Post 2 of 5 on Principles of Cross-Cultural Servanthood

Trust is the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest. First off, trust takes time. Trust requires emotional risk. Opening up to someone else is done with the hope that they will still be accepting of you while keeping personal matters secret. You can never make someone trust you, because trust must be built from the other person’s perspective. Trust must be continually and carefully nurtured.

Also, trust is defined by the cultural context. Some activities may build up trust or tear down trust in both cultures, but don’t assume this. In most cultures being late isn’t disrespectful. It’s a way of life and most people think nothing of being fifteen, thirty or even more minutes late. Lateness should not be seen as a violation of trust. What about a preoccupation with money? People are curious about different things. Often people in less wealthy countries are awed by the wealth in the West and find it intriguing. How much you make or how much your shoes cost is not a private matter or an unpolite topic of conversation.

Be careful with your relationships, though, because trust is very fragile. When trust is broken in a relationship, there must be forgiveness. If you have broken trust in a relationship, you must seek forgiveness, and your friend must accept your forgiveness. But forgiveness looks different culture to culture. In the West, forgiveness is a verbal exchange. I come to you and say, “I’m sorry…I apologize…will you please forgive me…” which is met with “I accept your apology…I forgive you.” In the majority of the world, forgiveness is a change of attitude and behavior. Nearly always the outcome is reconciled relationships that function effectively, often better than before the broken trust.

As I said above, forgiveness can take unusual forms in different cultures. In America, we simply use verbal address to achieve forgiveness. But in shame/honor-based cultures, audibly admitting to fault, expecting someone to admit their faults to you, or even discussing it face-to-face is not normal. Here are three ways that different cultures deal with forgiveness:


Instead of addressing the issue directly, a mediator familiar with both parties will get an understanding of the problem, work to establish who is at fault, and devise a means of reparation. The culmination of this forgiveness may be observed by having a large meal with the entire community.

Family/Societal Pressure

If you have a relative or a friend who has slighted someone in your immediate family, you may be pressured to stay away from this person until the matter is resolved even if it has nothing to do with you. The person at fault may be shunned from family gatherings and community involvement indefinitely.

Indirect Honors

In honor/shame-based cultures, you would attempt to make amends not by asking for forgiveness but by helping the person you wronged build honor. This can take many forms, like letting them buy your meal at dinner or asking them to help you with something in an area that they are gifted.

These cultural perspectives of trust and forgiveness are not only important for our personal relationships, but they are also important for contextualizing the gospel’s message of forgiveness. While it may be easy to incorporate the idea of Christ as our mediator or being accepted back into the family of God, communicating these ideas in a shame/honor-based culture can be more difficult.

Posts on Cross-Cultural Servanthood:

  1. Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006.

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