Blog Entries

The Spiritual Discipline of Perseverance

It is a very tricky thing to assess when it is time to leave a particular field of service or line of ministry. Certainly, there are some times when circumstances are so difficult that the decision is removed from our hands: serious health problems or political/legal enforcement can force us to act regardless of our wishes. But I am thinking of the far more common situations, the times when things are not developing as we would like and the thought occurs that maybe we are doing the wrong thing or in the wrong location. Every spring, foreign English teachers across China wonder: should I switch schools and find a Foreign Affairs Officer who will be more supportive? Those directly involved with local Christian communities face similar choices: if no one here wants my training, then maybe I should move to a different city where Chinese believers will appreciate what I am offering. For many of us in China ministry the question is often still more fundamental: if I have not seen any fruit from my service after a certain period of time (One year? Three years? Ten years?), then does that mean I need to move to a different location? We even restate the issue in strategic terms: surely, the best way to develop effective ministry is to identify where the spirit is already at work and then physically move to that location and join that work. What could be wrong with maximizing our fruitfulness for God’s kingdom in China?

In his excellent book Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson uses the life of Jonah to reflect quite candidly on the temptation of those in ministry to “flee to Tarshish,” to escape from the mundane grind of obedience, especially in areas where obedience seems difficult or contrary to our wishes, and launch ourselves into adventure in new exotic locales.[1] The pursuit of novelty and dynamism in ministry, however, can often hide an aggressively justified yet—no matter how “strategic” it may seem—well-disguised act of escapism. Real ministry is about people; and people, both the ones giving and the ones receiving ministry, are difficult and messy. This is especially true of cross-cultural workers, who tend to have stronger, more distinct personalities with more than our fair share of rough edges. Peterson uses the following quote from Rowan Williams to describe the ways in which long-term perseverance through times of challenge and even dullness in service is a necessary component of spiritual growth.

What is useless and destructive is to imagine that enlightenment or virtue can be found by seeking for fresh stimulation. The missionary life is a refusal of any view that will make human maturity before God dependent on external stimulus, “good thoughts,” good impressions, edifying influences and ideas. Instead, the missionary must learn to live with his or her own darkness, with the interior horror or temptation and fantasy. Salvation affects the whole of the psyche; to try to escape boredom, …restlessness, unsatisfied desire by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace. Without the humiliating and wholly “unspiritual” experiences of life on the field—the limited routine of trivial tasks, the sheer tedium and loneliness—there would be no way of confronting much of human nature. It is a discipline to destroy illusions. The missionary has come to the field to escape the illusory Christian identity proposed by the world; he and she now have to see the roots of illusion within, in the longing to be dramatically and satisfyingly in control of life, the old familiar imperialism of the self bolstered by intellect.[2]

These are meaty words, and they contain an important reminder for any committed cross-cultural worker. The renewed Christian life is all about life in death, thriving in the midst of difficulties, about reflecting the light that shone in the darkness. To think that our witness or even our own spiritual condition is improved by avoiding or running from things that are difficult (or just plain boring) is to lie to ourselves.

I am not trying to be glib, or to suggest that there are never good reasons—strategic or otherwise—for changing direction. I do, however, believe that in our time the temptation to abandon what is difficult is especially acute. Nearly everything around us encourages us to chase after worldly success, and to flee failure—to “fix” our situation when we are not “winning.” But in God’s economy, faithfulness always takes priority over effectiveness (though the two are not wholly unrelated). May God enable us to persevere in the face of difficulties, rather than coming up with excuses to justify doing something or being somewhere else. May we have the patience and discipline to discover his perfect strength in our moments of weakness.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 9-32.

[2] Rowan Williams, Christian Spirituality (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), 94-95. I have substituted “missionary” and “field” where Williams originally had “monk” and “monastery.”

Image Credit: Chinese Junk in Flight – Ha Long Bay – Vietnam by ccdoh1, on Flickr

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.