By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun
The first time my husband and I lived overseas, we made one crucial mistake: we did not want to ask others for help.
When we were desperate, we would send out an email to a few close friends, like lighting a flare just as our ship was sinking. But we did not ask for any sustained form of support — emotional, spiritual, or otherwise.
We were young and cocky back then, confident that we could handle starting a business and living in a foreign country on our own. My husband and I were both used to being high performers and didn’t like admitting our weaknesses. We had committed to this path, and by golly, we would give it everything we had, even if it killed us.
For me, there was something else going on, something planted deeply in my cultural roots. I didn’t like feeling indebted to anyone. Asking others for help felt like giving away a big stack of IOUs that I’d have to worry about others collecting on for years to come.
As a child, I watched my parents debate over whose turn it was to pay the bill at the next family meal. I heard them discuss how nice of a present they should give to someone this Christmas, based on the quality of gift we received from them the previous Christmas. They worried over being more generous with friends who were particularly generous with them, and expressed both relief and annoyance at the friends who were on the stingier side.
There was, as my mother often told me, no free lunch. For me to be good, proper, and Christianly, I should be prepared to repay every act of kindness or generosity I received.
My solution to this conundrum was to try to never put myself in a position where I would need to repay someone.
During our time in China, I learned the serious consequences of attempting to do it alone. I burned out, became depressed, and was overwhelmed with loneliness. For years, I paid the cost for my pride and my fear of being indebted to others in the form of exhaustion, anxiety, and fear.
In the hardest possible way, I learned that God did not create us to operate as lone wolves. Nor did he create us to keep score of one another’s slights or acts of generosity. The Lord of grace asks us to give without expecting anything in return. Therefore, it follows that God wants us to be able to ask for help without expecting to be indebted for the rest of our lives.
The older I get, the more clearly I see my flaws, weaknesses, and deficiencies. They are no longer sources of immense shame, as they were when I was young. They are part of who I am. And while I am committed to addressing my weaknesses, I have also come to accept that some measure of deficiency will always remain with me — and it is in those places that I need others to step in and stand in the gap for me.
Earlier this year, as our family was preparing to move to Kenya, my husband and I approached it very differently from our time in China. I had a small group of women who committed to pray for me on a regular basis; similarly, my husband had a group of men doing the same for him. When circumstances got particularly hard — which they did at several times during our seven-month stay in Kenya — we asked another dozen friends for prayer and support.
Admittedly, over the past year I have sometimes wondered if I should be embarrassed by how much help I needed. I wondered if I was terribly inconveniencing our friends. I wondered what they might think of me.
But I hadn’t forgotten my lessons from China, so I kept asking them for prayer and support.
Our friends responded in remarkable fashion, sending us regular words of encouragement, as well as prophetic words and heartfelt prayers from thousands of miles away during our most challenging seasons. Their kindness and wisdom nourished our souls and pushed us to persevere.
Now on the other side of our Kenyan adventure, here is the humble truth I must live with: what our friends gave us is a gift far greater than my husband or I could ever repay. By human standards, I am deeply indebted to all of them.
Thankfully, I am learning that relationships in the kingdom of God are not about give-and-take transactions. God has enough abundance for all of us, such that my pleas for help have nourished deeper friendships and multiplied the testimonies of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Our friends’ stories of faith are now intertwined with my own in a powerful way.
Through their faithful friendships, I have experienced the goodness of God in one of its purest forms. It’s a gift that I would be delighted to be able to give to others — not because I owe them, but because there is enough of God’s abundance for us to share together in it.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is the author of a forthcoming book on how to survive marriage to an entrepreneur (Center Street, 2017). She is a columnist for Inc.com and regular contributor to Christianity Today and The Well. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, BlogHer, RELEVANT, and more than a dozen other publications. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the U.S., Asia, and Africa. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. Find her online at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct.