How can we respond to rejection and failure in ministry? This piece was published in the FOL Covenant Church newsletter and website on March 26, 2019.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Rejection. Failure. How is it possible to stay joyful when our work does not succeed, and we feel rejected by those we try to serve?
Matthew 10 and 11 are good reading for Lent, when we’re reminded how hard and bitter this life can be. In these chapters, Jesus and his disciples do not have an easy season of ministry. Jesus sends them out with warnings about people trying to kill them, with predictions that families will split over him, with teaching about shaking the dust off their shoes in towns where they will be completely rejected. They hear that John the Baptist is feeling some doubts about Jesus. They hear that Jesus is being criticized as a glutton and drunkard. Then Jesus himself is deeply disappointed about the response in the towns where he has done miracles: people just are not repenting.
In the face of all this pain, however, Jesus does not just offer his presence. He does not just offer the comfort of a warm hug. He offers to teach them something. “Come,” he says, “…and learn from me…” What is it, exactly, that we weary disciples are supposed to learn? “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” I think we are called to learn his attitude of heart, to become like him in our response to failure and rejection.
Jesus has just been performing miracles; he has been instructing and sending out teams of workers; he has been criticizing major religious leaders. So whatever “lowly in heart” means, it does not mean self-effacing, shy, and “nice.” His words in the passage just before this were far from “gentle.” He cursed the unrepentant cities and compared them to Sodom and Gomorrah. So what does he mean by “gentle and lowly in heart?” And how can this heart attitude help us deal with our struggles, failure, and rejection?
Throughout Matthew 10 and 11, Jesus does explicitly teach the disciples about what attitude to have. He tells them not to fear, because physical death isn’t destruction. He tells them not to worry about what to say, because it is the Spirit’s job to speak through them. He tells them to shake the dust off their feet and move on when they are rejected, because the response of the people is not their responsibility. Act, in other words, like you have nothing to lose. You have no need to avoid death; no ego to protect. Could “lowly in heart” mean “not self-protecting”? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had taught them to turn the other cheek. When someone takes your tunic, he said, give him your cloak. (Perhaps, in our context: when someone accuses you, don’t accuse back; when someone spurns your loving work, love again.) These are “lowly”—meek—actions, only possible if you have no need to protect yourself.
What does it feel like not to protect yourself? I read a book about play, this week. (Brown & Vaughan, Play, 2009) The authors made a case for play being a crucial part of human thriving: the situation in which we learn best, forge emotional connections best, have the creative breakthroughs that move the world forward, and receive a rejuvenation that seems to be almost as crucial as sleep. What is the essential precursor for a playful attitude? Not being afraid. Not being worried or needing to protect the self—knowing that “it’s just a game.” For most adults, those moments of fearless love are rare, and only occur when normal responsibilities are put aside for a special “game.” But maybe for adults who are living out the Sermon on the Mount—whose real treasure is fully in heaven and can’t be threatened–they are not so rare. I think Jesus felt real, deep disappointment over Capernaum and the other cities, but I think he also experienced his “yoke,” his work, as “light.” “Come to me,” he calls us, “…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
- When have you felt rejection and ministry failure? Are there feelings you need to take to the Lord today?
- What do you find yourself protecting in those situations? Your image in others’ eyes? Your self-image? Your position? Financial security? What is it that makes earthly disappointments feel like a real threat?
- Can you remember a time of working fearlessly and feeling as free as a child at play? Can you imagine your ministry “yoke” being as light and joyful as that?