The Good in GoodbyesBy Bradley Bell
May 17, 2021
Let’s be honest—saying goodbye stinks.
Not the everyday goodbyes. I’m talking about the kind that make us like a child watching her first balloon float away. These are the goodbyes that deconstruct relationships. They leave proximity ruined and reunion ambiguous. We all face these goodbyes. And we all subconsciously measure our commitments so as to avoid them. It’s why long-distance dating usually doesn’t work. It’s why no one interacts in mass transits. It’s why no one is eager to hang out at a nursing home. These goodbyes are merely foreshadows of their inevitable form: death—the ultimate goodbye.
Like I said, saying goodbye stinks.
For the church planter, goodbyes are a way of life. In a world of goodbye avoidance, it’s missional leaders who sign up to experience them endlessly. They say goodbye to the home, church, and city that they have come to love. And just about the time their new home becomes home, they begin to taste the raw transience of their context. Not to mention that doing their job well means raising up and sending out leaders—people who are often close friends.
Perhaps the worst goodbyes are those to loved ones. Missionary John G. 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, too, remember it painfully well, sitting shell-shocked 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. I know this is so hard for them. This strips away all the idealistic glories of going. This is raw. Alone.
And here lies the strongest reasons to not uproot and plant elsewhere:
“Don’t leave us.”
“How can you take our grandchildren away?”
“There’s still so much work to be done here.”
These claims have some legitimacy, and the proof is in the restless sleep that comes with them. Going to plant can leave some feeling forsaken, push familial relationships to the limit, 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 Jesus.
This is the obvious one, right? Saying hard goodbyes is worth it for the sake of people coming to know Jesus. In response to (1) the grace of knowing God lavished on us through Jesus and (2) the horror of many people not knowing this grace, we cannot stay. As Paul says,“Knowing what it is to fear God, we persuade men…For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
But this isn’t just good for the lost people you’re going to serve. It’s also good for the lost people you’re leaving behind. Why? Because they will be tangibly exposed to the treasure of knowing Jesus. Often you will even have opportunity to explain why you’re leaving. And as I always say at commissionings, it speaks of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and his worthiness of our sacrifice for him.
Goodbyes are good for those who do know Jesus.
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 also compels fellow believers. When a gifted man who is known and loved uproots his family to go plant, it changes a church. They have the chance to hurt for Jesus too. Of course they see Christ in the planter—but they also remember Christ in them. They are compelled by the One who also calls them to be courageous in their obedience.
Goodbyes are good for those who don’t seek a better country.
A good friend recently said, “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 missional 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, 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). This makes no sense to those who don’t see Jesus as the reward of life. So sometimes the very people who should be your biggest fans are your biggest critics. That hurts. And the only way I’ve found to get through it is to love them the same way you love the lost people you’re going to serve. And that is a good thing.
Goodbyes are good for those who do seek a better country.
Even though Jesus-followers are those who do seek a better country, our resistance to parting can often be even stronger. It makes sense—our ties go deeper because we’ve been fused together in the same body by the same Spirit (Ephesians 4:4). We see this in the New Testament when Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. Since it’s certain he will face severe persecution and likely death, the believers beg him not to go. Paul responds sorely, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?” (Acts 21:13).
Furthermore, had it been left up to Jesus’ friends, he would never have gone to the cross (Matthew 16:22). But the cross would be the very thing that solidified their friendship forever. So don’t protect yourself from the hurt by withdrawing from relationships. Press in together. Process it together. Weep for a better country together.
Intentional goodbyes for the sake of going to plant, as difficult as they might be, hold some good for our souls. Say them well.
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