The secret of Paul's success was not his education, his cultural heritage, his homiletical techniques, nor the appeal of his personality, but God's power working in him. To make this point he piles up, one upon another, words that focus our attention on the energy and activity of God: "For this I toil, struggling with all his ENERGY that he POWERFULLY WORKS within me" (ESV). Or again, "For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His POWER, which MIGHTILY WORKS within me" (NASB).
Note that the NASB says Paul strives "according to" God's power. This doesn't so much mean "in proportion to" God's power but "with" or "by means of" or "in reliance upon" God's power. The word translated "energy" by the ESV and "power" by the NASB always in the NT refers to supernatural power, divine energy. The energy for the work here below comes from above!
But let's be specific. The power Paul has in mind is the power that raised Jesus from the dead! In Ephesians 1:19-20, a passage parallel in emphasis with Colossians 1:29, Paul points us to "the immeasurable greatness of his [God's] power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places."
Apart from conscious, consistent, concentrated reliance on the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead, burnout is a sure thing. Paul toiled without losing heart and struggled successfully because he drew deeply from the well of the infinite and unending energy of God!
"By the grace of God I am what I am," wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:10, "and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." Here again we see the emphasis on his own efforts, his own hard work, empowered by the infinite energy of God himself.
I suspect many are tempted to ask: "Why bother, Paul? If God's power is so great and so effective and so readily available, why do you feel it necessary to exert yourself so passionately and no doubt painfully? Why toil? Why struggle? Shouldn't you just 'let go and let God'?"
Absolutely not! The presence of God's power does not preclude Paul's personal struggle or energetic striving or laboring. Rather, it makes it possible. God's power is not designed to eliminate our responsibility to work hard but to enable us to fulfill it. Paul is able to work hard because God is working hard. The latter doesn't destroy or undermine the former.
I can't repeat this often enough: the operation of divine energy does not eliminate the physical and emotional exhaustion that Paul feels. God's working in and through us is not the sort that enables us to put our efforts on cruise control.
What we see here in Colossians 1:29, with reference to ministry in particular, is similar to what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12-13, with reference to the Christian life in general – "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Virtually every theological and ethical problem can be traced either to an elevation of divine power in a way that minimizes human toil, or the exaltation of human effort in a way that marginalizes the sovereignty of God. But Paul will have neither. He toils because of God's power. And divine power is released in and through human struggling to enable us to accomplish in our labor what we otherwise never would.
Again, God's sovereignty doesn't undermine human activity but inspires it! Any attempt to justify sloth or irresponsibility by appealing to divine power will meet with a harsh biblical denunciation.
J. I. Packer perhaps put it best when he said, “The Holy Spirit’s ordinary way of working in us is through the working of our own minds and wills. He moves us to act by causing us to see reasons for moving ourselves to act. Thus our conscious, rational selfhood, so far from being annihilated, is strengthened, and in reverent, resolute obedience we work out our salvation, knowing that God is at work in us to make us ‘. . . both . . . will and . . . work for his good pleasure’” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 156).
Thus we see that God has chosen to operate not independently of but only through and by means of human effort and labor. God's energy doesn't fall from heaven haphazardly and amorphously, but comes to us through human ministers and ministry, via human toil and struggle.
We know from other biblical texts that the infinite energy of the Godhead upholds and sustains and directs the world. In Christ, says Paul, "all things hold together" (Col. 1:17). Again, "in him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). But here in Colossians 1:29 we see a unique manifestation of divine energy. Although in one sense divine energy sustained Paul in existence and was alone responsible for his life and breath, in another sense divine energy is focused and laser-like, to empower him in daily ministry.
So, how might one know when God is energetically and powerfully working in us? If, when you are slandered, you respond by entreating (1 Cor. 4:13), you can rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you. If, when you are reviled, you bless instead of curse (1 Cor. 4:12), you can rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you. If, when you are persecuted, you endure (1 Cor. 4:12), you can rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you. If, when you are afflicted but not crushed, are perplexed but do not yield to despair, are struck down but not destroyed, you may rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you (2 Cor. 4:8-9). If, when you are sorrowful you still rejoice, possess nothing yet are rich, you may rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you (2 Cor. 6:10). If, when you are in poverty you give generously and joyfully (2 Cor. 8:1ff.), you may rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you.
You probably won't feel anything. There's no guarantee that your body will vibrate or your appearance will change. But if you find yourself responding and thinking as Jesus would, if you find yourself acting and choosing contrary to every fleshly and sinful impulse, you may rest assured that divine energy is mightily at work in you. Only in this way can we, like Paul, continue to serve and love and minister and not lose heart.
Energized in the effort,