by Gary Corwin
PAIN AND SUFFERING are part of the human condition that we all seek to avoid if we can—that is, unless we are seeking something we esteem more highly. There are, and there always have been, things that individuals value more than the avoidance of pain and suffering. The welfare of loved ones comes immediately to mind … something many have freely endured pain and suffering and even death to attain.
In the realm of faith, the examples are myriad. Hebrews 11, for example, provides us with a list of biblical heroes who endured much tribulation for a purpose they held to more dearly than their own lives. Their passion was to fulfill God’s calling to give him glory and to accomplish all he has in mind. In many cases, as verses 39 and 40 indicate, that was done by faith to see a promise fulfilled, even though those involved would not survive to see it.
There have been many in the history of the Church who shared the same experience. Quite a number of them were cross-cultural bearers of the gospel, those we used to happily call “missionaries.” Three have had a significant impact on my own life.
Walter Gowans, the original leader of the Sudan Interior Mission, died of fever within his first year in West Africa. It was he who said, “Our success in this enterprise means nothing less than the opening of the country for the Gospel; our failure, at the most, nothing more than the death of two or three deluded fanatics…. After all, is it not worth a venture? Sixty million are at stake. Is it not worth risking our lives for so many?”
My wife’s family, on her mother’s side, is the source of the second story. Her great uncle, John Stam and his wife, Betty, were part of the China Inland Mission and were decapitated by communist insurgents in China in 1934. Their story and the miraculous survival of their infant daughter, Helen, were recorded in The Triumph of John and Betty Stam, as well as on the front page of the New York Times. Their story challenged many in the next twenty years to follow their example and join a great missionary movement.
The third story is well known by many and became the next mission mobilization magnet. It fulfilled this role significantly for decades and still stirs many today to take up the call to mission. It was the martyrdom in 1955 of five missionary men working among the Huaorani (a.k.a. Auca) people in the rain forest of Ecuador. The account is immortalized in the writings of Elizabeth Elliot and Steve Saint and subsequently through several films. This story did not end with the martydoms, however, but continued on, resulting in the conversion of many through the selfless ministry of the widowed wives and others.
Additionally, there are innumerable lesser known stories of the martyrdom of solitary missionaries from widely diverse geographic and ethnic backgrounds. While their stories are too numerous to mention, the impact and legacy of their lives is enormous. Winston Churchill’s reference to the RAF during the Battle of Britain is highly apropos here as well: “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”
And yet today we find articles that seem to suggest that the era of missionary heroes is over. A Christianity Today article (Amy Peterson, September 14, 2015) in fact had a somewhat provocative title: “Farewell to the Missionary Hero.” While it is certainly fair to suggest that Ms. Peterson seeks to downplay an overemphasis on “missionary heroes,” it would be unfair to say that she is seeking to diminish the record of their valor or the power of their examples. Rather, the article’s focus is to debunk the myth of the “perfect” missionary, untouched by the foibles and failures of ordinary Christians. This can be clearly seen in the article’s subtitle, “How candid confessions of failure and frustration found their way into stories from the field.” This is a worthy attempt to deal more honestly and transparently with the reality of missionary life.
A more accurate title from my point of view, however, might be “Farewell to the Airbrushed Missionary.” Ridding the Christian community of false perceptions generated by less-than-transparent missionary reports is a worthy goal. But ceasing to emulate heroes is unwise.
Most missionary heroes are not extraordinary people (brilliant, talented, or courageous beyond the usual bell curve), as the world deems such things. They possess all the usual foibles and failures common to the human race. But they have in common an action-oriented response to the commands and purposes of the true hero, our all-conquering Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This we should happily emulate. He has promised to be with us always. He is perfect in every way. Is that not worth a venture?
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Gary Corwin is staff missiologist with the international office of SIM.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 1 pp. 4-5. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.