A few years ago I was talking to a missionary that had worked for ~20 years with a people group in the Philippines. He and his wife had labored diligently to translate the Bible into a minority language, working along the way to teach the people about Jesus, meeting their physical needs, and loving them deeply. After they had finished the New Testament they printed each precious page, shipped the copies to their village, and…watched them sit on the shelf. After all their labors, no one was interested.
How tragic! How difficult! Can you imagine working for so long among a lost people, dealing with their sin and your own sin in response, missing your family and friends, and for what? An unused Bible?
Reapers and Sowers
I actually don’t find it too hard to imagine how this missionary felt. Dave and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, have led multiple evangelistic Bible studies. We have even studied with the same people in our home for years at a time. I can honestly say that since my graduation from college, there has never been an extended period of time where I have not actively taught the Bible to either new believers or unbelievers.
However, at the end of the day, many of the people that I have invested in have either rejected Christ or walked away from their previous commitment to him (sigh). Our current lives are no different. We are “front line” missionaries living among a lost people group. And what do I spend my days doing? Mainly pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to write the tones of this difficult language. It seems like we may be a lifetime away from reaping here.
But this is not the case for everyone. Many missionaries, evangelists, and moms and dads have had great joy in leading many to Christ. My father is a great example of this. God has given my dad an amazing gift of evangelism. Though never employed as a minister, he honestly cannot help but to lead people to Christ. Not too long ago he bought a car off of Craigslist and, when picking up the car, knelt beside a man as he prayed to receive Christ. What an incredible gift!
So, seeing the reaping of others, I at times ask myself what my problem is. My life has been characterized by consistent sowing, and yet little reaping. Am I doing something wrong? Now, there is a time to examine methodology, and we do take the time to do that. However, in reading Christ’s words recently I have come to a different conclusion: sowers don’t always get to reap.
When Jesus was talking to his disciples in John 4, he explained to them that the fields were “ripe for harvest” meaning that there were many evangelistic opportunities to be had. He then goes on to say that, “One sows and another reaps” (34:37). He said ONE sows and ANOTHER reaps. While there are no doubt many people who get to reap the fruit of their own labors, this clearly indicates that this is not always the case. Sometimes you do not get to see the fruit.
That idea, in and of itself, is kind of depressing. Basically, if I am understanding the Bible correctly, I could labor my entire life with my kids and with the Kwakum people and never get to see any fruit of my labors. And if that is where the Bible left us, I might give up. But, fortunately, there’s more…
In the same passage mentioned above, Jesus says,
Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.John 4: 36
Here, Jesus offers such a joyous hope to the sowers: you will get to rejoice in the fruit. In fact, sometimes other people will reap the harvest that you have sown, but you will rejoice together.
There is much Gospel work to be done and the one who is a reaper is already reaping. It is easy for the sower to turn inward and ask what they are doing wrong because they are not reaping. However, I think what Jesus is calling us to is instead to look towards eternity where the reapers will be waiting to tell the sowers all the ways in which their labor was not in vain. The sower will praise God that the reaper finally brought that hard-hearted person to Christ. In the same way, the reaper will praise God for the many long nights the sower spent pleading for the person’s soul in prayer and in conversation. The sower and the reaper alike will admire one another’s work and give glory to the Lord for it.
Getting back to the story above, this missionary explained that he went back to their village 20 years after leaving disappointed. Through some conversations he learned that one man, a member of the people group, had visited another tribe and heard the Gospel and was saved! This new believer asked the veteran missionary for a copy of the Bible in his mother-tongue. Together they went and found the dusty shelf which contained the dusty New Testaments. And he sold this man the first copy of the New Testament in that language. This new believer grew in the Lord, and with help from the other tribe, planted a church for his own people. And today? Many among this people group have come to know the Lord!
This missionary didn’t tell me exactly how he felt. No doubt there was great joy in seeing people saved. But, at the same time I can imagine a temptation to frustration, seeing someone else reap the fruit of his labors. But, based on what Jesus has said, I am now certain that the frustration will not endure. One day, the only thing that this missionary will feel is pure joy: rejoicing together with the reaper.
It is likely that my feelings of frustration in rarely reaping are not unique to me. I know there are pastors out there that have labored for years in communities that will have nothing to do with Christ. I know there are women working in crisis pregnancy centers who have seen mother after mother harden her heart and walk over to the clinic. I know that there are moms and dads that have read all the books, tried everything, poured into their children, and see no fruit. To my fellow sowers, I offer this hope from Psalm 126:5-6:
He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
Your labors are not in vain. If you are constantly sowing, faithfully teaching God’s Word, and see no fruit…you will one day come home with shouts of joy, bringing your sheaves with you. One day you will stand before King Jesus and he will not say, “You sowed too much!” No, he will finally open your eyes to see all that he accomplished through your imperfect sowing. I believe there will be many joyous reunions of sowers and reapers in that day. And until then, take heart, and live a life of faith. Believe these promises, grab your bag, and keep sowing.