Uprooting your life and transplanting to an entirely new setting is simultaneously exciting and disorienting. Perhaps one of the most annoying questions well-meaning friends and family members ask is, “What are your expectations for your life there?” We all have expectations, but some of them are so intrinsic that we don’t even know to extract them for a thorough examination.
Most of us do not head overseas with the expectation that we will start believing lies about ourselves. On the contrary, many of us go through such extensive field preparation that we are more self-aware than we’ve ever been. Even so, in the absence of relational transparency and honest self-reflection, we are prone to believing destructive lies about ourselves. Here are five of the most common lies I’ve seen workers believe.
1. Living on the field will make me a better Christian/human!
Before actually moving to the field, I pictured myself praying a lot more and being so filled with Holy Spirit power that I would eloquently bestow wisdom upon each person I encountered (perfectly conjugated, of course). In reality, I was regularly uttering profanities under my breath while hoping that God would smite all the reckless drivers.
Most of us have some delusions about how much better our future selves will be, especially when we picture our lives in a new place with new surroundings. We fail to account for the toll that emotional strain, illness, and interpersonal conflict (among other things) will have on our daily lives and the very real fact that some of our same old habits will follow us no matter where we live.
2. I should be further along than this by now.
Whether it’s the comparison game or falling back into old bad habits, we can easily believe the lie that we should have outgrown this ugly thing by now. We should have matured past this struggle or thought pattern, but here we are again. The danger of this lie is the shame and hiding that tend to accompany it. Realizing that you are back in the same ugly place that you were a few years ago or struggling with the same sin that you thought you had overcome before you came to the field can bring such grief that the tendency is to just bury it. Rather than holding it out with open hands before a friend who cares, we want to keep it quiet enough that we can just talk to God and get rid of it on our own.
Believing the lie that we should not be struggling with the same junk again makes us lose sight of the fact that God the Father delights in us. We devalue ourselves because of our shortcomings, and then we project our own disappointment onto the God who already knows our proclivities and still chose to subject himself to undeserved shame, torture, and death for us.
3. I must justify leisure activity.
“I used points for the trip!” I can’t tell you how many times I have personally justified purchases with the fact that they were paid for by points or airline miles. For the sake of not looking indulgent or excessive, we will quickly volunteer information about how travel, services, or expensive items were procured. Michéle Phoenix summarized this beautifully in her article about guiltitude. Some of us buy into this lie because we have read or heard stories of missionaries who nearly starved to death or lived in such humble circumstances that indulgences such as a pedicure, vacation, or trip to Starbucks were unthinkable.
Add that to the fact that some pastors and church leadership believe cross-cultural workers should enjoy subsisting on scraps, and we’ve created a perfect storm. Not only have we personally ingested an unrealistic standard of living, but some of our church leadership back home have also placed this expectation on us. Our member care personnel and counselors tell us the importance of breaks and rest, reminding us to partake in activities we enjoy and take time for ourselves. But to avoid judgment from churches back home, many of us explain that our leisure activity was paid for by something or someone that has a net-zero impact on our budget. This can lead us to believe that we don’t really deserve to rest or take a break.
4. My worth is measured by my language ability.
Language ability is often the key instrument used to judge a cross-cultural worker’s worthiness to stay on the field. Spoken word is the most common means by which the beauty and truth of Jesus are shared, so language should certainly be a priority. However, it is entirely possible to become proficient in language but have minimal bonding with the people who speak it. Language ability does not guarantee that you will be an effective communicator of truth or even a person who is embraced or accepted by the local people.
In our drive to attain high levels of language proficiency, we can neglect equally important aspects of our lives such as time with family or friends, leisure activities, or even the needs of people around us. Defining our worth by our language ability also fails to recognize that within the expat Christian community, there exists a myriad of different giftings. While some will be crushing it at language, others are connecting through unseen service to the body of Christ. New parents may be quietly praying over the nation as they bounce a crying baby night after night, and others may take on administrative roles to keep the unseen moving parts functioning.
Parents, and mothers in particular, can feel an extreme amount of guilt over their language ability. Being expected to learn a language while keeping tiny humans alive and often simultaneously giving them an education, in addition to forging deep friendships with both teammates and locals, while filling a ministry role? It’s both unreasonable and a potent prescription for burnout.
5. I am failing at everything.
Seeing little or no “fruit,” experiencing conflict with co-workers, and family strife are all issues that merit a big red “guaranteed” stamp on our job descriptions. Unfortunately, difficulties on the field can compound and leave even the most optimistic worker feeling like their efforts have amounted to nothing. Part of the complexity of living overseas is that we are often expected to excel at many things. Our language should be impeccable, our families should be thriving, our evangelistic efforts should be fruitful, our team relationships should be life-giving, our professional skills should be valuable, and our spiritual lives should be a well-watered garden bursting with flowers and butterflies. The truth is that we are often experiencing serious disappointment in many areas of our lives at any given time. We can convince ourselves that our value lies in our success and that we are therefore failures.
There is no algorithm for untangling the web of deceit we can find ourselves in, but we can rest in the reality that God is truth. Embracing the truth means believing that God cares for us as much as he cares for the nations to which he called us. This truth can feel lopsided and selfish, but grace is always unmerited by us.
As you review the past year and create goals for 2023, may you take comfort in the God who delights in you not based on your achievements, success, shortcomings, or failings. May you remember that your value to the Father was birthed in undiminished, ever-pursuing love that is present even in the darkest nights. You are beloved because you are his.