What Did You Expect? (10 Things I’ve Learned In My Novice Year as a Missionary)

Niger, West Africa

Have you ever heard of the book entitled, “What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage” by Paul David Tripp? I haven’t read it, and I’m not married, but I laugh as I ask myself the same question about my first year of living overseas and learning about cross-cultural missions. I tried not to have expectations, but many times this past year I found myself asking how I got to West Africa and what in the world I was supposed to be doing here.

It’s been a wild ride full of ups and downs – soaring highs and scraping lows with everything in between as I have stretched, grown, and learned. My God has been faithful.

This is not a specifically about the cultural things I have learned, but rather things that God has been teaching me internally. Here are a few of them…

  1. Be a learner.

From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was in a position of dependency. I did not know a soul. I had never stepped foot in Niger before. I knew nil about the culture (I’m not really one of those research-before-you-go kind of people, feel me?), didn’t speak a word of French or any of the local languages, and I could successfully stall out a manual transmission at least 5 times in the span of 30 minutes (knowing I would be driving a manual upon arrival, I practiced a little before I left…) I needed others to patiently show me the ropes. I needed to watch and listen. As the days go by, I see how important it is to continue being a learner: to be one that listens to others, is willing to bend and adapt to differences, hear other perspectives and be open to learning. We are to be students of our heavenly Father as well as learners from each other for all our days.

2. Do not trust your feelings.

This is hard to remember and even harder to implement. Feelings are unreliable. One day I feel like I’m thriving, living with purpose, and loving what God has called me to do. Another day, for various reasons, I am discouraged, fatigued, and questioning why I am living here when I could be living in a first world country. (I know that is not necessarily easier, but feelings, you see, they lie). Feelings will take you all over the place if you allow them to. How integral it is for my trust, hope, anchor, and assurance to be in my God who has called me to this place full of mountains and valleys and who will see me through. We are to expect the hard seasons, the dry places (and to acknowledge and process the difficulty of them), but we are to cling to our faithful God above all, trusting his character over the shifting shadows of our feelings and emotions.

3. Be patient. Give things time.

It’s tough being a newbie. Building relationships from scratch, learning a new job, adjusting to change in every category of life, and many a cultural difference. Most of the time, I want to skip the journey and arrive at the destination. I want the end result of finishing the race, but I don’t want to run the race. I want the end product of deep relationships, a better understanding of my host culture, new normals, and proficiency in another language, but I don’t want to be patient and perseverant on the road to those things. “The microwave people”, we’ve been called, because we want things quickly and painlessly, and we don’t want to wait. But there is beauty in the waiting. We become more humble and pliable in the waiting. There is goodness and grace on the slow journey full of waiting. By God’s grace, we will grow, learn, reach new normals, obtain knowledge of this new culture, understand a new job better, and even thrive. But not without walking the slow road with patience.

4. Receive correction. Be quick to ask for and give forgiveness. Be humble.

This is a real stickler. It is a known fact that one of the hardest things for missionaries overseas can be conflict with other missionaries. (But honestly, for anybody, anywhere, conflict is a beast, am I right?) You work day after day together, you live in close proximity (if not actually in the same house), go to church together, run into each other at the grocery store, and rely on each other for fellowship and encouragement from day to day. Inevitably you will be hurt and you will deeply hurt another person(s). When someone approaches you and says, “You have really hurt me”, what is my response? I’m going to be honest: what is running through my head is something along the lines of, “Are you serious? You must be overreacting, exaggerating. Most people really like me…”

The hardest thing is to receive difficult words and be willing to take an honest look at the pride and sin in my own life. I’m not good at this. God has had to teach me this over and over. But, oh, there is beauty, peace, and healing found in admitting sin, asking for forgiveness, and growing together. We need each other, and Satan would love nothing more than for divisions and bitterness to grow between people who are after the same goal of sharing Christ cross-culturally. If we go to proclaim the Good News of a Savior for sinners, we need the humility and grace to admit WE are the chief of sinners.

This is a tough one. Be prepared to have to relearn it.

5. Let your heart break over what breaks God’s heart

There are many situations daily that I encounter that are heartbreaking, and I frankly do not know how to handle them. Men on bended knee on every corner praying to a god that doesn’t exist. A rainy season that is far from sufficient and leaves families malnourished, having run out of food while waiting for the harvest that will be late this year. To hear a dear and local friend remark on her own culture, “The Christians here, they’re just not growing in their faith and don’t care to.” To see many walking around in clothes torn and dirty while I have many clean clothes. I don’t know how to handle poverty and beggars when I have never hungered a day in my life. How was I born into a family of plenty while most of the world was not?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. It’s grievous. And I am learning that it is right to be grieved over these things because they grieve God’s heart too. He created a beautiful world filled with beautiful people. But we brought sin into the world and this beautiful world is now broken. One day God will make all things new and there won’t be discrepancies, divisions, poverty, and brokenness. But in the meantime, these are hard things, and his heart breaks too over these things. We must learn to grapple with them and let them push us to our Father and not away from him.

6. Stay in the Word.

Life gets busy. Life gets hard. There are a million things to keep me from spending time with the Lord. But it is utterly impossible to sustain a fruitful life and ministry without time spent in God’s presence every day. The day will present challenges that I cannot face without wisdom from the Lord.

John 15:5 – “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” I in Him; He in me. I need a healthy dose every day.

7. Get over your western concept of efficiency

It did not take but a couple days in Niger to realize that I was in a very different culture – one that does not base value and worth on efficiency as westerners understand efficiency. Nothing ever goes as planned nor is as simple as it seems it should be.

Most westerners have a set routines with their days planned out. We time things to be efficient. If it takes too long or poses too many problems, we find a faster and more efficient route. We value that. But, I quickly learned in Niger, not a day goes where things happen “efficiently”, and usually there is nothing you can do to change that. For example: greetings are of great importance here. It is more important to show someone you love and care for them by stopping to ask how they are, how their family and work is going (along with their health, the weather, their tiredness, their animals…the list goes on). That takes time. It is necessary to plan extra time for greetings with local friends, honoring them and their culture in this way. I will admit – I am not good at this at all. I often don’t leave margin in my day. I’m learning that it’s very important.

Another example is that of the man who sells batiques outside one of the grocery stores where I shop (a batique is a picture that is stained with colored dyes onto a piece of fabric to create a beautiful mural to hang). My friends and I have bought from him before. He has many batiques to choose from, and insists on opening up each one to showcase his entire collection (at least 20 on any given day). In my mind, it is not necessary for him to unfold and layout every one. Four batiques into this process, I’ve already decided which one I want. It will take so long to spread them all out, and I really need to get my groceries home, right? Wrong. This is his artwork that he takes great pride in. I get the privilege of giving him my attention and honoring him and his work. In the end, he is content with the opportunity to show me all of his work whether I decide to buy one or not. I have an opportunity to give patience and dignity, but will I give it or will I cling to my sense of time efficiency?

8. Obedience is a daily decision.

One day after being in Niger about a month, a lightbulb went off. I knew that God had called me to Niger to serve and learn, and by his grace, I was obedient to that call. But what I realized is that my obedience didn’t stop with packing my bags for Africa. My obedience is a daily decision. Will I take up my cross today? Will I love those around me? Will I serve without begrudging? Will I allow my heart to be fully engaged here and not straddle two continents? (Easier said than done in this age of technology and “connexion” at our fingertips – even in third world counties). It is a daily question of obedience. This closely corresponds to #4 and #6. It requires humility and repentance to my Father of my frequent disobedience. This, too, can only be accomplished through faithful time in the Word and being aware of the Spirit’s voice.

9. I am not the savior.

One friend said to me, “You know, it really is amazing that God doesn’t need us at all in missions, but He delights in using us.” It seems intuitive, but it’s easy to forget. I get wrapped up in what I’m doing, in the challenges in front of me, and, to be honest, sometimes what I perceive I have “given up” for the sake of being a missionary. But it’s true: He doesn’t even need me, and I am not the solution for the complexities of a lost and broken world.

I am not the savior. But I do know the Savior, and I get to share about him. It really is that simple.

10. Yet not I but through Christ in me

This one. Yes, it really is the most important one. On my own, I am weak and frail. I stumble and make mistakes. I forget God’s kindness and love and I covet other things. I grumble constantly. And I wonder – why in the world would God call me, use me, send His message through me? But it’s not even about me. It’s about Christ. These words from a song entitled, “Yet not I but through Christ in me” capture the theme much better than I could.

[To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus. For my life is wholly bound to His. Oh how strange and divine, I can sing: all is mine! Yet not I, but through Christ in me.

The night is dark but I am not forsaken. For by my side, the Savior He will stay. I labor on in weakness and rejoicing. For in my need, his power is displayed. To this I hold, my Shepherd will defend me. Through the deepest valley He will lead. Oh the night has been won, and I shall overcome! Yet not I, but through Christ in me.

No fate I dread, I know I am forgiven. The future sure, the price it has been paid. For Jesus bled and suffered for my pardon. And He was raised to overthrow the grave. To this I hold, my sin has been defeated. Jesus now and ever is my plea. Oh the chains are released, I can sing: I am free! Yet not I, but through Christ in me.

To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus. All the glory evermore to Him. When the race is complete, still my lips shall repeat: Yet not I, but through Christ in me.]

This was really hard to pair down. There are many more things I have learned are equally important. So here are some honorable mentions: LAUGH. Expect the unexpected. Be flexible. I repeat: learn the discipline of flexibility. Invest in relationships. Allow the people around you to become your family – you will need it. Make friends who will let you be a part of their family and take them up on the homemade meals. Practice the art of giving thanks. And last but not least — rest in the love of God and the finished work of Christ from day to day.

Being a missionary is not confined to life away from one’s host culture. These are lessons that apply to me – apply to Christians – all over the globe. If you are a Christ follower, you are a missionary – one that is sent out with Good News. May we all be faithful to be learners from our Father and others. What are some things you have learned in the last year walking with the Lord? I would love to hear from you!

Living. Learning. Loving.

Sara D

P.S. Here is the song that I quoted above. I dare you not to stand up, raising your hands in worship listening to it wherever you are.

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