Sep 18, 2017


Don’t Try to Be the Holy Spirit

Andy Cimbala encourages you to remember that growing students is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, not you.

Far too many times I’ve sat across the table and listened to a student share about their raging addiction to pornography, and I’ve grown discouraged. How can I help this person grow? This is just too much. I don’t have the power to fix their life. Can you relate? Are you overwhelmed by the burden of helping students grow? As college ministers, we have such a deep love and burden for our students. We want to see students grow not only in the fight against various sins, but grow in love for God, grow in making disciples, grow in Bible knowledge, grow in maturity, and grow in the spiritual disciplines. Grow, grow, grow.

Who is in charge of a student’s growth? If you’re like me, your first impulse might be “I am!” and then rush into a flurry of activity. And that’s partly true. But let’s slow down and look a little deeper.

Another way to say spiritual “growth” is the biblical word “sanctification”. This is the ongoing process of becoming increasingly righteous and holy like God is. But who’s job and responsibility is this? And practically, what am I called to do as a college ministry leader? What kind of burden do I carry?

Who’s in charge? The first and most important answer is: GOD. God is in charge of a student’s growth. God cares more about this student’s growth than you ever will. Be humbled by that, and be FREED by that. In Hebrews 12:2 Jesus is identified as the Author and the Perfecter of our faith. He starts it, and He grows it. In Philippians 1:6 Paul emphasizes that God began a good work, and He will bring it to completion. In John 15:1-17, Jesus describes God the Father as the Vinedresser who prunes us as branches so that we grow and bear fruit. In Hebrews 6 the author exhorts us to continue on in maturity, but clarifies in verse 3, “And this we will do if God permits.” God is in charge of sanctification. The Holy Spirit is the One that grows us day by day. He convicts us of sin (John 16:8), opens our hearts to respond in faith to the gospel (Acts 16:14), and by His power we can kill our sin (Romans 8:13). God is in charge of a student’s growth!

Second, that student is in charge of their OWN growth. They need to own their own discipleship, and they need to personally respond to the work of God in their life. Philippians 2:12f exhorts us, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Christian students are called to work out their own salvation. They’re called to fight their sin. They must make their own decisions and truly own their faith. Have you been pushing them to grow, but in unhelpful ways? Do they now expect you to be in charge of their growth? Or are they owning it in a mature way?

Third, their pastor, elders, and local church are in charge of their growth. Hebrews 13:17 instructs us, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The local church and its leaders have the call to preach the Word, disciple, train, and shepherd those sheep in their flock. Interestingly, it is the local church who holds the power to exercise the last step in the Matthew 18 process of church discipline. As a college ministry leader, I don’t have the authority to excommunicate an unrepentant believer from Christian community.

Finally, fourth: you, as the campus minister, are in charge of their growth. Yes, you do have a responsibility with this student! You are called to love them, to get to know them, to speak truth to them, to help them in many ways to grow and change to be more like Jesus. You are called to preach the gospel. You are called to make disciples. As Paul reasons in Romans 10:13-17, how will they hear if someone doesn’t preach? So you have work to do, and God will be pleased to work through your labors. But you cannot make people become Christians, and you cannot make people grow as disciples. Only God can do that. Does that mean your calling is not important? No way! You are God’s means, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:15). As many can attest, God has used college ministry leaders as MAJOR influences in their spiritual lives, and God has used parachurch organizations to spur on massive growth in culture. So don’t be lazy and fail to fulfill your calling. There’s work to be done. But don’t feel the burden and weight of doing the work of the Holy Spirit. Don’t try to make choices for students that only they can decide. Don’t try to shoulder the responsibility of the shepherds of the flock and the whole entire body of Christ. You, college ministry leader, are just part of the body, a glorious but small part. You are the tool that God uses. That’s humbling. But that’s also quite comforting. You are part of something far bigger than your small campus group, because you are a tool in God’s hands.

Therefore in the biblical hierarchy of authority, it seems the order is: God, student, church, college minister. We, brothers and sisters, are not the Holy Spirit. Don’t try to be the Holy Spirit! To the degree that you TRY to be the Holy Spirit, you will exhaust yourself and exhaust your students. You can’t change student’s hearts. You can’t make them grow. But what can you do? You can faithfully exhort students to love God more. You can speak the life-giving message of the gospel. You can cast vision in exciting ways that challenge them to be on mission. You can “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2) And in all these things you can trust God to use you as a tool to do His work. Let’s finish out with just a few practical applications

  • When a student is unresponsive to your texts and invites, that’s sad, but it’s also okay for you. You don’t need to feel like a failure. You can’t control if they respond to you.
  • When you call a student to repent and they ignore you, that’s very sad, but it’s also okay for you. You did what you were called to do, but you can’t force them to repent. I speak to myself here, as I have many times felt the pressure to rescue people and change their lives. But only God changes people’s hearts.
  • When you share the gospel, and a student responds with “meh,” that’s a tragedy. But you have done your calling. You have been obedient. It’s not your responsibility to respond for them. They must make the choice of their own accord.
  • Transfer your burdens to the Lord. There are only a small number of things that God has placed in your charge. The rest of it? It’s on His shoulders. He is so powerful, and so strong, you can trust Him as He bears the weight of all these students and their spiritual growth. Relax, and get to work.
  • PRAY. Pray for God to do what only God can do. God can bring people from death to life, from spiritual apathy to life-changing love of God. Ask Him to do this.
  • The same applies to your staff team, your spouse, your family & neighbors, even yourself!! God is in charge. Be at peace, trust Him, don’t worry. The Holy Spirit is at work, He’s the Captain at the helm, and He knows what He’s doing.

I need to hear this probably more than you do. I so often wring my hands and try to think of ways I can make students, staff, and myself to grow. But I just don’t have the power. When I try, I end up falling prey to various temptations of manipulation, man-centered strategies, and faithless endeavors. But when I trust in the Holy Spirit, I start to pray more, I start to be at peace, and I do see God at work. When He does work, I know it’s Him. Be encouraged, college minister! The job of heart-changer has already been filled, and the One who has that position is competent and skilled. I’m not the Holy Spirit, and that is SUCH good news. I can’t change people, and I shouldn’t try to. Don’t try to be the Holy Spirit, just be faithful and trust Him.

about the author

Andy Cimbala

Andy Cimbala and his wife Melissa have a passion to make disciples of college students. They work with DiscipleMakers at Shippensburg University, leading Bible studies and mentoring leaders. Andy has written a book called The Relentless Fight.