In many ways, the story of my spiritual life has been learning that most of what I thought was true really wasn’t true at all. Assumptions I had about others, about myself, about who God is and what he wants have all undergone some pretty radical transformations over the thirty years I have been following Christ. A consistent catalyst in this process has been the mission trips I’ve taken. Through them I’ve discovered that I’m not the spiritual superhero I thought I was. I have experienced the beauty of grace and the jagged scars of sin in unexpected ways, in my life and in the lives of my teammates. I have discovered that God was far more generous and loving than I gave him credit for, and that his love for the world was far greater and more passionate than I ever could have imagined docked in the safe harbor of middle-class America. In many ways, mission trips have taught me to see life differently.
In Mark 1, we meet a man afflicted with leprosy, a painful, disfiguring disease that, left untreated, is often fatal. In those days, it was assumed that the man contracted the disease as just punishment from God for committing a grave sin. Since leprosy was contagious and (at that time) incurable, the afflicted were forced to leave family and friends to live alone or with other lepers. They were also considered spiritually unclean and thus unable to participate in worship at the temple or synagogue. Imagine being afflicted with a painful, disfiguring, progressive disease and then being cut off from your loved ones and barred from church! It was horrible.
The man’s leprosy is a physical representation of sin’s effect on all of our lives. Sin causes physical suffering, it isolates us from those we love, and ultimately it separates us from God. And often when people see sin in our lives, they are only too willing to pass judgement on us. Sin also changes the way we see God.
Try imagining the scene. A man, dying and disfigured, cut off from family, friends, and God, breaks all social and religious taboos by seeking out Jesus. He is desperate to be made clean. Whatever pride or self-sufficiency he once had is long gone, so he gets on his knees and begs the young rabbi for help. But because he has been so crushed by his circumstances, his view of God is warped. He is unsure if God even loves him anymore. Notice what he says: “If you are willing….” If. He isn’t doubting Jesus’s power to heal him, but he is unsure if the Messiah is willing to be good to him personally, to care about his needs, given what he is. It is a heartbreaking scene that testifies to the devastating impact of sin and brokenness in our lives.
We live in a world that assumes that what we see on the surface is all there is. But Jesus sees much more. He sees the true needs of our souls and the intentions of our hearts. He sees the desperate ways we cling to things besides him. He knows what will truly heal and fulfill us.
Jesus’s response to the leper invites us to see both the leper and Jesus differently. As Jesus looks down to see this wreck of a human who no longer knows if God cares about him, Mark says that Jesus wells up, overflowing with compassion. What must it have been like for the leper, so used to seeing people look away in horror, to look up into the eyes of the Alpha and Omega and see compassion and tenderness? Jesus then does something that hadn’t happened for many years—he reaches out and touches the man, demonstrating his compassion with actions. Finally Jesus removes all doubt his desire and ability to heal sin-ravaged people by saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” At that, this dead man walking among the living is brought back to health, life, and peace with God. Jesus doesn’t see a desperate situation that is beyond hope. He sees a beloved son, needing to be welcomed back again.
Jesus’s healing also challenges the way the crowd sees the leper. No longer is the focus on his all-consuming identity as a leper. Instead he is sent to the priests to give thanks to God as a testimony to the Messiah’s power and goodness. Cleaned and healed, the man rejects the minimal response outlined by Jesus. He went out and literally “preached a lot” about what Jesus had done for him. This would have major ramifications for Jesus. In the space of a few short verses, Jesus and the leper exchange places, foreshadowing the future exchange that Jesus would make with all sinners. Jesus, who was once the center of the crowds, free to preach and do what liked, is now confined to the lonely places because of the leper’s preaching. The leper, once a solitary outcast, now moves freely around others, pointing them to Christ.
Similarly, a mission trips also can help us see ourselves and God differently:
1. We come to realize that we aren’t the strong, good people we assumed we were. We’re broken and needy, fallen and finite, but still God works with and through us.
2. Taken out of our daily routines where wealth and comfort dull our spiritual senses, we reawaken to how powerful God truly is and how much we need him every minute of our lives.
3. Faced with overwhelming need, impossible opportunity, and open and hostile spiritual opposition, prayer once more starts to feel essential and powerful.
4. As we encounter unexpected obstacles and opportunities, the myth of “having things under control” is unmasked for the illusion it is. Control belongs to God alone.
Ultimately I hope that you—for the first time or in a deeper way—have come to see that the gospel needed by the not-yet-Christians you go abroad to serve is the same gospel that’s needed in your own heart. The people you have come to love and serve are not merely good people trapped in hard circumstances who need a little help. They are fellow sinners, whose sin is no less deep and no less present than our own. And their deepest need—though it may look drastically different on the surface is no different than ours: The need for a Savior who not only says, “I am willing” but “It is finished,” so that they too can be welcomed home as sons and daughters of the King.
>>> Get a journal for your trip: On Mission, Devotions for Your Short-Term Trip by Serge’s Patric Knaak.