Let’s be honest. Saying goodbye stinks. Not the normal, everyday goodbyes. The kind of goodbyes that tear our hearts out, like a child watching her first balloon float away. These are the goodbyes that deconstruct relationships because they remove proximity and leave reunion ambiguous. We live in a world of these goodbyes, and they serve as mere foreshadows of their ultimate and inevitable form: death, the forever goodbye.
Like I said, saying goodbye stinks.
For the global sent one, goodbyes are not a part of life: they are a way of life. Sent ones say goodbye to everything they’ve ever known, from the food they eat to the words they speak. And just about the time their new home becomes home, it’s time to say goodbye all over again.
Perhaps the worst goodbyes are those made to loved ones. Missionary John Paton wrote vividly of the farewell to his father:
Waving my hat in adieu, I was round the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me farther, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dyke to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and began to return—his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze.
I myself remember as if it was yesterday, sitting forlorn after saying goodbye to my family at the airport. The first words in my journal capture the emotion:
It has killed my heart to say goodbye to Mom and Dad. I know this is so hard for them. This strips away all the idealistic glories of mission work. This is raw. Alone.
Here lie the most persuasive reasons not to go: “Don’t leave us,” “How can you take our grandchildren away?” and “There’s still so much work to be done here.” Such pleas are legitimate, and often accompanied by sleepless nights. Going can sometimes leave others feeling forsaken, push relationships to their limit, and cause gaping holes in multiple spheres of life. Yet for all that is to be lamented, booed, and blasted about goodbyes, there is some good in them. And if you’re going to say such goodbyes, you’ll need every last drop of the good to carry you through the bye.
Goodbyes are good for those who don’t know Christ
This is the most obvious one, right? Saying hard goodbyes is worth it for the sake of people far away coming to know Christ. “Knowing what it is to fear God, we persuade men…For the love of Christ controls us,” as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14. No sacrifice is too great. It’s why Jesus bid farewell—not merely to heaven, but to the eternal communion of the Trinity. Do your goodbyes hurt? Remember the agony of separation in Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) It’s a heart-filling picture of the worth God has placed on reconciling lost people to himself. It is one of the few right reasons to say such awful goodbyes. It embodies the treasure of knowing Christ.
Goodbyes are good for those who do know Christ
The severe pain that accompanies goodbyes contributes to the filling up of what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. These are the sufferings that Christians experience for the sake of the gospel (Colossians 1:24). They bring glory to God (Ephesians 3:13), but not just the intangible kind of glory that floats up to him. They compel us as fellow believers. One of my fellow pastors recently gave up platform and position to move his family overseas on mission. And it compels my heart. A family in my church recently sold their home and expansive property in the wealthy part of town and moved into the inner city to more effectively reach out to international students. And it compels my heart. As I ponder why in the world they would do such a thing, I remember Christ in them, and I remember Christ in me. They point me to the one who gives me the courage to do the same.
Goodbyes are good for those who don’t seek a better country
A good friend (and former missionary) recently wrote, “Show me a person who says, ‘Don’t go, there’s so much work to do here,’ and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t live on mission.” It’s not always the case, but sometimes those who have little space for goodbyes have little place for sacrifice. Or at least they value their relationship with you more than their relationship with God, or others' lack of relationship with God, which, honestly, is understandable, and on some level admirable, yet still inexcusable according to Jesus (Matthew 10:37). Intentional transience is not about finding a better place to live, it’s about looking for “a better country — a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). It means setting your heart and eyes on Jesus, and letting your feet follow where he leads. Saying goodbye is a gracious declaration of something far better.
Goodbyes are good for those who do seek a better country
It would be silly to say that Christians have got this whole goodbye thing down. Even though we are those who do seek a better country, our resistance to parting ways is often just as strong as anyone else’s. It makes sense: our ties go deeper because we’ve been fused together in the same body by the same Spirit (Ephesians 4:4). Our fellowship is sweet, and all the more the longer we share it. It was no different in the time of the New Testament. One of the most notable examples was when Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him, saying that he would never let him go to the cross. Yet as noble as his disciple’s love might have seemed, Jesus’ response showed just how unacceptable it was: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:21-23). The very salvation we enjoy today comes from the good in Jesus’ goodbye.
We are those who say we long for a better country. Nevertheless, our natural tendency is to cling white-knuckle to what is familiar. Intentional goodbyes for the sake of obedience to God’s mission, as heart-breaking and messy as they might be, hold some good for our souls. Say them, and say them well.