Missionaries are just normal, struggling Christians who have been displaced into an unfamiliar, challenging culture. It’s no surprise, then, that the struggles from home have followed us overseas. In fact, some of the hidden sins of our hearts, the ones lying contentedly under a layer of cultural comfort, may not have ever been aroused to their full capacity. Until now.
Suddenly, the new culture with all of its unfamiliarity exposes the sleepy sin, causing a small uprising that explodes out of our hearts and mouths as we wonder, “Where did that come from?” The truth is, it was always there and that’s who we really are. We just had so many layers of protection and comfort around us that this part of our heart had never been prodded to this degree. This cross-cultural transition has given our soul a fresh puncture wound, and the truth is now spilling out, telling our messy stories. While terrifying, this is the process of sanctification that every Christian is called to pursue—putting that old self to death. By moving cross-culturally and removing “all things normal,” we’ve just put the whole process on spiritual steroids.
The Struggles That We See
Often, the struggles come when circumstances affect our finances, our health, our team relationships, or our children’s well-being. Sometimes, we just don’t like to be told what to do. Some missionaries are lazy. Some struggle with a negative or victim mindset that sees hurt in everything. Some fall into deep loneliness. Some invert the Golden Rule, pushing themselves to the top. Some are hung up on their titles. Some struggle finding joy in the success of others. Some struggle finding any joy. And some, still attached to social media, live in two worlds, being mostly discontent in both. While the struggles of missionaries are as numerous and personalized as the individuals who bear them, it seems that there is one common denominator in the hidden layers of our hearts at the bottom of every struggle: we have a trust issue.
The Struggle That It Is
One of my fellow teachers recently said, “Our disbelief is either because we don’t have knowledge or we don’t have trust.” Either we don’t know that God is truly and completely omnibenevolent and sovereign or we are just not believing and living it as truth. We have forgotten to remember the character of God.
When our truth-compass is off in either direction, we succumb to lies and allow doubts to creep in. These doubts tell us that if God truly had a heart of love for us or if he truly had all power, then he would make our circumstances such that we would never experience pain and hardships. Doubt slides into accusation and we start shifting blame as fast as we can dream up the excuses. Sometimes, we even point the finger at God himself.
When we as missionaries admit that our circumstances are “hard” and that we are struggling, we are just being transparent and honest. But when we continue down a path of complaining, we have left the path of wisdom. We have forgotten the example that we have in our Lord Jesus and in every disciple that has ever belonged to him. We have forgotten the verses that beseech us to deny ourselves, to pick up our cross and follow (Luke 9:23). We’ve forgotten that if we don’t put Christ before all things—even really important things—and follow him, then we are not his disciples (Luke 14:25–33; 18:29-30). We have forgotten the promise of suffering to those who are truly children of God. Jesus even applies it to those of us who feel like we’ve already fought enough of the good fight by walking out of our country and leaving behind houses, lands, and family. He says that we will receive back a “hundredfold” . . . but “with persecution!” (Mark 10:29–30) We’ve forgotten that persecutions in the life of a believer are normal, even a mark of who we are! We’ve also forgotten Romans 8, where God promises that he is carefully “working all things” for the good of our own souls and conforming us to “the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28–29).
When we forget God’s character, we’re no longer letting him define goodness and we begin to silently etch out our own definition and metrics for what is “good.” When our minds recede from the truth, so do our actions. Those who we came to be a light to and to speak truth to no longer see the accurate reflection of Christ that God intended. Our fears and doubts have whittled him down to the level of the deities that our target audience is already surrounded by. Why should they want what we’re offering if it looks the same in the day-to-day aspects of life?
The Sanctifying Solution
I’ve found the answer to these daily missionary struggles is given to me in the heart of Romans 8. After God tells us that he is indeed working everything out for our eternal good, he goes on to say how he knew us, chose us, called us, justified us and gave us right standing, and then allowed us to share in his very own glory (i.e., we will be given glorified bodies on the last day!). This huge, powerful, and supernatural act was done on our behalf by our Omnibenevolent Father.
How can I not accept the temporary struggles, knowing that he has already given me eternal right standing and a share in his own glory (John 17:22)? How can I feel lonely if I believe that in this same Father’s house a place is being prepared for me (John 14:2)? How can I search for reputation when I believe that he has already united me to his Son (2 Corinthians 5:17)? Why am I surprised by a painful illness or a struggling marriage? Why should I not miscarry a child or have a life that constantly pushes me to my physical and mental limits, or have friends that don’t understand my life?
When we are thinking eternally and in accord with the truth, the situation changes. Lies are exposed, our hope is renewed, and we can walk through difficult cross-cultural circumstances with a peace that the world doesn’t understand (Philippians 4:7). When the spotlight of suffering shines our way, we can truly reflect to those around us a Sovereign and Omnibenevolent God who is living inside of us and we can tell the story of how his joy is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). They see that he is worthy and they want to know more.
Struggles are a pain. Life overseas is hard. But it is also the messy medium by which we bring others to Christ as we are sanctified by him. I often wake up reminding myself that whatever comes today is the exact situation that my Father has said is good for me. I ask him to help me truly believe that and to embrace the day as from his hand. Here’s a truth that dispels every earthly struggle: no matter what happens to me today, nobody can touch my soul or change my eternal status. I still have Jesus, and that will never change.