Why Missionaries Doubt (and what to do about it)

Alex and Anna

I’ll never forget meeting Alex* and Anna.* For me, it was like meeting Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. With admittedly fewer cameras and less bling.

Alex and Anna had served in Asia for ten years. My husband and I were in our early twenties. These people had been missionaries for nearly half our lives!

We’d read their beautiful, well-written articles. I’d fallen in love with the people of their host country. I’d prayed with Alex and Anna from afar, rejoicing when various friends were delivered from the fear of evil spirits.

Now we were actually meeting them.

We had so many questions—after all, we were about to launch as missionaries ourselves. But Alex and Anna seemed very… tired. Something was wrong, though I didn’t know what. 

Just a few years later, Alex and Anna left Christianity. In fact, they both chose to follow a new-age religion. One even became a practitioner.

How in the world had that happened?

I don’t know their whole story with doubt and faith. But today I wanted to share my story and shed a little light on a hidden topic: the doubts and questions missionaries battle every day.

Why Do Missionaries Doubt?

When I was a freshman in college, my mom converted to a non-Christian religion. This sent me on a quest to figure out what I believed and why. Specifically, I questioned the divinity of Christ. It was an intense search, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Hour after hour I searched the scriptures, praying for truth.

Finally, I accepted Jesus afresh as my personal Savior. Later, my husband and I launched as missionaries to India, determined to share our love of Jesus with the world.

Good story, right?

I had no idea that going to the mission field would bring up more questions than answers.

Now I’ve been in the field for over a decade myself. And I haven’t done any scientific studies to know for sure, but I have a theory that missionaries are more susceptible to doubt than many realize. There are four things I believe contribute to this.

1. Studying Worldview

Did you ever take a public speaking or debate class, and afterwards couldn’t listen to a sermon without analyzing it? Or how about an editing class, which left you unable to read a book without wielding a mental red pen? The learning we do in our professions changes how we see the world.

Missionaries are not immune to this. If we take classes in worldview, we learn to see worldview everywhere. We can’t watch movies without analyzing values, players, and tools. We become like amateur anthropologists.

All this investigation can make our beliefs, ideas, and worldviews seem like just another way of explaining life. As I delved deeper into my Indian friends’ worldview, I felt disoriented. If their beliefs stemmed from a human attempt to understand the universe, couldn’t mine, too?

2. Trauma

The next factor is trauma. You may find yourself wondering why God allowed XYZ to happen, to you, to your kids, or to your host people. Or why the peace that passes understanding is suspiciously absent from your life right now. You start wondering, even subconsciously, if you were right about God, after all.

I’ll never forget my moments of deepest doubt in India, kneeling on a hard mat on the ground, the smell of sandalwood incense floating in the window. Like Job, I could see only the mat in front of me—not the spiritual battle, nor even the entire physical battle. Like Job, I asked God why, and I waited a long time in the silence.

3. Asking Others to Question

At the same time we missionaries are analyzing worldviews and going through hard things, we are actively asking others to question what they believe is true–particularly church planters. We seek to do this in a life-giving way, and we do it because we believe Jesus is worth any price we may have to pay. That is the deep conviction that sends you to the field, right?

The thing is, when we ask others to question, we get in the habit of questioning. I faced an intense amount of cognitive dissonance in India. Was I asking others to question when I was not willing to do the same? Was I holding my own beliefs up to the same level of scrutiny I expected from others?

4. Spiritual Warfare

In the Biblical worldview, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Unseen forces desire to make us ineffective and faithless.

This became very clear to me when some of my doubts didn’t behave normally. I would find satisfactory or even great answers, but I still couldn’t shake residual unsettled feelings. I soon realized I needed heavenly help to move forward.

What To Do With Doubt

One of my colleagues lost a number of friends in a genocide. When she asked for prayer in her newsletter, a friend told her not to talk about such upsetting things.

After that, it was hard for my friend to know whom to ask for help. 

Missionaries face joys, traumas, and questions that might be hard for others to understand. Wondering if anyone will be able to relate can make it hard to ask for help.

Beyond that, missionaries often feel the pressure of being role models—like Alex and Anna, they realize they are their church’s Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. When I faced doubts, I would often remind myself that I had a responsibility to cast a vision for the unreached, to inspire people to sacrificial obedience of Christ. Why burden supporters with fleeting doubts? Shame, fear, and even the desire to be responsible can leave us feeling like there’s no one to turn to.

But I have come to believe that doubting on the field doesn’t have to be an emergency. Instead, it can be an amazing opportunity.

If you’re facing doubts or questions right now, I have three suggestions: confront your doubts, doubt with faith, and engage in spiritual warfare.

1. Confront Your Doubts

It takes time. It takes mental strain. It takes emotional space. And sometimes, we just don’t have those things.

At first, I tried to ignore my doubts. Because dinner needed made and babies needed burping, plus there were the unreached to reach. But ignoring problems sometimes makes them bigger. It magnifies them in our subconscious until they totally take over.

I couldn’t stay in that place of cognitive dissonance for long. So, I printed out a bunch of articles to read, and I prayed exhausting prayers. I knelt on the hard mat. I stopped avoiding it by surfing YouTube and got distracted by my Bible instead of my phone.

I believed that God should be able to handle my questions and that any faith worth believing should stand up to scrutiny. I put that belief to the test.

And God answered me.

2. Doubt with Faith

The first time you doubt, if you’re like me, you’ll panic and think all is lost. But I’ve learned to bring my doubts to Jesus quickly. And I’ve come to expect Him to answer. It’s not always instant, and that’s okay. I’m learning to surrender my questions because over time I’ve seen He always comes through. I’ve learned to expect that God will respond to me.

Along that same line, it’s also okay to take breaks during your search. When we believe we’ll hear from God eventually, we can laugh with our families, take vacations, and enjoy good books, even as we seek His face for answers. We can rest despite the discomfort of not knowing, because we count on Hebrews 11:6–that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

3. Engage in Spiritual Warfare

Though we wrestle with unseen forces, the hosts of heaven desire to see us victorious. I’ve learned various “tools” over the years: fasting; praying through the armor of God in Ephesians 6; rejecting bitterness by declaring forgiveness in prayer; doing prayer walks in my home; actively rejecting and resisting temptation; confession and repentance from sin; and singing hymns and spiritual songs. I’m also blessed to have a great prayer team back home and fellow workers who are men and women of prayer.

If you need an understanding prayer partner/team or new tools, I encourage you to do whatever it takes to fill those needs. 

For followers of Jesus, and especially gospel seed sowers, confronting doubts and engaging in personal spiritual warfare are critical elements of self-care. Just like our physical and mental health need nurturing and protection, so our need for assurances from God shouldn’t be ignored for too long. We might be tempted to delay asking our own questions in order to minister to others, but God desires to minister to us just as passionately as He desires to save the unreached.

Doubt Transformed

We give our personal testimonies all the time. I was lost, now I’m found. I was blind, now I see. We keep them succinct, which is important—but we can sometimes get the idea that our story with God is a one-time event, something linear and fixed.

But we are branches connected to a vine. Growing grapes takes time and skill. It requires the exact right amount of growth and pruning. The healthiest vines are in constant contact with a skilled vinedresser.

The truth is, our story with God lasts our lifetime. I love the lyrics to a popular Christian song: “If it’s not good, then He’s not done with it yet!” Since no one is good, not one, God is not done with me yet, either.

What a privilege that I can bring my doubts to Jesus, and He can transform them, one by one, into pillars of faith. 

What about you? How do you deal with doubt? Do you have a story of God meeting you in your doubts and renewing your faith?

 

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. You can read more from her at Whatsoever Thoughts, or check out her book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.

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