I am so excited to announce the release of my new book! It’s called Digging in the Dirt: Musings on Missions, Emotions, and Life in the Mud, and you can find print and Kindle versions here.
Digging in the Dirt contains some of my most heartfelt writings, and addresses things ranging from depression and anxiety, to TCKs and what flying taught me about missions.
It addresses married sexuality on the field, as well as what to do when the thief steals and the power goes out. It’s got some poetry, some top ten lists, and some laments. It’s also got some seeds of hope, and it is my deepest desire that it would encourage and bless folks all over the globe.
I’ll post the text from the back cover and the preface below.
I’m so grateful for the community here, and I’m grateful for my editor, our very own Elizabeth Trotter! Have a wonderful weekend, and may the love and peace of God be very near to you and yours!
all for ONE,
From the back cover:
Welcome to ground level, to the dirt and the mess.
We like the mountain tops and the sunshine. We like green grass under a clear blue sky. We like victory and breakthrough and answered prayers. But sometimes it rains, the shadows deepen, and life turns muddy. Sometimes God seems quiet. What then? What happens when depression descends, or anxiety hangs like a sword overhead? What happens when loneliness suffocates, the thief steals more than stuff, and you get blood on your shoes?
In Digging in the Dirt, Jonathan Trotter delves into the disasters, the darkness, and the deluge, and he offers comfort, presence, and a gentle invitation to hope.
With humor and prose, with poetry and Top Ten lists, Jonathan welcomes us to the dirt, to the places where we actually live. He invites us to boldly see life as it is, with eyes wide open, and reminds us that even when the digging is scary, we are never alone.
To the ones who are dealing with devastation and distress, welcome. To the ones who need to uproot, to pull out, to clear ground, welcome. To the ones who seek desperately to plant seeds of grace and hope in once barren soil, welcome. To the missionary abroad and the believer at home, welcome. Receive the invitation, and join with Jonathan here at ground level, together.
Come, dig in the dirt.
From the preface:
Hello and Welcome!
I’m Jonathan, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to journeying with you through these pages. Together, we’ll delve into the dirt of life and relationships, of sorrows, pain, and loss. And maybe we’ll plant some things too.
Perhaps, along the way, we’ll see small, green stalks of life and hope begin to poke through, watered with the tears of the journey. Digging like this can be messy, but it can be good too.
These musings will meander from the hot dirt of Cambodia to the sticky mud of American politics. Some of these musings are inspired by international missionary life; some of them are firmly rooted in an American context. But whether you’re American or not, whether you’re a missionary or not, I hope that you find them all a blessing, an encouragement, and perhaps sometimes a challenge. I wrote them for you, and I share them with you with my whole heart.
Start reading Digging in the Dirt wherever you’d like, and feel free to skip ahead or go backwards. Are you a cross-cultural missionary? Start there if you want. Are you interested in developing emotional intelligence, or are you exploring whether or not Christians are allowed to have feelings? Consider starting in the Emotions section. Are you reeling from recent life events that have left you feeling like you’re choking on the mud and muck? First of all, I’m so sorry. Second, breathe a slow, deep breath, look over the Table of Contents, and start wherever you need to start.
Wherever you are, and whatever your story, welcome to ground level, to the dirt. It is here that the real work happens; the good, hard, sweet, healing work. It is my deepest hope that here, among these musings, you may find grace, peace, and a hope that just might be strong enough to crack through the crust.
Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.
Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.
The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.
That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.
We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.
We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.
We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes.
We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads.
We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.
We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.
We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.
We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.
We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.
We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.
Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job.
If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.
I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.
A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me.
You know who you are. You’re the one who’s been on the border of transformation so many times. You’ve pulled into the parking lot of that gym multiple times only to pull a uwee to the first coffee shop because who actually has time for that and 5 am is out of the question. You’ve picked up that budgeting book because you know you want financial peace but the automatic transfer to your savings account eludes you. You’ve pulled out your computer to email that missionary therapist but quickly numb yourself with Facebook for the umpteenth time today instead.
I’ve been there too.
I’m the one who ran all through high school, college, and young mommy days and then let life’s demands crowd out my passion when I moved overseas for missions. I’m the one who sat on the couch and watched my sister-in-law push herself out the door day after day to crush tar with her Adidas. I’m the one who longingly scrolled past pictures of my friend jogging with her family and wanted all the same rewards but just . . .got busy.
I’m also the one who walked into our town’s family-owned shoe store a dozen times to buy all the right shoes for my kids and ask about their running programs. I hoped that my questions would unlock the mystery of what held me back from committing. And I’m the one who received a gracious and genuine answer every single time from the shop owner, Scott Gall. Scott gave me and my husband all of his attention and talked to us like we were already in the worldwide club of runners. Oh, how I wanted to be in that club, the club of people who possess discipline and who commit to run. Regularly.
Scott never judged me for not starting. He was just always there to answer my questions with kindness and patience. Then one day the seeds of a dozen conversations finally sprouted. I mustered up the courage to ask him for his 5K training program, even though I felt like a baby. He sent it to me, and I set a date on my calendar to start. I knew that I needed external accountability, so I asked my friend to do it with me. “We have to send each other pictures every day to prove that we did it.”
I was scared that I would last two weeks and then life would get busy as it always does. Or that the interruption of my move back to South Africa would interfere with my goals. Like it always has. But I set the start date and sent my friend a picture of day 1. Then I did day 2. I found out that I could re-prioritize my life and actually follow through with running when I moved back to South Africa.
Then I just kept going. I missed day 19 but made up for it on day 21. And yes, I felt like a baby. Yes, there was a day when I cried through my last mile at how slow my pace was. Yes, I was sore and slow. But the days turned into one full month of following the program every single day. Then two full months. Then I shaved a few minutes off my time. I wasn’t as sore, and I could breathe a little easier up that hill by the beach. And yes, I got plantar fasciitis my third month and had to take a break. But guess who’s back on the trails this week?
Through it all, I kept sharing photos with my friend, because some of us need support to crush our goals. Eventually, sharing daily photos was replaced with using a tracking app. As I reflected on all those visits to the shoe store, I began to think about the importance of patience and encouragement. I thought about all the times Scott answered my questions even though I hadn’t started. I thought about how many people walk in those doors asking him identical questions, promising themselves that they’ll start tomorrow. And I finally understood how vital it is for seeds of curiosity to be watered before they take root.
I slipped on my Brooks and thought about how many times I’ve shared about the God who transformed my life and it seemed to fall on deaf ears. I pounded through the trail and thought about the people who have needed to ask me questions about faith but weren’t ready to commit yet. I jogged past an eight-point buck bedded in the woods and contemplated how many times we need to ask the same questions before our hearts are prompted to action. I remembered how many times my sister-in-law talked to me about hope in Christ on our high school campus before it finally took root in me.
I was reminded of the patience, the conversations, and the people who had been part of my story of turning to Jesus. Sometimes we need to hear the same patient message repeated before something clicks and . . . it changes us. I clocked in my last slow mile and was glad that Scott hadn’t given up on our countless conversations about running. Because the day finally came when it took root in my heart and changed my life for the better.
So don’t be dismayed by the revolving door of conversations about faith that you’re having with the same person. Don’t push or judge. If they’re coming back for more, something might be happening under the surface. Those tenderly watered seeds might be ready to sprout. Keep nurturing those conversations, and you may become part of a beautiful transformation.
When going onto a mission field for the first or tenth time, we often have ideals of what a missionary is supposed to be, do, and look like. Some of it is impressed upon us by church culture, gathered from missionary books we’ve read, or created by ourselves.
As a young missionary I didn’t take my calling lightly, and I don’t believe you do either. Maybe you, like me, have put a lot of pressure on yourself to live up to the missionary standard. After all, we were commissioned to “go into all the world” by Jesus Himself at the end of Matthew.
I didn’t know any real live missionaries when I first went onto the field, but from what I gathered:
A missionary is supposed to be empowered to help the people they serve without needing their help.
A missionary is supposed to be protected from all harm, at all times, wherever they go, inside the will of God.
A missionary is supposed to heal those who are sick with prayer or a simple touch.
A missionary is supposed to be unhindered, and therefore it is more holy to go onto the field single.
A missionary is supposed to live as simply and frugally as possible and should have no Western conveniences.
A missionary is supposed to know what to say, where to go, and whom to help at all times.
A missionary is supposed to focus on spiritual needs and leave physical needs for humanitarians.
A missionary’s mere presence is supposed to make an instant impact on the community. –
People back home should be led to support the missionary without being bothered with a list of their needs.
I identified myself as a missionary. I wasn’t in my host country to sightsee or vacation. I had given up everything, all of my personal comforts and dreams, to be there, because I knew God wanted me to. Things went well for a while.
I lived up to my own missionary ideals in the beginning. I felt useful to the ministry I volunteered with. I was single and undistracted, pouring everything I had into the work.
As my boldness grew, I took on many roles that seemed important. It felt great to see a child on his deathbed start to walk and talk after I had spent months caring for him. The other short termers who were in and out looked up to me, and I got to be the one to answer their questions.
Then death came under my watch, and Ibegan to question everything.
If all the things I knew about missions were true, why was I watching someone I loved slip away under my constant care?
My identity was so wrapped up in being that good missionary. The missionary that was undefeated. The missionary that my home church would be proud of and would want to support.
How would I tell the people back home that I had failed?
If I wasn’t making an impact like all those missionaries I had read about, then maybe I was a fake after all.
The idealistic missionary image I had built came crashing down. I was plunged into an identity crisis. I had to take a break from ministry and go home. When I left, I didn’t know if I would have the strength to come back.
On a month-long furlough to think over ministry, I evaluated my heart and motives to see if I had missed God, because in my mind, this was not how things were supposed to turn out.
During that time I came to realize that nearly everything I thought I knew about being a missionary was false. All the things I thought a missionary was supposed to be were just lies that I had believed.
As much as I would like to think I have left an impact on those I served, or that I am making an impact now, the outcomes are not mine to decide.
So . . .
Dear missionary who has believed those same lies and questioned whether you are really qualified to be on the field, let me tell you:
God never called you to determine the outcome of your serving. You were never meant to be anyone’s savior. Only Jesus can be that.
Missionaries are not a super-human species that never fail or lose a battle. In fact, more than bringing out your strengths, missions will reveal your weaknesses and neediness and bring you to a place of greater dependence on the Lord.
God doesn’t ask you to be a great missionary or to conjure up change. He only asks you to be obedient and go. With whatever little you have in your hands, just go. You may be called a missionary, but your true identity is simply “follower of Christ,” not “hero.”
Whether we follow Him to the bedside of the dying or to witness a miracle is not up to us to decide.
We could choose to walk away from the mission field. It might feel easier to stay where it is safe, to hide in our bedrooms and cover our ears to all the sadness in this world. We could be angry at the outcomes that we do not understand and question God for allowing them.
Or we can be obedient. We can lay down the lies that we have believed for so long. We can cry over injustice, and then we can get up and keep pouring ourselves out, knowing that God will use our weaknesses in the way that He chooses and that someday things will be “very good” again.
Rachel was preparing to go to Mexico in 2017 but through a series of events, ended up as a full time missionary in Haiti. She quickly found her calling as a cross-cultural worker and blogger. In 2020, after their marriage, she and her husband Nelson started Espwa Demen, a non-profit that assists impoverished children and families in rural Haiti. Because of the country’s security situation they were forced to relocate to the US at the beginning of 2023, but their ministry continues to grow in the hands of local volunteers and through frequent trips. You can follow Rachel on her personal blog or find her on Instagram.
I like to envision my life in Christ as a house. For the first 25 years of my life that house was designed, built, and furnished almost exclusively by a very specific brand of evangelical Christianity. I attended a Christian college with a slightly broader brand, and some redecorating started early in my twenties, but for the most part, that house remained pretty much the same.
I struggled with deep introspection and constant condemnation in my performance-oriented walk with Christ. But I never considered whether something was missing in the house of my theology. Up to that point my spiritual community held to our theology and way of life in very arrogant ways. We believed we were the cream of the crop. We lived thinking we had the most coherent belief system with very little to no contradiction in our understanding of God, salvation, and church government and practice.
Then in my mid-twenties the Lord used a different flavor of evangelicalism to open my eyes to a fundamental truth about the gospel that I hadn’t tasted up to that point. I started to savor the life-giving reality that the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was for me too as a Christian, not just unbelievers. This realization rocked my world. The constant introspection and condemnation I had lived with started to ease up as I learned to take hold of the gospel as the only reality that defined my life.
This began a remodeling project in the house of my spiritual formation and practice. A few walls were knocked down, and the living room became larger. More people could come and sit. I realized I had much to learn from groups that were outside of what I had previously considered acceptable. The more I honed in on the importance of a gospel culture in the church (not just an evangelistic culture but one actually gospel-shaped and motivated by grace), I realized how the culture of my church (and denomination) had been sorely lacking.
Over the course of the next 10 years (with two huge cross-cultural moves in the mix), God kept slowly remodeling my house but all still within a specific theological framework. He redecorated – adding rugs here and there, switching out paintings and wall art or completely replacing them – but most of my influences were still within a strong word-centered tradition.
When we arrived at the country where we live now (yes, a third cross-cultural move), the remodeling project became significantly more intense. I went from thinking my house was pretty complete and without much need of significant change, to realizing I needed major overhaul. Through deep suffering the Lord started to expose how the actual foundation of my home needed to be completely replaced. He started to show how my Christian walk was not only shaped by the theological system I had lived in all my life, but also by trauma and dysfunction.
I needed significant healing and rescue, and my Father was eager to gently, tenderly deliver me. He used the strength of other spiritual communities to help me taste a bit more the fullness of who He is and the riches of his presence. In the contemplative traditions I’ve delighted in being with God, in slowing down and focusing on his actual presence with me. Through my charismatic friends, he has fixed my gaze on the Spirit and on his ministry that pours the love of the Father.
He is growing my dependence on the Spirit’s ability to lead me and guide me in righteousness, not because a spiritual community or leaders tell me how to live but because He himself is able and willing to do it and because he has given me Christ’s ability to discern it. Community matters deeply, and leaders can be a gift, but I am discovering what great confidence there is in listening to the Spirit.
Over time I have found myself jealous for more of the triune God, and that desire is the main filter through which I evaluate different traditions and systems. While I still strongly care about theology and the surety of the word, I want the house of my walk with Christ to have a strong awareness of the nourishing presence of the actual person of God – not just truth about him.
As I consider this major remodeling that God has done in my life, I have been struck by two things that matter immensely in our Christian formation and practice. Doctrine matters, theology matters, but what matters more than a specific set of beliefs is that we know how much the Father loves us in Christ and that, trusting in that love, we live by the Spirit and not in the flesh.
Interacting with people from many traditions and backgrounds, I have been struck by how we are all tempted in similar ways to doubt the love of the Triune God and to live with confidence in the flesh. It shouldn’t surprise me since that has been the attack of the devil as early as Genesis 3, when there were no denominations or traditions – only humans.
The brokenness of the world, of relationships, of our own hearts gets in the way of us knowing deep in our souls the delight of the Father to us through Christ. We forget (or don’t know or don’t grasp) how our in-Christness defines every aspect of our reality. We focus so much on what we do or don’t do, that we think that the love of God depends on that.
And this leads us to find our security, significance, and confidence in many good things that are not Christ. We boast in our accurate understanding of the word, in our precise theology, in our visions and experiences in the Spirit, in the power and effectiveness of our prayers, in our liturgies and rhythms of fasting and silence and solitude.
But when our confidence is on anything outside of the finished work of Christ and of his life, death, and resurrection (and their power in us), we end up reeking of pride and can become oppressive in our interactions with our brothers and sisters. The flesh is the enemy, not those outside of our circles.
While I have struggled to know where I fully belong in the context of so much theological and practical diversity, I have also come to be supremely grateful for an outsider perspective. I have been learning from many but not fully belonging anywhere.
Yet I am supremely grateful for what God has given me through such distinct theological backgrounds and cultures because in all of it, he is giving me more of himself in ways that offset the profound loneliness of this long season of painful but needed transformation. I have been grasping and savoring the surety of his presence with me because of what he has revealed about himself in the beautiful prism of his diverse body.
I am thankful for the things I get to keep of the tradition and theological system that first shaped me. And I am also grateful for the freedom to identify which things I don’t want to keep from them – which allows me to recognize the needed gifts and beauty in other traditions.
We all need our houses to be remodeled eclectically. No single theological system or set of doctrines or practices holds the vastness and mystery of God. When Christ alone is the sure foundation, our homes are strong enough to withstand expansive remodeling so that the beauty, glory, and paradox of the triune God is what defines and establishes every aspect of our life in Christ.
Because at the end of the day traditions and systems and doctrines are just that: traditions, systems, and doctrines. None of them can save. None of them is a sufficient source of confidence. Only God himself is worthy of all our trust, rest, and joy.
I’ll never forget meeting Alex* and Anna.* For me, it was like meeting Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. With admittedly fewer cameras and less bling.
Alex and Anna had served in Asia for ten years. My husband and I were in our early twenties. These people had been missionaries for nearly half our lives!
We’d read their beautiful, well-written articles. I’d fallen in love with the people of their host country. I’d prayed with Alex and Anna from afar, rejoicing when various friends were delivered from the fear of evil spirits.
Now we were actually meeting them.
We had so many questions—after all, we were about to launch as missionaries ourselves. But Alex and Anna seemed very… tired. Something was wrong, though I didn’t know what.
Just a few years later, Alex and Anna left Christianity. In fact, they both chose to follow a new-age religion. One even became a practitioner.
How in the world had that happened?
I don’t know their whole story with doubt and faith. But today I wanted to share my story and shed a little light on a hidden topic: the doubts and questions missionaries battle every day.
Why Do Missionaries Doubt?
When I was a freshman in college, my mom converted to a non-Christian religion. This sent me on a quest to figure out what I believed and why. Specifically, I questioned the divinity of Christ. It was an intense search, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Hour after hour I searched the scriptures, praying for truth.
Finally, I accepted Jesus afresh as my personal Savior. Later, my husband and I launched as missionaries to India, determined to share our love of Jesus with the world.
Good story, right?
I had no idea that going to the mission field would bring up more questions than answers.
Now I’ve been in the field for over a decade myself. And I haven’t done any scientific studies to know for sure, but I have a theory that missionaries are more susceptible to doubt than many realize. There are four things I believe contribute to this.
1. Studying Worldview
Did you ever take a public speaking or debate class, and afterwards couldn’t listen to a sermon without analyzing it? Or how about an editing class, which left you unable to read a book without wielding a mental red pen? The learning we do in our professions changes how we see the world.
Missionaries are not immune to this. If we take classes in worldview, we learn to see worldview everywhere. We can’t watch movies without analyzing values, players, and tools. We become like amateur anthropologists.
All this investigation can make our beliefs, ideas, and worldviews seem like just another way of explaining life. As I delved deeper into my Indian friends’ worldview, I felt disoriented. If their beliefs stemmed from a human attempt to understand the universe, couldn’t mine, too?
The next factor is trauma. You may find yourself wondering why God allowed XYZ to happen, to you, to your kids, or to your host people. Or why the peace that passes understanding is suspiciously absent from your life right now. You start wondering, even subconsciously, if you were right about God, after all.
I’ll never forget my moments of deepest doubt in India, kneeling on a hard mat on the ground, the smell of sandalwood incense floating in the window. Like Job, I could see only the mat in front of me—not the spiritual battle, nor even the entire physical battle. Like Job, I asked God why, and I waited a long time in the silence.
3. Asking Others to Question
At the same time we missionaries are analyzing worldviews and going through hard things, we are actively asking others to question what they believe is true–particularly church planters. We seek to do this in a life-giving way, and we do it because we believe Jesus is worth any price we may have to pay. That is the deep conviction that sends you to the field, right?
The thing is, when we ask others to question, we get in the habit of questioning. I faced an intense amount of cognitive dissonance in India. Was I asking others to question when I was not willing to do the same? Was I holding my own beliefs up to the same level of scrutiny I expected from others?
4. Spiritual Warfare
In the Biblical worldview, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Unseen forces desire to make us ineffective and faithless.
This became very clear to me when some of my doubts didn’t behave normally. I would find satisfactory or even great answers, but I still couldn’t shake residual unsettled feelings. I soon realized I needed heavenly help to move forward.
What To Do With Doubt
One of my colleagues lost a number of friends in a genocide. When she asked for prayer in her newsletter, a friend told her not to talk about such upsetting things.
After that, it was hard for my friend to know whom to ask for help.
Missionaries face joys, traumas, and questions that might be hard for others to understand. Wondering if anyone will be able to relate can make it hard to ask for help.
Beyond that, missionaries often feel the pressure of being role models—like Alex and Anna, they realize they are their church’s Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. When I faced doubts, I would often remind myself that I had a responsibility to cast a vision for the unreached, to inspire people to sacrificial obedience of Christ. Why burden supporters with fleeting doubts? Shame, fear, and even the desire to be responsible can leave us feeling like there’s no one to turn to.
But I have come to believe that doubting on the field doesn’t have to be an emergency. Instead, it can be an amazing opportunity.
If you’re facing doubts or questions right now, I have three suggestions: confront your doubts, doubt with faith, and engage in spiritual warfare.
1. Confront Your Doubts
It takes time. It takes mental strain. It takes emotional space. And sometimes, we just don’t have those things.
At first, I tried to ignore my doubts. Because dinner needed made and babies needed burping, plus there were the unreached to reach. But ignoring problems sometimes makes them bigger. It magnifies them in our subconscious until they totally take over.
I couldn’t stay in that place of cognitive dissonance for long. So, I printed out a bunch of articles to read, and I prayed exhausting prayers. I knelt on the hard mat. I stopped avoiding it by surfing YouTube and got distracted by my Bible instead of my phone.
I believed that God should be able to handle my questions and that any faith worth believing should stand up to scrutiny. I put that belief to the test.
And God answered me.
2. Doubt with Faith
The first time you doubt, if you’re like me, you’ll panic and think all is lost. But I’ve learned to bring my doubts to Jesus quickly. And I’ve come to expect Him to answer. It’s not always instant, and that’s okay. I’m learning to surrender my questions because over time I’ve seen He always comes through. I’ve learned to expect that God will respond to me.
Along that same line, it’s also okay to take breaks during your search. When we believe we’ll hear from God eventually, we can laugh with our families, take vacations, and enjoy good books, even as we seek His face for answers. We can rest despite the discomfort of not knowing, because we count on Hebrews 11:6–that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
3. Engage in Spiritual Warfare
Though we wrestle with unseen forces, the hosts of heaven desire to see us victorious. I’ve learned various “tools” over the years: fasting; praying through the armor of God in Ephesians 6; rejecting bitterness by declaring forgiveness in prayer; doing prayer walks in my home; actively rejecting and resisting temptation; confession and repentance from sin; and singing hymns and spiritual songs. I’m also blessed to have a great prayer team back home and fellow workers who are men and women of prayer.
If you need an understanding prayer partner/team or new tools, I encourage you to do whatever it takes to fill those needs.
For followers of Jesus, and especially gospel seed sowers, confronting doubts and engaging in personal spiritual warfare are critical elements of self-care. Just like our physical and mental health need nurturing and protection, so our need for assurances from God shouldn’t be ignored for too long. We might be tempted to delay asking our own questions in order to minister to others, but God desires to minister to us just as passionately as He desires to save the unreached.
We give our personal testimonies all the time. I was lost, now I’m found. I was blind, now I see. We keep them succinct, which is important—but we can sometimes get the idea that our story with God is a one-time event, something linear and fixed.
But we are branches connected to a vine. Growing grapes takes time and skill. It requires the exact right amount of growth and pruning. The healthiest vines are in constant contact with a skilled vinedresser.
The truth is, our story with God lasts our lifetime. I love the lyrics to a popular Christian song: “If it’s not good, then He’s not done with it yet!” Since no one is good, not one, God is not done with me yet, either.
What a privilege that I can bring my doubts to Jesus, and He can transform them, one by one, into pillars of faith.
What about you? How do you deal with doubt? Do you have a story of God meeting you in your doubts and renewing your faith?
Anna Hampton and her husband Neal lived and worked for nearly 20 years in war-torn Islamic countries, including 10 years in Afghanistan, where they started raising their three children. She’s a mom, risk specialist, and member care worker who now trains workers in risk management, fear, and courage from a Christian perspective.
She’s just published her latest book, Facing Fear: The Journey to Mature Courage in Risk and Persecution, as a follow-up book to her first, Facing Danger: A Guide Through Risk. Her latest book delves into the practicality of fear in the context of witness risk—the risks that both local believers and global workers face. She offers tools that work in a variety of risky contexts.
I’m thankful for the chance to sit down and chat with her.
Tell me the differences in your two books.
My first book, Facing Danger is about a theology of risk. What does that look like functionally? How do we do risk assessment? That leads us to know how to mitigate or manage it. It’s very practical.
The Facing Fear book asks, “How do we be shrewd as a serpent?” Facing Fear is a better pre-field book because we can deal with our fears before we go, and we can be trained in situational awareness. The book can be used as a resource — it doesn’t have to be read straight through. Instead, you can turn to the chapter you feel you need right now.
There’s so much in your Facing Fear book.I felt like I could take one chapter and just spend a month thinking through it, talking through it, doing exercises through it. You’ve taken this one word, “fear” and you’ve written about all the complexities of it. Was that intentional? Did you go in knowing and having a very deep sense of, “This is really complex, we need to really dive into this?”
No. What started me on the path was an email from a team leader in Central Asia. Her team experienced an attack by extremists. One person had been killed, one person had been kidnapped, and the team had left the country and were regrouping in a border country. She wrote to me and asked, “What do I tell the team? How do we process our fears, because we’re preparing to go back in?”
What would you say to people who are planning to go in and could be killed the next day? That’s the lens through which I think and write and the way we respond pastorally to people.
But then the other thing that drives me is responses from the church. I sat through two international church sermons where they preached (too simply) on fear, and I was like, “Okay, that’s not true.” You can have faith and fear and not be in sin. So what’s the relationship? I want to know exegetically what the Bible actually says. I just started collecting research. And five years later, Facing Fear has helped me develop my thinking, although I don’t presume to have the final answer.
The church’s conversation around fear has morphed into a whole thing with COVID and responses to COVID and all that. But you are speaking to an audience who knows that, while they’re making dinner, there could literally be enemies at their gate. Tell me more about the people you are writing to.
I’m writing to Christ followers advancing Christ’s kingdom primarily in the most dangerous areas. Of 500,000 global workers, I’ve heard anywhere from 2 to 9 percent go to unreached people groups. Those areas are also often the most dangerous. Those working in these areas often don’t have much pastoral care. The front line needs support, needs a cup of cold water so they are strengthened to go another day to push forward his kingdom. That’s the heart behind my writing.
Is this going to be accessible to a nonwestern global worker?
That would be my desire. For example, a Chinese Christian may think, “This risk mitigation is a western thing, and it costs money.”
But actually, it doesn’t. The example I use is a house pastor on their way to the house church. If the Spirit tells you to go right instead of left because left takes you to the house church where the police are, but turning right means, “I don’t want you in jail today,” we’re going to turn right. But if you want me to go to jail today—because we know what happens in jail, we hear the stories of Chinese pastors in jail and how people come to Christ—then do that. Do what he’s called you to do. But it’s not an automatic thing that you have to go risk your life.
The main point is to listen closely to the still quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit and obey him. Experiencing fear in dangerous situations is normal; however, we don’t have to let it paralyze us. Without fear, courage is unnecessary. Courage is moving forward despite our fear in the next step of obedience. This message is for all Christ followers, from the west, the south, the east, and the north.
What has been missing from our conversation in missions about risk, fear, persecution, and martyrdom?
What’s been missing is a holistic response. There are not a lot of books that really address fear with practical situational awareness, our human physiological response, addressing fear management (our emotions), and with spiritual tools to learn to lean on God. Facing Fear tries to combine science and theology and emotions—a holistic response.
Unlike the majority world Church, the western Church hasn’t suffered very much, and so teaching on fear tends to stay at the surface level. We western Christians give simple answers that not only don’t help, they actually harm. This book does not give simple answers.
Additionally, there are not usually “answers” on many of the topics. For example, on the chapter on discernment and meaning, I describe what type of meaning will sustain us in danger and persecution, but to get to that point will require the reader to enter in to the journey of discerning their own meaning for their cross and suffering.
This book is a guide, not an answer key. It’s an invitation to deeper conversation about the intersection of risk, fear, and Gospel advancement in hard places. It goes beyond what we hear on a Sunday morning from the pulpit or read in pop-Christian books.
This book will challenge a simplistic binary worldview. It’s for those who want to go deeper, who want to leave the solid ground of the superficial and gain a foothold on the brink of the deep.
That’s a really good point about missionaries often being sent from more “stable” places, and so they may not have received that deep teaching on fear. They may know how to share the gospel. They’re going to learn another language or they’re going to learn how to raise support. But they don’t know how to truly enter into risk and make decisions and then recover from the trauma.
What else would you want somebody who’s considering reading this book to know about it?
Writing Facing Danger was therapeutic for me to work through our experiences in Afghanistan. But 2021, the year before I wrote Facing Fear, was probably the worst year of my life. It was an extremely painful, foundation-shaking year. I also had continued to gather so much research, I was overwhelmed by the material and needed to start writing. In January 2022, I cancelled everything in my life except what ministry trips were already scheduled, and just began writing. I wrote 10-15 hours a day.
I didn’t realize the effect of these months of writing and focus until the morning after I had turned in the manuscript to the publisher. On June 1, 2022, I stared at my blank journal page, considering how I felt, then wrote, “The storm is over.” It took me all summer to recover – I spent every day sitting on my veranda, crying and grieving. It was a storm to enter that day in and day out, and that is what the persecuted church faces every day, with very little break. By comparison, we know nothing of this type of oppression and pressure.
I appreciate you sharing the heart behind that.You suffered yourself in your own experience. But even writing this book has been an act of suffering. And entering into people’s suffering, with just a huge heart for them is really beautiful, but also hard and important.
A Life Overseas readers can get a 20% discount by using this link (or any of the links embedded throughout this interview). The discount should apply at checkout.
Rebecca Hopkins (www.rebeccahopkins.org) is an Army brat, a former cross-cultural worker in Indonesia, and a freelance writer now based in Colorado. She covers missions, MKs, and spiritual abuse for publications like Christianity Today and The Roys Report. Trained as a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last past her latest address.
“It’s not fair,” I whined in the backseat of the car, my sister next to me. “It’s not fair,” I moped from the end of the line. “It’s not fair,” I mourned, overlooked for a role I wanted. “It’s not fair,” I gasped, taking the fall. “It’s not fair,” I wailed, watching everything I’d built fall apart.
“But look at what God is doing through this,” they point. “It’s not fair,” I say again.
I think it’s just awful that wonderful things come out of terrible things. I hate that you have to bury seeds for them to bloom. I hate that pearls come from irritants. I hate that delicious strawberries come from fields fertilized in manure. And I hate all of those things because I hate that post-traumatic wisdom only comes from going through tragedies.
Yeah, I guess if you have to go through hard things, it’s nice that something good can come from it. But why do we have to go through hard things to have the good things that come after?
I can point to the traumas and tragedies that have brought me to a place of being able to weave words into stories that present hard truths in soft ways. I cherish the times people tell me how these words altered the trajectory of their homes in ways that brought them closer to the unconditional love of the Father. But surely there is another way to learn this wisdom and pass it on?
Everything is possible for you, Father. Take this cup of suffering from me.
And thus begins a sacred journey.
We all know that life’s not fair, but it makes it a bit easier to not have to go it alone. To know that the Lord has gone before us even in this. To know that the journey through unfair trauma and tragedy can take us to glorious destinations. To know that we have a comforter, a counselor, and a light to guide our path.
I have a journey before me, but I’m standing at the front desk with a complaint, “Excuse me, sir, I specifically asked that this cup would be taken from me. And yet, behold, still there is a cup. I would like this to be rectified.” And Jesus comes alongside me to guide me. “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He coaches me.
“I’m sorry, what?!” I’m doing double-takes as Jesus leads me forward on the journey. I am a reluctant follower. But I follow, nonetheless, and I see how the path I walk is neither new nor novel but a well-worn road.
My soul has been overwhelmed with sorrow. I have felt betrayed. I have stood silent against accusations. I’ve had friends abandon me. I’ve experienced pain. I’ve had tragedy happen. I’ve survived it.
But it’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s not the end. The story, the journey, it isn’t over yet. Jesus isn’t yet at the right hand of God, and I have no wisdom to offer anyone yet.
It seems that after the death of Christ, we stop focusing on his humanity. We talk extensively about the agony of the cross, which makes sense because all four of the Gospel writers draw us into this tragedy. The curtain is torn. Darkness falls. And the focus shifts from Jesus to the perspective of those left behind. That makes sense for the Gospels. What was Jesus doing at this point? We hear about the work of Jesus conquering Death in the epistles, but his followers didn’t know these things.
Even on Easter morning, the focus doesn’t shift back to Jesus. We continue to follow the story of the women and the disciples. Jesus just appears and disappears until he finally ascends. That’s how the authors wrote their gospels, so it makes sense that we would follow along that way.
We receive so many emotion words from the women and the disciples. I can imagine Luke interviewing people and hearing from their perspective, “We were so frightened; we thought he was a ghost. Even when we saw he wasn’t a ghost, we still couldn’t believe it. We were amazed and overjoyed” (Luke 24:37-41). How was Jesus feeling during this? The eye-witnesses were too gobsmacked to notice and give account.
Thus, the sacred journey continues.
My eyes fixed on Jesus; I see how my journey overlays His. I’m aching and weary. The moment of trauma is over, yet my body is still on high alert. My skin feels electrified. Every brush of my own clothes sears my skin. I feel like my back’s been flayed. And I look toward Jesus. I don’t know how his back is doing, but the wounds of his hands and his side are still gaping. Honestly, it’s a miracle he’s even alive.
We each come across a couple of our friends, but they don’t recognize us. Our friends recount our own story to us, but they totally miss the point. I’m furious and think, “How foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25) I explain to my friends, and He explains to His, in a way that they don’t miss the point. And then Jesus walks away.
“No, no, no,” I call him back. “These are our friends, our people.” I’m clinging to what I know. He keeps walking until his friends urge him to stay, even though they still don’t recognize him. It’s like he wants me to be willing to walk away from people I’ve grown away from. I’m not ready for this lesson.
When he comes back, I’m glad. I watch them eat together. In the common monotony of everyday life, his friends finally recognize him. But it’s only two people.
It happens again. Different people. More cherished friends. They don’t understand what’s happened either. “You’ve changed,” they tell me. “Why are you troubled? Look at me. It’s me!” I implore them. My words echo His, as Jesus tries to convince his friends he’s not a ghost. They believe: we’re each still who we are. Now what?
“Do you have anything to eat?” Jesus asks. He invites us back into the common monotony of everyday life. We eat, we talk, we tell the story again. It’s hard to tell every time.
The hardest part is reconciliation, so I hang back and watch. Jesus comes to Peter. Peter recognizes him and dives off the boat to greet him. Classic Peter. Jesus invites them to eat. I take notes. Always start with food. It brings people together. Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. I’m thankful for this interchange. I don’t have to be content with one apology and be expected to get over it. I can request reassurances in proportion with the damage rendered.
Finally comes the conclusion. Finally comes the ascension. Finally the journey ends.
Trauma is like any other story. It’s got a setting and rising action before the conflict and climax. And it ends with cleaning up all the leftover messes. Often the leftover messes of a trauma are the relationships: reconnecting, repairing, reconciling, and settling back into normal rhythms. This is a hard part of trauma that is often overlooked. Many times this hard part takes a lot longer than we expect.
In this time following Resurrection Sunday and leading up to Ascension Sunday, we hold sacred the long journey through trauma and tragedy to the good that God has in store for us: the wisdom that these experiences give us. And as much as I cherish that wisdom and the goodness God has for us through the hard things, I’m going to stay mad about the awfulness of how this broken world functions. I can do both.
I refuse to get over how awful it is that good things come from hard things.
I will hold this space for those of you still in the early stages of your journey, for those of you banging your fists on the front desk, demanding a refund for this cup of suffering, insisting that it’s not fair. I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”
For those of you further along who are activated and who feel disconnected from their communities, who wonder why it had to happen like this, who wonder why it’s not getting easier in the wake of tragedy, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”
For those of you who have seen the beautiful things that the Lord has wrought out of the awful things you’ve lived through, who are turning back and grieving for themselves that they ever had to endure that, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”
And I can point out to you the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He walked with me through the valley of the shadow of death, and He will walk with you.
It seems agonizingly unfair that much of wisdom, strength, and personal growth comes from difficult and painful journeys. Not just the hardship, but the recovery, coming back to people and them not recognizing you, being met with doubt, and having to convince people of the journey you’ve been on.
In this season, we remember the sacredness of this journey, a trauma-versary that changed the world forever. The Lord has gone before us. But moreover, he goes alongside us, today, at whatever stage of the journey we’re in.
Trauma doesn’t make us stronger, but continuing onward through the hard things toward healing does.
That’s the last line of a song written by a young lady from my husband’s hometown.
It reminds me of Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all ye who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
It makes me wonder if Jesus’ burden is the same as the “burden for souls”? And if it is, is that burden light? Is it easy to carry? Or is it heavy?
Just a few houses down the road from the composer of this song lived another young lady. Fifteen years ago she and her siblings tucked a $20 bill into the cupholder in my car, along with a note saying they’d be praying for our mission in India.
That girl grew up reading mission stories – some of them ours. She later became a missionary nurse, assisting with medevac missions to otherwise unreachable mountain villages. Two weeks ago she was accompanying some very sick people during a helicopter evacuation. While the helicopter was over the ocean, a storm arose. Their GPS signal went dead.
Despite intense search efforts, she and the patients and crew are still missing.
Is the “burden of souls” lightweight? Is it easy to carry?
A few days after she went missing, our family went to a park to meet with a local family who is interested in knowing more about Jesus. Our children played parkour while the men discussed one of the major themes of the gospels—spiritual warfare. My husband emphasized that Satan tries to keep people away from the truth but that Jesus came to set us free from lies.
Right about then, my daughter fell off a cement bench and broke her tibia.
While I held her scarily-bent leg on the way to the hospital, I prayed we would arrive soon so they could give her something for the pain. It took many hours, however, for grumpy healthcare workers to give my screaming child anything.
Is the “burden of souls” lightweight? Is it easy?
My daughter, a very active child, settled into a painful, monotonous week. Thankfully, no joints were involved, so full recovery is likely. Still, she wondered if she would ever really be the same, ever be able to rock climb or swim or jump on the trampoline again. She wondered if she should just stop trying.
“I’m never going to break anything ever again,” she said. “I’ll make sure I don’t.” She talked about all the things she would stop doing so she’d never have to experience that kind of pain again.
“You’re not going to let this stop you,” I said, kissing her forehead. “You’re going to work hard, and you’re going to be so strong. You’re going to get back on the horse.”
“But I can’t move. I can’t do anything.”
“I know. But eventually, it will stop hurting. We’ll help carry your leg until they can put a lighter cast on it. Later, you’ll be cast-free, and you’ll work hard to get that leg strong again. And one day, this will just be a memory, and you’ll be better.”
“Okay,” she said simply, resignedly. “Can I listen to Corrie?”
My daughter loves audiobooks. One of her favorites is “The Hiding Place,” by Corrie Ten Boom. She particularly loves Corrie’s father’s kind, wise parables. Here is one:
“Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. “Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam, when do I give you your ticket?”
I sniffed a few times, considering this.
“Why, just before we get on the train.”
“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need, just in time.”
I listened to this and other stories as I ran back and forth between my daughter’s bed and the kitchen and the front door (since a barrage of neighbors was visiting, bringing food and loving words).
As I sent up another prayer for the missing missionary nurse and her family, I thought about sacrifice. We tend to celebrate the sacrifices of healthcare professionals. Somewhere in our hearts, we know that we could just as easily be the ones needing the helicopter ride. Or the ones quietly listening as the firefighters get closer and closer to where we lie stuck under the rubble from an earthquake. Or the ones with the blinding pain of a broken bone, longing for a hand to hold.
But what about those who tend to spiritual needs? What about those who are engaged in a battle that cannot be seen? Crawling through the rubble, running in the darkness, reaching out a hand even though we, too, are fragile?
These days, being a missionary is not the most popular career choice. It’s not widely celebrated or understood. It’s even derided by some.
So why do we do it, when it’s dangerous and hard and underappreciated? Why do we do it, when we may be misunderstood? When we might fail?
Maybe it’s because we know we could be the ones in need of Jesus.
Jesus never promised we wouldn’t have to bear any burdens. The truth is, life will be full of burdens and hardships and pain, whether you’re a missionary or not. Whether you’re a Christian or not. Whether you live in North America or Asia. Because life is like that. It’s unpredictable and full of potential for both good and bad.
Jesus’ burden isn’t light because it isn’t there. It’s most definitely there. It’s just different from the one you used to bear. In fact, when Jesus said, “My yoke is easy,” He actually said His yoke is chréstos. Useful, gentle, pleasant, kind. Benevolent. And when Jesus says his burden is “light,” He uses the word elaphros. Easy to carry… easy to move with.
This is Jesus’ burden: His love for mankind, His incessant seeing of individuals as people and not objects, His treating them as he’d like to be treated, His stubborn forgiveness, His healing of both body and soul, His courageous kindness. Jesus’ burden mobilizes us, gets us on our feet, and sends us.
It does not back down because of fear. It flies in the face of the storm, and it is not stopped when one person can’t carry on.
Because we don’t carry that burden alone. We carry it with Christ.
That’s what makes it light.
In loving memory of Janelle Alder, who selflessly cared for both bodies and souls, just like her Savior.
A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own.
You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower.
For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed.
When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door.
As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!
Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do.
When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be.
At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others).
Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?”
He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief.
He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us.
When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them.
I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:
How do I respond inwardly to my own grief? Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief? Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me?
May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.
Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.
For much of my life, this time was marked by introspection, by examens of conscience where I evaluated myself and my performance throughout the year. How did I grow? What did I accomplish? How did I change from last year? It was also one of the main ways to think about how to create resolutions and ways I wanted to keep growing and changing in the new year.
Recently, I was watching Little Women, the 1994 version (and naturally, a Christmas must-see every year). I was struck by Jo’s comment to Professor Bhaer about her family’s way of life: “With all this transcendence comes much emphasis on perfecting oneself.” That is probably my natural bent and also what I thought for the longest time was the aim of the Christian life — to be continually working to perfect myself.
But at the end of this year, I find myself trying an examen of consciousness rather than one of conscience. An examen of consciousness is an ancient practice, a review of where I saw the Lord at work, of how he showed himself near.
In her book Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton describes the practice this way: “This is a simple discipline that helps us to become more God conscious, heightening our awareness that God is indeed with us when we lie down to sleep, when we wake up and in every moment in between.”
I have been practicing this examen in the evenings, and now at the end of the year, I try it too. I ask the Lord for eyes to see, for faith to perceive his hand. (I need his help even with this.)
I ask – Where did I see you this year? How did you move? How did you protect me? How did you meet me in your word? Where did your spirit prompt me?
This ancient practice of stopping to look back on my day, not primarily to introspect but to look upward, to recognize the presence of God, is helping me to reframe my thoughts around his goodness even on really hard days.
I may not have discerned his hand in the moment, but taking time at the end of the day and the end of the year is a way of re-remembering, of rewiring the memory to see more clearly what I missed earlier. When I was walking under the heaviness of a given burden, he was there giving joy to read Sammy the Seal to my five-year-old; when I was exhausted after nights up with my sick son, he was holding me as I slept; when I felt fear tightly gripping me, his Spirit helped me discern the root of the struggle and eyes to see him fighting for me; and when waves of triggers wanted me to think trauma was my ultimate reality, my Father was doing his rescuing work. He gave me Jesus’ joy in supernatural ways after exceptionally difficult moments.
My bent on perfecting myself keeps me from being able to discern or enjoy my Father’s presence by keeping my focus on what I am doing instead of what he is doing. And ultimately, it keeps me entrenched with a focus on what I, living by my own strength and ability (in other words, what I in the flesh) can do.
But this practice is training me to live by the Spirit, trusting all that Christ is and is able to do in me and through me. Only after our awareness of God’s love and work in our lives is awake are we truly ready to examine our hearts and let the Spirit show us where we need to repent and confess and trust Christ a little more.
I encourage you to try this practice not only at the end of this year but regularly — at the end of your days, weeks, and months. It will enable you to say, “I see your hand, Father, carrying me all of my yesterdays; I look forward to all of my tomorrows and all the grace rushing to meet me in them.”
Looking back on “where his light was” will not only lead you to praise, but surely feed your hope. For his light is everywhere, if only we have eyes to see it.
I remember my Word of the Year for 2011. Home. It was the year we were preparing to move our young family thousands of miles from every home they had ever known. I knew I would need a way to define what home meant in order to stay the course of the lifelong calling of God upon our lives.
While our current calling is stateside with a ministry which resettles refugees, we remain a thousand or more miles from the other homes we have known. We are a year and a half into the process of our move, and I continue to ask what it really means to build a home for God which supports our family and welcomes others.
As the holidays approach, I think of the refugees we serve who desire to make true, life-giving, and sustainable homes in the U.S. They seek to do this even while they remain displaced and far, far away from many loved ones. And I think of you, similarly, seeking to build a home, ultimately for the living God, in places which are thousands of miles and oceans and cultures away from the homes you once knew so well.
As I ask myself this question, I ask you as well:
“How do we build a home for God wherever we are in this great, wide world?”
The answer is at once simple and yet complex. Building a home for God depends deeply upon finding a resting place of security and love which is ours in God. Yet this work must also be intricate and intentional as we live amidst diverse environments and cultures.
I was recently reading through the book of Exodus, and I found parallels between the Israelites’ construction of the tabernacle during their wilderness years and our construction of similar dwelling places for God in the places and spaces of our own sojourning. As we consider these similarities, we remember to keep holding the tension between this intricate construction of a tabernacle and the assurance of the veil torn in two which yields constant access to the presence of God.
So I offer to you some key elements of what it looks like to build a home for God wherever you are:
We must build or obtain a physical home: For the Israelites, the first element was the construction of the outer curtains and their frames. Before there were inner elements, there were the outer ones. In our journey, we must find a physical place to live wherever we are. When we found our flat in Hungary after much searching, I remember taking a deep breath and thanking God for all of the elements which came together to find the right place for us to live. For many missionaries, this piece is crucial to thrive in the work of our calling. Furthermore, it is important enough to be a selective process. As we pray and give this element to God, we find that he will provide just what we need.
The construction of a home involves skilled artistry: For the Israelites, they needed skilled workers who could find and sew together the right materials in the correct size and color. In addition, other artisans were needed to weave in specific designs. For us, this means that we remember that the unique gifts we have weren’t left in our home countries. We may be good at decorating or language learning or meeting new people, or some other thing. But we must remember that the specific abilities which make us special are needed for important aspects of the homes we will construct. As we manifest the ‘poema’ or poem of God’s workmanship through our lives (Ephesians 2:10), our home begins to take the specific shape of God in us.
We must beprepared to sacrifice,but there is also space to grieve: In the building of the tabernacle, the next step is the construction of the altar upon which sacrifices will be made. Metaphorically, our building of homes for God involves costly, even perpetual, sacrifice on the altar of our lives. In worship to God, we give our love for our families far away, our existing friendships, our comfort, our status, and more to live where we are. However, there is also a spacious courtyard which surrounds this altar, allowing us space to commune with God in our grief and time to surrender these losses to Him.
The oil of readiness must continually burn: The Israelites were called to prepare fine oil for the lamp stands of the tabernacle. Furthermore, Aaron and his sons were to make sure the lamp stands in the holiest place were continuously lit before the Ark of the Covenant. Similarly, our lamps must always be lit. In times of plenty or want, we are to be ever giving the light of the Gospel both to ourselves, as our own soul nourishment, and to all who experience the presence of God through us. Just as the central dwelling place of God in the tabernacle was the ultimate destination of God’s home, so with us we most centrally bear the light of God as we possess a living, vibrant home where we behold Him, in His faithful character and matchless love. We can have no home for Him without His presence sustaining our lives.
We are clothed in priestly garments: The building of the tabernacle included detailed instructions for the garments of the high priest, Aaron. Yahweh declares His people to be a ‘kingdom of priests, a holy nation’ in Exodus 19:6. Peter reiterates this in I Peter 2:9 for all who trust Jesus, saying, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Our garments are perfection and can never be taken from us. They were bought with the exquisite, unfathomable price of the life of God’s own Son. As we continually acknowledge this truth, we can minister as living intercessors for the lives of others with both confidence and humility. Whether in intercessory prayer to our Great High Priest, Jesus, or through being in relationship with others as His hands and feet, our homes radiate gorgeous light from the holy of holies of God.
Wherever you are, I pray you feel hope and encouragement to stay the course of building a home for God. You may feel far behind where had you hoped to be in some areas of construction. But rest assured that as you allow your light to shine, you represent to the world our beautiful Immanuel, ‘God with us.’