(From the Open Heart of a Missionary)
By David Sitton
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“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.” 2 Corinthians 1:8-11
“Pray for Timothy, pray for Titus, pray for Barnabas and John Mark, pray for the saints, pray for those without Christ, pray for me, pray, pray, pray…”
The apostle Paul explicitly exhorts his disciples to pray in twelve of the fourteen New Testament letters he penned (assuming Pauline authorship of Hebrews). Ten of the fourteen finds him either thanking the saints or doggedly reminding them of his heartfelt desire for their intercessions.
Why all this emphasis on prayer? Because Paul knew that his physical survival rested upon the petitions of God’s people! It was an aching awareness that fruitful ministry and the preservation of his very life depended upon the grace of God being released into his life through intercessory prayer. For Paul, pursuing prayer support was not simply a pious way of ending a “prayer letter.”
Those preaching Christ in front-line missionary situations understand Paul’s urgency. We are repeatedly reduced to outright dependence upon God as we stand eye to eye with spiritual forces who are strangling entire regions of unreached peoples. The Lord either shows his power through us in the moment or we may very well be killed by our enemies! It’s often just that simple. Sometimes it’s good to be desperate. Desperation puts vigor and vibrancy into prayer meetings, reminiscent of the one responsible for Peter’s miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12. Unfortunately, we are rarely driven to the persevering, high caliber of intercession that occurred on that day.
Well-meaning brethren frequently say to us, “I’ll be praying for you.” And some really do pray. But too often, the promise of prayer was only the expected Christian response rather than a determined commitment to wield spiritual weapons with us in battle. Usually, missionaries are remembered only as a post-script in the closing prayer of the evening service. Is it any wonder that missionaries are failing, falling and burning out at such an incredible rate? The great marvel is that there are any missionaries left at all.
Like the apostle, we cannot carry on effectively without your prayers. So let me share with you, quite openly, some of the problems of a foreign missionary. As I detail the obstacles I encounter, put the face of your own missionary on the page, and learn with me how to better intercede for the missionaries you are in partnership with.
Is it possible that a missionary’s zeal can dwindle and his spiritual life go dry? Not only possible, it will become a painful fact of life unless deliberate steps are taken to avoid this pitfall. One of the enduring misconceptions many folks have about missionaries is that we are super-saints, entirely immune from the doubts, temptations, fears, struggles and sin that plague everyone else. Not only are we encumbered with the common burdens of all believers, but these trials are even more exasperating on the mission field.
My problem began on October 3, 1977; departure day for my first missionary journey. I boarded an international flight as a common, twenty year old, middle-class American youth and, the next day, somewhere over the South Pacific; I was mysteriously transformed into an upper, upper class, rich expatriate. Unknown to me at the time, that’s what I was when I stepped onto New Guinea soil.
Overwhelmed by compassion and broken-hearted by the spiritual and physical destitution of this swarming multitude, I quickly went to work. I devoted myself to language and culture learning. Within months I was teaching, preaching, counseling and giving away everything I had, all the way down to my last shirt and pants! Perhaps the people took advantage of me — But they continued to show up unexpectedly at my door, day and night, long after I was depleted of all material possessions.
It was an exhilarating time; developing intimate friendships (many remain to this day), teaching, preaching, discipling, evangelizing, church planting. Sounds like a fantastic ministry, doesn’t it? But wait. Before long, the strain of spiritual exhaustion was crushing me. I had not read, much less studied an English version of the Scriptures in weeks. All of my study and most of my praying was “for the people.” I felt my spiritual vitality evaporating right out of me; here a little, there a little, almost imperceptibly at first.
After two years of rarely making time to minister to myself, I returned home on furlough. I was physically sick, mentally depressed, emotionally wrecked and spiritually dry as dust. I had allowed myself to become seriously oppressed by the devil. I completely underestimated the incredible spiritual opposition that would come upon me as I invaded enemy territory where the gospel had never penetrated. Satan and his cohorts will do most anything to keep the gospel out of the ears of unreached peoples, particularly in those places where he has been uncontested for centuries.
The sad result of the devil’s domination over people is that their thinking becomes twisted, their minds are blinded and their hearts are darkened. And God’s truth does not easily penetrate the demonic darkness that encapsulates them. Pray for me that I will recognize the attacks and counter attacks of the enemy and that I will know how to use scriptural weapons in this ferocious battle for souls.
All of this illustrates the point that a missionary’s greatest enemy is himself. Many missionaries wrongly adopt a “savior” mentality where we set out to single-handedly win our world for God. We will sometimes sacrifice everything, even our families and our own relationship with God, to get the gospel to the people. I know this has been true for me at times. It is important to understand the missionary tendency to become overburdened and burned out. Weakened spiritually, we become easily irritable towards our family, our co-workers, and our national brethren. If a faltering relationship with the Lord continues, pride begins to display itself in a “lording over”, dictatorial attitude, unusual impatience, and a sour disposition that negatively affects every area of home life and ministry.
Losing touch with God will also expose us to temptation unnecessarily. Anyone can fall morally. Don’t forget Samson in Judges 14-16. Financial integrity, truthfulness in speech and deed, purity in mind and body — All of these will be attacked! The enemy uses loneliness, the endless agitation of a foreign culture and the low moral standards around him to aggravate temptation. I have witnessed the tragedy of good men who burned out beyond retrieval and destroyed in a day what it took them years of hard work to build. I know this is an ugly portrait of missionaries, but a demonized missionary is not a pleasant sight! And it is an unwise missionary, and missionary supporter who thinks this could never happen to him. Selah.
Pray that I will maintain daily, intimate fellowship with the Lord. My spiritual life and ministry depend upon it.
Poor health is a common cause of depression, mental distraction and ministry inefficiency and can be used by Satan to interrupt God’s work. Fatigue is a common problem in the tropics where heat and humidity are excessive. In New Guinea, for example, malaria of every strain is endemic. Everyone either has it or will soon get it. Though not usually fatal, malaria is a considerable inconvenience that robs one of strength and can sometimes keep a patient in bed for weeks at a time. Added to this is the threat of hepatitis, dengue fever, amoebic dysentery and all sorts of pesky parasites and tropical diseases that can permanently destroy a missionary’s health. Please pray for my wife and children, as well as myself, that we would make wise health related decisions and that we will be protected from serious illness and accidents.
Another pressure point for missionaries is the daily fact of hazardous travel situations. Just getting to unreached peoples is often a tough task. And a dangerous one (2 Cor. 11:23-27)… We are constantly on the move… by plane, train, bus, car, canoe and often by foot.
I have often had to deal with roadblocks set up by thieves and by enemies of the gospel. One time a drunken man swung a machete repeatedly over my head and pounded our truck as my wife and children looked on in terror. A few years ago, my son Jimmy and I were traveling from one town to another in Papua New Guinea when two men barricaded the road and tried to rob us. They blew out the window next to my head with a shotgun as I lay over on top of Jimmy and sped through the road block. Incidents such as this are not uncommon. The need for your prayers in these situations is obvious.
Missionary living is rife with emotional strain. Most missionaries suffer periodic bouts of loneliness because our loved ones are so far away. This loneliness intensifies exponentially when we miss important events in the lives of our families “back home.” One ritual that missionaries use to battle their aloneness is to continually figure out the time zone difference and imagine what their families are doing at that moment back in the home-land. (I now reverse this process and try to figure out what my New Guinea brothers are doing) We do this because we feel detached and alienated from them. Daydreaming is an attempt to alleviate severe loneliness. Both single workers and families alike can be hampered by debilitating loneliness that can seriously affect their emotional health.
Anxiety is another source of emotional pressure. This may be anxiety over the problems of language and culture learning, anxieties over new converts, problems in the local church, difficulty in adjusting to exotic food, climate, and frustration from a lack of privacy, poor health, and marital strains or the illness or death of loved ones back home.
In the case of missionary parents, there is anxiety about the physical health, safety, and the educational and social requirements of our kids.
Other causes of emotional duress come from incompatibility with co-workers (far and away the greatest problem for missionaries), discouragement at the apparent lack of ministry results, and the subtle weariness of culture stress that results from being an outsider 24 hours a day, year after year.
Satan relentlessly targets the mental health of missionaries. He attacks our minds in an attempt to cause mental and emotional upheaval.
Pray Philippians 4:6-7 for your missionaries. Ask the Lord to deliver us from demonic depression and oppression. Ask Him to remind us that He alone is our adequacy. We know this, of course, but in the heat of battle, we need to be reminded sometimes.
Financial instability is a stubborn fact for missionaries. Unlike some occupations, missionaries are usually unable to increase income with a job change. And rarely do we have adequate resources to start our own businesses. So, missionaries learn to live and minister on whatever the Lord brings in each month.
The high cost of daily living is a continuing concern. Housing, vehicles, travel, children’s education, taxes and insurance (too many missionaries have none), retirement, clothing, gasoline, repairs and replacement of equipment, the high price of imported food stuffs; all of this is considerably more expensive than in our own country. Pray that God would give us special grace in all of these practical areas.
Financial anxiety increases with the sudden drop of support. Every missionary has gotten the “Dear John” letter explaining why support is being discontinued. One I received had a final check and a letter stating that it was no longer financially feasible to invest in the ministry, as the parking lot of the church building needed re-paving. One of my New Guinea co-workers encouraged us during these times by saying: “Check and see if the sparrows have eaten today. As long as they eat, we eat. When God quits feeding the sparrows, missionaries will become extinct.” How true that is. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Dependence upon God is a wonderful way to live.
Pray that your missionaries will always have the financial resources to do the work God has called them to. Ask the Lord for special grace that our vehicles, computers and other vital equipment will function properly. And especially, thank the Lord regularly for those faithful supporters who make significant sacrifices to keep our ministries moving along.
The struggles of missionaries are numerous. Common adversity is deliberately increased as the enemy takes careful aim upon us. Persecutions, trouble, harassments and hardship are all part of Satan’s arsenal. None of this is new. Ever since the days of our Lord, the devil has warred against God’s ambassadors. So we must not be surprised as we are routinely pummeled by the fiery darts of the evil one still today.
This is why we need your prayer protection so desperately. The enemies of the cross set many snares to entrap and discourage us, and sadly, many missionaries have given up, becoming modern day casualties of Satan’s onslaught.
But there is no reason for discouragement. Even as I write these words, I am taking on fresh courage and greater resolve that “nothing earthly will make me give up this work in despair (David Livingstone).” Even as Satan rages, I have great hope of heart because “Greater is He that is within us, than he that is in the world.” And I thank God every day that He gives us the privilege to take our place in the ranks of those who “preach the gospel to every creature”, “making disciples of all nations.”
Pray that we will enter boldly into demonic strongholds where the enemy has gone unchallenged for centuries. Pray that the Lord will dismantle these strongholds – And that He will do it through our preaching of the gospel.
While the final victory of the Kingdom is secure, we need the strength and encouragement of your prayers in today’s battle. As I share these insights of personal struggle and trial, I hope that you will better understand the missionary predicament. And most of all, I want the Lord to empower you to become more vigorous and forceful in prayer for your missionaries.
Helpful Hints on How to Pray
Effectively for your Missionaries
“I urge you brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” Romans 15:30
…That we will take sufficient time to read, reflect and pray
…That we would be protected from dark forces in spiritual realms
…For our spiritual growth and personal renewal
…That we would be encouraged and experience joy in ministry
…That we will be people of integrity, reliability, humility, wisdom and consistency
…That we would maintain a healthy sense of humor
…That our marital relationships will remain strong
…That the social, emotional and spiritual needs of our children are cared for
…That our basic financial requirements are regularly met
…That we would be protected from physical sickness
…That we will find time for proper sleep, rest and exercise
…That we would be self-disciplined
…That we will experience God’s protection from accidents, crime, terrorists and dangerous animals
…That we would experience harmonious relationships with other Christians
…That our team would experience unity, love, and good communication and patience with one another
…That we would develop intimate friendships with our national brothers and sisters
…That we will resist temptations toward jealousy, envy, bitterness and pride
…That we would make steady progress in language studies
…That God would give us grace to adapt well to new cultures and customs
…That God would give us clarity, creativity and relevance in our preaching and teaching
Evangelism and Discipleship
…That we will be fearless and bold to preach Christ and Him crucified
…That we will be lead by the Holy Spirit in where we go
…That God will give us supernatural discernment and wisdom
…That God will begin preparing hearts in advance for the message
…That God will open a door for the gospel and that it will spread rapidly
…That God will quickly establish His Church in new regions
…That disciples and church leaders will be fully trained
…That God will raise up national missionaries
…That God is honored and praised through our ministry
…Pray for those in government positions
…That the political situation will be suitable for missionaries to move around strategically
…For religious freedom
…That we will have favor with government officials
…That we will be granted swift approval in our visa applications
I read somewhere recently that when George Muller died, those sorting through his personal belongings found his prayer journal. In it he had recorded more than 50,000 specific answers to prayer.
“The one concern of the devil is to keep the saints from prayer. He fears nothing from prayer-less studies, prayer-less work, prayer-less religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”
18th Century Pastor