What Missionaries Ought to Know
Ronald L. Koteskey
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Lately you have been feeling guilty, but are not sure why.
People are suffering. They are dying without Christ. Your work seems to make
little difference. You are having difficulty maintaining a consistent
devotional life. You just feel guilty about so many things that it is
interfering with your work. You begin to wonder if you are guilty. Why do you
feel so guilty? Isn’t guilt bad? What can you do about feeling so guilty? What
if the feelings don’t go away? Let us consider some of these questions.
Am I guilty?
This is the crucial question. All possible combinations of guilt and guilt
feelings are possible. You may be guilty and not feel guilty, you may feel
guilty and not be guilty, or you may be guilty and feel guilty. Any one of
these is likely to interfere with your work as a missionary. You want to reach
the place where you are not guilty and do not feel guilty.
The Bible says much about being guilty. A look in a concordance at “guilt” and
“guilty” will reveal dozens of verses about being guilty of sin. When you break
one of God’s commands, you are guilty—whether you feel guilty or not. If you
are guilty, something needs to be done about the guilt, and we will discuss
Why do I feel so guilty?
Of course, you may feel guilty because you are guilty, and that is good.
Although the Bible says much about being guilty, it says little about feeling
guilty. If you feel guilty because you are guilty, you just need to do
something about the sin. However, many people feel guilty without being guilty.
In fact, the guilt feelings may even be stronger when there is no guilt. Here
are a few examples of things other than sin that may produce guilt feelings:
- Falling short of your own expectations. This often happens
during the first term, especially for perfectionists.
- Falling short of other’s expectations. Your church, your
family, headquarters, and field director may expect more of you than you
can possibly do.
- Not forgiving yourself. After God has forgiven your sin,
you may not be able to forgive yourself even though your guilt is gone.
- Guilt trips by other people. Martha tried to “lay a guilt
trip” on Mary for not working hard enough in Luke 10, and she even tried
to get Jesus to join her.
- Oversensitive conscience. A good conscience will produce
guilt when you sin; however, part of your conscience is learned in your
culture, and you may feel guilty for many things that have nothing to do
- Survivor guilt. You may have gone through a traumatic
situation and may feel guilty that you survived when others did not, or
feel guilty about what you had to do to survive.
- Satan himself. Remember that Satan is the “accuser of the
brothers” in 1 Peter 5 and Revelation 12. His accusations can make you
- Temptation. Although we are never promised that we will be
beyond temptation, missionaries may feel guilty for being tempted to lie,
cheat, or be sexually unfaithful.
Shame, rather than guilt, often brings on these guilt feelings. Guilt means
that you have broken Gods command, fallen short of his expectations. Shame
means that you have fallen short of the expectations of someone other than God.
It may have begun when you walked through a mud puddle, soiling your new shoes.
Your parents said, “Shame on you, you should have known better.” Perhaps there
was no way for you to have known, and the Bible does not forbid walking in puddles,
but you felt guilty.
Isn’t guilt bad?
Of course it is. That’s a major goal of missions, to tell people in other
cultures that God has solved the sin problem.
Aren’t guilt feelings bad too? They may or may not be. If they are caused by
things other than sin, such as some of the examples given in the previous
section, they are also bad. They will interfere with the missionary’s goal of
telling others the good news.
Guilt feelings as a result of sin are good. These guilt feelings provide
motivation for doing something about the sin in your life. Without them people
seldom come to Christ, and often have great difficulty in society, perhaps
becoming antisocial personalities (psychopaths) and getting into serious legal
trouble. Such guilt feelings tend to be strongest immediately after sin is
committed, then to decrease as rationalizations are generated. You then no
longer feel the guilt, at least not nearly as much, and your “heart is
hardened,” making you much less likely to do something about the sin.
Are guilt feelings worse for missionaries?
Guilt feelings may be worse for missionaries because of some special
- Living standards. Some missionaries live quite affluently
compared to the people they minister to, and may feel guilty about their
wealth. This is becoming less so as missionaries go to large cities.
- Suffering. Many of the people missionaries work with are
suffering compared to Western standards, and all their needs simply cannot
- Children’s education. Although MKs do better academically
than non-MKs “back home,” missionaries may feel like they are not
providing an adequate education.
- Aging parents. Since missionaries are out of their home
country and do not have large financial resources, they may feel guilty
about not caring for aging parents.
- Civil authorities. How can a missionary get anything done
in a society where the local value system may conflict with that of the
missionary? For example, what is the difference between a gratuity and a
People in their own cultures often have problems dealing with their
affluence, the suffering of others, their children’s education, their aging
parents, and their government, so the difference is one of degree, not of kind.
What can I do about guilt?
The natural response to realizing you are guilty is to try to hide or
rationalize, such as Adam and Eve did. However, that will not solve the
problem. Missionaries are familiar with what to do about sin, but here is a
review of the steps.
- Confession. Certainly confess your sins to God. You may
also want to confess to people you have harmed as well. Confession usually
should be only to those actually affected by the sin rather than to the
- Repentance. Repentance is more than being sorry for your
sins; it is a change of purpose or a change of mind. We are to turn from
our sinful ways to God. After forgiving her, Jesus told the woman taken in
adultery to sin no more.
- Faith. Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and we must
trust him for this.
- Restitution. As far as possible, try to make right the
wrong you have done. If you have stolen something, you can usually return
it. Of course, if you have destroyed another’s reputation, you may not be
able to rebuild it.
What can I do about guilt feelings?
That depends on the cause. If the guilt feelings are because of sin, follow
the steps reviewed above. If the guilt feelings are because of other factors,
you need to deal with each one individually. Let’s consider a couple of
First-term missionaries often have very high expectations about what they
will accomplish and feel guilty that they do not achieve their personal goals.
In this case, they need to talk with an experienced missionary and set more
realistic goals. Of course, they may still not lower their expectations,
thinking that they are different, that their ministry will be more effective.
If the goals set for you by others are too high, ask to have them lowered.
One teacher felt guilty for not spending the required number of minutes on each
subject until she realized that the required number of minutes each day was an
hour and twenty minutes longer than she had the children in class. The
principal lowered the number of required minutes.
What if the guilt feelings don’t go away?
Guilt feelings that you have had for a long time as a result of sin may
become conditioned responses and remain even after the sin is forgiven. Just as
Pavlov’s dogs salivated to the sound of a bell, so you may feel guilty when
some event triggers the guilt feelings, even after the sin is forgiven and the
guilt itself is gone. These responses gradually decrease and stop over time.
If they do not go away, you may need to talk with your pastor or a counselor
about why they are still there. You may have hidden things under layer after
layer of rationalization and may need someone else to help you sort it all out.
A related question is how to lead a consistent Christian life to keep from
becoming guilty again. Two things are very important. First, maintain a
consistent daily devotional life. Missionaries report that this is their most
difficult “spiritual” activity. Second, get into an accountability relationship
with others to check on each other weekly, or at some other regular interval.
Agree with the others, as to what you will hold each other accountable for, and
give this meeting a high priority in your life. Include daily devotions in any
Christ died for our sins and there is no condemnation
in Christ. There is no need to be hindered by guilt or guilt feelings.
Member Care Consultant