Why are missionaries on the field so worn and spread so then? In the words of Jesus, it is because the laborers are few (Matt 9:37). But why are the laborers few? I believe that one of the reasons is because leaving the warmth and familiarity of one’s family is extremely difficult.
The Kwakum people understand this. Many of them die in the same house that they are born in. Even if they do move to a different village, it is of utmost importance that they be buried in the front yard of their childhood home. Why? In part, it is because they deeply appreciate the familiarity of family and the identity they have within the group. They value being with people who talk like them, who think like them, who eat what they eat, and who live like them. Why would they not stay with those who are like them?
CS Lewis, in his book The Four Loves put into words the sentiment that we feel when we think this type of affection we have for what is familiar. He says that affection is a bond given to people who can relate in familiar ways. We do not choose our families and yet there is a strong bond between family members because we know what to expect of one another, for better or worse.
“An example is the natural love and affection of a parent for their child. It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: It is natural in that it is present without coercion, emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four_Loves
One’s appreciation of their family does not need to be taught, but instead comes very naturally. It does not need to be conjured up or worked for, but instead is present in the hearts of family members from day one. This affection for one’s family is “default” and it exists all over the world. Not only is there affection between family members, but this kind of love is also a deep appreciation of what just “is” around us. Lewis describes a worn pair of slippers or the tapping of the dog’s tail on the floor. I might add a favorite coffee cup or blanket that one curls up in on a cold day. It’s not that the coffee cup is the most attractive or the dog is the most agreeable breed, but rather, it is mine, it is always there, and I have learned to coexist with it. With what is familiar, we do not have to fear that something unexpected is going to get thrown at us. We know what to expect and we like it that way.
Missions is exactly the opposite of that. Missions is going to a place where nothing is familiar, you get new things thrown at you all the time that you don’t know how to deal with, and the people around you literally can’t understand what you are saying. Living in the familiarity of one’s family is comforting, but living on the mission field is exactly the opposite. It is no wonder that most people don’t go.
And yet, Jesus, fully knowing the cost, still calls people to leave their families and go make disciples in very uncomfortable places. There is no getting around the Great Commission where he said:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus called mothers, brothers, sons, and daughters to leave their families and go to unfamiliar places. Jesus also modeled this. He left the comforts of Heaven to come to earth and then even while on earth, he did not cling tightly to the affection and familiarity of his earthly family. In fact, one day his mother and brothers came looking for him and when people told him this, he said:
“’Who are my mother and my brothers?’” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’” – Mark 3:33b-35
What we see here is not Jesus demoting the important position of his family, but rather giving first importance the family of the worshippers of God. When we start to see our brothers and sisters in Christ and future brothers and sisters in Christ as our real family, we can more easily let go of our biological one.
Jesus replaces what has been lost
Jesus does not just give commands for people to go and make disciples abroad, but he also ministers to the hearts of the brokenhearted as they tearfully say goodbye to mom and dad. For instance, Jesus replaces the family left behind with a new family. He said:
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” Mark 10:29-30
God is the one who created family and created people with a longing for family. He understands what he is asking when he calls people to leave it behind. However, just like a mom of a young child gently removes the piece of plastic the baby is playing with in order to give him a real toy, so the Lord gently removes from our hands the comfort of family in order to give us new brothers and sisters that come from a different language and culture. He replaces our physical, temporary families with spiritual, eternal ones.
He has certainly done this in my life. I love and treasure my biological family and yet, my brothers and sisters in Christ who have come to know Jesus through my labors here have certainly given me a hundred times more joy than a thousand Christmases in my family home. And I know my biological, believing family members would agree.
Jesus also replaces what has been lost with himself as the hymn Be still my soul describes:
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the veil of tears,
then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
from His own fullness all He takes away.
There is a special unity with Christ as we labor to make his name known on the mission field. That unity and that joy heals the broken heart of one who is often tempted to reminisce of what was left behind.
The hard truth is that the life of the missionary is a life of weeping. No matter where we are, we are missing those who we are far from. When we are in the States, we are thinking constantly about the Kwakum and when we are in Cameroon, we are thinking about those we have left in the States. It is a life of goodbyes, it is a life of loving well and then moving on, it is a life of weeping. However, there is a special place given in the Kingdom of God to those who weep. Jesus said,
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” Luke 6:21b.
One of the hardest things to understand in a foreign language are their jokes. I am thankful to be at a place where I am moderately fluent in the local languages and yet I’m not sure I’ll ever slap my knee in laughter at them telling stories that everyone else seems to think are hilarious. I lack the familiarity of shared culture and language with them, and yet I believe with all my heart that I will one day laugh. God himself will wipe away my tears, and I will roar in laughter with my Kwakum brothers and sisters in Heaven. I will also rejoice in joining my family at home and my family abroad together before the throne of Jesus. I will look at my mom and dad and we will all know that their sacrifice and mine were worth it.
And so, for now, to those hesitant to leave the familiarity and warmth of their families, I encourage you with Paul to “endure everything (i.e. leaving one’s family, the familiarity of your home, going to an unfamiliar place, etc) for the sake of the elect that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” 2 Timothy 2:10