There's simply no restrained or measured way of saying it: Colossians 1:29 is a breathtaking passage of Scripture! Let me begin with Paul's description of his ministry. But don't disengage. Don't think this passage is irrelevant to you simply because you are neither an apostle nor in vocational ministry.
How does Paul envision ministry? Put simply, it's really hard work: “For this I toil, struggling.” By “this” Paul probably has in mind the full scope of ministry described in v. 28 – proclamation of the gospel of Christ, admonition concerning sin and repentance, instruction in the truths of the faith, all with a view to presenting every person complete in Christ.
The reason it requires “toil” (the focus of this word is not on mere labor but on the exhaustion and weariness that it induces) and “struggling” is not hard to understand. On the one hand, there are our own fleshly desires and bodily weaknesses to contend with. The physical demands of ministry are obvious. For people like Paul, one must also include persecution and pain and imprisonment (cf. 2 Cor. 11:22-29).
There is also the instinctive tendency toward laziness and self-indulgence. We are prone to quit when times get tough. It's so much easier to just give up. The frustration, discouragement, and disillusionment of dealing with human sin on a daily basis make it all too easy to rationalize abandoning the hard work of ministry.
We shouldn't forget the obstacles to ministry posed by those to whom we minister. Notwithstanding our best and most compassionate efforts to be of help, they often want nothing more than to argue and to dispute our doctrine. When you expend yourself in service of another and all you receive in return is either ingratitude or the misinterpretation of your motives and the slander it so often brings, it's hard to stay the course. To use Paul's words, it's a struggle!
We also have to do battle with the devil. The daily barrage of accusation, temptation, and multiple efforts to undermine what we have accomplished weigh heavily on the human soul.
These and countless other expressions of resistance and opposition are undoubtedly what Paul had in mind. So, yes, there is toil and struggle and strain and effort in ministry that can so easily discourage and dishearten those who are not reliant on the power that God supplies.
“You're laying a pretty heavy burden on us Sam. I can barely find strength and incentive to get through the day. What makes you think I can pull this off?”
Needless to say, some don't. We hear all too often of “burn out,” of those who run dry, whose disillusionment is greater than their determination. The prospect of facing another day of pouring out oneself for the sake of those who couldn't care less can take its toll on the human soul. I can't tell you how many times I've heard pastors say, “I'm fed up, beat up, worn out, done in. Enough's enough. I'm out'a here.”
So how did Paul pull it off? Far from being exempt from the trials we face, he endured more than any of us ever will. So what accounts for his endurance? What was the secret to his perseverance?
The answer is two-fold. In the first place, he retained an eternal perspective. “We do not lose heart,” said Paul, “as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16,18).
But second, as stated in our passage in Colossians 1, he relied on an eternal power. Look again at v. 29. Paul toils and struggles “with all his [God's] energy that he powerfully works within me.” The ultimate antidote to the burning out of the human spirit is the burning in of the divine!
The secret of Paul's success was not his education, his cultural heritage, his eloquence, nor the appeal of his personality, but God's power working in him. To make this point he piles up, one upon another, words that focus our attention on the energy and activity of God: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (ESV).
Paul strives “with” or “by means of” or “in reliance upon” God's power. The word translated “energy” by the ESV always in the New Testament refers to supernatural power, divine energy. The energy for the work here below comes from above!
But let's be specific. The power Paul has in mind is the power that raised Jesus from the dead! In Ephesians 1:19-20, a passage parallel in emphasis with Colossians 1:29, Paul points us to “the immeasurable greatness of his [God's] power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”
Apart from conscious, consistent, concentrated reliance on the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead, burnout is a sure thing. Paul toiled without losing heart and struggled successfully because he drew deeply from the well of the infinite and unending energy of God!
I suspect many are tempted to ask: “Why bother, Paul? If God's power is so great and so effective and so readily available, why do you feel it necessary to exert yourself so passionately and painfully? Why toil? Why struggle? Shouldn't you just 'let go and let God'?”
Absolutely not! The presence of God's power does not preclude Paul's personal struggle or energetic striving or laboring. Rather, it makes it possible. God's power is not designed to eliminate our responsibility to work hard but to enable us to fulfill it. Paul is able to work hard because God is working hard. The latter doesn't destroy or undermine the former. I can't repeat this strongly enough: the operation of divine energy does not eliminate the physical and emotional exhaustion that Paul feels. God's working in and through us is not the sort that enables us to put our efforts on cruise control.
What we see here in Colossians 1:29, with reference to ministry in particular, is similar to what Paul wrote in Phil. 2:12-13, with reference to the Christian life in general – “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Virtually every theological and ethical problem can be traced either to an elevation of divine power in a way that minimizes human toil, or the exaltation of human effort in a way that marginalizes the sovereignty of God. But Paul will have neither. He toils because of God's power. And divine power is released in and through human struggling to enable us to accomplish in our labor what we otherwise never would.
Again, God's sovereignty doesn't undermine human activity but inspires it! Any attempt to justify laziness or irresponsibility by appealing to divine power will meet with a harsh biblical denunciation.
Thus we see that God has chosen to operate not independently of but only through and by means of human effort and labor. God's energy doesn't fall from heaven haphazardly, but comes to us through human ministers and ministry, via human toil and struggle. So, how might one know when God is energetically and powerfully working in us?
If, when you are slandered, you do not respond in kind (1 Cor. 4:13), you can rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you.
If, when you are cursed, you bless instead of condemn (1 Cor. 4:12), you can rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you.
If, when persecuted, you endure (1 Cor. 4:12), you can rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you.
If, when you are afflicted but not crushed, are perplexed but do not yield to despair, are struck down but not destroyed, you may rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you (2 Cor. 4:8-9).
If, when you are sorrowful you still rejoice, possess nothing yet are rich, you may rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you (2 Cor. 6:10).
If, when you are in poverty you give generously and joyfully (2 Cor. 8:1ff.), you may rest assured that divine energy is working mightily in you.
You probably won't feel anything. There's no guarantee that your body will vibrate or your appearance will change. But if you find yourself responding as Jesus would, if you find yourself acting and choosing contrary to every fleshly and sinful impulse, you may rest assured that divine energy is mightily at work in you. Only in this way can we, like Paul, continue to serve and love and minister and not lose heart.