Missionary Persistence

This article is for missionaries who are under duress and stress in their ministries and are seeking advice and consolation in how to endure.

The idea of going out and conquering the world is a common thought among many people, but the reality of it is very uncommon. People who want to be missionaries are idealists, which want to extend the kingdom of God. I have met many missionaries in my 40 some years of being involved in missions, and I have even met a number of “missionaries” from other groups and mind-sets, including mormon missionaries, Jehovah’s Witness missionaries, and other “off the wall” brands.

What I see in many of them is the pursuit of adventure. That is great, but God’s work is not built by these kinds of people. That is because once the adventure and “fun of it all” turns sour, they usually go somewhere else, go home, or get turned off and do something else even if they stay in the foreign country. To be a missionary is to confront the tedious daily frustrations of being both a pastor and living in a foreign culture. (Many missionaries today have dumped any concept of pastoring or starting a new church, and they seek “new forms”).

But none-the-less, problems constantly confront the missionary, and one of the constant beginning-to-end assaults is “Why don’t I give this up and go home?” True missionaries, good missionaries are people on the front lines of Christianity, confronting the unsaved in religions that are far removed from the US “Christian population”, and the frustrations and burdens of this is great.

Being a missionary and pastor for close to 30 years now, I think that people are people no matter where you go. Although my people eat tortillas every day, their problems are still the same as any people in the US, marriage problems, problems with rebellious kids, trouble making ends meet, etc. There are few problems unique to my country (maybe with the exception of a stomach ache from eating too much hot sauce).

Give up your right to US standards

If you are a missionary, you must persist in your calling and ministry. One of the first things you must deal with is your rights. You have no rights as a child of God. Perhaps the only “right” you can justly claim is the right to suffer and be punished for your sins. Nobody wants that right though. If you “give up” (self-denial) you  right to have what they have in the US, then you are a long way down the road of surviving and flourishing as a missionary. As a missionary, we understand that our journey on this earth is simply a “passing through”, because our home is in heaven.

It is frustrating to do without the simple things Americans take for granted, but we look beyond the loses we suffer on a daily basis to the end reward of God’s blessing and pleasure on us. Personally I think that the key here is to just change your preferences. If you learn to like and accept the food where you are, then things will be better and easier. Someone once said, “Grow where God has planted you.” The point is to flourish as a Christian in any circumstance or situation. That is part of our spiritual duty, to take the currect situation and make the best of it for Christ.

Refocus your delights

Another thing that is very helpful here is to refocus what makes you happy. If you want American football, and that is the only thing that makes you happy, and your village doesn’t have ESPN, then you are never going to be happy. Note the problem though. First you set your delight on something that is not biblical. I don’t know if that is wrong, but if it destroys your spirit, your joy of serving, if it constantly frustrates and depresses you, it is a sin.

The solution is simple, find delights that are “national”. I live in Mexico. Soccer is the national sport. If I was a sports nut (I’m not), I would switch my watching of sports from American football to soccer. Problem solved! The point is that there are things that you can focus on to make you happy.

The first years I spent on the field of Mexico in 1986, I had a support level of $550/month. My rent was $300, and my car insurance was $80/month. Language school was $100/month. My tithe was $55/month. Frivolous things like food had to be sacrificed. I saved a dollar or two each month in order to have $10 to buy me a nice meal on my birthday. I was single, alone, and things were depressingly hard. Needless to say, those first years were an experience to be forgotten! What I can “take away” those years is that I had to change what “delighted me”. I decided at one point that I was not going to let the ups and downs of my checking account decide whether I was happy or sad, encouraged or depressed. I decided that to be free and independent of my checkbook. I was going to be happy and delight in life whether I had money or whether I didn’t.

A few things that I learned:

1) Look at what does delight you, and what should delight you. 

I was happy when somebody gave me $50 dollars. I should have been happy when somebody got saved, or dedicated their life to Christ. As I began to analyze this paradox in my life, I realized, there is an aweful lot of things out there that can and should make me happy that really don’t cost much! I looked at friends, the new Mexican friends I made, and some missionary friends I made. This is where probably my first heresies entered in my thinking, because I placed an extremely high value (very delighted) sitting around a pot of coffee fellowshipping with fellow believers. I decided that there must be coffee in heaven, because eternity is a long time, and we just have to have coffee to sit around and fellowship with one another. (That is probably a David Cox heresy, but I still believe.) I found that being with other people in church or after church with Christians valued a lot more to me than “things”.

A word to the young crowd out there. Analyze carefully and focus, FACEBOOK is a thing that shouldn’t delight you. Fellowship with Christians and witnessing is something that should. Use Facebook to focus on the good thing (fellowship with other Christians and evangelism) and don’t let the technology over take you. You can do the same thing with a telephone or a block of paper and envelopes. The young crowd depends on modern techonology “toys” to make them happy, and this is a sin in itself. Your joy should be in fulfilling God’s commandments, not new things.

2) Don’t swing so high so you won’t swing so low.

Life is like a swing, the higher you go on one side, the higher you go on the other. I found that the more I got excited about things, the emotional I got, and the more lower the depressions got. I do get happy sometimes, but controlled happy. If you let your emotions run wild, you might not like where they take you.

3) Look around outside, not always inside .

Living like an American in a foreign country with a restricted income is difficult, probably next to impossible for many people. I had my list of things that “I had to have”, and I had to wait for trips to Texas to renew my immigration papers before I could purchase them. With such a limited income, coming up with several thousand dollars for buying everything I wanted was impossible. I could only purchase a few things off of the list, and instead of 6 months worth of them until the next border trip, I could only buy a few. In Mexico at that time, there were no American candy bars. My favorites were/are Baby Ruth and Butterfinger. I would buy a box of each of them, and then write the dates on each bar of when I could eat it so that I had at least 1 bar designed for every week until I went back to the states. Ridiculous, oh yes, but deadly serious. An American missionary came in my house to visit, and one of their kids found my stash, and wanted a candy bar. Oh how hard it was for me to dole out candy bars to him and his brothers!

One of the things that I found was very helpful is this, I started asking my Mexican friends how they were able to live in their environment. Surprising they didn’t see living in Mexico City as a hardship but a great blessing! How? They focused on other things. Many came from the countryside where there is very little, and what they had in Mexico City was a treasure trove of goodies! As I meditated on this, I realized that we had different “delights”, and as an experiment I even offered one of these Mexican friends a Baby Ruth candy bar. They didn’t like it. Tastes can be formed and changed, and that is what we, as God’s ministers, have to do in order to survive and flourish as a missionary. I learned to eat what the Mexican culture produces. Not only do I eat that, but I like it.

Mexicans see hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza as American food. Fine. Every now and then we do pass through Texas in our duties as missionaries and I pick up a package of grits to remind me of my roots, but truthfully, that one package of grits has lasted for years without being depleted. If you adapt to the culture where you serve, you like what they like (within limits), you will do yourself a great favor in the end.

You should see how poor people in your culture live, and live like they live. This is very easy to do, and many people in cultures around the world live on a few dollars a day, and put Americans to shame. This helps more than just on the budget. It helps on the nerves and stress of living. You can find these things in the markets, and you “uncomplicate” your life.

4) Don’t demand high standards.

Whereas I am a Fundamentalist, I ALWAYS demand high standards. But truthfully, in a lot of the material things in my life, I settle for the substandard Mexican version. There is a need for that decision. First, the “high quality American” version of things often is simply not available. Second, even when there is a high standard verison of things, most of the time it is outside my economic possibilities to be constantly buying them.

A thought or focus that is helpful here is that I am a traveler passing through, so I want sufficiently nice and useful things as serve me, but not luxuries. If you were traveling by foot across Asia, carrying what you own on your back, would you purchase a $1000 chair to sit on, carrying it if it weighed 30 lbs on your back, or would you get a rock or stump and sit on that and then leave it and look for another? The latter right? Likewise, think what usefulness is this? Frankly we have lived for most of our married life (1993-today) using a folding table and folding chairs for our dining room eating place. We have had dining room set at times (usually somebody in our church here donating one to us, or we find a good buy on one), but it is not a necessity, or a demand that we HAVE TO HAVE IN ORDER TO BE HAPPY.

You cut your own throat when you set your standards so high, and then you have to generate income to pay for those luxury items.

5) Develop a work mentality, not a play mentality.

The problem with Americans (and many other nationalities) is that they have a play mentality. They work a little in order to enjoy their delights (vacations, trips, luxuries, etc). Instead of living for these toys and goodies, try living for Christ, and making your service for Him the maximum pleasure in your life. If you want to get away for a while, do it. But don’t make it the highlight of your life. It is not productive to dwell in high pleasure and luxuris. It develops a depression if you don’t “get it”, and every time you go on vacation, you want to do it a notch higher the next time. All of this focuses life on pleasure and not serving God.

A dentist cannot do a good job fixing teeth if his mind is on playing golf. You become worthless in your profession if you are constantly distracted from the main thing by the friviolous play things in your life. Vacations and luxuries should be pushed totallyout of your mind until they come up. Work with singleness of heart and devotion for God.

6) Be open to new forms of doing things, instead of insisting on knowing what is best always.

To be truthful, most missionaries are arrogant. They come to a foreign field to “convert the heathen”, and their attitude is that the way people here do things is just wrong. They want to impose the American way of doing things on them. America is the envy of the world, but much of the world hates us for what we have. In reality, most Americans are materialistic, and this is not good as a Christian. Sometimes other people in other cultures do things better, and we should be open to that possibility, and basically if there is nothing inherently wrong with a different national way of doing something, we as Americans shouldn’t impose our view and way of doing things on them “just because”.

7) Glory in what God gives you, not what stress out on what you don’t have.

So many people have taken Christmas so much to heart, that they live a constant Christmas wish list mentality. Their prayer life is one that is never satisfied with what God has given them, but is always focused on getting, getting, and getting more. Rarely do these kinds of people thank God for what he does in answering their prayers, and rarely do they meditate ON WHAT THEY HAVE from God as blessings.

Make a list of your problems and needs. Take your problems and mediate on how what is the silver lining in that problem. I came to Mexico with a van. It has blown the engine, and a mechanic in the US bought it, fixed it, and sold it to me. When I first got it, it already was well worn. I put many miles on it visiting churches in the US. Then I took it to Mexico. When the engine blew on it again, I didn’t have funds to fix it, so I abandoned it. I got depressed because I had no vehicle. I lived about 3 years without one. During the first few months, I took public transportation, and sometimes taxis. What I noticed was that I had more money available somehow. The van took a lot of money for upkeep, insurance, repairs, and tires and gas. (the silver lining was now without it, I had more cash)

The point is that as a Christian I believe all things, even the calamities of life are planned by God, handcrafted by him just for me. Rom 8:28 If that is true, even the bad things in life have some divine purpose for me, and I shouldn’t get depressed or complain to God about them. I should accept them and praise and thank God for them.

A lot of times perspective is the key. How do you “take life”? Given a lemon, make lemonaide. The point is not what bad happens to you, nor what you “don’t have”, but rather how you see these things. It is amazing that the poorest of people in the world often are the happiest.

Eccl 5:12 The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.

Money, possessions, wealth, these things do not give happiness. They complicate our lives, and try to force themselves to be idols in our lives. It is sad to see so many missionaries have so much money, and this becomes stumbling blocks to their spiritual life and ministry rather than blessings.

See Cargo Cults

Missionary Persistence