I just recently returned from a vacation at the beach here in North Carolina (which explains my long blog silence). One of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip was getting an opportunity to go fishing almost every day. We fished from the boat, from shore, from docks, and basically from anywhere we could reach water. As I have reflected on this week of fishing, I was reminded again of Luke 5:1-11 where Jesus not only calls his disciples while they are fishing, but describes their future ministries as one that will be filled with fishing—fishing for men. And the parallels between evangelism and fishing have been well-noted over the years: fishing (for fish or men) requires energy and effort, tactics and strategy, patience and perseverance, etc. But, there is one critical attribute that fishers/evangelists/ministers must possess which receives far too little attention: optimism.
The truth is that I have never met a pessimistic fisherman. Sure, there are people who go fishing who are pessimistic. But when it comes to fishermen—people who love to fish and are always eager to fish—they are always defined by an insatiable belief that the very next moment, the very next cast could be the one when they catch the big fish they have been waiting for. This doesn’t mean that fishermen aren’t pessimistic about other areas of their life (my wife has observed that fact in my life quite easily!). But, as soon as a fisherman picks up his rod and reel and stands by the water, a strange and peculiar thing happens: he becomes hopeful. Indeed, it is this unexplained optimism that gets fishermen up early in the morning, allows them to endure awful weather and biting mosquitoes, and keeps them out late at night. They continually think: “today could be the day.” After all, why go fishing at all if you have no hope that you will catch something? Fishermen are people of possibility.
This characteristic of optimism should be carefully distinguished from patience. Fishermen are often noted for being patient individuals, and I suppose that in many ways this is true. But patience does not get you out of bed at 5AM. Patience does not provide energy and drive and enthusiasm. Patience endures whatever difficult situation a person finds themselves in. But, patience will not cause a person to put themselves in difficult situations. That takes something more. It takes hope. It takes optimism.
When we think about the task of evangelism, or even just the call of being a minister of the gospel, it is clear that optimism is also a key attribute. Why take the risk of sharing the gospel with our neighbor or coworker or family member? Why bother? Because “today could be the day.” This person might just respond with saving faith and be rescued from their sins. We can only share the gospel eagerly and with energy when we have hope and confidence that we could “catch” one of these individuals for the glory of God.
What gives Christians such optimism when we share the gospel? The answer is simple: the absolute sovereignty of God. Now that answer is counter-intuitive for many of us. When we think of God’s sovereignty in election, we might think this is an obstacle to evangelism. After all, why bother witnessing if God has already determined who will be saved? But, as J.I. Packer points out in his wonderful little book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, the truth actually lies in the opposite direction. Rather than being a hindrance to evangelism, God’s sovereignty is the grounds for believing that our evangelism has any chance of success at all. It reminds us that God is powerful enough to overcome the sinful and stubborn hearts of men. It reminds us that God actually does act to soften hearts and draw people to himself (Acts 16:14). It reminds us that God has given Christ a people for himself and that none of them will be lost (John 10:29). Indeed, if God didn’t intervene to proactively save people, then evangelism would be a complete waste of time. We would have no hope of success.
It is interesting to note that Jesus links these two concepts together himself. Before giving the Great Commission in Matt 28:19, he gives the grounds for the commission in 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Then he declares, “therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” The conjunction “therefore” tells us that Christ’s sovereignty is not an obstacle for evangelism, but the very think that makes it success possible. It gives us hope that our fishing will not be in vain. We will catch something.
In sum, of all the attributes that make good fishermen/evangelists, perhaps the most critical is optimism. It is hope. “May the God of hope, fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom 15:13).