The day finally came for me to grab my bags and board the flight. I had been living with my grandparents and other relatives for more than seven years, but it was now time to join my parents and undertake my university education in the new country they called home. I did not know this at the time, but the drastic cultural differences I would face in this new country meant I had a steep learning curve ahead of me.
Early on in my new city, I had arranged to meet an acquaintance for lunch. Wanting to make a good impression, I took ample time in deciding which pair of sneakers to wear. This deliberation made me miss my bus, and I was 15 minutes late to my appointment. For all my efforts to look my best, I got a lecture about the importance of respecting other’s time.
Back home, life moved at a slow, relaxed pace. But here, life seemed to be a stack of priorities that had to be met with utmost urgency. And time was only one of many cultural differences that I encountered. I struggled to adjust, and often found myself frustrated and uncomfortable. I felt like I couldn’t be myself in this new place.
But through my struggles, God showed me a few foundational truths about what it meant to truly live for Him here on earth. These helped me stay true to my purpose even as my circumstances changed.
1) Culture May Change, But Living for Jesus Doesn’t
The apostle Paul was familiar with cultural differences. He made multiple missionary journeys across Asia and Greece to establish churches among the nations. In 1 Corinthians 9:20, he says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.”
Regardless of where God sent Paul, he acted, as far as was Christianly possible, within cultural expectations. By choosing not to demand his rights or assert his individuality, Paul sought to facilitate the advancement of the Gospel wherever he went, in whatever cultural context he found himself in. For him the most important thing was always to see people called to repentance and obedience to the Gospel.
Similarly, I realized that despite the change in culture, my purpose as a Christian stays the same: seeing the Gospel advance in whatever situation I was in. That means that I couldn’t insist on doing things the way I’d done them back home, or complain about the uptight attitude here. Instead, I needed to muster up discipline that I never previously had. I had to learn to be loving to people regardless of our differences, in the hope that I might be able find an opportunity to encourage or share the Gospel with them.
So, no more dawdling around. I needed to be respectful of people’s time and customs. I couldn’t afford to be offensive over things that didn’t ultimately matter. God showed me that I had to willingly give up some of the freedoms I’d enjoyed in my old culture, so that I could advance the Gospel in my new one.
2) The Church is a Global Family
Mid-semester one year, university became a hard slog meeting assignment deadlines. Little else seemed to matter. But the friends that I’d made at a Bible study continually reminded me of the truths we were learning each week.
When I found myself in a tough dilemma, they comforted me by spending time in prayer with me. I realized that these were friends who had my eternal interests at heart, which meant that we were able to share a bond much deeper than any normal friendship. We could share our struggles and encourage one another in a meaningful way.
Finding a like-minded Christian community really helped me deal with the travails of moving abroad. This brought to life the words of Jesus in Mark 10:29-30, where He promised His followers that they would be blessed with “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields” for the sacrifices that they make. In other words, those who follow Jesus would be part of a large family we now know as the Church.
The idea of family here isn’t used lightly. Rather, Jesus saw the Church family as so loving and committed to each other that it could replace one’s biological family. This means that wherever I find disciples of Christ, I find a welcoming, nurturing community committed to truth and love.
Despite our cultural differences, the shared hope we have in Jesus and His Kingdom connects me with my new-found friends. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t matter that we have little in common by way of past experiences, it is confirmation enough that we are all being molded into the image of Jesus—we are family.
3) This is Not Our Home
One of the hardest parts about moving to a new country was going back and realizing that home didn’t quite feel like home anymore.
Though I miss the country I’d grown up in, every time I visited I realized that life there continues to move on without me. Friends grow up, graduate from university, and get married. We no longer share as many memories and experiences. It really hit me one visit, when I was hanging out with one of my best friends. Silence filled the car as we drove back home from a movie. We had nothing in common to talk about anymore.
At first, all this left me feeling a little lost. I didn’t quite fit in at my new surroundings, but the place I’d come from had lost its feeling of familiarity. I was cut adrift, with no place I could truly call home.
However, one day I heard a sermon that led me to God’s amazing promise in Isaiah 65:17-19:
See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.
This promise brought me comfort at a time when I felt homeless. God reminded me that I wasn’t meant to find home here on earth—but that my real Home was somewhere else. Instead, God was using my move and my sense of loss to cultivate in me a deep desire for His new creation, where we can finally be with Him.
With God’s promise in my heart, I am able to work harder for the Gospel. I can look forward to what God has in store for me, instead of getting distracted by my current circumstances.
Through the move, God has fundamentally changed my focus, giving me an eternal perspective on things. I no longer seek to cure my homesickness by chasing after comfort or success. Instead, I strive to see the Gospel advance, knowing that true satisfaction and fulfilment will come when I am in His new creation.
I am still living abroad right now, though I hope to one day return to the country I grew up in. But really, it doesn’t matter where I end up, because I know that wherever I am, God has a purpose, a family, and a home waiting for me.