This story really starts on the fourth of July, because that was the day that my friend dropped me off at the airport and I left the life I had spent the past few years building. Friends, mentors, small children I adored-I left them all behind. After two and half years of working as a missionary in Mexico, I was headed home for good, all because I felt God tugging at my heart and telling me it was time to go.
Even with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, it felt a little like failure. I felt like a missionary that just couldn’t hack it. Forget about God, maybe I just couldn’t do it and this was my out. It didn’t help that when I got back to Minnesota, I-gasp!-enjoyed myself. Once again held in the palm of my family’s hand, I loved every second I got to spend with my parents, my sister, my friends. I was even happy to see vaguely familiar people I didn’t actually know, like the FedEx delivery guy, because it meant I was finally home. I was once again in a world that I easily understood, easily navigated, and easily fit into. I was safe.
It’s no small wonder I began to slip a little. I started having doubts as to what God was calling me to. I constructed a nice little plan for myself, wrote out a nice little five year plan and figured I’d get back to the mission field eventually, maybe-but life was so good here! Why had I never valued my home, before? Minnesota was awesome! And, anyways, isn’t there enough of a mission field just in the Twin Cities alone? Huge immigrant populations, lots of people needing God and needing help-why not just stay? Hadn’t I already done my time?
For those of you who may not remember the minutiae of my life, in January 2015 I went on a mission trip to Nicaragua (for the skinny on that trip, click here). It was amazing, God showed up, and I couldn’t wait to go back. So when the opportunity presented itself to go again, I was all over that, naturally. But as the trip grew closer and closer, I almost dropped out several times for incredibly inane reasons.
First, it was money. That’s the most convenient excuse, always. It’s too expensive; I can’t do it. Sorry! But, unfortunately, it wasn’t too expensive and I could totally do it, so there went that excuse. All of my other excuses followed-I got the time off, the plane tickets, everything I needed and before I knew it I was on a plane to Managua, unhappily wondering to myself why I always seem to be going to the most random places. I wanted to go, but for some reason, completely and totally didn’t want to go at the same time. Looking back (and at the time, actually) I’m pretty sure it was spiritual warfare, but it’s safe to say I was equal parts super excited and really dreading this trip.
To me, being in Nicaragua is like coming home after a long trip. Just breathing the air there makes me feel happy. As soon as I arrived, all of my doubts and anxiety fell away, and I breathed in the reassurance that I was where I was meant to be. What sticks out most to me about the entire trip was the overwhelming sense of being in the right place at the right time. You know that sense of peace that washes over you when you take a risk and find out God was right there next to you the whole time? That’s what I felt about going to Nicaragua. To be honest, my recent life, with all its changes and upheavals, had wiped me out, and I needed a reminder of what I was created for. And I was reminded in Nicaragua.
Since I assume that my readership is not comprised of perfect beings, I’m also going to assume that you, like me, have on occasion arrived at a place in your relationship with God that we can only call “The Silent Treatment.” This, to me, is characterized by a distinct lack of relationship with God-not praying, not reading the Bible, not really working very hard to get to church because sleep suddenly seems much more important. Not really being involved in ministry, changing the subject when your mother wants to have a theological discussion, etc. I think we can probably all recognize the symptoms, all of which cause a general stagnancy in your relationship with God that you might not even recognize at the time, but, with the help of some self reflection and maybe a little change of scenery, becomes very obvious, very quickly.
One question haunted me through the entire trip. On the first night of the retreat in Jinotega (or above, I should say), Luke and Earl tag-teamed a fantastic message that ended in a soft challenge: do you know who you are? Do you know what your identity is in Christ?
This question had a disproportionate impact for me, because I was forced to realize in that moment, I could not fully put my finger on an adequate answer. I know what I’m called to, and where my strengths and weaknesses are, but I could feel that there was something I was missing, and I would continue to turn that question over in my mind for the duration of the trip.
If I saw anything in Nicaragua, it was the reality that God is alive and working in that area, in that country. Over the course of the four day retreat, I saw young leaders give themselves permission to become fully empowered in leadership, and go back to their churches with a new mission and sense of purpose. I saw young people leave aside old sins and old burdens and gain the peace that comes with obedience to the Holy Spirit. More than that, they encouraged me to see a bright future-in speaking with them, I was able to see the beginnings of a world taken over by the Gospel, and I was floored by the things that God is doing in these young leaders, and their certainty in the knowledge of who they were in Christ.
These leaders challenged me to find the answer to my question. Regardless of age, many of these leaders seemed to have a certainty in their identities and missions that left me in the dust. I found myself turning the question over and over in my mind-who was I? Was I really a failed missionary? Was that how God saw me? Leaving Mexico had caused me to doubt my identity in Christ. Since I was a young teenager, being a missionary had been it for me. It’s what I had worked for, what I had studied, what everything in my life led up to until the moment I arrived in Mexico, and leaving that had shaken me to a point that I didn’t even really want to talk to God.
Many times over that course of that week, I was challenged to change my thinking. Romans 12:2 became my watchword: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)” God was calling me to change the way I thought of myself, to change the way I thought of Him in my life. Once I began to change my thinking, I was able to see the truth: I never failed God. Through conversations with the young leaders at the retreat and with the members of my team, I began to see the many different ways God was using me, just by being there. I was able to minister to young leaders, to watch them be empowered by the Lord, and encourage them to keep moving forward. These are not the actions of a failed missionary; they’re the actions of a strong woman of God who is operating inside of what God has called her to do.
I don’t have a neat close for this narrative. I don’t have a lot of answers yet-but I have gained a new certainty in who I am in Christ. This time, it’s not based on what I’m doing, and who I think I am. My identity in Christ is now based on what He’s told me, on recognition of what He’s created me for, and the knowledge that He will lead me. And strangely enough, that’s more than enough for me.
Alisha Tomsen is a serial blogger with missiological aspirations. Visit ToMoveMountains.net to see more!