As I prepared for my stint serving as a missionary in East Asia, I decided to read a couple missionary biographies. One of them was To the Golden Shore about the life and ministry of Adoniram Judson in Burma. I was absolutely enthralled by the story, so much so that by the time my departure came, I had churned up a restless, almost rabid energy within myself.
That’s one effect missionary biographies can have, particularly when we don’t focus on God’s hand in the stories. The result is a tendency to hype up our expectations of thrill and adventure to unrealistic levels. These stories can hit us the same way scrolling through someone’s Instagram can—we only see the greatest highlights of someone’s life in all its saturated exposure. Even the failures described in biographies tend to be disastrously glorious. I have a mental picture burned into my mind of Adoniram in his deepest grief following the death of his loved one. He dug his own grave and was sitting, staring into it, hoping and waiting to die.
A thirst for adventure can propel us into overseas ministry, but that same thirst, if not kept in check, can be quite erosive once there. Moment by moment, real life often seems less interesting than those biographies. Missing from biographies are drab times when you flop out of bed with a headache in a mental fog and you lumber through the day like a zombie. Wishing for excitement doesn’t always jive with the daily discipline of language learning and the embarrassment of having to practice your new language publicly.
When real life seems less than adventurous, you might start trying to fill that void by crafting the appearance of a successful adventurer. You suddenly take up the hobby of photography and begin taking selfies in increasingly exotic locations. But then you review your Mailchimp stats and realize fewer people are opening your newsletters. Then maybe you start worrying about doing the right activities to produce the right numbers to report to the right people. You take on the exhaustive work of keeping up appearances.
“We are all building on the same foundation, we all need one another, and God has made us all to steward our particular gifts in a way that reveals his wisdom.”
After a few months of this, you’re not sure you even care about pretending to be cool or successful anymore. Eventually, when you find yourself holed away in your apartment, hunched over fetal-like in the throes of culture shock. You may begin to fear that your entire life will dwindle away into obscurity.
Here’s the thing, though—you will someday die and dwindle away into obscurity. That’s a promise from the Bible if what you’re hoping for is the accolades of men. When our dreams of grandeur and yesterday’s accomplishments fade into sepia, that’s when our faith will really be tested as to whether we believe in the eternal consequences of our actions and how we invest our time.
Loving Glory from Men
I have two babies—twins—and neither one of them has a persistent concept of “the other.” Their world only consists of themselves, their needs, and what amuses or upsets them. They remind me of our own potential for selfish ambition. Anytime we think that ministry could be our ticket for self-advancement, we are actually quickly regressing into spiritual infancy.
“The good news is that Christ has freed us from this struggle for fame and from seeking a life of thrills. We are free to obey Christ because in him, we already have everything we need.”
If we go around seeking to do ministry out of jealousy or to keep a firm grip on the influence we’ve already attained, we are missing out on the big picture. We have forgotten the basics of the Christian life—that we are all building on the same foundation, that we all need one another, and that God has made us all to steward our particular gifts, which he gave to us for the tasks that he laid out to accomplish his plan in a way that reveals his wisdom. (Read 1 Corinthians to see how Paul addresses this same idea.)
Remember the Gospel
To a large extent, we have only advanced in the gospel insofar as we have uprooted the desire to rely on and boast in ourselves. If we never do this, then—to use the metaphor of the body—it is like we are the armpit boasting that the strength of the whole right arm hinges on us, when in reality the armpit is a rather touchy, surface level, and weak member of the body. The more energetic and worked up it gets and the more it sweats, the more offensive a stench it produces. Its boasting is not good. It’s not the kind of member you’d proudly put on display in such a state as much as you’d carefully cleanse and cover it.
But the good news is that Christ has freed us from this struggle for fame and from seeking a life of thrills. When he nailed our sin to the cross in his body, he not only took away our shame, he became our representative before the Father. When Christ ascended to the Father and sat down at his right hand, we were in him, just as we were in Adam in the garden. We have been adopted as God’s children. We are coheirs with Christ (Romans 8). We will one day rule the angels. Once this truth really sinks in, we suddenly don’t need to check how many people liked our latest social media post.
Let me leave you with one more picture. Imagine that your life is a single thread. Regardless of the quality, a single thread is not very noteworthy. It would be discarded. Now imagine that thread disappearing among countless others strands that all form one garment. This garment is the beautiful ornamental sash for a high priest, which our Lord places around his waist and says, “This is my people, who display my glory.” When we are a part of Christ’s legacy, our lives are intertwined with his glory because we are in him.
We are free to obey Christ because in him, we already have everything we need.
Andy Jansen is a former Upstream Collective writer. He holds a Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and hopes to be on staff one day at a church plant. He lives in Fayetteville, AR with his beautiful wife of two years, Annie, and his twin boys Canon and Jasper.