The last few weeks have been hard. It has not been one hard thing, or even something major, just a steady beating of difficulty. In this short period of time our washing machine broke, our remaining solar batteries (the others were stolen) quit charging, I messed up our generator, and our water pump mysteriously stopped pumping altogether (meaning no hot water). We have made a lot of good progress in Bible storying and literacy, but the success has also been marred by critique. It seems there is always someone ready to let me know what they don’t like. We have also been going through a long, difficult time with our kids. And on top of all of that my cat bit me and for the last week my hand has been swollen and infected and I have felt miserable.
I honestly am not the “depressive” type and usually this sort of stuff does not get to me. But recently, I have just found myself frustrated, tired, and questioning if this is all worth it. I figure that I am not the only missionary who feels this way, so I thought I would work through it here and hopefully in a way that helps other missionaries. If you, like me, find yourself unhappy and questioning, here are a few thoughts.
Some things you are feeling are true
Just the other day a man called me and was very rude. He had run into one of our new Kwakum booklets and did not like the way we were writing in Kwakum. He yelled at me for probably 15 minutes as I just listened. The thing is, we have worked for four years to be able to have this writing system. We have had innumerable meetings and, in fact, it was the Kwakum Language Committee that chose the system. His attacks were unjustified, and the problems he had with the writing system could probably be resolved in less time than it took for him to yell at me (one simple literacy class is all it takes!).
It was wrong for this man to treat me this way, just as it is wrong for my kids to disobey. It really does stink that all of my appliances are dying at the same time. I’m not misunderstanding. I’m not overreacting. I just live in a fallen world where stuff breaks and some people are mean.
We are trained as missionaries to be slow to judge. When we see something in the culture, when people interact with us in a certain way, we chant the mantra, “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different.” However, being slow to judge does not mean we never judge. There are some things that are actually bad, wrong, and sinful. We do well to call sin, sin. Pretending will not help us through the difficult times.
Paul reminds us that it is right to groan in Romans 8. Here is what he says,
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)
So, my advice is to let yourself groan. I just had a rough conversation with a national colleague and I know that he is not happy with me. I hate that. I hate that our relationships are broken here. I long for a day when will no longer sin against one another. I long for a day when there will be no more misunderstandings or hurt feelings. And that longing is good because it acknowledges that there is something better to come. It is good for us to acknowledge what is bad in this world, and how it hurts us. But I see some warning here too: we must make sure that what we are feeling is true.
Some things you are feeling are not true
Recently I have had some patently absurd ideas come into my mind. I feel like everyone here is against us, or that our ministry is entirely in vain. In talking to a fellow missionary the other day, she said she found herself wondering, “Have I ever really been happy?” Such are the kinds of thoughts that run through our mind during times of unhappiness. This is not something new, not something uncommon to our fellow man.
When Elijah was frustrated with his life as a prophet he literally despaired of life. God fed him, let him sleep, and then finally appeared to him and spoke to him. Elijah vented: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:14). There was truth to Elijah’s claim. Many of the people of Israel had abandoned the Lord, many of the prophets had been killed, the king and his wife were unrighteous and wanted him dead.
But, Elijah was wrong too. “And the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him'” (I Kings 19:15-18). Elijah’s feelings were too extreme. He was not the only faithful one left, not by far! There were 7,000 that had not given into the idol worship of their leaders. Elijah had listened too much to his own feelings, rather than examining them.
In his book Spiritual Depression, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” Lloyd-Jones references Psalm 42 and 43 quite a bit in his book, and these lines in particular:
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 43:5)
Here the psalmist is not content to give into his feelings. He sees that his soul is deep in unhappiness and he calls out to himself, “Why are you cast down?” And then he preaches to himself: “Hope in God!” and he reminds himself of future hope: “I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
Brother and sister missionaries, we need to preach to ourselves when we are downcast. We need to remind ourselves of truth from God’s Word. We are in a very unique line of work. We are among the few who can say that our task has been commissioned directly by Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20). We are among the few that can say our success is guaranteed (Revelation 7:9-10). And we know for sure that this great success does not depend on our capability, but on the God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Don’t just listen to your sorrow, don’t allow your thoughts to go unexamined. There is much sadness, hardship, sickness, and death behind and before us. But we are not without hope. To the contrary, our salvation comes from the only one who cannot fail. This is not to say that it is easy to see past our present unhappiness, but that it is possible.
Though it’s not easy, joy is the goal
I listened recently to a good interview with Randy Alcorn. He said that he went through a period of four months of depression. I don’t know if you know much of him, but he is a godly man who has written very encouraging books about heaven. The problem was not that he did not know the Word, the problem was not that he lacked faith, but that joy seemed distant.
Sometimes life is unhappy. Sometimes life is fine, but we feel unhappy. We cannot change bad circumstances or when people sin against us, but we can check our feelings against his Word. However, that does not mean all of the negative feelings will just go away. In those times it is both difficult and essential that we seek for joy. Paul (who had his share of hard times) said:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)
It is here that we are called to trust the Lord. We are called to believe what is true even when it does not feel true. God calls us to rejoice always, which means joy should be our goal. We cannot resign ourselves to a joyless existence. Pray for joy, even on the hardest days. Fight for joy, knowing that joy is the right reaction. Repent of joylessness, even when it feels like joy is impossible.
Here are a couple of recommendations as you wrestle through unhappiness on the field:
Read God’s Word. I once heard someone say that we should only read God’s Word when we have the right attitude. For my own heart, I can see clearly that often the right attitude follows obedience. The Bible gives us so many truths that can help us see past our present struggles. Turn specifically to the Psalms and ask that God would teach you what he taught the writers.
Ask for joy. As I said, joy is the goal and the correct reaction. God loves to give us joy, but he does want us to ask.
Don’t wait to honor the Lord with your thoughts. I think there is a temptation to see a lack of joy, and then to dwell there, waiting for something to change. Alcorn points out in his interview that many Christians have found that they have grown the most when struggling. Whatever your struggle, God is using it for your good (Romans 8:28). He is using this time to make you more like him. Don’t waste suffering. Honor the Lord now, trust him, and beg him to help you see his designs.
Don’t make career decisions while unhappy. I have found that it is unwise to do grocery shopping while hungry, to discuss relationship status when angry, and to make career decisions when unhappy. There are good reasons for missionaries to leave the field, but the rises and falls of our emotional reactions are not those reasons. Every time I have tasted such unhappiness, in the end I have come to the conclusion that it was worth it.
I have found that one of the lies of unhappiness is that it will last forever. Have faith, press forward, fight for joy. It is worth it, it will end, joy will come, and the Lord will be pleased.
*image from upi.com