Reposted from Rooted Thinking.
This is the last of three articles exploring these truths:
- Those who endure to the end are true believers (first article)
- Church discipline reveals true saving faith (second article)
- Levels of growth vary between believers.
- Life “baggage” and hindrances can make change difficult.
The goal in pondering these four truths is to better understand what our responsibilities are and are not when striving to make disciples for Jesus. All of us try to discern genuine saving faith among those that profess Jesus Christ in our ministries. We see people fall away. We see some profess Christ but grow only minimally over years of faith. Are they real? How do we process people falling away and some growing so little? What responsibilities do we have in “making sure” that people are real? There are key truths in Scripture to guide us into a right understanding of this important matter.
Let’s consider the last two truths: Levels of growth vary between believers and life “baggage” and other hindrances can make change difficult.
Levels of Growth Vary Between Believers
The Parable of the Sower tells us that some seeds of the Word of God fall upon good soil and produces grain. The seed grows up and increases, yielding different amounts of grain: thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold (Mark 4:8).
While we labor to help all believers grow to maturity and grow quickly, the truth of the matter is that each person grows only in proportion to his/her humble and obedient response to God’s Word. Our responsibility is to love people genuinely and exercise patience as we faithfully and prayerfully teach them.
In my experience, some believers grow to a certain level and then hit a spiritual roadblock. Sometimes these roadblocks take years to remove in order to see more progress. Other believers grow more in their first year of faith than others do in ten years. Christians might even have the same opportunities to grow, yet their response to God’s Word is not equal. This is normal for a group of believers. This fact is a cause of great frustration among pastors and missionaries, for we know that time is short!
Pastors are not responsible to God for how people obey or disobey God’s Word. They are teachers, shepherds, encouragers, yes–but those they lead must receive God’s Word by faith in order to grow and change.
Life “Baggage” and Hindrances Can Make Change Difficult
Where a person begins their journey in faith can impact their growth. Often, but not always, those that come to saving faith early in life become much stronger believers than those who come to faith later in life.
We must remember that those we serve are human! Some come from horrible home situations. Some have committed terrible sin and have many ruined relationships because of it. This affects a person’s emotions and their thinking about all of life. Usually those from such backgrounds have a long list of sinful habits and worldly thinking to cast away. God’s grace can, and will, replace it with righteousness and truth, but usually one step at a time.
More often than not, pastors, missionaries, and their wives come from godly homes and churches with strong Christian examples. Often, they come to Christ early in life also. As a result, they little understand what it means to come to Christ out of total paganism. They don’t know how hard it is to change sinful habits that have governed someone over many years. Some have never seen a godly parent. They may have never seen a truly loving marriage. They may never have had to use self-control. Be patient! Do not tolerate sins that require church discipline, but don’t forget that sanctification is a process and takes time.
Other factors might hinder a person’s growth in Christ as well, such as mental slowness, health problems, mental problems, illiteracy, or the fact that they are the first and/or only believer in a godless home. We must maintain understanding in our ministry. 2 Timothy 2:24-26 provides us with a powerful reminder of what is at stake in our battle for souls:
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
Godly Ministry Requires Gentleness and Patience
In Cambodia, we have tried hard to preach Christ and lead the business and government people of Pursat to Jesus. But these have not responded to the Gospel. Instead, the poor and ignorant have believed. Malnutrition in youth has led to some having limited thinking skills. Some are illiterate. Some can read, but their reading comprehension is really low. Being poor, their lives are filled with much harder work and longer hours to make less money, so they are often very weary. Poor hygiene leads to many physical maladies. These dynamics don’t help people grow in Christ quickly, but some still do.
Anna, Tara, and Srey
Each of these three ladies is an absolute miracle of grace, yet their lives don’t illustrate Christian grace as we would wish. Their challenges are great, and each has responded to the Lord with real faith many reading this have never had to have.
Anna is Aun’s wife (Aun was in the previous article). Anna is very weak of mind, probably mentally handicapped. I know at least 4 other people among her relatives that are mentally challenged. Anna really, really struggles with self-control. Her vice is rude and explosive sinful speech in anger. She loves Christ and has grown in some ways that make her faith obvious, but her mental limitations and ignorance in poverty for many years leads us to realize that we simply must show her extra grace and patience. Her growth is slow, and it is frustrating, especially when it impacts other believers. She is easily manipulated by others in her simplicity. No doubt some who did not know her circumstances would question her sincerity.
Tara was saved from her alcoholism and has lived a very hard life with a selfish husband who has gambled away her family’s livelihood, all while having four children. Her job, in her relative poverty, is making and selling cakes around town, which requires much time and energy. She has health problems. They lost their house because of her wicked husband and she and her daughter have moved to Phnom Penh to work in factories, a hard life. She fell away in despair but returned to the Lord and has been a witness and an example to younger women. Her instability might be seen as false faith. But what if you had the very same circumstances? How would you have responded?
Srey—how can I describe God’s grace upon such a woman? She drank and was well known for her sharp tongue. Her husband is a gutter drunk who has lost his mind and has caused her emotional and financial pain like you cannot imagine. They have four children, two now married. She makes cakes and sells them like Tara did. The trials, the shame, the hardship—these cannot be expressed well here. But this woman is an aggressive and faithful witness of Christ. Two of her children are godly Christians. She is the most faithful of God’s people in that church. Her husband hangs onto life in his body wasted by alcohol. The man has seen her bright testimony and known her love, in spite of it all, yet he will not repent and believe. At times, Srey has disappointed us. Some might have questioned her faith.
We would be greatly helped in compassion and patience if we would force ourselves to step back and consider how hard it would be for us if we shared the same harsh circumstances and sinful pasts that some of these dear people have. While we don’t tolerate unrepentant sins like those illustrated for us in the Scripture, we must give people time, and much exposure to God’s Word and other believers, allowing them to grow, even if far more slowly than we desire for them.
We have considered four truths together that I hope help some to better know their responsibility before God when making disciples for Jesus’ sake. I hope also that those who have borne unnecessary guilt about people who have fallen away have found comfort. I trust, too, that some who have failed to show loving patience and compassion for the weak now see their need to be more like Christ. And I pray that those whose churches have never obeyed the Lord in the use of church discipline when it is needed will begin to do so for God’s glory. By knowing these things, we are on much better footing to discern genuine faith in Jesus in others.
Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia for the last twenty years. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.