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Missionaries And Loneliness

“When James Gilmour sailed for China in 1870 aged twenty-seven, “it was a lonely task that awaited him – the reopening of the London Missionary Society’s long suspended work in Mongolia. Gilmour expressed his intense need for the Lord to provide both a co-worker and a wife.” Gilmour was lonely. “Working without any colleague he found the work not only difficult, but also exceedingly lonely.” The co-worker never came, so it could be said that his wife, Emily, became both wife and co-worker!

Should not the missionary’s walk with Jesus be enough to heal that loneliness? ”Companions I can scarcely hope to meet and the feeling of being alone comes over me till I think of Christ and His blessed promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ When I begin to feel my heart threatening to go down, I betake myself to this companionship, and, thank God, I have felt the blessedness of this promise rushing over me repeatedly when I knelt down and spoke to Jesus as a present companion, from whom I am sure to find sympathy. I have felt a tingle of delight thrilling over me as I felt His presence, and thought that wherever I may go He is still with me.”

Yet James Gilmour wrote on another occasion: “I wonder if I am telling the truth when I say that I felt drawn towards suicide. I take this opportunity of declaring strongly that on all occasions two missionaries should go together. I had no idea how weak an individual I am. My eyes have filled with tears frequently these last few days in spite of myself.”

Should a missionary feel so lonely that they could feel “drawn towards suicide”? Is it hypocritical to talk on the one hand about a close and strengthening walk with Jesus and yet have bouts of intense loneliness?

“On the barren plains of Mongolia, the loneliness proved even greater than he had anticipated. At Kiachta, the southern frontier of Siberia, the loneliness became well-nigh unbearable. He prayed that he might die.”

It is helpful to consider this issue of a missionary’s loneliness from three perspectives:

1. The loneliness of Christ Himself. “Oh! the intense loneliness of Christ’s life, not a single one understood Him!” “During his lifetime, Jesus watched thousands of His followers walk away. When He was being prosecuted unjustly, His closest friends abandoned Him out of fear. As He awaited execution, He stood alone. In His darkest moment, as He died on the cross, Jesus felt abandoned.” “Even Jesus Christ suffered loneliness when He was in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22).”

2. The loneliness of that chief of missionaries, the apostle Paul. “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor 1:8-9). “Paul had been sentenced to die (4:6) and so asks Timothy to come and see him. Paul craved fellowship (c.f. 2 Cor. 2:12,13) and, staring death in the face, asked Timothy to come ‘diligently’. That word is used in some serious ways (Deut 17:2-5; 24:8; Titus 3:13), so Paul must have been serious about wanting to see Timothy.”

3. Understanding why missionaries battle with loneliness. “Loneliness is something that missionaries of all ages struggle with. Missionaries often struggle to share their real heart with anyone. With people who support us, we feel pressure to appear perfect. We are careful what we say and write. The people close to us before we left for the field have moved on in their lives. We missionaries have also changed and so the closeness we once experienced may no longer be there when we get back. And, understandably, it may be difficult for family and friends to relate to our new lives. With people in our host country we do not share a common heart language, the culture is different, and we are viewed as foreigners. Even closeness with Christians in our adopted country is difficult as we come with the label of ‘missionaries” (OMF).

Our response should be one of understanding and a desire to help. Communications have changed radically since James Gilmour’s days, even in my lifetime. In his day, Emily’s return letter took almost six months. In my day in the 1960s in Asia it could take as much as two weeks and phone calls were expensive and rare. Now through the Internet, through social media, through email, through WhatsApp or Zoom or Skype communication is instantaneous. One of the most valuable contributions to mission that many reading these words could make is to determine regularly to speak to missionary friends on the field, to show them that we care and to update them with news concerning the church and their friends.

If we feel they should trust Jesus more in their loneliness, don’t criticise them; engage and help them!

Loneliness is a huge issue for many serving on the field today – which is exactly why we created our free online community, with the aim of building friendship and sharing encouragement. Find out more here.

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