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How do you fight discouragement? Or do you? Are you among those who simply yield to its relentless onslaught and give up?

People who fall into the latter category typically deal with disappointment in one of two ways. Some continue to work and “minister” (if that word is even appropriate to describe what they do) but do so with murmuring and impatience, bitterness toward God, self-pity within, and anger at anything that moves.

Others respond to the pain of disillusionment by anesthetizing their souls with sex, alcohol, or some other form of sensual self-indulgence, and then justify it by pointing to how poorly they’ve been treated (whether by God or people in the church or others from whom they’re convinced they deserved better).

If anyone had a “right” to be discouraged, it might appear to be Paul. When one thinks of what he endured in the course of life and ministry, he seems to be the perfect candidate for a “victim” mentality and the countless ways people use it to rationalize sinful behavior. Yet, here in 2 Corinthians 4:1 he happily declares, “we do not lose heart”!

I can almost hear some say, “Well, for heaven’s sake, I wouldn’t lose heart either if I had Paul’s gifts and eloquence and insights into the truth of God. And if I had been translated into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:1ff.) and seen great and glorious things, I could probably hang in there like he did.” It’s true, of course, that Paul was uniquely gifted of God and had been the recipient of numerous supernatural encounters. But that’s not what kept him going. That’s not what accounted for his ability to resist the temptation to throw in the towel.

To understand and account for his refusal to “lose heart” we need to look at v. 1 in its entirety: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” There are actually two reasons Paul gives for why he overcame discouragement. They are related, while yet distinct.

First, he had been entrusted with “this ministry,” a reference to the ministry of the New Covenant in the power of the Holy Spirit (described in chapter three). Had he been called and commissioned to a ministry devoid of the Spirit’s presence, I doubt he would have persevered as he did. Had “this ministry” been one characterized by legalism, a “ministry” energized by human effort rather than the power of the Spirit, Paul’s response to persecution, slander, and imprisonment may well have been different.

What sustained him, at least in part, was the fact that he proclaimed a message of grace and the assurance of the Spirit’s sanctifying presence (2 Cor. 3:18)! Had he known that those who embraced Christ as Lord would be left to themselves, dependent on their own resources, confronted by an external code of conduct without the guarantee of inward enablement, I doubt we’d be looking to him now as a model of maturity and a paradigm of perseverance!

But there’s another reason why Paul did not lose heart or succumb to the otherwise natural human tendency to seek out safety and ease and opulence: Paul, like you and me, was a recipient of mercy! He certainly didn’t deserve to be the minister of a gospel of grace or a covenant of divine power and promise. Paul, again like you and me, “was a privileged participant in the ministry of the new covenant purely on account of God’s gratuitous favor” or mercy (Harris, 323; emphasis mine).

The phrase translated “by the mercy of God” is similar in force to Paul’s statement in Romans 11:31 where he speaks of being “shown mercy”. The verb in the original text (eleethemen) is what commentators call a “divine” or “theological passive” and could be rendered, “we were shown mercy (by God).” Neither his calling as an apostle nor his competency to serve in that role nor his conversion by which he came to Christ had anything to do with his own efforts or initiative or resources. It was simply and solely and sufficiently the fruit of having been made the object of divine mercy.

Undoubtedly Paul was encouraged and upheld by reflecting on the nature of the new covenant ministry. But even more important still was his awareness that he was a participant in it, and a minister to others of it, solely by the sovereign kindness, compassion, and mercy of God. If you should ever think that your position in the kingdom of God is a reward rather than a gift, there will be little to sustain you in seasons of hardship and anguish. Only so far as you confess that although you deserved eternal death you instead received eternal life will you find power to persevere.

But how is it, precisely, that embracing divine mercy as the sole source of all you are and do, like Paul did, is a remedy for discouragement? The answer is that sovereign, saving mercy is incompatible not only with boasting but also with bitterness.

Consider Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians in his first letter: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). This is simply another way of saying, “Did you not receive everything by mercy rather than merit? OK, then act like it!” Knowing the truth of this text will turn your life inside out and upside down. The reality of sovereign, saving mercy transforms your view of both success and failure, both praise and persecution, both triumph and tragedy.

If your life and labors are, as Paul indicates, “by the mercy of God,” you can neither take credit for what you’ve achieved nor complain about how you’ve been treated. All credit goes to God for the good and all blame to yourself for the bad.

One of my spiritual mentors, Russ McKnight, now with the Lord, would always respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the simple answer, “Better than I deserve!” He wasn’t trying to be cute, but recognized that whatever benefits or blessings might come his way were not the payment of a debt but flowed from the fountain of divine mercy.

Paul said much the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:10 – “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” If pressed to elaborate, I suspect he might have said:

  • “Yes, people have betrayed me, but I never deserved friends in the first place.”
  • “Yes, many have slandered me, but I have no ‘right’ to be well spoken of.”
  • “I was the chief of sinners, but I was shown kindness! I deserved hell, but I got mercy!”
  • “How can I feel sorry for myself: justice demanded my death but I received life!”
  • “How can I resent another’s success when I never deserved any myself?” 

Clearly, Paul’s understanding of the role of mercy was the sustaining power in his soul that left no room for discouragement and gave no quarter to bitterness: “How can I possibly ‘lose heart’ when I deserved neither life nor breath nor opportunity nor eloquence nor a positive response on the part of those to whom I minister?”

Do you see your life in the same terms that Paul understood the ministry entrusted to him? What about your family? Your career? Perhaps the effective use of some spiritual gift or your status in the church? Are you in good health? Are you finances stable, even flourishing? What of the praise of your peers?

Can you look at everything in your life and honestly say, “It was by the mercy of God?” If not, you are a likely candidate either for arrogant boasting or for discouragement and the disheartening frustration that breeds bitterness and resentment. Mercy is medicine for the discouraged soul. The recommended dosage is daily.