Last July Jesus asked me to follow him to the hardest place I could imagine. After only seventeen months in the Middle East, that region I’d loved for years, he asked me to follow him back to America.
It didn’t make sense to me or my husband. What about the years we’d spent studying and getting cross-cultural experience? What about the support we’d raised, our success in Arabic, the many relationships I’d made with women, the school where my husband was supposed to teach? What about the words of fellow workers? “You guys have had an awesome first year,” people said. “You are ideal long-term missionaries.”
“I don’t understand,” I told the Lord. “I don’t want to, but where you go I will go.” I couldn’t rely on myself to make this decision. I was sick—so sick that the day we moved into a furnished apartment in the Midwest, I was too feeble to make the beds or hang up my clothes. So frail that people brought meals for six weeks. So depressed that I cried multiple times a day, so racked by anxiety that short drives threw me into panic.
For possibly the first time in my adult life, I stopped. I was laid down in green pastures, like it or not. I couldn’t minister to refugees or prostitutes. I couldn’t reach out to my neighbors. I couldn’t speak another language. Heck, I couldn’t go to church without having to sit after one song. I’d never experienced “overwhelmedness,” but now I felt it hourly. All my life I’d been capable and qualified, driven by high expectations. I’d been missional and lived radical.
Then I found myself in the States, flat on a brown corduroy couch from the 60s, startling when the gurgly old air conditioner dropped into low gear. I felt shattered, humbled, and ordinary. And as I battled a third month of unexplainable insomnia, this truth filled my dimmed eyes and overwhelmed my trembling spirit: Jesus still loved me.
Cognitively, I knew he would. That’s what the Bible says, what every kids’ song points toward, what I’ve told myself and others my whole life. He loves me no matter what. He loved me when I was his enemy. My acts of obedience do not change my value in his eyes. I would have denied it, but I’d been living like God was more pleased with “radical” Christians. I’d swallowed a lie—the false hierarchy that said I was more special than others in my church because I was a missionary.
A year and a half of life in the Middle East was what it took for Jesus to strip me of my strength and the expectations I had for myself. It was what he used to expose my sinful heart and to take away anything I had to offer but the sacrifices he does not despise: a broken spirit and a contrite heart. In this place, I tested the limits of unconditional love and found it has no bounds.
When people asked how we were really doing, my husband and I started to say that we were hemmed in by love. We began to see that being forced from our field was grace. We’d thought God wanted to save Arabs with his truth and that he was going to use us in that work. Instead, we saw that, at least for now, he wanted to work in us, pressing his truth into our hearts.
And so, in a strange (and very-like-God) paradox, this most-difficult act of obedience became my door to delight. As I slowly regained physical, emotional, and mental strength (after finally being diagnosed with PTSD), I got to feasting on the Word, written and living. After months of scavenging in the desert and sustaining myself with Psalms in the night, I opened the New Testament and read like I’d never read it before. While processing traumatic experiences and memories, I found Jesus—my darkest hours shot through with his glory. In his presence was so much joy, joy I’d partly lost in my frenetic service, in my sometimes dutiful and strained friendships with unbelievers over the years.
“It’s like getting saved again!” a friend in a similar situation exclaimed as we compared notes on our recoveries. So true, I thought. This redemption was definitely more majestic than my saved-and-baptized-at-age-eight testimony. This fall was not what I’d expected; this second salvation was not what I’d asked for. But praise God—he knew how to let me fall without dropping out of reach, how to rescue and remake me—my jar-of-clay cracks wider and more numerous, the better to let his glory through. He knew that, just like the people I’d gone out to reach, I, the missionary, needed saving too.
Esther Kline (a pseudonym) is a sinner saved by glorious grace. She currently lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and four-year-old son, after a wild year and a half in the Middle East. When asked to finish the sentence “My family is special because…” her son answered, “Because Jesus loves us!” That pretty much sums it up.