To Serve Is to Suffer

If the apostle Paul knew fatigue, anger, and anxiety in his ministry, what makes us think we can avoid them in ours?

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.

To Serve is to suffer The Cross must be an essential element in our definition of vocational fulfillment.

The contemporary emphasis on efficiency and measurable results makes frustration even harder to endure. In the past four centuries, industrial and technological development in the West made efficiency and productivity top values. With rapid economic development, things once considered luxuries became not only necessities but also rights in the minds even of Christians. In this environment, the Christian idea of commitment has taken a battering.

We call our churches and Christian organizations "families," but families are very inefficient organizations. In a healthy family, everything stops when a member has big needs. We are often not willing to extend this commitment to Christian body life.

Commitment and Community

The biblical model of community life is Jesus' command to love one another as he loved us—that is, for members to die for other members (John 15:12-13). The model of Christian leadership is that of the Good Shepherd dying for his sheep, not abandoning them when the situation gets dangerous (John 10:11-15). When God calls us to serve him, he calls us to come and die for the people we serve. We don't discard people when they have problems and cannot do their job properly. We serve them and help them come out of their problems. We don't tell people to find another place of service when they rebel against us. We labor with them until we either come to agreement or agree to disagree.

When people leave a church because they do not fit the program, it communicates a deadly message: that our commitment is to the work and not to the person, that our unity is primarily in the work and not in Christ and the gospel. The sad result is that Christians do not have the security of a community that will stay by them no matter what happens. They become shallow individuals, never having true fellowship and moving from group to group. 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.

Sticking with people is frustrating. Taking hours to listen to an angry or hurt person seems inefficient. Why should we waste time on that when professionals could do it? So people have counselors to do what friends should be doing.

Ideally, counselors help diagnose and treat difficult cases, and friends give the time that is needed to bring healing through acceptance, comfort, and friendship. Hurt people usually hurt those who try to help them. Hurt and angry people to whom we are committed will hurt us too. Others they hurt could get angry with us because we are committed to them. But we endure the pain because Christ called us to die for our friends.

Several people have sympathized with me, saying it must be hard and frustrating to serve in a country wracked by war and hostile to evangelism. Indeed, we have suffered. A few months ago, one of our staff workers was brutally assaulted and killed. But I think the biggest pain I have experienced is the pain I have received from Youth for Christ, the organization for which I have worked for 34 years. I can also say that next to Jesus and my family, Youth for Christ has been the greatest source of joy in my life. Whether you live in the East or the West, you will suffer pain if you are committed to people. This is suffering that can be avoided. We can avoid pain by stopping the relationship or moving on to something more "fulfilling." But what do we lose?

Some years ago I was preparing a message on commitment while traveling in the West. Within the space of a few days, three people told me how they or someone close to them had left a group or a person because of problems. One had left an unhappy marriage; another, a church; another, an organization. Each person described his leaving as a merciful release from suffering. But I could not help asking myself whether, in each of these cases, the Christian thing to do would have been to stay and suffer.

Drivenness or Servanthood?

I have a large group of people to whom I write asking for prayer when I have a need. Sometimes my need is overcoming tiredness. When I write about this, many write back saying they are praying that God would strengthen me and guide me in my scheduling. However, there are differences in the way friends from the East and some from the West respond. I get the strong feeling that many in the West think struggling with tiredness from overwork is evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is that it is wrong if one gets sick from overwork through drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to endure tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people.

People who are unfulfilled after pursuing things that do not satisfy may be astonished to see Christians who are joyful after depriving themselves for the sake of the gospel.

The New Testament is clear that those who work for Christ will suffer because of their work. Tiredness, stress, and strain may be the cross God calls us to. Paul often spoke about the physical hardships his ministry brought him, including emotional strain (Gal. 4:19; 2 Cor. 11:28), anger (2 Cor. 11:29), sleepless nights and hunger (2 Cor. 6:5), affliction and perplexity (2 Cor. 4:8), and toiling—working to the point of weariness (Col. 1:29). In statements radically countercultural in today's "body conscious" society, he said, "Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16); and, "For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you" (2 Cor. 4:11-12). I fear that many Christians approach these texts only with an academic interest, not seriously asking how the verses should apply in their lives.

The West, having struggled with the tyrannical rule of time, has a lot to teach the East about the need for rest. The East has something to teach the West about embracing physical problems that come from commitment to people. If you think it is wrong to suffer physically because of ministry, then you suffer more from the problem than those who believe that suffering is an inevitable step on the path to fruitfulness and fulfillment. Since the Cross is a basic aspect of discipleship, the church must train Christian leaders to expect pain and hardship. When this perspective enters our minds, pain will not touch our joy and contentment in Christ. In 18 different New Testament passages, suffering and joy appear together. In fact, suffering is often the cause for joy (Rom. 5:3-5; Col. 1:24; James 1:2-3).

The Glory of the Gospel

In a world where physical health, appearance, and convenience have gained almost idolatrous prominence, God may be calling Christians to demonstrate the glory of the gospel by being joyful and content while enduring pain and hardship. People who are unfulfilled after pursuing things that do not satisfy may be astonished to see Christians who are joyful and content after depriving themselves for the gospel. This may be a new way to demonstrate the glory of the gospel to this hedonistic culture.

I have a great fear for the church. The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective in evangelism? The church in the East is growing, and because of that God's servants are suffering. Significant funding and education come to the East from the West. With funding and education comes influence. Could Westerners influence Eastern Christians to abandon the Cross by communicating that they must be doing something wrong if they suffer in this way? Christians in both the East and the West need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and bear fruit.

Ajith Fernando has been national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka since 1976. With his wife, Nelun, he also serves in a church in Colombo consisting mainly of poor, urban first-generation Christians. He is the author of The Call to Joy and Pain (Crossway) and An Authentic Servant (The Lausanne Movement).


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