Arriving in a foreign country often feels like stepping into the aftermath of Babel. Foreign words and gestures tumble around us and bring our brains to a fumbling halt. Confusion settles in. In an unfamiliar environment, we seek familiar things, anything that holds a sense of normalcy and comfort, and we cling to them.
This clinging to normalcy might take the form of doing things our own way or sticking ardently to our own dialect. After all, we say, what good is it to learn a language if we aren’t going to speak it outside that country anyway? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to learn a widely spoken language?
What starts as an innocent urge to restore calm in ourselves can quickly degenerate into pride or patriotic cliques. Both of these are antithetical to forming new friendships and to preaching the gospel.
“Us” Versus “Them”
The world is well-versed in the notion of “Us” versus “Them.” This concept has led to the division of kingdoms. To war and bloodshed. To the killing of martyrs. But never to the advancement of the gospel.
We see clearly the result of this mindset in the story of Babel from the Bible (Gen. 11:1–9).
In the story of Babel, the inhabitants of the world gathered on the plain of Shinar under the powerful notion of “Us.” They united with the intent to make themselves famous and to keep themselves from being scattered across the face of the earth (Gen. 11:4). It was this strong sense of unity that enabled the people to embark on the building of a skyscraper long before the time of towering cranes, bulldozers, and brick-making machines.
This unifying against God, this empowering “Us,” was so defiant and prideful that God decided to confuse their language and scatter them across the face of the earth. In doing so, He introduced the concept of “Us” versus “Them.” The unity broke, confusion crept in, and the great Tower of Babel was abandoned, uncompleted.
Thousands of years later in New Testament Israel, the story of the “Us” versus “Them” notion continues in the four gospels. This time, it was the Jews versus the Romans and the Pharisees and Sadducees versus the harlots and the tax collectors. Later, in the book of Acts and the rest of the epistles, we read of the Jews versus the Gentiles, the circumcised versus the uncircumcised, the clean versus the unclean, the barbarians versus the Scythians, those for the law versus those for grace.
Neither Jew nor Gentile
When Christ walked the earth, His life directly contradicted the universal rule of “Us” versus “Them.” He came to restore a strong sense of “Us,” but He purified it from what it was at the plain of Shinar. He brought unity under God and not unity against God or anyone else.
When the Pharisees wanted to accuse Christ and couldn’t find a defect in His character, they settled to accuse Him of violating that great divide between “Us” and “Them.” Christ, the purest of men, was accused of being a friend of tax collectors and harlots, an unforgivable sin in the eyes of religious Jews. And He was guilty of that offence. He was a friend of the “Thems.” Yet, He never once was guilty under God.
In His mercy, Christ could reach out to the “Thems.” In His power, He could proclaim the gospel words, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11 NKJV), without violating some divine law of purity. He didn’t soil His divine dignity by becoming the friend of sinners. Even in His death, He tore the divide literally by tearing the temple veil and bridging the gap between the holiest and the holy, between God and sinners, between “Us” and “Them.”
If Christ is our example, then we have no excuse to harbour any attitude of “Us” versus “Them” in our hearts, whatever form this might take. At least three times in the Scripture (Col. 3:10–11; Gal. 2:7–16; Rom. 10:12), we are told there is “neither Jew nor Gentile,” neither “Us” nor “Them.” Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 that Christ has “broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (ESV). He has made all believers one through the gospel.
Culture Is the Heart of a People
In our globalised world today, many people across countries speak the same languages. Many people within countries are not of the same nationalities. If there is one thing that still binds people into groups of “Us” and “Them,” it is culture. Culture is oftentimes the heart of a people.
As TCKs in a foreign country, living among people of a foreign culture, we must try as much as possible to cross this cultural divide. We must never wait for the citizens to do it (e.g. to learn to speak English or adopt English customs). We must be willing to cross the divide ourselves since we are the foreigners. Be willing to wear their clothes. Speak their language. Adopt their nuances.
Learn the heart of the people.
Don’t rely too heavily on your 100-day Duolingo streak: it is of no use if you don’t get your hands dirty and immerse yourself in the people’s culture, accents, and ways of living. If you want to be used for Christ in your country of residence, learn to live as the people live while also living as Christ lived. But never cross the boundaries of your conscience. Or of the gospel. When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat, but don’t sin as the Romans do!
Language Is the Heart of Communication
Although a common, universal language can be found almost anywhere you go in the world, one may often find that foreigners who speak the local tongue are usually more well-received. Language aids communication, and communication is the heart of the gospel!
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 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? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ ” Romans 10:13–15 ESV
If you have ever lived in a non-English speaking country where pamphlets, billboards, or road signs are erroneously translated into English, you’ve seen that meaning sometimes gets lost in third-party translation.
We must learn to translate for ourselves by trying to learn the language of our country or culture of residence. And yes, while it might be harder to learn one language as compared to another, we can always seek the Lord’s help when we struggle. At times His answer might come in the form of wisdom to learn the language faster (James 1:5). At other times it might come in the form of endurance to stick with it until we can speak the language on a conversational level at least.
Language learning is seldom an easy road, but it is a rewarding road. Not only is it rewarding in day-to-day life, but it also makes for more effective evangelism. Put in the effort. Go to language school. Ask questions to clarify words or phrases. Communicate!
Dealing With Our Own Hearts
Finally, let’s address the hard topics of racism, linguicism, and culturism.
These “isms” are sometimes deeply ingrained in us from a young age. We develop a deep love and respect for our race, language, or culture. Another race, an improper use of our language, or a culture in direct affront to ours can evoke in us such a deep visceral response that we must either fight or flee.
We are not alone in our struggle.
Apostle Peter had such a profound love for his Jewish heritage and culture that God had to give him a startling vision three times before he was ready to preach to and have fellowship with the Gentile Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:9–33). God’s message to Peter was clear: self-segregation is anti-gospel. This was so important to God that He moved Apostle Paul to publicly rebuke Peter when he lapsed back into his culturist tendencies (Gal. 2:11–13).
It helps us to remember that God does not show favouritism (Rom. 2:11). If our great God doesn’t show favouritism, how much more should we not? With God’s help, we must all deal with our deep-seated, visceral, and base reactions against more “primitive” cultures or ways of living.
Challenge your comfort zone. Strive to make friends of other races, cultures, and languages. Don’t see these friendships as boxes to be ticked (“Eureka, I finally have a black/white/Asian friend!” etc.), but be deeply invested in learning to see the world through your friends’ eyes. Understand their fears, triumphs, setbacks, and victories.
Refrain from derogatory speech. Don’t laugh or be condoning when that friend or family member informs a roomful of look-alikes and talk-alikes of the failures of a different set of look-alikes and talk-alikes. Don’t give the excuse that your conscience and convictions aren’t pricked. That says nothing about the rightness of what was said, but it speaks volumes about the shallowness of your convictions.
Learn to become uncomfortable again with racial slurs. Pray that a holy shiver runs down your spine when that cousin, twice removed, casually slips into the conversation a comment that “such-and-such people are lazy good-for-nothings.” Do away with generalisations, even so-called good ones.
Finally, always remember the words of Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 ESV, emphasis added
TCKs for Christ: Writer
is an avid dreamer, writer, and unapologetic Christian. As her name states, her one purpose in life is to spread joy wherever it is needed. Formerly a PK, she has lived in South Africa as a TCK for most of her life. She enjoys reading, writing, and playing the piano. Connect with her on D’JoyGene or Instagram, @DJoyGene