Even when life is “easy” it is hard to show mercy to our fellow sinners. When enjoying order, safety, and congeniality, serving others can still be a challenge. But when you are drowning in poverty, murder, violence, lawlessness, sickness, injustice, pain, and desperation, showing mercy to sinners amplifies the sin in yourself. As a sinner, it is difficult to love someone who doesn’t return your love. So how do you respond when the one you hope to serve desires to kill you?
Our full-time team of a dozen missionaries serves in Honduras. This country is incredibly hard to live in, let alone minister to. For five years running Honduras has been the most murderous country in the world. Its people are the second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The average first birth occurs at 15 years of age. Hospitals are closed, police are outgunned, pastors are driven from the country, babies starve, treatable illnesses lead to death, and indifference and apathy are endemic.
Our fences have barbed wire, our windows have bars, our yards have attack dogs. The ladies on our team are not allowed exercise outdoors or live alone. Our kids can’t walk to the corner store or carry mobile phones. Missionaries on our team have suffered burglaries, armed robberies, and had guns put to our heads. Ministry is not easy in Honduras.
Better than Fleeting Comfort
How on earth are we supposed to love a culture that refuses to love itself? And, more importantly to our sin nature, how are we supposed to show mercy to a people who want to harm us? Our mission team has been studying Acts, that ghastly book that tells about missionaries like Paul and Peter and Barnabas, who get chased out of town, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and continue to plant churches, preach the gospel, and show mercy to those who disparage them. The same book points out my sins and provides examples of a good missionary to whom I will never measure up.
The great theologians understood Christians are called to experience pain, and to endure it, because God is worth so much more than our fleeting comfort and pleasure. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II martyr for Christ, described a Christian as “someone who shares the sufferings of God in the world.” Augustine taught, “It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr.” Hudson Taylor, the pioneering 19th-century missionary to China, proclaimed, “For our Master’s sake, may he make us willing to do or suffer all his will.” And John Calvin explained, “You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy.”
Suffering is not a new concept; it is just new to us. Scripture addressed these issues long ago. God is by no means unaware of our pain (Ex. 3:7), and he calls us to endure our sufferings and continue in our service to him (2 Tim. 4:5). We know God will not give us more than we can endure (1 Cor. 10:13), and we understand the Lord prepares his servants for battle (Ps. 144:1). God knows we can endure more than we think we can in his strength. We, on the other hand, have our doubts. Some days the battle just wears us down, and even if we think we can endure another day, we just don’t want to.
Our doubt, pain, and discomfort do not absolve Christians of our responsibility to spread the saving grace of Christ and show his mercy to the needy. Tim Keller stated, “If you look down at the poor and stay aloof from their suffering, you have not really understood or experienced God’s grace.” We were never promised lack of pain or suffering, only the unwavering knowledge that the Creator of the universe loves us.
When we struggle with safety and security and still get out of bed every morning to toil in the name of Christ, he receives an extra measure of glory from our labors. How fortunate to experience suffering that results in God’s glory, pain that expands God’s name, and persecution that points towards heaven! John Piper said, “This is God's universal purpose for all Christian suffering: more contentment in God and less satisfaction in the world.” Indeed, our bodies and souls belong to the Lord. Our worship of Christ includes offering our entire life to God. Our joy comes in service when we obey his commands.
Be it money, comfort, family, or friends, mission work entails sacrifice. God calls us to be willing to give all we have. As with all other Christians, missionaries must die to self, forego personal gain, and submit to Christ. No matter the cost we are called to serve the Lord. “They gave our Master a crown of thorns,” Martin Luther wrote. “Why do we hope for a crown of roses?”