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As a pastor, I have learned that there are seasons in my life and ministry when spiritual fruit is not as evident as it should be. It is not as evident to others, and it is not even as evident to me. As pastors, we plant, sow, and water again—but little fruit seems to come from our work. Nothing appears to happen. We may go a year, two years, several years without seeing fruit from our efforts. We evangelize, we preach with passion, we try developing friendships with non-Christians. And still, nothing. So we ask ourselves: “What is wrong with me? Why, God, are you not using me?” We have a tendency either to blame God or to blame ourselves. In either case, we are demonstrating a lack of confidence in the gospel.
The truth is that Jesus is either the Lord of the harvest or He isn’t. What do we truly believe?
One of the most precious doctrines of the faith is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. It is a cornerstone of the Reformed tradition. Yet, the implications of His sovereignty in the life of the pastor can often sting harshly. It stings because it flies in the face of the idea that though spiritual fruit will always be readily evident, it simply won’t always be immediately evident.
When we become desperate to see something with our eyes, the temptation is to follow questionable methods to generate fruit and conjure something up. After all, much of the evangelical church promotes success as simply being a function of how many bodies you can draw to an auditorium, or how many hands you can get raised as part of an emotional appeal. So, we are tempted to appeal to the methods of the world to get what we want so badly: success. Yet the more serious we get about our ministry, the more we know that gimmicks and manipulation are not God-honoring ways to lead people to Christ. What is needed is much simpler: a consistent and steadfast proclamation of the gospel. Nothing fabricated. And that seems risky, because you are truly leaving the results up to God in your preaching and in your evangelistic efforts.
Consider the life of Jeremiah, the prophet who lived in the final days of the southern kingdom of Judah as the nation crumbled. God sent him to give the people of Judah their last warning before He cast them out of the land. God would destroy the nation and send them into captivity under the pagan kingdom of Babylon. Jeremiah’s role was to preach and warn them of their sin and idolatrous behavior. But here’s the problem: No one listened. No one responded. Not even to his emotional, fervent plea for obedience to God. Jeremiah preached for forty years, and he saw no success in changing the minds of the people. They remained stubborn. Even the prophets before him had had some success, but not Jeremiah. He likely felt as if he was speaking to a brick wall.
This affected Jeremiah deeply. He is called the “weeping prophet” (see Jer. 9:1) for at least two reasons. First, no one listened to him. Second, he knew what was about to happen. Few people around him comforted him. God told him he would not marry or have children, and his friends were nowhere to be found. He felt alone even as he shared this message. Jeremiah carried both the burden of preaching a tough message as well as the burden of seeing little fruit while he went about preaching it.
Every one of us as believers, not just as pastors, needs to know that just like the great prophets of old, we too may experience times of no fruit. This oftentimes will cause us to question our calling. It can even lead people into depression. But we must find our joy in the Lord. In Jeremiah 15:19, we see that the joy of Jeremiah was restored in the midst of his discouragement.
Why do we lose our joy as pastors and leaders in ministry? Certainly, many times it is because we are not seeing spiritual fruit. But other times it is because we are coveting the “success” of others. This, then, is the question that we must ask ourselves: Is Jesus enough?
At one stage in our first church plant, I was extremely discouraged that no one was coming to Christ. The church seemed to have plateaued. I was putting in more time and energy than ever, but with little results. And a wise, more experienced pastor came alongside me and asked: “Jay, is Jesus really enough for you? Why all of the striving? Do you not trust Him?”
Perhaps my interest was in demonstrating how successful I was or in coveting the success of others. The tenth commandment speaks clearly to this: “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17). The key to not coveting the ministry success of others is to find your joy wholly and completely in Jesus. If He is enough for you personally, you know that your ministry does not validate you. It is Jesus who validates you. When Jesus is sufficient for you, you’ll find your contentment in Him in the difficult seasons of ministry, and you will not be weighed down with discouragement. Your soul will not be downcast because you have put your hope fully in God, because you know that He is the Lord of the harvest.
Rest in that truth. Work hard to spread His fame to your city and to the nations. Find contentment in His divine timing, and your soul will be healthy even in the midst of little visible fruit. He is in control. He is the Lord of the harvest. We are simply His ambassadors.