I’ve peered out of a window at 10,000 feet passing tin-roofed village after tin-roofed village that has never heard the gospel.
I’ve sat on an embroidered floor cushion surrounded by grizzled Muslim men, wondering what would happen if someone decided to shut me up.
I’ve felt my blood pressure rise at the shrill call to prayer, and I’ve shaken my head in disbelief watching a goat slaughtered to make a hair salon profitable.
And I’ve come to realize one truth about myself in those various occurrences. My kneejerk response—the very first emotion that I feel in that moment—is what makes or breaks me as a missionary.
Mercy or sacrifice. These are the two typical responses. Grace or grit. It’s the barometer of every Christian’s heart. It’s what determines the trajectory of your ministry in any context. And it’s what will ultimately determine what God thinks of you, my missionary friend.
Please don’t hear me pitting these two virtues against each other as if they were enemies. Mercy and sacrifice certainly can and should be found together in the life of a missionary, in the life of any Christian. Yet one is primary. One is root; the other, fruit.
But I fear our call to missions can easily be reduced to a summons to sacrifice. A call to arms, to action, to service. When we talk solely about unreached peoples and hard-to-reach locations overseas, even when we talk about the difficult neighborhoods in our Western cities, it makes sense that we need rigid commitments and rugged suffering.
If you’re like me, that’s actually part of the appeal of living on mission. It’s a slug-it-out response to the need of a lost and dying world, a willingness to go to the hardest places at great personal risk.
But that call to the lost and the dying was always meant to be a plea for mercy more than sacrifice. The missionary endeavor begins and ends in mercy. First, in mercifully being called out of sin by our Savior. Then, and only then, in being challenged to follow him in the compassionate pursuit of sinners. That’s how it was for Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13).
Yet in the wake of Matthew’s calling, and at his subsequent dinner party with sinners, we find opposition. There were opponents to Jesus’ method of mercy to sinners. They were the Pharisees.
What I’ve come to discover is that we who are sent to be a means of mercy to the nations can end up looking more like Pharisees than Jesus. It’s all too easy for missionaries to become like them, focusing on the deficiencies of our target people and missing our own need for mercy. Becoming frustrated by the sins of our neighbor while somehow being oblivious to our own. To our own need for repentance. Our own need to be healed by the Great Physician.
Maybe that’s not a temptation for you. I pray so. But if we’re not careful, global evangelism and even neighborhood outreach can become a mission motivated by a sense of Pharisaic superiority. They need us. They need the gospel. They need Jesus—except somehow more than I.
But if you go in a sense of superiority, whether moral or religious—or even in gritty sacrifice—you are doomed to disappointment. Because, as I learned, it won’t take long to find a religious person you are trying to reach who has greater morality or deeper devotion. So it was for me one day. After all, I wasn’t waking up at 4 am to pray. Maybe my religion, my devotion, and my commitment was deficient.
Inevitably, if you go in a sense of superiority, you will lose that sense—at least if you’re honest. And once you lose it, you will become shackled in your witness. Your mouth will be silenced if the person across from you has a better handle on life, has more obedient children, or is a more sacrificial giver.
But something else more sinister can happen—you could actually grow in your sense of superiority. I say it’s sinister because when you think you are better, and when you sacrifice out of perceived superiority, you can actually become a “better” evangelist. You can become better at proving you are right, better at winning arguments, better at punching holes in their theological systems.
The scary thing is that a sacrificing missionary can be a very effective one. Even fruitful. I know because I was one.
I’ve seen how a sacrificing missionary can be a repository of wisdom more than a recipient of mercy. How a sacrificing missionary can emphasize doing for God over knowing God. How they can forget how to sit with sinners because they’ve abandoned sitting with the Savior. They no longer know the bedside manner of our Great Physician.
But Jesus, our gentle Healer, desires mercy over any of our self-forsaking do-gooding. He desires a ministry overflowing in love. As such, our evangelism should be a response to mercy received, the joy of judgment averted.
When Jesus ate with Matthew’s wretched guests, I’m assuming the Pharisees wouldn’t have been so miffed if, from the outset, Jesus had shamed them for their moral inferiority or theological incongruence? What if he was criticizing and condescending during the entire meal?
If there ever was a person who could have approached sinners with superiority, it was Jesus. If there ever was someone who could have claimed sacrifice as the only necessary proof of his love, Jesus would have been that person. And yet he, though far above them, reclined at their side. He showed a mercy greater than mere sacrifice.
My missionary friend, how I wish I had learned this lesson long ago. Mercy will always get you to sacrifice, but sacrifice will not always get you to mercy.
That is true on the front lines of missionary endeavor and in the back pews of a church.
Sacrifice can only take you so far before the tank is empty. But mercy is a miracle fuel, always replenishing from the Well of mercy. Perhaps equally important, it’s a tangible grace that others will perceive and desire. They will see it in your face. They will see it in your acts of kindness. They will see it when you sit with them at the table.
The fact is, the people you are trying to reach—they’ve all seen sacrifice. More than we can imagine. And they’re likely better at it than you.
But they’ve never truly seen mercy. So go and learn, missionary. That’s what Jesus says to all of us superior sacrificial servants. Go and learn the lesson of our Healer. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”