Author’s note: This article is cross-posted on ABWE.org.
If you’re anything like me, it’s been hard to pray for the nations when our own is in such turmoil.
I speak from the perspective of an American, but I recognize that this conversation extends to people in any number of Western countries. As I write this post, the state of New York has just passed legislation explicitly authorizing infanticide at all stages of pregnancy, to the cheers of its legislature. The governor of Virginia has followed suit by publicly advocating his state embrace a similar policy, even while he puts out his own PR fires caused by resurfacing blackface photos revealing his racist roots. Meanwhile, the rest of the country continues to endure a tidal wave of moral rebellion and degradation of God’s law regarding, sex, marriage, and a multitude of other issues both foreign and domestic.
In sum, our society calls evil good and good evil (cf. Isaiah 5:20). We might lament, “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the children of man” (Psalm 12:8, ESV).
All this raises the question: with all the mess happening in our own culture, why on earth would we prioritize foreign missions right now?
This is a valid question. We can’t export biblically faithful Christianity worldwide if we don’t possess it within ourselves first. It’s far easier to send our dollars off along with fanciful, wild-eyed world travelers off to some unknown, unnamed people group than it is to boldly preach the gospel to the depravity across the street.
At the same time, I’m convicted by the words our Lord gave from the Mount of Olives: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).
Laying aside the eschatology questions raised by the Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ warning applies to believers throughout all ages. The term “lawlessness” is a flawless translation of the Greek ἀνομίαν, which affixes the alpha-privative to the root word νόμος (“law”), just as English speakers add the “a-” prefix to words like atypical and amoral to indicate negation. Jesus speaks of anti-law-ness multiplying in both breadth and depth. Certainly we could borrow this apt description for our own nation’s rebellion against God’s law at every turn.
Jesus describes a logical reaction to societal lawlessness: Christians no longer trust each other, since we’ve seen so many false believers fall away. We no longer trust our neighbors or see any use in serving or evangelizing them. The wind dissipates from the sails of our spiritual life. Our own striving for the kingdom of God seems unfruitful, unnoticed, and unsustainable.
The danger that we answer lawlessness without with lovelessness within. Our pessimism about the culture excuses our passivity about our commission. While society goes down in flames, we are tempted to cool our compassion. Righteously indignant, we become a church of Jonahs angrily waiting for Nineveh to burn.
Like Asaph, our feet almost stumble when we see the prosperity of the wicked (cf. Psalm 73:2-3). Our own pursuit of holiness feels futile (v. 13), and we become bitter and broody in our prayers (vv. 21-22) as imprecations eclipse praise.
We must guard our hearts. And, as it turn out, by refusing to let our love grow cold we are actually fulfilling God’s perfect moral law (cf. Romans 13:8).
To that end, Jesus imparts two solutions.
Perseverance. In the next verse, Jesus picks up: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Again, setting aside the eschatological implications, the devotional application is clear: we must persevere through bitterness in the Christian life, including the bitterness that results from watching the wicked “go from bad to worse” (2 Timothy 3:13). Our souls depend on it.
As my friend Paul Maxwell pointed out in a recent video, the biblical synonym for “cynic” is scoffer—and Scripture has nothing positive to say about scoffers. It takes a gritty spirit of self-discipline to slay our inner cynic, and half of this battle is simply recognizing that we are not entitled to wallow in resentment and negativity, no matter how disappointed we may be with our environment.
Whether you’re pessimistic or optimistic about the final days of history prior to Christ’s consummate return, we are explicitly forbidden from imbibing worldly cynicism no matter what is the state of culture, because our ultimate eschatological expectation is inherently positive: Jesus wins. In this light, we persevere.
Proclamation. The following verse continues: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Gospel proclamation is part of perseverant faith.
My church is experiencing some difficulties right now. A few weeks ago when I was preaching, I remembered that a missionary was scheduled to present, and I was tempted to postpone her visit while we attended to our own mess first. But a helpful quote from David Livingstone came to mind: “The best remedy for a sick church is to put it on a missionary diet.”
When the tide of mission in a church swells, all the ministry boats rise. Intentionally engaging and re-engaging our evangelistic call both at home and abroad has a fortifying effect on our faith.
Failure to double down on the real spiritual warfare of missions and evangelism doesn’t mean we won’t fight; it simply means our fights will be misplaced. Conflict and dissention in the body of Christ spring up when we forget that our true enemies aren’t fleshly and our final goals aren’t temporal. Focusing our labors towards the global mission of the church gives us something real—something we can feel viscerally—to live for, even while the cultural ground around us gives way.
Moreover, when we persevere in loving our lawless neighbors and preach Christ to them, if and when God is pleased to grant them repentance, the result will inevitably be that they learn to love the law of God (cf. Ezekiel 36:26)—the very moral standard they spurned prior to regeneration, as did we once.
So why focus on foreign missions at a time when our own country is melting down? Perhaps a better question is—what better time is there to focus on our mission than right now?