When Their Culture Becomes Your Idol

It starts off innocently enough. In your months or years leading up to your move overseas, you pick up a few books at the library and start reading to learn a little bit more about the place you are going to live. You watch videos on YouTube about the culture and food and the language you are about to enter in to.

You attend cross-cultural missionary trainings where you learn how important it is to seek to understand the culture in which you are about to go live. They teach you practical things like how to dress and what to cook, how to shake hands and how to drive, but they also help you to better think about the perspective of others and how they might view the world and the gospel.

You move abroad and at first, these adjustments are “easy” to make. Easy in the sense that you’ve been expecting them, so they don’t feel like a huge shock or burden. You gladly pull on the baggy skirt and head out the door and you stop and say hello to each person that you pass no matter how long it takes. It doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, because this is what you’ve been waiting for, preparing for…a chance to move here and demonstrate the love of God.

Soon though, the honeymoon phase with this new culture wears off a little bit. No matter how much you study, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many sacrifices you’ve made, you will make mistakes. You’ll offend someone by reaching out to greet them with the wrong hand, you’ll use a seemingly harmless phrase that’s common in your passport country only to watch in bewilderment as your colleague explodes in rage at your insensitivity. You’ll be criticized for the way you planned an event out of order, or you’ll be shamed for accidentally letting your knee show as you knelt down to help a small child. Often times, it’s in these moments of “failure,” pain, or confusion where our hearts start looking elsewhere for solutions that seem, on the surface, more attainable, more logical.

For many of us, the answer our flesh immediately offers to us is to just “work harder.” For some, they’ll dive deeper into trying to understand every single intricacy of the culture, believing that that’s a feat they can actually achieve in one lifetime. They’ll pride themselves on what they are learning, and they might even start to shame other foreigners for their ignorance. Somewhere deep within them is a fear of messing up and a desire to be seen as the expert, the one who “gets it.” At times, though, they may be tempted to elevate the role that culture plays in evangelism, so much so that it keeps them paralyzed from sharing the good news because they aren’t quite sure how to present it perfectly yet. They see understanding culture wholly as the magical key to unlocking the heart of man, as if the Holy Spirit himself no longer has any role to play.

What started out as genuine desire to learn or to be “all things for all men for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22), has perhaps started to become idolatry.

Martin Lloyd-Jones describes an idol as “anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that is central in my life, anything that seems to me essential. An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves, rouses and attracts too much of my time, attention, energy and money.”

How exactly does one person’s culture become another person’s idol?

It happens just the same way anything else becomes an idol in our hearts–by weaseling its way in, often masquerading itself as something good and harmless, meanwhile taking our attention away from our one true love, master, and purpose.

Understanding and adapting to culture in and of itself is not wrong– it is a good thing. It is something we are called to do, a tool for showing the love, kindness, and compassion of our Savior in deep and unique ways to those who need it most. But sometimes it’s not an issue of what you are doing, but why you are doing it. What are your motivations? Why are you doing what you are doing?

Is it a _________________:

  • Desire to be liked by everyone that you meet and interact with?
  • Desire to have it (or force it to) be reciprocated to the same level?
  • Desire to accomplish or “win” the expat integration game with your outward appearances?
  • Desire to learn/understand, to solve the cultural puzzle or web, so to speak, and to have all the answers?
  • Desire to avoid messing up (cultural taboos) and having to live in that shame temporarily?
  • Desire to protect oneself from being called out or surprised with a new rule?
  • Desire to meet obligations that others have put on you, whether that’s supporters back home or people in your host community?

It’s a delicate line to walk: being in this world and yet not of it, honoring and respecting culture, whether theirs or your own, while not allowing it to consume you or control you.

Culture — either theirs or mine — was never meant to be an idol, and yet we idolize it when we give it such control in our lives and space in our hearts.

What started out harmlessly enough became an all-encompassing obsession. Whether it’s the hollow pride of proving that I’ve mastered this and am better than everyone else, or whether it’s the internal battle that is raging within me and shackling me down with chains of bitterness and resentment, their culture has taken a hold of me, and the next thing I know I’m bowing down before it. Bowing down and asking for approval, acceptance, protection, praise, acknowledgement, security–you name it. All those things that God has already given me through adoption into his royal family, I’m seeking after elsewhere.

When we worship anything or anyone over the living God, we will be disappointed…over and over and over again. When we attach our self-worth to other people’s acceptance of us, we become controlled by people-pleasing behavior, and our peace, joy, and contentment are dependent on the ever-changing waves and nuances of culture and human whim rather than the solid rock of Christ himself.

What happens, then, when even after all your strivings, they still don’t accept you, or you still fail? If your self-worth and ability to share the good news of salvation is tied up in their culture’s approval of you, how then will you respond when those efforts go unnoticed, unappreciated, criticized, or unreciprocated? Maybe you will just dig in and try harder, mustering up more of your own strength as you strive to please a false god with impossible expectations. Or perhaps you will start to resent every little thing about that other culture, elevating your own passport country’s culture as The Way, The Truth, The Light? When this is our relationship with culture and the people of that culture, how then will we be the salt and light of the earth? How can we love like Jesus did when our very purpose and identity is washed away and extinguished by even the subtlest breezes of opposition?

It may not be as obvious as the golden calf, but it sure does have the same effect. So how then are we to interact with our host culture? What then is the Christian’s relationship with culture? How do we balance becoming all things for all men and being in the world but not of it? Where exactly do we draw the line?

Again, in the end, it’s not so much about what we do…whether we eat or drink or wear long baggy skirts or don’t…it’s more about why we do it. What is the heart behind it? Are we doing it to earn love from man? Are we doing it out of fear of man or his obligations? Are we doing it to prove we are right and they are wrong? Or are we doing it for the sake of the gospel, out of freedom, for love of lost souls so that they might truly know salvation to its fullest extent and experience the same grace that we ourselves have received?

Paul was not compelled to adapt to the culture and give up his rights by a desire for the approval of man, pride, or perishable rewards (Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 9:15-16, 25-26) nor by the obligation of any law (1 Cor 9:19). Rather, he was compelled by the unbreakable, unconditional, never-ending, overflowing, powerful love the Father had given him for the lost “so that I may by every possible means save some…. because of the gospel, so that I might share in the blessings” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says, “If I speak human or angelic tongues, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophesy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

I might add this twist: “Even if I speak the language perfectly, carry out all the cultural customs according to what’s expected of me, have cultural and/or biblical wisdom greater than all the other expats here, and outwardly play by all the rules, but don’t have love…I am nothing, I gain nothing.”


10 Reasons a Missionary Needs an Identity Rooted in Christ

You know this: A missionary needs an identity rooted in Christ, and not in being a missionary.

You also know this: Who you are matters. If God didn’t care about each of us being unique, why go to the effort of multiple hair colors and textures, body types, heights, skin colors, and sports teams?

Being a missionary is something to take pride in, the problem many of us run into is that with our mouths we say, “My identity is ultimately in Christ.” But too often with our hearts we believe, “My identity is wrapped up so much in being a missionary, it’s really where my value as a person lies.”

Being a missionary is good and worthy and important (and fun and we get to go to cool places!), but it is not supreme. It cannot bear the weight of being the most important part of your identity, only Christ can.

10 reasons

We know this! But it is so important we get it right. Because this is what’s at stake:

  1. Your worth is not in what you do or how much you are paid. Your worth is in Christ. The world values money and status. The church, sadly, can also place higher worth on certain roles. In this case, the world and the church are wrong. You are worthy because you are a precious child of God. You are the very Imago Dei.
  1. The amount of transition missionaries tend to experience can lead you to unfairly link identity to a city, an organization, or a people group. All virtuous, yes. All will experience change.
  1. Many of the fields and assignments for missionaries have instability built into them. Your visa may be assumed to be a shoe-in, but we serve at the pleasure of governments that can change their minds. We have landlords that can change the contract. We live in countries that experience conflict. Hello, COVID, I’m looking at you too!
  1. No matter how great your family is, your hometown is, or your internet connection is, being a missionary influences your sense of belonging.
  1. It is more discussed now than it had been, but because you may be support-based, there is a pressure to perform. An identity in Christ relieves the pressure to perform, as it is based in love, not works. In a recent newsletter I wrote: “The last three years I have set out like I was in a courtroom and you were the judge. I have presented evidence that your faith and support in me are not in vain. In part, I wanted to educate you about XYZ ministry. But a greater part was to let you see exhibit A: look at what Amy is doing! and exhibit B: look at what Amy is doing over here! and exhibit C: More doing folks! I have crossed another line in my newsletter-writing career. I feel secure here. You know what XYZ ministry is. You know who I am. You know the heart of what I am trying to help foster in the world. The spirit of scarcity is not the the Holy Spirit I follow.”
  1. The results of your work are not always seen. I’m working on a project involving my newsletters from the mid-90s and in rereading them, I’m reminded of people we had been investing in and praying for. In many cases, they did not become Christians. But that was twenty years ago and I’m wondering where they are spiritually now.
  1. Someone will always have better behaved children, a “more spiritual” walk, superior language skills, or a more harrowing medical story.
  1. You may be allowed to do things on the field that you are not allowed to do in your passport country (like preach or serve communion). Or vice versa.
  1. You know Sabbath and other spiritual disciplines are important. When you are a missionary, you might practice them because you “should” or feel guilty because you are not practicing them. Instead, when your identity is in Christ, you might not have less internal struggle as to how challenging they can be, but you will have less guilt and more assurance in your position in God’s heart.
  1. It shows you really believe Jesus when he talked about coming to him like a child and coming to set the captives (like you) free. Or when He spoke on the importance of being a servantnand the command to not be anxious about anything in our lives.

I love being a missionary (most of the time). I love that I have been exposed to many countries and people and different ways to be human. I love it. What I don’t love is when I confuse my role in the kingdom of God with where my true identity lies.

This list reminds me of what it means to be a missionary whose identity is rooted in Christ, instead of a Christian whose identity is rooted in being a missionary. My hope and prayer is that it’s done the same for you.