A young man heads off to seminary to prepare to be a missionary. While there, he fails to manage the workload and drops out indefinitely. A young woman has dreamed of being a missionary her whole life. She falls in love and gets married to a strong Christian, but he never wants to go overseas.
A young couple makes it all the way through the assessment process with a missions agency. Before they are commissioned, the agency suddenly determines they don’t meet the criteria and removes them from consideration. A family has been waiting their whole lives to move overseas. Upon arrival the mother’s culture shock leads to a nervous breakdown and the family returns home after only a few weeks.
A veteran missionary couple grew up as missionary kids and have been serving abroad for over a dozen years. Suddenly their health breaks down and they have to return to the states indefinitely. These “failures” carry an extra weight with them, because of the extra layer of “missions” on top of “failure”. That said, there must be a place—a place of grace—for failure in missions.
None of these people were actually failures. Nothing immoral took place. No wrongdoing. Life just happened.
When reading the stories above, our initial response might be something like, ‘None of these people were actually failures. Nothing immoral took place. No wrongdoing. Life just happened.’ Indeed, in both truth and theory, these people were not failures. In reality, however, they will often feel like failures—and worse still—will sometimes be treated as such.
One of the most challenging places to find yourself in the church today is as a “failed” missionary. Christian culture tends to have more room for egomaniacal heroes than fallen ones. The 2008 film Hancock starring Will Smith cinematizes this principle. The entire film is built around public disdain for a washed up superhero. It reminds us that we subconsciously grope for pseudo-saviors. When they fail us, we are not kind.
Missionaries are often the heroes of the church. Yet when they slip from the pedestal that we’ve placed them on, we’re not sure what to do. It’s a truly graceless thing. Fortunately, the grace of God rearranges this whole strange paradigm.
It begins by placing us all on same playing field: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24, ESV). It may, however, seem like a bit of a paradox when Paul later writes as though there isn’t a common playing field: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6, ESV).
But a closer look at these different “measures” of grace when it comes to spiritual gifting shows that the playing field is never at stake, only the position on it. Everyone has a crucial role to play in the mission of God, but none is ever responsible for its fruitfulness: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7, ESV).
And though the Bible gives room for “measures” of reward for our labor in God’s mission, the heart of the reward is the same for all who believe: “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup” (Psalm 16:5, NIV—or Genesis 15:1, Lamentations 3:24, Philippians 3:8, etc.).
Different, but the Same
Catching the theme here? Same, same, same. The worth of each member of the body of Christ is the same. Therefore, the exalted view of the missionary just isn’t helpful. When missionaries “fail” at some point like everyone else on the playing field, the weight we’ve given them might just crush them.
There is a place for failure in missions because there is a place for it in the Christian life. Grace demands it.
In the unfortunately obscure little book Select Letters of John Newton, the slave-driver-turned-author-of-Amazing-Grace unpacked what he called the “progressive work of grace”. He described the journey of the Christian life as beginning with the full-blown zealous desire of a new believer and ending with the sobered and scarred confidence of a dying one. In between are the sovereignly-orchestrated roller coaster days of stumbling and failure. And they are the only way to travel from beginning to end. About them he writes,
The Lord appoints occasions and turns in life, which try our spirits. There are particular seasons when temptations are suited to our frames, tempers, and situations; and there are times when he is pleased to withdraw, and permit Satan’s approach, that we may feel how vile we are in ourselves. We are prone to spiritual pride, to self-dependence, to vain confidence, to creature attachments, and a train of evils. The Lord often discovers to us one sinful disposition by exposing us to another. He sometimes shows us what He can do for us and in us; and at other times how little we can do, and how unable we are to stand without him. By a variety of these exercises, through the over-ruling and edifying influences of the Holy Spirit, [we] are trained up in a growing knowledge of [ourselves] and of the Lord (Newton, 12).
There is a place for failure in missions because there is a place for it in the Christian life. Grace demands it. Missionaries, and those who aspire to be, are free to “fail,” to have their stories played out in unexpected ways. But our churches must allow the space—fueled by grace—for them to heal and grow out of their brokenness without the added weight of the fallen hero nomenclature.