Every Christian is forced to give up his or her rights—the right to privacy, the right to my ‘stuff,’ the right to wear what I want to wear, the right to a normal life, the right to express myself—for the sake of following Christ as Lord. This reality can hit especially hard for cross-cultural missionaries. Mabel Williamson, a missionary with the China Inland Mission in the 1950’s, refers to this as “eating loss” (a Chinese idiom for “suffering the infringement of one's rights”). The struggle is just as real today.
Many of us move overseas ready to actively suffer—even to die a martyr’s death—but we find instead that God is asking us for something more. He asks us to give up our expected rights and to die a thousand little deaths as we live and work for His glory. It’s as if Christ is taking the age-old command, “Take up your cross and follow me,” and putting it to us in the form of a question:
“Are you willing, in this situation, to limit your freedoms and surrender your rights and give up your ‘stuff’ in order that I might be kept central in my mission for my glory in this unreached place?”
“Eating loss” became very personal for our family in April of 2004. We were ready to move. The surveys were complete. Contact with the people group had been made. We had been invited into the village. We were headed off to work in our own little plot of “never reached.” We had already left much behind and were ready to embrace learning a new culture and an unwritten language for the sake of preaching the gospel. Our village home would be remote, but it would be accessible by road, canoe, or helicopter. The men on our team had already used chain saws to make homes for our team in the jungle. Now, family allocation day was finally approaching.
We had been taught by mentors to be conscientious of the cargo cult movement, the poverty in our area, and the effect our ‘stuff’ might have on the people there as we moved in. So we took time and interviewed a local mission helicopter pilot who floored us when he said that we could count on thirty-three loads for allocation! With each load being several hundred kilograms, that added up to a ton of cargo––or, if we’re talking literally, several tons!
This sat heavy with our team and our family as we tried to picture what this entourage of cargo would do to the cult that was already significant in this valley. How would these people, some of whom had never been outside their language group boundaries, interpret this? And, most importantly, would it serve the gospel and allow Christ to be seen as central in the work we were coming to do? The team prayed, asking God for wisdom, and we decided that everything we brought in needed to serve the literacy and gospel work that we had promised to do. Stating that philosophy is easy, but living it out practically is what stings.
Next we needed to decide what each family would need in order to set up their house while doing language study, homeschool, etc., for the next six months (until we would come out for supplies again). What could be left behind? “Eating of loss” began to set in. As a lover of books, I had brought many (we were pre-Kindle). And as someone who loves being prepared, I had many “just in case” items. I mean, we were going into a remote helicopter-only location where there would be no emergency medical facilities.
I also watched my girls pick thoughtfully through their small bin of toys. They were part of this, too. My flesh seethed a little at every item that I had a natural “right” to, but dropped into the “left behind” pile. Then my conscience would drag my eyes back to the photos on the table of the village and the people we would live among, reminding me how we would eventually teach them to depend on God for all of their needs. I was embarrassed.
“Therefore do not be anxious about your life . . . Look at the birds of the air . . . ” (Matthew 6:25–26)
Did I believe that my Good Father was not only in control of every bitterness and loss that he would call me to eat, but also that He would be enough as I walked through them? I believe, oh, help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)
Each family ate the loss and wrote their lists, and while each family’s list looked different, we all had the same goal. We held our breath and added up our total kilograms of furniture, tools, books, cooking pots, and food supplies. Each family would have three small chopper loads. We sat around the table that night with our two girls who were learning to ‘eat the loss’ right along with us and, unexpectedly, we all felt joy. We were learning to balance the needs of our Western, school-aged family against the simple remote location where God was sending us. These little deaths to ourselves were painful ones, but ones we would never trade back.
Ten Years Later
There was no way to know at that time whether our decisions would really have any long-term effects on our mission, but we knew one thing: it didn’t matter. God was working in us to be willing conduits who were sensitive to His leading. He was teaching us to loosen our grip on our rightful comforts . . . because He was enough.
Now, ten years later, after the gospel has taken root in our village, we are able to hear the people reflect (sometimes humorously) on how we lived among them. Recently, one of the tribal church elders spoke with us about this issue of the “stuff” of western missionaries:
Missionaries who come to places where we live must train themselves to be ready to leave their culture and many things behind. Some might say, “Well, everything we have is more than what those people have, so it doesn’t matter how much we bring in when we begin work.” But this is not completely true. It is true that no matter what the missionary says or does, particularly in poor areas where there are traditional religions mixed with material cargo cults, unbelievers will twist and turn your words, your action,s and all your material good into false teachings. But, those are not the people you should be thinking about when you make your plan.
Missionaries should be thinking about the future church that will be born.
When the gospel is taught clearly in our heart languages and the Holy Spirit saves souls, that’s when we see everything that you have said and done with clear eyes—because we understand why. Now, when the Lord asks us to do without or to do hard things and walk to far off villages for the sake of the gospel, we will have your pattern as an example. Missionaries need to ask God for help to live like we live. If you build and work with only your family in mind and you bring many things from your culture to live with you and you love those things, you will make decisions that will separate you from us, the ones you came to reach.
There is no right formula for simple living among the unreached, or at home for that matter. It is a matter of the heart, including our personal convictions and our strategies of suffering. However, we should all take inventory occasionally and ask ourselves if our living standards and our “stuff,” which will soon be wood, hay and stubble ( ), are playing a larger role in our daily lives and decisions than the urgency and eternity of the gospel. As the Lord leads you to suffer the infringements of your own rights, the flesh will protest and others may misunderstand, but we have Christ and His joy for our example as we move toward Him in obedience. Pastor John Piper sums it up well when he says:
. . . Suffering must be accompanied with joy, because without it one will never survive. For the joy that was set before Christ, He endured the cross. And for the joy that is set before you, you will endure the choices that you make, which make no sense if there’s no resurrection from the dead. Joy is the only way you’ll survive your mission in this world if you decide to suffer for Christ. The joy of the Lord will be your strength through choices that nobody understands.
Kelley Housley currently serves as a Literacy consultant and Missionary Trainer for Ethnos360 in Papua New Guinea. She has lived and served among the Inapang people group with her husband, Bill, and daughters, Madison and Sabra, since 2004. They are currently working to complete a translation of the New Testament in the Inapang language.
Mabel Williamson, Have We No Rights?