The following is excerpted from our Nations editor’s letter to workers in a dangerous area. He describes how the apostle Paul was both a pioneer with a dogged spirit to get things done and a humble child of God who submitted to God’s sovereign leadership over his circumstances.
If you, like Paul, have a conviction and tenacity to reach the unreached, you may also struggle to accept that many things are beyond your control. Do not despair. God will lead you through circumstances according to His redemptive purposes.
A Letter to Expelled and Evacuated Workers
Brothers and sisters in our beloved [location omitted for security reasons],
I’ve been following with sincere interest and love the happenings within the Kingdom of God in […] for I guess ten years now. Having had many friends travel to or live there in that time, one thing that has always impressed me is the tenacity, courage, faith, and unflappability of the workers there. I’ve been personally challenged to endure both violent and nonviolent trials as I remember their endurance. Every worker in […] that I have met has personally experienced a violent encounter of some sort, some of which have been deadly. I’ve also rejoiced with the news of the slowly growing local Church. Yes, your labor is not in vain.
I’m writing to those of you who have been significantly impacted by violence particularly targeted against foreigners. God willing, you will be encouraged and strengthened in meditating upon His Word with me here.
Perhaps you have asked yourself some tough questions:
“What is our threshold for danger?”
“At what point do we leave temporarily, or even permanently due to violence and/or persecution?”
“Doesn’t being a pioneer in this work mean that we endure no matter what?”
“If we leave, who will come?”
May I share with you some things in Acts that might serve to encourage and guide you? Notice how many of the changes in ministry location during the apostle Paul’s second and third journeys were out of his control. These relocations included tragedies and natural disasters (ship wreck, storms, persecutions, etc.), pressure and/or direction from others (they would not let him minister – Acts 19:30-31, hard heartedness of the Jews so he turned to the Gentiles – Acts 18:6, etc.), and/or the redirection of the Holy Spirit (in Corinth – Acts 18:9-11, away from Bithynia – Acts 16:7).
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Paul was the classic pioneer; he wanted to take the gospel to new lands and endure the necessary persecution to “get the job done.” We could say that he was stubborn in the pursuit of his desires and vision. He showed his stubborn conviction, for example, in his disagreement with Barnabas over Mark (Acts 15:36-41), or his intentional sailing past Ephesus and the disciples there to get back to Jerusalem (Acts 20:16). And as we know from our work among the unreached, stubborn conviction is a necessary trait for sustaining ministry in hard places. But even though Paul was the ultimate “get it done” kind of guy, the definitive persevering pioneer, he was still a mere human subject to many things out of his control.
Internal tension arises for the apostolic worker who undergoes significant changes in ministry due to forces outside of his or her control. This tension exists between the conviction to stay and break through the barriers and the reality of uncontrollable circumstances.
How does a worker maintain contentment in the midst of this tension? I’d like to point out to you three things that contributed to Paul’s famous “contentment” throughout the turbulent twists and turns of pioneer church planting among the unreached (cf. Phil. 4:12).
First, Paul’s relationship with the resurrected and reigning Lord Jesus was dynamic and constant. Paul first met Jesus personally on the Damascus road (hence Paul’s rightful designation as an “apostle”). Jesus directed him in his ministry from here to there and back (for example, “the spirit of Jesus did not allow” Paul into Asia Minor, Acts 16:7). Jesus empowered him and ministered through him (Rom. 15:18-19). God in Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit continually encouraged Paul through the changes and trials of his ministry (there are numerous examples of this, but in his second and third journeys, see Acts 16:10, 27:23-24).
Second, Paul humbly submitted to the sovereign guidance of God through circumstances. These circumstances included storms, team splits, jail time (two years under Felix – Acts 24:27), many persecutions, sicknesses (for example, leaving teammate Trophimus in Miletus, 2 Tim. 4:20), and so on. But in addition to the personal relationship between Paul and the risen Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit, God coordinated (and still coordinates!) all the details of history. He rules over everything from the rise and fall of civilizations, to where each person is born and where each person lives at this very moment (Acts 17:26). And He rules authoritatively for the accomplishment of the redemption of His people (Acts 17:27). Amazing. So God was ruling for His purposes each time he moved Paul from place to place.
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What I take from this is that sometimes we stubborn, make-it-happen, dig-our-feet-into-the-ground, stay-at-all-costs kind of people need to recognize the sovereign leadership of God through circumstances. Yes, there is critical value in our dogged spirit. Indeed, that determination keeps us moving forward in faith. But we must also learn to “accept” direction that is out of our control, even if it is out of our preference. The apostle Paul was not in control, after all. And modern day apostles to unreached peoples must concede to the control of God in Christ over us, even when God leads us circumstantially or through the pressure of others in directions that seem inefficient, unplanned, or otherwise undesirable. After all, God is our team leader. His ways may seem inefficient at times, but He is going to get His job done to His greatest glory. He will move us, turn us, twist us, and even tantalize us according to His sovereign administration of history for the accomplishment of His redemptive purposes.
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Third, the one practical constant throughout all the twists and turns of the apostle Paul’s ministry was faithful disciple making through declaring and demonstrating the gospel. Observe with me the progression of Acts 13-14:
Antioch in Pisidia: “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium.” (Acts 13:50-51)
Iconium: “When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel.” (Acts 14:5-7)
Lystra: “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. (Acts 14:19-20)
Do you see a pattern?
They preached the gospel in Antioch in Pisidia. People believed. There was persecution. They went to Iconium.
They preached the gospel in Iconium. People believed. There was persecution. They went to Lystra.
They preached the gospel at Lystra. People believed. There was persecution. They went to Derbe.
Preaching, persecution, moving. How did Paul sustain emotional and spiritual health through all these “forced” moves? We find the answer to that question at the end of Acts 14. Paul and his team returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
What I take from this today is that there will be persecution. Let it direct your ministry path, not stop your ministry. Keep going.
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It can be a relief to see how the apostle Paul allowed persecution and tribulations to guide his direction in ministry. We can likewise allow these to direct us in our ministry. That’s ok. We don’t always need to stubbornly dig our feet into the ground and say, “Here I stand unto death!” But we should not stop faithfully making disciples of all peoples through the constant declaration and demonstration of the gospel. We should not let tribulations end our ministry. Rather, we should keep preaching the gospel no matter what. And we should continue to encourage the disciples saying, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Brothers and sisters, standing shoulder to shoulder with you in the trenches of disciple making ministry to unreached and difficult places, I want to encourage you with this word: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”