When Different is Merely Different and When it Isn’t

by Jeanne Damoff, Secretary of The Lulu Tree NA Board

Our son, Luke, moved to Ivory Coast shortly after college graduation. He’d made a one-year commitment to serve with a mission agency as a health intern, and his primary assignment was to assist two single female medical missionaries who’d both been on the field for decades. Among the many beautiful ways these women served, they ran a clinic at a remote outpost, and Luke basically did whatever they needed done.

Some days that meant physical labor or maintenance work. Some days it was bee-keeping or peeling mangos. Some days it was assisting in a high-risk birth, because these brave, strong mamas who were accustomed to hard work and very little ease usually delivered alone on the dirt floor of their home. They didn’t come to the clinic unless something was seriously wrong, and often only one nurse was on duty. Luke would hear his name, set aside whatever project he was working on, enter the clinic, wash his hands, and then do whatever he was told.

It was stressful, messy, exhilarating work. He loved it.

But the rugged, rebel-occupied north of Ivory Coast was a very different world from everything he’d known his whole life. He’d always been a thinker — someone who looked beneath and within. His updates from the field focused mostly on what he was processing, not the typical descriptions of his surroundings or events of the day.

And one of the things he processed a lot was the difference between culture and sin.

When referring to a people group, “culture” is a broad term that encompasses a shared language, traditions, values, family structure, religious expression, and much more. It includes norms and preferences around food, fashion, art, music, and recreation. Culture is an ingrained part of who we are, and it’s easy to assume that what “feels right” to me must be the best way, when in reality, it’s simply what I know, prefer, and am comfortable with. Different doesn’t mean wrong. Spaghetti is not morally superior to tacos.

Matters of culture are morally neutral. Except for when they aren’t.

Sin, on the other hand, is an offense against a Holy God. While many people would be willing to generally agree with that statement, when it comes to deciding what offends God, opinions run the gamut. And this is where culture and sin collide.

Luke saw a lot of things in Ivory Coast that made him uncomfortable. The challenge was discerning when different was merely different and when it was sin.

Different is merely different when a church service lasts for hours and the sermon is interrupted multiple times because someone in the congregation bursts into song causing the whole room to erupt in an extended song and dance session. Different is merely different when grown men who are good friends hold hands as they walk along the dusty street. Different is merely different when a poisonous viper killed in the bush becomes the prized ingredient for that evening’s sauce at dinner.

But different is sin when women are oppressed and abused. When girls are not educated or are forced to exchange sexual favors for a chance to learn. Different is sin when men marry multiple wives who essentially become their slaves. When a culture’s value system oppresses some for the benefit of others. Different is sin when exploitation is systemic, no matter how many generations things have been this way.

We’ve encountered this same challenge in The Lulu Tree. While we would never impose our western preferences on any African community, we encourage our national directors and partnering pastors to confront cultural norms that grieve God’s heart. And we’re deeply grateful for the wisdom God gives them.

During one of Emily’s visits to Sierra Leone, she watched Pastor Sonnel model this beautifully. He was informed that a thirteen-year-old girl was struggling in school, and her family — deciding she had no better options — had betrothed her to a married man. As elder of the village, Sonnel intervened on her behalf. He forbade her father to sell her off, and not only provided an alternative home for her through the local pastor, he also enlisted a tutor to help with her education. Sonnel went against accepted practice to stand up for the poor, vulnerable, and powerless. He chose to be like Jesus.

We all need to learn when to live with discomfort due to preference and personal experience and when to press against sin, whether we go live overseas or stay right where we are. Because our culture is no better than any other when it comes to valuing things that offend God. We may think of them as “normal” but the fact that we have been inoculated and immersed in cultural patterns our whole lives doesn’t mean God is okay with them.

So, who gets to decide what offends God?

He does. And He has made His will known in His Word. Times change. Fashions change. Cultural expectations and allowances change. But God doesn’t change. And while I believe with all my heart that He celebrates the beautiful diversity of His image bearers around the world, He calls us all to the same holiness.

So, let’s pray for discernment to know when different is merely different and when it’s sin — even when we find it in our own backyard. And, by God’s grace, let’s celebrate the one and resist the other, for His glory and the flourishing of all His children.