Any of you who know me know that I am passionate about influencing people to read the Bible. Why am I so insistent? Because that is the only place on earth to find real answers, real truth. People can look everywhere–all kinds of religion, spirituality, self-help books, humanistic philosophies, and plain ol’ pop culture trends, but all of those will fail you. I guarantee it. They will fail you either in this life (which is better) or when you reach the next (which is eternally and unchangeably worse). We must go back to the Bible. Here’s an example…
When we read the Bible thoughtfully, carefully, amazing things will leap off the page. I have read the Gospel of John dozens of times, maybe 100 times. I really don’t know. But I read it again recently and discovered something I’d never seen before. Look at the progression of who Jesus is perceived to be in John’s Gospel, Chapter 4:
First he is observed to be, “a Jew” (4:9) (One of a great multitude)
But then, “A Prophet” (4:19) (One of an esteemed few)
Third: “TheChrist” (4:29) (One unique and foretold individual)
Fourth: “Savior of the World“ (4:42) (This, to me, points to his being God himself)
Also, imagine how amazing Jesus must’ve been to see and hear. After only two days, the townspeople in that area of Samaria came to a staggering conclusion. They didn’t think Jesus was simply a Jew.
They didn’t simply esteem him to be a prophet.
They weren’t merely convinced he was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ.
No, even greater than that, to a man and to a woman they concluded after being with him some 48 hours that this Man had to be none other than the very Savior of the World.
What ordinary man could have that kind sway over people?
Jesus had no army. No technology. No clever slight-of-hand or gimmicks with which to trick them. He did not have so much as the fiery zeal and wilderness presence of John the Baptist to captivate his audience.
This Man did not travel with the awe-inspiring pomp that comes with descending the presidential stairs from an Air Force One.
The Scriptures say he wasn’t even strikingly handsome! “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2) It wasn’t like a Brad Pitt in his prime came to town to wow and woo. This was a man so nondescript and unimposing that children gave no thought to running up to him. This was a man so ordinary looking that on the night of his arrest, when the Roman soldiers came to Gethsemane, they had to be tipped off as to which man standing before them they were to seize.
He had none of that. All he had was himself.
And He was Everything.
“In him was life, and the light was the light of men…full of grace and truth.” John 1:4,14
There were only ever two reactions when Jesus came into a town. In the area of the Gerasenes (Gadarenes), where Jesus cleansed the demoniac, we’re told, “Then all the people of the surrounding county…asked him to depart from them…” (Luke 8:37). Likewise, in a different village in Samaria Luke records their very different reaction, “the people did not receive him…” (9:53).
The same is true today. Every person who has ever heard of Jesus arrived at some conclusion about him. He was a myth. He was a man. Or, like these Samaritans, by the enabling of the Spirit in their lives, they see his power and see for themselves that he is, “indeed the Savior of the world.”
I only recently happened upon Stephen Neale’s blog Building Jerusalem. So far, I’m enjoying it, and him, very much. Stephen is a pastor in the Oldham area near Manchester, UK. As I understand it, this once-thriving industrial area is now blighted, not unlike our own Flint, Michigan or any number of formerly-great industrial cities here in the States. Ministry-wise, besides the economic factors, Neale’s ministry field is dominated by Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. All of this makes his writing insightful and compelling.
Having just returned from a short-term missions trip to Uganda, I was intrigued when I saw his recent post itemizing five reasons against sending out short-term missions teams. A few reasons he gives include how the work started is often unsustainable after the team has gone home, the incredible amount of lead-up planning and distraction (my word) it puts on the organizing pastor and how it can “lull” the local church away from their own evangelistic responsibilities. So how did Pastor Neale’s points line up with my own recent experience?
My Trip to Uganda: An Overview
My trip to Uganda was an almost-three week evangelism trip. You might be wondering, Why Uganda? Because last November I was invited to join a team on a short-term missions trip to …Uganda! Never before had I any thought of going there.
Uganda was described to me as being a “revival culture” right now, where the Spirit is especially turning the hearts of men, women, and children to repent and believe the Gospel. The purpose of the trip was to exhort believers in the need for committing to regular evangelism, and giving them a practical model of doing it.
About 30 of us from around the United States, Colombia, and South Africa went. For the first week we stayed at the missions house in Kampala/Entebbe where we were trained and exhorted over long days of group prayer, lectures, meals, and a concluding guest speaker each evening. Our training completed, we set out to Kaphorwa first then Tororo for small teams evangelism and open air preaching over the remainder of our time in-country.
The team was headed up by a pastor/professor based here in the States who has been ministering in Uganda via short-term trips for many years. While in-country we were also joined the entire time by one local pastor and a national coordinator for the small ministry I went with, as well as a few other Ugandan pastors, campus ministry workers, and church members helping as interpreters for those we’d meet who didn’t speak English.
I’ll be writing more about my own trip in upcoming blog posts, so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.
And Then There is the Cost
The point Neale emphasizes the most is the cost. Short-term missions is a costly endeavor, no doubt. Neale argues the money could be better spent if it were simply donated to the local church.
The very church you are going to help on these trips would almost certainly be helped more if you took all the money you were going to spend on each person coming and gave it directly to the church to use in the sustainable work of weekly gospel ministry that they are trying to maintain.
Well, could it? Decide for yourself:
I spent $3,200 on the trip, plus another $300 donated by others towards my travel. And that didn’t include the $1,000 in required vaccinations and travel essentials listed on the suggested packing list and my own research. Plus there was money spent on material donations for Ugandans I hauled over in suitcases (mostly ladies and children’s clothes, hand towels, and pillow cases). Add some pocket money for incidentals like food in the airports, snacks in-country, and a few souvenirs and we’re now approaching US$5,000. Now multiply that by 30 (the size of our team).
Where I Agree
I loved my time in Uganda. I thanked God everyday for the opportunity to be there. I loved the experience and the friendships that came out of it. It changed me to see first-hand the broader perspective of what God is doing around the world and what fellow believers deal with day-in and day-out.
Let’s also not forget that experiencing the lack of so many American conveniences was, in itself, a crash course in enduring trials patiently and with joy. And just like cross-cultural traveling for secular reasons does, the experience made me a little wiser about the people and cultures of the world we live in. And yes, there is no question that some of the people we talked to truly became born again.
All that said, as I read through Pastor Neale’s article though, I found myself agreeing with every point. It was a herculean logistical effort on the part of the organizers, it took a tremendous amount of local resources before and during our time there, and all of it cost a great deal of money.
Where I Disagree
But does this mean we do away with short-term missions entirely? Do we just look at the bottom line and take our missions cue from there? I don’t think so.
If we’re just going to look at the bottom line for everything, what about efforts like nursing home ministry? I just preached this past Sunday to a dozen or so people in a nursing home, most of whom were asleep or only hardly aware of what was happening around them. The Bottom Line would say that, too, was a waste of time and resources.
I know that it is not at all what Pastor Neale is saying, and I’m not at all trying to setup a straw man to knock down. I’m only saying that there are non-quantifiable aspects to a lot of what is done in Christian ministry. Our shared faith is full of paradoxes. Short-term missions may simply be one of them.
So where do we go from here (or, to the question at hand, do we even go anywhere!)? I don’t disagree at all with Pastor Neale’s assessment, although I would add that there are some short-term missions projects that may be better returns on investment than others.
Missions that helps build a building, dig a well, train pastors and lay leaders, trains women in poorer areas on health and business, and other such concrete projects may, in the long run, be more viable short-term missions options than other efforts. But, then again, is there no one locally who can put up a wall or dig a well, or a pastor in a neighboring state or country who can train other pastors?
I do think short-term missions has non-quantifiable benefits. I think that so long as they are not “gospel tourism” trips, short-term missions trips can provide value. Would I, by comparative example, spend $5,000 on a three week class learning about art history by traveling across Italy? Or, as I did a few years ago, surprise my wife with a trip to a place she’s always wanted to go (Ireland)? Yes. So me and the others on the team going on a three week trip to share the Gospel and learn what God is doing around the world still seems like it was time and money well spent.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4
Think of a long-time friend of yours. A dear friend. Maybe a lifelong friend you’ve had. Think of how you greet that friend when you finally meet again. Do you start with a warm handshake and then move in for a full mutual hug? Or do you go straight to a full arms-wide-open advance, arms locking around them in happy reunion?
Now think of doing that to your trials.
Strange, huh? Who of us would really want to do that? We naturally think of our trials as our enemies. Cruel opposers of our good and thieves of our daily happinesses. Rather than embrace them we want them gone, never to return.
But when we think that way, are we really thinking biblically about our trials and our God? Are we letting the mind of Christ dwell in us richly (Phil 2:5)? James urges us to have a radically new and different perspective.
LOVE YOUR ENEMIES: YOUR TRIALS
James says to count it all joy when we meet with trials. We are not to hate them. We are not to run the other direction. (Though we should certainly be careful not to create our trials, if possible.) To fully understand how strange this is to our natural mindset, let’s think of examples:
What if you praised God for your migraine while you are on your bed with the curtains drawn and your head is pounding?
What if you acknowledge that you’d rather not have that constant, never ending high-pitched ringing in your ears (as I have for three years now), but tell the Lord that you love him no less?
What if you turned your unemployment and job search from a prayer request to praise, acknowledging that God has not once allowed it to cause you to go without a meal or miss a mortgage payment? Giving him praise for the trial because it has built your faith to see how he has constantly provided somehow every day, week, and month?
TRIALS ARE ORDAINED BY GOD
The fact is, nothing in this world happens apart from God’s decrees. That’s part of God’s sovereignty. Either he causes things to happen, or he allowsthem to happen and then uses them to fulfill his greater, overarching purposes.
Nothing in this world happens apart from God’s decrees.
Think of Joseph’s brothers’ mistreatment and selling him into slavery, and all that followed after in his life, and how God used it. Pharaoh’s hardness of heart and refusal to allow the Israelites to go free, and how God used that. Think back on previous trials in your own life, and how you would not be the person you are today if it wasn’t for how they forged qualities or helped remove sin in your life.
TRIALS ARE THE PURPOSEFUL WISDOM OF GOD
James is not preaching an empty grin-and-bear-it, mind-over-matter attitude towards our trials and afflictions. We should embrace them joyfully, like reuniting with long-awaited friends. And the reason we can is because they are all there ultimately because it is in the good wisdom of our God to providentially have them there. Why? There are several other places in Scripture which answer that, but James does it right here.
…for you know that the testing of your faith
…And let steadfastness have its full effect, [so] that…
…you may be perfect and complete,
…lacking in nothing.
Which brings us to Providence.
THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING IS “PROVIDENCE”
Providence is another important aspect to all of this. Our trials are ordained by God (as are our blessings). Remember Job’s words in Job 2:10, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” They are the purposeful wisdom of God, as we have already seen. Everything in our lives has its direct lineage back to God’s Providence.
Everything in our lives has its direct lineage back to God’s Providence.
Somebody cut you off in line at the store or in the school pickup line? Providence.
Didn’t get that sale that would’ve gotten you a year’s salary in one commission? Providence.
Rain on your wedding day? Providence.
Migraine? Tinnitus? Stroke? Cancer? Or maybe only stubbed your toe? All of them Providence.
Personally, I have been deeply challenged by this truth for the last couple of months. The truth is, everything we grumble and complain about–even down to the weather the Lord has provided for the day–all of it is sin against God’s goodness and wisdom in his Providence.
The truth is, everything we grumble and complain about–even down to the weather the Lord has provided for the day–all of it is sin against God’s goodness and wisdom in his Providence.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Trials are in our lives by the sovereign, good, wisdom of God in his providence to test our faith so that it forges in us a steadfastness in spirit, bringing us into further and further maturity as a believer, to the glory of God.
One last question: What trials do you have right now? Make a quick list in your head; I bet it won’t take you but a second to list three, four, or five of them right off the bat. Now think of them with joy. Imagine a warm Christian embrace with each one. In faith, give Jesus glory and praise for his wisdom for each specific trial in your life right now, by name, because he loves you enough to have put them there for your ongoing growth and maturity.
Lord, how often we all forget these truths. How often we sin, grumbling and complaining about what is happening in our lives right now, and forgetting that it was your good and kind providence that ordained for them to be there.
Please send the Spirit to stir our hearts again, reinvigorate us to “press on,” like Paul who himself was constantly suffering under trials and tribulations, “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Bring these truths to mind when we least think of them, in the ordinary trials of everyday life and the sudden calamities that come our way, knowing that you are mighty enough to handle them all, and we can cast our anxieties on you, because you care for us. (1 Pe 5:7).