The following is a guest post from Christian Douglas. Christian serves as a global missionary in Western Europe.
Months ago, I had the opportunity to teach a group of prospective global missionaries a lesson entitled, “The Traits of an Effective Missionary”. I was supplied with a list of traits and skills that are shared by those who experience effective cross-cultural ministry. These traits had been thoroughly considered and were built around a foundation of a person who is “abiding in Christ.” There are certainly tangible skills that a person who feels he or she is called to missions can seek and foster in their lives to increase their readiness and effectiveness. It is important to share and discuss such traits, yet it is hard to over emphasize the central point: that above all other characteristics of a potential missionary, he or she must be a person that is following after, indeed clinging to, Jesus. He must be a disciple who is learning from the Master and a person who is being transformed by the Spirit.
The Humiliation of Crossing Cultures
Crossing cultures to preach the gospel is one of the most humbling actions that a person can undertake. You will become like a child, treated as incompetent, often unable to communicate, confused by new ways of doing things and living life. It will take you years to become competent in the culture and after a lifetime of learning there will likely still be things you don’t quite understand.
When you have acquired language, you may share with many people who reject and even mock the message you bring. It is likely that you will face discouragement, trails, and even times of failure. You may question why God would even send you to such a place or people. However, through perseverance, God will work in you and use you. He may even grant you a rich harvest. By the grace of God, many may receive the gospel and trust in Jesus.
Our hope and trust as people sent out globally with the gospel is that God is about the work of salvation in the world and is calling people to Himself. His Spirit is actively convincing men of their sin and revealing the way of refuge in Christ. So, God can use you to plant churches, to devise a new missions strategy, or to teach future pastors. And in your success you will be in danger–the desire to be recognized by men, also known as “vainglory”. In fact, vainglory is a danger that is present in both failure and success. Martin Luther writes pungently on this topic in his commentary on Galatians, stating,
Ministers of the gospel should be men who are not too easily affected by praise or criticism, but simply speak out the benefit and the glory of Christ and seek the salvation of souls… When you understand this—and you should because “what hast thou that thou didst not receive?”—you will not flatter yourself on the one hand and on the other hand you will not carry yourself with the thought of resigning from the ministry when you are insulted, reproached, or persecuted.
Personally, God has continually dealt with my soul as I have learned language and culture. In my flesh, I despise the idea of a life that is obscure and forgotten. While the things that I want are often good in themselves, if I do not step in line with the Spirit, my pride twists them into the desire to feed my own pride.
The Danger of Success
It is perhaps most easy to see the dangers of pride when we experience success. Global missionaries are often praised for our cultural insights, efforts, strategies, blogs, and willingness. The discussion of missions strategies is one that is constantly ongoing, and while we need to be enterprising in our efforts to reach the nations, it presents the temptation to have the most widely used or recognized strategy simply for the sake of producing something “new”. There is also the temptation to sacrifice our work on the altar of numbers and to believe that quick results justify whatever means it may take to achieve them.
Moreover, when we are in the States, sometimes churches welcome us and praise us as heroes, at times feeding a notion that we are super-Christians in our commitment to follow Jesus. Above all, if God blesses our ministries we may experience the joy of seeing something come from nothing, of seeing life from death–not only new believers, but new churches. It is astounding that God has chosen to use his people as the means to accomplish his global purpose, but we must consider that it is the power of his Spirit alone that brings regeneration.
So, let us examine our hearts when we are successful and when God does great things. Do we feel superior because of our accomplishments or do we feel that they deserve to be recognized, even praised? If so, let us repent and take this reminder from Luther:
Whenever you are being praised, remember it is not you who is being praised but Christ, to whom all praise belongs. When you preach the Word of God in its purity and also live accordingly, it is not your own doing, but God’s doing. And when people praise you, they really mean to praise God in you.
The Danger of Failure
It is perhaps more difficult to see the danger that is present in our times of weakness, obscurity, and failure. In weakness or failure, vainglory is revealed in our hearts by how we deal with ourselves and others. In the lack of success and recognition, if we do not find our worth in Christ, we will long for (and seek after) the approval that can come from our own actions. This may manifest itself in a number of ways. Are we overly discouraged, harsh with ourselves, perhaps even to the point of self-loathing? Do we face melancholy, finding our actions pointless and ourselves listless? These self-abasements are issues of pride unfulfilled.
We must also ask how we react when others succeed or receive recognition. Do we, “rejoice with those who rejoice,” (Romans 12:15) or do we experience the envy that Paul condemns in Galatians 5:26? Envy may manifest in our hearts as the feeling that the person did not deserve his success or recognition or the thought that we could have accomplished the task better. In the Spirit, we should be thankful to God for how he uses each of us and remember that the glory belongs to Christ. We work not for the acclaim of men, but that we will hear “well done my good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21)
Our pride, desire for approval, and self-righteousness are deeply entrenched in our hearts. Whether we face success or failure, let us look to Christ, in whom our standing and inheritance are secure. A pastor long ago wrote:
In time of temptation, misgiving consciences look so much to the present trouble they are in, that they need to be roused up to behold him in whom they may find rest for their distressed souls…What comfort is this: that seeing God’s love that rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is well pleased with us, if we be in Christ!
At times pride may strive to consume us, but in every case it demands that we remove our eyes from Christ and place them on our own performance. Let us strive for a faith that works, out of love, for the glory of God, recognizing our weakness, but enterprising with the gifts and abilities He has given. The same pastor also wrote, “usually [God] empties such [men] of themselves, and makes them nothing, before he will use them in any great service.” Let us search our souls, knowing that Jesus Christ has accomplished all and that he will make all things new, so that we would not be blind to the poison of vainglory.
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