Esta was my best kept secret for a long time.
Esta comes to my house four days a week. She washes my dishes, does my laundry (even ironing!), cleans my floors and scrubs fingerprints off the walls. She cuts up fruit and cleans the windows and makes tortillas. And even though all my friends in Tanzania know about Esta (because they have their own house helpers), I didn’t want anyone in the States to know about her.
I had other secrets too, like the air conditioner in my bedroom, the generator in my garage, and the times we go snorkeling in a tropical paradise.
I figured that if my American friends and supporters knew about these things, they would think I am spoiled. That my life is way too easy and if they had to be honest, I might just be a little (dare they say it?) lazy. Maybe the rich wives of Beverly Hills can get away with that lifestyle, but perish the thought that a missionary hire someone to do her dishes.
After all, everyone knows that missionaries are supposed to suffer.
After all, aren’t you counting the cost? Taking up your cross? Denying yourself? Abandoning it all for the sake of the call? Aren’t you leaving behind family, friends, and Starbucks to fulfill the Great Commission? After all, isn’t that why you are put on that pedestal and your picture plastered on everyone’s refrigerator? So that you can emulate the pinnacle of joyful suffering?
When you’re standing there on the center of that church stage, surrounded by hundreds of people praying for you, plane tickets in hand, earthly possessions packed into bags exactly 49.9 pounds each, you feel ready to suffer. Yes! I am ready to abandon it all!
And then you arrive in your long-awaited country and you realize that in order to host the youth group, you’re going to need a big living room. And in order to get the translation work done, you need electricity, which means you need a generator. And in order to learn the language, you’ll need to hire someone to wash your dishes and help with childcare.
Suddenly, you find yourself living in a bigger house than you lived in your home country, but you are ashamed to put pictures of it on Facebook. You don’t want to admit to your supporters that you spent $1000 on a generator, and heaven forbid people find out that you aren’t doing your own ironing.
You even find there’s a bit of competition among missionaries themselves. A couple of friends and I had a good-natured conversation on which of us deserved the “real missionary” award. I live in an African country, but I’m a city dweller. “You live in the village with no running water and a pit toilet,” I told one friend. She responded, “Well, how about Michelle? She did her cooking outside on charcoal for two years.” Apparently, if you suffer more, you are a better missionary. Or more godly. Probably both.
But does this attitude really come from Scripture? Yes, Jesus speaks out against hoarding up wealth and loving money more than Him. We are called to deny our desires for the sake of the gospel. But it shouldn’t be about choosing to suffer for suffering’s sake, as if suffering equals more godliness. It’s about choosing to be intentional, and embracing both the suffering and the privileges that come along with it.
If God has called you to work among the upper-class in India, then you’ll need to live like them, in a modern apartment. If God has called you to work among the coastal tribes of Tanzania, then you’ll need to live like them, in a simple cinder-block house with a pit toilet. Each life has its set of challenges. Each life has its set of blessings.
When comforts or luxuries come along with God’s calling, should we feel guilty? Or instead, should we see it as an opportunity for stewardship? Since I have Esta working for me full-time, it doesn’t mean that I sit around watching television while she cleans my floors. It means that I have extra time for ministry. It means that I am happy to open my home for youth group, overnight guests, or large dinner parties, because I know that I have someone who will help me with the work. Since I do have an air conditioner in my bedroom, it means I am getting much better sleep than those around me. How am I going to steward that privilege?
God doesn’t judge our godliness based on our degree of suffering; He looks at our hearts. Have we made comfort, or even suffering, into an idol? Are we insisting on a way of life that helps us, or hinders us, from connecting with the local culture? Or are we being intentional with the lifestyle we have chosen? Are we using the gifts God has given us to indulge in our comfort or to increase our fruitfulness? These are the heart questions that are far more important than the outside appearance of suffering.
We often quote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but fail to remember the context of that verse. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” And what’s the secret? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
As missionaries, we are usually prepared for being in need and living in want. We know Christ will strengthen us in times of homesickness, scary diseases, and no indoor plumbing. But we can also learn to be content when we get to vacation at the historical castle, our ironed laundry is hanging neatly in our closets, and the generator is purring. Let’s not idolize comfort or be needless martyrs.
If your motives are right, then go ahead and buy that air conditioner. Use it to the glory of God.