Identity in Christ: The Cross-Cultural Worker’s Firm Foundation

November 20, 2023 | 15 minute read
The Alliance Canada

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“When I grow up, I want to do what she does,” I whispered to my husband, John, in 2004. I was a fully grown woman with two children at the time and considered mature by most. We were attending our pre-departure training to go overseas to Central Asia, having spent two weeks watching Judy Wiebe oversee various aspects of our training alongside other wise trainers and facilitators. The topics we learned about ranged from emotional health, spiritual formation, family care, and teaming and relationships, to name just a few which stand out all these years later. I could not quite put my finger on it, and the term “Member Care” was a new one to me, but I was deeply drawn to how Judy lived out her gifts for our benefit and the benefit of Christ’s Kingdom. It resonated so deeply I verbalized it on the last morning of our time together in my whisper to John. Little did I know the journey it would be for me to “grow up” into the role. 

My journey towards overseas work began at an early age. Growing up in a small town, in a small state in the USA, the stories of missions always drew me in. Hearing stories of family members in full-time mission work also fueled my curiosity. I began saying I wanted to be a missionary at age five, and by age fifteen, I was sure this was how the Lord was calling me to serve. 

Going forward, every “yes” and every “no” was filtered through my call. What do I study at university? Nursing. Did I really want to be a nurse? Not particularly, but it seemed a good means to an end at the time. Where would I do those studies? Somewhere I could get sound biblical training simultaneously, so off I went to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. 

How do I get an idea of what missionary work entails firsthand? I travelled with a group of fellow nursing students to the newly “former” Soviet Union, countries like Russia, Romania, and Hungary and a few years later on a more hands-on medical missions trip to Mexico through the university. Coming from a non-denominational background, I began exploring mission agencies and opportunities as I navigated seminary training at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. All this while working full-time as a registered nurse at a local  hospital, gaining hands-on professional training while also stretching my mind and soul with courses like Hermeneutics, Cross-Cultural Anthropology, and my favourite, The Gospel of John. 

My extracurricular time was also filtered through my calling. How would I spend the weekend off? Missions Conference, of course. Would I go on a date with this or that man? Not if he didn’t share my calling to overseas work. No time for distractions. Surrounded by like-minded friends, mentored by several wise women, I was making my way one yes, one surrender at a time. A thousand little yeses to God’s call. 

It was my third part-time year of seminary when I began working in earnest towards tangible steps overseas. After completing my three-week training with TEAM Mission agency, I was appointed to work as a nurse in Nepal. I began raising my support but felt a restraint. Encouraged by those around me to take a month to pray and wait, I did. On the last day of my month’s wait, a friend called and asked me for a date. My mother, who had been fasting and praying during the previous month, quoted John 1:6 to me, “There came a man sent from God whose name was John.” I did not really correct her interpretation of this Scripture because I, too, was pretty delighted this kind and gentle, hilarious, and handsome Canadian had asked me out. John and I were engaged in four months and married five months later―a whirlwind courtship and marriage. This was also my introduction to the Alliance world, a wonderful secondary benefit to being John’s wife. 

Our mutual calling towards overseas work and our desire to see our call lived out among places where few or none have heard led us to Central Asia. Leaders like Wally Albrecht, Gerald and Dorothy Hogenbirk, Garry and Pam James, Stuart and Joanne Lightbody, and friends like Stephen and Annette Ford encouraged us on this journey. God made a way for us to prepare for this work alongside John’s teaching and learning to parent first Sophie (2001) and then Annie (2003). With these two in tow, we packed up an insane number of things (what did we actually think we were going to do with those car seats in a Lada taxi with no seatbelts?). We said goodbye to four wonderful parents, six supportive siblings and their families and stepped into the unknown. People ask me if I was scared. After all, we were moving three hundred miles from Baghdad in the middle of a war! But I have to say, after so many little yeses, the next yes just made complete sense and brought much peace. 

In hindsight, the next ten years, frankly, feel like a blur. We learned a language that sounded like music. We absorbed a culture made up of such a mix of other cultures it felt like untangling a giant clump of yarn at times. Was this from Persian culture? Tsarist times? Soviet times? Is this the influence of neighbours once again trying to tell our small country who they should be in the new millennium? We lived among people who had been conquered century after century in a tug of war between major powers. This had left them a people battered and bruised, combative and conflict-oriented, and yet, incredibly, hospitable, relational, and generous. In this paradigm of contradictions, we raised our, by this time, three children, having added Benjamin to our family in 2006. 

We were anticipating our second year-long home assignment. The term had been a hard one. Though only in-country ten years, we had seen hundreds of fellow workers leave, more than four hundred men, women, and children including friends, teachers, co-workers, and mentors. The revolving door of workers is a challenge in most places, but it can be especially challenging in a relatively small interdependent community. Twenty-four friends left on the same plane one hot June morning, our best friends and accountability support network. This began a tough season for us. Our teammates were temporarily deported for a long season; our leaders could not visit us on the ground because of the difficulties in obtaining tourist visas. We felt utterly alone. 

Additionally, we faced numerous visa renewal challenges and were asked to leave the country three times, literally on a midnight train to a neighbouring country. I must admit, the thought crossed my mind more than once, “if they don’t want us here that badly, why are we staying?!” Everyone wants to feel a little bit wanted, after all. 

Both John and I experienced the challenge of living in a creative access country, one that is closed to spreading the Gospel. After ten years, it had taken a toll on me in particular. I never felt like we were completely honest with our local friends about what we did for a living. For me, someone who highly values authenticity and complete honesty, it felt disingenuous and even deceitful. At the same time, I also felt a growing guilt and shame over being a pretty ineffective church planter, the very thing our churches in Canada had given sacrificially for me to do. More evidence of my intrinsic need for authenticity and honesty. In reality, I realized the things that brought me the most joy and used my gifts to the fullest were not evangelism or church planting. 

For the second term, we received our visas through the small parent-run school for TCKs (third culture kids). We had to pour a certain amount of time into this small business to fulfill our visa requirements. John chaired the board, taught after-school classes to local kids, and taught a few electives in addition to his work as team leader and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher outside the school. I became the school librarian and de facto school nurse. For me, loving and nurturing kids from various national backgrounds, mentoring parents and students, encouraging staff through acts of service and hospitality, providing direction for next steps in health care in a country with a less than ideal health system were some highlights from this season. 

To quote Charles Dickens, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.1 While I enjoyed this work, I was also slowly sinking in a sea of failure and shame of my own making. During our last months there, I diligently packed up, found renters for our home, sold, stored, listed, and labelled. Ask any international worker (IW); packing up for a year is no joke, especially for a family of five. By this time, I knew I was not well, but for once, my diagnostic skills failed me, leading me to a great sense of failure. I prided myself on being a fixer, making things better and smoother for those around me. Then, in the Spring, I found myself faced with the inevitable reality―I was not okay, I had no idea how to fix myself, and I was likely going to upend life for all of us. At this realization, the shame engulfed me. I went through the motions of goodbyes and limped home. As we made our way to General Assembly during the summer in Ottawa, I said to John that if anyone scratches the surface, they will know I’m not okay, but I don’t think I can tell anyone myself. 

At a pivotal moment, Judy Wiebe scratched the surface and then dug deeper and saw me with a depth of compassion and care; it still brings tears to my eyes. She saw my authentic self, in all its brokenness, and did not turn away, did not label, just sat with me in it and connected me to care with International Health Management (IHM). Likewise, Dr. Ken Gamble and Dr. Duncan Westwood cared amazingly for me. So, while I will not go into my journey of those next dark months here, I will say those months started me on a journey of healing which began to make sense of all those yeses, all those heartbreaks, and allow me to see the beautiful tapestry God had been weaving all along. 

My dear friend, Donna Frentz, says God takes people all over the world first to have His will in them, to change THEM, and then He uses them to change the world. This resonates deeply with me. Because while all those yeses were important (especially the one to marry John!) and changed my trajectory little by little, in hindsight, there was a fatal flaw. 

The flaw was in me. A lie, or series of lies, I had believed from a very young age about my identity and about what God thinks about me. I thought doing the hardest thing I could imagine doing for Jesus added to my worth in His eyes. While I would never have said it so explicitly, or even verbalized it, this seed was in me. To me, my success or failure as an international worker hinged on what I did and not who I was. Time and time again, I was trying to pour out the last drops of myself for Him instead of letting Him continuously fill me to overflowing. Ignoring my natural and spiritual gifts because I did not see their value, I struggled under the weight of not being good at things He did not gift me to do. Being so determined to “do” missionary-like things, I missed the most important one: listening to the whisper of the Spirit of God. Instead, I sinfully compared my gifts to those around me and thought what God had given me simply was not enough or not right to do the work. The shame and comparison took their toll. 

To begin breaking down those lies within me, God took me to the other side of the world and to an incredibly complex cultural context. He did it because He loves me so much. He did it because He knew my heart was to live for Him, even if I did not see the meaning clearly while trying so hard to do it in my own strength. He chose to take my sincere desire to love Him with all of who I am and to show me how to do just that. He beautifully and graciously brought me to the end of myself. 

You may be reading this and thinking this is a unique story or a “one-off” anomaly. However, I would not be sharing this incredibly personal story with you if this was an isolated experience. The issue of identity in Christ is one I face most commonly and recurringly in my role as Member Care Developer. It is a journey most IWs will admit they have had to wrestle through in one way or another. 

I often see this when dealing with restorative issues2. Commonly, I can identify a false identity or misunderstanding of identity in Christ at the root of almost every moral discipline situation I engage in through my role (which in these situations is to provide restorative care for a season). Lack of heart understanding of identity in Christ’s love also can be found in many of the emotional health issues IWs bring to me and at the heart of many conflicts and relational matters arising on the field. Individual anchoring in identity in Christ profoundly impacts teams and is evidenced in the healthiest of groups. Without this firm foundation, one or more team members and co-labourers look to each other to find their identity or look for identity in their work’s success. While this may sustain for a while, ultimately, cracks will begin to appear, people will get hurt, and the cause of Christ is compromised. When our success becomes our identity―our god―the Father must step in to correct us. 

The Spirit’s invitation is quite the opposite. When we live together in community, aware of our own belovedness and of each participant’s worth in the eyes of God because of the power of the Cross, we live in incredible freedom. The world cannot help but be drawn to this kind of individual and community. The human heart longs for it. Henri Nouwen says it so well, 

“That’s where ministry starts, because your freedom is anchored in claiming your belovedness. That allows you to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they are beloved, chosen, and blessed. When you discover your belovedness by God, you see the belovedness of other people and call that forth. It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know how deeply you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved.3” 

It is so foundational to the work we seek to do and the incarnational lives we seek to live among the least-reached that it simply cannot be ignored. It is incredible the power of vulnerability and weakness when fully surrendered to the overwhelming, all-encompassing, unwavering, and unconditional love of God. Anchored in anything less, even the most profound of gifts, talents, or abilities, all our work is chaff and stubble. This can be difficult for IWs. If you know any personally, you will know what an incredible number of hoops we had to go through to get overseas. Just pursuing full-time vocational service overseas with The Alliance Canada requires a great deal of discipline and effort (read: paperwork!), in addition to other professional studies required to have under one’s belt. We are a group who like challenges, who are not afraid of doing hard things, for whom the word sacrifice is a part of a sacred calling. Is it any wonder our calling can too easily slip into identity’s prime position? 

Through this season of discovering the depth of love God has for me, not because of what I do, but simply because He calls me beloved, He highlighted a passage of Scripture for me that has become instrumental in my daily life as His beloved. It also overflows into the work I am now called to do as Member Care Developer. 

Colossians 3 is a rich chapter, calling us to put off and put on various things. The call to holiness is woven throughout this chapter. However, for me, the pivotal verse comes midway through the chapter, in verse 12. Starting at the second half of verse 12 to verse 17, we see the perfect list of what we would look for when we screen candidates for overseas work―compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, ability to bear with others and forgive them, and of course, love. I must admit when these are all in place, it is abundant evidence of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s life and truly is a delight to behold both in times of green leaf as well as drought (Jeremiah 17:7-8). 

However, when looking at all the things we are to put off (there is quite a list in Colossians 3:5-10) and looking at all we are invited to put on (verses 12-17), we would miss the point of the chapter, in my opinion, if we do not read the beginning of verse 12 more carefully: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…” (ESV4) and then the ideal candidate list follows. Before God tells us what to put on, He reminds us of who we are and the only reason why this list is even possible in our lives. 

We are Chosen 

Our relationship with God is not accidental or a fluke. He chose me. Psalm 139 gives us a beautiful reminder that God knows us and chooses us. Our identity is not in Him choosing you or me to be an international worker, pastor, doctor, lawyer, wonderful spouse, fulfilled single, faithful child, or loyal friend. Instead, our identity is in the reality of Him choosing you and me to be His sons and daughters. Take a moment and let this deeply sink in. This is an essential reality to the identity of an international worker. 

I can no longer fathom why we put missionaries on a pedestal. We believe somehow, they are “more” chosen, even over others in full-time ministry and definitely more so than Christians who are not in full-time vocational ministry. There are so many problems with this statement that I do not know where to begin. I will save it for another chapter in another book. Regardless of our calling (everyone has a vital calling once they have heard Him whisper their name), our identity cannot be in the calling. It is putting the cart before the horse and can only lead to various dysfunctions. God chose us to be His children. Full stop. The reality of this choosing leads us into deeper closeness and being known by Him, and then we hear the invitation of His calling as part of our ongoing relationship with Him. Our calling does not make us more or any less chosen by God. 

We are Holy 

Holiness is not a very culturally popular word in this day and age. Do not believe the lie IWs are somehow already in their fully holy state in some unique way that those of us who remain in our passport country are not. They are in the process of sanctification, just like every other believer with whom you lock eyes or do life. However, for IWs, the sanctification process occurs in the pressure cooker of cross-cultural pressures, language ambiguity, different cultural norms, distance from the people who have known and mentored them well over the years, and various other unique circumstances. 

Holiness is vital. And yet again, if we try to achieve holiness through our own strength, it will ultimately crack, as it is skewed through the lens of our own humanity. No, the only holiness an IW can count on―that any believer can count on―is the holiness from the shed blood, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When His sacrifice is our anchor point for holiness, when we depend on the Spirit to guide us into holiness, it flows graciously in our lives. What others may see as a restriction becomes, in reality, fuller freedom. Every licensed worker of The Alliance Canada agrees to The Call to Excellence and Code of Conduct of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. 

I have heard one or two grumbles when walking alongside an IW dealing with a sin area in their life about this code of conduct. “Who can live up to that?” This grieves me more than words can communicate. Because when this is the question asked, it clarifies the heart of the document has been missed. What is outlined there is an invitation to live to the fullest all the good God has for us. It is true freedom, not restriction. Holiness is actually God’s gift to us, endowed upon us by Christ, led in us by the Spirit, to live in the goodness coming from life in Christ. So when we make it about our own ability to live up to a standard, I’m afraid we have missed the point altogether. God chose us, and God makes us holy. 

We are God’s Beloved 

The verse actually says dearly loved in the ESV. Several Scripture passages uniquely remind us of this identity we hold as beloved of God. One of my favourites is in Daniel, chapters 9 and 10 (ESV). For context, Daniel has received some incredible visions. The Bible says, Daniel is so overwhelmed by what he sees that he prays and pleads for mercy with fasting and sackcloth (9:3), resulting in confession (9:20). After the following vision, Daniel is left mourning (10:2), without strength (10:8), in a dead faint (10:9), trembling (10:10), and breathless (10:17). 

What does God have the angel say to Daniel at this point? Get up, you fool? Be stronger? Try harder? Suck it up or toughen up? Quite the contrary! Before fully explaining any visions, the angel Gabriel reminds Daniel he is greatly loved, not once, not twice, but three times (9:23, 10:11, 10:19). God knows Daniel is shaken, and He knows the visions require explanation and response, but He first reminds Daniel, through the angel Gabriel no less, that he, Daniel, is greatly loved. Daniel has not “done” much in these passages except demonstrate justifiable human frailty. But the power of the words of love and encouragement sent to him by God strengthens him for what he needs to hear, how he needs to respond, and how he needs to be God’s servant in His specific time and place in history. 

Belovedness is not something we earn. It is also not something we can lose. The life of David is an excellent example of this fact. The life of the beloved is a beautiful picture of the unchanging, immutable nature of a loving God. We think calling ourselves beloved somehow puts the attention on us, but really it puts the spotlight right on God. We are loved because He chooses it should be so. Why is this so important in the life of any believer and, in this specific context, of an international worker? Because Satan and the enemies of the cross know this is our greatest strength, being God’s beloved, and he will do all he can to assault this truth and try to deconstruct it. Never is this truer than when a believer seeks to invite a non-believer into this identity of love and nurture them to faith. 

In my story, I would say I had a fairly adequate idea and understanding of identity in Christ. I am sure I had to fill out something about it on my application to seminary, TEAM, the Alliance, and various papers for classes. I am also sure I had a good Scripture-based answer to those questions. However, we cannot fully taste the exquisite joy that comes from being simply God’s chosen, holy, beloved child until we allow God to strip away the other things we cling to for identity (competency, capacity, fluency, altruism). 

About a year after I began coming to the end of myself and beginning a whole new stage of the journey with Jesus, we were asked to consider stepping into this role upon Judy’s retirement. Perhaps for the first time, I caught a glimpse of the tapestry from God’s point of view. From down here, the perspective of a bunch of seemingly loose and jumbled strings, knotted and matted a bit, didn’t seem so beautiful. However, once I began seeing myself through the eyes of the One who loves me, I began to see the beautiful thing He was making of my life. Not only free from the shame and failure which had threatened to drag me under but now able and willing to throw the life preserver to others struggling in the same ways, struggling to get through to the other side of the journey ahead. God promises to use us, not just in spite of where we have been, but perhaps because of where we have been. Is it not an incredible story to bring to a hurting and dying world? Those without Christ do not need to see how great we are; they need to see how great our God is, shown through our own humanity. God does not use us because we are so great, but because He is. 

Now, I’m living my dream. My whisper to John, now nearly two decades ago, about wanting to do what Judy did has come to fruition. Little did I know it was actually the whisper of the Spirit to my own heart. Little did I know the journey it would take to get me there. Least of all did I see the prize to be had through the journey; an identity safe in His love, not just head knowledge but now realized more fully in my heart and serving as an invitation to others to taste and see His goodness (Psalm 34). 

This is an excerpt from the book, On Mission Volume 4. Download your free copy today.

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