Why God Doesn’t Need Missionaries to be Martyrs Part I

August 11, 2016

why god doesn't need missionaries to be martyrs

You don’t have to sacrifice your spirit, your joy, your soul, your family, your marriage on the altar of your ministry. –Shauna NiequistPresent Over Perfect

I feel I’ve been learning lessons like this alongside Shauna these last four years. This book is wrecking me lately because it’s story I’ve been writing myself.

Why God Doesn’t Need Missionaries to be Martyrs is a subject I’ve been wrestling through since I first went into missions over 10 years ago. I wrestled through it in Heidi Baker’s Iris school, I wrestled with it living in a difficult region of Uganda, and I’m confronted with it on a daily basis as I coach cross cultural workers on this tension between suffering and self love.

As in most of my posts this doesn’t just pertain to missionaries, but to all of us.

I also know this is going to be an inflammatory post, so please forgive me as I don’t have it all figured out, but I am trying to suss out my experiences with God and His goodness in the face of the mysteries we live with in a suffering world. I read countless articles and reached out to many friends I respect around this subject, but in the end I have to own the truth God is working out in my story.

I’m trying to find a new way for myself and others as I unite these two theologies of being called to enter into the suffering of others through fighting injustice and also being called to love myself as one who is loved. 

I’ve written about shifting the missions paradigm and I do not mean to criticize or dishonor the work of those who have gone before us, who have sown into hard ground so we could reap.

But everywhere I look and see wrecked lives, shame filled hearts, people busy on burnout, broken marriages, and broken kids, and I see something must be fundamentally broken with our way of doing things because Jesus died for an abundant life. 

So it all comes down to this: I know suffering happens to us all, but I know God is a good Father.

I also know that God calls us to courageously engage with a suffering world and provide love.

I also know I’ve grown more intimately connected to God in suffering and He has made beautiful things from it.

But still I question the times I needlessly suffered because of my own skewed beliefs.

I feel like I need to preface this by saying that we cannot compare our callings and paths to others Some of us awaken a passion for justice, others a passion for wholeness. We need both. I don’t think they should be mutually exclusive.

I think I’ve done my proper amount of prefacing so let me try now and get real.

When I first became a missionary, I had this erroneous belief that God wanted me to suffer, that suffering was a way I could prove my love for Him.

I was the kind of girl who did extreme things like move to a war zone alone and live in a house to love on girl child soldiers. I pushed myself to do without normal material conveniences like showers or healthy food. I wanted to live with the people because I believed this was the best way I could clearly show my love for them.

I was motivated mostly by a passion God gave me for these girls, and a little by youthful naiveté.

Part of me did these things because yes, I was called, I was called to the broken, the least, to comfort the suffering ones. I still am. I loved my job–it was exciting, it used my giftings, it was a great adventure with Jesus I’ll never regret.

But the other part of me, a part more hidden from the world’s view or even myself, got satisfaction from the comments about how “brave” this was, or how “selfless,” that was. 

These were the broken parts of me still looking for love and approval.

I sacrificed my body, my health, my heart, my soul, even parts of my marriage because I thought it would make God happy and might make others happy with me as well. I also wanted to be seen as tough and capable.

I even ignored certain aspects of my personality as an introvert and certain dreams and desires I had to be a writer because I thought being “me” would mean I was being “selfish.”

I went to Africa with this idea that God calls us into “taking up our cross,” but I think I misunderstood what that meant.

I believe this is the root cause of most of our dysfunction.

Because all I’ve seen from this belief and in so many of the clients I counsel, is that there are many of us out there being “martyrs” or rather victims for Jesus and resenting ourselves, our own lives and those around us. All I’ve seen it do is lead to burnout and brokenness, infidelity, anger at God, self hatred, and despair, which are not fruits of Spirit nor our inheritance of the Kingdom.

If the fruit isn’t good that must mean the root of what is driving us isn’t good either.

I believe there was a lie that was corroding my soul:

God wanted me to be a martyr for Him. Maybe I even deserved to suffer because who I was, wasn’t really that good. 

Over time, the ministry grew, our projects expanded, we had more interest from volunteers, more money, more women and children we could help. This is what the world would view as “success,” what I had wanted for so long, and yet I found it was slowly killing me from the inside out.

I was so busy ignoring myself and what I wanted or needed that I was burning out. I would trying to connect with God in my pain, but there was an underlying vein of fatigue, stress, and despair that commandeered our times together.

After I lost my first pregnancy, and the doctors told me it was extremely dangerous for me to go back to Uganda, I still wanted to go, I wanted to risk my own life for the love I had for this community. I didn’t want to miss a beat. People called this admirable. But now I question what was really driving me.

These are lies the enemy has sown into the fabric of our lives since birth.

My behavior was twisted because my views of God and myself were twisted.

I’ve thought a lot about “martyrdom” and all we do to make ourselves miserable, blaming it on God’s will verses taking ownership and authority for our own choices and faulty beliefs. I’ve been seriously guilty of this.

How can I believe God is a good Father if I believe that He wants me to suffer or causes my suffering?

How can I trust a God I’m afraid of, a God I’m hiding from because I believe He wants my suffering? How can I be obedient when I can’t even hear His voice because I’m too afraid of what He might say, or I’m in too much turmoil in my heart to hear Him?

Gradually, as I’ve learned more about the Father heart of God, I’ve realized just as a parent looks down on the sleeping face of their newborn, and would do anything to save them from pain, Father God feels the same about us.

He isn’t causing your suffering so you’ll become a better person.

“Not everything that comes against us is God’s will. There’s a difference between being in charge and in control. He didn’t allow suffering for a purpose. But He can redeem it.”    -Bill Johnson-

He can use suffering for His redemptive purposes. This feels true of what I know of God. What I understand of God now and His goodness is that I don’t believe He wants us to suffer because we are His children.

I believe now He wants us to follow our passions and our dreams, and I believe He wants us to come to love ourselves as He does and receive His love.

In learning to love myself as I receive God’s love, I become more compassionate.

But often, I see people on the mission field who are just concerned about being “selfless” and aren’t loving themselves at all, and I think this strangles their ability to love others and leads to anger, depression and despair.

Jesus was crucified so we wouldn’t have to be. As Bill Johnson says,

“Jesus suffered that we might not have to suffer.”

We have already been “crucified with Christ”  together with Christ, the old self died and we walked out with a crown of royalty as glorious sons and daughters. So why would we need to crucify ourselves again? Death, suffering, disease, sin, it’s all been paid for already, taken upon Himself so we wouldn’t have to endure it.

As Kris Vallotton says,

“We have made cross-carrying a career opportunity instead of a one-day event.”

We often leave Jesus on the cross. But the sacrifices Jesus made were not because He despised Himself, but because being so full of love enabled Him to give it away. He did it for the joy set before Him: Us.

He died for our abundant lives, our wild, and brave, and free, and joyful lives.

As one of my mentors said “If we are not appropriating the blessings of Kingdom life and the fruit of the Spirit, how can we model or give that away to a world that so desperately needs it?”

So how and why do we enter into cross cultural work knowing that there will be suffering, cost, and pain?

How do we hold that line between suffering for the sake of God’s precious treasures, and healthy self love?

This is what I’ll discuss in Part II….

Do you believe God needs you to be a martyr?

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  • Steven Price

    I am grateful to those who have given their lives when called to, but I grieve those who have sacrificed family, children and spouse thinking it was the more spiritual thing to do.

    • I totally agree Steven, I would love to hear more of your thoughts on a better way for missionaries to serve or more around this idea that those sacrifices of family are more “spiritual.”

      • Steven Price

        Somewhere in the missionary DNA there was a “gene” that became esteemed and revered; the gene of “leaving all” for the sake of the gospel. Men sailing away without wives and children, some never seeing one another again. This was held up by many as the ideal. Part of this was an influence from the British where the second son was left to make his own way in the world; it influenced the beginnings of modern missions. We have started a new ministry with the goal of providing a place for crisis/burned out missionaries to breathe and live and hopefully sort out what went wrong and give them skills for self care and hopefully send them back out. I am looking forward to extending an invitation to you and your husband to visit us when we are up and running.

        • Dave Lewis

          Steven, I’d love to hear more about your new ministry. We are engaged in something similar at paracletos.org

          • Steven Price

            I am aware of your ministry; we are meeting today with a ministry that may sell or gift their property to us. If you go to sanctuaryinn.org you can see our basic beginnings. I look forward to being in touch.

          • Sarita Hartz

            This sounds really wonderful Steven! Where are you guys located? I can add your Sanctuary Inn to my missionary resources page if you’d like :) Thanks for your important work!

        • Sarita Hartz

          I love your thoughts on this Steven, it’s so interesting to me, especially the origins of where this all began for us as missionaries. And how we warped Father God’s original intent. I’d really love to hear more about this, are there books you’re reading on this subject? Perhaps you can do a guest post on this. And yes, we’d love to visit the Sanctuary Inn. Years ago when I was living in Uganda, God gave me a dream and a vision for a healing center similar to what you’re talking about and He gave me the name “The Sanctuary,” so it’s fun to see Him putting His vision into many hearts for the same purpose :) Keep us in the loop I have a huge heart for that kind of ministry.

        • I love your thoughts on this Steven, it’s so interesting to me, especially the origins of where this all began for us as missionaries. And how we warped Father God’s original intent. I’d really love to hear more about this, are there books you’re reading on this subject? Perhaps you can do a guest post on this. And yes, we’d love to visit the Sanctuary Inn. Years ago when I was living in Uganda, God gave me a dream and a vision for a healing center similar to what you’re talking about and He gave me the name “The Sanctuary,” so it’s fun to see Him putting His vision into many hearts for the same purpose :) Keep us in the loop I have a huge heart for that kind of ministry.

  • Great piece. Looking forward to part 2. And I would love to interview you again as well!

    • Sarita Hartz

      Thanks David! I think this would be a great topic for your Missions blab, I look forward to putting something on the calendar!

  • Tim Wright
  • Dave Lewis

    Thank you, Sarita, for your courage in launching this discussion. It is vital that we get a grip on this topic. We need a BIBLICAL theology of suffering, not one that we inherit or absorb from our denomination, our family of origin, our mission org, or from other missionaries. Only Jesus can provide us with that.

    • Sarita Hartz

      Thanks Dave, as always I deeply respect your thoughts and experience in this field. I agree we need a biblical theology of suffering, I think we just need to hold these verses that we often misunderstand or misinterpret to the light of the truth of God’s character as a Father and through the witness of the Holy Spirit inside us. As we come closer to the person of Jesus, He begins to communicate more clearly His heartbeat. That’s what I’m hoping I can listen for.

    • Thanks Dave, as always I deeply respect your thoughts and experience in this field. I agree we need a biblical theology of suffering, I think we just need to hold these verses that we often misunderstand or misinterpret to the light of the truth of God’s character as a Father and through the witness of the Holy Spirit inside us. As we come closer to the person of Jesus, He begins to communicate more clearly His heartbeat. That’s what I’m hoping I can listen for.

  • So, so good! I share in so many of the heart wrestlings you share here. Here’s to circling ever closer to the heart of our loving Father!

    • Thanks Danielle! That’s a beautiful way to put that! Yes! Let’s stay in touch as we learn these similar lessons. :)