I didn’t like the preacher I sat by on the plane. I know, I know. You’re supposed to like everyone, but this fellow…
To begin with, he took the seat next to me. I’d hoped it would stay vacant. The plane was crowded. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was tired from Sunday morning services. I was speaking that evening in Atlanta and had planned on taking a nap on the flight.
But this fellow had other ideas. Though he had been assigned another seat, he took the one next to me since it was closer to the front. And when he took it, he took every inch of it—and then some. Forgive me, but I get a bit territorial about armrests. This guy staked his claim on the one between us and never relinquished his position.
Knowing I couldn’t sleep, I figured I’d review my thoughts for the evening lesson, so I opened my Bible.
“What ya’ studying there, buddy?”
I told him, but he never heard.
“The church is lost,” he declared. “Hellbound and heartsick.”
Turns out he is an evangelist. He speaks in a different church every weekend. “I wake ‘em up,” he growled. “Christians are asleep. They don’t pray. They don’t love. They don’t care.”
With that pronouncement, he took on his preaching tone and cadence and started listing all the woes and weaknesses of the church, “Too lazy-uh, too rich-uh, too spoiled-uh, too fat-uh…”
The folks around were beginning to listen, and my face was beginning to redden. I shouldn’t have let it bug me, but it did. I’m one of those fellows who never knows what to say at the time but then spends the next week thinking, I wish I’d thought to say that.
Well, I’ve spent the last few days thinking about it, and here is what I wish I’d said to the bad news preacher: God’s faithfulness has never depended on the faithfulness of his children. He is faithful even when we aren’t. When we lack courage, he doesn’t. He has made a history out of using people in spite of people.
Need an example? The feeding of the five thousand. It’s the only miracle, aside from those of the final week, recorded in all four Gospels. Why did all four writers think it worth repeating? Maybe they knew some preachers like the one I sat next to. Perhaps they wanted to show how God doesn’t give up even when his people do.
The day begins with the news of the death of John the Baptist. It continues with the return of the disciples from a short-term missionary journey. Following the disciples are five thousand men and their families. Jesus tries to get away from the crowd by crossing the sea, only to find the crowd waiting for him on the other side. He wanted to mourn in solitude, but instead he was surrounded by people. He wanted to spend time with just the disciples, but instead he got a crowd. He wanted time to think, but instead he had people to face.
He spends time teaching them, and then he turns to Philip and inquires, “Where can we buy enough bread for all these people to eat?” (John 6:5). Keep in mind that Philip has been forcing out demons and healing the sick (Mark 6:13). We’d expect him to be optimistic. A bit of faith would be appropriate. After all, he’s just spent several weeks seeing the impossible happen.
But how does Philip respond? He sounds like the preacher I met on the plane. He knows the problem, but he has no clue as to the solution. “We would all have to work a month to buy enough food for each person to have only a little piece” (John 6:7).
He can cite the stats, but he can’t see how to help. He can crunch the numbers, but he can’t construct the answer. And though the answer to prayer is standing next to him, he doesn’t even pray.
Equally disturbing is the silence of the other disciples. Are they optimistic? Read their words, and see for yourself. “No one lives in this place and it is already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the countryside and towns around here to buy themselves something to eat” (Mark 6:35-36).
Come on, guys. How about a little faith? “You can feed them, Jesus. No challenge is too great for you. We’ve seen you heal the sick and raise the dead; we know you can feed the crowd.”
But that’s not what they said. If faith is a candle, those fellows were in the dark.
It never occurred to the disciples to turn the problem over to Jesus. Only Andrew had such a thought, but even his faith was small. “Here is a boy with five loaves of barley bread and two little fish, but that is not enough for so many people” (John 6:9).
Andrew at least comes to Jesus with an idea. But he doesn’t come with much faith. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find much faith on the hill that day.
Philip was cynical.
Andrew was doubtful.
The other disciples were negative.
The preacher I met on the flight would’ve felt right at home with these guys. Look at them: They aren’t praying, they aren’t believing, they aren’t even seeking a solution. If they are doing anything, they are telling Christ what to do! “Send the people away” (Mark 6:36). A bit bossy, don’t you think?
Looks like the disciples are “hell-bound and heartsick.” Looks like they are “too lazy-uh, to rich-uh, too spoiled-uh, too fat-uh.” Let me be clear. I agree with the preacher that the church is weak. When he bemoans the condition of the saints, I could sing the second verse. When he laments the health of many churches, I don’t argue.
But when he proclaims that we are going to hell in a hand basket, I do! I simply think God is greater than our weakness. In fact, I think it is our weakness that reveals how great God is. He told another struggler, “When you are weak, my power is made perfect in you” (2 Cor. 12:9). The feeding of the five thousand is an ideal example. The scene answers the question, What does God do when his children are weak?
If God ever needed an excuse to give up on people, he has one here. Surely God is going to banish these followers until they learn to believe.
Is that what he does? You decide. “Then Jesus took the loaves of bread, thanked God for them, and gave them to the people who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, giving as much as the people wanted” (John 6:11).
When the disciples didn’t pray, Jesus prayed. When the disciples didn’t see God, Jesus sought God. When the disciples were weak, Jesus was strong. When the disciples had no faith, Jesus had faith. He thanked God.
For what? The crowds? The pandemonium? The weariness? The faithless disciples? No, he thanked God for the basket of bread. He ignored the clouds and found the ray of sunshine and thanked God for it.
Look what he does next. “Jesus divided the bread and gave it to his followers, who gave it to the people” (Matt. 14:19).
Rather than punish the disciples, he employs them. There they go, passing out the bread they didn’t request, enjoying the answer to the prayer they didn’t even pray. If Jesus would have reacted according to the faith of his disciples, the multitudes would have gone unfed. But he didn’t, and he doesn’t. God is true to us even when we forget him.
God’s blessings are dispensed according to the riches of his grace, not according to the depth of our faith. “If we are not faithful, he will still be faithful, because he cannot be false to himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
Why is that important to know? So you won’t get cynical. Look around you. Aren’t there more mouths than bread? Aren’t there more wounds than physicians? Aren’t there more who need the truth than those who tell it? Aren’t there more churches asleep than churches afire?
So what do we do? Throw up our hands and walk away? Tell the world we can’t help them? That’s what the disciples wanted to do. Should we just give up on the church? That seemed to be the approach of the preacher I met on the plane.
No, we don’t give up. We look up. We trust. We believe. And our optimism is not hollow. Christ has proven worthy. He has shown that he never fails, though there is nothing but failure in us.
I’ll probably never see that proclaimer of pessimism again, but maybe you will. If you do, will you give him a message for me?
God is faithful even when his children are not.
That’s what makes God, God.