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In fruitless seasons

How do we keep on going when it seems like our work isn't making the slightest difference?

Just over a month ago, I started a new job in a new (to me) field. While I’m not in sales (what a mess that would be), my department is closely aligned with the sales team, and it has been quite an experience. The energy level that these people run on has honestly left me flabbergasted – and even more confounding is the fact that they’re able to sustain this enthusiasm the entire workday, and the entire week! My colleagues and I have talked about this (I’m not the only one mystified by their zeal) and have only been able to conclude that it takes both a certain personality type, and a very specific, rewards-based motivation to be in sales (at least in our office). I fit neither of these criteria.

What has had me thinking even more, however, are the similarities I’ve noticed popping up between sales and marketing culture and terminology, and some church groups I’ve been a part of.

(I want to put out a disclaimer right here that: 1) this does not apply to all church groups I’ve been a part of, and 2) I’m aware of why these actions that I’m about to critique were put in place, and I’m not saying they’re necessarily bad full stop. I think we just need to be mindful of the cultures, attitudes, heartsets and mindsets they can foster if we’re not careful.)

Not long ago, I finished reading both Elisabeth Elliot’s novel, No Graven Image, and a biography on Lilias Trotter called, A Passion for the Impossible. Both were great reads and held a good variety of gems, but one of the things I most appreciated in them was how unromantic they both were about ministry – evangelism in particular. Lilias spent 40 years of her life and ultimately died in North Africa to make the gospel known, and after pouring out all those decades she only saw a small handful of believers come to know the Lord. And even among those who did seem to profess faith, many often fell away again.

Elisabeth Elliot’s book is even more unfiltered and unflinching in its depiction of the confusion and even the occasional extreme disappointments involved in ministry. Based closely on her own mission experience, the book tells the story of a young, new missionary as she encounters the harsh realities of crossing cultures, clumsy communication, complex human hearts, and confusing or unexpected responses to prayer. Slowly, all of her expectations of what missionary life would or should look like are stripped away and she begins to ponder what the point of ministry even is if we don’t ever see anyone come to know the Lord.

Like the sales team at my office, I think sometimes in church culture we can get wrapped up in goals, numbers, objectives, and results. We want to pray for x number of people, see x number of baptisms by this date, or we make sure we witness to x number of contacts in a week. Mission reports are expected to demonstrate a concrete return on investment, and we compare the numbers from one quarter and market to the next to determine just how well a missionary or particular ministry is doing, and whether they’re worth our cash and emotional investment for yet another term.

But what about when we aren’t seeing results? Do we get frustrated with God, wondering why He’s not holding up His end of the bargain? Do we look down on the missionaries who come back empty-handed and expect them to explain themselves? Do we expect a strategic overhaul? Or perhaps we have been in this position ourselves; do we get discouraged and consider ourselves failures?

Was God unfaithful to Lilias Trotter’s work? Or was she somehow unfaithful? Are the scads of missionaries who devote their lives to a field, never to see a single person come to know the Lord, unfaithful failures?

Are we doing something wrong if we have a great conversation with someone and then never end up seeing them again? Or if that friend who’s been coming to church with us for three months suddenly makes a 180 and loses all interest in Christ?

The answer to all of the above is unequivocally no. I think Jeremiah is one of the best examples and proofs of this. Jeremiah’s entire ministry was spent dramatically begging Israel to turn from their ways and submit to the Lord again, and while he went from persecution to persecution, he really saw no results at all. If we judged his life based on numerical reports, we would have to include that his entire life was a big fat failure.

But to God, Jeremiah was a good and faithful servant.

While in times of fruitlessness, it may not hurt to pray and ask God to reveal if there are wiser steps we could be taking, or talk to trusted brothers and sisters and ask for advice. But I think in many of these cases, when we’re genuinely seeking the heart of the Lord and praying for loved ones’ salvation, the reasons we don’t see the results we hoped for can be chocked up to the facts that:

  • Humans have free will, and no matter how exquisitely we present the gospel, submitting to the Lordship of Christ is a step that goes against everything our human egos fight for, and the Bible tells us that many in this world will never take it. I mean, even Jesus had people reject the gospel when He shared it (in a pretty big way, in fact). This doesn’t mean that we give up on people easily or carelessly, but the fact that we can’t force anyone to accept God’s grace is a (really difficult) unavoidable truth. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing anything wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean we give up, but it is a fact we will have to face.

  • While the world around us has fostered expectations of instant results, I’ve often found both in my own life and in the Bible, that God is usually One for playing the long game. Remember that God has invited you into His plan and His work in the lives of all the people you touch, but He’s also the One who has known each person from the moment of their birth, who has watched them every night as they’ve slept, and who has known them in their deepest, darkest lows and their highest of highs. He knows the part you’re playing in the intricately woven tapestry of their lives much better than you do, and therefore perhaps the role He has you slotted into for them is different than the one you thought it was. Perhaps you are just one of the people who will slowly notch the person one degree closer to the direction of Christ. Or perhaps you have a larger role to play, but the work is spread over a much longer time period than you thought it would be. Either way, just because you are not seeing results in the short-term doesn’t mean eternity won’t surprise you with the influence you have actually had all along.

So, after all this, why do we continue in our ministry, even when it feels like we’re not making any difference?

Neither Elisabeth Elliot nor Lilias Trotter addressed this question head on, but their implicit answers were abundantly clear. I don’t at all want to rule out a passion for people and the desire to see them saved from the darkness of this world – that should indeed be a huge driving factor. But what keeps us going when these people show no response to our rescue attempts? The reason we are in ministry even when we’re not seeing results, is, quite simply, Jesus.

And all that He embodies. And His worthiness of our entire hearts, passions, minds, strength, and lives.

As Elisabeth Elliot brings up, Christ is Truth personified, and Truth is always worth fighting for, always worth campaigning for. The world tells itself lies that capture and lock it in a prison of its own keeping; Jesus is the key, the Truth that smashes the lock, breaks down the doors and sets man free. This is no metaphorical hyperbole, the Bible tells us those facts explicitly; we are told that Jesus is the Truth, and that the Truth will set us free. If Jesus is Truth, as He tells us He is, He is worth devoting our lives to spreading. The world’s desperate need for freedom is no unworthy cause either.

Lilias Trotter found so much richness in Christ, and while she did see Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, I think a facet of Him that she recognized and that we don’t talk about as much in Christian circles anymore is His beauty. Christian writers of the past used to talk about Christ’s beauty quite a bit, and while I think perhaps it confuses some of us more modern thinkers, I think there is great depth and praiseworthiness to be found there. The world we live in was created as one of pristine beauty, and there are still glimpses of it that we catch in nature every so often. The desire for beauty is also one inherent to all human beings; no matter how lost and far from Christ we may be, that concrete and/or symbolic reflection of His character will always draw us.

The broken world cries out for beauty, for Life, for harmony, for grace. All of this is praise-worthy, and all of it is personified and sourced in Christ. In a world of noise, dirt, hatred, grease, smoke, selfishness, and greed, we have the opposite, the Antidote, the Conqueror. We have the source of all that is beautiful, the One who submitted Himself to ugliness in order to overcome and rise above it more dazzlingly beautiful than ever before. That man, the one who contains and personifies and sources all Goodness, Beauty, Love, and Hope, He and His cause to defeat all that is opposite of Him are worth fighting and campaigning for. He is the One our world needs, and whether they like it or not, it is worth pouring out our entire lives to try and wake them up to this fact.

In short, we keep on because we can always rejoice and recognize the rightness and goodness in obedience to a perfect, beautiful, holy and worthy King, even when we don’t feel we can rejoice in visible results.

While I realize some of this above may have sounded a bit pessimistic or hopeless, the truth is that it’s not hopeless at all. Because what if, in all our efforts, one person does come to have their eyes opened to the Truth and Beauty of Christ? What if we pour out our entire lives, and one person does come to see Him? Would that not be abundantly worth all the effort? If we gave our puny little short earthly lives, taking on additional temporal sorrows and sacrificing tarnishing tinny rewards, and we got to be part of just one person getting to know and enjoy Christ for all eternity? If there’s even the tiniest chance of that, wouldn’t it all be more than worth it?

At the very least, isn’t it worth trying? Doesn’t Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Life, and Mercy Personified merit our lives? He is worthy, so worthy, of whatever He asks of us, and it is all that He is, all the Beauty that He is, that makes a life poured out to Him worth it. Whatever numbers we do or do not write down at the end of the day, let us live lives that seek to please Him regardless of the results, living lives that are worthy of our calling, and worthy of the One who calls us His own.

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