AVOIDING THE TRAP OF UNMET EXPECTATIONS IN MERE APPEARANCES: SEEING GOD AT WORK IN PREACHING BY FAITH
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Time out of the pulpit has given me good opportunity to reflect on myself and others in the pulpit. In my hiatus from the weekly demands of preaching, I have been able to gain some fresh perspective on preaching, having had much more time to listen than speak. I have been both blessed and troubled. If you will bear with me, I want to address here something that is troubling me now. In looking back at myself in hindsight and up at others in my front-sight, I have seen something detrimental to our enduring effectiveness—to our faithful fruitfulness—as ministers of the Word.
You know as well as I do how powerful expectations are for shaping our thoughts, words, and actions. If we are not intentionally and honestly dealing with our expectations, they will affect what we are thinking, saying, and doing in ways we are not even aware of, for better or worse. This is especially true for studying and standing to preach.
Unless you are a counterfeit, your heart is in your ministry. It has to be, or you’re faking it. Our labor is a labor of love, first for our Father and Lord (Mark 12:30; 1 Timothy 1:12-14), then for our brothers and sisters (Mark 12:31; 1 Timothy 1:5). We must set our hearts on and pour our hearts into our ministry of the Word. However, we can set our hearts on and pour our hearts into some wrong things within our ministry. I am addressing one in particular here.
We know we are preaching against the ills of sin—ills of our own self-determined wills. From the Great Physician, we have been given the only prescription that truly reverses sins ill-effects: His Word that gives life to the dead—that heals the sick—that rebuilds what is destroyed. We know our responsibility to faithfully, carefully, and caringly dispense what the Physician has generally prescribed to all, as well as specifically prescribes to each. We want this work—we have given our lives to this work—we revel in this work—but there is a trap in this work. If we fall into this trap, we will begin to lose our joy in this work—our faith will be clouded by frustration, and we will head for burn-out.
Just as every pharmacist is a link between the doctor and his patients, we preachers also are links between the Great Physician and His “patients”. Additionally, just as every pharmacist must personally care deeply about his preparation and transmission of each and every prescription to each and every patient, so we must and so much more. However, because of the personal, face-to-face nature of our ministries, we tend to lose sight of what a pharmacist naturally and easily remembers as each patient walks away from his counter: the difference between carefully looking to our particular dispensation of the Prescription and obsessively looking for their particular reception of the Prescription.
Brothers, we must personally care deeply about the conditions of our people…whether they are our people for one service or for decades of service. We must want them to have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). We must pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul (3 John 2). We must care whether some are making shipwreck of their faith (1 Timothy 1:19), or, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19). However, in our preaching and our expectations for how it is received as we prepare for it (expectations that will affect what we are thinking, saying, and doing as we stand in and step out of the pulpit service after service)—in persistently transmitting the Great Physician’s Prescription for their necessary reception of it, we must remember the difference between hoping for how it changes a life and looking for how it changes a face. This comes down to the difference between trusting God for the substantive effects of repentance and pressuring ourselves and our people for the superficial expressions of repentance.
Before we realize what has happened, we can fall into the trap of gauging our ministries—the effectiveness of our preaching—by the expressions on faces and the postures of bodies—by whether they are coming forward, staying put, or backing up. I’ve been there, and I see now how that trap was sucking the life out of my ministry. I have seen this with other brothers, too. I have watched a brother slip into this trap as he pours his heart out, watching for a particular response he was already expecting as his pre-defined expression of repentance in their reception of his proclamation. I have felt his discouragement as it pulled his face and shoulders down, as he forgot the promise of God: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10–11)
Let me be clear. We must expect and call for the reception of and a repentant response to God’s Word each and every time we preach it…without exception. But we must not artificially define what that will superficially look like in those moments our folks are right in front of us. We all have seen, on one hand, the tears shed in sobbing expressions of repentance and dedication…and rededication…and rededication…with nothing ever changing, while, on the other hand, that one sits in the back seemingly unmoved but whose heart was forever changed, as seen in the difference in his life in the days that followed. Remember, “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) And we must care so deeply that our hearts break deeply when we know for certain God’s Word is being rejected. But we must learn the difference between the breaking of our hearts and the breaking of our strides. We must rejoice even while we weep, working with hope that God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:25-26).
Let us learn from the Apostle Paul—that beat-up but never broken-down minister of the Gospel that saved him and so many others through him. Let us press on after him, “serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials…” (Acts 20:19). Let us, like him, “not shrink from declaring to [them] anything that [is] profitable, and teaching [them] in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20–21) — “not shrink from declaring to [them] the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) — “not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears” (Acts 20:31). Let us say along with him, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
Let’s avoid the trap of unmet expectations in mere appearances—of narrowly defining what is happening between God and our people, only by what we are expecting to see and are seeing with our natural eyes. Let’s get down to the gut-level of what we are expecting from our people and purify that with Scripture, so that discouraging frustration does not darken our thoughts, pollute our speech, or misdirect our actions. Let’s pray for supernatural eyes of faith to see the Lord Jesus over and among His own, so that, even while we are preaching His Word, no matter how many eyes are dulled or heads are shaking, we see His eyes ablaze and His head nodding with approval. To Him be the glory, as it is now and will be forever. Amen!