Missionaries often have a reputation of being holy, serene and really spiritual people. I believed this too when I first started, but I soon realised I was wrong. For those who count themselves as missionaries, what I’m about to say will be no surprise to you. To others, you may have heard this, but do not yet quite believe this. Missionaries are broken, unholy and sinful. I would say, we are just like everyone else. I might go as far to say we are even worse.
Believe it or not, we squabble, get frustrated, offend people, throw petty tantrums (with others and with God). We develop saviour complexes; we go through seasons of being arrogant and believing that God called us because we are special and have the answers. We delude ourselves that God wants us to save the world. We fail in our Bible reading and our prayer life. We can be bad tempered. We try to do too much. We get caught up in ourselves and forget the important things. We continuously gets it wrong while trying to maintain the facades of getting it right, lest we be found out.
However, there is a painful privilege of being a missionary, and that is of the refiner’s fire. When you first arrive in your new country, you are suddenly like a young child. You literally know nothing. You don’t recognise half the things in the shops and markets; everything is unintelligible; even crossing the road becomes a totally different process. Nearly everything you took for granted is gone. Suddenly you are utterly dependent on others and on God.
In the first stage of arrival, praying constantly is easy. “Lord, give me strength and wisdom to go to the market and buy the food that won’t make me sick. Lord, help me understand what is happening.” I have a special travelling prayer: “Lord, keep me safe or make it quick.” Amen.
That stage comes and goes and after a while you become adept at surviving. But God isn’t done with you yet. Throughout the years we experience culture shock, frustrations, unexpected obstacles, leaks, floods, hot season, rats, mosquitoes, ants, bed bugs, power cuts, sickness, trying to survive a pandemic in a country where you don’t understand what is happening, other missionaries, lack of faith of the locals, your own lack of faith, not seeing progress and the fruits of your labour, feeling unappreciated. It can be hard. And the worst part of it is that it reveals to you how sinful you are. I can be short tempered. I can be resentful. I can be nasty. Not a little bit nasty like a frustrated cat; I can be a sly, spiteful, sharp-tongued, serpent spitting venom when I feel cornered. The missionary life (and I am told marriage is the same) is a mirror that shows you for who you really are. It’s also an x-ray machine, exposing what lies beneath the veneer of respectability. Missionaries are nice people, except when we are not. And that turns out to be a lot of the time.
But there’s two things that we can do with this horrifying information. We can become hardened and bitter. We can focus on the problems of other missionaries (because, don’t worry, they’ll have them too). We can establish a martyr complex. We can complain and close our hearts to those around us. This does happen.
The other thing we can do is realise we are in complete and total need of Jesus. His grace and power alone can sustain me. I’m becoming more and more convinced that God didn’t send me here to save the locals. God sent me here to save me from myself.
I’ve downloaded the Church of England’s “time to pray” app, that guides you through the morning and evening prayers found in The Book of Common Prayers. Every day it starts with “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.” Everyday we need saving. We need saving from our spiteful, supercilious, self-centred, sinful selves. Everyday, we need God’s assurance of salvation and his power to help us.
And my hope is, that eventually, God chips away at me enough, that the cracks grow large enough, the veneer wears down so thin that the love and grace of God in me shines through. I hope that the grace that I cling to and the mercy that upholds me becomes what people see. I don’t want people to say “Thomas is such a holy, serene and spiritual person.” I want people to say, “Thomas is broken and weak; but his God is good.” I want the cracks to start showing my beautiful salvation.