I’m not sure that I should be the one writing this piece. This past year, the question of staying has been on my mind frequently, and not with any sense of peace or confirmed direction. My family and I are here in Australia, just past the four-year mark of a five-year commitment. What will the next year bring? Should we return home? Should we stay?
Questions of staying, for the cross-cultural worker, can form a complicated mess of predictions, responsibilities, and desires. What may happen, what we should do, what we want to do—these are usually complex and weighty issues, made even more so by the pandemic. We, like many of you, missed our planned trip home last year, and the sacrifice of being far from family grows larger when pandemic uncertainties and travel restrictions are added into the mix.
On top of all of this, for the Christian, comes a question that can loom large, paralyzing us in fear: “What is God’s will for me?”
I cannot think of our current situation and the decision before us without thinking of the men and women through the ages who have served overseas. In their stories, I have always been impressed with the theme of following God’s will in the face of difficulty, hardship, and sacrifice. Women like Lilias Trotter come to mind, whose focus on God’s will led her, and kept her, in North Africa, despite having to sacrifice a professional art career and having to endure considerable health difficulties.
And for myself, I have no other way to describe our decision to move here other than that we were following God’s will, his leading. I had no desire to move, and yet I felt in my bones that we were meant to go. I knew it to be God’s will—not in an infallible sense, of course, but through circumstances, advice from loved ones, and the testimony of the Spirit in my own heart.
Yet I pause at the hand-wringing that can accompany questions of God’s will for our futures. I wonder at the narrowness of this way of speaking, as if there is only one right answer. While the gate is narrow that leads to eternal life, the pasture beyond the gate is a spacious place (Psalm 18:19). This image suggests that the way of following after God is not a tightrope walk, with the risk of falling on all sides. We are, after all, a people led by the Spirit. If we are attentive to this leading, keeping “in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), then the way before us opens up. Obedience is a spacious place, with many ways to honor the Lord with our service.
This does not mean, of course, that we do not face crossroads, points of decision in which we must choose—this way, or that? Stay, or go? It does not mean that these kinds of decisions are not complicated, that we do not need to consider them seriously and prayerfully, taking counsel from those we trust. But, a perspective of our lives shaped by the images of God as shepherd and Spirit as guide can help us to release the anxiety and fear over the possibility of choosing the wrong path. God has kept us thus far, and he has promised to continue to do so. Our leaving and staying, submitted to him and not done out of fear or pride, are not outside of his loving care.
For us, I don’t know where we will be next year, or the years after. I could tell you of my longings, of my feelings of responsibility and predictions for the future—all of which I need to give to God each day, relinquishing the anxiety that can quickly drown my heart. I long for a sense of certainty in this: the kind of firmness that can face questions from any side about what we decide, the kind that provides comfort when the list of what we will give up feels much too long. Part of me is afraid that in choosing a cross-cultural life, I’ve given up that kind of certainty for good. My heart has already been split, and I’m not sure that it can be made whole this side of the new creation.
Pray for us, will you? And I’d love to pray for you, too, if you are facing this question of whether to stay, or are longing for certainty in your decision.
What questions do you or have you wrestled with in making a decision to stay? How have you seen God open up a spacious place for you as you move forward?