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Persisting in hope for not-yet-believers

In a recent Google search, “God’s promises for you” brought up 127,000 results. “God’s promises for not-yet-believers,” zero. Global pandemic notwithstanding, my life is generally going well right now. I can sense God’s nearness. I can see His provision. I can feel His love for me. But the people I love? Not necessarily. 

That hurts. As missionaries investing in unreached people groups, we each become embedded in a community where most people need Jesus. We rejoice with those who have embraced the gospel, but some of our dear friends have only partially trusted in Christ, and others have not taken the first steps toward faith.

How do we walk with unbelieving friends through difficult times? Often we might seriously question this in our hearts, despite knowing the biblical answer. According to God’s Word, His promises to uphold, heal, and care belong to His children only. In suffering, we have a unique opportunity to display His peace to all around us as we trust in His Word and the comfort of His promises. We long for all the lost around us to experience God’s peace, deliverance, and eternal life!  We know that our friends and neighbors will never receive these promises unless they trust in Christ. How can we stay encouraged when they do not partake, though? Is God truly good? Why does He allow so much pain and suffering?

Being a cross-cultural worker doesn’t make me a geyser of cheery kindness. I tire. I grumble. I worry. I hide. Eight years in country, and all I know for sure is that I can’t love my neighbors long-term through mere grit and gumption.

I recently pleaded with God for a beloved family in crisis. Lord, which of my questions can You answer now? Which ones do I have to wait and entrust to You? He took me on a tour through Psalms 145-146, asserting His steadfast character with all humankind. I scribbled these assurances all over one page, before covering the next page with the “what-ifs” weighing down my heart. Flipping between pages of fears and certainties, I prayed, “If ___ happens… You are compassionate and good. If ___ never happens… You reign.” I felt the most peace I’d had in weeks, not from denying that my friends’ situation could worsen, but from remembering God’s powerful presence in it all.

Here are some truths that help refuel me:

God is merciful and compassionate. (Psalm 145:9, 146:9; Luke 23:34; Romans 2:4, 5:8)

God is sovereign. (Job 42:2, Psalm 146:10, Acts 4:27-28)

God is faithful and constant. (2 Timothy 2:13, Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17)

God is seeking people from all nations. (Luke 15:7, Acts 17:26-27, 2 Peter 3:9)

God transforms sinners who come to Him. (Ezekiel 11:19-20, 36:27; 1 Corinthians 6:11)

God empowers His children to bless others. (Joshua 1:9, Psalm 51:13, Matthew 5:16, 2 Corinthians 10:4, Colossians 4:5-6)

Knowing God’s attributes and ways is no ivory-tower abstraction; it’s a front-line necessity. We need to devour truths about God frequently and heartily, like soldiers devour rations. The Bible commands us time and again to remember God, attending to what He’s said and done. Elliot Stephens researched how to help overseas workers stay on the field longer. He concluded that a “rich understanding of God’s character” was key. “Clinging fiercely to God with a heart of humility way outnumbered every other factor for retention on the field” [emphasis original].[1] First-term stresses, in particular, unearth issues that can topple us spiritually. We either shore up our foundation in intimacy with God, or remain off-kilter and risk leaving the field prematurely.

Remembering God isn’t meant to be an isolated activity. I’m thankful for the national and expat believers who have helped me process this family’s recent events. They’ve told me how God turns their discouragement into anger toward Satan’s deceit, and into supernatural love for those who need Christ. They’ve exemplified faithfulness toward God and people, trusting God with the outcome. They’ve shown me ways to model the kind of Father-child relationship that God relentlessly pursues and every human heart craves. They’ve helped reinfuse me with zeal to pray, serve, and invite people into our certain hope.

These believers remind me that my friends’ story fits into a bigger story. It’s the story of an old, skeptical, barren couple whose descendants would eventually outnumber the stars. The story of the Prince who traversed an immeasurable gulf to find His bride, rescue her, and present her radiant. It’s the Healer who straightens the hunched spine, stops the bleeding, restores the child to her parents’ arms. It’s flattened mountains, dry bones taking on flesh, rulers’ hearts turned like water, swords beat into garden hoes. It’s justice served for every abuse, lie, and sneer; holiness that sears like coals; mystery like concentric wheels. It’s the world’s greatest feast gathering the tattered from every tiny tribe and tongue as esteemed guests of the Emperor. This story overwhelms our senses but gives us the merest hint of its Author’s brilliance. Even with its shadows and complexity, this story is beautiful.

As Jesus walked the dusty road to Emmaus with two weary souls, so we walk the dusty road of our host communities, seeking to illuminate their minds and hearts to the truth in God’s Word. In times of worldwide crisis like we are seeing today, God is shouting to us in our pain and fear. He is there, waiting.

When I take refuge in the shadow of His wings, I trust that some of those for whom I care deeply will come with me. For those who do not, there is no better way for them to begin seeking God than to experience the hard times which draw us to Him.

[1] Stephens, Elliot. “Retention and Onboarding: Are We Ready to Ask the Hard Questions?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, September 2019: pp. 15-18.

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