt triumphalistic patterns of service. This is nothing less than the Corinthian ensnaremen, that led to such misunderstanding of Paul's status and ministry. Paul's answer (profoundly expressed in 2 Corinthians) is a devastating critique of triumphalism, and a glorious exposition of the triumph of God as displayed in the affliction and suffering of the apostle. The theology of power crumbles before the Pauline theology of weakness.

We need to hear this exposition afresh, and to consider to what extent, and in what forms, our own ministries might find a paradigm in Paul's. We begin with

The Persecutor Persecuted

Saul, the arch-persecutor of the church becomes Paul, the apostle of suffering. His calling and ministry are bound up with suffering. The words of a crucified, though ascended, Lord over-arch his apostleship: I will show him how much he must suffer for my sake (Acts 9:16)  2. Luke's vivid account of Paul's missionary endeavours captures the drama and danger constantly confronting the apostle. Paul himself, in his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, eloquently expresses the simple truth that he lived constantly with pain:

and now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. (Acts 20:22-23)

Paul's experience is well-documented in Scripture, which reveals the immensity of his sufferings. Whether or not his afflictions are intended to be paradigmatic, they have been so employed. John Knott, examining discourses of martyrdom in English Literature, writes of the outlook of John Rogers, and the protestant preacher-martyrs of the 16th Century:

It was Paul, however, who through the experience of affliction and his articulation of a theology of suffering offered the most commanding model to Rogers and the other protestant preachers and bishops who chose the role of martyr. Rogers found a close parallel to his own experience of scoffing of the Greek philosophers with whom Paul argued in Athens. Their 'what will this babbler say ?' (Acts 17:8) resembled Gardiner's taunt about prating.  3

Paul's adventurous life-style could be scoured for parallel experiences, no doubt; but it is the articulation of his sufferings which imbues them with such significance for us today.

The Vocabulary of Suffering

In his letters, a vocabulary of suffering spills from Paul's pen to describe the harsh reality of his afflictions. Two word groups in particular - thlipsis and pascho - are used to express his thinking alongside the fascinating usage of asthenia. This vocabulary is employed by Paul on at least 100 occasions, a fact which makes prominent the role of suffering in the ministry of God's people. Placed, as it is, against the backcloth of Paul's history of suffering, and the undercurrent of his impending death, there is no escape from considering the reality of suffering for ministry today. Given that all three words may be applied to the suffering and death of Christ, a profound significance is attached to their usage.

A powerful language of affliction  4 is utilised by Paul in all his writings to lure his readers into the world of suffering and weakness that is buried deep in the structures of the universe, is part of human experience, and clearly part of ministry. To God's people he shows 'its Messiah to be a crucified Lord, his apostles to be 'afflicted in every way' (2 Cor 4:8) and human communities to endure these same sufferings (2 Cor. 1:5)  5. The world itself groans in tribulation, and comfort is found in that context. The language of affliction expressed the foundation of all his thinking about ministry.

To affliction, add weakness. Paul's weakness was no apostolic pose, but real, heartfelt weakness. Such weakness is rooted in our creatureliness, our utter dependence on God for life itself. The great spiritual blessings lie beyond our reach, salvation itself coming through the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. Even when Paul spoke of his strength, he pointed to the power of God at work in him - 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' (Phil 4:13). Our ministries today would be clothed with greater integrity if they began with a deep sense of inadequacy, a knowledge of our weakness and limitations, and dependence upon God.

One specific matter must be addressed, that is the question as to the place of sickness in the experience of suffering. George Mallone challenges the notion there is something redemptive in sickness, or that it may be included in the sufferings of service. He declares that 'the New Testament defines suffering as persecution and not as sickness'  7. Plank, on the other hand, indicates that the asthen- word group in Corinthians bears meanings ranging through sickness, disease, or disability (I Cor 11:30) to the more general symptoms of human frailty. Asthenia points to being subject to the contingencies of life. In essence weakness manifests powerlessness. Plank writes that

the literal meaning of asthenia as a physical sickness has particular force in the Corinthian context. In the eyes of a community that recognised healing as a sign of the Spirit's presence (1 Cor 12:9-10, 29-30) the existence of a sick apostle can only suggest the lack of spiritual power the problem rests in the combination of his charismatic gifts with the asthenia.  8

This is surely a big issue. Perhaps Mallone's problem lies in tying himself too closely to semantics, and not recognising that, in the course of ministry, illness may come our way, and become part of the process by which affliction and weakness are made known. It is not unknown even to New Testament experience, as the case of Epaphroditus reveals (Phil 2:25-30). His sufferings, part of his credentials as an emissary of God, included the simple truth that he was ill, and required a deliverance of God. The sickness was extreme, for he almost died for the work of Christ. Perhaps not all sickness should be seen as affliction, of the kind that belongs to service, but surely some is integral to the task itself. The sickness rate among early missionaries to Congo, for example, was very high, often leading to death. No wonder Congo was nick-named the half-way house to heaven!

The Catalogues of Suffering

The sheer multiplicity of Paul's sufferings is thoroughly documented in the peristasis catalogues  9 which provide a rich feeding ground for unfolding the nature of ministry and suffering. These lists of circumstances reflect the common practice of portraying, in stylistic listings, the good and bad news of personal experience. Sages and philosophers utilised the form to underscore their personal credibility as wise guides in the paths of virtue. Paul, as he often does with forms of communication, takes it over and makes it his own. The vast range of suffering endured is given the highlighter treatment  10.

Over twenty years ago, in early ministry, when reading Paul's catalogues in 2 Corinthians, I was both inspired and depressed by the extent and intensity of the tribulations. Inspired, because of the note of triumph that resounds through it all; depressed, because it was hard to trace any parallels in my own experience.

For that reason, it is vital to grasp the significance as well as the form of the suffering. Perhaps we need to shape our own list in the context of our time and setting. In fact, deeper consideration may reveal more similarity than we may expect.

Ernest Best, anxious not to squeeze meaning from every detail, emphasises the impact of the whole  11. Nevertheless, the details focus on a variety of good and bad circumstances worth exploring. In some way, however, the details combine to reveal Paul's credibility. Credibility is demanded of Christian ministry in every era. Paul included his fellow-workers when he wrote

we put no stumbling-block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God, we commend ourselves in every way  12

- and there follows a peristasis.

In the style of Internet, this article surfs the catalogues. The essence of Christ's ministry is his suffering. Paul recognises the importance of staying power, not so much to achieve tasks, but to conquer difficulties. There are other possibilities, of course, known - in modern parlance - as burnout and break down. Paul is made of sterner stuff, though he knows what it means to be struck down (2 Cor. 4:9).

The content of the endurance, in general, involves troubles, hardships and distresses (2 Cor 6:4), and specifically, punishment such as the forty lashes minus one (2 Cor 11:24). The physical dimension, the daunting sense of hard persecution, is eloquently, if crisply expressed. For most of us in the West, this is alien to our experience. Humbly we stand in awe of those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostle, and borne the brunt of the world's hostility to Jesus Christ and his church. Nevertheless, it is not unknown in our history, nor in our present experience. However, for many pastors the persecution comes not on a physical, but personal basis, often not from the world, but the church, an internal affair of immense anguish. Like the Psalmist of old, we may feel that if an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it.. but it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng to the house of the Lord (Ps 55:12-14).

Something nearer to our experience, both in home service and service overseas, endurance is demonstrated in hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Cor. 6:5). True servants of God know something of these, perhaps in descending order! Fascinating that we worry about overwork, and workaholism, when Paul recognises the necessity of hard work, and the need to endure in it.

Character is tested and commended in the crucible of suffering. These active and spiritual aspects of his work  14 express something of his character, as he carries out his mission 'in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love' (2 Cor 6:6). Over-emphasis upon gifts is perhaps inevitable in our functional age, but it is unbalanced. Great gift and poor character destroy effective service; great character maximises even little gift. Working as we do with people, we need the quality of patience - long-suffering - which endures injuries without retaliation. Like Paul we require pure motive, a settled understanding, and an unfeigned love; we need the Holy Spirit.

But the main thing to notice is how the 'much endurance', which, to a superficial observer, is the most conspicuous characteristic of the Apostle's ministry, is balanced by a great manifestation of spiritual force within him. Of all men in the world he was the weakest to look at, the most battered, burdened and depressed, yet no one else had in him such a fountain as he of the most powerful and gracious life  15.

Credibility and integrity are constantly scrutinised by the conditions of Paul's ministry. If overt physical persecutions cannot bring him down, perhaps the web of contradictions inherent in the work may ensnare him. Even those who undergo terrible physical persecution (from which our whole being recoils) often testify to the deeper suffering on psychological and spiritual levels. The assault to the innermost being is greater than the assault to the outward body. Paul makes plain that the experience of ministry is an experience of opposites - glory and dishonour! bitter enemies as well as devoted friends! evil report and good report! known and unknown! treated as imposters, yet we are true! (2 Cor 6:8-9). But as Denney beautifully puts it, 'the same man comes out, in the same character, devoted always to the same calling'  16.

A most revealing side of Paul's affliction lies in his confession, at the end of the most horrific catalogue of persecution (2 Cor 11:23Ð33), that 'besides everything else I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?' Pressure! - the word has a peculiarly modern ring. But Paul speaks less in terms of pressures upon him as pressures within him - the inward pressure of compassion for his spiritual children. Indeed, the harsher, outward afflictions are minimised, treated almost as incidentals, because his pastoral concern was a 'burden as crushing as these bodily sufferings, and far more constant in its pressures'. The young pastor that I was lifted his head a little on reading these words, and said 'Yes, Paul. I know what you mean. I feel it too. A little at least!'

Such spiritual suffering echoes the suffering of our Lord Jesus, whose soul was troubled unto death. More than that, it draws us, in some mysterious manner, into Christ's afflictions. Our modern tendency is to run from it; Paul's unwavering attitude was to rejoice in it.

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church ( Col 1:24 ).

When I am Weak

Paul made no effort to hide his weakness, mask his vulnerability, or deny his suffering. Sumney, seeking to demonstrate that Paul's weakness was integral to his ministry from beginning to end, explores Paul's self-understanding in 1 Thessalonians. In that letter, Paul described his work in terms of the relationship between his life and his message, a pattern the Thessalonians were imitating. The apostle is living proof of the gospel's power in the midst of suffering, such as the church is undergoing; he stands out as an example of imitating Jesus Christ, even in suffering.

Our trouble is that we loathe inadequacy! The very hint of weakness is pounced upon. More familiar with advertiser's guile than apostolic insufficiency we parade our guests as 'one of the best communicators in today's church; one of the finest leaders, with a megachurch of followers'. Or - as a conference in the Philippines promoted itself - 'Learn how to be a super-servant'! If Paul had been on the mailing list, apostolic apoplexy would have resulted! As Richard Bauckham expresses it:

Paul's obsession in this letter (2 Corinthians) is with how unimpressive he is, or at least with the fact that the only impressive thing about him is his weakness  18.

A recovery of our insufficiency is the Pauline recipe for fruitful ministry. Not for its own sake, of course. Paul's burning sense of inadequacy would have overwhelmed him, but for one thing: the conviction that the point of his weakness is the point of God's power. Strength road-blocks the way of God; weakness becomes a conduit of his power. Hence Paul eschewed the wisdom of the age, and boldly, boastfully, proclaimed Christ crucified. Christ, the suffering servant, is the paradigm for apostolic experience (2 Cor 10:13). William Tyndale captured this note when he wrote:

Christ is never strong in us until we are weak. As our strength abates, so the strength of Christ grows in us. When we are quite emptied of our own strength, then we are full of Christ's strength: and look, how much of our own strength remains in us, so much lacks there of the strength of Christ  19.

The classic expression of power made perfect in weakness is of course 2 Corinthians, climaxing in Paul's understanding of the thorn in the flesh. Without doubt too much energy has been expended upon identifying the nature of the thorn in terms of specific disease or condition. Paul's description in terms of a thorn removes the need to replicate a condition in order to experience the thorn. Indeed, Paul moved the theme beyond that of mere thorns! For, on grasping the meaning - 'my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor 12:9) - he boldly and bravely reached beyond the thorn to whatever lay ahead for him in future ministry:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest upon me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9b-10)

This marks the moment when Paul unreservedly embraced the call of God to a life of suffering, for Christ's sake. Like Paul, Christian ministers must learn submission to the thorn in the flesh. No doubt, Paul did not come to this knowledge in a day. It came, not only in the context of much suffering, but also of great ecstasy of spiritual experience (so discreetly expressed - a humility we need to learn in our boastful age). The thorn was not only Satanic intrusion upon gospel ministry; or Satanic spoiling of spiritual experience; it was a discipline of God to prevent pride - the pernicious anaemia of the soul of Corinth. More than that, it was the very position in which God's power could be made perfect.

Vulnerability is vital to ministry. All the stranger then that we wear our masks, hide our weakness, and deny our vulnerability. Jesus may send his servants out like lambs among wolves, but we make certain of high levels of training in every possible sphere! The great god expertise is the god in whom we trust.

Paul's exposition of weakness - or better, power made perfect in weakness Ð needs to be re-emphasised, and courageously embraced in ministry today. For power, not weakness, is our problem; and seeking power is a perennial temptation for God's servants. But power, in the church as in the world, is a corrupting influence. Of course, power is present in ministry, but the power belongs to the Lord. Ministry today is enticed by the love of power - whether of status, position, or influence. Leadership, a rare word in the vocabulary of Scripture, is the keyword of our time, and is used with overtones of authority and rule  20.

The imprimatur of our Lord's own words - 'you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you' (Acts 1:8) - seems to place power at the top of the experience of ministry. God's people certainly experienced power - but always in their weakness, inadequacy, and need. The danger point is this: who is seen to possess the power? Seduced by the love of power, we become Simon Magus incarnate, and rightly call down the wrath of Apostolic concern (Acts 8:9-25). Roy Clements says that 'the myths about leadership indicate that leaders must project an image as invincible as Bismarck and as infallible as the Pope'  21.

The Corinthian clamour for signs of power and triumph echoes down through the ages to our own time, and received from Paul in his time, the ultimate put-down: 'my power is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor 12:9). Hence Paul's self-authentication in his peristasis; hence the discreet hints of ecstatic experience, but his bold glorying in his weakness. Unless God's power is magnified, our power gets in the way. Samson discovered that, to his cost. The apostle Peter recognised it, to his maturity. How much more, in our power thirsty age, do we need to recognise it - that power is present in ministry, but the power belongs to the Lord.

Paul was no spiritual masochist, of course, but his missionary endeavours extended him to the very limits of his powers, and drove him into weakness. Then he found himself linked with Christ crucified, in whom God was reconciling the world to himself. Then he knew that the agent of the gospel would, in weakness, carry that gospel to the world, 'treasure in earthen vessels' (2 Cor 4:7 KJV). Says Richard Bauckham,

To identify with Paul's experience we do not need to be shipwrecked; even without the physical dangers of Paul's career, anyone who throws himself into the work of ministry of any kind with half the dedication of Paul will experience the weakness of which Paul speaks: the time when problems seem insoluble, the times of weariness from sheer overwork, the times of depression when there seem to be no results, the emotional exhaustion which pastoral concern can bring on - in short, all the times when the Christian minister knows he has stretched to the limits of his capacities for a task which is very nearly, but not quite, too much for him  22.

Paul was not interested in weakness for its own sake, but to reveal the power of God, and the power of the risen Christ. Christiaan Becker's analysis of Paul's life and thought emphasises the triumph of God that reverberated in his sufferings. Paul expressed it in these glorious words, 'But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us' (2 Cor 4:22 NRSV).

Sharing Christ's Sufferings

Ultimately, Paul's theology of suffering is Christological, or Christocentric. His life's ambition is to share in Christ's sufferings, and be conformed to his death. In this ambition lies the counterpoint to power seeking. Ministry involved 'always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies' (2 Cor 2:10 NRSV).

Carrying about the death or dying of Jesus is a difficult expression to grasp. Some, like Denney and Hughes, see in it a process which produces death; Bultmann suggests actual decay of the body. Hanson rejects this notion of a process, declaring

that as the apostles go about their task committed to them by God, this activity is only justified and upheld by the death of Jesus upon the cross, and that therefore this deadness is to be manifested in their deadness to the world  23.

John Stott emphasises the frailty of the mortal body, but points also to PaulÕs stress upon the revelation of the life of Christ. He writes:

The apostle is referring to the infirmity and mortality of our human bodies, specially (in his case) in relation to physical persecution he seems to be saying that now in our mortal bodies (which are doomed to die) there is being 'revealed' (twice repeated) the very 'life' of Jesus (also twice repeated). Even when we are feeling tired, sick and battered, we experience a vigour and vitality which are the life of the risen Jesus within us  24.

Whatever the case, the daily experience of his mission was breaking him to pieces, as a ship upon a rock. As Jesus poured out himself for us, so Paul identified with him. Dying, yes! but not dead! He might seem to be down and out, then suddenly he is up and about! The secret? The power of the risen life of Jesus Christ; daily dying, daily deliverance; the power of God at work; the risen life of Christ triumphant.

Daily dying! I recall the words of Paul Negrut, a Rumanian pastor who suffered much along with his people. Paraphrased, he said:

When we had the persecutions, we depended upon God with a desperate dependency. Every day, oh how we prayed! What dangers we faced. Now, when we do not have the persecutions, we slacken. We may even forget to pray. We expect no danger on the road. Perhaps it is not good that we have not the persecutions. The times we had the persecutions were better  25.

Hafemann, commenting on 2 Cor 4:8, says,

God responds to Paul's sufferings - namely, by rescuing him again and again from his peril. This means, therefore, that the suffering of the apostle does not serve as an invalidation of his ministry, but is rather an integral part of it. For Paul's suffering not only provided the occasion for the manifestation of God's powerglory as the one who rescues Paul from suffering, but also ensures that the power thus displayed is recognised to be God's alone  26

There is also a personal side to the Christocentric character of Paul's suffering: it is 'for Jesus' sake' (2 Cor 4:11), 'for Christ's sake' (2 Cor 12:10), 'for the sake of his body, which is the church' (Col 1:24). Paul never delights in suffering per se. When he said he delighted in weaknesses, hardships, and all varieties of affliction, he pointedly declared it to be for the sake of the one whom he served. How greatly that passion might transform our response to tribulation in our work of ministry today!

Comfort in Affliction

The astonishing verses which open Paul's second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:3-11) provide a paradigm for ministry today. There is no evasion of suffering. On the contrary, suffering is at the heart of ministry. Yet, not only suffering. There is comfort too - comfort in affliction. Paul unfolded the meaning of comfort throughout his letter. Comfort, the strength and fortitude of God upholding his servants, and transcending their weakness, flows into the lives of God's afflicted servants, and in turn is transformed into a ministry of comfort to other afflicted souls. The servant of God is the conductor of comfort.

In early February 1538, writing from prison where he suffered great torture, and soon was to be burnt at the stake, Walter of Stoelwijk  27 quoted Paul's opening words of 2 Corinthians:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves have received from God (vv 3,4).

One fallacy concerning ministry needs to be destroyed - the fallacy that we need to experience everything in order truly to help others. This appears in many guises, but it is essentially the homogeneous principle run wild. To address the working man, we need to have a placement in a factory; to meet youth, to dress like them; to help the bereaved, to have been bereaved. Given the plenitude of types and experiences, who could even begin to be a pastor? Of course, there is some truth that a shared experience may help ministry - though if not properly worked through, it may in fact be a blockage - Paul moved on a different plane. He began with the knowledge, that whatever the form, God's people suffer, are afflicted, are weak and vulnerable. Constantly they are pushed to extremities, driven into corners, and cast aside as nothing at all. For Paul, it was a veritable catalogue of suffering, that makes our suffering seem as nothing; but he envisaged that all God's people suffer - 'for if one suffers, all suffer' (1 Cor 12:26). It is the common experience of being afflicted, rather than the specific form, that matters; for in being afflicted at all, we are driven to seek the inflow of God's comfort. That was Paul's experience.

The prerequisite of effective ministry is therefore not power, but weakness; not success, but suffering. For in the experience of suffering, personal or corporate, we are ministered to by God, and with his comfort, we comfort others. Of course, we may be out of our depth in dealing with a person's predicament. They may need the help of others who know the situation from the inside, but we can bring God's comfort to bear; we can bring hope that he will comfort them; we can watch divine comfort flow through us to the others.

In any case, the expert often fails. A report  28 concerning the shootings in Hungerford indicates that after all the efforts of counsellors and social workers to help, many remain traumatised, and one policeman has committed suicide. We should not underestimate the Pauline pattern of a loving, servant heart, that itself has known comfort in affliction, acting as the clean channel along which the comfort of God flows to others.

Consequently, Christian workers, whether in pastoral ministry or some other sphere, ought not to despise their afflictions. Instead, we ought to let God make them work for us. Not resistance, but humble submission, will bring his comfort in.

To What Extent are our Sufferings Parallel to Paul's?

Firstly, we should acknowledge that the particular, personal call to suffering which belongs to Paul's missionary endeavour is not automatically to be transferred to God's servants today. In that sense, Paul's suffering is not paradigmatic for ours.

Nevertheless, Paul himself drew the experiences of his co-workers into the sphere of suffering. In Philippians, for example:

Paul suggests that the experiences of his co-workers (Phil 1:1) and of the Philippians (Phil 1:5-7, 18b-26) mirror his experiences of persecution and imprisonment whether they suffer actual persecution or not  30.

In his accounts of affliction experienced in his ministry, Paul often utilised the all-inclusive 'we'  31 to indicate that his fellow-workers shared in the suffering of service (for example, 2 Cor 1:3-11, 6:3-10, 1 Thess 2:2). Paul, if we accept his authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, directly appeals to his own sufferings to encourage Timothy to face his, adding that in fact, 'everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted' (2 Tim 3:10-13). Again, Paul pulled no punches when he wrote with concern to the Thessalonians who faced many trials - 'you know quite well that you were destined for them'! (1 Thess 3:3)

All this is an encouragement to ministers in peaceful times. And if we grasp Paul aright, the experience mirrors the experience of Christ. John Calvin, in expounding the experience of Epaphroditus, indicated that Paul commended Ephaphroditus

as his fellow-soldier, by which term he intimates what is the condition of the ministers of the gospel; they are engaged in an incessant warfare, for Satan will not allow them to promote the gospel without maintaining a conflict. Let those, then, who prepare themselves for the edifying of the Church, know that war is denounced against them, and prepared. This, indeed, is common to all Christians - to be soldiers in the Camp of Christ, for Satan is the enemy of all. It is, however, more particularly applicable to ministers of the word, who go before the army and bear the standard  32.

The paradigmatic nature of Paul's sufferings becomes clearer when set in context of the significance of suffering for Christian discipleship, a vast theme with a long history of interpretation.

The Spiritualisation of Suffering

Patristic treatment of suffering is martyrological in approach. At one extreme lies Ignatian spirituality, the embracing of martyrdom as a means of perfection, of attaining to God, and of bearing witness. When the historical context for the church is one of persecution, such a view has strong appeal, but the shine is removed when the church experiences times of peace (for which Paul encouraged us to pray - 2 Tim 2:1,2). To that end, later developments, through Tertullian, Augustine and others, shifted the focus of martyrdom to spiritual martyrdom. Suffering was still understood as a means of perfecting the saints, but a change of context has occurred. As Bloomquist indicates,

What changed was the arena within which suffering takes place - from imperial stadia to the daily life and activity of Christians faced with the evils of the flesh  33.

Not the actual, but the intentional aspect is in view. The spiritualisation of suffering continues further, metamorphosing into the mortification of the flesh. Aquinas notes that it was not so much Paul's persecutions that gave value to his suffering, but that it was suffering for Christ. Union with Christ is the goal, and suffering, even without martyrdom, plays its part. Many writers uphold this spiritual view of suffering. Lightfoot, for example, writes that suffering 'includes all pangs and afflictions undergone in the struggle against sin either within or without'  34.


Danger lies down this pathway, as the Christ-mysticism of the 19th Century shows. In the reformulation of the Ignatian position, suffering was seen to reveal Christ. This triggers a warning light in our minds, for it leads to equating the sufferings of Paul with the sufferings of Christ, a step too far.

Pertinent to this matter is Colossians 1:24, to which we referred earlier. There, Paul enigmatically expressed his philosophy of suffering, as it related to service for Christ, and his church. But what does it signify? And are there limitations to its application? A straightforward, but superficial interpretation suggests a simple pattern of similarity between what Christ suffered, and what Paul suffered. A deeper aspect emerges when some identification between Paul's suffering, and the sufferings of Christ, is posited. Paul's burning ambition was 'to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death Õ (Phil 3:10), and his passage in Colossians appears to fulfil this.

Even that wonderful experience is insufficient to account for his daring statement that 'in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions' (Col 1:24b). Grayston remarks:

The history of exegesis shows what theological anxieties this incautious statement has raised (Schweizer). Who could possibly think that the afflictions Christ suffered were insufficient to complete his redeeming work?  35

Given Paul's utter conviction of the sufficiency of Christ's redeeming work, we dare not impose redemptive value upon the sufferings of Christ's servants. A wiser position recognises that Christ continues to suffer in the members of his body, which is the church. We recall the question the risen Lord posed to Paul, as he attacked the church: 'why do you persecute me?' (Acts 9:4). The same Lord commissioned Paul to 'suffer for his sake' (Acts 9:16). As Bruce concludes:

To suffer for the sake of the name of Christ and to suffer on behalf of his body are two expressions that mean the same thing. And as Christ Himself suffers in his members, this suffering of theirs may be regarded as filling up Christ's personal suffering.

Perhaps the key to understanding Paul is found in the indivisible link between Christ the head, and the church, which is his body. Recognising this, Lloyd-Jones comments that Paul

sees now that the head and the body are one; and that his sufferings are part of the Lord's sufferings. Christ suffers it all as the great head, and as he, Paul, participates in the ministry and sufferings of Christ, he is 'making up that which remains of the sufferings of Christ'  37.

This is a breath-taking concept, but more than that, it is an abiding encouragement to all who serve Christ in this world, and meet affliction. Affliction is re-interpreted, and intimate union with Christ is experienced.

Suffering must also be understood as a community experience. Pastoral ministry operates today in the context of body life and every member ministry. The primary emphasis, as in Corinth, is upon the exercise of gifts. God's people needed to recover this important aspect of ministry and service; they too readily forgot that 1 Corinthians was not written as a manual of ministry, but as an antidote to abuse. Corinth was all gifts and no love, a recipe for disaster. Suffering keeps us in our place, and binds us together in the fellowship of suffering. When one weeps, all weep.

Deeper than that, we share in the sufferings of Christ as the community of God's people. Unity is found in shared suffering (see 2 Cor 1:8-11, 2 Cor 4:7-12, Phil 1:7). An interesting article by Karen Smith wraps itself round a fascinating quotation from an 18th century Baptist woman, who wrote in her diary (quoted as written):


I find the concern of others goes very near my soul such as I hope have an interest in Christ when I know their temptations and afflictions or their consolations I seem to bear an equal share in either and how can it be otherwise when I look upon them together with myself as part of the purchase of Christ's suffering and so part of that real body of whom Christ is the head  38.

Smith suggests this note of unity in and through the suffering of Christ is sadly missing in Baptist life today, something their Anabaptist forefathers would not have understood. Smith notes how the vision of suffering was embodied in Baptist Confessions of Faith, quoting the orthodox Creed, 1679, of the General Baptists:

All Christians have been baptized into one faith and united in one true visible way of worshipping the true God, by Jesus Christ our Lord, should keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, seeing there is but one mystical body of Christ, and should have fellowship and communion in each other's sufferings, or afflictions, for if one member suffers, all are pained with it  39.

Coverdale's 'Letters of the Martyrs', drawn from the Marian exiles, take on the style and characteristics of Paul's epistles, including graphic lists of persecutions undergone, or stylised greetings such as Nicholas Ridley's letter:

To the brethren which constantly cleave unto Christ, in suffering affliction with him, and for his sake. Grace and peace, from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ be multiplied to you, Amen  40.

As John Knott comments:

Paul's discussion of his afflictions and the meaning of suffering for a Christian in his second epistle to the Corinthians, for example, offered a way of understanding their own experience the degree to which the Marian martyrs imitated the Pauline manner, and drew analogies between Paul's experience and theirs, registers the strength of their desire to identify with apostolic Christianity  41.

Final Reflection

Have I suffered as a minister of Christ? The question haunts the conscientious servant of God, all the more in comparison with a crucified Saviour, and apostolic suffering. It is humbling to consider how little I have suffered. And yet! deeper reflection points to some knowledge worth expressing. Let me, like Paul, speak foolishly for a moment or two!

I think of personal attacks endured for the sake of Christ; of seeking to be like Paul, and defend not myself, but the office; and when I could no longer do the latter, to be silent about the first, and submit to God. Two different experiences stand out in my memory. While inappropriate to describe here, two dimensions of suffering helped me through.

One was the experience of injustice. I think I could have readily enough borne it, but it also was an injustice to my family. I found myself experiencing the healing balm of imitating Christ as Peter instructed slaves to do when treated harshly for doing right, and I abandoned myself, like Job, to the vindicator, who acted in a wonderful way to redress the whole matter. Ever since, I have been the better able to comfort others - especially when they feel the sting of unjust treatment - with the comfort God brought me.

The other experience was a prolonged and profound questioning of my calling, enforced upon me by others. A dark night of the soul: when the iron in my soul weighed down the spirit; when praise and prayer died on my lips; when fear of a broken future, and public failure, paralysed all action; when treading the winepress alone, I remember preaching, overwhelmed with feelings of unworthiness and hypocrisy.

Two sayings, which I attributed to Luther  42. The first was for my self: 'I care not how far I fall, as long as I fall into the lap of God'. The second for my work (and my faith), the great encouragement to 'trust the bare word of God', filled my soul: a broken man preached a pathetic sermon of a broken Christ from the unbreakable Word. Weeks later, when life began to flow again, I discovered that in the worst hour someone was utterly cured of a perfectionist attitude which was destroying health, life, work and service. The bare word of God - at least I had still believed that - had done its work.

Not to be forgotten is the suffering of absorbing the pain of others. Caring ministry is costly ministry. The wear and tear on physical and emotional dimensions of my being has, at times, left me breaking up inside (it gets worse as the years go on!). There is the cost of being caught in the cross-fire of helping others in difficult situations. There is the pain of actions, attitudes or motives being misunderstood or misinterpreted. There is the deep anguish of knowing that some you once sought to help now avoid you; or, if that is impossible, greet you with a cold eye - and that from a brother or sister in Christ!

Further, there is the suffering of being the instrument of death as well as life. For me, this is the greatest suffering: to preach a life-giving gospel, yet be the smell of death to someone. In this age of unbelief - even among believers! - in this godless, secularised age, sometimes I cannot bear the awful responsibility. But then, neither could Paul, who asked, 'who is equal to such a task?'. In the end, his sufficiency was in God, who always 'leads us in triumphal procession in Christ' (2 Cor 2:14-16).

In the face of Paul's sufferings, or kneeling at the foot of the Cross, I feel foolish even mentioning my small pain. But I dare not despise it: for in my suffering, my weakness, my affliction there is a double privilege Ð the wonder of sharing, in some small measure, the sufferings of Christ; and the glory of experiencing, in some small measure, the power of Christ resting on me. A wounded healer, with minor grazing, draws healing balm from the wounded healer par excellence. And draws strength from an apostolic paradigm.

May we all find it so in life and ministry.


Donald Attwater: Martyrs from St Stephen to John Tuney, Sheed and Ward 1958

Richard Bauckham in Themelios April Vol 7 No 3 4-6: Weakness Ð Paul's and Ours, RTSF & IFES 1982

J Christiaan Beker: Paul the Apostle - The Triumph of God in Life and Thought, T&T Clark 1989

Ernest Best: Second Corinthians, John Knox Press 1987

L Gregory Bloomquist in Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 78: The Function of Suffering in Philippians, JSOT Press, 1993

PW Barnett: 'Apostle' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F Hawthorne, and Ralph P Martin (Eds) pp 45Ð58: Inter-Varsity Press 1993

DA Black: 'Weakness' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F Hawthorne, and Ralph P Martin (Eds) pp 966Ð967: Inter-Varsity Press 1993

John Calvin (translated by John Pringle): Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians, Calvin Translation Society 1851

Donald A Carson: From Triumphalism to Maturity, Inter-Varsity Press 1986

Roy Clements: The Strength of Weakness - How God uses our flaws to achieve his goals, Christian Focus Publications Ltd 1994

James Denney: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Hodder and Stoughton 1894

G Ebel and R Schippers: 'Persecution' Vol 2 G-Pre pp 805-809 in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown (Ed),

John T Fitzgerald: Cracks in an Earthen Vessel _Ð An Examination of the Catalogues of Hardships in the Corinthian Correspondence, Scholars Press: Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series Number 99 1988

B Gartner: 'Suffer' in Vol 3 Pri-Z pp 719-726 The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Colin Brown (Ed), The Paternoster Press 1971

Kenneth Grayston: Dying, We Live - A New Enquiry into the Death of Christ in the New Testament:, Darton Longman and Todd 1990

Scott Hafemann:

a) Self- commendation' and Apostolic Legitimacy in 2 Corinthians: A Pauline Dialectic? New Testament Studies Vol 36 pp 66-88 1990

b) Suffering and Ministry in the Spirit - Paul's Defense of His Ministry in II Corinthians 2:14 - 3:3, Eerdmans 1990

c) 'Corinthians, Letter To' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F Hawthorne and Ralph P Martin (Eds) pp 164-179: Inter-Varsity Press 1993

d) 'Suffering' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,

Anthony Tyrrell Hanson: The Paradox of the Cross in the Thought of Paul in Journal for the Study of the New Testament Series 17 1987

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes: Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans 1982

John R Knott: Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature, 1563-1694, Cambridge University Press 1993

Marlene Kropf, and Eddy Hall: Praying with the Anabaptists - The Secret of Bearing Fruit, Faith and Life Press 1994

CG Kruse: 'Afflictions, Trials, Hardships' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F Hawthorne and Ralph P Martin (Eds) pp 18-20: Inter-Varsity Press 1993

J B Lightfoot: Saint Paul's Epistles to the Philippians Fourth Edition, with additions and slight alterations: MacMillan &Co 1896

H-G Link and RK Harrison: 'Weakness' in Vol 3 Pri-Z The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown (Ed): The Paternoster Press 1971

Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Romans - An Exposition of Chapter 8 vv 5-17 The Sons of God, The Banner of Truth Trust 1974

Karl A Plank: Paul and the Irony of Affliction, Scholars Press 1987

EK Simpson and FF Bruce: Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, Ltd 1957

Karen Smith: The Tie that Binds - The Suffering of Christ and Our Suffering in Theology Themes Spring 3Ð7 1994

John RW Stott: The Cross of Christ, Inter-Varsity Press 1986

Jerry L Sumney: Paul's 'Weakness': an integral part of his conception of ministry in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 52 1993

GH Twelftree: 1993 'Healing, Illness' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F Hawthorne and Ralph P Martin (Eds) pp 18-20: Inter-Varsity Press 1993

William Tyndale: Preface to the Obedience of a Christian Man, Select Works, Focus Press 1986

Ben Wetherington: Conflict and Community in Corinth - A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, William B Eerdmanns and The Paternoster Press 1995


1. Best: 1987: 12-13  Return 2. Scriptural Quotations from The New International Version, unless otherwise stated  Return 3. Knott: 1993: 29-30  Return 4. Plank: 1987: 3  Return 5. Plank: 1987: 4  Return 6. Plank: 1987: 4  Return 7. Mallone: 1994: 51 The tendency automatically to ascribe sickness to personal sinfulness is not however in his thoughts (both he and his wife have known severe ill-health, and found the close presence of Christ).   Return 8. Plank: 1987: 20-21  Return 9. The word peristasis refers to 'circumstances', and came to mean 'adverse circumstances' or 'hardship'. When formed in a list this is labelled 'Peristasen-kataloge' or 'peristasis catalogues'. On this see Fitzgerald: 1988.   Return 10. See Fitzgerald: 1988, for a study of the background to Paul's catalogues, in the peristasis of the suffering sage.  Return 11. Best: 1987:63  Return 12. 2 Corinthians 6:3ff  Return 13. See especially: 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 11:23-29, 12:10, Philippians 4:12  Return 14. Denney: 1894: 231  Return 15. Denney: 1894: 232   Return 16. Denney: 1894: 233  Return 17. Denney: 1894: 340  Return 18. Bauckham: 1982: 4  Return 19. Tyndale: 1986: 90  Return 20. Rare, that is, in terms of application to Christians. We do find leadership terminology, which carries the sense of authority, for example, arcwn, used only of worldly authorities; kurios, used as the word for 'Lord' as ascribed to Jesus, and in 2 Corinthians 1:24 Paul says 'not that we have the dominion'. Words applied to the Christian setting include episkopos, presbuteros, kubernhsis, hgeomai, but apart from occasional English renderings, context and function steer the meaning away from authority towards caring, feeding, and leading.  Return 21. Clements: 1994: 11   Return 22. Bauckham: 1982: 5-6  Return 23. Hanson: 1987: 49  Return 24. Stott: 1986: 245-246  Return 25. Quoted from Audiotape Recording of sermon preached in Newton Mearns Baptist Church, Glasgow  Return 26. Hafemann b): 1990: 65   Return 27. Kropf & Hall 1994: 30  Return 28. Cusick, James: The Independent Newspaper (25.09.95): 1  Return 29. And although there is no call for all Christians to suffer in either 1 or 2 Corinthians, nor any sign of a martyrdom theology, Paul affirms that whenever God's people are brought into the same  Return 30. Bloomquist: 1993: 194  Return 31. For the passage to make its full impact on us, we should re-read it with every 'we' replaced with an 'I' and in its light re-examine our lives. So Best: 1987: 6  Return 32. Calvin: 1851: 80  Return 33. Bloomquist: 1993: 34  Return 34. Lightfoot: 1896: 151  Return 35. Grayston: 1990: 136  Return 36. Bruce: 1957: 216 Bruce indicates, in Footnote 161, that God's people do share in the 'once for all' act of Christ, but it is a share in an event in the past, expressed in the aorist or perfect tense.  Return 37. Lloyd-Jones: 1974: 436  Return 38. Smith: 1994: 3   Return 39. Smith: 1994: 5  Return 40. Knott: 1993: 87-88  Return 41. Knott: 1993: 88  Return 42. In spite of my efforts, I have not been able to trace any reference to these sayings.   Return

Revd T Deans Buchanan, formerly a Social Worker, is serving in his third Scottish pastorate, at Newton Mearns Baptist Church, Glasgow. He teaches courses in Spiritual Development, Ethical & Social Issues, and Leadership, at the Scottish Baptist College.

Ministry Today

You are reading Ministry and Suffering in the Life of Paul by Deans Buchanan, part of Issue 9 of Ministry Today, published in February 1997.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2024