There are many types of work where progress is easy to see. I’ve worked as a carpenter before, and there was always a great sense of satisfaction looking at my work after a week or two and seeing what was done. Along with satisfaction, this also motivated me to keep laboring, knowing that the finished product was close at hand. Farmers likewise often see progress. Although they don’t cause the seed to sprout and grow, through their labor they plant the seed, and then after it’s grown, they harvest its produce.
This is one of the most difficult parts about being a missionary. It is very rare that we get to step back and see progress that’s been made. People’s lives are often messy and inconsistent and there’s really nothing tangible about the ministry we do. A few months ago I traveled to the interior of Borneo in order to teach a small group of believers. We were planning to spend two full days together studying God’s word with the hope that these few hours would help them understand the Scriptures more clearly and live with more faithfulness to God. However, due to torrential rains, we were delayed by more than a day. Two days of teaching turned into about 3 hours of distraction-filled teaching.
On our journey back from the place where I had taught, hanging on to the back of a motorcycle for hours, pain coursing through my body with every bump in the road (and there were a lot!), I remember asking myself if everything I had just done was even worth it. We traveled across unfriendly terrain for several days, had spent hundreds of dollars, and wasted a lot of time. In the end, very little was done from my perspective.
Ministry, at its core, is a work in progress where the only finished products are in heaven. On this side of glory, we see so little of what we are becoming and will become. But sometimes, here and there, we get to witness God’s transforming work in people’s lives - Christ becomes more precious, the fruit of the Spirit becomes more visible, the Scriptures become the guiding reality people’s lives, and they begin to articulate gospel truth with more clarity. By God’s grace, we also are transformed in this process.
Witnessing these things gives us encouragement and motivation to continue to minister, knowing that through patience and endurance, God’s work will be accomplished through us. It helps, then, if from time to time we try to see the big picture, even though our finite vision can never see the full reality of what God is doing. This should keep us from wrongly thinking that our own opinions and assessments of what is happening in the world, or in our ministries, are definitive. God may be doing much more than we actually realize. This is why we must labor in faith, holding fast to His word and promises, trusting that He will do as He sees fit.
Something I once read in a book on missions helped give me a much better perspective on these things, especially for the times when I feel like I see little progress. The author wrote, “We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us…We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.”