I have a friend who grew up on the mission field and even though both she and her brother grew up as MKs (missionary kids) their lives today look very different. Currently, she is a missionary while her brother totters between being called an atheist or an agnostic. Apparently, this scenario is not uncommon: some MKs live passionately for the Lord and his work and others want nothing to do with Christianity. While there are certainly plenty of exceptions, it seems often the children of missionaries fall to one extreme or the other.
If then there are a great number of MKs who do not and will not believe, then what could their role be on the field? Aren’t missionary kids supposed to be little missionaries to their peers? What good purposes could God have with unbelieving and even rebellious MKs in Kingdom work?
I believe that Satan can use unbelieving MKs to discourage their parents and render them useless on the field through many lies. However, I also believe that God’s intention is to use the difficulty of having unbelieving children to strengthen their parents and, by extension, to grow his church abroad.
Unbelieving MKs humble their parents
There is nothing more humbling than talking about translation principles with a group of nationals only to have your son walk into the room wearing nothing but his underwear because he refuses to do his laundry (hypothetically speaking, of course). There is nothing more humbling than creating a writing system and literacy materials for an illiterate people only to have your own children complain about homeschool with the best curriculum in the world at their disposal. There is nothing more humbling as a Bible translator than to have your own child throw his illustrated, leather-bound Bible on the ground in disinterest in front of the people you’re trying to win (I mean, I can imagine). In those moments, Satan whispers, “You can’t even save your own children who HAVE the Bible, how do you expect to save this entire people group who still DON’T?”
But, those whispers are lies. The truth is that missionaries don’t save anyone. They don’t save their neighbors. They don’t save the village chief. And they don’t save their unsaved children. Salvation is the work of God alone. He has mercy on whom he has mercy and he hardens whom choses to harden. And so, the missionary parents of unbelieving children are once again on their knees praying to God to do what only he can do: open blind eyes and give life to the dead. Paul describes that trials on the mission field thrust him to lean upon God:
…We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-10
Lest the missionary get the impression that he is God’s gift to the people group, God, through the rebellious MK shows the missionary that he alone is capable of saving souls, changing lives, and raising the dead.
Unbelieving MKs make their parents stronger
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance. – Romans 5:3a
The sufferings that come from having unbelieving children on the mission field are real. As unbelieving MKs act according to their nature, they actually work against the ministry of their parents. I’ve heard of parents seeking to teach village children Bible lessons, but actually spending the bulk of their time trying to get their own children to stop disrupting. I’ve also heard of parents that have tried to teach basic hygiene to the community while their children follow them around eating trash off of the ground. I’ve heard of MKs who have gone out with their parents to do ministry in the village only to steal from their impoverished neighbors. One MK looked at her parents and said, “See, I told you God wouldn’t answer that prayer.” In light of these stories, I am reminded of these little squirrels that we have here that follow around farmers and dig up all the seeds that they are planting, undoing all their hard work.
Again, the devil comes along and whispers, “Just give up. You’ve got too many difficulties at home to start thinking about reaching out to the community.” And yet, the Word of God says that neither the gates of Hell, nor one skeptical MK will prevail against the growth of the church of Jesus Christ.
As these parents continue to faithfully do ministry with a handful of bickering children in tow, their drive, resolve, and endurance grow stronger every day. The children aren’t actually weakening their parents’ ministry, they are instead being used by God to make the determination and will of their parents as strong as iron. If missionary parents are able to be faithful in ministry inside and outside of the home with the difficulty of rebellious, unbelieving children, then you know they will never throw in the towel in the face of hard days in ministry.
Unbelieving MKs put their parent’s character on display
There is a saying here in Cameroon: Tout est facile chez les blancs. It means, essentially: “Everything is easy for white people.” One time Dave went to stop a man from beating a rebellious child in the street with a stick. Trying to call for peace one mother said: “What?! You think it is easy? Do you want to take him home and raise him yourself?”
So, what do you think would make a greater impact on this community: “White people” who have perfect, easy lives with perfect, easy children? Or Christian parents responding day-in and day-out in a Christ-like way to their own difficult children? What would explain the Gospel better: Missionaries who appear to never sin? Or Christian parents who lose their cool, and then confess and seek forgiveness?
No one is interested in peeking in the windows of a perfect little home, but when people see the children trying to like the cat on fire (again), they wait with anticipation to see how the parents will respond. And when the parents respond with grace, and forgiveness, people begin to understand the Gospel. And when the parents respond with sin, but then confess and repent, people begin to understand the Gospel. Either way, it is beautiful and compelling.
To conclude, I am reminded of the story of Shimei in 2 Samuel 16 who walked alongside King David just to curse him, throw dust and stones at him, and make his journey difficult. When David’s warriors asked permission to take off Shimei’s head, David said:
Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today. (11-12)
We can notice two things that led to David’s acceptance of the trial: 1) He was convinced that the trial was from God’s hand, and 2) he was hopeful that the Lord would see the added difficulty Shimei brought to his journey and reward him. The King of Israel thus went about his way learning to endure, learning to trust God, one tired step at a time. Later in the passage, we see King David arriving at his destination, weary. Yet, it was certainly times like these that shaped him into being one of the greatest kings the world has ever known.
I don’t know if Shemei ever repented of his disrespectful, torturous actions towards David. I hope he did. And I don’t know if all of my kids will ever repent and seek Christ. I hope they will. But what I do know is, I can’t wait for that to happen to seek to honor God among the Kwakum. Some days I will plod in tears, but I will keep moving ahead. Ministry to them, and ministry to the watching world, is not vain and may we all endure like David did, one difficult step at a time.