Doing missions when dying is gain is the greatest life in the world.
I agree. As a staff member at Desiring God 15 years ago, I was thrilled to help hand out and ship out hundreds of cassette tapes and CDs containing John Piper’s iconic 1996 sermon “Doing Missions When Dying Is Gain.”
In the past decade, I’ve interacted with college students for whom, like me, that sermon was significant. These young people are keenly aware that the glory of God is infinitely valuable, they believe in the logic of not wasting their life, and they feel compelled to “do missions” in the hardest places on earth. I’ve heard many “young, restless, Reformed” brothers and sisters say that they are ready and willing to die for the global cause of Christ. It’s remarkable.
I am concerned, however, that some of them, by nature of being young, inexperienced and immature, have a romanticized view of suffering, martyrdom and missions.
The Most Fruitful Missionaries
A kind of zeal without wisdom will actually backfire on the mission field. I have learned from serving cross-culturally myself and from listening to many of Bethlehem’s “global partners” (i.e., missionaries) that those who thrive and tend to be most fruitful are the ones who pursue faithfulness in all areas of life rather than focus on merely being radical in ministry.
They have a realistic understanding of their limitations and wisely accommodate them in various ways. They have realized that suffering, though used by God to sanctify us and at times reveal to unbelievers the surpassing value of Christ, is often a hindrance to ministry and a distraction that keeps better discipleship from happening among converts. Suffering is easier in theory than it is in practice. Our seasoned missionaries know that God is patient and that fruitful church planting and development usually takes decades. Seven to 10 years might pass with no converts. Longevity is a critical asset.
Far Better for Them
A passion for God’s glory and the cognition of how God uses suffering in his global cause are wonderful gifts of grace, but I dare to say that martyrdom can be an idealized aspiration of the young, naive and zealous who have not yet lived long enough to have really suffered and loved others much. There is a sweet and poignant awareness of God’s strength and grace to be had through our extended experiences of weakness and the ongoing felt sense of our fragility that most of the young and strong have yet to taste.
Paul’s “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). He aimed to comfort other Christians in their afflictions with the comfort he had received from God in the midst of his own suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
Paul concluded during his imprisonment that, for the sake of love, he would choose to remain living, rather than die and be with Christ—though the latter was “far better” for him—so that he might continue laboring in ministry for the “progress and joy in the faith” of the churches (Philippians 1:23–25). Getting oneself killed in a dangerous place, or letting go of life when one is at death’s doorstep, can be relatively easy for the one dying, but yields much pain and grief for his or her family and friends. Fighting perfectionistic tendencies for a biblically balanced way of life, not growing weary in doing good to others, and maintaining a consistent witness to the same unbelievers over time can be extremely difficult. Yet the latter is also a wonderful experience of the kind of relationships for which we are created and recreated by our triune God.
Die to Yourself
Allow me some words of counsel to young adults who sense a calling to missions and speak easily of martyrdom. My aim is to help prepare you for a ministry that will magnify the grace and glory of God in Christ and may be used by the Spirit to extend the church to another place and people group.
First, live (and die) for Jesus by dying daily to yourself. To live cross-culturally for an extended amount of time is a tremendous opportunity for death to self. Being able to “live on the terms of others” is essential for doing cross-cultural ministry with humility and in a way that will be understood, appreciated and fruitful.