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Giving Up the Right to Our Standard of Living

“Have we no right to eat and to drink?”* (1 Corinthians 9:4)ASV

The white-haired mission secretary looked at me quizzically. “Well,” he said, “it’s all in your point of view. We find that these days in the tropics people may look upon the missionary’s American refrigerator as a normal and necessary thing; but the cheap print curtains hanging at his windows may be to them unjustifiable extravagance!”

My mind goes back to a simple missionary home in China, with a cheap rug on the painted boards of the living-room floor. I can see country women carefully skirting that rug, trying to get to the chairs indicated for them without stepping on it. Rugs, to them, belonged on beds, not on floors, and they would no more think of walking on my rug than you would on my best blanket! I think of our dining table set for a meal, and visitors examining with amazement the silver implements instead of bamboo chopsticks; and white cloth instead of a bare table. I think of having overheard our cook say proudly to a chance comer, “Oh, of course they have lots of money! Why, they always eat white bread; and they have meat every day, nearly; and as for sugar—why, you just can’t imagine the amount of sugar they use!”

English service was over, and we went home with a lady doctor and nurse of another mission. They had invited us to Sunday night supper. The sermon, delivered by a missionary of still another mission, who was stationed in the city, had been striking and thought-provoking. The text had been Luke 8:14: “And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.”

“This verse must refer to missionaries,” the speaker had begun, “because it says that when they have heard, they go forth.”

He had gone on to describe a picture he would like to paint. All around the border were to be the “cares” and “riches” and “pleasures” that hindered the real work of the missionary. Subjects that hit home were mentioned—there would be a big account book that tied the missionary down so that he had no time for a spiritual ministry; a teacup, symbolizing the round of entertaining that may develop in a city where there is a relatively large missionary community; a house and its furnishings, needing constant attention; and so on. The conclusion of the sermon had been very solemnizing, because of all these cares and pleasures and things that are second to God’s best, it is tragically possible that the missionary may “bring no fruit to perfection.”

At the supper table we had an interesting discussion of the sermon and its implications. Then the lady doctor made a remark that I have never forgotten.

“When my co-worker and I set up this house,” she said, “we agreed that one principle must never be violated. We would have nothing in our house—its furnishings, its arrangement—nothing that would keep the ordinary poor people among whom we work from coming in, or that would make them feel strange here.”

A standard of living—what does it amount to? How important is it? Does it matter whether we missionaries sleep on spring beds, or those made of boards (I prefer the latter myself!), whether we eat with chopsticks, or fingers, or forks; whether we wear silk or homespun; whether we sit on chairs or on the floor? Does it matter whether we are poor or rich? Does it matter whether we eat rice or potatoes? Does it matter whether we live in the way to which we are accustomed, or adopt the way of living of those to whom we go?

It may matter quite a lot to ourselves. Most of us like potatoes better than rice. That is to say, most of us like things the way we are used to having them rather than some other way. What is to be our attitude on the mission field? Are we free to try to have things the way we would like them, and to live, as much as possible, as we would at home? Or ought we to attempt, as far as we can, to conform to the way of life of the people among whom we live? This, of course, brings us to other questions: Does it matter to the people to whom we go whether we conform or not? And, more importantly, does it matter insofar as the progress of the Gospel is concerned? Will our conforming help to win souls to Christ?

The first thing to be said in answer to these questions is that the standards of missionary living necessarily must vary with local conditions. In some places there is a mixture of races and peoples, each in general keeping with its own customs and dress, and yet mixing freely with the others. In such places there may be many Westerners, and Western ways may not only be familiar, but even adopted to a certain extent by the local people. In situations like this there may be little or no need for the missionary to change his ordinary way of life.

Most missionaries go to places where the way of life is different from their own, and to people to whom their way of life is strange and by whom it is not understood. It is natural for us to like people who do things in the way in which we like them done. We are attracted to those who seem the same as ourselves, and turn (perhaps unconsciously) from those who seem queer and different. People of other lands are the same. When we see someone whose complexion, features, clothing, language, manners, and customs are different from our own, our natural reaction is to stare, or laugh, or both. It is not natural to be attracted to those who live differently from ourselves. The missionary wants to attract people. People must be attracted to him before they can be attracted to his message. They must accept him before they will accept his message. The more we can conform to their way of life, the easier and more natural and more rapid their acceptance of us will be.

The report of a China Inland Mission conference of missionaries held in England a few years ago includes as one of the lessons learned from past experience of missionary work in China, “the will to conform as nearly as possible to the social and living conditions of the people to whom we went.” This means, of course, that different missionaries will live according to different standards. For example, my sister Frances and I are both members of the China Inland Mission. During the past few years I have been living in the modern and wealthy city of Singapore. I lived according to an ordinary middle-class standard—which meant running water, electricity, gas, and modern plumbing. I was conforming to the social standards and living conditions of the people to whom I went. During the same time my sister was in the Philippines, living in a palm-leaf hut in a clearing in the jungle, carrying her own water and sleeping on the floor. She was conforming to the social standards and living conditions of the people to whom she went. Paul says: “I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”* (1 Corinthians 9:22)ASV He found what the present-day missionary finds, that to some extent he must adopt the way of life and the standard of living of the people to whom he was sent.

Now, in what measure will it be desirable to adopt the local way of life? What principles will guide us? Well, in the first place we will certainly want to become familiar enough with it so that we feel at home in their homes. If we find their way of sitting uncomfortable, and their food unpleasant, they are not going to enjoy having us as guests. I may think it disgusting to eat my rice off a banana leaf with my fingers, but if I show that disgust, I probably will not be invited again. And my hostess may decide that I am merely an unmannerly foreigner, and that there is no profit in pursuing my acquaintance, or in listening to the strange stories of Someone called Jesus that I am so fond of telling. It is also in their homes that we may become really acquainted with them, and learn to know their needs. When we have become familiar with how they eat, how they sleep, how they work, how they play, what they like, what they dislike, what they hope, what they fear, how they think, how they feel—when we really understand them, then, and only then, will we be able to present the Gospel to them in an adequate way.

In the second place, we will want to live in our own homes on the mission field in such a way as to make our neighbors feel at home when they come to call on us. The fundamental attraction will not be externalities and material things. Even though I live in a little hut that is identical with their own, if in my heart I just do not like to have them around, they will know it, and they will not be attracted to me. But if not only the love and the welcome are there, but also a way of life that corresponds to their own, the approach will be made still easier.

This does not mean, of course, that I will unthinkingly accept all local standards. If I go to Central Africa, I probably will not decide that wearing clothes is an unjustifiable luxury. There is no need for me to neglect to sweep the floor of my palm-leaf hut just because my neighbors do not sweep theirs. The fact that everyone else chews betel nut, or gambles with mah-jongg, does not mean that I will take up these practices. But I will want, as far as possible, to live the sort of life that it would be suitable for a native Christian to imitate.

Another point must also be considered here. We missionaries might voice it like this: “I would love to live as the native peoples do, if I only could; but I just can’t take it!” It is true that we may not be able to live entirely as they do and keep our health. The man who was born and bred in the tropics finds the climate just what he likes. The same climate takes all the energy out of the missionary who has come from the temperate zone. Foreigners are more susceptible to local diseases than natives. If the missionary eats only what the local people do, his health may break down. If he himself does all the household chores in a land in which there are no modern conveniences, he may find that he has very little time left in which to study the language or preach the Gospel. On most mission fields it is found that a certain amount of variation from the local mode of life is necessary if the missionaries are to continue in good physical and mental health.

We can, however, gradually get used to unfamiliar things. I remember once, after I had been in China a few years, visiting a neighboring mission station. New workers had arrived there, a young couple fresh from language school. I was eager to meet them, but they did not appear. In answer to my inquiry, the reply was, “Oh, they were invited out to a feast last night, and it’s upset them both! They are both in bed!”

My heart sank. Whatever use will these young workers be, I thought, if they can’t eat Chinese food? They won’t be able to go to the country and minister in all the little country churches that are so much in need of help—they can’t get Western food there! They had better have stayed at home!

After a few years had passed, however, the young man mentioned above did start to do country work, and he did it very acceptably. What is more, he even came to prefer an ordinary country meal of local food to the best Western dishes that his wife could give him at home! Seeing that, I began to realize a thing that should be a comfort to all young workers who find the food or the living conditions difficult. Over a period of time familiarity not only turns difficulty to ease, but often even removes the “dis” from dislike!

The young worker goes with an older one to make a call or two. Everything is new. Everything is strange. Everything is nerve-wearing. If a seat is offered, it is uncomfortable. If food or drink is offered, either may be unpleasant. Even if he understands more or less of what is being said, the conversations are tiring. And by the time he reaches home he is utterly worn out. As far as he is concerned, however, that is not the worst. He looks at the older worker who has taken him out—someone getting on in years, perhaps a bit stooped, and obviously not in the pink of health. This missionary has done all the younger one did, and more. He has also preached a few times to crowds that gathered, and carried on endless conversations, but just listening made the younger worker tired. Yet this older man somehow has arrived home as fresh as a daisy!

The new worker, in his first station, often has to go through a stage in which he finds everything uncomfortable, unattractive, and difficult, but there is no need for him to become discouraged. Even that older worker probably did too, although he may have forgotten it! The change comes slowly, and the young missionary may not be able to see it for a long time, but if he everlastingly keeps at it, he will surely find that, after a few years, familiarity has made the difficult easy. Most people will find, as well, that it has even made the distasteful pleasant!

A mother was coaxing her little daughter to eat her vegetables. “But I don’t like it!” the child objected.

“But you will,” encouraged the mother. “Just eat it a few times and you will get used to it. It won’t be long before you really like it!”

The child sat stock-still for a moment, considering. Then she burst out, “But I don’t want to like the horrid stuff!”

Other people’s ways, other people’s customs, other people’s standards—do we want to like them? Or do we cling tenaciously to our own, insisting that we deserve them or that they are the only good and right ones? It is the attitude of mind and heart that matters. If we are willing to give up our own standard of living, willing to live as far as possible according to someone else’s standards, then surely it is the business of our Master to make that possible in such degree as He sees is needed and best. Before we go to the field then, let us give up all right to our own standard of living, and be ready contentedly to embrace, as far as He makes possible, that of the people to whom He sends us.