Let’s rewrite the biblical story found in Genesis 39–41. Let’s make it more Western. Let’s make the story fit the way most of us think about the church and the mission field.
Imagine getting this newsletter from one of your overseas workers. The newsletter says this:
Our brother, whom we love, has been arrested in Egypt and is in prison. Family whom he loved and trusted sold him into slavery and betrayed him to the authorities. We know that he has remained faithful to God, and has refused to pay bribes that would help him escape from prison. Because of his faith, he has been transferred to the dreaded central prison with the rest of the nation’s worst enemies.
How would we respond as the church? What actions would we take? Typically, the Western church would rush in to rescue Joseph. It’s a good impulse.
- We would write and forward emails.
- We would flood social media with appeals.
- We would contact our political representatives.
- We would highlight Joseph’s plight on radio and television.
The goal of our activity would be the release of Joseph from his unjust imprisonment. And we would feel justified in almost any action — perhaps even military intervention — to have Joseph set free.
The High Cost of Extraction
And maybe Joseph would be released. Followers and friends of Jesus would rejoice! We would thank God that our Joseph has been saved from prison. And we would even be satisfied that one of the conditions of his release would include Joseph’s relocation to another country where he would be safe because he’s no longer a thorn in the nation’s side.
Imagine then, years later, that a great famine hits Egypt and the surrounding countries. Because of his rescue, Joseph is not in prison when Pharaoh has strange dreams. Joseph is not there to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams concerning seven years of plenty followed by seven years of terrible drought. As a result of Joseph’s absence, Egypt squanders the food harvested in the seven good years. As a result of Joseph’s absence, Egypt is completely unprepared for seven years of famine.
The famine is so devastating, in fact, that Egypt does not survive.
And because Egypt does not survive . . . the Jews in Egypt do not survive, either.
And that is the end of the story.
A Better Plan for Freedom
Of course, the real story ends differently. Evidently, God knows when to leave Joseph in prison. God has a larger agenda in mind. God knows exactly what is necessary for the salvation of both Egyptians and Jews.
Do our churches, our sending agencies, and our organizations that study persecution know when to leave Joseph in Egypt? Despite our affection for Joseph, do we understand that ultimately Joseph belongs to God, and that God can do with him whatever he desires? Is it possible for us to become emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually strong enough to know when to leave “our Joseph” with God in a seemingly dangerous place?
Advance or Extract?
Believers in persecution had much to teach my wife and me as we traveled among them for more than fifteen years. We listened to their stories. We learned that when Western workers become personally and emotionally connected to believers in persecution, extraction of these believers often becomes the main objective. In almost every case, we are desperate to get Joseph out of the hostile place, and away from persecution.
The apparent explanation for this is more than anecdotal, and less than statistical. It appears that Western workers who become emotionally attached to believers in persecution will attempt to extract about fifty percent of those believers to a safe country. This observation seems to apply to situations of persecution all around the world. In the Islamic world, the frequency of extraction seems even higher, approaching seventy percent. Imagine trying to start a church, even in the Bible Belt of America, if seventy percent of the believers were pulled out and taken to another country.
For God, conquering through persecution, rather than extracting from persecution, is the norm. The Western church typically takes the opposite approach. For us, extraction is the norm. Rescuing believers from persecution feels good. Significant funds can be raised to extract a family from persecution and resettle them in a safe country.
But if we gave as much energy and attention to spreading the gospel in hostile places as we have to extracting persecuted believers from them, the Great Commission may have already been finished by now.
The End of Extraction
Why is our view so different than God’s view? Here are some possible answers to that question:
- We don’t want fellow believers to suffer for Jesus in ways we are unwilling to or can’t relate to.
- We can’t imagine that prolonged suffering might be part of God’s plan.
- We do not truly believe that Jesus is worth suffering for.
And because those truths drive our actions and attitudes, we replace a biblical theology of suffering with something less challenging. As a result,
- We demand that persecution of followers of Jesus stop.
- We demand that those persecuting followers of Jesus be punished.
- We strive to install Western forms of democracy, human rights, and civil rights in foreign lands, believing these will usher in the kingdom of God. (Though, much to our surprise, there is no historical correlation between these Western forms and the kingdom of God!)
- We make emotional appeals to raise huge sums of money to rescue more believers from persecution.
What is outcome of all of our seemingly good efforts? Critical masses of believers are removed from the environments where God has planted them.
In some places, the birth of the church is halted; in other places, the multiplication of the body of Christ is hindered. New followers of Jesus (perhaps people from Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Communist backgrounds) come to believe that living in a safe, Christian country is necessary in order to live for Christ.
After long days of interviewing, we often asked followers of Jesus in persecution what they learned from Western workers. They typically looked at one another and refused to respond.
When we pressed them for an answer, they would reply, “Western workers teach us to be afraid. Western workers teach us that it’s possible to follow Jesus only in safe places.”
This is not simply a mistake. This is sin.
Not My Will, but Yours, Be Done
Before Jesus was betrayed, he prayed a prayer made up of two parts (Matthew 26:39). First, he asked his Father for the cup to pass. He prayed for the suffering to be relieved. He asked if there was a way to avoid the crucifixion. He wanted to avoid the pain and public humiliation. But then, he prayed something else. He asked that the will of the Father take precedent over his desire to avoid suffering.
Following Jesus’s example, we must pray both parts of his prayer. It’s only natural to pray for suffering to be avoided — for ourselves or for others. But it is then essential to pray that God’s will to be done, whatever the cost to us.
It seems to be our highest aim to avoid crucifixion — for ourselves and for others. We cannot imagine that God would choose to use our suffering for his purposes. It makes no sense to leave Joseph in harm’s way.
But God’s ways are not our ways. Crucifixion, suffering, imprisonment, and persecution open doors for resurrection and for gospel advancement. Those terrible things make salvation possible.
Let’s trust God with Joseph — and with our own suffering. And in our trust, let’s watch and see what God will do.