The great thing about Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets in our culture today is that we can take snapshots of our best moments and post them, creatively constructing a picture of our lives that looks like what we want our lives to look like. Publish all the pretty images and omit the ugly ones.
Missionaries are not immune to this either, especially me. I post blogs and send out newsletters focusing on the positives and failing to mention the things that are hard or just plain ugly. And so I unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally?) create a picture of a glorious missionary life that includes beautiful sunrises, smiling Africans, and success stories.
Learning to focus on the positive is a good thing, but hiding what is hard is not. In fact, looking back on my past three and half years in Africa, what has changed and grown me the most have been the hard things. And it’s the hard things that I am most thankful for because these have pushed me to press into Jesus and trust him more.
But I don’t post pictures of hard things. I don’t write about them in my newsletters. And I realize by doing this, I cheat you. I rob you of the full picture. And if what you see is only the glory and not the cross, then you are missing an important part, one that will maybe bless you and change you if you have the courage to look at it.
So at the risk of sharing an unconventional thing, I want to write today about an ugly moment, a missionary fail.
It was my birthday and I was working that evening, and I had asked the Lord for the gift of getting to deliver a baby on my birthday. He answered, but not in the way I wanted. Although the baby’s heart beat had been completely normal during a completely normal labor process, I delivered a baby at 23:20 that was blue, floppy, not breathing, and whose heart was barely beating. I spend thirty minutes with the pediatrician resuscitating the baby. We started an IV, gave medications, put him on a machine to help him breathe, and ran all sorts of lab tests, only to see that we were playing God to keep a baby alive that clearly did not want to live. And so the baby I delivered on my birthday died.
But that wasn’t even the worst part. I was so exhausted and so sad that I didn’t even want to talk to the mother. I blamed it on the fact that I had been up all day, had not slept a wink, and was now staying up all night. I blamed it on the fact that this month I have battled giardia, food poisoning, and viral bronchitis while still working four twelve hour shifts a week, which has left me physically fatigued to say the least. But what I also realized in that moment was that I was so emotionally spent that I had nothing to give to that mother. Instead of loving her, encouraging her, grieving with her, and who knows – maybe even having the opportunity to pray with her and witness to her – I avoided her because I was so empty myself.
I went home and wept. I wept for the loss of that baby, and I wept for disappointment in myself and my own weakness. I was too exhausted and drained to even love those around me who were hurting, and that was not okay.
Missionary burnout is a real thing. Maybe I don’t have it chronically, but I was definitely experiencing an acute case of burnout. I remember someone telling me once that those who are infused with the Holy Spirit cannot burn out, like it’s not possible. He is the oil in our lamps, and if he fills us, we cannot run dry. This means that if you feel burned out, burned up, depleted, exhausted, or dry, there is only one reason – not enough Jesus – and one solution – more of Jesus.
The next morning, I wept again. Not because of sadness and disappointment this time, but because of God’s faithfulness to me when I open up his Word to find strength. This time, he spoke through Isaiah 40, which says that He does not grow tired or weary. I’m encouraged to know that God does not get weary, but I’m even more encouraged to learn that I do not weary him. I commit the same sins, confess the same mistakes, come to him with my same bad habit of overworking myself until I’m depleted, and still he shares strength with me. The chapter also says that “even youths grow tired and weary, but those who hope in the Lord will have renewed strength.” One thing is clear from Isaiah 40 (really, you should read it again with this in mind): God will never share his glory with another, but he always shares his strength.
I’m a Martha by nature. I’m the one working hard in the kitchen, asking Jesus to send Mary in to help me. And every time I come to him overworked and tired, he reminds me, Only one thing is necessary. Come sit at my feet; Mary has chosen what is better by far.
God commands sabbath. Not only do we tend to skip out on sabbath, but we even exalt the opposite. We crown the people who always seem to be working extra hard for God, always spending themselves up for others. When really, the opposite is far greater, and it is what God desires first.
Perhaps this is the greater missionary fail – pouring ourselves out for God and others without filling up with him, without just sitting at his feet.
There it is. Out in the open. A not so pretty picture of missionary life – one tired, spent up little missionary who missed a moment to love because of her own self-inflicted burnout. But in her weakness, God was not wearied. He just said again, come away with me and rest. And now she is, and her strength is being renewed, and she is entering a covenant of sabbath rest all over again.
When Amy Carmichael (a renowned pioneer missionary to India) would write to her family and friends back home, she never romanticized the missionary life, but instead wrote about the in-your-face reality that there are many lost, dark souls that are bound for en eternity separated from God, and she begged people to pray.
In the same way, I don’t want to just post pictures of cute kids and write nice stories, but I also want to show you what it’s really like. The darkness and godlessness here is thick and real. I hear it with every Muslim call to prayer, a public proclamation heard throughout the entire city that denies Jesus as the son of God. An entire population is walking around living a life without hope and without Christ. Some have never heard, others still have heard and refused. Spiritual warfare wages for the souls of man. And we missionaries are faced with this heaviness every day as we work in the hospital full time and then use our free time to try to build relationships and win souls for Christ. It’s hard and sometimes feels fruitless. Therefore, like Amy Carmichael, I implore you to pray.
Pray for Jesus to come and soften hearts here. Pray for people to hear and believe the gospel. Pray for the Lord to send workers into his harvest field, and pray for his workers to be infused with his Holy Spirit, attached like a branch to the Vine, and immune to burn out because our God never grows tired or weary, and he shares his endless supply of strength.
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