“Why do you think it’s so hard for missionaries to say, ‘I’m not fine?’”
I recently posed this question to author and Third Culture Kid expert Ruth Van Reken. Her answer came swiftly and without hesitation, an answer that can only come from deep, personal experience.
“It can take your whole faith apart.”
Ruth is in her seventies, a missionary kid who learned in boarding school how to copy “I’m fine” from the template on the chalkboard for every letter she sent home. I’m in my twenties, a missionary kid who’s been an expert-smiler since as early as I can remember.
In different ways across different decades, we both learned that being a missionary and not being “fine” is, well… not fine at all. How has this belief snaked its way through the missions community and persisted across the generations?
One reason is that missionaries have historically been misconceived as spiritual superheroes among our Christian communities. I mean, how can superheroes not be fine?
Another reason is the fear that our hardships might cast an uncomfortable sense of uncertainty on the goodness of the God who called us. We sacrificed everything for Him, right? Why is life so excruciatingly difficult?
These subtle questions and misconceptions littered my childhood and contributed heavily to the “I’m fine” theology that I began to live out. To help you fully grasp how these messages contributed to always being “fine,” I’d like to invite you into a snapshot of my story (taken from my new book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams).
From the time I was a little girl, I went to church every Sunday. My dad was a pastor on staff, so it’s what we did. On Saturday nights, I always washed my hair for church the following morning, and I’d lay out something nicer than the clothes I’d wear on a typical Tuesday. I was often known by our congregation as the good girl who recited her memory verses perfectly, was always polite, and never complained. Although these were good, God-honoring things, some of the micro-messages that crept into my heart were not good. Or true.
These micro-messages told me that being a good Christian meant always smiling and never talking about how you really felt.
I learned that putting yourself together and making sure you smelled nice is what you did before you went into God’s house. Although I knew these measures were typically heeded out of respect, I noticed that other people appeared especially happy with the polished version of me.
Is that how God felt about me, too?
When I was nine, my family sold our home and moved to East Asia. My parents planned to partner with local churches in efforts to advance the gospel. In the months leading up to our departure, we sold nearly everything we owned. One Saturday afternoon, I spread out all my toys, with parental instructions to choose three. Everything else ended up in a pile at our garage sale, sporting fifty-cent stickers.
I didn’t really know how to feel that day. I stood in the corner and watched strangers carry out our couch and kitchen table and silverware. I felt okay until a woman with short, spiky hair carried out my green bedspread. That was new bedspread. My throat tightened with a shiver of emotion. I loved that bedspread. I loved my room. I loved my home. I loved my life.
I suddenly really didn’t like this moment.
The losses just kept rolling in. But people kept telling me how excited I must be and how much we were honoring God by our commitment. I chalked up my grief to discontentment and determined to be fine. Wasn’t it silly to be sad about toys and bedspreads and ice-skating lessons when more important things (like gospel proclamation) were at stake?
Besides, I was the good little girl who never complained. The micro-messages seeping into my heart sounded something like this: Anger and sadness are not allowed. These emotions are bad. Being happy all the time is what it means to honor God.
So, I learned to be fine until the lights went out.
Curled up in bed at night, those pangs of loss would overwhelm me. No one told me point-blank that I shouldn’t cry, but the last words whispered to nine-year-old me before boarding that first flight overseas was, “Be a good little girl for your mommy and daddy.”
I wanted to be good girl, and everyone knew that good girls didn’t cry. No wonder Ruth told me that saying “I’m not fine” can take your faith apart. If you can’t hold faith and pain together, then being fine becomes your only option.
As missionaries, have we fastened the value of our faith to the faulty condition of being fine?
I’ll be the first to raise my hand here. As an MK, I wanted to please. I didn’t want to hinder the advancement of the gospel. But those honest hopes and fears eventually suffocated any sense of authenticity from my personal relationship with God. I forgot that the gospel of grace is for “I’m not fine” people. But I couldn’t go the Father in my pain and sorrow when I thought I had to hide it from him.
“There’s a difference between resignation and submission to God’s will,” Ruth wisely told me. “Submission is when we wrestle and eventually say, ‘I will believe that you are good and faithful and true even if I don’t feel that way today.’”
This truth is etched throughout Scripture, resounding of a different, more honest way of engaging in the Christian walk. Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane. David’s gut-wrenchingly honest laments in the Psalms. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the truth (not our tidiness) is what truly sets us free.
Today, perhaps the invitation for you and me is to breathe in grace. Breathe out honesty. To allow ourselves space to wrestle. And to recognize that, in the end, a whispered admission of “I’m not fine” is what oftentimes actually holds our faith together.
Quotes from Ruth Van Reken taken from personal interview with her, August 30, 2022.
You can read more of my story in my new book, Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams.
Taylor Joy Murray is an MK, author, and speaker passionate about serving her generation in the areas of emotional health and spiritual formation. Her first book, Hidden in My Heart, which gives words to often unexpressed experiences and emotions of missionary kids, was published when she was just fourteen years old. Her new book, Stop Saying I’m Fine, was just released. She currently lives in Lynchburg, Virginia while completing her Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Connect with her on Instagram @__taylorjoy__ or on her website at www.taylorjoymurray.co.