Finding Grace in Every Culture
We're often confounded by the apparent tension between the depths of our depravity and our daily encounters with what seems good, true, and beautiful. We whirl back and forth between hard-hearted cynicism and gullible naïveté. Working cross-culturally finally brought this issue to a head for me, having to reinterpret so much of life from a new cultural vantage point.
In particular, it was the humbling help of a non-Christian friend, from my foreign country of service, that forced me to begin examining this complexity and its connection to the gospel. It started with a visit from another friend, an American, and his return to the United States. Due to some unexpected travel complications, he would have to fly back by way of China, a layover that would require him to procure a Chinese visa in very short order. However, when my national friend got wind of the situation, he immediately jumped into action. He made four separate trips to the Chinese embassy, waiting in long lines and navigating quite a bit of paperwork, to procure a visa in what seemed like record time. Even more, being a university student, he did this during an intense regiment of final exams, sacrificing valuable study time in an educational system that is overwhelmingly exam-based.
Through it all, I thanked him frequently for his help, but in response, I received a now-familiar scolding that I have since received on countless other occasions. In this culture, "thank you" isn't something you normally say to your friends. Friends are supposed to serve each other, and there isn't anything especially exceptional when they do. Instead, "thank you" is for strangers. And so in the years since then, I've seen this play out again and again, receiving a level of help from friends that I have rarely, if ever, matched. Suffice to say, this service, saturated deep within cultural conventions, challenged me. It seemed to combat what I knew about human nature, a depravity diagnosed by the gospel itself. But in the end, this struggle led me to glorify Christ.
That is, it forced me to expand my view of Christ. It made me recognize his work outside of the church, a work that had certainly affected this culture. As Colossians 1:16-17 says, "For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities---all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." So I realized that Christ is not only the mediator between God and his elect, but also the mediator between God and all of creation. Being the creator, sustainer, and even the purpose of the universe, all peoples of all cultures owe their existence to his will and work. For me, this recognition of Christ's creationally comprehensive mediation was the first step in practically understanding his common grace, which both restrains the curse of sin and also allows for a kind of cultural flourishing among all peoples. As for proof of its effects, the fact that humanity has not fallen into complete degeneracy is evidence enough.
What's more, this mediation means that the praise for any praiseworthy action ultimately belongs to Christ alone. As Calvin wrote in The Institutes, "these virtues, whatever they may be, or rather images of virtue, are the gift of God; since there is nothing in any respect laudable which does not proceed from him." This is encouraging truth indeed as we engage any and all cultures, prompting us to praise him for things around us that we might otherwise ignore. Personally, it has proved immeasurably helpful to my own worship to be able to glorify Christ's work in the culture in which I serve, even if it is largely ignorant of him. And so I have the freedom and privilege to thank Christ for my friend's sacrificial service.
Idol and Ideal
But the effects of Christ's common grace have penetrated deeper than acts of service. Inward orientations, while still poisoned by the toxic effects of original sin, are also affected. In particular, the culture around me highly prizes family harmony, specifically between parents and children. And the desire for this ideal is a good thing, which means it comes from sheer grace alone. However, being only common grace, it cannot untangle the ideal from the idol. The good gift of family is sought as an end in itself, and its giver goes unnoticed.
Even with saving grace, the challenge of honoring but not worshiping family remains. For instance, last year I had the privilege of speaking to the college group of a local congregation, discussing the importance of marrying a fellow believer. However, while preparing, I was discouraged from highlighting the "leave and cleave" insistence from Ephesians 5, given its implications for the parent-child relationship. Of course, in America, our culture has its own complaints about this chapter, but this isn't one of them. While struggling with headship, we consider starting a new family unit apart from our parents to be a healthy stage in development.
In this way, the gospel both affirms and rejects aspects of every culture. And this is what we should expect since the gospel isn't captive to any one culture. It's above all cultures. It's infinitely more nuanced and complex than the sum of a people's ideas, artifacts, actions, and institutions. These things affirmed by the gospel must be transformed, as with the Greeks and their desire for wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22-25). But we know all people, as a result of Christ's common grace, desire good things. Certainly these desires have been distorted. They've become idols and usurped Christ's proper place in the heart. Still, they stem from something good and thereby can point them back to their creator and sustainer.
I saw this play out with the friend I mentioned earlier, the one who helped with the visa process. One day over coffee, we began talking about the ceremonial worship of family in which one's dead ancestors receive offerings on household altars. These departed relatives, if appeased in the afterlife, work on our behalf to bring about blessings for the family still living. Common with animism, people seek a mediator, an advocate to support them in the unseen but very real spiritual world around us. Truthfully, we all want this. Even though idolatry we're more familiar with might be less "ceremonial," it serves a similar purpose. It becomes something that we expect to defend us against others, to stand in the gap between us and our accusers and convince them that we are good or worthy or deserving of love. So accomplishments, resources, romance, or a number of other good things likewise climb onto our own internal altars.
However, after my friend's description of family worship, I asked him about the deity, which might be translated "Grandfather Sky," who is recognized, though not revered, by the local culture. In response, he explained that this god was the great god, but that he was far removed from the everyday happenings of people. Instead, the spirits of the deceased must mediate on our behalf. I asked my friend more about what this great god was like, and he gave quite an elaborate explanation. He believed that this god was high above our understanding, positing that just as something two-dimensional couldn't understand something three-dimensional, so something three-dimensional, like us, couldn't understand something of four or more dimensions, which surely this god must be. His depth of thinking surprised me, and I realized that what he was saying bore striking resemblance to C. S. Lewis's multi-dimensional explanation of personality regarding the trinity. I asked if he would mind taking a look at Mere Christianity together. He agreed, and after working through the pertinent chapter he said, "This is the god that I believe exists. I've never heard anyone say it like this before, but this is what I've always thought."
From there we began studying about this great god together. And though this friend has yet to place trust in the one God, this experience has shown me how in the deepest parts of our being, God has placed in all of us a knowledge, however vague and obscured by sin, of himself. Not only do we ever long for the recognition of his comprehensive mediation, but in some way, we have always known it to be. And so the multiple facets of his common grace, stemming from this mediation for all creation, should give us inexhaustible hope as we engage any and all cultures.