Our missionaries’ prayer retreat ended today. One of the issues that we dealt with is a perennial one—“How should a preacher handle his lack of converts?” One answer that I often hear and have never quite agreed with is, “God has never called us to be successful but to be faithful. So, what matters is your faithfulness.” In one sense the answer is correct, but in another it is defective. Let me explain.
One of the most appropriate biblical texts that shows the importance of faithfulness in a preacher is 1 Corinthians 4:2, where the apostle Paul says, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” In the light of this, anyone who sacrifices faithfulness to God in order to have numbers in his church is not a true servant of God.
However, my argument is that the chief virtue in Christianity is not faithfulness but love. Love is the queen of all graces. Paul wrote, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Faithfulness is an expression of love. In this context, faithfulness must be seen as the way a servant loves his master. This is seen in all vertical relationships. A wife expresses her love to her husband by submitting to him. Children express their love for their parents by obeying them. Slaves, servants, and employees express their love for their masters and employers by being faithful to them. Hence, in 1 Corinthians 4:2, Paul says that men ought to regard preachers as servants of Christ and preachers must express their love to him by being faithful.
However, when a preacher is wrestling with his spiritual barrenness, what bothers him is not so much the expression of his love for his Master but the expression of his love for sinners for whom Christ died. Granted, in seeking “numbers” one may be tempted to use gimmicks in order to get “decisions for Christ”. Yet, the men I was with this week are well decided as to faithfulness to their Master. They love him too much to resort to underhanded ways.
So that is not the question. And it is not fair to make them forget about their longing to see souls saved by assuring them that at least their faithfulness to God is still in tact. That is like trying to comfort Hannah in her barrenness by pointing to her relationship with her husband, Elkanah. He tried that method when he said, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8). Well, we know that for Hannah that was not the issue. She desperately wanted a child!
In the same way, the barren preacher is wrestling with how to come to terms with his barrenness in the light of his love for souls. He will not be satisfied with the fact of his faithfulness to God. He wants to see the eyes of the spiritually blind opened. He wants to “turn men from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” in Christ (Acts 26:18). He is not trying to do this out of a sense of duty. The love of God for the lost pulsates in his soul.
Think about this: No medical doctor worthy of his calling would content himself with faithfully discharging his duty to his employers if none of his patients are recovering. I have met with a few Christian doctors in Africa who are really distraught because of a lack of medicines and basic medical equipment, resulting in many of their patients dying from diseases that under normal circumstances they can cure. They are faithful but that does not satisfy them. They want to save lives. Now, if that is true of those who save bodies from death, how much more should it be true of preachers who save souls from an eternal damnation?
So, we are back to the first question: How should a preacher handle his lack of converts? His love for God has continued to express itself in faithfulness to God. But how should his love for souls express itself in the light of his spiritual barrenness? I want to suggest that the answer lies in simply looking at biblical examples of barren preachers. How did they handle this? They certainly did not content themselves with merely being faithful. No, love for souls caused them to cry to God for fruit. They wept, they groaned, they pleaded with God for souls.
In the Old Testament, we have an example of a “barren prophet”. His name is Jeremiah. He had preached repentance among the Israelites but instead of heeding his warnings they persecuted him. In the end, God’s judgement fell upon them. Jeremiah did not content himself with faithfulness to his God. No, Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. Listen to him: “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people” (Jeremiah 9:1). A love for souls makes a strong man weep.
In the New Testament, we have yet another example of a “barren preacher”. His name was Paul. Whereas he had an abundant harvest among the Gentiles, Paul was ever burdened about his apparent lack of fruit among his fellow Jews. In Romans 9, Paul explains the hardness of the Jews towards the gospel as being due to God’s purpose in election. Yet, as he begins this chapter, he exhibits deep and tender affections towards his kinsmen. Paul speaks with intensity when he testifies, “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:1-4). Paul was faithful to God, but that was not enough. He yearned for the salvation of the Jews.
Whereas it would not be quite right to refer to Jesus as a barren preacher, yet we know that he was despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3). How did he handle that? Did he simply content himself with his faithfulness to the Father and his knowledge that only elect sinners will ever get saved, and thus shrug off the rejection of sinners that he suffered? Well, the Bible gives us a peep into the soul of the Saviour as on one occasion he looked at the city of Jerusalem as he was descending into it. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41-42). The love of the Saviour for lost sinners compelled him to weep.
What are we learning from these men “of like passion as we are”, and from others who have had to wrestle with barrenness? It is that true love for souls cannot be satisfied with faithfulness to God. It is a tragedy in Reformed circles when men insulate themselves from this brokenness of soul by the doctrine of election or by a claim to “faithfulness to God”. Where do we find this in the Bible? Nowhere! Rather, like barren Rachel crying to Jacob, we should constantly plead with God, saying, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” (Genesis 30:1).
In seasons of barrenness, we should plead with our congregations to pray for us. We should have seasons of prayer and fasting, humbling ourselves before God and asking that he would allow our eyes to see some of the fruit of the travail of our souls and be satisfied. In pastors’ fraternals we should confess to one another about the sadness in our souls because of the lack of fruit in terms of souls being saved. This should issue in tearful prayers for fruit. That is how love ought to respond to barrenness. Faithfulness is important—but it is not enough!