I’m guessing if you’re a person on planet earth right now, you’re experiencing loss in one or more areas of your life. This year has been filled with an abundance of sorrow and grief as we’ve lost face-to-face relationships with people we hold dear, friends or family who have gotten sick or hospitalized and we were unable to visit them, loved ones who have passed away and we were unable to have the kind of funeral or memorial service they deserved due to restrictions of COVID19, or we’re weighted down by the choices concerning our children’s educational options for this fall. We, too, have experienced many losses in our cross-cultural life–most of our friends were unable to return to our host country because of border closures or security reasons, and this resulted in a huge loss of our friendships, neighbors, homeschool activities and learning opportunities, and even our church family. And in our own losses, we know we’re not unique; it’s been a pretty brutal year for the whole world.
We made a decision about five weeks ago to exit our host country, for good. The border closure is not looking favorable for Americans to return. There were political tensions mounting. We were looking at an indeterminate amount of time looming ahead of us with no hope for community for all of our kids. This is not to discount the wonderful people we still had in country, the ones who had loved us well the past few years, the ones we met right before we left, the ones with whom we had deepened relationships, and the ones we had come to love in a short amount of time. But as we examined the situation from the perspective of each of our children, we could see that as crazy as it is to move internationally in the midst of a pandemic, it would be a healthier option overall for our family.
And so we landed about a week and a half ago after nearly 37 hours of travel on four different airplanes in three different countries. We were welcomed by our best friends of ten years, a new-to-us vehicle, and a rental to settle into. It’s been a whirlwind of packing and selling and hustling from one place to another. As our time here has lengthened, along with our sleeping patterns, we have begun to feel the weight of our decision, both the gains and the losses.
Yesterday, we decided to count our losses for the year of 2020. We hoped this exercise would help us all process and name our hurts so that we could take them to God in lament. Some of us just had one thing listed. Others had 18. Some of us revealed losses that go back three years or even five. But what was most apparent in our losses is the commonality that we share with the entire world’s losses this year: circumstances, relationships, locations, stuff, and identities we had built for ourselves. Our losses aren’t really different in substance. We’re all losing the same things.
For my husband and myself, the loss of identity has been a pretty hard pill to swallow. I don’t think we do it intentionally–build up identities for ourselves. We know our ultimate, true identity is that we belong to God, and we are His, and He is ours. But somehow along the way, we’ve also added our roles and relationships and work to that identity. What happens when those roles change, people move, and the job is no more? Who are we then? Living cross-culturally comes with its own identities–we were expatriates, and we were foreign missionaries. Now that we’re back in the States, we possess neither of those titles. And it has rocked our boat a bit. Try as we might, we never intended for those roles to become our identity; yes, they were roles we filled, but they’re not the core of who we are. And in the loss of those roles, we find ourselves asking, “Who are we now?” “What is our family culture?” “What is our purpose?”
As I was praying about these losses yesterday, the Lord reminded me of Paul’s statements in Philippians 3. He says,
“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…Philippians 3:3-9, ESv
Paul had his identities too–he was the ultimate Jew. He followed all the laws. He knew his tribe, where he came from, who his people were. No one could match him for righteousness or zeal. And his whole identity was wrapped up in those things he claimed and performed. He calls these identities “putting confidence in the flesh.” But then he met Jesus, and it all changed. In effect, he surrendered all of those identities in order to know Jesus. He counted these identity gains as loss. He counted them as trash in comparison to knowing Christ. And his instruction is to NOT put confidence in our flesh. And where I am right now, I can really identify with what he’s saying. I have suffered the loss of so many things I had gained prior to this year, and every single loss has pushed me into the arms of Christ where I have come to know Him in a new and deeper way. All of this loss was exchanged for being found in Him. Though I am grieving the losses of host country, relationships, stability, and misassumed identities, the truth, that is always true for the Christ-follower, remains the same: I have been lost, but I am found.
How are we “putting confidence in the flesh?” The very idea is counter to the life of a Christian. All of these identities, even though they’re not sin, in and of themselves, are not the core of who we are. Therefore, the confidence we have placed in them has proven to be untrustworthy and unstable, at best. And so we have to ask ourselves, “Where is my confidence? Who am I? Am I Christ’s? Am I found in Him?” Where we find our identity and our confidence will determine whether or not we walk by the Spirit of God or by our flesh. And as we lament our losses in His presence, we find that He’s still God, and He’s still good. He still loves us. We are still His. And as we process our loss of earthly gains, let’s do so in the truth that through it all, we have gained Christ, and we are found in Him. And because of this gain of Jesus Himself, we are, like Paul, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” and we can, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13b-14, ESV).