The Myth of the Ever-Happy Missionary

I don’t know if anyone has actually said it, but sometimes I feel it in the air: missionaries are supposed to be Very Happy. We are supposed to land in our host country and immediately love everything and everyone around us, floating on clouds of ministry bliss.

But sometimes we aren’t happy.

Sometimes as much as we love the people around us, they are also frustrating and hurtful, just like back in our passport country. Sometimes a cultural practice irks or disturbs us. Sometimes the relationships we left behind pain us, like a wounded foot that can’t quite heal because we keep walking on it. Sometimes we suffer from anxiety or depression or homesickness.

Maybe it’s for a season. Maybe longer. None of us wants to camp out in those places of heartache, but we do go there, sometimes for a while. Are the hurting missionaries less of a success than the happy ones? Where did these ideas come from?

With the advent of industrialization and modernity in the West, people’s lifestyles changed in ways that the world had never seen. Child and infant mortality decreased drastically; educational opportunities advanced; work was less tied to exhausting manual labor. These changes brought definite increases in quality of life and in what could be termed happiness. The right to pursue happiness is even tied into the major founding documents of the United States.

But the “right” to happiness has brought with it an expectation and a pressure: if we’re not happy, then we’re letting down ourselves and the people around us, who shouldn’t have to experience our unhappiness. The pressure can even come from a misguided attempt to be thankful for first-world advantages: if we’re not happy, then we’re not grateful enough for the benefits we have. The pressure is compounded for Christians and ministry workers: if we’re not happy, it’s because we’re not spiritual enough to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

The Lord calls us to contentment, certainly. We are commanded—and enabled—to have a deep-running river of joy in Christ even in suffering. But we may be called to seasons of sorrow and pain, or at least discomfort and longing. Where is the mandate to be happy?

If humans hadn’t rebelled against God in the Garden, if the Fall hadn’t happened, then we would all be supremely happy, with nothing to detract from it and no knowledge that anything could. His creation plan included our ultimate happiness, satisfaction, and bliss in paradise with Him. A time is coming when God will wipe every tear from every eye, and yes, we will be nothing but joyfully happy for all eternity.

But during this in-between time, temporal happiness doesn’t come first. In this fallen world, He is bent on our ultimate joy as it coincides with his ultimate glory. And sanctification often hurts.

Being happy all the time is not the point. We aren’t Christians for that purpose and we didn’t come to our host countries for that purpose. We came because God called us, because He has work to do here.

We can look at Jesus himself to see that the servant is not above the master when it comes to hard emotions. Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death (John 11:28-35); he was angry and even violent over the money changers’ sacrilege in the temple (Mark 11:15-19); he was grieved at the faithlessness of his disciples when they could not drive out a demon (Matthew 17:17). His negative emotions laid bare the gulf between what God designed for the world, and what it is. We are not sinless like Jesus; we cannot indulge personal anger and call it righteousness. But his example shows us the value of painful emotions.

Jesus himself—Very God of Very God—experienced and expressed anger and grief, and his Father was not disappointed in him. It did not mean he lacked self-control. It meant that he saw the broken situation rightly and longed for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Even more so, it meant that he believed in God’s coming, conquering Kingdom: he knew what should be, and he trusted that it was imminent.

Our negative feelings can point to the fact that this world is not conformed to God’s ways—that the Kingdom, while already coming, has not yet come in full. They point to the reality that there is much work to do in this world and God has called us to be part of it.

Now, if we need counseling, medicine, or a variety of other helps, then we should embrace them. It’s a wonderful gift from God to have medication to help sort out our brain chemistry, and relational help to help sort out our life experiences. Every part of us was broken by the Fall, so it’s no surprise when we experience difficult emotions; when they overwhelm us, we may need to put our trust in God by trusting his common grace of psychology and pharmacology.

If we let ourselves ride out the hard emotions, without catastrophizing them to signal the end of the world or heaping on guilt and shame, these emotions can clue us in to important things. Like how God is working in us, and how we are either cooperating or resisting. How he wants to challenge us, and heal us. They can help us work through loss and pain and be soothed by the peace of Christ. And help us to know ourselves and others, growing in our ability to offer empathy.

Our sadness and other non-happy emotions don’t have to destroy us or our ministry. They can be part of cultivating a life and ministry resilient enough to withstand brokenness and yet thrive. When we feel these negative emotions, we can go to the God who felt them too.

Not an Afterthought

singles with quote

I grew up in a Muslim country where women were largely absent in the public space. The inner courtyards of my Muslim friends were where women socialized. This is where talk, laughter, eating, and discussions on birth control took place. The inner courtyards were wonderful places. Places where smells and colors mingled and to this day cause me to smile.

I also grew up surrounded by strong women. They were moms and grandmothers, they were sisters and aunties. They were also nurses and doctors,  interpreters and translators, scholars and linguists,  literacy specialists and more.

And more than fifty percent of them were single. 

I still smile when I think of sharing meals around the table with Dr. Maybel and Dr. Mary; Hannah and Phyllis, nurse midwives; Helen – a brilliant linguist. The talk was stimulating and I owe them much in shaping my life and my story.

Because here’s the thing: In a life overseas we need our single friends, we need our single brothers and sisters. We are incomplete without them. 

Every year Hannah would accompany us on our annual vacation to the Karachi coast, to a small beach hut affectionately called the “Sea Breeze.” This hut saved many a Christian worker from despairing and heading across the ocean back to their passport countries. It provided solace and rest to people who worked hard in a country sometimes hostile, other times hospitable to those of another faith. Hannah was part of our family for that week. We would rest, read, build sand castles, eat special foods, and play various games of tag in the soft sand. Hannah was vital to our family. She wasn’t a last minute add on, she wasn’t a final “plus one.” She was Hannah and she was special. Hannah was friend to both my mom and dad, older sister and auntie to the rest of us. Hannah was a gift and so were the other single people in our community.

Our single friends provide perspective and focus, they help us to parent better and love our spouses more. Our single friends are not an afterthought in the body of Christ. They are not an afterthought in the mission field. They are a sustaining force of grace and a picture of God’s good work in our world. 

So how can we let them know that they are not footnotes in the life of the missionary, in our lives overseas? 

Here are some practical ways to bring people alongside and invite them into our lives with purpose:

  • Weekly dinners – not a “once in a while”  guest, but a real part of your weekly family life. Don’t fuss with dinner – let it be the real thing. The real kids and the real you. Let them love on your kids and your kids love on them.
  • Invite them on a vacation. They might say no, they might have other plans. But they may be desperately missing nephews and nieces, brothers and sister-in-laws. Allow them to be a part of a vacation time away from the routine of life.
  • Ask your single friends to pray for you, be willing to be vulnerable. Like telling them you hate your kids – they know you don’t really, they know you love them more than life itself, but don’t be afraid to be real. Don’t worry about appearing ungrateful for being married with kids – your single friends are wise, strong people. They can handle it and they can pray. In turn, ask them how you can help them.
  • Get tips from them on connecting with nationals in your community. With less time needed to focus on kids and spouse, our single friends often have amazing ways that they have found to connect. Tag along, ask them about their friendships, gain tips on language learning and culture sharing.
  • Make sure you respect, and are willing to put,  single people into positions of influence, positions of leadership. Don’t equate marriage with leadership ability. This is a fallacy. The God-given gifts of leadership are available to single and married people.
  • Ensure that you never, ever equate godliness and holiness with marital status. That is unfair. That is wrong. Our goal should never be marriage – it should be holiness regardless of whether married or single.
  • Invest in their lives, find out who they are, what they care about, where their gifts lie. They are a vital part of the kingdom and we do well to celebrate them.
  • Recognize that singleness is not a one size fits all category – it is complex. The single people who may be serving beside you in your life overseas could come from vastly different backgrounds with varying struggles and responses to their singleness. They all have a story and we are better people for learning their stories.
  • Above all – Have fun. Don’t let this be a chore. Don’t think of this as a list of things to check off. That’s not the purpose. Don’t force friendships, but do be purposeful.

The two most influential women in my life beyond my mom were two of my boarding parents, Eunice and Debbie, both single women. Eunice came into my life when I Deb, Eunice, mewas a wee one, Debbie when I was a teenager. To this day I call them during times of joy and crisis, to pray with me, to laugh with me. They are my heroes. They are my dear friends. The community where I was raised allowed me to experience the fullness of relationships with single people. As a result, many of my closest friends today are single, living lives full of purpose and grace.

The Kingdom of God has the power to break down our divisions – those social constructs and categories that we use to define ourselves.  Single, married, black, white and more. May we always be willing to reach across these constructs and in doing so, grow into the people and communities that God desires.

What ways have you found to connect with your single friends overseas? If you are single, what would you want your married friends to do to let you know that you are a vital, living part of the Kingdom? 

Between Worlds on Amazon

Between Worlds is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble! Between Worlds charts a journey between the cultures of East and West, the comfort of being surrounded by loved ones and familiar places, and the loneliness of not belonging. “Every one of us has been at some point between two worlds, be they faith and loss of faith, joy and sorrow, birth and death. Between Worlds is a luminous guide for connecting—and healing—worlds.” – Cathy Romeo, co-author, Ended Beginnings: Healing Childbearing Losses



Picture Credit: photo art MGardner