Malaysia

Plan B

I guess you’re supposed to count the cost of following Jesus before you commit your life to Him, but the concept just hadn’t occurred to me. Those Scriptures about losing your life and taking up your cross daily seemed a little overblown. Because for years walking with God, I never had to let go of much.

Sure, I lost respect from family and friends who thought I was an idiot for following Christ. I was ridiculed and laughed at for my faith. I put plans to move away and go to a great college on hold because God told me to stay and help plant a church in Connecticut. I was no stranger to suffering or sacrifice. But these trials didn’t ever scare me because I believed if I was obedient, that Jesus would give me everything I wanted.

I made Jesus my genie. If I was nice and obedient and served Him, I thought, He would grant my wishes. Any sacrifice He asked me to make was worth it because I believed He was going to make all my dreams come true eventually. I heard Psalm 37:4 and felt that it confirmed this prosperity-centered thinking. “Delight yourself also in the Lord and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” So I was going to delight in Him until I had all the things I wanted.

Being the only believer in my family? Easy. Church planting? Piece of cake. Because my eyes were on the prize: the life and the future I imagined He would surely bless me with, complete with hot Christian husband reminiscent of Brad Pitt and beautiful house in the safe Connecticut suburbs. (I was pretty unoriginal back in the day; cut me some slack.) All the fervor I needed was fueled by my confidence that if I ran God’s race I would be blessed. So I kept running.

I came to a point where I thought I could see the finish line. I thought I was about to obtain the life I had always wanted. I thought I’d been good enough for God that He was finally going to give me “the desires of my heart.” Plans were being discussed about the life I’d always dreamed of having. It didn’t look perfect, but it looked good enough and I was tired of waiting.

Almost everyone I knew was convinced I was endlessly happy, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. The spiritual unrest I was experiencing was unexplainable, because outwardly I had everything I wanted. But I would go to sleep at night in tears and I had no idea why. Food stopped tasting good and almost overnight I was down ten pounds. I retreated into the woods, running and walking countless miles every day to distract myself from the unease.

But all of a sudden, God took it all away. I was running in the woods behind my house to reach a place by the lake where I would go in the times when my confusion and heartache would build up. I cried to God, asking Him what was happening and why. He didn’t give me understanding but He did give me peace about letting go of the future I thought I wanted with the person I thought I wanted it with.

Signing up to be a missionary was my Plan B. It was me with my fist in the air, screaming, “Why won’t you just let me be happy, God? Why can’t I just have what I want?” And somehow, leaving the country and traveling the world seemed like it would get me what I wanted faster than staying put. So I packed my bags, and along with the malaria meds and travel shampoo I took with me the unanswered questions, “Why didn’t it work out? I thought it was going so well. Did I do something wrong? How could you let this happen to me, Lord?”

It wasn’t long before I was confronted with the fact that my motivation for going (and the motivation behind everything I was doing for God) was not pleasing to Him. I met a lot of people, some who traveled with me and others along the way, who lived lives completely surrendered to God. They didn’t hope to obtain prosperity or avoid suffering. In fact, they traded the former for the latter and rejoiced anyway. These people were seeing something that I wasn’t, and it scared me.

My entire squad was debriefing at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur after five months overseas. By this point I was officially exhausted. Life was anything but glamorous; I frequently found myself living in my leaky little tent, cockroaches crawling through my belongings, with nothing but terrible food to eat and a stench that wouldn’t leave me no matter how many times a day I showered.

And while I longed for the comforts of home, I also longed for the future I had envisioned for myself all my life. And I felt so confused over how I’d wound up living the farthest thing from it on the other side of the world. For months I would hold it together during the day for ministry, but in my head at night my thoughts were all spent hungering for that opposite-life, the comfortable one I used to live.

We all gathered up on the rooftop one night for worship and I wasn’t feeling too into it. But God met me there in my exhaustion and gave me a vision. I saw myself standing at the edge of this cliff, the unknown before me and the familiar behind. And He was telling me if I jumped that I would see more of Him than I ever had before, but I would be accountable for what I saw. I could never go back to the way things were; there was no way back up this cliff. Jumping would mean complete surrender, trusting God to direct my future.

Sharing this with my team, they obviously encouraged me to take that leap. But I held out for another month or two, not yet ready to really lay all my dreams and desires at His feet. I still thought my plan was better than God’s, and I still desired the comforts of this world over Jesus himself.

But God, in his great mercy, patiently worked on me as I deliberated. He continued to show me His grace and love, slowly convincing me that He is worth losing everything for. He brought me to a place where I heard stories of martyrs and rather than cringe, I envied them. He taught me what a privilege it is to suffer for Him, how imperative it is that I lay down my life – and all the plans I had for it – to gain Him. Jesus is my treasure and nothing in this world can satisfy as He does.

Now I run the race with my eyes fixed on the true prize. I would never want all the blessings of God if He wasn’t in them. When I thought I wanted anything but Him, I was believing a lie. He knew this when He spared me the life I thought I wanted. The familiar was comfortable; it meant keeping up appearances and playing it safe and putting God in a box. But that isn’t how I want to live, and there’s no going back even if I did. Real freedom isn’t when we have complete control over our futures; real freedom is when our desires become aligned with God’s will. Jumping off that cliff was no longer scary, because He made me truly want more of Him. And when we gain Him, we lack no good thing.

He has given me the desires of my heart. He has become the desire of my heart.

Bold and Unashamed

Training Camp took place about a month and a half before my squad launched from Atlanta, Georgia to the mission field. It was a chance for us to meet one another, to be challenged to ask God for big things, and to download vision for what He wanted for us in the year to come. It was my expectation that in becoming a missionary, I would have one opportunity after another to take cool selfies with African babies, thus establishing my reputation as a Good Christian. Needless to say, I had given little thought at this point to what it really meant to take the gospel to the nations. So as I sat and prayed for God to remove my expectations about the year to come, he graciously replaced them with a promise. “I will make you bold and unashamed of me.”

I was afraid. Part of me was honestly hoping this word wouldn’t be fulfilled. See, the thought of being a bold witness for Christ made me cringe. I had attached to the idea of boldness images of hateful men standing on street corners with bullhorns barking condemning words at passersby, thus further cementing the stereotype of Judgmental Soapbox Christian to the masses. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my experience in churches up until this point had been pretty heavily “seeker-sensitive.” The idea that we would worship God was delivered with the disclaimer, “Just don’t do anything that would freak someone out.” Acts of service and the meeting of physical needs in my community were rarely paired with an explicit sharing of the gospel. And this was comfortable for me; I didn’t want to offend anyone after all!

The first four months of the World Race passed me by without God’s delivery on this promise. The vast majority of ministry up until this point was to people who already knew the good news. We were sent to areas that were heavily churched, and I was pretty confident I had this missionary thing figured out.

That is, until God brought us to Malaysia. This was my first experience inside a “closed country,” where we could not explicitly share the gospel for the safety of our hosts and ourselves. If questioned, we were there as English teachers in a cultural immersion program. Our opportunities to worship were solely behind closed doors, and our assignment was simply this: to pray. Although we saw no fruit, we trusted as we prayed over children who came to learn English from us that God was at work.

And for the first time in my life, as I encountered this “untouchable” population, I had inside me a deep longing to share the gospel.

The following month found us in Vietnam, technically closed but not nearly as closely monitored as our previous home. Our host was one of the boldest men I have ever met. He encouraged us to share the gospel with everyone we came in contact with, whether at the cafe where we worked or out in public on the streets. And Ho Chi Minh City was ripe for the harvest. So as God led one person after another into my path, I fumbled over my words in articulating the story of Christ, but grew in confidence with each interaction. This was the most fertile ground for boldness; I had a host who led by example, a team around me to back me up, and the most spiritually hungry audience I’ve witnessed to this day. And to the glory of God, my team and I saw so many people come to know Jesus this month. We left Vietnam exhausted but so full of joy.

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As the months went on, God continued to convince me that the most loving thing to do for someone is to tell them the truth about Jesus. This is a truth I had known in my head for years, but had yet to accept wholeheartedly. I heard a podcast a couple months later which told the story of a formerly muslim girl who converted to Christianity and was brutally killed by her brothers for doing so. When I heard this, God told me, “She is the lucky one. She counted the cost and was not following me to gain earthly reward. Envy her, for she gained me.” I had to listen to it several times for this truth to sink in, but as it took root in my heart, God’s promise to make me bold and unashamed was fulfilled.

The gospel is offensive, and many people will despise me for sharing it. But as I count the cost, I see that it is worth it because I am not more valuable than Christ who gave his life for me. Jesus bore all of my shame so that I no longer have to fear what reaction I will get when I share the gospel. By no means am I an expert; God still works in spite of my weak attempts at articulating his story verbally. But fear is no longer a stumbling block for me. It is my great joy to endure rejection for the sake of Christ, because it is my great joy to share the gospel.