One of the more memorable mission trips I’ve been on took place in the Kurdish region of the Middle East. Our team of six planned to visit a handful of cities, striking up conversations with whomever we met along the way. Our desire was that some of those chance meetings would lead to opportunities to explain the gospel. We carried copies of the Bible, Christian literature, and the Jesus film in multiple languages, in case anyone showed interest.
Our original itinerary had us driving northward to some remote towns in a mountainous region, in a place where there were no known Christians or missionaries. However, before our trip even started, an unexpected blizzard closed the mountain pass we needed to cross. Without much of a contingency plan, we decided to head in the opposite direction. Our first stop was a small town, where we managed to talk with a few shopkeepers about the gospel. Next, we headed southward to a midsized city, hoping for even more opportunities.
No Denying What We Were Up To
As soon as we arrived, our team split into two groups. We prayed as we walked, and we talked with folks as we prayed. But at least for our group, almost everyone we encountered seemed either uninterested or strangely aloof. After a few hours on our feet with almost no positive conversations to show for it, we decided to duck into a grocery store for a snack. After picking up and paying for a Snickers—one of my favorites—I headed out the door.
But then, just as we were exiting the store, three police vehicles pulled up to the curb.
Immediately, six officers stepped out with semiautomatic rifles. They asked for IDs. They asked what we were doing. They asked to look in our backpacks—still full of Christian materials. There was no denying what we were up to. They told us to come with them.
What unfolded next is anything but an incredible story of missionary courage or suffering. In fact, my first memory at the police station involves sitting down and searching for my still-unopened Snickers. I thought to myself, Not going anywhere for a while, then took a bite.
One of the forgotten and rarely understood sufferings of a missionary is that of constantly being on the move.
After a few minutes of waiting, the police brought us into a room for questioning. We were told that Hezbollah had called to complain about us being in town. The terrorist group had threatened to act if the police didn’t stop us. That’s why they’d picked us up outside the store. And that’s why they were going to kick us out of their town. The next morning, an official escort would follow our van until we had left their province entirely.
However, aside from one grumpy and threatening foreign affairs officer who didn’t want to waste his Saturday dealing with us, the police in general weren’t overly antagonistic. In fact, while walking through the station, one of them pulled me aside and asked if he could have a DVD from my bag. “I’ve heard about Jesus,” he whispered, “and I’ve always wanted to watch that film.”
One of the forgotten and rarely understood sufferings of a missionary is that of constantly being on the move. Our paths are regularly redirected. Our lives are endlessly uprooted. We start out for one city only to end up in another. We feel led to one country only to be supplied a different assignment. We pray about reaching one people group only to be denied residency among them. We learn one language only to need a different dialect. We start a local business only to lose permits. We find the perfect apartment only to have our lease expire. We finally settle into effective ministry only to contract a virus. We plan our ways only to have God direct our steps.
Yes, this is God’s doing. The constant change of plans and itineraries isn’t necessarily a sign of missionary failure. To be sure, we shouldn’t make excuses for lack of research and preparedness. Missionaries too easily play the “flexibility” card to justify inadequate planning and reckless practice. However, what many Westerners struggle to realize is that everyday life in much of the world is still entirely unpredictable. Anything from roadblocks to riots to rabies can overturn a month’s worth of preparation in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, when someone is, like Paul, led by the Spirit and encountering Satanic opposition, their travels will almost inevitably look more like wilderness wanderings than the optimized route provided by a navigation app.
Anything from roadblocks to riots to rabies can overturn a month’s worth of preparation in a matter of minutes.
The Corinthians couldn’t understand this. They were frustrated that Paul reneged on his prior plans to visit them (2 Cor. 1:15–17). This was one more reason why they began to question Paul’s reliability. He seemed fickle. If God had been with him and if God’s Word had been in him, surely his plans would have been immutable. But Paul insisted the opposite. His faithfulness to God, personal integrity, and commitment to them were demonstrated by his willingness to adjust plans and relinquish his preferences. He showed genuine love for them by his flexibility.
In fact, Paul used his example of leaving Troas to defend this reality in his ministry. When he was distracted and his travel diverted, Paul believed that God was in it. “Thanks be to God,” he exclaimed, “who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14).
With God there are no wasted journeys.