What’s the Biggest Danger for Missionaries in Japan? Turning into a Pharisee!

Japanese Warning Sign

“Danger, do not enter!” warned the lion. Photo by kzgroove, on Flickr.

Sometimes people ask me whether it’s dangerous to be a Christian, or to do missions, in Japan. I tell them no. Japan is a remarkably safe place to be a missionary. There are no prohibitions against being a Christian and no laws against proselytising. Plus roaming bands of samurai died out with Tom Cruise so that’s generally not a concern either.

There are of course dangers in Japan. Crime does exist. As do earthquakes and typhoons. Not to mention the freakishly large crows. Seriously, I never understood why the Resident Evil games included birds in the ‘monsters’ you had to fight. Then I went to Japan. They are huge – genuinely, terrifyingly, huge!

Anyway, I digress. My point is that, by and large, modern Japan is a very safe place for a missionary.

Except for one major danger, which is this,

It would be exceedingly easy for me to become a Pharisee in Japan.

So last week I was a guest-speaker at a Japanese prayer group. And the standard question came up: what should they call me? I suggested ‘Levi’ was OK. An alternative suggestion of ‘Booth-Sensei’ was given. Or simply ‘Sensei.’ We settled on ‘Levi-San.’

You know about the ‘San’/‘Sensei’ thing, right? Your capacity to navigate to this blog would suggest you have no excuse not to have seen the original Karate Kid movie. But in case you’re hazy let me remind you: Daniel, as the student, is referred to as ‘Daniel-San’ (although this is actually quite polite given that he’s a kid) and Mr Miyagi, as the teacher, is rightly referred to as ‘Sensei’ – meaning, ‘teacher’ or ‘master.’

This, then, is the danger in Japan. People treat you with respect! Lots of it.

Why is that a danger? Well, because our hearts have a tendency to take respect and turn it into a desire for reverence. Praise opens the door to pride. And pride is the life-blood of the Pharisee.

If you went to Sunday school you’ll know all about the Pharisees: they’re the pantomime villains of the Bible. Even saying the word makes you hiss – “pharisssssee.” We imagine them gliding onto the scene with pointy beards and cruel smiles. They’re wicked, they know it, and they love it!

Except, what if that’s not an accurate picture? What if the Pharisees that Jesus rebuked so often began with nobel intentions? What if they started with true zeal for God, but had gone astray?(cf. Romans 10:2-3)

Sure, Jesus doesn’t mince his words when He talks to the Pharisees, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:42)

But He is equally firm when talking to His devoted disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1) Hypocrisy is like ‘yeast’ – it spreads, it’s contagious.

The truth is that when I was asked what I wanted to be called, the honest answer would have been ‘Sensei.’ It feels good to have people refer to me like that. It makes me feel important, like I have authority. I like it. And it is precisely for that reason that I prefer not to be called it. In moments of calm reflection, I see the danger: my inner Pharisee beckoning to me to join the dark-side.

Now I’m not here going to enter into the debate about whether pastors/missionaries in Japan should be called ‘Sensei’ or not. For now I just want to highlight the danger of me becoming a Pharisee. Even without people insisting on calling me ‘Sensei’ I will receive enough respect and praise in Japan to create a genuine risk. It’s part of the culture.

So if it was possible for Jesus’ closest followers to be infected by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, then it would be the height of naivety – not to mention pride! – for me to imagine that I am immune. The danger of me taking the respect of the Japanese church for missionaries and twisting it into a desire for reverence is huge – genuinely, terrifyingly, huge!


4 thoughts on “What’s the Biggest Danger for Missionaries in Japan? Turning into a Pharisee!

  1. Sando

    I can’t help it but when I read a sentence that has “yeast” and “spread” in it, you know what comes to mind! #loveithateit

    Good post otherwise. Keep fighting the yeast! (by that I mean the bad yeast, not the glorious brown sticky one that comes out of a jar)


  2. Pingback: 5 Things I’m Praying For My Friend As She Moves Out To Japan | Reversed Thunder

  3. Pingback: Fighting crows with cheddar (or how common grace helps me deal with culture stress). | Reversed Thunder

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