The Word Works, Even When It Doesn’t
Over the past year of ministry I’ve come to recognize a troubling tendency in myself. It’s a tendency toward what you might call vicarious faith. My confidence in the power of God’s Word—of its truth, its beauty, its relevance—is far too closely tied to the visible faith of those I serve as they respond to the Word.
When people connect with what I preach or teach or counsel from Scripture—when they get it and love it—my faith in the Word is strong. When what I say doesn’t seem to resonate—when it comes off as abstract, unbelievable, impractical—my faith in the Word tends to shrink.
I call this vicarious faith because it’s mediated and indirect. It’s not faith rooted in the Word itself. It’s faith tethered to the results of the Word I can see with my eyes in the faith of others.
I was especially convicted of this problem by a fresh reading of 2 Timothy a couple months ago. It’s one of Paul’s most personal letters. As perhaps his final letter, it has a clear retrospective feel, and it’s deeply introspective. Given this context, one phrase in particular stands out: “All who are in Asia left me.”
Was the apostle being hyperbolic? Almost certainly. But this hyperbole reveals his state of mind. Paul’s statement has been described as the “sweeping assertion of depression” (Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, 135). It is the statement of a man who knows what it is to be disappointed with the results of one’s ministry.
The rest of the letter offers a few examples of what he’s experienced. He writes of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who “swerved from the truth” and opposed Paul’s message with their own speculative babble (2:16-17). Then there’s Demas, a colleague in ministry who fell “in love with this present world,” deserting Paul for the greener grass of Thessalonica (4:9). Alexander, a coppersmith, somehow caused the apostle “great harm” (4:14). And when Paul stood trial, he stood alone—“all deserted me” (4:16).
These are remarkable words, aren’t they? In a way they’re encouraging for all of us who’ve felt the sense that our work is in vain. Even the great apostle himself knew what it was to labor with disappointment. Here in this letter Paul is near to death and he knows it (4:6-8). He’s all alone. And he’s living with the realization that much of what he’d taken for fruit has withered on the vine.
The truly remarkable thing about this letter and its context is that it’s here, from this man in this condition, that we receive perhaps the Bible’s clearest and most definitive statement on the all-sufficiency of Scripture. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable…” (3:16-17).
And it’s here that Paul draws his unflinching methodological conclusion: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season” (4:2).
The Word is profitable, Paul insists, even when the results have been discouraging. So there’s nothing to do but to keep on preaching that Word, in season and out of season. When Asia responds well and when Asia turns away.
Paul’s faith is in what God has said and not in what he sees. He knows the power of the Word is never under our control, like a genie in a bottle. The source of its power is the Spirit who, like the wind, blows where he will, subject to no man’s fancy. But however unpredictable, the Word is still the only power that can bring the sort of transformation people really need. I’m reminded of Peter’s words, when Jesus asked him if he too would leave: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Even when it doesn’t work according to our desires, or in a way perceivable by our senses, the Word is still the only thing that works. That’s the implication of Paul’s final charge to Timothy. Do you believe it? I wish I believed it more.
On the one hand, I’ve seen beautiful evidence that the Word’s power is what Paul claims it to be. On the other hand, I’ve also noticed this troubling temptation to allow my confidence in the Word to rise and fall with the extent to which others find it compelling, relevant, or trustworthy.
Surely I’m not alone. Does your personal conviction of what you preach depend on whether people connect with what you preach? Does your love for the Bible’s message vary with whether others seem to love that message or not? Do we believe the promises of Romans 8 when they seem cliché or unrealistic to the one who is suffering? Are we convinced of the power of those gospel-centered “one anothers” when the relationships aren’t restored, when the marriages don’t improve, when the anger or resentment doesn’t go away? Do we believe that God’s Word won’t return void even when our churches aren’t growing as we’d like? Too often, I wish my answers weren’t what they are.
What I’m praying towards—what Paul models for us in 2 Timothy—is what you could call a promise-driven pragmatism. It’s entirely appropriate that we should be fixated on what works in ministry. But how do we define what works? Our desire is to see individuals and communities transformed, which is to say our goals are supernatural. Only God’s power can accomplish what we want accomplished, and often, only God can see what he’s accomplishing. This means the primary measure of what works must be the promise of God, not the results we see from our perspective. His promise is that the Word is profitable, powerful enough to secure everything we really need—whether we see it or not.
[For more on the power of God’s Word to bring life and change, see Jonathan Leeman’s Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People.]