Last November, I began meeting regularly with a young man who I’ll call Ali. Ali is from a Muslim background, but he had grown disillusioned with works religion and requested a New Testament online from a website I am associated with. A few weeks later, I contacted him, and he agreed to meet. He was so hungry to learn. He had many questions that I did my best to answer. He wanted to know how he could love God? We read the Bible together, prayed, and developed a good friendship.
Almost every Monday for several months, we continued like this. Often he would be the one encouraging us to read or to pray while we met. His questions were becoming more mature, and he seemed to be really growing in the Lord. I was ecstatic. My wife and I had moved our family to this part of the world in faith that God would do big things, like bring people out of the kingdom of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). The fact that God had entrusted this soul to me was just what we had been praying and hoping for. It was the thrill of a lifetime.
About a month ago, Ali wasn’t able to meet one Monday, and then another, and then another. His replies to my messages were short if he answered at all. Finally, I asked him if something had happened. He had “cooled to religion,” he said, and he didn’t want to meet anymore. What had seemed like the thrill of a lifetime had ended in the devastating agony of loss and failure. There was a pit in my stomach.
I was obviously grieved at what felt like Ali’s rejection of me, but what was ultimately his rejection of the gospel. I felt like a failure as a disciple. I began to question myself and what I had done wrong. Perhaps if I had emphasized particular Scriptures at different times, or approached the whole situation with different ministry strategies, he wouldn’t have gotten away. I was even tempted to question the validity of my identity in Christ.
From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, disciple-making is compared to fishing. In Matthew 4:18-21, after fasting for 40 days and 40 nights and withstanding the temptations of the devil, Jesus chooses two fishermen to be his disciples with these words, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” (Matthew 4:19). From this, we see Christ’s emphasis on fishing for people, it is inextricably woven into the fabric of being a disciple.
These words from Matthew 4 paint a vivid picture of what type of ministry Jesus had in mind for his disciples and us. While fishing with a hook and bait are different than the fishing with nets that the disciples did, there are similarities. Both require great patience, and both the tug of a full net and the tug on the end of a line produce a thrill of excitement. Those who enjoy fishing know that feeling well, the rush of a big catch. That thrill is the same when fishing for people, and a person comes to faith. It is the thrill I was feeling early on with Ali.
But it doesn’t always work out that way either. While pulling in the net or reeling in the line, the net can tear, or the fish can get off the hook, sometimes right as it gets to the edge of the boat. The disappointment accompanied when that happens can feel like a pit your stomach. Unfortunately, the same thing can happen when fishing for people. They can get right up to the edge of the boat, to the edge of faith, only to be lost at the last second to the murky waters of unbelief. When Ali walked away from Christ, it was this feeling of loss and regret that haunted me for days.
While it is right to mourn the spiritual loss of a friend, and it is wise to pursue strategic methods when it comes to fishing for men, if we lose one of those fish just before it gets in the boat, we need not be dismayed. Christ, in his humility and wisdom, has promises for us even when we are paralyzed by ministry disappointment. To comfort me in the midst of my feelings of inadequacy at the loss of Ali, the Lord reminded me of two things.
The first is that Jesus himself knew the feeling of disappointment of losing a fish before it got in the boat. In John 6, after telling the crowd that unless they ate his body and drank his blood they could not be his disciples, “many turned back and no longer walked with him,” (v. 66). Furthermore, Judas, a fish that seemed as if it was already in the boat, jumped back into the waters of eternal destruction. In some ways, Ali seemed that he too was already in the boat. I asked him on a number of occasions if he believed, his numerous yeses still ring in my years today.
But the verse that gave me the most comfort while walking through the grief of losing a fish is Luke 10:20. After the disciples had been sent out to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name.’” Surprisingly, in the midst of their rejoicing, Jesus offers his disciples a rebuke, “…do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
I had always wondered at Jesus words to his disciples in Luke 10:20. They seemed harsh as if Jesus were a buzzkill. But after walking through a season of disappointment at having lost a fish, I now see the deep wisdom of these words. I had been rejoicing greatly at what appeared to be Ali’s salvation–and my part in it. I had put my hope of joy in the spiritual status of another.
The disciples, too, had put their hope of joy in ministry success. They were in such high spirits because, in their obedience, they were seeing the fruit of lives set free from spiritual bondage. While there is certainly a joy to be had in such obedience and in witnessing such fruit, ministry success is a fickle thing to set our ultimate hopes on. When Ali walked away from me and the Lord, the reason it was so crushing is that I had put too much of my identity into being the one who had discipled him.
But what the Lord has been teaching me in Luke 10:20 is that if we are not to rejoice that the spirits are subject to us, i.e., in our ministry success, then the opposite is also true, we are not to mourn when we experience failure. Whether the fish gets in the boat and stays in the boat, or not, our identity, our hope, our joy, is in Christ. When we fail to land that big catch, or one gets away from us just as it is at the side of the boat, like Ali, we can be disappointed. For a time. We can look inwardly and see if there really are changes in strategy we need to make. I still hope and pray that Ali will come back one day, jump into the boat, and know the incomparable joy of sailing with Jesus for eternity. But ultimately, in success or failure, I will rejoice knowing my name is written in heaven.
John Thomas lives and serves in ministry in Central Asia with his wife and two children. His writing has appeared here on Servants of Grace and Mere Orthodoxy.