Superhero Saint Or Struggling Servant
The young global working family file onto the waiting plane. The goodbyes have been said and farewell tears have given way to eager anticipation. The years of seminary, deputation, and language school are over. Tomorrow they will at last set foot in the country that is to be their new home. Tomorrow the adventure begins. How exciting to share Christ with the people they have learned to love from afar!
Two years later, the family huddles around the candle-lit table. The electricity is out again so there isn’t even a fan to stir the humid heat of the evening. The curtains are drawn – the only way to keep out prying eyes. Despite the screens and a shooing hand, flies cluster over the remains of supper, attracted by the garbage strewn around the neighborhood by stray dogs and rooting pigs.
The young couple is tired. Tired of wrapping their tongues around sounds never meant to be pronounced. Tired of people giggling at their mistakes or turning away form their message. Don’t these people appreciate the sacrifice they’ve made in coming to their poverty and disease-ridden country? Don’t they understand privacy? Or hygiene? They cam here to love these people, but the truth is, they don’t even like them.
They have been faithful in preaching the Gospel, but there’s been only a handful of converts and two of those have recently fallen away. Their ten and twelve year old girls hate home schooling and want to tog back to North America. And that disagreement with their global working teammates – how could it have gone so far? Where is the excitement and adventure they were expecting? Where is the joy with which they stepped onto this alien soil. They look at each other, neither ready to voice their thoughts aloud: Is this what serving God is all about? Is there any point in even going on?
Global workers are not the first to struggle with discouragement in ministry. It’s something every one of God’s servants has gone through – even the great ones. Take a look at Jeremiah. Now he had an exhilarating ministry! Living in a time period worthy of a Hollywood epic film, getting to preach to kings and princes, and even live in one of the king’s palaces on occasion. He was famous, one of the best known names of his time. To this day he is renowned as one of the major prophets of al time. What a privilege to be chosen as God’s foremost servant during such a stirring, exiting era in his nation’s history!
It wasn’t easy – and it certainly wasn’t confortable – at the time. Imagine knowing that everyone you know and love is going to die – and having to tell them. Jeremiah served God at a time when most of his people had turned their backs on God and were worshiping idols, living in gross degradation and perversion. The Babylonians were invading time and time again. Jeremiah was the one chosen by God to prophecy Israel’s ultimate destruction if they didn’t repent of their hard hearts and evil ways.
Like any bearer of bad news, Jeremiah wasn’t exactly popular with his neighbors. Instead of turning back to God, the Israelites turned on Jeremiah. In the next years he was forced into hiding, beaten, thrown into prison, half-drowned in a mud pit, and his writings were burned. In between each of those prophetic appearances before kings would be long periods of wandering and preaching to a scornful and ridiculing audience. He did not even have the comfort of a family. God told him he couldn’t have a wife or children because they would all be slaughtered (Jer. 16:1). His only friend in the world was his disciple, Beruch, son of Neriah. We think we’ve go it rough sometimes!
IN the end Jeremiah had to watch his down city come under siege, see tiny children starving in the streets, and parents actually practicing cannibalism. And worse, he knew that it was his people’s own fault. All his preaching and godly service hadn’t made one whit of difference to the masses.
No, Jeremiah’s ministry wasn’t an enjoyable and exciting experience. You can be sure it didn’t measure up to the expectations he had when he finished prophet’s school. Nor was there furlough to look forward to. His term of service was the whole of a long and bitter life.
Oh, but Jeremiah was a Christian superhero! What could he know discouragement and disillusionment? Surely he could handle hard times and tragedy without blinking an eye! Otherwise, God would hardly have chosen him for such an important ministry, would he?
That isn’t the picture we get reading Jeremiah and Lamentations. Sandwiched in between those terrifying prophecies of doom and destruction, we see a man battling with overwhelming loneliness and grief. Yes, he was faithful in preaching God’s message, but he did plenty of crying out to God about it. He questioned God’s justice in allowing the wicked to prosper (Jer. 12:1). He complained that God had deceived him because all he received for his preaching was ridicule and insult (Jer. 20:7). When God condemned Israel to destruction and captivity, Jeremiah wept and pled for his people. But when those same people turned viciously on him, he urged God to punish them (Lam. 2:11, 3:61). He railed at his own isolation as God’s servant (Jer. 15:16-18). How could God condemn him to such loneliness and grief when he had so faithfully followed God’s Word? It just wasn’t fair!
It wasn’t that Jeremiah ever budged from being God’s faithful servant. But it’s clear that he would have traded all his fame and place in history for a home and family in a more peaceful era where he could preach a sermon or two every week, do a spot of counseling, and count on God’s people to do their part in following God.
Looking back from a period of 2500 years, we see Jeremiah as one of the greatest of God’s servants. But in his writings there is a lot of “Why me?” “Why did You pick me to be a famous religious outcast?” “Why did You stick me in this time of history instead of back in Hezekiah’s reign or some other more peaceful era?” But you see, God never promised that serving Him would always be comfortable or exciting or fun. As often as not, it’s hot, smelly, dirty, lonely, and not at all what we feel like spending the rest of our lives doing. In fact, if we were to base our service for God on how we feel most of us would soon turn tail and run for home.
What is it God has chosen you to do? Have you even wished He hadn’t? Have you even looked at the people to whom God has called you to minister and wished you didn’t have to worry about their spiritual well being? Have you wished you could just show up at church on Sunday without concerning yourself about what’s happening behind the scenes?
Have you even found the burden of a lost world, those church problems, that friend who has fallen away from God despite all discipleship, those personality clashes with other Christian workers to be so great you just want to chuck the whole thing? Have you even felt that the treadmill you’re running on is actually going backwards, that all your efforts aren’t even putting a dent in an overwhelming mountain of human need and lost souls? And have you even felt guilty about those thoughts?
It isn’t difficult to understand why Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom and destruction are in the Bible. But why did God include so much of Jeremiah’s hurt and anger and complaints to God concerning his ministry? Complaints that sound disturbingly familiar! How could God continue to speak through a man with so many questions? If God knew Jeremiah’s rebellious thoughts, why didn’t he just cast him aside? Find someone who would never question His decisions – someone who would never get discouraged, never find his service to God a cross to bear? Why doesn’t He do the same to me?
God continued to single out Jeremiah as His messenger despite his impertinent questions, anger, and discouragement. Why? Could it be that the Almighty God who dreamed up the universe and the tiniest cell in our bodies doesn’t mind our anguished cries to Him? That He still works through us even when we feel at the bottom of the precipice and wish we were anywhere but where He has called us? Could it be that He isn’t as hard on us as we are on ourselves?
Or could it be that He sees past our wailing and complaining to the underlying faith and love for Him that brought us to serve Him in the first place? When it comes right down to it, in the midst of all his expressions of loneliness and grief, Jeremiah never lost sight of who it was that had gotten him into all this and was beside him all the way.
“If I say, ‘I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,’ His word is in my heart like fire,” he cried out (Jer. 20:9). And when all was said and done, his conclusion was: “Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:19-26). God included Jeremiah’s wailing so we would know that we aren’t the only ones who have felt alone, angry, and afraid in our service to Him. We would also know that He doesn’t toss us aside when we hurt, fume, and question. And we would know that God still loves and uses us even when we don’t measure up to our own ideals as the perfect servant.
Getting back to global work service, it isn’t just exhilaration of a new and adventurous life. It often means pulling up roots, goodbyes, strangeness, loneliness, and disillusionment.
Sometimes God’s servants wish desperately that God had chosen anyone else but them. Or wonder why He made it necessary for anyone to be chosen at all. Max Lucado says it well in his book No Wonder They Call Him Savior, “The Bible is bound together with good-bye trails and stained with farewell tears…Joseph was called to be an orphan in Egypt. Jonah was called to be a foreigner in Nineveh. Hannah sent her firstborn son away to serve in the temple. Daniel was sent from Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah was sent form Susa to Jerusalem. Abraham was sent to sacrifice his own son. Paul had to say good-bye to his heritage.”
It seems that goodbye is a word all too prevalent in the Christian’s vocabulary that global workers know well. Those who send them know it too. The doctor who leaves the city to work in the jungle hospital has said it and so has the Bible translator who lives far from home. Those who feed the hungry, teach the lost, help the poor, all know the word goodbye.
Airports. Luggage. Embraces. Tail lights. “Wave to Grandma”. Tears. Bus terminals. Ship docks. “Goodbye Daddy”. Tight throats. Ticket counters. Misty eyes. “Write me!”
Question: what kind of God would put people through such agony? What kind of God would give you families and then ask you to leave them? What kind of God would give you friends and then ask you to say good-bye? (For that matter, what kind of God would condemn one of His most faithful servant to a lifetime of loneliness and grief?)
Answer: A God who knows that the deepest love is built not on passion and romance, but on a common mission and sacrifice.
Answer: A God who knows that we are only pilgrims and that eternity is so close that any “Goodbyes”, is in reality a “see you tomorrow”. And maybe that’s the answer right there. You see, God doesn’t look at time the way we do. Right now the road may seem endless and rocky. We don’t understand why God is doing what He is doing, why things are happening as they are happening. That old promise that “all things work together for good” seems so distant it is invisible. But the 70-80 years that at times seem so long and painful to us are only a drop in the bucket of eternity. A hundred years from now we are going to look back and wonder why we thought it all so hard. You can be sure Jeremiah is now chuckling over those few scant years of ministry he once thought so painful and unfair.
Perhaps in the end it is this that makes worthwhile all the discouragement and disillusionment that are an inevitable part of serving God: the assurance that it’s not going to end like this. Unlikely as it may seem at the moment, God has promised a happy ending – no, not an ending, but a beginning – just up ahead. The beginning of an eternity full of wonder and joy beyond anything we can imagine. It’s not really so far away as we think. In the meantime, like Jeremiah, hang in there!