Several years ago, when my assistant pastor (who shall remain unnamed) came to Niddrie, he was all bright eyed and bushy tailed. He was fresh out of University and had spent a year abroad on ‘mission’. He was coming to work with the poor and to change the church as we know it in the UK. Ministry was going to be Bible studies, conversions, people loving Jesus, and new ways of doing community together.
Then reality hit.
He met some actual poor people who didn’t view him as a saviour. He came up against a local church community full of struggling sinners. He had his first sweet taste of somebody coming to faith, and he began to invest heavily into discipling this young believer.
Then disaster (in his mind) struck. The young man in question, after six months of living drug-free, coming to church, being involved in community, and being very much a part of my assistant’s life, left to go back to his old lifestyle. In fact, he had been lied to pretty much all along by this individual. I had seen it coming, from a distance, for months, and I wrestled with whether to intervene or not. I decided, at the time, to leave it to the Lord.
It was heart-breaking. Within a week, the young man in question was back on hard drugs, wandering the streets scoring, being beaten up, and sleeping around. He was miserable and wretched. My assistant was devastated (we all were).
He had prayed with him, walked with him, and taught him the gospel as faithfully as he could. He had him stay in his house and he had become part of the family. The whole process was demoralising and spiritually draining. My assistant felt like he had been punched in the stomach and left winded on the ground. He’d had his first taste of raw, inner-city ministry.
In Brazil, I had seen people walk away for less. So, how would he cope when the romantic ideal he had pictured in his brain didn’t match the heart-breaking, daily reality of life on the ground?
This is how he did it.
1. Rested in God.
The week after the person had left to go back to his sinful lifestyle, my assistant was absolutely shattered. He walked around like a zombie and found it difficult to engage with people. There was a need for sleep on one level, but his soul also needed to find rest in God. Investing in any person is a tiring experience, and he needed God’s grace to strengthen him.
2. Rooted out his idols.
After the person left, he felt like his hopes and dreams had been robbed. That there was no way forward. He had, in actuality, put his trust in the wrong things. This time of unrest brought forward the idols of his heart. He had trusted in the personal glory of helping this person put their life together. He had wanted recognition, respect, and glory for the part that he had played in investing in this person’s life.
A day after the professing believer had walked away, my assistant read Psalm 62—verse 6 challenged his heart attitudes. “He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” (Ps. 62:6) When difficult things happen, we see where our hopes and dreams really are. And if they’re not fixed on God, then we need to repent and put our trust in Him, and Him alone.
3. Remembered that God is in control.
When the person left, my assistant was left wondering what God was up to. This was, of course, an arrogant thought, but one that crossed his mind constantly. How could God let this person go? How could all that hard work come to absolutely nothing? Does God know what he is doing?
His wife reminded him of this verse from Isaiah 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” The Lord always knows what he is doing and is always in control. His ways are not our ways, and we need to always trust that He is working out His good and perfect will. When people (seemingly) walk away from the Lord, we need to trust that God is sovereign and that His plan is perfect. He is just, gracious, and far above our understanding.
4. Continued to invest wholeheartedly in others.
I (Mez) said to him several times during that difficult period: “You need to get back on the horse, and get back on quickly.” Even though five new people professed faith the same week that this young man walked away, my assistant’s first reaction was to withdraw and not risk emotionally investing in somebody else. He was tired by the whole thing and honestly couldn’t be bothered. He was in danger of letting his first, crushing disappointment lead him down the road of cynicism and bitterness.
I’ve been doing this kind of ministry for a long time, and it is a hard, hard thing to keep your heart ‘soft’ when people break it time and again. However, when someone walks away, we need to invest our attention elsewhere. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus was clear that many seeds will be planted, but only the ones who remain are saved. This is how we need to view ministry. We need to keep spreading gospel seeds and discipling people, and as we do so, we pray that some seed will fall on the good soil. After all, we can plant and water, but only God can give the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).
Ministry in schemes is tiring. We invest our lives in people, and when they walk away from God, it’s heart-breaking. But we need to keep hoping in Christ, reminding ourselves constantly that God is both sovereign and also good, and keep sharing the gospel with people. Please pray as we continue to work in this area.