Embracing Suffering in Service
An unedited version of an article subsequently published in Christianity Today.
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.
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.
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).