The Myth of the Ever-Happy Missionary

by Kathleen Shumate on May 26, 2017

I don’t know if anyone has actually said it, but sometimes I feel it in the air: missionaries are supposed to be Very Happy. We are supposed to land in our host country and immediately love everything and everyone around us, floating on clouds of ministry bliss.

But sometimes we aren’t happy.

Sometimes as much as we love the people around us, they are also frustrating and hurtful, just like back in our passport country. Sometimes a cultural practice irks or disturbs us. Sometimes the relationships we left behind pain us, like a wounded foot that can’t quite heal because we keep walking on it. Sometimes we suffer from anxiety or depression or homesickness.

Maybe it’s for a season. Maybe longer. None of us wants to camp out in those places of heartache, but we do go there, sometimes for a while. Are the hurting missionaries less of a success than the happy ones? Where did these ideas come from?

With the advent of industrialization and modernity in the West, people’s lifestyles changed in ways that the world had never seen. Child and infant mortality decreased drastically; educational opportunities advanced; work was less tied to exhausting manual labor. These changes brought definite increases in quality of life and in what could be termed happiness. The right to pursue happiness is even tied into the major founding documents of the United States.

But the “right” to happiness has brought with it an expectation and a pressure: if we’re not happy, then we’re letting down ourselves and the people around us, who shouldn’t have to experience our unhappiness. The pressure can even come from a misguided attempt to be thankful for first-world advantages: if we’re not happy, then we’re not grateful enough for the benefits we have. The pressure is compounded for Christians and ministry workers: if we’re not happy, it’s because we’re not spiritual enough to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

The Lord calls us to contentment, certainly. We are commanded—and enabled—to have a deep-running river of joy in Christ even in suffering. But we may be called to seasons of sorrow and pain, or at least discomfort and longing. Where is the mandate to be happy?

If humans hadn’t rebelled against God in the Garden, if the Fall hadn’t happened, then we would all be supremely happy, with nothing to detract from it and no knowledge that anything could. His creation plan included our ultimate happiness, satisfaction, and bliss in paradise with Him. A time is coming when God will wipe every tear from every eye, and yes, we will be nothing but joyfully happy for all eternity.

But during this in-between time, temporal happiness doesn’t come first. In this fallen world, He is bent on our ultimate joy as it coincides with his ultimate glory. And sanctification often hurts.

Being happy all the time is not the point. We aren’t Christians for that purpose and we didn’t come to our host countries for that purpose. We came because God called us, because He has work to do here.

We can look at Jesus himself to see that the servant is not above the master when it comes to hard emotions. Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death (John 11:28-35); he was angry and even violent over the money changers’ sacrilege in the temple (Mark 11:15-19); he was grieved at the faithlessness of his disciples when they could not drive out a demon (Matthew 17:17). His negative emotions laid bare the gulf between what God designed for the world, and what it is. We are not sinless like Jesus; we cannot indulge personal anger and call it righteousness. But his example shows us the value of painful emotions.

Jesus himself—Very God of Very God—experienced and expressed anger and grief, and his Father was not disappointed in him. It did not mean he lacked self-control. It meant that he saw the broken situation rightly and longed for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Even more so, it meant that he believed in God’s coming, conquering Kingdom: he knew what should be, and he trusted that it was imminent.

Our negative feelings can point to the fact that this world is not conformed to God’s ways—that the Kingdom, while already coming, has not yet come in full. They point to the reality that there is much work to do in this world and God has called us to be part of it.

Now, if we need counseling, medicine, or a variety of other helps, then we should embrace them. It’s a wonderful gift from God to have medication to help sort out our brain chemistry, and relational help to help sort out our life experiences. Every part of us was broken by the Fall, so it’s no surprise when we experience difficult emotions; when they overwhelm us, we may need to put our trust in God by trusting his common grace of psychology and pharmacology.

If we let ourselves ride out the hard emotions, without catastrophizing them to signal the end of the world or heaping on guilt and shame, these emotions can clue us in to important things. Like how God is working in us, and how we are either cooperating or resisting. How he wants to challenge us, and heal us. They can help us work through loss and pain and be soothed by the peace of Christ. And help us to know ourselves and others, growing in our ability to offer empathy.

Our sadness and other non-happy emotions don’t have to destroy us or our ministry. They can be part of cultivating a life and ministry resilient enough to withstand brokenness and yet thrive. When we feel these negative emotions, we can go to the God who felt them too.

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About Kathleen Shumate

Kathleen is a daughter of God in awe of how He brought her from death to life, happy wife to Jonathan, and grateful mother to six children. They are missionaries with Mission to the World. Kathleen earned her B.A. in psychology at Rice University and her M.A. in counseling at Covenant Seminary, and she is passionate about fostering healing for women who are wounded and the flourishing of families. You can read more from her at kathleenshumate.weebly.com/writing.

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