This Central Asian proverb is equivalent to, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Certain things only happen as effects or symptoms, meaning there is necessarily a cause somewhere. Smoke doesn’t appear unless something is burning. Trees (excepting those in Narnia and Middle Earth) do not visibly move unless something else is moving them – usually the wind.
This category of wisdom is important for dealing with people who might be gifted in deception. They may present to us in a certain positive way, but have a curious trail of broken relationships behind them or a cloud of troubling interactions with others around them. We should pay attention when our personal interactions with someone don’t seem to match the questions regularly raised about them or the consistent negative reputation they have with others. While we’d like to think that we are special and can uniquely activate this person’s potential, usually this is not the case. And we are likely to ourselves get burned soon enough. Is there smoke? Are the branches moving? This means something.
This proverb could also be applied to the sins we regularly struggle with. Sins always have context, a story, behind them. They have not arisen out of nowhere, they have roots, and often function as symptoms of deeper struggles going on. This is why we often don’t make progress against them. We end up focusing on the smoke instead of the fire, the branches instead of the wind. Anger is one sin that is almost always a symptom. If we dig for its roots of sadness, fear, or otherwise, we may be very surprised to see what has been functioning as its fuel.
Treating symptoms has its place, but we should be wise to recognize that symptoms point to something deeper that is also present, and seek to understand and treat the cause. Let us be people who seek to read the signs wisely, neither ignoring them nor mistaking them to be the main thing.
We learn to ask certain questions only after experiencing significant pain or dysfunction. A new question was recently clarified for me, one that I will be sure to ask in any future interviews with those who desire to serve overseas. That question is, “Tell me about a time you deeply hurt someone, and how you made things right.” The ability to answer this question – or not – might make the difference between a teammate you can trust in the midst of conflict versus one who is dangerously self-deceived.
It is said (accurately, in my experience) that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. That means that sending and receiving missionaries who are mature in the midst of conflict is of utmost importance. The pressures on missionary teams are immense. Culture shock can send stress levels sky-rocketing. Language learning can make you want to pull your hair out. Life logistics can be maddeningly cumbersome. Security threats can keep missionaries constantly on edge. Cross-cultural relationships are complex and often hurtful. Ministry disappoints. The organization’s or supporters’ demands can be overwhelming. Health issues press in. Marriage and parenting struggles often escalate in a foreign culture.
Who must bear the brunt of these pressures? Often, the small missionary team. A good team will seek to care for one another and as others have wisely emphasized, be “the front line of member care.” But the team itself is also a pressurized environment. Thorny ministry decisions must be decided. Work responsibilities need to be juggled and shared according to the season and abilities of the individual missionaries. The team is often church for one another, family for holidays, the friends who throw you a birthday party, and those you must depend on for all manner of life logistics.
Conflict is inevitable because teams are made up of humans, each of whom has a sin nature. But add in the above pressures, and it’s no wonder that teammates blow up at one another. It is in the prevention of these blowups and in their aftermath that someone’s maturity or character is so vital. Specifically, a certain kind of humility and honesty is needed regarding our own capacity to wound others, a self-awareness that leads to owning our sharp words, our weaponized silence, and our sinfully-expressed emotions. What I am speaking of here is the hard yet simple thing of taking responsibility for our own sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have hurt others.
Many Christians end up on the mission field who do not possess this kind of maturity. In conflict situations, these individuals refuse to see or admit any wrong-doing on their part. They vigorously fend off any attempt to lay at their feet any part of the blame. They posture themselves like Teflon – nothing is allowed to stick. They claim there are circumstantial factors that explain everything. Or the wounded party is in the wrong for understanding it that way. Or it’s actually the team leader’s fault for creating this mess in the first place. Deflect, justify, attack.
The defenses employed by this sort of person are legion. But they all serve the purpose of protecting that individual from having to admit any blame or sin in the situation. And this kind of posture kills the possibility of true reconciliation. It can also kill the team – and any hope of doing healthy ministry through the team.
These teammates who refuse to own their sin seem to be engaged in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. From what exactly? What is so terrifying about admitting that we have wronged another believer? After all, it’s Christianity 101 to admit that we are forgiven sinners and saints who still stumble. In reflecting on a number of these situations, it seems there is a kind of terror there at what might have to be faced if they admit that they can and have hurt others. So the door to this part of their heart is guarded at all costs because they are horrified of what it might mean about them to be in the wrong. There are likely voices of condemnation always running in the background that must be silenced at all costs – even at the cost of a fellow teammate. This terror leads to enormous efforts to suppress these thoughts and emotions, to a kind of self-deception. They cannot admit to their team that they were wrong, because they do not dare admit it to themselves.
This kind of person needs the freedom of the gospel. They need godly pastors and counselors. They need to understand where their terror-fueled defense comes from and how to heal those deep roots. They do not need to be on the mission field. If they remain, they will slowly but surely poison their relationships through their inability to admit blame and pursue true reconciliation.
I have learned to ask upfront about a person’s awareness of their weaknesses, of those areas in which they will need to lean on others’ strengths. This is helpful, since it can show if someone has the spiritual maturity to delight in and depend on the diversity of the body’s members and gifts. This will prevent a certain kind of team conflict, since this missionary will be less likely to fall into the trap of thinking his unique gifts are really the superior ones. He will thus be less threatened by his teammates and more thankful for the ways they are different from him and the areas where they excel and he does not. But there is a way to acknowledge our own weaknesses that still might not show that a person is capable of being in the wrong, of truly repenting. “Sure! I’m bad at admin…” That’s why I want to ask about how they have deeply hurt someone in the past. This has the chance of getting closer to “seeing” their character. The cost on the field is too great to not have at least some evidence that a missionary will actually be able to navigate conflict with some maturity.
Some would name the kind of person I have described here as a narcissist. I heard a podcast this week where author Chuck DeGroat drew that connection. Just as the mythical character Narcissus was not in love with himself, but with an image of himself in the water, so some kinds of narcissists are committed to seeing themselves as never truly in the wrong. It was a new category for me, and one that I want to think more about. But if this dynamic really is describing narcissists, then that would mean that Central Asian culture (and most honor-shame cultures) is full of them. We must therefore be able to model on our teams something drastically different. We must be able to admit when we have hurt others, and to repent. We must even learn to glory in the ways the gospel has healed relationships where we have deeply hurt others.
Every spring the fields of our corner of Central Asia burst to life with green grass and spring flowers – among them the yellow and white narcissus. They are beautiful flowers, but they are ever so fragile, wilting remarkably quickly after being plucked. And they don’t stand a chance against the summer sun. In a similar way, too many missionaries have a kind of fragility in the midst of conflict that keeps them from admitting wrong, and which keeps them from faithfully enduring the tremendous pressure of the mission field.
Pastors and sending churches, make sure you only send missionaries to the field who are deeply honest about the ways they have wounded others, and who have the kind of character that is ready to own it when they do it again. Missionaries on the field, please screen those you are interviewing for these things. Conflict on the field is inevitable. Let’s do everything we can to be sending those who can navigate it with humility.
We are in need of regular reminders to make war on our sin. My kids and I have been enjoying this particular song’s challenge to do just that, wrapped in its catchy Indie Rock style. A serious message and music that grabs you – one of my favorite combinations. “You can’t kill your demons if you make ’em your home.”
My first friend in Central Asia, Hama*, was an eclectic fellow. He was a jaded wedding keyboardist who had lived for a number of years in the UK. This made him relatively progressive in relation to his culture. However, he still retained a deep appreciation for some of the most traditional places and experiences in the bazaar, things that most of his peers were distancing themselves from in their quest to be more modern.
For example, Hama was always ready to take me to eat a traditional dish eaten in the middle of the night, called “Head and Foot,” which could in some ways be compared to the Scottish dish called haggis. The base of Head and Foot is spiced rice sewn up in a sheep’s stomach, boiled in a broth made from the sheep’s head and feet. Sides include tongue, brain, and marrow. I usually just stuck with just the stomach rice and the broth. Paired with fresh flatbread this was a little greasy, but not bad. One intern who decided to eat all the sides as well, and record it for social media, ended up in the hospital. To be fair to the local cuisine, it was the middle of the night and it was his first time and he had also insisted on smoking a Cuban cigar immediately after eating brain and marrow. It may have been this peculiar combination of factors that did him in. As for the locals, the younger generation are starting to turn up their nose at Head and Foot, though the more traditional types still love the stuff. One incident several years ago involved a group of disappointed customers shooting up a Head and Foot restaurant with AK-47s because by 2 am they had already sold out.
But Hama was raised in one of the oldest bazaar neighborhoods, and something about things like Head and Foot spoke to his sense of where he came from. Perhaps it was his years living in Europe that awakened this appreciation in him. Or, like me, he was simply an old soul who found himself strangely drawn to the old ways, as if searching there for a hidden joy and wisdom that is almost out of our reach.
After finishing Head and Foot, the proper order of experience was to have a cup or two of sugary black chai, then to head to the traditional bathhouse. As far as I can tell, these bathhouses have their roots in old Roman culture, which eventually led to them spreading across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, remaining well-used there even when bathing became unpopular in medieval Europe. The most well-known of these distant Roman descendants would be the Turkish bath, but similar types of bathhouses are spread all over the region. In previous generations they served a very important public function: providing an accessible place where locals could get unlimited hot water and get deeply clean.
It’s only been in the last twenty years or so that hot running water at home became common for most of my peers in our corner of Central Asia. Before that, locals relied on visiting the gender-segregated bathhouses to bathe once or a couple times a week. Those as young as their mid-thirties grew up singing a song in grade school that went, “Today is Thursday; How wonderful; We go to the bathhouse!; Grab the soap; It’s on the window sill like someone sticking out his tongue at us.”
Even now the bathhouse provides a more reliable source of piping hot water than most homes, given the unreliability of government electricity. After Hama introduced me to the bathhouse in the fall of 2007, I found myself a frequent customer there that winter, the coldest the city had seen in forty years. With next to no electricity, frozen pipes, and ice-cold cement walls at home, the bathhouse was one of the only places in the city I could actually get warm – and take as long a shower as I liked. The mostly older locals eyed this skinny nineteen-year-old American peculiarly, but eventually got used to me, nodding in understanding at our mutual appreciation for endless hot water in the dead of winter.
The bathhouses of our area are typically made up of three rooms. First, you enter the reception area where the proprietor’s desk is, in a room with cement or plaster bench seating lining the walls. On top of this bench would be carpeting, and up on the wall lockers and hooks. Lots of natural light streams into this first room from upper windows. This room is a pleasant temperature and is designed for rest, drinking chai, and changing. To enter the second room, you need to be changed into your towel and to be wearing the provided toilet shoes. This second tiled room is warmer and contains some showers and an open floor area where an employee gives somewhat violent back massages for a small fee. The third room is the hottest. This room is heated by fire constantly burning underneath the floor, the hottest point being a raised octagonal platform in the center. Lining the walls are small sink areas built into the floor, each with a tap for hot and cold, a metal bowl for pouring the water over your head and body, and a small cement stool to sit on.
Those in the third room can sit at one of the sink areas to wash, stretch out on a part of the hot tile floor, or pace or exercise to work up a healthy sweat. The violent massage man will also aggressively scrub your back here, again for a small fee. Traditionally, most would be completely naked in this room, but undergarment-wearing patrons are now also very common. Most bathhouses also include some private shower rooms in addition to the open bigger room.
In addition to the blessedly hot rooms and water in the dead of winter, I always enjoyed the bathhouse for the reset of sorts I felt physically from the inundation of hot steam and water, contrasted when needed with bowls of cold. I also have fond memories of sitting with Hama in the rest room afterward, contentedly sipping chai and having good conversation. As other workers in Central Asia have found, the traditional bathhouse can be a place very conducive to friendship and spiritual conversation.
The bathhouse also gave me a picture that will forever be etched into my mind’s eye. I’ve never seen anyone scrub as long or as intensely as those older Central Asian men in the third room. At times it seemed as if they were trying to rub their skin off completely – as if they were even trying to get deep down and scrub their soul. Methodically, intensely, even desperately, they would scrub and rinse and scrub and rinse, using copious amounts of the old olive oil soap bars, over and over and over again. As I came to learn more about the nature of Islam, the image of these old men, ceaselessly scrubbing and yet never satisfied, came to serve as a metaphor for the desperation of those trapped in a works righteousness system. Lacking a way to wash the soul, Islam and other man-made religions rely on external cleansing. And yet the consciences of adherents have moments – or places – where the superficiality of this external “purity” takes over, and like Eustace the dragon, they claw at themselves, physically or emotionally, trying in futility to get another layer of scales off.
Those old men would likely have witnessed war, genocide, honor killings, wife-beatings, sexual and physical abuse, betrayal, slander, greed, and hypocrisy. They may have been victims, or they may have taken part in many of these acts of darkness, leading to an ever-lingering odor of guilt and shame. No wonder they scrubbed the way they did, almost trance-like, trying, consciously or unconsciously, to maybe this time find some way to clean the heart. All in vain. No bathhouse can ever bring the cleansing the mosque has also failed to provide.
There’s only one who is pure enough to clean the soul. He starts from the inside out, sovereignly reaching into our souls with his purity and miraculously making the unclean clean. We also use water, yes, even an immersion in it, but not as a means to become clean, but as a sign that he has already made us so. There is only one source of true cleansing for these old Central Asian men, for all of us. They must hear of Christ.
It is an amazing thing to step out of the dark Central Asian winter into the warmth and endless hot water of the traditional bathhouse. It is even more amazing to step out of the dark freezing hell of this present age and into the warmth, cleansing, and salvation provided by faith in Christ. There we will also find the water endless – even eternal.
We’ve made it back to our home and city of service, so next week I’ll pick up with more writing again. For today, here’s one more article that over the years has proved extremely helpful. It’s Sexual Sin and the Deeper, Wider Battle by the late biblical counselor David Powlison, and it deals with the other issues of the heart and flesh that are often fueling sexual sin. As a young man laser-focused on killing sexual sin, and often frustrated by its stubborn nature, I remember being greatly helped when I first learned that there was wisdom in widening the war. What? If I fight greed by giving generously to the church I might be undermining the power of lust? Yes, sin is connected. Breakthrough in one area almost always spills over into another.
Consider this quote about a man who turns to sexual sin as a false refuge from a stressful job.
Erotic sin is part of his picture, but there’s lots more. Every deviant motive—each lust of the flesh, lie, false love—is a hijacker. It mimics some aspect of God. It usurps some promise of God. Consider that about two-thirds of the Psalms present God as “our refuge” in the midst of the troubles of life. Amid threat, hurt,disappointment, and attack, God protects, cares, and looks out for us. Our friend has faced troubles: people out to get him, threats to his job, intolerable demands, relentless weeks. But he’s been finding no true refuge during this frenzied month. Now, in a spasm of immorality, he takes “false refuge” in eroticism. His erotic behavior serves as a counterfeit rest from his troubles. Psalm 23 breathes true refuge: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” This man pants after false refuge: “After I’ve walked through that god forsaken valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because the photograph of a surgically-enhanced female wearing no clothes is with me.” A false refuge looks pretty silly when it’s exposed for what it really is.
The idea that there are deeper things going on of which sexual sin and temptation is mainly a symptom, a piece of evidence of something broken – this piece of wisdom has been marvelously helpful time and time again. A good God-given desire for refuge – and a failure to place that refuge in God – will result in counterfeit refuge. Every time. If I am being tempted toward false refuge in sexual sin that almost always means I’d better press into actively taking refuge in Christ. The main battle is the battle for refuge! The sexual sin is the aftermath of ignoring that first crucial battle.
More often for me, it’s the desire to be fully alive that is most susceptible to hijacking. If I am not finding my whole self (especially my affections and emotions) engaged with God’s beauty, then I am in danger. On the other hand, when I am finding my heart, my soul, my affections deeply engaged in my relationship with God, that is when I most strongly feel (rather than only know) that I don’t need the counterfeit.
There are deep waters in the soul which fuel the struggle with sexual sin. Widening the war can be extremely helpful no matter where we are in our struggle with the flesh, whether naive and just beginning or decades in and jaded. There is always hope for change. Read the whole article by Powlison here.