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On December 31, 2020, billions of people stayed up until midnight, ready to kiss the year of the pandemic goodbye. It had been a year of uncertainty and waiting as plans were postponed, expectations shifted, and a “new normal” set in. For the eager missionary or the enthusiastic short-term trip participant, arrangements to deploy were either delayed or canceled.

The new year was supposed to bring new hope and the resumption of postponed plans. But with the pandemic continuing to spread and many travel restrictions still in place, 2021 has gotten off to a bumpy start. Many wanting to get to the mission field are once again facing unexpected, unwanted delays.

Setbacks are common in life. Whether it’s finding a spouse or getting a job, things rarely happen exactly when people want them to. Christ followers can attribute some setbacks to their selfish desires or God working on something better.

But when the setback is related to missions, it can be hard to understand why God would allow delays. Billions of people are in need of the gospel, and many believers have the right motivations in wanting to share the good news with others. Surely God wouldn’t keep His people from telling others about Jesus. Yet, sometimes, He does.

Delays have occurred since the earliest days of the Church. And though God may not fully reveal on this side of Heaven why He allows them, believers can have confidence that every delay has purpose.

Prevented from Going

“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” -Acts 16:6, emphasis added

Paul and other believers were taking the gospel as far as they could and to as many people as they could. They had much success, seeing thousands come to faith and the church grow in numbers daily. But as they traveled from region to region, the Holy Spirit at one point prevented them from going to Asia.

This was not the only time Paul was prevented from going somewhere. He wrote that he had been prevented (Romans 1:13) and hindered (Romans 15:22) from going to Rome, a city in desperate need of the gospel.

Paul may have wondered why God prevented him from going to certain places. But based on his response to these delays, it’s clear he trusted God’s sovereign plan. He may have understood that delays are not God’s way of hindering the mission but enhancing it.

The Mission May Be Elsewhere

In early 2020, many long-term and short-term missionaries prayed and felt called to take the gospel to a certain part of the world. But when the pandemic hit, borders closed, trips were canceled, and the mission seemed to stop.

For Paul, being prevented from going somewhere did not mean the mission had ended. When the Holy Spirit prevented him and others from going to Asia, Paul received a vision of a man in Macedonia and was convinced God was calling them to go there (Acts 16:9-10). For whatever reason, God wanted the gospel preached in Macedonia before Asia.

And when Paul was kept from going to Rome, he was busy preaching the gospel where it was not known (Romans 15:20).

Gospel-driven believers were also not ready to call it quits. When they couldn’t travel, many focused the mission at home. Millions of people in the United States are not believers. Some are part of unreached people groups who emigrated from other countries. Though Christianity is the largest religion in the U.S., the gospel still needs to be shared here. Missions organizations created stateside mission trips last year, emphasizing the need to build up believers at home.

When God closes the door to one mission field, it may be because He has work that needs to be done somewhere else first. If plans for one mission are put on hold, see if God may have gospel opportunities in another area.

Others May Step Up

Children who are first learning to ride a bike use training wheels to help them keep their balance. Training wheels are great at first, but the only way to learn how to stay balanced is to eventually take them off.

In the same way, young believers often rely on the support of more mature believers when learning to share the gospel. The hope is that these young believers will eventually take charge and lead others to build up the faith.

While Paul was imprisoned and couldn’t go to Rome, he said it actually helped advance the gospel. The young Church, without the assistance of its leader, stepped up in confidence to continue spreading the gospel.

“And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” -Philippians 1:14

God may give young believers the courage and confidence they need to continue the Great Commission whenever missionaries can’t travel to support a young church abroad. Delays provide opportunities for others to step up to the plate.

God May Have Other Work in Store

Quarantine allowed people the time to pick up a plethora of hobbies. Many became bakers, artists, or musicians.

When Paul was in prison, he took up writing. He wrote four letters while in prison, which would later become four of the Bible’s epistles—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. For centuries, these writings have encouraged and instructed the Church, equipping believers to be better representatives of God’s Kingdom.

Paul made the most of his time while he was unable to be on the mission field. God may be calling you to other work while you wait to go to the field as well. Are there believers who need discipling? Is there a gifting you have that can be used to further the gospel? Is there another way to serve at church? Be open to other opportunities God may have for you while you wait to go to the mission field.

Having a Biblical Mindset

Delays can cause frustration, anxiety, or depression. When godly efforts are put on hold, people can develop a self-righteous mindset, believing God owes them something.

But as believers, we must remember that God’s ways are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9). We may never understand in this lifetime why God would allow obstacles in the road. Regardless, we must trust in His sovereign will.

His timing is perfect (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Nothing happens—good or bad—without His command (Lamentation 3:37-38). And though God may prevent us from going, He never stops working.