Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart…we are perplexed but not in despair …
II Corinthians 4:1, 8
Perplexed: baffled, bewildered, there is no accounting for it. Perplexed – it suggests humility; accepting that I don’t have all the information. Therefore, I will wait. “Perplexed but” suggests hope. There is light at the end of this tunnel. The situation is still in process. There is an answer, a response, a reason, and I simply don’t know yet what it is. Closure will come, in time. Therefore, I need not despair. Despair has made the decision, passed the judgement and pronounced in all its pride, “This is the final word. It is hopeless. I quit. It’s the end.”
One element of ministry that perplexes me chronically is the language barrier. Mary invited a few ladies to her house for a simple Bible study. I was to show them how to read for comprehension leading to life transformation. Though church go-ers, they had rarely read the Bible with the expectation of understanding it. My role in the group was a small one, and was made even smaller by the fact that the ladies and I did not share a common language. So, Mary recruited one of her sons, a young adult with English language ability, to interpret. Through him, I gave the brief instruction. They were to read the story, repeating it until everyone understood the content. Then they were to say what the text tells us about God, about humans in general, and about themselves in particular. The young interpreter caught on immediately and began adding his own responses. He later told me he could imagine doing this kind of study with his friends.
The next week, another one of Mary’s young sons interpreted. Like his brother, he engaged in the process until, soon, I was completely left out of their conversation!Forgetting to interpret for me, he joined them in their study and helped them look for the meaning in the text by answering those three, key questions. We were in Mark’s gospel, hearing about the dinner at Levi’s house. Jesus was there as a guest, rubbing shoulders with the despised tax collectors and sinners. “What do we learn about Jesus here?”, I asked, in English. Only my interpreter heard me.
The complex language situation, the fact that various languages are spoken and each woman I know feels strongly that I should learn hers, is chronically perplexing. These “language wars” bewilder me. What’s more, the nature and duration of our assignment here does not lend itself to intentional language acquisition. To choose, then, not to learn a local language works death in me. It isolates me, prevents me from engaging in what I have always considered “viable ministry”. I lose my default mode of communication – verbal. It’s like seeing and hearing everyone through a thick wall of foggy glass. This is so perplexing as to lead, in the natural, to despair.
“We are perplexed but we don’t despair”, declares the apostle Paul. I’ve learned that the slide downward from perplexity to cynicism/despair happens as I begin to look for a way to avoid perplexing situations. I do this when I turn my thoughts towards my personal, unmet “needs”. I need: to play my cello, a choir to sing in, a class to teach, to express myself, a better way to use my abilities, a better ministry plan … Did you notice that the great missionary Paul never went that direction? He doesn’t run back to the things that gave him widespread credibility and affirmation. Instead, he is proud to carry about in his body the death of the Lord Jesus. This death to self is at work in him to bring life to those who are being saved.
The response tumbled out of my young interpreter’s mouth, “Jesus was friendly! People, especially sinners, liked to be with him and he, with them! I never knew that! I, and all my friends, believe Jesus to be very serious and not someone you would want to be around. Now I see that he would even probably like to be with us! Hey, can I keep coming to this study?”
Wow! And now I see how this death in me is working life in Mary’s family. Her sons may not have responded to an invitation to attend a youth Bible study. But because their mother needed an interpreter, and they like to use English, they were poised for the Spirit to touch their hearts through the living word of God. Seeds were planted and, who knows, they may lead a movement of young people who become transformed by the gospel. My weakness could actually be God’s Plan A to train up a particular godly leader!
Whatever role you and I currently have – as followers of Christ we are, by vocation, ambassadors of reconciliation within our respective spheres of influence. I especially think of the mommies among us – ambassadors to your children, husband and all who cross your doorstep. You have probably laid aside a part of you in order to minister to your family – maybe you left a fulfilling career, the mental challenge of academia or the applause of an audience and all the personal affirmation and identity these things bestow. When you are perplexed beyond words, bewildered and baffled by the death of that brilliant side of you, wait! Don’t despair! Don’t insist on reasserting that self. Let perplexity work humility. Turn your thoughts to consider what Christ gave so that you could have life. Consider the death to himself that Paul embraced, for the sake of the young believers. Consider how putting to death your demand for personal satisfaction is working life in your children, your friends, your co-workers, and in your own soul.
Your and my perplexities are light compared to the eternal weight of glory awaiting us!
Philippians 3:4-7; II Corinthians 4:7-18; 5:18; Colossians 1:24