“What a man desires is unfailing love; better to be poor than a liar (Proverbs 19:22).”
Yesterday in a staff meeting at work we were discussing the cultural inclinations of some of our students. I was co-leading the seminar with a colleague, who had prepared some notes from a book.
One particular excerpt from the book grabbed me: “When [people from this culture] say ‘yes’ to your request, they are not necessarily certain that the request can be carried out. Etiquette demands that your request have a positive response. It’s a statement of intention, not literal compliance.”
This explains a lot at my workplace. When you give an assignment to these folks, at times you will get a statement such as “I will do it”, accompanied by a warm smile. The next day, the student hasn’t carried out the promise.
This particular cultural group emphasizes kindess over and above performance. For Americans who emphasize the latter, this behavior can be particularly frustrating. Withouth this cultural insight, it would be easy to interpret the promises of such students as lies.
I know that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot when it comes to how people from other cultures view our pronouncements. For example, we Americans tend to say things like “Let’s get together soon” and “We’ll have you over some time.” Yet, the foreigner’s phone never rings.
This American cultural trait is particularly frustrating to my wife. In her culture, you say what you mean. A promise is a promise. Thus, when I say to a friend “Let’s do lunch” she will say to me, “You just invited him over. So when can we do this?” I try to explain that I was just being friendly, but it is all to no avail.
We may be born with a sin nature, but I think a lot of people everywhere want to be kind. They desire to help others, to be generous and to open their homes in hospitality.
This kind of kindness is biblical. For example God says He will reward those who are kind to the poor . (Psalm 41:1). Jesus Himself had concern for the state of the poor (Matthew 19:21).
I’d like nothing better to help the weak and downtrodden in a practical way. My wife feels the same way. The thing is, we are tightening our own belts, big time. We just don’t have the wherewithal to reach out in this way, even in giving our time. We’re too busy trying to survive ourselves and provide for our family.
Our efforts for the sake of our family are just as biblical as those who have the resources to give and be kind to others outside their own homes. After all, the apostle Paul said those who do not provide for their family are blameworthy. He wrote, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (I Timothy 5:8).”
Joseph exemplified helping out one’s own kin. His brothers and extended family were in famine conditions and he had the power to help. He used his position to relocate scores of his own relatives to Egypt where they could not only survive, but prosper (Genesis 45:9-24). Matthew Henry notes that Joseph’s father Jacob would not leave ANY of his brethren behind to starve when he took Joseph up on his offer.
We are to be kind to our families, and we are to also be kind to others outside of it. How does someone who lacks the resources be kind to those besides their own relatives?
I think Matthew Henry has some good advice:
The honour of doing good is what we may laudably be ambitious of. It cannot but be the desire of man, if he have any spark of virtue in him, to be kind; one would not covet an estate for any thing so much as thereby to be put into a capacity of relieving the poor and obliging our friends. It is far better to have a heart to do good and want ability for it than have ability for it and want a heart to it: The desire of a man to be kind, and charitable, and generous, is his kindness, and shall be so construed; both God and man will accept his good-will, according to what he has, and will not expect more. A poor man, who wishes you well, but can promise you nothing, because he has nothing to be kind with, is better than a liar, than a rich man who makes you believe he will do mighty things, but, when it comes to the setting to, will do nothing. the character of the men of low degree, that they are vanity, from whom nothing is expected, is better than that of men of high degree, that they are a lie, they deceive those whose expectations they raised.
Less well-off believers tend to feel inferior to our more prosperous brethren when it comes to good works. We have a passion for ministry as great as our wealthier friends, and tend to envy them.
Those of us on the short end of the financial stick don’t have to feel this way. Our effort should lie in expressing our kindness to others in other ways, including our good wishes.
In ancient Greeks, Sophists were educators who taught philosophy to statesman. Plato criticized them because they emphasized showy behavior over truth. Sophist teachings had the appearance of truth, but were false, relatavistic. They catered to the public, which Plato said was “the greatest of all Sophists”.
Sophists also emphasized money. Plato deplored the fact they charged for an education.
In our modern cultures, including the American Christian one, we also tend to be Sophists. We stress money and things that just ain’t so. Materialism has sloughed over into our biblical world views.
Kindness doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed in money. A kind word and and expressions of good will are just as valuable in God’s eyes, especially when those who lack material resources can’t show kindness in any other way.
We Americans who express our verbal willingness for future contact to our friends and our students who show politeness may appear disingenous. However, we may not be far off God’s mark.