Ministry and the Heart

Recently I watched a brief news report on the stress that Covid-19 has put on our medical personnel, especially nurses. It is no surprise that the added challenges and crises brought about by the pandemic have made a serious impact on our health care workers. There certainly is something called “compassion fatigue” as well as regular fatigue. Dealing with life and especially death situations with person after person can take its toll, especially on people who really care about the people they serve. Besides choosing to resign and get away from it all, which is happening, a possible impact upon those who are continuing to serve long hours is a sort of numbness or almost callous-ness that (rightly or wrongly) can help these front line workers survive.

People in ministry can experience something similar. The serious responsibilities of preaching, teaching, and leading; the regular engagement with people, the overseeing of church matters, the handling of challenges and crises can all be overwhelming, but for the grace of God. If we add relational crises and church discipline to those hard experiences you can feel the mountain growing!   With the grace of God, there needs to be the wisdom of God to do what is necessary to maintain spiritual, mental, relational, and physical health to serve by grace for the glory of God.

I am just touching on a subject that could receive much fuller treatment and input from those who are much more able than I to address the issues related to numbness in the ministry, burn-out, and even a pre-mature decision to just “get out.” What I want to do in my remaining comments is to draw your attention to an exemplary display of love and concern by a person in ministry. Indeed, the display of passion is for a local church, and it is a church that was planted by the Apostle Paul.

It is easy to discount the Apostle Paul’s example because he was the “Great Apostle to the Gentiles.” I don’t think that is a wise practice, and it certainly is not necessary. In fact, the Apostle’s writings are filled with relational issues, problems and responses that are very instructive as well as exemplary. Besides, these texts are given to us by our God to help us to be faithful in our ministries today.        

I am not presenting a fine-tuned message below, I am seeking to draw your attention to an inspirational passage of Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-3:13, to get a sense of the genuine love, concern, and thankfulness that the Apostle is expressing. I am wanting us to sense his genuine concern for the well-being of these new believers. The Apostle is the exact opposite of someone just going through the motions. He is not numb or callous, he is invested, passionate and vulnerable.  I encourage you to read these verses seeking to sense the Apostle’s heart for these people.

The first chapter (1 Thess. 1:1-10) clearly presents Paul’s understanding of the genuine conversion of these people. Indeed, the certainty of their election by God is a ground for thanksgiving and it leads to the further remarks in these next two chapters.

In 1 Thess. 2:1-6 the Apostle recalls and defends the integrity of the gospel message presented in Thessalonica. The Apostle moves next to emphasize the manner of ministry that took place, still defending the genuine nature of the ministry (2:7-13). Paul speaks of his gentleness in female motherly terms as he considers these believers as his children. He goes further. He expresses his affection and desire which went beyond simply sharing a message. It was sharing “our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2:8). The Apostle’s concern for these believers included not burdening them financially so he and his team worked to support the ministry (2:9-10). Then, Paul speaks of the fatherly role of exhorting, encouraging, and charging these believers “to walk in a manner worthy of God” (2:11-12). These converts were the Apostle’s spiritual children.

Paul goes on to express his continued thankfulness to God for the way they received God’s Word, and then develops other thoughts that I cannot address here (2:13-16).

I just want to quote parts of the next section of this beautiful letter, because the intensity of the Apostle’s love and concern for these believers is so clear (2:17-3:10):

“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, again and again – but Satan hindered us. 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.”


The Apostle goes on:


“Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy……….to learn about your faith………But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you – for this reason,…..we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now, we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly……”


More could be shared from this letter, but I think the above words reveal a heart wide open to the people and a willingness to express that heart. The Apostle’s emotions are in tune with his thoughts. He is fully engaged in this continued ministry through these amazing “follow-up” letters.

I in no way am being critical of those dear health care workers who are finding themselves emotionally spent and even numb due to compassion and “health battle” fatigue. (A lot of losses can add even more to the emotional drain.) Nor am I wanting to be hard on those in ministry who find themselves in a similar condition. So, how does the passage of Scripture help us?

First of all, we can learn from the Apostle’s remarks in a direct way. There is the need for us to focus on what God is doing and on every evidence of His authentic work in the midst of our lives and ministries. The Thessalonians were facing persecution. The Apostle speaks of a way in which “Satan hindered” him from coming back to Thessalonica. What’s my point? There were plenty of problems and hardships surrounding both the Apostle and the Thessalonians. It was not as if everything was going smoothly. Yet, The Apostle was grateful for what God was doing in the midst of the hardships and difficulties. I think this is instructive to us in a practical and personal way. The Apostle had great confidence in God and gloried in God’s saving and strengthening activities.

We need to ask for spiritual eyes to see what God is doing even in the midst of difficulties, disappointments, and hardships. Our focus needs to be on God, His gracious activities, and the spiritual growth of people. This will aid in gaining perspective on the challenges and difficulties. Then we seek the Lord’s help as we persevere through the tough seasons. This does not mean that we will walk around with a forced smile on our faces in the midst of crises. It means that we have a real understanding of what is taking place, and that understanding protects and guides our hearts. (If you read 2 Corinthians you will witness Paul’s perspective again, in the midst of numerous hardships that he mentions especially in chapter 4 and chapters 10-12.)

I remember a young pastor coming to me with a sense of great excitement. Then, he told me of a couple that was having serious marriage problems and they were on the edge of divorce. This didn’t seem like something to be excited about. The pastor went on to say that the man had recently said that he was trying to see things from God’s perspective. This simple statement by the man was the reason for the pastor’s excitement! After all, isn’t this what we want to see happen in someone’s life, a change from what I think – to what God thinks! Praise God! You might say – a small victory, but something to thank God for. As hard as it may be at times, we need to value the inner work of God, and we need to value the “things” unseen and eternal more than the outward, the seen, and the temporary (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). 

Another purpose in sharing the passage of Scripture from 1 Thess. is for us to be honest about our personal and emotional health. We may find it hard to express our emotions so freely and gratefully right now – as the Apostle does here. There is nothing wrong with admitting that we are sensing our weakness and that (in short) current circumstances are causing us to struggle emotionally. Awareness of our own need is important.

I often use the words “giving” and “receiving” with people in ministry. People in ministry need to receive as well as give. Receiving includes regular receiving from the Lord through the Scriptures, through worship, through prayer, and doing those personal and corporate spiritual practices that nourish the soul. Such attention to the matters of our own souls is not a luxury, it is a necessary obedience. Receiving also means extended times, as my father used to say, of “restoration, relaxation, and recreation.” It is good to know those relationships, places, and activities that help to strengthen and restore. Again, I am only scratching the surface of this issue and the need for us to find our strength in the Lord and to regain a sense of the Vine and branch connection. The Lord undergirds when we are extremely busy in ministry, no question about that. But, we cannot let pride tell us that we don’t need to receive from the Lord. This “receiving” may include receiving from others as well.  

When the Apostle Paul challenges Timothy to various aspects of faithfulness, he shares a fatherly exhortation, “……. be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, ….” 2 Timothy 2:1 ESV). The source of strength was not in Timothy and it is not in us. We need to be strengthened through all the gracious resources that are found in Christ Jesus. The Apostle was emphasizing this to his son in the ministry. We are strengthened to serve. We receive to give. We experience grace to proclaim grace.

Of course, there is the possibility that a lack of ‘heart’ in ministry is actually due to some deeper spiritual personal issue in our own lives. There are too many possibilities to get into right now, but a time of honest searching can be very worthwhile. God wants our hearts more than anything else. Generally, that’s true of people as well, they want ministry from the hearts of God’s servants. We need to assess whether or not there is a hindrance, or whether the Spirit of God is controlling our lives.  

The truths we believe impact our heads, our hearts, and lead to the ministries of our hands (so to speak). Sometimes we need to revisit those truths in a more personal way when we have been occupied with helping others. Receive them afresh. Embrace them personally. Focus on Who God is and What He has done to make us His children.

I still remember a time when I was away in ministry and concerned about messages I was to bring within a few hours. Often I talk with my wife by phone when I am away. This particular Sunday morning we didn’t talk, but she sent a text, “Enjoy the Lord.” Those three words helped me to realize that I was too focused on myself at that time. I needed to focus on the Lord. I needed to remember His sufficiency, and indeed personally “rest” in His truths. What I am saying here does not erase the matters presented above. They are real. So is God. And we need to be sensitive to our own need of Him, and the ways that we can live and serve “from the heart” depending upon His grace.

David O.  


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