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?
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.