I‘ve been reading through Acts this month, and I find I always see something new and fascinating as I read through the journeys of the apostle Paul and his companions.
Here’s what’s interesting to me lately: whenever the going gets tough, they don’t do the things I would expect. They don’t “stick it out” and persevere. Instead, they seem to simply try something else.
Consider these situations:
- In Pisidian Antioch, they begin by preaching in the synagogue, but after the leaders “heaped abuse on them,” they give up and turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46).
- “They tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (Acts 16:7).
- After he is run out of Thessalonica and Berea, Paul comes to Athens and is waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him. He is “greatly distressed” because of all the idols and starts preaching.
- In Corinth, when the Jews become abusive, “he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'” Then he goes next door to a Gentile’s house to set up a new base of operations!
Watching for what’s working
At every step along the way, he doesn’t seem to spend very long doing something that isn’t bearing much fruit. He just doesn’t get that stubborn about strategy. Strategy and tactics aren’t precious to him. He’s very pragmatic about it. He seems to be look for what’s working.
It’s more than that, though. He’s not really looking for what is working as much as he’s watching for Who is working. He’s looking for evidence of the Spirit’s work as he preaches the gospel. When he sees it, he stays and continues to work. When he doesn’t see it, he moves on to a new city (or next door!).
[tweet “Paul doesn’t think too hard about strategy. Instead he looks for the work of the Spirit.”]
Forget about strategy (sort of)
Sometimes I get paralyzed by a strategy question. I’m not sure which is the right strategy. I’m not sure I’ve calculated all the variables. I feel like I’m locked in for five years if I start (so I’d better get it right). So… I just sit there and cogitate and stew. Can I get a witness?
But this isn’t a good way to think about mission, because I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. Like Paul on his journeys, I have no idea who will respond, or if I’ll be run out of town within a week, or if I’ll need to get a “normal job” for awhile.
Instead of worrying about picking the perfect strategy, I have to remember to adopt Paul’s strategy: just watch for evidence of the Spirit’s work and follow it.
Watch for the wake of God’s grace moving out in front of you, and just stay in it.
How to stay in the wake of God’s grace
“Staying in the wake of God’s grace” sounds nice, but how do you do it?
God’s grace is God’s empowering presence, accomplishing what I could never hope to accomplish myself.
So watch for these kinds of things happening in your life. I’ll be honest: most people don’t even start to see these kinds of things happen until they get to the end of their rope. The end of their natural ability to “handle” things. People who can’t cope anymore.
People who get to the end of their rope have to either quit or start relying on God to do things they can’t do.
[tweet “People who get to the end of their rope have to start relying on God to do things they can’t do.”]
So “staying in the wake of God’s grace” means we watch for results and outcomes that cannot be attributed to our human abilities. Things that happen that are clearly God working alongside you to bring about results you cannot bring about through your own brilliant ideas or articulate speech or meticulous control.
When the going gets tough, watch for the Spirit
This is what Paul seemed to always be looking for: results that indicated the Spirit of God was clearly at work.
When the going gets tough, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Spirit is not at work. Sometimes there are seasons to persevere and stick with it.
But when the going gets tough, when the fruit is not forthcoming, it probably is time to take stock and test your ministry with this question: what is the Spirit doing right now? If there is little response, little fruit, little faith… well, then maybe it’s time to shake the dust off your feet and try something new.
It worked for Paul, after all. Maybe it will work for you?
I’ve often heard that people starting missional communities should expect a long fallow period while they dig into the community. Like, 10 years long. And so you shouldn’t be discouraged by a lack of response in the early years.
Is this just a matter for discernment, or do you think there are some more general principles available?
BradinDC I think it’s a matter of discernment, rather than a general rule. My initial response to the “10 year” principle is that I don’t see it taking that long with Paul. I know there are cultural differences, etc, but I think 10 years is a bit extreme. I think we can look for God to do more!
BradinDC Also, as far as other general principles, I put together a few when I assembled 3DM’s book Leading Missional Communities… 1) Discipling culture at the core, 2) Look for the person of peace, 3) deep understanding/embodiment of the gospel, and 4) embrace both organized AND organic, structure and spontaneity.
Thanks for commenting, Brad!
Hi Ben, I have been thinking a lot about your post, especially seeing as I am writing a book which is basically about not giving up when things get tough! I love this perspective though and I think that just as there are times when it is important to not give up because there is resistance but God wants to bring breakthrough, there are times when pushing forward in vain is actually not faith but presumption and sometimes the faith move is to let go. Really as you have said in your comment to Brad, the real challenge is to discern what God is saying in each situation – He desire relationship with us, not formula – and we need to find out if He is saying keep going or let it go! But what I love about this post is that we shouldn’t assume He is saying keeping going when actually the faith move – the action that requires trust in Him – might be letting go. Great stuff!
Kingdom seeker says
Good morning, everyone. Thanks for this reminder, Ben. That’s very true. When things don’t work out the way we expect it to, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit is not at work. We’re all aware of the spiritual warfare that’s going on especially when something good is about to happen to the people we’re ministering to. So we do try to listen to what the Lord wants us to do next.
It’s always good to prayerfully discern what the Lord is asking us to do next. Then as the Spirit leads, it’s very important to obey His promptings and you’re right, sometimes we’re asked to persevere and stick it out it until it bears fruit. Only God can change hearts. We’ve seen this a number of times especially recently. “Desire realized is sweet to the soul.” The victory is ours when the battle is the Lord’s.
We ‘re just His instruments so we need to be perfectly attuned to the Spirit to accomplish His Will.
Praying for you and your wife’s safety as you travel. May you a have a blessed and fruitful stay. May the Holy Spirit guide all of us at all times.
Just want to share this saying i read at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ukiah, CA when we went there on a weekend retreat years ago…
“The listening soul needs silence in order to catch even the slightest whispers of the Spirit.” — Typikon of Mount Tabor
May we all have a very blessed day!
Ben, I appreciate this post. Too many times we just hang on to a strategy because it’s our strategy, rather than following the movement of God’s Spirit.
However, I wonder if we can give up too soon and make assumptions about what God is doing. For example, when Hudson Taylor went to China it took many years to see even one disciple. Work among Muslim nations is a very slow work and can take years and years. Many Christians have chosen to neglect working in these nations based upon the very principles you’ve elaborated upon here. I have friends in France who were there nine years before seeing their first disciple and are now baptizing many each year. What if they had given up because it seemed like nothing was working?
In fairness you do say, “When the going gets tough, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Spirit is not at work. Sometimes there are seasons to persevere and stick with it.” But the general idea of the post would seem to negate the stories I’ve mentioned above.
I don’t mean this to be critical. I’m just trying to work through these ideas.
ScottEaton Thanks for commenting Scott! You do helpfully bring out the other side of this issue. I think the vital thing is to learn to discern what the Spirit is doing (and what you’re called to), rather than make assumptions based on circumstances.
For example, Paul seems to give up on certain LOCATIONS for mission, but he never gives up on MISSION completely. And he does go to places where he expects persecution, but keeps going. He seems to need encouragement from the Spirit in Corinth, where he is encouraged to “keep speaking, do not be silent,” etc.
Kingdom seeker thanks for commenting!
AnnaBurgess1 I’m glad you’re writing a book about perseverance! You’re right, of course – the “main thing” is to learn to listen to the voice of the Spirit. Sometimes FEAR holds us back from persevering, but sometimes FLESH makes us push when we ought to go somewhere else… this post (https://bensternke.com/2014/09/hearing-gods-promises-possessing-land/) is about that a bit.