Theology of suffering in missions
Historically, missionaries’ stories have inspired us. Our missionary heroes seemed to have had the ability to overcome hardships and difficulties and go on to do great things for God. It makes one wonder what was going on behind the scenes. The difference between then and now lies in a theology of suffering. This article will attempt to define this theology and show how an understanding of suffering didn’t keep our heroes from doing great things for God.
1. Suffering is part of God’s will. An example of this is William Carey, known as the father of modern missions. Carey was a translator as well as an educator. He said, “When I left England, my hope of India’s conversion was very strong; but amongst so many obstacles, it would die, unless upheld by God . . . my faith . . . would rise above all obstructions and overcome every trial. God’s cause will triumph.”1 In spite of professional and personal tragedy, Carey went on to translate the Bible into Hindi and started schools for the poor because he believed that God would work his will in spite of suffering. Today, a college Carey established in India in 1818 trains over 2,500 students in theology and education.2
2. Suffering has purpose. This truth is seen in the life of Jim Elliot. Elliot and four other men felt called by God to witness in Ecuador to a tribe notorious for their revenge killing. At their first face-to-face meeting with tribe members, Elliot and his team were murdered. Two relatives of these men later returned to the area and led the tribe to Christ. This dramatic story “shaped generations of evangelical missionaries even as it prompted changes in their work.”3 Steve Saint, son of one of Elliot’s colleagues, believes this “shows that ordinary people can serve extraordinary purposes.”4 It is also believed that “Christian conversion prevented self-extinction [of the tribe].”5 Elliot would have agreed that suffering had purpose, as seen in his famous quote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”6
3. Suffering is a tool God uses to develop character. Amy Carmichael was an Irish missionary who served in India for fifty-five years and spent the last twenty years of her life bedridden. She was able to rescue over a thousand children from temple prostitution. In spite of her suffering, she continued her ministry, saying, “Let us not be surprised when we have to face difficulties. When the wind blows hard on a tree, the roots stretch and grow the stronger. Let it be so with us. Let us not be weaklings, yielding to every wind that blows, but strong in spirit to resist.”7
4. Obeying God’s call can lead to suffering. Missionary and Olympic medalist Eric Liddell understood this well. He went to China as a missionary, refusing to leave during World War 2.8 He eventually died in a prison camp. His ability to weather suffering was summarized in this quote: “Obedience to God’s will is the secret of spiritual knowledge and insight. It is not willingness to know, but willingness to DO (obey) God’s will that brings certainty.”9 His obedience even when suffering continues to inspire and challenge us.
Missionary heroes of the past overcame difficulties and went on to do great things for God. They overcame because of what was going on behind the scenes. They had a theology of suffering. Developing our own theology of suffering is a powerful tool, not only to survive the suffering we encounter in our mission work, but also to produce lasting fruit.
1. “William Carey,” AZQuotes.com, https://www.azquotes.com/author/2464-William_Carey (accessed Jan. 1, 2020).
2. “William Carey: Father of Modern Protestant Missions,” Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/william-carey.html (accessed March 11, 2020).
3. Ann Rodgers,“Ecuadoran tribe transformed after killing of 5 missionaries,” Pittsburg Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/movies/2006/01/08/Ecuadoran-tribe-transformed-after-killing-of-5-missionaries/stories/200601080177 (Jan. 8, 2006).
4. Ibid, Rodgers.
5. Ibid, Rodgers.
6. The Journals of Jim Elliot, ed. Elisabeth Elliot, (Revel), October 2002.
7. Pamela Rose Williams, “21 Top Amy Carmichael Quotes,” What Christians What to Know, 2010-2015. https://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/21-top-amy-carmichael-quotes (accessed March 11, 2020).
8. Paul Putz, “The Untold Story of Olympic Champion Erin Liddel,” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/for-the-glory (May 6, 2016).
9. “Eric Liddell,” AZQuotes.com, https://www.azquotes.com/author/8848-Eric_Liddell (December 20 2019).