Tuesday, September 15, 2015

8 Essential Components for Discerning God's Will

From the archives for such a time as this.

I know that some people maintain that God doesn’t have a will for our lives beyond our sanctification, but He does. No, we cannot sit down and pray to know it until He reveals a fully developed life plan, but He has put us in the places we are, the times in which we live, the background we have, and given us the personality and preferences we have in order to guide us in right choices.

I believe that He has created good works beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10), and with Paul, I want to stretch forward to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Php 3:12 NIV) I agree with Spurgeon that “every Christian is either a missionary or an impostor” but I do not think that everyone is to sell the farm and travel to live on the other side of the world. All of us are goers or senders, or in sin! (Rom 10:13-15) It was clearly the role of Barnabas and Saul to be missionaries in the work the Holy Spirit had for them, and it was clearly the role of the church to set them apart and send them (Acts 13:2-3). When people ask me for counsel to help them discern their role in God’s plan for the world, they are sometimes passionate and eager to know. Telling them to read chapter 2 of my book, The Missionary Call, is the more complete answer I wish they would examine, but it is not the immediate answer they want. Let me share with you what I often tell them. These are the eight components you should keep in mind as you pray about God’s will and make the best decision for the next step in your life, whether that is to serve in missions, pursue a particular field of study, move to a new city, etc. These are not ‘8 easy steps to know God’s will for your life.’ They are simply biblical considerations to consider in those moments.

  1. Know God – Some people are more concerned about knowing God’s will than they are with knowing Him. I have been married and growing to know my bride for 37 years, and in most situations of life I can say with reasonable certainty what she would prefer. I know her. Spending time getting close to God is essential for being close enough to hear the still, small voice saying, “This is the way, walk in it.” But how can we know Him? What could we say definitively about Him if He had not revealed Himself to us? Precious little. So, study His revelation to know what He wants you to know.
  2. Know His Word – As you read the Bible you are reading the very Word of God. He speaks to you through the examples of former followers, through His revelation of His heartbeat, His desires, what brings Him joy, and what breaks His heart. As speaks to you, speak to Him in intimate conversation.
  3. Prayer – Speaking our heart to God, listening to hear His guidance, and resonating with it in obedience is exactly what Jesus did, sometimes spending long hours in the night in prayer. Godly examples in Christian history also made prayer the priority of their daily lives. M’Cheyne determined each day not to see the face of man until he had spent time before the face of God. Yet, sometimes we need guidance “with skin on.”
  4. Counsel – God has given you a precious gift in the “gray beards” of your life. They are those who have watched you grow in your Christian life, they have seen you make both and wise and foolish decisions, and they are those whom you have seen making wise and godly decisions in their own lives. There is wisdom, victory, and safety in seeking the counsel of godly men and women.
  5. Life Experiences – Why has God allowed you to have the experiences you have known? He is sovereign over every detail of His universe and sends or allows all that comes to us, knowing exactly what is necessary to conform us to the image of Christ. He may have allowed you to have experiences (mission trips, friends, jobs, travel) precisely for the reason of shaping you to be the person who you are in order to seize an opportunity that is before you. Are your life experiences indicative of such preparation in this choice?
  6. Circumstances – Some might say throwing out the fleece is the guidance they seek, or looking to identify the open doors. Be very careful in this. Remember that the devil is called the god of this age and the prince of the powers of the air; he can manipulate circumstances also. Certainly, your circumstances may be useful. For instance, if you struggling with whether to marry Jane or Jill, but are already married to Sarah, then your circumstances are pretty clear regarding God’s will in that situation! Consider circumstances but only in harmony with these other ways that God guides.
  7. Timing – This component seems sort of unspiritual or irrelevant to some, but it is a crucial one to consider. I know a man who had respected a missions agency that focused in the region of the world that most interested him all of his adult life. He would have gladly taken a job in the mailroom just to get to meet his heroes who served there. In developments that only God could have brought to pass, he was one day invited to serve as President of that agency. It was a miracle, a dream come true, and the opportunity of a lifetime. Yet, as he considered each member of his family at that moment in time, it was painfully obvious that the timing was wrong for them. It would have been wrong for him to accept and bring pain to his family, so he declined the opportunity. While it still hurts him, and while every other light was green, he knows that the timing of the offer was not right.
  8. Desire – What do you want to do? If the last component seemed unspiritual, this one makes it pale in comparison. What do my desires have to do with it? In fact, some erroneously think that if it is God’s will for my life, it won’t be something I would choose. Missionaries who are passionate about serving in the areas where God has called them have sometimes confessed a little guilt about having such joy in it, as if great happiness and desire to do it somehow means it is only my will. But God is able to give us desires that He wants to fulfill in our lives. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” He is pleased when we find our greatest joy in pleasing Him. Learn to pray, “Lord all I want is ALL You want.” He will give you desires that you may have never had, and then He will allow them to be realized, bringing joy to you both.

How can you know your place in God’s plan for the world?
Are you a sender or a goer?

Clear off the table of your heart and life, lay these eight components there, and ask Him. He has a place for every one of us, and there is great joy and peace in both finding and doing it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reaching & Teaching Update

These are exciting times for Reaching & Teaching. My heart is full because of what the Lord has been doing in the past few months! Here is a sample:

  • The first Reaching & Teaching graduation in Tambo, Ecuador 
  • Amazing protection and provision at our jungle site in Chazuta, Peru 
  • Two training site launches in Ecuador - Cuenca and Otavalo 

Graduation in Tambo

It was a humbling moment to be present for the first ever Reaching & Teaching graduation. Ten men have faithfully been a part of our training for over three years now, having attended each of the nine week-long training modules. Many have sacrificed weeks of working at their jobs so they can attend the training. Their faithfulness to attend and their eagerness to learn is remarkable.

Yet, our vision does not end here. Paul wrote to Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim 2:2). Our prayer is that these men will raise up other leaders in their church and entrust to them what they have learned - that they too will reach and teach the nations.

We rejoice in this first graduating class, but we also pray that God, through these men, will spread what they have learned to many others. For the sake of the gospel, for the strengthening of the church, and ultimately for the glory of God.

Protection and Provision in Peru

A Reaching & Teaching team headed to Chazuta, Peru, the same week as the Tambo training. However, because of dangerous mudslides on the mountain road leading to the jungle town of Chazuta, the team was never able to make it our training site there.

After much prayer to the Lord and counsel from our site coordinator, Pastor Jairo Sangama, the team decided that it would be unwise to make the trek to Chazuta. Staff member Jon Deedrick told Pastor Jairo that he did not expect the twenty students waiting in Chazuta to put their lives at risk to travel to Tarapoto for the training. Yet, these men are hungry for the Word! They rose at the crack of dawn on Tuesday morning and made it safely to Tarapoto for the start of the training at 9 AM. Amazing!

By that time, God had already provided a new training location - a significant complex that was formerly a seminary. It has a large meeting hall, dorm rooms to accommodate all of the students, and a kitchen/mess hall. Sisters from Tarapoto volunteered to prepare meals throughout the week. Everything came into place in a matter of hours.

Despite all of these obstacles, forty pastors sat eager to receive the Word on Tuesday morning, a testament to the goodness of the Lord!

Training Sites Launched

In the weeks following the Tambo and Tarapoto training, we launched two additional training sites in Ecuador, both of which are staffed by partner churches here in the states.

The first was in the city of Cuenca, where my son Christopher is stationed as a Reaching & Teaching missionary. Thank the Lord, the training was a tremendous success with sixty students in attendance throughout the week.

Last week, we launched a training site in Otavalo, facilitated by Reaching & Teaching missionary Cody Whittaker. This site also saw a great turnout, and the training was divided up into two groups - one in the morning and one in the evening. Our team taught for a total of ten hours each day!

Both of these teams took the students through a survey of the Old Testament, and we pray that the Lord will bear fruit in the lives of our students as they respond to the Word.

In addition to these exciting developments, our team is busy processing the applications of eight new missionary families who are responding to God's call on their lives. We praise God for this momentum, and we pray that he will bring us an army of servants ready to go anywhere and make any necessary sacrifice to reach and teach the nations.

Please praise God with us for all that he is doing. We covet your prayers in the days ahead!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Barnabas and Paul

My pastor, Bill Cook, recently preached on one of the saddest chapters in missions history. He recounted the time when Paul and Barnabas disagreed so vehemently that they parted ways. His sermon on this very familiar passage touched me deeply because some dear, and I believe godly, missionary friends of mine have recently done the same painful thing. It is often said that your biggest problem on the mission field is not the language, government red tape, culture shock, or stomach bugs; it’s other missionaries. Something about putting visionary, passionate, self-denying, radically committed men and women in close proximity for long periods of time is like putting tin foil in a microwave; sparks are going to fly. Sadly, I have known of many missionary teams through the years that have parted company and broken fellowship, and sometimes amid accusations or harsh insinuations that resulted in long-standing bitterness.

Returning to the sermon, of all the events that the Holy Spirit could have inspired the biblical authors to include, here we have this story of committed co-laborers parting ways, and at least in the biblical record never speaking or serving together again. Try to imagine the close bond of their friendship. Remember how Barnabas sought Paul out when no one else believed in him or knew where he even was, how he included him in the work, and traveled with him in the very beginning of pioneer missions? Their separation was tragic and should move us to tears. Was Barnabas trying to do the same for John Mark that he had done for Paul years before? Couldn’t Paul see that or at least give him the benefit of the doubt?

The Greek word that the Holy Spirit used in Acts 15:39 to communicate the separation, ἀποχωρίζω, means “to rend apart or sever,” and has the connotation of ripping away. It signifies a painful, tragic, and apparently bitter breaking of fellowship between them. While the Bible does not specifically say whether the sin or fault was Barnabas’ or Paul’s, it seems that Paul is the one who came around later . . . but maybe as long as 15 or 20 years later.

Their sharp disagreement was over whether to continue taking John Mark with them as a member of their mission team after he had deserted them during their first missions trip. Their positions were so extremely opposed that Barnabas took John Mark with him and went his way, while Paul took Silas and went another. God does not tell us why John Mark had returned home during the missions trip, nor what Barnabas later saw in him that made him argue so strongly for his reinstatement (or perhaps saw of himself reflected in John Mark). Neither does God tell us why John Mark even sought reinstatement to the team, nor why Paul was so adamantly opposed to the idea. All we know is that it was a bitter disagreement that separated the members of the first missionary team. Sad. Tragic. Painful. But not the end.

Paul wrote many years later in Col 4:10 and Philemon 23-24 that Mark “the cousin of Barnabas” had regained his confidence. Peter also counted on John Mark in later years, calling Mark his “son” in the faith (1 Peter 5:13). You will remember that Peter painfully knew what it was like to sin greatly, humbly repent, and be graciously restored. Finally, as Paul nears the end of his life in prison he writes his last letter to Timothy and tells him, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” They are friends again. Missionaries and co-ministers on the same team again. What amazing grace!

May I speak for a moment to my missionary friends? I know that you see what you believe to be sin in the life of some around you. I know you see them as sandbags keeping your ministry from getting off the ground and soaring with eagles. They may be. But please be patient. Remember that while we see in this passage the beautiful story of John Mark’s restoration, we never clearly see Paul and Barnabas reconciling and embracing as friends again. There is much speculation about whether they decided to forgive and forget or simply appreciate one another from a distance. Please don’t let things end that way on your team.

Our Lord Jesus prayed in John 17

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

Jesus prayed that we would be one. No, not uniformity but unity, so that the world would know that the Father sent Him. The world is watching, and they will know we are Christians by our love.

When I was a young believer we used to sing a version of Ephesians 4:32, “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted forgiving one another, even as Christ also has forgiven you.” Stay together. Forgive, reconcile, restore, and try again. Missions’ advance needs the powerful testimony of your forgiveness and unity.

Monday, January 26, 2015

10 Reasons to Stay on the Mission Field

A couple months ago I wrote a blog post listing ten reasons that many have used to excuse themselves from missions service. Although they feel called to missions, one of the listed reasons seemed insurmountable to them and they had not pursued missions. I appreciated those missionaries who are now serving on the field somewhere who emailed after the post saying that they were living proof that some of the reasons I listed were not deal breakers to answering God’s call to missions.

Ironically, about the time that I posted that blog my international travels led me to interact with some missionaries who were discouraged and, sadly, some had reached the point of burnout and were returning home. Others were devastated because a key family on their team had just resigned and gone home. Others felt tossed about in rough emotional seas, wondering whether they should return home also, already mentally packing their bags, and thinking through the steps required to go home. Often the resigning missionaries list dropping financial support, struggles with the language, a child’s educational needs, or a parent’s health as the reason they are returning home—and sometimes it is for one of those reasons. But even legitimate reasons leave behind coworkers who are confused, hurt, and grieving. A former student of mine who had witnessed some families return home from his field of service desperately wanted to know how he could ensure that the same would not happen to his family.

As I deal with those questions I am always painfully aware that I was also one who went to the field, but later returned. Taking that step was not done casually. We sought God’s will as much in the decision to leave as we had in the decision to go to the field in the first place. I learned in that process that although the call to international missions and the burden for the nations is a lifetime calling, God’s guidance to fulfill it is dynamic; it changes throughout the seasons of life. I learned that walking in step with the Spirit of God means we must never stop singing “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go,” rather than, “Wherever He Led I Went.”

But discerning God’s guidance and leadership is not a clear, logical, or obvious thing; we must seek His guidance and leadership. History is replete with Christian leaders and missionary giants setting aside time for prayer and fasting to seek God’s guidance for a new step or direction in ministry. They believed in both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. I know that you do, too. If you are very sure that the step to return is clearly God’s guidance for you, then follow His leadership. But do not leave without that sense of His hand directing you. Since the emotional turmoil and devastation of lives is so huge, don’t break camp and return home without His unmistakable redirection. Let me plead with you who are in the throes of your decision making to keep in mind these ten reasons to stay.

1. Faithfulness to God’s Call

It is wise for missionaries to sit down from time to time and remember what you’re doing there and why you came. Remember that season when you felt the almost palpable hand of God to answer the call and take the step to go. I have counseled many heartbroken missionaries who only remembered their call after they had left the field and turned their family’s world upside down again and returned home. Some will say they never needed a call because they “have a verse.” Well then, remember your verse. Still others have said that they have never been able to articulate the process in their own life as some define a call. For them it was simple obedience, commitment to what they believed was right, and agreeing with an inner sense of “shoulds and oughts.” Before you leave the field, or even begin packing to leave, spend some time with the Lord and recall that reason. Ask Him if you have finished what He brought, called, or burdened you to do. Remember until it stirs your heart again.

2. Language

There are 6,913 languages in the world, many of which have unique dialects or such distinct accents and idioms that each one is almost nonsense to one who hasn’t learned how that group uses that language. One team of Bible translators lived in the jungle among a people group for ten years before they knew the language well enough to begin evangelizing the tribe.  You may argue that language is one of your frustrations, but you are miles ahead of where a new missionary would be. The fluency you have attained is a gift of God, your talent; how will you invest it until He comes? That question isn’t about guilt; it’s about stewardship.

3. Culture 

Just as it takes years to learn a language well enough to communicate clearly, be taken seriously, and argue persuasively, there are many other aspects of “the rules of the game of life” for people groups that require a learner’s perspective and patience. At last you finally know how to buy food and local recipe substitutes to enable you to cook it. You appreciate the music—well some of it—and you even know some of the better musicians. You could give a visitor a brief overview of the history of the country. You can get where you need to go by taxi, bus, or metro—and better yet, you can even get home again. You know when the roosters will start crowing (and you know it’s not at daybreak!). You know how to flow in the rhythm of life and swim with the current. You understand the logic that was once so nonsensical. You know that when an event is announced to start at 10:00 AM that this has nothing to do with a clock. As hard as life may seem sometimes, these life skills you have learned cannot be used anywhere else. You been there long enough that you can do this.

4. Religion

Missionaries have learned by painful experience that a failure to understand the religion of a people you are seeking to reaching and teach will also fail to recognize when they are simply putting a cross on top of what they believed before the missionary arrived. The resulting syncretism may require years to correct. Learning and understanding a people group’s religious beliefs and practices is much more complex than merely reading a book about it before you arrive. You have learned their subtle nuances of honoring departed loved ones and when someone is crossing the line into veneration and worship. This aspect of your target group is the most crucial to the missionary task. You get that.

5. Discouragement is temporary

Too many missionaries leave the field during a time of personal discouragement—culture shock, after a national falls away or betrays them, or when an unthinking missions supervisor (who may be experiencing his own struggles) treats them harshly. Perhaps family at home is going through struggles, or your child is sick with a tropical disease that is unknown at home, or you cannot get past the grief of not being able to go home when a parent passed away. Discouragement is real, and it has long been a favorite weapon of the enemy, but it is only temporary. When you are tried, you will come forth as gold. Stay through it.

6. The needs that brought you there, and the additional ones you have found

The need is not the call, but God may use it to stir you into action. Maybe you heard a missions sermon in your church where the preacher painted a detailed picture of the spiritual needs, or you responded to human needs after a natural disaster or war, or maybe a short term trip opened your eyes to all that needed to be done. Since you have been there, these needs have been confirmed repeatedly, and you have found many more. It’s just that now you are tired and so the need seems overwhelming. Never forget that the numbers have faces, and the faces have names. Let these needs stir your hearts again.

7. Relationships

While you may have a passport, financial support, family waiting for you at home, and maybe even a job lined up, remember that you are not simply going to something, you are also leaving and going away from something—someone(s). The multiplicity of options in the assets column of your balance sheet affords you the ability to leave when you want to leave. But you may be the only missionary some of your contacts know personally. I have found that the relationships we make with nationals and other missionaries are some of the most precious we will ever have. Perhaps that is part of what Jesus meant when He said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

8. Seeds planted and watered

For most who return before they had planned, it is not because they had finished their work. Do not think lightly of the hard-won gains that have been attained. A good beginning has been made, but think of the untouched communities, the unevangelized areas, the undiscipled new believers, the churches planted but not fully formed, and the pastors untrained. Is it time to go? Consider this work that you have begun with sweat and prayer and remember that many are like newborn babies who still need parents to nurture them.

9. Your kids

For many families that have been on the field any time at all, their sending country is more the parents’ home more than it is the MKs’. Missionary kids grow attached to new cultures more quickly. The missionary community becomes a surrogate family complete with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Your kids are able to minister with you on the field in a way they will not be able to do should you return home. Indeed, in most churches back home you will part company at the Sunday School hour and see each other again after church—they have their own age-graded classes and worship time that is totally separate from the adults. When we were going through a time of discouragement due to lack of visible fruit, I shared with my wife that it occurred to me that our life on the field might have very little to do with us. Perhaps He just wanted our kids to grow up on the field because of what He planned to do through them. Your kids are watching you to learn many wonderful things. They are also watching you go through discouragement, opposition, and faithfulness when you lack necessary resources, and learning how they should handle it in their own lives in the future.

10. What is it that is not being done, that ought to be done, that you could do, and if it were done would result in greater advance of the kingdom and glory to Christ? 

You are the only you that God has ever made. You are a unique mix of flesh and blood, life experiences and education, relationships and preferences, etc. As you consider all of your difficulties and discouragements, please take a few moments to lift your eyes to the horizon and look beyond them. Ask yourself this question above. There is a task you have been uniquely created to perform. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

You could come up with a list of a thousand reasons to return home, and in the midst of your discouragement cannot find even one to stay. Stay anyway. That line of reasoning would have kept you from going to the field in the first place. If you are having a hard time focusing on the task, let me remind you that your labor for the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58) For those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, for those who are discouraged and cannot come up with a single good reason to stay, take these ten. They are yours along with my prayers. Stay the course. You are heroes. Run hard and finish well. Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in abundance.