As a missionary, I know firsthand what it feels like to be isolated – to labor in a land that is not my own among a people who don’t share my language, culture, history or traditions. While on the mission field, I learned that human beings are designed for many things, but loneliness isn’t one of them. The isolation of the pioneering missionary can, at times, be overwhelming. But this is an isolation that comes because of the call, and for it there is a grace that makes endurance possible and the experience rewarding.
However, there is another type of isolation that comes by choice, and this type of isolation is one of the greatest pitfalls of ministry.
I spent the first years of my ministry in mediocrity because I had inadvertently isolated myself from those I needed and from those who needed me. I would not allow myself to reach out beyond my camp and comfort zone to embrace any other member of God’s family. I found it difficult to become more than who I was, because I was surrounded by people just like me. I had become entangled in an inaccessible web of isolation, and it sorely affected my spiritual walk and my ministry.
As I have traveled around the globe, I have found that ministers are some of the loneliest people in the world. Although they are nearly always surrounded by people, they often stand alone in the crowd. The enemy has cleverly attacked the whole concept of relationship, and for good reason. If the enemy can isolate you, he doesn’t have to stop you, because your influence for good has been rendered inconsequential.
I once heard a prominent pastor in Tulsa say, “The enemy’s greatest tool against you is isolation.” The enemy will seek to isolate you from others, knowing that if he is successful, he will eventually isolate you from God.
How does the enemy do this? I suppose that volumes of books would not be enough to describe in detail every tactic in the enemy’s “art of war.” But it seems that, primarily, he sows seeds of suspicion.
The Lonely Walls of Suspicion and Distrust
The enemy will play off every bad experience you have ever suffered to cause you to suspect everyone of having ulterior motives. If you buy into the enemy’s lies, you will begin building walls of “protection,” unaware that those walls will eventually become your prison. The loneliest people are often the most suspicious people you will ever meet.
Loneliness, I have observed, is the most terrible form of poverty. Once we begin to suspect others of looking out only for themselves, we react by hastening to protect what is ours. It is then that we become a family of individuals, losing that vital sense of connection and unity that God intended.
The Exponential Power of Unity
As individuals in the body of Christ, our abilities and potential are limited. But together, working as one, our abilities and potential grow in such an extreme way that we are capable of changing entire nations into territories of the Kingdom of our God. As First Corinthians 12:7 (TLB) “The Holy Spirit displays God’s power through each of us as a means of helping the entire church.”
Understanding better than we do how desperately the Body of Christ needs one another, the enemy fights hard to isolate us. Satan knows that the value of relationships cannot be overestimated.
From the beginning God declared that it is not good thing for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). God has called us to belong, not just believe. You and I are created for community, fashioned for fellowship, and formed for family. None of us can fulfill God’s purposes for our lives by ourselves.
Each of us has a need to be fused into a family where we can feel at home and be in harmony with persons who range in both age and temperament. We have a need to allied to one another by an indissoluble bound that we would not break even if we could.
Recognize the Warning Signs and Guard Against Discord.
But there is always the risk of discord a group of people are brought together in one assembly. With such a variety of tastes, habits and temperaments and such a wide range of intellect and feeling, a constant danger of division exist. This is why the apostle Paul instructed us to be on our guard.
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
-Ephesians 4:1-3 NASB-
Paul knew that the enemy is diligent to sow discord and that to survive, we must be all the more diligent to preserve unity. The journey into seclusion is a subtle one – you don’t just wake up one day and find yourself isolated. Little by little, the trap is sprung. But there are warning signs that alert you to the enemy’s intent.
Impatient – You are increasingly annoyed with people, irritated by their actions or lack of change.
Intolerant – Other peoples opinions, styles and beliefs seem to be wrong with growing frequency.
Inconsiderate – You begin to care less and less about what happens to other people, especially people from other churches.
As I look back over my first years of ministry, I see each warning sign. I was impatient with everyone – but excused my impatience with a claim of personal zeal. I was completely intolerant of others – but excused my intolerance by citing truth. And I was inconsiderate of others without excuse. I had fallen into a pitfall of isolation with only my excuses for company, and loneliness was the result, but I didn’t know how to break the destructive cycle that had gotten me there.
Loneliness, I learned, is the most terrible of poverty.
How do you trust when you have been betrayed? How do you love when you have been rejected? How do you embrace when you have been abused?
I had no idea how to extract myself from my isolated position, so I struggled on in the same sad condition, year after year. Then one day I received instruction from the Lord to take my wife to the nation of Poland and become missionaries to Europe.
Become a missionary? I was not even sure I wanted to be a minister any longer. How could I endure even greater levels of isolation and more years of mediocre ministry? I told God that I did not want to go to the foreign field and just continue to do “ministry as usual.” I wanted to be effective. But how?
Then Divine providence offered a chance encounter with Rick and Denise Renner. Rick had already been on the field for a couple of years, and I knew that his ministry was very effective. I shared with him that God was calling us to the nations and asked him what he considered to be the fundamental key to effective ministry.
Rick’s advice was simple, yet revolutionary. He told me to form a board of advisors from different camps – to become friends with folks who differed from me.
Knowing that Rick enjoyed grand success in ministry, I presumed his advice had to be good and followed it. The results were immediate and astounding. First, I discovered that God has positioned amazing people all over the place! My eyes were opened to whole new worlds as I learned to appreciate the differences in others. I learned great truths from people I would have “cut off’ before I received Rick’s advice.
In a very short time I had assembled a team of advisors that represented every major camp in the nation. Because of this team, every major camp considered me apart of their team. I was accepted and catapulted into a new place of ministry.
I had also discovered the key to breaking the cycle of suspicion and isolation: risk. How do you trust when you have been betrayed? You risk trusting again. How do you love when you have been rejected? You risk loving again. How do you embrace when you have been abused? You risk embracing again. You will simply refuse to fall into the pitfall of isolation that is brought on by the spirit of suspicion. As you do, you will find – like I did – that the Kingdom of God is filled with good people who have not been sent to hurt you but to help you if given the chance.
After I asked on wise counsel – with seemingly very little effort on my part – I began having the type of impact I had always desired but had never achieved. The lesson I had learned really struck home one day as I spoke with a denominational missionary who had worked for four years in that nation without ever extending himself outside his own camp. He told me, “You have only been in the country a few months and you’ve already done more than I have been able to in four years. How did you do it?”
How had I become so effective in ministry? I simply learned to open up and embrace others – to trust them and allow them to make me more than who I am capable of being on my own.