I recently read a great article put out by our missions agency, World Team, and it inspired me to think through the following scenarios…
Imagine two pairs of Christian parents daily loving their children and presenting Christ in word and deed. In God’s mercy, one group of parents receives the joy of seeing their children worship and serve Jesus. The other couple witnesses their children go from hard to harder as the years go by. The couple with the believing children are sought after for parenting advice while the other mother and father are considered a little suspect.
Along the same vein, imagine two missions teams seeking to translate the Bible. Both are seeking to honor the Lord in their lives and in their methodology. One team, at the end of their translation project, receives the joy of seeing the Word of God paraded around the village. The other team’s Bibles sit in a storage shed collecting dust. The team with the positive reception of the Word of God is heralded as a model of good Bible translation methodology while the other is written off as a failure.
But could it be that both sets of parents were successful in God’s eyes? Or that both missionary teams accomplished exactly what God wanted?
The Same Aroma Leads to Both Life and Death
Biblically speaking, I believe that we can say that both sets of parents and missionaries were successful, so long as they were faithful witnesses to Christ. The same message that has the power to soften hearts also has the power to harden them. In presenting the message we leave the hardening or softening to the Lord.
For example, the apostle Paul was well aware that he was preaching the same Jesus to the Jews and to the Gentiles. To the former group, this message produced a further hardening whereas to the latter the message produced life. He explains this phenomenon in 2 Corinthians 2:15:
“For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life”
This is also seen in the life of Stephen. At the beginning of his famous sermon in Acts 7, the local authorities were calmly questioning him. But upon hearing his sermon, the people progressed from annoyed to enraged and went so far as to kill him:
“Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him…They cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him” (7.45,57).
It was the hearing of his message that drove them to mob violence and thus his death was a direct result of his faithfulness to communicate the Word of God. Nothing communicates this idea better than this quote cited in the article I read:
Calling the hardening of the lost a spiritual fruit is a concept not well understood or frequently discussed. Yet it recognizes the fact that the Spirit-filled disciple impacts people both positively and negatively: “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15).
As a Christian deepens his relationship with his Lord, the fragrance of Christ on him will grow stronger. This does not mean, however, that his spiritual aroma will have an increasingly positive influence on people. On the contrary, those who oppose the sovereign rule of God will smell the aroma of death on him [or her] all the more strongly! The Christian has no control over people’s responses. Our only duty is to keep the fragrance of Christ pure and unmixed with other aromas . . .
The overall picture that we need to see is that the harvest at the end of the age includes both the elect and the lost. Our Lord has sent forth His disciples to participate in the harvesting of both. As much as we desire that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), we must accept the fact that many will be hardened by the fragrance of Christ upon us. This hardening is very real fruit of the Spirit’s work in people. (Bryan Fraser, The Hidden Life: Living Inside-Out to Release God’s Blessing.)
Our role as believers is to present Christ. Period. It is then God’s prerogative to use our ministry either positively or negatively. These may not be super cheerful thoughts, but I think they are the bedrock which keeps both missionaries and parents from serious discouragement.
To the Discouraged
We live in a community where people live off of what they can grow. Thus, many spend day upon day clearing their fields and planting seeds in order to provide for their families. Occasionally, rodents come at night and dig up and eat every single seed that has been planted. The following day our neighbors will return to their fields and find that all their sowing was in vain. They know if the rodents continue to eat their newly planted seeds, they will not harvest and thus will not eat.
Thankfully, God’s economy is not like this. With God, everyone who sows will be rewarded sooner or later. Note in the following verse who receives wages:
Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 1 Corinthians 3:6-8
We as Christians are not rewarded based on how many souls are saved through our ministries or how well our children turn out. Instead, we are rewarded according to how hard we have worked. Everyone who sows the Gospel, even if the response is further hardening, will be personally rewarded by God for all his prayers, all his pleadings, all his faithfulness.
So to the parents who faithfully teach the Word, discipline in love, and call their children to repentance to no avail, know that you will receive what is due you by God for all of your labor. Your every call to your children has eternal weight even if your child never repents. Further, your child’s increased hardness may not be because you are doing something wrong but because you are doing something right. Maybe you are being so shaped into the image of Christ that your child cannot see you without seeing Him. Perhaps his rejection has more to do with the Son of God shining through you rather than you.
And to the ministry worker who sees zero conversions, yes, examine your personal holiness and methodology, but also take heart that the Lord’s ways are higher than our ways. It could be that, like the ministry of the prophets, the Lord has sent you to a hard people just to glorify himself in your perseverance and faithfulness. Even if you have devoted your life to a people group without one “thank you” or conversion, know that your life was not spent in vain and Jesus himself will repay you for all your hard work. So press on, looking forward to your heavenly reward.
Believing that God is glorified to use one’s ministry to harden is a difficult reality. Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet for a reason. But it is also an opportunity for us to have faith, trusting that God knows what he is doing. And this trust leads to peace beyond understanding. This peace lets us sleep at night, even if our children are rebelling and even if people are not reading their Bibles. Because we know that we are not in control, God is. And we know that is a good thing.
Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator. Right now she is working creating literacy materials so the Kwakum people can learn to read and write in their language. She is also working on translating Old Testament stories into Kwakum with her husband and local Kwakum colleagues.
World Team is a global mission agency dedicated to church planting among unreached people groups.
Our goal is to make disciples and equip the local church to grow and multiply.
We do this by sharing the hope of Christ in word and deed.
What Part Will You Play?
World Team specializes in helping people find a place to serve in global missions where their unique skills and passions can be a blessing to others. From short-term to career missions, we’ll help you find the right team or form a new one.
Dave and Stacey Hare met at The Master’s College (now The Master’s University) in Santa Clarita, CA. They then went on to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where they each received their MDivs. Also in Louisville, they adopted four kids from Ethiopia. Their first term on the field they spent learning French and Kwakum. For their first home assignment they each received a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics, Bible Translation from the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (now Dallas International University). They currently live in Cameroon, Africa where they serve as Linguists/Bible Translators among the Kwakum (aka Bakoum) people.