Every pastor I know has struggled with these twin issues. Every seminary professor I’ve talked with and interacted with has had trials with this. Every committed church member in whom I’ve seen God birth a passion and zeal for a new ministry I’ve also seen struggle with the same form of soul-searching, gut-wrenching angst.
It’s the issue of faithfulness and fruitfulness. In essence, it’s the struggle between being faithful to what God has called you to do and the nearly all-consuming desire to see fruit produced through it. And it can eat God’s people alive.
I want to devote this first of two “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness” posts to encouraging faithfulness even in the absence of fruitfulness. Why? Simply because faithfulness—in this case, especially faithfulness to God’s calling—is a prince among virtues. Enduring faithfulness embodies courage, steadfastness, unyielding commitment, and far-reaching vision. It acts in the moment, looks for tomorrow, and lives rooted in eternity. Faithfulness is a product of having clearly heard God’s voice and responding with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength. It is nothing less than life-transforming.
The Scriptural examples of faithfulness to God’s calling even in the absence of fruitfulness are numerous and span both the Old and New Testaments. But the one story that caught my attention earlier this morning was the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho as it is told in Joshua 6:1ff. If you would, please take a few minutes right now and review that story before you continue reading. I promise I’ll be here when you get back . . .
. . . Now that you’re back, I want you to pretend something. I want you to pretend you’re just another Israelite army grunt. A member of the rank-and-file. And you’re on your 4th day of marching around Jericho. You know nothing of God’s promise to Joshua, you’re just following orders. And those orders are beginning to sound pretty . . . well, pretty dang stupid by this time, aren’t they? You have no victory in sight, just what has become the day-to-day grind of marching around in circles. So what are you going to do?
It’d be easy to cut and run. Give old Joshua the finger, pack up your bags, and leave muttering under your breath about the lack of leadership, the questionable battle tactics, and even whether or not God’s promise of a land for Israel was true. What’s more, it would be perfectly logical to do so. It’d be human nature. And you’d probably even convince a few to leave with you.
So why stay? I’m not even going to try and use the “because you’d miss out on the victory in the end!” argument. Remember . . . you’re only on Day 4. There is no victory. So why stay? Why keep at it? Why should anyone keep faithfully working when it’s not producing any fruit?
1) Keep at it because sometimes faithfulness is a matter of character, not convenience. It’s convenient to leave because things aren’t exactly as you dreamed. But character—good character—demands sticking to task even when it seems logical, or easier, or even better to just ditch it. In a culture that absolutely fawns over convenience, character boldly stands out against the status quo.
2) Keep at it because faithfulness is catching, and others are watching. People everywhere are looking for two things: a reason to quit, and a reason to keep going. They want to know if there’s an easier way out, but they also want to have inspiration to keep walking the path. And nothing, N-O-T-H-I-N-G, is as inspiring to watch as a person of unquestionable character sticks faithfully to task. You keep at it, and they’ll be inspired to follow.
3) Keep at it because faithfulness is its own reward. You want praise? You want accolades? You want huge crowds of followers hanging on your every word? Then—and hear this very well—you’re working for the wrong reasons. You’re after glory, not ministry. You want to impress, not to bless. Seek after those things, and you’ll sometimes get them . . . but you’ll be disappointed and disheartened when you don’t. But seek God first, endeavor to be faithful to Him and His calling, and you will always have the reward of knowing a job done faithfully and to the best of your ability.
4) Finally, keep at it because you can. If it was just your strength you had to work from, then when your strength failed so would you. But “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The incomparable, immeasurable grace and mercy of God given to you personally through Jesus Christ carries with it a promise: God will never leave you nor forsake you. He is with you to the very end, through thick and thin, forgiving your shortcomings, loving you as you are, and empowering you to do that which is good in His sight.
You know . . . there’s one more thing yet to add, and that’s this: The “fruit” end of the deal? That’s not your business. Never has been, never will be. It’s natural to want to see fruit grow as a result of your faithful work at what you’ve been called to do. There’s nothing wrong with you if you desire to see people’s lives impacted, to see hearts and minds transformed, to see entire communities and regions and even nations shaped and molded and reborn through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You want to see people changed and grow in Christ. I commend you for that.
BUT . . . the thing about fruitfulness: it’s not your business. It’s God’s. You’re the sower that plants the seed. You’re the farmer that harvests the grain. But the One who causes the seed to grow, who makes the plant shoot forth and bear glorious, wonderful fruit? That’s God . . . and God alone.
Working for God involves what is, for many, a terrifying truth: He births an idea in your mind, a passion in your heart, calls you to work faithfully at that idea and passion . . . and then demands that you leave all the results up to Him. That takes an enormous amount of faith, for He may choose to never grow fruit in others from your work. It takes an enormous amount of trust to work faithfully and still believe that it’s not all in vain. But what I said above is still true: God is with you. In Christ He strengthens you to put your hands and heart into your work, and gives you the faith that can still entrust the results to Him. In Christ, you can be faithful even in the face of a lack of fruit.