The Apostle Paul had the difficult task of preaching the gospel to a lost world. He endured many difficulties and persecutions to convert people and establish churches in the cities of the Roman Empire.
But even then, Paul’s work was not finished. Enmities and strife disturbed the churches, false prophets crept in with ungodly teachings, individual Christians struggled to put aside the old ways of sin and corruption.
Let us never forget that the work of the evangelist is not only to spread the gospel into new places (Rom. 15:20), but also to strengthen the saved and build up existing congregations (Acts 15:36, Titus 1:5, 1 Tim. 6:2b). Paul continued visiting and writing letters to these churches to rebuke their behavior, establish them in the truth, and demand they mature in Christ.
How frustrated he must have felt constantly having to scold them! He must have been tempted to throw up his hands, say “enough is enough,” and abandon these people to their own lousy fates. But he never writes them off or stops caring. Instead, we see something else in Paul’s letters—optimism!
Consider, for example, his second letter to the Corinthians. Line for line, there is hardly a more negative text in the New Testament. But even there, Paul pauses to express his solidarity with them and confidence in them. “I have said before that you are in our hearts to die together and live together. Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf. I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction” (7:3-4). And he praises their willingness to help the needy saints in Jerusalem. “Just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also” (8:7).
For all the problems at Corinth, Paul still loved them like his own children, and hoped that they’d mature eventually. From what we read in 2 Corinthians, it would be perfectly understandable if Paul complained instead of boasted, if Paul had suffered discouragement instead of expressed joy.
Another example is his letter to the churches of Galatia. After sternly reprimanding their foolishness, Paul assumes they will obey: “I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view” (5:10).
Another example is Paul’s letter to the Romans. He spends fifteen chapters correcting their thinking on sin and justification. But then he says, “I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14).
Again, in Philemon, after asking for Philemon to forgive a brother who wronged him, Paul
says, “having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say” (21).
Now, Paul might very well have misplaced his great confidence. There was no guarantee that the Galatians would indeed adopt the true view, or that the Romans would take the initiative to edify one another, or that Philemon would indeed be forgiving toward Onesimus, or that the Corinthians would make good on their pledge to support the needy saints. Perhaps his constant injections of praise made them want to obey. But Paul wasn’t merely playing psychological tricks—he really expected the best.
Dennis Curd writes, “a preacher must believe in the people, the church, with whom he works. Elders must be persuaded that they are involved in a work that can be accomplished. All Christians must be persuaded that people, especially fellow Christians, are basically good-hearted, intelligent, and concerned. If we begin to think otherwise, we will quickly become discouraged in trying to serve them spiritually. It would be so easy to say, ‘What’s the use?’” (The Christiansburg Chronicle, 7/24/06).
Some people always see the worst, but Paul managed to see the best, over and over again! There were very few individuals that Paul was ready to write off completely (like false teachers, or those unrepentantly entangled in sin). For these he put them out of the church (1 Cor. 5:5, 1 Tim. 1:20), but even then, it was an exercise of tough love and protection for the saints. Let’s learn from Paul’s example. It’s not just that Paul happened to be a glass half full kinda guy—he was convinced from Scripture that every person is made in the image of God, and an object of God’s love. Every person has the capacity to grow into a measure of the stature of Jesus. A brother may stumble into the same sin over and over again, but let’s never doubt his desire to overcome it. A brother may disappoint us with his efforts, but let’s always suppose that he would do better if his circumstances were different. A brother may say something that comes off as insensitive, but let’s assume he meant well.
In any case, there will often be let-downs and disappointments in the church—let’s be sure they never cause us to get fed up, to abandon God’s work, or to doubt the worth of a soul. After all, haven’t we given God plenty of reason to toss us aside (Matthew 6:14-15)? Yet, God still deals with us in a calm, understanding way.