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.

Read MoreRead Ajith Fernando's complete article
The Conversation Begins
Selected writers respond to Ajith Fernando from around the globe.

"Thus God wears the mask of the Devil, and the Devil wears the mask of God; God wants to be recognized under the mask of the Devil, and he wants the Devil to be condemned under the mask of God."

Some of ...

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Editor's note: Shortly after Libby Little wrote this response to Ajith Fernando's article on suffering, she received news that her husband had been brutally murdered while returning from a medical mission ...

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In his insightful article, Fernando laments a contemporary idea of vocational fulfilment in ministry that has removed the cross from its core while adopting efficiency as its measuring standard. He points ...

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As a Westerner I wholeheartedly agree with Fernando's conclusions. For centuries large parts of the Middle East were lost to church and mission because of Islam. The same can become true for Europe (let ...

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The Conversation Continues: Readers' Comments

Displaying 1–3 of 51 comments

Andrew Smith

May 02, 2011  4:03am

Paul talks about suffering as being a gift Philippians 1:29 that accompanies our belief in Christ. To suffer is about apart of our ministry and calling.

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Andrew

March 03, 2011  3:12pm

"Churches committed to programs can grow numerically, but they don't nurture biblical Christians who understand the implications of belonging to the body of Christ." This is altogether too true of the church today. The church is too concerned with power and growth financially and numerically. Of course one wants the church to grow numerically, if those numbers truly reflect the amount of souls and hearts that are trandformed to Jesus. Growth for the skae of growth is a lie to ourselves and the people around us. If we labor for months and one live is saved for Jesus should we not rejoice for that one the same no matter what the circumstances? As to the idea of suffering, I think we must see suffering as two fold. We must see the suffering of the unredeemed world different from the suffering of a witness to Christ. As Sarah's comment just below expresses, God does not necessarily want for people to suffer. That is why we are called to do Jesus' minisrty of healing and freeing people from bondage and oppression. But in doing so, the ones who witness to Christ will suffer and be persecuted. As one's suffering is alleviated another may have to endure. Sound familiar? Jesus endured the pain of our transgressions to save us. As disciples of Christ, we may need to endure pain, persecution, and suffering in order to free others from their's.

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Andrew

March 03, 2011  3:08pm

Thank you so much for this Mr. Fernando. While I'm sure that the suffering and frustration that I've witnessed and experienced as a Christian in the United States in minuscule compared to what you deal with, it's a huge encouragement to hear your opinion on it. It seems like I often get the message that if a person or ministry is suffering, or having technical or financial troubles, then it is because they are doing something wrong and should change the error in their ways in order to be "blessed." I've always felt that this was not true, but it is tiring to hear again and again. So thank you again for this article.

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