We cannot divorce the Cross from missions. God has joined the Cross and the Great Commission together, and what God has joined together, let no man separate.
For our Lord Jesus Christ, the Cross involved incredible suffering and sacrifice. He was misunderstood, slandered, falsely accused, and lied about. He was hated and betrayed. He was forsaken by His friends. He was unjustly arrested, illegally tried, and wrongly condemned. He was mocked, beaten, whipped, insulted, slapped, and ultimately crucified.
The very purpose of Christ’s blood atonement was missionary: “For You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation…. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:9, 12).
Jesus taught His disciples that following Him also involves a cross. He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Among other truths, He was telling His disciples to prepare themselves for the same sort of suffering and persecution He endured. He said: ” ‘If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you…. “A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you'” (John 15:18–20a).
This is the consistent testimony of Scripture. Paul writes, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12), and Peter declares, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). We also read that Paul and Barnabas strengthened and encouraged the believers in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch by “exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God'” (Acts 14:22).
But we must understand that suffering and persecution are not pointless. It is often in the crucible of persecution that the church experiences its greatest growth. Wars, natural disasters, and suffering seem to be regularly used of God to revive spiritual fervor and bring vast multitudes to their knees in repentance. The sword, rather than the olive leaf, seems to be serving the cause of both personal spiritual growth and world￼evangelism.
During the past 21 years, while serving as a missionary, I have had the privilege of ministering in conflict areas such as Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. I have found people in war-torn regions far more receptive to the Gospel than those in stable, peaceful areas. Combat soldiers in operational areas are much more open to the Gospel than administrative and support troops in the secured areas. Many more people come to genuine repentance and faith in Christ in hospitals and prisons than in our churches. Let me cite several examples:
Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was one of the least evangelized countries in the world. There were more than forty-eight thousand mosques, but not one single church building. The last Christian church had just been demolished before the Soviet tanks rolled across the border. Yet the devastating war brought about the greatest openness to the Gospel ever seen in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans have been converted to Christ in the various wars that have rocked Afghanistan.
In Argentina, the disastrous Falkland Islands war against Britain in 1982 led to a national economic collapse and a great spiritual revival. Literally millions of Argentinians have been converted to Christ since 1982.
Indonesia is the world’s fifth-most-populous nation (more than 212 million people) and it has the largest number of Muslims in any country (170 million). Yet out of the bloodbath of a failed communist coup in 1965 sprang one of the greatest movements to Christianity. The harsh extremism of some Muslim groups and the fierce Muslim reprisals (millions were killed in the repression following the coup attempt) repelled many people. Millions were converted to Christianity—most from Muslim or communist backgrounds.
Ethiopia has suffered two great waves of violent persecution: under the Italian fascists from 1936 to 1941 and under the Marxists from 1974 to 1991. These traumatic times of suffering were also great seasons of spiritual harvest, with millions coming to Christ. Protestants numbered less than two hundred thousand in 1960. But by 2000, the number of evangelicals had increased to more than 12 million (20 percent of the population).
Sudan is the largest country in Africa, and it has the longest war still raging. In 1956, Christians made up less than 2 percent of the total population. Now, after enduring some of the most vicious anti-Christian persecution, the church makes up more than 23 percent of the total population. Many parts of the church in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains are experiencing real revival and spectacular growth. Large numbers of Muslims have come to Christ in Sudan.
One could give many other examples of great missionary progress and church growth in politically unstable and violent countries.
Unfortunately, we regularly allow secular humanists and the mass media to rearrange our thoughts and distort our perspectives. The secular media often erodes the faith of believers in the sovereignty of God. Like vultures, many TV cameramen swoop down to focus in on the wars, famines, disasters, and tragedies. They very seldom go on to present the wide-angle picture of what God is doing even in the midst of these tragedies and in spite of the suffering.
Hence, most Christians (who depend almost exclusively upon the secular humanist-controlled media for their perspectives on history and current events) are overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness amidst what looks like meaningless suffering in what seems to be a world of chance. But they are failing to see the big picture. They seldom stop to consider their personal sufferings or world events in the light of eternity.
Many may feel like Christians, but very few think like Christians. Many seem to have Christian hearts, but all too few have truly Christian minds. The average churchgoer spends more time reading the newspaper than reading the Bible. If we spend more time watching TV than in worshiping Christ, we will become practical humanists.
We must be aware that there is a cosmic world war in progress between the forces of darkness and the heavenly armies of our Lord Jesus Christ. Eternal destinies are at stake, and we should be ready to follow in the footsteps of our suffering Savior to see the kingdom advance. As C.T. Studd has put it: “Only one life, it will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last … some like to live within the sound of church or chapel bell—I’d like to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
There is something spiritually purifying about suffering. There is nothing quite like the possibility of sudden death to straighten out one’s priorities! Comfort softens us, but hardship strengthens us. Health and wealth often breed complacency, selfishness, and greed. However, suffering can encourage sharing and self- sacrifice.
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7).
In my own spiritual life, I can clearly see that my greatest times of spiritual growth have been while I was in the army, in the mission field, and in prison. My most earnest times of repentance and heart-searching prayer have been when sick, after a motorbike accident, when captured by communist troops, and in the intensive- care unit with my newborn son when he was in critical renal failure.
Some missionaries also have observed that we cannot compare our devotional fervor in the mission field with that in the comforts of home. Comfort and complacency are the enemies of our devotional lives, while conflict and crisis can fuel the fires of spiritual zeal. This is also true in world missions.
We are living in a time of great uncertainty and instability. Worldwide, more than 40 wars are in progress and many hundreds of millions are afflicted by famines, epidemics, and other natural or man-made disasters. Yet we are also living at a time of the greatest ingathering of people into the kingdom of God. Every day about eighty thousand believers are added to the church worldwide. Every week, three thousand five hundred new Christian churches are planted. Most of the growth has been in Asia and Africa amidst the most severe suffering.
The Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two words—those for “danger” and “opportunity.” It is certainly true in missionary work that crisis situations are the most fertile fields for ministry. Wherever there is danger—such as in wars or persecution—there are unique opportunities for serving God.
In the light of eternity, any sacrifices made to bring lost sinners to the Savior will be seen as eminently worthwhile. What man means for evil, God often uses for good (Gen. 50:20).
God does send disasters upon nations and individuals to judge specific persistent sins (Acts 5:1–11; 12:23; 1 Cor. 11:30–32). However, we should not assume that an individual or nation is suffering because of its or his own sin. Job’s suffering was not an indication of God’s displeasure, but rather the opposite.
Often suffering is sent by God to strengthen our faith and to demonstrate that our faith is genuine. People are attracted to Christ when they see Christians handling suffering with grace and confidence in God. Suffering is part of life, and we are called to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3).
Thus, God can use our suffering for our spiritual good as well as for the strengthening and extending of His kingdom. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
Our attitude amidst suffering must glorify God and draw unbelievers to Christ. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3–4).
Suffering should drive us to depend upon God and grow in faith. Therefore, the Scriptures exhort us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience…. Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:2–3, 12).
Since we are God’s children, we will share in His blessings and in His sufferings. But the Bible promises that if we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in His glory. And our present sufferings cannot be compared with the glory of eternity (Rom. 8:17–18).
Our Lord’s last command must be our first concern. The Great Commission should be our supreme ambition. We must center on what is central to God’s Word—missions. Our great God and Savior deserves all glory and honor, and so we should invest all our strength and wisdom to proclaim all of His Word to all of the world and to persuade rebellious sinners to fully surrender to the Lordship of Christ.
However, having said that, we need to recognize that God’s army often advances on its knees in prayer and on its back in pain. The Cross required suffering. Fulfilling the Great Commission will require no less.