You don’t know me. Well, maybe some of you do. For those that do, I hope you can see past my personality and former vitriol to give at least some time to my words. For the rest, I hope you can take a second and read this as well.
Someone in your church is floundering. I guarantee it. Someone has their head just above water, nostrils pointed upwards for one last intake. Someone is close to giving up, walking away, turning their back on God. It’s not because they think he’s a vengeful deity or that he is demanding perfect obedience. It’s also not because they stumble to answer all the big theological questions or they can’t refute some other religion or atheism with snappy apologetical answers.
Still, they are close to drowning in some way, and they need your help.
Every Christian still has a little Pharisee in them. Every Christian has a built-in flaw from the fall that can, upon receiving the truth of the applied grace of Christ’s work, eventually default back to a type of salvation by law, or justification by works. Even us preachers have it. It never goes away, no matter how many times we think we’ve drowned it in the flood of baptism. It just doesn’t die that easily.
Please hear me. Someone is barely holding it together. Something inside them says, “Keep pressing in. You have to make sure your salvation.” They wrestle back and forth constantly, because in their secret little places, they are not praying and reading enough, but are instead giving in to that other side, the one that screams, “you’ll never be good enough!” It might even be pastors like you reading this. Even the ones I know.
I know this voice. I know it intimately. It’s more like a scream really. It is my struggle as well, even now. It is both a quiet judgment within me, and the most booming voice that drowns out all the other affirmations. It reminds me of every single one of my failures. As a husband and dad, as a worker at my job, even as a local parishioner in your fine church.
I’m telling you as sure as I know myself, someone, several someones more than likely,are in the midst of this right now, and they are in your church. Some are close to the door, because “getting better” is just not working for them. Some are on cusp of this spiritually debilitating phase. Most, if not all are hiding behind a veneer that looks good enough. They’ll tell you about “going through up and down days”, or, “well, no marriage is perfect”, and maybe, “sure it could be better, but it’s ok.” How about, “Hey, all I can do is take it one day at a time!” That one is my favorite. That’s the one I still use today.
My struggles have never completely gone away, and frankly I don’t expect them to. I hid them for a while, but they were never gone. I’ve had co-laborers in ministry admit to some of same struggles. Imagine, two knuckleheads gleefully going about our ministry business, admitting nothing, all the while we could’ve been encouraging and praying for each other.
Christianity has never been about getting people to clam up and look the part. It also wasn’t about randomly blurting out everything to everyone in some wild, brutally honest diatribe. It’s about Christ calling sinners to himself. Sinners who are still very much sinners even as God calls us saints. Because of that, what Christianity does provide is an opportunity to be honest about ourselves, and about our sins and struggles. We can be honest with our dearest friends, or our pastors and elders about it. It’s not so we can get the best steps to fix the problems, because most of our problems are internal, they don’t go away as easily as you’d like to think. The steps we’re often given from a pulpit, only end up outwardly masking what’s going on inside. That’s why counselors, even non-christian ones, are good and should be encouraged.
So in the end, what can help us?
You stand up there on a Sunday and now you know. You know, someone is close to the edge, someone is sinking, someone is nearly out the door from not measuring up to the ridiculously high standard he mistakenly set for himself. Look around, and you’ve seen them, eye contact or no eye contact.
What can you do for them in that moment? What do they need?
Every soul needs the Gospel. We never move past the need for it. It’s called good news for a reason. We don’t need it tacked on as an aside to a “seven steps to be a better whatever” sermon. It doesn’t mean that encouragement towards good works isn’t necessary. But it all comes back to the Gospel. It has too! That guy drowning in his own self-sufficiency, overwhelmed by his failed attempts to deserve the person and work of Christ, needs to be reminded he can’t do anything to deserve it, so rest. He needs to know his efforts aren’t required anymore. In fact, his best works could never achieve what he wants it to, and that’s ok.
Remind him or her, or if need be, even yourself, of the Great Exchange:
“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 Corinthians 5:21)
Just like that, fully righteous before God. No one had to lift a finger. Don’t be afraid to leave it there. Don’t be afraid to let it sink in at the end. Those words are Christ reaching down to Peter, lifting him up out of the water as he began to sink. None of us stay above the waves, we all sink like Peter, pretty regularly. The Gospel is the rescue.
Remind them of John 3:16-17:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.“
Tell them, love is God’s driving force in all He does. It is immeasurable and all-encompassing. Even your most recent sins, or the ones you’ve yet to commit, have been tossed into the sea of God’s forgetfulness because of Christ.
Encourage them with Genesis 3:8-9
"And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”
Show them God the Father searching for sinners, talking with sinners, loving and redeeming sinners, even immediately after their sin. God never turned away. He stooped down towards them. He even covered them with animal skins, replacing their poor attempts to cover themselves.
I know what you’re probably thinking next:
“I need to tell them to honor God with what a great gift they’ve been given.”
“I’ll say, you’re saved, rescued… AGAIN! Now what will you do with it?”
I’m begging you to resist that urge. Don’t put ankle weights on the guy you’re still trying to pull into the boat. You’ve just given them the rescue for their soul, the peace they need in that moment. Let them relish in that. Don’t bog it down now. That’s how they got there. In most cases, they got there on their own. I know I did. I didn’t need any help. I was already wearing cement shoes. I needed the Gospel to break them off.
That’s pretty much it!
You may be evangelical, charismatic, orthodox, protestant, Baptist or non-denominational. Whatever you are, I beg you, one Sunday, give them a full-blown Gospel-message. A God that rescues you not once, but daily from all you’re sin and shame. Give them a, nothing to do but be free, kind-of message. Feel free to remind them of the full weight of sin that pulls them down, and then remind them with great joy and exuberance, of the Jesus that pulls them up from the cross. FULL STOP. Show them they can get off the hamster wheel. Remind them, they are loved and are worthy by the work of Christ alone, no reciprocation ever necessary.
Then rinse and repeat often.
I’m begging you to do this. Someone there needs to hear it with great immediacy. Actually, everyone needs to hear it. Someone will probably thank you publicly. Many others will probably leave church Sunday quietly contemplating it, and later be privately relieved to hear it.
The Gospel is not just for those walking past the church. but those walking in the church as well.
Give ‘em Gospel Pastor, and give it to them often. It really is a sweet salve for the soul.