In my experience, being white in Cameroon is like walking around wearing a big neon sign that says “I have more money than I need.” And so, from day one, and nearly every day since, I have received many requests for financial help. In fact, for quite a while it seemed like that was the only type of conversation I would ever have with Cameroonians. Then the Lord blessed us by putting us in a house that was shared by a Cameroonian family. We drew close quickly with the husband who daily showed his love for us. But then one day something came up and he asked me for money. And I looked back over our developing relationship and wondered if any of it was real. Were we friends, or was he just developing a financial resource?
My reaction to this situation is an indication of a clash of cultures. Here is a quote from Acclimated to Africa: Cultural Competence for Westerners:
Westerners are suspicious of a friendship that involves financial or material exchanges. Real friendship, we believe, is based on an emotional connection between people. People should be friends because they like each other, not because they hope for something to gain from the other person.DiGennaro 2017: 34
“Suspicious” was a very good descriptor of me when we arrived in Cameroon. Unlike my African counterparts, financial requests caused me to question the reality of my friendships. DiGennaro mentions several reasons that Africans tend to look at financial exchanges differently, including: Africans tend to see friends and family as sources of credit, Africans tend to mean a request as a compliment (i.e. “I believe you are generous, so…”), and Africans believe that “loans” strengthen relationships. I have found that within close relationships all of these observations are true in my context.
Africans know that love costs
Beyond these helpful explanations, I think that there is an even more profound observation to be made, one that ought to give me as a Westerner pause: in this way African culture tends to be more biblical. I believe that there is a deep misunderstanding of love and friendship in Western culture. We tend to think of friendship, as DiGennaro said, as a shared emotional connection. Because of this, if the connection is lost, a friendship (and often even a marriage) ends. We chose to cut friends and family off because they are “too needy,” or “take too much time”, or “are too much drama.” In fact, I have seen several posts on Facebook recently with the idea that it is necessary to cut all negative people out of our lives.
I believe that Africans tend to intuit something that we do not: love always costs you something. Interestingly, I believe that it is not the Bible that has led to such a culture. My immediate neighbors are still almost completely untouched by the Bible. Instead, it seems to me that this culture has arisen due to poverty. In the US, most people are able to make enough money to at least feel like they can live independently. But here in Cameroon, everyone knows that they need one another. So, when a relationship is developed it is assumed that it will come with mutual benefit. In comparing the two cultures, Westerners tend to avoid relationship costs (especially physical costs) and Africans embrace them. Of course, I am making the case that the African culture is more biblical in this way, so I need to ask the question: what does the Bible say?
The Bible knows that love costs
When discussing love we know that Paul said, “Love is patient and kind, it does not envy or boast, it is not arrogant or rude…” There is an element of cost in each of these descriptors: patience is costly and only necessary when someone is offending you. But I do not believe we should think of the expense as only emotional. As Job was responding to his friends in his suffering, and in fact, calling the Lord to take his life, he said:
What is my strength, that I should wait?Job 6:12-14
And what is my end, that I should be patient?
Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze?
Have I any help in me,
when resource is driven from me?
He who withholds kindness from a friend
forsakes the fear of the Almighty.
Job, at the point of complete destitution says that he needs help, he needs resources. And for a friend to withhold such kindness is to forsake God. One thing that I learned quickly here in Cameroon is that almost everyone is in great need. There is no such thing as health insurance here, so when sick or injured they need help. No one can go to school for free, and most of my neighbors have 5+ children that they are struggling to feed. If my heart responds to such needs only with suspicion, I am forsaking the fear of the Almighty.
Further, the Bible gives us the greatest example of love: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The greatest example of love is expressed in giving.
What is love costing me?
So, here is my question for all of us: what is love costing me? Biblically, I believe that it is clear that love is never free, and it is in fact designed to be quite expensive. The greatest love we can have is to give our lives.
Now, if we start expecting that love will cost us something, we will approach relationships differently. If we assume that a friend (or spouse, or kid) will benefit us without cost, discovering emotional/physical/spiritual needs can only frustrate us. Paul Tripp says, “Love is being willing to have your life complicated by the needs and struggles of others without impatience or anger.” How can we get there? I believe we need to think more like Africans. I believe we need to expect love to cost us something. And if we do that, not only will we not be frustrated when it does, I think we can begin to look for those needs and seek to meet them.
During the time I mentioned above, when we were living with the Cameroonian family, we really struggled with the water situation. There was city water, but it was frequently turned off, and I had to walk all the way to a neighboring well. I spent hours everyday getting enough for my family. One day, I had to take a trip to Dimako (where we live now) and was unable to go to the well. When I got home late, I was dreading having to make the trek. But I arrived to find that our housemate had gone to get the water for me. This godly brother saw my need and met it long before I could ever ask. If I was struggling financially, he probably would not have been able to do much. But as soon as he saw a need he could meet, he jumped on the opportunity. My prayer for myself, and for my other Western-thinking friends, is that we could learn from his example. May we expect love to cost, be quick to give, and bless many along the way.