“Oh wow! A lady from my church just called my wife to tell her she found out her husband has committed adultery! I think he’s leaving her.”
That’s the sentence a pastor friend of mine said last week during our conversation. While we were catching up, he had received a phone call but he ignored it since we were talking; then he got the text. Here we were at a pastors’ conference enjoying fantastic preaching and great fellowship, when, suddenly, this text served as a striking reminder that ministry never stops. It doesn’t matter how far we travel, across the country or across the world, we can’t escape the realities of ministry.
I don’t have much experience in ministry, but I can confidently say that the most difficult part of it is when people walk away from the Lord. Of course, the death of fellow saints is painful, but our theology allows us to be joyful at the same time; unbelievers rejecting the Gospel is sad, but it is expected apart from God opening their eyes. It must be said that there is nothing like having someone with whom you’ve spent hours with, discussing Scripture, theology, doing evangelism with them, and spending Sunday after Sunday singing incredible truths with, only to watch them walk away from it all in order to satisfy some worldly temporary pleasure while forsaking the church that Christ died for. Thomas Watson’s words ring true when he said, “What a fool who, for a drop of pleasure, would drink in a sea of wrath.”
What are we to do? How are we to think about it? It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a pastor for decades and have watched dozens of people walk away, or if you’re new in the ministry and it has happened only a handful of times, I imagine that it is something you never get used to and, perhaps, as we get older and our joy to see Jesus increases, our disappointment over those who walk away only tends to get stronger. So, how do we think through this? You don’t have to be a pastor to experience this tragedy. Here are four reminders we need when someone close to us in the church walks away.
They aren’t sinning against you
This one is very difficult because it is so personal. We have spent hours upon hours with this person. Sometimes they have spent a lot of time deceiving and lying to us. Sometimes they have manipulated. Others times they have deeply wounded us with, not only their act of walking away, but they have said things or caused damage to us in other ways. In this time, we must remember that although they have hurt us, the One whom they are primarily sinning against is the Lord.
Samuel faced a similar situation in 1 Samuel 8:6. Israel had just requested a King and Samuel saw it as a slap in the face. He had spent years serving Israel as a prophet, with God ruling over the people, in his mind, there was no need for a King; after all, God was ruling! And it greatly displeased him. Feeling rejected, feeling like he had wasted his life, feeling like he had taught for years in vain, the Lord taught him an important lesson. In verse 7, after telling Samuel to give the people what they wanted, He said, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.” With these words, the Lord reminds us that when people sin or reject our counsel, they do so because they are rebelling against the Lord. David, later on in Psalm 51:4 says the famous words, “Against You, You only, I have sinned.” This is not to say that he didn’t sin against countless human beings with his actions, but that one sin against God warrants an eternal punishment, while a sin against man has a finite one.
We must remember, in the moment of disappointment and feeling rejected, that ultimately the person is not rejecting us, but the God of the universe.
All it takes is one step to get back
The beauty of the Gospel is the fact that all it takes for repentance is one step towards God. Whether it is the prodigal son or David in Psalm 51, God is ready to forgive His children at the drop of a hat. Of course, we have to believe in the perseverance of the saints, because God continually promises that He will take all of His elect to Heaven with Him (Eph. 1:13-14, Phil. 1:6, Rom. 8:28-39, John 10:27-30, and more), but we must have a place in our theology for those who walk away for a time who are saved but experiencing much difficulty in their sanctification. Many passages explain the need to “rescue” (James 5:21), confront (Galatians 6:1), and discipline (Matthew 18:17) a fellow believer in order to bring him back into the fold. These verses imply that not only that believers can sin, but that they can sin in ways significant enough that they need help to see the folly of their ways and be brought back into right standing with God. This also implies that all it takes is one step to get back on the right path. This step is a giant step, though, and it is called repentance. The person must admit their sin, ask forgiveness to the Lord and to the people who they wronged, and the Bible says that the brother or sister will be won and rescued and they will be in right standing with God.
This should be an encouragement to those who are experiencing this tragedy of having someone you love walk away, knowing that they could return to the Lord at any moment and that there aren’t a ridiculous number of steps involved in repentance. If you have walked away from the Lord it should be encouraging for you to know that God will forgive you if you repent and all it takes is one step back towards Him.
You must be the one to go rescue them
It is critical for us to understand our role in rescuing a sinner. Too many times we experience was is known as the “Genovese Syndrome.” We think someone else has gone after so-and-so, and, meanwhile, so-and-so never gets approached or confronted in their sin. Obviously, our job is to gently encourage those who have fallen away to consider their ways and to communicate to them the danger that they are in. But, ultimately, it is up to the Holy Spirit to make the change, and it is that person who will be responsible for what he has done.
It is important to note, though, that even though we are not the one committing the sin or walking away, we are, in one sense, responsible for approaching the person and pleading with them to repent. Too many times we sit back thinking someone else has got it when God calls us to do it. This isn’t just for the “super Christian” in the church. This is the calling for anyone. Galatians 6:1 says that anyone who possesses the Holy Spirit is called to go after those who have fallen into sin. In James 5:20-21, James is speaking to all the church and qualifies anyone who is a believer to rescue those who have fallen away. That means that you who are reading this–if you believe that you are going to spend eternity in Heaven with Christ–that you must go lovingly confront those who have gone out from your church.
They may not be saved
I know it may sound crazy that the person you’re thinking of may not be saved, but the apostle Paul experienced the same thing with more than one person in his day. Demas (2 Tim. 4:10), Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim 1:20), and Diotrephes (3 John 1:9) are just four examples of people who walked away from the Lord after years of ministry with the apostle Paul, himself. People he did ministry with, shared the gospel with countless times, who observed him doing miracles, and so much more, simply left the faith seemingly overnight. Of course, no one wakes up one morning and decides to pick up and leave the Lord. It is something that has been brewing for some time, but it can happen to anyone. And it is important for those who have experienced this to be willing to admit that, potentially, this person may not know the Lord. The writer of Hebrews declares that the ones who leave “have gone out from us, because they were never of us” (1 John 2:19). In other words, they left the Lord because they didn’t ever know Him, to begin with.
We must be open to believe this about someone, not for the sake of judgment, but for the sake of knowing how to talk to them when we see them. This becomes even more difficult when it is a family member, but if we trust the Lord and follow the steps assigned to us by Christ in Matthew 18:15-17, then the unrepentant person would have to be treated, at the very least, as if they were an unbeliever, which means that, though they might be saved, we would treat them as if they are not, and withhold communion from them and gently encourage them to put their faith in Christ for salvation.
It is incredibly difficult when someone chooses the world over Christ, something that is unfathomable to many of us. It would be foolish for anyone to take any of these steps and engage in any of this without first praying to the Lord to help guide us, for Him to open the eyes of those who have left, and that He would help them come to their senses. The world can be so enticing, but if you want to be a faithful friend to someone, you just might be the one who, in the words of James, would “save their soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”