I expected my transition to a public liberal arts university to initiate friendships with people whose childhoods were nothing like mine. I found it funny, then, when I discovered that the majority of my freshman roommate group came from homeschooling families. When we decided to live together, I had no idea that we had all graduated in a class of one. But when I really started to think about this “coincidence,” it didn’t seem so coincidental. Subtle signals of our shared experiences probably drew us together from the very beginning.
We all surround ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, with people who are like us. Newlyweds drift away from their single friends and replace them with other married couples. New parents seek support from other new parents. Retired people often spend their free time with others whose careers have ended. Thus, it can be disorienting when we are suddenly surrounded by people who are nothing like us.
Overseas travel often requires this sort of context shift. When we travel to other countries, we meet people from a completely different culture with a completely different worldview. I don’t believe the term “culture shock” adequately describes how people, accustomed to the comfortable rhythms of life in their home country, often cope with such a change. While some do respond with shock, many times our confusion asserts itself as disagreement with, or even resentment for, local people. When we don’t understand why they operate the way they do or why they value what they value, we assume they lack some good quality we possess. Such a response to a huge change in environment may be natural, but it reveals a cultural superiority, and it does not serve mutually-edifying relationships.
There’s no vaccine for cultural pride, but intentional preparation can help us handle cultural discomfort with humility. Here are three truths to meditate on in pursuit of this:
1. Every person is made in the image of God and has unique gifts to contribute.
Scripture reveals that every person is made by God to reflect him and that every believer is endowed by God with unique gifts for building up the body. Before assuming that somebody is just “too different” from you or that their way of doing something is wrong, consider how this very diversity of background and approach might teach you something. Your way of approaching a problem is not the only right way, and it might actually be a wrong way. God could be using the contrast of another worldview with your own to expose deeply-ingrained patterns of sin in your life. But even if God isn’t revealing sin, varying backgrounds and gifts still aid fruitful ministry.
2. Jesus pursued friendships across boundaries of difference.
Jesus dined with the wealthiest and the poorest members of society. He conversed with Jews and with Samaritans, whom the Jews hated. He healed people from powerful political families and disenfranchised beggars on the side of the road. Jesus lived life with people who were incredibly different from him on a daily basis. So when you find yourself in a new environment and feel that you should not be expected to build relationships with people drastically different from you, remember that as ambassadors for Christ, we are called to reflect the ministry of Jesus. Look to him as your example of engaging with people who seemingly have nothing in common with you.
3. Christ is the most important unifying factor in any relationship.
While cultural differences may seem insurmountable, as Christians we actually have all the most important things in common. We are all sinners saved by Jesus’ work on the cross. We are all adopted into the family of God. We are all part of his body here on earth. We will spend eternity together in heaven with God, and today we have the opportunity to preview a little bit of the new heavens and new earth through relationships with other believers.
While my roommates and I shared a similar schooling experience, we quickly discovered how different we were in other areas of life. We had different personalities, passions, political affiliations, theology, experiences, and giftings. When these differences started to appear, it was tempting to search for friends who were more “like me.” However, it was our differences, and not our similarities, that made our friendships so fruitful. If I had been surrounded with people exactly like me, I would not have experienced all the encouragement and support my roommates provided that year. In addition to these upbuilding differences, we also took encouragement from the knowledge that, at the end of the day, we were children of the same heavenly father, saved by his Son’s work on the cross.
If we shy away from people who are not like us, both in foreign contexts and in our own circles, we oppose God’s true design for community: a global body, made up of diverse and complementary members, united in him, carrying out his purposes on earth.