The Temptation of Ministry, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 by Timothy Keller


A reading from 2 Corinthians 12:7. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the
surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a
messenger of Satan to harass me to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me, but he said to me ‘My
grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I
will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ
may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses,
insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities, for when I am weak then I am
strong. The word of the Lord. [Tim Keller] It’s an honor to be asked to speak to you, a
significant school of the prophets in this beautiful space. So I would like to
immediately get negative. I’m on the verge of having been in ordained
ministry for 42 years and those of us who have been in the ministry for that
long know how many people who started with us didn’t get to the finish line.
It’s a grievous percentage. It’s a lot of people and I think one of the main
reasons why so many people fall by the wayside over the years is because they
aren’t warned. That’s why I’m going negative about the
temptation of ministry. So you already heard the passage read, we’ll keep on it,
but let me just read you that very first verse that was read from
2 Corinthians 12. Paul says ‘To keep me from being conceited by the
surpassingly great revelations I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of
Satan to torment me.’ Because of ‘To keep me from being conceited by the
surpassingly great revelations.’ Now there’s a tendency to miss how much what
Paul says here applies to us, here’s the reason why. Paul was called into the
ministry and he was trained for the ministry. He was trained in the the Word
of God. Now he was trained by the actual physical risen Christ. He was taken to
the second heaven, whatever that means, the third heaven, and so in many ways
his seminary experience was, you know, extraordinary. But let’s not miss the
principle. The principle is, ‘I was called into the ministry and I was equipped by
given all this insight.’ And you’re actually here also being given
revelations. I mean, maybe not surpassingly great revelations…
I’ve taught at seminary too and you know my lectures weren’t ‘surpassingly great,’
but we’re still talking about revelation, we’re still talking about the Word of
God, we’re still talking about theological knowledge and Paul says that
when you’re theologically trained and called into the ministry it can lead to
conceit. In fact, it does lead to conceit unless something happens. So let me take
a look at the one conceit he’s talking about here and a couple others that we
see in the New Testament, at least briefly. Here’s three ways that the
ministry can make you conceited. In fact, three ways that the ministry will make
you conceited unless God intervenes with your cooperation. So first of all, there’s
the conceit of theological knowledge itself. Now you might say “Well it’s
stretching it a little bit to say that Paul’s saying ‘Well the theological
knowledge, knowledge of revelation leads to conceit,'” but there’s another place, 1st
Corinthians 8 verse 1 and 2 where Paul says this: “We all possess knowledge but
knowledge puffs up, while love builds up. Those who think
they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” And now what’s Paul
talking about here? He’s actually talking about theological knowledge because he’s
getting into the whole issue about meat offered idols and so on and so he’s
talking about the fact that there’s theological knowledge and some
people have right theological knowledge but that knowledge can lead to what?
Being puffed up. And love builds up. Very simple, he’s saying something very simple
here. He says knowing the truth, theological knowledge has a tendency to
inflate you. Love is by definition self-emptying, love is by
definition saying ‘your needs are more important than mine.’ But being puffed up
means that you become more self-involved, you become proud, you become proud of your acknowledge, you become proud of the insight that you
have and Paul says ‘It doesn’t have to be that way,’ but the fact is that it
very often is. Now David Martyn Lloyd-Jones in one of his, basically was his expositions of Ephesians, when he gets
into a place — one volume is called The Christian Warfare. There’s a
place where he actually goes into a number, he goes away from the book of
Ephesians and goes into what he considers particular ways that Satan
overthrows Christians and he has an extended meditation on 1 Corinthians 8:1, and the name of the sermon or the meditation is ‘Love
Puffeth Up.’ And in it he says a couple things that are pretty strong, and maybe
too strong, but that’s why I’ll quote them so that you can be mad at him
rather than me because I feel like they’re largely right, maybe I wouldn’t
say it this way, but I feel like I want to be negative and so let me — and
Dr. Lloyd-Jones was great at being negative and still inspirational
at the same time and he says ‘Whenever you allow your relationship to the truth to
become purely theoretical and academic, you’re falling into the grip of Satan.’
This is what he says: “The moment in your study you cease to come under the
power of the truth, you have become a victim of the devil. If you can study the
Bible without being searched and examined and humbled, without being
lifted up and made to praise God or moved with sorrow over what God has
endured in you or amazed at the beauty and wisdom of what Christ has done for
you, if you do not feel as much of the desire to sing when you are alone in
your study as when you’re standing in the pulpit you are in bad shape and you
should always feel something of this power.’ And he goes on and says the marks
of someone who has learned to master the revelation – the Bible, theological
knowledge – learning to master it as a set of information but cease to come under
the power of it, here are some of the marks of it. One is he says you become a
spiritual crank. And a spiritual crank is someone who’s always complaining about
relatively fine shades of doctrinal distinctions, always denouncing arguments
over Bible translations, always denouncing people on the wrong side of
the latest theological controversy, he calls that a spiritual crank. Somebody
who in a sense the Word of God has become something you use it’s not
something that uses you. Secondly, he just talks about intellectual pride and
thirdly tribalism. My tribe, my particular theological tribe is the one that you —
wisdom perishes with us. And so it doesn’t have to but it usually does lead
to a certain kind of inflation and conceit to become theologically trained
and unless God intervenes with your cooperation, you’re going to make shipwreck. That’s the first kind of
conceit that theological training and ministry almost inevitably leads to.
Here’s a second one. The second thing is this: The conceit that comes from what I
guess I’ll call a ‘false identity.’ You will tend to identify
personally with your ministry so that your ministry and its success or lack of
success will become your success or lack of success. You’ll identify with your
ministry and if you don’t understand what I’m saying right now, that this is
going to be one of your main battlegrounds coming in the years
ahead, you don’t know your own heart yet. What do I mean by false identity? Well, I
mean, let me take a moment here. In ‘Exclusion & Embrace,’ that great book by
Miroslav Volf, he does a little bit of reflection on the Cain and Abel story. And I
think it’s a little speculative, but I think he’s got
warrant here. He says ‘Why is Cain so upset with Abel?
Why is he getting murderously angry with Abel?’ When it says that God
had favor on Abel it essentially means that Abel was being successful and Cain
wasn’t being a successful. God was favoring Abel and the things he
was doing, he wasn’t favoring Cain and the things he was doing. So here’s Cain,
here’s Abel and Abel’s becoming more and more successful. Why is he so angry at
Abel? Why is he getting so furious
with him, so murderously bitter that God as you know in Genesis chapter 4
actually has to come and say ‘Sin is crouching at your door. It’s desirous to
have you but you must master it.’ Why was he so angry?
Now here’s what Miroslav Volf thinks and it makes perfect sense. He says ‘There’s
no good reason why we would think that Cain just simply was an angry person and
he just happened to get angry at Abel, no.’ Here’s what he says, he says, ‘Cain’s
identity was probably constructed in relationship with Abel, so that he
thought he was the good kid.’ By the way I know a number of families like this,
where you have of a family, you’ve got siblings and one or two of
the siblings somehow go off the rails and very often the one child who doesn’t
go off the rails, who gets all A’s in school and has a good career and marries
well and all that, very often that child’s identity becomes this: “I’m the
one kid who’s pleasing my parents, I’m the only
one that’s not breaking the heart of my parents.” It’s amazing how these
identities develop but it makes perfect sense. He says Cain’s identity was
constructed in relationship to Abel. He was the good kid, he was the kid that was the one that the parents liked the most, this is how Volf saw it. And
that’s a false identity, it’s an identity based on your performance, pleasing your
parents, and when Abel became the the kid who was the most successful, the
brightest light in the family there’s only two things that it came could do. He
could either change his identity or destroy Abel. And then Volf says
something — which, whether you are not you by the way agree with that reading of
the story this is still true — he says the power of sin – here’s the quote – “The power of sin lies less in some insuppressible urge than in the reasoning
of the perverted self which insists on maintaining its false identity.” So for
example, let’s just say, and in New York I know a lot of people like this, ‘I go to
church, I believe God, I’m a Christian, that’s my identity.’ No,
your identity is you are a successful person. You’ve got three homes, you have
done very well, you have been successful and that’s your identity.
It’s a false identity. It’s based on circumstances, it’s based on your
performance, and now suddenly it looks like you’re going to lose your career or
now suddenly you’re going to really lose an awful lot of your wealth
and suddenly you think ‘I can’t do that’ and even though you’re Christian, you go
to church, you embezzle. You cheat, you exploit, you trample somebody else and
you destroy their career in order to stay where you are and you wonder why?
Why did that person do all those things? And the answer? Well, Volf’s answer is
he has a false identity and the power of sin comes from the need to maintain that
false identity when it’s threatened. Every single Christian, pardon me,
every single Christian is struggling with a false identity.
Because every non-Christian has a false identity, and that false identity
is always based on something and I’ll tell you what it’s going to be for you
if you get into full-time ministry, it’s going to be ‘How successful am I?’ And let
me tell you what that means. When people come to your church you’re going to feel
that they are affirming you, and when people leave your church you’re going to
be devastated, too devastated, why? Because it’ll feel like a personal attack. It’s
not — they don’t like your church, but you are your church. Criticism, you won’t be
able to handle criticism if you identify with your ministry, if your ministry
becomes your false identity. First of all, sometimes criticism will come and
it’ll be so traumatic because it means it’s questioning how good a
minister you are. It’s saying ‘You know, you’re preaching really isn’t very good.’
And instead of saying ‘Oh, I want my preaching to be better,’ it feels like a
personal attack, a completely personal attack. So you either get too devastated
by the the criticism or you dismiss it and you learn nothing from it. Not only
that, I would say cowardice also comes from having ministry as your false
identity. There’s two kinds of cowardice, I think, well yeah, there’s true cowardice. True cowardice, which is ‘I’m afraid to rock
the boat, I’m afraid to say something that will offend the people who give the
most money to my church. I’m afraid of looking like I’m not very
successful, I don’t know how to build a church because I may have to say
something in this time and place that’s really going to turn people off. I’m
afraid I’m going to preach something from the Word of God and all my young
people are going to leave. So that’s the first kind of cowardice, that’s true
cowardice and it comes from having ministry as your false identity. But
there’s another kind of cowardice, I call it counterfeit cowardice, and it’s
the cowardice of being too abrasive, of being too harsh, of running people off
and then saying ‘See, I’m valiant for truth.’ And that also by the way comes
from identifying with your ministry and say it’s not who you are in Christ it’s
who you are in your ministry. And by the way, one last thing
that is a sign that you have fallen into the ministries of false identity is you
cannot stand comparisons. You get very envious when you see other people who you don’t feel like they work as hard as you do or maybe they’re not as theologically astute as you are, they’re not as diligent as you are and everything is coming up
roses for them and their ministry and you notice that and it bothers you. Oh
my word, let me tell you there’s nothing worse than identifying with your
ministry. And by the way if you don’t think that’s not going to be a lifelong
struggle, you don’t know your own heart. So first there’s the conceit of just
theological knowledge in general, and secondly is there’s the conceit of
ministry as a false identity, but there’s one more, a third, there’s the conceit of
focusing on your outward life rather than your inward life. Your outward life
rather than inward life. Now these these kind of go together but not completely.
Here’s what I mean by that. Here’s what’s so horribly dangerous about the ministry,
here’s what’s horribly dangerous about what I’m doing, dangerous about what I’m doing
right now. Right now. When you speak to people about God, you either have to be
close to Jesus at the moment, really close to Jesus, or you’re gonna have to act
as if you’re close to Jesus. Because what you’re doing is you’re telling people
how great God is, that’s what the ministry is. How beautiful Jesus is, how
wonderful God is, how wonderful the Christian life is, how transforming the
Christian identity is. In other words, that’s what you have to do which means
you either have to be close to God as you’re speaking or you have to act close
to God, which means your prayer life has to ramp up so fast when you get into
full-time ministry. I mean you have to truly learn how to commune with
God, otherwise – and this is what almost always happens to a degree – you learn how
to fake it. You learn how to fake it. You talk as if you’re a lot closer to God
than you actually are and not only do people think that but then you
start to think it too. And here’s how it works. And the old
Puritans and the older writers like John Newton, they understood this difference,
the difference between, you might say, the outer life and the inner life. The inner
life is the life of prayer, communion with God and the real growth in the
fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, humility, faithfulness, self-control.
The outer life is ministry and especially the area of spiritual gifts,
as it were. The inner life is the area of spiritual fruit, the outer life is the area spiritual gifts. So, for example, your prayer life might be terrible. Your
relationship with your spouse might be awful. You might be giving into sexual
fantasies. And then you go on a youth retreat and and there’s something
about the situation that draws out your spiritual gifts, especially if you’re a
speaker, and you preach and you speak and several people become Christians and
others come up to you and they weep and they say ‘Oh you’ve just changed my life,’
and you feel like ‘I’m not so bad. Hey, you know, God’s using me, yeah!’ Yeah,
God’s using you. You know, there were these twelve disciples and you know Jesus was training them and
then one night he says ‘One of you will betray me.’ And it’s very interesting
because when he says that in verse 21 of John 13, in verse 22 they all look
around, they say ‘Who is it?’ In fact at the very end when Judas goes out into the
night after he told them it’s the one that I’d give the bread to, they still
don’t get it. They still don’t know what’s what’s going, you know why? Because
Judas didn’t look any different. What’s interesting is in verse 21 he says ‘One
of you will betray me.’ Verse 22, you don’t see them saying, “Oh yeah, I wondered about
Judas. You know, when we’d go out casting out demons,
Judas’s demons never came out and when we went out
healing lepers Judas’s lepers never got better. And I always said to myself
‘There’s something different about him.'” See, the point is, his demons did come out.
There’s no indication that they didn’t. His lepers did get cleansed, there’s no
indication that they didn’t. Outwardly, he was an effective minister, inwardly, there
was nothing there. And we do that all the time.
The older writers used to say ‘We mistake the operation of gifts for the operation
of grace in our lives.’ And when you do that, and I’ll tell you, here’s the
temptation: the ministry becomes your identity, you wake up in the morning
and you realize you’re not prepared for the two or three things you have to do
and you can either pray or you can prepare. Now it was your fault to get to that
spot anyway, that you had to make the choice, but how often are
you going to actually choose to pray rather than be prepared. And if your identity is false, then you’re automatically going to be
constantly focusing on the outward life rather than inward life and that’s
absolutely deadly. I actually did know a man some years ago,
pretty high-profile successful minister, who had an affair, blew up his life
because he had an affair with a woman in the congregation while he was – you know,
somebody who wasn’t his wife – and at one point he told me that he was able to
maintain that for awhile because every time he started to get convicted he’d
preached a great sermon and people’s lives would be changed then he would say
to himself ‘I’m not that bad, God’s still using me.” Okay,
well be careful. Jonathan Edwards, in his great book ‘Charity and Its Fruit’ talks
about the fact that you know God used Judas and he wasn’t saved at all. There’s
no particular reason why you should ever do that to yourself. But
here’s where the hypocrisy starts, you’re not praying, you don’t feel Jesus is
great and you have to get up and speak as if he is and either the ministry
is going to make you a far better Christian or a far worse Christian than
you would have been otherwise. It’s going to make you a hard, pharisaical hypocrite
or it’s going to turn you into a softer, tenderer person because you’re
just you’re just forced by the ministry to go to the throne of grace all the
time and to plead ‘Oh Lord be real to me and soften my
heart and give me what I need in order to minister to these people.’ It’s either
going to drive you to him or it’s going to drive you away from him, you choose.
Now, how’s it going to actually happen how do we overcome all these conceits? Well, let’s go back to the text okay? This is 2 Corinthians 12 and I’ll just read
it to you, it’s short enough, I can reread it. “To keep me from being conceited by the
surpassingly great revelations I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of
Satan to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away
from me but he said to me ‘My grace is sufficient
for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the
more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is
why for Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses and insults and hardships and
persecutions and difficulties for when I am weak that’s when I’m strong.” Now, don’t forget the situation. Paul was facing people, other false apostles and teachers
who were saying Paul doesn’t have the credentials. He’s not a true apostle, he
doesn’t have the credentials. And what Paul does is he’s writing these
people to say ‘Yes I do have the true credentials,’ and yet
then he inverts all the categories when he gives them the credentials. In a shame
and honor culture for Paul to boast in insults and boast in hardships and boast
in being run out of town on a rail, he’s actually showing them all the ways in
which in a sense he looks like a failure or like God wasn’t favoring him yet he
says ‘That’s how I know that God is with me.’ You know why? Because being in
ministry leads to conceit and here’s your real credentials, look at all the
things that God has done to bring you to your knees. Look at all the ways in which
he’s broken your pride look at all the ways he’s brought you to the end of
yourself so that you have to cling to him because you’ve got nothing else to
cling to and when you have a list of those things, the things that are going
to drive you like a nail into the love of God and the only things
that will drive you like a nail into the love of God is all the places where
things break down. All the disappointments, all those places where
you where you blow it. He says that’s how you know, because God
is letting those things happen to you, that’s your credentials. It’s only if those
things happen that you’re ever going to become a real minister, a true minister.
Some years ago I read a — I used to listen, as some of you know, to David
Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s cassette tapes back when things were on cassette tapes,
and I actually I was preaching on a text of Jacob wrestling
with God in Genesis 32. Interestingly enough, Lloyd-Jones
spoke on that topic. He was actually speaking to medical students because he
was a doctor, former physician, and he was speaking to medical students and he told
a fascinating story in the middle of his exposition of Genesis 32, Jacob wrestling
with God. I transcribed and I’ll just read it to you and that’ll be
it. He says, “I remember some old Welsh preachers years ago when I was a
young man. I remember some old Welsh preachers talking together. I’ve never
forgotten a phrase that one of them used. They were discussing – perhaps they
shouldn’t have done it, but preachers do this – they were discussing a young
preacher who had come on the scene and he was a popular preacher and the crowds
were following this man and were discussing this
young brilliant preacher and I remember they praised him, oh they all praised him,
they said he was a gifted young man. ‘He’s a man of ability,’ they said. But then I
remember one of the old men shaking his head and saying ‘I’m not sure that he’s
been humbled yet.'” And it’s better in Welsh, he said ‘arostrum’ or something
like that I couldn’t transliterate that one. “I’m
not sure he’s been humbled yet. How can a man remain what he was
if he’s gotten near God.” And then this is how Lloyd-Jones ends. He says, “When God deals with us there’s a kind of laming. Jacob was a schemer so he could work it
out, get his way, manipulate, wheedle and cajole. But when he wrestled with God,
really met God, he was given a permanent reminder of his weakness and inability
and entire dependence upon God. The laming.You get the same thing in the
Apostle Paul. God gave him a thorn in the flesh. We don’t know what that was, but he
was given it lest he become exalted. He asked for it to be removed, it wasn’t.
What was it? We’re not sure, but it was a laming. A constant reminder of his
weakness and inability and entire dependence on God.” And then as he put it,
he realized, “It’s only when I’m weak that I’m ever strong.” Let’s pray.
Our Father, we thank you that you do not leave us to our own devices, that by
calling us into ministry you put us in harm’s way. Calling us into ministry, we
as normal human beings are just so prone to being conceited, to being puffed up, to
assuming a false identity, to focusing on the outward life over the inward life, and
make shipwreck of everything. But we praise you. You will bring all sorts of
difficulties into our lives to save us from the ultimate difficulty, to save us
from losing you, to save us from making a complete shipwreck of our
ministry. It’s only through the little shipwrecks that we avoid the big one.
It’s only through the the small pains that drive us to you that the big pain
of losing you and being unfaithful to you can be avoided and we pray then that
you would help us today to embrace and trust you in the difficulties
that are coming our way and for those of us who have not seen this yet to make
our hearts ready for them. And we pray this in Jesus’s name, Amen.


7 Responses

  1. Stephanie Bedsaul

    December 4, 2016 8:20 pm

    LOVE the point about Judas having an affective outward ministry..never thought of it in that way!

  2. Dávid Hamar

    January 16, 2017 6:38 pm

    I have been experiencing all these three temptations. How true these words are! I am grateful for God reminding me again. Ministry is just dangerous. And beautiful if God protects us from the dark side of it. Thank you, Mr. Keller.

  3. Yami Asai

    January 19, 2017 3:56 am

    I'm not that cynical of what the podium looks like. As long as the sermon encourage and have a meaning. At times we are to preach in the wilderness, market place or even to some place where you don't expect to be. Will you rather save a soul or start critising that the environment. Tolerance brother! YES I also felt a bid awkwad when I first saw it. But I wouldn't be too judgmental. I would rather focus on the message.

    Only thing… thorn in the flesh, if I'm right … I think Paul is talking about his sickness.

    Above all, very encouraging message. I like the example of Judas outward ministry..And how one uses personal testimony.

    Abid confuse with with Abel n Cain illustration though.


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