By Frank Decker
“For what are you willing to die?” That was a sobering, yet defining query asked of me by an older pastor during the early days of my ministry. I now find myself asking aspiring missionaries that same question.
Though an unpleasant subject, it is the type of question that can serve as a filter, especially in the charting of one’s future. If I believe I am willing to offer my life in service of the gospel, but am not willing to make that level of sacrifice—simply pursuing a life-enriching adventure in another land—it may help me discern my commitment to missions in light of the risks of ministry in the developing world. And, sadly, the sudden deaths of mission officials from our own denomination in the Haiti earthquake has served as yet another severe reminder that cross-cultural ministry is often hazardous.
Furthermore, as undesirable as it is for a new missionary to consider the subject of danger overseas for one’s own life, the thought is especially unwelcome to parents with children as they contemplate missionary life as a family. Perhaps that’s why I was provoked by the question of a seemingly well-intentioned lady who asked while we were preparing to depart for our first term of service, “Are you going to take this little girl to Africa?”—apparently astounded that we would actually consider bringing our two-year-old (our only child at the time) with us to a developing nation. In retrospect, I am grateful that I did not respond with what I was thinking, “No, of course we won’t bring her to Africa. We are going to put her in a kennel for the next seven or eight years.”
Despite my sarcasm, I was convinced that God was calling our whole family to missionary service and, in my zeal, I tended to dismiss worries expressed by others about my family’s safety by categorically storing those concerns in my mental “lack of faith” file. Accompanying these thoughts was my lack of appreciation for the apprehension of extended family members; an uneasiness that was exacerbated by the fact that our only child at the time was also the only grandchild on both sides of our family.
In the wake of these discouraging detractions to our missionary aspirations, we clung to a devotional thought by Oswald Chambers: “If we obey God, he will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience.”
And yet, to be perfectly candid, I did have nagging, subterranean fears about my family’s safety in a strange land. I knew stories of missionaries who were killed or died from foreign-born illnesses. And it didn’t help that our specific assigned field of service had historically been known as “the missionary’s graveyard.”
I believe the enemy of our souls seeks to employ undue fear as a potentially debilitating weapon, and he knew that my greatest fear was the loss of a child. I subsequently learned that another tactic he uses is condemnation when, a few years later, a sense of guilt became my unwanted companion when our second child, born while we were overseas, tested positive for tuberculosis as a toddler.
Now my wife and I live in the States and our three children are grown. In recent years we’ve seen each of them serve on overseas missions without us and in that process have begun to realize the depth of what our parents felt when we moved to a new country more than 20 years ago.
I had coffee yesterday morning with a colleague who has two adult children serving in different regions of Asia. He told me that one of them, a civilian working in Iraq, felt his bed shake last week when a bomb went off near his home in Baghdad. I asked, “How do you deal with that?” He smiled and said that he and his wife often recall the quote by the renowned missionary David Livingstone, “I am immortal ‘til my work is accomplished.”
Livingstone died in Africa of dysentery and malaria, ill for the final four years of his life. Likewise, there are no guarantees that we, nor the ones we love, are immune from suffering and death on the path of obedience. And yet, the same God who gives us the wisdom to answer the question, “For what are you willing to die?” is able to provide the greater grace needed when we contemplate the costly obedience of those whom we love—whether that grace is provided in the form of divine protection or eternal perspective.
Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society.