Two years before Joe and Mary had been ready for anything. The talented young couple had just finished their Bible College training and with high hopes in their hearts, they were about to fulfil their life’s dream – to serve the Lord on the mission field! And boy, would they make a difference to the world!
Now their dreams were shattered, their theology stripped back to the bone (for they still believed in God, but weren’t sure about the rest of it) and they had so many unanswered questions that would take them a long time to work through. In short, they were at a place where they could have been much more useful to the Lord, but they couldn’t see it.
They were focussed on that overwhelming, depressing question of “What went wrong?” Somewhere along the two-year time line they had lost their way. Somewhere, somehow their purposes, the purposes of their missionary sending agency (their “Mission”) and the purposes of God had smashed together in a violent, head-on collision. Could this have been avoided? Could Joe and Mary and all those involved in their life-project with them – supporters and those in authority above them – have been spared the pain? Could a better understanding of the purpose of mission and the purposes of God in their lives, and maybe a better grasp of God’s purpose for the church have saved heartache and confusion? More importantly, was purpose, or the lack of it, a major contributing factor?
Before we get into the “whys and wherefores” and try to answer the questions we have raised, let me say something on behalf of our young hopefuls, Joe and Mary. They are not alone; they are not exceptions. They are not failures, for God has no failures. They, and all who have had a similar experience, are the spiritual soldiers who have been badly wounded on their first tour of duty. They need help, not condemnation; understanding ears, not wagging tongues.
God and Purpose
The Living Bible tells us that “When God began creating the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a shapeless, chaotic mass, with the Spirit of God brooding over the dark vapors” (Genesis 1:1,2). God can’t stand a “shapeless, chaotic mass” nor yet a shapeless, chaotic mess. It goes against His nature. The same thought is repeated in the New Testament when Paul tells us against a background of confusion in the church, that God is not a God of disorder.
(1 Corinthians 14:33)
When he sees a shapeless, chaotic mess, His reaction is to brood over it and to command light to come forth. Purpose in the place of chaos reveals God’s heart. He does the same with sin. In Genesis 3, after a week of intense work and pleasure, crowned by the creation of someone made in His own image, comes a horrendous blow. Sin worms, (or rather “snakes”) its way into the Garden and enters mankind. Into the order comes chaos; into the purpose comes confusion. Straight away He comes up with a master plan to redeem the situation and bring good out of evil.
The Psalmist rejoices in the order of God’s Creation and delights in His precepts, statutes and commands. Where there is God, there is order; where there is God there is purpose. It has to be this way when you are in charge of a Universe. “He sustains the universe by the mighty power of His word.”(Hebrews 1:3) There can be neither let up nor room for errors, but that’s okay. God is not a perfectionist; He is perfect.
While we can say categorically that purpose is essential to order and that order is at the heart of God’s character, we are also aware of His eternal ways being vastly superior and on another plane to ours. Let’s look briefly at one of His treasured trophies – Job.
No Purpose of Yours Can be Thwarted
The Lord boasts of Job’s integrity to Satan and this brings him heaps of trouble. It is a dangerous thing when the Lord values us highly. We can be sure He will always protect us because loves us deeply, but He is the Potter and we are the clay.
Job’s family, his wealth and finally his health are all taken from him in a traumatic series of events. When He is finished with Job and when Job’s friends have finished scraping the dregs of their barrel of wisdom and heaping it mercilessly on Job, God speaks. But when God speaks, He doesn’t answer Job’s questions. He brings him into another realm of reasoning. We see Him declaring His sovereign right to rule and His limitless power to do His own will. Job, in response to this concludes, “I know that You can do all things and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.” (RSV) Job has learned His lesson and the Lord goes on to give him back twice as much as he originally had. But along the way he has experienced something even more blessed than the blessing itself. He has learned that God is in control and His purposes are as solid and unstoppable as He is.
God’s Purposes in the World
Ever since the Fall of Man, God has been involved in and committed to reconciliation and blessing. His aim in creating Man in the first place was to have someone who reflected His image and shared fellowship with Him. His creative goodness needed someone to bless. He is committed to that purpose.
With the Fall, the Flood and the Tower of Babel, Genesis 1-11 is full of tragedy, failure and frustrated purposes. Then along comes Abraham and the promise of blessing is reiterated to Abraham as it was to Noah and Adam. God is committed to blessing the world through His people. The details are different but the message is consistent.
From the Exodus to the Captivity in Babylon, the Lord actively guides His people and commands blessing upon them. The final Word (Hebrews 1:3; John 1:14, 27) is the ultimate reality of God’s dream. Jesus, “Who for the joy set before Him, endured the Cross, despising the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2) We are that Dream. We are the Joy set before Him.
Psalm 126 expresses it beautifully. “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy…. The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
Let’s take stock of what we are saying before we continue…
God is a God who is committed to His own purposes. Nothing can thwart His purposes. His purpose is to bring blessing to His world and glory to Himself. More specifically, the blessing, in the words of Jesus, was to bind up the broken-hearted, to set the captive free and preach the good news to the poor. Ultimately, the blessing is knowledge of God Himself. Even Jesus said, “This is eternal life: that you may know God.” (John 17:3)
“They shall know that I am the Lord” is an oft-repeated phrase in the Old Testament. When Moses asked God on whose behalf was he to go to the people and the Pharaoh, he was told, “I AM has sent you” (Exodus 3:14). Here was a personal revelation of God; the All-Sufficient One. An integral part of getting to know someone is letting them know you, or self-revelation. By the Lord revealing Himself as the I AM, He was implying that our self-sufficiency is entirely inappropriate in relationship with Him.
A family whom I was once privileged to know were missionaries in Southern Europe. They came with their two young adopted daughters and began to learn the language. In his letters to friends and supporters he would always sign off, “Jesus is enough”. In time he was to prove this in a very personal way. Heartbreak came hurtling into his family life and still he would write, “Jesus is enough.” In the end, the family returned to their “sending base” devastated and feeling like failures. Nothing could be further from the truth. In his own way this brother reflected the heart of Job, who in turn reflected the heart of God; in his own words he was saying, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
This whole idea of God’s purpose in our lives and how He works that out is at the heart of Joe and Mary’s problem, but before we can apply these principles, we must delve into the private life of another very public character – John the Baptist.
The Power of Purpose in the Ministry of John the Baptist
Zechariah and Elizabeth were a godly couple with not an idea in the world that the Lord was going to bless their lives with a lively son whose ministry had been prophesied centuries earlier. When her cousin Mary came with the news that she too was pregnant, the baby leapt in Elizabeth’s womb – indication of the personality and purpose of John’s life. He was to become the messenger of the Message, the Living Logos.
Well into his ministry, and after years of knowing his cousin, John the Baptiser tells his listeners of the One Who was to come. Although somewhat conspicuous by appearance and fiercely committed to his ministry, John was not the Message but the messenger. “He must increase and I must decrease” was his cry.
Finally, he baptised his cousin, and witnessed an audio-visual spectacle he would never forget – the Father and the Spirit affirming the ministry of the Son. All that he had been saying about Jesus, the Lamb of God was vindicated by none other than God Himself. What a confirmation! What joy! Yes, we can even say, What success! And then… the bubble bursts.
The next we see of him is in prison while Cousin Jesus raises people from the dead, heals people’s diseases and preaches the good news to the poor… and walks free. (Luke 7). But something’s wrong. John is no longer shouting, condemning, exhorting nor baptising. He’s doubting.
We ask the same question we asked for Joe and Mary: what went wrong?
Nothing! It all went according to plan. So maybe we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps the question needs to be more “What happened and how?”
John the Baptist was a man’s man. Masculinity was his trademark. His life reeked of no fear, great leadership and job satisfaction, along with a striking image. But his self-confessed mission statement had been fulfilled. “He must increase and I must decrease” had become a reality. This threw him into crisis and he sent two of his followers to see what Jesus would say. Jesus didn’t respond in the way John perhaps expected. He showed John’s disciples what He was doing and told them to simply tell John what they had seen. He followed that up with what, on the surface, seemed to be a rebuke. “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
Not only does He appear to leave John rotting in prison, He leaves him with what is apparently a slap in the face. But wait a minute. Is Jesus really like that? Or was he trying to console John with words of great wisdom?
John had been reflecting on his own ministry while locked up in a dungeon. How contrastingly different from the sprawling wilderness he was used to. At the heart of John’s ministry there had been a black and whiteness that was unmistakeably confrontational. His message of “Repent and be baptised” didn’t come with any alternatives. This had sparked off a “back to basics” movement among the Jews, but not all of them responded. To the religious leaders John was a stumbling block. He didn’t fit, and his message definitely didn’t fit. They clashed on more than one occasion and John didn’t toy around with niceties. So when Jesus sent back word that the “scandal” was continuing with Him, it would have been like saying that the whole character and manifestation of Jesus ministry was in line with John’s own. Jesus focussed on the relationship of the two ministries to dispel John’s doubt and give him hope. He brought together John’s life and His own – then it made sense.
In the same way, when we contemplate the use of our lives, they make best sense when they are contemplated in relation to Jesus. It is what He accomplishes in us and through us that is important. We, like John the Baptist, may not be given to see that, but we walk by faith, not by sight. The same man who considered himself a failure, was deemed the greatest by the Son of God – but he never got to hear the praise. Jesus waited until the two messengers had returned to John with His message.(Luke 7:28)
Bringing it all together…
The mission of a missionary, at least a church-planting missionary, is not unlike John the Baptist’s. It is best summed up in this oversimplification: A missionary is someone who has a mission – or a purpose - a task with a beginning and a climax. When we lose sight of that we lose control and we cause endless problems and pastoral headaches for those we love and those we wish to reach. It is essential therefore that purpose – God’s purpose – be our primary focus.
Could it all have been avoided?
When a missionary, or missionary family, leaves his home, his family and all that is familiar, he has high hopes, great promises of support and a sense of urgency. He also has not the faintest idea of what he is letting himself in for. “When we send out missionaries we send out boys to do the job of men.” This came from a seasoned missionary; I was the listener and the words have stayed with me as I have proven them time and again in my own life.
Young couples go out believing themselves to be prepared – graduated from Bible school, many talents, shining examples in their local churches and “RFA” – Ready For Anything (an old missionary adage). They are not.
They must learn to find their security in God alone. “I AM has sent you”.
Culture shock can be just that – a shock to the system. The temptation for someone who begins to adapt to a foreign culture is to cling to that which is culturally familiar. In the case of the freshman missionary, he will look to the other more senior missionaries around him. While there must be some allowance for this the primary focus must be God Himself. Too often, when the initial focus is on the other team members, disillusionment can arise. The realisation that they can be really irritating, in fact, just downright human, is a blow to young disoriented missionary. If he complains to the Mission he is a troublemaker; if he keeps quiet, he suffers internally and the cracks begin to appear.
In this way too, Missions have traditionally been at fault. There is commonly the theme which is fed by the leadership that the fledglings must see the Mission as a family, to which they are the most recent addition. This sounds great and “right” but it rarely operates like a family for logistical reasons. The young eagles should rather be taught to fly on the lonely heights with the watchful eye of the Mission, for “Underneath are the everlasting arms.” They need to be weaned off the milk of their previous experiences in life to feed on the meat of the Father’s will. As they freefall into what feels like oblivion, He will not let go of them; He will remain true and faithful but they must allow Him to sculpt them like never before. He must make boys into men and girls into women.
I remember reading of one woman who lamented the tragedies in her life and wept in the presence of another lady, more advanced in years and in the Lord. “Why did God make me!?” she questioned at one point. To this her friend replied, “But He hasn’t made you; He is in the process of making you now.”
Joe and Mary are representative of so many who return home as wounded soldiers, bruised and bleeding from their first missionary experience. Their “call” is in tatters, and their confusion resembles that of John the Baptist in prison. Perhaps their experience could be helped by some training in the long-term purposes of God, and some grounding in the realities of what awaits them. Maybe there should be more consideration of character rather than talent at the candidates’ stage. It is true that there are no perfect “candidates” for missionary service, but the equipment we give them could probably be reviewed. The church and the world of mission needs people who are aware of God’s commitment to reconciliation and who are prepared to practice that ministry of reconciliation (with which we have all been entrusted). 2 Corinthians 5:18. The young missionary can be most effective as he learns to develop this ministry in the light of his new missionary situations. He is now a part of a targeted team; targeted by Satan with ferocious demons straining to disturb, hassle and generally make life difficult for their enemy. Nobody needs more prayer, more support, more encouragement than he who has left everything for the One who has given him everything. Nothing needs to be more urgently protected than the unity of that missionary team.
Amazingly then, God is able to achieve His own ends in spite of our sinfulness and frailty. Whether it’s Job, Joe or John the Baptist, He will weave His wonders through the fabric of our wayward lives. He will prove every time that Job had got it so right when he said, “No purpose of yours can be thwarted”. (Job 42:2) He will show that the Psalmist was insightful when he said, “As for God, His way is perfect.”(Psalm 18:30) He will, as Peter said, go to the Joes and Marys of His people and He will, “After you have suffered a little while, personally stoop down, pick you up, brush you down, make sure you are alright and send you on your way.” (1 Peter 5:10 – my own very loose translation!). Truly, blessed be the name of the Lord!
Seared Hearts and Soaring Spirits
Author: Stanley McMahon
Postal: 29 Lawnbrook Drive
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