The Call to Joy and Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry

The Call to Joy and Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry

by Ajith Fernando


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Biblical, theological, and devotional insights and advice on how joy and pain are both integral parts of the life of service, from ministerial veteran Ajith Fernando. 2008 Christianity Today Book Award Winner.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581348880
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 09/28/2007
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ajith Fernando (ThM, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka after serving as the ministry's national director for thirty-five years. He and his wife, Nelun, are active in a church ministering primarily to the urban poor, and his ministry includes counseling and mentoring younger staff and pastors. He is the author of seventeen books published in twenty languages. Ajith lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with his wife, and they have two adult children and four grandchildren.

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Two Basic Aspects of Christianity

After the death of his wife Paul Tournier, regarded as the father of contemporary Christian counseling, wrote a book titled Creative Suffering. There he shows how suffering can be a trigger for great creativity. He talks about the sorrow he experienced over the death of his father when he was two years old and that of his mother when he was five years old and then the death of his wife. He says, "The human heart does not obey the rules of logic: it is constitutionally contradictory. I can truly say that I have a great grief and that I am a happy man."

Tournier's statement places before us the basic premise of this book. Pain and joy are both essential features of Christianity. Paul's statement at the start of the section we are using as the base for this book (Col. 1:24) makes the same affirmation: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake."

The Call to Joy

Great Christians thinkers like C. S. Lewis and John Piper have emphasized that joy is perhaps the primary characteristic of a Christian. We may not realize it, but the Old Testament oozes with the theme of joy. There are twenty-three different Hebrew words for joy in the Old Testament. I read somewhere that Hebrew is the language that has the greatest number of words for joy. In two verses in Zephaniah alone (3:14, 17) seven different words for joy are found!

The Old Testament has several calls and commands to people to rejoice. I used my computer concordance to trace the use of the English word rejoice in calls to and decisions to rejoice and in reports of rejoicing by God and God's people. I found eighty-one references. The Psalms with thirty-one references, Isaiah with thirteen, and Deuteronomy with ten head the list. There are instruments in Old Testament worship, such as cymbals, that are particularly suited for expressing joy. Believers are urged to clap their hands for joy (Ps. 47:1). The Psalms speak of shouting for joy twelve times, and singing is mentioned eighty-seven times. We know that singing is most often an expression of joy. Singing and joy come together thirteen times in the Psalms. Then there is the succession of festivals in the Jewish calendar. Festivals are generally times dedicated to expressing joy. It is clear, then, that joy and the expression of it are important in the Old Testament.

The same is true of the New Testament. The first announcement of the birth of Christ by the angels was described as "good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). "And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen" (Luke 2:20). Matthew is emphatic in his description of the response of the Wise Men to seeing the baby Jesus: "They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (Matt. 2:10).

With an even more marked experience of salvation in the New Testament than in the Old Testament, we can see that the joy of salvation has an important place in the Bible. We see this in the three parables of salvation in Luke 15 where the finding of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are all accompanied by great rejoicing and celebration (Luke 15:6-7, 9-10, 20-24). To me the description of the father, an elderly, rich man wearing a long cloak, doing something quite unexpected in that day — running and publicly embracing and kissing his wayward child — is one of the most moving passages of the Bible. But it doesn't finish with that. The father gathered his friends together and celebrated with a party with music and dancing.

So the members of the first church in Jerusalem would meet in their homes and eat "with glad and generous [or sincere] hearts" (Acts 2:46). And when salvation came to a town in Samaria "there was much joy in that city" (Acts 8:8). Later Paul would place joy right after love in his listing of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Writing from prison he instructed the Christians to rejoice and even repeated his instruction for emphasis: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice" (Phil. 4:4). In a passage giving instructions in response to the controversy over dietary laws in the church, Paul, wanting to place the emphasis where it should be, said, "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17).

Salvation is such an overwhelmingly wonderful blessing that whatever we go through, we always have a reason to rejoice. One of the great preachers of the early Methodist church was a miner from Cornwall, Billy Bray (1794–1868), who had been a drunkard and an immoral man before his conversion. He could never get over the joy of knowing that God had saved him and made him "the King's son." His life was one incessant act of joyous praise to God, and he felt the joy of salvation was so immense that it needed to be expressed. He said, "Well, I dance sometimes. Why shouldn't I dance as well as David? David, you say, was a king; well, bless the Lord! I am a King's son! I have as good a right to dance as David had. Bless the Lord! I get very happy at times; my soul gets full of the glory, and then I dance too!"

Clearly to Billy Bray joy was a primary feature of Christianity. Working in the mines was a dangerous business, and there was always the possibility of dying in the mine. He would tell his fellow miners that they must pray before they go down. They would ask him to pray. He would pray, "Lord, if any of us must be killed, or die to-day, let it be me; let not one of these men die, for they are not happy; but I am, and if I die to-day I shall go to heaven." Bray said, "When I rose from my knees, I should see the tears running down their faces; and soon after some of them became praying men too." It is easy to get so sophisticated about Christianity that we miss the joy of salvation that the Bible speaks about.

The Call to Suffer

We will spend a considerable amount of time in this book looking at the texts that present the call to pain and suffering. Let me simply affirm here that this too is a basic aspect of Christianity. Jesus' basic call to follow him was a call to suffer: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24). His hearers would have known that he was speaking of severe suffering when he said this because they knew that crucifixion was a cruel and painful way of causing death. Jesus told us, "In the world you will have tribulation" (John 16:33). And Paul stated, "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim. 3:12).

Jesus did not want people to follow him without realizing there was a cost involved in doing so. So he included the cost in his basic call to discipleship. When some would-be followers volunteered, he presented the cost to them in places where they were vulnerable (Luke 9:57-62). We are not told, but it is quite possible that they decided not to follow Jesus. We know for sure that the rich young ruler did not follow Christ because the cost Jesus presented was too great for him (Matt. 19:16-22). These two passages may be the sections where Christ's evangelistic methodology most radically differs from much of contemporary evangelism.

They Come Together

One of the interesting things about the New Testament record is that suffering is hardly ever mentioned without also a mention of the blessings of suffering. And often the blessing mentioned is joy. I was able to locate eighteen different places in the New Testament where suffering and joy are found together. The texts I found making this connection between suffering and joy were in the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles. We also know that though Revelation may not mention this connection explicitly, it is implied there.

So according to the Bible, joy and pain can coexist. Christians don't talk about suffering unless they also talk about the joy of suffering. It is the joy that makes the cross worthwhile, for it gives us the strength to bear it. As Nehemiah said, "The joy of the LORD is your strength" (Neh. 8:10).

I once heard David Sitton, the founder of To Every Tribe Mission, tell how when he was a teenager a ninety-year-old missionary spoke at the youth fellowship of his church. He had been a missionary for seventy-two years. At the start of his talk he kept saying the same thing over and over again. It was something like, "I want you to remember this. You can forget everything I say, but don't forget this." He kept saying something like this for about five minutes, and the young people were getting impatient, wishing he would go ahead and say it. Finally he said what he wanted to say: "The joy of the Lord is your strength. When the joy goes, the strength goes." Having said that, he sat down!

That is the basic affirmation of this book. Joy and suffering are necessary aspects of Christianity. And they can and must exist together.


A Forgotten Treasure

For years I had thought that one of the greatest attractions of Christianity was the joy that salvation brings. Now I have my doubts about that. I have come to realize that many people are willing to sacrifice joy in order to get some other things that they think are essential for their life.

Satisfaction Versus Joy

It seems that people don't have a taste for joy and that they would rather have success in sports or in their career or in sexual conquest or through material prosperity or in taking revenge against someone who has hurt them.

In Sri Lanka the cultural push for revenge is one of the huge challenges we have when working with people who have come to Christ from other faiths. People are supposed to hit back if someone dishonors their family. If they don't, they are viewed as cowards or as having insulted the family honor. Often we see leaders pressing hard to show that they are right and the organization or church was wrong when it decided against their advice. We see Christians who have been insulted by another Christian work hard to expose the faults of the person who insulted them. These efforts may take away their joy and inflame anger in their hearts. But they cannot resist the temptation to work to have the satisfaction of hitting back.

Perhaps the most extreme form of this quest for satisfaction at the cost of joy is addiction. Even though individuals know that drugs or pornography or gambling will take away their joy and the joy of those who love them, they still cannot go without that habit. They sacrifice so much for a shallow kick. And the satisfaction of getting this thing that they want is even more important to them than their happiness.

I think one reason for this is that people do not know what a wonderful thing joy is. Not having tasted the fullness of joy, they are too easily satisfied with the fake satisfaction that these other activities bring. In our pleasure-crazy culture the call of the psalmist is certainly relevant: "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" (Ps. 34:8).

What Is The Joy Of The Lord?

We can describe the joy that the gospel brings as "the joy of the LORD" (Neh. 8:10) or as rejoicing in the Lord (Phil. 4:4). This joy has as its base some great truths that undergird our lives.

• We believe in God.

• We believe that he loves us and that in love he gave us his Son to die for us.

• We believe that he has made us his children and looks after us and that he's for us so that no one can stand against us.

• He lives in us, banishing loneliness.

• He turns the bad things that happen to us into good things.

• He loves us more than the unkindness that we experience in life, and he is able to comfort and to heal us when we are wounded.

• He has prepared an inheritance that we will receive after this life that is more wonderful than anything we could ever imagine.

These wonderful truths and many, many others are the basis upon which we have built our lives. They open the way for a love relationship with God. While the relationship is essentially an experiential love relationship, the basis of our relationship is this list of objective, unchanging truths. We can cling to them when everything about us seems gloomy.

Love is the happiest word in our vocabulary. I was out of town on my last birthday and came home during the night. When I went to my room, there was a large card on my table. I usually compose my own birthday cards for my family members. My wife usually buys cards, but she goes to great pains to ensure that she purchases one with appropriate words. And the words in this one beautifully described our relationship. I was so thrilled! I sat basking in the fact that after thirty years together my wife still loved me. Suddenly it dawned upon me that God's love is so much greater. If a wife's love brings that much joy, how much more joy does God's love. David described it like this: "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11). To be sure, the experience David described is not our constant feeling. But this experience arises out of a deep and unchanging reality that undergirds our lives — namely, the almighty God loves us and looks after us. So we can say with Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

HAB. 3:17-18

My closest friend died of cancer in 2005. The last time he went to the hospital he was in great pain. He was gradually slipping into a semiconscious state. One of the last things he told me was that someone once said, "I have hit rock bottom, and I find that the Rock is solid!" Deuteronomy 33:27 says, "The Eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms."

Even as we go through disappointments, pain, and stress, we know that God is with us and that he has promised to turn these tough experiences into something good. That gives us great relief amidst the pain.

Early in our marriage my wife and I agreed that we will not go to sleep if there is tension between us. In the early years we would have some interesting "love-fights" that would drag into the night. But when the resolution came, it was sweet. I might go to work the next morning with red eyes because of lack of sleep but with the freedom of knowing that things were right with the one I love. During those arguments I got into the habit of praying with my heart while talking to my wife with my mouth. And usually the prayer went something like, "Please, God — please, God — please, God — help."

What a relief it was to know that God was right there when we were going through the crisis. That banishes fear and enables us to hope for a resolution and prevents us from acting rashly. We may be weeping inside, we may be hurting from the bruises we have received, but deep down we know that God is with us and that he is our source of joy. The happiest people in the world are not those who don't have problems — they are those who are not afraid of problems.

Real Liberation

What deliverance God brings. We are freed from bondage to fear. We have something more reliable than fickle experiences. Our life is founded on unchanging truths that open us to a love relationship with an unchanging God. No wonder Jesus said, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). He went on to say, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).

Postmodern people say they want to be freed from the tyranny of objective truth that, they say, has deprived humans of authentic experience. They want to focus more on the subjective experiences into which their instincts take them. We do not deny the priority of experience. In fact, we say that experience is basic to Christianity. If we have given people the idea that Christianity is based wholly on a bunch of propositions, we have given them a wrong idea. Christianity is based on propositions that are found in the Bible. But these propositions open the door to authentic experiences that enable us to truly embrace our humanity.

The experience we have is not a boringly predictable thing that, again, our critics would say is evidence that we are not truly free. The different ways people come to Christ and the varied experiences they have would convince us that there is nothing boringly predictable about Christianity. For example, the Bible says that in our experience of receiving the gifts of the Spirit, God gives each Christian a unique gift. Paul uses two strong words — "apportions" (1 Cor. 12:11) and "measure" (Eph. 4:7) — to say that God gives a combination of gifts specifically designed for each member. There's a niche for each Christian. Of course, those who do not submit to God's lordship would say they want to be free to choose the experiences they are going to have. We, however, say that true freedom is when the God who made us gives us what is best for us.


Excerpted from "The Call to Joy and Pain"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Ajith Fernando.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part One Suffering and Joy Are Basic to Christianity,
1 Two Basic Aspects of Christianity,
2 A Forgotten Treasure,
3 Bursts of Pleasure,
4 Lament,
5 Faith and Endurance,
6 Surrender,
7 Not Gluttons for Punishment,
8 A Theological Blind Spot?,
Part Two Suffering Brings Us Nearer to Christ,
9 The Fellowship of Suffering,
10 Becoming Like Christ,
11 Motives Purified,
12 Shame and Honor,
13 Solidarity with Christ,
Part Three Our Suffering Helps the Church,
14 Suffering and Church Growth,
15 Demonstrating the Gospel,
16 Identifying with People,
17 Deepening Our Impact,
18 Suffering and Credibility,
19 Commitment Begets Commitment,
20 Avoid Commitment and Avert Suffering,
21 Commitment and the Joyous Life,
Part Four Servant of the Church,
22 Ministers and Stewards,
23 Servanthood Springs from Grace,
24 We Are Rich!,
25 The Hope of Glory,
26 Jesus: Our Message,
27 Disciples Are Made, Not Born,
28 Toil in Disciple-Making,
29 He Gives the Strength,
A Concluding Meditation,
30 A Paradox of the Christian Life,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Ajith Fernando understands the pitfalls of pain, as well as the heavenly heights of Spirit-blessed joy. As one who is intimately acquainted with the hardships of a wheelchair, I am truly grateful for the insights he shares in this exceptional new book."
Joni Eareckson Tada, Founder, Joni and Friends

"Blending biblical faithfulness, gripping stories, and pastoral compassion, this book shows us how God uses pain for our good and his glory and reminds us that if we embrace our suffering, we will discover a contagious joy that makes Jesus beautiful in the eyes of a watching world. Written as a series of thirty short meditations, here is a book to be savored."
Ray Pritchard, President, Keep Believing Ministries; author of Credo, Discovering God's Will for Your Life, and The Amazing Journey of Faith

"Ajith Fernando demonstrates that the call to suffer is an invitation to joy. We do not find a dour or depressing vision of the Christian life here. Nor can Fernando's work be dismissed as unrealistic-he does not deny the pain we experience in suffering. The work is biblically grounded, refreshingly honest, and full of practical wisdom."
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

"When I moved from the sterility of the academy to the real life of pastoring, I had no idea of the amount of conflict and pain that could come from within a church. I wish I had been prepared for the joy and pain of ministry and how I was being called to embrace that suffering. Thank you, Ajith, for putting my experience in biblical perspective. We are called to embrace joy in the midst of pain, to lean into the pain and become like Christ."
William D. Mounce, President,

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