If there is one certainty about missions, it is that you will face the unexpected:
- I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed by the new culture I’m now in.
- My spouse and I have a harder time communicating than I expected.
- I didn’t expect to have a conflict with my team members.
- I didn’t expect there to be only three people in the church who speak my native language fluently.
Biblical counseling can give you the tools you need to respond to the unpredictable situations that missions will present. At first, the unexpected aspects of your new life might be fun. Beginning a new life of gospel ministry in another culture is usually a time of excitement and energy. Whether ministering short-term or long-term, it’s thrilling to be used for the sake of God’s kingdom in a place where Christ’s name is not well known. This initial thrill may last several days, but the strength of your preparation for foreign missions will be quickly tested. It may surprise you to consider that biblical counseling can be an enormously effective way to supplement your preparation for time in another culture where you are seeking to evangelize and disciple.
At the heart of biblical counseling is leading others to worship our great God and more fully conform their lives to the image of His Son. Knowing how biblical change takes place is vital, whether or not you will use counseling as a formal part of your ministry.
Often the focus of missions preparation is outward: language learning, evangelism training, church planting strategies, and cultural awareness. These aspects of missions are important. But if you are consumed with anger and anxiety or are overwhelmed with loneliness and conflict, then your preparation in these other areas will have limited effectiveness. Biblical counseling can teach you how to deeply address your own heart using God’s sufficient Word, and it can equip you to interact in a variety of messy situations (like a conflict with team members, cultural differences in conscience, and marriage strain without familiar support) in a manner that honors God. Consider two main ways that training in biblical counseling can help to prepare you well for missions.
Counseling Yourself: Learning to Keep your Heart
Keeping or guarding your heart is all about paying attention to what you are worshiping. Your heart is the place that generates worship. Biblically, it’s where you think, want, and decide (Heb. 4:12, Mt. 15:19). Biblical counseling can help you hone your discernment so that you quickly recognize the first motions of sin in your heart (Heb. 5:14). God is kind to help us discern what is happening in our hearts as we examine our thoughts, our desires, and our emotions.
It’s equally important to be able to work backward from an outburst of anger or a flare-up of anxiety to see what you are wanting and believing. Just as worship of the one true God produces particular fruit (Gal 5:22-23), worship of false gods produces fleshly fruit (the deeds of the flesh, Gal 5:19-21). The Holy Spirit gives us the wisdom and motivation we need to trace the fruit back to its worship root. This is one critical way that biblical counseling can equip you to make sense out of the murky waters of your heart so that you are not hijacked by self-deceit (Jer. 17:9, Heb. 4:12).
In his book Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global, Andy Johnson says, “The heart for God-glorifying missions starts with joy in the gospel.” In other words, the right motivation for missions is joy in God’s good news of salvation for you. As you treasure God’s rescuing work in your own life, you will be ready to share this good news with others. There are many things in a missionary’s life that could rob him or her of joy and hope in the gospel. Biblical counseling helps you to connect the hope of God’s precious promises to the messiness of everyday missionary life.
Counseling Others: Shepherding Hearts
Think of biblical counseling as basic nursing skills. When you go to an area hundreds of miles from a hospital, knowing some elements of medical care can be life-saving. You can triage and treat your wounds, or those of a friend, with confidence. Or, you can calm others with your presence (offering comfort and compassion from God’s Word); you can clean the wound (walking through confession and repentance). Another option is to stop the bleeding (give hope and share your confidence in God’s goodness and power). Further still, you can make a plan (connecting with others who have the wisdom and godliness to help further).
From evangelism and discipleship to shepherding a new flock of believers from a different background, these skills will deepen your ability to lovingly use the Bible for the struggles you face. There are some vital general skills that biblical counseling can teach you, like asking questions to get to the heart, listening well, giving hope from God’s Word, and praying God’s promises with others. Training in these areas will solidify your ease in using them in another culture.
Benefits to Missionaries:
There are also specific skills that offer great benefits for missionaries. Conflict resolution, for example, is one specific aspect of biblical counseling that can be essential. There will be plenty of “heat” from your circumstances in a new culture far from home. This heat will reveal what’s in your heart and the hearts of your family, your team, and church members. As sin bubbles to the surface, you need to know how to address its toxicity without contaminating the whole environment. Biblical counseling will teach you how to examine your heart before discussing the sin of others. As well as when and what to address when someone sins against you. Additionally, counseling teaches you how to lovingly reconcile, and how to use conflict as a redemptive opportunity.
It’s important to know that encouraging prospective missionaries to pursue training in biblical counseling is only part of the training that is needed. And it certainly does not need to be formal (as in a seminary degree). After all, biblical counseling is fundamentally intensive discipleship. Healthy local churches can equip potential missionaries with the character and skills they need through books. As well as opportunities to apply what they are learning before they leave, and through online training.
Biblical counseling may be an unexpected way to supplement your preparation for missions work, but it is a very effective one. Counseling yourself and ministering to others will push you deeper into reliance on the Lord and will ignite your confidence and enthusiasm in his Word. You can prepare to meet the unexpected challenges of missionary life by growing in the skill and wisdom of biblical counseling.
See Prov 4:23
Andy Johnson, Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global, Crossway: 2017, 32.
See Eph 4:15; Col 1:28; Rom 15:14.