We Never Arrive Before God

Missionary Hope for Hard Places

I waited in the cavernous student center at King Saud University in Riyad, Saudi Arabia. I pondered my surroundings as the bright Middle Eastern sun streamed from high skylights in the massive hall. Apart from some South Asian workers cleaning tables and floors, the hall stood empty and quiet; the only sounds came from the distant echoes of metal tables and chairs on polished white marble floors. The workers did their job well; I could have eaten off that floor.

Weirdly, I sat between Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut counters in the food court. Then the afternoon Dhuhr prayers finished, and hundreds of students and faculty streamed into the hall, all dressed alike in flowing white dishdashas and red checkered head coverings called ghutras. I stood out in my suit like a crow among a flock of swans. I felt alone, out of place, and useless. But then a student glided his way to my table and politely asked if he could sit down. He held a tray with a slice of pizza on it.

“Sure!” I said. We exchanged greetings for a few minutes, and then I asked him why his English was so good.

He leaned forward and said, with a conspiratorial whisper, “I watch all the American movies.” He smiled.

Ah, I thought to myself, a rebel. I smiled back.

“There was one movie I watched that I would like to ask you about,” he said.

“Of course — which one?”

“It was called The Passion of the Christ. What was that about?”

And there it was — my opportunity for the gospel. God had gone before me.

God Before Us

I am reminded of a saying an older missionary told me about his time on the field. Never, in all his years of service, had he gone to a place and discovered that he got there before the Holy Spirit.

Not to belabor the obvious, but he spoke of God’s omnipresence tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps he sensed that I had forgotten this simple but wonderful truth, a truth many workers on the field can forget: God is with us and goes before us, even before we get there.

You don’t have to go to the mission field to understand this truth. We all know the experience. The sermon is preached as if precisely for you. Or suddenly, just when you screw up your courage to speak to a neighbor about the gospel, he tells you he’s been thinking about spiritual things lately.

We all need to count on God’s presence with us, especially in places particularly resistant to the gospel, the “gospel deserts” of the world. But we can easily forget God’s presence on the mission field. That’s why Jesus tells us in his Great Commission not just to go, not just to make disciples, and not just to teach them everything he taught, but also that he will be with us always, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).

‘I Will Be with You’

Perhaps we tend to take God’s promise of presence for granted. But such a promise is precious and rare compared to other faiths.

In the Bible’s first book, God promises his presence when he tells Isaac, “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you” (Genesis 26:3). Later, Moses gave solid and pragmatic objections to God’s absurd idea that he was to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh. Yet God’s great promise made all the difference: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). Not long after, Moses and the people would consider it a “disastrous word” when God threatened to remove his presence (Exodus 33:3–4).

King David asks the rhetorical question in Psalm 139:7, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” David knew that God is everywhere in time and space. And then we remember the great promises of Isaiah 8, quoted in Matthew 1:23: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

So, what are some take-home lessons from God’s promised omnipresence for those on the field? Consider three qualities this truth cultivates in us: humility, patience with perseverance, and boldness.

1. Humility

First, the offer of God’s presence is a call for humility that slays self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is a Holy Spirit quencher. Our efforts, skills, or methods in missions do not ultimately bring the gospel to people. Of course, God uses effort, skills, and methods, but when we chase after those means as if they were ends, they easily become idolatrous replacements for a humble dependence on God.

One litmus test of self-reliance is prayerlessness. Check yourself on this. Those who have not been on the field full-time may struggle to imagine that a missionary would struggle with prayer — but believe me, faced with the tsunami of difficulties that come with cross-cultural living, prayer can easily fall to the wayside.

Do not neglect your prayer life. “Pray without ceasing,” as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Live constantly aware of the presence of Jesus, which brings true reliance on him that kills self-sufficiency.

2. Patient Perseverance

Second, when you don’t see progress or fruit, have patience and persevere. Patience is part of the fruit of the Spirit and vital for our hope when we can’t see traction in the work (Galatians 5:22–23).

Missionaries, by nature, are doers; just going to the field requires some chutzpah, which is a good thing. Yet such an impulse can easily become a desire to manufacture results. If the litmus test for pride is prayerlessness, the litmus test for an impatient heart is drivenness that manufactures human results instead of waiting on God’s timing. Manufactured human results are a scourge on modern missions. The desire for quick results and impact (and, frankly, a desire to justify our work) can trump the patient hand-to-the-plow work Jesus calls for (Luke 9:62). Our best method is methodical, faithful, long-term work. We need to live in the GMT time zone: God’s Methodical Time.

Our team labored in the Arabian Peninsula for seven years without seeing much fruit. But the next seven years were some of the most fruitful I’ve had in ministry. Sometimes, it just takes time. (I need to add, however, that patience is not the same as coasting. The call to patient perseverance is not a call to inactivity.)

We didn’t go to the Arabian Peninsula for church planting or church reform, but as we labored hard to establish student fellowships, we saw the need for healthy churches and decided to focus on church revitalization. The result was an outpouring of church plants and church reform. Now, in hindsight, we see that the resulting student work needed those churches to receive the young people who later came to faith. That was God’s timing for us.

3. Boldness

Finally, remain expectant with ready boldness. The promise of God’s presence gives us confidence and courage in our steps for him.

We read in Acts 18:9–11,

The Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

After being badly treated in Corinth, Paul had good reasons to bail, but God promised his presence and called Paul to be unafraid. We too must be ready to speak the truth of the gospel, trusting that God has many more who are his people.

If the litmus test of self-sufficiency is prayerlessness, and the litmus test of impatience is fleshly drivenness, the litmus test for fear is silence in the face of opportunity. Biblical boldness does not mean shouting or being obnoxious. Boldness means putting our fears aside and speaking up.

Ready to Speak

I sat in my Maasai friend’s house in the small town of Ngong, Kenya. My friend’s name was Kishoyian. One evening, when he went to run some errands and left me alone, someone knocked on the door. “Hodi? Kishoyian?” the person on the other side said. “Karibu,” I answered (“Welcome”), and I opened the door. A friend of Kishoyian’s traveling through town needed a place for the night. Surprised that a white guy had opened the door, he looked at the house next door, thinking he was in the wrong place.

“Kishoyian’s not here, but he will return soon,” I said.

I had been in Africa long enough to know this was common. And I knew the drill. Later, a mattress would be produced and rolled out on the concrete floor. After breakfast the next morning, the friend would be gone.

We sat together on a couch. After serving him some chai, I faced a decision. We could just chat, or we could watch Kenyan news on Kishoyian’s small TV, or I could ask questions to find out if he was a believer.

Eventually, I asked, “Are you a follower of Jesus?”

“No,” he told me, but then he added that, lately, he felt he should become a follower of Jesus.

“Really? I would love to help you with that,” I said, thrilled with this divine encounter.

I walked him through the gospel; I made sure he understood. It seemed that he genuinely believed. We prayed together. Then Kishoyian arrived home and found us talking on the couch. This friend told Kishoyian that he was now a Christian. Kishoyian took his hands, looked at him with shining eyes, and said, “Oh, my friend, I have longed for this day for so many years.”

The next day, Kishoyian told me, to my amazement, that the man lived hard-hearted to the gospel for years despite Kishoyian’s best efforts. Kishoyian despaired that this man would ever come to faith.

Of course, it was a privilege to see this man believe in Jesus, but I was also amazed at how God had gone before me, preparing the way and placing me in exactly the right spot with the right words. The moment had nothing to do with me. God had gone before me, and all I needed to do was be ready to speak the truth of Jesus.