Doing Missions When Living Is Gain

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Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary

Doing missions when dying is gain is the greatest life in the world.

I agree. As a staff member at Desiring God fifteen years ago, I was thrilled to help hand out and ship out hundreds of cassette tapes and CDs containing John Piper’s iconic 1996 sermon, “Doing Missions When Dying Is Gain.”

In the past decade, I’ve interacted with college students for whom, like me, that sermon was significant. These young people are keenly aware that the glory of God is infinitely valuable, they believe in the logic of not wasting their life, and they feel compelled to “do missions” in the hardest places on earth. I’ve heard many “young, restless, Reformed” brothers and sisters say that they are ready and willing to die for the global cause of Christ. It’s remarkable.

I am concerned, however, that some of them, by nature of being young, inexperienced, and immature, have a romanticized view of suffering, martyrdom, and missions.

The Most Fruitful Missionaries

A kind of zeal without wisdom will actually backfire on the mission field. I have learned from serving cross-culturally myself and from listening to many of Bethlehem’s “global partners” (i.e. missionaries) that those who thrive and tend to be most fruitful are the ones who pursue faithfulness in all areas of life rather than focus on merely being radical in ministry.

They have a realistic understanding of their limitations and wisely accommodate them in various ways. They have realized that suffering, though used by God to sanctify us and at times reveal to unbelievers the surpassing value of Christ, is often a hindrance to ministry and a distraction that keeps better discipleship from happening among converts. Suffering is easier in theory than it is in practice. Our seasoned missionaries know that God is patient and that fruitful church planting and development usually takes decades. Seven to ten years might pass with no converts. Longevity is a critical asset.

Far Better for Them

A passion for God’s glory and the cognition of how God uses suffering in his global cause are wonderful gifts of grace, but I dare to say that martyrdom can be an idealized aspiration of the young, naive, and zealous who have not yet lived long enough to have really suffered and loved others much. There is a sweet and poignant awareness of God’s strength and grace to be had through our extended experiences of weakness and the ongoing felt sense of our fragility that most of the young and strong have yet to taste.

Paul’s “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24) took time. He survived persecutions and lived long enough to “bear the marks of Christ in his body” (2 Corinthians 4:10; Galatians 6:17). He aimed to comfort other Christians in their afflictions with the comfort he had received from God in the midst of his own suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

Paul concluded during his imprisonment that, for the sake of love, he would choose to remain living, rather than die and be with Christ — though the latter was “far better” for him — so that he might continue laboring in ministry for the “progress and joy in the faith” of the churches (Philippians 1:23–25). Getting oneself killed in a dangerous place, or letting go of life when one is at death’s doorstep, can be relatively easy for the one dying, but yields much pain and grief for his or her family and friends. Fighting perfectionistic tendencies for a biblically balanced way of life, not growing weary in doing good to others, and maintaining a consistent witness to the same unbelievers over time can be extremely difficult. Yet the latter is also a wonderful experience of the kind of relationships for which we are created and recreated by our triune God.

Die to Yourself

Allow me some words of counsel to young adults who sense a calling to missions and speak easily of martyrdom. My aim is to help prepare you for a ministry that will magnify the grace and glory of God in Christ and may be used by the Spirit to extend the church to another place and people group:

First, live (and die) for Jesus by dying daily to yourself. To live cross-culturally for an extended amount of time is a tremendous opportunity for death to self. Being able to “live on the terms of others” is essential for doing cross-cultural ministry with humility and in a way that will be understood, appreciated, and fruitful.

In preparation for your future cross-cultural ministry in missions, look for ways now to put the interests of others ahead of your own. Embrace even the most mundane ways to serve — like putting away folding chairs or doing the dishes. Spend time with “the least of these,” and get familiar with the unpleasant particularities of poverty, disability, weakness (including old age), and social marginality. Pursue as many cross-cultural immersion experiences as possible — including nursing homes and hospitals. Open your heart to people not like you who will occasionally break your heart by their knuckle-headed decisions, but from whom you won’t want to be separated by death, either theirs or yours.

We Never Go Alone

Also, don’t imagine martyrdom or “life on the field” in individualistic terms. Missionaries are merely disciples like the rest of us. According to the Scriptures, killing sin, delighting in God, and developing a winsome witness with unbelievers is a corporate pursuit. It is unbiblical for single persons or married couples to do pioneer church planting (or any kind of ministry) alone. Missionaries need all the means of grace and kinds of care that all Christians require and that we experience primarily by way of regular fellowship with other believers.

Missionaries often need counseling when discouraged or confused, and a rebuke for sin at times. They may need to be held accountable to do language-learning work or to be seeking out relationships with local people. Imagine missions in terms of both converts and teammates who will benefit from you being around.

Aim to Bless, Not Die

During the first few centuries of the church, it seems that most pastors and other theologians discouraged Christians from “volunteering” for martyrdom, perceiving it as something presumptuous. In fact, if you succeed in getting yourself killed without consideration of how to help others and without compassion for them, you will profit nothing by it (1 Corinthians 13:3). Instead, pursue holistic faithfulness to God in honoring parents, loving a spouse, providing for and instructing children, serving neighbors, and contributing as a fellow church member.

Ask yourself, Does my ambition include the goal of “living a quiet life” so that I may “win the respect” of unbelievers with whom I share some modicum of existence in a particular society (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12)?

Missions and Mixed Motives

Finally, if and when God convicts you of any mixed motives for doing missions generally, or for martyrdom in particular, remind yourself of these three truths:

  1. All believers struggle with a heart divided, especially, perhaps, those in full-time ministry.

  2. The subtle presence of immature or ulterior motives does not nullify the presence of good, biblical motives that are magnificently in your heart by the grace of God.

  3. You can rest your repentant soul in the good news that Christ died to pay for all your sin, was raised for your justification, and reigns over his precious church to oh-so-gradually conform the citizens of his kingdom to his own righteous character — including purity, zeal, love, patience, kindness, wisdom, and humility.

God will give us the joy and privilege of being his vehicle of blessing to the nations as a part of the Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:13–29) as we walk along the way of a holistically faithful life strategically placed on this Rock for his glory (Matthew 7:24–27; 16:13–20; 28:18–20).