Sovereignty, PRAYER and PERSEVERANCE
Youth for Christ
I’m going through what could be called a “traumatic experience.” I needed a visa for a country which has no embassy in Sri Lanka. So I send my passport to the embassy in neighbouring India through a courier. Over two weeks after sending it, I called the embassy and was told that they have no trace of the passport. My travel agent found out from the courier company that the passport had been delivered at the embassy and we were even given the name of the person in the embassy who had taken delivery of it.
The process that followed was really tough on me. My travel agent called India twice and I called a total of 14 times in the space of a little more than three days. Sometimes I was kept on hold for a long time only to be told that I should call in an hour’s time. And when I called again I was told that the officers were at a meeting, and so I must call an hour later. When I did that I was told to call the next day. It went on and on like this. I was to speak five times at this conference and chances of my going on time were getting less and less. I was feeling more and more nervous and severely humiliated.
I know that the visa has been granted, but now I am waiting for my passport to come to Sri Lanka. I think I will be able to go for the conference three days late. I think I will be able to give four of the five messages I was scheduled to give. If I do not go, it would be a personal “blessing” to me—I would have had a whole week without appointments to catch up on the many things I am behind on. Nelun and I would go to our drug rehab centre and spend about three or four days there, grading papers, studying, writing and spending time with the students and staff there. It would be a heavenly break from the busy schedule. Travelling lost its appeal to me many years ago. But I am called to be a preacher of the Word, and I love doing that. I believed that God had called me to go for this conference to minister to some of God’s choice servants working under really trying circumstances. So I decided that I must make every effort to go.
If I am an ambassador of the King of kings, and if this King is sovereign over history, why did I have to go through so much struggle, pain, tension and humiliation while performing my royal duties? The Bible says that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). There had to be a reason for this trial. It says that the trial would be for my good and that I should come out of it more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37)—better off because of the trial. If I did not believe that and rejoice over this situation, I would become an angry person and would disqualify myself from my call to be a minister of the Word. Angry preachers are poor representatives of the God they commend to the world. They lack a key aspect of the gospel they proclaim: joy. I did not want to be that.
So I am grappling with this problem in my mind and I am writing what comes as a result of the theologising. I have concluded that there were two reasons for me to be happy even at this time. The first is that God is using this experience to do something good in my life. And the second is that perseverance against all odds is the way that God often uses to express his sovereignty in the world.
Often the process used by God to give us his good gifts is more important than the gift itself. If the Bible is true then I needed this trial for my personal good. Even though I am extremely busy with some new responsibilities in YFC God seems to have thought that he needs me to get away from my work to devote myself to this trial—for example, to making fourteen calls to India.
My biggest battle in life is not directly tied to my ministry. It is the battle to be more Christlike. And here I have a long, long way to go. For example, if in the course of our work we get tense, humiliated and angry, that does not give us the licence to snap at the people who do not have to blame for this situation. When my wife Nelun came into my room and asked me to explain the situation after a particularly humiliating call to India I got annoyed and snapped at her. Fortunately she is committed to me and loving enough both to express her hurt at my wrong actions and to forgive me when I apologise.
I have a long way to go in the battle for patience—which is clearly one of the most important qualities of a genuine Christian, given the number of times it appears in the Epistles. May God use this experience to make me more patient!
So I thank God for using this trial to reveal my weakness and hopefully to purify me. Revealing our weaknesses and purifying us can be subsumed under the word “testing” which James says is a key result of facing “trials of various kinds” (Jas. 1:3).
FRUSTRATION, PERSEVERANCE AND PRAYER (ROMANS 8:18-39)
My experience is an example of situations God’s children typically go through in this world—situations which call for perseverance and prayer. Let me send this through the grid of Scripture.
- God said that because of the fall, toil and hardship will become a normal part of life on earth (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul explains how this “curse” works in our lives in Romans 8. He explains the results of this curse upon humanity by using the term “frustration” (NIV) or “futility” (ESV): “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope” (Rom. 8:20).
- Because of this frustration groaning is a regular part of life on earth even for the believer (Rom. 8:22-23). Paul said, “…when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn— fighting without and fear within” (2 Cor. 7:5). We should not be surprised then when we feel like Paul did in Macedonia. And this is how I feel as I wait for my passport.
- Yet creation was subjected to futility “in hope” (8:20) and our groaning is as “in the pains of childbirth” (8:22). We know that out of our pain something good will emerge (8:28). In fact one day the effects of this curse will be completely destroyed and, with the whole creation, we will experience the redemption of our bodies (8:23). Until then we will groan because of the frustration we encounter. This is why hope is so important to us. Paul points out that such hope is part of the basic, initial gospel we responded to when he says, “…in this hope we were saved” (8:24).
- Because of this hope we respond with patience. Paul says, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:25). But Christian patience is not the resignation of a quiet acceptance of our fate. Some say, “This is my karma” Others say, “Insha’llah”—if God wills—without the positive attitude that this is the best thing that could happen. Leon Morris says that the Christian understanding of patience is like “the attitude of the soldier who in the thick of the battle is not dismayed but fights on stoutly whatever the difficulties.” We don’t give up when we face huge problems. We persevere knowing that God will finally give us the victory. In fact not only do we conquer—we “over-conquer” (literal translation): “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37). We are better off because of the battle.
- Because of these truths about ultimate victory we can go on rejoicing in God throughout the crisis. But there is an even more blessed truth which spurs us joyfully on: the most important thing in our life is not touched by this—in fact it may even be deepened. That is our love relationship with God. So Paul has two powerful statements giving his conviction that nothing can separate him from this love (8:35, 38-39). Paul’s uses the perfect tense in verse 38, “I have been persuaded” (literal translation), suggesting that he is talking about a firm conviction that he has arrived at. This truth has been validated by experience and is now part of Paul’s way of looking at problems.
- How do we pray at such a time? Well, Paul says that because of the frustration we encounter we do not know how to pray. But the Spirit is there to help us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (8:26a). His help is in the form of interceding for us: “Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8:26b). As we groan through frustration and through not knowing what the will of God is, the Holy Spirit identifies with us so closely that he himself groans along with us. What comfort this is to us in our times of perplexity!
- But unlike us the Spirit knows the will of God. So his intercession for us is in keeping with God’s will: “And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:27). The Spirit helps us by being a divine editor who takes the prayers coming from our ignorance and edits them so that they conform to the will of God. So if what happens is not what we prayed for, we are not disappointed. It is a positive answer to our prayers which were edited by the Spirit to conform to God’s will. We will persevere in prayer knowing that God will use our prayers to achieve the good he wishes for us.
Paul’s vision of going to Rome is very instructive here. He dreamed of this trip for a long time and wrote to the Romans about it and about how he was planning to come so that he can make Rome his base of operations for his next big thrust into unreached areas with the gospel (see Rom 1:8-15; 15:22-33). He appealed for prayer that the doors would be opened for him to make this visit (15:30-32). He did eventually reach Rome, but it was by a way he least expected. He was arrested in Jerusalem and spent a long time in prison awaiting trial. He finally appealed to Caesar, and his journey to Rome was made as a prisoner. It involved an extremely uncomfortable two weeks on a storm-tossed sea. I will never forget about three hours spent on a much calmer sea travelling south from Mannar in Northern Sri Lanka. It was nearly unbearable. Paul had two weeks of worse weather.
But he continued serving God while he was a Prisoner. His joyful letter to the Philippians was written from prison. Here he talks about how his sharing the gospel has encouraged other Christians outside to be bold to share their faith (1:14). He even exhorts his readers people, “Rejoice in the Lord always;” and lest they forget he continues, “again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). So struggle with frustration, we pray and ask others to pray and we keep rejoicing.
We won’t give up dreaming! But we submit our dreams to God. He may cause us to abandon the plans we had made about how we were going to achieve those dreams. While dumping those plans may cause natural disappointment we will continue dreaming, obeying, rejoicing, praying and persevering knowing that he is working everything for the good. Along the way he delights us by giving us many of our dreams—not in the way we planned but in a much better way! “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
SOME PRACTICAL EXAMPLES OF THESE PRINCIPLES
Let’s see how the principles described above work in daily life:
- The most important thing about us is that we are children of God created to know God, enjoy him and glorify him. Our ministry springs from that. We are children first and only then are we servants. Our highest priority is to nurture our relationship with God. So our personal time with God each day is the most important activity of the day. We can neglect that as we struggle with the challenges of ministry. Then even though we may be able to overcome the ministry challenge we will fail in the most important challenge—that of being close to God. We must persevere in seeking God’s face daily however immense our ministerial challenges may be.
- You’ve had a torrid night being with the family of a dying man. You look forward to a long sleep the next night. But your daughter comes home that night deeply discouraged over something that has happened at school. She needs the encouragement and strength that would come from a long talk with her. Because of your call to be a father you forfeit sleep again, so that you can minister to your daughter.
- But though you are facing huge challenges which take up much time you must also persevere in meeting your need for rest. After several efforts you will find time to rest and recuperate. This persevering for rest is beautifully expressed in the life Jesus in the events surrounding the feeding of the five thousand. Mark prefaced this narrative with the words, “And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). He set apart a time for rest because of his very busy schedule. But he couldn’t rest as he had planned because the crowds found him. So he had to have another marathon teaching session. The people were hungry so he fed them. But he did not give up persevering for rest. He did find time to be alone after that by dismissing the crowds and packing off the disciples on a boat ride. Finally he was able to be alone and pray (Mark 6:45-46).
- We have a dual call to proclaim Jesus as Lord and to be servants of the people we minister among (2 Cor. 4:5). Often if we are to do both these jobs adequately we have to really push ourselves. An emergency situation with a member of the church (whose servant you are) may necessitate your spending five hours with him on Saturday when you are supposed to be preparing your Sunday sermon. To go to church with your message unprepared would be to commit the ecclesiastical crime of dishonouring God by not exhibiting the glory of the Word in your preaching. Because you had to serve this person, you have lost five hours of preparation time. Perhaps you will need to reduce your sleep and persevere into the night that day in order to get a good message prepared. But you dare not go to preach unprepared.
- While under terrible pressure from all that is happening around us, we must persevere with obedience to the Christian ethic. People are very angry in Sri Lanka these days as the country deteriorates into more and more lawlessness and abuse. Many have given up hope, and their despair is expressing itself in outbursts of anger (e.g. on the road). But we cannot burst out angrily like that for Christian love is always patient (1 Cor. 13:4). We are seeing a lot of impoliteness especially in workplaces. But Christian love is not rude (1 Cor. 13:5). People are rejected and spoken to as terrorist suspects simply because of the race they belong to. But such racial profiling contradicts Christian love which believes all things and hopes all things (1 Cor. 13:7). People are giving up on Sri Lanka and leaving even though millions in this nation desperately need Jesus and Sri Lanka desperately needs people of integrity in public life. Such flight contradicts Christian love which endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7). One of the greatest challenges Christians face in this fast paced, competitive, impatient, results-oriented, appearance-fixated world is being thoroughgoing followers of the Christian ethic all the time.
- I am both a public preacher and leader of an organisation. An important aspect of my ministry as leader of Youth for Christ is writing letters on behalf of our staff and volunteers. Letters to raise funds for their projects, letters to help them be released from custody when they are taken in on suspicion of being terrorists, letters to help them or their children gain entrance to an educational institution, letters to help them get good jobs. If an urgent request for a letter comes at a time that I am fully occupied with some big challenges in the ministry, shall I refuse the request? Sometimes I may have to ask for a delay. But when we keep ignoring micro needs because of mega problems we lose our soul! Usually I will write the letter. But that calls for perseverance for I cannot neglect the urgent task of dealing with the challenge in the ministry.
- Even when things seem impossible we will keep praying knowing that all things are possible with God. If what we prayed for takes place we will praise him, and if it doesn’t take place we will still praise him because he will turn even this situation into good.
The above examples would have shown that a key to bearing lasting fruit is the ability to persevere without giving up. It is through the perseverance of working under difficult circumstances that books are completed, that sermons that are both biblical and down-to-earth are prepared, that excellent programmes are prepared, that spouses and children are given a happy environment at home, that the resistant are won for Christ, that backsliders are reclaimed, and that vibrant disciples are nurtured.
Persevering against all odds is the way all effective ministry is done. My visa episode was just another example of a thing that happens everyday in our lives and ministries in less dramatic ways. After our fourteenth call to the Embassy, I felt so humiliated and angry that I told myself, “Why don’t I just stay back in Sri Lanka and have a good rest at home?” Then I thought I will try just one more time. I called two staff workers and my wife and had one of the staff pray for me. Then I went to the phone for the fifteenth call; and for the first time I was spoken to politely and even told that my visa had been approved!
The next day the courier company called the embassy to pay the visa fee and collect the passport. They also got the “call later” treatment. That would have meant they cannot pay for the visa that day. So they wanted me to call the embassy to ask what to do. Again I was reluctant but again I prayed with a colleague and called. This time too I got to speak to an officer who told me to ask the courier company to go and pay the money.
They went and paid and were told that they can collect the passport only after the weekend. Again we are stuck! So this time it was the travel agent’s job to persevere and fix new flights. Now here I am on Monday, still uncertain, but praying without losing heart (Luke 18:1).
A PRESCRIPTION FOR BURNOUT?
If we push ourselves like this, won’t we get burned out? I believe burnout is the result of insecurity; not of hard work. Insecurity drives us to succeed, and success becomes more important than our spiritual lives, our families and our colleagues. Soon we drive ourselves to the ground. But if in the midst of frustration we maintain warm and fresh relationships with God, family and colleagues—we can groan and lament with them over our pain. And God will comfort us directly or through others. His comfort brings great joy. We may be tired, but we are happy. We are energised to work on without getting burned out.
Besides because obedience to God is primary in our lives, however busy we are, we would be obedient about God’s Sabbath command. The Sabbath gives us physical rest, and it takes away strain from our lives. In addition, by not working on one day we are affirming that God is the one who does the work in our lives and ministry and not us. And that is so liberating! We work with the security that this is God’s work. Disappointments will come, challenges will come—but in the midst of all of that deep down something tells us—God is in control both of our lives and our situations, so it’s going to be alright. We don’t have the resentment, disappointment and the feeling of having been used unfairly by people which is so characteristic of burnout. How can we have such feelings when we know everything is working out for our good?
- God is sovereign.
- But this fallen world has been subjected to frustration.
- One of the means God uses to express his sovereignty in this frustrating world is the perseverance of the saints.
Let us persevere in prayer and action!
NOTE: I did not get the passport back on time. I did not go. I hope that the lessons about perseverance, patience and prayer which I learned will make this experience worthwhile. But at the moment by biggest prayer is that God would bless the conference which is going to be without its main speaker.
 Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), p. 325.