For those of our readers who don’t follow us on Facebook, you might not be aware that Jennifer and I are currently in Australia on medical leave from Papua New Guinea (PNG). Just a week or so after finishing our Pacific Orientation Course (POC), Jennifer fell ill with a very serious case of bacterial sepsis. Based upon the symptoms and a tentative diagnosis from some of her doctors, we suspect that she contracted Scrub Typhus, a potentially life-threatening disease transmitted by the bite of an infected mite. Within four days of the start of her symptoms, her illness had progressed to a life-threatening case of sepsis, which required immediate and advanced medical care. The closest facility that could provide the necessary medical treatment to save her life was in Cairns, Australia, so she was evacuated to Cairns for treatment.
Because of a phenomenal team of doctors and nurses, thousands of people’s prayers, and God’s mercy, Jennifer was released from the hospital after a two and a half week stay to continue her recovery here in Cairns. She’s doing much better now and the doctors expect her to make a full recovery, though it’s going to take some time. It’s our hope that in about a month she will have recovered sufficiently for us to move back to PNG and resume ministry at the missionary center at Ukarumpa.
In light of the events of the past month, I’ve thought a lot about the meaning and purpose of suffering in the life of the believer. This is a topic that I’ve wrestled with a good bit, and I’ve written about suffering a good bit here on our blog–here, and here, and here, just to give a few examples. But there’s one saying that I hear from time to time that has caught my attention this past month.
“The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.”
The first time I heard that saying I was a teenager. A missionary from Africa had come to my church and shared with us about his ministry there. After describing some of the challenges, risks, and dangers associated with being a missionary in Africa, he said that people often asked him how he could justify taking his wife and children into such a dangerous place. he responds by saying “The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.”
Of course, he’s not the first believer to espouse this view. A quick search of Google will reveal that others have written articles on this topic, encouraging believers that you’re safer following God’s will than venturing out into a life of sin and rebellion against God. It’s an encouraging sentiment, and one that stuck with me for several years.
Too bad it’s wrong.
I mean, it sounds nice, sure, and it’s got an element of truth to it. Indeed it’s better to follow God’s will than to sin, but is it really safer? We’d all like to think that the risks we take as followers of Christ will all turn out to be the smart, safe decision after all. We’d like to think that following God’s call to accept that job with a cut in pay so you can spend more time with your children will somehow end up being the best career move you ever made. We’d like to think that those inner-city kids and the homeless people we minister to would all turn out to be nice, kind people who are just down on their luck. We’d like to think that when we forsake all, leave our homes, country, family, and loved ones behind, and move to a third world country that God would then be obligated to shield us from all that makes that country “third world.”
But that’s just not how it works.
Sure, things like that happen sometimes. Many a Christian employee has found that refocusing his time on his family ends up somehow netting him the financial security that used to elude him. Sometimes those homeless people you serve turn out to be lifelong friends. And some missionaries never experience serious illness or persecution. (I haven’t met them yet, but I’m sure they exist somewhere.)
But, we don’t even have to look into the Bible to refute this cute little saying. All it takes is some good ‘ol common sense and a little bit of history. Do you know what every disciple of Jesus, except John and Judas, have in common? Though not recorded in scripture, history tells us that every one of these remaining ten men died a brutal martyr’s death. And they’re not the only ones. Voice of the Martyrs estimates that “In this past century alone, more Christians were murdered for their faith than any other century in human history, an estimated 200 million.” One missionary I met who has served in the tropics for many years estimated that she has had malaria over 40 times. Her husband has had so many surgeries to remove skin cancer from his ear that he hardly has an ear left now. The child of another missionary couple with whom we went through training recently had cerebral malaria–a serious, often fatal form of malaria, which only turned out well for her due to a providential meeting with a doctor on the street. Just this past week, a missionary with our organization passed away from a sickness he contracted while hiking through the jungle to a nearby village. And–lest I forget–I’m currently sitting in Australia because my wife contracted a nearly fatal case of bacterial sepsis while ministering in the bush and had to be medically evacuated to Australia for treatment. Even if you’re just a believer following after Christ in Suburbia, God’s will is likely to take you into dangerous situations, serving sinful people, at great risk to yourself and/or your family’s personal well-being. If we’re talking about physical safety, I think we can say that following Jesus is most definitely NOT a safe choice.
I’m not even going to address the question of financial safety because, let’s face it, following a money management strategy that advocates giving away as much money as possible, exalts the poor, humbles the rich, and has as it’s primary proponent a homeless man with “nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58) is not likely to turn you into the next Bill Gates.
“Ah,” you might say, “But following Jesus certainly is the safest choice spiritually.” Well, that’s obviously true in an eternal sense, otherwise there would be no point at all to following Christ! But, on this side of eternity, following Christ can even be risky to your spiritual health. I had a seminary professor who loved to remind us that “Being a minister is hazardous to your soul!” Why? Because those who follow Christ paint a giant target on their back for Satan. If you look in scripture, those who are following God are often targeted for spiritual attack. Job, Judas, Paul, and Peter–all four followed God and were targeted by Satan for spiritual attack. Three ultimately withstood Satan’s ploys, and one (Judas) gave himself over completely to Satan. (But, even Job and Peter were rebuked at some point for caving into Satan’s schemes.) Of course, the true believer need not worry about being indwelt by Satan as Judas was, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer Satanic attacks. In fact, it basically guarantees it. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” 2 Tim. 3:12 (ESV)
Still, some people seem to think that following Christ is the safe bet. “After all,” they reason, “If it turns out that I’m wrong, I’ve lost nothing. I’ll at least have lived a good life. But, if the Bible is true and I am found an unbeliever, I’ll suffer eternal Hell.” Unfortunately, those people do not have Paul on their side. Paul seemed to think that the costs of following Christ were so incredibly high that if it all turned out to be a lie, “…we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:19, ESV) So, to those who think they have nothing to lose by following Christ, I think Paul would say “Then you’re not really following Christ. If you’re doing it right, you’re going to suffer loss.” Almost every single “hero of the faith” in the New Testament (and many in the Old Testament) died a horrible death because they followed Christ, and, I would argue, EVERY believer WILL suffer if they choose to follow Christ. When you have as the goal of your faith oneness with a man who died a brutal death on a cross, you are guaranteed to suffer.
The simple fact is this–following Jesus is NOT safe. It never has been, and it never will be. The only way in which following God’s will is safe is in view of your eternal destiny. But that’s not how this saying is most often used, and if that’s what you intend to communicate, then saying that “The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will” is unhelpful and downright confusing. It would require a disclaimer that smacks of a pharmaceutical commercial. “Except in the case of physical, mental, social, financial and other non-eternal destiny types of safety. Side effects may include: homelessness, spiritual attack, poverty, sickness, ostracization, crucifixion, shipwreck, flogging, and, in not so rare cases, death.”
So, how should we think about the cost of following Christ? When we make a choice based upon risk, we usually evaluate it based upon the likelihood and severity of both the risk and reward. There’s four questions to consider here:
- What is the likelihood of incurring loss?
- What is the severity of the loss that might be incurred?
- What is the likelihood of receiving a reward?
- What is the value of the reward that might be gained?
Having answered the first two questions (“100%” and “Severe, possibly death,” respectively), we should now turn to the last two questions. For the believer, the potential for reward for following Christ is guaranteed. (Note the guarantee in 2 Tim. 4:6-8 below.)
So, the only question left is of the value of the reward. And, since our rewards for following Christ are eternal, we can say that our rewards are “infinitely valuable.” Near the end of his life, Paul had this to say about his impending death:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:6–8 (ESV)
The New Testament is rife with the subject of eternal rewards for following Christ.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
1 Corinthians 9:24–25 (ESV)
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
Luke 6:22–23 (ESV)
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
Colossians 3:23–24 (ESV)
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.
Hebrews 10:32–36 (ESV)
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
James 1:12 (ESV)
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
Revelation 2:10 (ESV)
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.
Revelation 22:12–14 (ESV)
When the Bible speaks of the risks we must take as believers following God’s will, it doesn’t speak in terms of “safety” versus “danger.” The New Testament never offers safety as a motivation for following God’s will. Instead, it speaks in terms of “cost” versus “reward.” It was not for the “chance of safety” that Christ endured the cross, but “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2); he gained strength to endure the cross because he set his eyes on the eternal reward that comes from following the Father’s will. For us, the incentives that scripture gives for the sacrifices we make here on earth to follow Christ include:
- the crown of life (Jam. 1:12)
- an inheritance with the Son (Col. 3:24)
- a throne in heaven/co-reign with Christ (Rev. 3:21, 20:6)
- “…a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mk. 10:30)
- rewards which will be so great that our earthly struggles seem insignificant (Rom. 8:18)
No doubt there will be more rewards than these listed here, but that gives you a glimpse. Can you imagine sitting on the throne with Christ himself?!?! In addition to these, scripture often doesn’t specify the nature of our reward, simply calling it a “reward.” But, even if no specifics were ever given in scripture concerning the nature of our eternal rewards, considering the source, we can rest assured they’ll be worth it!
The question is not, “Is following God’s will safe?” The answer to that is obvious, “NO!!! It’s the most dangerous thing you can do with your life!” But, following Christ is definitely worth it.
A hope of eternal reward–not the false hope of temporary safety–is what will give comfort to the believer in the midst of suffering. When you’re struggling to pay your bills, laying in a hospital bed, or being ridiculed or persecuted because you followed Christ, it will be of little comfort to hear that following God’s will was the “safe” choice. The worst day of my life was the day I watched my wife–the most precious thing to me in all this world–get loaded into a plane to be flown to another country for treatment and wondered whether I would return to America as a single dad. I love my wife dearly, so I don’t take this lightly. I can imagine no greater pain than losing her. But, even as I sat in that plane holding her hand, not knowing whether or not she would make it, I had a comfort and peace from God. And the thing that gave me comfort was knowing with all my heart that if God decided to take my wife, she would go to be with Christ. Her earthly sacrifice would be instantly rewarded with a crown of life and the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She would spend all eternity with Him, and the cost she paid here on earth would have been worth it.
So, when we are called to make tough decisions and are weighing the cost of following Christ–be it to a new job, into a rough neighborhood, into a new ministry, or into a new country–let’s stop asking “Is it safe?” Let’s not fall prey to the delusion that following God will be safe. We ought to ask instead, “Do I believe that following God’s will be worth it, regardless of the cost?” And the answer to that, for the believer, should be obvious. When we finally get that perspective, we can live our lives in a way that shows the world that our Savior is worth whatever the cost may be. He is infinitely worthy. And then we can say with Job,
“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…”