by Ajith Fernando
I am a pleasure seeker seeking the joy of the Lord. I resonate with George Muller, who said that the first and primary business which he ought to attend to everyday was to have his soul happy in the Lord.
I suppose you could call me a Christian hedonist-to borrow from my friend John Piper an expression I do not like too much, but which correctly describes my desire. I am a pleasure seeker seeking the joy of the Lord. I resonate with George Muller, who said that the first and primary business which he ought to attend to everyday was to have his soul happy in the Lord.
JOY AMID DEATH
However, I want this joy amid a lifestyle of taking up the cross. Jesus said that he wants us to have his joy so that our joy may be complete (John 15:11). But he also said that his command is that we love each other as he loves us (v. 12). This is the kind of love that made him die for his friends (v. 13). Thus, I want to pursue joy on the one hand and death for the sake of the people I am called to minister to on the other. The latter model is that of Jesus who, unlike the hired hand, dies for the sheep (John 10:11-15). If we are sent into the world as the Father has sent Jesus (John 20:21), then we too must die for the sheep.
How can you have joy while you are dying for a cause? How can you have a hilarious home which is full of fun while you are struggling with huge strains in the workplace?
Paul’s model for ministry has influenced me greatly. In Philippians he shows that the joy of the Lord is an imperative for Christians (Phil. 4:4). But he was writing from prison. He had lost his joy over the lack of unity in Philippi (Phil. 2:2; 4:2). He allowed himself to be hurt by the sins of others and to lose a certain earthly joy because of such things while he preserved his joy in the Lord. So he tells the wayward Galatians that he goes through the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in them (Gal. 4:19). He says that he faces "the daily pressure of (his) concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn?" (2 Cor. 11:28, 29) He says that death is at work in him while life is at work in the Corinthians (2 Cor. 4:12). While he was wasting away outwardly, his spirit was being renewed every day (2 Cor. 4:16). How alien to modern aspirations in ministry these verses are.
We should do everything required for a balanced life-rest, family, study, exercise, and fun. Most important, we must spend good, unhurried times with the Lord in prayer and Bible study. But while we do all this we must die for those we serve.
Because we are called to die, there will be struggles and strains, burdens and persecutions. Several years ago in a training session for senior YFC staff, I shared my burden for the weaknesses and sins of our YFC staff. The leaders of the sessions, counselors from abroad, were very upset and prayed that I would be liberated from these burdens. I thought of that incident for years, and I have concluded that it is right for me to be burdened in this way; it is a part of my dying for my people. Didn’t Jeremiah, Daniel, and Nehemiah suffer depression over the problems of their people and weep over their sin? I want to bear the stress of concern for the people I serve.
I believe Christians experience two common types of unbiblical stress. The first is the stress that comes from earthly ambitions for success. We want our church to grow. We want our organization, or our book, to be the best in its field. This often leads to workaholism, because we find our primary fulfillment in striving for earthly goals. We take on a lot of stress, and failure becomes a huge burden. Biblical Christians also have ambitions. But they are driven by a desire to see God glorified. For them, security does not depend on success. They have the strength to bear failures, bad reviews, criticisms, unexpected frustrations, and so on. The desire for God’s glory, however, pushes them to do their best for him.
The other type of unbiblical stress comes from an unwillingness to delegate. Christian leaders know the glorious truth that all Christians have gifts, and that they must enable others to exercise their gifts. If we don’t, we will bear burdens others should be bearing. This messiah complex to do all the important things in our ministries will end up driving us into the ground. As we get older, we must regularly divest ourselves of responsibilities that are outside our primary calling, even if this upsets people.
THE "BENEFACTOR" LIFESTYLE
I have become very burdened about all of this because the Sri Lankan church is facing some big problems. The church is growing wonderfully, primarily through unsung heroes who have gone to the unreached. They are paying a huge price. But another sad thing is happening. Sri Lankan Christian leaders who return to the country after training abroad, or who have foreign contacts, are struggling to fit into the lifestyle necessary to identify with the poor in Sri Lanka, who form the large majority of our population. With their contacts abroad, these leaders can live on a higher level than their colleagues. They in turn help their colleagues, thus becoming their benefactors. This way they avoid a lot of the frustration that comes with identifying with the poor. Some send their children to international schools where the monthly fees are more than the monthly salary of an average Christian worker here. Many of them return to the West after a few years of service in Sri Lanka.
A similar problem exists with the missionary movement. Many modern missionaries think that they don’t have to really struggle the way people like Hudson Taylor did. Unfortunately, they don’t try to radically identify with the people. Coming only for short terms, they live as foreigners in Sri Lanka-quite removed from the people and ignorant of their struggles. Often those who join them hope that some of the missionary riches will trickle down. Thus, the missionary also becomes primarily a benefactor. Sensitive people of integrity stay away from them lest they be tainted. Consequently, missionaries have bad experiences. They are taken for a ride by the people who joined them with the hope of exploiting their wealth. These missionaries end up saying, "You can’t trust the Sri Lankans, especially poor Sri Lankans." The non-Christians, on the other hand, say a new colonialism has dawned: "First the Christians came with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other. Now they come with the Bible in one hand and dollars in the other."
One of the biggest problems in missions today is the "softness" of the missionaries going out from affluent countries. They are the unable to endure frustration and strain.
SUFFERING WITH THE PEOPLE
When leaders suffer with the people, the people develop a sense of ownership. They begin to give financially and in other ways to the movement. Unless they do, they will never really develop into leaders themselves. But why give when the leaders live so affluently? My dream is to see the poor giving to our work, sensing that they have ownership in this movement, so much so that they can protest when they don’t like something. I believe this is happening in Youth For Christ. Poor people who don’t have enough to eat properly are among our donors. Most of the Sri Lankans who return after some years abroad (me included) struggle with the frustration that they are not being used "properly. " For me this intensifies after each visit to affluent nations. We feel our gifts are not recognized by the people and that we are not "fulfilled in ministry." The problem is that our countries are so poor that we cannot afford specialists. If we are to use our gifts, we must do so while we do many other things. The result, of course, is an integration that avoids the unhealthy specialization that we see in the West.
CHRISTIAN FULFILLMENT VS. "JOB SATISFACTION"
Unfortunately, many who have studied abroad have an understanding of fulfillment in ministry, in which the primary model is job satisfaction in the secular world rather than a theology of the cross from the Bible. I have had to think about this a lot. I had four foreign "job offers" last year. Though I never gave any of them serious thought, two were attractive because they promised a platform for my writings and ideas.
Sometimes the thought would come to me, "How nice to be able to write without the severe exhaustion that comes from trying to write and do active ministry among a people who don’t have a Western approach to time and efficiency." But that is my call. Sadly, many of our sharpest minds have left the country. Many Sri Lankan authors are writing from abroad.
What of those who benefit from the generosity of the rich, foreign-trained national? They wait until they, too, can get a foreign sponsor. The moment they do, they liberate themselves from their "local-foreigner" benefactor and start praising God for his provision of funds to have an even more effective ministry. Unfortunately, the time they make this foreign contact often coincides with the beginning of the downward slide of their ministry. They lose touch with their people. They are comfortable and prosperous, but ineffective.
I seek to encourage as many Sri Lankans as I can to stay on the "straight and narrow. " But to do that, I need to suffer as they do. I don’t always embrace this suffering joyfully as Paul did (Col. 1:24), so I have to spend a lot of time grappling and theologizing to learn to be joyful, and help others to be joyful, in the midst of suffering. Joy is commanded in the Scriptures; so is the cross. We are missing God’s best both when we are not joyful and when we are not suffering for the sake of the gospel.
The Bible teaches that suffering is an indispensable part of discipleship and a gateway to joy. If we believe this, the pain of suffering will be so much less and will in fact give way to joy.
We must teach people: "Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Don’t feel bad about suffering. These are necessary experiences along the pathway to joy."
Ajith Fernando is national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. He lives in Colombo. This article was earlier published (under the title "Is WEstern Christian Training Neglecting the Cross?") in Trinity World Forum, School of World Mission and Evangelism, 2065 Half Day Rd., Deerfield, IL 60015. It is used with permission.
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