Certain circumstances have a tendency to reveal sin, most notably marriage and child rearing. This is not because the conditions are more optimal for generating sin, but because they give opportunity to see and understand how one’s sin impacts another individual. The result is often a horrifying picture of who we are apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. I would submit that there is another sphere in which sin is more greatly revealed: missions (and more generally, ministry).
As a cross-cultural missionary, during my first years on the foreign mission field I encountered conditions that had the capability of uncovering the depths of my depravity and revealing it to those around me. For those in ministry, my situation is not uncommon. When sinful people are on constant display, they will eventually fail those watching. That is the nature of living between the already and not yet, as men and women who are daily involved with process of progressive sanctification. When those moments unveil one’s true humanity, it not only creates an active humbling of the missionary but exposes the need to come to ministry with an already humble attitude.
As a missionary propagating the gospel throughout the middle east, Paul understood this concept well. He was taken from a position of notability to a place of obscurity. After the Lord got Saul’s attention in one of the most well-known testimonies of Scripture, he began a ministry for the Lord that literally left him running for his life and eventually would require his life (cf. Acts 9:19-24; 2 Timothy 4:6-8). Despite his personal circumstances though, Paul persevered by humbling himself to the point of the Lord’s servant. This was a mission he took on joyfully (Philippians 1:21) and taking note of Christ’s humility to the point of his own death, Paul endeavored to labor not for his own name, but for Christ alone (Philippians 2:1-11; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6). Obviously though, Paul was a man who wrestled constantly with his own flesh (Romans 7:15-20) and therefore he acknowledges that he needed a constant reminder and urging towards humiliation so that he may not be conceited, for which the Lord had given him a ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Paul’s struggle with humility while in the midst of ministry is a reminder for those of us ministering for God today.
For the missionary, humility is a trait that will be tested mightily, not just in the moments of direct ministry but on an ongoing basis after one arrives on the field. Ministering cross-culturally creates unique challenges that many will not understand unless they have been in similar positions. One will be confronted daily with differences in lifestyle (not merely between secular and Christ, but simply changing from one process to another). Every culture has a different mentality and unique struggles that will impact the manner in which they live. From paying bills to how they interact with their neighbors. For the missionary, every little nuance can become amplified because he or she is receiving thousands of minor changes that confront his or her own culture and personality. If not careful, the result can be catastrophic to ministry. An increasing attitude of criticalness will be more than off-putting to the nationals, but immediately creates a standard of behavior that no national could fulfill. The missionary is left with feelings of superiority over his or her host culture and has generated a barrier with the very people that a missionary should be trying to reach.
While a prideful missionary makes the ministry conform to his or her standards (I am of course, referring to personal standards not biblical ones), the humble missionary is continually mindful that ministry is not about himself. Like any humble person, the missionary comes in with an attitude that recognizes both his position and character apart from Christ and with Christ. As a result, the missionary comes in as a learner, seeking to understand not criticize the people being ministered to. This means that he is constantly asking questions, processing the new environment, and then carefully weighs the words that come of his mouth. Instruction, biblical and practical, come in the form of lovingkindness that is often welcomed, even if not implemented, because it demonstrates a care for those people being ministered to. As relationships are cultivated the missionary will find that frequently it has formulated a level of trust and that in the most serious of times, individuals will seek out the missionary for help before turning to his or her own family/friends.
The way in which God uses the humble is quite incredible. As those ministering to others, humility is more than a qualifying characteristic it is a necessary one. We’ve only scratched the surface here, but Scripture says much about a humble heart attitude and certainly we have much to learn (to read more thoughts about humility, click here).
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