Missionaries are experts in high expectations.
I mean, who else has a job like this? Most of us went through a stringent interview process just to get here. Pages of applications, hours of interviews, weeks of training, our references were asked for more references. We are held up as examples of godliness. We have high expectations of the kind of people we will be.
And then, once we are accepted, our pictures are placed in the foyers of churches and on family refrigerators all over the country. We are paraded around like celebrities. Not only are we expected to write strategic plans every year and submit them to our supervisors and our supporting churches, but then we are required to write monthly reports to hundreds of stakeholders. If it feels like they have really high expectations for how we will perform, well, our own expectations are probably even higher. After all, if we are going to sacrifice so much, if we are going to ask others to sacrifice so much on behalf of us, then we better see results.
Based on our yearly goals (or you could call them glorified New Year’s Resolutions), and the amount of accountability we receive, missionaries should be the world’s most productive and healthy people. And really, the world should be saved by now. Right?
On one hand, I’m thankful for this aspect of missionary life. I am a goal-oriented person, and I like the accountability. I think it’s a great thing to think long-term about how we are going to accomplish what God is calling us to do.
On the other hand, we just never reach those expectations, do we? We move overseas, and it brings out the worst in us. As a spouse. As a parent. As a friend. As a minister to others. And as for our ministry? What we felt called to do? What we felt called to be? Well, that just never goes as we planned. And sometimes it’s even a total disaster.
So how do we find that balance? How do we set goals for ourselves, for our ministry, when we have experienced disappointment and failure? When we’ve been betrayed by too many friends? How do we temper the anxiety of not being able to reach the expectations of those who are holding us up?
After 15 years as a missionary, it’s true that my early idealism was smashed a long time ago. You know those times of wonderful rejoicing, when all is going the way it should? Well, it just takes one stumble, one new piece of information, and suddenly it all falls apart. What seems like a happy ending can still turn tragic in the end.
Does this make me cynical? It can, sometimes. But I’ve also been around long enough now to learn that sometimes the worst things—when I feel like all is lost—well, sometimes in the end they weren’t such a big deal after all. Or even if they were, God can beautifully redeem them.
I have learned to just trust. John Piper writes, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” So yes, we do need to plan, we do need to dream big, we do need to work hard towards God-centered goals. But in the end, we must remember that this is God’s work, and He will do as He pleases.
I love these words by Andree Seu Peterson: “Only God sees around corners, and therefore it is very wise to not try to figure out our own way to happiness and safety by relying on our own understanding and worldly wiles. The wise person will trust in God’s ways and stick to them, knowing that life can get messy in the middle, because the person who makes God his trust, the story will turn out well in the end, in the very, very end.”
Maybe you’re looking at 2017 with dread. To you, I say: Be faithful. Keep getting up in the morning. Keep doing what God has called you to. Keep walking out your front door, even if it’s terrifying. Keep showing up, because that’s often the most important part. Or maybe you’re looking at 2017 with great anticipation. To you, I say: Be humble. Be excited, but hold it all loosely, knowing that things aren’t always as they seem.
And in all of it, trust the God who sees around the corner. We might try to write our story, or at least figure out the ending, but He is the one who already knows it. And He knows how He wants to get us there. Set your goals, keep your eyes on Him, and find joy in the journey. In the very, very end, we know the story will turn out well.