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Living out the gift of grace

CMS missionary Kellie Nicholas has served in Japan for 13 years. In this article she explains how difficult it can be to comprehend the concept of grace in a culture of reciprocity. 

The exchanging of gifts is very important in Japanese culture, and for relationships to be maintained, it must be continuous and reciprocal. (1) Gifts are given in order to carry out giri (2), and the value of the gift has to be equivalent to the amount of giri recognised. 

Their value must not be smaller or larger than the amount of giri – if it is smaller, the receiver will be disappointed; if it were larger, the receiver would feel burdened.( 3)  

As someone who is a relative newcomer to the world of giri, I must be careful that in my desire to be generous, I don’t unnecessarily burden people, or fail to reciprocate in an appropriate way and damage the relationship. 

Many…attribute their conversion, at least in part, to the way they saw the gospel of grace lived out and that it helped them to believe. 

Grace is counter-cultural 

As a result of the obligation to give and receive in Japanese culture, understanding the biblical concept of grace can be challenging. God made the ultimate sacrifice in giving his own son so that we may be brought back into relationship with him. There is nothing that we can do to earn our own salvation.  

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ (Ephesians 2: 8,9)  

Coming to understand that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness is a huge step in coming to faith for anyone. There are even greater difficulties when giri shapes your experience of relationships.  

I have observed that it is particularly challenging for Japanese people who don’t ‘fit’ into their community, whether at school, work or in other social groups. The importance placed on following the strict, unwritten rules about how to behave in Japanese society mean that people live under a lot of pressure to conform.  

For those who struggle to fit the mould, it can be hard to find a place that they belong. This means that being made welcome no matter who you are, being cared for and shown generosity despite how you behave can go a long way towards pointing people to a God who receives them as they are and wants to be reconciled with them. 

Importance of grace lived out 

One way that I have seen this overcome is by the daily, practical living out of God’s grace by his people, the church. Often when someone new comes to church, they have had a long-term relationship with one of our members. They have come along because their friend has shown them kindness and care, often with no expectation of anything in return. They are then welcomed in and shown grace, with no expectations on them, not even that they will come to faith.   

Many of the people who I have seen baptised in my church over the 13 years I have been in Japan have been regular attenders long before they believe in the gospel. Many of them attribute their conversion, at least in part, to the way they saw the gospel of grace lived out and that it helped them to believe. The grace shown through the lives of our church members helps people to see grace in action before they fully understand it. 

As Christians, we seek to show others the grace that we have received from God through the death of his son. We give of our time and resources because we have received so much and want others to know the freedom that knowing Jesus brings. It is this outworking of the gospel that draws people to the God of grace and sees them come to him in repentance and faith. What a great gift is grace! 


Are you open to learning the nuances of another culture so that you can bear witness to the incomprehensible gift of grace? Go to mission opportunities to take the first step.  


[1] Roger J. Davies & Osamu Ikeno, The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2002, 237. 

[2] Giri does not have an equivalent in English but involves ideas of moral principles or duty, rules to obey in social relationships, expected behaviour even if it is against your will. See The Japanese Mind, 95. 

[3] Davies and Ikeno, The Japanese Mind, 237.