For the missionary, goodbyes are not a part of life: they are a way of life. Missionaries say goodbye to everything they’ve ever known, from the food they eat to the words they speak. And just about the time their new home becomes home, it’s time to say goodbye all over again.
It’s a life of non-stop goodbyes, but perhaps the worst part is goodbyes to loved ones. I remember as if it was yesterday, sitting forlorn after saying goodbye to my family at the airport. It killed my heart. It seemed to strip away all the idealistic glories of mission work.
For there are strong reasons not to go. “Don’t leave us,” “How can you take our grandchildren away?” and “There’s still so much work to be done here.” These pleas are legitimate and are often accompanied by sleepless nights. Going can sometimes leave others feeling forsaken, push relationships to their limit, and cause gaping holes in multiple spheres of life. Yet for all that is to be lamented, booed, and blasted about goodbyes, there is some good in them. And if you’re going to say such goodbyes, you’ll need every last drop of the good to carry you through the bye.
Goodbyes are good for those who don’t know Christ. This is the most obvious one, right? Saying hard goodbyes is worth it for the sake of people far away coming to know Christ. “Knowing what it is to fear God, we persuade men…For the love of Christ controls us,” as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14. No sacrifice is too great. It’s why Jesus bid farewell—not merely to heaven, but the eternal communion of the Trinity. Do your goodbyes hurt? Remember the agony of separation in Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) It’s a heart-filling picture of the worth God has placed on reconciling lost people to himself. It is one of the few right reasons to say such awful goodbyes. It embodies the treasure of knowing Christ.
Goodbyes are good for those who do know Christ. The severe pain that accompanies goodbyes contributes to the filling up of what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. These are the sufferings that Christians experience for the sake of the gospel (Colossians 1:24). They bring glory to God (Ephesians 3:13), but not just the intangible kind of glory that floats up to him. They compel us as fellow believers. One of my fellow pastors recently gave up his platform and position to move his family overseas on mission. And it compels my heart. A family in my church recently sold their home and expansive property in the wealthy part of town and moved into the inner city to more effectively reach out to international students. And it compels my heart. As I ponder why in the world they would do such a thing, I remember Christ in them, and I remember Christ in me. They point me to the one who gives me the courage to do the same.
Goodbyes are good for those who don’t seek a better country. A good friend (and former missionary) recently wrote, “Show me a person who says, ‘Don’t go, there’s so much work to do here,’ and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t live on mission.” It’s not always the case, but sometimes those who have little space for goodbyes have little place for sacrifice. Intentional transience is not about finding a better place to live, it’s about looking for “a better country — a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). It means setting your heart and eyes on Jesus, and letting your feet follow where he leads. Saying goodbye is a gracious declaration of something far better.
Goodbyes are good for those who do seek a better country. It would be silly to say that Christians have got this whole goodbye thing down. Even though we are those who do seek a better country, our resistance to parting ways is often just as strong as anyone else’s. It makes sense. Our ties go deeper because we’ve been fused together in the same body by the same Spirit (Ephesians 4:4). Our fellowship is sweet, and all the more the longer we share it. It was no different in the time of the New Testament. One of the most notable examples was when Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him, saying that he would never let him go to the cross. Yet as noble as his disciple’s love might have seemed, Jesus’ response showed just how unacceptable it was: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:21-23). The very salvation we enjoy today comes from the good in Jesus’ goodbye.
We are those who say we long for a better country. Nevertheless, our natural tendency will always hold some measure of clinging white-knuckle to what is familiar. Intentional goodbyes for the sake of obedience to God’s mission, as heart-breaking and messy as they might be, hold some good for our souls. Say them, and say them well.
Zach Bradley serves as a pastor of international missions at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and as a missiologist for The Upstream Collective, an organization that helps churches send locally and globally. He is the author of The Sending Church Defined, and writes at Broken Missiology. Find him on Twitter @zachsbradley.