Beware the Idols of an Overseas Life

When we first move overseas, all we feel is the sacrifice. 

Homesickness punches us in the stomach; we experience a physical ache for left-behind loved ones. Our new country feels strange and overwhelming. We lose our sense of self-respect as we bumble along in communication. We mourn the loss of our identity and productivity as we try to figure out how to drive, eat, and parent in this new universe. There are times when we even hate it, and wonder what on earth brought us here.

But then, something changes.

It will likely take (many) years, but one day it dawns on us that we feel more at home in our host country than our home country. We tell jokes in a different language. We navigate the bus system with ease. We crave the local food. We no longer look forward to our furloughs or home assignments, and might even dread them. 

We’ve found a new community, and it’s possible that those relationships are stronger and deeper than anything we had back at home. The view outside our kitchen window has become familiar. Grocery shopping is mundane. We’ve figured out how to make this new life work. And we are comfortable.

And that’s exactly when we must be on our guard.

Think about it this way: when our life overseas is a sacrifice, we continually contemplate our calling. Why am I here? Is this worth it? Am I doing any good? We dig deep into dependence on God. We evaluate our motives. When life is a slog, our vision is clear: we know why we are doing this. 

But what about when life becomes comfortable? Once we’ve adapted to a new culture, we come face-to-face with the reality that this overseas life has perks. Sometimes, lots of them. 

Our lives are interesting. Fulfilling. Living as an expat means we get the benefits of two worlds: the richness, beauty, and adventure of our host country, but with all the safety nets from our home country. We get to travel to exotic places. We become exotic people.

We get to stand out–not only in our host country, but back at home too. We are respected, set apart, even put on a pedestal. 

We don’t like to admit this. We would rather stick with the “sacrifice” narrative, because it feels better. And of course, some sacrifices never disappear. But often, with enough time, the perks outweigh the sacrifices. 

Comfort is sinister because it can lull us into lying to ourselves. This new identity can be intoxicating. We laugh and say, “Living overseas is addicting!” which is kind of funny, but kind of dangerous. This fulfilling life can blind us to the truths we need to see.

Being venerated by others can steal our cultural humility–both overseas and back at home. Feeling comfortable can poke holes in our dependence on God. Our sense of calling can be overshadowed by the fact that we just really like our life. 

We might stop evaluating our effectiveness. Stop questioning our motives. We may even ignore that little voice that tells us it’s time to turn the ministry over to locals, that it’s time to move on. 

It’s very easy for the perks of living overseas to become idols. What is especially disturbing is that these idols are disguised as sacrifices–both to us and to those back at home. The missions narrative can allow us to live for ourselves while pretending that we are only about God’s kingdom. This should terrify us. 

Does this mean that it’s automatically time to leave when life overseas becomes comfortable? Does this mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy the gifts of an overseas life? Of course not. If you are in that place, rejoice, for it took a lot of grit to get there. But also, be on your guard. Don’t lose your commitment to humility, to self-evaluation, to asking the hard questions of yourself and your ministry. Recognize the danger of comfort, look it straight in the eye, and confront it head on. If you find yourself defensive, pay attention. What’s really going on in your heart?

John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We should not be stunned to discover how quickly our hearts will take something godly and beautiful–even in missions–and turn it into our own personal idol. Let us beware.

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Amy Medina

Amy Medina spent almost half her life on the continent of Africa, first as an MK in Liberia and then the last sixteen years in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Amy (and family) relocated to Southern California in 2020, and she now serves as a coach for pre-deployed missionaries. Amy blogs at www.amy-medina.com.