Missionary Marriage: Ideas to Keep It Together

Reading Time: 4 minutes

missionary marriage

Years ago, my husband and I talked about how to help missionary friends on the field in struggles they were working through in a marriage. The couple was fairly new on the field.

It was tough, we acknowledged: A missionary marriage was like a pressure cooker, intensifying whatever flavors were first lobbed in the pot. If basil, you tasted its nuance in the entire dish. If a sweaty gym sock? Well.

Make no mistake: Your marital issues and strengths will arrive with you on the field with more certainty than your luggage. But it’s critical you don’t let living overseas just happen to your marriage.

Because the natural course of marriage isn’t toward being one flesh, toward unity. It’s toward isolation, disconnection. But “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

What relationships will you feed while overseas?

You may not mind giving from your marriage to outside ministry. It’s quite possible you’re eager to share! Yet that flexibility and generosity flow best when marriage and ministry work as allies—not  competitors.

For FamilyLife.com, I recently wrote the article, “Ministry Marriage: Perks to Love, Dangers to Fight.” That piece is far more comprehensive. But before I direct you there, let’s have some specific straight talk on your soon-to-be missionary marriage.

Actively stay alert for signs of isolation.

I currently live in Colorado, a state notorious for deal-breaking foundation cracks in a home–cracks costing thousands of dollars to fix while you move out. So I keep an eye on cracks in plaster, in drywall, that could indicate a bigger problem–which I’d rather solve as early as possible.

The priority of your missionary marriage remains critical overseas. It speaks the Gospel to your family, not just an unreached people group or the world “out there”. And experiencing God’s love regularly also means you regularly experience that you are loved; that you are more than what you do for God.

It’s the same strategy for your marriage. Keep an eye out for warning signs:

  • constant bickering
  • a feeling of resentment
  • temptation toward an emotional or physical affair
  • a loss of respect
  • porn use, or other addictions
  • apathy toward your spouse
  • inability to recover from trauma, issues with kids, or other obstacles
  • isolation; finding yourself “holding back” from your spouse
  • mental health issues, like depression or anxiety (common struggles overseas)
  • lack of regular, fulfilling sex

See more on these warning signs here. 

Your ministry marriage can flounder—or flourish, should you invest in displaying the gospel intently there.

Understand your tendencies in navigating stress and trauma.

When I was about to deliver my first child, the instructor asked us where in our bodies we carry our stress. (I carry mine in my jaw, my shoulders.) This is a similar exercise as you prepare for stress. Are you prone toward depression? Workaholism? People-pleasing? Being gruff with your spouse?

Living cross-culturally, you’re more often in the stressed version of yourself (see this post for more ideas of what the stressed version of yourself might look like, including these on the stressed version of your marriage and the stressed version of your parenting).

Can you already anticipate the stressed version of your missionary marriage, and be ready with healthy coping mechanisms, truths to tell yourself, and ways to bridge the gap?

Many sending agencies now require mental health evaluations before you head overseas for these very reasons, and several more.

For those of you going to developed countries, the closer you are to the poor, the more you experience their hardship and heartache. Your probability of trauma skyrockets.

Make no mistake: God will triumph through your darkest days overseas. But starting from a place of health, with a number of robust coping mechanisms in place, means you stay longer and stronger overseas, without the wave of trauma capitulating you as easily.

Don’t hesitate to get counseling before you go, even JUST for evaluative reasons.

Family friends headed overseas racked up well over twenty medical appointments before they left: immunizations. Examinations. Checking out weird little problems they didn’t want to rear their ugly heads in a nation with less developed medical care.

We need the same mindset with our hearts, minds, and marital relationships before heading into the pressure cooker of a missionary marriage.

What could use a tune-up? And if you don’t know…will you make the effort to find out?

Many counselors can continue long-distance video counseling, and many sending organizations are happy to provide the counseling you need overseas.

Make sure you talk about the mutuality of your “call”.

Don’t miss our post, “Help! I Don’t Feel as ‘Called’ as My Spouse.” 

All right, I’m ready now–if you’ve managed to hang in there all this time, jump on over to Ministry Marriage: Perks to Love, Dangers to Fight.”

 

Sure, your marriage reciprocates in every area of service you put your hands to. But even if you were only experiencing Jesus more in your own marriage? That alone honors and delights Him.

Do the hard work to deeply nourish the relationships that matter most–and not just “out there”.

 

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

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Help! I don’t feel as “called” as my spouse

Reading Time: 7 minutes

don't feel as called

Editor’s note: For this perennial topic, we’re pulling some tips from the archive for all you spouses wrestling through what do to when your spouse is all-in, sign-me-up, let’s-do-this -thing-for-Jesus! But you don’t feel as “called.”

Hey. Every situation is different, I know. But I’ve talked to a few of you.

I’ve seen the look on your face—not just the usual culture shock or pre-departure if-this-country-doesn’t-kill-me-packing-for-it-might expression. There’s a nearly imperceptible tightness in your smile.

Because you signed up for this. But at the same time, didn’t.

You signed up to follow Jesus, your name on the dotted line beneath the great Commission. And the ring on your finger keeps reminding you of unending constancy; faithfulness.

(But did that mean my spouse’s dreams? You wonder every now and then.)

Or maybe your brain has signed up, knowing God doesn’t just call one of you. (Right? you ask me.) Knowing he asks a whole family to go or to stay.

But your heart signing up? That part could take awhile. And unfortunately, with the lack of medical care for your kids and the size of the reptiles, it could take longer than you planned.

I’m obeying you, Lord. This is my choice. (Write this down—I made the right choice when it killed me, and took me away from my mom living right down the street to help with the kids.)

I don’t know if you’ve already made your decision, or are waffling a little as the gravity of this choice starts to show like the hem of a slip.

(Spoiler alert: At the end of this post, you will still not know exactly what to do.)

I can only tell you what I know.

own your decision. 100%. Even if you don’t feel as called

This decision is hard enough when you feel completely called and feel zero hesitation.

But what’s not okay, even when you don’t feel as called? Choosing to be powerless.

When it was time for us to head back from Africa, that’s the time I felt the least “called” anywhere. It felt like a perfect storm of circumstances were grounding us from flying into Uganda—and what had become like home.

During that tumultuous home assignment, we were straddling two continents and homes. And that included, what? At least three evaporating sources of identity for me. (Missionary. Teacher of refugees. Educator of my kids.)

I remember words my husband spoke to me as we wound our way over a New Mexico highway. He cautioned me, encouraging me to dig into my confusion, my low-burning anger.

He said something like,
=&0=&

Why? Because your life is about to change just as much.

And the demands and required teamwork of overseas living require more buy-in from a spouse than simply submitting to another’s passion.

I have seen this subtle, underground division work its way into the cracks of a marriage’s foundation like ivy, spreading slowly in a thick blanket. They’re so subtle, a person may hardly notice until it’s nearly too late.

There’s such wisdom in the words of 1 Peter: Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 

That verse ratchets things to a whole new level, right? It’s not just unity of action. It’s my mind as one flesh with yours.

dont feel as called

Whose Calling is More Important?

“Calling” gets tricky these days. It can be wielded as “a rubber stamp from God on doing what I really, really want.”

It can also be a mystical, vague buzzword that gets us hung up.

And the truth is, “calling” gets tricky in a marriage. Because few of us have had actual writing on the wall. For most of us calling is less “I’ve heard an audible Word from God–and more synthesizing passions with Scripture and the world’s need.

It’s a working out of what would be our own alabaster box, our own act of beautiful, sacrificial worship, to a God worthy of every loss.

But Jeremiah, Jonah, even Jesus? They had words with God about their calling.

What about when your spouse’s desires are different? When you just don’t feel as called?

Desires are not just something to steamroll over as an act of faith. Trying to rid yourself of desire is actually more…Buddhist. We see Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane of total honesty with his desire, yet total surrender.
=&2=&

In case you missed it, allow me to say it openly: God accepts you fully whether you go overseas or not.

Whether or not this is an “obedience” issue for you isn’t something our blog can weigh in on. But do the hard work of exploring your call together, knowing your particular application of the Great Commission is your joyful choice.

Should I submit to my spouse when i don’t feel as called?

Side note: Depending on your theology, you may feel that this is an area where you need to submit to your spouse. That may be the case.

But let us encourage you that–as demonstrated in Esther or Ruth or Proverbs 31–submission does not mean silence. (Jesus shows this in his submission to the Father in Gethsemane.)

And God is the author of women’s dreams, too; check out Jesus’ words to a woman about the priority of following him over family.

What now?

Like I mentioned in the beginning–I promise you no easy answers.

This is your time as a couple to be transparent, to think deeply and broadly (and Scripturally) about what is right and good for your marriage, your family. It’s time to seek God’s face together, for what you can willingly, open-handedly give him.

 

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

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Different Strokes? Marital Differences as You Look Overseas, Part I and Part II

Help Your Marriage Thrive Overseas! Part IPart II, & Part III

8 Ways to Help your Family Flourish Overseas!

 

Making a difference = a good reason to go overseas?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

making a difference

When I first met the head-turning, nearly-too-good-to-be-true man who would be my husband, there was only one possibly fatal flaw.

He didn’t see himself going overseas.

At that point, I had participated in short-term missions in ten countries, give or take. I’d maxed out my university’s Spanish classes and minored in cross-cultural services. My college activities pointed to my love of cultures and helping the powerless.

Geez, Lord. Couldn’t you make this easier?

Serious questions crossed my mind about whether in marrying the man I respected most on Planet Earth, that I would also be…a sellout.

When “Living Life for God” = Disappointment

Spoiler: I married him. Nearly every day of our married life, I’ve thanked God for this man. (Without him, I may have been World’s Most Insecure Missionary).

But a decade later, “living my life for God” had slid from those mental images of handing rice to refugees, dust in my skirt. Instead, I was drowning in a sea of apple juice with some Goldfish floating on top. The commercial for my life would have looked less Peace Corps, more Bounty paper towels.

I felt confused. Angry. Exhausted.

And the sellout question loomed large, as if a rocking rubber stamp were about to declare me “Life Opportunities Missed.”

A Small Life?

Perhaps if you’ve followed my posts, you know the spoiler: My husband and I ended up spending half a decade in Africa. I felt a technicolor version of alive. (We’re still with the same org.)

But this was not before a tough couple of years when God and I wrestled with whether I’d chosen the best path. When God was growing contentment in me for what I called a “small life”. (Um, despite fierce love and happy sacrifice for my kids and husband. Which I wouldn’t have given up in a bajillion years. Turns out the Gospel matters to them, too).

My heart caught around Kathleen Kelly’s musings in You’ve Got Mail:

Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life. Well, not small, but valuable. And sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?

When Making a Difference Gets Out of Order

God has grown me exponentially in understanding the peculiar heroism the Church places on missionaries. He’s taught me no role in the Church is unimportant.

God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?….

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:18, 19, 21)

I also had to be taught that part of my own desire to life a “big life for God” was the emphasis on my own life being valuable. I’ve been guilty of, in a sense, using God for my own fulfillment more than I love him for himself.

making a difference

With more than For

I’ve thought more about this recently for two reasons.

First, I returned from Africa. My sense of co-laboring fell to a much quieter, occasionally indiscernable hum. I lost most of my sexy job titles (Missionary to Africa! Teacher of Refugees!) all over again. (See “Do our Churches Prefer Certain Occupations? Does God?“)

At times, I grew angry that God hadn’t created a more tenable way for us to stay, for making a difference. My identity felt horribly jumbled as I struggled for worth apart from the field.

(This was recognizable, at times, as one who’d lost not just something precious, but perhaps lost an idol, too.)

I’ve also considered this in light of what I’ve read in Skye Jethani’s With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. 

Jethani explores five primary postures in which we relate to God: Life under, over, from, for, and finally with God. He cites God’s vision in both Genesis and Revelation (and throughout the Bible) to reign with humankind: to be loved as he is, rather than us seeking to manipulate or use him.

“In other words,” Jethani writes, “God would cease to be how we acquire our treasure, and he would become our treasure.”

Is “Impact” the Point?

I won’t explore all the postures here. But Jethani reminded me that many of us have been schooled in Life For God more than With God. Jethani quotes Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, following Vischer’s loss of his company.

“God would never call us from greater impact to lesser impact!” [I thought.]

The more I dove into Scripture, the more I realized I had been deluded. I had grown up drinking a dangerous cocktail–a mix of the gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream…The Savior I was following seemed, in hindsight, equal parts Jesus, Ben Franklin, and Henry Ford. My eternal value was rooted in what I could accomplish.

Unfortunately, taken to its fullness, this missionalism, this disordered priority for making a difference, brings us to a place the end justifies any means. Including the loss of our own vital connection to God. Our families. Our marriages.

Jethani observes,

A great deal of effort is expended in faith communities trying to transform people from younger sons [in the story of the prodigal son] into older sons. But this is a fool’s errand, because what mattered most to the father was neither the younger son’s disobedience nor the older son’s obedience, but having his sons with him.

 

In fact, Jesus foretells of some making a difference, achieving great things in God’s name.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me… (Matthew 7:22-23, emphasis added)

The Mission is not the End

If we land on the mission field feeling that in some sense we’ve arrived (or perhaps will, after Making a Difference), we will–like the biblical Jacob, always wake up with Leah.

Because the mission itself, or our ability to accomplish it, was never intended to form our sense of worth and fulfillment.

Don’t go overseas with “impact” as your greatest goal. Because missions is not, cannot be, the Great End.

God is.

(And by the way, Honey. I would marry you all. Over. Again.)

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Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Harvest House) releases in October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.

 

 

 

 

Choosing an Emotionally Healthy Missions Organization

Reading Time: 4 minutes

emotionally healthy

Missed our last post on Emotionally Healthy Missions? Grab it here!

When you’re headed overseas, it’s easy to underestimate the effects your organization’s health could have on the ability to thrive overseas.

As I type, I think of the friend who called me recently, voice throaty with tears, as she discussed their lack of ability to care for her after stepping off the field.

Or I remember my conversation with the missionary couple who felt they had no option but to leave their organization once they’re on the field.

I think of a young mom who felt her agency had far more interest in “the mission” than they did in the missionaries themselves.

I remember the friend that arrived with her family of five in-country for the first time, but were simply dropped at a boarding house with no cash, no meals for the first night. The whole family went to sleep on an empty stomach.

Feel Free to Date Around

Unfortunately, looking for an organization is a bit like dating. Everyone’s got their best foot forward–and is often unable to see the friction inevitable in a future “marriage”. 

And keep in mind–there’s no perfect partner on either side. The trick is to go in with eyes wide open.

How can you set yourself up for a wiser partnership when it comes to the emotional health of an organization?

1. Think bigger than a shared mission–and get intuitive.

Finding a good organizational fit can’t only be about a similar mission and proper theology–because no one wants to share a mission, but deal with unhealthy conflict management, possess few resources to care for trauma, or feel like their org doesn’t really listen.

When dating, I remember looking at the guy’s clothes, observing how he carried on a conversation (do I have to drive the convo constantly? And is he genuinely interested in me?). I watched how he tipped, how he treated the wait staff.

Bring that kind of intuition into your interactions with your missions organization. Chances are, the person who’s interviewing you or answering your questions won’t be the same person managing you or living down the street when you’re overseas.

Gather as much intuitive information as you can, sorting out how each individual changes the dynamic of your interactions and your impression of the agency.

2. To find an emotionally healthy agency, Ask Good Questions.

Consider asking questions like these to narrow down your choices to an agency that’s more emotionally healthy.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How much does this organization value appearances over authenticity?
  2. Do their rhythms and expectations allow great margin for missionaries to replenish and serve from the inside out?
  3. How do I anticipate resting, finding community, being personally discipled, finding personal enjoyment, and otherwise creating an emotionally healthy environment that helps me stay as long and as emotionally healthy as possible?
  4. Who are this organization’s heroes? Of whom do they speak more negatively? (What does this tell me about their values?)
  5. How truthful and realistic does this organization seem?
  6. Do I agree with their approaches to evangelism?
  7. What do I identify with about this organization? What turns me off?

Questions to ask the organization

  1. What infrastructures are already in place for
    • training
    • on-boarding once you arrive
    • debriefing
    • member care
    • trauma care
    • emergency evacuation (physically, but also emotionally)
    • holding staff accountable
    • manager training (Pro tip: healthy management is often taken for granted…until it isn’t there)?

    2. How has your organization and its goals changed to respond to the changing face and theology of missions? (How are you doing missions differently now than you used to?)

    3. How have you dealt with burned-out missionaries in the past?

    4. How do you work to increasingly partner with nationals?

    5. What’s the missionary community like in the area(s) we’re considering? Are there children our kids’ ages? What are the educational possibilities?

    6. Can you offer us any anonymous examples of how you’ve dealt with conflict or missionaries’ “red flags” (porn addiction, severe anxiety, depression, etc.) while on field?

    7. What are your expectations for emotionally healthy home assignments, including

    • timing
    • how we would spend our time while in our passport country
    • ways to replenish ourselves and address needs harder to meet on the field (counseling, etc.)?

    8. What ways do you help missionaries succeed cross-culturally? Who will introduce us to the country cross-culturally?

    9. How do you partner with other organizations interdependently?

    10. What options will be available to us if we need counseling?

    11. For what matters (e.g. with extended family) do you encourage missionaries to return to their home countries temporarily or long-term?

    12. Describe your prayer support system.

    3. Consider your singleness, gender, and unique family structure.

    Questions for Singles

    Elizabeth, a missionary with SEND International for over 37 years, advises these questions for singles:

    1. How are singles, especially single women, viewed in your organization? Can they hold ministry leadership positions?
    2. If singles are part of a team, is there a good balance of singles and married couples?
    3. How is the support structured for singles? Is it assumed they will live with another single or do they have the freedom to live alone?
    4. What are your policies for a single marrying someone from their country of ministry?
    5. Is a single woman treated at all differently than a single man? What is the difference?

    Also, if you are dating or engaged, how does this affect you joining that agency?

    Questions for Families

    Families might also consider questions like these:

    • Jesus sent his disciples out in a minimum of twos. How do I see our family connecting with other like-minded families in the area we hope to go?
    • What are expectations for standards of living, e.g. appropriate and inappropriate levels of comfort?
    • If my marriage or a child needs immediate help with emotional issues, what are our options?
    • What’s the expectation of involvement for missionary spouses?

    Find even more questions to ask of agencies here and here.

    We want to hear from you.

    What questions do you find it critical to ask to find an emotionally healthy missions agency?

    Comment below!

5 Character Potholes to Avoid Overseas

Reading Time: 4 minutes

character overseas

Wondering what kind of character essentials should be “packed”, so to speak, before heading overseas? Well–let’s look at what you’ll need to leave behind.

Character Potholes that can keep you on the shoulder

Rigidity/Hypercontrol.

Hopefully this one’s a bit of a gimme if you’ve already traveled overseas. Friends of mine used to joke about “Africa Wins Again” days–when a rat eats the special food you brought from home. The electricity’s been out for three days. And the government accidentally shuts off your cell phone.

It’s helpful for me to think of going overseas like skiing moguls: Keep your knees loose, not locked. If you like specific ways of doing things, missionary life might just eat your lunch–and even faster than everyone else’s. (Check out My Story: Culture Shock, Mayonnaise, and the Last Straw).

Cross-cultural relationships require character with a formidable degree of flexibility, an openness to acquiring other pieces of your God-puzzle.

Domineering-ness/suppressed superiority.

(We made up domineering-ness. It just fits.)

To go overseas takes some take-charge character: You’re raising support, navigating a new city, muscling through foods you’d rather leave looking at you on the plate.

More important, you’re saying, “Here am I! Send me!” Picture a missional Rosie the Riveter: We can do it!

If you don’t have that can-do character, you’ll tank.

But my 10-year-old bragged the other day about “making someone a Christian.” I stuck my head into his Bible study with friends: “Um, Son. Only God does that.”

You may have heard the old song, “Rescue the perishing; care for the dying.” We are only the rescuers only because we are the rescued. If we come in with a Savior complex, we’ve got serious issues.

Essentially, our job as missionaries is still to work ourselves out of a job: for nationals to take the helm and lead their people well. Because redeemed Asians will naturally know best how to reach Asians; because redeemed Africans should guide the African church.

Rachel Pieh Jones warns unflinchingly about our tendency as humanitarians to develop dependency–our need to be needed.

Friends, our goal is not to remain in charge.

It’s one of the reasons to learn a people’s language, even if they speak English. You can take on the posture of a learner, rather than lofty teacher–both in your eyes, and their own. Every person on the social ladder now has something to teach you. And you have a way to laugh at yourself.

To be an effective global worker is to be an effective learner and listener. Because one of the most important characteristics for any missionary is humility. I have often found it in the best missionaries.

We must spend time studying, learning, and loving long before we spend time sermonizing.

(Don’t miss When the Rich from the West Don’t Know They’re Acting Like It.)

Oversensitivity.

Living overseas is filled with lots of weird moments. You’ll forget that as a woman you shouldn’t touch men in the Middle East, or that in East Africa you don’t step over someone’s outstretched legs.

Or vice versa: Someone will say something that sounds an awful lot like an insult (“You are fat, madam!”). Maybe they’ll scorn you because of your skin color. Or make catcalls that make you feel like a jogging piece of meat.

Then there are the moments with tired, stressed expat staff.

Sometimes you will want to push them out of a window (into the bushes only, of course). You will sometimes feel you are constantly living in the stressed version of yourself–the one where your frontal lobe is so exhausted that your emotional control is paper-thin.

We need rhino-thick skin with the same petal-soft hearts inside. Build resilience of character for the sake of the kingdom. Develop the brand of love that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); that finds glory in overlooking an offense (Proverbs 19:11).

Self-pity.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “Refuse self-pity. Refuse it absolutely.”

The temptation to revel in martyrdom seems magnetic in a world where sacrifice and small griefs are around every corner. (Sometimes they’re in the form of stubbing your toe on yet another uneven “sidewalk” or set of stairs, or a laundry trip that sucks up an entire day.)

Character-wise, you’ll be in the interesting place of trying to be completely honest about what’s going on inside of you, without complaining about it. (Careful: Expat gatherings can double as whine-and-cheese parties.)

So yes, pay attention to the “dashboard lights” of your emotions. Don’t opt for dishonesty in your own heart. Mourn what is wrong about this world and what you’ve lost. Part of true character is “truth in the inward being”, in which God delights (Psalm 51:6).

But grieve alongside of God, welcoming him into your frustration rather than turning to bitter blame. Cry with open-handedness toward God–“Not my will, but Yours”–rather than entitlement. (Check out the difference here.)

Fear of conflict.

I kind of hate conflict. With the exception of my anger issues with my kiddos, conflict tends to sideline me in a head-between-my-knees, breathe-into-a-paper-bag kind of way. It’s super-attractive and mature.

But James reminds me, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1).

Conflict flays open the idols I’m so often attempting to conceal. So rather than run away, arms pinwheeling, I can’t waste my conflict. My character needs it.

It is, as Relational Wisdom 360 will tell you, a chance to

  • glorify God
  • grow to be like Christ
  • bear fruit
  • serve others

Conflict brings too many avid, gifted global workers off the field. Don’t waste that totally awkward conflict. Let God form it into a stronger relationship, a stronger you, and a stronger ministry.

Posts we love:

The Cultural Iceberg: What You Need to Know about Cross-cultural Communication

What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”

The Cultural Iceberg and Identity: Collectivist vs. Individualistic Societies

 

Simply Indispensable? On the Importance of Your Work (…Or Not?)

Reading Time: 6 minutes

necessary irreplaceable indispensable

Ever lost a job?

Years ago, after a frequent series of layoffs in my company, the axe finally fell on me.

The identity issues were thick, hairy, and real. But for all I thought I was contributing, it was the first lesson of many for this overachiever: You are dispensable.

I’m sure this lined my brain when a dear friend announced her retirement years later. I was stricken. I felt I was visualizing the handwriting on the wall for the organization’s future. What will they do without you?

Her words still stick with me: “For any one of us, when we take our hand out of the sand, the hole fills in.”

This felt so counter to the mores of American childhood: You are special! Your role matters! We can’t do this without you!

The ante increases when we’re going overseas. People are unreached. People are hungry. People are hurting and uneducated. We left so much--so much--to come here, because the work is indeed vital. And we spend many long days disciplining ourselves to persevere because all of this matters intensely.

But could danger be lurking there, too?

Simply INDISPENSABLE?

Fast forward several years to where I was happily nested in Africa. It had been five and a half years of a technicolor life, doing work that felt, and is, necessary. But as circumstances accumulated, reality settled on my shoulders me like a lead vest: We might need to leave Africa.

There were legit concerns about who’d continue our work after our departure. But a strange thing happens when we say goodbye. If I can leave, how essential can this work be? Isn’t this work important? Doesn’t it matter?

(Don’t I?)

“Hi. I’m a freelance writer” just doesn’t have the same shine in an introduction as “I teach refugees in Africa”. For awhile, I specifically kept myself from mentioning Africa in conversations (while still longing to bring it up, since my heart was bleeding all over the place). I knew the value-add it communicated about my work—and that honestly, I craved.

I still believe this: The closer we get to God’s heart, the more his unique image is realized in us. And yes, it’s critical.

But bigger than our unique contribution is the magnitude of our God.

#MinistrySuperhero

One blogger writes of our “superhero complex” in the ministry we perform.

Do you believe that God is powerful enough to accomplish his will without you? Are you fully persuaded, as Paul was writing from prison, that God will finish the good work he has started, whether he uses you or not?

When we begin to imagine that without us this ministry or church would no longer function let alone flourish one thing is certain: we have developed far too high a view of ourselves.

A second thing may also be true: we have created an unhealthy, not to mention unbiblical, ministry structure or strategy that makes us appear not only integral but indispensable.

But God does not need us. You may think your church needs you but bear in mind that it is Christ’s church, not yours. It got to where it is because of his sovereign grace and God willing it will continue long after you are gone.

The God-complex

Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, in (the must-read-for-every-potential-global-worker) When Helping Hurts, write truthfully and ominously about the God-complex we Westerners often adapt overseas. It is

a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which [the economically rich] believe that they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves. (p. 61)

This causes me to peer inside. I recognize the part of me that not only sees myself as needed…but perhaps a touch more than that.

Perhaps at times I’ve seen myself as savior. Perhaps I’ve identified not just as someone who needs to go, but someone whom others can’t live without.

When You Take a Fish from a Westerner

In her painful-to-read post, Upside Down Dependency, Rachel Pieh Jones reflects,

What if the person at risk of developing the dependency is the humanitarian?

Humanitarians need the local person to be needy. We need a job, we need to feel useful, we need to feel value, we need to produce. We need gripping photos for fundraising attempts. On a more heart level, we need to feel powerful, in charge, and heroic.

The needier the local person and the longer they remain in that state, the more secure we are in our position.

The effective aid worker must be willing and able to clearly evaluate their impact and step away when they are no longer necessary. Isn’t that the whole point? If not, it should be.

Becoming no longer necessary needs to be one of our primary goals. If it isn’t, the program or project being implemented needs to be reevaluated and adjusted accordingly….

The ego of the humanitarian is dependent on the need of the local….

“Take a fish from a Westerner and he’ll stick around for a day. Let him teach you to fish and he’ll stick around for a lifetime. (while eating a lot more fish than you will ever catch).”

This could be any one of us.

We long for our sacrifices to feel necessary. For our work to feel intensely, eternally valuable.

And sometimes, we have internalized the antithesis of the Gospel: I am more valuable because of what I do for God. He’s lucky to have me on his team.

I cannot rest or step away from my work. It is too important.

I am too important.

indispensable

I Know. Fear Not

So in light of all this, I was fascinated by this anecdote of Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India for 55 years without furlough. She’s always felt (suspiciously!) larger than life to me, with tremendous insight, dedication, and tirelessness.

But I didn’t know until recently that in 1931–24 years before her death–she was severely injured by a fall, leaving her bedridden.

Blogger Tim Challies reports,

Shortly after her accident, Carmichael had voiced the fear that her injury had left her too great a burden to others. She was concerned she’d prove a hindrance to the work she had begun. A friend brought comfort by drawing her mind to Revelation 2:9-10 which includes the words: “I know” and “fear not.” Carmichael had the words painted onto a two-part plaque and mounted where she could always see them.

Even in the gravity of work like Carmichael’s, God had a season for when she would step back; when she’d need to embrace the humility of not-doing, and having others do for her.

When my work’s significance = My value

I simply tend to link my own sense of my work’s significance with my value. It’s hard not to in a culture where we value effectiveness. Achievement. Usefulness. An ability to change our circumstances for the better. But as good as those are, sometimes my disdain for the commonplace boils to good ol’ fashioned pride; to self-importance.

I’m not sure God shares my American value of usefulness in the same way.

He somehow saw Paul and John the Baptist and all but one of his disciples as not-too-useful or indispensable to be removed from the planet as martyrs. In fact, even Jesus remarks, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (John 16:7).

It reminds me of Carmichael’s famous words to a young prospective missionary: “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.”

No matter how critical the work (parenthood, pastorship, poverty relief, the Great Commission)–it is simply a chance to take up our cross, and follow.

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Never Forget: You are More than What You Do for God

Never Forget: You are More than What You Do for God

Reading Time: 5 minutes

rest do work for God

We know it. You know it. Heading overseas is this tornadic level of activity.

I remember fantasizing about the moment I’d finally click my seatbelt shut on that 757: At least–after finally checking our exactly-51-lb.-bags, shuttling four kids through security with every device we still owned, and waving goodbye to the posse of weeping family–I couldn’t do anything else for nine whole hours. (Um. Except entertain a toddler and keep him from driving the rest of the plane bonkers?)

The Quiet Lie You Might End Up Believing

Our to-do lists morph once we move. And it often feels like the gravity has grown: Help the poor. Tell more of the lost about Jesus.

There can be a subtle message we internalize as global workers: My dad really values me for what I do. 

Courtney Doctor writes in her book Identity Theft of lies that tempt us from our core identity as children of God:

The lie of the slave says you have to work and work hard, to secure and sustain the Lord’s love…your worth is tied to your ability to produce and behave.

….The lie of the orphan says you’ve been abandoned and are all alone. No one really cares about you, provides for you, protects you, or loves you.

All That is Mine is Yours

Months ago, I was skimming through the story of the prodigal son (side note: do not miss Timothy Keller’s podcasts on these). My homeboy in this story has always been the elder son; the good one.

My heart actually bends for his hot anger: I can picture the tears on his face, his wide gestures. I’ve heard a translation of them in the stories of so many exhausted servants of God: Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends (Luke 15:29). (It is not lost on me that at the end of this story, it’s not the younger one who remains far from the father.)

Once, on a vacation taken in the midst of ministry, I found myself profoundly struggling with guilt. Everything in me felt like I’ve finally set down an overstuffed backpack. But Africa had stained itself on the inner walls of my cranium, and there on vacation I felt sickly indulgent. I’d seen too much poverty. Too much need.

But there on my getaway with a side of guilt, I tripped over the words of Luke 15 in a new way. Son [/daughter], you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 

When God is Your Excuse

This braided itself with the words of Peter Scazzero in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He warns us not to use God as an excuse for avoiding pleasure he created for us:

God never asked us to die to the healthy desires and pleasures of life—to friendships, joy, art, music, beauty, recreation, laughter, and nature. God plants desires in our hearts so we will nurture and water them. Often these desires and passions are invitations from God gifts from him. Yet somehow we feel guilty unwrapping those presents.*

I see a similar take in 1 Timothy: For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer (4:4-5).

“It’s Not for Me”

Obviously we could use overindulgence as a willingly blind excuse for our own idols, our own selfishness. But imagine my daughter rejecting the gift I’m brought her from that vacation: I just can’t. It’s not for me.

Nope. I bought it specifically for the smile on her face; to remind her that even when she can’t see me, her well-being is on my mind.

I think of God’s seven-times-yearly scheduled festivals (and most of them breaks from work) for his people, his years of Jubilee, the Sabbaths he associates with himself. I think of my chief end as a person–not just to glorify God, but enjoy him.

Believe it or not, there’s specific biblical evidence of this for people just like me (and maybe you).

rest do for God

Paul and Barnabas Take a Beat

In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas have this crazy path of circumstances–not the least of which is a little stoning incident (you read that right) in which Paul’s left for dead (read=traumatic missionary experience) and then somehow rises when the disciples gather around him.

But get this:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled.

And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.

And they remained no little time with the disciples.

Here’s what I read (admittedly drawing a few assumptions of my own):

  1. They left churches they’d started in charge of faithful caretakers.
  2. They went back to the place they were sent from.
  3. They shared their stories. They celebrated.
  4. They spent a good amount of time with their tribe, their people. They rejuvenated. Rested. Reflected.

Why Your Rest Matters to Your Gospel

I get the idea that Paul and Barnabas understood they were more than the numbers they produced. More than their churches.

I get the idea they saw themselves not as glorified slaves, but as sons.

Hearing any implications for that kind of soul-level rest? Of their acceptance and utter loved-ness, apart from what they do?

It almost sounds like…

The Gospel.

A friend recently reminded me of God’s reasoning for the Sabbath as described in Deuteronomy 5 (more on this in the next post.):

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Our rest, physically and spiritually, is a sign of our freedom. That we are more than worker bees, but rather cherished, fought-for, liberated children.

Our Western Christianity, often so intertwined with achievement and appearance and ambition, must listen to the heartbeat of the Gospel. We must start from the place of God’s acceptance, and work out of that love–rather than working for that love and acceptance.

When you rest, you restate the Gospel all over again to yourself, your family, and those you’re discipling.

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Open Letter to the Spouse Who Doesn’t Feel as “Called”

Reading Time: 5 minutes

spouse called

Hey.

Every situation is different, I know. But I’ve talked to a few of you.

I’ve seen the strained look on your face—not just the usual culture shock or pre-departure if-this-country-doesn’t-kill-me’-packing-for-it-might expression. There’s a nearly imperceptible tightness in your smile.

Because you signed up for this. But at the same time, didn’t. You signed up to follow Jesus, your name on the dotted line beneath the great Commission. And the ring on your finger keeps reminding you of unending constancy; faithfulness.

(But did that mean my spouse’s dreams? You wonder every now and then.)

Or maybe your brain has signed up, knowing God doesn’t just call one of you. (Right? you ask me.) Knowing he asks a whole family to go or to stay.

But your heart signing up? That part could take awhile. And unfortunately, with the lack of medical care for your kids and the size of the reptiles, it could take longer than you planned.

I’m obeying you, Lord. This is my choice. (Write this down—I made the right choice when it killed me, and took me away from my mother living right down the street to help with the kids.)

I don’t know if you’ve already made your decision, or are waffling a little as the gravity of this choice starts to show like the hem of a slip. (Spoiler alert: At the end of this post, you will still not know exactly what to do.)

I can only tell you what I know.

If you’re going to say yes, own it. 100%.

This decision is hard enough when you feel completely called and feel no hesitation.

But what’s not okay? Choosing to be powerless.

When it was time for us to head back from Africa, that’s the time I felt the least “called” anywhere. It felt like a perfect storm of circumstances were grounding us from flying into Uganda—and what had become like home.

During that tumultuous home assignment, we were straddling two continents and homes. And that included, what? At least three sources of identity for me.

I remember words my husband spoke to me as we wound our way over a New Mexico highway. He cautioned me, encouraging me to dig into my confusion, my low-burning anger.

He said something like, You cannot just push yourself forward in obligation, and pretend your passions don’t matter. People who do that are in danger of a couple of things. They could end up jaded and bitter…or as Pharisees, doing the right thing on the outside and empty or dead on the inside.

Neither of those sounded really lovely to me. I had to mind the gap between my heart and my decision. It took a lot of soul-tending; wound-tending, if I was honest.

You might chuckle a little, and tell me your desires don’t matter: I know how this one ends. The guy who doesn’t go gets eaten by a fish, then vomited onto the shore he was called to in the first place. Thanks, but I prefer British Airways.

Understand if you go, friends, this is your adult choice. You cannot blame God. You cannot blame your spouse, when the days are long or the neighbor kids won’t stop knocking at your door or one of you catches malaria.

I had no choice. Therefore I blame you.

Following our “shoulds” can stand in the way of us accepting responsibility for our adult choices. We use others as a shield, acquitting us if something goes pear-shaped. We blame others for our passivity.

But if obedience is my choice—if I’m not obligated, shuttled into a choice, but rather acting volitionally—I choose not to make myself into the image of someone else. I choose the image of God in me, and I freely accept the good and bad consequences.

Abraham was not dragged up the mountain with his son in tow. Jesus was not pulled to the cross, heels dragging. It was his faith-filled, pain-stuffed, I’m-all-in choice.

As written in this essential post, =&0=&

Why? =&1=& And I believe the demands and required teamwork of overseas living require more buy-in from a spouse than simply submitting to another’s passion.

I have seen this subtle, underground division work its way into the cracks of a marriage’s foundation like ivy, spreading slowly in a thick blanket—so a person hardly notices until it’s nearly too late.

There’s such wisdom in the words of 1 Peter: Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 

That verse ratchets things to a whole new level, right? It’s not just unity of action. It’s my mind as one flesh with yours.

Whose Calling is More Important?

“Calling” gets tricky these days. It can be wielded as “a rubber stamp from God on doing what I really, really want.” But Jeremiah, Jonah, even Jesus? They had words with God about their calling.

And the truth is, “calling” gets tricky in a marriage. Because few of us have had actual writing on the wall. We’re usually synthesizing passions with Scripture and the world’s need.

But what about when your spouse’s desires are different?

Desires are not just something to steamroll over as an act of faith. Trying to rid yourself of desire is actually more…Buddhist. We see Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane of total honesty with his desire, yet total surrender.

God put you in your marriage as well as your spouse. He may have given you your desires so you get to just the right place at just the right time.

And it may or may not be where you think.

Um. …Did I Marry the Right Person?

At some point, you might find yourself wondering if you’ve married the right person. Can your callings or dreams or whatever-they-are be so divergent? Did I hear God wrong somewhere in there?

Remember: “What therefore God has joined together…” Don’t get me wrong. Your decisions and choices matter. But as Job declares to God after seeing him, no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Over and over the Word reminds us it’s God who directs our paths. And like Joseph says to his brothers, even what we intend for evil is used by God for good (Genesis 50:20).

Your marriage by God—this team of the three of you–was on purpose.

And so is his plan for the Great Commission. And in that impeccable timing and orchestration, he hasn’t asked every part of his Body overseas. “If they were all one member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:2).

The needs of so many around the world are great. =&3=&

In case you missed it, allow me to say it openly: God accepts you fully whether you go overseas or not. Whether or not this is an “obedience” issue for you isn’t something our blog can weigh in on. But do the hard work of exploring your call together, knowing your particular application of the Great Commission is your joyful choice.

Side note: Depending on your theology, you may feel that this is an area where you need to submit to your spouse. That may be the case. But let us encourage you that–as demonstrated in Esther or Ruth or Proverbs 31–submission does not mean silence. (Jesus shows this in his submission to the Father in Gethsemane.) And God is the author of women’s dreams, too; check out Jesus’ words to a woman about the priority of following him over family.

What now?

Like I mentioned in the beginning–I promise you no easy answers.

This is your time as a couple to be transparent, to think deeply and broadly (and Scripturally) about what is right and good for your marriage, your family. It’s time to seek God’s face together, for what you can willingly, open-handedly give him.

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Crossing Cultures: Adding More Pieces to Your God-Puzzle

Reading Time: 4 minutes

One of the fun parts of going overseas? Seeing new layers of your family show up.

When we first moved, my then-two-year-old–just a toddler–showed himself as one of our primary cultural ambassadors.

Normally in Uganda, a woman is referred to by the name of her eldest son, or the son people know best. So I would typically be Maama-[name of my oldest son]. But nooooo. I was always Maama-[name of my youngest son]. Security guards would say, “Greet [your youngest]! And the others.”

His pizazz and pure personality unleashed in East Africa’s uber-relational culture. We found out that my son, wherever he goes, makes fans.

(Side note: I still remember cringing when at a routine traffic stop by a police officer, my son offered said officer a piece of gum–after which the police officer promptly waved us on. Did my toddler just bribe the police?!)

You could argue he was two–so of course his personality fleshed itself out. But it happened with all of my kids. I had no idea my daughter could play with people of any race or socioeconomic status. I’d never seen my husband’s generosity so abundant, or his courage in navigating a new culture to advocate for his family.

Through You, I See More of Him

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis makes the remark that when his friend Charles died, instead of having more of his friend Ronald to himself, he actually lost part of Ronald. Only Charles could display Ronald in the certain ways they responded to one another.

You may have seen this in a spouse: What if you’d never seen him or her as a son or daughter? As a parent?

Relationships bring out aspects of people we’d otherwise never see. How much more does another one of God’s image-bearers enlighten who God is?

And how much more could intimate knowledge of another culture blow the doors off our knowledge of God? 

Adding the Color of the Eastern Sky

When I first read the passage below, I loved the words of Charles Freer Andrews. But i loved them more when I read his bio on Wikipedia: Church of England priest. A Christian missionary, educator and social reformer in India, he became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and identified with the cause of India’s independence. He died in 1940 in Kolkata, India (i.e. Calcutta. A close friend of Ghandi? M-kay. I give. That’s cool.)

Andrews writes,

Since I have learnt to know Christ afresh in this Eastern setting, it has been easy for me to point out the weaknesses of the portraiture when His character has been depicted with only Western ideals to draw from, as though these comprehended the ‘fullness of the Christ’. For in such pictures the true proportion has not been kept. Some of the marked traits of His character have not appeared at all. Much has been lost. Some day I would like to draw His likeness anew, with the colour of the Eastern sky added to the scene.*

Andrews points out that Jesus was born very near “the concourse of the two great streams of human life in the ancient world, that flowed East and West”.*

The Puzzle

And perhaps this is what I can’t articulate well to friends back “home”–i.e. my passport country. I’ve seen an entirely different side of God as it is fleshed out in Ugandan culture alone–not to mention my refugee friends from Eritrea, Ethiopia, North Sudan, South Sudan, Congo.

It’s as if God has taken jigaw puzzle pieces of himself, shaken them, and scattered them throughout every culture around the world. The more cultures we know, the more of his world we see and intimately understand, the more of him we’re able to piece together.

Though I’ve attempted to catalog my life lessons from Africa–what I’ve seen of God--it’s beyond what I could write in a lifetime.

Just like no one will ever know my spouse as I do, having seen him in thousands of different contexts–the image of God I have witnessed has left me marked indelibly.

Andrews continues,

….For the supreme miracle of Christ’s character lies in this: that He combines within Himself, as no other figure in human history has ever done, the qualities of every race.

….For those who, through intimate contact with other races, have gained the right to be heard, have borne witness that each race and region of the earth responds to His appeal, finding in the Gospel record that which applies specially to themselves. His sovereign character has become the one golden thread running through mankind, binding the ages and the races together.*

And perhaps that’s what amazes me: That as I learn more of another culture–and more of God’s image–it is indeed his character that binds us together as humans. Together, we look like him.

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*In Baillie, John, ed. A Diary of Readings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons (1955), Day 23.