I was talking with a friend the other day and, for the first time, I realized just how crazy life can be here in the townships. Don’t get me wrong, I have heard many stories over the past year while studying in the township, but they really were just that, crazy stories. This person with whom I was speaking really brought those stories home for me for the first time. She had just lost her sister who was only 29 years old to sickness. I spoke with her and found out that she had 14 other siblings, but only 7 were still living. I will save the details of their deaths, except to say this, they happened way too early (all under 30) and in some of the most horrific ways imaginable. When hearing her story, honestly, I listened in disbelief, but then began to recall several other stories that were just as bizarre and terrible.
Hearing stories like that, I begin to think how wicked THEY are; I think how in the world could THEY do such wicked things to one another. If I’m honest, these stories leave me with a superiority complex. I even begin to justify my thoughts with the Bible (some rightfully so, others not so much). I look at their moral standard and my own and begin to think wrong thoughts. Thoughts like: since they do those things, what can they teach me? what will they teach my children? I look and begin to make blanket statements and think all their culture is wrong and should be changed.
Duane Elmer, in his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility, said, “Many missionaries are like me: well intentioned, dedicated and wanting to serve, but also naive and in some denial about what it means to serve in another culture.” That would be a fitting description of me. The God I serve is superior. The message I have is superior. It doesn’t take much for me to start thinking since my God’s superior and my message is superior, then I must be superior too. Though, it doesn’t take a expert in culture to know that having these thoughts will produce negative consequences. I am pretty certain that if I allow myself to think that way I will eventually have a bad attitude toward the people. My confidence in them will not grow which will soon affect my wife and children’s attitude toward them. I am also sure that I will not have meaningful friendships with them. In the end, those thoughts could be to blame for a much less impactful, or completely ineffective ministry.
Being a missionary, and wanting to have an effective ministry, I have read several books on cross cultural adaptation and building relationships cross-culturally. Many give great advice on how to identify the superiority complex. They tell you how you get it (mainly because you grew up in the West, but more likely because you’re prideful). But honestly, they give little advice on how to conquer the hidden monster.
I am convinced that the solution is found in God’s word. I believe that Paul, in Philippians 4:8, gives a clear and straightforward solution of how to conquer the superiority complex. I must change my thinking. I must replace my thoughts with things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of a good report, virtuous, or anything of praise. That simple. But not so simple when you hear such terrible stories, and live in the real world.
Truth is, sin is awful and should be despised. The story I heard made me upset and rightfully so. But I think part of my problem, personally, was looking at their sins, and not separating the people from the sin. Hate the sin, love the sinner; easy to say, hard to live. Honestly, I believe that’s a job only the Gospel can accomplish. Without the Gospel I am forced to look at the circumstances. In doing that I will soon forget that I too was/am just as wicked without Jesus. Meditating on the Gospel will take away my prejudices. But, without the Gospel, I will think that I’m hear to change them. Again, that’s the Gospel’s job. If I’m not super careful, I will begin to sound a lot like that religious man in the parable in Luke 18:9-14. If you remember the story, the Pharisee despised, or looked on the tax collector with disesteem. He began to believe his own religious hype and he actually had the audacity to pray to God thanking him that he was not like the extortioner tax collector. Shamefully, that does sound a lot like me sometimes.
If I could remember that only by God’s grace, I am what I am. If I could think back and remember, it’s only by the power of the Gospel I am not a drunk toady, and that I didn’t kill someone when I used to drink. If I could remember, that only by his grace I am still alive, then the superiority complex would dissolve.
Superior!?!? My prayer should be as the publican’s; God, forgive me for my exaggerated thoughts of how right I am and how wrong they are. God forgive me for thinking my right living comes from something other than Jesus, the fountain of everything right in my life. My prayer should be as the tax collector’s, please forgive me a sinner!