When Life Doesn’t Go According to Script —
By Elizabeth Glass-Turner —
What do you do when you do what you’re supposed to do and it doesn’t go right? What are you supposed to think when your best preparations, intentions, and actions seem to go to waste or lead to loss instead of fruit?
A multitude of critics and coaches will tell you what the problem is and how to fix it. You sow again; nothing sprouts, or if it does, you suspect it’s a harvest of weeds. What do you do when this continues for a stretch of months – years, even? What if the more closely you follow Christ, the worse things go?
It’s not reducible to the usual learning curves: the normal process of gaining wisdom in the practice of Christian faith or vocational ministry. It’s not just about practical tools developed through growth. Sometimes, it’s not even necessarily tied to real and related dynamics: injustice, and spiritual warfare and the call to anointed intercession.
Every Christian needs community; every Christian needs prayer and needs to pray for others. And there are times when your prayer life deepens, only to see your professional traction spinning in the mud.
There are times when you follow Jesus Christ into the center of a mob to put your presence next to someone shielding their head from hands holding stones, only to see your calendar gradually empty.
But there are also times when stakes are unclear; when you’re sailing along fairly predictably. You’re not harboring or fostering known sin, you’re tending to self-management and due diligence, you’re growing in self-awareness and wisdom, you’re continuing to follow Christ to the best of your anointed, sanctified ability, and yet – you sow all your seed and little sprouts. What do you do when you do what you’re supposed to do and it doesn’t go right?
It doesn’t mean you must’ve done something wrong. It doesn’t mean you’ve been unwise. It doesn’t mean a particular method is faulty. If you’re not sure what’s going on and whether or not it’s a tool of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, run that sense of conviction by a few mature, trusted friends in your close circle, local or scattered.
When difficult seasons arrive, you won’t be short on critics or well-platformed gurus advertising solutions. But a sense of condemnation does not come from the Holy Spirit. The enemy of your soul would love for you to look around at a seeming lack of fruit, assume it’s your fault, and grow discouraged.
This is the poverty of the “prosperity gospel” Dr. Kate Bowler has written on so incisively in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Even sound Christians and experienced ministers may inadvertently assume that input leads to output, that best practices lead to multiplication, that expertise raises the likelihood of achieved goals or success.
When a veneer of piety is applied – that God will bless the faithful with a particular set of outcomes – the stage is set for believers in the pew or pulpit to encounter a crisis of faith if their lives or ministries go sideways.
“But I did everything right!” “But I didn’t do anything wrong!”
This sense runs deeply: that we control a “blessing” lever. Pastors pursuing ministerial fruit may unknowingly pursue the reassuring salve of concrete outcomes. “Bearing fruit” slyly shifts to tallying up the numbers associated with people sitting in pews, pulling out their wallets. It’s uncomfortable waiting for invisible, long-term, hard-to-quantify fruits, like those of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
If you sense condemnation when you face inexplicable hurdles that continually pop up, ask yourself what metrics you’re using, and whether or not they’re the metrics of Jesus, who saw many disciples walk away: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66, NIV).
Ask if your unconscious metrics can withstand a visit to a pediatric oncology unit: a ward where kids with cancer receive treatment. If we live in a world where children get cancer, how can we say God always blesses the faithful with specific outcomes? If we live in a world where children get cancer, we have to sit with suffering, with the “unfairness” of it. If anyone “deserves” cancer, it’s certainly not a child. Sometimes, there are miracles. Sometimes, there are not. Neither case proves faithfulness, piety, or belovedness, or denies them.
Deep down, if you know this about the hardest examples of suffering, you also know you can take less credit than you’d like for any part of your ministry that seems “fruitful.”
But you also can’t wilt under a sense of condemnation when things don’t go right despite your best efforts. It can be true both that your actions have real meaning and consequence and also that you’re able to direct less than you think.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is famously quoted growling her irritation with this reality. Slipping in mud, falling in a ditch, or being swept off her horse in high water (depending on the account), she burst out to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
It may be one of the most honest prayers in church history.
On days when it’s all manure, no harvest, we face a simple fact. We all want to be fruitful; few want to live the line from John Wesley’s covenant prayer: “let me be laid aside for Thee.”
What if God asks you to trust the Holy Spirit’s calling and empowerment, whether or not you ever see any fruit? Any impact? Any positive results?
What if the Holy Spirit asks you to trust the sound of God’s voice through hurdle after hurdle, as your own goals keep getting obstructed? If God asks you to till hard soil with little yield, what will you say? Would you say, “of course, yes, I’ll do it,” like the son who said yes, then went away? Would you say, “oh–no, I’m not sure I can handle that,” only to be softened by the Holy Spirit, like the son who said no but came back?
When things don’t go right, it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong; it also doesn’t mean you’ve done something right, a hero or martyr. Sometimes, God is weaning you off the approval of your peers. Sometimes, God is showing you that you put your confidence in metrics or methods or even theology instead of Christ alone.
Sometimes, God is entrusting you with the companionable silence of his presence, not disavowing you with the punitive withdrawal of his presence.
Sometimes, as Pete Grieg points out in God on Mute, in a physical universe governed by the laws of physics, you just slip in the mud.
When so many of Jesus’ disciples walked away, what did he say? “‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:67-69).
Fruitful seasons are nice, but they have their pitfalls too. In reality, some fruitful seasons are overinflated bubbles ready to burst, like the disciples who turned back. The desire to maximize our time can tempt us to declare a harvest prematurely or hurry our discernment.
You don’t need a bumper crop of obvious fruit in ministry. You never did. It won’t prove you’re faithful; it’s not a reliable indicator of the state of your soul, either. It’s kind of an old lie, after all – that possessing a certain fruit can ensure you are like God.
Silly, really – trading the quiet companionship of God in the cool of the evening for the illusion of validation that external fruit tempts us with.
“‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”
Jesus has always been enough.