As followers of Jesus, we all share together his great call to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:19). We all share his great promise that he is with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). But some of us are called to make disciples in very difficult places, where Satan has long held sway and the brokenness of our world is especially evident.
I serve with a group of kindred-hearted men and women who focus on making disciples among the poor and marginalized. Some of us live and minister in intense places. Helping Christian workers stay in such places is crucial for what we do. We’ve learned that going to a hard place is one thing, but staying there is another.
What is it, then, that has helped my wife and me stay where Jesus has called us?
Look to Things Unseen
Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (quoted in You Are What You Love, 91).
Just like going about the task of collecting wood is not enough for igniting a zeal for ship-building, neither is calling people to the everyday tasks of missions enough to sustain workers in hard places. It is a vision of glory beyond the horizon that keeps us going when the accumulation of disappointments, losses, and seeming failures threaten to kill our zeal for kingdom-building.
If we want to stay in hard places for the sake of God’s kingdom, our hearts need to be captivated by the immensity of God and his redemptive purposes in the world. Only that breathtaking vision can hold us in contexts of immense pain and seeming hopelessness.
If you’ve lost your vision, fix your eyes again on Jesus. Ask God to ravage your heart again a glimpse of what lies just beyond the rough edges of the world.
Lean into God’s Promises
“People, your longevity in mission may very well depend upon your leaning into the promises of God.” I remember Michael Duncan saying these words in 2003 to a gathering of leaders in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He had learned them the hard way.
In 1985, Duncan had led a missionary team sent from New Zealand to the slums of Manila. He served there nine years, but after nine years of suffering in this context, he no longer knew what to do with God and his promises. He could no longer trust God for the future and began to lose hope. Therefore, he and his wife resigned and returned to New Zealand. I will never forget one of his final statements to us:
Without faith and hope I deserted a place and a people. This act of desertion has become one of the deepest regrets of my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. So I say to you again: keep looking to God and keep leaning into the promises. For when you look to God you will have faith and when you lean into the promises you will have hope and where there are faith and hope, there too will be love . . . and love “remains” with the place and people.
Keeping our Lord always before us (Psalm 16:8), and trusting his precious and magnificent promises (2 Peter 1:4), produces hope — hope in a better future than the pains and frustrations we’re feeling today. Faith and hope provide the fertile soil for love to flourish. And love, as Duncan says, wishes to remain with the place and people.
Learn How Impoverished You Are
We [missionaries] have not understood that the members of the Body of Christ are scattered in all lands, and that we, without them are not made perfect. . . . Consequently we have preached the gospel from the point of view of the wealthy man who casts a mite into the lap of a beggar, rather than [a farmer] who casts his seed into the earth, knowing that his own life and the lives of all connected with him depend upon the crop which will result from his labor. (Roland Allen, Missionary Methods, 185).
It is reason enough to stay in a hard place simply to gain this perspective. We are impoverished without our brothers and sisters from different ethnicities, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds joining us at the table of the Lord’s banquet. Not just in eternity, but now in our present experience.
If my wife and I had not stayed in our community, we would have missed out on discovering what we needed from brothers and sisters who are different from us, brothers and sisters we desperately need. We will not stay in a hard place if we honestly do not apprehend our own need for those to whom God has sent us. But being naturally self-centered and self-sufficient, we can miss this if we do not stay.
Yes, there is labor, toil, and fatigue in a hard field. But God loves to provide us valuable resources and spiritual refreshment in the people who live in these difficult places. They must be at the table with us if we will be complete.
Learn Your Heart Before You Go
If you think Jesus may be calling you to a hard place, let me pass along some wisdom I gleaned from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the elf-lord Elrond addresses the dwarf-lord, Gimli:
“The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: . . . the others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside to other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be for you to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.”
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.
“Maybe,” said Elrond, “but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the night fall.”
“Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking hearts,” said Gimli.
“Or break it,” said Elrond.
This counsel has served me for many years. You do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road. Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the night fall. These are echos of Jesus’s wisdom in the parable of the four soils (Luke 8:4–8), and when he tells his hearers to count the cost before following him (Luke 14:25–33).
Many of us have the tendency, like Peter, to proclaim our loyalty unto death, only to melt in fear at a servant girl’s question. And, like Peter, we often “do not yet know the strength of [our] hearts.” We have had people join our mission, declaring their intention to give themselves to this ministry for life, only to be gone a few years later.
To “vow to walk in the dark [when we have] not seen the night fall” is not wise. That’s why when folks join our mission, we help them discern their calling through a process of increasing levels of commitment over time. This gives them time and opportunity to test their calling through real experience and built-in exit points to withdraw if they learn their call may be elsewhere.
Yes, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but Paul learned both how low he could go and how much he could abound through much testing (Philippians 4:12–13). Therefore, as we seek to follow Jesus into a hard place, we must go with a deep humility, admitting that our knowledge of our heart is limited, trusting him to lead and sustain us wherever we go — and stay.