Going on vacation as a missionary is weird, and it really shouldn’t be.
The weirdness arises from either self-criticism, criticism from others, or even just the potential of criticism from others. “Can I share a picture on Facebook of my family at this resort? What if someone thinks it’s too fancy for our missionary budget? How can I enjoy something like this when I serve people who can’t afford their next meal?” These are the questions running through our minds when we are trying to take some time off.
Churches have made missionaries into superheroes. The ideal missionary will sacrifice normal human and earthly desires in order to serve the kingdom of Christ. Missionaries are supposed to be poor and do without. Missionaries should be constantly burdened by the needs of others.
But missionaries aren’t from Krypton. Real missionaries sometimes need a break.
The principle of Sabbath is for missionaries.
I’m sure you know that God commanded Israel:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work… (Exod 20:8–10).
Personally, I don’t think the Sabbath command to rest on a specific day of the week is binding upon Christians under the new covenant, although it is highly debated and good arguments can be made for different views on the issue. Nevertheless, I do believe that the principle of Sabbath is ongoing, because it is a principle that arises from creation itself.
The command goes on to explain that you should rest, “for the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day” (Exod 20:11). Of course, God did not rest because he was tired. He is omnipotent! God rested as a way of enjoying and inhabiting the work that he had completed. By resting himself, God set the pattern for his image bearers to imitate.
Furthermore, as God taught Israel through the giving of manna, our Sabbath rest reminds us of our dependence upon the Creator. The manna fell six days a week. On the sixth day, the Israelites were supposed to gather enough for two days. Some Israelites tried to gather more than enough during the week, only to find it spoiling the next day. Others ignored the command to gather double on Friday and went out looking for the manna on the Sabbath only to come home empty-handed. The ritual of manna gathering instructed Israel in God’s perfect provision. Their labor did not truly sustain them. It was God who would provide exactly what they needed when they needed it according to his plan (Exod 16).
The Israelites needed to be reminded weekly through Sabbath observance that God cared for them, but also through other regular times of rest. God instituted holidays throughout the year when the people would rest from their work (Lev 16, 23). He also instituted a Sabbath year every seven years when the Israelites would not plant, giving themselves and the land rest as well as trusting God to provide for them. God promised that each sixth year the land would bear enough to supply three years worth of food. The people had to believe (Lev 25).
Clearly, resting in God’s provision and care is just as important as serving him. While we may not believe in resting on a specific day like Saturday or Sunday, we ought to observe the principle of a weekly day of rest, as well as special extended times of rest. To neglect significant periods of rest is unbiblical and arrogant.
To refuse rest as a missionary is to pridefully think we are the ones accomplishing God’s mission. We can’t take time off, because what would God do without us? Vacation reminds us that our work is actually God’s work, which he is accomplishing in and through us, and God’s work is not dependent upon us. He will accomplish it, and he will never fail.
But we ought to think biblically about our times of rest. The world teaches us to regard our vacation as a time for self-indulgence — a time to treat yourself because you’ve endured the drudgery of regular life. Biblically, vacation ought to be a time of self-renewal as we reflect upon and enjoy God’s care for us. At the end, we should be able to reenter our calling with new energy and excitement.
We need a Sabbath to recover from four types of fatigue.
Few missionaries would describe their calling as drudgery, although it is rarely as exciting as missionary biographies make some people expect. Nevertheless, the life of a cross-cultural missionary is exhausting. Let me highlight four types of fatigue that missionaries experience.
Cross-cultural fatigue. We live our daily lives in a culture that is not our own, and it is exhausting. We negotiate life in multiple languages. We constantly navigate different foreign cultural expectations. We may be the object of fascination with people staring at us or yelling at us wherever we go. We can’t just act based on our instincts or assumptions. We have to always think about how what we say or do will be perceived by people with different cultural assumptions.
It can feel a bit like living underwater. We can’t even go to the grocery store without our scuba gear on. It’s fun at first, but after a while, you feel like you might drown.
High-intensity fatigue. We don’t have the type of job you clock in and clock out of. It is incredibly difficult to disconnect from our work. But more than that is the intense nature of the work itself. Many of us work in physically-demanding environments. We help people through intense emotions and trials. We live in the midst of overwhelming poverty and need. Our normal life feels like a pressure-cooker. The pressure builds and builds until we must either have a release or explode.
Compassion fatigue. We are constantly surrounded by needs — spiritual needs, financial needs, medical needs, family needs — and part of our calling is to meet these needs. But the needs never end. There’s always something more that can be done or even should be done. Because we are continuously confronted by need, we often face the choice of either becoming cynical and hardening our hearts or wearing ourselves down by trying to help others.
Sacrifice fatigue. I know that David Livingstone said, “I never made a sacrifice.” His quote is true in comparison with the sacrifice of Christ for us and the reward we will one day receive, but it is also true that we daily make incredible sacrifices to live where we live and do what we do. We live on the bare-minimum salary possible to devote everything we can to the work. We see our kids “missing out” on so many things we enjoyed during our “normal childhood.” We miss family and friends. So, when exhaustion wears us down, we can begin to ask, “Is it all worth it?”
If we don’t regularly recover from these types of fatigue, then we will burn out and go home. Right now, based both on my own observations and what I’ve heard from others around the world, we seem to be experiencing a Great Resignation among missionaries across the globe. A lot of people are going home right now for a lot of different reasons, but the common denominator in this post-pandemic world seems to be exhaustion and burnout.
We celebrate missionaries who burned so fervently for their calling that it literally consumed them physically, like David Brainerd or Lottie Moon, or it drove their family members insane like William Carey. We rightly celebrate what missionaries like these accomplished for Christ, but perhaps we should ask the question, “How much more would they have accomplished if they had given themselves times of rest?”
Longevity isn’t the only marker of missionary success, but it should be viewed as one of the most significant markers. As the oft-quoted proverb says, “We often overestimate what we can accomplish in three years, but underestimate what we can accomplish in thirty.” It should be the goal of every sending church and organization to keep missionaries on the field as long as possible, and part of that is encouraging missionaries to enjoy their vacations.
Help us enjoy ourselves
Going on a vacation as a missionary shouldn’t be weird. Missionaries shouldn’t have to deal with guilt in the back of their minds or worry about what people might say. Missionaries shouldn’t have to question whether or not they will share photos of their vacations on Instagram because someone might question whether they are being good stewards of kingdom resources.
If we were living like prosperity preachers — wearing Italian suits, driving a different convertible each day, and trying to decide which of our five mansions to spend the week in — then supporters should be critical! But I’ve never met an evangelical missionary who lives anywhere near what could be labeled as extravagance. In fact, the opposite is often true. We rarely are good stewards of the kingdom resource that is our own bodies — our mental and physical health.
So instead of reinforcing the self-perpetuated cycle of guilt most missionaries feel about taking some time off, encourage them to take a vacation! Celebrate when they do. One time, we had a church give specifically for us to take a nice vacation, and it was an incredible gift that made our work for Christ more effective.
Missionaries are not gods. We need rest. We need renewal, and if it is the goal of your church to encourage missionary longevity, then celebrate when missionaries take time for such renewal. Even better, help them to do it!