By David Berg
"I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV)
It is certainly good for our missionaries to learn the languages of the fields in which they minister as best they can, as long as they are able to remain and God leads them to continue their witness in these fields. You can't very well tell people that you love them if you don't make the slightest attempt to learn their language, their customs, culture, history, religion, characteristics, nationality traits, etc., which are all a part of them. We can hardly hope to understand them fully or reach them effectively without showing a genuine loving interest in who they really are and what they're really like, insofar as we possibly can in the time that we have.
"For we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities" (Hebrews 4:15), for He Himself took on the form of our own human flesh and was tempted in all points like as we are, that He might know and understand us and our problems better, having suffered with us as one of us that He might have compassion on us and even to die for us. "As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him, for He knoweth our frame, that we are dust" (Psalm 103:13-14), having worn that frame Himself, suffering in it, dying in it, and now living in it again for all eternity for our sakes.
He renounced the rights of His citizenship in heaven, and though He was rich, for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He not only adapted Himself to our bodily form, but also conformed to the human ways of life, custom, language, dress and living, that He might understand and love us better, and communicate with us on the lowly level of our own human understanding. In a sense He became a citizen of this world, a member of humanity, a man of flesh, in all points like as we are, in order that He might reach us with His love, prove to us His compassion and concern, and help us understand His message in simple childlike terms that we could understand.
He not only preached His message, but He lived it among us, even as one of us, and proved that we too could do it with His help. He was not only the living Word, the sermon, but He was also the living work, the sample. "I'd rather see a sermon than to hear one any day ... for the best of all the guides is the one who shows the way."
This has always been a part of the secret of the success of every truly fruitful missionary: a genuine endeavor of identification with the people, a true loving example of God's love, and a clear presentation of His message in some way that they can understand, including learning their language, adopting their customs and dress, eating the food they eat, sometimes assuming their citizenship, and, above all, not only trying to know and understand them well, but to actually become one of them as Jesus did. He also not only ministered to their spiritual needs, but He spent a great deal of time ministering to their physical and material needs, healed them when they were sick, fed them when they were hungry, and shared His life and His love.
Some of you are already living that way, adopting the citizenship, customs, language, dress and education of the people to whom you minister. I have always been leery of missionaries who didn't even like the people to whom they ministered, and who refused to become one of them or adapt themselves to their ways, much less marry them or allow their children to marry them, or receive the same education, culture, and language of the people of their field.
To go to the field, to become one of the people, to consider that your home and your people as Ruth did with Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17), and never again be interested in returning to that foreign country where you were born and once called home, loving both the country and the people where you now live, and never wishing to depart from them except by the will of God--to live with them, love them, be one of them and never leave them--that's my idea of a missionary. It's a marriage--forever! Why not? That's what Jesus did. And last but not least, like Jesus, to die for them. That's my idea of a missionary, and apparently it was God's idea also, for that's what He sent His Son to do, and that's what Jesus did for us. How can we do less for others? God gave His only Son, and Jesus gave His life, and lived it just for us, with us, for us, as one of us, and died for us.
But it took even more than this. He had to even live in us and do it for us by His power. When it comes to the showdown, only the supernatural, miracle-working power of the Holy Spirit of God Himself can really do the job and win people's hearts, bring them to a decision, and cause them to be born again as a new creature, a new citizen of the kingdom of God. Only God can do this--but they must see Him doing it in us first of all.
I am also convinced that what Jesus said is still true, regardless of nationality, country, color, or creed: "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto Me" (John 12:32). There is no difference! The heart of man is the same the world over, and his heartaches and sorrows and sins and pains and fear of death are the same. His longings, loves and hunger for God and His truth, for joy and happiness and peace of mind, are God-created and the same in men the world over. The same message, the same method, the same love, the same life, the same power, the same salvation, the same Jesus and the same God work just as well in any language or in any land with any people. His Word is just as true and just as powerful and just as moving, and His Spirit is just as great and just as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent and all-loving in one country as in another.
Nevertheless, as the apostle Paul taught, we must become all things to all men in order that we might win some (1 Corinthians 9:22). Therefore, there are certainly differences in approaches--to the Romans as a Roman, to the Jew as a Jew, to the Greek as a Greek and to the Japanese as a Japanese. It's a matter of communication in order to make our message understandable and our witness comprehensible and our lives interpretable in the terms, languages, and even gestures that they understand. This may truly be more difficult in some cultures and languages and under certain conditions and in the face of certain taboos, oppositions, religions, governments, customs, backgrounds, ways of thinking, etc., than in others.
We need to learn all we can about a people as well as become one of them--in fact, in order to become one of them--so we can truly communicate with them in a language they understand. It reminds me of what the missionary to China said when he was telling his Chinese congregation how his mother had just died and he'd buried her in a coffin. He used the wrong tone for the word coffin so that it meant garbage can, and his Chinese audience was infuriated at this disrespect for his honorable ancestor! This is typical of the problems of communication in a strange land and a strange tongue, so we certainly need to learn all we can.
However, as many missionaries have proven, we don't have to wait to witness until we know everything. The famous missionary who pioneered India began with only two phrases in the native tongue: "I love you and God loves you!" With these, he started a mighty wave of Christian faith in that formerly benighted land. But, of course, I'm sure that this was not all he learned before he was through.
As Moody used to say, the only Bible the world reads is the one bound in shoe leather: you and me! They must see this miracle-working power at work in our own lives, as a genuine living sample and proof that if can happen. This is our greatest witness.