Showing Up Mattered

Every Christian who serves sometimes wonders if his or her efforts are having any effect. With some people it’s not obvious that God is working. Am I really helping this person change? Does my faithfulness really matter?

I added a Youth Ministry Concentration to my M.Div. while in seminary and the primary faculty member suggested that I teach a Youth Sunday School class at my church. He warned me, however, that this particular group of 7th grade boys was notorious. Several teachers had quit over the past year, and he didn’t want me to be another one–these boys didn’t need that. He related to me that the teacher just before me was another seminary student who naively promised the guys on his first Sunday that he wasn’t going to quit on them—he lasted about a month.

The youth pastor at my church was a friend of mine; we had worked at the same Christian camp one summer and were now in seminary together, so I wanted to help him out while also investigating if youth ministry was for me.

While my wife attended an adult S.S. class, coincidentally taught by the father of one of the 7th grade boys in my class, I made my way to my class on that first Sunday. It’s not my default to be optimistic, but I was certainly naïve. I wondered how bad could they really be? I was a little late finding my way to the classroom—this church had famously labyrinthine hallways, and by the time I got there, the boys had arrived and had locked me out of the classroom. They saw me and heard my knocking, but wouldn’t open the door. I had to get my youth pastor friend so he could unlock the classroom for me! He gave them a talking to that morning before I could even get into the day’s lesson.

On one of the next Sundays they stole my curriculum and hid it. For a while they wouldn’t tell me where it was. They were a rambunctious lot: interrupting me, not listening, intentionally creating distractions, speaking out of turn, trying to sidetrack me—it seemed they were purposely trying to annoy me. I continued to invest in them primarily on Sunday mornings, but I also went to Winter Retreat Camp with them as their counselor (they loved shooting me with paintballs!). We did work days and other teen activities together. I was their teacher for 7th, 8th, and one half of 9th grade. By that time I was done with seminary and was moving away to my first ministry. This isn’t a Hallmark story. They didn’t come up and hug me on my last day, and there are a few whose lives since then have proved they were never believers. But they knew that I didn’t quit. I was their longest serving teacher.

Picture taken on my last day teaching them.

About ten years later one of those boys that was married and on the road representing a Christian college stayed at our house. He confessed that all the boys decided that first day of class to see if they could make me quit. They literally plotted this together! It wasn’t personal; they really didn’t even know me until that first day. It’s just that others had quit, and they suspected they could make me quit too. They were, as my wife said at the time, “naughty little boys.” They were hoping to set a record for how fast I would quit; they actually discussed that. I’ve had others in that class confirm that story since then. It’s funny now, but it was certainly difficult at the time.

A surprising number of them went to seminary and into vocational ministry serving as pastors and at least one as a missionary in a closed country. Others are active in their churches. I don’t live on the East Coast where I went to seminary, but over the years I’ve run into a few of them and now we laugh about their antics. Their spiritual growth had very little to do with me; I don’t remember one lesson that I taught them those 2.5 years. But they had parents that had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon and a youth pastor that loved them. And, most importantly, they had a God that was working in their hearts even when I couldn’t see it.

I thank God for those 7th grade boys. They taught me dependence upon God. I found out that God’s grace could keep me serving even if it were difficult. Sure, probably most people could have endured an hour a week (although several teachers that quit belie that claim) ministering to ungrateful little rascals. It wasn’t that impressive. But it is an example of God’s faithfulness to me. He gave me strength and actually joy (?!) every week as I anticipated serving them.

I was just trying to be faithful as God commands.

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 1 Cor 4:2 (ESV)

Faithfulness is not all that is required for effective ministry. Other attributes are important too. However, sometimes that’s what ministry is. Being faithful in the little things and trusting God even when His work seems invisible or impossible. The little things are where we show faithfulness. For those boys and for me, just showing up every Sunday mattered.

My Relationship Status with My Emotions? It’s Complicated.

Recently I woke up in the night feeling terrible, like I had sinned in some great way. Over the course of my life I’m sure I’ve had this experience dozens of times, maybe hundreds. How do I make sense of that? Where did that emotion, that feeling come from?

Scripture commands us to feel certain emotions. We’re told to rejoice and be joyful. Other emotions are commanded like love, peace, compassion, and fear. Those are virtues, but aren’t they also emotions? We’re told to mourn and to weep. Most (all?) of those are certainly more than just a feeling, but they are not less.[1]Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63. For example, what makes a Christian definition of joy actually Christian is that it involves a mental evaluation. The Apostle James tells us to assess trials as joy (Jam 1:2). So it’s a feeling we feel after evaluating our trial. Of course Scripture also tells me not to have certain emotions—sinful anger or anxiety for example.

Unwanted emotions have been compared to the warning lights on the dashboard of your car. They tell you that something is wrong. The warning light is not the problem; it just points out that something is a problem. Others have said that emotions or feelings tell us what we value, what’s important to us, what we think or believe. “Emotions are the surface expression of deeper desires and values” and “Different emotions are valuations. Emotions gauge how desirable or undesirable people find the particular situations or objects to which they respond.” [2]Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.

I believe all that. Yet… I’ve woken up in the night and felt guilty, but with no obvious reason for it. As I scan my day I cannot recall a reason or circumstance that would justify this feeling.

What do I do with that feeling? That emotion? I tell God that I will confess whatever his Spirit brings to mind, but I rest in the gospel. My status with God doesn’t change because I have (as far as I can tell) an unwarranted feeling of guilt. My standing with God is always through Christ’s righteousness, not my own (2 Cor 5:21) and it’s not at all based on what I feel.

In our theology of emotions, can we make an allowance for some emotions being unwanted and not related to our values or beliefs? Maybe some times they are like the check engine light which is normally on in all my cars–I have terrible cars ;)–which some times just means the dealer wants me to bring my car in for expensive service. It doesn’t really signify more than that. In other words, in some cases the dashboard light means nothing.

It’s complicated. I’ve counseled people whose feelings were not in synch with their circumstances. Often they’ve been given a diagnosis of depression by others, and they come wanting help with their feelings. They would welcome sadness if it were appropriate. They have no reason to feel sadness, yet they do. Maybe it sounds like not much help, but I can’t assist them in feeling any particular way. That’s beyond my abilities, and I think, the abilities of any Christian counselor.

I do encourage them to keep their focus on Christ. I tell them that God can give them the strength to do right even when they don’t feel like it. That Jesus really is more satisfying than they think. But I don’t promise that feelings will change. Often they do, but sometimes they don’t.

In a world broken by sin I’m not surprised that sometimes the warning light of our emotions is going off at the wrong times. It’s a type of suffering. I’m not putting my situation in this category. The lack of synchronicity between my feelings and my life has normally been rare, short-term, and not severe. The depressed people I’ve had the privilege to counsel have had a larger gap between what they should feel and what they do feel and for a longer time.

Ed Welch says that “God doesn’t prescribe a happy life.” [3]Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15. And, “It is a myth that faith is always smiling. The truth is that faith often feels like the very ordinary process of dragging one foot in front of the other because we are conscious of God.”[4]Welch, 31.

How do I help? I tell them that doing right when they really, really don’t feel like it takes an extraordinary faith. I think that. I believe that. I know that. They are exercising more faith than I am when they do right. Attending church on Sunday morning is really hard when every cell of your body tells you to stay in bed. I like attending church. I love my fellow church members. I am getting something out of attending church that does feel good. But what if you feel worse after obedience than you did before? That’s how some counselees have felt over the years. If so, then doing right really becomes an act of faith that is far more than my faith in showing up Sunday morning.

When your feelings don’t seem to fit your circumstances, you can be satisfied that God gives grace to do right. Your weakness lets the power of Christ rest on you (2 Cor 12:9-10). When your feelings don’t align with your life, you can remember that your feelings don’t define your status with God. He sees you as righteous because you are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5:21 (ESV)

References

References
1 Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63.
2 Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.
3 Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15.
4 Welch, 31.
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