Spiritual lessons learned from Arab culture
Arab culture differs in many ways from the American culture I was raised in. Much of it still retains values we see of biblical cultures in the Old and New Testaments. As I was reflecting on Arab culture and my experiences recently I was reminded of three ways Arab culture has encouraged me in my walk with Jesus.
1. Even before we moved to Jordan, we knew how important it is in Arab culture to host and visit friends. Initially we did not have many Arabs come to visit us, but we enjoyed taking time to get to know neighbors and others we came in contact with in their homes. Often we would take flowers or chocolate or some small gift to thank them for their hospitality. Sometimes we would take a gift that was wrapped or was in a nice bag – perhaps some candles or dish towels. As our children began to make friends at school, they were invited to birthday parties and would, of course, take a gift for the birthday girl or boy.
We began to notice a pattern. If we were visiting a family they would take our gift and set it aside. They would say thank you, but would not open it. We would not hear about it again during the visit though often they would thank us later. At birthday parties, all the gifts would sit on a table in the corner, unopened. Even as guests began leaving, no one moved to open them and no one seemed to object.
When we asked our friends about this we learned it would be shameful, in Arab culture, to open a gift in front of the giver. To do such a thing would be to say that you treasure the gift more than the giver. Instead, the gift is set aside so the hosts can give their guests their full and undivided attention.
I’ve often thought of that in relationship to Christ. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Sometimes I catch myself treasuring the gifts more than the God who gives them. He also said we should “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all (the things we need) will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). I want to be a man whose treasure is Jesus. I want to be like Mary, delighted to sit at Jesus’ feet and just be with him. Somehow I know that if that’s the case…whether I have the stuff or not really won’t matter. But wouldn’t it be sad to gain all the stuff and lose what’s most important?
2. When we visit friends, inevitably they make enough food to feed a small army. It’s way, way more than we could possibly eat. Even if they are dirt poor, they go above and beyond what would be expected to provide a feast fit for a king.
Naturally we thank them profusely and tell them how amazingly delicious the food is (even if on rare occasions it isn’t!). In response they always say to us, “في بس الواجب ما” which means essentially, “We’ve only done our obligation.” Now at first this seemed sort of offensive. Us: “Thanks for the amazing meal! It was great!” Them: “We only did what we had to. No big deal.” But as we learned more about Arab culture, we realized that we were hearing them through our American filters…what they were really saying was, “We are so honored to have you visit, this was the least we could do. It’s our delight to do this, but you deserve even more!”
Jesus said in Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” This isn’t an incredibly popular verse. But I think it points to the same truth that our Arab friends live out when we visit…namely, when you have someone worthy of honor before you, everything you do is the least you can do. It should be our joy and our delight to give all we have and do all we can for God…not treat it like dull drudgery. And the beauty is that he is not a hard taskmaster, but a loving Father and he will bless us for our obedience.
3. Arab culture puts a premium on relationships. Relationships trump task more times than not. For Americans, this can be frustrating at times. We call someone on the phone and we want to get right to the point. Our Arab friends call and they want to find out how our family is – wife, kids, parents, siblings. They want to know about my work. They want to know about my health. Eventually, they will get to the point of their call. But more important – like the giver and the gift – is the relationship. To me, the conversation can seem like a colossal waste of time…to them I am incredibly rude if I don’t ask these questions of them.
I’ve learned, at least in this culture, I am rude when I make the task more important than the relationship. I should ask more about their family and friends and health and work. The relationship is more important. I can wait to find out the information I need, but my friend should know I care. To not call a friend regularly to check in, to see someone from across the street and not walk over to shake hands and greet them, to stop by to borrow something and not sit down for a few minutes for a cup of tea…it all says that my relationship with this person is not significant.
Do I bring that attitude to my relationship with God? Jesus prayed in John 17:3 saying, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” He defined eternal life as a relationship – knowing the one true God and Jesus. How do I approach that relationship? How often do I sit and just “be” with Jesus? Do I linger in his presence and do the spiritual equivalent of asking about his family etc.? Do I listen? Or do I just read a few verses, give a few orders (um, I mean prayers) and hurry off to do the Lord’s work? Does my life reflect that my relationship with Jesus is the most important thing to me? I definitely need to set specific time to sit in his presence and interact through prayer, listening, reading etc. but I also need to tune my heart to walk with him throughout the day…to center my life around Him and let Jesus be the heart of all I do and am.
No culture is perfect. Each has positive things and negative things. I am thankful for the time I’ve had here in Jordan and the way living here has brought much of the Bible to life. I’m also thankful for so many friends who have allowed our family into their lives and for the many lessons we’ve learned and continue to learn through them and their culture.