When I think about how these words must sound outside of our traditional Christian circles, it makes me laugh. People must think of an unfortunate and unsuspecting person or family, minding their own business in the real world, when suddenly they are surrounded by so-great-a-cloud of mysterious, glittering smoke—probably Africa-shaped—then are instantly zapped from normalcy into jean skirts and tennis shoes. Immediately they feel the sudden urge to homeschool and act confused in the cereal aisle. In desperation and fear, they finally drop to their knees and yell out in a slow-motion scramble amid the smoke: “I surrender!” They get commissioned. They purchase one-way tickets. They land in an unsuspecting country of their choosing and start language school. Bam—surrendered!
But I grew up in the church and being a pastor’s kid; I knew better than this. I knew that a “surrender” to missions was done only by the most elite, the supremely spiritual, and the most highly-educated Christians. These people weren’t surprised at all by “the call.” In fact, they probably surrendered to missions before they were even saved, maybe even before they could talk as babies. That’s how amazing they were. They already owned back-ups for their back-up jean skirts and already knew how to cook over coal or wash 100 dishes with two cups of water. They never learned; they just knew.
I was wrong.
In reality, for our family, we didn’t experience a grand call to missions. It was more like, “Hey, God has graciously saved us. We believe that he has called us into the ministry, and it’s been confirmed by our elders and people in our lives. Our hearts keep drawing us to share the gospel with people who have never heard. Now, let’s see where he will lead us.” Many open and closed doors later, and we found ourselves across the world in East Africa. Okay—it wasn’t quite that simple, but nevertheless, we “surrendered.”
I thought I finally understood what surrender meant; after all, I had done it! I crossed that event off of my Christian bucket list. It meant leaving home, my family and friends, familiarity and landing in a place where every single thing made me feel either stupid or afraid. At least that is what I thought—and I was wrong once again.
The Lie of One-Time Surrender
After the big move overseas, I discovered that a one huge missionary-surrender was another giant lie. I could have never comprehended the continued grace and patience that I would need from God as I had to learn to daily surrender my will to his. It wasn’t a “one-time move” or monumental act of obedience. It was daily dependence as I woke up every morning in a foreign place, missing family, the ability to understand what was happening around me, and the sensation of simply being known rather than strangers.
Fast forward about eight years. Over time, Tanzania became home. That daily dependence and surrender became easier as strangers became family, the foreign became familiar, a language which was once a frustrating barrier became a bridge into hearts and lives, and what once seemed peculiar and disturbing became ordinary. Our family found our unconventional life in Tanzania to be more normal and coveted than even our visits to the States (minus really missing family). I often joke about our family and team “living the dream,” but that is really how we feel. Even through the difficult, draining, and sometimes dangerous times, we have loved every year that we have been blessed to live in this beautiful country. Over the years, America felt more and more foreign and strange as Tanzania became our home.
There we were, living out our ministry and missionary dreams. We woke up most days feeling like we hit some sort of proverbial mission’s jackpot. Okay, that may be a little bit of hyperbole and oversimplification. Still, we genuinely feel blessed and undeserving to live out our obedience to God in a context we enjoy and with people who we dearly love.
“Surrender” didn’t feel nearly as difficult in the new calm season. I think, for a moment, I actually believed that we had finally made it into a time where we could coast more than struggle. Well, I thought that for about five minutes until all of our plans and dreams came crashing down around us.
At first, we weren’t too concerned when the government started enforcing a law that prohibits any foreign residents to stay longer than five years. Our lives are lived working around red tape, figuring ways around obstacles and confusing policies, dealing with changing visa and permit issues, and more. But gradually, what seemed like a small and lenient permit issue turned into us waving goodbye to family after family who were forced to leave. Our team’s permits expire in later this year, making it a real possibility that we will also be denied our next request.*
Cue my lament.
No, God! We already surrendered! Please, God, I already uprooted my family and moved out of our home. I tried desperately to obey you and to make this new country, this new language, this new culture, our home! You can’t ask me to leave! Don’t make us give this up.
Here I am, right now and in real time, digging my missionary heels down into the ground of our beloved country—our home. Here I am, clenching my missionary hands tightly around my relationships, my plans, and my life here in Tanzania, choking out any possibility for God to redirect. You won’t take this, God. I already gave up home once. My tears turn into anger and my anger quickly turns into despair.
It turns out that I still haven’t grasped the meaning of living in surrender. I haven’t denied myself and surrendered as much as I thought. Instead, I surrendered for a season, then progressively just transitioned my affections, my loyalty, my comfort, and even some of my identity to a new place; a new home. And this time, I am not giving it up as easily.
I wish I could wrap up this blog post with a pretty, victorious bow, but I can’t yet. I’m right in the middle of a new season when God is asking me to be obedient despite my feelings. I’m learning, once again, how to walk in faith. How to surrender.
We don’t know what the future holds for us in Tanzania. No one does (James 4:13-15). We are praying to stay. We are asking God to allow us to stay. But obedience may look different than I had pictured. Obedience may be the laying down of another dream, of another home. It could look like God using this time to reveal new truth to us and then miraculously allow us to stay. It could also look like a completely different direction of missions and expansion of our team into a new place in East Africa that we wouldn’t have considered, but that God had already ordained. We have no idea.
All I can do in this season of waiting is continually pray a prayer something like this:
Lord, help my unbelief. Pry my hands open again and help me to believe the truth that heaven is my home (Hebrews 11:13-16). I do believe this, but stated belief is different than functioning belief. I can say it. I can type it and post it for people to admire, perhaps, but living it is a new surrender, and I feel like I am kicking and screaming all the way. But you, Father, have taught me through your Word that you are okay with my laments and my questions. You have taught me that you are near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). You take joy in comforting your children, in being our refuge in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1), and in offering peace and comfort in our sorrows. You have taught me from your Word, through your Spirit, and through experience that you are trustworthy. Lord, help my unbelief (Mark 9:24).
Surrender Isn’t Just for Missionaries
This “surrender” or laying down of our lives is not a missionary call. It’s a call to all who have been saved by grace. Every single Christian is called to the kind of surrender that hourly has to depend on him and re-surrender our will to his will (Luke 22:42). Each of us is called to pick up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24-26).
What is God asking you to give up? What dream or comfort or home has become your “You can’t have this, God”? The good news is that, just as surrender isn’t a one-time thing, neither is God’s willingness to forgive and renew our hearts. Join me in repenting of our idols—plans, money, safety, security, family, home, anything taking the place of God in our life—anything that we depend on more than God for our happiness and security (Ezekiel 14:3). Lay them down, even if it’s reluctantly and with a broken heart, like me right now.
Let’s see what God does. We may be surprised. We may feel pain and loss. But I believe that we will never regret removing the limits that we have placed on our obedience to his, for he is worthy.
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)
* Though permits are a big issue for our family and team, we have no plans (Lord willing) of leaving East Africa. Our Tanzanian partners and ministries are all praying together as we trust God to continue to use Sifa, Grace Mission, Mama Love and house church planting movement in powerful ways in Tanzania and throughout East Africa. Our work continues in confidence that God is working all things out for his glory and for the good of those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).