You Are Our Glory and Joy: The Reward of Spiritual Leadership
"For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy." (1 Thess. 2:19-20 ESV)
"For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth." (3 John 3-4)
Ministry is hard. It is heavy. It is often discouraging. We feel our unworthiness, our insufficiency, the sluggishness of our own hearts. Sometimes we fear there has been no fruit from our labor. The responsibility of ministry (which we considered in our Nov. 2014 issue) can begin to feel like a burden. At such times, it is difficult to see it as a joyful burden - where is joy to be found in the midst of such a sobering task?
For the past year, I have been waiting to take up one of Scripture's primary answers to this question. The Lord has led me to other subjects, and unexpected events have intervened. Now, as I return to the issue, I hope I understand (at least in some small measure) why God had me wait until now to address it. One of the lessons He taught me early on in my walk with Jesus (in Listening to Me 101, you might say) is that when I start hearing the same message from multiple directions and independent sources, I should sit up and pay attention. Well, over the past six months or so our ministry has been hearing a relatively consistent message from leaders in many of the prison churches. It is a heart-cry, a longing for God's people in their churches to grow toward maturity as disciples of Jesus.
Our Lord commanded us to make not only "converts" or "believers," but "disciples" of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). Those who God graciously calls and equips as leaders among His people long to see others grow into true disciples of Christ. Paul described his passion to create mature disciples as a great struggle (Gk. agona, Col. 2:1-3), and as being "in the anguish of childbirth" (Gal. 4:19). This longing hurts.
Several years ago I was attending a fellowship group every week with brothers and sisters from my home church in Denver. I quickly noticed that one brother in the group, a former Catholic, seemed to have a lot of potential as a teacher and leader. I spoke to the leaders of the fellowship group, and found that they had noticed the same thing. I talked to this brother and we arranged to begin meeting regularly so that I could disciple him one on one. We worked together to develop a plan for our meetings, and I was really excited about this new opportunity for ministry. I longed to see this brother grow toward maturity in the Lord, becoming the servant of God that I knew he had the potential to be.
By God's grace everything went relatively smoothly for a while; we were sharing our struggles with each other and covering the subjects we had planned. Pretty quickly, however, life began to intrude. The brother I was working to disciple was preparing to get married, and was thinking about moving out of state to go back to school. We started missing our meetings, and eventually they stopped altogether. I was disappointed and discouraged. I couldn't tell if our time together had made any difference for this young brother's spiritual growth or walk with the Lord. I wondered what I had done wrong, and if all the prayer and time and work had been worth it.
But God surprised me. During one of our final fellowship group meetings before this brother moved out of state for school, he began sharing how his understanding of and relationship with God had been shaped and deepened by his time with me. I found myself moved to tears - even though it seemed to me that I had done a poor job discipling this brother, God chose to work through me to help him grow closer to the Lord. It was a moment of unexpected joy, realizing that I had been part of helping another brother see the beauty and glory of God in a new way. He would be able to walk in the light of that truth, and share it with his new wife and others who God brought across his path.
I had discovered the truth that the Apostle John describes in our passage from his third epistle: there is no greater joy in ministry than to hear that those we serve are walking in the truth (3 John 3-4). "John rejoices when his readers adhere to the teachings of the Word of God, obeying them and living according to them. Their walk in truth brings joy to his heart - as it does to any true pastor. A pastor does not find true joy through increasing membership, a new building, or a higher salary as much as he does when he sees those to whom he ministers walking in the truth. True joy in a pastor's heart flows from watching men and women, boys and girls, being conformed to the image of Christ. True believers are the real wages of a faithful minister" (Beeke, 220).
We have hope of joy in ministry leadership only when we are pouring ourselves into the lives of others for the purpose of helping them to see, rejoice in, and live out the truths of the word of God as they become increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. "Spiritual leaders who invest in people will experience deep satisfaction when they see those individuals fulfill God's purposes for their lives. There is no greater experience for leaders than rejoicing with those who have matured in their faith as a result of their leaders' faithfulness...Leaders' joy is multiplied as younger associates follow their example and they in turn help others grow" (Blackaby, 365).
The longing to disciple others that we may see them walking in the truth rises naturally from a shepherd's heart that is being made more like the heart of Jesus. The Lord found joy in the preservation and growth of those whom God had given Him (John 17). There was a promise of great satisfaction in the prospect of an uncountable redeemed multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation which would be brought to God through Jesus' faithful ministry (Isaiah 53:10-11). But this joy and satisfaction did not come without cost - it lay on the other side of the cross. Jesus was strengthened to endure the difficulty, rejection, and suffering of His earthly ministry by the future hope of the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:1-2).
In the same way, as leaders and disciplers we can be strengthened to endure the pain, the longing, and the apparent failures of ministry by focusing on the hope of joy that we know we will one day experience at the Lord's coming. On that day we will see what God has done in the lives of so many through our feeble but faithful service. Then we will rejoice in praising Him for making us a part of our brothers' and sisters' journeys to glory in His presence. Above all, we will see how Christ is glorified, and God magnified, in the lives and praises of those into whom we have poured ourselves. If we remember this hope when our ministries feel pointless or seem like failures, God will work through it to strengthen us for perseverance in His service.
Every one looks at least a certain distance into the future, and projects something into it to give it reality and interest to himself. That is his hope. It may be the returns he expects from investments of money; it may be the expansion of some scheme he has set on foot for the common good; it may be his children, on whose love and reverence, or on whose advancement in life, he counts for the happiness of his declining years. Paul, we know, had none of these hopes; when he looked down into the future he saw no fortune growing secretly, no peaceful retirement in which the love of sons and daughters would surround him and call him blessed. Yet his future was not dreary or desolate; it was bright with a great light; he had a hope that made life abundantly worth living, and that hope was the Thessalonians. He saw them in his mind's eye grow daily out of the lingering taint of heathenism into the purity and love of Christ. He saw them, as the discipline of God's providence had its perfect work in them, escape from the immaturity of babes in Christ, and grow in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour to the measure of the stature of perfect men. He saw them presented faultless in the presence of the Lord's glory in the great day. That was something to live for. To witness that spiritual transformation which he had inaugurated carried on to completion gave the future a greatness and a worth which made the Apostle's heart leap for joy...Such words might well be charged with extravagance if we omitted to look at the connection in which they stand. "What is our hope, or joy, or crown of glorying? Are not even ye, before our Lord Jesus at His coming?" Before our Lord Jesus at His coming: this is the presence, this the occasion, with which Paul confronts, in imagination, his hope and joy and triumph. They are such as give him confidence and exultation even as he thinks of the great event which will try all common hopes and put them to shame (Denney n.d., 106-108).
Beeke, Joel. 2006. The Epistles of John. New York: Evangelical Press.
Blackaby, Henry & Richard Blackaby. 2011. Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God's Agenda. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing.
Denney, James. n.d. The Epistles to the Thessalonians. New York: Hodder & Stoughton.