A few weeks ago I went on a youth retreat with several other Korean-American churches in the area. My youth pastor asked me if I would be willing to serve as a counselor for a small group, and I said yes. I spent a couple of weeks before the retreat preparing to teach, praying for wisdom, and praying for the hearts of my students. I thought this would be a simple and straightforward responsibility: I would get in, teach the students, and get out. A surgical strike, of sorts. It was a retreat, not a yearlong teaching obligation, so I would only have my students for a few days. Given the timespan, there was only so much I could do, so my burden would be proportionally small. Which is true—there’s really not so much one can do as a counselor at a youth retreat. My error was perhaps in mistaking “simple” for “easy.”
I came away from our first small group session disoriented and a little scared. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I had prepared myself to teach people like me—suburban and cerebral, like the kids from my home church or students from my college fellowship. The students I had were markedly more urban, more loud and outgoing than I was. In a word, they had more swag. I could see the stark difference between them and me, and how already it was making it difficult for them to relate to me. In rising panic, I told my youth pastor that I wished I had prepared more. I wasn’t ready to teach a group like this. How would I get them to listen to me?
Within this panic was the thought that it was my responsibility to get them to change. A harmless thought at first; after all, as a counselor or a teacher it is my job to help students in their sanctification. This thought became sinful as I began to blur the lines of responsibility and ability. From thinking it was primarily my responsibility to help these students change, I began to think that it was primarily my ability that would get these students to change. There were moments when I thought, “If I can’t get these students to change, then this retreat is wasted. They’ll go home exactly the same as when they arrived here. I have to help change these students, because if I can’t, no one else can.” The thought was subtle, almost subconscious. I wish I could say that this was in reference to my role as a counselor, that I was the primary teacher to these students at this retreat, and if I as their counselor could not help them, that no one else could. But in my pride, I extended this sentiment toward God: if I could not help these students, then no one—not even God—could.
How ridiculous! How utterly foolish! How could anyone lose sight of the fact that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7)? Even as I was teaching the biblical reality that we cannot change our own hearts, I was determined to bring about change in the hearts of others. Pride blossomed and took hold of me, as I thought that I had the ability to change my students. As a result, I was often disappointed and frustrated in the first couple days because I did not see the enthusiastic responses I was hoping for. Despite all the effort I was putting in, there was no visible effect. I felt as if I was expending energy in futility. It made me tired.
At the end of the second day, after a particularly quiet and unresponsive small group session, I sat alone in the counselors’ room to reflect on what had happened. As I thought about why my students had been so quiet, and the fact that I was frustrated with their lack of response, the Holy Spirit brought to my attention that I was seeking change, as if I could affect it. By His guidance, I spent time in prayer, asking that God would bring about the change in their hearts that I was so looking for. I could feel that one desire of my heart was for me to bring about that change, but there was—by grace!—another desire that was stronger, which was that I wanted the students to change, even if I could not be a part of it. I prayed that I would gladly yield being able to see change or even be a part of it, if God would sanctify these students. I recognized that He would do things by His grace and according to His will, and slowly I submitted myself again to Him.
The next two days did not suddenly get easier. Sin rarely gives up once we recognize its existence and pray earnestly over it. My pride surfaced repeatedly, but God is greater, and He allowed me to take joy in teaching the truths of His Word. He continued to bring my pride to my attention so that I could fight it and pray about it. So this retreat ended up being much more than simply “get in, teach, and get out.” God used it to show me how prideful I can be when He entrusts me with teaching, and I learned how freeing it is when I trust God to grow those under my care. I’m thankful for that, because I may lead a small group this coming school year, if He sees fit to entrust me with people to teach and disciple. Humility will allow me to take joy in God, rather than in the work of my hands. I am thankful that God continues relentlessly to sanctify me, even when I am not looking for it!