Headed Overseas? 5 Character Potholes to Steer around

character overseas

Rigidity/Hypercontrol.

Hopefully this one’s a bit of a gimme if you’ve already traveled overseas. Friends of mine used to joke about “Africa Wins Again” days–when a rat eats the special food you brought from home, the electricity’s been out for three days, and the government accidentally shuts off your phone.

It’s helpful for me to think of going overseas like skiing moguls: Keep your knees loose, not locked. If you like specific ways of doing things, missionary life might just eat your lunch–and even faster than everyone else’s (check out My Story: Culture Shock, Mayonnaise, and the Last Straw).

Cross-cultural relationships require character with a formidable degree of flexibility, an openness to acquiring other pieces of your God-puzzle.

Domineering-ness/suppressed superiority.

(We made up domineering-ness. It just fits.)

To go overseas takes some take-charge: You’re raising support, navigating a new city, muscling through foods you’d rather leave looking at you on the plate.

More important, you’re saying, “Here am I! Send me!” Picture a missional Rosie the Riveter: We can do it!

If you don’t have that can-do character, you’ll tank.

But my 10-year-old bragged the other day about “making someone a Christian.” I stuck my head into his Bible study with friends: “Um, Son. Only God does that.”

You may have heard the old song, “Rescue the perishing; care for the dying.” We are only the rescuers only because we are the rescued. If we come in with a Savior complex, we’ve got serious issues.

Essentially, our job as missionaries is still to work ourselves out of a job: for nationals to take the helm and lead their people well. Because redeemed Asians will naturally know best how to reach Asians; because redeemed Africans should guide the African church.

Rachel Pieh Jones warns unflinchingly about our tendency as humanitarians to develop dependency–our need to be needed.

Friends, our goal is not to remain in charge.

It’s one of the reasons to learn a people’s language, even if they speak English. You can take on the posture of a learner, rather than lofty teacher–both in your eyes, and their own. Every person on the social ladder now has something to teach you. And you have a way to laugh at yourself.

To be an effective global worker is to be an effective learner and listener. Because one of the most important characteristics for any missionary is humility. I have often found it in the best missionaries.

We must spend time studying, learning, and loving long before we spend time sermonizing.

(Don’t miss When the Rich from the West Don’t Know They’re Acting Like It.)

Oversensitivity.

Living overseas is filled with lots of weird moments. You’ll forget that as a woman you shouldn’t touch men in the Middle East, or that in East Africa you don’t step over someone’s outstretched legs.

Or vice versa: Someone will say something that sounds an awful lot like an insult (“You are fat, madam!”), or scorn you because of your skin color, or make catcalls that make you feel like a jogging piece of meat.

Then there are the moments with tired, stressed expat staff. Sometimes you will want to push them out of a window (into the bushes only, of course). You will sometimes feel you are constantly living in the stressed version of yourself–the one where your frontal lobe is so exhausted that your emotional control is paper-thin.

We need rhino-thick skin with the same petal-soft hearts inside. Build your resilience for the sake of the kingdom. Develop the brand of love that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); that finds glory in overlooking an offense (Proverbs 19:11).

Self-pity.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “Refuse self-pity. Refuse it absolutely.”

The temptation to revel in martyrdom seems magnetic in a world where sacrifice and small griefs are around every corner (sometimes in the form of stubbing your toe on yet another uneven “sidewalk” or set of stairs, or a laundry trip that sucks up an entire day).

You’ll be in the interesting place of trying to be completely honest about what’s going on inside of you, without complaining about it. (Careful: Expat gatherings can double as whine-and-cheese parties.)

So yes, pay attention to the “dashboard lights” of your emotions. Don’t opt for dishonesty in your own heart. Mourn what is wrong about this world and what you’ve lost. Part of true character is “truth in the inward being”, in which God delights (Psalm 51:6).

But grieve alongside of God, welcoming him into your frustration rather than turning to bitter blame. Cry with open-handedness toward God–“Not my will, but Yours”–rather than entitlement. (Check out the difference here.)

Fear of conflict.

I kind of hate conflict. With the exception of my anger issues with my kiddos, conflict tends to sideline me in a head-between-my-knees, breathe-into-a-paper-bag kind of way. It’s super-attractive and mature.

But James reminds me, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1).

Conflict flays open the idols I’m so often attempting to conceal. So rather than run away, arms pinwheeling, I can’t waste my conflict. My character needs it.

It is, as Relational Wisdom 360 will tell you, a chance to

  • glorify God
  • grow to be like Christ
  • bear fruit
  • serve others

Conflict brings too many avid, gifted global workers off the field. Don’t waste that totally awkward conflict. Let God form it into a stronger relationship, a stronger you, and a stronger ministry.

Posts we love:

The Cultural Iceberg: What You Need to Know about Cross-cultural Communication

What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”

The Cultural Iceberg and Identity: Collectivist vs. Individualistic Societies

 

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