Missionaries Ought to Know about Suffering
By Dr. Ronald Koteskey
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As you think about some of your fellow missionaries, you realize that many of
them are suffering greatly.
- One man has been in constant physical
pain for years because of a problem with his back.
- A woman had a small fortune when she came
to serve, but poor financial decisions by friends back home have left her
- One couple worries constantly about their
wayward son who is living as a street person back in their passport country.
- Another couple receives many
heart-rending e-mails from their daughter living with a man to whom she is
- Yet another couple cannot forgive
themselves because their teenage daughter was molested by a national years
- After nearly two decades of service, a
missionary family sees its influence nearly wiped out when a cult comes in.
The list could go on and on. How could it be that faithful missionaries
could suffer so much physically, emotionally, financially, and so forth?
They have been faithful in their service. It seems like God just does not
care. Where is God anyway? God rewards his children, doesn’t he?
Does he keep his promises?
What’s going on?
The problem is that we have many “Christian” cultural beliefs that are not
- God builds a hedge of protection around
his people so they will not suffer.
- If we live in God’s will, we won’t
- Suffering means we have sinned.
- Suffering has no positive results.
- We have no joy if we suffer.
- If God really loves us, he will not let
- God punishes us with suffering.
Again this list could go on and on. A much longer list appears in the
comments of Job’s “friends” in chapters 4-37. Job’s comments in those
chapters showed that he did not understand what was going on, but he was sure
his friends did not know either. Let us look at what Jesus himself told
those who were following him.
What did Jesus say?
When his disciples asked Jesus what it would be like for His people near the
end of time, Jesus listed much suffering (Matthew 24, John 15-16).
- Hatred by all nations
- Betrayal by people who left the faith
- Hatred by people who left the faith
- Killings by people who believe they are
serving God as they kill
Jesus went on to tell the disciples that he told them about these things so
that when they actually came they would remember that he had warned them (John
16:4). We should not be surprised when we suffer.
More specifically, he told his twelve disciples what it would be like when
they went out to serve. He told them they would experience the following
- Be handed over to local councils
- Be flogged in synagogues
- Be arrested
- Be betrayed by family members
- Be killed
- Be hated by “everyone”
What happened to Paul?
We can read not only about Jesus warning but also about what actually
happened to Paul, an early cross-cultural worker. Paul actually listed his
sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11).
- 39 lashes from the Jews (5 times)
- Beaten with rods (3 times)
- Shipwrecked (3 times)
- Hungry. thirsty, and cold
- Labor, toil, and sleeplessness
- In danger from rivers, bandits, false
brothers, people from passport country as well as nationals.
- In danger in the city, in the country,
and at sea.
Cross-cultural workers today experience similar suffering, although they are
more likely to be in airplane crashes than shipwrecks.
Do we have to suffer?
During his first term of cross-cultural service, to encourage and strengthen
people, Paul told them, “We must suffer…” (Acts 14:22). Why would we have
to suffer? Sometimes suffering is the only way to reach a particular goal.
For example, most people have experienced getting a sliver in their hand or
foot. This frequently happens during childhood, and children often want to
leave the splinter in rather than suffering as the parents remove it.
However, the parents know that if the splinter remains, it will become
infected and may turn into a serious problem. The parents also know that
the only way to get the splinter out is to dig it out. Assuming that the
parents do not take every splinter to a physician where anesthesia is available,
removing the splinter causes some suffering as it is removed.
Why would anyone rejoice in suffering?
The answer is in the “know that” phrase which is in italics in the paragraph
above. When you “know that” your suffering is the way to develop
particular traits, you can rejoice as you consider the goal.
James wrote that we should “consider it pure joy” when we face trials because
we know that this leads to perseverance, which then leads to maturity (James
1:2-4). It is not that we enjoy the suffering, but we rejoice because we
know that we are moving toward maturity.
Romans 5:3-4 states, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings,
because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character;
and character, hope.” Again, our joy comes not from the suffering itself,
but we rejoice because we know that we are moving toward character and hope.
It also helps to know that we are not alone in our suffering. Peter, a
third culture kid, tells us to stand firm “because you know that your brothers
throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:9).
You are not alone, Christians all over the world experience similar sufferings
as they develop perseverance, character, hope and maturity.
Does suffering always lead to perseverance, character, hope and maturity?
It can lead to these characteristics, but it does not always do so.
Suffering may result in people becoming either better or bitter, depending on
how they respond to it. The writer of Hebrews points out that God, our
heavenly father, disciplines (not punishes) us like our earthly parents do
(Hebrews 12). Just as people differ in their response to their parent’s
discipline when they are children, so do people differ in their response to
God’s discipline when they are adults.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to endure hardship as discipline and
notes that everyone experiences discipline. Our earthly parents do what
seems best to them, but our heavenly father does what is best for us. “God
disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline
seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a
harvest of righteousness and peace” (Hebrews 12:10-11).
Each of us chooses whether or not to accept God’s discipline gracefully
(Psalm 119:71) to develop perseverance, character, hope, maturity,
righteousness, and peace or to reject his discipline and become bitter toward
him and about life in general. We choose whether to become better or to
do I respond while suffering?
Most of the information above is cognitive in nature, and it is important for
you to think on these things. Likewise, it is important for you to watch
what you say to yourself, your self-talk. Talking to yourself about God
takes your eyes off your problems and focuses them on God. The Psalms have many
good examples of such self-talk.
- “Why are you downcast, O my soul?...”
- “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone….”
In addition, you must be honest about the emotions you feel. Jesus was
(in Mark 14:33-34, Matthew, 26:38, and Luke 12:50):
- “deeply distressed and troubled”
- “overwhelmed with sorrow”
Likewise, Paul was honest about his emotional reactions.
- “great distress and anguish of heart and
with many tears” (2 Corinthians 2:4)
- “anxiety” (Philippians 2:28)
- “fear” (2 Corinthians 7:5, 12:20)
King David, no stranger to suffering, wrote about these same emotional
responses in the Psalms.
- Distress (Psalm 4:1, 18:6, 25:18, 31:9)
- Anguish (Psalm 6:3, 25:17, 31:10, 38:8)
- Fear and anxiety (Psalm 34:4, 56:3 94:19)
Of course, your most valuable resource when suffering is the Bible which has
much to say about it. Many of the Psalms are prayers to be sung during
times of suffering. Use your software or concordance to find what the
Bible has to say about such emotions during times of suffering. Pray the
Psalms that most closely match your own suffering.
We are not to seek suffering either in masochistic tendencies or as
“Christian martyrs.” Neither of these is a sign of God’s favor, just as
suffering is a sign of God’s disfavor. However, we can take comfort in
knowing that God will use the suffering he allows to make us more like him.
Ronald Koteskey is
Member Care Consultant