One year ago…
One year ago I moved to Thailand to undertake “Gospel-centred justice and compassion work amongst women in the sex trade.” It was a simple enough statement to say to my supporters, but the reality of life and work here is nowhere as simple as I had expected. Expectations are weighty and dangerous things, and I found that my expectations upon arriving in Thailand only added extra layers of confusion to trudge through in this unprecedented year of trying to get my bearings. Below are three of the realities I’ve had to embrace in order to understand myself apart from my naïve expectations.
As silly as it seems now, I had honestly expected to see great personal success in this first year overseas. I had excelled in school and the other aspects of life in my home country; why wouldn’t I also excel at learning Thai, at seamlessly adjusting to my first real career experience, or at making a quantifiable impact in the Kingdom of God? The irony of expectations is that the greater they are, the smaller you feel when they are not realized, and God knew I needed to become small in my eyes before I could learn how valuable I am in his.
As you’ve probably gathered, I did not excel at learning Thai, at seamlessly adjusting to my first career experience, or at making a quantifiable (seriously, the arrogance…) impact in the Kingdom of God in this first year. I learned some Thai, praise the good name of Jesus for that, but nowhere near the level of fluency I had expected to attain by now. Adjusting to my old desk jobs was a breeze, but *shockingly* mission work has a bit more to it than just learning an office’s computer program and unspoken parking spot hierarchy. And while I hope and pray that God has used me for his glory here, the reality is that God seemed more intent on my personal growth and development as his child than on my impact for his Kingdom’s growth and development.
Now you may be thinking, “Hold the phone; all the missionaries I’ve heard of are fully mature, weaned-off-the-spiritual-milk, Jesus-displaying Kingdom-growers, and you’re saying God had to work on you, and you didn’t work for God?” Essentially, yes, and I fought God most of the way to the realization that arriving on the mission field doesn’t equate with “arriving” as a stellar disciple of Christ. There are no easy shortcuts to a deeper relationship with Jesus, and I’ve discovered that he is okay to take as much time as he needs to cultivate spiritual disciplines that bring us closer to his heart.
To be clear, I did know before I moved overseas that I fell WAY short of being all that God desires me to be as his follower, and I know it even better now. The trouble was that I expected all those old, sinful hang-ups not to hang me up in the same way once I was in the business of serving God “full-time.” Well, you guessed it: the expectations that I would somehow be better at things like evangelism and that my sinful nature would somehow be easier to overcome simply because I lived overseas were disappointed. The reality of this year has been rather more difficult than having my weaknesses vanish over the Pacific, but it has also allowed me the time for a deeper evaluation of who I am, how I’m made, where I belong, and who I want to be in Christ.
Reality: Redefining Self
Ever since I began feeling called by God to live in Thailand, I felt like I wasn’t where I was meant to be. There were many tears shed in my last year of university, when I felt like I was wasting my time rather than fulfilling my calling *rolls eyes at melodrama*, and this was even despite the fact that my degree was a requirement for my hiring organization. While I placed far too much importance on my own role in God’s plan to redeem the world, it was real homesickness that I felt for this place that was not my home. So, naturally, I expected that once I finished the application, passed the interviews, got accepted, finished my degree, got accredited, received my approval for ministry, became fully funded, bought my one-way plane ticket, and FINALLY arrived on Thai soil, I would feel completely satisfied, useful, and able to have all the longings of my heart fulfilled.
Consider my surprise upon realizing that my life goal achieved did not equal total heart-longing fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in Thailand, and I do feel like I’m meant to be here, which is a beautiful feeling. But so far it is not self-actualization, the fulfilment of all my talents and potential. In fact, moving overseas brought more questions, uncertainty, disillusionment, and self-deprecation than I had hitherto known. Think about it. Back home, I have skills that mean nothing here, I understand all the subtle cultural nuances, I know what it means to be a serving member of a local church, I know my favourite places and pastimes and people, and I can effectively communicate in the common language without even thinking about it. Here in Thailand, though, I have none of these abilities; I even had to choose a new name because mine is unpronounceable for Thai people. Therefore, I have been forced to find my identity not in my ability, how my culture defines me, or how I have defined myself, but in who Jesus says I am.
Who does Jesus say you are?
Does he look at you and see “the hard worker who strives for approval” or “the disappointment who can’t get it together”, or are you like the gospel-writer John, “the one whom Jesus loves”? The answer is the latter. Soon after coming to Thailand, the Lord led me to the Thai name ธิดา or “Tida”, which essentially means “divine daughter.” That is who I really am, God’s beloved child because of Jesus’ blood shed for me, and that reality brings me freedom, joy, and hope to walk with him and work with him.