North American Christians have paid special attention to the suffering of Christians in the Global South ever since 1996, when a coalition of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish activists began raising awareness about the persecution of Christians outside the West. When Christians, especially in the West, have shown concern for the persecution of majority-world believers, they have often approached it through the lens of human rights. In this installment of the Global Conversation, Sri Lankan pastor and evangelist Ajith Fernando helps us focus on suffering as an essential part of Christian discipleship, but especially for those called to be church leaders.
I write this shortly after returning from a week of teaching pastors in the deep south of Sri Lanka. These pastors' experience shows that when people pioneer in unreached areas, they usually wait 10 to 15 years before seeing significant fruit and reduced hostility. In the early years, they are assaulted and accused falsely; stones are thrown onto their roofs; their children are given a hard time in school; and they see few genuine conversions. Many pioneers give up after a few years. But those who persevere bear much eternal fruit. I am humbled and ashamed of the way I complain about problems that are minute compared to theirs.
When I return from ministry in the West, my feelings are very different. I have been able to "use my gifts" and spend most of my time doing things I like. But when I resume being a leader in Sri Lanka's less-efficient culture, frustration hits me. The transition from being a speaker in the West to being a leader in Sri Lanka is difficult. As a leader, I am the bond-servant (doulos) of the people I lead (2 Cor. 4:5). This means that my schedule is shaped more by their needs than by mine.
Vocational fulfillment in the kingdom of God has a distinct character, different from vocational fulfillment in society. Jesus said, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work" (John 4:34, ESV, used throughout). If we are doing God's will, we are happy and fulfilled. But for Jesus, and for us, doing God's will includes the Cross. The Cross must be an essential element in our definition of vocational fulfillment.
Young Christian workers who come back to Sri Lanka after studying in the West struggle with this. They are highly qualified, but our poor nation cannot afford to give them the recognition they think their qualifications deserve. They cannot use their gifts to the fullest because we cannot afford pure specialists. They struggle with frustration. Some end up leaving the country after a few years. Some start their own organizations so as to fulfill their "vision." Others become consultants, giving expert training and advice in their specialized field. Others pay the price of identifying with our people and ultimately have a deep impact on the nation.
I try to tell these students that their frustration could be the means to developing penetrating insight. I explain that people like John Calvin and Martin Luther had a dizzying variety of responsibilities, so that they could only use their gifts in the fog of fatigue. Yet the fruits of their labor as leaders and writers still bless the church.
Frustration and Fulfillment
Paul's theology emphasized the need to endure frustration patiently as we live in a fallen world awaiting the redemption of creation. Paul said that we groan because of this frustration (Rom. 8:18-27). I believe we fail to include this frustration in our understanding of vocational fulfillment. A church that has a wrong understanding of fulfillment for its workers will certainly become sick. This may be one reason why the church contains so much shallowness. We have measured success by the standards of the world and fail to challenge the world with the radically different biblical way to fulfillment.