Article by: Jason Seville
If you’re a close friend or family of someone who has moved far away to serve the Lord, you may feel saddened by their absence, or even abandoned. I want to tell you, on behalf of all of us expatriates (“expats”), that we love you. We really do. Whether we’ve moved away to serve as occupational missionaries or follow God’s leading to start a business, work in education, or study at a school, we miss you. Hopefully this letter will explain our situation and encourage you.
To get at the heart of the matter, let’s look at something really shocking Jesus once said. It may sound like the opposite of encouraging and loving, but stick with me; it’s vital to understand this passage.
The Prince of . . . Division?
Flying in the face of the filial piety of his culture, Jesus told his disciples that dividing families was one of his missions:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:34–39)
Now, you might be thinking, how can that be true? Doesn’t the Bible call Jesus the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6)? Doesn’t Paul say in Romans 5:1, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”? Isn’t the evangelistic message in Acts 10:36 described as “preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ”?
How can this promised bringer-of-peace say he came to do the opposite? Further, what’s with all this talk of family division? The New Testament has a fairly high view of the family, doesn’t it (Eph. 4; 1 Tim. 5)?
Though it seems confusing, it’s possible to make sense of Jesus’s claims in Matthew 10. He is indeed the Prince of Peace; his mission of salvation does bring peace. He came to live in perfect obedience to the Father before giving his life as a sacrifice for sins. He took our penalty, dying in our place, so that all who repent and trust in him could have peace with God and life forever.
In one sense, then, Jesus brings peace because he is God with us. But it’s precisely this divine role that also makes him, in another sense, a destroyer of peace.
Some will receive him; others will reject him. Within families, some will submit to his kingship; others will spurn it. Thus while the family is valued in the Christian worldview, it’s not ultimate in allegiance, since Jesus alone is Lord. So when you hear Jesus say it’s wrong to love family more than him, hear that as an unmistakably divine claim. Not even the most popular philosopher in the first century would have asked for such commitment, but Jesus does, because he is God.
King Jesus brings peace to earth, but he’s not interested in playing second fiddle to family. When that does happen—when there’s competition for affinity—he decidedly does not bring peace. He says he brings a sword—meaning the family will be separated as some align with him and others align against him. Where I currently live and pastor, this can happen on the extreme end of the spectrum, as parents disown Christian children or report former loved ones to the police for religious activities. In more innocuous cases, it might look like resentment, the cold shoulder, passive-aggressive guilt trips, or outright discouragement toward a family member who is following Christ.
What We Want You To Know
This leads me to three things Christian expats want to humbly and lovingly communicate to their friends and family at home.
1. We want you to know that we don’t love you less; we love Jesus more.
Jesus’s teaching isn’t meant to devalue the family; it’s only meant to exalt him. It’s not meant to lower the importance of parents and siblings; it’s meant to heighten the importance of Jesus.
The fact that we live far away isn’t an expression of our lack of love for you but a demonstration of our love for Christ. It’s been said that what you’re willing to sacrifice can measure the importance of your goal. Sacrificing proximity to family is a statement about the supremacy of our Savior—and all the more bold a statement precisely because we do love you so much.
2. We want you to know that we see following our calling as a matter of life and death.
Hear me out—I’m not trying to be dramatic. Jesus concludes this passage by saying, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38–39). Jesus calls his followers to bear many kinds of crosses. Leaving close family and friends to serve him across the world is one, but it could also be forsaking financial security, physical safety, or popularity and reputation for identifying with Jesus where he’s presently placed you.
There are many forms of cross-bearing, but the point remains: If you want true life, you will take up a cross and leave certain comforts behind. Jesus casts this choice in terms of life and death. You can “find life” now in temporal things—fame, money, safety, and, yes, family cohesion and peace. The problem is you’ll lose eternal life if Jesus gets kicked to the curb while you chase earthly goods. Or you can “lose life” now by letting go of the things that make for smooth sailing, and gain true life by clinging to Christ.
3. We hope our cross-brearing encourages you to bear the crosses in your own life.
Following God’s will has led us far away for a season. What is he asking of you?
If you’ve never trusted Christ as your Savior, maybe he’s calling you to submit to him for the first time. We hope you see through the testimony of our imperfect lives that Jesus is better than anything else. We could tell you this in person (and we likely have), but we’re trusting God that in this season our absence will speak louder than our presence. We love you—you know we do. But that love is nothing compared to the love of Christ if you’ll turn from sin and embrace him by faith.
If you’re a Christian, you too must listen for God’s voice. Look to his Word. Meditate on Matthew 10. In what ways is he calling you to walk by faith? Have you become anesthetized by the world’s pleasures such that you’re merely “finding life” in the here-and-now? Are you pushing the sovereign Lord to the periphery? Or maybe you have a general feeling that you’ve given him enough already, and now it’s time to do your own thing for a while. Beloved, we pray you’d take up your cross and follow your King.
This brief letter certainly won’t answer every question. It won’t heal every wound caused by our absence. There’s more that can and must be said.
But I hope this helps. I hope you understand a little bit better why we’ve decided to do what we’re doing. I hope you feel reaffirmed in our love for you. Most of all, I hope you see the supreme worth of our Savior, and that following him is always costly and always worth it.
Jason Seville is the senior pastor of an international church in China. You can follow him on Twitter.