Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

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.


16 responses

  1. George Halaby


    Your analysis & commentary on Jordaian culture is much appreciated & on target. It is a tribal/family culture. I appreciate your willingness to live & learn the Jordanian culture.

    I grew up in Jordanian culture, but spent most of my life in American culture. During a recent visit to Jordan, I was invited to attend a luncheon for a political candidate. Unfortunately, I felt out of place while the dialogue exchanged continued between various factions.

    It was mostly an emotional debate rather than pragmatic. It was obvious the candidate was going to lose, but to save face, he was running to keep his family name prominent. It continues to be a tribal culture.

    November 21, 2010 at 5:01 pm

  2. What an excellent post. Thanks to the dear friend who directed me to it. Your insight is inspiring. We have only done our duty, indeed. A good verse to keep in mind when we think we’ve done something so special ;). God’s the one doing special things, we’re just instruments and whatever we do, it’s the least we can…

    November 21, 2010 at 8:32 pm

  3. Jeremy and Rebekah Davis

    Pastor Rick,

    Rebekah and I really enjoyed your post. We miss you and everyone in the AIC family.

    -Jeremy and Rebekah

    November 22, 2010 at 12:41 am

  4. ghalaby


    It takes a pro who lives, learns, appreciates, & values Arab culture, to be able to make such a deep spiritual connection.

    You, my friend, have arrived in the Arabian desert. You are Now SIR RICK OF ARABIA.


    November 22, 2010 at 5:18 pm

  5. Pingback: Spiritual Lessons Learned From Arab Culture « my treasure

  6. Great Post.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm

  7. Pastor Rick, superb insights!!! I praise God for your heart for this fair desert land. I needed a little love-jump-start myself, and this did it.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:13 pm

  8. Marilyn Durham

    Thanks for this insight. As an infrequent visitor to Jordan, I would have missed all of this and never understood. I have a tendency to be impatient with what’s not on task, so I really appreciate knowing why they do what they do. I hope it will give me a lot more patience and perhaps help me to not be quite so rude in getting thru the pleasantries and ‘enduring’ the visits. Actually, I think it harkens back to the 40’s and 50’s here. I remember Sunday afternoons going to visit friends. We would stay all afternoon. For the children it was sometimes hard — we had to find things to do, especially where there were no other children, but it gave the flavor of what you are talking about, and I believe it also showed us some of what needs to be done in friendships. Our rushed, frantic, stressed world could stand moving back in this direction rather than continuing to be so frenzied!

    November 23, 2010 at 8:35 pm

  9. Vera Haddad

    Dear Rick I enjoyed the post and appreciated your thoughts. Fadi and I consider you and Angie Jordanians but with fair hair and blue eyes.Your love to Jordan and Jordanians is obvious and clear. I’m blessed with what you have been blessed with.

    November 24, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  10. nadia

    Beautiful post. You really captured beautiful experiences and lessons from being in Jordan.

    December 8, 2010 at 6:22 am

  11. Shirley Carlton

    Dear Rick,

    This was beautiful and made me “homesick” for Jordan.



    December 18, 2010 at 6:48 pm

  12. Pingback: دروس روحية من الحضارة العربية | 7iber Dot Com

  13. Madi

    Beautiful post my friend, just let me put to your attention that man aspects in Arab cultural is derived from Christianity and Islam; as both religions started here. So I’m not surprise with your findings or linking between the culture and the biblical verses, however to most arabs it’s the opposite as they do things because they know that it’s what religious teachings suggest and some is deeply buried in the culture in which they wouldn’t notice wether it’s a pure culture or coming from religion to start with.

    December 23, 2010 at 9:37 am

    • Well said. When looking from the outside in we cannot always trace the way faith has laid the foundation for behavior or culture. When one’s faith is so intertwined in one’s culture and vice versa we forget which came first…the chicken or the egg!

      December 23, 2010 at 10:24 am

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