The Incarnation—Jesus as the Original Third Culture Kid

The incarnation has always provided me incredible motivation for mission. Jesus willingly left heaven, comfort, glory, and his Father. He made his home among us and gave himself for us. There could be no greater example of missionary life.

But what about missionary children like mine? Most aren’t party to their parents’ life decisions. Some are born in foreign hospitals. Others wake up on airplanes in unknown lands.

In one of childhood’s (and parenthood’s) most significant moments, many walk into school on the first day with no friends, a teacher they can’t understand, and food for lunch they’ve never tasted.

And then there’s every grandparent’s fear: will they be safe? These little treasures move into the backyard of terrorists, into the bush far from quality medical care, or into megacities where children frequently go missing.

Mom and Dad may have chosen to risk their lives for the sake of the gospel, but do they have the right to put their children in harm’s way? It’s a legitimate question. And on my worst days, it still haunts me.

Advent’s Encouragement

I’ll never forget the words of encouragement I received from a pastor and friend before our family left for our new home in Central Asia. He’d traveled many times to India and South Asia, and without exception, the parents he’d met along the way were happy with their decision to raise children overseas.

“The incarnation provides hope and peace when we consider the plight of our own children. Jesus, after all, didn’t simply come as the God-man—he came as a child.”

Sure, there were difficulties, but they had no regrets. As he recalled, many felt the move was best for their kids. After five years of life in a Muslim country with our three children, I don’t doubt the words of those missionary parents. But I can’t say I always share their sentiments.

To some degree our children did well. They viewed Asia as their home, more so than America. They learned the language, made friends, and adapted to the culture. If we went to the mall for dinner, my wife and I wanted McDonald’s, but our daughters preferred rice.

Yet despite their ability to acclimate, living overseas wasn’t always a wonderful experience for my children. They lived a life of goodbyes. We saw family once every year or two. They had limited options for school. We didn’t have an “established” church to attend. And they had few examples of godly, mature Christians in their lives.

At a young age they were bullied and persecuted for their faith; my son was even threatened with stoning and stabbing. This doesn’t even take into account the political instability in our region or the wars that constantly surrounded us.

On many days I wondered if I should spare my kids from this life. But then I remember the Father who did not spare his own Son.

Of course, we know that the preexistent Son, eternally equal with the Father, chose to come to earth of his own accord. The incarnation wasn’t about persuasion, coercion, or the Father’s “because I said so.”

Nevertheless, the Incarnation does provide hope and peace when we consider the plight of our own children. Jesus, after all, didn’t simply come as the God-man—he came as a child. And he knows what it is to live out the mission of his Father.

Part of the Plan

As we read the story of Jesus’s advent, we also encounter the peril of parenting a third-culture kid. God chose Mary and Joseph as the means to deliver salvation to his people, but they weren’t spared parental angst. In fact, their lives reflect that of many modern-day missionary moms and dads.

When we encounter the narrative in the Gospels, a political ruling had sent them on a long journey, dangerous for both mother and child. Mary didn’t have the luxury of giving birth in a clean and comfortable environment, even by the standards of the day. Shortly after their son’s birth, the local ruler threatened his life.

The young family had to flee almost overnight to another land. During their stay in Egypt, they likely had to learn to navigate in a foreign language. Joseph must’ve wondered how such turmoil and suffering could be God’s plan for his beloved son.

When Herod finally died, the family returned to Israel but settled in Nazareth out of fear; they still didn’t know if Bethlehem was safe. In all of this, they experienced the upheaval, uncertainty, and loneliness of constantly being on the move. They finally decided where to live, not based on convenience or comfort, but where they thought their son wouldn’t be killed.

But these details are only part of the story, for Matthew and Luke give us a broader picture. Beyond what Joseph could see in the daily struggle to protect his family, God was invisibly orchestrating events. Governmental decrees, threats, bloodshed, arduous journeys, regime changes, and even survival-based decision making were part of God’s mysterious plan.

“In the end, we hold little hands through passport control, knowing that God is holding us in his.”

Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. He was to be called out of Egypt. He was to be raised in Nazareth. The dangers didn’t thwart the Father’s design; they were part of it. And they were for good.

Stumbling Confidence

Missionary parents don’t haphazardly or casually passage children across the globe. We have fears. We live with uncertainty. We sometimes choose out of survival more than strategy. And we’re not always sure we’ve made the best decisions.

But in the end, we hold little hands through passport control, knowing that God is holding us in his. We serve a Father who knows what it is to lose his Son. And we take great confidence in his ability to work all things for good. The incarnation teaches us so.

Elliot Clark (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia for six years where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and three children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas.