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Walking through the Wilderness

Our sixteen year old daughter came into our room and fell into our bed crying. “Can I stay in here with you guys tonight?”

“What’s the matter, honey?” was not the question to ask and so I didn’t. Our family of four had only been on the mission field for a couple of months. My daughter was homesick from the first day we arrived. We all – her included – thought she would be able to rise to the occasion and see ministry in the difficult field of South Sudan as an adventure to embrace and tackle. But we were not truly prepared for how much the world was going to be changing for our teenaged daughter. Her response to those changes affected her relationship with everyone and everything around her.

While my daughter’s homesickness was causing tremendous emotional strain, my son’s health was where he was hit hard. My son, who was fourteen at the time, caught malaria in spite of taking anti-malaria medicine. The symptoms hit him quickly one afternoon. He was pummeled with fever, nausea, and dehydration that literally knocked him off his feet. It was terrifying to watch. To make matters worse, the only hospital in the area had been abandoned recently by a mission organization that was in constant conflict with local officials.

Anti-malaria medication has another effect on my wife: she wife developed an auto-immune disorder. She was incredibly effective in ministry. She walked from village to village to minister to women and teach them the Bible. Eventually, due to her engaging teaching style, the expanded beyond women to husbands and village leaders. She did fine without her usual creature comforts. In fact, she thrived without them. But declining health affected her body, which affected her ministry to women and the fulfillment she had as a result of bearing fruit among ladies who loved learn about God’s Word.

When the Lord leads a missionary into a season in the wilderness, income, relationships, the missionary’s spiritual life, and health are all affected. Why does God take missionaries through this? The heart is right and the work reflects it. Even when the missionary is doing everything right, God takes him through seasons where the missionary finds himself in a materially, relationally, or spiritually dry season where it seems there’s no end in sight. Like Elijah and John the Baptist, God is taking the missionary through a season in the wilderness to do a deeper work of preparation. The Spirit of God lead Jesus into the wilderness for a time of testing. This is how it works.

An example from mission history

While my family’s wilderness experience in South Sudan was difficult for us – we actually lived in the wilderness without electricity, running water, or air conditioning, where poisonous snakes and scorpions were everywhere – those early days of our work in Sudan pales in comparison to the story of the first missionaries who work in Sudan. The experiences of the founders of Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) were harrowing.

The first attempt

Despite the evangelistic zeal of Rowland Bingham, Walter Gowans, and Thomas Kent, the three men who pioneered Sudan Interior Mission, their first attempts to reach the 60 million people with no gospel witness hit a wall of death, despair, and failure. Endeavors to raise funds and build a network of support among mission societies in North America and Europe were met with rejection and predictions of failure. In 1893, once they gathered enough resources to get to Africa’s West Coast to begin their 800 mile trek through the Africa, seasoned missionaries in Lagos where their journey began told them they would never make it. Bingham caught malaria almost as soon as they arrived in Africa and had to stay back, Gowans and Kent forged ahead and also contracted malaria and died less than a year later. They never made it to Sudan.

The second attempt

Defeated, but not totally discouraged, Bingham went back to Canada to regroup. From there, he moved to Cleveland and completed a basic medical course Next, it was off to New York to attend a Bible college. In 1900, Bingham was joined by two other men and made another attempt to cross from Africa’s West Coast through the interior to Sudan. Bingham caught Malaria again and had to return home. His new partners promised to forge ahead with their plans, but were soon discouraged by hardship and dismal predictions from other missionaries. They too abandoned the mission and returned home.

“It would have been easier for me, perhaps, had I died in Africa, for on the homeward journey, I died another death,” wrote Bingham on one occasion. “Everything seemed to have failed, and while I was gradually regaining strength in Britain, a fateful cable reached me with word that my two companions were arriving shortly, I went through the darkest period of my whole life.”

The third attempt

Bingham never gave up, though. The evangelistic zeal he began with was transformed into a passion to reach the Sudanese with the love of Christ and hope of the gospel. In 1901 he made his third attempt. He successfully established the SIM station 500 miles up the Niger River in Patigi. Although his team of four men made it, hardship continued and within two years, the four man team was a one man show. One of the four had died and the other two went home debilitated by disease, never to return.

Soon quinine was introduced as the cure for malaria and SIM began to pick up some momentum. Along with spreading the gospel in a culture of pagan mythology and rival witch doctors, the new group of SIM missionaries discovered that leprosy was rampant. Between 1920 and 1960, they treated over 30,000 cases and were very involved with eradicating leprosy from the region. Many of the people treated were Muslims who came to faith in Jesus. Bingham’s time in the wilderness defined his life purpose and work and prepared him to push through and accomplish the purposes of God for reaching Sudan. Bingham learned it could only be accomplished in God-given strength and wisdom.

The work God wants to accomplish doesn’t begin in the strength and planning of men. Men had no faith in the mission Bingham had for reaching Sudan. But God did. He had to take Bingham through a season in the wilderness to prepare him for the deep work of reaching the unreachable as well as pave the way for more missionaries to penetrate into Africa’s most difficult interior territories.

What a time in the wilderness accomplishes

Our family’s time tempted us to walk away from the mission field and ministry altogether. But clinging to the Lord through the dryness of the season prepared us for the work we would do in ministry once we returned to life back the States. Many men and women walk away from the work of God during their season in the wilderness. For others, the wilderness defines work the missionary will do. Is the Lord taking you through the wilderness right now? How are you responding? If you feel like you’re out of options, get ready. God is preparing you for something you’ll never see coming.

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