It was nearly midnight, and I was still working. In just 10 hours, I’d be speaking at a large Christian university, and I wasn’t quite done crafting my message on servanthood. But I knew how it would end. When finished with my lecture in the center of the lit stage, I would take off my heeled boots, kneel down, and silently mime the washing of feet. I felt its power, even as I practiced in the hotel room.
The next morning, it was snowing. A lot. And more was coming. It was the first blizzard of the year. The university stayed open, but I wondered how many people would trudge through the storm to chapel on a Monday morning? I soon found out. I concluded the speech, exhorting and kneeling with all the strength and passion God had given me, but I did so to an almost empty room.
Two days later in another state, I was speaking to a packed-out auditorium when eight women stormed out. I never found out why. On my final stop, a thousand miles to the north, I arrived sick. That weekend, less than half of those registered for the conference showed up. I struggled, ill and exhausted, through two days of intensive teaching to half-vacant rooms. Had anyone’s life been changed?
I returned home from that trip on wobbly knees. In two decades, never had things gone so badly. What had happened? If God calls, surely He equips! If it is His will, there must be fruit. God’s word never returns void, does it?
We’ve conflated the biblical notion of calling with our culture’s obsession with success.
Even as I nursed my wounds and waded through doubts, I thought of others who had suffered far worse. A friend of mine knew God had called him to China. After all that preparation to move to Beijing, he returned home three years later, disillusioned and with nothing to show for his efforts. These experiences abound. Many of us have gone out into ministries, jobs, cities, and churches convinced God has called us to particular places and roles. Yet the fruit we imagine blossoming from our work and sacrifice often doesn’t appear as we expect. Did we misunderstand God’s call?
Often, the answer is yes. We’ve conflated the biblical notion of calling with our culture’s obsession with success. Yet a quick return to the Old Testament prophets, particularly Ezekiel, can help restore our perspective. And his is not an easy story.
Remember, Ezekiel is the one whom God gave the strange order to “eat this scroll” (Ezekiel 3:1). The prophet, terrified by the presence of God, complies and ingests God’s words, which are “sweet as honey” at first. But the scroll soon turns sour in his stomach. He’s tasked with being a mouthpiece for God, and yet the message he’s commissioned to bring to the Israelites is dire. God’s chosen people have unrelentingly rebelled against Him for centuries, and His patience is done. Through Ezekiel, God warns His people that He will withdraw His favor: “My eye will show not pity nor will I spare” (Ezekiel 7:9). Fire, famine, and sword are coming.
However, one final chance remains. If Ezekiel’s words move them to repentance, God will relent of His plans for catastrophic judgment. I can just imagine Ezekiel’s hopes.
But before this servant even begins his appointed work of communicating God’s words of warning, the Lord gives him full and disturbing disclosure: The Israelites will not listen to him. They will refuse to hear the prophet because, as God says, “[they are] stubborn and obstinate” (Ezekiel 3:7). In spite of this, Ezekiel is to speak to the Israelites with this injunction: “Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says,’ whether they listen or fail to listen” (Ezekiel 3:11 NIV).
Are we getting this? God is directing the prophet to sacrifice and invest in a message that He knows will effect no change, that will bear no fruit. From a human perspective, the task appears cruel, even absurd. And in the end, it all falls out as God foretold in gruesome detail: No one repented. Jerusalem and its inhabitants were annihilated.
What was the point of Ezekiel’s calling and his subsequent obedience—which was, by the way, extraordinarily difficult? He had to lie on one side for 390 days, then on the other side for 40 days. And that’s just for starters. Three times God commands Ezekiel to speak “whether they listen or fail to listen.” But God also speaks 10 words in the midst of His call that change everything: “As for them, whether they listen or not—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 2:5, emphasis added).
Ezekiel is to speak and live and enact God’s message in such a way that no matter their response, the Israelites will have witnessed righteousness and obedience to God. The prophet’s call was not to save them; his call was to obey. Their response (or their failure to do so) was God’s burden to carry, not His servant’s.
We cannot be overly facile or simplistic with this story, but what occurred in Ezekiel’s life is repeated in many other prophets’. And their experiences can speak into ours as well. We won’t always see the kind of fruit we want or expect as we live out God’s call upon our lives. We want to grow closer to Christ and make Him known in such a way that many come to know Him as well. But we’ll often be disappointed. No matter the outcome—whether few or many respond in our homes and families, in our workplaces and ministries—God’s words to Ezekiel are a cause for hope. We have been called and empowered to this: to live out our love for God in such a way that, whether they listen or fail to listen, they will know that a God-loving woman, a God-loving man, was among them. The rest, without fail, is up to God.
Photo by Petrus Olsson