For the Joy
“Any questions?” my husband Steve invited a response as he scanned the faces in the adult Sunday school class and brought our presentation about ministry to the Isaan people of Thailand to a close. A man seated opposite smiled, “No. Just the hard one: How do you keep going when you see so few people believe?” Inwardly, my heart closed around the tight ball of emotions, the list of disappointments and stories. My response was a truthful one. “Not living for success in numbers. Digging deeper into faith in God.”
However, everyone knows this brief answer doesn’t come cheap. It necessitates the wrestling of pride and prayer. In the past year of disappointments, the idols of comfort, family and identity were not only unveiled, but also exposed as incompatible with ministry in Isaan. Exposed to the light of God, I have been able to see that they are not harmless or excusable. For me to continue to have energy to serve, they have to be evicted from my heart.
While wrangling with these idols, I was asked to write this article inviting you to consider long-term ministry to the Isaan people of Thailand. I know and love Thailand. What could I describe to draw you as new workers to an area of the world that desperately needs more Christian witness? Should I describe the beauty of the place I’ve lived more than half my life? What rippling emerald rice-fields of July? What hanging garden of orchids or aquamarine coral reef? Or should I describe the world-famous cuisine, the singing kites, the waterfalls, or the thrill of exploration and travel?
But certainly, I ought to share something more spiritual: the well-being of EMM as a mission community and the earthy humor and hilarity of rich Isaan friendships. The satisfaction of living out high values like empowering a next generation of indigenous leaders in an unreached people group. Or the joy of seeing God at work on the frontier of mission. A witness that yields miraculous testimonies that seal truth in our children’s hearts….
But all these spiritual benefits are all still only personally beneficial. They are all “me-focused.” They center on the idea that you should come to do your part in this urgent unfinished task of sharing the gospel because they have not yet heard. Because the Isaan people are truly unreached: demons yet oppress, addicts need recovery, neglected children long for love, the abused cry for justice. Come for the enslaved. The refugee. The poor. Come because Thailand has them all.
And yet, all of these good reasons are not enough. These reasons may be compelling enough to call you, but they will not be able to keep you when the disappointments hit. I’m going to be honest with you. Thailand is a very comfortable place to live, but it’s a difficult place to minister. The un-reached places of the world are not unreached by accident, but because of strongholds and obstacles and tribulation. In their poignant book Expectations and Burnout, Sue Eenigenburg and Robyn Bliss describe how our expectations create situations for crushing disappointment. When God does not use us, provide for or act as we had hoped, what do we do?
After years of service, if there is not the fruit we expected, but instead we face crushing loss, will we be able to say that it was worth it? In a moving passage, Bliss reflects on the fruit of perseverance. How patient endurance is a beautiful offering of worship to our Lord Jesus Christ. Endurance is in itself a precious fruit, valuable in its Godlikeness, which reveals the strength and compassion of patience! The authors describe looking out over a room full of cross-cultural workers, many of whom had endured much personal loss for seemingly so little, and thinking, “Was it worth it?” As worship welled up from the throng, they knew. He is worthy! They hadn’t served for what they personally might gain. Nor was their measure of success to make a difference. They aimed at expressing their love for Christ. It was a costly worship offering, An expensive perfume dripping on the feet of Jesus.
Beyond the need, values, gifts and hopes which form in us a particular cross-cultural call, there is the central, common call: The call to Christ. To live in his love. To be like him in intimacy with the Father, and — out of that love — to glorify the Father. From that place on his lap, there is a release from performance, an invitation to sabbath, forgiveness for failures, and a capacity for deeper trust and costlier obedience.
Many, many times this year I have returned to these verses from Hebrews 12: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Joy — the joy of intimacy — called Christ to the cross and held him there.
The call to go is as unique as the relationship God has with each person and the particular ways God is molding each of us into Christ’s image. But the call to go — as well as, one day, the call to release and return — are all about the one call: to abide in God’s love, to live in the Father’s lap, and the growing edge of what that means for us. Within that call, there may or may not be coral reefs, fulfilling ministry, lasting impact or deep community. But the ultimate call is joy. The joy of knowing God’s love more fully and abiding more deeply. For the joy set before us we endure.
Bethany, her husband, Steve, and their children serve in Thailand.