“How Rich Should I Live?” Navigating Dilemmas of Wealth Overseas

Reading Time: 6 minutes

money and wealthA friend of mine lives with her husband, helping migrants in Asia. She amazes me, you know. There are 40-50 malnourished kids who gather in their compound for a healthy meal and vitamins before school (my friend’s home is half home, half community center). They run businesses out of their home, training and empowering community members. They shuttle people to the hospital at all hours. They run a summer program, where kids are tutored by their teenage neighbors so they can excel in school.

I should tell you that during my visit with her, the food, too, was fabulous. And I liked this: We ate out. It was simple and delicious. It cost a buck or two per person. It kept my friend sane hosting three extra guests, because in developing nations the “general maintenance” slice of your pie is just bigger. It kept her from hours of cooking from scratch, heating up their little kitchen, and washing all the dishes by hand. It supported local restaurants (and plenty of smoothie stands. And at least one for mango sticky rice: yuuuuuuuuum), and we got out a bit in the community.

The Great Divide

When Westerners go overseas, we can fall into a couple of camps, right? We can fall into “I can’t do that. I’m here in an impoverished country.” Should I eat out? What about going out to coffee in a place a lot of my local friends couldn’t afford? Should I get a massage if it’s only $10? Should I get a pedicure if it’s $6? I know it supports someone. And it would feel so refreshing with all this stress. But can that be right?

Alternatively, we can live comfortably in our relaxed, quiet little bubble of expat friends and expat luxuries. I remember in Uganda sitting at a swimming pool once and overhearing someone on the phone, who must have worked for the state department. I realized that she could quite feasibly live a life free of most inconveniences and even most Ugandans. With money, it is indeed possible to live fairly comfortably–and comfortably removed–overseas. (Don’t miss Rachel Pieh Jones’ invaluable posts: What Not to Do: A List for Expats and When the Rich from the West Don’t Know They’re Acting Like It.)

Hear me: It’s difficult to navigate the disparities of moving from the West to live overseas–because they are so very disparate. And every person and family must maneuver this on their own, according to their own family’s needs, their own consciences.

It's difficult to navigate the tremendous disparities of living overseas. And every person according to her own conscience. Click To Tweet

When you arrive, you will have no doubt simplified your life tremendously, and may be eager to keep it that way. (Simple feels great!) When you write newsletters back home, your financial supporters will be amazed at your frugality of lifestyle. (Periodic electricity! Water going out! No Ziploc bags or dishwashers or Amazon Prime!) Someone said to me, “Your life sounds kind of like Little House on the Prairie.”

But if you’re like me, you’ll look around and realize that your tremendously simplified, “wow-you’re-holy” life will not even graze the economic levels around you.

How can you deal?

What Makes her Beautiful

But there’s also this. Every family must learn how they can live sustainably overseas as they explore this crazy calling upon their lives. When I first arrived, I shouldered tremendous guilt that I wasn’t living in a shack next to the people I was seeking to help. I saw Jesus as becoming flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14). Yet my husband’s energy levels lag when we don’t meat at night for dinner–something they can’t afford–and his back hurts around the clock when he sleeps on a foam mattress. I find great respite in reading, and have access to books on my Kindle.

And in all logic, living just like those we came to love might have involved sending my kids to the same schools that are among the lowest in the world, with class sizes capped at 200. They’re schools that would shame them and cane them; schools that didn’t show them God’s love, and would not have helped my kids (and the generations after them) to live the fullest version of God’s image in them, as we were there to help with.

See where I’m going with this? it’s pretty challenging to neatly tease all this into separate categories of right and wrong. And when people find it easy…I get a little nervous, because black-and-white convictions in gray areas can often edge out the necessary diversity of the Body of Christ, and the vast array of the stories and complex contexts He authors. Some of those diametrically different applications of our faith are what make Jesus’ Bride so beautiful overseas.

What’s Easy for You

Another example: Some people will never hire househelp overseas because many locals cannot afford that privilege, and they want to steer clear of any overtones of superiority. Others have found househelp to be a particular method of discipleship, of giving someone a job and personal development, of freeing up ministry time, of cross-cultural family friendship and a tremendous cultural liason.

Paul speaks of divides like these in the Church (1 Corinthians 8, 10:23-33), where our convictions, life experience, and interactions with the Holy Spirit tug us in opposite directions. A sacrifice that may be so easy for one of us might be extremely challenging for someone else. What looks like a minor sacrifice to one Christian could be another’s alabaster box. Paul reminds us,

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

living “among”

My friend does a praiseworthy job of living simply in her community; of living among them and using her resources to give from her abundance for those she and her husband love so well. It’s taken time for them to work out, and in many ways, that steady working out of conviction and love applied is, according to them, unfinished–like one of those slide puzzles you push around, trying to find the right picture. Personally, I hope they go out to restaurants a lot: meeting their community, supporting local businesses, and saving their energy for work that matters, which no one else can do.

As global workers, we can be trapped by doing the harder thing just because it’s the harder thing. And wouldn’t a good global worker do the hardest thing, and live the hardest way?

As global workers, we can be trapped by doing the harder thing just because it's the harder thing. And wouldn't a good global worker do the hardest thing, and live the hardest way? Click To Tweet

But is that the God we’re calling those around us to serve? Is self-sacrifice doing the hardest thing, because it’s an end in itself? Or can we even serve others with our internet access, our cars, even our time spent away, being nurtured and replenished?

Are our spiritual disciplines leading us to greater love of others and God…or further away?

Are our spiritual disciplines leading us to greater love of others and God...or further away? Click To Tweet

Taste and See

Often God’s kindness dwelling with myself, my spouse, and my family–like the school situation–is just as important as it is to show those we’re trying to reach. (As in, yes, I know estranged and bruised missionary kids. And it might be hard to honor my particular parents, my supporters, and my sending organization without regular access to the internet.)

At times, my choices can mean the difference between a lifestyle I can sustain, and one that sends me packing because I simply couldn’t care for myself, couldn’t show myself God’s compassion, couldn’t find a rhythm of rest and work and boundaries within my self-sacrifice (as Jesus did; check out Mark 6:30-32 for starters).

So explore this, goers, with vivacity and prayer. Explore sacrificial love that lives “among”. And experience that love vibrantly within your own soul, tasting and seeing that it is indeed good for them…and for you.

We’re just getting this conversation started…so tell us:
What dilemmas of the economic gap have you experienced?
How have you dealt with them?
Share your thoughts below!

Like this post? You might like 

What Not to Do: A List for Expats

When the Rich from the West Don’t Know They’re Acting Like It

Does Christianity Destroy Culture?

Does What I Want Matter? On Desire & Dreams (…& 7 Reasons Not to Go Overseas)


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