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When People Can’t Listen

Frustration was brewing toward the Coleman family. Again and again and again Pastor Seth and the elders of the church had met with the family to encourage, counsel, and challenge them. Being the good “gospel-centered” church that they were, they demonstrated the glory of God and his goodness to them. They opened the Word of truth to them and called them to faith and obedience. They did everything “right” and by the book. Law, gospel, grace, and glory were all there in parts of their counseling. But the response of the Coleman’s hearts hadn’t changed. There might have been some momentary transitions in behavior, but they were really just momentary.

For Pastor Seth, it was really aggravating. As the high-energy pastor/planter that he was, seeing movement in people’s lives was his gift. It drove him batty to see lives stalled out and not listening. Often he would be tempted to dismiss these kinds of slow-moving sheep as unspiritual or immature or even un-saved. He found their lack of faith in his gospel disturbing. It gnawed at his mind that week after week, he would counsel the good news to them and yet they never moved forward in it. His theological system even told him that if they don’t respond to the gospel it’s because they were blind and dead to it. So he had to pray for their salvation. His conclusion was they were spiritually dead unbelievers that thought they were the people of God.

Unfortunately, for a guy who sees everything in black and white, he was missing something between the lines. The degrees and hues of trouble within their hearts and minds were invisible to a counselor who only saw in two variations – right and wrong. Spiritual temperatures were only gauged on the grounds of “hot” or “cold,” and lukewarm people made him want to vomit. The unbelief of the Coleman’s was so obvious that doing anything other than serving them notice seemed to be, in Seth’s mind, a cop-out and passive failure to lead them. He couldn’t see why they didn’t get it.

Why Won’t They Listen?

I’m often like my fictional friend, Pastor Seth. Often in Christian leadership and discipleship, I am stuck with the challenge of people who just don’t get it. I spend time counseling and encouraging them. I point them again and again to the Word of God and the good news of Jesus, but they just won’t respond. The answers and responses are as obvious to me as 2 + 2 = 4. I see their sin, I see the right response in the Word of God. I call them to repentance and faith and acceptance in Christ. I encourage them to move forward in him. And yet these people look up at me with dejected eyes agreeing that there is a rightness in what I’m saying, but a depression falls over them that indicates they just can’t do what I’m challenging them towards. I’m quick to write them off as just not listening carefully enough, not believing well enough, not trusting deep enough, or worst of all, just being insolent, rebellious scum.

But I don’t think that’s always the case, at least not any more. Recently, I stumbled upon a verse in my personal Bible reading that shocked me. As I was plodding along in Exodus, I noticed that God was about to do something great. The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. Because of their numbers and growing influence, the Pharaoh had enslaved and brought the Israelites into forced labor. He had murdered their infant boys. He had stripped all their wealth, prosperity, and laughter. Day by day, their lives were crushed by blow after blow.

And yet God had spared a son. He had raised him up as a leader and had given him a calling to take the captives out of their slavery. God had promised everything: deliverance, restoration, even his presence. He had confirmed it with signs and wonders. God was at work and doing powerful things. Who wouldn’t believe? Who wouldn’t be ready to charge the hill with God at the front and overcome the wicked Egyptians and their powerful slavery? The right leader seeing the right things would motivate this crowd the right way and they would respond in faith and obedience. Right?!

Exodus 6:9 tells us a different story:

“Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”

Moses told them all of the great promises of God. He spoke to them about the power and glory of God. He told them of the love of God and his grace and kindness toward them. Yet in a poignant word about their hearts, we find that they didn’t listen. More to the point, it seems that they couldn’t listen. Their bodies, minds, hearts and souls had been so beat and trodden upon that any sort of good news was impossible to them. Their spirits were broken and their slavery was harsh.

The Seed of Pastoral Frustration

The old adage says, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Maybe for pastoral counseling, that wisdom should be applied as well. It’s probable that Moses felt deeply frustrated with Israel at this point. Instead of rallying an army to move forward and lay hold of the promises of God, he was faced with a bruised and beaten crowd of despairing people. His frustration caused him to question his gifting and call. “If these people won’t listen to me God, what makes you think Pharaoh will?” (Ex. 6:12). I’m willing to bet that one of the first seeds of frustration between Moses and Israel was planted here.

In discipleship, we’re frustrated too. Our words aren’t heard. Our counsel not headed. Our sermons not considered and acted upon. The build up of frustration can form a mountain of bitterness and disappointment with the people of God we’re trying to serve. Instead of gentle and compassionate shepherds, we become ranchers with sticks to beat our people out of anger. “These people just won’t listen.”

Could this verse be a rebuke and a challenge to us in leadership to see God’s faltering people differently? Instead of letting frustration grow towards God’s people because they won’t listen, this verse needs to be a reminder to us of the deep hurt within their lives. It’s quite possible that they won’t listen because they can’t listen. They can’t listen because their burdens are too great.

Leading Sheep That Won’t Listen

How do we lead these sorts of people? How do we rightly recognize their broken spirit and great burdens and love them well? Three pastoral clues are found in the rest of this story in Exodus that help me understand how to lead these broken sheep.

1. Be patient with them. This is, in a large sense, where the people fade into the background of the story. There are no thunderbolts hurled at them. Moses doesn’t set up a platform and start a three-day preaching marathon against them and their unbelief. The movement of the story leaves the people here and focuses on God and his activity. It’s as if God takes them off the stage, leads them them to the front row of the theater, gives them seats to rest in, and then he powerfully steps up again and goes to work against their oppressors. The action is a great measure of rescue and relief to them. If anything, it is a display of God’s patience and kindness towards Israel.

People with broken spirits and heavy burdens don’t need to hear “steps to take” or “just obey more” or “be faithful.” They need rest. The burdened and weary need to hear Jesus’s words from Matthew 11:28 about rest. They need patience. Remember, it’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). As Scotty W. Smith once tweeted, “If God uses kindness to lead US to repentance, why do we use harshness, shame, guilt, threat, anger and fear on one another?”1 Why aren’t we patient with those who are crushed?

Give them rest. Don’t badger them about their weights. Let them come and be. Love them, encourage them, bless them. Let them have a front row seat to God’s power and activity. Let them sit and watch the gospel unfold. Don’t require works or action. Let them see and hear and experience a powerful Savior who rescues us from all our oppressors.

2. Be present with them. People with broken spirit’s and heavy burdens don’t merely want to be told they have those things and then left alone to figure it out. They need encouragement, help, and friendship that only comes from being with them. Often we don’t understand the lives of the people we are trying to lead because we haven’t lived with them in it. The nuances of why they do this or that isn’t understood because the day-to-day experience of where those nuances dwell aren’t understood or even known. Yes, I am saying that not everything is as black and white as you want to make it. Their failure to respond in faith to the good news might not be because they are hardened sinners, reprobate, and rebellious towards God. It might be because they have been abused, oppressed, and bullied around and as a result their spirit is broken. Their sins might come from the reality of the sins committed against them. It doesn’t make it right, but your approach seems just like the approach the bullies and abusers have already afflicted them with.

Do you know that about your people? If we are going to lead them well, especially these sheep that don’t listen we have to know their lives. We must live with the pained compassion of Christ that saw the sheep scattered and felt sorry and pity for them (Matt. 9:36).

As God powerfully acted to liberate and redeem Israel, he never failed to demonstrate his presence with them. In the midst of his work, he kept his promise to them, even at the most terrifying of times. Israel saw a powerfully present God who was for them. Shepherding people calls us to be present in the lives of those who don’t listen. Do you know your people?

3. Be petitioning for them. Moses’s role in this liberation wasn’t as great as we like to think it was. He went and told Pharaoh what God had told him, raised his staff, and God everything else. In fact Moses’s predominate activity in the unfolding of the plagues on Egypt didn’t look like activity at all. He was God’s messenger to Pharaoh and the people. Welcome to pastoral ministry.

As we lead people, our primary responsibility is to tell them what God says. Our primary responsibility for them is to be leaders who pray. Moses’s leadership was bound up in his prayer for Israel. In fact, it’s when Moses started acting, instead of praying, that he got in trouble.

If we find ourselves frustrated by people who won’t listen, could it be because we’ve failed to petition our Father for them? Instead of telling them what to do, judging them for failure to do it, and then running them off to find some more “responsive people,” we ought to consider long, engaged seasons of prayer. Does our Heavenly Father not possess all authority in heaven and earth? Does he not have the ability to raise up and lower powers and authorities. Can he not shatter the bounds of sin and death? Did he not send the Son of God and the Spirit of God to be our constant and faithful advocate and intercessor? Yes, yes, and yes!

Perhaps our people’s failure to listen is because the leaders have been trying to do God’s work instead of doing the work God gave them to do. Maybe our people won’t listen because we haven’t cared by praying for them. Maybe we’ve altered the life of ministry to be a drive for personal platform and greatness instead of the humble work of praying passionately for our people. We, as leaders, are all about the “preach!” and little about the “prayer.”

Broken in Spirit

Jesus reminds us that the blessed ones are those who are broken in spirit (Matt. 5:2). They are the people who have trouble listening because the weight of the world, their sin, and their struggles in upon them. They mourn because they can’t change their ways. They hunger and thirst for what is righteous and good, and yet it seems just out of their grasp because they aren’t consistent enough, aren’t powerful enough, aren’t free enough. They are the meek that won’t make a church or ministry impressive or relevant or powerful. They won’t have anything to build you a larger platform.

Will you extend mercy to them? Will you care for them? Will you shepherd the people who won’t listen because of their broken spirit and heavy burdens?

Jeremy Writebol(@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over thirteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He lives and works in Plymouth, MI as the Campus Pastor of Woodside Bible Church.