Why do some people grow quickly and move on in the Christian life while others drift away or always seem stuck in neutral?
Why is it that two young addicts profess faith, then both get involved in the life of the same church, have the same discipleship opportunities, gain new friendships, and yet one quickly begins to flounder whilst the other grows and excels in their Christian life? How do we explain it when we invest hours and hours of intense discipleship into people and yet, when left to their own devices, they continually seem to make the wrong choices and fall into serious sin? Yet others pick up the baton and excel under the challenge of living for Christ?
Heart of the Problem
At Niddrie, we have what we believe is a comprehensive discipleship programme. And yet still so many fall through the cracks and crumble when intense temptation comes their way. Why? What is the problem? What is going on? What can be done about it?
The answer, my friends, lies in one place: the heart. We all know Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” We know from Mark’s Gospel that the heart is the root of all sinful behaviour (Mark 7:21). Verse after verse in the Scriptures point us back to our hearts when it comes to identifying the root of our sin problem.
Thomas Chalmers, the well-known Scottish preacher, in his famous sermon, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, says it all.
Seldom do any of our habits or flaws disappear by a process of extinction through reasoning or by the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed. . . . The only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. A young man, for example, may cease to idolize pleasure, but it is only because the idol of wealth has become the stronger and gotten the ascendancy. . . . Even the love of money ceases to have the mastery over the heart if it’s drawn into another world of ideology and politics, and he is now lorded over by the love of power.
But there is not one of these [identity] transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered, but . . . its desire for having some one object of absolute love is unconquerable. It is only when admitted into the number of God’s children through the faith that is in Jesus Christ [that] the spirit of adoption is poured out upon us. It is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominate affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, in the only way that deliverance is possible.
So what Chalmers is saying is that it isn’t enough to hold out a “mirror of its imperfections” to your soul. It’s not enough to lecture your conscience. Rather, you must “try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of him who is greater than the world.”
Go After the Heart
In ministry, we must constantly do two things: (1) Go after the heart by (2) preaching the gospel. Most pastoral frustration is born out of anger (usually not expressed) toward those who won’t change or seemingly don’t listen to our (often good and wise) advice. But, if Chalmers is right—and I believe he is—then the answer to all our why’s is simply that people just don’t love Jesus enough.
Why has that person gone back to the Heroin? Because Jesus did not completely capture his/her affections. How should we respond to that situation? Return to the gospel and hold out the glorious love of Jesus. Don’t chase them down. Don’t harass them. Don’t guilt trip them. Don’t pressurise them. Just keep proclaiming the gospel. Just keep praying that God, by his Spirit, will lay hold of them and grip their hearts in such a way that there’s only enough room in their life for King Jesus.
Often, burnout occurs in our kind of ministry because we are overwhelmed by the needs of others, or we are overburdened by those who seem intent on destroying themselves, even though we know that they know the truth. These are precisely the times when we must go after our own hearts and remind ourselves of the gospel again. We cannot change others—no matter how great our pastoral gifts or how amazing our expositional ministry may be. The changing of the human heart is exclusively an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. Only when salvation has truly occurred in a person’s life will we begin to see them hand their lives over to the Lordship of Jesus.
Those who excel and grow in our community are not the brightest ones (though many of them are bright) or even the ones I thought would ‘make it’. They are the ones who, when they understood the great cost that Jesus paid for them on the cross in order to win their souls, consciously made Him their one true love. They may be ‘all over the place’ at times, but you can see that Christ is the root and source of their affections.
Don’t Lose Heart
So, in the mess of scheme life (and any ministry really), try not to get too disheartened by a lack of consistency or people falling away or the ‘rollercoaster’ Christians. It happened to Jesus too—Judas fell away, His best mates abandoned Him, the crowds wandered off. Just keep going. Preach the gospel. Pray for God to work deeply and powerfully.
Chalmers maintained that it’s not enough to lecture the conscience. Rather, we must “try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of him who is greater than the world.” We can’t change people. Our programmes can’t change people. Our love can’t change people. We can’t even change ourselves. Only Jesus can do that. Only His love can melt hard hearts. If we can’t change people, and if they can’t change themselves, then we must hand them over to the great lover of souls. We must pray that He would hold mastery over them. That He would change them from the inside out.
I know this ministry is tiring, and I know it is very tough for some of you out there right now. We can sometimes feel our failures more deeply than we rejoice in His victories. But, press on. The harvest is still plentiful. There is still a crop to be had. Some of it will turn out bad and some of it will be magnificent. Don’t let a bad winter stop you from planting again next year, from getting out there and doing it all again.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:9).