Red Pill? Blue Pill? 4 Irreversible Side Effects of Going Overseas

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We talk a lot over here about what you wish you knew before you went overseas. We’ve called it a rabbit hole. So maybe it’s a little like The Matrix: Red pill? Blue Pill?

So I’ll tell you today what you might want to know: Going overseas will mark you indelibly.

Back when my husband and I were considering adoption in our host country, I wrote,

I didn’t simply want to lock my gate and somehow leave ourselves relatively untouched. I wanted to bring the pain of this people before me, into our lives…

Africa has marked me. It has not altered me in a way that most people who see me will ever witness, though the difference is almost bodily.

It’s as if I’d had eye surgery, and the world would never look the same, or as if my right hand had an inner sensation that I felt as constantly.

I can’t not do something. I can’t be a benchwarmer in this kind of a game.

And perhaps that is how I would describe the red pill of going overseas.

You will see something of the world God sees. But beware: You will not be able to un-see.

This choice will leave you unable to look at life the same when your internet goes out, or when you look at your income on your tax return. You will be unable to shop, complain, go to church, or raise your offspring the same way.

Fair warning: Here are a few ways you may never be able to return.

There’s no place like…

When you return on home assignment, or perhaps back to your passport nation, you may experience what a lot of global workers have: You are straddling two countries not only geographically, but in your own heart.

And you will realize, II thought I felt like a fish out of water in my host country. I thought these were my tribe. But I’m not like them anymore.

Where do I belong?

home change

C.S. Lewis’ words capture this exquisitely for me.

But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory…becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last. (The Weight of Glory, 8 June, 1942, emphasis added)

A friend and former missionary kid wisely told me one advantage of our overseas lives. She noted we truly understand that as lovers of Jesus, we are “foreigners and aliens in this world” (1 Peter 2:11). Her father told her that because Jesus is preparing a perfect place for us, nothing’s ever going to measure up here. We will always be longing to be more home.

snoopy home

The Message puts it this way:

By an act of faith [Abraham] lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God. (Hebrews 11:4).

(Perhaps this explains why sometimes this work doesn’t bring tangible, number-crunching results: because it’s building an invisible city. This is what I hope.)

Once, a Ugandan friend of mine needed a nationaI identity card, but because of her past, had no place to obtain a birth certificate. She felt more orphaned than ever. I put my arm around her.

I want to let you know that you belong. You and me, we’re sisters. God says our spiritual ties are much thicker than blood (see Matthew 12:46-50). He says You belong with Him. He’s going to give you a new name. His name.

It was one of those moments where I heard God’s words speaking to me through my own. O Lord, You have been our dwelling place throughout all generations (Psalm 90:1).


After selling all but–what, 20% of your stuff?–the world starts to look a lot lighter; a lot leaner.

And once you’ve seen 80% of the world living in poverty, your home culture’s ideas of “simplifying” life with more gadgets, more convenience, may not hold water with your experience.

My husband once remarked that he thought he could always go into a big-box store and find something he could use. But now, he finds himself walking out without a purchase.

materialism red pill

You may feel perpetually blase about trends, celebrities, the latest TV shows, and even what’s got everyone else tied up in knots. You may go a week without looking at Western headlines, which just don’t affect you like they once did. (They didn’t affect me overseas, so I’ll probably survive a few more days without knowing. And worrying.)


Perhaps this is the most isolating. Maybe you even experience this now as your focus shifts overseas, to a big-picture mindset, shifting to things you know in your core matter intensely. You will see friends on Facebook, or return to those at home, and realize how different your thinking has become; how different you now see the world.

The topic of conversation at dinner may turn to fads you know nothing about. And you might wish you could talk with them about the unresolved conflicts in your mind from a broken world, or the acts God has done in your midst you are still trying to sort out. (Or maybe he didn’t do them, and you still wonder why.)

Someone may throw out their leftovers after a meal. That could have fed three people may pop into your mind unbidden.

Someone may complain about the size of their television and you may fall silent, or worse, stuff down your own judgmentalism.

alienated friend red pill

Once-tight relationships with family or old friends may leave you feeling bereft or unknown. “How’s Asia?” they might ask casually.

You may think, I have fallen in love with something I couldn’t describe if I had a hundred years.

You might sit down to coffee and find your friends don’t even know what to ask. Or worse, they may not seem that interested. When you tell them that complicated story about the police officer attempting to bribe you and the cultural nuances you’ve discovered, you might hear crickets chirping.

This doesn’t always have to be your reality. I would encourage you to persist in vulnerability even when people can’t completely understand (catch some tips here)..

And you might find your tribe is with the other now-misfits who have decided to leave what they had for something bigger altogether.

The Mission.

One bonus way you’ll change: You will never see the mission the same again. Even if you return to your passport country, you will not be able to sit out on the Great Commission, or perhaps on helping the powerless, or on discipleship. You will not see this mission as a spectator sport.

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When you feel a whole lot like finally coasting, you may hear the whisper that made you choose the red pill in the first place:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?

See, after I had my first child, my sister and I were discussing all the terrible things that happened to my body after a hard delivery. She asked me, “Why would you do that to your body?” Why would you take the red pill?”

I told her she was asking the right question–but with the wrong assumption. What could be so good that you would endure all of that?

You will experience God’s vision for the world like never before. Your heart will be wedded to his in indescribable new ways as you mourn what he mourns, as you walk with him on a long and strange road. You will suffer, and your faith will expand accordingly. Following him overseas will explode your world.

The red pill? It’s endlessly, eternally worth it.

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