Dealing with Draining People – Mark 8:11-13
By: Alistair Brown
Recently a friend made a sad comment to me about how his bosses react to his work: “Alistair, no matter what I do, how hard I work at it, no matter how good it is, all I am told is: ‘That’s not an acceptable standard.’ No matter what, it seems I can never please them.” Most of us know some form of that experience. You can never do enough. You cannot say or do the right thing. You’re giving everything – making lots of sacrifices – honestly giving your best – and it still won’t do. That’s not fair and not right. But it happens.
It happened to Jesus too. Right after preaching to crowds for days and miraculously feeding thousands of them, Jesus steps out of a boat in a new place and here come the Pharisees. They’re not satisfied with what they’ve seen. It’s not enough. They want more.
Mark 8: 11-13
11 The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
Jesus was deeply troubled by these Pharisees. They had heard his teaching and they’d seen miracles, but they wanted more. They wanted proof on their terms that he was the special one, the Messiah sent by God. Mark says “Jesus sighed deeply.” Maybe he was exasperated. Maybe he was drawing on the strength of God for that moment.
It was a serious encounter. The wrong move or the wrong answer at that moment could jeopardize Jesus’ ministry for there is a hint that the Pharisees were out to get him. Mark says they came “to test him.” The verb translated ‘test’ is peirazō which means ‘to tempt’ or ‘to test,’ but it can also mean ‘to try to trap.’ These Pharisees were not innocent enquirers, not people looking to put their faith in Jesus. They wanted to discredit Jesus. They wanted to bring his work to an end. Jesus sensed it, sighed deeply, said no sign would be given to that generation, got back into the boat, and set off for the other side of the lake.
There are four lessons here.
1. In any kind of Christian work, there will always be people we can’t please.
The writer and preacher Gordon MacDonald gives initials to several types of people we may meet: VRPs, VIPs, VTPs, VNPs and VDPs. The VIPs, of course, are the Very Important People, and the VRPs are Very Resourceful People – both are great people to have around. But the interesting category here are the VDPs. They are the Very Draining People. They’re never happy; never satisfied; never appreciative. To reach the lost you could swim through shark-infested waters, trudge for days through desert and quicksand, wrestle wild animals, risk death from hostile tribes, all to bring the gospel to people in a far-off land, and the VDPs will ask “Why didn’t you go last year?” or “You mean only ten came to faith – what about the other two?”
As a pastor I had my share of people like that. Some were in the church for years; others moved on. Those who were going would usually tell me all that was wrong about the church or my ministry and then say they were leaving. I could have begged them to stay. I didn’t. I usually said something like: “Well, if you really must go, then I don’t believe it’s right to talk you out of it.” I might have been smiling a little on the inside when I said that, but it was true. It would not have been right to persuade them to stay. They were not happy. There are people we can’t please. It’s a fact of life and of all Christian work.
2. The danger of trying to present the gospel on terms others like.
The Pharisees had seen and heard almost everything Jesus had done. He’d just fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fish, but the Pharisees wanted “a sign from heaven” and, of course, they had their own idea what that meant.
Jesus would not yield. He would not let anyone tell him what he must do. Only God set his agenda. He told his disciples: “…the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). He would not deviate.
Most of us know that car sales people will negotiate on price. Whatever the sticker says, that’s only their starting point. We offer less, they ask for more, we come up a bit, they come down a bit, and finally a price is agreed. In other words, they adjust to what the customer is willing to pay.
Jesus would not adjust. These Pharisees had set their own terms for following him, and he would not meet their demands. Take him as he was; accept the evidence already there. They were loved; they were wanted; this was something they needed to do. But there would be no discount on discipleship to suit their preferences.
When it comes to Christianity there is only one Master. That is Jesus, and no-one can manipulate him to fit their preferences.
3. Some people will never be won by argument.
Jesus did not engage in debate with these people. They were not honest enquirers; they were people who had come to trap him. He didn’t ask them what they meant by “a sign from heaven” or whether, if they got a sign, they’d demand another sign and then another and another. Questions like those would all have been good debating points, but if they were ever to be won over it would not be by debate.
As a young Christian I helped a church with its outreach. We went out on the streets, and persuaded young people to come to a Christian coffee bar for conversation. One night two or three of us sat down with a young man in his twenties. He seemed interested. Well, we thought so for the first five minutes and then realized he simply enjoyed debating philosophy, science, history, and even some theology. He was far better read than any of us, and no matter what I said or others said he always had an answer and another hard question for us. Half an hour later I was exhausted.
That was when a charming and much wiser young Christian from our team joined the conversation. She did not argue with our intellectually over-heated young man. She just told how Jesus had changed her life. She talked about her broken family, her sense of despair and loneliness, the empty relationships, her tears, her sin, her disappointment. And then how she’d heard she was loved, that she had a Father in heaven who cared for her and had given his Son to change her life, and how she was now a new person: someone forgiven, and now with purpose and with hope. Our argumentative erudite contact had said nothing while she spoke. I looked up. There were tears in his eyes. When the young lady had finished, he stammered: “Thank you.” And still with wet eyes, he stepped out.
I have no idea if he ever made a commitment to Christ. But I do know she got through to him like none of the rest of us had. She didn’t argue. She simply told him what God had done for her, and God used those words to reach his heart.
If some people are ever to be won, it won’t be with lobbed pitches they’ll hit for home runs every time. It’ll be the ball they don’t expect, a more sensitive and more subtle approach than they are used to.
4. Ultimately we have to be willing to let some people go.
Jesus did not win everyone. In the last part of Luke 9 (verses 57-62), there are three people who all had reasons they could not follow Jesus, or at least not yet:
- A man who promised to follow but did not seem to have counted the cost.
- Another who wanted to prioritize burying his father but Jesus would not let him wait.
- Another who wanted to put family needs first and Jesus told him he could not look back.
Maybe there was more to these conversations, but what is certainly not there is any sign that these people ever actually followed Jesus. And he moved on. He let them go.
Just after that – in Luke 10 – Jesus sent out disciples to go ahead to every town he would visit. Some, he said, would receive them and they would be able to bring God’s goodness to them. Others would not, and they were to wipe the dust of that town from their feet as a warning to them (Luke 10:11).
Jesus cared. It was very serious that people would not listen. But he would not run after them. They made their choice, and Jesus would neither force nor plead that they would change their mind.
A pastor friend of mine – John – told me of Sheryl in his congregation who often phoned him at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Sheryl always had a new problem or a resurrected problem and she had to speak to him on the phone right at that moment.
The first few times John was a model of helpfulness to Sheryl. He would get out of bed, sit in a chair and talk to her on the phone for a half hour or an hour. But John soon realized Sheryl was controlling him and whatever need he was meeting for her was actually not helping.
Next time Sheryl phoned – and again it was 2:00 a.m. – John was ready. He did not get out of bed. Instead all he said was: “Sheryl, I have something for you to do right now. Go out your back door. Stand in your yard and stare at the sky and see all the stars. And then say to yourself: ‘The God I know created every one of those, and if he could do that then he is well able to look after all my problems.’ Then go back to sleep.” With that, John put the phone down. Sheryl never called John again.
I smiled when John told that story and I smile now at it. But it is no model for how pastoral care should be done, other than that tough love is sometimes the only love we can give.
The lesson from Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees is this: There are people we will never please; people who will not let go of their needs; people who always have more demands; some Very Draining People who will always have another issue or another reason why they cannot do the right thing. Jesus faced them; we will too. And we need to deal with them lovingly but firmly, even if sometimes it means they will walk away from us.