This guest post comes from the Summit Church’s Pastoral Research Assistant, Chris Pappalardo:
I am always moved by the stories of those who labored faithfully for God for years, but who saw little to no fruit in their work.Their faith in the midst of apparent fruitlessness is a great encouragement to all of us who feel that we work in vain. They strengthen my resolve and remind me that no matter how hopeless the situation is at the time, no sacrifice made for Christ and for the gospel is ever made in vain.
Think of Noah, who the apostle Peter describes as a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Can you imagine it? Noah was told to build the ark 120 years before the flood came, and all that time he was preaching to his neighbors. But none of them repented. Zero converts in over a century. He would not be considered for many preaching posts in our churches today, but Scripture holds him up as a model of faithfulness.
Think of William Carey, the father of modern missions. He was largely opposed even by the Christians in England, who told him that his missionary zeal was misplaced. Despite the opposition, Carey left for India in 1793. He worked with all of his might, but it was a full 7 years before he saw his first convert. How many times, during those years, must he have thought, “Perhaps they were right. Maybe I should not have come.”
Robert Moffat was a 19th-century Scottish missionary to South Africa. He spent 3 years (1818–1821) just traveling to his assigned mission post. He and his wife labored faithfully for 10 years, but with no tangible results. But then God began to stir within the people. In the period of three years, the number of converts in Moffat’s city went from 0 to 120. How different things would have been if they had decided to abandon the work in the 7th or 8th year!
Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary, spent six years in Burma (modern-day Myanmar) before he saw the first convert—a man named Maung Nau. Judson confessed that even at the moment of Maung Nau’s profession of faith, he was a bit skeptical because of the years of fruitlessness. He wrote in his journal:
“I begin to think that the Grace of God has reached Maung Nau’s heart. . . . It seems almost too much to believe that God has begun to manifest his grace to the Burmans; but this day I could not resist the delightful conviction that this is really the case. Praise and glory be to His Name forevermore. Amen.”
I am also reminded of the British politician William Wilberforce. After his conversion in 1785, he labored for 48 years to abolish slavery in the British Empire. For much of his life, it must have seemed like a lost cause. The last stages of the Slavery Abolition Act (of 1833) were carried out without him, since his health was failing for the last few years of his life. He was told that the act was passed just 3 days before his death. Nearly fifty years of faithful labor, and he nearly missed seeing the fruit of his faithfulness.
Some people, like Judson and Carey, eventually see the fruit of their apparently fruitless labor. Others, like Noah—and almost Wilberforce—never live to see the impact that their faith in Christ produces. But all of them had to endure years of barrenness. May God grant us the patience to pursue him with passion, even if he calls us to years of seemingly fruitless obedience. He is worth it. And his promises are sure. “Be still and know that I am God,” he reminds us: “I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10)