Sowing Grain on a Busy Interstate

I really enjoy listening to other people talk about the work that God is doing in their lives. In response, I like to give glory to Jesus by telling others of the remarkable changes in my own life due entirely to His inexhaustible love, mercy and patience. Recently, though, I’ve noticed the deceitfulness of sin at work within me as I call to mind the number (and type) of people with whom I really do not care to share the gospel, those that I am tempted to label as “lost” or “completely beyond hope.”

Put another way, I have recently been shown that I have been content for far too long to run through God’s orchards, knocking off any and all “low-hanging fruit” that might happen to come my way…but I have been less than excited to do the difficult work of cultivating God’s Kingdom in the harder places, the rockier soil where fruit does not typically grow. Yes, I’ll gladly work in the orchard from sun-up to sundown, but only as long as I continue to see “results” and no one asks me to go plant strawberries out on I-70.

Enough with the fruit already. How about some real-life examples?

My wife and I volunteer in separation and divorce recovery ministry at The Crossing. Prior to that, I served for roughly 18 months as second fiddle in a gospel-centered men’s addiction recovery group. In both venues, the people coming through the door of their own free will have come to recognize that something is seriously wrong in their lives…and typically they need help fast. Even if they are showing up to addiction recovery as part of a court order, there is still something undeniably “wrong” that needs fixing. People who have just lost their driver’s license (or worse, their spouse) are remarkably ready to listen to other people who have faced identical challenges and come out on the other side through God’s enabling. By and large, I find that people whose lives are falling apart want to be saved from the devastation around them…and that desire to be saved often makes them more open to Christ as the source of that salvation (even if they didn’t initially realize that they were looking for Jesus).

By contrast, witnessing to people who seemingly “have it all” or have not yet arrived at a moment of undeniable weakness can be amazingly difficult and frustrating. There is precious little room for Jesus in the heart of an unbeliever who has all the things that the world desires: health, prosperity, a loving and stable home life, etc. Of course the reverse can also be true; some people who have none of those good gifts can be so embittered against the idea of a loving God that you feel like you are wasting your breath trying to speak of God’s grace to them.

If the broken people showing up to an addiction-recovery group or a DivorceCare meeting are indeed analogous to the “fertile soil” that Jesus refers to in His Parable of the Seeds (Mark 4:1-20), then the hard-hearted folks who “have it all” – or who have had it all taken from them – would probably correspond to the “hard terrain,” where scattered seed is quickly picked off by the birds of the air, before it even has a chance to sprout.

All that being true, I think the problem I am talking about here is a subtle disposition in the heart of any sower who stops throwing seed on the path because he or she “knows” that it is not doing any good. Significantly, Jesus never tells us to stop sowing seed “wherever we think it isn’t doing any good,” but instead tells us to preach to everyone, everywhere (Matthew 28:18-20) and leave the results up to the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:48). When we begin to make decisions about who will and who will not allow the Word of God to penetrate into their heart, it’s only one short step from arrogance (“I already know what effect this is going to have on this person”) to outright disobedience, such as Jonah displayed by refusing to preach in Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3; Jonah 4:1-4).

My wife and I have plenty of unbelievers in our lives, many of whom we care for…some very deeply. And yet I have noticed that our delight in talking about God and His purposes in our lives is toned down considerably whenever we find ourselves in their company. Because this or that person has previously demonstrated a hostility toward the exclusive truth claims of Jesus (John 14:6), we don’t so much like to bring Him up in conversation for fear that we will offend, put even more distance between their heart and ours, etc. In short, we unwittingly take on the role of judge, deciding ahead of time that the Holy Spirit can’t possibly show up in that person’s life, thereby denying the gospel truths that Paul asserts in Romans 10:13-15.

Shelly and I once had the great privilege of meeting someone that we both very much admire, an itinerant evangelist by the name of Michael Ramsden. Mr. Ramsden is one of those scary-smart apologists who criss-crosses the globe for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He also has a tremendous sense of humor of the dry British sort, and thus his lectures all tend to be deeply convicting, brilliant and funny. You can find some samples of his work here; I’d start off with “Conversational Apologetics” just to get a sense of this man’s wit and deep commitment to Christ.

Apparently, one of the most memorable stories from his own life of ministry took place at an evangelical rally on the other side of the world where, by his own account, he delivered the single worst sermon of his entire life to a room full of Muslims, all of whom he perceived to be hostile to the Christian faith. Backstage, he literally wept at how awful a job he had done, and was beside himself for having failed Jesus so terribly. Imagine, then, his shock and surprise to find that the audience response to his “terrible” sermon was one of the best that he had ever received up until that point, with more people giving their lives to Christ that very night than anyone had any right to reasonably expect. God’s message to Mr. Ramsden could not have been more clear; by His grace, God’s Holy Spirit condescends to use Christians to do His work, but the ultimate end – the salvation of even one human soul – is not dependent upon us or our abilities in any way.

It’s a bit dismaying to see how rapidly an earnest desire to step into ministry work can descend into gleefully-ignorant low-fruit collecting (GILFC), accompanied – as it was in my case – by a desire to not “waste time” or resources on a particularly hard case, someone that I have inadvertently judged “incapable” of receiving the Word of God and the hope that we share in Jesus Christ. The desire not to waste seed by planting it on the well-traveled concrete heart of a lifelong atheist is not an attitude endorsed by Scripture. It is instead a sin, a disobedient withholding of God’s grace in the lives of others, and God clearly shows us how He feels about this type of reticence throughout the entire book of Jonah.

The supreme irony – for me, anyway – is that I can quite easily point to a number of people in my own life who never, ever gave up on me, even in the face of decades of unbelief, wild living and seemingly-impenetrable hard-heartedness. How grateful I am that God did not send a GILFC like me, someone who would have been strongly tempted to move onto “more promising” orchards elsewhere.

Acts 18:5-10 (ESV)
When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”

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