"Thousands of missionaries have lived difficult lives of sacrifice in relative poverty and deprivation as God expanded their work and ministries in the places where they served. God doesn't promise that all of His followers will be protected from hardship and suffering. Christians get cancer, lose loved ones, and suffer financial setbacks just like everyone else. But God can also use our tragedies to expand our territory in ways that show a skeptical world a different way to live." (Richard Stearns: The Hole in Our Gospel.)
One of the fiercest mental battles I've had to endure as a rookie church planter centers around the reality of the suffering involved in planting a church in a tough place. Mind you, I was no star-crossed "we're gonna kick some Kingdom butt," triumphalist thinking the way forward would be paved with lilacs. I knew the challenges would be many and great, and was well aware of my untested abilities in this mission.
Having that said, I have to admit the suffering we've had to go through has exposed naive assumptions about God's protection in such work. He also exposed my pride in thinking after two years we should surely have all sorts of success stories and Northampton is changing because of our work. More about that in a minute.
By God's protection I'm really referring to being kept from any hardship serious enough to impede or delay what I envisioned was reasonable progress. So God has allowed the injuries, illnesses, constant financial pressures, and lack of people joining the cause (that's in no way meant to demean the wonderful people who are with us), job losses, and long, dark nights of the soul we have all experienced in Northampton as a church plant. I have never assumed we would be protected from any trouble or hardship in this mission. But I need to say also our suffering has left a mark on us and at times been both bewildering and deflating. Par for the course, I understand.
Here is what I've realized about suffering and planting from being in Northampton almost two years:
1. Expect substantial and relentless spiritual obstruction, confusion and attack from an adversary hell-bent on derailing God's Kingdom initiatives, especially in places of long-established demonic strongholds. Planting is a fight on spiritual, emotional, relational and physical/practical fronts; sometimes all at once. Chaos will show up in surprising ways and create setbacks threatening to wear down your resolve. The pain of the fight is real.
2. Expect to have your faith tested beyond what you have experienced in the past. Church planting requires a strength of faith and trust equal to the Kingdom weight it must carry. You need to believe when the money is not there; when the people are not there, where the way is frequently blocked, problems cascade and you are spiritually, mentally and physically drained. It could all fall apart, but you must hold fast to God no matter. He will make a way where there appears no way. In the meantime, it feels like muscles being stressed and strained to be ready. Sometimes they tear.
3. Expect God to expose and work on your weaknesses through trial. Character flaws, relationship tensions, unhealed wounds and areas of spiritual immaturity will be brought to the fore so God can create a pure heart ready to produce Kingdom fruit. It will take time and is a critical part of the planting process: God plants his Kingdom more deeply in you so you're more fit to do the same in others.No one likes having to look into a mirror of sin and weakness. It hurts, but is necessary.
4. Expect the re-tooling of your expectations about what your mission is going to look like. The vision may or may not reflect where you end up. What sparkled off the page on the drawing-board may evaporate when real life takes over your days on the mission ground. Again, he's focusing your effort around his will for what he's called you to do. We see in part; he sees exactly as he desires it to be. You might experience frustration as God goes to work. No one likes having to re-do what seems a winner.
5. Expect periods of second guessing and questioning. As you run into delaying obstructions which persist, you very likely will ask questions about whether God called you to do this in the first place. You might wonder if you are the right man or woman for the task. You may question your gifts or spiritual fitness. You might feel you are disappointing God because you're not making more headway. Questioning is good if it brings you to your knees and opens you to God's wisdom. This kind of suffering can be excruciating because it calls your sense of value and competence into question. Confidence in God gets built there.
6. Expect periods of discouragement even disillusionment. There are countless stories of missionaries and planters suffering great long, dark nights of the soul where it feels all has failed, God has disappeared (or worse yet is really ticked), and its might be time to abandon ship. Sometimes it will be accompanied by excruciating stresses and strains physically, financially, relationally, emotionally and spiritually. Being overwhelmed for an extended period of time can produce disillusionment also. These periods will come. You are being tested and made durable like a marathon runner. It hurts because you feel let down or you are letting down others who put their confidence in your mission.
7. Expect training in humility where much of what you stood on in the past is removed so you have nothing to toot your spiritual horn about. If anything happens of any real import in the mission you've been summoned to it will be God's doing and his alone . . . period. Humility is prized by God. Suffering creates humility because it puts us in God's hands with only him to hold on to. Pride puffs us to blindness and missional impotence. Our initial, grand designs for God need some cutting down to size. Suffering gets the job done if we keep our eyes on him in the ordeal he fashioned for us.
I have changed because of what we've had to go through. I am more reliant on God and have few illusions about making anything of value happen unless he does it. I am trying to be faithful each day to staying the course even if I do not see what I did as having anything to do with the mission. I am still expectant, but have tempered it with the real possibility I will not see the fruits of my labors here until the Kingdom comes at the end of the Age. And what God sees as missional progress or success may have very little to do with how I think it should be. That has come to be enough . . . most days anyway.