Sitting with Missionary Dan Brown in Madagascar has been a privilege. We have talked at length about the culture, the way people do what they do. Communicating the Gospel clearly is more than language mastery. Dan has told me the prevailing cultural influence is Asian more than African which means they are extremely sensitive to shame and honor.
Dan told me of a man he hired to buy some paint. The man purchased the paint but the store inadvertently gave him red paint when it should have been white. Dan explained to him what happened and asked him to take it back to the store, but the store would not exchange the paint. Unaware to Dan, the man was so ashamed he had created this mess (even though he had not) he drove two hours away to borrow $5 from a family member, drove two hours back to the store to purchase the white paint, hoping to avoid the shame of the mistake. He went out of his way to avoid the shame because it is so serious in this culture.
When Job says, “I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin,” having learned some of this shame/honor culture in present-day Madagascar helps me to realize the depths of Job’s anxiety. His “friends” were comforters of trouble who were piling on the shame beyond what Job had already endured. Can you sense how low Job feels? Job’s shame is nearly permanent in his opinion, yet his friends (in this case, Eliphaz) have all the answers.
If we “were God for a day” we would envision a corporal system of justice where the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys win in the end. The Bible’s message does tell of the good winning in the end, but the truth is “there is none good but one, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17). When we have all the answers, we are usually interpreting everything as if our wisdom and circumstances are a fixed point in the universe of culture and everything hinges on us, but is that really our position? Who really is the anchor of wisdom? It certainly is not you or me.
How would you respond if you were Job’s friends? Job tells Eliphaz how he thinks he would respond if the tables were turned: “I also could speak as ye do: If your soul were in my soul’s stead, I could heap up words against you, And shake mine head at you. But I would strengthen you with my mouth, And the moving of my lips should asswage your grief” (Job 16:4–5). In my life, I have found the great comfort from Charles Spurgeon’s observation, “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.” One day, Job’s greatest wish would be realized when One will “plead for a man with God, As a man pleadeth for his neighbour” (Job 16:21). When you cannot understand why you can trust His heart.