The realities and demands of missionary life are detailed by a veteran who has labored in a difficult field.
“I press toward the mark for the prize of the “up-calling” of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
The reader will forgive the slight change in the quotation, taken from the note in the margin of the Newberry Bible, for it is important to keep before us the ultimate object and raison d’etre of all Christian service. We are going “uphill,” upward to Heaven and we must remember that all will be appraised, and praised according to faithfulness, at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
In this article, we will present the unfavorable conditions that the believer will encounter in other lands so that he might be forewarned and prepared, serving as a reminder of realities to be faced. Any notion of pessimism is far from our thoughts, but we would seek to dispel any carnal thoughts of adventure in the Lord’s work in other lands.
In seeking to serve the Lord in a new environment, there is a very strong temptation to set out certain “projects.” The most common one is that of “seeing souls saved, gathered to the Lord’s Name, taking up full responsibility for the testimony and then being able to move on.” The denominations call this, “church planting.” While this is the ideal, in fact the Lord’s servant will often have to labor on for years in barren ground, seeing little or no response to his preaching, with deep and often extremely humiliating failures on the part of those in whom he placed much hope. It will be assumed that those commended have manifested the call of God in their testimony and seen fruit in the Gospel, in other words, have spiritual children. It would be very unwise to commend a man who had never seen any fruit in his own cultural and linguistic environment. The writer knows of happy exceptions but they are not examples.
So forget the armchair projects and simply look to God, setting out in the way and letting Him lead. Abraham’s servant said, “I being in the way, the Lord led me” (Gen 24:27). This does not mean that he was simply in the way that God had already shown him but rather, having set off in the way, then and only then, did God lead him. Determination and perseverance are biblical virtues; stubbornness and self-will are vices.
The believer exercised about the Lord’s work will very often have a particular place or country in mind. This may or may not be of God and he may or may not find himself in the country that was his first exercise. Dr. John Olley of New Zealand was exercised about North Africa but never really labored there. Instead, he was led on to the Chad Republic where he saw a good number of assemblies established.
The title “The Uphill Battle” underlines the need for determination and perseverance in two different fields. The first is in the work of the Gospel and the second is in our ministry amongst the people of God.
This article is written in a European context of material prosperity and is inevitably subjective. Conditions in other lands are not the same. In a leisure and pleasure oriented culture there is little time for the things of God. The last-day conditions described in 2 Timothy 3 are widespread and it is in this situation that many of the Lord’s servants are called to be a light in a dark place. Preaching in places where there is little or no interest, often to a handful of souls, year after year, will call for much exercise in the presence of God to keep one’s soul fresh, enjoying the precious truths of the Gospel. In general, hearers will not be familiar with biblical language and it will call for much discipline to have to constantly ask yourself, “Are they understanding me?” At the same time, the Lord’s servant must seek uncompromising faithfulness to the doctrinal truth of the Gospel. In this context, it should be remembered that teaching is as vital as preaching. We read that the Lord Jesus, “departed thence to teach and preach in their cities.” Then in Jerusalem the disciples, “ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” And this is what Paul and Barnabas did as they “continued in Antioch teaching and preaching the word of the Lord.”
Religious and national confusion
In countries which are predominately Roman Catholic, Gospel testimony is in the minds of the general populace, associated with the false cults, giving rise to much confusion and suspicion. It is wise to be aware of the basic tenets of the major heresies of our day (Jehovah Witness, Adventist, Mormon, and in some countries Moslem teachings) in order to give a Scriptural answer to those that are seriously troubled by these matters. The claim that “we are not a sect” usually falls on deaf ears. In Acts 24:14, Paul set out what he believed, acknowledging that in the eyes of his hearers it was a heresy or a sect. In fact, religious confusion is no new thing and this brings us back to the importance of the teaching of the truths of the Gospel.
Another subject of confusion is that of national origins. After many years in a foreign country, mastering the language and the culture, the worker will still be considered a foreigner and his message to be a foreign faith. But remember that God has called you to preach the Gospel to sinners, regardless of their nationality and this matter will not deter those under true conviction of sin.
It is difficult to undo one’s culture. We are what we are, but the Lord’s servant must be prepared to accept the condition in which he finds himself without any thought of comparison or criticism. Having failed to do this, many have been so overwhelmed with nostalgia and longing for the “home country” (and we are not talking about Heaven!), that they have finished up by forsaking the field for “home comforts.” Our chief occupation is that of the service of Christ, seeking and striving to be well pleasing to Him. We are not called to cultivate a “missionary image” ensuring that our names are not forgotten and spending too much time sending circulars and other means which go beyond the need for information. To simply look to God for one’s needs calls for daily exercise in prayer. What others might do is between them and the Lord (Rom 14:4).
To bury oneself in a foreign land will demand a price. Having experienced the intense mental pressure of living in a foreign culture, one can sympathize with those that finally return home. It may be questioned if many commending elders realize all that is involved in letting a brother go into the work. Ability to give a good word in the Gospel in the warm atmosphere of a local Gospel Hall is no evidence of suitability to resist the pressure of indifference and scorn year after year in a land where assemblies are very few. Do elders realize that commending the uncalled man may wreck his life and marriage and cause untold damage to the work in a foreign land?
The uphill battle means that we must be constantly ready to serve the Lord. A temperament which only lets me preach when “I feel right” is a luxury we cannot afford.
The ministry of the “bruised reed.”
Many have had the difficult experience of arriving in a country and discovering that things have not been done in a way that they have been used to back home. Familiar with regular sound ministry ensuring Scriptural practice in the assemblies, it comes as a shock to discover assemblies with little or no teaching gift, little or no Gospel preaching, and a muted suspicion that one is simply seeking to introduce foreign ideas. But remember that ignorance can be corrected, untaught believers are not always disobedient believers and that there are many saints who are more than grateful to discover New Testament principles that have long been forgotten. We are not talking about the denominations who in general are not prepared to examine their practices in the light of the Word of God, but weak assemblies who have never known the wealth of teaching that we take for granted. If there is a willing ear for the truth and a ready hand to put it into practice, then we must seek to help. We must forget our reputations. Some seem to take a delight in being known for the places that they would not be seen preaching in, in this way proclaiming “every one his own goodness.” We must be as careful to ensure that the truths that we seek to teach are understood in the same way as when we preach the Gospel. Doors will be closed and we must be careful not to find ourselves in the situation described in Ezekiel 33:30-33, otherwise we condone an attitude which boasts in its tolerance and manifests no intention of obedience.
However, in other circumstances, how sad it is when to prove our supposed faithfulness we break the bruised reed and quench the smoking flax.
To conclude, the way to glory is an uphill path. Our insignificant labors done as to the Lord will be duly assessed at the Judgment Seat of Christ. The most delightful commendation in the service of God is that spoken by the Lord in Mark 14:8: “She hath done what she could.” If He can say that of each one of us, then it will have been worth it.