3 Ways to Apply Grace to Missionaries

Stacey and I are reading a new parenting book called Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family, by Paul David Tripp. This particular parenting book is not super practical. Tripp does not lay down step-by-step instructions for how to deal with each and every situation. Instead, he guides Christian parents with Gospel principles, and shows how those principles should affect the way that we parent.

The second chapter in the book is entitled ‘Grace’ and hits at the heart of a major problem with my Christianity. Here is a specific quote that I think explains the point well:

“Christian parents have a fairly good understanding of past grace, that is, the forgiveness they have received because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and they have a decent grasp of future grace, the place in eternity that is guaranteed them as a child of God. But the problem is that they have little understanding of present grace, the right here, right now benefits of the work of Christ for all of us living between the “already” (past grace) and the “not yet” (future grace).” (pg 34)

In my Christian life, it has been very easy for me to understand past grace: I know I have sinned and I know God has forgiven me. I know that I will one day experience future grace: I will one day stand before God and he will look to Christ instead of at me. But I have such a hard time admitting my sin, and even my own mistakes here and now.

Tripp’s book is focused on parenting, but this particular truth has implications for missions. For me, as a missionary, this is not hard: I need to regularly confess my sins and admit when I have made a mistake. But how can we apply this to you, the sending church? I suggest three ways for the sending church to respond to the need for present grace for their missionaries:

1. Say ‘No’ to Hagiography

Hagiography is defined as “idealizing or idolizing biography.” Really, it is a biography that forgets that the subject is a sinner. There is a tendency, whether in books or in our minds, to idealize our missionaries. We think of them as superhuman, super Christians, and unattainable. You might fall into this trap if you say something like, “Oh, I could never be a missionary!” You might just be trying to compliment missionaries, but you might also be putting them on a pedestal.

The first way to apply present grace to your missionaries is to just recognize that they are going to sin. Missionaries are normal Christians, just like you, redeemed sinners that still wrestle with the flesh, the devil, and the world. William Carey had major marital problems. Adoniram Judson once went out alone into the tiger-infested jungle in despair and nearly abandoned the faith. Dave Hare yells at his kids sometimes, gets annoyed by neighbors banging on his door, and really hates being told he is wrong.

But guess what!? You want your missionaries to know that they sin. Tripp says:

“It’s hard to live with people who deny weakness, because people who deny weakness tend not to be patient, loving, and understanding with people who are weak.” (pg 36)

Your missionaries will not be able to faithfully minister to weak and sinful people unless they are able to admit that they are weak and sinful themselves. And we, as a church, need to encourage our missionaries with the Gospel for today. Tripp says, “I love the fact that biblical faith never requires that you deny reality” (pg 39). Don’t encourage your missionaries to deny reality. Let us confess sin and call us to the Gospel, not just for the Kwakum or the Waorani, but for us. We desperately need forgiveness. And putting missionaries on a pedestal only makes them resistant to admitting their sin.

2. Don’t Freak Out

I once read a Facebook discussion where one person was arguing for a certain model of missions based on the example of William Carey. Another Christian responded angrily: “Carey did not lead his wife well. He was not qualified to be a missionary. We certainly cannot look to him as an example!”

As a disclaimer, I think missionaries actually do need to be held to a higher standard, much like a pastor. We are in the world representing Christ more publically than others. On top of that, missionaries are often cut off from many of the means of grace. We have fewer Christians watching our lives up close. This means that weakness is amplified, and help is distant.

However, being held to a higher standard does not mean the church should expect sinlessness. Like our pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, and (if we our honest) ourselves, missionaries do sin. When we do find sin in our missionaries, we need to think about how we can best support them. Yes, sometimes, when the sin is serious enough or of a particular nature, we will need to bring them home. However, the majority of the time missionaries just need someone to talk to, someone to remind them of present grace, someone to ask if they are getting enough sleep and iron in their diet.

3. “Support” Your Missionaries

I have wrestled for many years with the idea of “supporting” a missionary. Most churches and Christians understand that missionaries need more than just money. But scheduled, monthly calls can be just another task. Sending out short-term teams can add more stress than they relieve. So here is an idea: find ways to remind your missionaries of present grace. Check in with them every once in a while, email or WhatsApp, and ask: “What do you feel like you are failing in? How can I be praying for that?” And if they are willing to be vulnerable, and they confess their sins and failings, find a good verse or a quote to call them to hope. Let them know of a book that helped you on that subject. Call your missionaries back to the Gospel.

You may have gathered that since I am reading a parenting book, I don’t have the whole parenting thing figured out. I have four kids, all about the same age, and right now I am doing most of their homeschooling. And it is so hard. My kids bicker and complain. Getting them to do chores and school work is like pulling teeth. Daily I am striving to call them to the Gospel, to woo them with the joys of forgiven sin and peaceful relationships. But I feel like I fail so often. I know that I am not the only parent to feel this way, but I have very few people around me striving to raise their kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord. I strive, I fail, and I feel alone.

I honestly do not need to be told I am superhuman, I know that’s not true. I hope I don’t need to be chastised and told to return home. I believe what I need is encouragement, hope, the Gospel. And if I am feeling this way, my money is on the fact that your other missionaries feel like this too.

So, my challenge to you is this: how will you encourage us, your missionaries, with present grace today?


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.