How do I bear with immature Christians? The question is relevant to all maturing Christians, but today it comes from a listener named T.J. And I assume T.J. is a young pastor. He writes, “Hello, Pastor John. When you were a pastor, how did you deal with the grief or burden you felt about the members of your church that seemed to not live like Jesus? How did you handle disappointment in people who are active participants in the church, but always seem to lag far behind in personal growth and maturity?”
There are two kinds of challenges that I hear for the pastor or for the council of elders: one is the discernment challenge, and the other is the discouragement challenge. The discernment challenge is discerning when a person is not just weak and struggling, but is living out of a rebellious heart that looks weak and struggling but deep down is very resistant to God and his word, to the church and church leadership. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between these two: the sincere, humble, often-failing stumbler, on the one hand, and the person who’s using weakness as a cover-up for a hard, resistant, insubordinate heart of disobedience. So, that’s the discernment challenge.
The discouragement challenge is handling the discouragement of pouring your life out, year after year, and realizing that many in our congregation, they’re not embracing the biblical vision we preach, and they’re not being transformed into more holy and loving people. That could be really discouraging. And it sounds like T.J. is asking mainly about that. But let me say a word about each of them, and then dwell on the second one he seems to be most concerned about.
Rebel or Struggler?
A pastor needs a robust theology of sanctification that recognizes the dangers of perfectionism, on the one hand, and the dangers of carelessness about sin, on the other hand. There really is a “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). So, woe to those who are careless as they deal with their people as if sin doesn’t really matter: “You’re all justified by faith; it doesn’t matter how you live.” Woe to such pastors. And it is really true that, “If we say we have no sin . . . the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). So, woe to the perfectionists, woe to the pastors who have no sense of proportion, no sense of balance, no sense of how to deal with people who are real Christians and yet stumble.
“How can I be harsh or impatient with a struggler since I have failed God so many times?”
There is such a thing as a fake faith — believing in vain Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 15:2. And there is such a thing as weak faith, little faith, growing faith, embattled faith, all of which are real faith. And I would only mention one thing in regard to how to handle the challenge of discernment here, and that is this: take careful stock of how the struggler and the rebel respond to correction and admonition. The true struggling believer will be much more likely to humble himself and follow your counsel than the rebel will be.
So, that’s my word about the discernment challenge.
Five Encouragements for Pastors
Now, with regard to the discouragement challenge that people are not changing the way you’ve prayed, and you’ve hoped, and you’ve labored, and you’ve counseled, and you’ve preached — that’s really depleting.
That very question came up in my preaching class the other day; somebody asked it. And I said that I remember a man who sat in the second pew on the right-hand side in the old sanctuary we used to have, and then we built a new one and he sat in the same second pew in the new sanctuary, for fifteen years at least. And when he passed away, I could see no change in his life at all: no change in the way he talked about God, no change in the way he seemed to feel about God, no change in the way he talked to me about the concerns of his life, which were always something other than the Lord. That was really discouraging. So, here are a few thoughts that I hope will help about this discouragement factor.
1. Remember that you are not necessarily at fault if people do not grow.
The New Testament recognizes that this sort of thing happens. In other words, you’re not alone. For example, Hebrews 5:11–12 says,
We have much to say [he’s thinking about Melchizedek], and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.
He doesn’t seem to scold the pastors; he’s scolding the people. He’s going to refer to the pastors later on, but he doesn’t scold him for this. The people have gone backward. They didn’t just stay still; they’ve gone backward: they’ve become dull of hearing even as they listened to the teachers of the church.
So, it doesn’t mean we excuse ourselves as pastors. We should test the content of our teaching, and the prayerfulness of our lives, and the example of our love. But what Hebrews does is to call attention to the fact that there can be people in your church who actually go backward under your faithful teaching.
2. Understand that disappointments will be frequent.
Paul makes clear that there will always be different kinds of disappointments in the people of our church. He says, for example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
“There is a great reward coming for pastors who keep on loving, and faithfully teaching and preaching to their people.”
And he doesn’t talk as if those categories are going to go away — like, “Just work a little harder, elders. Come on, if you just work a little harder, you won’t have to deal with idle people, fainthearted people, weak people.” No, I don’t think that’s what he means. That’s a perfectionistic notion that’ll kill a pastor, I’ll tell you. And it’ll kill a Sunday school teacher, or whatever.
If you think, “If I just work a little harder, all my people will move beyond idleness, faintheartedness, weakness. There won’t be anything to struggle with anymore in my church if I succeed” — that’s perfectionism that’s about to kill a pastor.
3. Work hard to stay patient with everyone.
“Be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Patience is a huge necessity in the ministry, and the key to patience is the double look, forward and backward. We look forward to the promises of God to turn all apparent setbacks into stepping-stones. Genesis 50:20: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God means this slowness of their sanctification for your good, pastor.
And then the backward look about the patience of God in our lives — the pastor’s own life. How can I be harsh or impatient with a struggler since I have failed God so many times, and he has drawn me back again and again and again?
4. Keep your eyes on the reward.
There is a great reward coming for pastors who keep on loving and faithfully teaching and preaching to their people, rather than being embittered and cynical and domineering. First Peter 5:2–4:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
That crown of glory is going to be given to faithful shepherds, whether the sheep have been responsive or not. In other words, when it feels like the rewards here are slim, don’t forget the unfading crown of glory.
5. Hold fast the promise that God’s word does the work.
And the last thing I would say is this: Be encouraged that God’s word does not come back empty. You may think so; I mean, it may look like this is not producing fruit. He asked, “What did you do, Pastor John?” I memorized and I preached to myself these words from Isaiah 55:10–11:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
And I preached that to myself over and over again. How many times did I get up from the front pew, and walk toward the pulpit, saying to myself, “It’s not going to come back empty; it’s not going to come back empty”?
So, we may not see the effect in this life. Some of it God lets us see, and much of it he does not let us see. He knows how to manage our pride, and he knows how to manage our discouragement. So, take heart; preach the word; love the people. God is at work.