I thought writing computer programs for a mission agency would be easier than doing it for a government agency like CSIRO.
• I had all these people praying for me so God was sure to be helping
• My colleagues would all be Christians and easy to get along with.
• The sense of purpose and calling—knowing my work was building God’s kingdom—would keep my motivation strong.
• I had been assured that I would find a wonderful wife very soon, and expected that would wipe out a whole category of temptations.
• There would be no bureaucracy or pointless paperwork—we’d all be totally focussed on the mission.
The reality has been a little different.
It is wonderful having people like you praying for us—we really need it! The battle against the forces of hell takes place everywhere on earth all the time and involves all of us. But when I joined Wycliffe, it got more intense. I’m not even right on the frontlines, where colleagues are directly translating God’s Word for people who have never had it—knocking down hell’s gates to rescue people that the enemy has blinded almost unopposed all through history. However, I have dedicated my life to helping make that happen. The enemy tries to stop that any way he can.
My colleagues are wonderful people who have dedicated themselves to the same thing I have. But the enemy is busy twisting things, and when you put together a group of dedicated people who all think God has shown them the best way to go, it’s very easy for things to get messed up. I vividly remember one occasion when I was accused of not having done something. At one point I copied, from an email sent months before, a list of ways I had attempted to do it, and included it in a new message asking exactly what more I was supposed to have done. It was clear from the response that the other person had somehow never read (or never received) the first message. As a result we had been arguing at cross purposes all those months. It was intensely frustrating and painful—I don’t think any experience in all my life has resulted in such anger. By the time things got sorted out we spent much of one furlough in counselling.
It is the fulfillment of a dream to be using my computer skills to help get the gospel to people who have never heard it. Yet the day-to-day frustration of writing a piece of code that should work, but doesn’t, and trying to puzzle out what critical thing in my program is wrong, is very much the same as in any other computer programming job. Documentation is wrong, tools don’t work, necessary details can’t be found, the person you need to talk to is away. Feedback is mostly negative. It’s a very good day when the problem reports have enough information so we can do something about them. More often than not, people who report problems don’t even respond when we ask for more details. It’s a red-letter day when someone tells us our work is helpful, and cause to celebrate (and perhaps feature in a newsletter) if anyone tells us concretely how our work helped change lives.
I did find a very wonderful wife, but it took eight years—and even a happy marriage is not the end of sexual temptations.And there’s no escaping bureaucracy and paperwork in an organization of 5000 or so people tangled up in the rules, regulations and taxes of 170 national governments.
Then there is the challenge of living on donations. It’s humbling to think of the many people who give sacrificially so we can do this work. Sometimes I wonder, “Am I worth it? Would the money be better spent on other ministries?” Then at other times thoughts come that I could probably be making a lot more at a different job. And sometimes I long to have an ordinary, predictable income and not have to be grateful for it to anyone but God—and not have to come up with a new way to say “thank you so much” every few months. God has always met all of our needs, but at times things have been tight and it’s hard not to get anxious. For a number of years God’s provision was so ‘just in time’ that when an unexpected gift came in we found ourselves wondering “what’s going to break now?”
Just a few hundred years ago, missionaries to some places left for the field with their clothes packed in coffins. Many of them needed the coffins soon. Not many modern western missionaries die in the field, but being a missionary—like being a Christian after all, if you take it seriously—is still not for the faint-hearted. Those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. If it’s not ungodly people doing violence, or someone trying to help but actually driving you mad, it will be something more subtle that probably feels like your own stupid fault. The gates of hell will not stand against the church of Jesus Christ, but they don’t fall easily.
So what are the positives? What keeps me from being crushed when hard-pressed, from despair when perplexed? How does the all-surpassing power of God express itself in a jar of clay?
First is the thrill of being actively engaged in the greatest project on earth! Why doesn’t God bring all the misery and evil on earth to an end? Because He does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). The great thing He left us on earth to do is to make disciples of all peoples. Around the throne in heaven will be people from every language. Some of those languages don’t yet have the gospel message. So I am confident that I am part of a great thing that God is doing.
And God is doing it very actively in this generation. Like almost everything, the work of Bible translation is speeding up. It is likely that within a generation the Bible will be available in every language spoken on earth. Just recently we passed the milestone that more languages have work in progress (2584) than remain to be started (about 1636). 3312 have some Scripture. These are dry and abstract numbers, but then I’m a computer programmer who thinks in abstractions. And each of them is a story of love and sacrifice and lives profoundly changed by God.Consider how God has changed things to make this possible. Reaching the ends of the earth is easier than it has ever been.
• 2000 years ago there was no way to reach a place like Papua New Guinea. No one who knew the gospel knew that it existed, and, if they had, there was no workable way to get there.
• 200 years ago missionaries could get there, but it took months and many of them died of tropical diseases before they could even learn to communicate.
• 20 years ago missionaries could fly there in a few hours and have a good chance of surviving long enough to translate the whole gospel message.
• Today many people in Papua New Guinea have cell phones and can use them to access the Bible in just a few seconds. And many of them now have God’s Word in the language of their heart, though there are also still many languages needing translation.
This generation may be the last that has the opportunity to bring the Word of God to a language that has never had it before. Don’t you want to be part of that?
Another positive is a strong sense that this is what I was made for. Early experience pretty clearly convinced me that while I had a heart for evangelism, I was no good at it. But I am good at writing computer programs. And those programs are a significant part of the reason that God’s Word is being translated more quickly by more people than ever before and can be accessed in seconds from one side of the world to the other. What were you made for?
There is a positive side to the spiritual warfare, too. We get to be part of defeating the real enemy, the one behind all the bad things that happen. Just think what Satan has done to the human race—and to you! God decided that it would be fitting that a Human Being should defeat perhaps the mightiest spiritual being He created. He then decided to let us in on the fight and share the victory—to be part of the great rescue operation, the true battle for eternal life and liberty for all who will receive Christ.
A fascinating passage in Isaiah 41:11-16 talks about how God will help us even though we are as small and weak as worms—and then He says, “I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them and reduce the hills to chaff.” Revelation 12:11 says, “They [that’s us] triumphed over him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Although the enabling power is from God, we have a real part to play—one that matters—in the great battle being fought on earth.
Time is short. The final victory approaches. Although things look grim in some of the traditionally Christian nations, in other places the church is growing by leaps and bounds. The Joshua Project estimates that there are 6989 unreached people groups in the world. The Pew Forum estimates that there are over two billion Christians in the world: more than a quarter million for each unreached people group, over a million Christians for each unreached language. Even if you only count Protestants (about 37%), God has abundantly made it possible for us to finish the great commission if we choose to.
John Eldridge has pointed out that in every great story, a secret struggle is in progress, and the hero has some unique strength that is needed in the battle. What makes these stories great is that this is the story of our world: a struggle between good and evil is under way, and although God has told us about it clearly, most people don’t notice it most of the time, and don’t really engage. God has equipped you to play an important part that only you can in this struggle. Will you join us and fight with all you have to bring God’s truth and freedom to everyone?
by John Thomson