Embracing Suffering in Service (Part 2)

To reach the unreached, a Christian leader cannot, and should not, bypass suffering but certainly avoid the pitfalls of weariness and stress

Drivenness or Servanthood

I have a large group of people to whom I write asking for prayer when I have a need. Sometimes my need is to overcome tiredness. When I write about this, many write back saying they are praying that God would strengthen me and guide me in my scheduling. However, there are differences in the way friends from the East and some from the West respond. I get a strong feeling that many in the West think that if one struggles with tiredness due to overwork, it is an evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is that it is wrong, for one gets sick from overwork due to drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to pay the price of tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people.

We have to find ways to get relief from the culture that demands instant responses through e-mail and other means of instant communication

The New Testament is clear that those who work for Christ would suffer because of their work. Tiredness, stress and strain may be the cross that God calls us to. Paul often spoke about the physical hardships his ministry brought him. This included emotional strain (Gal 4:19; 2 Cor 11:28), anger (2 Cor 11:29), sleepless nights, hunger (2 Cor 6:5), affliction, perplexity (2 Cor 4:8) and toiling—working to the point of weariness (Col 1:29). In statements radically counter-cultural in today’s “body culture” society, he said: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16); and “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:11–12). I fear that many Christians approach these texts with an academic interest without seriously asking how they should apply in their lives today.

Let me give four ways to avoid the pitfalls of tiredness and stress owing to insecurity and drivenness.

  • First, Epistles of Paul imply that he spent a lot of time in prayer. Lingering in the presence and in the security of God, through prayer and reading the Word, can refresh the spirit and act as an antidote to the insecurity which causes burnout.
  • Second, Paul also had enforced times of rest while journeying and in prison. In our busy world we will need to schedule in such rest. We have to find ways to get relief from the culture that demands instant responses through e-mail and other means of instant communication. As a biblical Christian Paul would also have taken a regular Sabbath rest.
  • Third, we must ensure that we can always testify, as Paul often does, that we are happy with life and content in our work. Suffering comes and goes, but God’s servants “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). Discontent and the lack of joy are sure signs that something is seriously wrong with our lives.
  • Fourth, though we are busy serving others, our family members must know that they are the most important people in our lives. This is, surely, an implication of Paul’s teaching about family relationships, where, for example, the husband lays down his life for his wife.

The West, having struggled with the tyrannical rule of time as a result of rapid advancement and the push for efficiency, has a lot to teach the East about the need for rest. The East perhaps has something to teach the West about embracing physical problems that come because of commitment to people. If you think that it is wrong to suffer physically because of the ministry, then you suffer more from the problem than those who believe that suffering is an inevitable step along the path to fruitfulness and fulfilment. As the cross is a basic aspect of discipleship, the Church must train Christian leaders to expect pain and hardship. When this perspective enters our minds, then pain will not touch our joy and contentment in Christ. I found eighteen different places in the New Testament where suffering and joy appear together. In fact, often suffering is a cause for joy (Rom 5:3–5; Col 1:24; Jas 1:2–3).

People who are unfulfilled after pursuing things that do not satisfy, may be astonished when they see Christians, who are joyful and content after depriving themselves of these things for the sake of the gospel

The Glory of the Gospel

In a world where the quest for physical health, appearance, and convenience has gained almost idolatrous prominence, God may be calling Christians to demonstrate the glory of the gospel by being joyful and contented while enduring pain and hardship. People who are unfulfilled after pursuing things that do not satisfy, may be astonished when they see Christians, who are joyful and content after depriving themselves of these things for the sake of the gospel. This may be a new way to demonstrate the glory of the gospel to this hedonistic culture.

I have a great fear for the Church. The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering result in the church in the West being ineffective in its evangelism? The church in the East is growing, and because of that God’s servants are suffering. Significant funding and education come to the East from the West. With funding and education comes influence. Could Westerners influence Eastern Christians to abandon the cross by sending a message that they must be doing something wrong if they suffer in this way? Christians in both the East and the West need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and fruit-bearing.

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