Of all the missionary pioneers, I think I like Adoniram Judson the best. One thing about his life stands clear: his commitment to ministry in spite of results.
Judson’s story has a lot to like. He was the first real foreign missionary from America. He became a Baptist by conviction on the way to the mission field simply by reading his Bible. He translated the entire Bible into Burmese. Though fastidious and cultured in his upbringing, he endured imprisonment in filthy prisons, and continued to minister after he got out. His wives, especially his first two, worked closely with him and added to his effectiveness.
But Judson is especially characterized by his commitment to ministry. After four months of sailing, he and Ann arrived in India, the land in which they expected to serve. They were quickly turned away by the British East India Company. But instead of returning home, Judson searched diligently for a country which would allow him to minister. That brought them to Burma, a country with almost no missionaries and no Christians, which was governed by men who were extremely hostile to Christians.
On July 13, 1813 Adoniram and Ann arrived in Burma. Their first baby had been born dead on the way. They were not welcome in this new country. They didn’t know Burmese and there were no language teachers who knew both English and Burmese. They didn’t know if they’d be allowed to stay. With such a disappointing start to his missionary ministry, upon arrival, what did Judson pray? “God grant that we may live and die among the Burmans, though we never should do anything else than smooth the way for others.”
Above anything else in his life, Judson was known for one thing. It took him six years of faithful ministry before he saw his first convert. This convert, Moung Nau, considered it a privilege to be the first Christian convert among the Burmese people, even though he expected his decision would lead to persecution, perhaps even death.
The Burmese government said that any Burmese who said this “American religion” was right and Buddhism was wrong, would be punished severely. Finally Judson felt led to ask the king for permission to preach the gospel and translate the Bible into Burmese. The king didn’t give permission or deny it. Judson decided he should move away from Rangoon to somewhere the government would let him preach more freely. At the time he had two converts. They begged him to stay in their town until there were ten. Judson stayed.
Early in his ministry, Judson made two goals:
- He wanted to translate the entire Bible into Burmese.
- He wanted to live to see one hundred converts in Burma.
After sixteen years of Judson’s ministry, people who were formerly uninterested in the gospel began to flock to the little open-porched zayats to hear the gospel. Many people were saved. Everywhere Judson went people begged for the tracts he passed out.
He was the only man alive qualified to translate the Bible into Burmese, and after ten years of hard work, he finished the New Testament. Within a year, Judson was suddenly arrested and imprisoned for no fault of his own. His wife, Ann, buried the New Testament manuscript in the garden, but she knew it would soon get moldy. Finally she dug the manuscript up, hid it in a pillow, and smuggled it to Judson in prison. No one wanted to steal the uncomfortable pillow and no one thought to look for it in prison. It this way Judson’s New Testament translation was preserved.
After 23 years in Burma, Judson finished translating the entire Bible, thus achieving his first goal.
Nearly two hundred years later, today Judson’s Bible is still the best Burmese translation and the one most widely used in the country.
Did Judson live to see 100 converts in Burma? By the time he died there were between 60 to 100 Baptist churches among the Burmese with nearly 8000 baptized converts. Among the Karen tribes of Burma there were around 800 Baptist churches and 150,000 converts. Of course, Judson didn’t so all the work himself. Other missionaries and Burmese and Karen believers also spread the gospel, but Judson baptized the one hundredth convert.
Today Burma is called Myanmar. Religious freedom is still limited. Missionaries from other countries are not allowed into Myanmar. Christians sometimes get killed or have their homes destroyed. Still there are around 650,000 baptized Baptist Christians and about 600,000 unbaptized Christians. (Most protestants are Baptists.)
Adoniram Judson and his first two wives gave their entire adult lives to ministry in Burma. Judson returned to his home in America for his first furlough after 33 years. He had spent so much of his time using Burmese that he no longer felt comfortable speaking in English in public. He had also lost his voice and was unable to speak above a whisper. Yet he returned to Burma, continued his work, and spent ten years compiling an English-Burmese Dictionary, which only he could have written.
Adoniram Judson believed every missionary’s motto should be “devoted for life,” and he showed devotion to God for Burma until his dying day. But I think I am more inspired by this one thing more than any other: He was committed to give out the gospel regardless of results. He was prepared to give his entire adult life to this ministry in Burma, “though we never should do anything else than smooth the way for others.”We live in a day when many missionaries, even churches in America, must continue to find ways to faithfully give out the gospel even when we see few visible results. Sometimes an unfruitful ministry becomes a fruitful one in time. We may be preparing the ground for others who will see growth.
Of course, faithfulness in ministry involves more than blindly filling the calendar with activity year after year. Part of remaining faithful may be looking for creative new ways to present the gospel in ways that will be better received by the unsaved around us. We may need to change methods that worked in the past and are less effective now. Prayer and building relationships are vital in evangelism. Always we need to be open to God leading us in a new direction.
But we can also learn from Adoniram Judson’s example that we need to be faithful to the task and leave the results up to him. We work to please God and follow his leading. He will work through our ministry to see that our work is not in vain.
It’s only natural to want to see results from our ministry. Results encourage us, validate us. We can put results in a prayer letter and get others excited about our ministry. Results are our goal. Would we give our lives to a ministry that we knew would produce no results?
Adoniram Judson would.
On one hand, God may be working in ways we will never see, accomplishing his work that won’t be visible this side of heaven. But aside from that, we need to ask ourselves some questions.
- Should results be my goal?
- Should I need results to validate my ministry?
- Am I devoted to God or devoted to success?
When I’m devoted to success, I get depressed when I see no results. When I’m devoted to God, I can be content as long as I know I am following his leading and pleasing him.