Want to know one of the seldom-mentioned keys to staying healthy on the mission field? The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. A kind of practical trust in God’s sovereignty that results in patience, kindness, and flexibility when confronted by broken, different, or merely imperfect systems. These systems might be local ones. Or they might be the systems of your team or organization. Regardless, none of them are perfect. Some of them are frankly bad, and even the good ones can have glitches – just enough to send you over the edge on a day when your culture shocking is beginning to smell like a 110 volt appliance plugged into a surging 220 volt outlet. Is something burning?
Since our return to Central Asia we’ve spent abundant time in government and private offices as we’ve sought to renew our visas and lease as well as help teammates with their own paperwork. These systems and processes are not very efficient. They don’t always seem logical. They are unpredictable in a hurry up and wait kind of way. If we let them, they could be a considerable source of stress and anxiety.
But how exactly am I advancing the kingdom of God if I let the frustrations of these systems send me into a rage, or even into a judgmental smolder? If the Central Asians are even frustrated by the system, wouldn’t it better commend Christ if I can model a radical patience, joy, and cooperativeness in these sorts of situations? But these blasted local bureaucrats are keeping me from being able to do the ministry work! I know these thoughts well. But what if the open door to do the work will actually come through my membership in the new humanity being on display in the midst of a creaking and broken system?
Sometimes we make it through the local systems admirably, not only holding it together, but even displaying Christ-like kindness and patience. But it takes a toll. Then we get that email from a coworker. Someone at the home office requests something that feels out of touch or unreasonable to us. They should know better, those blasted Christian Westerners! Can’t they see this is so inefficient or redundant? Turns out we can spend all our grace on our local friends, and then become downright curmudgeons with our teammates and organization. We vent our wrath at the language system, the mentoring system, the financial system, the lack of a system, etc., etc.
We live in a broken world, full of broken systems. How are we to do God’s work in this kind of place?
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:14–18, ESV)
Yikes. Not my natural response to imperfect systems, but absolutely what it is needed. But where does the power to live like this come from, to actually be patient with them all and give thanks in all circumstances?
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28–30 ESV)
Imperfect systems, even broken systems, are encompassed by the phrase “all things.” Even they are a part of God’s good plan for your day, for your ministry – for your glorification. A practical trust in God’s sovereignty means that when you spend an hour to get across town in traffic and the office manager is randomly not in today, or it’s some obscure holiday no one told you about, or your water tanks at home are inexplicably empty, that you lean into that frustrating situation as a good gift from your father. Practicing sovereignty means you are gracious and flexible when the organization’s deadline is not a good fit for your unique situation. It means these frustrations are melted away by the warmth that comes from meditating on our eternal brotherhood with Jesus, or the unbreakable chain of God’s good plan for us in our salvation (foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified). These kinds of meditations will not only power healthier responses. They are the only effective fuel for healthy system reform.
The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. Not in some positive-thinking shallow way. But the kind of flexibility that’s rooted in God’s sovereignty and spilling over in patience and thanks – this can save us from burnout, or worse. It’s a seldom spoken of virtue of those who last overseas in a long-term and healthy way. For those of us on the field, we need prayer to grow in this way. For any considering missions, begin praying this way for yourself. There are many things I’m learning about lasting on the field and what makes a healthy team. This one, simple as it may seem, is growing year by year in its practical weight and implications.
Show me a worker who is able to make the best of imperfect systems, and I believe you will have shown me a person who deeply understands the grace and patience of God.