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The Fernando Family Newsletter

June 2010

Dear friends,

As I write, we are happily reunited as a family, with son Asiri back after completing his studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in USA. Daughter Nirmali is also here to help us, as Nelun had a fall at home resulting in a shoulder fracture/dislocation. The doctor is hopeful that it will heal without surgery, but we will know for sure only a few weeks later. Her arm is in a sling, and she cannot do much work. PS She is doing much better now.

 

This year was very eventful for me. I gave up my office at the YFC headquarters, and I operate from home now. This is a wonderful provision because Nelun’s activities are restricted and she needs some special care. I still have the National Director title, but the entire ministry (except my small division) is supervised now by Leonard Fernando and Prashan de Mel. I supervise them. I am so grateful for these two leaders, more than anything else, because, in addition to being capable, they have emerged as people with crucified personal ambition who are willing to give up their plans and privileges for the sake of the larger body: just the kind of leaders we were looking for!

 

I handed over the leaders whom I have been supervising and caring for with some sorrow. But it was like the sorrow of a parent who hands over responsibility for a child at marriage. Prayer and concern will continue without the spiritual authority. This has been my experience these thirty-four years in ministry with YFC. It is such a joy to see the children discipled over the years, thriving in God’s vineyard. Now with no young Christians to disciple, I am doing much of my personal work in our church. The Lord has graciously brought young Christians for me to disciple and mentor. My administrative load is greatly reduced, and I give my time now for counselling, visiting, e-mail, study, preaching, teaching and writing. I will continue my regular visits to the YFC centres, when I usually give two to four days for ministry with YFC staff and volunteers and a day for ministry with the Christian leaders in the area. Of course, caring for Prashan and Leonard is a primary responsibility.

 

This past year we completed a long process that resulted in our ministries being divided according to region rather than language. It has been a challenging but exciting journey as bringing change and dividing closely knit groups is not easy. Our ministry is heavily volunteer-driven and they give a lot of time sacrificially to this work. They needed to be happy with the changes. I have been stretched to the fullest responding to queries from volunteers. Many changes were made as a result of those conversations. During this first year, we will keep reviewing how the details are working out and will make changes as we go along. This process demonstrated the challenge of bringing change in a large organisation where volunteers also have ownership. It is an exercise worth expending oneself in.

 

My three-and-a-half month sabbatical last year was spent primarily teaching and preaching because our staff education fund was very low. That is the fund that takes in my “earnings” from speaking and writing. Therefore the YFC Board gave me a little over six weeks’ leave, beginning in July, to try and finish my two Deuteronomy books. I decided that I will also go on a speaking “fast” during this time. I have been preaching for over forty years and during the past 34 years I’ve been speaking an average of about 4-5 times a week. This will be my first long break from what I love to do. My hope is that this will be a time of spiritual retreat for me. I will also be giving time during these days to work on finishing touches on our new IBS Sinhala Bible.

 

Nelun continues to give most of her ministry time to church. We recently celebrated her mother’s 90th birthday and were delighted to have Nelun’s sister Dilkush and husband Roy with us from Australia. Nelun’s mother lives with us. Her steadfast faith and devotion to God is a real encouragement to us. Nelun continues to lead our Sunday School and disciple some women at church. She has also been having an evangelistic Bible study with two young women inquiring about the Christian faith. It looks like that number will grow to four from next week. At the moment, because of her injury, she is catching up on sleep lost after a hectic trip with me to Canada and the USA.

 

Nirmali works half-time in the YFC office as Partner Relations Officer. She helps out as a volunteer in her husband Refuge’s YFC ministry, which is reaching out to irreligious westernised youth. Her coming on has taken a huge load off me, as she is the one who now corresponds with donors, writes project proposals and answers donors’ queries etc. She also teaches in Sunday School at church. Refuge is undergoing some specialised training in adventure outreach. We are developing adventure outreach as a means of making contact with irreligious westernised youth. This training requires two or three trips to India.

 

Asiri was reunited with his fiancée Cheryl after spending almost three years in the USA without a visit home. They are to be married on 6th November this year. Cheryl has been a key volunteer in YFC for many years, and we are thrilled about our “new daughter.” Asiri will soon move to Kandy, which is where he lived before leaving for the USA. He will work for the up-country (mountain) region of YFC seeking primarily to reach irreligious, highly westernised youth. He was really happy with his studies in Seminary, and his father is extremely grateful for his dual passion for evangelism and the Word. He has also developed into a good song writer, and we wonder how the Lord will use that gift for his glory.

 

YFC’s financial needs continue to be acute, and we would be grateful for whatever you may be able to send our way. But more importantly we cherish your prayers.

 

Please also pray that the government would use the window of opportunity that opened after the war and landslide election victories to negotiate a just solution to the ethnic problem that triggered the war.

 

Your fellow servant of Jesus Christ,

 

Ajith

 

Attached: Donation details

Post Check Point Blues: a Reflection

Written in November 2005

 

Ajith Fernando

 

Our Board Chairman Brian Blacker had a teacher who used to say, “The geography of your face reveals the history of your race.” But not with me! At different times I have been identified as a Sinhala, a Tamil and a Muslim—the three main races of Sri Lanka. I am very happy about this for many reasons. One is that I am able to go through what Tamils go through at check points.

 

On a recent trip to the North and East of Sri Lanka most of the security personnel we encountered at check points were very polite. But three times I was subjected to rude responses from young policemen. Once I glared angrily at one of them, but later I felt I should have asked him why he needed to be so rude. This is something that must be stopped if we are to hope for peace between the races.

 

I was very angry for a few hours after these incidents. This was, firstly, because I felt humiliated by being spoken to abusively by these young policemen.

 

Secondly, I was angry because impoliteness is contrary to the Christian ethic. In his famous passage on the use of the tongue James says that one reason why speak well to others is because they are made in the image of God (James 3:9). Christians must always be gracious and never speak derogatorily to any one even when they are rebuking them. To speak derogatorily to someone is to rebel against God’s plan for creation—a very serious sin.

 

Thirdly, I was angry because there are some people who have to face this abuse all the time. My brother, who worked as a doctor in the East, has a lot of experiences to share of such abuse. When the representatives of the government act in a way that dehumanises minorities they lose the desire for peaceful co-existence with the majority community. This in turn is a great hindrance to the peace process.

 

But as I grappled with this anger I realised that I cannot keep this attitude going. For one thing it takes away my joy which is what makes the cost of discipleship worth it. I know that I must not live even half a day without this precious treasure.

 

I know that if I keep this anger inside it will come out in a crisis, or in a tense situation. I will end up hurting someone else and not be an influence for good in this world that is already soured by an epidemic of bitterness. There is a sense in which I should remain angry about these actions and do what I can to stop them. But I cannot live with the bitter anger which takes away my “joy and peace in believing” (Rom. 15:13).

 

So several times during this trip I prayed to God not to let the actions of bad people take away my joy. They don’t deserve that honour. Anger over unrighteousness must remain and motivate us to action. But always the dominant emotion in our life must be the joy of the Lord who is greater that every circumstance we face.

 

Now my anger is tinged with compassion for these young policeman who are also made in the image of God but do not know the salvation which helps them realise the glory of that.

 

Reflections by a Father of the Bride

Written in August 2005

 

Ajith Fernando

 

In a few hours my daughter will be married. Last night the four of us met for sharing and prayer for the last time as a family unit of four. We were amazed at how happy we have been and acknowledged that it was because of God’s grace not because we deserved it. Nelun and I knew how many mistakes we had made as parents. So the joy had to be a work of grace. Of course, I think the fact that Nelun never let her joy be destroyed because I was so busy in the ministry had a big part to play in the children growing to love the Lord and his ministry. But joy too is a gift of grace.

 

I have thought a lot about why God gave us such a happy home. I know that many great people did not have such joy. My hero John Wesley’s wife left him. Abraham Lincoln, possibly the greatest national leader of the modern era, had a wife who gave him a very hard time. Why did God permit us to have such a happy home?

 

I am by nature very timid and shrink from conflict. Yet when you are in the ministry you can’t help but experience a lot of pain and conflict. I have had my fair share of this. Nelun and I have had to share the pain of a lot of unhappy families and individuals as we have tried to minister to them. In addition there is the hurt that comes from disappointment and conflict.

 

But I always knew that when I come home I come to a peaceful, happy place where there is acceptance of and joy over each other. God knew that if the home also was crisis ridden, I may have been unable to handle the strains that go with ministry. This was yet another example of what Paul found out when he went through his “thorn in the flesh” experience: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

 

Jesus has promised that those who follow him will suffer. His basic call to discipleship is a call to a cross (Mark 8:34). These days, when a Christian suffers people ask, “What wrong has he done, that he should suffer so much?” That question should be asked if we do not suffer for Christ. Because Christ promised suffering as basic to all who follow him. Just as the Bible promises suffering, it also commands joy. For Christians God’s commands are equal to promises. God always gives us the grace to keep them. So when he commanded joy he was also promising that he will give us the joy we are asked to have.

 

We will go through suffering, but we must always have joy (Phil. 4:4). That is something we cannot be without. And God will ensure that every single Christian has joy in the midst of suffering. He knows the make up of each one of us. David said, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psa. 103:13-14). Therefore he will order our experiences in such a way that each one of us can always have joy.

 

Isn’t it interesting that shortly before going to the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11)? He has the fullest joy and he gives this to us. But we are told that a short while after making that statement, “…being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). He could have full joy and also be in deep pain and agony at the same time. This is the glory of Christianity. We can be sad and hurt, and our hearts may be broken. But in the midst of it all we can have the joy of the Lord. And that joy gives us the strength to go through the pain (Neh. 8:10).

 

So we won’t run away from pain and from painful callings from God. Neither will we let bitterness rule our emotions, for that not only ruins us but also hurts those around us as our bitterness spills out when we are tilted. Instead we seek his joy and remain faithful—rejoicing in the Lord all the time. Paul Tournier wrote a brilliant book, Creative Suffering, after the death of his wife. There he talks of the sorrow of losing his beloved wife and the grief with which he lived all his life because his parents died when he was two and five years old. About this he says, “I can truly say that I have a great grief and that I am a happy man.” That is the work of grace in our lives.

 

How does this all apply to the wedding of my daughter? My home is the haven of joy and peace that the four of us have had all these years. This is where I long to return after the loneliness of travel, or amidst the conflicts of ministry or the tiredness of work. Now a key ingredient of that joy is being taken away from us. We are going to reduce by 25%! How do I feel? There are tears; there is sorrow. All four of us wept a lot last night! But the joy we experienced was all because of grace. Circumstances change; but grace never changes. For every experience there is sufficient grace.

 

We will commend our daughter to God’s grace. And we will daily look forward to the surprises of grace in our lives and hers. And there are surprises indeed. Each new year brings with it new experiences of the faithfulness of God. We know that whatever our daughter will experience in life, there will be sufficient grace. So we have no fears. We can send her out with peace in our hearts. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) wrote,

I know not where the islands lift

Their fronded palms in air;

I only know I cannot drift

Beyond his love and care.

 

We can look back with gratitude for joy. And we can look forward in anticipation of joy. We may long for household voices gone, for the vanished smiles (Whittier) of those who have left us. But the joy they brought was primarily there because God gave it. He continues to smile at us and to put a song in our hearts. That will always be there: for my daughter in her new home and for us in our old reduced home.

This, this is the God we adore,

Our faithful, unchangeable Friend;

Whose love is as great as his power,

And neither knows measure nor end.

 

’Tis Jesus, the first and the last,

Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home;

We’ll praise him for all that is past,

And trust him for all that’s to come.

Joseph Hart (1712-68).

After Twenty-five Years The Most Important Thing I Have Done

Written in April 2001

 

Ajith Fernando

 

In July I complete twenty-five happy years at my job in YFC. I thought I would share with you what I consider to be the most important thing that I have done during this period. I am not saying that I have done enough of it, but the little I have done has, I feel, been my most important activity. I am talking about prayer.

 

This is a case where my theology has challenged my natural inclination. I am an activist, and I don’t think I take to prayer naturally. After all these years I still have to work hard at disciplining myself to stop from busy activity in order to give time to prayer. Even after that, sometimes it may take me as long as 15 minutes to shift gears from the “activity mode” to the “prayer mode.” But my theology tells me this is the most important thing I do, so whether I feel like it or not, I have to do it.

 

Like all good theology the theology that tells me that prayer is so important is derived from the Bible. Let me mention a few points.

  • James says, “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (Jas. 5:16).
  • Samuel considered it a sin not to pray for the people of Israel (1 Sam. 12:23).
  • The Gospels often record Jesus spending the whole night in prayer and mentions his praying prior to many of the important events in his ministry.
  • Scholars tell us that Jesus would have followed the Jewish practice of praying three times a day. This of course is what Daniel did even though he risked his life by doing so (Dan. 6:10).
  • In 10 of his 13 letters Paul mentions that he prays for the recipients. He tells his spiritual child Timothy that he prays for him night and day (2 Tim. 1:3).
  • As the responsibilities of the apostles began to increase, the early church decided to separate them for the ministry of the word and prayer (Acts 6:4). That is the primary role of those who in today’s jargon would be called CEOs.

 

In recent times I have been reflecting much on the idea that prayer is one of the surest means of preventing burnout in the ministry. I have thought a lot about this as many have told me recently that the schedule I keep makes me a prime candidate for burnout. I suppose the jury is not in on this yet. Perhaps in 15 years from now I will be able to speak with more confidence on this issue. But I do believe that time spent daily lingering in the presence of God is a great antidote to burnout and other ill effects of stress and hard work. Here are some reasons for that belief.

 

  • If spending a good time with God each day is a non-negotiable factor in our daily calendar, then this time could really help slow us down and heal that unhealthy restlessness and rushed attitude that often causes burnout. There are few things that help heal our restlessness as time spent lingering in the presence of God. If a fixed time has been set apart each day for prayer, then there is no point rushing through the exercise as we are going to spend that amount of time whether we rush or not. That time has been blocked out for prayer in our schedules. So we are forced to change gears from stressful rush to restful lingering in the presence of God.
  • An hour or more spent each day in the presence of the almighty and sovereign Lord of the universe does wonders to our sense of security (Psa. 46:1-11), the lack of which is another common cause of burnout. With security comes “the peace of God which transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) which is surely a wonderful treasure to live life with. When we do not have security in our tie with God, we will be restlessly running from activity to activity subconsciously hoping that our activity would fill the void in our lives. We are, in fact, afraid to stop and be silent before God. I once heard the Singaporean Dr. Robert Solomon say, “We are uncomfortable with silence because silence forces us to face God.” So we go on with our busy activity till we drive ourselves to the ground!
  • The peace we just described is the result of presenting our requests to God (Phil. 4:6). When we spend time with God we are able to “cast all [our] anxiety on him because he cares for [us]” (1 Pet. 5:7). It was during a time of deep crisis in our ministry that I discovered the great release that comes from consciously handing over our burdens to God. I had difficulty going to sleep because I was overwhelmed by worry over the situation. I learned to confess my inability to bear these burdens alone and to place them upon God by a conscious act of release. And release was what I felt as a result of this.
  • When we pray we open up our hearts to God. And if someone has hurt us, then we are going to grapple with God over that. This grappling gives God an opportunity to break through into our lives with his comfort. And that comfort enables us to overcome bitterness over people’s actions. What a heavy burden bitterness is for a person to bear! It will drag us down in our spiritual lives and make us prime candidates for burnout.
  • If, during our time with God, a lot of time is spent in intercession, we have become conduits of love. When we pray for others love is flowing out of our lives. But this is not a love that drains us of our emotional strength. We are praying, which means that we are in touch with him who is the inexhaustible source of love. As love goes out through prayer, God’s love comes in, and the regular flow of love in and out of our lives makes us glow with the joy that love alone can produce.

 

So our time spent with God each day becomes the most refreshing thing that we do. Such freshness attacks those triggers of burnout that often accompany the stresses and strains of costly ministry.

 

Recently there has been a welcome rediscovery of the importance of corporate worship. I think the time is ripe for a return to emphasising the importance of our personal time alone with God.

 

I need to say two more things. Firstly, like Timothy, I have been blessed with a grandmother and mother who were women of faith (2 Tim. 1:5). As a child, seeing them praying first impressed on me the importance of prayer. May our generation also pass on such a legacy to the next!

 

Secondly, if my theology says that prayer is a vitally important activity for me, then it follows that your prayers for us are also a vital aspect of our ministry. Describing his imprisonment, Paul said, “I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). So important are the prayers of the saints that they are placed alongside the help that the Spirit gives! Elsewhere Paul says, “…you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” With Paul I can say that the blessings God has given to us has been in answer to your prayers. Thank you!

Embracing Suffering in Service

An unedited version of an article subsequently published in Christianity Today.

 

Ajith Fernando

 

I am writing this shortly after returning from a week of teaching pastors in the deep south of Sri Lanka. The experience of these pastors shows that when people pioneer in unreached areas, it often takes ten to fifteen years before they see significant fruit and reduced hostility. In the early years they are assaulted, and accused falsely; stones are thrown to their roofs; their children have a hard time in school; and there are few genuine conversions. Many pioneers give up after a few years. But those who persevere bear much eternal fruit. I am humbled and ashamed of the way I complain when I have problems which are so minute in comparison to theirs.

When I return from ministry in the West my feelings are very different. I have been able to “use my gifts” and spend most of my time doing things I like to do. I am hit by frustration when I return to being a leader in our less efficient culture. The transition from being a speaker in the West to being a leader in Sri Lanka is a difficult one.

As a leader I am the bond-slave (doulos) of the people I lead (2 Cor. 4:5). This means that my schedule is influenced more by their needs than mine. This brings to light the huge difference between vocational fulfillment in society and in the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). If we are doing God’s will we are happy and fulfilled. But for Jesus, and for us, doing God’s will include a cross. The cross must be an essential element in our definition of vocational fulfillment.

Young Christian workers who come back to Sri Lanka after studying in the West struggle with this. They are highly qualified, but our poor nation cannot afford to give them the recognition that they think their qualifications deserve. They cannot use their gifts to the fullest because we cannot afford pure specialists. They struggle with frustration. Some end up leaving the country after a few years. Some start their own organizations so that they can fulfill their “vision.” Others become consultants, giving expert training and advice in their specialized field. Others pay the price of identifying with our people and ultimately have a deep impact on the nation.

I try to tell them that their frustration could be the means of developing penetrative insight. I try to explain that people like John Calvin and Martin Luther had to do a dizzying variety of things, so that the only way they could use their gifts was through tiredness. Yet the fruit of their labors as leaders and writers is still blessing the church.

 

Frustration

Paul’s theology gave an important place for the need to endure frustration patiently as we live in a fallen world while awaiting the redemption of creation. Paul said that we groan because of this frustration (Rom. 8:18-25). I believe we are not including this frustration in our understanding of vocation fulfillment today. A church which has a wrong understanding of fulfillment for its workers will certainly become a sick church. This may be one reason why there is so much shallowness in the church today. We have measured success from the standards of the world and failed to challenge the world with the radically new biblical way to fulfillment.

The contemporary emphasis on efficiency and measurable results makes frustration even harder to endure. In the past four centuries industrial and technological development in the West resulted in rapid advancement and in efficiency and productivity becoming high values. With rapid development, things that were once considered luxuries became not only necessities but also rights in the minds even of Christians. In this environment the Christians idea of commitment has taken a heavy battering. We call our churches and Christian organizations families, but families are very inefficient organizations because, in a healthy family, everything stops when family members have big needs. We are often not willing to extend this idea of commitment to Christian body life.

 

Commitment

The biblical model of community life is Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us—that is, for members to die for other members (John 15:12-13). The model of Christian leadership is that of the Good Shepherd dying for the sheep without abandoning them when the situation gets dangerous (John 10:11-15). When God calls us to serve him, he calls us to come and die for the people we serve. We don’t discard people when they have problems and cannot do their job properly. We serve them and help them to come out of their problems. We don’t tell people to find another place of service when they rebel against us. We labor with them until we come to agreement either to agree or to disagree.

When people leave a church because they did not fit into the program, we communicate a deadly message: that our commitment is to the work one does and not to the person; that our unity is primarily in the work and not in Christ and the gospel. The sad result of this is that Christians do not have the security of belonging to a community that will stay by them no matter what happens to them. They become shallow individuals never having deep fellowship and moving from group to group, looking to get things from the group that have been determined by unbiblical values. Churches can fulfill programs and grow numerically in this way, but they don’t nurture biblical Christians who understand the implications of belonging to the body of Christ.

Sticking with people is frustrating because it is inefficient. Taking hours to listen to an angry or hurt person seems to be a very inefficient thing. Why should we waste time on things like that when there are professionals who can do that? So people have counselors to do what friends should be doing. Ideally the counselor helps to diagnose and treat difficult cases, and friends give the time that is needed to bring healing to hurting individuals through acceptance, comfort, and friendship. Hurt people usually hurt those who try to help them. Hurt and angry people whom we are committed to, will hurt us too. Others who are hurt by them could get angry with us because we are committed to them. But we endure that pain because Christ called us to die for our friends.

Several people have told me that it must be hard and frustrating to serve in a country wracked by war, and hostile to evangelism. Indeed we have suffered because of this. A few months ago one of our staff workers was brutally assaulted to death. But I think the biggest pain that I’ve experienced is the pain I have received from Youth for Christ, the organization for which I have worked 34 years. However, I can also say that next to Jesus and my family, Youth for Christ has also been the greatest source of joy in my life. Whether you live in the East or the West you will suffer pain if you are committed to people. But this is suffering that could be avoided. We can avoid pain by stopping the relationship or moving to something more “fulfilling.”

Some years ago I was preparing a message on commitment while I was traveling in the West. Within the space of a few days three people told me how they or someone close to them had left a group or a person because of problems they were having. One had left an unhappy marriage, another a church and another an organization. Each of these leavings was described as a merciful release from suffering. But I could not help asking myself whether, in each of these cases, the Christian thing to do was to stay and suffer.

 

Drivenness or Servanthood

I have a large group of people to whom I write asking for prayer when I have a need. Sometimes my need is overcoming tiredness. When I write about this need, many write back saying they are praying that God would strengthen me and guide me in my scheduling. However, there are differences in the way friends from the East and some from the West respond. I get the strong feeling that many in the West think if when one struggles with tiredness from overwork that is evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is that it is wrong for one gets sick from overwork through drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to pay the price of tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people.

The New Testament is clear that those who work for Christ would suffer because of their work. Tiredness, stress and strain may be the cross that God calls us to. Paul often spoke about the physical hardships his ministry brought him. This included emotional strain (Gal. 4:19; 2 Cor. 11:28), anger (2 Cor. 11:29), sleepless nights, hunger (2 Cor. 6:5), affliction, perplexity (2 Cor. 4:8) and toiling—working to the point of weariness (Col. 1:29). In statements radically counter-cultural in today’s “body culture” society, he said: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16); and “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:11-12). I fear that many Christians approach these texts with an academic interest without seriously asking how they should apply in their lives today.

Let me give four ways to avoid the pitfalls of tiredness and stress owing to insecurity and drivenness.

  • First, Paul Epistles imply that he spent a lot of time in prayer. Lingering in the presence and in the security of God, through prayer and reading the Word, can refresh the spirit and act as an antidote to the insecurity which causes burnout.
  • Second, Paul also had enforced times of rest while journeying and in prison. In our busy world we will need to schedule in such rest. We have to find ways to get relief from the culture that demands instant responses through e-mail and other means of instant communication. As a biblical Christian Paul would also have taken a regular Sabbath rest.
  • Third, we must ensure that we can always testify, as Paul often does, that we are happy with life and content in our work. Suffering comes and goes, but God’s servants “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil.4:4). Discontent and the lack of joy are sure signs that something is seriously wrong with our lives.
  • Fourth, though we are busy serving others, our family members must know that they are the most important people in our lives. This is, surely, an implication of Paul’s teaching about family relationships, where, for example, the husband lays down his life for his wife.

The West, having struggled with the tyrannical rule of time as a result of rapid advancement and the push for efficiency, has a lot to teach the East about the need for rest. The East perhaps has something to teach the West about embracing physical problems that come because of commitment to people. If you think that it is wrong to suffer physically because of the ministry, then you suffer more from the problem than those who believe that suffering is an inevitable step along the path to fruitfulness and fulfillment. As the cross is a basic aspect of discipleship, the Church must train Christian leaders to expect pain and hardship. When this perspective enters our minds, then pain will not touch our joy and contentment in Christ. I found eighteen different places in the New Testament where suffering and joy appear together. In fact, often suffering is a cause for joy (Rom. 5:3-5; Col. 1:24; Jas. 1:2-3).

 

The Glory of the Gospel

In a world where the quest for physical health, appearance, and convenience has gained almost idolatrous prominence, God may be calling Christians to demonstrate the glory of the gospel by being joyful and contented while enduring pain and hardship. People who are unfulfilled after pursuing things that do not satisfy, may be astonished when they see Christians, who are joyful and content after depriving themselves of these things for the sake of the gospel. This may be a new way to demonstrate the glory of the gospel to this hedonistic culture.

I have a great fear for the Church. The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering result in the church in the West being ineffective in its evangelism? The church in the East is growing, and because of that God’s servants are suffering. Significant funding and education come to the East from the West. With funding and education comes influence. Could Westerners influence Eastern Christians to abandon the cross by sending a message that they must be doing something wrong if they suffer in this way? Christians in both the East and the West need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and fruit-bearing.

 

 

Ajith Fernando has been National Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka since 1976. With his wife Nelun, he also serves in a church in Colombo consisting mainly of poor, urban first generation Christians. They have two grown children who work for Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. He is the author of The Call to Joy and Pain (Crossway).

Servanthood Springs From Grace

Written in 2006

By Ajith Fernando

 

One of the most horrible things one could see is the sight of Christians who sit contented with life after receiving God’s grace but do nothing to alleviate the suffering in the world. As we follow our Servant Lord, we too must become servants of the people we live among. However, our work towards the alleviation of suffering must comes as an overflow of grace. In an autobiographical passage describing his ministry Paul said, “…the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). The word translated “controls” has the idea of applying pressure (which is how this word is used in Luke 8:42b). God’s love comes in and then pushes us out into sacrificial service in this needy world.

 

Because everything Christian springs from grace, always grace has the priority in our approach to life. This is very important in Christian service because service can be done through self-effort so that grace is overshadowed. Though it looks like Christians are doing something for the world, actually it is Christ who is doing it through us. This is why there is so much about grace in the Epistles. We should take this proportionate emphasis on grace very seriously because the Epistles were the basic teaching documents sent to the young church. If in the process of inspiring the Bible into being the Holy Spirit decided that the primary focus should be on grace, then grace should be the primary focus in Christian teaching also.

 

Indeed some people focus on grace in an imbalanced way so that grace does not express itself in gracious service in this needy world. This is an insult to grace.

 

Let’s see how grace prompts service. When we focus on grace we are filled with Christ’s love and with the joy that comes with it. That joy will give us the strength (Neh. 8:10) to go out and serve humanity. In this scenario there won’t be a need to have a major stress on service in our teaching. Graced people will catch the message of service when it is given to them, and they would go out to serve. I think this is why the Epistles have more space explaining grace that pushing people into service. This is why esteemed servants of humanity like St. Francis of Assissi, William Wilberforce and Mother Theresa spoke so much about grace and placed so much emphasis on lingering in the presence of God through which strength is found to live a life of service.

 

There are many reason why we need to have all Christian servanthood to spring from grace.

 

  1. Grace Reminds us of the Importance of Evangelism. It is possible for Christians to spend all their energy serving human needs, that they can neglect the greatest need of a human being: the need to end their enmity with God—which destines them to hell—and be reconciled to God. This would be like only feeding the prodigal son while he is still in the far country. Indeed we may need to feed him there, but our great desire would be to get him to go home to his father.

 

I know that Francis of Assissi and William Wilberforce were both very strong on verbal witness in addition to witness through deeds. We often quote words attributed to Francis that go something like this: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary” Often that is quoted to downplay the value of words in Christian witness. Indeed it is clear from his ministry that he believed that preaching by deeds is a very important means of witness. But I found out that Francis did use words a lot in his witness, and that he aggressively sought to win the lost to Christ. During one of the infamous Crusades, he even crossed over to the (Muslim) Saracens side and attempted to convert the Sultan.

 

Similarly William Wilberforce who, as a British politician did much to eradicate social evil was also known for his emphasis on personal verbal witness. His biographer says, “Very early in his own pilgrimage Wilberforce set out to bring his friends to Christ. He would agonize about them in his diary and in his prayers, he would thing out phrases or subjects (“launchers”) he would call them which might turn the talk to religion.”

 

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we must be involved in meeting physical human need—in social action. We must be involved in trying to bring kingdom values to the structures of society—in social justice. Christians need to be thinking about topics like hunger, poverty, inequality, materialism, the hyper-sexualising of society, corruption, workers rights, and the environment. Involvement in such causes is clearly part of God’s call to us to be his agents and his call to us to be stewards looking after this world (Gen. 1:28). We know that one day God will redeem this world and consummate his kingdom work of establishing his rule in the universe. So we do not give up on this world. We are kingdom people who realise that the coming consummation of the kingdom will result in the redemption and not destruction of much of what we know to constitute this world.

 

But when we consider the supreme value of the human individual’s soul, we see the urgency of ensuring that individuals become inheritors of the kingdom. According to Jesus, one needs to be born again in order to inherit the kingdom (John 3:3-8). So in a discourse of personal discipleship Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matt. 16:26). This verse underscores the supreme value of the human soul or life. This is why evangelism is such an urgent task today.

 

By taking the gospel to those who are outside the Christian community we open the door to their salvation from sin and hell and their adoption into God’s family. But this is a very challenging task involving much spiritual conflict and attracting much persecution. Therefore we can be tempted to downplay this and share the gospel only with inquirers who come to us without going to those outside of contact with Christians. I fear that many Evangelicals are guilty of this.

 

I think it is because we could take it easy and not proactively go after the lost that Jesus kept repeating his commission to evangelisation before leaving this world. It would be so easy to neglect this task that he needed to drill it into the minds of the disciples. The repetition just before his departure suggests urgency and priority. This is why I still prefer to use the words “the Great Commission” to describe the call to evangelise and disciple the people of the world, even though many are uneasy with this expression these days.

 

My point in this section is that we can get so engrossed in meeting physical human need that we can neglect the gospel of grace which brings eternal salvation to people. An emphasis on grace can help us overcome this error.

 

  1. Grace Helps us Avoid Bitterness. Christian servanthood is difficult work. It may cause in a highly qualified and brilliant intellectual to devote his or her life to serve the poor as a teacher in a village school. It may cause a young man, who is skilled in business and showing great potential for success in this field, to give up all those prospects of prosperity in order to be a primary school teacher because many young children today are lacking in good models of fatherhood. It may cause a successful businesswoman to resign her job in order to care for her sick mother or a successful businessman to retire early to care for his sick wife.

 

Servanthood involves the frustration of having to change our plans in order to meet the needs of those who serve. One who saved money over several months to buy a new TV set may end up giving that to pay the entrance fee needed for a poor friend’s daughter to get into a good school. It also involves us having to change our schedules. Often our desperate plans for rest or sleep are buckled because of having to help a needy person right at the time we were planning to sleep or rest.

 

Sometimes the hardest aspects of servanthood have to do with the reactions of people. The parents of many of the great missionaries in history were not happy about their children going to the mission field, and when so many of them died young, they felt that their reservations were proved to be correct. Often because of the warped sense of values in our world, people who do service-oriented things which do not send them up in the social ladder are viewed as failures in life. Sometimes that is the hardest thing—to have people despising you for the sacrifices you make when you thought they should be admiring you.

 

Then there is the sad fact that those we help sacrificially may turn against us and end up blaming us for their problems. Leaders too can disappoint us by not appreciating what we do and by criticising our actions.

 

All this can make us very bitter or depressed or disillusioned with the life of servanthood. I have had people say to me angrily (as they reject a lifestyle of servanthood) that they have served others for too long and that now it is time for them to look after themselves. The sad fact is that many people known for their humble servanthood are actually very bitter people. When the bitterness comes out under some provocation we are shocked to see how unhappy these servants really are.

 

The ultimate good done by bitter servants is highly limited. They lack the anointing of the Spirit of love, and so though they may be able show some impressive statistics of what they achieved, in the end they have achieved very little from God’s eternal perspective.

 

Besides, we may end up hurting people by our angry outbursts that often take place when we are bitter. We hurt our colleagues, we hurt those we seek to serve and a lot of the good we have done is negated by the negative impact of our temper tantrums.

 

Sometimes we spend so much time and effort trying to show that we are right and those who opposed us are wrong. The battle may be disguised as a fight for justice. But actually it is a battle to boost our ego that has been offended. I feel such battles are a waste of time. We spent so much time and energy on a battle that will produce minimal net effect. It would be so much wiser to let God vindicate us and concentrate on serving God in this needy world.

 

Grace is the best antidote to bitterness and disillusionment. When we are overwhelmed by the fact that God loves us in spite of our sins, the force of the wrong actions of others is negated. While we are sad by what they have done, we reason that we too have done so much which is wrong but that still God in his grace is using us. So we become patient with the sins of others. Besides the doctrine of grace braces us with the fact that though sin may abound grace will abound even more (Rom. 5:20). We know therefore that the evil affects of sin will be overcome.

 

With such a perspective we have no reason to be bitter. To remain bitter is to affirm that people’s sin against us is greater than the grace of God. That is heresy. Besides people don’t deserve such a high status—the status of being able to claim that they have caused decisive harm to God’s children. No sin is greater than God’s grace. Therefore the net effect of God’s grace always leaves us better off even after people have sinned against us (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28). “all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). We don’t just neutralise the enemy. Grace ensures that we are better off because the enemy attacked us. He’s done us a favour. How can we be bitter with such a perspective?

 

Then there is the reality that most important thing in our lives is not touched by the nasty behaviour of people. The most important thing in our lives is not the service we render to humanity, it is the fact that God loves us. This is what causes us to be filled with joy. Because God’s love is greater than the wickedness of people, however bad people have been, we still have that thing which fills our hearts with joy. This joy, of course, becomes a key to our effectiveness as servants.

 

  1. Grace Takes Away our Insecurity. When we do not emphasise grace we do not feed our sense of identity in Christ. This makes us insecure and results in us doing fleshly things to restore our sense of self importance. We become judgmental and start criticising others who do not work like us. We major on exposing the ills, the ugliness and the hypocrisy in society. In the process we neglect to emphasise beautiful grace of God which helps us overcome those ills.

 

The Bible says “…in humility count others [in the body of Christ] more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). But we do just the opposite. In our insecurity we begin to focus on how good we are and on how we not hypocrites like others. This gives rise to pride, and the Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). We become vulnerable to Satan’s attacks, and we fall into sin.

 

This could be one reason for a sad phenomenon that is all too common in the church: many who are serious about social holiness are guilty of glaring lapses in personal holiness. As they find satisfaction in the work they do, their insecurity causes them to get proud. Then they become careless about the great battle that is needed to guard their personal lives. Once they fall into sin they try to silence the voice of conscience by finding fault with others who they think are doing much worse things than them. So they become obsessed with the hypocrisy and social sin in church and society. Though they may diagnose the problem accurately, they do not present the solution to it which is the grace of God.

 

Biblical Christians are equally committed to personal and social morality and battle for both of them. But they also know that if they fail in personal morality that disqualifies them from battling for social morality. This knowledge pushes them to get the personal area of their lives cleared up. They know that only then can they can have the spiritual freedom that is needed to battle in the social realm. And, thank God, his grace is always there to forgive us when we sin and to help us along the path to full-restoration.

 

Servants must be secure people if their service is going to be wholesome and constructive. Only grace can give us such security.

 

  1. Grace Gives us the Strength for Servanthood. Servanthood is very draining. In my youth I read a quote from the British Baptist preacher Francis W. Dixon who said, “The hardest work to do is the work of God on your own strength.” If we try to serve people on our own strength, we will become prime candidates for burn-out. We will begin to find our fulfilment from work. We will work long and hard without taking a daily break for being with God and a weekly Sabbath to relax and let God work for us. If our focus was on grace, we would realise that because God is the one who does the work the most important thing is for us to be in tune with God.

 

But as we linger in the presence of God, reading his Bible, meditating and praying, we find that our batteries charged and our strength renewed. Isaiah 40:31 says, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. I tell our Youth for Christ staff that our calling is to go into the world to serve. When we do that we will get bashed. But we come back to God and renew our strength. Then we go into the world again only to get bashed again. But again we come back and renew our strength. Using this pattern we can go on and on without getting burned out.

 

If people who work very hard do not depend on grace they end up getting very insecure. Devoid of the thrilling identity of being a child of God they find their identity in their work. Sometimes they succumb to an extra-marital affair to boost their flagging egos. Spending so much time in office, they neglect their spouses and become candidates for an affair with someone at work. In their insecurity they become driven people. They work without stopping to look into themselves to see how we are doing. They continue to work and work until the body and the mind revolt and refuse to subjected to this slavery. They lose our energy and drive: they end up burned out.

 

Many people who have served sacrificially for a long time end up burned out when they come to their middle age. Burnout has become an epidemic among people who are involved in people-helping activities. It could have been avoided if they had been nourished by the rejuvenating grace of God.

 

My friend, Susan Pearlman of Jews for Jesus used to say, “Burn out takes place when the wick and not the oil is burning.” God’s grace is an inexhaustible resource. Those who are constantly energised by grace can go on serving for decades without losing their fire. Until the day they die they will be energised and thrilled by the marvels of grace. They will remain excited about the ministry—not because of the success they meet but because of the glory of the grace of God which calls them and equips them to serve.

 

Let me close this article by issuing a call to Christians to commit themselves afresh to a life of service. But, when doing so, make sure that this service springs primarily from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and not from a sense of duty that results in purely human efforts at doing good.