What is your response in life and ministry when things just don’t seem to change? When you labor and sweat and pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and that prayer seemingly goes unanswered? When after meeting months with a struggling couple they decide to divorce? When your friend’s depressed son commits suicide? When a relationship ends without reconciliation? Are you surprised? Undone? Angry? Fearful? How are you tempted to react?
In this series of posts I’m reflecting on Zack Eswine’s book Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, and exploring the temptations we face in ministry to take on what only God can do. Today let’s look at the temptation to be a “fix-it-all” when faced with “inconsolable things, the sins and miseries that will not be eradicated until heaven comes home, the things that only Jesus, and no one of us, can overcome” (98). We “cannot expect to change what Jesus has left unfixed for the moment,” but sometimes we try to anyway, to the detriment of others and ourselves.
It’s a mark of redemption to see clearly what’s truly grievous and broken. The question is, what do we do with it? Eswine notes our tendency toward the scheming, power-heavy, political maneuverings of King Herod. Like his fearful, controlling response to the wise men’s announcement of a new king’s birth, we want things fixed and will do what it takes to accomplish our aim even if we are “winsome harmers” (92). I’m most prone to see this in my parenting. Can I really force my child to obey? I certainly try sometimes, turning the screws with disciplines and threats of vanishing privileges. But acting like I’m omnipotent is a recipe for relational disaster. I have to admit that I only have so much power. My human limitation is a good thing, although it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. Who likes to feel weak? Ineffective? Dependent?
I’ve been helped over the years in this arena by Paul Tripp’s distinction between “concern” and “responsibility.” There are many, many things that should concern us as believers. What’s on God’s heart should be on our hearts. But we are only responsible for a subset of those concerns. God gives us enough wisdom and power to address those issues that we are responsible for.
For example, is it a valid concern when my child is disrespectful? Absolutely! But what is my responsibility? To evidence the fruit of the Spirit in my interactions. Not to exasperate. To be consistent in my expectations and in my discipline. To point my child to Christ. There’s only so much I can do. I can’t change the heart. I can’t mandate a loving response. But can I be faithful with the small things I’m called to do and trust that God is working right now? Or do I resort to strong-arm tactics? “For all of our Bible quoting, planning, counseling, reasonableness, force, pleadings, laws, and graces, something only Jesus can do humbles us into waiting for him to do it” (89).
Stan Grenz, in his fine book on prayer, Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom, makes this provocative observation, “As long as we erroneously think that we can handle life’s situations on our own, God simply stands aside. Divine resources do not break onto our situation until we admit life has grown too immense for our own abilities” (45). Perhaps this is why, in our “fix-it-all” mentality, prayer too often becomes front and center only after we are surrounded by the shrapnel of our “wise” planning and actions.
So, how should we respond to the challenges of life and ministry, to the situations that may indeed be inconsolable?
- Recognize your attempts to be a “fix-it-all.” Eswine identifies some of these as showing partiality, resorting to fear and intimidation tactics, using too many words (even biblical words), yelling, finger pointing, and getting defensive. These are the fruits of failed bids for omnipotence.
- Ask, “Lord what are you calling and empowering me to do right now in the midst of my concerns?” The answer may be less than you want, but it’s exactly what you need to be and to do in the moment.
- Use the psalms as templates of dependency on the Lord. They reveal a response of faith when evils remain unevicted (90). Doing this requires unflinching honesty about ourselves and the situation at hand. Fix-it-alls don’t want to sit among blistered souls and unruly emotions, whether their own or others. “Being specific, experiencing discomfort, humbling ourselves, and having to wait while the unfixed pain rages on—no wonder Herod’s ways appeal more to us” (112).
- Take seriously the call for elder prayer in James 5:14 (116-121).
The hymn “Come Ye Disconsolate” has this phrase, “Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.” True. But healing does not always come in this life. We need to remember “the presence of inconsolable things does not mean the absence of Jesus’s power. . . . Rather, it establishes the context for it” (98). And that frees us to live faithfully within our human limitations as we call out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!”