Working for the ultimate reward
Ministering in Japan is hard, but if we keep our eyes fixed on God, we’ll be able to remain faithful
The world operates on “What’s in it for me?” Christians can get caught in that trap, too, but can feel horribly guilty about it when they recognize that motivation. The good news is there’s essentially unlimited reward for serving the Lord, even if the world doesn’t recognize it.
Serving in Japan is hard
Japan is known as “the graveyard of missionaries,” and there are countless examples to back that up. I speak from experience, since my parents arrived in 1934 and 1935, respectively, and are literally buried in Kokura, Kitakyushu. The expression, however, doesn’t come from physical graves so much as it does from despair, discouragement, and lost motivation.
New missionaries often arrive with great expectations of learning the language in a year and then wearing out a baptistry or two with new converts (you can stop laughing now). The truth is, the Japanese language is one of the world’s most difficult, at least for English speakers. My father was noted for his expertise, and he often had Japanese people asking him about particular kanji. But he confessed to me that his Japanese reading was quite slow, and I know he had a slight accent right to the end.
I really spoke Japanese before I did English, but the only Japanese schooling I had was kindergarten, so my constructions (sentences, etc.) can seem unnatural to Japanese. And don’t even ask about my reading and writing! Even for someone as gifted as my father or with as many advantages as I have, Japanese can be very difficult.
And then there’s the matter of converts. On at least one occasion my father prostrated himself on the floor and cried out, “God, if I’m what’s in the way of revival in Japan, then take me out of the way!” He was deeply loved and respected by the Japanese, even receiving an award from the emperor at the time of his death, but the response that he desired—of whole-hearted commitment to Christ—happened far less often than he wanted. If you are tied to numbers, Japan is not the place for you!
Missionaries—and foreigners in general—are often seen as interesting and are even sought out, but there seems to be a wall keeping Japanese from realizing that the things they are hearing truly apply to them and are a matter of eternal life and death. We may feel we are listened to or ignored; accepted or rejected. After all, we are gaijin, outsiders! I still wrestle with it.
I was born here and have lived most of my years here, but still I am accepted as Japanese only by people who know me well, and often, not even by them. At the same time, there’s a sense that we are dearly loved in this city. Given my wife’s health issues (see my article in the Autumn 2020 issue of Japan Harvest, p. 38), one time I was talking with someone from a local funeral company and mentioned that, were she to die, we would need the auditorium of the Civic Center for her funeral, because so many people love her. He replied, “No, you would need the Arena,” (a local sports facility).
Another factor that makes serving here hard is the simple reality of the mobility of modern life. Over the years I have baptized close to one hundred people, but our current Sunday morning attendance is around ten. We have people literally around the world! I even had a pastor in Osaka write to thank me for sending him such a good, dedicated believer, even though, if I’m not mistaken, she has married and is currently living with her husband in the US. Of course, job transfers aren’t the only reason for people leaving. We once had a number of people leave the church all at once, and they never did let us know what the issue was. Things like that are painful indeed. Again, if your focus is on numbers, you’re in the wrong place.
God calls us to faithfulness
But, God continues to call people to Japan, and God is the very best boss! However, we need to pay attention to his “Terms of Service,” as service providers these days like to say. God is looking for faithfulness from us. Jesus said some remarkable things about our serving as his representatives:
“He who listens to you listens to Me; he who rejects you rejects Me; but he who rejects Me rejects him who sent Me” (Luke 10:16 MEV).
“Whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me” (John 13:20 NIV).
“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives the One who sent Me” (Matt. 10:40 BSB).
In these three verses we have three important verbs: listen, accept, and receive. We could have a long theological discussion of all the nuances, but the fact remains that Jesus authorizes us to be his agents, and we must not forget that.
Need for prayer support
Many times we have seen people leave Japan feeling defeated. However, what was defeated was not the kingdom of God or even their ministry, but rather their conception of what their ministry “ought to be.” Such defeat focuses on man rather than on God. I have fallen for that trick of the enemy myself, and it indeed feels awful. Prayer support is essential for every believer, but especially for every missionary. We had a period of several years in which we had lost our prayer support, and before I knew it, all my other activities (I’m self-supporting) had taken precedence and the church was no more than a hobby. God used a faithful believer to speak a strong word to me about that, and then God put me in a situation where I was again able to assemble a group in the US who would pray for me here in Japan.
There are rewards
There is much hardship in serving in Japan, but occasionally we come across rich, fertile soil. We have a lady in this church who had severe clinical depression—she was unable to come out of her house. But now she’s the most on-fire, reliable person you could hope to have in your church. Because of the dramatic change in her, her brother-in-law and then her husband both committed themselves to Christ. Her younger daughter and her husband are also Christians, and we have assurance that it is only a matter of time before her older daughter and her son (shortly to graduate from college) will join the rest of their physical family in the family of God. That family quite literally makes up for a lot of the troubles we’ve endured. All of that said, the ultimate rewards are in our Lord’s hands. As Hebrews reminds us, “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Heb. 10:35-36 NIV). I have every assurance that when my parents arrived before the Lord in heaven they heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt. 25:21 NIV). I can think of no greater reward, and it will make every sacrifice, every sorrow, every trial fade into total insignificance. As Paul tells us, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17 NIV).