“In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.” Psalm 44:8
Soon after our initial arrival in Japan, we were a little bewildered by some things we observed when we joined a Japanese family who had kindly invited us over for a meal. Before we even sat down to eat, the husband proceeded to demean his wife’s efforts in cooking and house cleaning. Unlike the typical American domicile, we didn’t notice any family photos capturing activities of the children or anything commemorating their individual achievements. Little mention was actually made of the children outside of our hosts’ minimal responses to our polite inquiries. We also thought it odd when they referred to their son as a “baka musuko” (stupid son). We went home that evening rather puzzled by our experience, but later learned that it is considered socially taboo to praise one’s own family.
This experience certainly cut across the grain of what we had been taught to do within Christian circles in the West, where praise and encouragement of family members is actively promoted. While it may be acceptable to directly compliment people you are close to, in Japan, it is perceived as boasting when you make such comments to others outside of your personal circle. One may have a beautiful wife, who’s a great cook, and intelligent children who excel in many activities, but it would be interpreted as bragging or arrogant to express such sentiments to others. This explains why many Japanese adopt a self-depreciating attitude and communication pattern when it comes to the accomplishments of one’s family and even employer.
This tendency to avoid self-promotion is enhanced by humble Japanese language patterns that are routinely used in certain social settings and one is expected to downplay any personal action that might have benefited others. It is quite common in Japan to give a gift when someone has done something for you, but we soon learned the appropriate phrases to be said when presenting such items are: “tsumaranai mono desu ga…” (“this is a boring, uninteresting item…”) or “sasayakana mono desu ga…” (“this is something very meager…”). There is obviously a very fine line between truth telling and false humility, but in Japan, we learned it is better to err on the latter end of the spectrum when communicating with others.
Boasting is usually associated with pride, which is frowned upon in most cultures and certainly condemned in the Bible. For example, boasting is an identifying characteristic of the beast (Daniel 7:11) who is the antithesis of all that God represents. When the Apostle Paul succinctly defines the nature of love in I Corinthians 13, he used a number of negative behaviors to describe what love is not, and among them is a propensity to boast (v. 4). Boasting about one’s own righteousness to claim good standing before a holy God is equally castigated (Romans 3:27-28) as we all stand impoverished in the presence of God because of our sinfulness.
The root motivation behind an inclination to boast is self-promotion, but there is another form of boasting that is actually encouraged in the Scriptures: the promotion of God instead of self. In taking up the topic of boasting again in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, Paul advises: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (10:17) Such boasting is another form of praise as we ascribe credit to God for all His works and gifts on our behalf, instead of claiming anything for ourselves. This is not false humility, but rather, an honest declaration of who we are and what we have been given before a gracious and generous God.