Can You Spot the Difference?
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Loving Others in a Changing World
Long after we started our conversation, a lightbulb lit up on top of his head and his frown gave way to a smile. He said to me, 'I am so sorry, I have been defensive because I didn't realize we were using this word differently. We're actually saying the same thing.'
The word at the core of our misunderstanding was culture.
Let’s say that I start to notice that someone, something is different. Is noticing enough?
Often, when first encountering someone or something new, cultural differences don’t seem to be sizable, especially when everyone or everything is new or interesting or exciting. Common ground appears to cover the entire landscape. Differences seem inconsequential. So long as we never look past the initial façade, this view never changes. Nothing new sticks out to us as we pass each other by, shake hands in church, or give someone in the coffee line a hug. Eventually though, if we do step inside, get to know the person, learn more than their first name; if we do start to have meaningful conversation, work together, laugh together; if we do start to make decisions together, lead together, this is when the cultural differences start to show. The reason I say "if" we ever do these things is because I know that on occasions, I have been guilty of never doing these things. Who knows, maybe you are too. But let’s say I do in fact do these things. Let’s say that I start to notice that someone, something is different. Is noticing enough?
To think that you were exactly the same as me would be to shortchange you, and it would be to shortchange God as well.
Subconsciously, we look at social media, Hollywood, the news, and tend to rest somewhere softly on the idea “humans are essentially the same", correct? Just remember, generalizations can be dangerous. Though on some levels this is true, it does not highlight how specialized and unique humanity is- how God has placed people all throughout history in specific times and specific places for a specific purpose. I am not the same as you. I would not know what you’ve been through and how you think. I would not know how you make decisions and why you do what you do. I would not know any of these things. Unless I took the time to get to know you. Unless I took the time to understand where you lived, how you lived, and what your history was. Then I might understand. I might also understand that we’re both very different. I might understand that even though we use similar words, we mean different things. I might see that the world is beautifully complex, and that you are too. To think that you were exactly the same as me would be to shortchange you, and it would be to shortchange God as well. In His infinite beauty and creativity, He placed you in time and space for a purpose. He did so for me as well. On occasion, He even puts us both in the same time and space. So here we are, together.
We are different. See it. Know that it’s okay. But then ask yourself, where do we go from here?
The reality is that many of us, myself included, can struggle to even get this far in our thinking. It can be hard to spot that there are differences at all, let alone that it might be part of our responsibility to try and understand someone else and their way of thinking and acting; that it might be on me to try and understand their background, their culture, or what they even mean by he word culture. Even if/when we do start to recognize these differences, we often don’t know what to do with them.
Living in England is not the first time I have encountered cultural differences. I don’t have to think long to recognize that I’ve encountered them almost every day of my life. I’ve seen them in my own family- both my parents grew up in separate households (obviously), and in separate cultures (maybe less obvious, unless you got to know them). My best friends and roommates in college were from different sides of the country. They had different church backgrounds. They had different religious backgrounds. What was acceptable for some was taboo for others. Sound familiar? I’m sure you can relate. Heck, I took a course at University where, no joke, every single person in the class was from a different country.
Knowledge, though, does not equal wisdom. Walking into this chapter of my life, I knew these things on a basic level- people are different, duh. What happens though when you encounter big differences, and you can’t simply go home and shrug them off? Here are two possibilities. You either a) change, stretch, grow, or b) you become stagnant, bitter, harsh.
Jesus loves people, and He has asked you and I to do so as well.
Due to the loving support (and patience) of many Godly mentors and family members, I have been adamant with myself that during this time I will do my best to understand a new way of thinking. Harder said than done. Now, it might be expected that a missionary understands that this is simply part of the business, but it’s this point that I wanted to address. What may seem obvious to some, yet has really struck me during this time, is that this is very much not simply a 'foreign missions' way of looking at life. Any time I step into a church with new people, anytime I enter a city, a home, whether it’s down the street or it’s thousands of miles away, I am entering a specific culture, a specific way of doing things. And if it’s not directly the one I am used to, there will be differences. The question then becomes, am I willing to not just recognizes that there are differences, but am I willing to make a step towards understanding them. And yes, at first glance this seems like a lot of work, so why would I even want to do this anyways?
Answer (and yes, I can confidently say there is an answer to this): Jesus loves people, and He has asked you and I to do so as well. It turns out that my way of doing things, though it may make sense to me, is not the only way. There might be a better way of doing things, there might not be. If the end result of my evaluation of someone else is to see if they have the best way of doing something, I have missed the point. The main point is this: If Jesus humbled himself enough to go from perfect unity with God to becoming a mucky smelly man, just to show me how much he loves me, will I allow him to teach me to love someone else by trying to understand their way of doing things, even if it takes me out of my comfort zone? This is a process of humility; it is a process that takes time. To this question there is no cookie-cutter answer, but keep this in mind: God isn’t worried about wasting time, and he loves us so intimately that he has a unique and perfect plan for each of us as He seeks to grow us in his love and his wisdom. If it takes longer than we would like, that's okay. You could say that God has time on his hands.
The other side of this coin is all too familiar (for me at least): Grumble. Be mad at someone for not understanding me. Justify in my head why they are being inconsiderate and dumb. Do I need to spell it out further? Most of us, to some degree, will understand. To leave things like this simply leaves me bitter, harsh. God has so much more in store for us. He has so much more in store for our relationships. He will show us, if only we will let Him in.
Who in your life do you need to let God teach you more about? The same question could be asked this way: Who in your life is God calling you to love better? You may find that what was previously a frustrating and anxious process turns into one of your most beautiful and intimate moments with Jesus. You may also find that, by taking the time to understand a different way of life, your own improves as well. I have found that, for myself, this is indeed the case.