Written by Bradley Bell, Director of Content Development
Imagine if all the Avengers had no self-awareness.
Yeah, go ahead and watch their latest and greatest epic, Infinity Wars, and delight in the mastery of each one’s unique superpower. Combined, they are an entertaining match to the infinite, intergalactic bad-guy, Thanos. But swash around my idea for a moment, just for fun. What if they were somehow oblivious to their heroic, dangerous powers? And their impact on others?
They would probably kill each other.
Ironically, this scenario is already playing out in the real world. Consider the storyboard of global missions. There are the sent ones, a combined force endowed with the matchless presence and authority of Jesus Christ in the Person of the Holy Spirit, along with the gospel as the power of God to save anyone who believes it. There is also the cosmic bad-guy, Satan, who seeks to hold the nations in the grip of their condemnation before God, maintaining their blindness and stirring their rage against any light that breaks through. Now there’s an infinity war!
But so many sent ones return trumped by Satan all too soon. This isn’t usually because they’ve been mortally wounded by the nations themselves—at least not primarily. Sadly, it’s often the result of in-fighting among the sent ones while in the trenches together. Paul Akin notes, “Toward the end of the 20th century the World Evangelical Alliance released a significant study that found ‘conflict with peers’ the top reason North American missionaries leave the mission field.”
This is hard to believe. Not just in the say-it-ain’t-so sort of way. It’s hard to believe because of what else we believe about sent ones.
Our Dangerous Presumptions About Sent Ones
One of our most standard presumptions about sent ones is that their noble desire to be sent to hard places infers the character to match. In many cases, this is a safe bet. Why else would someone be willing to make the sacrifices of cross-cultural life and ministry? Plus, sent ones have usually proven their character long before they are commissioned. Character doesn’t seem to be the issue.
But wait a minute, if character isn’t the issue, then why do sent ones seem so vulnerable to conflict? Akin points to reasons common to global missions such as unmet expectations, stressful lifestyle, comparison and jealousy, and persistent sin. These are contributors, no doubt. But here is where I see a deeper presumption about sent ones.
We believe calling infers character. Fine. But we go too far when we believe character infers maturity.
How to Measure the Maturity of Sent Ones
How do you know if a potential sent one not only has the character of Christ, but also growing maturity? After years of life among candidates for global missions, I’m convinced their maturity can be measured pretty accurately by their self-awareness. Let me explain.
John Calvin famously wrote, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” As we draw nearer to God, and he to us, the light of his glory shines on us. And just like a lighted vanity reveals every blemish in our complexion, the light of his glory reveals our sins and immaturities—our desperate need for him.
John Newton described this spiritual electrocautery as the basic process of sanctification for every Christian:
The Lord often discovers to us one sinful disposition by exposing us to another. He sometimes shows us what He can do for us and in us; and at other times how little we can do, and how unable we are to stand without him. By a variety of these exercises, through the over-ruling and edifying influences of the Holy Spirit, [we] are trained up in a growing knowledge of [ourselves] and of the Lord.
So if an eager candidate approaches me with global awareness and zeal to match, but has little confession of well-worn neediness for Christ, he or she will have a hard time reclaiming my attention. “Another One Bites the Dust” has already started looping in my head.
How to Cultivate Self-Awareness in Sent Ones
So how, then, do we go about cultivating self-awareness in sent ones? I wish there was a formula. Well, maybe there could be, but it would probably be unethical (like cultivating endurance in sent ones by invoking a little "suffering"). Only time on the road with Jesus can forge the kind of self-awareness that Calvin and Newton were talking about. But here are a few (ethical) ideas for supplementing that process:
Burst their bubble - Tell them they don’t appear to be a self-aware person. Warning: this doesn’t go over well with people who lack self-awareness. So be gracious as you break the news. Explain why it matters. Use Psalm 139:23-24 or Luke 14:25-33. Invite them to remember that knowing Jesus is just as important as obeying Jesus. Suggest that calling doesn’t always infer character, and character doesn’t always infer maturity. Assure them you are committed to their growth, all the way to the nations.
Give them homework - Assign them the simple task of asking others, “How do you experience me?” The only way this will be helpful is if they ask people who are close enough with them to be brutally honest. Yes, I’m saying that most people would just tell them what they want to hear. We all do it, especially Christians, and all the more with sent ones. Honest answers to the question “How do you experience me?” could be one of the greatest (albeit painful) gifts they ever receive.
Assign the Enneagram - I promise, the Enneagram is not just another personality test. No, it’s not the gospel, but it does enable deeply personal gospel applications. Instead of just spitting out a score (which our individualistic culture seems to hate), it uniquely shows how the candidate is being “resourceful” or “non-resourceful” in perceiving, processing, and presenting themselves. And if nothing else, it provides insight into a layer of humanity that we often ignore when assessing potential sent ones: personality. This layer, in my opinion, is behind much of the conflict sent ones struggle to navigate. If someone sins against them, they know to head straight for Matthew 18:15-20. But if someone just rubs them the wrong way, what else is there to do besides graciously ignore it—until of course they explode.
Could it be that the demise of so many sent ones—conflict with peers—points to a lack of maturity, displayed in a lack of self-awareness, lost in a lack of personality consideration? What if sent ones struggle to get along not because of foul character, but because they fail to realize they come off as jerks sometimes, even when they don’t mean to (like we all do)?
What if my dorky analogy about unaware Avengers kinda fits?