During my devotional time this morning, I was reading from Nehemiah 6. In this chapter, Nehemiah’s enemies sought to immobilize him with threats and fear. He was urged retreat to the safety of the temple. He refused, however, knowing that to do so would be a violation of what God had called him to do. He could not accomplish God’s purposes and be preoccupied with safety.
Safety; what a comforting thought for so many people. We yearn for it, especially in times like today when so much seems uncertain. We pursue it, hoping to achieve a rest that we know, deep down, we’ll never really find. But we are prepared to sacrifice even good things in order to possess it to some measure.
Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus once said, "The desire for safety stands against very great and noble enterprise." Seven years ago, before the advent of the blog, I wrote a commentary for the Persecution and Prayer Alert in which I addressed this issue in regards to what it means to follow Jesus. At the time, the world was still reeling from the events of 9/11. But as I read my words of April 10, 2002 again this morning, I was struck by how relevant they remained for today. And so I thought that perhaps it might be worthwhile updating what I had to say back then.
In the February 2002 edition of SIM Now, Pep Philpott, executive director for SIM Canada, mulled over the question why, as missionary agencies, we tend to evacuate our staff when things get "hot" in our countries of service. This became most obvious in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, when many missionaries were evacuated from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Such evacuations of missionary staff are, by no means, unique. Just a cursory search on Google finds evacuation of missionaries from Sudan, Madagascar, and Afghanistan since the beginning of 2009.
In his deliberations, Mr. Philpott rightfully observed that evacuation decisions are often taken out of the hands of the missionaries by government orders, the church's advice, or circumstances beyond their control. But he noted, "The question would not go away. Could it really be a reasonable supposition that God intends suffering for our national brethren, but not for the missionary? Would the purposes of God consistently suffer if the missionary remained in a situation of conflict?"
It was Mr. Philpott’s next paragraph that I found most intriguing. "After mulling over these weighty issues I came to this conclusion: I have an appalling theology of suffering. In fact, it is hardly a theology because it cannot be supported by Scripture. For me, and I suspect for my generation, comfort and security are seen as our birthright. We strive ardently to hold on to them, hardly considering the Biblical requirement to release them for the sake of the Gospel. It's as if our motto is, 'We came to serve, not to suffer.' "
Over the years since joining The Voice of the Martyrs, I have received a number of emails from all over the world. Occasionally, I get emails from those who are either thinking of ministering in another culture or who have loved ones who are planning to do so. But the primary reason they write me is not so that I can pray for them or help equip them for ministry in a restricted nation. Usually the purpose of the message is to ascertain whether it is "safe" to minister there.
Usually, the answer is "Yes, for the most part." Usually foreigners are much safer in restricted societies than the national believers who do not have the luxury of evacuation. The worst thing that can usually happen to a foreigner missionary is that they will be expelled from the country. There are rare (and tragic) exceptions, but this is generally true.
But I continue to be disconcerted by the question, "Is it safe?" When is it ever safe to follow Jesus? Did Jesus promise a safe road? Is the call of God only to be followed if "to pastures green, He leadeth me"? Rather, did He not say, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24)? The path of Christ is the path of the cross. Yet, how many of us are like Peter, who upon hearing that Jesus was going to follow this path, took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you" (Matthew 16:22). Jesus replied, that such a mentality reflected the attitude of this world, rather than the mind of God (16:23).
Recently I received an email from the father of a 17-year-old girl who was reading our book Jesus Freaks. He had just refused to allow his daughter to go on a mission trip over spring break to Mexico. He wrote,
“Due to the increasing violence in Mexico as a result of the local drug cartel turf wars we decided to pull her out of this trip in fear of her safety. She was not concerned about being tortured or killed and wanted desperately to go on this trip. Your book seems to send a message to impressionable young people that common sense and rational thought should not play a role in their Christian life and that their personal safety is secondary to their beliefs. This is a very slippery slope especially for young impressionable teens.”
Here was how I responded,
“Thank you for your email. I understand your concern about your daughter. As a father, I would probably feel the same even though I don’t think I would have made the same decision you did. You see, as you note, in our material we do indeed point out that believers regardless of their age or where they live should be prepared to suffer and die for their faith. We do this because this, we are convinced, is the clear teaching of the Bible and of Jesus, in particular, when He said that anyone who would follow Him must take up their cross and follow Him. If they were not prepared to sacrifice even their own lives for Him, He said, they were not worthy of Him. This is not a slippery slope; it is the reality that most Christians live with on a daily basis in the world today, including young people and even children. There is a cost to follow Him and yes, the Bible does suggest that personal safety must take a back seat to their loyalty to Christ and His call to fulfill the purposes of God. This kind of priority was exemplified by Jesus Himself and which He calls us to repeatedly in the New Testament. We would not be faithful to scripture if we were to teach anything else.”
You see, to the mind of God, suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to His people. Disobedience is.