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The Forge of Faith: Embracing Sanctification in Italy's Mission Field

Some might look at the situation in Italy and think that God must send only the best of the best to a land so desolate. Only the best could be useful in the Lord's work in such a place is the common thought… There is surely truth in this. It’s also true, as I see it, that the Lord sends some of the worst of the worst (morally speaking) to the barren land of Italy. In what way you might ask? Well, one thing is sure, Italy is a wonderful place for those with a special need of sanctification. In a very real sense, the mission field of Italy is like a forge with Refining Fire that God uses to repurpose followers of Christ from clunky and dirty chunks of iron into marvelous tools fit for building, plowing, defending, cultivating, and producing in various ways in the Kingdom of God. Those who remain in the fire one day look at themselves in the mirror and realize they are no longer who they once were, but through all the anguish, heat, and pounding away they are much closer to what they ought to be.

Sanctification in missions work

When I first came to Italy many years ago (2007) and became a missionary I certainly, by God’s grace, knew my limits. I remained relatively quiet for a long time as I sat under the tutelage of those far more knowledgeable and experienced than myself. What I didn’t know well was how carnal I still was. Back then I somehow thought, mistakenly, that I was a rather decent person… Only time spent in the School of Christ in the spiritual jungle of Italy would help me to see more clearly the depths of my depravity. It's quite possible that there was simply no better way for the transformation God intended for me to happen than on the frontlines in Italy.

I reckon that in this self-realization of my depravity and shortcomings, however, I’m not alone. There are likely many reasons why 90% of the long-term missionaries who come to Italy leave within just 4 years: slow results, indifference to the things of God among the people, high cost of living, lacking support for missionaries to Italy, intense spiritual warfare, too little collaboration, never-ending complexities of the Italian bureaucracy and paperwork, constant divisions and turmoil among the few and small evangelical churches that do exist, and on and on... One of the overlooked reasons, however, might very well be related to the pain of the intense and ongoing sanctifying work that Jesus typically does to His servants in a place like this.

There is a great truth that almost all seasoned Christians who have walked long with the Lord affirm. The more we mature in Christ the more we come to realize just how wretched and undesirable we truly are… When Jesus confronted the people who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8: 7-9) He suggested that those without sin should be the first to throw stones. Then it’s recorded that the eldest among them were the first to drop their stones and walk away... The beauty of this reality of our true condition is that as we continually realize our depravity in greater depth the Gospel has a way of shining brighter and more glorious. Who are we that Christ Jesus would actually choose to love us and lay down His life for us? Who are we that He would enroll us to become His ambassadors and His hands and feet in this world?

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. - 1 Cor. 1: 26-29

God desires to work through us and He does, through the marvelous work of the Spirit. At times His work through us is more evident, at times less, but He is always at work in us. The process of becoming more like Christ is never-ending. Rare, in fact, if we’re honest and not self-deluded, are the moments when we are loving God and treasuring Jesus as we ought. As Thomas Brooks once said, even at our best our love for God is greatly wanting.

Thomas Brooks on our lim

Of late, numerous folks have been inquiring about the work of missions in Italy. I’m grateful that others are becoming aware of the need for the Gospel in Italy and prayerfully considering taking up their cross and serving in Italy to love the Italian people, evangelize, make disciples, and be involved in seeing more Biblical churches realized! One of our greatest ongoing prayers is, in fact, for more quality missionaries of a humble and teachable spirit willing to lay down their lives for Christ together with us. Yet every time we receive new inquiries part of me hesitates. I know firsthand the heartaches of serving Jesus in a land like this. I have long been in the refining fire on these frontlines. The pruning work of the Lord has left me many a mark. Each of the scars has its story and lessons. I hesitate because I don’t want to see others suffer. I hesitate because I know, statistically speaking, most will not last long, and every time they don’t last long there is typically pain and conflict associated with the departure; it affects the entire family.

Whether you are one of the best of the best or the worst of the worst, if God has called you to Italy and you are Biblically qualified, approved by a Biblical local church, and of a humble disposition before God you can be greatly used by God among the Italian people. You will likely not be beaten, eaten, put in prison, or plagued by illness (unless a man-made/modified virus gets released by a lab...), but affliction, turmoil, sorrow, and pain will still be yours. A fiery forge is the mission field of Italy. Few are those who learn to embrace the refining flames of their Lord and Savior. Few are those who look far into the future at the day when this nation forsakes all its idols and comes to Christ (1 Thess. 1:9). Those who do, by God's grace, embrace His daily sanctifying work learn the secret of contentment and total submission to God in the School of Christ and at the Lord's service. Their lives, if God so wills, can be used like forged tools of precision that the Lord masterfully wields to further the Kingdom in Italy.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. - 2 Cor. 2: 14-17

We close our post today with these beautiful words from a long-passed French reformer who not only preached extensively (often daily) and wrote world-class commentaries, but also one who dedicated countless hours of his relatively short life to train, equip, and send out faithful and bold missionaries into France (many of whom died within a short amount of time due to persecution).

For it is no small profit to be robbed of our blind self-love so that we become fully aware of our weakness; to have such an understanding of our weakness that we distrust ourselves; to distrust ourselves to such an extent that we put all our trust in God; to depend with such boundless confidence on God that we rely entirely on his help, so that we may victoriously persevere to the end; to continue in his grace that we may know he is true and faithful in his promises; and to experience the certainty of his promises so that our hope may become firmer (Rom. 5:3–4). - John Calvin


Written by Jesse Schreck | founder, director, and missionary church planter in Italy with Practical Missions Cohort


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