You would think that moving to another country was the hardest decision that I’ve ever made. You’d be wrong.
Deciding where we were going to live was, undoubtedly, the single-most difficult decision that I’ve ever made. Remember, we’re ministering to the poorest of poor of Latin America. Most live on $2/day, few have running water, and some have electricity. Violence, abuse, turmoil of all kinds plagues their daily life. How then does a missionary make a wise living choice when the nature of their ministry is such?
I have faced head on every possible angle. I have been yanked in all directions. I have spent hours in prayer laboring over this decision and still find no clarity.
1. Proximity and Security
These were the two main ideals we settled on. We wanted to live close and safe. As one Guatemalan puts it, “you can find surveillance in a neighborhood, but security, only with God.” We wanted a neighborhood where Jenny could go outside with the forthcoming baby and not have to worry about safety. We also wanted a place where I (Justin) didn’t have to sit in the car for hours every day. Many Guatemalans spend 3-5 hours in the car every day driving to and from work. This, too, is a stewardship issue. I want to have as much time to devote to my family as I can. Sitting in traffic is a waste.
2. Missiological Principles
At the same time, we battled missiological principles. Would it be possible for us to live in a way that was appropriate to our ministry context? Could we possibly identify with the people of the garbage dump in our manner of living? I strongly doubt that we could, even if we lived among them, but does that lessen the impact or necessity?
We can always leave. They can’t. Even our home would have amenities that many of them don’t, such as internet, my computer, cell phones. I wrestled with how my new paternal duties intersect with my missionary duties. Surely this decision would have been easier if it was just me and Jenny.
3. My Paternal Duty
This has, without a doubt, been the most complex aspect to this decision. It is not just my paternal duty to protect my family, it is also my paternal duty to clearly articulate and express the gospel. The gospel came at great risk to God. How can I teach my children of this great, risk-taking God when we stay behind our security-guarded doors, averting any possible contact with that wretched outside world? It’s foolish. The gospel shines the brightest in the darkness, and God has called us into the darkness, to shine the light of the gospel.
However, if something ever happened to my daughter, or Jenny, or me, then what happens to our ministry? How can I guard and protect the longevity, and future of our ministry and still share my life with those whom I’m serving? However, it’s self-defeating, because the nature of serving them threatens the longevity of my ministry, right? Where is the line between protecting my family, and sharing the gospel through my family in a broken world? If you find it, let me know.
4. What About Respite?
This is a concept that our Guatemalan friends believe in dearly. They want to completely inundate themselves and serve the people of the garbage dump. However, to best do that, they have to be able to have a place of respite that they go back to every day. Work in the garbage dump is taxing emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Just today a 14-year-old boy, while nonchalantly explaining his family dynamics, says, “I had an older brother, but he was shot 2 years ago” as if that was all too typical.
I’m not accustomed to this world of violence, abuse, addiction and so forth. If I inundated myself, apart from the grace of God, I’d probably burn out. Do I need a place of respite? Or is God my source of respite? I know that I should “rest,” but does that require certain commodities that others don’t have?
5. The Gospel Issue
The much deeper issue, though, is my own heart. I am coming to realize this one HUGE, debilitating, weakness of mine. I have an inordinate amount of concern for how I am perceived. In all honesty, part of it is a good quality in a missionary. Missionaries should be relationally and culturally savvy, perceptive to how people are responding to them.
But, this can take an unhealthy turn fast and you can turn into…well…me! Every decision, crippled by the weight of supposed onlookers from all walks of life assessing and assuming things about me based upon my decisions. Do they think I’m being wise? Do they think I’m stuck up? Do they think I’m a typical, arrogant American? Am I making sense in Spanish? What if I can’t fulfill their expectations? Am I dressed appropriately for the ministry I’m doing? If I get a smaller house am I condescending?
At every corner, I feel the need to defend the decisions I’ve made, because I am terrified that I will lose respect in someone’s eyes.
This decision was so difficult for me, because, it feels like it comes with great potential for shame and rejection. What if people think my house is too nice? What if other missionaries think my house is too nice?
Why do I feel the need to alter some perception of myself that I think people have? Why do I care?
And the big, enormous, million-dollar question is “what if people find out that I’m not what they think I am?” Or, maybe even worse, “what if people think of me differently than I want them to?”
We don’t like to face such questions. They require grave amounts of vulnerability.
That’s the blessed news of the gospel. No matter what people think I am, I am a million times worse. God knows every last nook and cranny of my heart and loves me still. I don’t have to keep up appearances. I don’t have to worry about what God thinks. I know what God thinks. He told me, on the cross. His approval of me is beyond certain, and not because of the house that I live in or the car I drive.
I wanted to share this, with great honesty, because I imagine that many of you wrestle with this same thing. You so desperately want to be liked or loved that you go to great lengths to ensure that every decision is insulated against any possibility of criticism. And, if you’re like me, your insulation is never enough.
Every person that I have talked to about this has had the same advice that is truly a bulls-eye: “Justin, you’ll never please everyone.” Even as I write this, I fear how people will respond. Will they like it? Will they think “wow, Justin, you’re so honest and thoughtful.” Will they find some fatal flaw in my thinking that I didn’t see?
For my own sake, I have to say this: I don’t care what you think.
The funny thing about this decision is that, before this, there was some other “single-most difficult decision that I’d ever made.” And, before that, and before that, and before that. Because, as long as I am carried along by every possible assumption or judgment that someone has, I will never actually fulfill what God has called me to. I will merely spend my days battling in the darkness of my own mind, fighting to prove myself worthy or respectable, when God has already said “based upon the sacrifice of Christ, you are worthy and respectable. Stop trying to prove yourself to all these people; the God of the universe has accepted you as you are.”