In my previous job before becoming a missionary, my job was to identify problems for people. They would call my office in a panic, email me at all hours of the day, and even pop into my office, pulling tissues out of their purses as they walked in. It was my job to listen to their stories, look at what they had brought me, and try to piece together all the information to the point of being about to put a name to the issue they were facing along with a few recommendations.
No, I wasn’t a doctor and I wasn’t a therapist. When people came into my office with tissues, there were usually dead bugs, clumps of dirt, or decaying plant materials wrapped up inside (though a few times there were real tears too!). I was a county extension agent and my job was to “extend” agricultural information to the community. I’d go out in the field and teach, but a lot of days were spent behind the computer at my desk, a million tabs open on my browser and at least 3-5 books spread out on my table, helping a farmer or homeowner to identify the disease or insect that was causing harm to their plants.
I’d spend hours comparing photos of bugs and leaves online, asking a million questions of the owner to get the history of the plant. It was tedious, but I loved it. When I was eventually able to identify the problem, it was an incredibly satisfying feeling because it meant moving from a state of “unknown” to “known” and I don’t know about you, but my brain is inherently designed to like that.
Once the problem was identified, I would make a phone call or write up an email with further information for the owner about how to treat the problem. At the moment I hung up the phone or hit send, it was no longer my problem anymore. I put the books back on the shelf and closed out all the tabs on my browser. I was free. My job was done and this was the end of the road. It was actually pretty great. Unfortunately, this way of thinking and doing things is not too applicable in other parts of life….
As Christians, and particularly as cross-cultural workers, we are all faced with a great deal of problems and challenges that need solving or fixed every day. These problems range from purely physical issues like “Why is there suddenly an inch of water in my bedroom floor for the fourth time this year even after having 10 plumbers come look at the problem?” to deeper issues like “Why, even though I’ve known and lived and worked in this country for five years, does it still feel like no one understands what I’m really trying to say or where I’m coming from? Why can’t I seem to have a good relationship with this person?”
Because of the messy combination of language barriers, cultural lenses, gender biases, distrust of foreigners, underlying value systems, etc., sometimes these challenges take quite a lot of time to navigate and sort through before a problem can really start coming into focus, identified and somewhat understood. I’ll spend days, sometimes even months and years pouring through books and blogs and talking to friends and other missionaries about a particular cross-cultural topic trying desperately to pinpoint the source of my tension or misunderstanding with my Liberian colleagues.
Adding to the mess in my head though, I often find that while sorting through what appears to me to be merely external cross-cultural challenges, God is also asking me to search my own heart as He strives to confront me with some of my sins that might also be at play in this situation. When it comes to these matters of the heart, I will again spend hours processing things verbally with friends, scribbling out pages of thoughts in my journal, and begging God to give me some clarity.
Sometimes, God reveals the problem right away. But other times, it hides itself as emotions that I can’t easily identify…something that gnaws at me or pricks at me over and over again over the course of weeks or months. Sometimes, all I really know for certain is that something is not right with me and God. I know sin is there crouching at the door like a lion ready to devour me (1 Peter 5:8), but I don’t know which sin exactly it is, and that bothers me. For some reason, I want the lion to have a name…as if that would make me feel better (haha!?). But instead, God repeatedly allows me to sit in this state of tension; of wanting to know, but not knowing.
In one particular case, I remember it took me a year to finally understand and accept that the bad feelings and continual miscommunication I had with someone in my life stemmed from not only cultural and personality issues, but also my own sin. At that moment though when it finally clicked and everything came into focus, I felt such a weight lifted. The problems I had been experiencing that were once “unknown,” were now “known.” Although the diagnosis was quite bad (pride strikes again!) it was still in a way comforting for me because now the problem now had a name, it was identifiable. I had prayed the prayer “Search my heart and know me, Oh God. See if there is any offensive way in me….” (Psalm 139:23-24 NIV) and the Holy Spirit had led me here.
But at that point, all I wanted to do was just sit back and turn off my brain, hang up the phone, hit send on the email, close the journal, pack up all the books, and walk away from all this. I was tired. Unlike Jacob who had wrestled with the Lord for only a night, it had been a long drawn out year of wrestling with God before he could break through all the cultural noise and stubbornness in my heart and identify the real problem of sin. And I really wanted this to be the end of the battle, not the beginning.
But, it turns out there is just a little bit more to that Psalm 139 prayer that David had prayed:
“Search me, Oh God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my anxious thoughts
Point out anything that offends you,
And lead me along the path of everlasting life.“
(Psalm 139:23-24 NLT)
It’s not enough for us to just ask God to search us and point out our sins, but we must also be willing to go a step further and allow Him to then do the equally hard work of “leading us along the path of everlasting life.” Just because you give a problem a name, doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. A lion crouching at the door, named or otherwise, is still a lion crouching at the door! It needs to be dealt with.
It’s not the unknown parts or names of sin that should bother us and keep us awake at night, it’s the very existence of sin in our lives that should unsettle us to our core and bring us to our knees. If we are going to pray to God to help us identify a sin, we must also be willing to pray and trust that He will help us deal with it too! And that’s not a job we can just pass off to someone else to deal with, that’s really where the work, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, begins.
Because identifying sin is different than repenting of the sin and turning away.
Repenting of the sin is different than turning towards God and asking for forgiveness of the sin.
And asking for forgiveness is different than asking God to lead me forward in the path of everlasting life.
What are you asking God for right now? Are you content asking God for help just understanding your past and present struggles, or do you also want His help to carry you through all that is to come in the future too? Do you want a temporary enlightenment about your problems or do you want an eternal perspective in dealing with those problems? Do you want Him to merely to search your heart or to lead your heart? Is it enough for you to just be aware of your sin or do you also want forgiveness and freedom from sin? Are you good just searching for the answers to life’s problems or do you want life itself?
Keep doing the hard work of asking God to search you heart and point out your sins amidst the backdrop of this crazy messy life of overseas ministry. Find comfort and give thanks to God when these little moments of clarity finally arise, hard as they might be. But, don’t grow weary and let yourself fall into the temptation to stop there. We don’t just need God to search our hearts, we need Him to enter into our hearts, change them, and direct them. What good is it to know our sins if we also know we can do nothing about them on our own? Don’t just settle for the search. Ask God and trust God to lead you in the path of everlasting life.