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Dealing with Discouragement and Spiritual Opposition in Ministry

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The Books of Acts contain several principles for addressing and overcoming opposition to ministry.
Since we live in a fallen world in which so many are set against God and the gospel of Christ, we will face discouragement and even demonic opposition in ministry, especially when we are about to embark on an important work. But that is no reason to fear Satan or to flag in our zeal to advance God’s Kingdom and to build up his church.

In 1993, a young philosopher came to teach at Denver Seminary, the ink barely dry on his Ph.D. diploma. He thought that he would teach in a small college, but his only offer of employment was from a theological graduate school. The faculty asked him to serve as a professor of philosophy despite his having no theological degrees. He had written a few books and the school thought he knew theology and the Bible pretty well.

That man was me. Although I never planned for it, my professional career has been centered on educating men and women for various ministries—in churches, Christian parachurch organizations, or in the academy. As a faculty member at a seminary, I quickly realized that my responsibilities were as much pastoral as academic, and I relish both responsibilities. Over many years, I have noted a pattern with many of my students and one that I have experienced in my own life of ministry: The possibilities for great achievements often bring discouragement and spiritual opposition. The Christian must press on and press through in order to mature spiritually and to increase his or her ministry effectiveness.

Facing Discouragement and Opposition

Recently, I spoke to a student in his early thirties who told me that he had never experienced demonic opposition until he came to seminary. After a difficult break up with a girlfriend, he became dismayed and discouraged. He also sensed that the enemy of his soul did not want him to continue his studies. A battle was raging for his education and ministry. Yet, through Christ, he prevailed and did not shrink back. He will graduate this term!

Another student from overseas struggled mightily to integrate his spiritual life of prayer, worship, and church involvement with the intense demands of study placed upon him—especially since English was his second language and theological studies were new to him. He nearly dropped out during his first year of study. But through my encouragement and a revitalizing of his spiritual life, he gained ground and is now both an excellent student and a thriving Christian.

When I consider some pivotal times in my life regarding education, writing, preaching, and teaching, I see that I often had to overcome discouragement and even demonic oppression in order to minister effectively. Many years ago, when reading from The Books of Acts, I discovered several principles for addressing and overcoming opposition to ministry. I have encouraged my students to study this passage and to make these principles their own. Let us consider Acts 13:1-12, where we will find seven powerful principles for overcoming opposition to God’s kingdom work.

Six Principles from Acts 13:1-12

The Book of Acts chronicles the birth of the church and the spreading flame of Christian truth in the ancient near-eastern and Mediterranean world. The key to the church’s advance is found in Jesus’ promise made just before his Ascension:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Acts has been called “the Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since it is the Spirit who advances the gospel in accord with the Father and Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). The seven principles for Christian witness through adversity are found in one master principle: We must be filled with the Holy Spirit’s power to find power over discouragement and opposition and to proclaim the gospel wisely.

Acts 13:1-12  recounts the Apostle Paul’s (who was first called Saul) first ministry journey, during which he is accompanied by Barnabus and Mark. The outreach is birthed in the preparation at the multi-ethnic church at Antioch. There were “prophets and teachers there “Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul” (13:1). The prophets and teachers were Spirit-empowered ministry positions. Barnabas (which means son of encouragement) was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24). Niger, which means black or dark, was probably a north African. Manaen was brought up with Herod and was from the upper political class. These differences meant nothing as they fasted, prayed, worshipped, and sought God. God spoke:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (13:2-3).

Their mission emanated and materialized from church fellowship. They did not launch out on their own without the discernment of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Here we find the first principle:

  1. We need the wisdom of the church to discern God’s call to mission and to receive God’s power for ministry.

That church must be about the worship and service of God; it does not exist to perpetuate itself or set its own agenda. The church at Antioch sought God’s will earnestly. So, here is the second principle:

2. We need a God-ward orientation to discern God’s call to mission and to receive God’s power for ministry and need to be led by the Holy Spirit for ministry.

The Holy Spirit sent them out to bring the gospel to the Gentiles and that they proclaimed “the word of God.” Paul and Barnabus were accompanied by John who was their “helper” (1:4-5). To find divine power and protection, they needed to stay true to the “word of God” and not teach something of their own imagination (See Hebrews 2:14). Thus, our third principle:

3. We need to proclaim God’s word to find power over error. Through the Holy Spirit.

We cannot do godly ministry by mere intelligence or wit or charisma or reputation, and we should not be ashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16-17). Preachers cannot expect their messages to edify, convict, and convert their hearers if their sermons are not rich in biblical content clearly delivered. That requires dedicated study and prayer (Titus 2:7-8; James 3:1-2).

It might be easy to miss the reference to Mark as “the helper,” since he is not teaching or preaching. Nevertheless, teachers and preachers—or anyone in public view—need lots of help behind the scenes for them to do their work. Otherwise, they will get exhausted by trying to do everything themselves. But whether we are in public view or not, everyone needs support and encouragement from their brothers and sisters in Christ. So, there is our next principle:

4. Behind-the-scenes helpers are vital for ministry.

The secret of profound teaching, preaching, and serving is not merely in the gifts of those who engage in these ministries, but it also found in those who silently support them in prayer and otherwise. Every pastor and church leader should solicit prayer for their lives and their ministries. Paul was not above this, as we see in his letter to the Ephesians:

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should (Ephesians 6:19-20; see also Colossians 4:2-3).

The spiritual opposition was so strong against me when I was writing Revealing the New Age Jesus (InterVarsity Press, 1990), that I asked my pastor for help. He helped set up a prayer chain in which people were praying for me through most hours of the day until the work was done.

Our story heats up and becomes more detailed as the team travels throughout the whole island of Cyrus and comes to Paphos, which was on the western coast. There they encountered a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was also called Elymus. Any Jew, who was a sorcerer, was disobeying God’s command to have nothing to do with that dark practice or any practices associated with it, such as consulting the dead or divination (Deuteronomy 18:9-14; see also Acts 8:9-11; Revelation 22:15). This is the devil’s work. Elymus was a kind of First Secretary of Sorcery to a Sergius Paulus, who was an intelligent Roman political leader who wanted to hear the Word of God from the missions team. But Elymas wanted to shut the door that had opened for the gospel. He might well lose his job if his boss converted. This spiritual friction reveals the next principle:

5. The power of error opposes the truth of the gospel. Expect it and plan for conflict and struggle in ministry.

You only have to read through the Book of Acts to discovery how many terrible trials Paul experienced in explaining, defending, and proclaiming the Gospel, and he is not afraid to recount them (2 Corinthians 11:23-33). Being on the right side does not make things easy in God’s Kingdom.  As Barnabas and Paul later said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:23).

Paul might have been discouraged or even questioned whether God was leading them to evangelize Sergius Paulus. Instead, the fire in his bones confronted the error of the sorcerer.

Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun” (13:9-11).

Paul’s courage was from the Holy Spirit, not his own religious flesh; otherwise, his words would have fallen flat. (This is the third reference to the Holy Spirit in this passage.) He rather spoke the truth as a godly rebuke and sensed the Spirit binding and silencing the sorcerer. Since Paul’s mission was to speak the Word of God, since it was backed by the church, since it was birthed in prayer and fasting, since he had the support of Barnabus and Paul, he had the divine authority to stand up against demonic opposition.

This was not the time for an argument with the First Secretary of Sorcery. Paul gave reasoned arguments when it was the right time, as in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). This was the time to silence the sorcerer so Paul could teach the Roman leader.

6. A Spirit-filled and biblically-informed Christian challenges error courageously and effectively.

I have yet to be in a ministry situation where I had to rebuke someone as Paul did. However, a Spirit-led ministry will stiffen the back, put fire in the bones, and direct the tongue toward truth come what may. I have dealt with hecklers and those who wanted to shut me down in a public talk. By the Holy Spirit, I kept teaching and propounding the truth. Whenever a Christian is being challenged in ministry, he or she should ask, “Is this the enemy trying to detail my ministry or does it mean that it is not God’s timing for me to minister in this way?” If you follow the first five principles, in this passage, the answer should be forthcoming.

Discouragement, the Demonic, and Christian Faith

Since we live in a fallen world in which so many are set against God and the gospel of Christ, we will face discouragement and even demonic opposition in ministry, especially when we are about to embark on an important work. But that is no reason to fear Satan or to flag in our zeal to advance God’s Kingdom and to build up his church. As long as we seek direction from the Holy Spirit for mission in the context of the church, have a Godward focus, present God’s word, are supported by helpers, and are prepared for battle, we can prevail. I will give Paul, the hero of his passage, the final word of encouragement for us.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; see also Ephesians 6:10-20).

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