I’ve always thought of myself as flexible and pretty laid back, able to go with the flow pretty easily. The thing about growth is that perhaps we may find that our image of ourselves hasn’t properly been tested, and that hardship may peel away our veneer to reveal character flaws that had been hidden underneath ease and comfort. Rats in the cellar and all that.*
I remember when we were preparing to leave for the field, I would be asked if I was nervous or sad to be leaving, and I would patiently and piously explain how we had been preparing for this process for years, and that we had been living across the country from our family for much of our married lives and were somewhat used to it. I knew in my head that there were things that would be difficult, but hey- I liked camping, and we were getting the chance to experience God in a visceral way that we probably wouldn’t if we stayed in America. I looked forward to the spiritual mountaintop I was sure was waiting for us in a place where we would be “forced to depend on the Lord”. The bubble of naivety floated with me from church to church, state to state, and the more I said it out loud the more convincing it was.
My ignorance lay in the assumption that dependence on the Lord would be a gift, neatly packaged and delivered, bought with the sacrifice of our lives being given into the service of the Lord. I perhaps knew in my head that this wasn’t realistic, but my heart was unaware of how painful and tiring the process can be, like a child who looks forward to growing up, only to discover that life wasn’t just staying up late and an end to homework. There’s a difference between knowing, and knowing.
Though we only spent about four months in Kovol as a family, they were probably the four hardest months of my life. It’s taken me a while to work up the nerve for this post, because I am a people pleaser (I know, I know, I’m working on it…); people’s opinions matter overly much to me, and the pressure to appreciate “the blessing of being a missionary” can be overwhelming.
It is also a hard post because the hardship of those short months was not due to our people (they are so kind!) or our coworkers (they’re awesome!), but due to my own unfulfilled expectations and poor spiritual upkeep. In my mind was a war zone of sadness, guilt and anxiety. I’d swing from guilt about the size of my house to guilt about how I was spending my time (family? language?? culture??? coworkers???) to guilt about quiet time to guilt about feeling guilty, all with alarming speed and agility, sometimes managing to dwell on all of these at once. Much of the guilt was unfounded, but as anyone who has been blessed with an abundance of emotions can tell you, it is easier to know that you don’t need to feel a certain way than to force yourself not to feel that way. I also missed my family and friends in the States (who would have seen that coming??), and as furlough was mere months away a sort of senioritis had set in and it made those last few months much more difficult. All of these swirled in my mind, seasoned with anxiety about Covid (both the sickness itself and how it would affect our travel plans), culture shock, house building and living in a construction zone, language learning, homeschooling…
It was exhausting.
Having now had a bit of time to work through some of this, I see some of Elijah in myself. Certainly not the Elijah who saw firsthand the Lord’s humiliation of Baal at Mt. Carmel, but the one who was afraid and depressed and overwhelmed and feeling distant because his expectations went unmet. What I appreciate about that story (1 Kings 19, for those interested in the full details), is that God didn’t come to him in frustration, telling him that his feelings were ridiculous given the miracles he had just witnessed (or ridiculous given that 4 months in the bush is really not a long time, so many have it so much worse…), but he patiently and generously gave him time, truth, sleep, and food. Having had all four of those since being back (perhaps an overabundance of the last…), I can see with a bit more insight how Satan and the sin in my own heart were working against me, and how I allowed it to lead me down a dark path with shocking ease. I am so thankful in my heart for the encouragement of so many people while we were there, especially from my coworkers, who were dealing with their own stress and culture shock (it seemed we’d cry and console in turn), and yet managed to offer love and support when it was sorely needed.
Whether the idea of sanctification conjures up the image of rubbing off the sharp edges of sin to produce a well-honed tool that the Lord can use or of a path of trust leading to an increasingly intimate relationship with Jesus, the truth is that it is time consuming and occasionally (or often!) painful to go through that process. The stretching and molding may result in beauty but it can be a beast of an experience. The thing is, every illustration I can picture is a process leading to more or less perfection (the perfect tool, the perfect destination), but it’s not as if eventually we’ll get enough star stickers to fill up our whole achievement chart. Once I learn that I can depend on the Lord in one area, I discover another where I’ve been clinging to my own effort. I find that the Lord is infinite in his faithfulness, and I am finite in my ability to discover the ways He is able to be all that I need. I may feel that I can put a star on the chart only to realize that the chart has grown.
This is not a battle won by any means; the first step in dependence is to recognize need and insufficiency, and those are incredibly clear, but it’s not as if seeing these realities is the signal that sin needs in order to move on to a different tactic. Without a constant inflow of truth, the enemy can continue to apply the same pressures as before. The enemy does not move on simply because we recognize his weapons.
If you think of it, pray for us. Pray for our coworkers. Pray for other missionaries you know who are in the thick of it. Pray that they are learning and practicing dependence constantly. Pray that they will be encouraged. Pray that they will have times to heal, truth from the word, a long nap, and perhaps some good food.
*in reference to a quote by C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity– highly recommended. If you have a moment (search Rats in the Cellar CS Lewis)