I used to think that ministry – pastoral, children’s, raising kids, being a friend, etc. – was primarily about helping people change. Speaking the truth in love, being an instrument in the Redeemer’s hand, correcting, rebuking, etc. Onward and upward, marching toward glory with inexorable progress.
If someone didn’t change, it meant I had failed in some way. I hadn’t spoken clearly enough or marshaled enough biblical arguments. I hadn’t correctly mixed my grace and truth potion. I needed to go back to the lab again and then come at things from a different angle.
This led to all sorts of sinful and massively annoying behaviors, like repeating the same arguments/corrections/admonitions to people until they wanted to deliver a swift uppercut to my jaw (thankfully that never happened).
But something has changed in me over the last few years.
I’ve realized that ministry of any sort, whether that’s raising my kids or leading a community group, is primarily about hanging in there with people while God does his work.
Yes, I know this is obvious to most people, but I’m denser than most.
Several factors have led to this realization. First, I’ve become painfully aware of how slow I am to change. It takes me years to make incremental progress, decades to achieve even small victories over sin. There are certain patterns of sin that have plagued me for years.
Why would I expect others to be any different?
Yet I get easily frustrated because I have to instruct my children over and over in the same things. Don’t hit your sister. Don’t grumble and argue. Please don’t smear chocolate bars all over our white chair. It’s frustrating! Why won’t they change faster? Why don’t they get it? How many times do I have to go over this with them?
But I’m not any different. How many times does the Spirit convict me of a sin before I change? A thousand? Ten thousand? God is so patient with me. He hangs in there with me. He doesn’t throw up his hands and stomp off in a huff. He reminds and forgives and convicts me again and again, with endless patience. He is present with me even though he has every right to give up.
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Second, I see the theme of patience running like a golden thread throughout scripture. The entire Old Testament is the story of God’s unbreakable, Herculean patience with the Israelites. Jesus endured one boneheaded moment after another from his disciples. Paul wrote to the Galatians, REMINDING THEM NOT TO ABANDON JESUS! The Corinthian church was like a Cirque de Solei show gone terribly wrong.
I like to think that I’m somehow different, but I’m not. How many times do I forget the gospel? How often do I grumble like the Israelites or lack faith like the disciples? The characters of scripture are a cracked mirror, and when I look into it, I see myself staring back.
These realities have fundamentally reshaped the way I think about ministering to others. Yes, I’m called to speak the truth in love and call other believers to obedience. Yes, I need to correct my children when they swerve into disobedience.
But ministry mainly about hanging in there with people while God does the work.
It’s about not giving up or getting frustrated when their flaws are violently exposed.
It’s about sticking closer than a brother when I’m tempted to walk away.
It’s about trusting God to do the changing according to His timeline.
It’s about pointing people to Christ when they don’t have the strength to look themselves.
It’s about repeating the same truths again and again.
1 Thessalonians 5:14 is one of the most helpful verses for me:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
Every person needs something different to grow in godliness. One person needs to be admonished, another encouraged, another helped.
But one thing is required above all else: patience.
I need you to be patient with me, and you need me to be patient with you.
That’s what sustains ministry over the long run.