Fruit that comes from suffering and sacrifice is surely the sweetest kind. As the farmer nurtures his tender young plant, day in and day out, he nurtures it not only by pruning and watering, but with his very heart. And then, when that tender young plant becomes a strong tree that bears much fruit, he enjoys that fruit with a satisfaction that his neighbor, who also shares in the fruit, cannot. Jesus explains it in these terms, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). That which we invest in, care about, and pour into will also be the place of our hearts.
The reality of sweetness in sacrifice has been driven home in my life in three areas: our pets, our language learning, and our adoptions.
To begin, we usually find ourselves taking in diseased/tortured animals and making them our pets. We took in one dog who was skin and bones, covered in sores, and was routinely beaten by his master. Another pet we took in was a Western Tree Hyrax who was starving and had his nose burnt down to the bone by cruel village kids. In light of these decisions, one of my sons once asked, “Mom, why do we take in all these sick animals? Why not get healthy, good looking ones?” I told him that we take them in because there is a higher joy in giving than in receiving. This joy has proven to be true as the sickly animals that we have taken in have become loyal and beloved. Where there is a sacrifice, there is a special sweetness.
In the same way, by moving to Cameroon, we left a country where we were rarely misunderstood and now live constantly striving to understand and be understood. As many missionaries will tell you, language learning is a grueling labor of love. However, when you share the Gospel for the first time in your second (or third) language, the Lord pours down a joy that you have never felt before. The years of mistakes and flashcards bring about a fruit that is so sweet that you know it was worth all the effort. I remember learning the ABC’s in English as a kid and considered them to be more of a chore than a joy. Now, after spending years laboring to come up with an alphabet for the Bakoum people, I get a little teary-eyed when I hear kids on our porch saying it to one another. The greater the suffering, the greater the sacrifice, the greater the sweetness.
Adoption also illustrates this point. I am no child development expert, but I have observed that there is a natural attachment between biological kids and their parents that adoptive parents have to work for. I remember bringing home one of our sons and for around two years I would smile at him and that smile was never reciprocated. My genuine love and kindness were met with blank stares and rejection. But, eight years later, this son is characteristically smiley, warm, and rejoices in the fact that we adopted him. The smiles that we work for truly are the sweetest kind.
And yet, for another of our children, I am still smiling but only receiving dead, blank stares. She is not warm, she is not happy, she is distant. With her, it has been close to a decade of, in general, unreciprocated love. So, what do we do when the sacrifice is just suffering without any sweetness on the horizon?
Sometimes the sweetness is seen only through the eyes of faith
The Lord sometimes allows us to see the fruit of our labors on earth, but other times, he leaves us in the midst of our suffering and calls us to look to heaven for the coming sweetness. Sometimes the diseased animals bite you, the unreached people groups kill you, and the adopted children totally reject you. So, does this then mean that the path of suffering was taken in vain? Absolutely not. The sweetness is just delayed. Paul says:
The suffering that we take on for the benefit of others is actually the very agent that is preparing us for a great glory. This glory will last forever and it will prove that all the suffering was worth it. And so, we look to what we can’t see and keep plodding along faithfully giving kindness even when it is interpreted as hatred. We keep giving smiles even when they are reciprocated with glares. We keep clothing the naked even when they later steal from us. We keep giving to the hungry even when they refuse to give to others as they have been given to. We do this because we trust that the greater the sacrifice, the greater the suffering, the greater the sweetness–even if we have to wait until Heaven to taste of it.
I end with a quote from Adoniram Judson, a missionary to what is now known as Myanmar. Judson went through intense depression after the loss of his wife Ann, even wandering into the tiger-ridden jungles. He was finally led out of the jungle (and his depression) by a Burmese man whom he had led to Christ. Later, he wrote to a fellow missionary who had recently lost her husband, comforting her. Here is an excerpt of his letter:
“My Dear Sister : You are now drinking the bitter cup whose dregs I am somewhat acquainted with. And though, for some time, you have been aware of its approach, I venture to say that it is far bitterer than you expected…But don’t be concerned. I can assure you that months and months of heartrending anguish are before you, whether you will or not. I can only advise you to take the cup with both hands, and sit down quietly to the bitter repast which God has appointed for your sanctification…Take the bitter cup with both hands, and sit down to your repast. You will soon learn a secret, that there is sweetness at the bottom. You will find it the sweetest cup that you ever tasted in all your life.”
Judson had a heart of faith, a heart that looked to what his eyes could not see. It was not easy, it did not come right away, but in the end his faith won out over his sorrow. Can you imagine looking back on your struggles to say “you will find it the sweetest cup that you have ever tasted in your life”? That can only be said when one is believing that “the things we cannot see will last forever.” So, my plan is this: I will take the cup with both hands. I will welcome the sorrow, the frustration, the slow plodding in faith, believing that there is something ahead that outweighs them by far. And believing that life’s difficulties can even draw me closer to heaven, and to the Lord who will one day make everything all right.