In my first blog post on this topic of resilience, I said that understanding resilience is not primarily about minimizing attrition. Our goal is not simply to prevent missionaries prematurely returning to their sending countries. We want our colleagues and ourselves to thrive. Our desire is that they bear much fruit and grow and develop in their ministry gifts and skills. In this post, let’s explore the relationship of resilience to fruitfulness.
Rewards come at the end
This morning, I received another email encouraging me to watch a training webinar. It included a familiar incentive:
Additionally, as a ‘Thank You’ to our loyal KLS members, we will be giving away a $10 Starbucks gift card to a random attendee at the end of each of our February webinars. Make sure you stick around until the end of the webinar to be eligible to win!Email from KnowledgeWave.com, February 15, 2022
To receive a reward, you have to stay to the end. This reminds me of similar promises in the letter to the Hebrews.
Promises to those who finish
We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.Hebrews 6:11-12
You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will received what he has promised.Hebrews 10:36
The point here is not just that you accomplish more for Christ if you remain resilient and persevere through the obstacles. Instead, the writer focuses on making it to the finish line. The reward comes at Christ’s return. Those who endure to the end are the ones who enjoy the reward (Matt 24:13).
Parables about perseverance
In the parable of the bags of gold (Matt 25:14-30), the servants who took risks and initiative were rewarded. But they were also the ones who persevered until the master returned. This point is even more clear in the parable of the faithful and wise manager.
The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.Luke 12:42-44
I have noted that the Greek word “hypomone”, translated as “perseverance” or “endurance” in the NIV, conveys much of the concept of resilience. This Greek word is found in the Lukan version of the Parable of the Sower. The seed that produces a crop stands for those who persevere and are thereby fruitful.
But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.Luke 8:15
Faithfulness to the end
How do we define success in Christian ministry, and particularly in missionary service? Ten years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the definition of success for missionaries. I also regularly teach on this topic in our pre-field training program. So, I have done a lot of thinking about this question and I am continuing to learn. But what is clear is that the ultimate definition of success is when Christ affirms our work with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
How does our Lord determine what is “well done”? Does our fruitfulness matter? Or is the reward simply based on our faithfulness? As the Parable of the Sower demonstrates, fruitfulness is clearly the goal and fruitfulness is dependent on perseverance. So, are perseverance and faithfulness identical? Not quite. Perseverance is ongoing faithfulness to the finish line. The Hebrew Christians had been amazingly faithful in the past (Heb 10:32-34), but the question the writer is addressing is whether they would remain faithful to the end.
Tempted to resign
In the more than 35 years that I have served as a cross-cultural missionary, I have often struggled with the temptation to resign out of sheer frustration or disappointment. I went through a time almost 20 years ago when I thought about resigning every day over a period of a few months. But I didn’t, by God’s grace. Because I persevered, God was able to use that very discouraging time to prepare me for a new and broader scope of ministry. In fact, that is the primary reason that I have something to say when I teach new missionaries about the definition of success. God used this period of frustration and discouragement to motivate me to learn how the Apostle Paul defined success – and how I should follow his example.
Bearing much fruit
The Greek word “hypomone” (perseverance) has as its root the word “meno” (to remain). So, my thoughts go to John 15:5 and Jesus’ promise to those who remain in him.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:5
Remaining or abiding in Christ implies perseverance in our dependence on Christ. If we persevere, Jesus promises that we will be fruitful. In fact, the longer we persevere, the more time the Gardener has to prune us so that we will be even more fruitful.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.John 15:1-2
Experience is overrated
Clearly, the Triune God deeply desires to make us fruitful. In fact, God wants us to bear “much fruit” (John 15:8). We must continue to be teachable, of course. Just because we have endured does not mean that we have learned or grown. As Stephen Covey has said, “Experience is overrated”.
“Covey taught me a priceless principle that would forever change my outlook on the nature of education and experience. He said, ‘Richie, experience is overrated. Some people say they have twenty years, when in reality, they only have one year’s experience, repeated twenty times.’”Quote from Stephen M.R. Covey, found on Sources of Insight Blog
Enduring but without a teachable attitude is not true resilience. As I said in our first blog post about resilience, resilience includes the idea of adjusting and “bouncing forward.” Under the hand of the Gardener, we learn from adversity, and it changes us for the better. Greater fruitfulness is our reward.
Fruitfulness past retirement
Although energy levels do wane as we get older, we can continue to be fruitful. As my colleague Gary Ridley reminded us in a previous post, our calling does not end at retirement. Furthermore, I believe that we can continue to grow in our fruitfulness as we get older, even once we finish full-time ministry. This past summer, I received real encouragement from something that Peter Scazzero wrote in his latest book, “Emotionally Healthy Discipleship”.
When I was in my fifties (I am now in my sixties), one older mentor told me that if we are faithful, our most fruitful decade may be in our sixties, our second-best decade may be our seventies, and we may discover that our third-best decade will turn out to be our fifties. I am discovering this to be true. Getting older is not a crisis at all. In fact, when approached God’s way, growing older offers a unique opportunity to release old identities of self-importance and learn God’s deep wisdom on how to give away our life, and death, for the sake of the world.Scazzero, Peter, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, (p. 180).
Resilience is key to fruitfulness
So I hope that I have convinced you that resilience is a key ingredient to ongoing fruitfulness in life and ministry. Those who persevere to the end are the ones who will see the fruit of their labor. As the Apostle Paul says,
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.Galatians 6:9
At the same time, let’s be clear that perseverance in doing the will of God is not the same as organizational loyalty. Resignation from cross-cultural missionary service does not automatically signify a lack of resilience. But if we are among the persevering ones, the ones who endure to the end, we will resign only because God is directing us elsewhere. Our change of direction will be with the intent of becoming fruitful in another location or in another line of work.
Nurturing our resilience
So, let’s do whatever we can to grow in our resilience. As we conclude this series, let me quickly review the ways that we can nurture and strengthen our resilience. First, let’s depend on God’s grace and pray for resilience. Secondly, let’s meditate on Jesus’ example and draw inspiration from him. Thirdly, let us recognize the role of suffering in developing our resilience, and so cultivate disciplines that will make us stronger. Fourthly, let’s clarify our own expectations of our mission organization and then adjust our expectations to fit what the organization has promised to do. Finally, let’s take steps to become part of a community that will face adversity together with us.