We had left our baby girl in the makeshift nursery to attend one of the meetings for the orientation that was to launch our missionary career. In the next few days, she would get sick with her first fever while we were trapped in a damp, chilly, tiny lodging with an outside shower that provided limited hot water. It was our inaugural taste of “suffering for Jesus,” and it was miserable and gritty but grand.
In a roomful of fellow missionaries, some seasoned, others new to the field, the energy was palpable. We had gathered to reach the nations, just like I had dreamed as an evangelical teen on fire. The speaker spoke powerfully, and the one phrase that resonated in my young adventurous mind, the one mantra that would sustain me through some of the most stressful years of my life, was this: “long obedience in the same direction.” The speaker was using the title of Eugene Peterson’s Christian classic, which I had not read, but the catchy title was pregnant with meaning, and especially poignant for a life of mission. We were fueled by the intense longing to stick it out for the long haul, to persevere despite the suffering, to be faithful in our long obedience.
We were faithful, for a year. And then two. And three and a half more years after that. But there started a stirring in my spirit, like a pea at the bottom of twenty mattresses, which kept me tossing and turning in the dark night of my soul. That small pea quickly turned into a full blown faith crisis that first nudged us away from our missionary vocation, and then freed me to deconstruct my faith without the confines of institutional structure.
The first few years after we left the mission field, we had to grapple with our failure. Our “long obedience” had only lasted a little over five years, and then we had called it quits. How shameful. But we had two school-aged kids now and we couldn’t drop everything and easily move back—nor did we want to, to be honest. We had failed, and I was okay admitting that.
My faith-shift quickly picked up pace. I began questioning my beliefs, along with my identity, my community, my upbringing—nothing was off limits—and I emerged from that process unrecognizable from the person I had been. I had changed my mind about almost everything that I once held dear. The fire that had burned bright enough to compel our family to choose such an alternative path had completely fizzled out. Not only that, I now spoke vocally against the ideologies I once evangelized. I was definitively no longer obedient in “the same direction.”
Part of me is still inspired by the spirit of Peterson’s phrase, “long obedience in the same direction.” There’s something beautiful about the slow labor of doing the right thing. Those who have been involved in the same work for decades are heroes to me for their steady service. And, yet, I also recognize the courage in those of us who have changed the course of our lives because we recognized the mission we were on held problematic elements. To continue long obedience in that direction would have meant living with increasing cognitive dissonance and disintegrating ourselves just to stay on that straight and narrow path.
I needed my path to broaden, and collectively we need better language to describe faithfulness and success. Just as even the most conservative traditions allow women to divorce if abuse occurs, when we uncover toxicity in the path we’re on, leaving our abuser is often the right choice and not a sign of weakness. Sometimes change is necessary, healthy, and the brave thing to do.
Here’s the problem with obedience: it is often a way for those in power to keep people submissive under a system. We use obedience training in parenting to require children to do what their parents tell them, no questions asked. Long obedience should not equate to long-suffering only for the vulnerable party. Faithful perseverance should always require all parties to mutually sacrifice for one another, so that life gets better for everyone.
My life has taken so many twists and turns since that day I committed to a long obedience in the same direction. There have been moments that I bobbed up on the surface to look for the lighthouse to guide me, only to be pulled back under by an undercurrent of doubt and faith crises. But on good days, I do not feel disoriented, because I have discovered that straying off the beaten path is the more interesting way to live. Sometimes obedience calls us to radical paradigm shifts and walking back on the principles we used to hold. Sometimes change is bad, other times it’s good, and yet another time, it sets us free.
Maybe freedom for all is my new lighthouse. I don’t know, but it’s the direction I’m heading for the moment.
Photo via Unsplash.
About Cindy Brandt
Cindy writes from Taiwan about faith and culture. She blogs at Patheos Unfundamentalist Parenting and at cindywords.com. She is the author of Outside In: Ten Christian Voices We Can’t Ignore, which you can download for free by signing up for her newsletter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.