Character Development in the Life of a Missionary


SEND U is very much concerned about the development of both character and skills.  We can impart knowledge and provide ministry skill training through seminars and various types of technology, but real character formation is only possible as we humbly submit to the work of the Spirit of God in our lives.   We have a growing list of resources under “Spiritual formation” on the SEND U wiki.   But we recognize that at best, we can only seek to supplement what God is already doing in your lives through His Word and the life experiences He gives you.   

Working out at the “Y”. This past winter, I have been going to a local gym to get some aerobic exercise and lift some weights.   The professional trainers that run the gym are always present, ready to give instructions or advice or count how many reps we have done.   But they do none of the hard work.   My personal discipline in regularly coming to the gym and my willingness (or lack thereof!) to stretch my capacity to the point of pain is going to have far more impact on my physical fitness than all the advice or programs of the professional trainers.  Maybe in some ways, we in SEND U are like those trainers.  We can encourage and maybe even prod missionaries to grow, but in the end, particularly when it comes to character, their response to what God is doing in their lives is the most important.     

Sometimes those growing experiences are ones that we have planned and chosen.  For example, the 12 mission leaders who just completed my online course for team leaders agreed to give 6+ hours each week of their already full schedules to improve their leadership skills.   The assignments and time commitment stretched them, but they signed up for it, and most expressed appreciation to me, their task-master, at the end.

At other times, these life experiences are not at all our choosing and stretch us in ways that are decidedly uncomfortable and even painful.   We get ill, struggle with educational issues for our children, endure embarrassment and frustration in learning another language or even go through an earthquake and tsunami like our co-workers in Japan   


I prefer the character lessons that under my control, but God knows I need the second kind as well.   During the last week in my personal devotions, I have twice been led to meditate on the theme of how God uses hardship in our lives to develop our character. 

Discipline = character development.     The first verse that gave me pause was Hebrews 12:7 – “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?   The word “discipline” conjures up for us an image of various forms of corporal punishment (“being taken out to the woodshed?”), but that is unfortunate for the Greek word could also be translated as instruction or training.   (The Message actually renders this verse as, “God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training.”)   I do not believe that this verse or its context imply that whenever we go through a hard time, God is punishing us for a particular sin in our lives.  That may be the case, but it is not nearly always so.  Rather “discipline” should be seen as a general program of character development.  It is painful and requires endurance, but it is designed to help us grow and boost our capacity.   The same word “endure” is found in Hebrews 12:2,3 in reference to Jesus enduring the cross, and Hebrews 5:8 says that the Son learned obedience through what He suffered.   Jesus also endured hardship, and His character was formed through it.   But the Father was not punishing Him for any sinful behavior.

Getting an “A” in life’s lessons.  We all have to admit that hardship is a great teacher.   I learned some of my most valuable lessons as a missionary when I was frustrated and discouraged as an AD back in 2005, or when I faced opposition in our church plant in our first term.   But unfortunately we do not always gain the full value from these painful lessons that God allows into our lives.   It seems to me that we only can score an “A” in these difficult life lessons if we spend the time thinking about what God is teaching us.   

That brings me to my reading in James.    “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. ” (James 1:4–5)   We can short-circuit the beneficial impact of trials on our character by not persevering under them.   If we back out of difficult assignments or unpleasant teaming situations before the bell has rung and God has said the class is over, we can miss out on why God put us in that difficult situation in the first place.   We can also miss obtaining the full value of the trials by not understanding them from the context of wisdom.   These verses promise us that God gives us all the wisdom we need to process the trials and glean the learning and growing we need out of them. Our responsibility is 1) to persevere and 2) to ask for we can absorb the lessons God is teaching.

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