the shape of leadership

Leading With Joy

Ten lessons from the apostle Paul

Mike Burnette on January 18, 2023

As we start a new year, optimism feels elusive. After all, the past three years have not been easy. We have experienced a global pandemic, racial tensions, political divides, supply chain issues, international conflict, and rising inflation — with seemingly no end in sight.

The words of James challenge me in these times: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).

I love reminding others of the powerful promise of God in this text: “The testing of your faith produces perseverance” (verse 3). I have even preached on it. But in the midst of discouragement, I sometimes have a hard time receiving it for myself.

Notice the language, though: “Consider it pure joy” (emphasis added). This suggests a conscious decision to adopt a mindset of joy. Whatever we face in the months ahead, I hope we can take the command of James seriously — choosing to walk in joy, despite trials and difficulties.

How is that possible? How can we consider it pure joy when we’re going through pain? How do we trust God for a joyful disposition when everything around us seems to be falling apart? How can we hold onto joy when our church families are suffering, and our congregations are struggling to recover?

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul modeled for us a way to navigate pain without losing the joy of the Lord. Paul endured more suffering than any pastor or church planter I have ever met. He was chased by angry religious mobs, beaten, flogged, stoned and left for dead, arrested and imprisoned, and shipwrecked. Yet Paul maintained his love for the Lord and people through it all.

Even though Paul was in prison when he wrote it, Philippians is often called the “epistle of joy.” Paul’s passion for Jesus and heart of joy are evident throughout this letter.

Philippians reveals 10 disciplines for leading with joy in hard times. These lessons are as relevant in 2023 as they were in the first century.


1. Pray First

Paul began his letter not with complaints about his situation, but with references to his prayers for others (Philippians 1:3–11). His prayers were joyful, filled with gratitude for the spiritual growth of the Philippians. Despite his suffering, Paul rejoiced in the knowledge that others were flourishing.

Prayer is crucial for maintaining a joyful heart. No matter what we’re going through, God is deserving of our praise. He is still saving lost people, delivering the oppressed, restoring marriages, and bringing prodigals home. And even when it is not immediately apparent, God is still working on our behalf.

In Romans 8:18, Paul wrote, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” We can choose joy as we remember God is good, doing good, and has good things in store.


2. Keep Rejoicing

Paul recognized that his incarceration was advancing the gospel — inside and outside the prison (Philippians 1:12–14). He chose to see his struggles as opportunities, not reasons to pull away from his calling.

Some people were preaching with wrong motives, trying to create more trouble for Paul (verses 15–17). Yet Paul saw the good even in that painful reality: “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice … and I will continue to rejoice” (verse 18).

These past three years have been difficult for pastors. Many of us have struggled to see challenges as avenues for advancing the gospel. Shutdowns, restrictions, and disruptions left us feeling limited, confined, and uncomfortable at times. There may have even been moments when some of our trials felt personal.

Our circumstances may
change, but the Lord never changes. His mission is advancing. That reality should
give us great joy.

On days like these, the temptation to retreat or quit is real. But we are on assignment, so we cannot give up.

Instead, we can ask God to help us seize new ministry opportunities and see what He is doing. Our circumstances may change, but the Lord never changes. His mission is advancing. That reality should give us great joy.

God is still on His throne. He is not stressed out or worried. Jesus is changing lives through your ministry. That you get to participate in building God’s kingdom, even in difficult times, is reason for rejoicing.


3. Boldly Live for Jesus

Knowing the Philippian church was earnestly praying for him was a source of great comfort and of joy for Paul (Philippians 1:19).

People are praying for you, too. Many of them may never tell you about their prayers, but they are seeking God on your behalf. You are not alone in ministry. The power of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of God’s people are sustaining you.

Paul had no guarantees he would survive his situation. Yet Paul’s hope was ultimately in Christ. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death,” Paul wrote. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (verses 20–21).

To paraphrase, “As long as I am alive, I will live every moment for Jesus, and should I leave this life, I will be with Jesus.” How can you lose with that outlook? Nothing could discourage Paul from the joy of serving Jesus.

Verse 27 is my favorite in all of Scripture: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” That should be the goal of every minister, and indeed every follower of Jesus.

In the face of pain and uncertainty, remain fully devoted to Jesus and His mission. Don’t put your hope in fickle things, like attendance numbers, giving figures, online sermon views, or even your physical health. Hope in Christ, rejoicing in the privilege of serving Him faithfully. In good times and bad, live each day to glorify God and point people to Him.


4. Imitate the Lord

Before Paul suffered for the Lord, the Lord suffered for him — and us. In light of this, Paul reminded the Philippians to do nothing out of selfish ambition, but to follow the model of Jesus (Philippians 2:1–8).

In fact, Paul told them to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” who assumed “the very nature of a servant” (verses 5–7).

What a privilege it is to serve others as our Lord served us. Hebrews 12:1–2 says, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (emphasis added).

Jesus is the One we are to imitate. He suffered for us and ahead of us. Isaiah called Christ “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus was also “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). Our Lord knew pain like we do, but He always kept an eternal perspective and a servant’s heart.

When you are tempted to give up or lose your joy, remember the example of Jesus. He maintained motivation by seeing the big picture and the joyous victory that was just ahead.

As you serve in painful times, ask the Holy Spirit to fill you with the joy of the Lord. Your example will help bring people to Jesus, who deserves all the glory. For, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).


5. Watch Your Mouth

Paul told the Philippians, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (2:14). Perhaps he had heard something that prompted him to say this. Or maybe Paul had just dealt with church people long enough, he knew they needed a reminder.

Over the past few years, it has grieved me to see pastors and Christian leaders losing their cool, ranting online, and exploding at the very people they are called to shepherd. Such actions divide the Church and deepen the skepticism of many outside the faith.

When you are tempted to give up or lose your joy, remember the example of Jesus. He maintained motivation by seeing the big picture and the joyous victory that was just ahead.

Everyone has opinions, including ministers. But we should never let our personal views overshadow the message of the gospel. We are supposed to be salt and light, not vinegar in a wound or diesel fuel on a fire. Some leaders have lost their joy because they are disputing and grumbling with the world instead of leading people out of the world.

Sometimes the best course of action is to refrain from engaging — to hold your tongue and guard your heart. A leader’s words carry a lot of weight, so “hold firmly to the word of life” (verse 16). Leverage your platform to preach the gospel rather than your position on a cultural or political issue.

Don’t let your heart get so wrapped up in what is happening in the moment that you lose perspective on eternity. Remember Paul’s charge in Colossians 3:1–2: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

When we fixate on temporal things, we risk losing our joy for the things above. Paul refused to take that bait. Instead, he was able to say, “I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17–18).


6. Look for Partnerships

One of the primary complaints I hear from pastors is that ministry is lonely, especially senior leadership. We give our lives to God and to the service of His people, and somehow along the way, we become isolated in ministry.

Paul did not do ministry alone, and we shouldn’t either. Paul partnered with others, including his spiritual son Timothy and co-worker Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:19–30). Even while incarcerated, Paul leaned on the help of friends. They lightened his load — and his mood (verse 19).

Pain and stress are inevitable. Sharing the burden with others is essential if you want to remain active and healthy in ministry. An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I would rephrase it this way: “If you want to enjoy serving the Lord for a long time, do it with people who bring you joy.”

Build friendships. Invest in someone, or a few people. Attend ministers’ meetings. Take time to have meals with your team members. Give others the chance to minister alongside you while guiding and developing them.


7. Trust God

There is tremendous value in developing as a leader, growing your academic pedigree, sitting in the room with influential thinkers, advancing in your career, and having a long tenure where God has placed you. Every minister should be a lifelong learner and keep growing.

However, our confidence should not come from our growth, academics, skills, or tenure. We are Spirit-led, Spirit-filled leaders. We walk by faith in Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul told the Philippians to trust the Lord above all else. After sharing his own impressive resume, Paul said it was worthless compared to knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:3–8). In fact, Paul likened his list of accolades to a steaming pile of rubbish or dung by comparison.

Despite having one of the best ministry resumes of all time, Paul knew the real prize was to “gain Christ and be found in him,” having a “righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (verses 8–9).

“I want to know Christ,” Paul said, “yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (verses 10–11).

Like a hamster in a wheel, we have the tendency to spin and spin in our strengths and abilities. When something goes wrong or someone is hurting, we run to the rescue. Our motives are noble, but our energy is finite. And when we become worn out from trusting in our own strength, we lose our joy.

Early in the pandemic, I had breakfast with another pastor. As I did with all my pastor friends, I asked, “How are you doing? How are you handling all the crazy stuff that is happening around us?”

As we put our trust
and confidence in
Jesus, peace and joy
will flood our hearts.

My friend calmly said, “I’m doing great. No change for me at all.”

He was the first person to say that. I pushed back on this response, thinking my friend might quietly share some crisis moments with me. But he simply said, “None of this has surprised God, and none of it has disrupted my early mornings with the Lord. I still meet with Him every morning, and I do what He tells me. Nothing has changed.”

God has called us to follow Jesus, not a career path. He tells us to walk by faith, not in fear. We must learn to find our joy in following Christ above any other pursuit. As we put our trust and confidence in Jesus, peace and joy will flood our hearts.


8. Focus on the Future

The song “Moving Forward” by Israel Houghton has become a private battle cry for me over the past few years. The lyrics proclaim, “I’m not going back, I’m moving ahead. Here to declare to you my past is over in you. All things are made new, surrendered my life to Christ.”

Those words are reminiscent of what Paul wrote in Philippians 3:12–14:

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

During pandemic disruptions, my wife and I got to a place where we expressed our grief to one another and to God. We mourned relationships lost and cried over what would never be again for our church and even our nation. Then we decided there was still a future for our purpose and calling, and we would press on toward it.

Paul admonished the Christians in Philippi to stay forward-focused in their faith and keep moving. He challenged them through his example not to look back — to forget what was behind them and focus on what was in front of them.

Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep your eyes on Jesus. Reach the lost. Build the Church. Feed the hungry. Pray for the sick. And above all, grow in your relationship with Christ (verse 10).

Many of us have spent more time remembering what was instead of focusing on where God is leading. The glory days for the Church are always ahead, never behind.

You will stay in grief if you remain in the past. If your focus remains on the good old days, you will never stop mourning the reality that those days are gone. If you keep your focus on the pain or mistakes of your past, you will constantly see life through the lens of loss and sorrow.

Be a futurist. Look ahead and dream again. God is always on the move. His kingdom is always advancing. Ask God to give you a vision for your ministry again. Then align your heart and focus with His plan.

Remember that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).


9. Rejoice Again and Again

As he prepared to close his letter, Paul encouraged the believers to “stand firm in the Lord” (Philippians 4:1).

Paul also told them to choose a joyful attitude: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (verse 4). This is command language. Rejoicing is an imperative so vital to the Christian life Paul felt the need to repeat it.

Sometimes it seems there is little to feel excited about in our pain-filled world. So many things sap us of joy and distract us from worship and rejoicing. But we must choose a posture of rejoicing — today, and again tomorrow, and multiple times the next day.

Paul went on to offer guidance on how to do this, explaining that we need to keep our minds set on the right things:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (verses 8–9).

If you keep your mind and heart in the right place, rejoicing again and again will become much easier. Turn off the network news for a season. Unplug from social media for a long while. Devote more time to reading God’s Word and praying. Start dating your spouse again. Laugh with your kids.

If you keep your mind and heart in the right place, rejoicing again and again will become much easier.

Rejoice in the Lord — over and over, day after day.


10. Give Generously

Finally, Paul thanked the Philippians for their generosity (Philippians 4:10–19). They had become faithful financial partners in his ministry.

Paul was careful not to pressure the congregation for more money. He assured the Philippians his contentment was not dependent on his resources. God had sustained Paul through good and bad times and would continue to be with him. But Paul also wanted the Philippians to know he was deeply grateful for their renewed financial commitment.

As believers contributed to the ministry, Paul and his team were able to do more. Workers were preaching the gospel, serving the poor, and leading people to Christ because of the generosity of those who gave. The fruitfulness of Paul’s ministry was directly tied to the support of the Philippians, and God took notice, crediting it to their account (verse 17).

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). If you want to experience joy again, give. Support missionaries. Go all in with compassion work through organizations like Convoy of Hope. Set aside time each month to serve the poor in your city and help the suffering. Give more than you’ve ever given before.

Provide your staff members with a generous bonus. Call your district leaders to tell them you love them and are praying for them, and then send each one a gift card.

Generosity brings joy and blessings. Paul said, “My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (verse 19).

Give generously, and watch the joy return to your life.


A Final Word

Perhaps you are struggling to walk in the joy of the Lord. Maybe you are working hard for God without a sense of His presence, or you have forgotten what it’s like to minister out of the overflow of time with Him. Perhaps you feel like you are on the hamster wheel of running in your power instead of God’s.

Throughout the Bible, it is evident that God wants people to experience His joy. Consider these texts:

  • “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
  • Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
  • “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).
  • “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness” (Galatians 5:22).

Ask God to fill you afresh with His Spirit and renew your joy. Laugh again. Hope again. Follow the example of Christ. Refrain from pointless arguments. Develop partnerships in ministry. Remember the victory you have in Jesus. Leave the past behind. Choose joy daily. Give generously.

Life is painful at times, but we have the promise of joy. So rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!


This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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