When Katie and I got married we had a pretty normal American, Christian life. We had a starter home we were paying the bank for, I had a good job in construction management, we had a good community group and a good church. Then about a week into our marriage, while reading the Bible together at our hotel in Sorrento, Italy, the words from Isaiah 6 jumped off the page. “Who will we send? And who will go for us?” This divine inquiry was met with the newly sanctified lips of Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me.” I turned to Katie and I said with moist eyes, “I think our lives are going to look different than we thought.” She smiled and said. “Okay.”
Fast forward literally 10 years from then to when I am writing this in early December 2017. We have six kids, we are on the other side of the world, we live off of support from generous gospel-partners, and this spring will mark 9 years of cross-cultural ministry in a part of the world where the unreached have converged. There have been many ups and downs, many things to rejoice in, and many things that have been and continue to be difficult. Probably among the greatest of those difficulties is what many of us face who have followed the call across cultures – which is that the people we have given ourselves to love, that we share the gospel with, that we point to Christ, just seem so hard, so unreceptive, and there just seems to be so little fruit.
What has kept us going these years and what is going to sustain us for many more? How do we keep from giving up or keep from sacrificing faithfulness out of desperation for something to “write home about”?
What I have found is that the answer to that question is found in the very passage of Scripture that God used to compel us to the field in the first place.
During a season of discouragement and wrestling with various ministry models I happened upon a lecture from D.A. Carson about the parables in Mark 4. In that lecture he necessarily spent a good bit of time looking at Isaiah 6, which Jesus quotes from as context for his parables. From Isaiah 6 Carson pointed out, and I am paraphrasing, that we often read the “Here Am I. Send me!” and then we fail to read on to see the description of the ministry that Isaiah was being given. He would preach and God would use his preaching to actually harden the hearts of his hearers! He would proclaim great promises and yet see no immediate fruit. And it was here that Carson, paused and said solemnly, “If you are not willing to accept that God may be calling you to an Isaiah ministry, you need to stay out of ministry because you’re dangerous.”
So the question is, if it wasn’t appreciable results the sustained Isaiah in his ministry what was it? What compelled him to embrace this sending into what would, for the time, be a thankless and fruitless ministry?
The answer? It is what Isaiah saw that compelled him and sustained him. He saw the glory of God. In this case, I believe he saw “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (II Cor. 4:6) It was this same sight of glory that would lead John and Peter to say in the face of persecution, “We are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” It was this same sight of glory that sustained Stephen as the condemnation of the Sanhedrin came down on his head. It was this sight of glory that would lead Paul to suffer for the sake of God’s elect.
If your people-group is your goal, then when your ministry looks like an Isaiah ministry you will either compromise or give up or be miserable. But when your proclamation is an overflow of the glory you have seen, continuing in it is not dependent on results but on the glory itself which will never cease to shine. When ministry is an overflow of seeing glory you live knowing as Paul says, that “God… always leads us in Christ’s triumphal procession and through us spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place. For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To some we are an aroma of death leading to death, but to others, an aroma of life leading to life. Who is adequate for these things? For we do not market the word of God for profit like so many. On the contrary, we speak with sincerity in Christ, as from God and before God. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)
Faithful ministry is being done when we speak in Christ, from God, and in the sight of God. Secure in Christ regardless of results, proclaiming a message from God despite how foolish it may sound, and for his approval alone when everyone around us seems to demand and only be impressed by measurable results. We endure in faithful ministry when it is not driven by our outward circumstances or results, but by our communion with God. So what sustains us in faithful ministry? Seeing him. Seeing him -having him as our greatest reality, our inspiration, our prize! Where am I getting this? By reading on to chapter 3, 4, 5! We now with unveiled face by the Spirit behold God’s glory, therefore we do not lose heart in ministry, and now knowing Christ and seeing him, we consider suffering, even the suffering of seemingly fruitless labor, as but preparation as we, viewing people differently now, live as reconciliation-proclaiming ambassadors of Christ.
We get the aroma by being around him. We get the glow by gazing at his face. And we carry that aroma and we shine that radiance regardless of how it is received. And regardless of what happens – we are triumphant. Isaiah was. He didn’t get to see it. But he was triumphant.
It is the sight of the glory of God that compels us to speak. It is the sight of the glory of God that causes us to not help but endure. And it is the perfect sight of that glory which will be our prize.
I don’t ever want to lose that as my motivation for endurance. Because it is there that we have peace, we have joy, that we know that we triumph in all circumstances. It is there that we do not lose heart. We proclaim what we see, we see because God has opened our eyes and we can’t help ourselves, and if anything comes from this proclamation it will be because God will make others see, because he makes others smell the sweetness of what we have come to smell – the aroma of Christ, the glory seen in his face.
“We are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” That is what allowed John to endure. What he had seen and heard. In the end, it didn’t matter whether people wanted it or not, it simply overflowed and God, in ways we see and ways we cannot, will use that overflow. So look. So smell. So endure until you get what you ultimately want – to see him face to face, to breath in the aroma of his robes as he embraces you and welcomes you into his uninterrupted joy.