Monday, 4 February 2013

The pain of rejection and failure

One of the things I struggle with as a Vicar is the opportunities I have missed to lead someone to Christ. There are two categories under this heading:

The first comes under church. Every now and again someone attends one of our services for several weeks and chatting with them they seem enthusiastic and keen and say they enjoy the experience. Hope rises and you plan to run some kind of entry level Christian basics course with them in mind, only, a few Sundays later - or even the next Sunday - to note that they are missing. Perhaps its a blip - they seemed so interested - but Sundays pile up and they disappear into the past and along with it goes your opportunity to talk further and explain to them that God is more than Church and Christ is more than a name.

The second comes under personal. This is where you are able to talk about your faith and enthusiastically share your own journey. You may even meet a few times more and even open the Bible together and look a little more closely at the text and what it says about God. However the meetings seem to lose momentum somehow and awkward work shifts or pre-booked appointments create problems and the moment - such as it was - has passed and you don't see them again, or if you do mutual embarrassment means that you see each other coming and disappear behind a some aisle shelving at the supermarket.

Both types of 'failures' cause me pain and over 25 years of ministry I have struggled with that particular aspect of my work. I suppose part of that comes from the fact that my own conversion was - at least for the last six months of my search - a roller-coaster ride of questions and answers about the Christian faith and an all-consuming hunger for more and more truth. No one force-fed me and no one had to try very hard to come up with answers to difficult questions. I was an open mouth waiting to be fed and it all came to a head one morning as I stood in front of a shaving mirror having just read a chapter of Hal Lindsey's book "The Liberation of Planet Earth" about Jesus' death for me when the penny suddenly dropped and I 'knew' it was not just true but true for me. Since then I have seen a few people come to Christ through my ministry but never enough to satisfy my longing to see many more come to faith and it remains, to this day, one of the things I struggle the most with in my work.

I was thinking about all this recently and, as I sometimes do, I 'thought it' in God's direction, sharing with Him my concerns and disappointments and pain at such failure. In a flash I felt God say that He too shared that pain and sadness, and every time someone came close, but not close enough, it hurt Him that they didn't respond.

Reflecting on this I saw things in a new perspective. I remembered John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." How many times have I approached this from the same direction - a testament to God's grace and generosity and willingness to go to the greatest lengths to save us from our self-destructive path away from him? But now I saw it from another angle. What does God feel about everyone whose eyes are not open to this wonderful truth? How many have perished because this didn't work in their lives? How many times has this failed and how many times has God's love been ignored or denied or not returned?

Jesus knew this would be the case. In Matthew 7:14 he says: "How narrow is the gate and how constricted is the road that leads to life, and there aren't many people who find it!" In other words even before he set his face towards Jerusalem and endured the suffering and shame of the cross he knew that his sacrifice and death would not avail everybody and he would as a consequence suffer the sense of loss far more than anyone else.

So my 'pain' and disappointment suddenly found perspective. Yes I feel these things - and thank God I do - but what I feel pales into comparison with what Jesus feels. I didn't die on a cross. I didn't carry the sins of the world on my shoulders and experience all the darkness and pain of that and the subsequent rejection that followed. Jesus did and does. He weeps now as he did as he once looked over Jerusalem (Luke 13:34) and mourned for those who not only rejected him but brought disaster down on their own heads. My pain is but an echo of his. The real pain is felt by God.

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