How Must a Pastor Die, Part 2

Desiring God 2006 Conference for Pastors

How Must a Pastor Die? The Cost of Caring Like Jesus

I was regretting that I had to speak rather than get blessed by listening to the speakers. But I think this morning the Lord fed me. This morning, the Lord really fed me through the message, and I’m so grateful for that.

This conference is also very special for another reason, and I think I need to tell you the reason why it’s so special to me. About 40 years ago when I was a shy person with absolutely no self-confidence and I could hardly speak in public, there was a youth worker who took me under his wing and showed me that God could do something even through me. And he taught me about ministry and about serving God. He has come here and his name is Sam Sherrard. He’s the former president of Youth for Christ International and also now a pastor in an alliance church in Hawaii. And I would like Sam, wherever you are, to please get up. I think we need to recognize you here. Is Sam somewhere? There he is.

Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ

We are going through the passage Colossians 1:24–29. The first two talks will cover a very short amount, just Colossians 1:24. But after that we will go a little faster through the passage. Let me read the passage again to you. Colossians 1:24–29 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, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Suffering for the Sake of the Body

We looked yesterday at the combination between rejoicing and suffering, and then we looked at how suffering brings us closer to Jesus and makes us more like Jesus. Now we are going to look at another point that Paul makes in Colossians 1:24, where he says it is “for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” So Paul is suffering so that the church will be blessed. It is for the sake of the body.

A person who became a mentor to me when I was a student in this country, Robert Coleman, often says that the missing factor in church growth studies today is the key part that suffering plays in the growth of the church. It’s such a significant thing that we haven’t dealt with as seriously as we should have. I’m very grateful for the first missionaries that came to Sri Lanka. Because of them, it is impossible for me to be angry with the missionary movement and with Westerners, because these people brought the gospel to us at great cost.

The Legacy of Thomas Coke

I think of the earliest Methodist missionaries that came to Sri Lanka. They were led by a person called Thomas Coke. He was 67 years old when he got the permission to come. Many years he had gone to the annual conference, pleading, “Let me go to Sri Lanka.” People said he was in his dotage, that he was trying to do something to build his kingdom. They said, “We don’t have money.” So he took all his savings and said, “I have this,” but nobody was willing to come with him. So he got five inexperienced young people to join him and he set sail for Sri Lanka. And then on the way to Sri Lanka, he died. They found him on the ground in his room, dead. And all the money that this mission had was in his name. So they didn’t even have money.

One of those early missionaries speaking about this on the ship said, “Now it is all trust.” And so they came. One of them, William Alt, had his wife die at sea. So five inexperienced missionaries came to Sri Lanka. They adopted what I would’ve considered a wrong method. That is, they all went to different parts of Sri Lanka. Four of them went to four different parts of Sri Lanka. This person, William Alt, went to the east of Sri Lanka, and when he went he was sick. And that area, which actually was really badly battered by the tsunami, was just after a drought and an epidemic. And he immediately started learning the language.

Within a few months there was a church that was worshiping God in the Tamil language, and then he began to start schools because he thought that’s an important aspect of what he’s going to do. He stayed there only for eight months. For five months, he was relatively healthy, sick but relatively healthy. For three months, he was very sick. He died after eight months in that place.

But he started a church, and when he died there were 150 members in this church. And he started eight schools during these eight months. And one of them is the oldest school in Sri Lanka. It’s a well known school. Today, there’s a statue of this man in that particular town. Just before he died, he wrote a hymn and the hymn says, “Asia salutes the rising day, and glad to own Messiah’s sway, spreads forth her hands to God.” He was able to see beyond and he left very soon.

But I was in the east about two months ago. And from town to town you see the churches that came as a result of his work because the people who came to Christ multiplied. And today we have these huge churches.

In the first 52 years of service, 17 missionaries died in Sri Lanka. The ages of six of them are not known, but of the 11 whose ages were known, eight were under 30 years old when they died. They died, but today there’s a church in Sri Lanka. Isn’t it interesting that the word martyr comes from the Greek word martyria, which is the word for witness. Witness and suffering, church growth and suffering, are inseparable.

The Occasion for Gospel Growth Through Suffering

Suffering, then, helps the church gospel to go out, and it helps it in different ways. It helps it by creating situations for the gospel to go out. This is something that happens. The suffering that people go through becomes an occasion for the gospel to go out. Do you remember Stephen’s death? We are told in Acts 8:1 that a great persecution arose after the death of Stephen. And Luke says they were all scattered except the apostles. And then in Acts 8:4 we are told:

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.

Then, much later in Acts 11:19–20, Luke says:

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.

A church was formed among the Gentiles. Now this was one of the greatest events in the history of the world because for the first time a Gentile church has come into being, and when Luke wrote it, he mentioned those who are scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen. He was speaking with hindsight, and with this benefit of hindsight three times he used the word “scattered”. But the word that he used for “scattered” is the word diaspeirō, the word that is used for the scattering of seed.

I can just imagine when those people went, they went as refugees. You can imagine the children perplexed, asking, “Where’s God? If Jesus is alive, isn’t he helping us? Why do we have to leave our homes?” But in God’s eyes, they were not refugees; they were missionaries. And this death of Stephen and the persecution that resulted opened the door for the gospel to go out.

There was a Hindu family in India that met Christ. It was the only Christian family in the village. And shortly after they were baptized, one of their children got sick and the people immediately said, “You are suffering for leaving our village gods, and you are being punished for what has happened.” So they came to the church and said, “Please pray, because people are saying that their gods are giving us trouble because of this. So please pray for the healing of our son.”

And they prayed earnestly, but the child got worse and finally died. And then they had the first Christian burial service in that village. It was such a triumphant event that many people were impressed by the gospel, and through the death of that child, many people in that village came to Christ. But the child had to die before that happened. So suffering creates situations for the gospel to go out.

The Demonstration of the Gospel Through Suffering

Suffering also helps to demonstrate the gospel. You see this in the book of John very clearly. John’s favorite way to refer to the death of Christ is to call it glory. So for example in John 1:14, he says, “We saw his glory, full of grace and truth.” But we know how that grace came. It came through the death of Christ. In John 12:23, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Of course, he was talking about his death. So he talked about how the seed must die.

Glory is a word that describes seeing the majesty of God. You see the “worth-whileness” of God. In the Hebrew, it means “heaviness” or “worth”. You see the worth-whileness of who God is and the death of Christ did that. It showed people what a great God this is. It showed his holiness on the one hand because through the death of Christ, his hatred for sin, his absolute righteousness was revealed so that it demanded a sacrifice in order that we might be forgiven. But it also shows his love because in his love for sinners he was willing to come and die and be that sacrifice that holiness demanded. So at the cross, we find the pinnacle of the revelation of the glory of God. Suffering, then, reveals what God is like.

In the early church martyrdom was one of the things that showed people the greatness of the gospel. They thought, “If people value this gospel so much as to die for it, there must be something worthwhile in this.” I still feel that this is going to be a factor that is very important in the reaching of the world for Christ. We are living in a world that has lost its sense of meaning. People have so much and still they have no meaning. And as meaninglessness grows, as they are thirsting for something that is worthwhile, something worth dying for, and they see us Christians dying for the faith, paying the price, I believe that many people are going to see the glory of the gospel through this.

There was a martyr who was being burnt at the stake and he was smiling, and the person who was burning him was very annoyed that he was smiling, and he asked him, “How is it that you have something to smile about?” And he said, “I saw the glory of God and was glad.” In the midst of his death, he was revealing Jesus.

There was a person who captured a Christian and took him captive, a government worker, during the time that the Christians were being persecuted by the authorities. And this captor said to the Christian, “What can your God do for you now?” And the Christian replied, “He can give me the strength to forgive you.” The glory of the gospel comes out in times like that.

Let Your Light Shine

In Matthew 5:16, Jesus said:

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

There’s a lovely book that was written by a man called Rodney Stark. Now I’m not sure much about this person, but I was told that when he wrote this book, he wasn’t that much of a committed Christian. But that changed. The book is called The Rise of Christianity. Recently, he has written another book called The Victory of Reason, where he shows how the foundations of the Christian faith are responsible for the triumph of Western culture, about some of the great advances in Western culture.

He’s a sociologist, and this book is called The Rise of Christianity, the one I’m talking about. In this book, he talks about how within three centuries, this small group of people, the Christians, were able to conquer the Roman Empire. One of his chapters is on plagues and epidemics. He talks about how, during those 300 years, there were two very serious plagues, or epidemics, in the Roman Empire. The sickness was such that if the people were carefully treated, there was a good chance that they would survive. However, when people got sick, their relatives left them. They left the village for their safety.

The Christians, however, didn’t do that. They looked after their own who were sick. And not only did they look after their own, they looked after those who had been abandoned by others and cared for them. So what happened was the percentage of Christians who died from the plague was much less than the percentage of others. And Rodney Stark said that this had a big part to play in changing the attitudes of the people towards Christianity. They saw a power as the Christians were willing to suffer in order that they may look after their sick and look after the sick people of others who had been left behind. And so they were able to change this thing.

Overcoming the Charge of Arrogance

Today, evangelicals are a despised group. I know in this country, they’re a despised group. In our country too, we are a despised group. We are called “Born Again” people, or “Bible” Christians, or “Bible” people. And people despise the evangelicals very often. And one of the reasons for this despising of the evangelicals is that we believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Absolute truth means that it’s for everybody. It’s not only for everybody, it’s essential for everyone. It’s the only means of salvation for everyone. And in our pluralistic culture, that is something that people just do not like to hear.

Now, a lot of Westerners are saying we can’t be holding to these views now like those days when we had a monolithic culture. Back then, we could have held these views, but not now. Well, I want to tell you that these views were forged in a very pluralistic culture. The first three centuries were very, very pluralistic in their approach to religion. Every religion was more or less equal, and that’s the way they were. And in that culture, the first Christians were forged along with this doctrine of the absolute uniqueness of Christ.

So they say that we are arrogant. How can we overcome this charge of arrogance? How can we show that absolute truth is worthwhile? I am convinced that the way to do this is that we suffer for the people. If they see these Christians who claim to have the only way to salvation nevertheless caring for their neighbors, caring for those who have been left behind — the AIDS patients, the homeless, the psychologically sick, the aged — I believe that they will say, “These people have strange beliefs, but look at the way they live.” And that is for my prayer for the church in this country as it is for our church.

Tsunamis and Reception of the Gospel

Actually, the tsunami gave us a wonderful opportunity to do this. In 2004, the church had been very badly attacked. About 150 churches were attacked in 2004, and we were a very unpopular people. And then the tsunami came and the Christians were in the thick of it. Protestants are one percent of the population, and Catholics are six percent. The Christians were in the thick of it helping people. They had never met Christians before. All they had heard was these terrible stories of who the Christians were, and they went and served the people. I believe that it opened a lot of doors so that when the gospel is preached, we are going to have much greater receptivity to the gospel.

I hope you’ll never have a thing like 9/11 again in this country. But if anything like that happens, the most vulnerable people in this country are going to be the Muslims. Muslims are going to feel so afraid. They’ll be afraid to come out of their houses because everyone will be so angry. I hope that the Christians will go and be with them, will go and care for them, and through that means open these doors.

As far as I’m concerned, I believe that one of the most important things in the history of the world today is the conversion of the Muslim people to Jesus Christ. That is one of the most important things that drives the way we think and strategize for the future. Let’s do all we can to pay the price to show them love so that they will be open to hear the gospel.

Identifying with People through Suffering

So suffering opens the doors for people. It demonstrates the glory of the gospel. Suffering also helps us to identify with people so that we can have a better ministry among them. John 1:14 says, “The Word (which is a lofty word because he was the one who created everything) became flesh . . .” Now that’s a very earthy word, a very down-to-earth type of word. This Word “became flesh”.

This morning we heard from 1 Corinthians 9 how Paul says when he was with a Jew, he became like a Jew. When he was under the law, he became like one under the law. When he was outside the law, he became like one outside the law. For me, the toughest verse in that chapter is 1 Corinthians 9:22, which says, “In order to win the weak, I became weak.” We all like to do our ministry out of a position of strength. We like to be able to think that we are helping these people, but in an age when people are intimidated by Christians, when they say that we are arrogant, perhaps one of the greatest things that is going to commend Christ is for us to become weak, to come as weak people before them and through our weakness to win them to the Lord Jesus.

We are told about Jesus in Hebrews 2:18:

For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

He suffered when he was tempted, and therefore he is able to help people who are tempted.

The Legacy of Helen Roseveare

I don’t know whether you heard the name Helen Roseveare. She’s written some wonderful books. She was a surgeon. She graduated from Cambridge University in the early 1960s and went to Congo. She was the only doctor in an area of 200,000 people, and she began to work. And little by little her work began to grow, and then the time came when she knew she’d have to really build a hospital.

So she wrote to her mother and asked her, “Can you send me a book on how to build a hospital?” The mother couldn’t find a book like that, but she found a book on how to make bricks. So she sent this book on how to make bricks and she read the book and she taught her African colleagues how to make bricks. And when the first batch of bricks was coming out of the kiln, she was there with her African friends, cleaning and getting the bricks ready.

Well, there were some spikes that had got into the bricks and she was pulling out one of those spikes when it went through her nail and her nail came out. She was in pain, she was angry, and she told God, “Lord, I didn’t come to Africa to make bricks. I came here to be a surgeon. Surely there’s someone in England who could come and do this.” Well, just at that time she got an emergency call because there was an operation that needed to be done. So she went to the operating room and one of her colleagues had to sterilize her hands, so they poured alcohol on her hands and she screamed because of the pain.

Well anyway, she did the operation and a few days later, one of the people who was in the brick kiln, one of the Africans, said, “Doctor, when you are in the surgery, you are like a god, you terrify us. But when you are at the brick kiln and your fingers drip blood like ours, you are our sister. We love you.” Then she said she realized that God didn’t send her to Africa to be a surgeon; he sent her to Africa to show the love of Christ. When we identify with people, the gospel begins to take root among those people.

The Inefficiency of Incarnational Ministry

There was a doctor in North Carolina who got three doctorate degrees, two in theology and one in medicine, and he went to a remote area in Africa along with his pregnant wife to share the gospel. He started a hospital and began to minister to the people. He was in one tribe working for four years and there was absolutely no response. Every week they would meet for worship and every week they would invite the people, but no African would join them to worship.

Then his son got sick and finally died, and it was a terrible time for them. He himself had to make the coffin on his own, and then he carried this coffin with his little boy inside, and he dug the hole and he buried his son. He was all alone except for one African who was there. And as he was shoveling the soil onto the casket, he was overcome with grief and he buried his face in the dirt and he sobbed. This African who was looking at this, picked up his head with the hair, looked into his face, and quietly lowered it back to where it was. And he ran to the village crying, “The white one cries like we do.” The next Sunday the place was packed for the service and today there’s a church in that tribe, in that village.

Today, there’s a lot of study on cultural anthropology and this field has become very advanced. I believe today a lot of people have a lot of understanding of cultural anthropology. But I’m afraid we are very low when it comes to incarnational ministry and identification because we live in a very efficient world and there is not much efficiency when it comes to incarnation. This God contracted himself to a span, as Charles Wesley put it once.

There is too much frustration to really incarnate amongst the people, and it looks like failure when we do that. So many people today are moving away from the call to truly identify with their people. They become consultants, giving expert advice on how to reach the lost. They are teaching, perhaps, on evangelism, but they are unable to do it because they haven’t fully identified with the people.

Deepened Impact Through Suffering

For many years, I have felt that the key to effective missionary service is the ability to live with frustration. Now I feel that it is not only a key to missionary service, but it is a key to any sort of service. If we are to identify with people, we will have to face frustration and that is part of the whole process of identifying. Suffering helps us to identify with people, and through that, suffering deepens our impact.

It’s wonderful to see Paul talk about his ministry sometimes, and he talks about all the problems he had. In Acts 20:19, he says:

[I was] serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials . . .

And what he was saying is that this was the key to the success of his ministry. And then he was on his way to Jerusalem and he knew he was going to be arrested, and all these people were trying to ask him not to go. The prophet came and said, “You are going to be arrested and bound and taken away.” But he did not shrink from it because he knew that it was the key to effective service.

The Best Place for Theologizing

We have had a war in our country for about 22 years, and I come from the majority community, the Sinhalese people. The war is between the predominantly Sinhalese government and the Tamil people. Now, Youth for Christ, for which I work, has a lot of Tamil workers. And our young people, our volunteers and staff, are often vulnerable to being suspected as being terrorists. Several times we have had our staff and volunteers arrested.

Now, if you can get them out within 24 hours, you save them from going for a long period to prison. We had a staff worker who stayed 15 months in prison, and of course God used him powerfully in that prison. I tried to get him out. The moment I heard, I went to the police station, but they chased me out of the police station so I couldn’t get him out. So he spent 15 months in prison.

Once we had the equivalent of our federal reserve — called the Central Bank in Sri Lanka — bombed, and many people died. After the bombing there was a rash of arrests, and two of our volunteers were taken. So I went. Usually takes me about six hours to get them out. You have to just wait in line in the police station, and you just wait a long time. So I went and I managed to get them out, but I had to stay about six hours in the police station.

Knowing this, I took my Bible. I was studying Galatians at that time, so I took FF Bruce’s commentary on Galatians and took my notebook, and I was sometimes standing and writing notes, sometimes seated and writing notes. When I was seated, next to me was a person who had been involved in a bombing and he was bleeding. You could see blood all over. And he had lost his identity card, and he had come to report the loss of his identity card.

Next to him was a woman who had come to complain because her husband had been assaulting her. And here I was studying Galatians with FF Bruce, and I thought to myself, “This is the best place for me to do my theologizing. Here are the people for whom the gospel is the solution and God has given me the privilege of being with these people as I write my studies on Galatians.” You see, the frustration of going through with people often makes us more successful in doing our ministry.

Shepherds and Hirelings

In 1527, a plague hit Wittenberg and Martin Luther was there. The elector, John, ordered Martin Luther to leave for a place called Jena, along with the rest of the university. Now Luther mentioned practical steps that need to be taken at a time like this and he asked all the people to leave unless they had duties. In other words, he asked everybody to go. But as for himself, he said as a pastor he must stay. This is what he says:

Those who are engaged in spiritual ministry, such as preachers and pastors, must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees. For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament, and in faith, overcomes death.

So Luther stayed because he knew that this was the way for them to have success. This was the way to truly penetrate the people with the ministry.

Learning Deep Truths Through Suffering

Then there’s another way in which suffering helps us and it is true. It is the spiritual turmoil that goes inside of our hearts as we face failure in ministry. Failure teaches us deep truths about Christianity. I think it’s very significant that Jesus himself experienced so much of what looked like failure. The biggest disappointments he had were at the end of his ministry. There was Peter who did all these crazy things just at the time Jesus died. The disciples and Judas did things all at the end. He talked about servanthood, and he acted it out by washing their feet. And what did they do after that? They argued among themselves as to who was the greatest.

Then they go to the garden of Gethsemane. And I was reading a book on the life of Jesus called Surprise by Jesus by Tim Stafford, and I still remember the place that I was reading this thing. Tim Stafford talks about what Jesus did. He asked his disciples to watch and pray, and then he came back and they were asleep. So he tells them, “Pray.” He goes again and comes back and again they’re asleep. But he doesn’t give up on them. He goes, and a third time he comes back to them.

I was going through a time of deep disappointment when I read this. Two people whom I had invested in quite a bit had failed. One had fallen into sin, another one was very upset with us, and I was very disappointed. I was very sad and this thing hit me so hard. When you feel like giving up on people, you realize that Jesus also went through the same disappointment, but he didn’t give up. He went once, he went twice, he went three times, and then, of course, after he rose again from the dead, a special message was sent for Peter. Jesus meets him and recommissions him. What looked like the failure of Jesus taught me some wonderful lessons about ministry.

For example, say somebody that you have invested in commits a sin. You are going to grapple with this and you are going to learn truths about Christianity. You’ll think, “Why did he go wrong? Where did he go wrong? Why did he do that? How could he have avoided that? How can we discipline him? What should we do during that discipline process? How can we restore him? How can I handle the disappointment that has come to me because this person has done this?” You see, all of these things teach us new truths about the gospel. It helps us to minister better to faltering people. I must say that most of the important lessons I have learned in ministry have not been through my successes; they have been through my failures.

Rich Theology Forged in the Context of Pain

Most of the epistles were written as responses to problems. In 1 Corinthians, there is disunity in the church. Paul has received news that there is disunity, there is sexual sin. Christians are going to courts against each other. There have been abusers at the Lord’s Supper, and because of that, Paul theologizes, and through the theologizing gives us this wonderful book, 1 Corinthians. Then there is 2 Corinthians, which came out of a painful experience of rejection that he had.

Then there is Galatians, where there has been a terrible heresy so he doesn’t have his customary prayer for the people. Instead, he says, “I am astonished.” That’s the way he goes on with this letter. But what rich theology you get in that book. Then there’s Colossians, where there’s another heresy that has hit the people. And in Philippians, where, the primary purpose of writing Philippians was so that he can thank them for the gift that they sent, but there was also disunity in the church, so he urges them to be united. In the process of urging them, he gives the example of Jesus. And that example of Jesus found in Philippians 2:5–11 is possibly the most profound christological statement that we have in the Bible. All that is a response to disunity.

In 1 Timothy you find heresy and Paul speaking about how to respond to this heresy. In 2 Timothy, Paul has been rejected by the church in Rome. In Philemon, there is the fear that Philemon will not accept his son in the faith, Onesimus. All those problems led to deep truth. And in church history, some of the greatest theological works came as a response to the heresies that came to the church. So grappling with failure teaches us deep truths about Christianity.

Credibility Gained Through Suffering

And then, suffering gives us credibility. It increases our impact. In Ephesians 4:1, Paul says:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called . . .

The prisoner is able to urge. In fact, he’s saying that being a prisoner gives him the credibility to urge them. In Galatians 6:17, he says:

From now on let no one cause me trouble (why?), for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians, several times he gives listings of his sufferings and he presents them as his qualification to speak to them and to be their apostle. Look at Ephesians 4:1. He says, “As a prisoner of the Lord, I urge you . . .” You see today, exultation is going out of fashion in the church because it sounds arrogant. It reminds us of the fundamentalism that we are supposed to have graduated from. And there is a shift in the proclamation style of the church. Entertainment has replaced passion as a means of attracting people today in the church.

In earlier generations, we had people who burned with a sense of the truth of the gospel. It is said that Benjamin Franklin used to go to hear George Whitfield because there, before his eyes, he could see a man burn. Sadly, it seems as if we have blown it as Christian preachers, because passion became an art form. It was faked by charlatans who exploited people. The most famous, of course, was Hitler who, though his brilliant oratory, led so many people astray.

So today people shy away from passion from exultation. They’re cynical about passion because it has become a marketing tool that is used by people like used car salesmen. And so what has happened, what has taken its place in the church? Well there is no absolute truth to be excited about and to press upon people. Therefore, people come to church in order that their needs may be met. So they find a church that has a good children’s program or this program or that program, and they say, “What can the church provide for me so that I can have a good time on Sunday when I come to worship God?”

In a situation like that, when entertainment becomes the main attraction of people to the church, the message of holiness, of the cross, of judgment is not very entertaining. Therefore, how can you preach things like that in your sermons? How can we turn the church around? We can turn the church around by restoring passion, truth ignited by the Spirit, proclaimed by people who have paid the price.

Living For Something Worth Dying For

Passion comes from the word passio, which means suffering. That’s why we have “the passion of the Christ”. It means suffering. It’s about people who suffer because they feel so strongly about this message. Now, you may lose your congregation because of that, but out of the ashes, God will build a pure church.

I’m certainly convinced that this is the way to reach young people today. They want to follow something that is worth dying for, and we present them a gospel of a Savior who died, who calls us to come and die with him for a cause that is greater than ourselves. If they see us paying the price, they will listen to that.

Yesterday I talked about Toyohiko Kagawa, the Japanese evangelist. He read the story of the crucifixion for the first time and he was overwhelmed with emotion. He said, “Is it true that cruel men persecuted and whipped and spat upon this man, Jesus?” And the person said, “Yes, it is true.” Then he said, “Is it true that Jesus, when dying upon the cross, forgave them?” That person said, “Yes, it is true.” And then he said, “Oh God, make me like Christ.” And he became a Christian, and that became his life prayer.

Well, when he became a Christian, he was disowned by his family. But he began to serve God and went to seminary. And in seminary he got tuberculosis and he nearly died. He was quite sick when he went to the slums of the city where he was. I can’t remember where it was. But he went to this city, and he saw the slums, the prostitution, the poverty, and the exploitation of the people. He saw that they lived in slums of six square feet. That’s where they lived. And even though he was sick, he was terribly appalled by what he saw. Even though he was sick, he left the seminary quarters and went and lived in the slums.

For 15 years, he worked amongst the slum people. He became a social reformer in Japan. But most of all, he was a massive evangelist who would preach to crowds while being a social reformer — a wonderful combination to have. Once he came to America, and after he had finished speaking, one person said, “Well, he didn’t say much did he?” And the other person said, “No, he didn’t say much. But if you’re hanging on a cross, you don’t have to say much.”

Given to a Great Task

Let’s appeal to the human capacity for commitment. We are born to give ourselves to a task that is bigger than us rather than only to their capacity for fun and entertainment. Today, there’s a crisis of commitment in the church. How are we going to solve this crisis? We find it difficult to find committed people. I am convinced that if the leaders die for the people, the people will die for the church. John 10:11–12 says:

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees . . .

Many people in the world today are suffering from the wounds that have come from hired hands. People have said they are committed to them and they have dropped them. People are living with hurt because the hirelings have dropped them. How are we going to minister to them? By doing what the hirelings didn’t do. By being committed to them. By dying for them.

In John 17:19, Jesus says:

And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Now, that word “consecrate” or “sanctify” is used in that passage to refer to the death of Christ. So Jesus was saying, “So that these disciples would be sanctified, I am going to die.” And that is our model. So, suffering gives us credibility. It opens the door for people to listen to us when we exhort them from the word.

Saving Ourselves from Suffering by Avoiding Commitment

Now let me say that we can avoid suffering by avoiding commitment. A lot of people talk to me. I come from a country that has gone through a lot of problems. We’ve had war and we have persecution of Christians. And very often when I go to the West, people say, “We are so fortunate that we don’t have the pain that you people have, that we don’t have the restrictions and the persecution that you people have.” And what I think to myself when they say that is that the biggest pain in my life has not come from the war, nor from the tsunami, nor from the persecution. True, there has been a lot of pain there. There has been fear, frustration, and sorrow. That has been there. But if you talk about pain, the biggest pain that has come to my life has been from relationships with other Christians.

It’s the pain of being committed to people. And that is something that you find in every culture, not in one culture alone. You see this in Paul’s writings as he expresses his pain because he refuses to give up on the church. Paul could have easily said, “Let those Jerusalem Christians go and do what they want. This Antioch church was something that we started. We don’t need these people to come and tell us that our people have to be circumcised.” That’s not what they did.

When people from Jerusalem came and said that Christians need to be circumcised, what did they do? They immediately walked all the way to Jerusalem. Now, I tried to see how much that was. I think it’s about 600 kilometers. That’s a long walk. It’s several days. But they did it. Why? They were committed to the church. They didn’t give up on the church. Sometimes we feel embarrassed for Paul. Why does he have to speak so much about himself? Why does he have to keep defending himself? Do you know why? Because he was committed to the church. He was committed to the people who opposed him, and he did not give up on them. So he opened himself and shared his heart so that unity would be restored.

And this challenge is found in all cultures, in all situations. However, we are living in an aspirin generation. We know how to numb pain. And the best way to do that in ministry is to not commit yourself too much to people or institutions because you are going to get hurt if you do so. Keep your distance. Don’t make yourself too vulnerable to pain and to hurt. Keep relationships at a manageable level.

The Joy of the Lord Is Our Strength

I was once traveling in the West when I was preparing a message on the stress that comes to us as a result of our call to be ministers of the gospel. I was using 2 Corinthians 11:28–29 where Paul talks about the daily pressure that is on him because of his care for all the churches. He says:

Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Corinthians 11:29).

While I was on this trip writing the sermon and traveling and preaching, three people talked to me, at least three, about how they had been liberated from stressful situations. One had been liberated from a very unhappy marriage. The other had been liberated from a church that gave them a lot of pain. The other person had been liberated from an organization where he or she, I can’t remember, was having a lot of problems. And each time these people talked of this liberation, the thought that came to me was, “Is it God’s will for them to stay and not to be liberated, but to go through that pain because of the commitments they made?”

You see, Paul made himself vulnerable to hurt. He developed an open-hearted approach to ministry. In 2 Corinthians 6:11, he says:

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open.

He says in Galatians 4:19:

My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

He was going through the deep end. Now let me say that if you don’t have the joy of the Lord, you dare not even get close to people because you don’t have the strength to do this. In Nehemiah 8:10, we are told “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” and that is what gives us the strength to take on these things.

So the first and most important thing as we said yesterday is to make sure that we have the joy of the Lord. And out of the strength of the joy of the Lord, knowing that the most important thing in our life is not going to be dislodged by anything that people do to us. Jesus is the most important person in our life, and our love relationship with him gives us the joy that becomes a strength. With that, we are able to go and take on pain that comes from commitment.

Sticking with People Who Are Hard to Love

Now, how can we avoid this today? Well, just get rid of the sinner without going through the painful process of discipline, healing, and restoration. And other churches make it very easy for us because when they know that somebody’s having problems in one church, they’ll invite him, “Come and serve in our church.” And we are so relieved he’s gone. We don’t have to go through this. Because I’m in a youth ministry, discipline is something that we do all the time. It’s all the time. We have to be disciplining volunteers and staff. And I have never had a situation where discipline has not been painful. And even Hebrews 12:11 says it is painful, it’s difficult, but that’s part of the process of healing and restoration after sin.

We tell people who are questioning us, “Why don’t you think of another place of service? Maybe you’ll fit in more in that environment.” Or maybe someone is opposing you or hurting you. We think, “Don’t go and talk to that person. It’s too painful to talk to the person. Just let him fall in line or leave.” Or maybe you are having trouble in one church or in one small group. Just leave and go to another.

A day before yesterday, I was talking to a Perspectives group and somebody asked me, “What is the advice you would give to a young person who wants to be a missionary?” And I told him the advice that I normally give to these people is to ask, are you part of a group? Are you part of a church? Then stick to that group. Don’t leave the group. Because if you stick to that group, you’re going to get hurt, you’re going to have pain, and you’re going to have frustration, and that will prepare you to be a missionary.

Because in missions, as I said, we will have a lot of that type of thing. Unfortunately, what happens is we leave without resolving situations because it’s so painful. Sometimes we have to leave, but when we leave, we need to talk and go through the pain of mentioning why we leave and what happens as we leave without these resolved situations. We end up shallow. We have areas in our life that are closed and we can’t get deep with anyone after that because we have got used to avoiding the hard work of working on relationships.

I think to me, one of the hardest things is the exit interview. When a person leaves the staff I have come to realize that this is very important. When a person leaves the staff, we need to talk to them because they are hurt, they’re angry. If they’re living in that type of mood, they’re angry. But if they are going to be healed, they have to express their anger. And listening to their anger is not easy.

The Key to a Joyous Life

I have had some situations where I wish I could have avoided it. In fact, recently, I experienced everything that I’m saying here about the exit interview. A colleague said to me, “You write books but you don’t practice.” And I was so hurt, but I knew he needed to say that otherwise he would never be healed. He’ll be going through this in his mind over and over again. So we may have to do that. If God has called you to evangelize the unreached, these are temptations that we always have in Youth for Christ. God has called us to go to people who will never walk into a church, which means for us, Buddhist and Hindu young people.

It’s so easy for us, especially as the persecution is getting great and they’re trying to bring in laws to restrict us. And the laws are particularly severe if you work with young people. Now, there is a great temptation to work with nominal Christians, or to become the experts in youth ministry and start teaching people on how to do youth ministry, how to evangelize youth. But God has called us to go to the lost. And to go to the lost will sometimes mean this type of pain. So we can always avoid it, but if we take it on, we will go through pain. So wherever we are, there is going to be pain when we are committed to people. But let me say that commitment is a key to a joyous life.

I think you see this in 2 Corinthians. Because I am in the ministry it’s one of my favorite books in the Bible. But it came out of severe pain. He talks about how he was facing so much pain in chapters one and two, and then he hears about how the Corinthians have responded to his letter and he goes into a tangent, saying, “Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph” (2 Corinthians 2:14).

And then he forgets about what he was talking about. And from chapter two to chapter seven, it’s all on the glory of the ministry. It’s a fantastic description of what a wonderful thing the ministry is. But what triggered it? The pain of commitment. He didn’t give up on the Corinthians, but he stayed on. In fact, while I was working in this commentary on Acts, I was surprised when FF Bruce said that this Corinthian church is one of the churches that stuck right to the end even still today, even though it’s very nominal and all that, there is a church in Corinth. So it stuck. It gave Paul a lot of pain, but he didn’t give up. And when people who give us pain come through, the joy is deep and great.

Freedom Through Commitment

Commitment brings freedom to relationships. You like to invest in a relationship that’s going to last. And the more you invest in it, the more you get out of it. For example, this is the case with our spouses. I got married to this person, and whether I like it or not for the rest of my life, I have to be with this person. There are all these weaknesses, so many things I don’t like, but what do you do? You can’t change them. That’s part of their personality. That’s life. But you won’t reject that person because of that, because it’s for life. And you’re not going to harp on them if their personality has things that are not going to change. You’re not going to harp on them.

But there are many things I like. Many things that give joy. You concentrate on those. You say, “This is for life. I’m going to devote myself to making a go of this relationship because it is for life.” And you won’t talk of divorce every time you have a serious problem. People do that. And I think it’s very silly to do that because it creates so much insecurity in the other person’s mind. Yes, the problem is huge, but God is bigger. God is bigger than the problem. And so we say, “We are going to stick with this and we are going to fight and we are going to make a go of it.” Instead of talking about divorce, you talk about how God is going to help you to overcome this.

Consider It Pure Joy

In fact, especially during the first few years of marriage I learned a lot. Things are a little easier now. But during those first few years of marriage, my wife was so different from me that we used to have a lot of clashes. I learned during those clashes to listen to her, to talk to her, but most of all to talk to God. During the clash, I would say, “Oh God, oh God, please help, please help, please help”. And it colors it. It’s God’s will that this works. And I have brought God into this situation now. God is going to help us. And there is freedom there. There is a freedom to love unreservedly because if you say this is for life, then you are not afraid to give everything to it. There is a freedom to enjoy with pure joy. I think this is part of what is meant by James when he says, “Count it all joy,” or, “Consider it pure joy” (James 1:2).

There’s a book I use when I help couples who are going to get married. It’s by Norman Wright. And he talks about this couple who was going to get married and the girl seemed to be particularly radiant one day when they came for their appointment. So Norman Wright asked, “Why are you so happy?” And she said, “This guy behaved so terribly this past week. He was a rat. I just couldn’t handle the way he was behaving. And when he was doing that, I realized that I still loved him and I was so happy that I could love him even when he behaves like this. I have a deep joy in me.” That is the joy of commitment, the joy that gives us the freedom to give to this person because we know it’s for life.

There was an old man who went daily for breakfast with his wife in the nursing home. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. And one day before going to the nursing home, he had to go and see a doctor. So the doctor saw that he was in a bit of a hurry and asked him why. And he said, “I have to have breakfast with my wife.” And then the doctor said, “Oh, you might get late.” And then he said, “No, no, it’s okay. It’s okay to be late. My wife hasn’t known who I am for the past five years.” And then the doctor said, “And you still go every morning though she doesn’t know you?” And he smiled and he said, “She doesn’t know me, but I still know who she is.” I think there’s a beauty, a joy, a deep-down joy of security that comes from commitment like that. There is much insecurity in the world today because of disposable relationships. This is a disposing generation.

I find it very difficult when I come to this country because you have all these napkins that you cut and then use once and throw it away. It’s very difficult for me to throw paper away like that. So I look for some cloth to clean my hands with. We are living in a generation that has gotten used to disposing of things and of people, but there is a breath of fresh air in such a generation when you see lasting and costly commitment. It is that which is going to restore security in the world, and through restoring security, restore the type of joy about which I was speaking yesterday.

In fact, I’m convinced that one of the keys to stopping the divorce epidemic that has hit the West today is to show people the glory of costly commitment. It will bring them to realize that when they are suffering with a difficult relationship, there is something glorious about that suffering. And as we apply to vocation, to church life, to our friendships, young people will learn that commitment is a beautiful thing. And then they will learn to apply it to marriage too.

So let’s help foster a generation that goes back to this thing called commitment. Paul says he suffers because of the church. He’s committed to the church. And if we are committed, we will suffer. But through the suffering, we will show something beautiful that the world is yearning to know but cannot find because it’s looking for these shallow kicks to give them the pleasure that they’re looking for.

is the teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. He served as the ministry’s national director for 35 years. He is the author of eighteen books, including Discipling in a Multicultural World, and lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with his wife. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.