Want to Equip Others to Serve? Teach Them About Suffering

tears on face of crop anonymous woman

I routinely hear horror stories about church leaders mistreating and, in many cases, bullying people who suffer. Ironically, suffering is something Jesus did often. He and his disciples were no strangers to suffering. In fact, Jesus told them that they would experience tremendous suffering. There was no way to sugar coat it. Jesus never promised them comfort, wealth, or health. Instead, he promised them eternal life. Suffering is something that is as sure as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. It is guaranteed for all of us.

Yet, so many of us were ill equipped by the church to endure it. Any of us who have suffered know how lonely it is. We often lose friends and family during seasons of suffering. Ask anyone who has lost loved ones. The three-month-rule is almost guaranteed. People will appear out of the woodwork to deliver sympathy cards, calls, and meals. Then after three months its as if a switch is turned off and all those people who vowed to never leave are. . . gone. This is how suffering works. It is lonely. It is heavy. And often people ridicule those who are suffering, telling them to “hurry up and get well.” But suffering doesn’t work that way. Suffering lingers, and has lingering effects. Depression and anxiety are common. Sadness is almost guaranteed.

Isaiah said of the coming messiah, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:3-4 ESV). People do, in fact, hide their faces from those who suffer. Christ was a man of sorrows and even bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet people use this same Christ to bully others into believing that he rejects Christians who suffer. Abused people are told to “forgive and move on.” Depressed people are told to “have more faith.” Sad people are told to “cheer up.”

Yet Christ suffers with us. And he equips us for ministry by calling us to suffer with and for others. The Lord, through a vision, told Ananias that Paul would suffer: “Go for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

If we are going to equip one another for works of ministry, let’s begin by preparing each other to suffer. Until we suffer, we will never fully comprehend what others are going through. Until we suffer, we will fail to have empathy for those whose lives are wrecked. On the other hand, when we suffer we see people with a different lens. Compassion guides us and we understand the loneliness they feel. We should begin by teaching our children that suffering exists. But not just that it exists, but that there is a solution. We can sit with those who suffer. We can share in their pain. We can offer them love and hope. And we can be the hands and feet of Jesus to them.

Keep In Step With the Spirit

faceless black person picking coffee cherries

We’ve been talking a lot about equipping the saints for works of ministry. When people are bound together in love, that unity produces maturity. Iron sharpens iron. We see things and experience things that we otherwise would never have experienced. There is no room in the kingdom for unproductivity. We are workers for the kingdom and we’re supposed to produce fruit.

And speaking of fruit, Paul tells us what the fruit of the Spirit is. When we are disciplined in the fruit of the Spirit, we do not indulge in the things that keep us from God. Not only that, Paul reminds us that there is no law against doing them: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22, 23 ESV).

As we equip one another, we need to be reminded to bear Spirit fruit. That fruit is pure, righteous, and will keep us from doing wrong. Paul urges his readers to “walk by the Spirit” and they will not gratify the desires of the flesh. The great news is that we can become practiced in living out the fruit of the Spirit. We hear a lot about detoxing the body and, in a very real sense, we can detox our spirits by partaking in Spirit fruit.

The Barren Fig Tree

gray trunk green leaf tree beside body of water

The Bible has a lot to say about working for the kingdom of God. It also has a lot to say about idleness. Jesus told a parable of a vineyard owner who came seeking fruit on a fig tree he had planted in the past. When he approached the tree, it had no fruit. Luke records, “And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?'” (Luke 13:7 ESV).

Jesus was clearly talking about people here. That is a gut-wrenching question–“Why should it use up the ground?” This question was meant to be thought-provoking for Jesus’ listeners. Are there people who are using up the ground? In other words, are there people who sap energy and nutrients that are vital for the growth of other Christians yet don’t produce anything worthwhile? The master told the vinedresser to cut it down, but the vinedresser pleaded.

“Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:9). Here, God is exercising grace and allowing room for others to nurture the unproductive one. The purposefully ambiguous text doesn’t provide a reason why the fig tree isn’t producing. Whatever the reason isn’t important to the vinedresser. He is interested in sparing the tree and helping to nurture it back to health.

This parable is an important lesson that these two truths exist: (1) it’s not OK to be unproductive in the kingdom and (2) we should help nurture one another to become more productive. God expects everyone to be equipped for serving in the Kingdom. Being unproductive hurts other people because we neglect to use our God-given gifts to help them.

The Grumbling Workers

grapes on vineyard during daytime

Jesus told a parable of laborers who were hired for a day to work in a vineyard. Jesus started, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1 ESV). The master agreed to hire them for a denarius, which was a typical day’s wage. Then going out at the third hour (9:00 AM) and hired more who were standing in the marketplace. He agreed to pay them “whatever is right.” He continued this at the sixth hour (12:00 PM) and the ninth hour (3:00 PM).

At the eleventh hour (5:00 PM) he found others standing idle and asked them why they were not working. They replied, “Because no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7). The master hired them and they worked for an hour. In the evening, the master told his foreman to pay their wages, “beginning with the last, up to the first.” As the wages were paid out, the first were angry to learn that the last people hired received a denarius, the same amount that they had agreed to work for. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” they bemoaned (vs. 12).

The master was quick to point out that the first agreed to work for a denarius and that he was free to use his own money however he wanted. The master replied, “Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Jesus ends the parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first, last” (vs. 16). By comparing the kingdom of heaven to the master, Jesus was demonstrating that God will extend grace to whom he will extend grace. We don’t know what kind of shape the last were in, but one thing we do know is that nobody would hire them. It’s possible they had some deformity or illness that rendered them not hirable. Whatever the case, the master extended grace and generosity to them because of his compassion.

As we equip others to serve, we need to remember that we labor for the Lord because it’s the right thing to do. We don’t do it to receive an earthly reward.

A Righteous Work Ethic

sunflower garden under blue sky

The Bible has lots to say about idleness and laziness. As we focus on our theme to equip the saints for ministry, it’s important to realize that it is just plain hard work. It takes time, attention, and discipline to be a committed worker of the kingdom. Proverbs 12:11 (ESV) says, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” Similarly, Proverbs 14:23 says, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”

There are many Bible verses about providing, working, and producing. Jesus himself prayed for workers because the fields were ripened for harvest. He was talking about kingdom work. He often spoke using metaphors about crops to talk about being productive in leading people to salvation. Think about all the times Jesus spoke about being productive for God. But it wasn’t just Jesus. All through the Bible people are commanded to work, and to do so diligently.

Peter informed his readers that they need to supplement their faith with certain qualities and concludes: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:8, 10).

With all of today’s distractions, it’s easier than ever to be unproductive. In order to be productive there needs to be a plan to work. This is what Paul is describing when he tells the Ephesian church to equip one another for works of ministry. It takes time, discipline, and dedication to disciple and equip others, and it is well worth the time invested.

Love Is the Heart of the Church

silhouette photo of man leaning on heart leaf shape tree during dawn

When Paul told the Corinthian church that they are all members of one body, and that each has it’s own role, he then launched into what’s known as “the love chapter.” Paul made the very powerful point that love is essential for the body of Christ to function. It is the heart, even the heartbeat, of the church. Love is what binds everyone and everything together. It’s what maintains peace and unity.

Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2 ESV). Paul says love is patient and kind, it doesn’t envy or boast, it is not arrogant or rude. It is not self-seeking. This is the polar opposite of what Paul was addressing earlier in this letter to the Corinthians.

Earlier, Paul warned that selfish, greedy, idolatrous, and sexually abusive people will not inherit the kingdom of God. He told the church to avoid such people within the community of believers and to purge the evil. Why? Because love doesn’t do those things. Love corrects, rebukes, and even avoids people who are destructive. There is no place for disunity and destruction in the Lord’s church. While hatred tears down, love builds up. And God wants believers everywhere to build each other up into Christ as our head.

When churches and individuals love well, there is peace and protection, honor and provision. Love is essential for the body to be well. Like a body whose heart stops beating, the body of Christ dies when the body stops loving. Love is the heartbeat of the church.

What You Were Is Not Who You Are

sad isolated young woman looking away through fence with hope

In a continuation of Paul’s thoughts in 1 Corinthians on purging the evil person, he reiterates that people who are practicing wickedness will not inherit the kingdom of God. In chapter 6 he repeats the list he gave in chapter 5, while adding to it. Paul is not backing it down. He is ramping it up. The point is that unrighteousness is not to be tolerated in the church because it destroys lives and maligns the body of Christ. Paul said earlier to “cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Cor. 5:7 ESV).

What he’s referring to are the people within the church who create division and attempt to cause others to fall away from God. You cannot have both poison and nourishment in the same body. When Paul wrote the first letter to the church at Corinth, he was addressing some very serious sin issues. Christians were extremely divided, were sexually immoral, were having drunken parties during the Lord’s Supper, and were fighting horribly over spiritual gifts. The church was in complete shambles, and Paul was issuing a stern warning that they better clean up their act.

What’s noteworthy is that Paul is less focused on working on current issues and puts more emphasis on who they were called to be. In the church today, we tend to get caught up in the past, bringing up all the issues we have with people who are causing problems. Paul has no interest in placating the Christians at Corinth. What they were is not who they are.

Paul says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). He is reminding them that, yes, they really messed up. But that they need to repent and focus on who they are as bearers of Christ’s holy name. In other words, he tells them it’s time to get over themselves and move forward in unity.