I have wanted to quit many times. There was the first major time, when we had just arrived in Spain with a one year old, and were trying to find a place to live, without really knowing any of the language or culture, or where we should live. It was overwhelming, and we were completely dependent on our brand new Spanish friend and co-worker, Migue. It was all a blur, replete with the giant question of: “what did I get my family into?”
There were many other times as well. Times of frustration and sadness. Times of failure and culture stress, of wrestling with the bureaucracy and inefficiency of a visa process. Marital conflicts. Struggling with the language. Not knowing what to do. Some more failure. Watching other good friends and co-workers leave. Worrying about the physical and mental development of our son. Loneliness.
I have been in Spain for 8 years now, working to help college students and high school students encounter the life changing love of Jesus Christ. I have wanted to, and my wife and I have talked about, packing it all in and heading home on several occasions. But, we didn’t. We are still here. I am glad.
There were times when the easy and comfortable thing to do would have been to head back to Texas, eat good BBQ, and hang with friends. Now after eight years, that option seems almost incomprehensible to us.
Seth Godin’s book The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick) delves into the issue of quitting and from a business standpoint explains that there are times to quit, and there are times to stick. Godin’s main thesis is that sometimes when things get hard, it is those who stick with it, despite frustrations and failures that are then destined by out lasting the competition and building competence in hardship, to succeed. Moreover, he also explains that there are times to quit. There are times when the road one is on is simply a road to nowhere. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, and our energies are being wasted on a dead end street, when they could be refocused on new and better opportunities.
As I read through Godin’s book, I was struck by a number of realities to my own situation. There is a time to quit, and there is a time to stick. Being a missionary, like most things in life, is hard. The background culture stress, as much as you learn to love a people and a country, never goes away. You are never fully at home in your new culture, but the longer you stay the least likely you are ever to feel at home in your native culture. I have seen a lot of people come and go in Spain. The one constant was that at some point there was a significant learning curve, a season of frustration, a time of deep questioning, apropos to my setting- a dark night of the soul. If the repeated statistic is correct, then 1 out of every 3 missionaries doesn’t finish their first assignment. Depression is common.
In Godin’s grid, what does this all mean? Well for one, perseverance is important. Everyone will go through a period of wanting to quit, and seeming like that is the best option, on the mission field. There are just too many obstacles. It is just too hard. But, what I have seen is that through perseverance and patience, and time, things get better. Language is learned, friends are made, and the feeling of competency begins to grow. (Most will feel like a small child in their first year or so). Patience and perseverance, and time. A small child learning to walk or talk needs these. They also need a patient and loving set of parents who they can trust. And ultimately this has been one of the great experiences of having to face quitting in its deepest, darkest, scariest moment. Is God good? Can I trust him? Will he provide? Ultimately the experience of quitting must draw us into the presence of God, into the reality of trusting him when he seems not to be there. When God is silent, we can still trust him.
While Godin couches his thesis in the parameters of success, winning, and effectiveness, we must remember that this is not the currency of our God. Thus, God is there in the quitting and in the failure as well. Yes, sometimes it is time for some to quit the mission field. There is burnout and depression, or a sense that one no longer has anything to add, or has reached a dead end. These decisions need to be made in prayer and with a community, mainly to protect those missionaries who will be affected. But, there are times for the health and safety of the missionary, or just good old fashioned wisdom, that quitting will be good, and even freeing. Then, of course there will a time period of guilt and regret and sadness over the perceived failure, of not being able to “cut it.” Here once again quitting must draw us back to God, knowing there is no condemnation in Him, only the loving arms of a father who understands how hard it can be. There is only the loving embrace of a brother who wanted to quit, but did not, so that we could rest in his perfect sacrifice. One who could be made strong in our weaknesses, and who can resurrect out broken dreams and our failures to something much greater.
So yes, on the mission field it is important to know when to quit and when to persevere. Sticking through a hard time can lead to great opportunities. My wife and I have seen and been a part of things that we could never have imagined 8 years ago, when we first arrived. We love what we do. However, through it all, whether we quit of persevere, we must rely on the goodness and perfection of God, that in our success and our failures he is near, and he loves us, and that weakness is ultimately drawing us closer to him.