Source: www.sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

In our recent mini-series exploring the impact on mission of the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), we’ve considered why mission workers can be tempted to drive themselves to overwork, and how the PWE can affect our prayer life and how we interpret the Parable of the Talents.  Today we’re going to look at another way in which mission workers can put themselves under unnecessary pressure to deliver results – overwork.

Some years ago we here at Syzygy realised that many mission workers are overworked, not merely because there are not enough resources, people or money, but because there’s an extent to which they choose to be, at least subconsciously.  Our studies led us to believe that there is often something in their background, probably in their childhood, which is driving them on to deliver results.  Perhaps it was a parent who continually demanded excellence, a teacher who was never satisfied with the effort made, a performance-fixated church leader or some other person who regularly said something like “You’ll never achieve anything!”

Learned behaviour in childhood is notoriously hard to unlearn as an adult, and even a Christian who is absolutely convinced of the unconditional love of God may still exhibit behaviours which were originally adopted to appease the demanding authority figure, because they’ve never been openly challenged.  We see this effect quite frequently in mission workers: although the original person who gave rise to that behaviour may have been dead for years, the victim is still trying to prove them wrong.  And those responses subconsciously affect their work for God – they’re trying to achieve in order to earn approval.  Unaddressed, this situation can lead to significant stress, burnout, and possibly even mission workers leaving the field.

Dynamic TriangleIn the 1950s a Christian psychologist called Frank Lake came up with a model to explain this.  We’ve adapted it somewhat to make it a little more accessible and we call it The Dynamic Triangle.  It’s very simple.  It starts with the assumption that we are accepted, in Christ, by God.  God loves us and cares for us.  From that flows our identity in Christ: we are children of God; friends of God; co-workers with God.  That awareness creates a security out of which we can achieve things for God.  Our achievement underlines the fact that we are already accepted.

Frank Lake observed that in many cases, the triangle flows anti-clockwise.  Building on our learned childhood behaviour, we try to achieve something in order that we can establish our identity.  Our identity in turn reassures us that we are accepted.  Though we may not intellectually agree with the proposition that God loves us because we achieve things for him, that’s what our behaviour shows.  So we drive ourselves harder and harder to achieve more and more so that we can feel secure in God’s love… even though we say we don’t have to!  And because our sense of security and identity is dependent on our performance, we drive ourselves hard in order to demonstrate our salvation.

fishingBehaviour which conflicts with beliefs can lead to significant inner tension and can play a key part in mission workers burning out.  Syzygy runs a day workshop to help mission workers, agencies and member care workers understand this dynamic.  For more information see our page Why do we Choose to be Stressed?

So why, if God loves us unconditionally, do we do any work at all for God when we clearly don’t have to?

Healthy, well-adjusted children are motivated by their supportive and accepting relationship with their parents and know they do not have to achieve to earn it.  But they want to be with their parents.  They often copy what their parents do, and adopt the same mannerisms and expressions.  We too, have the same opportunity: to be with God, to start to become like God, and to see what God is doing and want to join in.

That is why we do mission.  We’re not trying to earn God’s love, we’re trying to express it.  We follow the model of Jesus, who said and did what the Father did (John 5:19-20, 8:28).