Yes, Missionaries Struggle with Envy

By Jenny*, Jul 4, 2019

A missionary is not someone special, more gifted, or more holy than anyone else. In fact, many of us missionaries joke that God needed to take us to the mission field to teach us the hard lessons we could not learn at home because of our own stubbornness. Among missionary leaders, there is a saying that leading missionaries is like “herding cats” because of our independent streak. Missionaries can exude strength and courage, but as the years progress, I have noticed certain patterns of struggle that are unique to missionaries (and I’d venture to say much of this applies to those who are in full-time ministry, as pastors or church-planters).

The “professional Christian” problem
The first and biggest area of struggle is the coalescence of job and Christian life. My sister once said to me: "It must be difficult to be a professional Christian.” At first, I was set aback by her comment, but as I mulled over that expression, I realized that it is at the core of some of our twisted identity issues.

On the upside, when our job is full-time ministry, we feel like we are “all in” for Christ. Our kingdom focus is clear. All of life visibly serves the same purpose, namely to be a part of expanding God's kingdom in this broken world. Family, ministry, and personal life are one and the same and serve the same ultimate purpose. Our children see us living full of a devotion that affects all aspects of life. Even our rest and our hobbies are opportunities to be evangelistic. Our hospitality is missional.

To be sure, there is beauty in having an integrated Christian life. But there are also struggles that come along with it. Because we are "professional Christians," we believe we are never off the hook. We are always being watched by the unbelieving world, the unseen world, our supporters and churches, our children, and God Himself. How do we deal with the fact that we are weak, struggling, and broken believers? The state of our hearts does not always match our calling. This can lead to formalism in our work or using people to fulfill our own mission to make us look good. We are greatly tempted to find our identity in the work we do for God's kingdom instead of from the King himself. Our personal struggles often go unseen, even unconfessed, because we are always “on.”

Establishing boundaries between ministry and family life, work and down time is truly challenging. The workaholics among us might even deceive themselves into thinking that they are just “on fire for the Lord” or “pouring themselves out like a drink offering.” After all, the Apostle Paul never took a vacation!

The truth is we envy people who are not in full-time ministry because we feel like they, at least, get a break from you-know-who: God Himself and what feels like His heavy call on our lives. We envy people who have a 9-to-5 job who can clock out and truly rest at home. We envy those of you who do not have to put on a show of being a godly, dedicated worker in God's kingdom.

Temptation to love the mission more than the Savior
It is also very possible for us to fall in love with our work or our ministry, while failing to be in love with our Savior. Our love for Him may have run dry a long time ago, but you would never know based on our newsletters. In a way similar to pastors and their struggle with loving the study of God’s Word more than God Himself, missionaries can love their missionary lifestyle, or their outreach focus more than the Pursuer of their own souls. We can get so wrapped up in what we are doing for God that we forget what He has done for us.

We envy those of you whose work performance is not tied to spiritual results: conversions, growth in numbers or in depth of faith. We long to see the fruit of our labors, and yet that elusive fruit might never be seen on this side of glory. That’s a real bummer for those of us who like productivity, results, and the sense of a job well done.

No church is ever really home 
A second struggle is that no one place, no one church is ever really home. On the upside, we learn about the Church at large and universal and come to love the idea of Church with a capital C. We learn how to yearn for heaven, we learn to see the kingdom of God wherever God is at work, in dark places and unexpected situations. But we are never in one place long enough to have deep, established roots and the accountability of a local body over the course of years. As soon as we get to that place, we are called to move on because our job of just being the planter is done.

Our children never experience church as a long-term, localized, particular body of people who know, love, and care for them. On the upside, we form team bonds with other missionary colleagues, which some of you might envy. But we envy those of you who have lived in one place, who have one church and one school, preferably a Christian one, that creates a stable environment of growth for your children.

We realize our children experience the world in a very different way than yours: unsheltered, exposed. You might say this is an advantage. But we also see the pitfalls. We are convinced our children struggle with belonging and identity more than yours. We believe your children might even have better prerequisites for being converted, invested in by other believers, and able to see Christianity as normal because they have Christian friends.

I was raised a missionary kid. You might not believe me when I say, “I never had a Christian friend.” It is true. I should be my own proof in the pudding, but I, as many other missionary parents, struggle to believe our kids will be OK without a solid Christian education, a great youth group, and a church that will reach out to them. We envy your sense of home, with all that that entails. Your sense of belonging, your nice big house (if you have one), the apparent stability of your life and the lives of your children.

Weary of spiritual battle
The third big struggle is longing for peace, the sort that would be defined as not being under constant attack. Being on the front lines of the battle makes us alert, forces us to our knees, helps us become more watchful and guardians in prayer. We come to understand that no ministry success is possible unless first wrought in the heavenlies. We have experienced amazing answers to prayer. However, we envy those of you who are not walking around with a target on your back.

We might falsely think that life back home (wherever that is anymore!) would be easier. We experience enemy fire as severe and unfair: unusual diseases and afflictions, demonic activity, strange entanglements in conflicts that leave us walking around in the sort of fog only God’s Spirit can dissipate. We suffer attacks in mind and body in a very real way.

Our children seem to struggle more and that gets to us most of all. We envy your children for having an easy, protected, innocent life. But we also suffer from a strange sort of martyr complex we need to be shaken out of. Because we do genuinely experience strange things sometimes, we get weary, bogged-down, and tend to interpret too much into our suffering. We need your comfort, understanding and reminders that all Christians are in enemy territory. We are not attacked because we are special, but because the message is real, powerful, and we have a common enemy of our souls.

We need your encouragement
So, when your missionaries come into town, know that their struggles are real. They are broken sinners in need of the message they are bringing to others and they need encouragement. Missionary envy is real. Remember that they have their own issues of envy with you, just like you might envy them for their courage, their exotic adventures, their fascinating lives, and apparent successes in ministry.

In the end, it is a matter of calling. Each calling has its own advantages and disadvantages, its blessings and its struggles. Talk about it, pray together, create an environment in which your missionaries can put down their weapons, take off their masks, cry gut-wrenching cries, or sob their way through your worship service without being looked at as odd. Promise to pray for the salvation of their kids. Be a place of healing for them, not a place that requires more mask-wearing, or more performance of them simply because they are your “investment.” We are in it together. We need each other to keep our eyes on the finish line and to cross over that line together as the body of Christ.

Jenny* serves with MTW in Western Europe. Her name has been changed.

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