Sixteen years ago, my husband and I were all of 24 years old when we arrived in Tanzania for our first term. We had only been married nine months, and we were passionate and dedicated, but incredibly naïve. We had absolutely no idea what we were in for.
We were working in youth ministry in a local church plant, and my husband was coaching sports as a way to get to know young people. One young man came into our lives with a real interest in the gospel. He was earnest and really seemed sincere, and it wasn’t long before he made a profession of faith. Since he was from a religion that is usually opposed to Christianity, we were thrilled.
Over the next year and a half, this young man dominated our time and our prayer updates. He was in our home almost every day.
Then, six weeks before we left the country, we found out he had been regularly stealing money from us.
We returned to the States utterly shattered. For many other reasons, it had been an extremely difficult two years. This young man had been a bright spot, and when that blew up, we were completely demoralized and totally disillusioned.
By the grace of God, a couple years later we were back in Tanzania, older, wiser, and a lot more wary. Yet even the loss of our naiveté didn’t really prepare us for everything we would see and experience over the next ten years. Like the ugly split of the indigenous church we attended. Or the married missionary of multiple children who ran off with a woman from the village where he was church planting. Or that time when the national leader who was raised up by missionaries ended up being a narcissist who abused his team. And the worst? A local pastor—discipled, installed, and supported by missionaries for over ten years—was discovered to have an incestuous relationship with his adult daughter.
Boom. And just like that, everything worked for, everything believed in, goes up in flames.
Though we weren’t intimately involved in any of those situations, we were close enough to feel the shockwaves. And they shook us to our core.
Disbelief. Despair. Disillusionment. We can handle the loneliness, the inconveniences, and the bugs that come with missionary life, but not this. Not this. Many missionaries would say that they would rather be persecuted or deported than have their ministry blow up. How could this have happened? Where we did go wrong? Why are we even here? What are we possibly going to tell our supporters?
Of course, these kind of life-altering situations happen also in our home countries. But I think that for missionaries it is especially devastating. I’ve given up everything for this ministry, and there are hundreds sacrificing so that I can be here, we think. And this is all I have to show for it? Blown up bits of carnage? And then there’s that sinking feeling that maybe we should have known better. That maybe it’s our fault.
So what do we do? How do we possibly recover? Move on? Start over?
We start by humbling ourselves. Even if we had no responsibility for what happened, we must do the hard work of searching our souls. Why am I so devastated? Only because of the sin, or because this event toppled my idols of reputation and success? Could my own sin have blinded me to the warning signals I was trying to ignore? Is this public sin bringing conviction on my own private sin?
We do the messy work of cleaning up. This is not the time to gloss over sin or shove it under the rug, despite the temptation to do so. That doesn’t mean that we must share every sordid detail with the world, but ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Go through due process. Ask hard questions. Find out who all was affected. Examine the width and breadth of the shockwaves, and get help for those who need it. Take personal responsibility when necessary.
We ask for help when we need it. Out of fear for our reputations, let us not neglect to ask for help. This is the time to call upon pastors and trusted friends. Missionary counselors are there, ready and waiting, for times like these. Let us not foolishly assume that we can handle it on our own.
Most importantly, we do not lose hope. The great king Solomon was born to the adulterous David and Bathsheba. Samson was a moral disaster, yet God used him to avenge Israel’s enemies. Peter denied Christ three times, but went on to be a leader of the Church. God does not measure success and failure the way we do. He sees men’s hearts; He knows the beginning and the end, and He can use even the most horrific situation for His good.
In Trusting God, Jerry Bridges writes, “If we are going to learn to trust God in adversity, we must believe that just as certainly as God will allow nothing to subvert His glory, so He will allow nothing to spoil the good He is working out in us and for us.”
Remember that young man who stole from us? After we left Tanzania in shreds, we lost contact. It was the age before social media, and we heard through the grapevine that he had emigrated out of the country. The betrayal so devastated us that for years we rarely talked about it—even between ourselves. But time and God’s grace heals all wounds. We forgave him and moved on.
Then, just a few months ago, out of the blue, he contacted us. He was visiting Tanzania and wanted to see us. Of course, we were happy to agree. We spent a few hours together, reminiscing about old times and catching up on each other’s lives. After all, we had a lot of great memories together.
Just before we said good-bye, he got quiet and emotional. Very simply, he apologized for what he had done to us fourteen years previously.
It was a holy moment.
We’re still not sure what God is doing in this man’s life, but we do know for sure that He is not done. We serve a God of grace and redemption. We cannot possibly imagine what He has in store.