Christ's example, Job's story, and the meekness and modesty of Gladys Aylward can teach us about humility

Missionary ministry that reflects Christ

"Having become human, [Christ] stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death and the worst kind of death at that, a crucifixion." -- Philippians 2:8, The Message

Imitate Christ. Reflect His image. That's the challenge facing us in 1 Corinthians 11:1.

What would imitating Christ look like in our lives? It certainly should include one characteristic that Paul specifically mentions: Our Lord's humbleness (Philippians 2:8).

Humility is like grace in that the more of it we have, the better off we are. That is especially true in cross-cultural missionary work. To begin with, people entering a new culture invariably make embarrassing mistakes that are deflating and humbling (and I am speaking here from personal experience).

I have heard people equate humility with weakness. One online dictionary even offers "mousiness" as a synonym for humility. Other dictionaries suggest far-out words like passiveness and servility as ways to think about humility. Such preposterous suggestions have little to do with the humility that characterized the life of Jesus Christ.

So, what does Christ-like humility look like in a missionary's life? Well, a good place to start is "unpretentious." There is no better word to describe the humility in Jesus' earthly life than unpretentious. Jesus never insisted on "my rights." He never acted arrogantly. He did not return the Roman soldiers' trash-talk when they mocked Him after His arrest.

Jesus never expected special treatment. No task was "beneath" Him. Indeed, Jesus took on the very lowly task of washing His disciples' feet the night before His crucifixion. Jesus did not seek applause. On more than one occasion, He said to someone He had just healed, "Go and tell no one" (Matthew 8:4, Mark 1:40-45 and 7:36).

Jesus did not promote Himself. For instance, on the day we call Palm Sunday, He rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey rather than on a horse. He refused to try to "wow" people with what He could do. During His temptation ordeal in the Sinai wilderness, our Lord resisted a suggestion that He jump off the pinnacle of the Temple so that a sudden rescue by angels would awe everyone who saw it or heard about it.

Sadly, temptations rise up with call us to promote ourselves, to insist on "our rights," to be pretentious, and to expect the privileges of status. When pastors, missionaries, district superintendents, or other church leaders fall prey to such temptations (and they do), they fall short of Paul's call for us to imitate Christ.

Humility must permeate cross-cultural ministry -- whether in career missionary service or during short-term mission trips.

Jesus modeled the level of humility He expects from His followers. So, seek humility for yourself. Pray that missionaries will graciously embrace the humility of which our Lord was an excellent example and model.

"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." -- 1 Corinthians 11:1

Discussion questions

  1. How can we apply Christ's example of humility in our daily lives, especially in cross-cultural ministry?
  2. How does humility contribute to the effectiveness of missionary work?
  3. In what ways can we distinguish between true humility and false humility, such as passiveness or servility?
  4. Do you know of examples of how practicing humility has positively impacted a missionary's or other church leader's ministry?

This mini-essay on Christlike attitudes and actions that need to be present in cross-cultural missionary service is one of a dozen articles in the "Missionary ministry that reflects Christ" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene.

Doing missions well: Missionaries who shaped today's global outreach efforts

A mini-essay from Engage magazine

Gladys Aylward -- example of humility

Who was Gladys Aylward?

Gladys Aylward (1902-1970) was a British Christian missionary to mainland China and then to Taiwan after the communists took over. She is known for her struggle to end the traditional Chinese practice of binding the feet of small girls, for single-handedly leading a large group of orphans to safety when the Japanese began occupying China, and for starting orphanages in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

What is Gladys Aylward's legacy for us today?

Question: What characteristics should be common among fruitful missionaries?

I vote for "humility." That may seem obvious, but sadly, because of cultural maladjustment or other issues, missionaries sometimes project aloofness, or come off as self-centered and even demanding. Fortunately, in missionaries like Gladys Aylward, we can see excellent examples of humility.

In 1957, Alan Burgess wrote a book titled The Small Woman. That book recounted the life of Gladys Aylward, who had just retired from missionary service in China. At only 4 feet 10 inches tall (1.47 meters), Gladys was indeed small, but she did become one of the 20th century's most well-known female missionaries.

After becoming a Christian in her 20s, Gladys felt called to China. She had little education, and, at that point, the only apparent skill was being a household servant. She went through one mission board's training for prospective missionaries but was then rejected for overseas service.

Gladys felt so strongly called to China that she decided to go on her own. She began saving money from her job as a maid, and by age 30, had enough to book railway passage to China.

Through one extreme circumstance after another, Gladys' missionary service was characterized by a humble dependence on God. For instance, on her trip to China she was almost abducted and sent to a Siberian labor camp. Then, the veteran missionary lady she had gone to China to assist died within a year after Gladys arrived. On one occasion, Gladys was asked to go into a prison to put down a riot (which she did). She survived bombing and strafing attacks by Japanese warplanes. She battled the cruel practice of crippling baby girls by tightly binding their feet.

In her humility, Gladys often said: "I wasn't God's first choice for what I've done for China. I don't know who it was. It must have been a man, a well-educated man. I don't know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn't willing."

By the time the Japanese military invaded China in the late 1930s, Gladys was running an orphanage for 100 orphans. With the battlefront approaching, Gladys single-handedly walked those orphans, many of them toddlers, across nearly 100 miles of mountainous terrain.

Though a very extraordinary woman, Gladys referred to herself as "insignificant, uneducated, and ordinary in every way." Indeed, when she returned home to Britain, the attention she received embarrassed her. It further upset her that a movie inspired by her life story portrayed a female missionary in ways Gladys felt were far larger than life.

"I doubt people would think I've done anything interesting," she exclaimed to a BBC journalist.

Gladys Aylward's humility endeared her to the Chinese and enabled the Lord to use her to transform the lives of slaves, murderers, children, Mandarins, bandit generals, lepers, students, and ordinary villagers. Initially called a "foreign devil," Gladys' humble demeanor won over the Chinese people, and rather than stumbling over her British name, they began calling her "Virtuous One."

Discussion questions

  1. How did Gladys Aylward's humility and dependence on God contribute to her effectiveness as a missionary in China?
  2. What lessons can contemporary missionaries learn from Gladys Aylward's example, particularly in regard to cultural adaptation and sensitivity?
  3. What contribution can we say that Gladys Aylward' made to world missions through her efforts to end infant foot binding and to protect orphans in wa-torn China?
  4. In what ways did Gladys Aylward's legacy likely challenge conventional notions of missionary work and the role of women in ministry during her time?

More mini-essays in the "Doing missions well" series

What can Job's story teach us about humbleness?

Job: An appropriate humility

4 "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
   Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
   Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
   or who laid its cornerstone --
7while the morning stars sang together
   and all the angels shouted for joy?" -- Job 38:4-7

Week 33 (August)

During the Christmas/New Year's break every year, English-speaking Christian workers in Italy used to get together for a conference.

One year, the speaker was A.E. Wilder-Smith, an English scientist who had quite a Christian writing ministry. Hand-written copies of his writings even circulated behind the Iron Curtain during the time atheistic communism ruled Eastern Europe with a tight fist.

One of Smith's themes in the conference in a hotel on the banks of the Arno River in central Florence was that we human beings need to recapture a sense of reverential awe before God. In lectures which to me almost had science fiction overtones, Smith challenged us to come down off our lofty pedestals.

In one session, for instance, Dr. Smith pointed out that humans are limited to life in three dimensions. That's not true at all of God. He exists and acts in as many dimensions as there may be: four or a dozen! He has no limitations.

It was a real mind-expanding series of meetings heavily saturated with physics, biology, and mathematics, as well as astronomy. And interestingly enough, it was a scientist who was challenging us missionary types to renew our appreciation of the transcendence of God.

It was this kind of challenge that the Lord put to Job toward the end of the biographical sketch of Job that we have in the Bible. Job, who has grown just a bit self-righteous, is confronted with the contest between himself and His Creator. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? the Lord asks (Job 38:4).

Faced with such a reproof, Job is prompt to repent of his ignorant presumption in questioning the justice of God. I spoke of things I did not understand, he confesses. (Job 42:3)

As a missions conference speaker, I did quite a bit of flying in commercial airplanes. One day looking out the window at 40,000 feet, it struck me how flying that high can help you regain a proper sense of perspective.

While earthbound, it's easy for us to put on all kinds of airs and exaggerate our own importance. Strutting around in our own little world, we can get filled with intolerable haughtiness. Our ignorant presumptions can even cause us to misunderstand God grossly and even murmur against Him.

Looking out airplane windows, I came to realize again how insignificant one individual is. All the grandiose monuments of human beings are really nothing in comparison to the handiwork of God on just this one planet — to say nothing of the rest of this vast universe.

As Job comes to realize this same thing (without the aid of an airplane at 40,000 feet), he admits that his words have been overly bold and his attitudes toward God have been unbefitting a creature. I despise myself, he says in repentance for his presumption (Job 42:6).

Let's allow this passage to call us to repentance for our presumptuous sins about our own importance. Our lives need to be characterized by appropriate humility before a wise and powerful God. It is, in fact, only in such humility that we can find real dignity as human beings.

Discussion questions

  1. In what ways did A.E. Wilder-Smith challenge the conference attendees to renew their appreciation of the transcendence of God? In what ways might his lectures have affected the conference attendees' perspective of themselves and God?
  2. How did the Lord's reproof of Job help him regain a proper sense of perspective and lead him to repent of his ignorant presumption? What can we learn from Job's example of humility?
  3. How might looking out an airplane window at 40,000 feet help us regain a proper sense of perspective and humility? Hw could this help us understand our own importance in comparison to the handiwork of God?
  4. How can a sense of appropriate humility before God bring us dignity as human beings? In what ways can humility be seen as a strength rather than a weakness?
  5. In what ways can a proper sense of reverential awe before God benefit our daily lives and interactions with others? How can we cultivate and maintain such a sense of awe?

What can Job's story tell us about the power of Satan?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

I wrote this devotional article about Job's story while Barbara and I were serving as missionaries in Italy. It originally appeared in Standard, a weekly Faith Connections take-home curriculum piece for adult Sunday school classes published by The Foundry.

Related articles

You might also like these