Recently I led a short-term mission team to a large city in Egypt. While the Egyptian people are largely warm and friendly, visitors from the West would find life there uncomfortable. Tap water and uncooked produce contain enough bacteria to make a visitor ill. Traffic is congested, noisy and dangerous to navigate on foot. By Western standards, the streets and public places are dirty. Nearly every financial transaction requires intense bargaining.
Yet the Kingdom of God is moving forward in cities like the one we visited and in places all over the middle-east. It is moving forward through the work of men and women who care far less for their comfort than they do for the kingdom. Our little team was truly struck by this.
There was our host, who has spent years working in this difficult environment training Christian leaders, a few of whom have proven frustratingly unfaithful. There was his wife, whose urban Christian school, in one of the poorest parts of the city, trains up a new generation of young believers in the midst of poverty so intense we marveled at her ability to labor so lovingly with so little.
There were the pastors we met who pay a price daily to follow Christ in a Muslim country. There was the Sudanese pastor who had come to Egypt for some training and resources in order to return to his own people in war-torn Darfur.
This message was driven home even more poignantly by the martyrdom of Christians while we were in Egypt. Twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians, working in Libya, were captured by ISIS there and beheaded. As they awaited death many of these brother Christians called upon our One Lord saying, things such as, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and “Lord Jesus, help me.”
We were impressed, touched, inspired by the willingness of each of these faithful believers, from Christian school worker to martyr, as they proved that they valued faithfulness to Christ over creature comforts.
While there, we studied together the book of Jonah. We were struck by how similar Jonah’s desire for comfort was like our own. In Chapter Four, God sends a plant that briefly provides shade for Jonah’s comfort. Then God sends a worm to remove the comfort and Jonah complains bitterly. The Lord confronted Jonah over his wrong priority.
And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Jonah 4:10-11
“You pity the plant…should I not pity Nineveh.” Or to phrase it differently: “If you can care so much about something as fleeting as your comfort, should you not care even more about what I care for, the salvation of people? You should put the salvation of others, the growth of the Kingdom, far above your own comfort.”
While we studied that passage I asked the question of our team: “Who has thought while laboring here: ‘I cannot wait to get out of here and back to the comforts of home?’” Every hand went up. We came to see, yet again, how easily we can love our own comfort more than we love lost people who need Jesus. We found ourselves repenting, and digging into our work in that uncomfortable place.
The kingdom of God calls us to care more for the eternal comfort of others than for the temporary comfort of ourselves. We are to pity the people more than we pity our plant. It was God’s lesson for Jonah. It was his lesson for our team in Egypt as well. It is a lesson he repeats often for his people, as Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mat. 16:24-25 ESV)
Clearly some of our brothers and sisters have learned this lesson well, they were willingly losing their lives for Christ. May we all learn to live this way, to pity the people more than the plant.