Paul taught the Corinthians, the mysterious wisdom “which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). God doesn’t reject our desire for approval; he redirects it.
By Elliott Clark
Seeking Honor from God Alone
On a couple occasions I have had the opportunity to travel to an East Asian city where our ministry provides training to church leaders. During one of those trips, I met with an American missionary acquaintance who stopped by the guesthouse where I was staying.
As we settled into the spartan space, he shared with me some of the concerns among his teammates, friends, and colleagues living in a country where you can’t easily operate as a missionary. Some worked in secular fields. Some chose to secretly gather. Some shied away from overt evangelism. Many struggled to integrate identity, occupation, and ministry in their daily life. It all sounded familiar.
But then he happily volunteered the solution he had discovered. With the help of some locals, he was operating a non-governmental organization (NGO) that worked on community development projects throughout the region. He was grateful to report how this platform supplied him with legitimacy, served the needs of struggling communities, and provided access for the gospel in unreached areas. It sounded perfect. Villages were gladly opening their doors to the work of his NGO, which ultimately opened the door for the gospel.
“It’s amazing,” he added, “the opportunities you have for evangelism when you bring $50,000 worth of investment into a local community.”
I was suddenly bewildered. Perhaps he sensed the surprise and confusion on my face, because he went on to explain further.
Recently, he’d had the opportunity to meet with a municipal official in a remote region, someone he assumed would otherwise never hear the gospel or at least never have an interest in listening to it. But since this missionary’s NGO was investing heavily in his village, the official was more than happy to give him his undivided attention. Just imagine what could happen, this missionary suggested, if the leader of that unengaged and unreached community would come to Christ.
When we think of the challenges that missionaries face, we often think of persecution. We envision the places they go where the price of following Jesus is the primary reason many hesitate to embrace Christ. Of course, such people and places exist. But there’s another, perhaps more sinister—and perhaps more pervasive—challenge that Western missionaries face when they take the gospel to new regions. It’s the connection of Christianity to prosperity, status, and glory. The great difficulty for workers in such fields isn’t only the fear of loss that makes people reject the gospel; it’s also the hope of gain that makes them willing to accept it.
I’m not sure missionaries are always aware of the trap of seeking others’ approval, especially when it feels good to have them accept your message and when it appears strategic to reach a broader community. But when we read Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, we discover that he was extremely careful while working in a culture eager to turn the gospel into an opportunity for upward mobility.
From his first day in Corinth, Paul self-consciously refused to preach in a manner that would draw attention to his eloquence and acumen as he highlighted Christ’s ignominious crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:1–2; cf. 1:17). He intentionally avoided baptizing most converts, not wanting to convey that he was calling followers to himself (1 Cor. 1:13–16). Paul also refused to accept money from those who embraced his message in order to make it abundantly clear that God’s grace wasn’t a commodity to be acquired or a status to be earned (1 Cor. 9:11–14; cf. 2 Cor. 11:7–9). In fact, we have reason to understand that Paul’s trembling and weak entrance into Corinth wasn’t merely the result of constant suffering but was part of a strategic approach—so that their belief in his message would be owing to the power of God and not his persuasive persona (1 Cor. 2:2–5). Paul wanted to be certain that those who received Christ’s gospel did so because of the compelling work of the Spirit through the unadorned preaching of God’s word. Nothing else.
While Paul could have spun a message that would appeal to the Corinthians’ desires and avoid personal suffering, he didn’t do so. Why? Because Paul’s pursuit of God’s approval ruled out the goal of human praise. The two were mutually exclusive. Paul believed that if he, through his preaching, sought the affirmation of others, it could mean rejection from God. He would no longer be the servant of Christ (Gal. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:4).
Now, I doubt most missionaries consider praise from people as cracking the top ten dangers in their ministry. Instead, we’re generally concerned with risks more obvious and ominous, such as the lack of access to quality medical care, slumping financial support, difficulty maintaining residency, limited educational resources, challenges working with national partners, and disunity among expat workers. All of those—not to mention the possibilities of persecution, disease, political unrest, and natural disasters—combine to fill our minds with what truly threatens our ministry.
But if we granted, for a moment, that receiving God’s affirmation is of critical concern and one of the highest motivations for our mission, then wouldn’t we consider the antithetical desire for others’ approval to be a potential snare for Christian ministers? If the greatest missionary of all time repeatedly found this temptation so hazardous, shouldn’t we be alert to its perils?
My concern is that many missionaries today, oblivious to this threat, may be caught unawares when it comes to trying to please others. In many cases, we’re in danger of tweaking the gospel to make it more appealing, of tampering with God’s word to make it more acceptable. We’re in danger of connecting Christ to opportunities for money and employment, to offers of goods and services. We’re in danger of promoting belief that doesn’t come with a cost, of encouraging a Christ-following that doesn’t expect an others-leaving. We’re in danger of forfeiting our witness and losing personal integrity for the sake of a business platform, governmental recognition, and long-term presence. We’re in danger of confusing Christian service with a comfortable career, of presenting Christianity as the pain-free path of professional missionaries.
These problems and more result from seeking approval from others instead of from God. For Paul, this is the issue that ultimately differentiated him from false apostles. And not just in Corinth. It was the defining characteristic that separated Paul’s mission from that of many others. False teachers, he observed, were anxious to please people. They were greedy for selfish gain (Phil. 3:17–19). They were eager to take advantage of their followers. They consistently wanted to make a good showing and avoid suffering (Gal. 6:12). They were glory grabbers.
But—and this is terribly important—the gospel doesn’t oppose our pursuit of glory altogether. Instead, Jesus tells us to seek approval, glory, and reward, but to do so from God alone (John 5:44).
In fact, this is one way Paul described what it looks like to be a Christian: to “seek for glory and honor and immortality” on the day of judgment (Rom. 2:6–11, 16). People of such faith are justified and will receive praise from God (Rom. 2:29). They are those who have been chosen by the Father and sanctified by the Spirit in order to obtain glory and honor with the Son (2 Thess. 2:14; cf. 1 Pet. 1:7). This is, as Paul taught the Corinthians, the mysterious wisdom “which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). God doesn’t reject our desire for approval; he redirects it.
Excerpted from Mission Affirmed by Elliot Clark, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway.