Serving on a mission field is uniquely challenging—both spiritually and emotionally.
Those who follow the call of God overseas bid farewell to family and friends. Missionaries leave the familiar behind. They face the shock of assimilating in a new culture, along with the struggles of learning a new language. Financial pressures—from raising support to maintaining communication with donors—are a constant concern. Raising children who must traverse the balance beam of two cultures can be emotionally taxing.
Along with these personal hurdles, actual ministry is hard work. Sometimes the people being reached resist hearing the gospel. The religious beliefs of the culture can feel like trying to crack a slab of granite with a plastic hammer. At other times, the governmental structures create barriers that require unbelievable patience and wisdom. Ministry progress often moves at a snail’s pace.
All these challenges can take a toll on relationships. Marriages, families, and staff unity can start to buckle in the pressure cooker of foreign missions. No wonder the number of people who return home after a few years due to relational conflict is so high.
What began as a calling from God can shift to a painful journey.
I know there are blessings and successes too. Baptizing your first convert, watching a church plant call its first pastor, holding a new translation of the Bible, and sharing the gospel with nuance and skill are glorious victories.
But missions work isn’t for the faint of heart.
Training for missionary service involves mastering the language and the culture of the people. You can’t reach those with whom you can’t communicate. But there is another language that is equally important—not for navigating the mission field but for surviving it: lament.
Learning the Language of Lament
This historic prayer language is how the people of God vocalized their sorrow, poured out their frustrations, and mourned their exile. Over a third of the Psalms feature this minor-key song. This divinely given liturgy creates a pathway for navigating the fears, frustrations, unfairness, and conflicts of life. Instead of allowing the pressures of ministry to create despair or a stoic denial, lament invites us to talk to God with all the messiness and grit required for perseverance.
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. It is the emotional language of loss as Christians turn to God in their sorrow, lay out their complaints, ask boldly for God’s help, and recommit themselves to trust. A few notable examples are Psalms 13, 10, 22 and 77.
Lament moves us through the pains of life and leads us to reaffirm our trust in God.
4 Ways Lament Could Help Missionaries
In light of the unique pressures, missionaries could benefit from studying the language of lament so they will have an outlet for the expected challenges of the mission field.
Let me suggest four ways lament might be able to help.
Missionaries uncurl their fingers from things most of us take for granted. Friendships at home, birthday parties with family, a spiritually helpful church community, a familiar culture, and a native language are just a few examples. There are many more. While I’m sure the calculus of serving as a missionary factored those losses into the equation, it can take an emotional toll.
Lament talks to God about the sorrow of what’s been left behind. Rather than feeling guilty or living in denial that it’s hard, this minor-key prayer invites a conversation with God about the pain of personal sacrifice.
Lament legitimizes and redeems what’s been lost.
Life on a foreign field creates unique relational tensions. As a pastor for over two decades, I’ve witnessed firsthand the relational challenges in missionary families. Marriages can struggle. Parental decisions can be loaded with nuanced guilt. It’s hard to raise a family overseas. Being single isn’t easy either. Friendships can be strained as expectations are unmet. Loneliness can settle in like a lingering fog. And then there are team dynamics. The entrepreneurial drive that leads to the field can implode when trying to work with others.
Lament is a safe place for the honest processing of these pains. It shouldn’t replace a counselor when needed, but learning to lament would allow weary servants to lay out their struggles to the very God who called them to the field. Lament won’t solve all relational conflict, but it does lead your heart to the right place, making kindness and reconciliation more likely.
Navigating an unfamiliar culture is shocking. One of our missionaries recently told me that the first six months are the hardest, but the stress of navigating the culture remained for almost two years. He said, “Sometimes just paying a bill was so exhausting; I could hardly do anything else all day.” Add a language barrier, hostility toward the gospel, and a massive need, and you have an extremely stressful ministry.
Imagine a weary-hearted missionary praying, “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Ps. 22:1b–2 ESV). And then consider a prayer that continues into the rehearsing of God’s faithfulness: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (Ps. 22:26–27 ESV).
Laments possess the potential of honest wrestling and hopeful remembering when the culture is difficult.
Progress in hard places is slow. Dreams collide with reality. Open doors sometimes close quickly. Evangelism often requires years of planting before the harvest. Disappointment may rise on the horizon and linger.
When the struggles of ministry create sorrow, the language of lament can help. Like Asaph in Psalm 77, God invites us to keep talking to him—especially when we’re disappointed. “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Ps. 77:2–3 ESV).
Lament expresses our sadness and frustration so we can move through it.
Hard and Hopeful Calling
Missionaries must walk through deep waters to reach people with the gospel. Their calling is commendable. What could be better than seeing the gospel dawn on a people trapped in spiritual darkness?
But serving the Lord in rugged places always involves tears. It’s spiritually and emotionally challenging, for sure. By talking to God about struggles, stresses, and sorrows, they can become a platform for worship instead of a pit of despair.
Lament won’t solve all the challenges, and it’ll never provide everything missionaries need.
But it’s a helpful language to learn. While missionaries learn the culture, peoples, and the language, it would also be helpful to become fluent in lament.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on IMB on March 25, 2019. Used by permission.