Christian Hedonism—The Missionary Advantage in Desiring God

Desiring God 2010 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the People, and the Pursuit of Joy

Good morning, band of brothers. I want to thank the Desiring God ministry for its ministry of books to the missionary community and the hundreds of workers with Frontiers who have been blessed by the writings of John Piper and the ministry of books through Desiring God. We are grateful more than my words can tell.

It’s good to be with you, band of brothers. We’ve come together for a short time. I pray that as you go home you might continue to watch, fight, pray, and live rejoicing every day. Do you remember the old Edwin Hawkins Choir from 1968? I listened to it on YouTube again last night. He taught me how to watch, fight, pray, and live rejoicing every day. Never forget your privilege that you know that the Bible is authentic communication from God.

We believe in Romans 1:5, “We have received grace and apostleship in order to bring about the obedience of faith among the ethnē.” I’m going to use the word ethnē this morning instead of Gentiles. We believe in Habakkuk 2:14, “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” We believe in Galatians 3:8, “The scriptures foresaw that God would justify the ethnē by faith, when he spoke the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’”

But it is not enough to be Christian Hedonists in the church. It is too small a thing for us to be Christian Hedonists to one another. “I will make you as Christian Hedonists to the Gentiles that my salvation may extend to the ends of the earth.” Some of us are blessed to bless; some of us are blessed to rest. I’d like to meet some of you after this morning’s meeting if there’s a call from God upon your life to maybe not live your life among the churched, but to take advantage of the missionary advantages in Christian Hedonism.

The Missionary Advantage of Christian Hedonists

I want to thank you for assigning this topic to me. You remember what the topic said on the website. It said, “For over 20 years, we have assumed the foundation of Christian Hedonism at the Desiring God conference for pastors, but we have never focused on it until now. What does it mean for the goal of your ministry to be the pursuit of the maximum joy for your people? What is the place of happiness in biblical theology and in the Christian life?” Then, the Scripture, 2 Corinthians 1:24, says, “We work for you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.”

I want to thank you for assigning me this topic because I have been richly blessed to find two verses in the New Testament which speak of the advantage to the apostolic community of knowing Christ in the special way that he gives himself to those who go cross-culturally. That was my privilege and my wife’s privilege to work among the Kurdish people of Northern Iraq — the Kurds, the people who lived between Iraq and a hard place.

When we arrived, there were no believers and not a single verse of the Bible in their language, but brothers, this is the Gospel of John in the Kurdish language. The first book of the Bible ever translated into the language of the believers. This is the work of the first believers. I’d like to read to you from the Gospel of John. I’ll read John 10:14–17 and then I’ll translate it:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

On the gravestone where David Livingstone lies in a place of honor at Westminster Abbey are engraved these words in marble: “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice” (John 10:16 KJV). William Cameron Townsend, as a young teenage boy selling Bibles door to door in a Guatemala village, was asked a question that changed his life. The man said, “If your God is so smart, why doesn’t he speak my language?” Cameron Townsend stopped and turned around and went home to think and think until he thought of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and he brought into existence the largest organization in the world today that is totally dedicated to bring in the word of God to the languages of the world.

Our Preeminent Treasure

Christian Hedonism is the desire for God, and it’s not only about desiring him more than all other things as though he were number one and something else or anything else could be number two. Rather, Christian Hedonism is the confidence that there is nothing else worthy of our desire, no rival treasure to treasuring him. A rival deity or anything or anyone else would be idolatry.

Christian Hedonists won’t be denied knowing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). We Christian Hedonists live a life of planned neglect. We plan to neglect everything that does not take us to Christ. We neglect every distraction, every attraction, every seduction, every good thing, every sinful thought, and every temptation because we have set our hearts on the far exceeding treasure: God himself.

Many Christian Hedonists have come before us. For example, Simeon, the old man in the temple in the Gospel of Luke, who waited for years to see Jesus, was a Christian Hedonist. So was Thomas Chalmers, who wrote The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. David Livingstone, the famed Scottish missionary to Africa, was a Christian Hedonist because he became a missionary only because he believed it was in his own best interest to do so. Maybe he found the two verses that I found, one of which is 1 Corinthians 9:23, which says:

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

There is a special apostolic blessing that Paul treasured and wanted so that he would be with the “them” of the world. Americans are not too used to thinking about kinds of people, but Jesus talked about it. He said, “I have other sheep that are not of this kind, not of this fold.” We are the land of e pluribus unum. We value all people coming together in a new humanity. It’s a great experiment, but beyond the borders of this country, and of course within this country too, many peoples define (rightly) their existence based upon kind. And so, we want to pay attention to what Paul was talking about when he said we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among the ethnē.

I Never Made a Sacrifice

Speaking to the students at Cambridge in 1857 on his only furlough home, and just days before returning to the continent that would claim his life and his health, David Livingstone said of his own missionary calling:

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blessed reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, and danger, now and then (he was a realist), with the foregoing of the common conveniences in the charities of this life, may make us pause and cause the spirit to waver and the soul to sink, but let this be only for a moment. All these are nothing compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in us and for us. I never made a sacrifice.

For myself, a Christian Hedonist now for more than 20 years, I believe I have a bright future as a missionary because of Christ’s words at the end of the Gospel of Matthew when he gives the Great Commission. He said:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20).

What an advantage the missionary enjoys and can cling to and bank on when she or he has confidence that Jesus Christ has all authority and that he will be with the missionaries always.

Go Ahead as Far as You Can See

Then, there is the second advantage to be a missionary, which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 9:23. He says, “I do it all” — all the cross-cultural flexing that he has just mentioned to become like a Jew to the Jews, and to become like those who are under the law (probably referring to God-fearers who wanted so much to have this Jehovah God that they were willing to follow the Jewish law and become under the law), and become like those who have no law — “for the sake of the Gospel, that I might share with them in its blessings.” Paul’s best future was to meet Jesus Christ as he made disciples among the ethnē, and to share in the blessings that these disciples were experiencing as they too became Christian Hedonists.

Livingstone got his pattern of how to live from Paul. He said, “I never made a sacrifice.” Friends may flatter missionaries with praise as though the missionaries are heroes. We know this is not heroism, but hardship and disappointment and danger. But what are these compared to having a heavenly Father who knows what we need? What is this compared with a faith in a heavenly Father, all powerful, all loving, a Father who knows what I need? I am not afraid and I feel free to love his law and love his commands and to teach his commands cross-culturally.

When my soul is cast down due to my own unbelief or bitterness — for I am by nature an unbelieving and bitter person — I have the missionary’s great advantage: Jesus Christ with me. Jesus Christ is rewarding me with himself when I repent and turn again.

Think not that missionaries are heroes nor pity them as though they have given up anything. We enjoy the advantage that David Livingstone described. My wife says, “Iraq is a great place to raise a family,” so don’t come to us with sympathy about how hard it is where you are. I have a wife and 3 children, and 20 years ago, we surrendered our right to live in this great country of ours. We sold our possessions and moved to Jordan to study Arabic. That’s about as far as we could see. It was February of 1990, 20 years ago as I speak. We were following the advice of Dawson Trotman, founder of The Navigators, who said, “If you cannot see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see.” That’s the life of faith.

We could see ourselves studying Arabic in Jordan. We did not expect Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait that year. Oh, the commotion. Oh, the turmoil of the Middle East, and oh, the advantage and the possibilities for ministry because we were proximate to those events. There were opportunities that developed for the gospel that could not have developed except that some people, by faith, went as far as they could see. I commend to you the life of faith as described by Dawson Trotman.

A Turn of Events

The US retaliated against Saddam Hussein, removing Saddam from Kuwait. The Kurdish people of northern Iraq, the people that we were believing for, the people that we had made friends among in Los Angeles for three years, rose up against Saddam. That was almost their final mistake. He easily mowed them down and chased them into the mountains of Turkey, into the snow and across the top of the mountains down the other side where they were forbidden to escape by the Turkish army. And so, they returned to the mountains and sat down to die, a thousand a day were dying in the night.

There is a Kurdish proverb that says, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” That’s why when I started a non-profit organization, I called it “Friends of the Kurds.” In their darkest hour, they fled to the mountains into the snow, and then, to rescue the perishing, the United Nations created a safety zone in northern Iraq hoping to attract the Kurds to come down the mountain. What should our team do? These were the people we’d believed for. A totally unexpected opportunity seemed to have developed in a place we had never imagined living before and where no missionaries had lived for 50 years.

I proposed to the team that we move to Northern Iraq and drop out of school. They slowly shook their heads and said, “No.” I put the proposal on the table, but it sat there like a ham at a bar mitzvah. I said, “Let’s go to prayer.” And so, in my living room, I put a piece of paper on the table that said, “Should we go to Iraq?” That’s all we could ask. We went to God in prayer and we remained silent before the Lord for 30 minutes, then 45 minutes. We wish we had the habit of the Quakers and knew more about the listening part of prayer, but let’s put this story on pause right now and come back to it later.

The Good Shepherd and The End of the World

Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also. They too must hear my voice.” This is the extraordinary voice of God in the ordinary voices of his people. These are the Mr. Magoos who stutter the word of God before Pharaoh and then it comes with power because he seems to like the odds. He seems to like the earthen vessels, the pawns of the game, in which he empowers his people to preach his word.

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:19–20).

Based on Christ’s words from John 10, which I read in Kurdish, I’d like to propose to you that I might tell you something of what’s about to happen in the world, since he said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold, I must bring them also.” I was a history major at the University of Oregon. No professor ever closed his lecture by saying, “And then the end will come,” but it’s been revealed to us. Of all the important things for the church to do, I would propose that there’s one that’s the most urgent. If you lower your expectations, I think I can tell you what’s about to come in world history. I’m not a prophet. I’m not the son of a prophet. I’m from a nonprofit organization.

What can you expect to happen next? I think you can expect the unexpected. There, you heard it here first. But these unexpected things that are about to happen come to us from the hand of the one who said “all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), and the one who said, “All things work together for good for those who love God and called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), and the one who said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16), and the one who said, “This gospel of the kingdom must be preached as a testimony to all the ethnē, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). This is the only place in the Bible where these six words are used.

And so, I propose to you that tsunami-size things and also the butterfly-wing size things, the dreams that people have, all are working together so that God may make the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ and bring to a close this current evil age. And oh God, come Lord Jesus. That’s why we have to be proximate to where the things are going to happen. That’s why we have to be missionaries. Some of us should be living in the neighborhoods of the unbelievers in America, and some of us should be living far from home and looking for the things that are going to happen there as God orchestrates all events in world history around his great purposes.

A Father Who Knows Our Needs

My friend Dave just moved to Morocco 120 days ago. He’s 50 years old and he’s a missions pastor. He believed what Dawson Trotman said, took his family to Morocco, and there at a coffee shop, he saw a man staring at him. He thought, “Maybe this is the first visit from the secret police. Maybe I’ll be taken in for questioning.” But no, that man stood up and came over to Dave and said, “Do I know you?” and he said, “I don’t think so.” The man replied, “Well, I had a dream about you last night and I’m supposed to ask you about your king.”

Now you have a testimony to write home to your sending churches, but dreaming is not discipling. We want to see that relationship push on till we have a New Testament experience with that person. But we want to be proximate to where the great events are going to be taking place. For those of us called to be missionaries, leaving family and what’s familiar for foreign lands, our footing is most secure when we think about Christian Hedonism and rally our hearts with missionary advantage — that is, thinking about how unshakably glad we can be because Jesus Christ will be with us to the end, and because we have a heavenly Father who knows our needs.

In fact, it is a testimony to Muslims that Christian Hedonists press into the great truth that we have a heavenly Father who knows our needs. They are surprised by this. They have been prohibited by their own leader and their own founder from even thinking about God as a heavenly Father. We have this great advantage.

The Danger of Losing Heart

However, I’d like to speak about overcoming the great problem of losing heart. Your missionaries are in danger of losing heart. It’s the greatest hardship that they face. There are so many disappointments, so many hurts, and so many so-called friends who are actually going to betray your missionaries, that they’re always in danger of losing heart. We do not want to lose heart. We do not want to encounter our Gethsemane. We do not want to be afraid, so we are going to need the knowledge of God and his fatherly care to sustain us through everything that missionaries face but never wished they had to.

We’re going to need to take them to Psalm 112, which my friend in the dark night of my soul said that I needed to know that psalm like the back of my hand. I’m so grateful for a friend who shared with me what I needed to do when I didn’t know. There is enough here to satisfy all of us as we understand the perfections of God. Psalm 112: says:

Praise the Lord!
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
     who greatly delights in his commandments! (Psalm 112:1).

Then, Psalm 112:6 says:

For the righteous will never be moved;
     he will be remembered forever.
He is not afraid of bad news;
     his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.

Tomorrow may bring you bad news, tomorrow may bring me bad news, and I may be the one on a plane to your church to hold hands with you and your people in the midst of some terrible loss, but I will not be afraid.

No Fear of Bad News

A pastor in a small English town drove his daughter to Heathrow Airport. He kissed her goodbye. She was the pianist at his church. She lived at home and she was going on holiday. The pastor and his wife never saw her again. Her plane exploded and its parts rained down from the sky over a Scottish town called Lockerbie. Her parents saw the news that night on the BBC and it was hard to take in all at once, but there was little time to process it because the telephone rang and a television crew from the BBC wanted to come and hear how they felt.

I had the privilege of meeting this pastor and hearing his testimony of faith. He said to his wife, “We are going to sit for this television interview, and we’re going to forgive whoever did this. We’re going to overcome evil with good.” That is what he did, and the letters began to pour in. Letters from admirers arrived by the sackful, so he got some new stationary with Romans 12:21 written on the bottom, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

He has a testimony that has gone around the world. He did not want to have a testimony that went around the world, but he was a Psalm 112 man:

Praise the Lord!
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord (he fears nothing else),
    who greatly delights in his commandments!

For the righteous will never be moved;
     he will be remembered forever.
He is not afraid of bad news;
     his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.

I lost my sister Patricia while I was living in Iraq. She was murdered in Charlotte, North Carolina while on a banking trip by a gang that was initiating a new gang member. Patricia’s husband and the rest of us never got to say goodbye. There she was looking asleep, but in the morgue of the police station. Her husband had to go with my own father and identify her body. And then the unexpected happened. Her husband got down on his knees and said for all to hear, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’ve done.” My own father could not believe the presence of mind to say such a thing, but we believe God in heaven forgave the men who perpetrated her murder. I will not fear bad news.

Weep, But Do Not Be Afraid

If you have missionaries, tomorrow you may hear bad news. You may have martyrs. There will be martyrs. “Oh, sovereign Lord, holy and true,” John writes in the book of Revelation chapter 6:10–11, “How long before you will judge and avenge the blood of the martyrs? Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers who were to be killed as they themselves had been killed was completed.” There are more fellow servants and more brothers who will give their last full measure of devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ and fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ before the end will come.

If we live afraid of future grief, we will not be people of Psalm 112:7, the people who do not fear bad news on account of their trust in the Lord. When martyrdom happens, we will find out who we really are, and if you should lose your son or daughter, if they should die, we will weep with you and we will seek justice and truth, and we will weep with you for justice and truth, but I will not be afraid with you. I hope you’ll weep with me, but I do not ask you to be afraid with me.

The 9/11 Attacks have divided American people into two parts, and American Christians too. Almost all of them are now waiting for the United States power to finish this great problem of Islam. But God has used the event of 9/11 to call out a people for himself who stand up now and say, “We have to overcome evil with good. We have to be people who go. We have to be people who live like Paul and believe that there is an apostolic advantage if we ourselves will go and live among the ‘them’ of our world.”

I will weep with you but I will not be afraid with you. Parents call me up, sometimes pastors call me up, and they ask me to join them in being afraid because their son or daughter wants to go to a horrible country. That’s what CS Lewis called them. He said, “Horrible religions have horrible countries.” I reply on my end of the phone, “I raised my family in Iraq and my wife says Iraq is a great place to raise a family, so I am afraid only that I will stop trusting in the Lord. Would you like to talk with someone else who can sympathize with your fears?”

Filling Up Christ’s Sufferings

Little children, guard your heart from the idolatry of fear. Perfect love casts out fear. We do not want to lose heart. We do not want to encounter our own Gethsemane. We do not want to be afraid so we are going to need knowledge of God and his fatherly care to sustain us through everything that missionaries face but never wished they had to.

Colossians 1:24 is where we have to take our people. It says:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church . . .

What could possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ, you evangelicals? One drop of whose blood is enough to pay for the sins of the whole world. How much more does the shedding of his blood mean the propitiation for our sins and not only ours but the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2)? What could be lacking in the afflictions of Christ such that Paul could say he is compensating for what is lacking? Paul rejoiced because when people around him saw him sure of Christ’s love, Christ’s authority, Christ’s grace and mercy, and that without Christ’s will not a hair could fall from his head, and when people saw Paul supremely happy in Jesus in the most unexpected times, Paul was happier still to know that by his faith testimony, those around him might also believe like he did.

A hundred assaults every day threatened Paul, and they threaten missionaries with despair, with reasons to question whether there is a just God, a caring God in heaven. Paul was assaulted every day. That is the crisis that comes to the missionary.

Here is a prayer letter that one missionary from Frontiers wrote but never sent because he didn’t think his sending church would understand. Let the hearers understand that. He wrote:

We eat bitterness all day long. For breakfast, we see a wife beaten in the street. For lunch, friends miss their meal for want. For dinner, police destroy livelihoods and apprehend at will. This is our Africa diet, supplemented by children tormenting neighbor children all through the day.

To digest the bitterness of life among these poor, one must drink deeply of the sweetness of Jesus. Lord, I am discouraged. Being touched by their suffering is hard and multiplied by my impotence to establish a home here. The life is too bitter and I have not maintained my needed dose of intimacy with the Sweet One. Please help me, please let me see you are here. Let me see your hand working here. Please reshape my ambitions, objectives, perspectives to match what you have in mind for me in this place. Amen.

Let me encourage you to help your missionaries prevail over their natural inclination to lose heart. You can help them by pleading with them to press into theology, the same theology that Paul held to when he rejoiced in his apostolic affliction.

Persevering Faith and Ministry

I remember Dr. Ralph Winter, now of blessed memory, saying that we must take care of ourselves first the same as the passengers on an airplane are instructed to first secure their own oxygen supply so that they can help others in an emergency. If you think you can lose heart without consequences to others, be aware that others are counting on you, shepherds of the flock. If you can keep on going, believing, rejoicing, watching, fighting, praying, and living and rejoicing every day, I will be encouraged to keep going also. But if you lose heart, you who are an example to me and the rest of us, what hope is there for us who are weak?

The Bible is relentlessly warning us to stand firm when the great danger of losing heart threatens our souls, for example, Deuteronomy chapter 20:3–4 says:

Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.

Consider how “losing heart” is spoken of in the New Testament. Luke 18:1 says:

[Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

And so, the judge says, “Will I not give justice?” Then, Jesus comments after the judge gives the woman what she asked for. He says, “And will not God give justice to his elect who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7). When you’re about to lose heart, we have to think of the prescription for how we ought to approach this problem and remember that Jesus Christ anticipated it in all of our lives, especially for us who are leaders.

Second Corinthians 4:1 says:

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.

Never forget your privilege of having this ministry that you might not lose heart.

Second Corinthians 4:16 says:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

Galatians 6:9 says:

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

Ephesians 3:13 says:

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

He Will Go With Us

The missionary advantage is God’s clear promise that Jesus Christ will go with him as he makes disciples among the ethnē. This means he will go with us to our Gethsemane and beyond, to our persecution, when men utter all kinds of things falsely against us. Some of our missionaries will pay the last full measure of devotion to our God as a testimony to the gospel. We must teach 100 times that if they have a heavenly Father who knows their needs, their hearts will be satisfied in him. If we continue to send our sons and daughters to horrible countries, we need to know this. Here’s the quote from CS Lewis, the context is from Mere Christianity. He says:

The instrument through which you see God is your whole self, and if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred like the moon seen through a dirty telescope. That is why horrible nations have horrible religions, they have been looking at God through a dirty lens. The only really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community waiting for him together. Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science.

Never forget your privilege, brothers to live among brothers. I send workers out and sometimes they’re the only ones in the community, and they long for what we have had this week. If we will continue to send our sons and daughters to horrible countries, we had best think through the promise of Jesus Christ that he will be with them in missionary countries.

My missionary colleague has a daughter. She’s a missionary kid now. She’s all grown up and she’s married and her husband joined the American army and received his orders to deploy to Iraq. But when she said goodbye to him, this is what she said. Her father overheard it, that’s how I know. She said:

Honey, if you are captured by your enemies and they put you on television. I don’t want to see you pleading for your life. I want you to give your final testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ before they cut your throat.

Which is it? Empty heroism or faith that glorifies God. I know that family and I can tell you they live for the praise of his glory.

Leaving Home With Joy

The U.S. Coast Guard has a mission to rescue the perishing off the coasts, and in the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard has a mission and a motto. The motto is, “You have to go out; you don’t have to come back.” That is how we understand the missionary calling. We have the missionary advantage. Jesus Christ promises to go with us and we have a heavenly Father who knows what we need.

We say with the poet:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise, Thou mine inheritance now and always, Thou and thou only, first in my heart, High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.

The sixth century Irish Peregrine were a breed of Christian Hedonist missionaries in that they left their homeland with joy, knowing that they would never return home. They called themselves the red martyrs and the green martyrs. The red were those who had given their last full measure of devotion by suffering a violent death for the sake of Christ.

The missionary advantage is that he or she knows that life is war. “If you don’t know that life is war, then you don’t know what prayer is for,” John Piper said. Missionaries come to the end of their natural abilities facing horrors every day. One missionary wrote to us from China about the injustice that he witnesses there. He said:

The preposterous comedy of this gang of criminals leading this country, branding everyone else as criminals is just too much for me to take.

Life is war, and so we pray that we might not lose heart.

Christ, Our All in All

I think of my friend Lawrence who left America 25 years ago to live in Afghanistan and never returned home because he raised his family there. He only comes home for occasional furloughs. What stress he and his wife have endured? Most Christian therapists would look at our people, our missionaries, with the stress that they are under and say it’s not tolerable to live under such stress. The difference between life in America and the daily grind in the Muslim world is the difference between a walk through the zoo and the terror of Jurassic Park.

If you are going to call your congregation to give up their small ambitions and preach the gospel in Asia, then fellow pastors, give them the confidence of the missionary advantage. Remind them 100 times that Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, and that he will go with your people to the end. Remind them 100 times they have a heavenly Father who knows their needs. Your missionaries are an extension of your calling as pastors to preach the gospel to every creature.

We are not heroes. We believe our best future, our brightest future, our most likely opportunities to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ will be ours to enjoy because we are missionaries. That’s the missionary advantage. On the night in which Jesus Christ was betrayed, he reminded the 12 of their first missionary journey:

When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything? (Luke 22:35).

Their reply indicated that Jesus Christ in that moment was their all in all. They said, “We lacked nothing.” Nothing. The disciples lacked nothing because they had Jesus. That’s the missionary advantage. But words are easy in the comfort of this beautiful and safe place. In such a place as this, many can spout a revolutionary idea, but few can demonstrate a transformed life.

I honor the missionaries who are far from home tonight, not as heroes, but for the way they have been forced to do theology or collapse. Let me say when our missionaries do lose heart, when they come home, I welcome them. You should welcome them too and mend them, mend them with your love, your understanding, your heart, and your sympathy. When they come home and feel like failures, let them know that you understand those kinds of feelings. I know 100 ordinary missionary men and women today who are witnessing of Jesus Christ’s authority and love. They are ordinary people bringing the gospel to Muslims, but they are thinking about coming home every day.

However, when we come to the end of our natural abilities — and we do so more on the mission field than in America — I do feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I remember what one of our missionaries was able to confess. She said, “I was afraid this was going to happen to me here. It’s the thing I never wanted to happen. I never wanted to have to need the sufficiency of God’s grace as much as I do now.”

Because she is a missionary, she came to the place she dreaded, a Gethsemane for herself. This is the experience of your missionaries. They will face many adversaries, including on occasion their deepest fears — fear of failure, fear of losing respect, fear of danger, fear of loneliness. In those times, it is time to decide who you really are. Fellow agents of reconciliation, sometimes the heart pain is so strong that your missionaries will feel like giving up. Don’t be too quick to judge.

The Fight of Faith

A recent movie called Defiance — which I saw on the screen of an airplane the size of a cigarette package ahead of me and then had to go rent the DVD to secure this line again — is set in Eastern Europe in the Second World War. A few Jews in Belorussia survived the evil of the Third Reich by living in a forest. They were urban Jews who escaped to the forest and lived through to the winters.

This movie tells a true story of how a few became 1,200 Jews hiding in the forest, and how they took up weapons to defend themselves from their enemies. One winter day, the Jews dug a grave and buried their dead. They stood around the grave and a man prayed something which I cannot get out of my mind. He said, “God, we are tired of being your chosen people. Choose somebody else. Choose another people.” To which the Jews in the circle replied, “Amen.”

Are you any different? Tell the truth. Have you never been brought to the end of your natural abilities, the end of your mind? Have you ever been so badly scared of losing your spouse or yourself respect that you felt that way? Maybe you can’t relate to this, but I can speak to you as the apostolic spiritual community that you are, that God has chosen you to belong to him and to live a holy life and to deny yourself and to pick up the cross and to follow Jesus Christ. The time has already come for many of you pastors, when you have thought like this man at the graveside, saying, “I’m tired of being your chosen person.” The psalmist understands. He can relate. He says:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
     Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (Psalm 22:1).

And so, it is the experience of the Christian Hedonist community that we would feel so deflated at times and so frustrated at other times that we might try to walk away from a call of God, but we cannot walk away. Drive to the desert and shout at God, but then remember to put your faith in him again. How many times does the psalmist level a charge at the Almighty only to say at last, as in Psalm 42:11, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him”?

We want to support one another in these difficult times. The thought comes to each of us that life is too hard. One missionary confides to a friend, “I just want to drive out into the desert and shout to God,” to which his friend replies, “I’ll go with you.” They drove out into the Arizona desert to let the Almighty know what they thought of him. How do you feel about that? Job said:

God has cast me into the mire,
     and I have become like dust and ashes.
I cry to you for help and you do not answer me;
     I stand, and you only look at me.
You have turned cruel to me;
     with the might of your hand you persecute me.

In the history of religious literature, there is nothing to compare with Job for honesty and a demand for hearing from the Almighty. You have felt like Job, and so have your missionaries.

The Cross Is No Tragedy

Our Lord was acquainted with grief, carrying his cross to Calvary. The Lord Christ pulled himself towards his destiny to lay down his life for the world. Down the Via Dolorosa, Jesus Christ took step after deliberate step nearer to his death. The whole world was watching, and we have been watching him from that time until now. We cannot take our eyes off of him.

Do you remember that some women were overcome by grief as he carried his cross to Calvary? They beat themselves and they wept. Occasionally in the Middle East, I saw women weeping on account of some terrible personal loss, but only twice did I see women actually beat themselves for grief. When he saw the women, our Lord Jesus Christ stopped and spoke to them:

Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me . . .

What did he mean? What was his hope? His hope was the kingdom coming. His hope was in his Father’s power. His hope was in the coming glory. Christ’s faith in his Father sustained him in that moment of his greatest trial. His death was not a tragedy like some Greek drama in which the gods conspired to destroy a hero. Christ’s death was not tragic. Jesus said, “Now is the hour for the Son of man to be glorified” (John 12:23). And he said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” He said, “For this reason I came into the world . . . (John 18:37). So don’t weep for Jesus.

Shall we feel sorry for a person who at Gethsemane overcame his fear because he had faith in a heavenly Father, and thus Jesus showed us the way to overcome ours? Don’t weep for him. Raised from the dead on the third day, Jesus ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He sat down at God’s right hand, and from this exalted position in heaven, Jesus Christ asked his Father for his inheritance.

Until today, the Father is giving Jesus the nations as his inheritance. Don’t weep for him. When you have your own pity party, keep it short. People back home may weep for you, but if you have faith in God, tell them not to weep for you. Muslims may say that your suffering is a sign that God is far from you; rather, it is a sign of the cross. Don’t lose your faith just at the moment when your sufferings add to your witness at the hour of Christ’s glory.

Every Hour I Need Thee

My hope and my satisfaction have been made real because of my faith in the heavenly Father. I need my heavenly Father every day. I have a father on earth who has enriched me by his kindness, his wisdom, his interest in my life. I have learned a lot about God in heaven because of the account of my father on earth. But now you tell me that there is a major religion in the world whose founder, Muhammad, forbade his followers from considering the fatherly nature of God? I can’t let people believe this. For this I have to turn off my computer and take a stand because this is heresy.

I know that God is a heavenly Father who knows my needs. And so, I am distressed to hear about a major religion which denies its tens of millions of members a personal relationship with God. I became a student of Islam, earning a master’s degree in Islamic studies, and doing everything in my power to teach the truth to Muslims so that the truth might set them free.

Two Key Terms

I wanted to define two key terms in closing in order to make it possible to understand what I’m saying. There’s a lot of confusion about the terms Islam and Christianity because by these terms we do not all mean the same things.

Definitions are important. Islam is the complete teaching of Muhammad as understood and lived by his serious disciples, of whom there are tens of millions in the world. Muhammad said that the most important teaching is that he, Muhammad, is a prophet, the final prophet of God, and that the revelations which he supposedly received now compiled in the Quran are the final revelations from God.

Christianity is the complete teaching of Jesus as understood and lived by his serious disciples, of whom there are tens of millions in the world. Jesus said that his most important teaching is that he is the Son of God whose heavenly Father sent him on a mission that is described in the Bible. That mission is that we should behold how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God, and such we are. God’s affectionate nature is denied in Islam. God’s promise-keeping nature is denied in Islam. More about that on another occasion.

In criticizing Islam, I do not mean to judge myself better than others. No. Daniel T. Niles said Christianity is just one beggar telling another where to find bread. I do not judge myself as better than another, but I do mean to criticize Islam. My Muslim friends will have to accept me or reject me based upon the truth that I am telling. The so-called similarities between Islam and Christianity, such as monotheism and a shared belief in the coming day of judgment and a shared reference to Abraham as a father, are like saying that a cadaver shares certain similarities to a living human being, or that moonlight shares certain similarities to sunlight.

The symbol of Islam is the moon. What is moonlight but borrowed light from the light’s true source? Therefore, because Muhammad insisted most of all that he be accepted as a prophet of God and his revelation to be accepted as a revelation of the God of the Bible, we who know that the Bible is authentic communication from God and know the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ must take our stand for the truth.

As an ordained Presbyterian minister of the gospel, I find that the Reformed Divines have already taken a stand for truth in a confession of the church known as the Second Helvetic Confession. The Second Helvetic Confession rightly renounces Islam in the section of the confession under heresies.

An Open Door

Our time moves on too quickly. Do you remember my family and our team praying like Quakers there in my home in Jordan that God might tell us what to do next? At last I said to them, “I think God has told us to go to Iraq and he will give us the power to stay there for a long time.” The team agreed. We bought airline tickets and went to Ankara, Turkey three days later, and we adults on the team never moved back again to retake our studies up in Jordan.

From Ankara, Turkey, we took a US military helicopter deep into northern Iraq. From there, the United States military drove us in a bus up to the mountains into which the Kurds had fled. There at the base of the mountains, the US military was constructing a city full of tents, row after row of tents, hoping to attract the Kurds to come back down the mountain.

As we got off the bus, the driver said, “Come back in one hour and I will return you to the west and you can go home to your studies again.” I thought, “God, did you bring us here for one short hour to look at empty tents and then get back on the bus and write a letter to our prayer supporting churches that we touched the homeland?” We walked among those tents. A state department man asked us if we wanted to spend the night when he found we spoke Arabic. That was great. He gave each of us a tent and water to drink and a sleeping bag and an MRE (meals ready to eat). Of course, an MRE to soldiers means “meals rejected by everyone,” but for us it was a feast.

The next morning, the first Kurdish family came back down the mountain. The United States military sat me in the registration desk in the tent and had me register the men all morning long, every day. I asked, “What is your name? How many wives do you have? How many children do you have? Where do you live? Walk this way to get to your tent and your blankets.” Then the next person would come, “What’s your name?” We did that until we registered 25,000 people in the tent city. When it filled, the United States military constructed a second and a third tent city. We had 75,000 human beings streaming to safety down that mountain pass.

The United Nations called it one of its most successful efforts ever to return a refugee people to their own country, and we never got back on the bus. Thanks be to God for giving us a way to stay, year by year, moving into the neighborhood with the wonderful Kurdish people.

From Suffering to Glory

Before I went to Iraq, people cautioned me that I should wait until the Middle East calms down. They said the same thing to Samuel Zwemer, the first American missionary to leave the United States for Arabia in 1890. They said, “Sam, why don’t you just wait till the Middle East calms down?” Can you imagine perhaps 2,000 years ago when God the Father called the council of the angels to say the time had come to send the Son of God had been fulfilled and to make the prophecies come about. The angels might protest, “Father, there’s a Herod down there. Why don’t you wait till the Middle East calms down?”

If he did that, you have no “peace on earth.” You have no “joy to the world.” You have no hallelujah chorus. Do you want to know where the grace of God is breaking out in the world today? It’s breaking out in Iraq. It’s going forth by the mouth of many Mr. Magoo messengers who do not know their heads from a hole in the ground.

The missionary has a good future as a Christian Hedonist because of two advantages to which I have referred in this lecture. First, Jesus Christ speaks to missionaries that he will be with them when they go cross-culturally to the ends of the earth. Second, like Paul, he might share in the blessing with them the people that are coming to faith. If you want your sons and daughters, your church members, to win the greatest possible future for themselves, encourage them to take the proven path, the proven path of becoming missionaries.

Those of us who gather here today pray that the good news of the gospel might come very soon to the peoples of the world. It will be some of us who pay the last full measure of devotion, but as the dwarf said in the third and final movie of Tolkien’s Trilogy, “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”

Friends, on some future day when this victory has been won, we will say that we paid a great price, but the price we’ve paid was worth it. We will say that we were there when we saw the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. We will say that Christ our king is worth everything because his is the magnificence, the splendor, the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever and ever. When you get done with all the forever and evers, then you say, “Amen.” Thanks be to God Almighty. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.