3 : 9 September 2004

George R. Foster


My wife and I were seated across from the Brazilian doctor's receptionist who sat at her tiny desk filling out the inevitable medial history. When she asked my occupation I replied, "missionario" and watched with amused interest while she wrote "mercenario." Later we laughed with the doctor as she apologized for her mistake and hurriedly corrected it.

Still later I reflected about the humor of the situation ... about the meanings of the two words…about my motives as a missionary.


The two words are far apart in meaning and provide a sharp contrast in life-styles and personalities: The mercenary will do nearly anything for a price with no thoughts about morality. The missionary will do anything for Christ - many times at his own expense - but only if it is completely honorable. Mercenaries have been known to change sides in the midst of a battle if it were to their advantage. Missionaries never change sides; they disregard personal gain in order to stay on the right side of the battle. A mercenary will take another man's life to save his own, while a missionary must lose his life in order to save others.


You may wonder how such a selfish person as a mercenary can exist and, after nine years on the mission field, I wonder how many of us missionaries are as selfless as our name implies. Many missionaries (like other "normal" people) are frustrated and unhappy, and I'll admit that I've known some frustrating and unhappy days myself. What bothers me is admitting that most of these problems arise when we possess a little of the mercenary spirit and the missionary spirit at the same time.


In an editorial Dr. Paul S. Rees relates an experience that occurred while he was ministering in Australia. His taxi driver, recognizing him as an American, jolted him with the question, "And what have you come to take out of Australia?" I suppose it is because I live overseas that the same question jolted me. What, indeed, have I come to take out of Brazil?

I happen to like it here, but what if I didn't? I enjoy speaking Portuguese, I like the people, the sports, the climate and by no means have I wasted away on rice and beans. But what if every one of those things were a heavy cross for me? Did I come here because I thought I would like it? Or do I stay just because I do?


As I write these lines I can't help but think of friends who have extreme difficulty with the language, whose post isn't blessed with the same temperate climate ours has, who aren't interested in soccer and who can't stand rice and beans - yet they are faithful missionaries who are doing a great job. They are happy people and missionaries in the full meaning of the word.


There are dozens of unworthy motives that can foul us up in our Christian lives and in our careers as missionaries.

Natural desires - such as need of recognition, desires for comfort, excitement, security, understanding, freedom, authority - will get us into trouble if they are not yielded to the Lord. Yet there is one more subtle desire that God wants to grant but is unable to while we persist in seeking it - the desire for personal fulfillment. Perhaps this is the hardest human desire to handle. (I know it is the hardest for me to define.) It seems so much like a basic right of the individual coming under the category of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

It affects all our relationships to other people and is often used by mission boards as a "hook" to get us to the field.

It has to do with the pride of achievement, the joy of finishing a job and saying, "Now that's the way it should be done!"


Many of us work in less-than-ideal situations. Many times our budget does not stretch far enough. On other occasions we can't find qualified help (or pay enough to keep them productive). Still other complications arise because we are normally under-staffed and are assigned jobs that cause us to spread ourselves too thin.

There is the possibility that our superior doesn't see things the way we do or our colleagues don't understand or appreciate what we are doing.

The eloquent preacher may feel his talents are being wasted upon an unsophisticated semi-literate congregation. The skilled administrator chafes under the blundering authority of the highly spiritual but disastrously unorganized missionary leader (maybe he's not even as spiritual as he appears to be).

All of these things can be difficult and may cause frustrations, but they will only block our sense of fulfillment to the degree that we are still seeking it. The secret to freedom is to do everything for Jesus' sake in obedience to the principles He has given us.

Now I know that sounds very simple and super-pious, and it's obviously easier to say than do, but less than "everything for Jesus' sake" is part missionary and part mercenary and always brings frustration and conflict.

Also, I want to establish my own personal credentials as at least a part-time mercenary in whom God has worked and is working to make a full-time missionary. These are simple things God is saying to me.


We must stop seeking personal fulfillment, but I'm not suggesting we kiss our creative dreams good-bye. It's not the idea of rolling-up our sleeves, gritting our teeth and plugging away at some meaningless job hoping that God will derive some sort of distorted pleasure from our sacrifice. That idea is not worthy of the creative, loving, benevolent God who gives us holy, bold, creative ideas in order to fulfill them IN HIS WAY as our Christian character develops. God is faithful and His word says, "Delight thyself also in the Lord and he shall give you the desires of your heart." We delight while He fulfills.


Probably our original missionary commitment included a promise to "go where you want me to go, say what you want me to say, do what you want me to do and be what you want me to be." The question that arises after we've discovered our calling is whether the where, what, when and how of our missionary service are still continued revelations from God. Are we in fact where He wants us to be, specifically saying what He wants us to say, doing what He wants us to do, and being what He wants us to be? I feel a periodic need to sharpen my focus. Here are some pertinent questions for meditation:

  1. Did God start the work I'm involved in? If He didn't start it, He may not be interested in finishing it.
  2. What is my God-given ministry and what is my spiritual gift? For maximum effectiveness we should dedicate our time to the things we do well and the things that give expression to God's investment in us.
  3. Am I imitating someone else's ministry? God has something unique for each of us to do.
  4. Am I submissive to God's authority? I may be mis-quoting Bill Gothard, but here goes, "A servant's heart - becoming excited about making someone else (our boss) successful."
  5. How am I employing most of my time? It's easy to take on too many responsibilities. Some missionaries seem like full-time committee members, and the prestige gained isn't worth the time lost.
  6. Am I looking for recognition? It's encouraging to get complimentary feedback, but let's remember: God will not share His glory.
  7. Do I view my job as a stepping-stone to a more satisfying one? God is probably moving us along to give us more responsibility, but be suspicious of desires for more authority. Paul said, "I have learned to be content."
  8. Am I in over my head? Perhaps I've been given a responsibility I'm not prepared for. A short breather for some intensive training may turn things around.
  9. Am I trying to do it alone? Can someone else handle part of my work - even if not quite as well? In many cases we should be looking for our own replacements.
  10. Do I have God's peace? A troubled spirit may lead to uncoordinated efforts totally unrelated to God's purposes.
  11. Am I giving God a chance to speak to me? Although God's guidance is not totally subjective, He may have specific things to say to us about our work. "My sheep hear my voice and they follow me."
  12. Am I open to correction? God revealed something to me recently that my wife had been telling me for months. What a relief it was to hear when I finally got the message from the Lord. How much easier it would have been if I had believed her.

These questions may help us re-establish some priorities but, once again, the motivation must always be "for Jesus' sake." All the techniques we learn, all the methods we employ, all the principles we apply will help only as we yield our desires to the Lord. He must be Lord of our desires. When He is, He gives us His performance-power, and it's not based on what we're doing for him, but what He's done for us.

The surrender that we find so hard to make was made for us when Jesus went to the cross, and we can confidently affirm back to Him: When you died, my personal fulfillment desires died with you; when you were buried, all my self-realization plans were buried with you; when you rose from the dead, I rose too.

That is my affirmation and, although I have wavered, I can come back to it. When I do, I am fulfilled and that's what keeps this missionary from being a mercenary.


George Foster
Bethany International