Comfort or character?

Last year, as I was researching how Christian mission workers live, work and thrive with long-term sicknesses, one amazing lady reflected on years of living with an illness which could easily have knocked her flat.  Like many of us, she could have been wondering why God allowed her illness, but she made a more positive choice of using it to see God at work in her life.  Her conclusion?

God is more interested in my character than my comfort

The last few months have been a challenge for many of us, even those who are fully healthy.  Many of us have not had the opportunity to live comfortable lives: living perhaps in temporary accommodation in our sending country, seeing and ministering to those suffering around us, coming to terms with the death of loved ones, leading churches that cannot meet in person, adapting to preaching and pastoring through social media, and ourselves grappling with having to be confined in our homes.  Such situations could only be made harder for those already suffering from health challenges.

Many in the West seem to assume that we have a right to comfortable lives, and part of the trauma that we struggle with comes from the disorientation of thinking that the current situation is just not right.  And yet historically we look back and see how the majority of people have led lives which were “nasty, brutish and short” yet filled with faith in a loving God.

The apostles were familiar with this world as they prepared themselves and their congregations for oppression and death.  The whole tenor of the New Testament seems to assume that there will be suffering, mitigated by our joy in what Christ has done for us, and the comforting love and solidarity of the church.  James wrote: “Count it pure joy when you encounter various types of trials”, because it gives us an opportunity to become perfect (James 1:2-4).  Peter says the trials that distress us are proof of our faith that will result in glory and honour (1 Peter 1:6-7).

We are not promised an easy journey through this life, but each challenge we face is an opportunity to give vent to our fleshly frustration, or to grow in patience and Godliness as we endure.  As Scott Shaum pointed out in his book “The Uninvited Companion”, the question we should be asking when difficulties occur is not “Why is this happening? but “How do you want me to walk with you in this Lord?”  As we take this opportunity to walk more closely with the Lord, we will find our character shaped more into the likeness of Jesus.

All you need is…

Beatles

The Beatles: all you need is love

We were represented at a recent International HR Forum in London.  As 60 people representing sending churches and agencies discussed selection and recruitment criteria, one of the speakers introduced us to this quote which he had found on the internet*:

The only required characteristic for being a missionary is that you have complete and utter faith in the Lord.  God does not choose the equipped… he equips the chosen.”

On the surface, this might seem very reasonable.  Surely that is all we need.  After all, most of the people we read of in the New Testament seem to have had very little formal training, if any, and Jesus actively discouraged his disciples from being too thoroughly prepared (Luke 10:4).

On the other hand, as Gentiles started joining the Jewish church in Antioch (Acts 11:22-26) Barnabas appears to have sought out Saul for his cross-cultural experience.  Although Jesus did send his disciples out lightly equipped, they had already spent quite some time in his company, watching him heal and hearing him teach.  They had been mentored by him.  And we wonder if John would have headed home early from Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) if he had been better prepared for the experience.  Perhaps he was homesick, or maybe he had culture shock.  Or was Paul too hard a taskmaster?  Some better member care may have helped him.

So is it really true that we can go into complex, different and often dangerous situations without some sort of preparation?  Is it still a world in which the likes of Jackie Pullinger can just get on a boat and do effective mission wherever it stops?  Or is it a more prudent, risk-averse world in which churches and agencies will stop us doing anything risky because they have a duty of care? (See our blog from two weeks ago for more on this issue)

We asked some mission workers what they thought were the qualities mission workers really needed.  Here’s what they said:

  • A sense of calling
  • Patience
  • Humility
  • Stamina
  • An ability to laugh at themselves
  • Recognition that God is more interested in what he can do for them than what they can do for him
  • Realistic expectations
  • Ability to cope with disappointment
  • Realisation that who they are is more important than what they do
  • Understanding that God has called them to be faithful, not successful
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Experience of coping with hard times at home before you leave
  • Compassion
  • The ability to ask for help

We don’t disagree with any of these.  They are all really valuable qualities, which most of the mission workers we asked are recommending with the hindsight of their own experience in the field.  What interests us most is that without exception all these qualities relate to character and life experience.  Not one of them is a skill, qualification or competence.  Nothing that was learned in a school, management development course or Bible College.  And we didn’t specify that we were looking for character qualities.  It seems that, as one of them commented, it really is more about who you are than what you do.  And as we concluded in our HR forum, the most important character quality is Christlikeness.

So perhaps the anonymous author of this dubious quote is right, in a certain way.  Perhaps God does equip the chosen.  But it would appear that God equips them before they are chosen, as well as after, using the difficult times we have encountered throughout our lives to make us look more like Jesus.  That, perhaps, is all we really need.

* It has been observed that you should never trust anything you find on the internet.  Except on this website, obviously.

Luis Suárez

SuarezThere can be little doubt that Luis Suárez is an excellent footballer.  With a career tally of 40 international goals for Uruguay he is their all-time top scorer,  and he has 220 more in club football.  He has scored six hat-tricks for Liverpool, holding the Premier League record.  In April 2014 he won the PFA players’ player of the year award.  He spectacularly scored both Uruguay’s goals against England in the 2014 world cup, virtually eliminating them.

So it is  disappointing that his skills did not feature at all in Uruguay’s first match of the knockout stage, which they lost 2-0 and exited the competition.  He was already suspended for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, the third time he has been punished for biting an opponent.  All of which goes to demonstrate that character is more important than ability.  You can’t score for your country while you’re in the sin bin.

In the Bible, we don’t find the 11 disciples selecting candidates to replace Judas Iscariot on the basis of their leadership ability, organisational gifiting or mentoring skills.  They looked for men who had been with Jesus (Acts 1:21).  When Paul tells Timothy what the qualities necessary in church officials are, not one of them is a gifting.  They are all character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-10).  If Jesus had picked his disciples on merit, he probably would not have accepted any of the twelve, except perhaps Judas Iscariot, who appears to have had some potential.

Which causes us to consider how we select our mission partners.  Are we often so dazzled by the ability of applicants that we are blinded to their character flaws?  Do we focus on the skills we need in the field rather than the character of the person wielding them?  And in the process, are we sending the wrong people, or putting them in the wrong team, and inadvertently damaging the work of the kingdom and causing mission partners to return prematurely because of the excessive stress caused by having the wrong players on the team?  And are latent character flaws in each of us threatening to bring the whole thing crashing down about us as we are accustomed to seeing when a prominent televangelist or famous church leader falls into sin and loses their ministry in the fallout?  As Gerald Coates once said:

What a man builds with his gifting, he can destroy with his character.