I thought I understood culture until I moved abroad and went grocery shopping in Asia. I couldn’t read any labels, so I was painstakingly selecting each item, relying on pictures and translation apps. Suddenly, an elderly woman came over, pulled a bottle of dish soap out of my shopping cart, and spoke rapid Chinese as she wagged her finger at me. She put my selected soap back on the shelf, picked up a different brand, and put it in my cart.
I was speechless and indignant. What in the world? How dare someone invade my privacy and replace an item in my shopping cart?
Now that I’ve been in Asia for more than six years, I better understand what was going on—not only with the elderly woman but also in my own soul. Culture is like the proverbial iceberg. We may think we understand our culture, but much of it remains below the surface. We might not see it until someone crashes into our subconscious cultural beliefs.
Sure, culture affects obvious things like what food we eat, where we live, and the types of clothing we wear. But culture goes much deeper than that. It influences how we think and interact in a multitude of ways. That’s why we need to consider how our culture might interfere with our call to be imitators of Jesus (1 Pet. 2:21). Sometimes we think we’re acting in Christlikeness when we’re really acting in culture-likeness.
Let me explain what was likely going on in my grocery store encounter. Asian cultures are collectivist. While Western cultures prioritize individualism, Asian cultures prioritize caring for the community. The woman was trying to be a good community member by helping me buy the best product for my needs. She had probably tried the soap I was planning to buy and knew it was lower quality. I didn’t speak her language, so she was sharing her wisdom with me in the only way she could.
But what about my heart? Why was I so angry about someone trying to help me? Just as the woman’s culture influenced her to reach into my shopping cart, my culture affected my response. I’m an American, a descendant of generations of trailblazers. My ancestors had to be independent self-starters or they wouldn’t have survived. The culture I’ve inherited prizes independence and self-sufficiency. So I felt intruded upon and my sinful heart easily turned to anger when someone else touched my shopping cart.
It’s easy to think our entrenched cultural ideas are right and godly. And indeed, some of our cultural traits are good, true, and biblical—but not all of them are. Sometimes we dress up our cultural beliefs in Christian language or focus on certain parts of Scripture that align with our views. Each culture can demonstrate both the glory of God and the fallenness of mankind. We as believers are responsible to discern which cultural traits are godly and which are sinful.
Each culture can demonstrate both the glory of God and the fallenness of mankind.
For example, collectivist Asian cultures emphasize conflict-free communication. This cultural norm tends toward indirect communication or sometimes even gossip. Eastern believers may focus on how the Bible calls us to be gracious to one another, so they’ll be hesitant to follow the approach of Matthew 18:15–17.
On the other hand, Western (especially American) cultural communication can be so direct that we may forget we’re supposed to communicate with truth and grace. We value justice and believe we must right all wrongs. That means we sometimes miss opportunities to overlook an offense, which Scripture describes as our glory (Prov. 19:11).
Being an American living in Asia has helped me see that I tend to stand on my rights even though Christ modeled giving up his rights (Phil. 2:3–8). I shouldn’t insist on being independent and self-sufficient when God calls us to live in unified community (Rom. 12:4–18), submit to one another in love (Eph. 5:21), and depend on Christ (John 15:5). But I’ve also seen God use my cultural traits for good; my American sense of independence took me to live in another culture in the first place.
See the Difference
The goal isn’t to shed our cultural perspectives entirely but to learn to distinguish our cultural tendencies from biblical truths. Two practices have been helpful in this regard.
First, when something provokes us, we need to slow down and consider if it might be our culture that has been offended. What does Scripture—the whole of Scripture—say about the situation? Are our cultural tendencies blinding us to any scriptural commands?
Second, we need friends from other cultures. We need to have deep conversations with people who have different norms and perspectives. We need to have our cultural toes stepped on and be ready to see that our cultural traits may not always be godly.
The goal is to learn to distinguish our cultural tendencies from biblical truths.
As citizens of a heavenly kingdom, we can embrace whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent about our cultures (Phil. 4:8) while also asking the Lord to help us see and replace ungodly aspects where they’re present in our lives. By God’s grace, we’ll not only come to better understand our culture-likeness but we’ll also grow in Christlikeness.