We are hard pressed on every side,yet not crushed; we are perplexed,but not in despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed…
The heat did press in on us, and we were pressed together under a large tent, open on the sides. We consolidated ourselves under the shade provided. My husband and I were placed in chairs at the front, next to a well-dressed couple, also special guests.
The service began. The desert winds rushed in our direction. Sand and dust whipped in under the tent and landed, silently, on all of us. We sweated. We drank from our water bottles. And sweated some more. After about three hours, the lady next to us took a rag out of her purse and handed it to her husband who immediately began wiping her neck, right there in front of God and everyone. “Interesting”, I thought. But, after all, they’re new.
A lunch had been prepared for us and several other guests, including the aforementioned couple. We were led to a tidy, one-room mud house where a table had been spread. For one who has lived in Africa for years, I could tell the hosts had blessed us with their best chairs, nicest tablecloth, their cleanest environment and special food. It looked good to me.
The rag lady, sour-faced, sat down and, once again, took out her rag with a kind of flourish. When our serving girl arrived, she thrust the rag toward her and demanded, “Go re-wet this.” The girl did as she was told. The lady then proceeded to give herself a more thorough sponge bath, wiping arms, legs, and any skin showing. The other guests politely ignored her. I felt very embarrassed for her and, what seemed to me, her culturally inappropriate behavior.
The food came. She glared at her plate, then at her husband’s. A fly lands on her potatoes. Immediately, grumbling, she sent her plate back for a replacement. I watched and listened in amazement as she continued to mutter complaints under her breath, pick at her food and eat off her husband’s plate.
Culture shock. The online dictionary definition is: a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment. Lately, the term “culture stress” has come more into vogue and is defined much the same way except you substitute “living life in” for “suddenly exposed to”.
I know I am experiencing this state of bewilderment and distress when I sob in the shower, scream into my pillow or just generally feel like I don’t fit in my skin. The empathetic colleague might soothe me with “Don’t worry, it’s just culture shock” and then kindly direct me to the suggested reading list we all received at orientation before we left our home countries. “These books may help you navigate culture shock.”
The insinuation is that the Bible doesn’t really address this issue on a deep level, and we certainly need help on a deep level here. But nowhere do we find “culture shock” specifically mentioned in Scripture. Furthermore, reading between the lines in the recommended books on the subject, we are led to believe that this circumstance is outside the scope of Scripture, especially if you’re approaching the “despair” end of the spectrum. We deal with it in any manner from treating ourselves to a cappuccino and pedicure, to gulping down our morning antidepressant with a few Bible verses thrown in to help us “feel better”.
Is it really true that God’s word is silent on the subject? What about Abraham to Canaan. Moses in Midian. Joseph to Egypt. Paul to Corinth. Most of all, Jesus to Earth. The One who crossed the widest cultural gap Himself told us to cross cultural boundaries and preach the gospel to all people. [Mark 16:15] The apostles and early Christians lived the faith and testified to the gospel in places foreign to them. Likewise we are sent to other cultures to do and be the same. How is it, then, that God’s word would not tell us what to do when we are bewildered or distressed while in such God-ordained circumstances? I contend that God’s word speaks directly, specifically and sufficiently to those of us who are distressed in a cultural environment foreign to us.
The biblical definition of culture shock might be: the state of bewilderment and distress in tribulations that Christ’s followers experience as they live in the world. Paul crashed into the Corinthian church. A foreign place, culture and people. He was hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. This great missionary continually circulated cross-culturally. Added to his burden for the spiritual welfare of the fledgling churches, the arduous journeys and unfamiliar environments also caused stress. [I Cor. 4, II Cor. 6 and 11:22-29] He was subjected to the Press.
In a press, hard surfaces come together, squeezing something softer between them. Whatever is inside the thing being squeezed will come out. It may burst out in a loud, massive mess or it may be a slow, silent leakage. But what’s in there will come out. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. [Matt. 12:34-37] What we think and believe and do in secret is the measure of who we really are. Just as we learn our own face by seeing it in a mirror, so we learn our true character as we hold it up to the mirror of God’s word while experiencing culture stress. [Prov.27:19] When we are comfortable, we ignore the dark corners of the soul but the Press will force out whatever is hidden there.
When culture stress, or any other stress, presses us to an uncomfortable response, or to lash out at others, we must ask ourselves: What do I love? What am I longing for that my Lord never promised? What do I want that I’m not getting? To what hopes do I cling that are not eternal? Our response to the press of a foreign culture reveals to us what we truly value, desire and think we can’t live without. And those are the things our Lord Jesus wants to change in us. May we judge ourselves rightly, confess idolatrous loves, expectations and our precious non-negotiables, repenting of them. This press is the tool the Holy Spirit uses to transform us into people of whom it can be said, “They have been with Jesus.”
If we don’t respond in this way to culture stress, our only other option is to defend or excuse sinful attitudes and behaviors with “It’s culture shock, after all. I’ll get over it.” We deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re not all that bad. “I don’t know what got into me … this isn’t really me … I can’t believe I’m thinking this!” Culture stress does not crush, cause despair, or hopelessness. However, resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts will.
The lady with the sour face and rag was not experiencing culture stress. Turns out she is a local lady and this is her environment, her culture. The press is the Press everywhere; the human heart is the same worldwide. Her heart’s secrets oozed out.
Culture stress isn’t the reason we respond the way we do. These circumstances are simply the press that serves to lay open the secrets of our hearts. Almost daily, I awake to the Press. If my tongue is sharp, or if I am despondent, I take a deeper look at those things I’m demanding of God and confess them. He mercifully forgives me, keeps on transforming me, wrapping me in His grace, which is sufficient for this day. And at the end of the day, I desire the Press to reveal the strength of Jesus Christ made perfect in my weakness. [II Cor. 12:9-10]
Still going out for a pedicure and cappuccino? Hey, wait for me!
II Corinthians 4:7-12