Why Missionaries Need to Know Their Own Wounds

by Ryan Kuja

In my last post, The Call is Not Enough, I wrote about how the missionary vocation is about much more than showing up somewhere ready to serve. Calling is a starting point, not an end point. It is an invitation into theological, psychological, spiritual and intercultural formation. The call is an invitation into the self as much as it is an invitation into the world.

In today’s post I’m responding to the question: “If the call isn’t enough, what is enough?” I am not sure that question, though very relevant, has a straightforward answer. But what I do know is this: our wounds and our callings are intimately related, and we cannot fully inhabit our callings in the way God intends unless we intimately know the pain in our stories.

What do I mean by that?

Our lives are comprised of the stories that we have lived, the ones marked by suffering and tragedy as well as those that brought goodness and blessing. But we rarely give our own stories a cursory glance, let alone engage intimately with the hauntingly beautiful and heart-rending narratives that make up our lives, that shape us to be who we are, and that impact the ways we engage in cross-cultural ministry and mission.

For a large part of my time working in international mission, relief, and development, I was not aware of this.

I recall a time when I was living in South Sudan, working with a Christian humanitarian aid organization. I was riding with some team members in the back of a Landcruiser one evening as we returned from a project site. The truck bounced along the harsh, rutted excuse for a road, and I was unalarmed when the vehicle came to an abrupt halt. I looked up and saw a soldier from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army standing there, yelling at the driver.

“What is your name? You killed my dog and you must pay!” he shouted. The sharp inflection of his voice made a shiver go up my spine. The soldier was visibly distraught as he spoke, his face contorted with scorn.

“I will come find you. You will pay for what you have done!” he repeated. After a tense few minutes, he allowed us to continue on our way.

Later that night as I lay in my tent fitfully trying to fall asleep, my pulse began to quicken and the muscles in my arms and legs turned weak. Cortisol and adrenaline erupted through my veins. The more I fought the sensations, the more I was seized by panic.

I had felt these same symptoms three years earlier in a different country on the African continent. It was there in the wilds of northeastern Zimbabwe that I was ensnared in a rogue political situation and abducted. That encounter with death three years prior had lived on inside of me, like a sleeping giant that was now being awoken. The chance meeting with the angry soldier was a moment of re-traumatization, a recapitulation of the events that occurred in Zimbabwe.

The trauma I had not dealt with was beginning to deal with me. It started to take over my life and my ability to engage well with the economically marginalized community I was there to serve.

Not long after that night, I ended up leaving South Sudan to return home. Upon returning to the United States, I commenced therapy as well as spiritual direction. Over the course of the following years, I began to encounter my psyche and soul in new, intimate ways that I never previously had. I began to name what had until then remained unnamed, including post-traumatic stress disorder from the abduction in Zimbabwe. Slowly, I began to heal.

This process I had entered brought insights beyond the trauma. It forced me to wrestle with other questions about mission and my work overseas:

  • Had I acted more as a catalyst for patronizing charity than Biblical justice?
  • Was part of the reason why I was engaging in mission to fulfill my personal need for meaning and purpose?
  • Had I somehow betrayed those I tried to help—and myself—by avoiding the difficult parts of my story?

Old Testament scholar Kathleen O’Connor writes, “Without our own stories, ministry becomes a projection of wounds onto the world, mission becomes a one-way street in which the ‘whole’ condescend to help the ‘broken.’”

It is the process of confronting our pain and knowing our stories that allows us to serve people from a stance of mutuality. In this space where suffering meets suffering, there is the potential for true transformation to be born. Mutually we are hurting and mutually we are transformed. By holding our gaze on the woundedness of ourselves, others, and Jesus, we allow the injured places in our psyches and souls to breathe, to have a voice, to be welcomed in love.

This process allows us to go out into the world as wounded healers, not as invincible saviors. We enter into difficult contexts as people who have known what it is to suffer, and therefore offer our wounded selves and in doing so receive the wounded other back as a reflection of our own self.

Richard Rohr notes that we either transform our pain or we transmit it others. Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection—what we call the Paschal Mystery—reveals a way of relating to our pain that avoids the temptation to transmit it while embracing the reality of transformation. The wounds of crucifixion that led to Jesus’ death were the wounds through which redemption would come to all people.

This gospel narrative reveals that the place of pain is the site of the holy; our wounds are the sacred sites of transformation, for us and for those we serve. Imagine if Jesus had covered his pain, declining to reveal his wounds to his disciples and to the world — the greatest story ever told would have never been heard.


I never returned to South Sudan. I stopped serving cross-culturally altogether for several years as I sensed God calling me to stop in order to have the time and space to attend to my own pain and my own story. Instead of going back overseas long term, I attended graduate school at an institution—The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology—that both encourages and requires the integration of our stories with our callings, and understands that we can only be a healing presence to others if we ourselves are committed to our own personal healing process.

Years later, I am back in a long-term role with an international development and advocacy organization in Colombia. I teach about missional formation, intercultural competency, and the integration of missiology and psychology. I am a spiritual director and a registered psychotherapist.

The collapse I experienced all those years ago led me to new places within myself and in the world. Now, practicing contemplative prayer, self-care, and regular therapy and spiritual direction continue to invite me deeper into my own center and the center of the gospel. Transformation from the inside out, rather than outside in, has become my greatest hope and my greatest challenge.

God has used the bleeding places inside me as the locus of transformation. My wounds, like those of Jesus, are the conduit not only of suffering, but of redemption. It is in brokenness that I have come to recognize that we are all connected. May our own stories, especially the places of darkness, become our greatest gift to the world.

Here are some reflection questions to help you process your own past:

  • Are there difficult parts of your own story that may still need tending to, either personally or in the context of therapy and/or spiritual direction?
  • Are there experiences in your past that have simply been too painful to process fully?
  • Have you been aware of how God is redeeming and transforming your suffering?
  • In what ways has your own story shaped the ways that you engage in your ministry overseas?


A global citizen with a background in international mission, relief, and development, Ryan Kuja has lived in fifteen cities and rural villages on five continents. He holds an M.A. in Theology and Culture from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology as well a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. A spiritual director and writer, he has written for Sojourners, Missio Alliance and several theological journals. His first book, From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World, released in June 2018. Ryan is currently serving as the Field Director of Word Made Flesh in Medellin, Colombia, where he lives with his wife. You can find him online at ryankuja.com and on twitter as @ryankuja.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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