I feel like I could write a trillion words on the subject, and I hope to write on this in more detail in the coming months (we’ll see). Ajith Fernando captures the essence of my thoughts very well in his article To Serve is To Suffer. He’s hitting a note that you rarely see these days, and I think he’s right on:
I have a large group of people to whom I write asking for prayer when I have a need. Sometimes my need is overcoming tiredness. When I write about this, many write back saying they are praying that God would strengthen me and guide me in my scheduling. However, there are differences in the way friends from the East and some from the West respond.
I get the strong feeling that many in the West think struggling with tiredness from overwork is evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is that it is wrong if one gets sick from overwork through drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to endure tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people [emphasis added].
The New Testament is clear that those who work for Christ will suffer because of their work [emphasis added]. Tiredness, stress, and strain may be the cross God calls us to. Paul often spoke about the physical hardships his ministry brought him, including emotional strain (Gal 4:19; 2 Cor 11:28), anger (2 Cor 11:29), sleepless nights and hunger (2 Cor 6:5), affliction and perplexity (2 Cor 4:8), and toiling — working to the point of weariness (Col 1:29). In statements radically countercultural in today’s “body conscious” society, he said, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16); and, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:11-12). I fear that many Christians approach these texts only with an academic interest, not seriously asking how the verses should apply in their lives.
The West, having struggled with the tyrannical rule of time, has a lot to teach the East about the need for rest. The East has something to teach the West about embracing physical problems that come from commitment to people. If you think it is wrong to suffer physically because of ministry, then you suffer more from the problem than those who believe that suffering is an inevitable step on the path to fruitfulness and fulfillment. Since the cross is a basic aspect of discipleship, the church must train Christian leaders to expect hardship. When this perspective enters our minds, pain will not touch our joy and contentment in Christ. In 18 different New Testament passages, suffering and joy appear together. In fact, suffering is often the cause for joy (Rom 5:3-5; Col 1:24; James 1:2-3).
In short, suffering is not just persecution. As Paul’s own example shows, it is also the pain, tiredness (2 Cor 6:5 — even “sleepless nights,” in which I would also include all-nighters), seasons of extensive work (2 Thessalonians 3:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:9), confusion (2 Cor 4:8), emotional pressure (2 Cor 11:28; Gal 4:19), and “non-mind-like-water” mental “weights” that come our way as we are simply being faithful. These things are not automatically signs that we are working too hard. They are often part of the path, and they are supposed to be.