Archive for June, 2010


Grace in Thailand


In my last post, I mentioned how reciprocity is prevalent throughout Thai culture. Thus, understanding how people interact on the basis of reciprocity is essential for grasping relational dynamics in Thailand. This social practice is important for us as we seek to discern how God is working in this culture. It is also important as we strive to adapt our lifestyle in order to be incarnational in Phayao. If we want to love and serve people here, we have to be aware of how reciprocity works within relationships.

Reciprocity also becomes significant as we think about how to verbalize God’s relationship with humanity. Let me explain. One of the most central words in the Christian vernacular is “grace.” It is hard to talk about the Christian faith without using this term. However, “grace” (charis in Greek) is not primarily a religious word; it is a social/relational word related to reciprocity. In my experience, grace is often used synonymously with ideas like forgiveness or mercy. While forgiveness and mercy are related, grace has a different nuance in light of the practice of reciprocity. The practice of reciprocity was a significant feature in the first century Mediterranean world. Ancient texts from people such as Aristotle and Seneca demonstrate the prominence of reciprocity and the giving of benefits in the world of the New Testament. This practice looked something like this: 1) a person (often a patron) gives charis (i.e., benefit, favor, gift) to another person who is in need; 2) the recipient (often a client) responds with extreme gratitude, or eucharis; 3) the recipient demonstrates that gratitude by constantly looking for opportunities to serve and/or give honor and public acclaim to his/her benefactor; 4) an ongoing relationship of helping > being grateful > honoring binds the two parties together in ¬†deep, significant ways. Thus, when the New Testament writers speak of God’s grace, their listeners automatically associate it with this social practice of reciprocity.

In my experience, we often miss the linguistic connection of grace (charis) and gratitude (eucharis), thus not connecting these terms to the practice of reciprocity. (And, in my opinion, thus missing some of the significance of God’s grace as written about in the NT.) However, I think this connection will be apparent to Thais because they already have the vocabulary for the practice of reciprocity. The base word is khun, which loosely means “favor.” A person who helps someone else, or shows favor, thus will have buunkhun. In familial relationships, a parent or other person who functions like a caretaker, will have prakhun (the word often translated as “grace” in Thai Bibles, particularly older translations). The recipient will respond with gathanyu ruukhun, or remembered gratitude. (And the common word for “thank you” is khopkhun.) Finally, a person who does not show proper gratitude is said to be naerakhun (or agathanyu), which is highly insulting. Thus, Thais have a linguistic connection between the different aspects of a reciprocal relationship. And when we speak of God’s grace, they will most likely understand it in terms of khun. And this is good thing because there is no stronger bond than that of a person who has prakhun and the one who shows devout kwaam gathanyu (gratitude).

So, our research on reciprocity has given us better insight into how Thai people hear us when we talk about God’s grace. And we have more awareness of how to communicate the ridiculousness of God’s grace that no linguistic structure or cultural practice can possibly encapsulate. Grace and peace.




After we worked through our data on family life, we decided to pursue four themes that emerged as highly significant, both to life in Phayao and to our interests. We each took one of those topics and interviewed various people around town. After individually “coding” our interviews, we collectively analyzed and synthesized what we found. Finally, each of us wrote up a short report on our respective topics.

My area of concern was the social phenomenon of reciprocity in Phayao life. If you have spent any time in Thailand, you will know that reciprocity is a prominent feature in social interactions. Our experience already told us that reciprocity was important, thus our intention was not to find out if it was present. Our goal was to discover nuances of language and behavior that would help us better understand this idea. If you are interested, please click on the link below and read this short report. In my next post, I will talk about why these findings are significant for our lives and ministry here in Phayao.

Click here: Reciprocity