My Assistant Pastor came to Niddrie a few years ago. He was fresh out of University and had spent a year abroad on ‘mission’. He was all bright eyed and bushy tailed. 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 baby believer. Then disaster (in his mind) struck. The young man in question, after 6 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 heartbreaking as 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 had had his first taste of inner city ministry in its rawness. In Brasil I had seen people walk away for less. So, how would he cope when the romantic ideal he had pictured in his brain did not match the heartbreaking, daily reality of life on the ground?
This is how he did it.
Firstly, he rested in God. The week after the person had left to go back to his sinful lifestyle, he 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 also his soul needed to find rest in God. Investing in any person is a tiring experience and he needed God’s grace to strengthen him.
Secondly, he needed to root out his idols. After the person left, he felt like his hopes and dreams had been robbed and 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 person had left he read Psalm 62 and verse 6 challenged his heart attitudes. It says this: “He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” This just wasn’t true in his life at this time and he needed to repent. God was not his rock and his salvation. 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.
Thirdly, he remembered that God is in control. When the person left he 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 and gracious and far above our understanding.
Finally, he continue 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 5 new people professed faith the same week 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 have been doing this kind of ministry for a long time and it is a hard, hard thing to keep your heart ‘soft’ when people time and again break it. However, when someone walks away we need to invest our attention elsewhere. Jesus was clear through the Parable of the Sower 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 the seeds of gospel, discipling people and pray that some seed will fall on the good soil because God will produce a great crop through them.
Ministry in schemes is tiring. We invest our lives in people and when they walk away from God it’s heartbreaking. But we need to keep putting our hope in Christ, remind ourselves constantly of God’s sovereign hand and keep sharing the gospel with people! Please pray as we continue to work in this area.
Note: The young man eventually came back and has been walking faithfully with the Lord for over a year! It doesn’t often happen like this but we praise God.