The Faithful Missionary: A Case Study in Missing the Point, Part One

BY BRADLEY BELL, DIRECTOR OF CONTENT DEVELOPMENT

My junior year of college our campus ministry kicked off the year with a gathering focused on missions. We had worship and videos and a great speaker who brought the house down. She spoke about what God was doing all over the world, the desperate need for the gospel, and why every single one of us should go be missionaries. You know, one of those events where people are either shouting “Right on!” or slipping out the backdoor before they start handing out one-way tickets to Timbuktu.

At the end of the service they called everyone to respond. World maps were posted throughout the chapel. The speaker told us to go to a map and ask God to put a particular country on our hearts. We would then commit to learn about and pray for that country over the next year. 

Honestly, it felt a bit mystical to me. How was I supposed to hear God tell me a specific country? Apparently everyone else had it figured out because I ended up being the lone lurker at the maps. The pressure was on! And it wasn’t just because I needed a divine revelation. I felt a splintering weight that said, 'Being faithful to God means choosing somewhere really hard and really far away.'

Long story short, I did finally discern a country in the Horn of Africa. And, ironically, I actually ended up serving there for three years after graduation. Yet throughout my term I was often a case study in missing the point, in not quite getting my head around what missions is, in not quite getting my heart around why we step into it.

Really, that should’ve been no surprise considering, first of all, I’m human, and secondly, how my journey overseas started. It’s scary to me that when it comes to missions we commonly start the conversation with where to go and what to do. How easily that charts a path that not only fails to fully understand God’s mission, it fails to be life-giving.

Thankfully there’s an encouraging word for me and anyone who spots the same dilemma in themselves. That word is Jesus Christ, who surrounded himself with people who were slowly wrapping their heads and hearts around him. And he knew just what it would take for them to be made into faithful missionaries. 

Luke 17:1-19 certainly isn’t the first passage that comes to mind when we think of missions. There’s a lot going on there: faith that moves trees, paradoxically unworthy servants, and whole a bunch of lepers. What do those things even have to do with one another, let alone missions?

Leading up to Luke 17, Jesus had been in a verbal throw-down with the Pharisees. They were the proverbial experts in missing the point unto death, especially the point of who Jesus was. So Jesus turned to his disciples and warned them about common ways they too might miss the point.

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him,” Luke 17:3-4

That was crazy hard stuff for the disciples to hear! 'If someone sins, don’t wait for them to apologize—go to them. If they sin against you—and we understand seven times in a day to be a symbol for as many times as they ever sin against you—forgive them.' It’s one thing for us to wrestle with that as believers with the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s another thing to still be wrapping your mind around Jesus as he’s being introduced into the world and hear, 'You’ve got to forgive everybody, every time.' So the disciples say this in response:

Increase our faith! Luke 17:5

I mean, can’t we identify with that response? They essentially said, “If you want me to do that…heeeeelp!” This scenario applies directly to stepping into missions. Whether we’re stepping out to carry the gospel across the street or across the ocean, we will inevitably face a barrage of things that make us say, 'Increase my faith! Help me God! I can’t do this!'

My most common prayer while living overseas was two words: “Fix me.” Sometimes I prayed it in tears, sometimes in despair, sometimes just mechanically. As I was overwhelmed by the task, by my sinful tendencies that flew across the ocean with me, by my growing realization of how much I needed others, I would just pray, “Fix me.” It was no doubt a prayer God accepted, but it also slightly missed the point. Such challenges were intended to lead me to the Savior, but instead, I just wanted to get it right, to have it all together. It was about me.

Jesus revealed that the same was true for the disciples. He said to them:

If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you, Luke 17:6

This has nothing to do with honing our Harry Potter skills. I’m sure many a man has gotten a spiritual hernia trying move a tree that wouldn’t budge. Rather, Jesus was re-channeling the disciples’ growing little faith. He was saying to them, ‘Don’t miss the point: it’s not just the faith you have, it’s the object of your faith. It’s not, 'You can do this,' it’s 'There is one who can.' The late pastor Adrian Rogers put it this way:

We often look at a strong Christian and say, “What a great man of faith.” No, no. What a great God we have!

One of the dangers for those who want to follow Jesus into his mission is that part of us wants to be right, to be fixed, to have it together enough to nail all the hard commands. But a bigger faith in itself fails the test. We desperately need a big God.