Embracing Suffering in Service (Part 1)

Western measures of success undermine Christ’s call to suffer steadfastly in service to him

I am writing this shortly after returning from a week of teaching pastors in the deep south of Sri Lanka. The experience of these pastors shows that, when people pioneer in unreached areas, it often takes ten to fifteen years before they see significant fruit and reduced hostility. In the early years they are assaulted; accused falsely; stones are thrown at their roofs; their children have a hard time in school; and there are few genuine conversions. Many pioneers give up after a few years. But those who persevere bear much eternal fruit. I am humbled and ashamed of the way I complain when I have problems which are so minute in comparison to theirs.

When I return from ministry in the West, my feelings are very different. I have been able to “use my gifts” and spend most of my time doing things I like to do. I am hit by frustration when I return to being a leader in our less efficient culture. The transition from being a speaker in the West to being a leader in Sri Lanka is a difficult one.

As a leader, I am the bond-slave (doulos) of the people I lead (2 Cor. 4:5). This means that my schedule is influenced more by their needs than mine. This brings to light the huge difference between vocational fulfilment in society and in the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). If we are doing God’s will, we are happy and fulfilled. But for Jesus, and for us, doing God’s will includes a cross. The cross must be an essential element in our definition of vocational fulfilment.

When we leave a church because we do not fit into the program we communicate a deadly message—that our commitment is to the work one does and not to the people, that our unity is primarily in the work and not in Christ and the gospel.

Young Christian workers who come back to Sri Lanka after studying in the West struggle with this. They are highly qualified, but our poor nation cannot afford to give them the recognition that they think their qualifications deserve. They cannot use their gifts to the fullest because we cannot afford pure specialists. They struggle with frustration. Some end up leaving the country after a few years. Some start their own organisations so that they can fulfil their ‘vision’. Others become consultants, giving expert training and advice in their specialised field. Others pay the price of identifying with our people and, ultimately, have a deep impact on the nation.

I try to tell them that their frustration could be the means of developing penetrative insight. I try to explain that people like John Calvin and Martin Luther had to do a dizzying variety of things, so that the only way they could use their gifts was through tiredness. Yet the fruit of their labours as leaders and writers is still blessing the church.

Frustration

Paul’s theology gave an important place to the need to endure frustration patiently for we live in a fallen world while awaiting the redemption of creation. Paul said that we groan because of this frustration (Rom 8:18­–25). I believe we are not including this frustration in our understanding of vocational fulfilment today. A church which has a wrong understanding of fulfilment for its workers will certainly become a sick church. This may be one reason why there is so much shallowness in the church today. We have measured success from the standards of the world and failed to radically challenge the world with the biblical way to fulfilment.

The contemporary emphasis on efficiency and measurable results makes frustration even harder to endure. In the past four centuries, industrial and technological development in the West resulted in rapid advancement and in efficiency and productivity becoming high values. With rapid development, things that were once considered luxuries became not only necessities but also rights, even in the minds of Christians. In this environment, the Christian idea of commitment has taken a heavy battering. We call our churches and Christian organisations ‘families’, but families are very inefficient organisations because, in a healthy family, everything stops when family members have big needs. We are often not willing to extend this idea of commitment to Christian body life.

Commitment

The biblical basis of community life is Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us—that is, for members to die for other members (John 15:12–13). The model of Christian leadership is that of the Good Shepherd dying for the sheep without abandoning them when the situation gets dangerous (John 10:11–15). When God calls us to serve him, he calls us to come and die for the people we serve. We don’t discard people when they have problems and cannot do their job properly. We serve them and help them to come out of their problems. We don’t tell people to find another place of service when they rebel against us. We labour with them until we come to agreement either to agree or to disagree.

When God calls us to serve him, he calls us to come and die for the people we serve

When we leave a church because we do not fit into the program we communicate a deadly message—that our commitment is to the work one does and not to the people, that our unity is primarily in the work and not in Christ and the gospel. The sad result of this is that Christians do not have the security of belonging to a community that will stand by them, no matter what happens to them. They become shallow individuals never having deep fellowship, moving from group to group, looking to get things from the group that have been determined by unbiblical values. Churches can fulfil programs and grow numerically in this way, but they don’t nurture biblical Christians who understand the implications of belonging to the body of Christ.

Sticking with people is frustrating because it is inefficient. Taking hours to listen to an angry or hurt person seems to be a very inefficient thing. Why should we waste time on things like that when there are professionals who can do that? So people have counsellors to do what friends should be doing. Ideally, the counsellor helps to diagnose and treat difficult cases, and friends give the time that is needed to bring healing to hurting individuals through acceptance, comfort, and friendship. Hurt people usually hurt those who try to help them. Hurt and angry people whom we are committed to, will hurt us too. Others who are hurt by them could get angry with us because we are committed to them. But we endure that pain because Christ called us to die for our friends.

Several people have told me that it must be hard and frustrating to serve in a country wracked by war and hostile to evangelism. Indeed, we have suffered because of this. A few months ago one of our staff workers was brutally assaulted to death. But I think the biggest pain that I’ve experienced is the pain I have received from Youth for Christ, the organisation for which I have worked 34 years. However, I can also say that next to Jesus and my family, Youth for Christ has also been the greatest source of joy in my life. Whether you live in the East or the West, you will suffer pain if you are committed to people. But this is suffering that could be avoided. We can avoid pain by stopping the relationship or moving to something more ‘fulfilling’.

Some years ago I was preparing a message on commitment while I was traveling in the West. Within the space of a few days, three people told me how they or someone close to them had left a group or a person because of problems they were having. One had left an unhappy marriage, another a church, and another, an organisation. Each of these leavings was described as a merciful release from suffering. But I could not help asking myself whether, in each of these cases, the Christian thing to do was to stay and suffer.

(To be continued…)

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