My husband and I went on a spur-of-the-moment, 5,000 mile road trip this summer. Our travels took us to the fields and farms and waters of Wisconsin; the forests and lakes of northern Minnesota, from which you see the boundary waters of Canada; the crop lands of middle America that feed us all and reach beyond every horizon; the rugged Badlands of North Dakota, which Teddy Roosevelt credited with making him into the man he became; the ever-rolling, forested Black Hills of South Dakota; and the mountains and plains of Colorado.
Along the way, we spent time with friends and family, people we have known and loved for decades. This morning I woke early and thought about all those wonderful people. Then I realized something disturbing. In the years that I have known and loved those folks, not one of them has shown any increased curiosity toward God on account of my relationship with them. I have been a Christian for about 35 of my 62 years. Both the internal and external trajectory of my life have changed profoundly because of my faith. I live joyfully in the knowledge that because of Christ's sacrifice I am a forgiven child of God. I embrace that truth with awe, gratitude, and humility. The behaviors of my life reflect the Holy Spirit's work in me as I learn to walk as Christ walked, moment by moment, day by day. I do not walk perfectly or sinlessly; I can be an absolutely wretched human being at times. But this makes confession, repentance, and forgiveness all the more precious to me. These things are true of my life, which means Christ has been present in these relationships for many years. I have prayed for them for decades. Yet I have seen no discernible fruit in those lives and no answers to my countless prayers for their salvation.
As I pondered these things in my heart, I was terribly saddened, so I went to the scriptures in hopes of finding solace and perhaps some explanation. Here is what I (re)learned:
The people I influence for God's kingdom may not be the people I expect or most hope to influence. It seems that those who have known us the longest are the least willing to accept or acknowledge change in us, especially when that change makes us less like them. It tends to make them uncomfortable. Jesus was not honored in His hometown; He was rejected by people who were near and dear to Him (Matthew 13:53-58). His family thought He was out of His mind (Mark 3:20-21). It’s wonderful to think about being an agent of spiritual change in the lives of those we love, but that may never happen. It did not always happen for Jesus, and it will not always happen for us.
Nonetheless, I am to continue to be always in prayer for those loved ones. If not me, then who? I have been given these relationships in part to bring them before the throne of grace. Think about the non-Christians for whom you are praying, over whose unsanctified lives you grieve. If you give up praying for them, who will pick up the slack? Satan delights in making us feel like failures in prayer. So please don't stop praying, but do stop worrying about the "outcome" of those prayers. We are not responsible for anyone's salvation. God is. Our prayers matter more than we can imagine and in ways we may never know (James 5:16-18). Jesus prays for and loves all mankind, yet most reject Him (John 17). We are called to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), no matter the outcome.
I am to lay down my life. Living in a distinctive, loving, forgiving, sacrificial, God-glorifying manner before non-Christians matters. My behaviors might make them uncomfortable, but God’s glory is more important than their comfort (John 17:14-19). Again, if not me, then who? I have been sovereignly placed in their lives to image Christ to them. When I am with them, what they think of Christ matters more than what they think of me. I must die to myself in order for Christ to live in me before them. I must get out of the way (John 12:24-26).
God is sovereign. Submission and surrender to this kingdom reality will bring peace. None of this is about us. It is all about God (1 Chronicles 29:11-13). God desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9), that all come to a saving knowledge of Christ. Christ commanded us to pray, to love one another and to love our neighbors, to go forth, to make disciples. That He has not told us to stop doing any of those things implies that prayer still matters, that running the race steadfastly matters, that there are paths and relationships He wants us to yet explore, that there are disciples waiting to be made. So we carry on in purposeful, grateful, hope-filled obedience. The outcome and the glory belong to God.