When People Don’t Get It
Tony Cooke

When People Don't Get ItYears ago, I asked a number of pastors about the most fulfilling aspect of their work. While responses varied slightly, the majority of pastors said that they are most gratified and pleased when they see peoples’ lives changed through receiving and acting upon the Word of God. Conversely, when asked about the most frustrating aspect of ministry, the same group typically responded that it is when people “don’t get it” and are not changed.

As ministers, what is our reaction to be when people don’t get it, when people don’t receive the Word at all, or receive minimal benefit from it? I know some ministers are wired in such a way that they become discouraged—even taking it personally, as though they themselves are somehow a failure. They believe if they were better ministers, then everyone would be powerfully impacted by the Word they share. But is this a reasonable, healthy expectation?

In any ministry equation, there are three components: (1) God, (2) the person ministering, and (3) the person on the receiving end. While that seems extremely elementary, it’s important for the minister to understand that he or she cannot do God’s job, nor can they do the job of the intended recipient. If you try to take on God’s responsibilities or another person’s responsibilities, you are going to end up significantly frustrated.

Ministers are often so full of conviction and passion about what they’re sharing that it’s hard not to take it personally when someone does not receive—we want so much for them to get it. Caution, though, is very important here, and it is necessary to remember that all those who embrace the responsibility of ministry must acknowledge that while we can share, implore, teach, etc., we cannot force anyone to accept what God offers.

Paul said this in 2 Corinthians 1:24 – “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand.” The Message version renders that verse, “We’re not in charge of how you live out the faith, looking over your shoulders, suspiciously critical. We’re partners, working alongside you, joyfully expectant. I know that you stand by your own faith, not by ours.”

While Paul certainly saw some amazing results from his ministry, there were times when he was frustrated at the lack of progress experienced by some believers, and certainly times when unbelievers failed to respond positively to Paul’s message. Consider the results Paul saw in Rome after spending an entire day sharing the Gospel with those who came to hear him: “Some were persuaded by the things he said, but others did not believe” (Acts 28:24). Was Paul a failure? Absolutely not. He shared the gospel accurately and faithfully, but he couldn’t control how people responded.

Even Jesus noted that people can be very fickle when it comes to receiving.

Matthew 11:16-19
“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying: “We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

Some were finding ridiculous reasons not to receive from John or Jesus. There will be people who will find an excuse not to receive or to apply the Word of God in their lives, but our responsibility is to faithfully (and skillfully) present God’s Word and God’s heart regardless. After all, how many times did we resist God’s influence before we yielded to Him, and how patient has He been with each of us?

Jesus also communicated a parable that deals with the way people hear. We call it the parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-25). In this lesson, Jesus described four types of soil. Each one (the wayside, the stony ground, the thorny ground, and the good ground) represent a different type of hearing process—a different type of receiving (or not receiving) and valuing (or not valuing) the Word of God.

Most pastors have taught and expounded on this parable several times, but let me present somewhat of a mathematical analysis of it. Of the four types of soil, only one (the good ground) yielded lasting results. The good ground speaks of the person who hears, receives, understands, and keeps the Word, and then brings forth fruit with endurance. Keep in mind that only one out of four hearers received any long term results—that’s 25%. In other words, according to this parable, 75% of the people who hear end up not receiving, and not because there’s anything wrong with the seed or with the sower.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind. Of the 25% which did receive the Word, they got varying results. According to Jesus, there were degrees of benefit or fruitfulness, it was, “some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred” (Mark 4:20). In other words, of those in the good ground category, some received a little benefit, some moderate, and some maximum. I don’t assume that Jesus meant all this to be an exact mathematical formula to be strictly applied to every group we minister to, but if we were to use this parable as a point of reference, it would indicate that only 8% or so of the people we minister to will receive maximum benefit from the Word we share.

So what is our response to be? Are we to get mad at people and lose our enthusiasm in preaching the Word? Are we to lose heart and adopt an attitude, “Well, most people aren’t going to get it anyway, so why put forth a lot of effort in communicating?” Absolutely not! While I don’t want to see any pastor or teacher taking the blame for things that are outside of their control, I believe we can passionately aspire to be the best teachers and preachers that we can be, but know that there are factors outside of our control when it comes to the final results.

Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). We can’t take the glory when a person receives benefit from the Word, so neither should we take the blame when they don’t.

Years ago, I received a call from a young pastor who had prayed for a church member to be healed, but the church member died. The sincere, caring pastor was very troubled over the church member’s death, and I could tell he was struggling with guilt, perhaps thinking that he had not had enough faith or had not prayed properly for the church member. I asked him, “Are you blaming yourself for this church member not being healed?” Hesitantly, he said, “Well yes, I guess I am.” I then asked him, “If the church member had been healed, would you have taken the credit?” He quickly said, “Of course not. I would have given God the glory.” All of a sudden, he realized the kind of situation he had put himself in—If the person gets healed, God gets all the glory. If the person dies, the pastor gets all the blame. That’s not exactly a healthy situation to be in.

Having said all this, let me say that we who teach have a tremendous responsibility to do all that we can to skillfully present the Word of God. We don’t just blandly throw Scriptures out and say, “Well if they get it, they get it. If they don’t, they don’t.” How would you like to go to a restaurant where the chef just threw some poorly cooked meat and half-cooked vegetables on an unclean plate and had it brought out to you? When asked, the chef might say, “Well, I put the food out there. If they don’t like it, that’s their problem.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to go to that restaurant. I want to go to a restaurant where the chef believes in creating beautiful entrees, having a clean and sanitary kitchen, having polite greeters and courteous wait staff, having a pleasant atmosphere in the dining area, and who values his or her patrons, wanting to give them the best dining experience possible.

While I know that I’m not exclusively or ultimately responsible for whether people receive the Word or not, I also recognize that I have a part to play, and I want to do my part as well as I possibly can. I may not like it when people don’t receive the Word, or don’t benefit from it as much as they could, but I’m going to follow Paul’s admonitions to Timothy:

  • “Hold fast and follow the pattern of wholesome and sound teaching which you have heard from me” (2 Timothy 1:13, AMP).
  • “…the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
  • “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
  • “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
  • “Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching… Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you” (2 Timothy 4:2, 5, NLT).

Finally, my personal conviction when I teach is to do so as though everyone listening will fully receive and apply that Word. I’m going to teach as though I am 100% responsible for their receiving (even though I know that ultimately they have a part to play as well). Paul put every fiber of his being into his ministry, as is evidenced in his statement to the Galatians, “Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives” (Galatians 4:19, NLT).

That passage reminds me of this great truth: The role of God-anointed teaching is not simply to share information, but to facilitate transformation. Our goal is to share the word of God under the anointing of the Holy Spirit so that He can work within the hearers to bring change in their lives. Being entrusted with the sacred Word of God, and being invited into partnership with the Holy Spirit is the greatest privilege one could ever receive. We have the honor of delivering the oracles of God to people He passionately loves. May we always walk humbly and circumspectly as our office requires, and may we do so with gratitude regardless of the whims of men.