“We needed that loss more than a win.” When I played high school basketball, I often heard a message like that after an unacceptable loss. The idea seemed to be that a team was prepared for future success by losing important games they should’ve won.
Somehow, the message didn’t resonate with me. I would think, “Why must we fail in order to succeed when we already know the steps that lead to failure?”
In the life of service to Christ and His church, Christians ought to find themselves asking similar questions. What is the path to fruitlessness in the Christian life? What are the known steps toward failure in ministry that we can avoid now, before we experience the tragic consequences?
Now, certainly failure and mistakes will come in the still-being-sanctified Christian experience. Nevertheless, some warning signs in Scripture are so clear as to guide us away from the initiation and realization of a life of unfruitful ministry.
One such set of warning signs is found in 2 Kings 4, through the narrative of Elisha’s servant Gehazi and his interactions with the Shunammite woman. What made Gehazi’s ministry so fruitless and graceless? How can we avoid his errors?
Fruitlessness begins with filtered expectations for grace.
“There's not much to be done for an old lady like that!"
When Elisha asks Gehazi what gift could be given to the woman in response to her hospitality, this seems to be Gehazi's response. Gehazi tells Elisha, “Well, she has no son, and her husband is old” (2 Kings 4:14). Gehazi looked at the woman’s family circumstances and decided she was a poor candidate for a gift from God.
Gehazi filters his expectations for grace.
Some of us wish we could bring a measure of divine judgment and slap Gehazi in the face. Others look at our own filtered expectations for grace and realize our need for a gracious slap as well.
What external circumstances in others’ lives filter your expectations for grace? Like Gehazi, do others’ family circumstances (married, single, children, etc.) somehow inform whether you expect grace to be poured out on them? Is there some other filter – IQ, education level, denominational background – that you prefer to use to gauge whether they are great candidates for the abounding grace of God?
Sadly, as we see in Gehazi, such a mentality begins the ministry of fruitlessness.
But this is not the spirit of Elisha (2 Kings 4:14-17), who longed to show the woman grace. Nor is it the spirit of the greater Elisha, Jesus. After all, it was Jesus, who still in the womb of Mary, gave joy to an old childless woman, Elizabeth, who then proclaimed her blessing on the Messiah (Luke 1:43-45).
Fruitlessness pushes away the weak as they plead for grace.
The story continues. The Shunammite woman has a boy, but then the boy dies. She hurries to find Elisha at Mount Carmel, grabs his feet, and prepares to plead (2 Kings 4:27).
And then, ever-so-helpful Gehazi comes to push her away (2 Kings 4:27).
Why is Gehazi so rude in this moment of need? We don’t know for sure, but one clue may be found in the location of the woman’s plea: Mount Carmel. This mountain, a center-of-operation for Elijah (1 Kings 18) and Elisha (2 Kings 2:25) had been the site of Elijah’s (really, the LORD’s) rousing victory over Ahab and the Baals. Now, Elisha has the chance for another kind of rousing victory: ministering to an unnamed helpless woman.
It seems, though, that for Gehazi, this woman is too irrelevant, too much of a nobody, to garner the attention of the prophet of Mount Carmel. For us, the temptation could be framed like this: to see our faith, our family, or our church as too glorious of a place for ministering to the desperate.
Too often, people ask for deep and personal prayer requests at church and we get uncomfortable. Or, opportunities come to invite the weak, the desperate, or the poor into our homes – and the excuses suddenly abound. And slowly, the desperate are pushed away.
But this is not the way of Elisha, who effectively pushes Gehazi away to speak to the woman (2 Kings 4:27). So too, the greater Elisha, when a woman touched his garment, stopped a driving crowd, just to show grace to a needy woman (Luke 8:43-48).
In fruitless ministry, we reap what we sow.
When helpless Gehazi is given a chance to revive the dead child (2 Kings 4:29-31), the outcome doesn’t surprise. Nothing happens.
For Gehazi, and for us, a graceless ministry leads to fruitlessness.
We may think we are setting expectations when we are instead filtering our expectations of grace. We may be attempting to exercise prudence in pushing away the helpless. In either situation, what may seem as wisdom is folly on the road to fruitlessness.
Thankfully, though, Gehazi’s fruitless ministry puts on display the great fruit of the grace-filled servant. Elisha visits the home of the dead child, prays to the LORD, and revives the boy (2 Kings 4:32-37). The greater Elisha does similarly when the unnamed woman from Nain comes weeping over her dead child (Luke 7:12-17).
The ministry that expects God’s grace and hears the cry of the weak becomes a ministry of fruitfulness. We have received such grace from our Savior. May we, unlike Gehazi, eagerly offer that grace to those around us.