Stop Trying. Start Trusting.By Karl Whittingstall
January 6, 2021
John 6 has been one of the most liberating and inspiring passages of scripture to me in my entire 16 years of full-time ministry. I have been a youth pastor almost the entire time and like any ministry, Youth/Student ministry can be discouraging, distracting, and difficult. I have wrestled in my mind with the reality of the need for God to intervene in the lives of the people I have been entrusted to care for, but also my own calling to work for the Lord. The reality is as Paul says it is God who gives the growth (1Cor.3:6). But sometimes the harvest takes a long time, and the fruit doesn’t seem to come. What happens is that we believe the lie of the evil one that we need to “work harder” exhausting ourselves to produce fruit in others we cannot even produce in our own lives. Sadly, we just want to try harder and produce results on our own with what we think will work. Have you been there? The answer is to stop trying so hard and start trusting the Lord more.
Let’s look at the first half of John 6. Jesus is preaching to a group of people and he is saying things that are freaking out the general population following him: “I am the bread of life” (vs.35, 48), “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever” (vs.51), “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (vs.53), and “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (vs.54).
As New Testament believers, we know what he was talking about. We see the bigger picture. The people listening to Jesus’s words, however, were not picking up what he was putting down. In fact, this message he was giving was freaking people out. We see in verse 66 that many of his followers leave. Before that happens, Jesus gives us a glimpse into why these people don’t understand what he is saying: “Do you take offense at this? …It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (vs.61 & 63).
The Spirit Gives Life
At the end of the day, it is the Spirit who gives life. These people did not have the Spirit of God to transform their ears to hear and eyes to see. So they were confused, and they left. This verse has been personally transformational in my life. It has also changed how I lead my leaders to think about ministry and helped us to better inform our expectations and more accurately define success.
My heart is for people to come to know Jesus, to love him. I want people to hear the truth of Jesus’s love for them as I have. I want people to know that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. I want them to know that if we admit our sin and believe in him we can have eternal life. I want to see people saved. I know I am not alone in this. The problem is that if we are honest, we are too often trying to make this happen in the lives of others instead of relying on the Spirit’s work.
The freeing truth, the weight lifting reality from this passage is that any and all life change in us or anyone else can only ever be because of the Spirit of God working. We need to stop trying so hard to change the lives of others in our own strength. Who are we kidding? We can’t even change our own lives. I hope this isn’t a new principle to you, but the question is do we rightly apply it?
It is the Spirit who gives life. Unless the Lord gives eyes to see and ears to hear, unless the Lord gives a heart of repentance, unless the Lord gives a spirit of forgiveness, unless the Lord gives—it will not be given. Mustering all of our efforts might feel good, and even look good, but it will not last. The third person of the trinity intervening is the key.
The flesh is no help at all. It is not that God doesn’t use our flesh. Rather, our fleshly ideas, efforts, principles, pragmatic plans and passions aren’t what makes life change happen. It is the Spirit!
So what do we do? We do ministry knowing that what we need most is for the Spirit to move. We have to pray. We all know we need the Lord to move. The more we see, understand, and recognize this reality of the gospel—what it means that Jesus is the bread of life, which only comes by supernatural illumination of the heart—the more it leads us to desperate prayer for God to intervene. I am not calling people to mail in their ministry effort and just sit at home passively and pray. No! Jesus also commands us to go and make disciples. There is an activity that should accompany prayerful words. God uses us, but it is His Spirit who ultimately changes lives, not our fleshly efforts.
Focus on Faithfulness
In John 6, after so many people abandon him, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you want to go away as well?” This is a genuine question. It is as if he is asking here: “Guys I see everyone else is going, and this is hard stuff to get. Do you want to go, or are you getting this?” Peter then responds with one of the Bible’s greatest declarations of faithfulness, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”.
Peter’s declaration is also the secret to genuine Spirit dependent ministry that leads to Spirit-given life! The Church has the one thing the rest of the world does not have: the words of eternal life. The world can entertain people and do a lot for the flesh that we cannot, nor should we want to. One thing sets us apart: the words of eternal life. How should we respond? We start by trusting the Lord with his message in a greater way and depending on him more in Prayer.
As a youth pastor for a decade and a half I can tell you there have been many battles in my flesh to blur the lines of entertainment and the gospel. There have been times I have failed. This isn’t always easy. But we must remain faithful. I like to say “we don’t mess around but we have a lot of fun.” Our youth ministry isn’t about entertainment, fun, and games (although we do play games occasionally, they are not “our thing”). We are about helping students grow closer to Jesus. This means getting in God’s word together.
It is okay to be a fun guy as long as you are first a faithful guy. Be faithful to trust the Lord and let him do what only he can do. Be faithful to work hard and leave the results with the Lord. Be faithful to the calling he has given you to make him famous and communicate his life-giving words. That’s what the church has a monopoly on.
I would encourage you (as I do this almost weekly) to create a mental checklist of what you are doing and why. Is it God’s glory or your effort that you are working for? Is God’s word what people walk away knowing or some other experience? I can’t change any heart. I can’t change any life—at least eternally. It has to be the Lord. It is the Spirit who gives life. Pray hard and serve passionately. Watch God work and do what only He can do!