“Who Has Believed Our Report?” (Isaiah 51:3)
On the list of things that might discourage us, we can scratch these off:
1. That no one believes. The implied answer to Isaiah’s question is “no one.” When the Messiah appeared, no one got him right – including his own disciples and family. The only reason anyone believed is the Father drew their heart. (John 6:44) Small numbers are not to scandalize us.
2. That our circumstances are unpromising. God’s promises have always gone forward amidst unpromising circumstances — from Abraham, to Jesus, to Paul, to today. We are the early Church to someone. Stop complaining about the decline of the West and take up some useful work. Darkness is a great time to shine. (2 Cor. 4:6)
3. That the Church appears forsaken and surrounded by powerful enemies. This has always been true and Jesus tells his disciples to expect it. The true Church descends from Abel and always appears weak compared to Cain’s counterfeits. Our confidence can never rest in how we appear to ourselves, or to the world, but must rest in God. Contrary appearances do not affect the reliability of the Word. It often bears most fruit where least is expected. People may be godless, but God will never be people-less.
4. That our beginnings are feeble. This is the nature of beginnings – to be fragile. Do not “despise the day of small things.” (Zech. 4:10) “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.” (Zech. 4:6) God accepts the first step on the right path as the whole journey, and the first stone as the whole temple restored. (Haggai 2:15-19) In God’s hands alone are the necessary preconditions for profitable labor.
5. That we cannot see the future – whether our efforts will be successful or in vain. Perfect foresight God neither gives nor expects. He told his greatest prophets at the outset that their efforts would simply harden the people further, so that the more they succeeded, the more they would fail. But they were still surprised and perplexed in the event. Isaiah speaks for all when he says, “Surely I have labored in vain and spent my strength for nothing”. (Isaiah 49:4). They had to learn, as we, to let the command be enough. Whatever our circumstances, we may go forward in our duty, leaving the outcomes in God’s hands, which is where they remain in any case. (1 Cor. 3:6)
The Holy Spirit, by the most unlikely means, and in spite of all human plans, gathers daily to the Church those whom God is saving. Nothing we can do will produce that or make up for its lack. We can only discover it. We are not God’s spiritual CEOs, but migrant farm workers in his field, or day laborers on his construction site. How the completed project will appear, we cannot know. Nor can we determine the meaning of our particular part until the story ends. Sometimes miracles come — sometimes they do not – for reasons we cannot fathom. All we can do is our little part, for our little while, to the best of our ability and commend our efforts to the Final Arbiter, hoping in His mercy. Throughout, we remain unprofitable servants, but servants that nothing can separate from the love of their Master, who claims no more from us than what he gives, and buys back what was already his before. (Luke 17:10; Romans 8:29; Hosea 3:1-3)