Dear Missionary, Are You Afraid of Success?

I have a friend who lives in darkness. Her giant house has armored doors. There are snarly dogs in her courtyard and a muscular, protective husband in her home office. She never leaves home unless covered from head to toe, and even then, only to visit her brothers.

Yet, when she opens the door and pulls me inside her home, where dark, high windows let in only a hint of sunlight, she lights up the darkness. She is like a treasure hidden in a field.

Oh, how I want to share Jesus with my friend.

Once, my husband and I were presenting about our mission to one of our supporting churches. I told them about this very special woman and posed a rhetorical question: “Who is going to tell her about Jesus?” To my surprise, someone in the congregation answered.

“You,” he said.

I swallowed a big lump in my throat, because I knew he was right. Other than a miraculous, supernatural visit, my voice was the only one she would ever hear speak the name of “Isa Al Massih.” If she hears about Jesus, it will likely be from my mouth, between sips of bittersweet mint tea with afternoon Arabic cartoons playing in the background.

It’s exciting.

And, if I’m honest, it’s terrifying.

Fear of Success

A few weeks ago, I was reading a book about listening well and asking great questions. I learned about a concept in psychology called self-sabotage. Apparently, some people are afraid of success. These people either consciously or unconsciously do things to hinder their progress toward a goal.

Here’s a made-up example. Let’s say a woman really wants to be a professional photographer, but deep down, she’s afraid of success. So she finishes projects late, gives up on submitting to contests at the last minute, and doesn’t bring her camera with her to events she knows will give her opportunities to take awesome photos.

Why? Maybe she’s deeply shy and fears that being a great photographer will get her unwanted attention. Or maybe she’s afraid a creative career will upset family or friends. She might even think she’s not worthy of doing something she loves.

Being a photographer is this woman’s dream, goal, and aim. But her subconscious fear of success is sabotaging her goal.

And she is self-sabotaging without even noticing it.

The book I was reading described all kinds of great things to help pinpoint and heal self-sabotage. But after the first paragraph, I stopped processing what I was reading.

Oh, Lord, I prayed as my eyes moved mechanically across the page. I am sabotaging my soul-winning. Heaven, help me.

A Conversation with Myself

That evening, I did a little research and a little soul-searching. Since I was learning to ask better questions, I opened up my journal and asked myself some.

Q: Why are you overseas?
A: Because I want to share my faith with others so they can have a saving, personal relationship with Jesus.

Q: What would success in this goal look like to you?
A:
People hearing and believing the gospel and beginning a journey of walking in faith and obedience to Christ.

Q: What comes up for you when you imagine that really happening?
A: A surprising amount of fear.

Q: What is frightening about your image of success?
A:
Did I mention the big, muscular husbands?

Q: Right. So, personal injury or death, got it. But that’s often a fear for you. What else?
A: I’m not the only one who is going to suffer. I probably won’t suffer at all, because things here are fairly stable. But it will be hard for my friends if they believe in Jesus.

Q: What might it be like for them if they believe?
A: They might be further restricted and isolated physically, or hurt socially, and that’s not what I want for them because they already have so little socially. There could even be physical consequences.

Q: What about that is difficult?
A: Well, maybe it shouldn’t be, because Jesus should be worth it. The apostle Paul counts all as loss compared with knowing Christ. Jesus is worth it to me, and my struggles and questions and pain and grief are so much lighter when He carries them. Jesus actually gives my trials meaning, because I believe God works all things together for my good. But I don’t want to be the cause of someone else having pain.

Q: Anything else?
A: I guess what I’ve given up seems like so little when I compare it to what they might have to give up. I wonder if it’s really fair to ask people to be willing to give up everything for Jesus. I think I’m willing, but I haven’t been faced with losing a marriage, a community, a child, or my life. Deciding to follow Jesus is a life-altering decision for a woman in this community.

Q: So, who gets to decide who follows Jesus?
A: Well, I believe humans have a right to decide that for themselves. So, I guess I’m called to share God’s story with people. They have to decide how they will respond.

Q: How does it feel, realizing that?
A: It’s not my place to decide for the woman in the big house whether she receives access to information about God. But I think it’s always been my “role” in life to prevent pain in people. I really hate it when people have pain – even though I know that sometimes pain is the only path to healing, like with a broken bone.

Q: So, your part is sharing. Her part is deciding. What do you need to do to fulfill your role?
A: I totally need to stop procrastinating, but my fearful heart keeps finding stuff to do, like rearranging furniture or overwatering the succulents. What should I do?!

Q: What do you think? What should you do?
A: Maybe I need to seriously pray against fear. Daily. And every time I visit her. And maybe I can ask my supporters to pray, too. And maybe other people who feel like I do would like to pray, too. We could pray for each other.

A Conversation with God

The other day, I was washing dishes and having a chat with God. Only this time the Holy Spirit was asking the questions.

So, what’s really your goal, Abby? What would success look like in this village? At first, my brain would only let me imagine something realistic. Two, maybe three women, hiding in corners in their homes, secretly reading the Word.

Too small. Think bigger.

So I tried.

“Two families? And maybe they could actually meet together?” I replied, thinking this felt scandalously unrealistic.

Too small. Think bigger.

“Um,” I thought. “I guess… a whole bunch of families… no, every family would hear, and believe, and follow Jesus. And the whole community would turn to the Lord, and they would determine to reach everyone around them with the gospel, and other villages would turn to You and they would find peace and community and truth and meaning and purpose.”

And?

“And they would reach their whole country, and the Arabic-speaking world.”

And?

“And now my heart is racing and I’m imagining legal consequences and social structure destabilization, and how much more suited I am to take up knitting than to change the world. Lord, I have so little faith!” 

I thought again about self-sabotage, about the times I’ve seen it in my life. The times I could have moved a conversation to spiritual topics but chose being agreeable at all costs. The times I had an opportunity to share Jesus but shared something easier instead, like a proverb or an Old Testament story. The times I could have visited someone in their home but didn’t—not because I legitimately needed some time off, but because, deep down, I was afraid of success.

“God, release me from fear. Heal my spiritual myopia!”

Planting Seeds

I’ve sometimes reassured myself that being nice is the only seed I really need to plant, even though God said it’s His Word–Jesus, the Word incarnate–which will not return to Him empty (Isaiah 55:11). Could it be that God is sending the rain, but I am not sowing the seeds, because I can’t control or predict the harvest?

It feels vulnerable to say these things. Yet I’ve spoken with a number of gospel seed sowers who want to share more, and like me, sometimes wonder why it feels so hard. I’m convinced that sharing faith involves deep heart work, whether you live in a hut under siege in a developing country or in a quiet, North American neighborhood where the most exciting thing that happens each year is the Fourth of July parade.

Whether we want to share with someone abroad or with someone in our own family, we need Jesus to help us conquer our fears and learn to share naturally and authentically.

And we need His help to leave the results in His hands. 

Interested in walking and talking together more about these things? I’ll be writing on the theme of authentic witnessing throughout the month of August over at my newsletter, Whatsoever Thoughts. I hope to see you there!

He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.’” (Mark 4:26-27)

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. You can read more from her at Whatsoever Thoughts, or check out her book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.

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