by William Jackson
The reality of living overseas is that you are going to grieve multiple things, deeply. Anyone moving out of their passport country has a dream. Some want to help HIV patients or people who have been trafficked. Others want to plant churches among the Unreached People Groups of the World.
Whatever your dream, it will most likely get crushed. Stomped on. And you are going to have to find a way to realize God isn’t a monster wanting to cause you pain. Grief will, one day, cover you like a blanket, and you will wonder, “How can I see beyond the current struggle I’m in?” The sooner you realize you are grieving, the better.
Countless books are written about dealing with grief after a loved one dies. Without minimizing such deep pain, we can notice that it is quite easy to get resources for these “common griefs.” The pill that is hard to swallow is what can missionaries do when they realize their dreams are dead or dying? The easy answer is to bring immediate comfort to the missionary dealing with grief. But, is this the right solution?
My family moved to South Asia almost 7 years ago. My wife and I were ready to give all, and we did, for the sake of seeing the Church built here. We lived with a Muslim family in a village for 11 months to better learn language and culture. God gave us a wonderful family to enjoy life with, and they still call us to come and celebrate their Islamic festivals with them.
At the end of our “enculturation period” we moved across country to an area with no churches. Over the years we managed to recruit 7 others to come with us and do the hard work of Church Planting. For whatever reason, and I’ll ask God one day, we didn’t see fruit. For 5 years we labored as a team with no converts. We managed to discover two Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) in the city with us, but for various reasons, we never saw trust built between them and some other MBBs living in the surrounding villages. Yet our dream didn’t unravel until team members decided it was time to move on.
Satan attacked our team in various ways. One couple had a conflict with me over team philosophy and left. Another couple had a different discipleship approach from us, so they departed. What made me realize that God was moving things drastically was when one of our single guys on the team began doubting the Christian faith altogether. What was going on?? I thought that I would deal with disappointment and frustrations on the mission field, but to see everything my wife and I labored to build just come unraveled was overwhelming. I floundered in grief before I even knew I was in it.
What is grief? It is simply “mourning the loss of something” (Hill 2018, 30). I had never thought of grief this way until I saw that my dead dream caused such intense agony in my spirit that I couldn’t see a path forward. I previously thought that grief was only something you had to go through when a person close to you died. I was wrong. Grief is an intensely personal issue that people go through, and different people grieve very differently. Some get angry, quiet, introspective, weepy, etc. You can’t always tell when someone is grieving.
In Dr. Hill’s book, she describes 3 stages of grief. They stages are 1) Anger / Denial. 2) No Hope. 3) New Beginnings. (Hill 2018, 31). I appreciated her mentioning that if we seek to build false bridges so that we skip from Villages 1 to 3, we aren’t helping anyone. Telling someone to believe a Bible verse about God’s sovereignty may not be the most useful thing. Making a false bridge doesn’t allow the person to walk the natural path of grief that they need to journey through.
In my experience with grief, it was helpful reading through several articles and books on grief. (You can see my list below.) It was also helpful to talk with a mentor about our current struggles and to reach out to our agency’s Member Care and Area Leader to say “Hey, we’re drowning here!” Just having people tell me that they understand the challenges and are praying for me was a help. (However, we should keep in mind that not all offers for help are actually helpful.)
Today I’m somewhere in between Villages 2 and 3. Thankfully, I can see that my grief has served a purpose. My entire life story wasn’t about creating a team that would be engaged in Church Planting work. This season of life has shown me how much God loves me even if my dreams fail. Even if I never see one person turn to Jesus, or disciple anyone, I’ll be ok. Being His child is more than enough.
I don’t have to achieve my dreams in order to be successful. In fact, I’m pretty sure God won’t allow that to happen. “It is liberating to realize that we don’t have to finish (or see our dreams fulfilled), all we have to be is faithful” (Hart 1995, 211). Even though my dream wasn’t fulfilled, the journey I went on through grief has grown me, so that perhaps one day, I can comfort someone else in their suffering (2 Cor. 1:4).
Articles and books on grief:
Hart, Archibald, Adrenaline and Stress: The Exciting New Breakthrough That Helps You Overcome Stress Damage. Thomas Nelson, 1995.
Hill, Harriet et al. Healing the Wounds of Trauma: Missionary Edition. American Bible Society, 2018.
Langberg, Diane. Suffering and the Heart of God. New Growth Press, 2015.
Lewis, CS. A Grief Observed. Faber and Faber, 1961.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
William Jackson, along with his wife and two daughters, are in their seventh year in S. Asia. They enjoy life, spicy food, and the friendly neighbors God keeps bringing their way. Bazaaring, raising kids, operating in a foreign language and culture, and trying to “figure out” Church Planting are some of the ways God uses situations to humble him. He’s thankful that God has this all figured out.