One of the most desirable traits for overseas living is adaptability.  One gets on a plane, and in less than a day one is suddenly immersed in a place where everything is strange and new.  And instead of being the capable, dependable person that could actually do things, one now can’t even do something as basic as ask where the bathroom is.  Even worse, if you find it, it might either be so strange that you’re not quite sure how to use it, or so off-putting that you start wondering if you can’t just hold it until your next home leave!

Culture Shock

The initial culture shock is just the beginning.   God looks to us to be faithful sowers of the seed.  He’s the one who determines whether one heart will be rocky soil and another fertile.  A missionary may face many years with no visible success.  And apart from ministry is the rest of life.  There’s a reason why so many millions try to leave their home countries for the West.  Poverty, disease, injustice, endemic corruption, persecution, violence, spiritual darkness, hopelessness  -many of the neediest places of the world are trying places to live.


Language learning is a long, hard slog, and it takes most people a couple of years of very hard work to get to the point where they can have anything approaching a deep conversation about things that really matter.  But language is just a doorway into culture, and it can take many years to really understand what makes people tick.  And even after all that investment there is no guarantee that a missionary will see lasting fruit.

Romantic Dreams

Romantic dreams of exotic missionary life usually last a matter of days, if not hours, after one’s arrival on the field.  For most of us, the initial upheaval and long process of adaptation to a foreign culture will be the most difficult, laborious, stressful thing we will ever do.  Such trying, testing conditions highlight any weaknesses we carry with us.  Our bodies are tested.  Our relationships are tested.  Our walk with God is tested.  Cracks in marriages can break wide open.  Sins thought conquered reappear with new strength.  “Why am I tired all the time?”  “Why am I so irritable, so unloving, so discouraged?”

Tower of Strength

We are not looking for towering rocks who never get knocked over.  We are looking for those who, once they get knocked over, have what it takes to get back up and keep going.  If we’re having a bad day and blow up at someone, do we quickly apologize and make things right?  If our expectations are disappointed, do we sulk, grumble, or threaten to take our ball and go home?  Or do we take our hurts to God, and, putting outcomes in his hands, move forward with peace, revising our expectations?  Resilience is what is desired.


Some people are innately more sensitive than others; little things affect them much more deeply.  Others are far more easy-going.  Which end of the continuum you are closer to is largely a matter of temperament – and so is a relatively stable part of who you are.  However, it seems that God has designed the missionary life so that no one, easy-going or not, is able to pass through without struggles, failures, disappointments of such a magnitude as to be unendurable without the ability to cast it all on Him.  We all must learn to follow David’s example at Ziklag (1 Samuel 30):  “he found strength in the LORD his God”.


A missionary “crashing and burning” overseas is a painful, tragic experience for everyone.  Reaching the point of no longer being able to cope can be devastating to one’s emotional, physical, and spiritual health.  One’s family, friends, team – all whose lives are connected to that missionary – are affected.  Some crack, suffering a breakdown; others burn out, getting bitter, cynical, or just not caring anymore.  No one wants that to happen.  That’s part of why we have missionary candidates come and live for four months in community at our headquarters.  Before we send someone through such a trying experience we want to see some evidence that they will be able to not only cope, but thrive overseas.


Is your physical health weak?  Are you easily upset, angered, discouraged, made fearful or anxious?  Does your joy and trust in God falter easily?  Are interpersonal relationships a continuing source of pain to you?  Fragile people need to think twice before going overseas.  However, most any weakness can be overcome if there is a close walk with God.  Inner, spiritual resilience is an absolute necessity – our purely human resources will too soon be found wanting.

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