Let’s be honest. Saying goodbye stinks. Not the normal, everyday goodbyes. The kind that tears our hearts out like a child watching her first balloon float away. These are the goodbyes that deconstruct relationships because they remove proximity and leave reunion ambiguous. We live in a world of these goodbyes. And we all constantly measure our commitments so as to avoid them. That’s why girls guard their hearts—or conversely, give them away too easily. It’s part of why no one interacts in mass transits. It’s why no one on Friday night says, “Hey, let’s hit up the nursing home!” These goodbyes are merely foreshadows of their ultimate and inevitable form: death. The forever goodbye.
Like I said, saying goodbye stinks.
For the missionary, goodbyes are not a part of life. They are a way of life. In a world of goodbyes, it’s missionaries who sign up to experience them non-stop. They say goodbye to everything they’ve ever known, from the food they eat to the words they speak. And just about the time their new home becomes home, it’s time to say goodbye all over again. Perhaps the worst part are goodbyes to loved ones. Missionary John Paton wrote vividly of the farewell to his father:
Waving my hat in adieu, I was round the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me farther, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dyke to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and began to return—his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze.
I myself remember as if it was yesterday, sitting forlorn after saying goodbye to my family at the airport. The first words in my journal capture the emotion:
It has killed my heart to say goodbye to Mom and Dad. I know this is so hard for them. This strips away all the idealistic glories of mission work. This is raw. Alone.
Here lies the strongest reasons to not go. ‘Don’t leave us.’ ‘How can you take our grandchildren away?’ ‘There’s still so much work to be done here.’ These claims are legit, and their proof is in the sleepless nights that come with them. Going can leave some feeling forsaken, push families too far, and cause gaping holes in multiple spheres of life. Yet for all that is to be cursed, lamented, booed, and blasted about goodbyes, there is some good in them. And if you’re going to say such goodbyes, you’ll need every last drop of the good to carry you through the bye.
Goodbyes are good for those who don’t know Christ. This is the obvious one, right? Saying hard goodbyes is worth it for the sake of people coming to know Christ. And this is the most common response to the seething objections against going. In response to (1) the grace of knowing God lavished on us through Christ and (2) the horror of many people not knowing God, we cannot stay. “Knowing what it is to fear God, we persuade men…For the love of Christ controls us,” as Paul put it (2 Corinthians 5:14). No sacrifice is too great, including the heart-wrenching goodbyes. It’s why John Bunyan willingly chose to say a 12-year goodbye to his wife and children while he sat in prison for his preaching. Better yet, it’s why Jesus bid farewell—not merely to heaven, as though place is a chief concern of an omnipresent God—but the eternal communion of the Trinity. Think your goodbyes hurt? Hear the agony of separation in Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) It’s a heart-filling picture of the worth God has placed on reconciling lost people to himself. It is one of the few right reasons to say such awful goodbyes. And it preaches the treasure of knowing Christ not only to those far away, but also to those nearby, the very ones shaking their fists at your “selfishness”.
Goodbyes are good for those who do know Christ. Yes, it’s good for us to follow in the footsteps of our Savior, to walk in obedience to his command to go. The severe pain that accompanies goodbyes contributes to the filling up of what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, the sufferings that Christians experience for the sake of the gospel (Colossians 1:24). And these sufferings bring glory to God (Ephesians 3:13). But it’s not just the intangible kind of glory that floats up to God (or whatever other Christianese way you want to put it). It compels us as fellow believers. One of my peers, a gifted man who is growing in acclaim for his preaching and leadership, is giving it all up to move his family overseas on mission. And it compels my heart. A family recently sold their home on several acres in the ritzy part of town and moved into the inner city to more effectively reach out to international students. And it compels my heart. As I ponder why in the world they would do such a thing, I remember Christ in them, and I remember Christ in me. They point me to the one who gives me the courage to do the same.
Goodbyes are good for those who don’t seek a better country. A good friend recently wrote, “Show me a person who says, ‘Don’t go, there’s so much work to do here,’ and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t live on mission.” It’s not always the case, but often those who have little space for goodbyes have little place for sacrifice. Or at least they value their relationship with you more than their relationship with God, or others’ lack of relationship with God. Which, honestly, is understandable, and even admirable, yet still inexcusable according to Jesus (Matthew 10:37). Intentional transience is not about finding a better place to live, it’s about looking for “a better country—a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16), meaning your heart and eyes are set on Jesus, and thus your feet follow where he leads. This makes no sense to those who don’t see Christ as the reward of life. Instead, the reward is found here—hoard it. So saying goodbye is a gracious declaration of something far better. And it’s a merciful warning, especially in a land where abundance lulls our hearts to sleep. Goodbyes speak of a coming day for each of us when leaving all behind and parting ways will not be an option. As vile as it is that goodbyes foreshadow the grave, we need all the preparation for death we can get.
Goodbyes are good for those who do seek a better country. It would be silly to say that Christians have got this whole goodbye thing down. Even though we are those who do seek a better country, our resistance to parting ways is often just as strong (or stronger) than anyone else’s. It makes sense. Our ties go deeper because we’ve been fused together in the same body and Spirit (Ephesians 4:4). Our fellowship is sweet, and all the more the longer and deeper we share it. So we can easily be the most violent opponents to missional goodbyes. The same was true in the New Testament. Maybe the most famous is when Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, saying that he will never let him go to the cross. Yet as noble as his disciple’s love might seem, Jesus’ response shows just how off Peter was: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:21-23). We see a similar occurrence in Paul’s life while he’s in Caesarea on his way to Jerusalem. Since it’s certain Paul will face severe persecution and likely death, the believers beg him not to go. Paul responds, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:8-14).
Christians, we are those who say we long for a better country, yet we can tend to cling white-knuckle to what and who is familiar. Intentional goodbyes for the sake of obedience to God’s mission, as crappy as they might be, hold some good for our souls. Say them well.