Cultural Frustration: Dealing with Potholes of Missionary Life

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cultural frustration

A global-worker friend from Nepal sent me a Marco Polo recently. She described a day of local handymen installing appliances in her family’s new apartment–with methods much to her chagrin.

My mind immediately tumbled back to the painter who striped our house different shades of pink and orange on the outside, so it resembled a box of rainbow sherbet.

My friend wanted to know, “Do missionaries who’ve been overseas more than five years still have ‘cultural days’ like this?”

Yes. Oh, man, yes.

“Africa Wins Again”

We used to call them AWA days: Africa Wins Again. They’re the days you feel like you’re banging your head against one of the cement walls. Functioning here just cannot be this hard.

It might be the days cattle horns scrape down the side of your car.

Or you stand in a visa line for three hours only to have someone go on an hour-long tea break when you arrive at the window. Thankfully, they return to tell you the person who can help with your paperwork is attending a funeral in the village. No, they don’t know when they’ll be back. Next in line, please?

Maybe a police officer attempts to bribe you because when you were driving down the road (??), he could see your tire tread was far too low.

One morning, I toppled into my own cultural day without a clue.

Actually, it was before that: The electricity had snapped off sometime in the middle of the night, my husband and I groaning as the fan’s blades slowed and quieted. A stuffy heat settled beneath our mosquito net that I knew would make it challenging for my husband to sleep well.

In the morning, I cooked pancakes and eggs by candlelight; by 9 AM the lack of electricity to the water pump at the bottom of our hill meant we were without water in the kitchen sink, too.

And this, after nearly a week of alternating lack of power and water. Grr.

The kids had forgotten to plug in the “school” laptop that night, so mine was the option for homeschool. (Getting my own work done in the afternoon did not seem in the cards.)

I scrambled through phone calls before my phone battery died. The power company wasn’t picking up.

Africa. You’re killing me today.

Cultural Frustration = OFTEN Legitimate

See, Cultural Days typically have a foot squarely planted in reality, if not both feet.

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day.” – C.S. Lewis
  • Police bribery = injustice.
  • Inept, thoughtless, or uneducated workers = bad.
  • Pain and damage from poor medical care = harmful.
  • Feeling like a Western spectacle = mortifying.
  • Inconvenience, discomfort, poor communication = irritating to anyone.

Cultural frustration means we’re encountering the realities of sin in the world.

(Now, whether we’re slow to anger, like God? Or whether our anger accurately represents His? That’s a different post for a different day.)

Handling (Minor) Cultural Frustration: A Few Ideas

ask yourself these questions

Is my anger about God’s kingdom, or my kingdom?

What is the “log” in my eye? “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 5:7)

What is precious to me that feels trampled on right now?

Do I need to step away to get control?

Am I speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15)?

Is this the picture of Jesus I want to display as I respond to anger?

Cultural frustration: Another reason to tend to your soul

I’ll cut to the chase: I am 100%, maybe 200%, more able to flex with cultural frustration when I’m rested and taking the time away I need to tend to my soul.

For me, there’s a direct dotted line between soul-care and resilience.

Which means there’s a direct line from my soul-care to my patience and graciousness with others–not to mention a love that’s not irritable or resentful (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Grim reality: It can be uncannily difficult to prioritize our souls and our bodies overseas. (Don’t miss Restorative Rhythms: Must-Haves Overseas).

Like the ancient Gnostics, we prioritize the spiritual, forgetting that in the Word becoming flesh, Jesus connected spirit and body.

We’d love to bypass our bodies and get to amazingness in ministry, already–rather than accepting the pace of the bodies God put us in. (Read more in Embracing Limitations: When Moving Overseas Kicks Your Tail.)

And sometimes, our neglect of our souls and bodies leads to our work overseas being accomplished with less love.

(That will only influence only some of your cultural days. But I had to get that out of the way.)

Is this honest expression, Or something not-so-great?

That day of The Great Ongoing Utilities Outage, the bathroom light inexplicably flickered on around noon.

Was this…power before the requisite 6:30 PM?

What I sensed: delight. But immediately after: some legit guilt.

…for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. James 1:20

See, I hadn’t just wanted the power to come back on. I was feeling pretty…entitled to it.

I trudged back out to my now-celebrating children and confessed the rottenness I’d been harboring, which had leaked all over them.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29

Was it okay for me to wish I had power for the stuff I needed (wanted) to accomplish? Sure.

Was it okay for me to mention it? Sure, if I can do it with grace (the rule I choose for my family’s words, based on Ephesians 4:29. Usually, for me, this nixes “venting.”)

See, when I think of God’s beef with, say, the grumbly Israelites in the wilderness—it’s not wrong for a mom in the desert to want water for her baby. (Hagar did it.)

It’s not wrong to want food in the desert. (Jesus did it.)

It’s not wrong, even, to wonder how God’s going to accomplish something. (Mary, David, and a whole lotta other people did it.)

In my estimation, the issues of the Israelites, which popped up over and over en route to the Promised Land—were, in two words, unbelief and entitlement. (My kids hear from me ad nauseam: The opposite of whining is gratitude.)

Here’s how I boil down the difference between complaining and just speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Complaining vs. Healthy Expression

“I deserve…” “I would like…”
Demanding attitude; entitled Open-handedness toward God: “Not my will, but Yours”
Inner attitude resembling, “God didn’t get this right” Inner attitude of Godward trust, searching for gratitude and believing He cares
Can look like denial; fake gratitude that doesn’t inwardly acknowledge difficulty honest about what’s hard so God can be found and honored in that, too
often looks for fault, blame, or punishment acknowledges honestly how we’ve been hurt, as well as the lost beauty and goodness–but not for the purpose of damaging someone’s reputation
dwells in dissatisfaction, anger, bitterness when dissatisfied or angry, chooses over and over to trust God’s timing and plan
acts in order to find peace acts from a place of peace and trust
looks to circumstances for tranquility looks to God for tranquility
easy irritation; low threshold of frustration gracious humility based on the reality of our own brokenness
impulsive; destructive still guarding our mouths to make sure speech builds up and is appropriate for the situation (Ephesians 4:29); honest for the ultimate purpose of reconciliation

We’re not going for a more plastic, Barbie-ish Christianity with a molded smile: Let us rejoice and be glad in it! Have a cookie.

Jesus wept, got ticked, and felt stress, all while being the most joyful guy that ever walked the planet.

Feeling frustrated or disappointed isn’t wrong; my emotions, in and of themselves, are God-created dashboard lights. It’s what I do with those emotions, right?


Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” (Romans 5:5), God reminds me. So yes, Cultural Frustration Days double as Holiness Booster-Shot Days.

Ugh. Pass me the power outage, please.

Like this post? You might like

My Story: Culture Shock, Mayonnaise, and the Last Straw

What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to global women through Thrive Ministry.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at (where a portion of this post originally published), and on Instagram @janelbreit. 



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