How cultural values impact our relationship with God
Every culture has its own set of values, passed down from one generation to another. If we ask our families why we follow certain cultural norms, the typical answer would be, “it’s just how things have always been”. A problem arises when our cultural values conflict with God’s will for us.
Cultures evolve over time, but God’s will for us never changes. The Bible reminds us not to follow the pattern of this world, but to follow God’s perfect will for us. Whether we are African, Australian, Chinese, French or Spanish, all of God’s people should follow one unifying pattern, God’s will.
Romans 12:2 NIV Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Let’s look at some examples based on traditional Chinese beliefs and values to illustrate how our cultural values can impact our relationship with God.
1. Shame and loss of face 揚名聲顯父母
Shame (loss of face) is a big part of the Chinese psyche. Children are taught to behave well so that they are not a disgrace to the family. They are told to study hard because their relatives’ children are doing better than them in school. Families openly talk about successful members and may avoid those whom they personally see as less successful. One is taught to always look good in front of others.
A mask of performance
Under such influences, Christians will find it hard to truly believe that God accepts them, with no strings attached. They may feel too ashamed to bring their sins before a holy and powerful God, in spite of the fact that He already knows everything. Or they may work very hard to make up for the mistakes in their past, as a way to cover up their shame. Such Christians may feel a compulsion to volunteer in lots of church activities, but inherently do it with little joy.
The Bible says that if we truly follow God, He will give us a double portion of our spiritual inheritance in place of our shame. But first, we have to decide to let go of our shame and humbly ask God to renew us.
Isaiah 61:7 ESV Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.
Isaiah 50:7 ESV But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
2. Silence on family issues is golden 家醜不出外傳
As a result of this “face” issue, many traditional Chinese people prefer to remain silent on family troubles, rather than to speak up and ask for help. Family problems are almost never openly addressed because this brings shame to family members. It is almost viewed as a noble honour to suffer silently for your family.
A fear to acknowledge family issues
Believers may find it hard to confess the sins of their families, which only leads to generational curses not being dealt with, and being passed on to the next generation.
The Bible says that the consequences of sins (iniquities) are passed on from one generation to another, particularly that of idol worship. Fortunately, as believers, we can confess the sins of our forefathers, in addition to our own. The first step is to identify and confess these generational sins.
Numbers 14:18 ESV The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.
Jeremiah 14:20 ESV We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against you.
3. Always look good to be respected 先敬羅衣後敬人
The fear to “lose face” can breed insecurity, which may lead people to accumulate wealth or display status symbols as a means to compensate. Lacking status or money is often deemed to be shameful in Chinese society. That may be why many Asian countries, particularly China, are huge consumers of luxury brands. It is all about putting up appearances.
A fear of confession
Asian Christians may find it hard to let down their guard and confess their personal sins to their fellow believers because they have spent all their lives trying to look good on the outside. It can be really painful to peel off that mask.
The Bible says that we need to open up and confess our sins to one another, because that leads to healing. Confessing our sins and mistakes to others and loving each other just like how Jesus has demonstrated to us, breaks the bondage of shame over our lives.
James 5:16 ESV Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
4. Filial piety is paramount 百行以孝為先
It is not unusual for those who are born into Chinese families to feel like they owe everything (or at least a lot) to their parents because they are “the ones who made you”.
From this train of thought, there is a general expectation that children should always respect and follow their parents’ opinions and advice, no matter how flawed they may be, because parents want the best for their children. Once a Chinese man gets married, his new wife may be expected to listen to his mother first and foremost as well.
In many cases, there is also a subtle pressure to have sons, so the family surname may be preserved to next generation. Girls are deemed to be less valuable. (白紙百子千孫)
A tendency towards family idolatry
These strong familial ties mean that some people may feel guilty and shameful if the rest of their family do not support their Christian faith. Some may hold themselves back from being baptised or taking Bible study classes. There may be an internal struggle to choose between what one’s parents say versus what the Bible says.
If Chinese Christian women constantly felt inferior to their biological brothers as they were growing up, this deep sense of unworthiness can also affect how they feel about being worthy or unworthy of God’s love. They may also silently harbour anger issues.
The Bible says that we are to honour (not worship) our parents, but it is to God that we owe everything. God is the head of everything and everyone; He created us, He created our parents and our families, and called all children a gift. We are to put Him first, in spite of what others may want us to do, even if it appears that we don’t love them (or appear to hate them, as Jesus states in Luke 14:26).
1 Chronicles 29:11 ESV Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all.
Ephesians 6:2-3 ESV “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
Luke 14:26 ESV “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Every culture has values that deviate from God’s spiritual laws and truth. We need to know His word and discern how to honour God first, over and above what we have been taught growing up. When we are able to seek God’s ways first, then will we also be a blessing to others, including our families.
God wants a holy people who are set apart for Him
When God led the Israelites into the Promised Land, He warned them not to inherit the practices from the cultures they were exposed to, whether in Egypt or in Canaan. He called them to be apart as a holy nation. Similarly, all of God’s people are to honour Him first. May we seek His ways first, over and above our own cultures
Leviticus 18:1-5 ESV And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.
Matthew 6:33 ESV But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
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