“I’ve been preparing for this for years, and it’s not nearly as exciting as I thought it would be.” Underneath our teammate’s words were a load of disappointment that had come as her first month overseas felt a lot more like drudgery than heroism. The day-to-day grind of life on the mission field seemed like a far cry from inspiring stories she had heard from missionaries who had claimed massive movements of God among the nations.
Too often, missionaries and those stirring up others to pour out their lives among the unreached inadvertently paint a monochromatic picture of an exciting move of God among the nations of the earth. They tell aspiring missionaries, “There is no better way to spend your life than among the nations,” and “Don’t you want to see people like the Uyghurs in China have a chance to hear the gospel before they die?”
When the Excitement of Missions Fades
Those mobilizing pour gasoline on this zeal for mission with short-term trips, in-depth Bible studies, and triumphant missionary biographies. By the time the young missionary arrives on the field, she believes that she is stepping into the only thing that God is doing. She believes the inevitable excitement she feels will translate to a parade of divine appointments and days full of significance. Just like the gasoline, she burns hot—for a little while.
Then the language study hits. The new missionary finds that he can’t communicate as clearly as a toddler. Then the culture shock comes. Why do these people do that in that way? Does no one here have any common sense? The first rounds of sickness follow. New viruses and bacteria ravage family members’ bodies. Sleepless nights, inadvertently-offended neighbors, and complete powerlessness to do much for themselves can discourage and demotivate new missionaries quickly. Is there a better strategy to mobilize, prepare, and train missionaries for the realities of life overseas?
The Biblical Model: A Vocation of Suffering
When God assigned the apostle Paul to his mission to the nations, the Holy Spirit told Ananias, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” Now that’s motivational and inspiring, but the Spirit did not stop there. He goes on to say, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15–16). When Jesus sent the seventy-two out on the first recorded short-term mission trip in history, he told them to expect to be sheep among wolves and face betrayal, flogging, and legal accusations (Matthew 10:5–25). It appears that God has a more balanced mobilization approach than we often do. He promises that missionaries will experience both fruitfulness and suffering.
God promises that missionaries will experience both fruitfulness and suffering.
Scripture implies that Paul learned his mobilization methods directly from Christ. In 2 Timothy 1:8, when Paul is speaking to his son in the faith, he says, “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” He repeats this same call and encouragement three more times in 2 Timothy (2:3, 2:9, 4:5). Paul knew this suffering firsthand, as he often recounted in his letters.
The Call to Suffer
In a recent article, Ryan Martin argues that the call to missions is a call to suffer. But why is suffering a good thing for those who through the leadership of the Spirit and the affirmation of their churches go to the nations? John Piper has argued, based on Colossians 1, that it is through their sufferings, not just their words, missionaries deliver the gospel to the nations.
Everyone to whom missionaries minister lives in a broken world. Missionaries must learn to hold out hope in the midst of suffering, to shine as lights in the world who are not marked by grumbling or complaining (Philippians 2:14–15). As they share in Christ’s suffering, they display the beauty of hope to the world, and they have an opportunity to give a reason for the hope that they have (1 Peter 3:8–22). Their hope in heavenly reward for earthly suffering both flows from and empowers the gospel they share (2 Corinthians 4:13–18).
Experiencing Suffering as a Family
For my own family, suffering has come in many forms. We’ve faced teammates with mental health crises that caused them to leave the field. We’ve seen national friends suffer intense persecution. Both we and our kids have fought months of sickness and emotional trauma. We’ve moved five times in our life overseas, and two of those were not by our choice. One of our parents suffered and died from a horrible, debilitating disease in a few months’ time. Pile on culture shock, our own sin, team conflict, loneliness, isolation, and the daily pressure of the churches, and the weight of suffering feels crushing many days.
Most of that hardship has not been relieved by mighty moves of God in the places we’ve served. Often, God’s work has been just like Jesus described it: slow like a seed growing, imperceptible like the wind blowing, and gradual like leaven causing the bread to rise. The job has rarely been glamorous, but God has always been good.
How can we change the culture of mobilization to be more biblical? Churches, sending organizations, and missionary candidates must take steps to look more carefully at suffering in the task.
Promoting a Biblical Vision
Churches, and those training missionaries, need to seek those who have suffered well and display the perseverance, character, and hope that only comes through hardship and a godly response to it. Far too often, churches are encouraged to send their best, which usually translates to those with the most gifts, greatest ministry potential, or highest demonstrated fruitfulness.
Please send missionaries with great gifts, but make sure they have great perseverance and godly character as well.
What if, instead, they sent their most scarred, those who have suffered well, but emerged still ministering out of their brokenness and walking in faith? What if senders began to see suffering as an essential part of the preparation process? Consider Hudson Taylor, who before he left for China spent months living in intentional hardship and sacrifice, seeking to train himself to survive on less. Please send missionaries with great gifts, but make sure they have great perseverance and godly character as well.
The temptation is to end with stories of triumph and transformation, but we aren’t promised great stories from the field. We are promised that some will plant, some will water, but that God alone causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). This growth might not happen in our lifetimes.
The temptation is to end with stories of triumph and transformation, but we aren’t promised great stories from the field.
Certainly, we want to see healthy churches among unreached peoples and places, but we aren’t promised to see that with our own eyes, and we certainly aren’t promised to see that without hardship and trials. We aren’t called to be superstars. We are called to be sufferers.