If God is sovereign and all powerful, He must not be good. Or if He is good, then He must not be sovereign and all powerful.

So reason many who believe that there should simply not be any suffering in the world. But even if they understand some suffering in the world, surely an all-powerful and good God would not allow any difficulty to come into the lives of those who are serving Him and His people.

Those who reason in this manner are dumbstruck when missionaries suffer setbacks, sickness, or sorrow—paying the ultimate sacrifice through martyrdom is completely inexplicable to them. They sometimes conclude that there is no God, or the One who exists must be powerless to stop evil, or that He is indeed powerful, but is evil Himself, and therefore does not wish to stop it. Our sovereign, all-powerful, omnibenevolent God has used suffering to advance His cause and bring glory to Himself throughout history and around the world.

The history of missions is filled with stories of those who suffered for His name to advance the kingdom. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The best apologists for Christianity in the early days were its martyrs. The anvil breaks a host of hammers by quietly bearing their blows.”[i]

God’s sovereignty is clearly seen in the calling, guiding, and sustaining of missionaries in their work on the field. There is no other reasonable explanation why men and women with higher education, successful careers, meaningful ministries, and extended families would leave everything to go to live in difficult settings, exposing both themselves and their children to tropical diseases and dangers they would not know in the land of their comfort zone. But a right understanding of the call to missions assumes the very real possibility of suffering.

What Does History Show?

When Adoniram Judson was asking for the hand of his future wife, he wrote to her father:

I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls, for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteousness, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?

Jim Elliot often spoke of the dangers he knew he would face as a missionary in Ecuador’s eastern jungles. After watching a death there, he wrote in his journal, “And so it will come to me one day, I kept thinking. I wonder if that little phrase I used to use in preaching was something of a prophecy: ‘Are you willing to lie in some native hut to die of a disease American doctors never heard of?’”[ii]

Given that suffering is so much of the missionary’s life, we have to wonder why any sane person would leave the comforts of home to embrace it. I don’t think he would, any more than anyone would think of leaving a successful business to pastor a local church as a savvy career move. The call of God on the lives of men and women creates an inner sense of the “shoulds and oughts” and a fire shut up in their bones.

Only a sovereign God could so stir men and women to walk away from homes, families, careers, and lifelong dreams to embrace what may very well be a life of suffering; it’s not a choice one makes in a vacuum.

The Bible teaches that God has a plan for your life, and it may be very far removed from any plans you have developed on your own (Psalm 139:16; Eph 1:11). The Bible records God’s calling of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jonah, and Paul to a life they would never have imagined—or chosen. In more modern contexts we often hear missionaries recounting their call to a life that is counter-intuitive at first, but perfectly understandable in response to His call.

Star athlete, Ed McCully, who won the 1949 National Hearst Oratorical Contest and was unanimously elected to be senior class president at Wheaton, had been accepted into Marquette University Law School. He was working as a hotel night clerk to while in law school. God called him to Ecuador through his study of Nehemiah during a night shift at the hotel the night before he was to begin his second year. He left all he had planned to follow God’s unmistakable call, knowing it would require sacrifice and self-denial. Ed was martyred in the Ecuadorian jungle on January 8, 1956, along with Jim Elliot and three other friends.

Jim Elliot was a fervent missions mobilizer, known for passionate preaching to persuade people to missions. “Our young men are going into the professional fields because they don’t ‘feel called’ to the mission field. We don’t need a call; we need a kick in the pants.”[iii] Yet, even this fervent young preacher understood the importance of hearing God’s call before stepping into such a life. He had been recruiting his friend, Pete Fleming, to join him as half of an initial two-man team in Ecuador. Pete hesitated before committing and Jim realized he might have been pushing too hard. He then wisely cautioned him in a letter to consider the challenges and be sure of a missionary call before launching out:

I have no word for you re: Ecuador. I would certainly be glad if God persuaded you to go with me. But He must persuade you. How shall they preach except they be sent? If the Harvest-Chief does not move you, I hope you remain at home. There are too many walls to leap over not to be fully persuaded of God’s will.[iv]

What Does the Bible Say?

We clearly see God’s sovereignty in the Scriptures and throughout the pages of history in the calling of men and women as well as guiding them to the places where He would have them to serve. Syrian Antioch was the first truly intercultural, international, missions-minded church. It was also a church of believers that were so committed to following Christ—even after the suffering and martyrdom that drove them there—that they were first called Christians there. It should be no surprise that it was to that church that the Holy Spirit said to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work of missions. They sent their best teachers to the places He was calling them.

God calls each of us to serve Him, and He guides us to the places He wants us to be. In Acts 16, the Holy Spirit redirects Paul and his mission team to the place where He would have them go. He guides His people today in many ways as seen in His calling of young men to youth ministry, guiding youth ministers to transition to associate pastor roles, then to be senior pastors, and later to serve Him in some capacity in their retirement. In the same way that He guides pastors from one church to another throughout their ministry career, He stirs, calls, and guides missionaries. Sometimes missionaries move to serve the Lord in other places or in other capacities when He redirects them.

Our sovereign God not only calls and guides, He also sustains those He leads through all the years, tears, and fears of their missionary careers. Would that we had time and space to review the sufferings of missionaries such as William Carey, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, C.T. Studd, and Jim Elliot, along with God’s sovereign sustaining. Those familiar with their stories know that God’s sovereign plan for them included suffering.

In contemporary adoption practice, the adopting parents give a child full rights of inheritance and familial equality with their natural children. Even though the adopted children may have no resemblance to anyone in the family physically, they are accepted and embraced as fully as the other children. The Bible teaches us that when God saves us, He not only adopts us into His family, He then begin begins to conform us to His image. Suffering is often the tool that God uses to shape and fashion us. He knows precisely what we need to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom 8:28-30, 12:2; Phil 3:10; 1 & 2 Peter).

When His children suffer, it is not cosmic child abuse, it is loving us just as we are, but loving us too much to leave us that way; He uses whatever He knows that we need to begin to take on the family likeness of our Elder Brother.

The Bible teaches us to rejoice in suffering, (Rom 5:3-4; Acts 5:41), and presents plenty of our biblical heroes surviving and even thriving in and through suffering, such as Job, David, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The Scriptures speak of the suffering of righteous people, teaching that it is for their good and His glory (Psalms 22, 73; Luke 12:12-19, 13:2-4; Rom 8:33-39; 2 Cor 4:17; Phil 3:10; Heb 12:2-7).

Blood of the Martyrs, Seed of the Church

Even though the world argues that it cannot possibly be for our good, we recognize God’s sovereignty in our suffering—even to the point of martyrdom—and to do so, we need look no farther than the Lord Jesus Himself. Beyond His example of suffering for our salvation, we see in the Bible the good that resulted from the sufferings of others such as Stephen and Paul. The Christian life we have been called to live would be hard to understand and impossible to recognize without suffering. Paul told Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)

All the martyrs of church history demonstrated the truth of Tertullian’s declaration, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”[v]

Throughout Christian history, it has been God’s sovereign plan to expand His kingdom through suffering. Indeed, there is such a close connection between suffering and success, trials and triumph, and pain and praise, that we should not seek to avoid suffering at all costs or keep it hidden when it happens.

Suffering advances the Kingdom in ways inexplicable to modern man. The persecution and martyrdoms of missionaries during the Boxer rebellion, including that of missionaries John and Betty Stam, were followed by significant advance of Christianity in China. Totalitarian regimes and countless tragic martyrdoms have not extinguished the church, but rather resulted in its growth.

After the martyrdom of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully in Ecuador, news media spread the news around the world. The number of those who volunteered to go to mission fields to take their place is estimated in the thousands, and they came from all over the world to go all over the world. In subsequent years, when the widows would tell their stories and noted the results of so many people surrendering to missions, some remarked that it was obvious why God allowed the men to suffer and die.

Yet, the widows wisely responded that although God had clearly used the events for good, they cautioned against concluding God’s reasons. Elisabeth Elliot said that we may not know until we get to heaven why God allowed the martyrdom, and we have no guarantee that we will be told even then. It is our place to trust our sovereign, all-powerful, all-good God in the meantime. Whatever success or suffering attends their work, missionaries recognize that it is all for our good and His glory, and all He wants is all they want.

[i] Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, April 3, Matt 27:14

[ii] Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life &Testament of Jim Elliot (San Francisco: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 274.

[iii] Ibid., 54.

[iv] Ibid., 150.

[v] Tertullian, Apologeticus.


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at http://servantsofgrace.org/sovereignty-suffering-work-missions/

Dr. David Sills

Dr. David Sills is the founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, a missions professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaker, and author.

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