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Misplaced Guilt

Jeremiah is one of my favorite prophets. One reason is that I can relate to his reluctance when God called him. Jeremiah’s response was, “I do not know how to speak; I’m only a child.”

Like Jeremiah I, too, felt unqualified to speak. I am a shy introvert who prefers to stay in the background. It took me a long time to realize that I have a gift for teaching. Even so, I would shake from stage-fright before facing a class. As for speaking or preaching to the church, I ran from it as hard as I could. If someone had told the young me that one day I would come to enjoy speaking from the pulpit, I would have called him crazy.

Age also factored into my views of my un-fittedness for public ministry. What could I possibly have to say to the “gray-heads” of the church? I was somewhat in awe of my father and others of his generation who, seemingly evangelized without effort, started churches, had a pulpit presence and could reel off Scripture at the drop of a hat. Was it not my place to look up to and learn from them? It was something of a shock to realize that I had insights which others didn’t. As time passed it was even more of an adjustment to realize that I had become one of the “gray-heads” who had been in the church longer than many others. It was startling to realize that people were starting to look up to and defer to me.

But there is another reason I feel affinity for Jeremiah. There are times when I look at my ministry and ask the question, “Have I really accomplished anything?” Jeremiah’s ministry was fraught with disappointment and heartache. People not only rejected his message, they rejected him – to the point that, more than once, they tried to take his life. I, too, know something of rejection. Nobody has tried to physically scrag me but, more than once, people have tried to “kill the messenger” by slandering me, speaking against my character and falsely accusing me. People have turned against me because they rejected the message I tried to bring them.

I sense that Jeremiah was a profoundly lonely man. Not only because the Lord denied him marriage but because he was an outsider. He belonged to a priestly clan which was an historical rival to those in power in the Temple. Even when Hilkiah found the Book of the Law and King Josiah sent people to inquire of the Lord about it, they consulted the prophetess Huldah instead of Jeremiah. The message Jeremiah proclaimed about the future of the kingdom, Babylon and regarding the exiles taken to Babylon proved extremely unpopular. He was labeled a traitor, imprisoned, thrown into a cistern and threatened with execution. Jeremiah was so unpopular that King Zedekiah had to consult him in secret. Even then, the king rejected his advice. King Jehoiakim burned the scroll on which Jeremiah transcribed the messages God sent him.

There have been times when I, too, have felt the pain of isolation. My views regarding the church and the reforms which are needed have not always been well received. I’ve been labeled a troublemaker for challenging the status-quo and expressing the principles I see in Scripture. Even those who said they agreed with me have hesitated to stand with me when the crunch came. I’ve wondered whether I was the only one to see what needs to be done and had the courage to act on my convictions.

The thing which stands out to me most about Jeremiah’s ministry is that, from a human point of view, it was a total failure. After over 23 years of proclaiming God’s word, he had possibly two converts – Baruch the scribe and Ebed-melech the Cushite. Jeremiah himself wondered what the point of his ministry was when God had him buy a field during the siege of Jerusalem. It made no earthly sense – particularly since Jeremiah had no descendants to pass it down to. Then, the crowning indignity came when the survivors of the Babylonian invasion asked Jeremiah to consult the Lord for them. They not only disobeyed the divine instructions Jeremiah passed on to them not to migrate to Egypt, they forced Jeremiah to go with them! Yes, no matter how you slice it, Jeremiah’s ministry looked like a complete failure.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with more visible success than Jeremiah. Along with the rejection there have been some people who have listened. I have been able to introduce some reforms. I have been able to mentor a few men who have caught the vision. I’m seeing spiritual growth in the congregation I lead. However, I also have to say that for much of my ministry I’ve carried a sense of guilt. The guilt results from those who have not responded. I’ve taken the blame on myself. “If I had just been a little more persuasive! If I had only phrased things differently! If only I had approached the problem from a different angle! If only…”

However, pondering on Jeremiah has helped me understand that my sense of guilt is misplaced. Jeremiah was not a failure! Why? Because he obeyed what God told him to do and that is all God requires. God does not hold us responsible for the decisions and actions of other people. The only question is whether or not we have obeyed. We are not responsible for results! That realization has been incredibly freeing for me. Thank you Jeremiah!

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