We opened our apartment door. One of our dearest friends handed us his Bible and Christian books. Our hearts sank. He was the first known believer in our city, and he no longer wanted any part of Christ. Three years into our ministry overseas, we were devastated.
One of the hardest things missionaries encounter is the grief of apostasy. Apostasy is when professing believers abandon their faith, often due to persecution, sin, or simply hardened hearts. Imagine laboring earnestly to proclaim Christ to your friend—and then she finally receives him with great joy. But later, you watch in sorrow as she renounces her faith and walks away.
Experiencing apostasy on the mission field can shake your faith. But Christ has prepared us for this trial, and his Word gives us hope when our work feels futile.
The apostle Paul referred to believers in the church of Philippi as his joy and crown. He invested his life for these brothers and sisters; he loved them and longed to be with them (Phil. 4:1). Like Paul, missionaries today experience unspeakable joy when those among them hear the gospel and, against all odds, believe in Christ. They rejoice deeply and acknowledge the hard things they’ve endured are worth it for the sake of someone’s eternal salvation.
Sadly, when those same loved ones fall away, the opposite can be true. If there’s no greater joy than seeing those you’ve reached walking in truth (3 John 4), there’s perhaps no greater sorrow than seeing them abandon their faith. In such cases, missionaries may have serious doubts: Why did we even move here? Has it all been a waste? Could I accomplish more for Christ back in my home country? The pain and loneliness that results from apostasy is personal and agonizing. It’s not uncommon for a missionary to then question her gifting, her calling, her understanding of Scripture, and sometimes even her faith.
The pain and loneliness that results from apostasy is personal and agonizing.
But this isn’t a unique experience. Jesus himself faced the pain of those who walked away. Even after he healed the sick, fed the 5,000, and preached the good news of the kingdom, many who once claimed to be disciples deserted him. He even asked the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67). Jesus taught us that not all who confess faith will continue to follow him (Matt. 13:18–23).
Paul experienced this as well. He was abandoned by those closest to him. Some in Corinth questioned his integrity. Some in Galatia questioned his gospel. Some in Ephesus eventually fell away. And when Paul stood accused in Rome, he says he was deserted by everyone (2 Tim. 4:16), no doubt leading to intense anguish and loneliness.
Missionaries, therefore, should be prepared for apostasy. This won’t make the grief disappear, but it gives us helpful perspective. And when those who once confessed Christ fall away, we can find encouragement in three truths from God’s Word.
1. Gospel work is never in vain.
We might assume our service to the Lord is worth our suffering if at least someone believes in Christ. But Christ’s worth demands our faithfulness even when we stand alone. When friends turn from God, we can be “steadfast, immovable,” knowing God sees our labor and ensures its value (1 Cor. 15:58). Therefore, we confidently put one foot in front of the other and press on. We continue to do what’s right even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. Our job is faithfulness, and we trust in God’s providence as we ask him to make our work fruitful in his perfect timing.
2. Only God can convert someone.
I remember early in our years overseas when a local friend professed faith in Jesus and my husband responded, “I hope what you’ve said is true. Time will tell.” I was thrown off. I immediately wanted to rejoice that a dead man had come to life. But waiting and watching proved wise in this case. When the pressures of the world arose, he did in fact fall away. So I was thankful my husband’s initial response didn’t hastily affirm a decision. He was patient to see if this man experienced true conversion.
Christ’s worth demands our faithfulness even when we stand alone.
Salvation is a work that God alone accomplishes (Eph. 2:8). That should bring missionaries deep comfort and encouragement. As followers of Christ, we’re to make disciples, not manufacture decisions. We proclaim Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and trust our good Father to draw his people to himself.
3. God will accomplish his work in his people.
As Jesus taught, many who make an initial profession of faith don’t continue to follow. Almost every missionary I know has experienced the grief of apostasy at some point in his ministry. However, when the change in someone’s life is of God, by his grace it will last (1 John 2:19). We trust God alone to preserve his saints and keep those who are his until the day of Christ’s return (John 10:28). The missionary’s greatest goal isn’t decisions made but fruit that remains. And our confidence is that God’s Spirit is powerfully at work to accomplish this work in his people.
Persevering in Hope
Since my husband and I believed Jesus’s words that his sheep hear his voice and follow him (John 10:27), we continued to pray for our friend who knocked on our door that day. Months later, he called and asked to fellowship with God’s people again. He’d lost almost everything during that season of turning away. In his struggle, he realized that what truly mattered he could never lose. He repented, turned back to Christ, and boldly followed him.
Will all our wavering friends return to Christ? Likely not. Yet in his kindness, our good Father continues to draw his people to himself and hold them fast. So we persevere in that hope. We rejoice and find comfort in the truth that one day all will be well. God will dwell with his people and our hearts will grieve no more.