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How to Protect Yourself from Moral Failure on the Mission Field

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

A frustrated and depressed man holds his head in his handWhen I recently read an article about four common characteristics among pastors who experienced moral failure (infidelity), it struck me that the lessons to be learned from their failure are very applicable to missionaries as well.  The issues that pastors and missionaries face are not exactly the same but there is a lot of crossover. You can read the whole article here

In this post, I have listed the four characteristics and drawn out what lessons missionaries can learn in order to protect themselves from moral compromise.  The warnings here are mostly for men, but I am sure that many women will be able to find value in these observations as well, if not for themselves directly, then at least for the men in their lives.

In a study of 246 men in full-time ministry who experienced moral failure in a given two years period, Dr. Howard Hendricks found the following four common characteristics:

1. None of the men were involved in any kind of real personal accountability.

2. Each of the men had all but ceased having a daily time of personal prayer, Bible reading, and worship.

3. Over 80% of the men became sexually involved with the other woman after spending significant time with her, often in counseling situations.

4. Without exception, each of the 246 had been convinced that sort of fall “would never happen to me.”

Now let me offer some comments on each of these in order to help missionaries (especially male missionaries) to think about how to avoid ending up in this kind of disaster.

1. None of the men were involved in any kind of real personal accountability.
Pastoring in your home country can be lonely, and for many missionaries isolation is a reality.  Some missionaries have teammates (either foreigners or locals) who are good friends and can be depended upon.  But many don’t.  In those cases, missionaries need to reach out to somebody (via email, phone, online, occasional meet-ups, or all of the above) in order to share struggles, pray for each other, ask for help, laugh together, etc.  Having at least one good, trusted friend will go along way in not only avoiding moral failure, but also in being happy and productive on the mission field.  That’s way I wrote another post called, “Friends, A Key to Survival on the Mission Field.”

2. Each of the men had all but ceased having a daily time of personal prayer, Bible reading, and worship.
From time to time, I hear about the importance of “being” over “doing” but I usually ignore those posts because I am here on the mission field to do something.  My supporters are not donating masses of money so that I can just “be.”  But there is a real danger in focusing on doing, doing, doing.  I need to remember the priority of being the person that Christ calls me to be, which is more important that accomplishing a lot of stuff for God.  But a lot of missionary literature and conferences don’t emphasize that.  Instead, they focus on the latest methodology for producing quicker conversions and planting churches quicker.  The American idols of speed and efficiency (not to mention semi-Pelagian theology) lead to a focus on methodology and getting results.  You’ve go to put something exciting in the prayer letter, right?  

But in all the focus on getting results, the most important result (a Christ-like life) gets left behind.  Personal Bible reading, prayer and worship are the easiest things to dump from a busy schedule (or to blitzkrieg through in order to say you’ve done them).  And frankly, for those who have been doing church ministry long enough, it is easy to teach, preach, and pray on the fumes of a spirituality that you once had, but has now become cold.

Being a missionary (or any kind of Christian minister) depends fully on our own spirituality and relationship for Christ.  If that relationship is neglected, we are no good to anybody even if we can externally fake it for a good, long period of time.  We can get the job done, but eventually the root of bitterness takes hold, and we resent our own superficiality and look for something more fun to do than be this holy person that people expect us to be.  And when we are looking at ourselves and the things we don’t like around us instead of looking at Christ, that is the time that temptation is stronger.  Without a continual refocusing on Christ, we’re toast.

3. Over 80% of the men became sexually involved with the other woman after spending significant time with her, often in counseling situations.
Most missionaries, especially those in pioneering and small-church situations, probably don’t do a lot of one-on-one counseling.  But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be wary of too much time with the opposite sex.  In many places in the world today, there are are a LOT more women in the church than there are men.   And in more than a few churches, the only spiritually mature people in the church are women.  It is the women who have a heart to serve while the men are doing their own thing.  So while Mrs. Missionary is busy at home with small children and struggling to find time for language study, Mr. Missionary is out doing evangelism and visitation with the nice ladies from church.  If he doesn’t watch out, he could get too close to some of those ladies.   And it is not unheard of for the missionary husband to run off with the local house helper who is in his home on a regular basis.

4. Without exception, each of the 246 had been convinced that sort of fall “would never happen to me.”
As the Scripture says, “Pride cometh before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).  There is no super-spiritual transformation that happens when a missionary gets on a plane and travels across the world.  You are still you.  Regardless of your position, you are still liable to fall into grave moral failure under the right circumstances.  I was once told that the only reason that more Christian men have not fallen into sexual immorality, is that they haven’t had the opportunity.    Of course, there are lots of opportunities for immorality in the world today, and we can’t avoid every situation where temptation would arise… but it is still possible to set ourselves up for success, and not failure.  We can actively avoid situations where we would know we would be too weak to effectively resist compromise.  And there are lots of positive actions we can take too. Have a good friend to keep you accountable.  Foster a good relationship with Christ and your spouse.  Get enough rest.  Get enough exercise.  Find a hobby.  Avoid situations where you are alone with those of the opposite sex.  Always be aware that you are liable to a fall, just like anyone else.  We need to keep our own weakness in mind so that we’ll be humble enough to avoid situations where temptation would more likely occur.

Missionaries go home all the time for various reasons.  Moral failure doesn’t need to be one of them.  We may be weak and prone to sin, but God (and the Devil) usually work through ordinary ways and means all around us.  Sin often doesn’t come out of the blue and destroy us, but there are often many warning signs and opportunities to turn back along the way.  We need to identify those practical, ordinary things that we can do to safeguard ourselves, not only so that we survive on the mission field, but also thrive.  But God’s grace, we don’t need to be one of the statistics.

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