Often in the face of dangers, missionaries reassure themselves that if just one soul is spared from Hell and spends eternity worshipping Christ, or if there is a Bible left behind, or a church is planted, then their missionary service is worth it. The crisis for the missionary comes when there is no visible fruit. The scales in the mind of a missionary are constantly weighing the cost-benefit of the choice made to leave the familiar and embrace the foreign. It is when the costs are forefront in the mind of a missionary and the benefits are non-existent that a discouragement creeps in. This discouragement leads the missionary to believe that his labor is in vain, his language will never come, and he would be better off returning home.
What is discouragement?
Bob Schultz says in his book Created for Work that “Discouragement is allowing your mind to keep your body from doing what it ought to do” (Schultz 2006: 105). Discouragement is a mind game that leaves the house a mess, vocabulary cards untouched, and people unprayed for. Discouragement is letting obstacles, sorrows, trials, frustrations and obstacles turn our eyes inwards instead of turning our eyes towards the mighty power of God. In the words of Schultz: “Discouragement defeats a worker…Discouraged people think too much about themselves and too little about God” (Schultz 2006:103).
What to do when discouraged
1. Believe what you can’t see
If faith is being confident of what we cannot see, discouragement is refusing to believe that there is good in store. Discouragement says that there is no hope, things will never change, the language will never be learned, and the peoples’ hearts are just too hard. Faith says that even though there are way too many tones in the language, there is only violence in the streets, and people think I am here to inflict harm in some mystical way, with God all things are possible. Faith says that in all toil there is profit. Discouragement is a preoccupation with our own weaknesses while faith is a preoccupation with God’s strength. Faith remembers that God can raise the dead, turn water into wine, and change the fate of rulers with little servant girls who fear God. Discouragement says, “Why would God change this stubborn people?” Faith says, “Why would he not?” Discouragement looks at the obstacles while faith knows that no obstacle, no matter how great, is any match for the power of God and his disposition to save the worst of sinners.
Even if in a jail cell, or at the end of your contact list of people to call to ask to partner with you in missions, you can believe that the Lord is working on your behalf and there is good in store.
2. Keep working
Sometimes there are days of little faith. Sometimes there are days plagued with discouraging thoughts that refuse to be silenced. And yet, even on those days, good work can still be done.
“A discouraged man doesn’t have to stop living. He doesn’t have to wait until he feels joyful to accomplish his work. When you are committed to a job that you don’t feel like doing, do it anyway. Waiting until you feel like working promotes laziness, destroys your productivity, and clouds your mind. By the time you feel like working again your tasks have multiplied.” (Schultz 2006:104)
Maybe at the end of the day, the missionary will still be discouraged, but what is certain is that he will be more discouraged if he has accomplished nothing. So, setting feelings aside, the missionary can still make calls to enlist more supporters, attempt to talk to their neighbors, or awkwardly teach a Bible lesson. Even if there is no promise of discouragement lifting, at least others can be served in the meantime.
3. Don’t Compare
The farmer who plants while crying and the farmer who plants while whistling in his joy will both receive a harvest. Psalm 126:5-6 says “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” In the same way, the missionary who spends three years studying the language while loving language learning and the missionary who spends five years hating every second of it, will both learn the language. Not everyone on the field will enjoy the same kinds of things; and yet, where there is labor, there is profit. Even though one sowed the seeds of the Gospel while crying and the other does it joyfully, both missionaries have the same end: rejoicing.
As missionaries, we have a great enemy whose mission is to get us to stop doing our jobs. This can be done through sickness, fear, political instability and if those don’t work, then there’s always the fallback of discouragement. But even in the midst of deep discouragement may we endure in the work: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).