The airplane cabin door opens, and you are hit in the face with smog and people everywhere. You’re barely five minutes out of the airport and traffic resembles something like an Indy 500 race with bumper cars. Grocery shopping now requires using Google translator to determine what you are buying. You feel tension between giving yourself to your new culture and spending too much time on Zoom with those from back home. These are all difficult realities of the mission field.
These examples, though, are but inconveniences compared to what some missionary families have faced in recent weeks, months, and years. One couple reached the point of exhaustion and was forced to come home to recoup mentally, emotionally, and physically only to return to a country facing political unrest, rioting, and looting. Another family has battled children not acclimating to the culture and enduring severe spiritual warfare.
A Call to Suffering
Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes on the mission field. Even so, suffering is not something we tend to consider—much less call people to—when equipping them for missionary service. Zane Pratt in his chapter in Theology and the Practice of Mission states, “In a materialistic culture adverse to the concept of transcendence, values such as comfort, convenience, and safety seem to be ultimate for most people; those values trump everything else.” (211) He notes how Christians often talk of their allegiance to Jesus above everything else, insofar as their expectations are met, and therefore, they form their version of discipleship around such levels of comfort. (211)
"Suffering is not a matter of if, but when."
James, in his letter to the churches in the dispersion, says in James 1:2–4 “Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters whenever you experience various trials because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Suffering is not a matter of if, but when.
David Joannes in his book The Mind of the Missionary makes an astute point in noting, “for all the eagerness and zeal of the missionary task force, we are often confronted with the unfortunate question: Why do so many people fall flat when they finally make it to the mission field?” (129)
Joannes highlights various areas in which missionaries face suffering on the field—children, change of job, health problems, lack of home support, problems with peers, personal concerns, disagreement with the agencies, and teammates. (129) Where missionary heroes like Carey, Judson, and others would pack their bags in a coffin, knowing they would not be returning home before they died on the field, missionaries today have many off ramps back home. Joannes writes,
Even those who chose to tough it out can be physically present overseas but mentally and emotionally insulated from their host culture. Today it is easier than ever to connect with family and friends back home and become detached from the very people they once sought to impact. Unprepared for the immense culture shock they face, abandoning their station often feels like the only option. (130)
Scripture, though, speaks to a place of expectancy in suffering for doing good and a life of trust in a God who wants to use suffering to sanctify us. Peter, much like James, is writing to people facing suffering. In 1 Peter 1:3–9, he writes to believers, pointing them to the living hope they have in God, and reminding them that they are “being guarded by God’s power, through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed to them on the last day” (v. 5). They are being guarded even while suffering grief in various temporal trials. Peter reminds them that it is through this suffering that the “proven character of their faith” (v. 6) will be revealed, and that they will one day “receive the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls” (v. 9).
"Scripture speaks to a place of expectancy in suffering for doing good and a life of trust in a God who wants to use suffering to sanctify us."
Paul was no stranger to suffering and still could confidently say that he “counts everything loss for the sake of knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:8). Chuck Lawless, writing on spiritual warfare on the mission field, says,
The stresses of the mission field have a way of weakening missionaries, and God at times chooses to allow the enemy to continue to attack relentlessly. The answer, however, is not to shake one’s fist at the devil. Rather, it is to submit to God’s plan and trust his leadership through the battle. It is to rejoice in weakness because we know that God will be our strength and our victory in the battle. (275)
This is exactly why Paul could say, even after seeking relief from such suffering, that he has learned to live in contentedness, because [God’s] grace is sufficient for you, for [God’s] power is perfected in weakness” (Philippians 4:12, 2 Corinthians 12:9).
Responding to Suffering
So, how do we respond to suffering on the field? Pratt notes five ways broadly (220-21):
We should not be caught off guard or thrown off balance by suffering.
We ought to patiently endure suffering without compromising our integrity in Christ.
We must love those who persecute us.
We trust God in the midst of suffering and respond by doing good.
Peter writes at the conclusion of his first epistle, “So then, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing what is good” (1 Peter 4:19). David Joannes highlights how we go about fulfilling the missionary call, even amidst suffering: “embracing the reality that in a fallen world, bad things happen to good people, you will discover the path to victory lies not in your own power, but in the power of God in and through you.” (127)
We must compare our sufferings in light of the eternity to come—one far outlasts the other. Having Christ is much greater and enables us to endure the tests. We don’t enter into suffering alone, but instead partner with others, just as Paul recounts in Philippians 4 and attests to in the example of Timothy and Epaphroditus who were sent to his aid (Philippians 2:19–30).
So, whether it’s smog, smothering crowds, lack of choices, loss of communication, military coups or malaria, we know that, “God’s sovereignty is ever relevant to our daily lives. His power overshadows our inabilities and His dominion exceeds our deficiencies. He does not question His authority. God knows what He is doing. He provides perfect peace for those minds are centered on Him.” (Joannes, 118)
Ryan serves as Director of Missions for Lightbearers Ministries. He previously served for 13 years as a missions pastor after earning an MDiv in Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also serves as a trustee. Ryan lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife, Rebekah, and three children.