Spiders, Snakes, and Civil Wars: How Risky Is ‘Too Risky’ in Missions?

It’s time to have an honest discussion about the other everyday risks of missionary life.

It’s time to have an honest discussion about snakes, spiders, tropical diseases, and all the other everyday risks of missionary life.

Some people may think that missionaries are some special kind of people who aren’t afraid of snakes and spiders, but little could be further from the truth.

My Experiences

Personally, I wouldn’t say that I’m phobic about snakes and spiders, because a phobia implies irrational fear. Rather, I think I have a healthy, rational fear of snakes and spiders. I don’t want to touch them, see pictures of them, or have them pinned to a display box on my wall.

Fortunately, though I’ve killed an abundance of spiders in my lifetime, I’ve had few encounters with snakes—unless running them over with my truck while sitting in my enclosed cab counts.

A few years ago, my family and I were staying in a hotel in Ghana, and I decided to go for a walk down the road early in the morning. The grass was high on the side of the road, so I made sure to stand a few feet away from it, since I was more than a little concerned about what might be crawling around in there. Just a few minutes into my walk, a motorcyclist passed me in the opposite direction. As he passed, I noticed that he was looking behind himself in the very direction I was walking. I took a few more steps around a slight curve in the road, and I saw what he saw: a bright green mamba uncoiling in my direction.

I’m no expert, but I think it was a 5-foot long western green mamba. Slim in shape and vibrant in color, these vipers are known to be very fast and extremely venomous. I received a jolt of adrenaline and my heart started beating uncontrollably. I was just about to turn and run, but I noticed that it was uncoiling in a very sluggish, awkward motion. It was dead—run over moments ago by the motorcycle.

That isn’t the only time I’ve noticed God’s providential protection. The guards at our mission properties regularly kill snakes around where my family and I walk. I dispatch with spiders on a daily basis. My family and I have contracted and recovered from multiple local, West African illnesses. I was once surrounded by a small riot. I’ve caught a thief with his hand literally in my pocket. And I’ve had more close encounters with bats than I care to recall.

Paul’s Experiences

On the other hand, my list seems pretty weak compared to Paul’s:

Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews. Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans. Once I was stoned by my enemies. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing. Not to mention other things, there is the daily pressure on me: my care for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28 CSB)

No doubt about it, that’s a scary list of missionary problems. I’ve talked to several people who say they would like to be more involved in missions, but they let their fears get in the way. I’ve heard many people say, “I’d love to do that, but I can’t fly.” I want to tell them that, in my opinion, if you become a missionary then flying will be the least of your problems.

Of course, not every missionary deals with snakes, spiders, and tropical illnesses on a regular basis. Missionaries all over the world face different local challenges. Workers in Ukraine, for example, may not have to worry as much about snakes and malaria, but they face other problems that are just as scary, if not more so, such as political unrest and ethnic strife. Living in or near a warzone seems much scarier to me than snakes. One’s definition of risk is often relative.

The point is that missionaries have the same fears everyone else does—we are simply in the process of learning to hold to a biblical perspective on them. That perspective is articulated by Paul in Romans 8:

Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (vv. 8:35-39 CSB)

Paul doesn’t say that he isn’t afraid of all these problems; rather, he doesn’t allow that fear to control him or keep him from serving God. He knows that we are already victorious though Christ. Ultimately, dangers like snakes, malaria, and civil wars do not have power to keep us from Christ.

The Ministry of the Mundane

Of course, most days on the mission field are not exciting, snake-killing, story-making adventures. I spend a lot of my time writing on the computer, tracking expenses, going to meetings, and trying to communicate among people who are all speaking their second or third languages. The missionaries I know aren’t fearless snake-handlers or thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies.

So what motivates a leave their homes, families, and culture to move into a new culture, only to deal with all these missionary problems and frustrations—from mundane to life-threatening? The answer is simply this: “How can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the gospel of good things!” (Romans 10:14-15 CSB).

Andrew Paul Ward

Andrew Paul Ward is an ABWE missionary to Togo, West Africa, sent from Grace Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Andrew is the husband of Mary, father to Emmanuel, Cyrus, and Alethia. He holds a B.S. from Bob Jones University, an M.Div. from Temple Baptist Seminary, and an Ed.D. from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Support Andrew’s ministry.