I have talked to many young women about coming to Cameroon for a year on a short-term trip and, without fail, one of the first questions they have for me is about the state of the local church among the Kwakum. They are curious about what kind of spiritual resources and accountability will be available to them if they were to come.
In our circles, there is, rightly, a huge emphasis on the role of the local church in the life of the believer. There are no “lone ranger” Christians – we are part of a body. We are “living stones built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) part of the church who is a “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). So, then, it is difficult for a young woman raised in the church to think about leaving the “pillar and buttress of truth” to come to place where there is not even a Bible in the vernacular. This is a very legitimate concern.
I usually tell those interested in coming that we have a really faithful French-speaking pastor who teaches the Word of God. However….they won’t be able to understand what he is saying until the very end of their time here due to the language barrier. I tell them that church will be more of a language/culture learning experience rather than a place of worship and communion for them.
Time and time again, I have seen young people grappling with if they can or should leave the common grace of a healthy local church to come to the mission field for a year. They are right to grapple – these are not light issues.
However, as I tell them over and over again, there are muscles of faith that remain weak until we lay down the common graces that we hold so dear. Sometimes leaving the common grace of a mature local church is actually the best thing for our faith.
The Story of Joseph
As I have been reading Genesis lately, I have been repulsed by the savage nature of Jacob’s twelve sons. Jacob himself lied to his blind, dying father in order to steal a birthright that was rightfully his older brother’s (Genesis 27). Jacob’s son, Reuben, later slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen 35:22) (does one of the patriarch’s of the faith really have a concubine?!). Then you have the incident with the brother’s plotting together to kill their younger brother, Joseph (Gen 37). Fortunately, they “only” sold him into slavery and then lied to their father as to his whereabouts for decades. I walk away from my devotions in the morning feeling scandalized and repulsed by the sins of these men. How amazing is the grace of God that he actually identifies himself as the God of Jacob when he as a record like that.
And then you have Joseph. He was sold into slavery as a young boy which was no doubt terrifying. He was surrounded by a new language, new smells, new norms of interacting with people, and a new diet. This is all not to mention that he entered into this new culture in the caste of a slave. There was no stable home environment for Joseph and yet…his righteousness was radiant.
This righteousness is in clear contrast to that of his brother’s. In Genesis 38, Judah is seen sleeping with a prostitute which turned out to be his daughter-in-law. Apparently, sleeping with prostitutes was such a normal thing his life that his daughter-in-law knew that if she dressed up like a prostitute, she would be able to seduce him. On so many levels, this story makes the readers stomach turn.
This story is juxtaposed with Genesis 39 where you find Joseph being approached by a wealthy, powerful woman who was the wife of his master. One day, she made it so that all the servants in her house were elsewhere so that the two of them could sleep together. Even when no one else was looking, when he surely could get away with it, Joseph refused her saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen 39:9). Judah was home next to the people of God and lived in immorality whereas Joseph was far from the people of God and yet lived a morally pure life. Why is this?
The pit made him godly
While Jacob’s sons were living with THE guy chosen by God, Joseph was in a pit. Then he was a slave, and then was imprisoned for over a decade. And yet, he is later seen saving a nation from starvation, becoming a powerful governmental ruler, and forgiving from his heart his awful brothers. It was ironically not living among the people of God that made Joseph great; it was rather his sufferings. In the words of Paul…
Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3b-4).
“Well…” you might be thinking, “It was actually God who made him great.” While this is very true, the plain language of Scripture says that suffering produces excellent character. We all know that it is God behind the suffering making greatness, but on a day to day basis, it was the suffering that Joseph came face to face with. Joseph learned to trust God while in prison. He learned to honor his master by day-in and day-out taking care of his possessions with love in his heart. That day to day faithfulness made it so that he wouldn’t dare touch what was most precious to his master – his wife. Joseph had decades to plot revenge on his brothers, but, while in prison, he learned to trust that God had a plan for their great evil. You see, Joseph’s righteousness surpassed that of his brothers’ because he suffered while living in a pagan land. His distress refined him in a way that living at home with daddy would not have.
Suffering is better than a million sermons about suffering
So, to those who love the local church and love all the common graces that you experience among the people of God, know that the God of Joseph is your God as well. Joseph may have left the people of God, but he did not leave God. God was with him in the pit, in the temptation, and in the misery. You can listen to a million sermons about learning to forgive. Yet, living among people who steal gives you the opportunity to put what you know into practice. You can memorize Romans 13, but actually living in a place where you have the opportunity to honor those authorities who try to take bribes from you gives you the chance to obey that passage from the heart. Love for the existing, mature local church is a good thing, but looking into the eyes of a totally lost unbeliever and praying and working until that unbeliever becomes your pastor may perhaps be greater. The life of Joseph shows us that living among the unfaithful in a foreign land grows your faith in a way it wouldn’t have grown had stayed among the faithful.