What is the place of suffering in our theology of mission? Does suffering play any vital or necessary role in the advancement of the missionary endeavor as sovereignly determined by the purposes of God? Or is suffering merely a vocationally-occasioned circumstance that ordinarily attends the missionary task?

Answering these questions is important because such an answer can have significant practical implications for how the Christian should view the circumstantial suffering that attends his or her mission efforts. Practically speaking, it will inform the attitude by which one perceives mission-related suffering, conditioning one’s response to this suffering, and potentially determining the course of action by which one approaches mission-related circumstances that may entail suffering.

Vocationally Occasioned Circumstance or Sovereignly Determined Purpose?

Every conceivable vocation in the world is accompanied by a number of difficulties that induce suffering in some form or another. For example, a professional bodybuilder will face situationally occasioned circumstances of suffering as necessary means to increasing his strength. In like manner, the fireman will face situationally occasioned sufferings related to the stress and fatigue of attending to emergencies. These sufferings are necessary to fulfilling their vocational tasks. Situationally occasioned circumstances call for specific forms of suffering that are associated with the vocations in question. This gives rise to suffering that is necessary for the accomplishment of said vocations. A bodybuilder who does not suffer in weight training will not gain much muscle mass (“no pain, no gain!”). A firefighter who has little endurance will hardly perform well in a prolonged emergency. The sufferings that accompany vocation are specific to those vocations and in their specificity, they are particularized sufferings to which other vocations are not necessarily subject. A software developer has certain sufferings that are common to his vocation, but they are quite different from the sufferings associated with being the Secretary of Defense for the United States of America. Nevertheless, all vocation entails some form of suffering.[1]

This is to be expected since the nature of labor in our fallen world is such that it necessarily includes enduring difficulty. In the beginning, when God pronounced the curse upon the Fall of man, part of that curse was that man should labor by the sweat of his brow to produce fruitfulness in spite of the thorns (Gen. 3:18). Extending the agrarian language pertinent to Adam’s vocation to the broader category of all human labor by way of vocation, we can surmise that fruitful labor must persevere through both difficulty (“in the sweat of thy face”) and adversity (“thorns and thistles”).[2]

It is no secret that the call to missions is one that entails a number of vocationally occasioned, circumstantial sufferings that go in tandem with that call. In cross-cultural missions, many of these “occupational hazards” are unique to the missionary lifestyle. One thinks of ostracization from family and friends, linguistic obstacles, culture shock, increased psychological stress, unique family pressures, financial straits, foreign borne illnesses, and many other circumstantially facilitated sufferings that missionaries typically confront. In some places of the world, persecution looms over the heads of missionaries as a constant threat. And in past generations, the mortality rate for the average missionary was exponentially higher than it was for those who did not travel abroad for the sake of the gospel.

The call to missions is, generally speaking, a call to endure a number of vocationally specific sufferings that are uncommon to the typical vocations that people pursue as ordinary career paths. While tribulation is common to the Christian life in general (Acts 14:22), such tribulation veritably increases for those who pursue missions. The missionary should expect to face certain forms of suffering that are unique to his vocation and that are situationally occasioned by its attendant circumstances.

How should we understand this dynamic of suffering in light of the theology of mission that Scripture presents to us? Is the increase in suffering that ordinarily accompanies the missionary vocation to be viewed merely as a job-specific hazard, necessary in a mere circumstantial manner for the sake of fulfilling the task? In other words, is the significance of missions-related suffering the same as the suffering of a (Christian) fireman? Or should we have a deeper theological conception by which we understand missionary sufferings to be infused with a more transcendent significance? Without presuming to resolve all the philosophical and theological difficulties that may arise from a detailed inquiry into this matter, what follows are some biblical and theological guidelines that can help to frame and structure our approach to the answer.[3]

All Suffering is Purposeful

Biblically, no suffering in the Christian life is merely circumstantial, far less could it be coincidental. God in his infinite wisdom decreed all suffering before the foundation of the world, and by his sovereign hand of providence he exhaustively orchestrates, governs, concurs, and directs every detail of what transpires for the sake of fulfilling his own ends and purposes. Louis Berkhof defines the doctrine of divine providence as “that work of God in which He preserves all His creatures, is active in all that happens in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end.”[4]

No detail of anything that transpires could be excluded from providence, for God is Lord of all and no detail escapes the sovereign reign of his lordship (Ps. 103:19). Every seemingly insignificant sparrow that dies falls by the will of God (Matt. 10:29). His providential governance even covers even the sinful actions of men (Gen. 50:20), of Satanic hosts (Isa. 54:16), tragic occurrence instigated by his people’s enemies (Amos 3:6), and extends to cover the greatest apparent “tragedy” in the history of the world (i.e. the crucifixion of his own Son, Acts 2:23). The most ostensibly random events are his doing (Prov. 16:33). Indeed, the elect were “predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh [not some things but] all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11).

Applying this to the suffering that befalls the Christian, it is all ordained by God. As Thomas Boston said, “God has, by an eternal decree, immoveable as mountains of brass (Zech. 6:1), appointed the whole of every one’s lot, the crooked parts thereof, as well as the straight.”[5] Paul insisted that all this suffering is meaningful when he said, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The “all things” (πάντα) includes the seemingly bad things, such as tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword (Rom. 8:35). All things, including the apparently worst things(!), work together (συνεργεῖ, from which we derive synergism[6]) in a concurrent and symbiotically complementarian manner with God’s will in conformity with the divine purpose (κατὰ πρόθεσιν), to fulfill what John Murray calls “the benign and all-embracing plan of God.”[7] All suffering in the Christian life ultimately conduces to the glory of God and the good of his people.

The Place of Suffering in Missions

The missionary context is a subset of the exhaustive providential care of God over all things. John Piper remarks, “The suffering that missionaries meet is not something unforeseen by the Lord.”[8] The question to be asked, then, is not, “Why does God allow this? No, that is not quite the right question. We have to ask, Why does God appoint this? These things are part of God’s plan for his just as the suffering and death of Jesus were part of God’s plan for salvation.”[9] Of course, simply stating this does not resolve any of the difficult questions that come when suffering becomes personal. But it does keep all our pain in perspective.

Steve Saint talks about how he came to this conclusion. As the son of Nate Saint, one of the famed five missionaries that was brutally martyred by the Waodani tribe of the Ecuadorian Amazon, he struggled with the traumatic reality of his father’s untimely death. His own words relay the sobering reality:

“When I was five years old my mother called me into her bedroom and told me that my hero, the man whom I wanted to grow up and be just like, the man in whom all my dreams and aspirations were centered, was never coming back to live with us again. It was my dad, and I remember thinking: but he promised me that he would teach me to fly. He promised me that. How could he leave? Then Mom said that he had gone to live with Jesus, and I thought, Oh . . . it was something we all look forward to, but I couldn’t understand why he didn’t come to take us with him, why he just left us behind.”[10]

One cannot help but to sense the pain extenuated in these words. It is easy to theorize about suffering in missions, but it is altogether another thing to experience it when it hits close to home. After relaying how the Lord used the death of these martyrs to open the door for the entrance of the gospel among an unreached people group, and how Steve himself had had his life radically impacted for good, he said, “You know what my conclusion is? I don’t think God merely tolerated my dad’s death. I don’t think he turned away when it was happening. I think he planned it. Otherwise I don’t think it would have happened. This was a hard realization for me to come to.”[11] In this moving address, Saint confessed that God did it all out of love—to reach people he loves with the grace of the gospel. The suffering unto death that his dad underwent served to advance the gospel in a manner and to a people among whom the gospel would not have otherwise advanced.

The sovereign God uses the circumstantial suffering of missionaries to advance the gospel in the world. God’s soldiers march forward bearing their cross, triumphing through death, exhibiting the glory of the gospel in the antithetical mode of enduring affliction that is anything but glorious. God’s cause triumphs through their defeat, his strength is made perfect in weakness, and his love shines all the brighter when contrasted with the hate with which the world scorns his people.

Suffering in mission, then, is not merely vocationally occasioned circumstance. It is God’s plan and purpose, ordained as a means through which he advances the cause of his kingdom through the missionary enterprise. The apostle Paul testified to as much when he wrote from the context of his incarceration for the gospel’s sake: “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel” (Phil. 1:12). It would seem that the advance of the gospel was hindered if not halted by his detainment in Rome. But God used the apostle’s endurance and testimony in the midst of his suffering to exhibit the reality of the gospel as that reality became more concretely realized in the life-experience of his servant. Paul demonstrated through his suffering that Christ is worth more to him than his own life. “To live, Christ; to die, gain!” (Phil. 1:21).[12] The gospel is precious—so precious, it is worth suffering and dying for. Paul’s afflictions highlighted the excellency and worth of the gospel and demonstrated the utmost esteem he had for the gospel. He adorned the gospel in his affliction and by it, caused the gospel to become more conspicuously attractive in the eyes of those who were looking for transcendent purpose in life. The gospel is worth living for because it is worth dying for. Such a powerful testimony even served to embolden other believers in their own evangelization (Phil. 1:14).

God used Paul’s suffering in mission to advance the message of the mission.

Is Suffering in Mission Necessary?

The fact that God has used suffering in mission to advance the gospel does not necessarily mean that he always chooses to use suffering this way. In fact, he does not always use it in such a way. Sometimes, the suffering of a missionary may detain his or her mission, even being detrimental to it. We must be careful when seeking to interpret the book of providence because it is an exceedingly difficult book to interpret.[13] What transpired with Paul in Rome was a providential circumstance, the particular outworkings of which do not necessarily constitute a normative pattern for all of God’s providential use of suffering in mission.

What it does demonstrate, however, is a general pattern. We see this pattern fleshed out in the rest of the epistles of Paul and the rest of the New Testament. It is this: God ordinarily uses suffering as a secondary and instrumental means through which he is pleased to advance the mission of the church. It is a secondary rather than the primary means because the primary means is the proclamation of the gospel. It is an instrumental means because within the context of his dealings with his people, God often uses suffering as a tool to increase the practical effectiveness of the missionary’s gospel witness.

So, suffering in mission is not absolutely necessary in every exhaustive scenario for the sake of any possible gospel advancement to be made. The gospel (the primary means) can be proclaimed, at least theoretically, without any particularly correlating form of suffering accompanying it. But if that is all we said and if we left it at that, we would be missing the larger picture. Scripture does present a theology of suffering with reference to mission. Suffering ordinarily accompanies mission, and mission ordinarily advances through suffering.

Our original question was: Does suffering play any vital or necessary role in the advancement of the missionary endeavor as sovereignly determined by the purposes of God? Or is suffering merely a vocationally-occasioned circumstance that ordinarily attends the missionary task? I deny the latter and affirm the former. But as I affirm the former, I do so with the above explication in mind. I affirm that suffering plays a necessary role in the missionary endeavor with an affirmation that is nuanced. Suffering in mission advancement is necessary as an ordinary and general pattern as established by the sovereign will of God because of the deeper theological significance that suffering in mission has that connects the missional suffering of the church with the Christological suffering of the church’s head.

The Mission of God and the Sufferings of Christ

This brings us precisely to what determines the difference between Christian suffering in general as experienced in ordinary vocations in this world and Christian suffering that is endured in the context of the missionary call, for the sake of the mission. There is a deeper theological significance in missions-related suffering than there is in vocation in general. To be sure, there is substantial overlap, especially so far as the general principles that apply to one apply to the other.[14]But since suffering takes on an increased reality in missions, coming to heightened expression in the missionary’s frontline kingdom activity, we would do well to consider what constitutes the basis for this differentiation between the two. What makes the missionary’s suffering take on increased significance that does not apply in the same way, for instance, to the occupational adversities experienced by the firefighter or the bodybuilder?

I think we should ground this distinction within the theological framework provided by the missiological category of the missio Dei.[15]Missions is, the first place, the work of God the Trinity. It begins with this theocentric point of initiation and it is this Trinitarian reality that infuses missions with its theological significance. As such, the work of missions and the role of suffering in missions must be understood within a Trinitarian redemptive framework.

From the patristic era, theologians have spoken of the distinction between ontology and economy in the Godhead. The mission of the persons of the Trinity in the world manifests in an accommodated manner something of the glorious reality of the processions of the divine persons in eternity. As the Father eternally generates the Son in the processions, so the Father sends the Son in mission.[16] As the Father and the Son spirate or breathe forth the Spirit within the processions, so the Father and the Son send the Spirit on mission (John 15:26). The economy reflects the ontology and the economy is a redemptive-missional manifestation of the life and blessed communion of the triune God. The Trinity manifests himself in the world in order to envelop the elect image-bearing creatures of God into communion with the triune God. The very nature and structure of the gospel is forged according to the Trinitarian framework set by the triune Author of redemption, who determined that the gospel should be a redemptive self-revelation of his glory.

Mission, therefore, begins with God. And the meaning of mission is determined by the God who made mission. He is the missionary God. And his mission activity comes to its redemptive-historical climax in the eschatological age of inaugurated fulfillment by the historical manifestation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Galatians 4:4 says, “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his son.” The Son was sent on mission to bring redemption to the world.

The manner in which the Son would bring redemption was through suffering. As Jesus said after completing his work, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things?” The Greek reads, οὐχὶ ταῦτα ἔδει παθεῖν τὸν Χριστόν. The “oughtness” of suffering (ἔδει παθεῖν) of which he speaks is not a mere fittingness but a necessity. It was not a “should” but a “must.” In context, Jesus was intimating that his suffering was necessary because the Messiah’s sufferings were predicted in the oracles of the Hebrew prophets. But in broader theological context, his suffering was necessary because it was the exclusive manner in which atonement for sin could be secured. God, having determined to save his people from their sins, ordained to do so through the suffering of his Son (hence the consequent absolute necessity of the atonement is here assumed).[17]

The Son was sent on mission to suffer. The suffering was the means to fulfilling the mission. There are two ways of viewing his suffering: first, as a unique work of redemption, and second, as a pattern.[18]

In the first sense, the establishment of the once-for-all, perfect, finished, everlasting atonement was exclusive to the work of the Son. Man does not participate in this accomplishment, contribute to it, or augment it in any way. There is an all-sufficiency to the blood he shed on mission and part of the response required of us in the gospel call is simply to stand in awe at the perfection of his work and realize we can do nothing to improve it. Therefore, we are to cease from our personal efforts of establishing our own righteousness as we receive the gift of his righteousness by faith alone. The suffering of the missionary cannot have any overlap or participation in this unique aspect of Christ’s work. “It is finished” (John 19:30).

But considering the suffering of the Son on mission as a pattern is where there is conspicuous theological continuity between his mission work and the mission work of the church. As has often been pointed out in missiological studies, Jesus sends the church according to the dynamic and pattern by which he himself was sent on mission from the Father.[19] “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21). Here the Greek reads, καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέ με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. His own sending is described in the perfect active indicative in order to stress the ongoing consequential reality that his past act of being sent entails: he was sent and his sending has not ceased to yield its fruit. This fruit particularly expresses itself now in a parallel act of sending described by the imperfective (i.e. continuous) aspect connoted by the present tense as that present is juxtaposed with the sending conveyed by the past perfect: πέμπω ὑμᾶς. Jesus sends the apostles as a result of the fruit of his own act of being sent, to continue to extend the missional dynamic that was manifested in his own mission, and he does so with a view to the ongoing needs of the mission that exist in the world until the consummation of all things.

As an extension of the missional dynamic of the Son’s own mission, the mission of the church is the incarnational earthly extension of the mission of God in Christ.[20] The Father’s sending of the Son on mission to suffer constituted an archetypal pattern for the Son’s ectypal sending of the church on mission. As the suffering played a necessary role in the Son’s mission, so suffering will play an important role in the church’s mission. The Son accomplished the mission by suffering, and the church can only accomplish her mission through suffering. Of course, the nature and ends of this suffering are different: Christ’s suffering was expiatory in nature, but the church’s suffering is not; Christ’s suffering was to redeem from the Fall, but the church’s suffering is to carry the message of that redemption to the world.

It is precisely this act of sending on mission that constitutes the difference between the purposeful suffering of the duly-sent missionary and the circumstantially occasioned suffering that a non-missionary person faces relative to an ordinary vocation in the world. This Trinitarian-related and Christologically-initiated act of sending is what infuses the suffering of the missionary with greater theological significance. It helps to explain why suffering is central to the success of the gospel’s advance in the world.

The New Testament presents a theology of mission that is not only informed by or motivated by Christ, but is essentially a “missional Christology.”[21] The mission to which the disciples of Jesus are called is one which bears significant Christological contours even as it is sovereignly shaped according to a Christological pattern. Scott Sunquist observes: “The authors of the New Testament were apostles (sent ones) and martyrs (witnesses), reflecting on the meaning of the missionary of God (Jesus) even as they were sharing in his sufferings.”[22] The followers of the Lamb are called to deny themselves, bear their cross, identify with Christ’s sufferings, and follow in the footsteps of Jesus by taking his message to the world as missional witnesses to the Trinitarian gospel.[23] “Mission is,” as David Bosch observes, “a predicate of Christology.”[24]

Paul’s Theology of Suffering in Mission

This helps to explain some of the difficult statements uttered by Paul as he contemplates the significance of his own mission. The Christologically determined pattern of suffering in mission extended its call to Saul of Tarsus in his conversion. His call to faith was his call to mission by way of special commission as an apostolic ambassador of Yahweh’s suffering servant (see Isaiah 53). His encounter with the Messiah who suffered meant he must enter into his sufferings. As David Bosch comments, “Mission, for Paul, is the logical consequence of his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road.”[25]

Hence Paul’s intimate identification with Christ’s suffering in mission. We read of this in Colossians 1:23–25:

“If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God.”

To understand what he means when he speaks of filling up “that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake,” there are at least four truths we must keep in mind:

[1.] The (previously-demonstrated) distinction between the uniqueness of Christ’s salvific sufferings and the pattern of the church’s sufferings. Paul cannot be referring to any lack in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, because its perfection and sufficiency is indisputably proclaimed everywhere in the New Testament. So he must be referring to filling up the measure of Christ’s sufferings as conforming to the Christological pattern, not as a work of redemption.

[2.] The (again, previously-demonstrated) fact that Christ’s mission advances through suffering. To expand on this a bit further: it once advanced through suffering in the person of Jesus, and now it advances through suffering through his body, the church. It is intentional that Paul speaks of Christ’s body (τοῦ σώματος αὐτοῦ) in close conceptual association with the suffering of his own flesh in his mission as a member of Christ (τῶν θλίψεων τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου). This conceptual link demonstrates that Paul understands the sufferings of the church on earth to be in some manner an extension of Christ’s sufferings.

[3.] To further elaborate that point, it is not difficult to understand how Paul could make that connection. When the epiphanic revelation of Jesus blinded him on the Damascus road, Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4) When Paul asked the Lord’s identity, he said, “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” To be sure, Saul never saw Jesus during his earthly ministry. He was persecuting believers in Christ, like Stephen. How could the Lord say Saul was persecuting him? In the words of Robert Reymond, “If his persecution of Christians was at the same time a persecution of the Messiah himself, then there must be an intimate union between them and him, on the order of the relationship between a body and its head.”[26] Incipiently revealed to Paul in his conversion, in which the seed of his apostolic commission was planted, was the truth of union with Christ. Reymond observes, “In sum, his ecclesiology in principle was formed.”[27] This grand motif of union with Christ was not only central to Paul’s theology in many ways, but it provided a category by which he came to interpret suffering in the church’s mission. The reality of union with Christ means Christ’s body’s suffering is in some way an extension of his suffering, so that the concept of union with Christ is what infuses the church’s missional suffering with Christological significance.

[4.] Seeing that suffering in mission is according to a Christological pattern (point 1 above), and is effectively instrumental in advancing the cause of the mission (point 2), and is enabled by the reality of personal union with Christ (point 3), Paul understood that God in his sovereignty had set an established quantitative limit to the amount of suffering his church was to endure in order to fulfill the (Great com)mission. The mission would one day be complete when Messiah comes again. From Paul’s present vantage point in history until that projected time in the future, gospel advancement had to ensue. For that to happen, suffering was instrumentally necessary. This suffering was no mere coincidence or arbitrary but bore Christological significance as determined by God’s decree. So a fixed measure was set. Christians were “appointed” to tribulations (1 Thes. 3:3). In this divine intentionality, a certain measure of suffering was set for the body of Christ. Paul himself as a member of that body was appointed to suffering. His apostolic commission as a “missionary” was a call to suffer with Christ (Acts 9:16).[28] Putting this together with Colossians 1:23-25, Paul had to fill up what was “behind” (KJV) or “lacking” (ὑστέρημα, understood metaphorically) in Christ’s afflictions by enduring tribulation for the sake of the mission. This effective bearing of tribulation in steadfast faithfulness in order to fulfill the mission would hasten the fulfillment of all things and serve to hasten the Lord’s return (Col. 1:25, “to fulfill the word of God”; πληρῶσαι τὸν λόγον τοῦ Θεοῦ).

Colossians 1:23–25 thus opens up an insightful window into a Pauline theology of suffering and mission. It helps to shed light on many of Paul’s statements in which he conceptualizes his suffering in mission as Christologically grounded. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:5, speaking of the apostolic ministry, he said, “the sufferings of Christ abound in us” (i.e. in the apostolic missionary team). In 2 Corinthians 4:10–11, he understands his suffering in mission to be fleshing out in a personal and existential manner the death of Jesus, even as he in his mission is made to conform by God to a Christological pattern of death and resurrection. In Philippians 3:10, Paul participates in “the fellowship (κοινωνία) of [Christ’s] sufferings, being conformed to his death.” Many more examples could be given and careful exegetical work could reveal even more texts that implicitly allude to the same concepts, but these examples should suffice for our present purposes.

One very clear text that does, however, explicitly draw out the connection between Paul’s suffering and the advance of the mission is found in his words just prior to his martyrdom: “Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). Paul suffered to bring salvation to the elect. The salvation he suffered to bring them is a salvation “which is in Christ Jesus,” not in Paul. Paul did not suffer to bring people to Paul; he suffered to bring them to Jesus. Jesus’s suffering established the salvation of the elect; Paul’s suffering was an instrumental means that accompanied the proclamation of the Word that brought to the elect the message of salvation.

Summary and Conclusion

What role did suffering play in mission for Paul and the broader New Testament commission? In some important yet mysterious way, we must affirm that it was necessary to bring the mission about, in order to advance it. In what way was it necessary in this advance? Perhaps our reflection on this topic can be summarized in a more precise manner if we may employ Aristotelian metaphysical categories to articulate it. Suffering was not the material cause of the mission (perhaps that should be identified as the missio Dei). Neither was it the formal cause of the mission (which would be the person and work of Christ and the archetypal pattern he set for mission). Neither was it the final cause of the mission (that would be so that the elect may obtain glory unto the glorification of God’s name). Neither would it be the efficient cause (which would be the kerygma of gospel proclamation energized by the effectual Spirit). I propose that suffering should be viewed as an instrumental cause, a means through which mission is advanced. As such, it is not even the primary instrumental cause (which would be the verbal and propositional communication of the Word), but is a subsidiary instrumental cause.[29]

Being subsidiary, however, does not make it insignificant or unimportant. To suffer unto death for Christ’s sake is to be a martyr, a word which derives from “witness.” Suffering in mission has a testimony-bearing character to it. It bears witness to the message and adorns the message as supremely valuable. The suffering of the martyrs powerfully bears testimony to the fact that the truth about Jesus is more precious than life itself. Suffering faithfully in submission to God in mission speaks of the authenticity of one’s faith, it speaks of the conviction with which one esteems the transcendent value of the gospel, and it serves as powerful apologetic for the faith. It is no wonder that in the book of the Acts, major waves of mission advancement rippled out from hard blows received in persecution. Tertullian’s famous words that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” stand as a testimony to the instrumental effectiveness that enduring suffering faithfully in mission generally has for the sake of the Name.

The place of suffering in mission is one that is fundamentally Christological. We should embrace suffering in the path of obedience as an opportunity to grow in Christlikeness. And we should not seek to avoid all suffering in the interest of carnal complacency but embrace it in the joyful path of obedience as a God-appointed means of gospel advancement.[30] Suffering will happen in the Christian life. And suffering in union with Christ, as appointed by the infinite wisdom of God, will be a heightened and intensified reality for all those who follow in the footsteps of Paul as they endeavor to be faithful missionaries in the service of the Crucified One.



[1] See Gene Edward Veith, Jr., “Bearing the Cross in Vocation,” in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 143-55.

[2] See Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 14-15. The vocation of mission is extended to a fallen creature condition and should be understood as a subset of vocation in general.

[3] I do not presume to offer the definitive or final answer to this perplexity, only to point out what is clear from Scripture in order to help us to approximate toward the answer. The problem of evil and the mystery of suffering are profound topics in themselves. When combined with the additional complexities entailed in the missionary call, the difficulty of the issues compounds rather than simplifies. A helpful resource on suffering in the Christian life that approaches the subject with pastoral perspective is Larry J. Waters and Roy B. Zuck, eds., Why, O God? Suffering and Disability in the Bible and the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).

[4] Louis Berkhof, Summary of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 59.

[5] Thomas Boston, The Crook in the Lot: Living with that Thorn in your Side (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2002).

[6] But this is not to be confused with the Arminian conception of synergism in providence or salvation.

[7] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), 314.

[8] John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 85.

[9] Piper, Let the Nations be Glad, 84.

[10] Steve Saint, “Sovereignty, Suffering, and the Work of Missions,” Desiring God, December 19, 2019, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/sovereignty-suffering-and-the-work-of-missions).

[11] Saint, “Sovereignty, Suffering, and the Work of Missions,” Desiring God.

[12] My translation.

[13] See Wilbur F. Tillett, “Providence,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 2485.

[14] The difference between “mission” and “missions” is an important distinction to make, but we must not bifurcate them or separate them in a way that cause us to view them as unrelated. Many theological principles can be applied to both. Since general vocation is a part of mission, and since mission overlaps with missions, there is much common ground. Yet the distinction remains and it must be upheld. The argument that follows in this paper is presupposing there is such a distinction and that it is a valid one to make. For basic definitions, see A. Scott Moreau, Gary Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 72–73.

[15] For discussion, see Michael W. Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History, and Issues (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 73–82.

[16] The Gospel of John in particular gives much emphasis to the theological significance of the Father’s sending of the Son. E.g. John 4:34; 5:24, 30, 37; 6:38–44; 7:16, 28, 33; 8:16-18, 26, 29; 9:4; 12:44-49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5.

[17] See discussion on the necessity of the atonement in Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine(Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 569.

[18] This is similar to the distinction Piper makes, who also uses the term “pattern” and distinguishes it from “substitutionary atonement.” See Piper, Let the Nations be Glad, 77–78.

[19] Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today, 78.

[20] Lesslie Newbigin, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1988), 54.

[21] Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 200.

[22] Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission, 199–200.

[23] Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission, 213.

[24] David J. Bosch, “Witness to the World,” in Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, Third Edition (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999), 63.

[25] Bosch, “Witness to the World,” in Perspectives, 63.

[26] Robert Reymond, Paul Missionary Theologian: A Survey of his Missionary Labours and Theology (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2000), 74.

[27] Reymond, Paul, 74.

[28] See F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1977), 139–140.

[29] These distinctions are a bit arbitrary and I suggest them tentatively. I do think they are helpful in that they enable us to articulate causality and the place suffering plays in mission with a higher degree of precision than if we did not employ them.

[30] Cf. “There are many, I admit, to whom Christianity is a religion of doing good in an agreeable way, in an interesting way, in a spiritual way, but it is not with them a power which sends men out to a life of isolation and hardship. It does not develop responsibility and devotion of that order, but rather a pleasant piety, which must be humoured and interested before it will do anything.” P. T. Forsyth, Missions in State and Church: Sermons and Addresses (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1908), 286–287.