“Mission sooner or later leads into passion. In biblical categories…the servant must suffer…..Every form of mission leads to some form of the cross. The very shape of mission is cruciform. We can understand mission only in terms of the cross…” Douglas Webster
“For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:11-12)
As missionaries, one of the things we cannot prepare for is the suffering we observe first hand. It is something that we cannot avoid. In America, we see similar things, maybe, but if we do it is through media. It is seen through short blips on the screen. Sure, it is shocking. But, we can forget what we saw and get to Starbucks for our morning coffee and then on to the tasks of the day.
Here, that is not so easy. We really can’t do that. We see and smell the burned flesh of children. We hear their cry of pain when we apply the ointment. We attend funerals of dead babies and friends who have been killed on the highway. We see the real faces of real orphans who cry real tears because they think the food will run out before they get to the front of the line. We see village widows who have been given charge of several orphans without the resources to take care of them. We hear of mothers within 100 yards of our compound, who are killed along with their babies, when their bikes collide with speeding vehicles. There is not a day that when we drive through the surrounding villages, we will not pass through a funeral.
Experiencing these things first hand and every day does wear on us. We struggle with our emotions. We weep with them in their pain. We have to resist depression and disappointment. We fight for faith and joy. It is a heavy, natural, and I think it is a necessary part of what we do.
Several years ago, I knew of a young man who went to a mission field with a passion to help the hurting and dying. In the course of his service, he found a baby that was near death. All of his medical training was inadequate. Even his prayer was not answered. The baby died in his arms. Consequently, he left the mission field and even jettisoned his faith. Today he claims no faith in Jesus.
I understand his frustration and pain. Obviously, his faith was weak or non-existent when he went to the field and he left the same way. Neither his knowledge of Jesus nor his theology of ministry was strong enough to face the suffering he observed. But, for those of us who do believe and will never deny our trust in Jesus, a theology of personal suffering in the midst of pain and death, is essential.
That is what Paul is addressing in the texts above. Paul is saying that suffering and death in the life of the believer is a prerequisite for serving Jesus. Death in the servant leads to life in the served. Suffering on the part of the servant brings glory to the life of the served. Jesus said the same thing: “For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” We cannot avoid it. Death in us produces life in others. Suffering in service produces glory in others.
A few weeks ago, I was privileged to visit Action’s Shalom’s birthing center in Antipolo, Philippines. Pami Ellis is the director of this awesome service to the young ladies of this poor area of greater Manila. As she described to us the blessed results of the clinic, we celebrated the successes of the ministry. Then, she related a story that was not all success. She described the very painful time when one of two twins died after the staff did everything they could, medically, physically and spiritually. As Pami told the story, her eyes were filled with tears. Our tears joined hers. The pain of that death still broke her heart. She had not lost her faith in Jesus. Her faith was as strong as ever. But, it was faith, stretched and saturated with deep, personal pain. Death was in her. But, life was spread to the family in their grief and pain. By Pami and her staff’s willingness to enter into the pain of ministry, the family experienced love and received hope in the One who never fails.
There was not a hint of self-pity or regret in Pami’s voice. Nor would she claim or seek any accolades for what she is doing. She is there at Christ command. She would tell you that it is all privilege to show the love of Jesus to the ladies and families she serves. For sure, there always is a cost to ministry and it comes in unexpected and sometimes shocking ways. But, the shear joy of being out on the front lines, where the devil is doing his worst works, makes all of the disappointments and tears worth the struggle.
As Paul assured his readers, God does create life in the midst of death. He does bring glory in the midst of darkness. We don’t always understand his ways and at times we think we know better. But, we are anchored in one historical event that keeps us going and believing no matter what is happening around us. It is the cross of Jesus Christ.
Luke records the disappointment and depression of the two disciples who were making their way home to Emmaus. Although they had heard reports of an empty tomb, they had had enough. Their hope “that he (Jesus) was the one to redeem Israel,” was dashed (Luke 24:21). They expected life and glory but instead saw death and suffering. In all of their studies of the Old Testament they never discovered that the Messiah would bring God’s deliverance, but through suffering and death. That is when Jesus corrected their short sightedness. “O foolish ones,” and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
The definitive word is necessary. God’s ways are not our ways. He does things so differently than we would expect. The march to victory went through the defeat of the cross. The pathway to life passed under the shadow of death. The road to glory went through the valley of suffering. But, resurrection came. Jesus is alive! Victory and life and glory is ours! That is our everlasting hope.
We don’t understand all the ways of our God, but we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are good. We are called, stationed, and empowered to serve Him where he has placed us. We see life and glory in the faces of those we serve. Jesus uses death in us to bring forth life and glory in others. What a privilege!