My wife loves to garden. When we bought our house four years ago, one of her “must-haves” was a yard big enough for a garden. Then, our first spring together in our home, I went out to a patch of grass with our tiller, tore up the ground, and built a box around the churned dirt so she could have her garden.
There is no question, though, that gardening is work as much as she enjoys it. Prepping the ground isn’t a one-time thing. You have to do it every year: Pull out the weeds, break up the dirt, ready the rows, plant the seeds, provide enough water, pull out more weeds, chase off the bugs, pull out more weeds… well, you get the picture, and if you garden, you have those experiences deep in your imagination. Eventually, the work pays off, and you reap the fruit of the harvest.
Of course, if your garden is big enough, and you plant plenty of items, not only do you reap, but other people gain from your vast array of cucumbers and tomatoes. And a home garden is only a fraction of what farmers do to provide larger quantities of food for far more people.
There is work and reward in the task.
It is this very image (along with a good soldier and athlete) that Paul used to describe ministry in 2 Timothy 2:3-7. Ministry is hard work and suffering, but there is also great reward.
When we think of ministry, we must always be careful. Yes, Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, who served as an elder/pastor in Ephesus, and in his first letter, Paul reminded Timothy and the church that those who work hard in such a role are worthy of their pay. Timothy had a profession that was ministry-focused. Yet, ministry itself is not for professionals. That is a danger we must avoid. We don’t pay a person to do ministry. Rather, we pay them to serve in a role of a specific ministry—equipping the whole church for ministry work (Ephesians 4:11-12).
As imperfect as we might practice it at times, we Baptists value the priesthood of all believers. Through our resources and spiritual gifts, each of us as followers of Jesus has a call to minister, in which we love our neighbors, pray for them, and seek their good by meeting needs and telling them about Jesus. However we minister, as we live, work, and play, we find it is work, yet great reward.
Jesus once told a parable (Matthew 13) where he described God’s word as a seed and people’s hearts as the soil or field. Whenever we tell others about Jesus and help them learn and grow in God’s word, we’re planting and watering that seed (also: 1 Corinthians 3:6-7). That seed eventually sprouts and bears fruit for those who receive the Gospel message with faith and a changed heart. As we evangelize and disciple, we plant, water, weed the ground, water more, weed again—all the things of work, but we also get to experience the reward of seeing people come to know Jesus and seeing their lives change as they grow in Jesus. We’re among the “first to get a share of the crops” (2 Timothy 2:6, CSB), which is a cause of happy celebration.
We work hard, yet find great reward.
But ministry, as we know, is not always sunshine and roses. Paul did use the word suffering. There’s a funny story about my wife’s garden last year, though it wasn’t funny at the moment. A combination of rain and time demands with work and young children caused neglect later in the season, so the weeds and grass grew out of control. We kept talking about needing to do something, but the grass in the garden box kept growing until finally it was almost as tall as me (I’m 6’5, that is no small thing). Finally, I went out one day, moved the wood box, hopped on my mower, and ran over the grass and weeds until I had knocked them all down.
When I finished, I went inside, proud and beaming, thinking I’d meet gratitude for taking care of the problem. Instead, my wife looked dejected. “There were some plants in the middle of that I transplanted and potted last winter to save, and I was going to do the same thing this year.”
Suffering, right? Sometimes it is caused by good-intentioned husbands who don’t adequately communicate.
Suffering in ministry is real. We grow weary and face burnout, especially if we do not see the result of a fruitful crop. We wear down fighting the weeds of sin in our own lives and the lives of those we’re trying to disciple. Sometimes, people reject us or abandon us. It’s just like God told Adam and Eve after the fall: “Now when you work the ground, it will be with your sweat as you battle weeds” (Genesis 3:17-19).
That’s why Paul also gave us the illustration of the committed soldier and athlete. Ultimately, we don’t minister for others. We do it to serve and love others, but we’re working for Jesus—our Lord, our Commander, who told us to seek first his Kingdom, go and make disciples, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Above all, regardless of the result on earth, we should want to hear the words in heaven: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Share your master’s joy” (Matthew 25:21, CSB).
Yes, we need that Sabbath rest to keep us refreshed, but press on even when ministry seems hard and fruitless. Run the race. Finish well. Press on. Work the ground, plant and water. Press on. Press on. Go and make disciples. It will be worth it in the end.
Mike Bergman is the pastor of a very normative church in small-town America. He is passionate about the weather, his family, foster care, and Jesus.