Dear International Worker,
Don’t forget God is writing the story.
Accurate accounts of Him at work in and around you are beautiful, real stories worth sharing.
Recently I read about a worker who embellished his newsletter so that his work and relationships sounded like much more than they really were. He felt the need to make his life sound important for fear it did not measure up. Everyone in his host country who knew the real stories were deeply offended, and not without reason. I get it. If you’re striving to work with integrity and to represent your work accurately, it’s extremely frustrating when someone misrepresents himself or blows his own stories out of proportion.
I’m not sharing this because I think the worker who wrote the newsletter is a terrible person. I have no desire to talk about another’s mistakes since I’ve made plenty of my own. While I completely disagree with someone sharing dishonest communication, it was obvious that the root of the behavior was fear. I have felt the same fear before, and it leads to the temptation to embellish the truth. It comes from being afraid one’s life doesn’t measure up.
It’s hard to describe, but when international workers are dealing with fear and insecurity about identity or work, it can be tempting to do and say what writes home well instead of what is real or helpful. Usually instead of blatant lies, it’s the temptation to tweak the truth to make something sound better, holier, or more worthy of supporters’ continued giving. Maybe it’s feeling afraid to say how we’re really doing when hardships come along. Fear can lead to participating in work that is not truly helpful to the people we’re called to serve, especially in considering what will be best long term, but we know it will write home well so we might participate anyway—especially when it has the potential of sounding like a “missionary hero” story back home. There are countless ways we may feel pressure to distort details when trying to describe our work, and I think many of them come down to fears and insecurities we deal with personally.
From conversations with other international workers and from my own experiences, I know hitting the send button on a newsletter can feel like holding your breath or jumping into the dark, not knowing where you’ll land. Not every single time, of course. But when you’re choosing to be completely open about an opportunity for service God has brought your way and you’re unsure of the response, there can be some level of fear. When circumstances in your host country or personal life are difficult, sharing even a little bit of how you’re really doing or how you need help can feel scary. I’ve never lied in a newsletter, but I’ve been temped to over explain or to say what I think people want to hear.
How sad it is to struggle with fear and the temptation to enhance the truth, when the pure, simple reality of God at work is the real, life giving story people want to hear. And honestly, life overseas in itself usually has no shortage of interesting stories to share. But nevertheless, fear can creep up when you’re waiting to see how people respond to your latest update.
Having lived in Asia for around ten years, I’ve seen God at work in myself, my family, and my host countries in unique ways that demonstrate His love in the local culture. I’ve seen Him open opportunities for me to serve people and share Christ through avenues I would have not thought possible. I’ve seen God connect people, personalities, circumstances and giftedness to meet the needs of others in ways I would have never been able to pull together. I’ve been grateful for His redemptive power after selfish, stupid mistakes I’ve made. I’ve had really dull seasons of life, like this spring when the air pollution was so thick no one could go outside very much. (That one is still going on and it’s a bit depressing for a family who loves to be outside). There have been some pain-filled weeks, like when I had surgery and had to lie down most of the time. One of my favorite stories is when a man visiting our neighborhood decided to wear only boxers the entire day. Since he was on vacation he felt like it was a good idea. He walked through the neighborhood in his boxers, carrying mugs of coffee and talking with anyone who had the time to spare.
Most of the time I look forward to sharing our lives and work with partners in our home country. But there are also times when a change is on the horizon, or when our family sees tremendous potential and value in a new project or job, and I begin to fear our partners back home may not agree. Fear makes me forget God is writing the story, and I make it about myself instead, by worrying that I am not enough or my work doesn’t measure up to some standard I can’t even properly define. It grieves my heart and frustrates me when I experience this fear. In those moments I’m keenly aware of my strong desire to present the reality of what God is doing in my life versus my fear-filled perception of what I think people want to hear. Feeling fear is not wrong, but choosing to distort the truth because of fear is.
Fear tempts me to think maybe my news would sound more palatable ministry-wise if I describe it like this instead of that. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting the writing of crass, in-your-face, rude newsletters in an effort to be genuine. And I’m definitely not saying that one must produce boring, bland newsletters without creativity so that our readers will not suspect embellishment.
I’m talking about the fear that what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of those we serve not being good enough stories for those who read our newsletters. Or the temptation to distort reality with the intention of making our work look different than it actually is—because we want it to be considered a worthy project by our readers. What if we’re not being enough and doing enough? All of these fears oppose the reality of who we are in Christ.
Even though it’s never the intention, when we give in to fear in order to maintain good relationships with friends and ministry partners, we actually dishonor the relationships. The relationships we have with friends and partners in our work is built on mutual trust in God and the desire to help in what He is doing in lives around the world. How ironic that to keep those relationships in tact, we can sometimes feel the temptation to edit the events of our lives so we appear to be more than the average person.
- We all sometimes fear others won’t see the value in our work or be supportive of new steps we may take in it. Let’s choose to be genuine and honest about our work, even when we are unsure of how others will respond, because God is writing the story in our lives and in the lives of people we serve. These stories of His work are real and worth sharing, so let’s not change them.
- We don’t want to make the fear of what other people may think of us and our work bigger than God. When we distort the truth, even with the intention of preserving the work God has called us to, we make others’ opinions big and God small. It’s not helpful for ourselves or anyone else when we choose to live in fear instead of freedom, so let’s not. Let’s speak the truth with love and grace so that God is honored for what is happening in our host countries.
- Dear International Worker, you are unconditionally accepted, loved, redeemed, and valued by your Creator. He is real. The work He is doing in and through you— even the most ordinary, simple thing— is real and valuable. So don’t change your story. Tell your story as it is.
Thanks for reading!
When People are Big and God is Small
Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man
by Edward T. Welch
A friend recommended this book to me just before I moved to Asia. Like any other resource, it’s not a cure all, but several truths in it were valuable in challenging my thinking, so I wanted to share it.