Heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
We are experiencing many new adventures as first-term missionaries and in recounting them we often hear from our loved ones that we need to make sure we are not pushing ourselves too hard. Being the kind people that they are, they do not want to see us burn-out and go back home with remnants of what used to be a marriage, messed-up children, and the Bakoum people left without a Bible. We are thus often reminded that we need to be balanced, make sure we are getting enough rest, guard our personal time, and the like.
Did Paul Work too Hard?
Simultaneous to these conversations, I am reading through 1st and 2nd Corinthians and I wonder if Paul, the great apostle-missionary, would give me the same counsel. Page after page, I see him laying down all of his rights for the benefit of those whom he is serving and he is telling me to “imitate him." Here are some examples:
He was always trying to please the nationals: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Cor 10:32-33)
He spent himself on the souls of others:” I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” (2 Corinthians 12:15)
He labored and suffered and was often near death: “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one…with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death…” (2 Cor 11:23ff)
He went without sleep and the necessities of life: “In toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Cor 11:27)
He daily felt anxiety for those under his care: “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:27)
Quite honestly, when I compare my life to his, I am struck by my lack of zeal to see souls saved. I consider my life easy as I do not go without rest or the necessities of life. I have food, I have clothes, I even have kittens. I have not had one sleepless night and honestly the state of the church here is not as much a point of anxiety in my life as it should be. I read the life of Paul and I am all at the same time confessing my lack of zeal and totally inspired to push myself harder for the souls of others.
Why then the huge discrepancy between the radical life of Paul and the call to not “push ourselves too hard”?
A Question of Motivation
I think one reason is that people are concerned that our motives could be misguided. For example, if one is caught up in a “if I don’t do X,Y,Z today, then the Kingdom of God will not advance” frenzy, he is not resting in Jesus’ promise that every soul the Father elects will come to him. It is King Jesus who builds his Church and neither the gates of Hell nor the failures of his missionaries will prevail against it. In the same way, if one is going hard in Kingdom work under the guise of humility while fantasizing about his future biographies, it is his own glory he is seeking and not God’s. And finally if one’s identity is so intimately wrapped up in what he does for the Kingdom that when he is in bed with malaria he falls into despair, then this is a tale-tale sign of a misunderstanding of the peace he has with God in Christ. So, yes, there can be internal impurities in a life of external service.
Love: The Motive that Justifies “Imbalance”
But I must ask the question, “Were these the motivations of the apostle Paul?” Was he laboring and toiling to make a name for himself or to become “more” justified before God? No! Instead his motive was love for the Lord and for others. He refers to people under his care as his children, he claims that he has fellowship with Christ in the midst of his sufferings, and he says that he endures everything for the sake of the elect. How then can we criticize a life like this one when his motives were so pure?
Let Us Spur On One Another
And so, whereas I do think there is wisdom in making sure to get enough rest and the like, I wonder if the church today may emphasize balance too much. After all, Hebrews does not tell us to spur one another on to more rest and plenty of exercise, but rather calls us to encourage one another to love and good works. So, I put forth the following challenges:
· Do not Overemphasize Counting the Cost. When someone shares with you their dreams in serving the Lord do you emphasize counting the cost to the exclusion of the power of God and the sufficiency of his grace? Do not immediately start listing obstacles and difficulties (that is SO discouraging). Why not instead start listing all the times that God has proved faithful in your life? Or how he split the Red Sea? Or how he sustained Paul in the midst of his suffering? Why not remind them that the Lord has given them the Spirit of power, love and self-control? Do not be the wet blanket, but instead seek to fuel their zeal with the fact that nothing is impossible with God.
· Correct the Motivations not the Actions. If someone is going hard in service to the Kingdom, go ahead and ask questions about their motivations (being careful of course to not assume impure motives). Do not hesitate to make sure that they are still being faithful to read their Bibles, spend time with their kids, love their spouse, and pray. But unless there is a chapter-and-verse command that you can find, do not call them to slow down in their service to the Lord. Their zeal might be the work of the Spirit.
· Adopt More of Paul’s Imperatives and Lose a Couple of Your Mom’s. In counseling our brothers and sisters in Christ, do we counsel more like Paul or like Mom? (I am not saying there is never an overlap). For instance:
Mom’s Imperatives: Be careful, make sure to get enough rest, take care of yourself, be careful, brush your teeth, go have some fun, be careful, make sure to call home, be careful, take your vitamins, be careful…
Paul’s Imperatives: Endure everything for the sake of the elect, set your mind on things above not on earthly things, remember that the sufferings here are only for a moment, how will they hear unless you are sent to them?, remember that Jesus will raise up your tired, scarred, corruptible body for a new one, do everything in love, do not be slothful in zeal, rest is coming, do good works, pray without ceasing, I wish you would remain single for the Kingdom, discipline your body and keep it under control so as to not be disqualified after you preach to others….
Being a mother, I am not saying to neglect the Proverbs or common sense, but being a Christian I cannot help but to encourage others to walk down a path that could be very costly to them for the sake of the Kingdom of God. I think that is what the Bible does.
I am not saying that there is never a time to call a brother and sister to “slow down” but let us be very careful to not stifle something of the Spirit. His ways, his leadings and his people rarely make sense at first glance.