Cheating is Wrong… Isn’t It?


The first thing most missionaries learn is the mantra, “Different isn’t wrong, it’s just different.” 

In situations where we don’t understand others’ actions, it can be helpful to look at the ways Jesus related to people and the types of questions He asked them—He was brilliant at determining the motivation behind people’s behavior, rather than focusing on the behavior itself. He didn’t make snap judgments based solely on outward appearances; he sought to understand the deeper things going on inside a person, situation, or culture. Following Jesus’ example, we can grow in our understanding of people and the things that drive them, enabling us to extend grace and compassion without rejecting our own values. 

I learned this lesson in real time when I was teaching English at a prestigious university in Central Asia. My students were the cream of the crop—intelligent, self- motivated, ambitious, future leaders. Yet they all shared the same, unfortunate habit: they cheated constantly! Even though it was against school policy to cheat (and punishable by expulsion), they exchanged answers on homework, tests, and term papers. They were incredibly creative in coming up with new ways to cheat, and, as a teacher, it was almost impossible to control it. 

My North American mind could NOT comprehend the reason for this behavior. Why would these students not want to learn? And for those who did want to learn, why would they allow their friends to cheat off them? Didn’t they know that they weren’t helping anyone in the long run by sharing answers? 

One day in my classroom, I’d had enough. Right in the middle of my lesson, I stopped the class, ditched my plans, and informed the students we were going to have an open debate. I was determined to understand what motivated these bright and gifted students to cheat. I set the stage by telling my students that they could be completely open and honest with me; I wasn’t going to judge them— I just really wanted to understand why they did what they did. 

My students tried to explain it to me: “If my friend asks me to let him cheat off my homework paper, I have to help him. I have to let him cheat because he’s my friend.” The North American argument might be that you aren’t really helping your friend when you let him peek at your homework, but in Asian culture, the here-and-now relationship is considered more important than any future outcome. Even if they didn’t really want to cheat, my students all agreed that they would, because they valued friendship more than they valued following the rules. 

After I understood the motivation behind their behavior, it began to make more sense. Cheating might have violated one Kingdom value, but it championed a different one. After all, we are called to love, serve, consider, and submit to one another. Seeking to understand the value (relationship) driving the action (cheating) not only helped lessen my frustration at my students for cheating, but it gave me insight beyond my personal values and beliefs. Even though I still don’t condone cheating, pushing through my perceived “wrongness” of the situation helped free me up to move from critical judgment to grace-filled compassion. 

Maybe you’re overseas and thinking about something similar, but maybe this brings to mind questions in your current ministry community, your church, or your Navigator team. How might you seek to understand before you seek to be understood? 


What can you do to create an open discussion – like I did in my classroom – that will give you and some local friends an opportunity to discuss issues in the culture (or the differences between your two cultures)? What are the issues you think the group needs to discuss? 


Do a study on the questions Jesus asked as He interacted with people. You can use Mark 12:13-17 and John 4:1-26 as a starting point. 

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