John Piper, Filling up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, John Paton, and Adoniram Judson (The Swans Are Not Silent). Wheaton, Ill., Crossway Books, 2009, pp.128.
It usually takes me forever to finish a book. Not because I don’t like reading. But because I am a slow reader. So I was shocked when I picked up “Filling up the Afflictions of Christ” and finished it in less than three days. I couldn’t put it down. And this after I had been warned by another missionary that it was a scary book.
What’s so scary? It is this simple assertion: God plans suffering for his people in order to show Christ to the nations. Many Christians acknowledge that suffering is part of God’s permissive will, meaning that he allows suffering to happen. But Piper’s radical statement here is that God intentionally puts suffering in the lives of His servants to show forth the Gospel. Where does he get this counter-cultural idea? From Paul’s own understanding of his ministry in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” There is nothing lacking, of course, from Christ’s redemptive suffering to atone for the sin of his people. That was finished at the cross. But what is lacking is the visible expression of that suffering. When Christ’s servants suffer, the love and sacrifice of Christ is on display to a watching world.
In the lives of the men chronicled in this book, the sufferings of Christ were on full display. William Tyndale was burned at the stake in a foreign land simply because he wanted his countrymen to be able to read the Bible in their native tongue, English. John Paton faced continual death in the South Seas Islands in order to see hostile islanders know his precious Savior Christ. Adoniram Judson labored thirty eight years in Burma, losing two wives and several children, being imprisoned and tortured so that so many indifferent to His Message might know it and find life.
Reading harrowing tales of missionaries risking life and limb runs the danger of raising up in us momentary inspiration to surrender all for Christ and then dashing it to the ground with one little thought, “I could never do that.” We may find the stories of these saints inspiring but their lives are just too far removed from ours to seriously consider whether God would ever ask us to make similar sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel. We close the book and return to our daily lives, certain that in our own endeavors for Christ the risk of being eaten by cannibals is very slight. Of course we need people who are willing to take those kinds of risks, like a younger friend of mine who is preparing to do missions among a hostile Muslim people group. Piper addresses those people at the conclusion of the book. But he also addresses another type of person. The average person. You and me. The person most likely to be reading this book from the comfort of their Western living room (like I did) or on a newly acquired Kindle.
Are we willing to suffer for the sake of people seeing Christ? Neither John Piper, nor myself, nor most of the readers of this book will ever face the seemingly unbearable losses of William Tyndale, John Paton, or Adoniram Judson. But are we willing? And do we have such a personal knowledge and profound attachment to the God of grace that we would be able to trust him in the face of seemingly unbearable loss?
The brilliance and impact of this little book is not in it’s exaltation of missionary heroes. Their lives are impressive, for sure, but Piper makes sure that we know that their God is much more impressive. And without their God, these men would have been nothing. It is because of what God did in (and through) these men’s lives that their stories are relevant to us today. Do we grasp the awesome and devastating truths of the Gospel such that we are willing to die a million little deaths each day to see God honored in our lives? Do we see the hand of Providence in our losses, big and small, such that these losses draw us closer to the heart of God rather than push us away in bitterness? Is Christ precious to us?
Since I am a missionary, some might think that such self-denying Christ-centeredness comes naturally to me. It does not. In fact, I am not very good at it. Daily I find myself drawn off course by a billion distractions that clamor for my attention and claim to be more interesting, more fun, more satisfying than whatever I happen to be doing. In many ways a product of Western culture and my own generation, I like things easy. I like things that I can attain with a minimum of effort.
Because I like ease but know that that is not good, one particular thought near the beginning of the book struck me right between the eyes. Asking the question as to how William Tyndale accomplished all that he did, Piper says we need to “remember two ways that a pastor or spiritual leader must die in order to bear fruit for God (John 12:24; Romans 7:4). On the one hand, we must die to the notion that we do not have to think hard or work hard to achieve spiritual goals. On the other hand, we must die to the notion that our thinking and our working is decisive in achieving spiritual goals.” (p.35)
I need to work hard. That is a good reminder. I also need to trust God for the results because I could work hard and not see much fruit. The decisive variable is in God’s hands, not mine. That too is a good reminder. But more than that, this second thought directs our thoughts and attentions to the grace, goodness, and ability of our loving heavenly Father and precious Savior Jesus Christ. And a deep knowledge of God and his shepherding care is what carries us through pain and suffering and allows people to see Christ through our sufferings. That’s what made the difference in the lives of Tyndale, Paton, and Judson. We may not be them, but we know their God. Is he precious to us?