“Wow, I could never do what you are doing! You are giving up everything to go serve people you do not even know.”
“You are the most selfless and radical people we know.”
“You are my heroes.”
For many missionaries these kinds of comments are often heard when talking with well-meaning, encouraging ministry partners, friends and family in the US. Of course, any missionary will tell you that it is both embarrassing and convicting at the same time and for the same reason – they are just not true. And in fact, these statements can unintentionally feed into one of the most subtle temptations to sin that missionaries face – self-centeredness.
Missionaries, self-centered? How could that be? As stated above they give up everything for the sake of serving people in another culture, that speak another language, whom they do not even know. So how is that missionaries are tempted to be self-centered?
Any good athletics coach will tell his team that is in the midst of a successful season, “Don’t believe your own press.” Coaches know that when a good team starts to believe all the great things people are saying about them they become vulnerable to overlooking their weaknesses and begin to think, “they have arrived.” Whether in sports, career, or life in general this is a dangerous place to be. In fact, this is a vulnerable place to be. This is a place that missionaries can easily live.
Think about much of the communication that missionaries have with those who love them – it often revolves around casting vision for the ministry, telling adventurous and exciting stories and sharing about themselves. Now these are not necessarily bad things. In fact, often they are good because they bring awareness to the gospel-needs around the world, get people excited about God’s mission in the world, and help form ministry teams that consist of those who send/support and those who go.
However, even for those who struggle with talking about “themselves,” these things can lead to the subtle temptation for the missionary to become self-centered and self-focused. After all, everywhere he goes he is asked to share about his life and what God has called him to. Everywhere they go they go the missionary family is told about how great and courageous and godly they are. Everywhere they go, whether it is an informal dinner with friends or to present their ministry to a church, they are often the center of attention.
At the same time the missionary’s flesh is being subtly seduced to believe his own press. Of course, in his mind he knows he is not as great or godly as everyone says he is but the battle against the flesh is much more difficult in the midst of the heightened exhaustion and fatigue (mental, emotion, and spiritual) that most missionaries live with everyday.
Before the missionary family knows it they may start to think, speak and unintentionally believe that the world revolves around them, their work and their goals. As with the temptation, the manifestations of this self-centeredness are often subtle and can easily be masked by religious language.
So what are some practical ways missionaries can combat the temptation of self-centeredness?
- When talking ministry, focus on the accomplishments of Christ in the lives of people rather than what “I” have accomplished.
- Pray for specific needs of those who partner with you in the US. This, of course, necessitates that the missionary is intentional about reaching out to their team of ministry partners.
- Pray for other missionaries regularly and specifically. Make it a point to learn about what they are doing and their current needs.
- Financially partner with other missionaries.
- Promote the ministry of others in the US and around the world.
- Be a biblical Christian with those around you by going out of your way to encourage others, even those you who may not be in your daily contact.
Thus, if missionaries are to overcome the temptation of self-centeredness we must work diligently to go out of our way to focus on learning about, building up and encouraging others.