On Trusting God with Those We Leave Behind

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It must have been around the time we left for Africa. I can’t tell you exactly.

In the midst of weighing (over and over and over) plastic bins and duffels, hauling kids for immunizations, and making decisions on an African rental, sight unseen–a phrase from my mom sticks in my mind.

She referred to my sister: Just remember that even though you’re losing a lot, you’re going toward something.

But she’s just losing something.

“I’m Sorry; I Will Be Missing Your Life”

I still remember our last night with family before we rolled/tripped/toddled onto a 757 bound for the eastern hemisphere,  We clustered in my mom’s house as everyone played board games and tried to ignore that the world as we knew it would change the next day.

What I remember primarily was my nephew, sitting on the carpet, just ten months old.

I knew how fast babies grew. I had four of my own. But it felt overwhelming to miss his life.

It was similar to how I’d feel months later, standing in the red dust of our Ugandan driveway at twilight. It was the only place I could get reception. “We’re pregnant!” the same sister was gushing over the phone.

The powerful emotions that pulled me were so disparate: Joy over a third baby born to some of my favorite people in the world. Sorrow because I wouldn’t see the pregnancy, wouldn’t meet my niece until she’s getting ready to walk.

And as for my parents? It was staggering to me that their reward for great parenting was years of her grief, where they waved to wiggly grandkids through a screen. (My sisters and I were all on different continents at that point.) At Christmas, our stockings often hang slack on her mantel. Their love was physically present mostly through care packages and envelopes with promising-looking bulges. (Don’t miss this Letter to the Grandparents of my Third-Culture Kids.)

leave behind love family

“Who Will Be Jesus to Them If I’m Not There?”

But it’s not just about the healthy relationships we leave behind.

Sometimes it’s also, “Who will be Jesus to this person if I’m not there?”

This is where we get into rugged territory. I’m talking unbelieving family. Aging or cancer-ridden parents. Friends in a torn marriage.

(And if you’re not already investing in these areas–being a missionary where you’re at–that would be a red flag, right?)

As Sarah Hilkemann writes in “When Your Yes Impacts Other People”,

We take these steps of obedience as we keep up the lines of communication between the Father and ourselves, but we are not alone in this life. Our decisions, our actions, impact those around us. This is the joy of life in community, but it is also the messy, crazy and sometimes painful part.

What should we do?

That’s an answer you shouldn’t get from a blog. (So there’s that.) If you expected us to fall on the side of “The right answer is always to go overseas!”–alas, we must disappoint you.

The best we can do is to give you a few points to think on, to hopefully launch you in the right direction.

1. On Your Knees.

As Hilkemann alludes, prayer is essential here–and not just for the people group you’re moving toward.

Because the Gospel matters in your passport country, too. It matters in your family.

Sometimes, like the Good Samaritan, we will be delegating care to someone else. Sometimes a solution for what we leave behind will not be apparent.

Honestly, aging parents and my kids’ education factored into in my family’s returning. It would be hypocritical for me to ask you to ignore your own family factors as you determine your response to an overseas need.

But John Piper offers a compelling and necessary perspective in “Risk Your Kids for the Kingdom” (a must-read): “Come, my precious children, learn from mommy and daddy what it means to live with joy in the service of the King.”

…Wherever we live.

2. Do Not Think More Highly of Yourselves than You Ought (Romans 12:3).

As you weigh options, it’s necessary that–on both the side of leaving and of staying–I remind you to keep a sober view of your dispensibility.

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.

3. Discern When It’s Time to Let Go.

Author Ruth Haley Barton, in her excellent (and recommended!) book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, explores the life of Moses–which, as you recall, did not result in Moses seeing the completion of his life’s work.

She writes of her longing to be like Moses,

A person through whom God can perform whatever deeds need to be done–mighty or otherwise–but also a person who can be just as content settling down beside a well or sitting on the side of a mountain in God’s presence…Someone who, when God says, “It’s time to let go; it’s time for you to come home,” easily lets go and rests in the arms of this One whom she has grown to love and trust with her very being.

Whether we’re going there, staying here, or coming home, we are surrounded by surrender.

Amy Carmichael’s famous words to a young prospective missionary are relevant: “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. 

Not to be the superhero. the savior, the indispensable missionary or humanitarian or son or daughter or friend.

Barton quotes a prayer written by Bishop Ken Untener in memory of modern martyr Oscar Romero:

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction

of the magificent enterprise that is God’s work.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of

liberation in realizing this.

4. Say the Right No’s to Get the Right Yeses.

In life, we are constantly saying “no’s” in order to get to the correct “yeses” God has for us.

My husband and I left behind dear friends whose marriage was hurting. Imagine our surprise, a year in, when a mutual friend called us.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but they’re…flirting. It’s really weird.”

When we saw our friends in person–it was indeed a happy weirdness. They’d forgiven each other after decades. Who would have thought?

Another relative who’d been distant from God–which twisted our hearts as we left–joined a Bible study in our absence. She’s now walking powerfully with God, teaching Sunday School on the side and raising her kids to love him.

What I’m not saying

“If you go overseas, trust God that everything will work out as you hope.” Said no one’s Bible ever.

If anything, going overseas has reiterated loudly to me that God is not a God of my plans. I am not entitled to a blessing of my choice because of my obedience. That’s a central life message of Job, John the Baptist, and Jesus.

I think it’s more like this, as Timothy Keller shared on Instagram recently:

Missions does not make us Teflon. God’s promise to us in going overseas is not that he will accomplish our punchlist–but that he will perform his.


Like this post? You might like

My Story: Surrender–and the Dreams We Give Up

Does What I Want Matter? On Desire & Dreams (…and 7 Reasons not to Go Overseas)

The Art of Saying Goodbye