Half-Full or Half-Empty?

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When whining hampers work as worship

Maggie Robertson | an expat in Asia


At my academic workplace in Southeast Asia, expats have a reputation as complainers. The air conditioning isn’t sufficient; the copier is broken (again); the supervisor called a meeting on short notice. How can they do this to us? It’s just not fair.


I think my fellow westerners would be a shoo-in for an Olympic gold medal in complaining, were it an event. The weather, the traffic, the shower water pressure — give us an aspect of life, and we can find something wrong with it. And that’s when we live in our own country! Put us in another setting where the challenges are greater and complaining becomes as effortless as breathing.


However we handle those challenges can either attract or repel the local people we're called to serve. Philippians 2:14-15 (NIV) makes it clear: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”


I love that the Apostle Paul says that simply by refraining from doing something, we will shine like stars. It’s not like we have to dazzle people with some kind of spiritual song and dance. Just by not grumbling, not complaining, we will shine. I confess that in my younger days, complaining was one of my chief sins. Things could always be better, I thought, and expressing this sentiment would prompt others to make them better. I’m sure, in many cases, I produced the opposite effect instead.



Good thing God changes us over the years, and I have learned a lot in this area. Here are a few thoughts that have helped me complain less in my host culture.

 1.    I remember I’m in a different culture. That may sound entirely too basic, but it’s amazing how often I need to remind myself of this. When students in my school handle my personal things without asking, I have to remember that life and material goods here are much more communal. “What’s mine is yours and vice versa” is the prevailing attitude. Or when an older woman cuts in line in front of me at the grocery store, I remind myself that I live in a culture where age bestows privilege. Another possibility is that the woman grew up here during a time of famine in this country.

 2.    I remember it’s not about me. Often, repeating that simple phrase to myself takes away any sense of offense and its resulting complaints. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Timothy Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. His thesis is that by divorcing ourselves from connecting people’s treatment of us with a “yay” or “nay” vote on our value, we can go into the world to serve, wholehearted and free. Every slight or injustice that comes to us in the world and in the workplace can be kept in this perspective.

For example, my supervisor reprimanded me recently for being a few minutes late to one of my classes. In the past, I would have complained about the pettiness of that to one of my colleagues. After all, I’d been on time to every single class for six months straight before that. Instead, I accepted the reprimand. Yes, I’d misjudged the time; no, it wasn’t personal; and yes, I am still a competent teacher and person.

 3.    I am intentionally grateful. We’re all tempted to think of things we miss when we live in a host culture: an excellent cheeseburger, an English-speaking electronics salesperson, a simple process for opening a bank account. Choosing to replace those thoughts with thankful ones is not natural, but it can be a mood changer for sure. Instead of bemoaning that I can’t get my favorite salad dressing, I am thankful I can find salsa and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Although I missed Christmas Day with my family for the first time in my life, I am grateful that, with today’s technology, we could do a video call and share the holiday that way. There’s always something for which to be thankful, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

 4.    I try to keep an eternal perspective. I want Jesus to greet me with a “well done, good and faithful servant” when I see him face to face. Not “I love you, child, even though there were some ways you could have served me but chose not to.” This also means he gets to define success. The outcome is not guaranteed, nor will it always look like success to those around me. My job is simply to obey and to be faithful.

As my time working in a host culture continues, I try to bear all these things in mind. Will I get sick? Yes, I could become seriously ill. Will I be treated unfairly at work? That is a distinct possibility, as well. But will I choose to complain about these things? That’s entirely up to me. I pray I choose well so I can indeed shine like a star in the sky among the people of my beloved adopted country.  



Maggie Robertson holds a master’s degree in education and worked as a teacher, administrator, and career coach in the eastern U.S. for 20 years. In 2018, she and her husband, Spencer, began living and working in Vietnam where they’ve become superfans of the people and the food. Maggie also loves attending an international church with more than 40 nationalities represented, calling it “a little preview of heaven.”

Photo by Stephen Müller on Pexels.com


Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


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