In college, I took part in a short-term service trip to a Christian orphanage in Mexico. Most days were spent digging a long, windy ditch in preparation for plumbing pipes, breaking for meals that we had prepared, and crossing the border into Arizona every night to sleep at a modest, budget motel. With the best of intentions, our group sought to help those who seemed helpless, determined that our presence would lay no extra burden on their backs. We wanted to give without receiving anything in return.

However, there’s a major problem with this goal: it’s impossible. We were ministering to hosts, not ghosts, and as guests, the relationship naturally put demands on both parties. In fact, with each passing day, we found ourselves more and more on the receiving end of the exchange. Not only were we served directly, through the many contours of cross-cultural hospitality, but we were also given the privilege of seeing brothers and sisters live out their hope in a situation many would deem hopeless.

I’m sure this is a reversal many can relate to, recalling experiences from their own cross-cultural excursions. And so it makes sense to ask the question: what if we departed on such trips, either short or long-term, with a goal of serving by receiving?

Opposite of Our Intentions

At first, this idea may seem counter-intuitive, especially to our mainstream American habit of idolizing self-sufficiency. Upon crossing into another culture, we mean well, but our tendencies often communicate the very opposite of our intentions. This is only amplified by the reputation for arrogance that we as Americans carry with us as we enter a new culture. Whether merited or not from person to person, we will constantly be suspected of a superiority complex. If anything, though, this should constantly keep the human condition before our eyes, that we naturally count ourselves superior to our neighbor, and, insanely, even to God.

In our own culture, we can more skillfully control the messages we send to others, thereby masking the pride we feel in our hearts. However, once we enter another culture, actions take on much different meanings, and perceptions can seem out of our control. At times, this confusion communicates a pride of which we aren’t even aware, confirming those suspicions of arrogance. For instance, by staying at a motel in Arizona, rather than allowing our Mexican hosts to offer any sort of accommodations, what message were we sending? Again, we meant well, but how could our efforts to bear our own burden ultimately have burdened them by reinforcing a sense of destitution?

Duane Elmer, in his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood, addresses this danger, quoting the account of a campus ministry leader who tried to express Christ’s love to a friend’s mother who was recovering from surgery. Initially he did this through sending flowers, but the mother felt embarrassed receiving flowers from someone she didn’t know. However, considering the culture of the mother, which was also American but much different from his own mainstream culture, he changed his approach entirely. That is, he asked the mother to invite him over for dinner, which turned into a great night of fellowship. Reflecting on this experience, the campus leader writes:

I . . . realized that to try to start a relationship by giving wouldn’t work. That was focusing on her need and weakness, and she and the family probably had way too much of that already . . . For Christians it seems counterintuitive, but I realized that we should meet her in a receiving posture that would affirm her dignity by honoring something she had to give.

At first this certainly does seem to veer from Christian principles. However, I believe this misconception arises from our one-sided view of serving, which identifies people as either “servers” or “servees,” and urges us to avoid the latter label. Elmer, though, goes on to free us from this potentially dangerous distinction. He identifies “servanthood” not in terms of giving and receiving, but rather, by much more mysterious parameters. He writes, “Serving is the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives.” Servanthood, therefore, flows more from the posture of our heart than the actions we carry out.

Deeper Kind of Giving

And so as we engage those of a different culture, or anyone for that matter, we must not forget the counterintuitive service of receiving. We seek to affirm their dignity, and, hopefully, by his grace, empower them to glorify God, the source of all good gifts. In this way, the act of receiving is actually leavened with a deeper kind of giving.

We see this often in the life of Jesus. Time and time again, he ministers as a guest in the home of another, eating meals others had cooked for him. However, as Colossians 1:16-17 states, “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 with a staggering humility, he allowed those whose very life he had created and sustained, to serve him by receiving from them food that his power had ultimately prepared.

This incomprehensible humility isn’t the exception, though, but rather the rule in our relationship with Christ. That is, all that we can ever offer him is that which he has already given us, but he receives it graciously. He bestows on us a dignity, which is completely undeserved and yet anything but patronizing, and enables the previously impossible, the ability to glorify God rather than ourselves.

We all stand equal and useless before this grace, which is a liberating truth as we seek to serve cross-culturally. It shatters our tendency to see ourselves as pure and simple benefactors, always giving and never receiving. Not only is the distinction of giving and receiving a false dichotomy, but it also forgets the helplessness of all humanity, regardless of one’s accomplishments, education, or living standard.

Had we grasped this during our trip to the Mexican orphanage, we could have served more like Christ. We could have received with a humility that empowered our hosts to rely on Christ, rather than us. The trip was a great experience for both parties, of course, but we didn’t realize then the pride of our approach. Thankfully, though, our hosts did appear privy to these truths. Perhaps their greatest service was humbly receiving our pride-tainted gifts, a very Christ-like action indeed.