“Saving Face” is Lying

What an amazing Easter! Stacey and I had the privilege of seeing our co-worker and friend Jean Pierre (JP) baptized on Sunday. Baptism is always exciting in our village because the river is a long walk from our church building. That means that the whole congregation (and even a bunch of people not a part of the congregation) end up singing praises to God all along the way. Baptism to me has always felt solemn, sacred, quiet. But baptism here is a party, a time for rejoicing, and very much like the arrival of a newborn.

One of the most striking aspects of this particular baptism was the testimony of JP. To give a little context, JP has been working with us on our project for the last six months or so. JP is a young man, still finishing high school and is about 22 years old (not an uncommon age for a high school student here). Part of our translation process is to do what is called a back translation. Basically we have someone who has not been involved in the translation process translate the passage back from Kwakum into French. JP had experience with computers and a good understanding of French, which made him a great person for the job. He was not a believer when we met him though, and we have been praying for him and sharing the Gospel with him ever since. He started regularly to attend church with us around the same time.

Jean Pierre’s Story

At some point a couple of months ago, some church members encouraged JP to get baptized, and he agreed. However, we could tell that he had reservations. So, after talking with our pastor, we offered to do a Bible study with him once a week explaining what it means to be a Christian. Part of our study was set aside to explain the process and meaning of baptism. In one of our sessions we talked about the pattern in Scripture of people confessing sin when they are baptized (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5). I wasn’t really sure how he would take that. Confession of sin is counter-cultural here, especially in public. In fact, at one baptism we attended, the man receiving baptism spent his testimony time boasting in himself. To be honest, I expected that JP would more than likely make a general claim that he was a sinner, without specifically confessing his own sin.

The week before Easter, JP told the congregation (after talking to our pastor Boris) that he would be baptized. Boris encouraged JP to give a testimony at the church before we made our joyous march. JP blew me away! He stood up and talked for probably 15 minutes and throughout that time confessed multiple specific sins that Jesus was saving him from. He shared the Gospel and encouraged specifically the young people in the congregation to turn away from the world and to Christ. In the process he confessed one specific sin that stuck me more than the others. He said something like this:

“I often do not want to go to parties or other public events. In the past when people have told me to go, I have agreed and said I would see them there. Then, when I never came, I would tell my friends I fell asleep or forgot. I can see now that I was lying and I have learned that God does not want me to lie.”

Saving Face

Maybe that doesn’t seem strange to you, but to be honest, I was shocked. As a missionary, we are taught that there are different types of cultures, and of course one is not better than another. In some cultures, like in America, we tend to speak openly about differences of opinion, even confronting our superiors. African cultures, I am told, are different and people will often go to great lengths to “save face.” For instance, if you ask directions from someone they usually will not say “I don’t know,” but would rather give directions based on ignorance than shame themselves by exposing their ignorance. The advice to missionaries is usually similar to the following:

“Westerners may interpret this type of behavior as deceitful… And it is, but let me suggest that in the African context, the issue of honor and shame is seen to be more significant in situations like these than the degree to which a statement is true or false. Although Africans value honesty, when it appears that someone might be publicly embarrassed by hard, cold facts, the truth is often softened or avoided for the sake of not making him look bad. It is exceedingly important to refrain from shaming others, or yourself” (DiGennaro, Acclimated to Africa, p104).*

This has never seemed right to me. Though there is much about culture that can be neither good nor bad, just different, every culture is touched by sin. And it is the role of the Christian to confront cultural sins in love. However, because the above advice is so common in missionary circles, I have put the issue of “saving face” on the back burner. There are plenty of black-and-white sins to tackle in the discipleship process. So, what was so shocking to me was that JP was led to confess a practice that is so widely accepted in his culture, and had never been confronted in his own life. Where did that conviction come from?

Saving Face is Lying

It has been my conclusion that this conviction came from the Holy Spirit. I am so encouraged to see this young man responding to the conviction of the Spirit! And I finally feel free to just say what I have been thinking all along: saving face is lying, God hates lying, therefore God hates saving face. Does God hate lying? Well, Proverbs 6:16-19 says:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
    seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
    and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
    feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
    and one who sows discord among brothers.

There really is not much to debate scripturally (Exodus 20:16; Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 12:19,22, 13:5; 14:5, 19:5,9,22; Psalm 101:7; Hosea 4:2; Matthew 15:18-20; Luke 16:10; Colossians 3:9-10; 1 Peter 3:10; Revelation 21:7-8). EVEN IF you want to make a case for deceit from the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15-22), JP was not lying to protect the lives of babies, but his own pride. And the Spirit convicted him, he confessed, and he was forgiven (1 John 1:9). I don’t think I have ever seen more clear evidence of the Spirit’s work in someone’s life. Jean Pierre is a new creation and we are seeing it more and more every day!

Above I quoted DiGennaro as saying, “in the African context, the issue of shame and honor is seen to be more significant…than the degree to which the statement is true or false.” I do not doubt this to be true, but I believe that in all of our cultures there are places where our values are distorted. Though lying to save face is a part of JP’s culture, it is not a part of who he is as a person. Rather, lying is a part of his old self and needs to be put off. As Paul said: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). The Bible and the Spirit help us to be renewed in the image of our creator, which includes rejecting aspects of our culture which do not please the Lord. And I think it is time to just say: saving face does not please the Lord.

* I really like the book Acclimated to Africa. I find it super helpful in a lot of ways. I just disagree with this particular point.
** There are ways of saving face that are not lying (like just never addressing mistakes/sins). However, for this post I am just talking about deliberately saying something that is not true (or that you don’t know to be true) in order to protect yourself from shame.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.