Dr. Missionary, I Presume

DrIt’s about time for my church’s annual missions’ conference so I’ve been contemplating the lives of missionaries I’ve known and those whom our church supports. In that spirit, I’d like to share portions of an article I read in 2005 written by Marvin Olasky for World Magazine. The title of the article is “The Model Missionary” and is about Dr. David Livingstone.

Many of us might know him as some kind of famous explorer and he did go into portions of Africa no white man had ever seen, but first and foremost he was a man of God with a heart for the unsaved peoples of “the Dark Continent.”


That was the motto of David Livingstone, son of a poor Scottish millworker, who worked so hard that he overcame the class-stratified odds and became a medical doctor. Joining the London Missionary Society, he arrived in southern Africa in 1841 and regularly showed the courage that faith in Christ gave him.

For 16 years he had many adventures. A lion mauled him in 1844. Malarial fevers beset him regularly. Angry chiefs shot poisoned arrows at him. A hippo knocked him out of his canoe and he swam to shore before crocodiles could get him. He did what people said was impossible, traversing the Kalahari Desert and making it to the Zambezi River deep into Africa, where he wrote in his journal, “How glorious! How magnificent! How beautiful!”… and he wasn’t just talking about the scenery.

Throughout his life and work, he maintained a strong Christian witness. Once, he walked hundreds of miles to visit the Baka tribe, whose leaders had recently poisoned and strangled four white traders. They were stunned when he strode into their camp alone and spoke to them in their own language which he had diligently learned. He wrote about his message in his journal.

“I had more than ordinary pleasure in telling these murderers of the precious blood which cleanses from all sin.”

Livingstone, who was a great respecter of William Wilberforce, continued attacking the evil of Portuguese and Arab slave trading in central Africa. He wrote,

“It is only by the goodness of God in appointing our lot in different circumstances that we are not all similarly degraded, for [whether slave or slave trader] we have the same evil nature.”

Africans commented on his lack of racism: One native described him as “a white man who treated blacks as brothers.”

His ministry was what today would be called a holistic ministry: saving souls but also caring about the physical needs of the people. He wrote that it would promote “God’s glory if Africa is made a land producing the articles now raised only or chiefly by slave labor.”

After an initial 16 years in Africa he returned to England a famous man. He could have rested on the royalties from his best-selling book, Travels and Researches in Southern Africa but instead he plunged back into the African interior, suffering from chronic diarrhea and frequently bleeding hemorrhoids but maintaining an iron will. People said he sacrificed, but he replied,

“Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?”

Livingstone died from malaria and internal bleeding caused by dysentery in a village southeast of Lake Bangweulu in present-day Zambia on 1 May 1873. He took his final breaths while kneeling in prayer at his bedside. His followers made the decision to remove his heart to be buried in Africa while carrying his body to the coast for subsequent shipping to England.

For all his years of travel and serving the people of Africa there is only one recorded “convert” credited directly to his ministry, yet thousands of Christians around the world were challenged and inspired to follow his example of missionary service.

In my meditations on the work of missions I think of the thousands of men and women faithfully serving Christ around the world and here in our community. These are no lesser saints than men like Livingstone and they are no greater saints than those who support them and send them on in their work.

Therefore we ought to support such men, so that we may be fellow workers with the truth.          3 John 8

We have a tendency to think of those of us who stay at home and “only” send support and prayers as being somehow second class in the eyes of God… yet Jesus Himself told His disciples,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.”        John 13:16

Whether you attend my church over the next couple weeks or not, spend a moment in prayer for those who serve. Then, ask yourself if you are doing your part in serving and supporting them. Remembering that the one who sent him (or her) does not hold a lesser spot in God’s eyes, we are to serve God where He asks us to serve… at home or in the darkest depths of Africa.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.        1 Corinthians 15:58

Think about it….


  • Frank & Betsy Ifuku says:

    Very apropos reading! Frank and I leave March 12 for 2+ weeks in Tuxpan, Mexico where we are helping to “build a camp”!!! My Aunt and Uncle purchased the property 20 years ago and we started going down there in 2004 to “build”. There are actually other groups who go and do the actual construction but Frank and I have gone down there 7 times; this will be our eighth. We seal, prime, paint and varnish; not very exciting jobs – but necessary – and the Camp is being used to bring kids and adults to Christ!!! Yeah!!!

  • Roger Erickson says:

    Len: Thank you for an extraordinary, superior explanation of the life some of our missionaries lives. We forget the price they may be paying in physica-emotional-spiritual costs. You have blessed me richly.

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