I'm an insignificant pastor in a small church in a forgettable town. Many of my friends have gone on to plant or pastor successful churches with explosive growth, vibrant community, and gospel fruit. That hasn't been my experience. My guess is, there are a lot of you out there in the same boat with me.
It's not like I've been sitting on my hands. I've been preaching the gospel in the local high school twice a month, teaching the Bible in the middle school, and doing one-on-one discipleship with unbelievers through the book of John. I've been trying to meet people at the local gym, having conversations and sharing the truth about Christ. Every Sunday I encourage our members to go and advance the gospel into our community. We've been hosting a small group in our home for more than a year now in hopes that it would provide an environment for true discipleship.
But still no fruit. I don't mean God hasn't done anything; I'm thankful for the many evidences of his grace and mercy in the lives of believers. What I mean is, I still haven't seen new believers repenting of their sins and turning to Jesus. God promised, “My word 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” (Is. 55:11). I've been clinging to this promise for more than two years now with no results.
I used to look down on Elijah. Do you remember the story where just after he's been on Mt. Carmel and seen fire fall from heaven, he runs off into the wilderness because Jezebel threatens to kill him? Sulking alone in a cave in the wilderness, “The Word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' He said, 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away'” (1 Kings 19:9-10).
I used to think, How could a prophet of God be so depressed? What is wrong with him? However, the despair in Elijah's heart is no longer foreign to me. It's that sense of helplessness when you have tried to do everything that God instructed, yet nothing has changed. Fire came from heaven! Surely this will turn the people back to the Lord! Elijah thought. When he woke up the next morning, he realized everything remained exactly the same.
What are we supposed to do when we have tried to obey God, and we have clung tightly to his promises, but the lack of fruit drives us to near despair? We have lived the words of Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). We are not ashamed, but where is the power? We proclaim the gospel, but where is the salvation?
I turned to my wife one Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago and said, “This may sound selfish, but I need to see a baptism. I mean, me, I need to see someone get baptized for my own faith, so that I can know that God is going to save people in this town—that the gospel is actually powerful to save here in our community.” After two years of positivity and blind optimism, I finally sunk to a place I had never been before. I had never felt so hungry to see someone come to Jesus.
My prayers changed. They weren't polite asking with a gentle “If it's your will, Lord” anymore. They were begging, pleading, insisting that my soul was going to be completely crushed if God didn't save somebody soon. I felt like I was starving in a wilderness, completely helpless and utterly powerless to do anything. I had exhausted my patience and everything I could think of to influence people with the message of the gospel.
I longed to see God glorified in our community. I hungered for opportunities to rejoice in the power of the gospel. I wanted to see the Holy Spirit give new life. I was desperate to see King Jesus march forward and rescue his sheep from slavery to sin. And in this moment where all hope seemed nearly lost, and my soul felt like it was about to faint from hunger, God spoke these words: “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3).
I realized this: hunger in the Christian life is a blessing from the Lord. God intentionally lets us grow hungry so that we realize how desperately we need him. If he does not speak the word, we will perish. If he does not prosper the gospel, it will fail. It's this same sense of wild-eyed desperation that we hear in the voice of Peter in response to Jesus's question: “Do you want to go away as well?” And he said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I have realized with Peter that what I desperately need is not a booming church or a successful ministry. What I need is Jesus.
God lets his people hunger so that he may satisfy their longing: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Do I have a promise that this year God will allow me to see 100 people come to Jesus? No. Do I have a guarantee that my church will grow into a thriving, gospel-fruit-producing body of believers? Not really. But I do have a promise that God will satisfy my desperate hunger. He brings us to a place of deep longing and hunger to prove that he is the only one who can satisfy.
I have begun to truly realize that no amount of effort on my part will ever succeed without the Spirit. I have pled and begged God in ways I never have before. This gives me hope. He will save. He will. I might not be the one to see it. I might never see anyone come to Jesus again, or I might see tens of thousands come to Jesus. But what I truly need is for God himself to satisfy the hunger of my soul by the power, love, and forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ my Lord.
One thing is certain: I am hopeful for the future of our church. This is how the people felt before the Exodus. This is how the disciples felt before Pentecost. This is how Hezekiah felt before God defeated 185,000 Assyrians. This is how Elijah felt before God swooped him up in a chariot of fire. There is no better place for a church to be than completely, helplessly, desperately, and hungrily dependent on God to act, because that is the place where God is guaranteed to get all of the glory.