Yesterday, I visited a church that's one of my financial partners. My parents go to this church, and I spent some time visiting with people I knew and meeting a few new people. As I was talking with a new woman, she said, “Oh, you’re the famous missionary!” I didn’t know what to say. I would never use those two words individually to describe myself, much less use them together. Taken aback, I think I said something like, “I guess?!” I still don’t know what the proper response would have been to this well-meaning woman I had just met.
Flash forward to this morning. I woke up with the worst anxiety I’ve experienced in around two years. It’s hard to say what exactly brought on the crippling stomach ache, but I struggled to leave the apartment to write this article in a coffee shop.
I’ve found that much of my life is driven by a desire to be seen as capable, confident, and self-sufficient. It’s driven by a fear of not being enough—driven by shame. When I am fueled by this shame, forgetting how Jesus has covered it, I do whatever it takes to shield and elevate myself. I cover my shame with pride. This pride has stolen not only my joy in various ways, but the joy of those I love and most closely interact with.
This morning, I wonder if the woman I met yesterday would be surprised that these are the realities of my heart. These two stories, occurring within 24 hours of each other, are a telling picture of the strange contrasts of the last two years of my life. My journey towards joining my field team has been filled with abrupt starts and stops, deep ambiguity, moments of stunning clarity, painful loss, and rich gifts from the Lord.
Over two years ago, I quit my corporate consulting job, donated many of my belongings, and went to my sending agency’s two-week evaluation and training process, and began raising support. The plan was for me to launch in January 2019. Much has happened in between then and now, each event resulting in further ambiguity. My team moved countries to a less engaged region of the world. The teammate who was walking towards the field with me went a different route. I switched sending churches. My team formed vital partnerships inside our new region and became an official Austin Stone team. We took a confirmation trip to our region after eight months of prayer and planning, and I have now been working and waiting on a visa for another eight months and counting. There have been several months where my concept of my future shifted drastically week to week. To top off all of these things, God led me through the beginning and end of a couple serious dating relationships while I waited for all these things to pan out.
But that’s not the whole picture. I am incredibly thankful for the past two years, though ambiguity has been the central theme. They have been rich with blessings and radical answers to prayers that I would not have seen had I launched in January of 2019. I’ve experienced radical generosity through loaned cars and free housing. I’ve had the honor to invest deeply in sending others to the unreached.
When I moved to Austin, I asked God to open doors for me to find an oikos, or a close knit community of people, from the region I planned on moving to. Once our team decided on the region we felt called to, I began to pursue local friendships in Austin with people from that country. After months of searching, I requested permission to join a closed Facebook group of people from the region, and then promptly found a girl my age who was also seeking friends. She turned out to have a major gift for bringing people together and, not only did I get to be a central part of an oikos forming, these girls are now some of my biggest champions in helping me get to their region. They called family and friends back in their hometowns to help set up living arrangements, visa connections, drivers, fun things to do while I was there. I met that first friend in February 2019, a month after I was supposed to launch.
Jesus has undoubtedly used this season to help me release my plans, pride, and control from my clenched fists. It’s taken me about two years to be somewhat okay with the humility of saying, “I don’t know.” As I’ve watched my own plans fall apart week in and week out, I realized that Jesus is truly not surprised by the things that surprise us. We may know in our minds that Jesus is not surprised by things like coronavirus, but to sit in the reality that He is the one who makes our paths, who goes before, behind, and on all sides of me has brought immense comfort in ambiguity.
A.W. Tozer, in his book Knowledge of the Holy says, “The sharpest eyes of the holiest watcher in the blest company above cannot discover a flaw in the ways of God in bringing all this to fruition, nor can the pooled wisdom of seraphim and cherubim suggest how an improvement might be made in the divine procedure.” In other words, there is no way that we can improve upon anything that God has done! His plans are utterly perfect, cannot be corrupted, and therefore we must trust in His goodness and the perfection of His plans when we cannot understand the circumstances around us. He is the One who, with great love and compassion, makes our paths! What freedom it is to make plans (as we should), but to hold them loosely, all the while our hearts crying out to our King, “Your thoughts and ways are higher than mine!”
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9 ESV)
Paul emphasizes to the Corinthians the profound joy of weakness. “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV)
Sometime in the last year as I wove in and out of periods of suffering I wrote, “The power of God is best displayed where humans are out of their depth, beyond themselves, destitute and despondent without their Redeemer and King. The spiritual valley is the place of testing, not that God desires to test us for the sake of testing, but that the forces of darkness would be utterly put to shame, shown as weak and counterfeit. How can we understand light without darkness? How can we understand the light a candle casts when it is out in the daylight? It must be put in a dark room, carried through the long night, for then it will be seen as light. It must go to the dark valley, for then and there it will be proved as light. The glory of Your name is tested and proven in fire here on our earth—we show what we treasure in times of darkness, panic, loss; our true heart condition towards God is revealed.”
In some of the most trying times of this past season, it has felt like God was leading me away from blessings, provision, and the deep desires He’s given me. I’ve resonated deeply with a passage in Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places, where the main character proclaims to her Shepherd, “I will go down with you into the wilderness, right away from the promise, if you really wish it. Even if you cannot tell me why it has to be, I will go with you, for you know I do love you, and you have the right to choose for me anything that you please.” It’s true that God has the right to choose anything for us that He pleases, but knowing Him deeply as our Good Shepherd leads us to deep surrender to Him, to welcome His decisions for us that seem painful and otherwise potentially pointless.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 13:44 that, “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Jesus reminds me repeatedly that my treasure is not to be powerful, capable, safe, or secure. My treasure is Him. I am most thankful for the long season of ambiguity because of the way it has allowed me to take a detailed inventory of the false treasures in my heart and “sell” them for the true and lasting treasure of intimacy with Jesus.
May we be a people marked by joyful dependence on God, begging God for the power and opportunity to decrease so that He may increase in our hearts and lives. May we be a people who welcome situations that place us out of our depth, asking God to make much of Himself in our hearts and lives. May we be a people living out radical trust in God’s goodness, eager to know and lean on Him more.