The other day I had the opportunity to eat with a friend. As the conversation continued, he began to talk about his family, and his father in particular. He questioned whether his father was truly saved because he saw things in his father’s life that were inconsistent with the lifestyle of a believer. There was hypocrisy, he quoted Scripture to meet his own ends, he found himself to be above reproach though his family members tried to bring to his attention areas of unwise choices. My friend told me how discouraged he was that, despite his many efforts of talking to his dad about needing to change, his dad never responded. He had brought all the knowledge he had gained in his Christian fellowship to bear on his father without any result. It was tough for me to listen to the refusal of a father to listen to his son.
More difficult than that was what my friend said next. He said that because he had tried so hard and that his father didn’t change, he was done. He had pretty much given up on his father. If his father didn’t change after all he had done to show him the truth, it probably wasn’t going to happen. I sympathized with him. I didn’t agree with him, but I sympathized. It’s difficult to have stubborn or unbelieving family members who don’t see the truth, even after continual and prolonged exposure. It’s difficult to be faithful to the gospel and the Word, especially when our preaching of it doesn’t seem to be doing anything. I’ve wrestled with that issue, of what to do when people don’t respond as they should. Do I cut my losses and move on? Do I look for softer soil, which has been tilled and primed by the Spirit for the delivery of the Word? To address these issues, I asked my friend three questions to help him think through how he should respond to his father.
First, “Who changes you?” Put another way, “Who causes the change you see in yourself?” It is not our own effort that causes change in us. It is not our effort that justifies us (Eph. 2:8-9), and it is not our effort that sanctifies us. To be sure, there is a necessary cooperation with the Spirit, but it is ultimately the Spirit that affects change in us. God wants His people to understand this–so much so that He commanded the Israelites to set aside one day per week as the Sabbath, that they might take the time to remember, “I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13). The author of Hebrews states that “Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (13:12). Paul prays for the Thessalonian believers that “the God of peace himself sanctify [them] completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Do we play a part? Certainly. 1 Peter 2:2 says that we are to “long for the pure spiritual milk.” But my point to him was this: a desire for the Word cannot be wrought by our own hands. From beginning to end, sanctification is a work of the Spirit. Paul says, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Answer: God changes you. He is responsible for the change you see.
The second question was, “Who changes your dad?” If God is the one who affects change–if He is the only one who can–then He alone is responsible for change. Thus we should not be burdened by our inability to produce fruit in others. That is not our job. Our job is simply to be faithful and to bring to God in prayer those who need their hearts changed. I think his discouragement stemmed from a misplacement of responsibility. If we think we are responsible for sanctifying others, it will be exceedingly easy for us to be discouraged, because we cannot change peoples’ hearts. Only God has the power to do that.
The third question I asked addressed the lack of love evident in a heart that is not only discouraged, but wants to give up. I asked him, “Does Jesus ever give up on us?” I hope not. He has every reason to, but He doesn’t. Despite our every sin and our failure to overcome our flesh or the world, He does not give up. He has an unconditional love for us. Moses said to the Israelites, “He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Though Peter denied the Lord three times after swearing that he would die with Him, Jesus still forgave Him. Jesus even said to His disciples, who had deserted Him, “[B]ehold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This promise stands for us, as well!
This is an immense and overwhelming love. It is a love that will not let us go, through the calm and through the storm, our anchor within every high and stormy gale. It is greater far than tongue or pen can tell; it is rich and pure, measureless and strong. It is a love we aspire to, the one we desire to display as we are sanctified. It is also a love we are commanded to show: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another'” (John 13:34-35). I hope for myself that, as I continue to reflect on the love of God, I would reject the desire to move on from people who don’t respond the way I want them to. I want to love as Christ loved, and by His grace I will increasingly so.