Recently I sat with another missionary, stocking feet curled beneath us. We were reflecting on some of the more painful parts of missionary life.
I’m talking things that were hard to understand if you hadn’t been overseas, hadn’t had moments in a foreign land defined by sacrifice or loss. They were like scars, covered by clothing.
(If I lift up the tail of my shirt right here, I have a story.)
There will be scars
I thought of this as I recently said an emotional farewell to Asia-bound, intimate friends.
In some of our last in-person reflections for awhile–when asked for further advice–I told her this gently (and in the context of advice and encouragement much more inspiring): She would return with scars.
She was already experiencing this. They were saying emotional goodbyes to friends and parents, to relatives with real health concerns. Her daughter’s pink bike had been given away, alongside her son’s crib. The family dog had been given a new home.
“Why Would You Do That to Your Body?”
It reminded me, actually, of pregnancy, then having children.
After my first child was born, I stood in my mother’s kitchen talking with my sister, who was at that time still childless. We discussed things that didn’t work quite as before since I’d had a baby. (There were more than one.) That conversation was even before a C-section scar frowned over my abdomen.
Let’s just say I lack some physical functionality, some beauty, some parts that will never bounce back to their taut little selves.
(And that’s just the physical side of having kids.)
My sister asked, her face a mixture of horror and disbelief, “Why would you do that to your body?”
She was asking the right question.
I recounted this to my friend before she went overseas. Why would we do this to our bodies, our souls, our emotions, our families, our careers?
Right question. Friends, he is so worthy.
Led into the discomfort of Love
You may well encounter disease or traffic accidents or lack of top-shelf care for your special-needs child. Someone may die in your arms. You may be bribed by police or even taken into prison. You may miss your niece growing up or your dad’s 60th birthday party. Friends will overwhelm your heart, and then you will say goodbye to them. Poverty may reveal itself in ways you can never un-see.
And it’s likely you’ll come home both in awe of who you’ve seen God to be…and with God-sized question marks only to be answered in Heaven.
In some ways, I came home wiser. More sober. I felt like I had invisible, aging wrinkles around my heart.
(Note: As you encounter trauma and hardship overseas, take the time and self-care you need for God to speak to and begin to heal your soul. What if you gained the whole world…and lost it?)
I told my friend that having my old body, my old self back could never be worth the trade. (It wasn’t that spectacular in comparison anyway.) My scars mark where God has led me into love.
In a world that prizes loveliness and comfort, let us strategically choose moments of un-loveliness and pain.
Let your hands need lotion because you’ve washed dishes in a place where you can’t easily get a dishwasher. Or because you made a meal for someone who could use a pick-me-up.
Get a few sunspots because you spent time walking with a friend and forgot sunscreen, or pushed a child on a swing.
Grow a callus from writing notes to encourage or thank someone.
Let your fingers clench every once in a while because someone without a voice isn’t getting justice.
Following the One with Scars
But more than that, when we choose God’s will, we follow a God with scars.
One of my favorite verses has been this one:
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me. (Isaiah 49:15-16)
My name was engraved with spikes on those palms that hold the world in his hands.
Even after Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t lose the scars (see John 20:27). And in Revelation, we know Jesus appears as “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:6).
If you asked him, he could tell you a story of a good King, betrayed and disbelieved, of a Son given as ransom for many. Of blood spattering, and neatly folded linen.
Put your finger here. See my hands.
In going overseas, we invite scars because of the Savior we follow and the way he loved.
Mark my words: You will not come back the same. In loving, there will be pain.
But in eternity, I doubt your scars will mask much, if any, regret.
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.