Our family recently returned to the States after nearly a decade of church planting ministry in Italy. Like anyone who undergoes a major life transition, we have experienced the strange mixture of excitement, fear, grief, and gratefulness. And while we have been eager to greet what awaits us in our future, we have been forced to say goodbye to what now is our past. Goodbyes to an amazing city. Goodbyes to dear friends. Goodbyes to colleagues. Goodbyes to our church family. But perhaps some of the most difficult goodbyes were those with whom we had shared the gospel but did not have the privilege of seeing a turn in faith to Christ. Some of those people we had only spoken to once. Some of those relationships had been built over the years.
Every Christian has this experience some time in their life. You may have undergone a major transition, like us, that moved you to a new city. Or maybe it was the other way around, you had shared the gospel with someone, and they moved away before you saw them trust in Jesus. Maybe no one moved, but someone who had been open to speaking of spiritual things has distanced themself from you, and though you still live in the same city, you’ve had to say goodbye.
As pastors, we experience difficult goodbyes on a weekly basis. We have first-time guests who sit in our services, hear the gospel, and then walk out, never to return. We watch long-time attenders who might have come with their saved friends or family members eventually stop showing up without ever showing any genuine interest in the gospel.
As we face life’s transitions, it is good to think biblically about why these goodbyes are so difficult and where we can find hope as we experience them. How are we to respond to these heart-wrenching changes in our relationships? Can we walk away with hope as we say our most difficult goodbyes?
DIFFICULT BECAUSE WE ARE LIMITED
The reason these goodbyes are so difficult is that we are faced with two specific limitations. First, we have to accept that we are unable to regenerate anyone. If we could, obviously, we would. If it were up to us, we would have no difficult goodbyes. We would never have to walk away wondering about our friend’s eternal future. But giving saving faith to others is an ability far beyond our reach. None of us hold that power.
Second, goodbyes remind us that we are not omnipresent. We simply cannot be everywhere at once, and this limits our bandwidth for relationships. Of course, technology has made it easier to communicate over long distances, but we all know by now a relationship over a cup of coffee is better than merely over Zoom. What hope, then, can we find as we face these limitations in our goodbyes?
HOPEFUL BECAUSE GOD IS NOT LIMITED
The hope that can comfort our heavy hearts as we say goodbye is that though you and I face these limitations, God does not. Unlike us, God can and does regenerate dead hearts to spiritual life. Paul reminds us of the creative power of our omnipresent God who gives faith to those without, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6, ESV). The same God who spoke light into the dark void of the universe is able to speak light into the dark hearts of those with whom we share the gospel. The Creator is the New Creator.
This is a reality that Paul leaned on in his ministry and one that he reminded the Corinthian church who had divided into factions based on preferred leaders. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7, ESV). We sow gospel seed; God sovereignly gives the growth.
This truth offers hope to not only our present work of evangelism but to our past work as well. We can rest in knowing that, unlike us, God is omnipresent (John 4:24; Acts 17:24). God’s hands aren’t tied by geography. He is not frustrated by distance. No, God is at work everywhere at once, and we must remember: this is true even after we say goodbye. Our influence in the lives of our unsaved friends and family wanes as our distance grows, but hope is found in the ever-present, continuous work of God.
THE CONTINUED WORK OF GOD
If we are careful to see it, there is great comfort in the original wording of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” He carefully defines the boundaries of our work in light of God’s. Leon Morris picks up on the grammar used by Paul, noting, “The verb [“gives”] is in the imperfect, a continuous tense, whereas the verbs of planting and watering are in the aorist. Paul and Apollos did their work, which is viewed as completed. But God’s activity in giving the increase was continuous.”
As a traveling missionary, Paul said many goodbyes in his ministry. He said goodbye to those he led to Christ. He said goodbyes to churches he helped plant. And no doubt, he said goodbyes to unrepentant hearers of the gospel message. What, then, was the gospel hope that encouraged Paul after his work was done? God did not and does not experience the limitations he faced, and thus, would continue to work in the hearts of those who had heard the gospel long after the messenger of that gospel had left.
This theological truth is meant to encourage us as well. While we can only look into the eyes of the person standing in front of us, God knows the hearts of every single person in every corner of the earth at all times. While we live handcuffed by our finiteness, God knows no such limitations. And the gospel seed we’ve planted will, Lord-willing, bring a harvest in due time, even if we aren’t there.
We all must say our difficult goodbyes, but we do so with hope. God continues to work though we have left. And now we look ahead to the new field in front of our eyes, ready for tilling and future harvest.