Death By a Thousand Cuts

Death By a Thousand Cuts November 14, 2012

When people think about the cost of being a missionary, they typically think about being martyred, thrown in prison, or something like that. On the other extreme, many never become missionaries because they can’t imagine “suffering” without iPhones and college sports on the TV.

Oww_Papercut_14365In reality, missionaries leave the field because of what I call “death by a thousand cuts.” The daily stresses of living cross culturally are like numerous small cuts upon the mind an emotions.

Some things include the inability to communicate, the fact that the toys you buy your kids are guaranteed to break and disappoint your kid within 12 hours, the isolation one feels relationally, the sense of being mocked by locals who don’t know why you can’t just be “normal,” the fear of being cheated by any and every vendor and taxi driver, inexplicable power/water outages, and the exaggerated fatigue that results from simply doing life’s most basic tasks (which are harder to do when in another culture), . . . .

Daily Suffering?

It’s not the one-time experiences that drive missionaries off the field. It’s daily life. As a result, they are blissfully naive to the pain and resentment that accrues over time. The consistent tide of taxing frustrations harden the heart against those they came to love. There are a few consequences when people are not prepared to pay this sort of ongoing cost.

First, there is a common dynamic I find among new missionaries. Right around the 1.5–2 year mark, God suddenly a surprisingly “calls” them back to America, even though they had planned to stay overseas and don’t have anything in particular to return home to. Typically, these people have a fair bit of anger or exasperation with the local culture. I simply find it hard to believe all these people are legitimately “called” back right at that approximate time when the newness of missionary life wears off.

Second, those who stay longer term might cope with these small cuts in different ways. Some drown their sorrows in the internet or in movies (that will take up another post I’m sure). Others take out their stress on their family, via long work hours, moodiness, and the like.1280px-US_Navy_060516-N-5215E-002_A_team_of_midshipmen_struggle_in_a_round_of_tug-of-war_during

Getting Realistic about the Cost

For the sake of the nations, we need to raise awareness among missionaries that the “life suck” they are feeling, the drain of vitality stems from hundreds of tiny cuts upon their spirits. Left unaddressed, they will not only leave their ministry, but they could cause generational damage to the local church and/or their own families. We need to help people count this cost.

For instance, how will people handle being anonymous, out of sight and thus out of the minds of their “friends” back in their home country? The missionary life is not romantic. It is just real life (but harder) lived in another place. Perhaps, one way this could be helped is if Western churches would train themselves to have “wartime lifestyles.

What if Christians didn’t let themselves get so used to the conveniences and comforts that will have to be forsaken by those who cross cultures with the gospel? Perhaps, if we were not so baby skinned, we would better handle the various trials and temptations to be faced overseas.

Missionaries are simply normal Christians who live in another place.

Therefore how we live life in our home culture will have ripple effects on how we adjust to life elsewhere. Either it will be easier or harder. How are we right now preparing the missionaries who will be sent next year or in 10 years?

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  • Stephanie

    yes. We need to hear this if there’s ever going to be a “career” mindset for those who are sent out. We talk all the time about the hidden costs of living overseas, the unromantic things that people don’t think about giving up. A thousand cuts, yes, but also an opportunity to meet the one who heals a thousand times over. What a gift we get to choose living in woundedness–and a thousand scars that remind us of his faithfulness. Thank you!

    • Your words especially remind me of 2 Corinthians, where Paul speaks on being comforted with the comfort we have received. To often we miss the fact we are even in need of daily comfort, almost as if we are saving up that request (for comfort) for the “big stuff.” Thanks for seconding the comments on he post. I find so many Ms share in this sort of experience.

  • A friend just sent this to me, not knowing that we have been out of water for 6 days here in China, with lost mail and lost bike keys! Very good words to remember while I wake up grumpy at the prospect of no shower again.

  • Pingback: Extra: Death by a thousand cuts, 5 hours of marriage magic & a request of friends who live far away - To Win Some()