“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Ephesians 4:3
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The number one reason for missionaries failing and giving up is interpersonal conflict. Interpersonal conflicts are a primary source of disruption in Christian ministries, missions and churches.
Some come to the field with serious character flaws, fears and phobias, which lead to major relationship problems. There are dependent people who need constant support and direction and, rather than contribute to the team, they sap its energy.
On the other extreme, there are the independent people, the lone rangers, who divert the team’s energy as they yank this way and that to pursue their own agendas.
Missions need interdependent people, team players, who are willing to relinquish their own agenda and interests for the good of the team. They are self-starters, self-reliant in the healthy sense and able to reach out and be a support to others (Galatians 6:2-5).
In a media-saturated culture, with severely dysfunctional families, there are more and more people with severe emotional instability. Those touchy and explosive people, who are prone to mood swings, easily upset by irritations, riding the emotional big dipper into periods of discouragement and depression, are becoming more and more common.
Most homes have no discipline. Most schools have no discipline. Most churches have no discipline. So it should not surprise us that so many people applying for missions are lacking self-discipline and need to be prodded by a whole regiment of rules and constant supervision, in order to function.
It is a rare blessing to have missionary volunteers, who come with a humble, teachable, servant attitude of: "How can I help you? How can I fit in with your plans?"
Called and Consecrated
There are two things that any mission organisation has to look for in candidates: first, evidence of a clear call; and secondly, a strong devotional life.
On the field, much of the support which we become used to, our home church, pastor, conferences, study groups, multitudes of books, magazines, radio programmes, etc. are often not available. For strength and growth, every missionary must be able to draw directly from God and His Word. In difficult and often hot environments, where they are constantly ministering, but seldom being ministered to, it is very common for missionaries to become spiritually depleted.
Those missionary candidates, who do not have clear evidence of the reality and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, should not be sent out to the mission field.
When I asked my father-in-law, Rev. Bill Bathman, a veteran missionary with over 67 years’ experience in missions behind him, what made the difference between success and failure in missions, his response was that successful missionaries are those who are wholeheartedly surrendered and dedicated to Christ, with a definite assurance of their call. By way of contrast, he had noted that many of those who failed were those who may have been moved and inspired by the example of others, but they were not necessarily called of God. Therefore, they were easily disillusioned and tended to give up when faced with too much pressure, or too many problems.
Humble and Teachable
Dr. Thomas Hale, a medical missionary to Nepal since 1970 and the author of On Being a Missionary, observes: "Some mission organisations today may be catering too much to new missionary recruits. After the sales pitch, the candidate begins to enjoy the attention. Things like ‘submission to leadership’ are played down, while things like ‘self-expression’ and ‘self-fulfilment’ are played up. The new missionary comes out to the field expecting full autonomy from day one, and when his ideas are overridden, he cries: ‘Authoritarianism’, which is a very bad name indeed. The new missionary launches out on a journey of discontent and dissension, which may well lead to the destruction of his missionary team. What is lacking? Above all, humility,…teachability and open mindedness." "Pride only breeds quarrels..." Proverbs 13:10
He also asserts that one’s call: "must be confirmed by one’s local church. There are lots of lone rangers out loose in the world, who have ‘gotten called’ to do this or that. But they don’t fit in with anyone. They are often disruptive to the work of others …there is no place for totally independent missionaries …the sending church must share in this call; they have the duty to examine the call and modify it as necessary. Together with the missionary, they will need to evaluate the results of the call. An isolated call in itself never justifies a missionary’s activities."
Trained and Loyal
"Anyone who ventures into cross-cultural missions without some kind of preparation is nuts… no-one should begrudge the time spent in such preparation. It will cut out half the stress on arrival on the field, keep oneself from making needless mistakes and make one a much better missionary." This training would also have to include practical experience. "One month of good practical training can be worth a year of book work."
Dr. Hale adds: "Once you have chosen and been accepted, then enter into the life of the mission wholeheartedly. You’re not an employee, you’re a family member. You be loyal to them; they’ll be loyal to you."
Tried and Tested
Hale insists that missions must develop suitable screening programmes. The single most important factor for predicting one’s future missionary performance is ones past performance as a Christian. Missionary candidates must be tried, tested and proven.
"All missionaries, tent makers included, must be answerable to a church or churches. And on the field, they need to be linked with other Christians, and if possible, to be accountable to some form of field structure. To remain ‘independent’ is to cut oneself off from the Body of Chris and that will guarantee that the missionary will not bear fruit and ultimately, will not survive."
When a missionary reaches the field, he will discover new weaknesses, new temptations and new sins. "We learn much about ourselves when we arrive on the mission field. Some of our flaws and weaknesses may never have been revealed before in the security of our home country. But now they are. Our defects are exposed."
Dealing with the Spiritual Roots
Amy Carmichael wrote of this inner conflict: "One day I felt the ‘I’ in me rising hotly, and the Word came: 'see in it a chance to die.'"
We can seldom change our circumstances, but we can change our reactions. How are we going to react to the circumstances – by turning towards God and letting God use the circumstance for our good, or by giving in to complaining and a critical and bitter spirit?
Difficult circumstances are not the real problem. The real problem usually is in us. At its root, it is spiritual. Bad experiences can make us bitter or better.
On Being a Missionary exposes some of the sins that inevitably come to the surface in missions: "…a judgmental attitude, resentment, jealousy, pride …the sins of attitude …all these are root spiritual problems. They arise from pride, self-centredness, or lack of faith. And until the root spiritual problem – sinful attitude – is dealt with, there can be no final correction of the person's problem …the success or failure of a missionary’s career depends on the extent to which his attitudes are brought under the control of the Holy Spirit."
"Conflict, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinful or even harmful. In fact, conflicts usually precede any kind of human progress or development. Conflict stimulates ideas, challenges us to find new solutions, brings out the best (or worst) in us and generally, if properly controlled, leaves us better people working in better organisations …conflict is also inevitable."
Pride, Envy and Jealousy
Hale highlights numerous sins which lead to many missionaries failing and giving up: "The first is the refusal to confess wrong and the second is the refusal to forgive. The first is always rooted in pride. The second is usually associated with …slander, judgementalism and envy …the third sin is self-assertiveness …a move to get my way …putting a higher value on our beliefs and objectives than on those of our colleagues, and for that we are prepared to sacrifice our colleague’s interests in order to protect our own …a desire to manipulate or to dominate ...self-assertiveness is more a problem in newer missionaries …all kinds of demons are released – impatience, criticisms, hostility, frustration. Why? Because the young person wanted his own way. …Jealousy is the second greatest sin among missionaries. …Those passed over for leadership are jealous of those appointed; those with lesser gifts in some areas are jealous of those with greater gifts; those who are not respected and sought out by the nationals, are jealous of those who are …jealousy always creates a desire to tear the other person down, to take away his advantage. Jealousy leads, inevitably, to resentment and backbiting. This is what destroys teams."
"The jealous person is unable to rejoice in another’s success. Yet that successful person, of whom we are jealous, may himself be a very humble person, not seeking any credit for himself, even embarrassed by recognition of any kind. His success may have been due to simple hard work and dedication, not to any desire for recognition. Among missionaries, the most harmful form of jealousy is that directed towards someone who is being successful in ministry. After some years of ministry, a missionary may have built great trust among the nationals …but to the person afflicted with jealousy, …he sees the successful missionary as someone who has sought prominence for himself and who wants to keep it at all costs. The jealous person feels that he, himself, is being kept back; he feels threatened by the other person’s success. No matter that the jealous person’s perceptions are thoroughly distorted. The seeds of grumbling, dissension and slander have been planted; jealousy is fertile soil for such seeds."
"In most cases, our so-called ‘righteous indignation’ isn’t righteous at all; it is merely our own sinful anger cloaked in self-righteousness. Whenever our anger becomes personal – that is, when it arises on our personal account or is directed against another person – it becomes selfish. The only sinless anger is that which is impersonal and unselfish."
Resentment and Bitterness
"Resentment and bitterness, on the other hand, are always sins. Resentment is prolonged anger, the continued feeling of being wronged, even after the wrong has ceased. Bitterness is the savouring of a bitter or painful experience. Resentment and bitterness are often the aftermath of anger. If we handled our anger better, we would have less trouble with resentment and bitterness."
"In the New Testament, there are relatively few instances of anger that we could say were appropriate. And even with appropriate anger, Paul gives a pretty strict time limit for it – sundown!"
Taking Up Grievances on Behalf of Others
"How do we tell righteous anger from sinful anger? By asking this key question: ‘For whose sake am I getting angry – for Gods’ sake or mine?' …A dangerous variation of indignation …is taking up another’s grievance against a third party. Nowhere in Scripture does God authorise us to do this. Christians often feel quite justified in taking up the grievances of others. ‘It’s not for my sake’, they say. ‘It’s unselfish.’ So, without a twinge of conscience, they nurture hostile feelings against people. …The fact is that being angry with someone on someone else’s account is no more righteous than being angry at someone on our own account.
"This indignation, this taking up of a grievance, is usually the outward expression of an underlying, personal animosity – though we deny it to ourselves. The less we know about the actual situation we are taking sides on, the more righteous our indignation seems to us, and the freer we feel to indulge it.
"I have often seen this visceral anger directed from one missionary to another colleague …in each case, the one angered did not know the full truth or even half the truth. The angered person’s only source was the ‘injured party.’ What’s more, the angered person felt obligated to take the side of the injured party against the ‘wrongdoer’, and to talk to others about the problem – all under the cloak of righteous concern! Before you know it, yet another mission team is split apart…
Search your Own Heart
"Search your own heart for the unrighteous source that will almost always be lurking there. Are you reliving a past conflict of your own? Does the person you’re angry with remind you of someone who has wronged you in the past? Or you may have a direct grievance against the person involved, but find it more convenient to ventilate it ‘on behalf of someone else’. How cleverly we justify our attacks on a brother or sister! How great is our capacity for self-deception!
Poisons for the Soul
"Resentment and bitterness all missionaries know …are poisons for the soul …in some people, resentment and bitterness go underground and do great damage to the person’s physical, emotional and spiritual health.
"Resentment or bitterness can be redirected towards God …all too often, …we end up with left over, unfocused anger, directed basically against God. We blame Him for our trouble and disappointment. Second, we may redirect our resentment to innocent parties or objects …nationals, …employees … children …mission leaders, we find excessive anger suddenly welling up inside us against these people for relatively trivial offences."
The Critical Spirit
Harold Cook, in Missionary Life and Work says: "By far the most serious overt threat to missionary relationships, the greatest danger of all, is criticism of one another."
"The devil’s chief method of rendering missionaries ineffective is to divide them, and his favourite means of dividing them is a critical spirit. The critical spirit is the most destructive attitude to be found among missionaries. …Criticism is basically passing judgement on someone else. Critical people are self-appointed executors of God’s judgement. They always see the faults and mistakes …just like modern-day Pharisees …without humility, without gentleness, without love …those who criticise reveal much more about themselves than the one being criticised. It is a common thing that picking at the faults of others is an unconscious cover for much larger sins in ourselves …we often render judgement against others in those very areas in which we ourselves are guilty. We project onto others our own wrong attitudes …and our blindness is the more remarkable because that shared fault we so easily see in our brother, we fail to see in ourselves. Beware of judging another. ‘For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged.’ Matthew 7:2 …Don’t deceive yourself …those most quick to judge others are also, not surprisingly, the most sure their judgement is correct …Joseph was one of the first victims of mistaken judgement in the Bible. The ‘proof’ of his intention towards Potiphar’s wife was the cloak he left in her hands. The household servants all saw it, and I can imagine them saying: ‘Proof, proof.’ ‘Fire, fire’, but they got the location of the fire wrong and the innocent Joseph went to jail."
"When it comes to Christians judging Christians, they get it wrong more than they get it right."
Blaming Our Benefactors
An elderly man wrote a letter addressed to God, describing his desperate needs and asking God for a certain sum of money. Not knowing how to deliver the letter addressed to God, the postal clerks in that town opened the letter and were moved to raise the money among themselves. They raised 80% of the old man’s request, but couldn’t raise it all. Rather than wait further, the postal clerks sent the man the money they had. A few days later another letter came addressed to God. The postal workers eagerly gathered around to see what his letter said. It read: "Thank you, God, for sending the money. But next time, please send it to me directly, not through the post office. Those thieving postal clerks pocketed 20% of it!"
"Many a time we have seen missionaries labour sacrificially for others, and then be totally misjudged concerning both their actions and their motives. In many cases, that which they had been desperately trying to correct and compensate for, has been the very thing they were accused of. All of us will experience abuse and slander, sooner or later, but the worst kind of all will come from fellow Christians whom we have loved and tried to help."
Criticism is Habit Forming
Some people are critical and judgemental because of an inferiority complex. Unconsciously, they try to build themselves up by tearing others down. Others may be critical because of resentment or hostility against the person. Still others may criticise out of jealousy. The trouble is that criticism is habit forming. The West has institutionalised criticism in the media. Journalists even get awards for ruining people’s lives – no matter how much of what they have ‘exposed’ is untrue, or is a misrepresentation of the truth. In Nepal, they call it "dogs biting at people’s heels." The Apostle Paul warned: "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by each other." Galatians 5:15
"Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to a fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife." Proverbs 26:20-21
John Calvin said: "No greater injury can be inflicted upon men than to wound their reputation."
Submit to God's Purpose
We need to try to see God’s purpose behind any given conflict and to submit to God’s purpose. God wants to discipline the participants in the conflict. God is at work in conflict, perfecting His servants, creating a stronger and better functioning Christian team or church. But we are so easily discouraged by our own sins and the sins of others. Some missionaries get so discouraged they just give up.
Paul said: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me Heavenward in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3: 13-14
"Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves." Romans 12:10
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others." Philippians 2:3-4
"Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the Law of Christ." Galatians 6:2
"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Ephesians 4:2-3
Dr. Peter Hammond | Director
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This article is adapted from a chapter in Character Assassins – Dealing with Ecclesiastical Tyrants and Terrorists available from:
Christian Liberty Books
PO Box 358 Howard Place 7450
Cape Town South Africa
See also related articles:
LEARNING FROM FAILURE
A Biblical Response to Slander
When All Men Speak Well of You