Realistic Expectations

David H. Roper

Many of us were launched from seminary or Bible school with the tacit assurance that our congregations would lean on our judgment, follow our counsel, trust our values, listen to what we have to say and move toward intimacy with God. But then we discover it isn’t so. Most folks have little or no interest in spiritual things, no matter what we do. It’s then we may begin to lose confidence in ourselves, our call, and our confidence in God.

It’s for that reason Jesus served up the parable of the Sower and the Seed for his followers. It was his way of helping them come to terms with apparent failure. It teaches us that most people are not interested in pursuing godliness and may never be and there’s not much we can do about it. Their disinclination is due to factors beyond our control.

Our task is not to change people, but to sow—to scatter seed whenever and wherever we have an opportunity. There’s life in the seed and if it is received it will produce fruit. However, the response is dependent solely on the condition of the soil in which the seed is scattered. Hard hearts, divided hearts, distracted hearts deflect the seed, or deny it an opportunity to take root and grow. Even where the soil is soft there will be varying yield—“a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:8).

Is the condition of the soil permanent? Not necessarily. God rains his grace on every soil; he harnesses the plow of suffering and breaks the hardest heart. (It’s worth noting that our word “tribulation” comes from the Latin word for plow: tribulum.) God never gives up, nor should we. We must keep loving, serving, praying, proclaiming, but the hard truth is that many if not most of the people we serve will remain carnal, cold and spiritually indifferent. It’s from these folks that most of our stresses come—the dysfunctional families, the marital infidelities, the immoralities, the addictions, the harsh and unjustified criticisms and the other difficulties that make our work so tiresome. (I wonder how much of our counseling is supporting folks who do not want to follow Christ in obedience?)

So what’s the answer? Work harder? Work longer? Work until we burn out, or decimate our families, worry ourselves sick and out of the ministry? No. The answer is to keep sowing—prayerfully, lovingly, proclaim God’s word. Many will not receive it, but there are a few “good and noble hearts,” as Luke would have it, in which the seed will take root and begin to grow. These are the men and women who have prepared their hearts for God. This is the fertile soil—all of which leads me to another thought: “Go to those who want you and especially to those who want you the most.”

John Wesley said that and it’s pure wisdom. Preaching and teaching are the means by which we appeal to the many, but there’s more: that quiet, hidden work of equipping the few.

Richard Baxter, the Puritan Vicar of Kidderminster, wrote, “I know that preaching the gospel publicly is the most excellent means, because we speak to so many at once, but it is far more effectual to speak it privately to a particular person.”

It does no good to pursue people that have no interest in following the Lord. Lavish love on them, pray earnestly for them, teach them as long as they’ll permit you to do so, but spend your premium time with those “particular people” who will lend God their ear. Look for those who want to grow in grace and prayerfully invest in them. There may be only one or two at first, but these are the “faithful” souls whom Paul encourages us to instruct (2 Timothy 2:2).

The main thing is the individual person. We can’t move the masses; only individuals. God wins hearts not en masse but “one by one” (Isaiah 27:12). Change can only occur in the individual soul. “The whole gathered mass is nothing but a heap of sand except in proportion to what is awakened in the hearts of individuals,” George MacDonald said. “If individuals don’t know God no gathering of multitudes brings anyone nearer to the throne of God.”

Though a quiet ministry to a few may seem improvident (it will always seem more efficient to speak to the masses) it was the method Jesus chose to bring the gospel to the world. He taught the crowds, but his primary work was done with a few and, as Jesus drew near the end of his ministry on earth, he spent more and more time with fewer and fewer people. That’s backward from our point of view, but there’s something to be said for doing things Jesus’ way. Never despise “the day of small beginnings” (Zechariah 4:10). No one who hopes to accomplish, or does accomplish, anything great, will do so.

“Small is beautiful,” a friend of mine says. God has always done his best work through a remnant.


E-musings are archived at Realistic Expectations - July 6, 2012

Sermons by Dave Roper

Comments added August 11, 2020.

James Fielder:

I would phrase this one line slightly differently:

These are the men and women who have prepared their hearts for God. It is God who does the preparing of the heart for Him, not man. He hardens whom He will. He saves whom He will. He circumcises those He wills. He opens the heart. He softens the soil. It's grace 100 per cent. Not of man. These are the men and women who have prepared their hearts for God.

Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord in her heart to respond to Paul’s message.

Bryce Self:

Reminds me of the following from one of my favorite commentaries on Revelation, used as part of the introduction to a series on the Letters to the Seven Churches.

ON THE CHARACTER OF THE CHURCH (M. Eugene Boring, Commentary on Revelation)

Much anger towards the church and most disappointments in the church are because of failed expectations. We expect a disciplined army of committed men and women who courageously lay siege to worldly powers; instead we find some people who are more concerned with getting rid of the crabgrass in their lawns. We expect a community of saints who are mature in the virtues of love and mercy, and find ourselves working on a church supper where there is more gossip than there are casseroles. We expect to meet minds that are informed and shaped by the great truths and rhythms of Scripture, and find persons whose intellectual energy is barely sufficient to get them from the comics to the sports page.

At such times it is more important to examine and change our expectations than to change the church, for the church is not what we organize but what God gives, not the people we want to be with but the people God gives us to be with—a community created by the descent of the Holy Spirit in which we submit ourselves to the Spirit’s affirmation, reformation, and motivation. There must be no idealization of the church. And lamentation ought to be restrained. Eulogy and anguish are alike misplaced. Churches are not little Jerusalems, either old or new.

It is God’s will that we have a church The life of faith always and necessarily takes place in a community of persons who are located somewhere in time and place. Geography is as important in the Christian way as Christology. Ur, Nazareth, Damascus, Patmos, and Thyatira are as essential as the fire-blazing eyes of the one like the Son of Man whose voice is like many waters. There is no evidence in the annals of ancient Israel or in the pages of the New Testament that churches were ever much better or much worse than they are today. A random selection of seven churches in any century, including our own, would turn up something very much like the seven churches to which St. John was pastor.

The churches of the Revelation show us that churches are no Victorian parlors where everything is always picked up and ready for guests. They are messy family rooms. Entering a person’s house unexpectedly, we are sometimes met with a barrage of apologies. St. John does not apologize. Things are out of order, to be sure, but that is what happens to churches that are lived in. They are not show rooms. They are living rooms, and if the persons living in them are sinners, there are going to be clothes scattered about, handprints on the woodwork, and mud on the carpet.

For as long as Jesus insists on calling sinners and not the righteous to repentance—and there is no indication as yet that He has changed His policy in that regard—churches are going to be an embarrassment to the fastidious and an affront to the upright. St. John sees them simply as lampstands: they are places, locations, where light of Christ is shown. They are not themselves the light. There is nothing particularly glamorous about churches, nor, on the other hand, is there anything particularly shameful about them. They simply are.

The church is to the gospel what the body is to the person: under the conditions of our creation necessary, but not the thing itself. The body can be abused by overeating or overwork. It can be maimed by accident or by disease. Still, it is necessary. Persons do fine things in abused and neglected and inadequate bodies. The body can also be pampered and perfumed apart from any intention to work or love, and still be a means for work and love.

Thus also the church. A corrupt church still functions as the church. Dirty lampstands do not extinguish Christ’s light. A prettified church, still, despite itself, functions as a church: polished gold does not outshine Christ’s light. Of course, it is better that it be neither of these things, neither tarnished out of neglect or polished in vanity. It is better that it simply be there, unselfconsciously and inconspicuously receiving and sharing the light of Christ.

Posted by Lambert Dolphin 8/10/20