by Jim Reapsome
Within the last 18 months three missionaries have been taken hostage in Panama, Colombia one in the Philippines, and one in Cambodia.
Within the last 18 months three missionaries have been taken hostage in Panama, Colombia one in the Philippines, and one in Cambodia. In April, numerous missionary families had to be evacuated from Rwanda during the widespread massacres. What’s going on here? Is this God’s strategy for winning the world to Christ? Probably so, but it’s not ours.
Nobody ever plans to suffer to advance the gospel. We study how to plant churches, but we don’t study how to endure kidnappings, bombings and evacuations. We write books and papers about applications of various scholarly disciplines to world missions, but we don’t write and teach how to be cut off from our friends and families. There are no seminars for missionaries on how to die.
When you think about what Jesus had to say, you have to wonder why we don’t factor suffering into our plans. He said the grain had to fall into the grouond and die before it could bear fruit. He said the price of following him would be painful, not just physically but emotionallly as well. He even told Peter he would be crucified.
The church in Acts knew how to suffer and die. The apostles cheered when they suffered for Jesus, and the Jerusalem church called a rousing prayer meeting. They told God they were well aware of the fact that the kings and rulers of this world had assembled to wipe out Jesus, so they were not surprised by what had happened to them. They asked God to take note of how the rulers had treated Peter and John, and requested an outpouring of boldness, signs and wonders in the name of Jesus.
After Stephen fell under a hail of rocks, the Christians in Jerusalem fled for their lives. But bold testimony, signs, wonders and spiritual fruit follwed them. Judea, Galilee, and Samaria were evangelized, their chief tormentor Saul was converted, the church grew numerically and in power, Cornelius the Gentile was converted, and Phonecia, Cyprus, and Antioch were evangelized. Now that’s a successful strategy, but nobody planned it except the Holy Spirit.
All of us have to learn how to think and act biblically when we are under the gun. Our culture has conditioned us to think about comfort zones, not danger zones. Over and over we ask, How could such things happen in our supposedly civilized time? Our culture trains us to think of control and cures, not of helplessness and defeats. Control is the name of the game in business, politics, education and medicine. Power is the key word for our generation, not weakness.
But weakness and vulernability stain the Christian experience, and they stain world evangelization, because that’s the route the trailblazer of our salvation had to take. The Bible doesn’t question this principle. It simply declares that it was fitting for God to make our leader perfect through sufferings. If it was fitting for him, why not for us? Why should we assume that we can blaze into Colombia, Cambodia, Panama and Rwanda and escape unscathed?
Once we grasp the nettle of unfair suffering, we think about our duties to those who suffer — the kidnapped and evacuated missionaries and their families, to be sure, but also the indigenous Christians who are extremely vulnerable to the wicked onslaughts of the enemy. What about those who have been so viciously traumatized? What about the wives, children and parents of those who, in the Panama case, have been held for well over a year? How shall we pray for them?
I recall a story told during the missionaries’ evacuation of China in 1951. We all prayed mightily for their safety. Later, Bishop Frank Houghton of the old China Inland Mission told how God seemed to ask, "Is that all that matters?" It would have been far, far worse if their faith had failed. Which, of course, is a major theme of Hebrews: Press on in faith despite persecution. Better to lose part of your body than your soul in hell. Jesus said, We must get our prayer priorities straight. I also harbor a vexing thought: Why aren’t these missionaries and their families, the suffering Christians and their pastors, prayed for persistently in our pulpits on Sunday morning?
My last observation has to do with the load these tribulations place on our mission board administrators. More and more of them are taking crisis management seminars. More agencies are into crisis counseling. It’s not fair to say that we shoot our wounded. Perhaps we once did, but no more. (See for example the brilliant essay on post-traumatic stress counseling in this issue. If there ever was a timely article, that is it.)
I like the way the New English Bible his Romans 8:37: "And yet, in spite of all, overwhelming victory is ours through him who loved us." We must first claim this overwhelming victory in our hearts, minds and wills. Never mind our mission board’s plans for building churches and our plans for doing great exploits for God. Jesus loves us even when we do nothing for months except sit in our captors’ camps, or when we come home defeated.
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