How God Can Use an Overseas Transition to Transform our Lives
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:3 5)
Making a transition overseas requires losing in order to gain. Knowing what to lose and how to lose it will help us gain the life God has prepared for us overseas.
WHAT DO WE LOSE?
My friend Kristi expressed some of the things we lose when we move overseas; competence and a familiar environment. “1 was exhausted from not being able to communicate with people, bombarded by strange smells and often lost and disoriented due to my bad sense of direction,” Kristi said, “I’d been forewarned about culture shock but thought that my 8-year passion for being a global worker would somehow make me a little more immune to its effects.”
A sense of loss of competence may come if you do not already know the host language or are unfamiliar with doing simple things like mailing a letter or buying a train ticket. A loss of familiar environment includes having to adjust to a new culture and values, as well losing relationships. Also, you can sense a loss of identity when you must initiate relationships with new people who don’t yet know the real you. These losses can cause us to doubt ourselves and feel insecure, and are a natural part of the transition. knowing and expecting them can help us transition more smoothly, clearing the way for us to be humbled before God and ready for Him to work in us.
Kristi’s experience also demonstrates that we have expectations we may need to lose. These expectations are often influenced by personal values. I value structure. Overseas, I wanted to plop right down into a new routine. Not possible! What do you value most? Structure, variety, adventure, control? How will moving into a new culture affect your values? If you don’t lose certain expectations, one of several things could happen:
I struggle with letting go of competence and can be discouraged and disappointed with myself when I fail. Sarah, overseas for three years in three different places, now has a better idea of what to expect from herself. I often talk with her so she can help me keep realistic expectations. Instead of being “downcast” and “disturbed” as the Bible puts it, we are told to “put our hope in God” (Psalm 43:5).
Not adjusting our expectations not only affects us internally but also externally. I’m an American who grew up with “Minnesota nice”, where perfect strangers will stop you on the street for a brief conversation. It is hard to live in a crowded culture that doesn’t seem to acknowledge others or value courtesies like letting others go first. I once stood on the street with my three-month-old son, watching three consecutive cabs I hailed be taken by other people. Times like that make me long for the values I’d grown up with. Remembering that our backgrounds are different helps me to not judge or become angry and critical. If we aren’t willing to adjust our expectations, we may judge our host culture when their values are different. Instead, these differences are an opportunity to extend grace.
Not only will we resent our host culture, we may resent God for putting us in it. I hoped to get a year of language learning completed before my husband and I started a family overseas. When I found out I was pregnant three months before we moved here, I knew that I could only study fulltime for one semester. How would I ever become competent in the language and culture? It was tempting to become bitter and to question God’s timing. I have had to consistently re-evaluate my expectations in the language and keep them realistic so that I do not become resentful.
A fellow worker here says, “(I had to) consider the things I held important and… surrender them. For example, being able to communicate with people, having a good grasp of English and being able to talk with a variety of people in a variety of situations were all things I prided myself in. I also value alone time, privacy and personal space. These were difficult to preserve in the situation I was in.” Maybe you need to temporarily (or permanently) let go of or loosen your hold on some of those values.
WHAT DO WE GAIN?
Accepting the loss of things like competence, identity, and familiar environment, as well as our own expectations, helps us gain what God wants to give us. As mentioned, it helps us hope in Him, and gives us opportunities to be gracious. Most significantly, though, our lives are cleared of unnecessary things. God says in Isaiah 57: 13b, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.” Losing things breaks our pride and control over situations, and makes us weak and humble. When we stop depending on our own competence, surroundings, and identity, we must depend on God.
Since my first year overseas was also my first year as a mom, I found myself losing much of what I had depended on before. I began to see more how God wanted me to depend on Him in all things — dealing with my host culture, my efforts to learn the language, and finding consistent time with God. Over the next few weeks, I tried to lift every detail of life to God
and was greatly blessed as I saw Him answer my prayers for opportunities to practice the language, for patience with nationals, and for time with Him.
I may never completely adjust to the differing values of my host culture. I still don’t quite feel myself here, and I continue to struggle with the loss of family, friends, and other things. But I don’t regret the move, because I see how God is using the loss of many things to change my heart.