No pain, no gain.
I’m sure you know the slogan. Its roots may go back a long time, but it was popularised in the 1980s in a series of exercise videos by Jane Fonda. According to Wikipedia, ‘Medical experts agree that the proverb is wrong for exercise’.
I’m not so sure.
After exercise, a certain kind of pain indicates that you’ve worked the muscles in a way that generates size and efficiency. Other kinds of pain reveal that you’ve overdone it, and possibly damaged your muscles. Exercise experts know the difference . . . and I don’t. Exercise wisdom is not my forte!
What happens when we apply this principle to ministry?
Serving others often entails pain. Self-denial and the opposition of the evil one often lead to suffering. Sadly, too, there is the pain of betrayal, rejection, and unfair accusations from those we seek to lead. This is all part and parcel of what the apostle Paul describes as ‘sharing in the sufferings of Christ’ (Rom 8.17; 2 Cor 1.5; Phil 3.10).
Is ministry gain impossible without pain? I wouldn’t go that far. However, it does seem that the apostle Paul expects pain as part of the package. 2 Corinthians tackles this subject directly. And it’s certainly true that pain can be a source of gain. Like me, I’m sure you can testify to how the Lord has grown your character and faith through painful experiences. And if you’re currently going through one, I am confident that God is able to produce growth in you through it, (though that might be hard to hear right now).
When we think of the Lord Jesus, the phrase, ‘no pain, no gain’ is certainly true. But with a twist. His pain was for our gain. There could be no glory for us without his wounds. The apostle Paul seems to have that in mind when speaking of ministry. He is less concerned about the minister’s growth, and much more focused on how our suffering blesses others.
Hence, the title of this post:
No pain (for me), no gain (for you).
He stresses this in one of his letters.
If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.
2 Cor 1.6
Earlier in the passage, Paul describes God as ‘the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort’. What beautiful words to describe God—a loving Father whose heart of compassion is towards his children, and a sovereign God who works in his power for the comfort of his people.
The word comfort—paraklésis—doesn’t just mean a pat on the back. It’s rich with overtones of encouragement and undertones of exhortation. It describes the act of giving strength to others and spurring them on. It also contains the idea that we come alongside others, put our arms around their shoulders, and help them bear their weight as they limp onwards. That’s what our Father does for us. By the indwelling Spirit, who is the Parakletos, he carries us along as we endure distress.
But the comfort of our Father can also come to us through others. For example, Titus brought comfort to Paul (2 Cor 7.6). If you need support from someone, reach out to Living Leadership, and we’ll seek to offer that. Your Father knows and he cares. He is always with you by his Spirit and also available through your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Growth through suffering—and God’s comfort—is one thing, but Paul is onto something a little different. He says his suffering is for the Corinthians. His pain is their gain. How, exactly, did Paul expect the comfort he had received from God to comfort the Corinthians? I think there are two aspects.
GROWTH AS A MINISTER
First, Paul believed that his own suffering—and God’s consequent comfort—made him a better minister. It helped him become more effective in caring for others. He doesn’t endorse his suffering as a blessing, nor does he argue that all suffering leads to our good. He’s being more precise. He’s claiming that the kind of suffering he’s experienced has specifically prepared him to care for others going through similar pain. Those who rely upon the promises of God in dire straits are able to proclaim them more powerfully to others. Those who have felt the uplifting arms of God can more fully embrace those who are fainting.
Paul didn’t hide his suffering. How could he? They had witnessed some for themselves. But he goes out of his way to remind the Corinthians of what they already knew. Indeed, he adds new details in one of his letters.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.
2 Cor 1.8
In short, Paul is modelling appropriate self-disclosure.
Importantly I’m talking here about self-discloure about our weaknesses in our ministry with those we lead. That is a different matter than confessing our sins to others to seek help to live faithfully. Ministers must seek accountability and those who have committed serious leadership abuses must confess and submit themselves to the proper authorities. My focus in this post is not on those matters but on the kind of self-disclosure Paul models in 2 Corinthians - sharing with those we lead something of our internal struggles for their benefit.
How can ministers know what to share about themselves in their preaching and pastoral cnversations?
I have seen how disastrous it can be when ministers over-share their struggles or do it in a way that seems to be only for their own benefit rather than also for the benefit of those they lead. It can be a distraction from the gospel or even a way of manipulating people. (‘I can’t raise any concerns with my minister, because he has his own struggles’.) Another danger is sharing about past traumas when we are not ready or able to do so without reopening our own wounds. Certainly, some people have effective ministries that arise from being able to help others through traumas similar to their own experiences (e.g., abuse, miscarriage, depression etc.). But this is a choice, which should be guided by wisdom and good counsel, not an obligation.
Having said this, however, it’s my observation that many ministers err on the side of under-disclosing. They never share about their own struggles in sermons and rarely do so in pastoral conversations. Even then, they speak generally and not specifically.
We can learn from the apostle Paul here.
Pastoral ministry is relational and in relationships we share ourselves with others. By sharing appropriately from real life experience, we help people see not only what they should do but how they can do it. We paint a realistic picture of the life of faith.
Here are some principles to help us follow Paul’s example.
Don’t share when you’re in the thick of the struggle. Do so after the event, when you have had time to reflect on what God has taught you.
Only share about past traumas after you’ve undergone sufficient healing and if you believe, by God’s grace, that you can do so without retraumatising yourself. If you choose to share, then it’s advisable to have a close friend/mentor to lean on, someone with whom you can pray both before and after sharing.
Be honest and open about how an experience has impacted you. Don’t downplay how tough it was.
Be discrete about details of sins or struggles that won’t edify others. As an example, Paul speaks of a ‘thorn in the flesh,’ clearly something very personal but which remains unnamed.*
Testify to God as the one who sustained you. Direct people’s gaze to Christ and how you appreciated him as Saviour, Lord and sustainer.
If possible, share the specific truth about God (or his promise) that kept you going. His promise to raise the dead (2 Cor 1.9) and the sufficiency of his grace (2 Cor 12.9) are two examples.
Help people to frame their struggles with an eye to their eternal future. Paul often refers to his hope of the resurrection.
If we follow these principles, our self-disclosure can be a blessing to others.
It is a valuable tool.
Ministry can be very challenging. At times it is painful, but we know our struggles are not in vain. Indeed, God has designed it so that our pain can be used for the gain of others.
To encourage and draw them closer to the one who loves and sustains them.
For his glory.