Monday, March 21, 2022

Anonymous Asks (189)

“Are there people who will never change?”

A friend of a friend served as an elder in his local church for many years. From all reports he was good at it. When he chose to step away from his responsibilities in his fifties, people wondered why, and a mutual acquaintance was nosy enough to inquire.

Here is the essence of his reply. Excuse the paraphrase.

The Long Answer

“I have been doing this long enough to have seen almost every spiritual and interpersonal problem at least once. So when a man or woman would come to me for counseling and would tell me their spouse was behaving this way or that way, I could tell you exactly how the situation was going to end, and I would be right. I was becoming cynical about the job, and I didn’t want to be that way.”

You have to commend his self-awareness and honesty. Too many people do the Lord’s work with an unhealthy dollop of cynicism about the potential for seeing the lives of those they are trying to help transformed. His solution was to step away. He had seen so many sad outcomes where men and women did not allow the Lord to apply his grace to their broken relationships that he was beginning to feel like that is the default response. Perhaps his answer to today’s question would be “Yes, absolutely.”

I happen to think he’s right about that. In fact, if there were not people who resist change, there would be no need for a lake of fire, and there would be no need for the sort of terminal discipline which is sometimes necessary for Christians. That makes the answer to today’s question rather straightforward. As usual though, I’m going to add a twist. I want to consider a secondary question: “Is that entirely a bad thing? Can nothing good come of human obduracy?”

Let me suggest a few possibilities:

1/ It’s Not the Burr, It’s the Saddle

The Thorn Principle

The apostle Paul went to the Lord three times about an affliction he referred to as a “thorn in the flesh”. He called it a “messenger of Satan”. It harassed and humbled him. And yet the Lord’s response to his prayers was simply this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Accordingly, Paul accepted his lot and learned to rejoice in this ongoing affliction from which he had previously begged for relief.

Now, most expositors believe the apostle was talking about a physical ailment, and some go as far as to speculate that Paul had facial injuries which severely affected his eyesight as a result of one or another of the violent persecutions he had endured in the Lord’s name over his years of service. That may be the case, but we cannot be dogmatic since the apostle simply doesn’t say. Others believe Paul suffered from epilepsy or even demonic persecution. However, Frank Viola has floated the possibility that this “thorn in the flesh” was a specific person, and even hazards a guess as to who that might have been.

Thorn Birds

Is Viola’s theory plausible? Sure. But even if Frank is off base about the specifics of Paul’s situation, that short passage in 2 Corinthians certainly teaches us that there are prayers the Lord does not answer in precisely the way we would like, and difficulties we may endure for decades without relief while living very much in the will of God.

Sometimes those prayers are about people we would love to see change. If not exactly thorns in our flesh, they have certainly become burrs in our saddle. Some people for whom I prayed for years died (apparently) unsaved or unrestored. I bet you can think of one or two in that sad category. Were our prayers for them therefore misguided? Some elders have had five, ten or twenty meetings with the same member of the local flock who appears to be learning nothing after endless hours of exposure to the word of God and the patient correction of loving saints. Should we and they, as Don Henley so memorably sang, “guess it’s just been wasted time”?

There was a time when I might have answered yes. I am thinking a little differently about that today.

The Ultimate Multi-Tasker

The Lord is never doing just one thing in any given situation. He is the ultimate multi-tasker. At the same time as he was repeatedly offering Pharoah opportunity to save Egypt by letting his people go, God was: (1) fulfilling his promises to the patriarchs; (2) tempering Moses and Aaron for leadership; (3) taking Israel from “Who made you a prince and judge over us?” to the point where they would follow Moses into the wilderness en masse; (4) using increased affliction to make Israel willing to leave behind the “devil they knew” for unfamiliar territory; (5) working the Egyptian women into such a disposition that they would shower Israel with riches stolen from God’s people over years of unpaid labor; (6) using a memorable series of Egyptian plagues to make his name great not just among the Egyptians (whose false gods he humiliated and exposed) but also among the nations; and (7) reducing the inhabitants of Canaan to a state of abject fear.

That’s quite a plateful of multi-tasking, and I have probably forgotten a few. So then, let me suggest that when we encounter a “burr in the saddle”, we need to stop thinking about getting rid of the burr, and ask ourselves instead what God might be doing with the saddle. Perhaps the irritant is not the only one God is giving opportunity for change.

Wasted Time?

I love woodturning videos. You know, a guy with a chisel working a big chunk of lumber on a lathe, which with time and the skill of the lathe operator will turn into a bowl, lamp, vase or any number of other things. If that sounds to you like watching paint dry, well ... I’ll admit it’s an acquired taste. But work with me here: part of the process of making something useful out of a chunk of driftwood or an odd end of lumber is a great deal of sanding. Sometimes that sanding is done with an expensive electric tool designed for the job, and sometimes it is done with a little piece of cheap sandpaper that will be thrown away after ten minutes of use.

The thing is, when you are looking at a beautiful, useful vase, you have no idea whether its beauty came from its interaction with another useful object like itself, or with a piece of abrasive scrap now residing in the dumpster. I trust the application makes itself.

Time spent in the service of God is never wasted time, no matter the frustrations that may come with it. When I come to the Lord for the 300th time about someone I am starting to believe will never change, I am certainly calling on Heaven to move that person. But in the process of continuing in prayer before the Lord, I too am changing for the better. God is having his way with me. When I agree to sit down and engage in the fifteenth apparently-useless conversation with the same person, God is offering him his fifteenth straight opportunity to repent. But he is also offering me the opportunity to learn, trust and mature as a counselor and servant of Christ, to go to his word for guidance in places I have not yet thought about going to, and to develop patience I have yet to cultivate.

2/ Glory to God

Leading sinners to repentance is not the only outcome that brings glory to God. The glory of the Lord is the fear of the nations. The glory of God’s kingdom is manifest in power. The glory of the Lord sends his enemies scurrying to hide among the rocks. The glory of the Lord makes even his servants fall on their faces.

We cannot strip God of his glory by refusing to cooperate with his program. We might think we can, but let me again offer the unfortunate example of Pharaoh. God will get his glory by blessing and restoring us, but if we will not have blessing and restoration, God remains glorious.

Those who refuse to be the beneficiaries of God’s grace become the objects of his wrath, and scripture teaches that too is a glorious and worthwhile thing.

3/ Sometimes People Actually Change

Fake It ’til You Make It

Let’s reconsider our friend the former elder for a moment. Perhaps his exit was indeed for the best. Maybe the Lord was using his frustration with his chosen area of service to encourage him to move on to other opportunities within the Body of Christ where his spiritual gifts could be used more effectively. Perhaps he correctly estimated that he really wasn’t the man for that particular job after all.

But we should consider another possibility too: that when we fear we are becoming cynical about something to which the Lord has called us, it may be an indication that instead of stopping serving, we need to stop being cynical. If that sounds impossible, I am a great believer in the “fake it ’til you make it” approach to managing my state of mind. When asked if he now believes in God, Jordan Peterson says he tries to live as if he does. There is something to that. If you find yourself feeling cynical about the prospects of someone the Lord has put in your life, behave as if you were not cynical. Behave as if you really believe there is a chance for change, because maybe this time there is, even if it’s never happened before. Keep your ears and door open, even if it is hard to keep an open mind.

Christians do not lead with our feelings. Love for Christ is first and foremost manifest in obedience to his commands. Repeated obedience tends to produce the appropriate emotions, but we cannot lead with the emotions.

A Sinner From His Wandering

I would hate to live in a world where I was never surprised. Thankfully, it happens to me all the time. Wisdom and maturity teach us what will probably happen if a particular course of sinful conduct is pursued to its conclusion. They cannot teach us whether any particular godly intervention will or will not succeed. And sometimes they do: “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Think about your own experiences with conviction brought about by the Holy Spirit. Did you always respond the first time your conscience told you that you were on the wrong side of an issue? Or did you rationalize your behavior, make repeated excuses, stick both fingers in your ears and say “La la la la”? I know what I did far too many times. Often I barely register good advice until I’ve heard it for the third or fourth time and tried every other possible course of action, especially when the good advice involves a regimen of humility, sacrifice, hard work, patience, repentance, or simply sucking it up and putting up with an insult.

Would you want to deny people the opportunity to be dealt with as graciously and patiently by other Christians as God has dealt with you? I know I wouldn’t.

The Short Answer

So, are there people who will never change? Absolutely.

Is it up to me to decide who they are, jump to the finish line, and treat them as if they have already failed in the way I anticipate they will? Absolutely not.

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