Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing

I wonder what commends a minister to you. What things would stand out to you as marking a Christian minister as bona fide? Paul comes up with a very interesting list of qualities that “commend” him as a minister to the congregation at Corinth in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10. (Their relationship was clearly a bit bumpy). With a series of pastoral scandals breaking and the relationship between congregations and those in the ministry being particularly fraught, it might be a good list to acquaint yourself with. 

One particular quality caught my eye: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”. It’s a catchy phrase, but what does it mean? Paul isn’t saying, sometimes he’s sorrowful and sometimes he’s rejoicing. This isn’t describing the natural ups and downs of our spirits. Rather, he is describing two simultaneous experiences. 

So, on the one hand, Paul constantly experienced sorrow. This wasn’t a problem to be medicated, but it actually authenticated his ministry. As far as Paul’s concerned, this is a vale of tears; here we have no continuing city. He’s longing for a better country. He experiences the misery of sin. With Paul, there’s no pretending, or fake smiles. Paul wept much more than I do. He truly cared and sympathised and was grieved by sin. He wasn’t distant and remote, or cool and cold. No one could listen to Paul and not long for Jesus’ return. He never left you feeling you were OK as you were. 

But, at the same time, Paul was always rejoicing. Nothing could douse his joy. People could dismiss Paul as unimpressive in person, or as unskilled in speech (2 Cor 10:10), but no one could have called Paul glum. There was always a twinkle in his eye. Even in his tears, there’s a joy. Even in his anguish, what Jesus Christ had done for him and for you wasn’t shaken or disturbed. Yes, the jars of clay could crack, and the earthly tent rip, but nothing could threaten the treasure and the eternal house in the heavens, which Jesus Christ had given to his people. Paul delighted to offer people the real Jesus.

In other words, sorrow and joy both co-existed in Paul’s soul. They weren’t competitors that cancelled each other out, or even “balanced”, but two features of faith in Christ. 

It is precisely this combination of sorrow and joy that Paul says commended him as a real Christian minister. It’s what made him different to the fake peddlers of God’s word (2 Cor 2:17) and the “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). Their goal was to leave people feeling upbeat and in a positive mood. But in practice their this-worldly, pop-psychology quickly morphed into something legalistic and enslaving, which spiralled into misery (2 Cor 11:20). But in Paul’s faithful ministry both sorrow and joy harmonised. 

So, this combination of sorrow and joy is something to be on the lookout for in ministers. The authentic Christian minister will make you both more sorrowful (2 Cor 7:8) and more joyful (2 Cor 1:24). Rather than prizing one over the other, or trying to balance them out, grip both sides of Christian experience tight. The real Jesus leads his people to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10).