Why Missions Can’t Fix Your Relationship with God

relationship with God
As a missionary, what does it look like to really deepen your relationship with God? Keep reading to discover ways to rest in His grace.

I listened as a seasoned missionary, more educated than myself, shared from his heart. He leaned forward and asked a question I wasn’t expecting: “Mike, what does it really mean to be loved by God?”

I fumbled for a moment under the inner pressure to respond with just the right theological answer. Thankfully, I hesitated and replied honestly: “I’m not totally sure. I am still learning that myself.”

The missionary leaned back with a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you. I was so afraid you were going to give me a formula.”

Since then, I’ve met with many successful and highly-educated missionaries and pastors. When allowed to share in a safe place, the two most common heartfelt questions that I hear are:

  • What is prayer, really? Beyond praying for ministry, interceding for others, or having a list of prayer requests, what does it mean to just sit with God?
  • What does it really mean to be loved by God? This is a hard question to face because we’ve helped others understand God’s love. And yet the question persists: How do I learn to experience and rest in God’s love?

Without real answers to these questions, many missionaries slowly give up on having an intimate relationship with God. Instead, they try to stay busy, focus on organizational structures, produce results in ministry or hide behind their area of strength.

Feeding an Addiction to Performance

In a paper titled “Spiritual Formation in Christ,” Dallas Willard addressed the sudden explosion of material in the area of spiritual formation.

Whereas spiritual formation for the Christian leaders historically went deeply into the inner spiritual life, the modern Protestant counterpart often focuses on “the outward behavior of the successful minister, pastor, leader, or full-time Christian worker. Spiritual formation (in this sense) can be thought of as the training that makes individuals successful in the aforementioned roles.

“Although it is recognized that the heart must be right, if one is successful enough in certain outward terms, very likely no further inquiry will be made. And, if something is known to be lacking on the inside or in the private life of the worker, as is often the case among those on a Christian staff, it may well be overlooked or justified for the sake of the ministry.”

With this focus on outward behavior, it’s no wonder many missionaries feel addicted to performance and productivity. Without help in transformational growth in prayer, resting in grace and being loved by God, outward success becomes the main measure for one’s self-worth and closeness to God.

So, how do we learn to rest in God’s love? We begin by remembering that spiritual practices involve the whole person. Done right, they will always move us toward love, as opposed to works-based, “one-size-fits-all” methods. Here are five ways to get started on your journey:

1. Remember that your ministry belongs to Jesus.

Missionaries very often feel pressure from supporters, teammates and themselves to get “their” ministry flourishing. These expectations can lead to justifying drivenness and over-commitment to reach the end goal. Is this Jesus’ way?

Jesus calls us to sacrifice and surrender but these are different than drivenness and over-commitment. Drivenness produces good things, but it’s often driven by an ego that is not surrendered.

Learning to do Jesus’ ministry instead of our own ministry is hard for many of us. The drive to produce and the adrenaline of ministry can be mistaken for the Holy Spirit. Positive results are often used as indicators that God is pleased. Our prayer life and ministry life can revolve around success, and we may not even know it.

But we must ask, “Is this really the ministry Jesus would have us do? And if so, are we doing it His way?”

2. Let doing flow out of being.

Grace is counter-intuitive. It’s much easier to repent of outward sins than to face what’s happening inside ourselves. We each create a false self that we present to others. But a godly person is one who has been transformed by grace, not one who knows all the right ways to behave.

Facing oneself is the hardest yet most crucial part of the formation process. God uses pain and struggle to wean us from the attachments to our false self. This inner transformation happens most readily in a loving, grace-filled community. Spiritual friendship and Christian counseling offer safe relationships where we can drop our guards and honestly look at who we are in context of God’s grace.

As we’re transformed, what we do for Christ will begin to flow out of being in and with Christ.

3. Develop true community.

Christian community is one of the greatest treasures of the Christian life. Yet, very few of us have experienced this in our churches or Christian groups.

Larry Crabb describes the counterfeit of spiritual community as congenial relationships. These relationships hold together because of a common goal. As long as the goal is shared and worked on, the relationships “work.” Conversation tends to be about the goal. Prayer is about the goal, and the enemy is anyone or anything that gets in the way of the goal.

What is often missing in congenial relationships is a sense of grace, vulnerability, trust and relationship that goes deeper than the goal itself. And without that depth, it’s easy to keep our focus on outward appearances, not the heart.

4. Live grace, don’t just proclaim it.

A sense of grace is often the first thing that diminishes in any movement or ministry. Paul writes to the Galatians about this: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” The context is that they started out in grace but returned to law.

Grace allows for expression of healthy emotions, sharing one’s deepest thoughts and concerns without fear of being judged. Grace gives the courage to face our deepest sin. Grace allows for differences in ministry styles.

What if missionaries first and foremost saw it as their goal to establish grace-based communities? This can’t be evaluated through cognitive-based questions but will reveal itself in such things as trust, vulnerability, forgiveness and encouragement. Such a community would be made of individuals who have been formed by Christ, working as a team to do Christ’s work, Christ’s way.

5. Measure success in terms of grace.

In simplest terms, a spiritually healthy ministry is a ministry saturated by grace. A spiritually healthy ministry won’t make decision based on expediency, but on how the decision will affect the ethos of grace. Success will be looked at as those who demonstrate lives of grace.

This can’t be expected or assumed. Many of us need to be retrained in order to operate in grace-based systems.

With grace as the operating system, the other indicator is spiritual depth. A healthy ministry is one that helps cultivate a healthy Christian spirituality. What does it mean to cultivate spiritual depth? The foundation for this must come from a commitment to be Christ-centered, biblically-based and Spirit-led.

Taking the Next Steps

As you reflect on these five points, ask yourself which points have caused tension, stirred a heart-level desire or reminded you of something about yourself. Follow up each section with personal nonjudgmental comments, using words like “I feel…,” “I desire…,” “I’m sad about…,” and “I’m encouraged by….”

You may uncover some hard questions. You may find that you’ve been resting on your performance far more than you realized. But don’t take that as a failure. Take it as an opportunity to be transformed by God’s grace and trust that He loves us, even when we don’t understand how. 

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About the author

Mike Bowden

As a spiritual care facilitator with TEAM, Mike provides soul care for missionaries around the world. He received his training in spiritual formation from North Park Seminary in Chicago. He also served 17 years as a TEAM missionary in the Czech Republic with his wife Sonja and their two daughters before returning to live in Michigan in 2012.

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