When I was a kid, I had an eccentric uncle. He was an inventor, and had a lot of social quirks about him. I think a lot of these quirks came from some of the things he’d had to endure. You see, during World War 2, he’d been a pacifist, and since he would not fight, he was forced instead to do body counts after battle in the European theater.
One day he showed me a belt buckle he’d taken off a dead German soldier. It was pewter colored, and had the swastika in the center of that. Written along the top edge were the words, “Gott mit uns.” (God with us) in German.
Even at that young age, it was a shocking thing to see. How could the Nazis think, or wish, or even say that God was with them?
Well, it’s very easy to look back in history and ask how they could do that, but the fact is, as a church we do the very same thing today, though I will say generally not in such an obvious and glaring way.
I’d like to go to the book of judges where there’s an interesting story. Joshua is moving his armies through Canan, and he looks up and sees a man who he takes to be a foreign envoy.
“And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?”
So He said, “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?”
It’s interesting to me that Joshua asks, “are you for us or against us?” And the angel answers “no”. In other words, you are asking the wrong question. But we ask the same question of God, as if we have any authority to ask it.
The question should be, “Have I found favor in your sight?” Or, “how can I serve you?” Or so many other questions that recognize who is in authority, that being not us. We need to stop asking if God is on our side and start making sure we are on his side.
It is possible to know exactly how to be on God’s side, but it requires commitment and study and being open to what the Holy Spirit would teach us. The bible is full of the commands of God. So many in fact that I wouldn’t know where to start.
The problem is that the American church in particular has given up on knowing what the scriptures say. And one of those scriptures says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” Hosea 4:6
You see, without knowledge there is no possibility for wisdom. Without knowledge there is no possibility for discernment. Without knowledge, there is no possibility to know the will or the character of God. In short order we find ourselves making God to be anything we want him to be, so long as he’s on our side, and the next thing you know, we’re wearing belt buckles emblazoned with “Gott mit uns.”
So what do we do about this? Ephesians 4 says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
We must put the knowledge of who God is back into the churches, both through the study and memorization of the Word, and also through people who possess knowledge and wisdom and discernment to have the willingness to disciple others.
Jesus didn’t keep his knowledge to himself. He taught large crowds of people, while at the same time walking daily with twelve men that he could train to teach others. This is what we need to get back to.
It’s very easy to read something like this and say, “yes, those people need to do something about this.” But if you are part of the church, this is for You! There aren’t players and those who get to sit on the bench in the Kingdom of God. There are no stadium seats. As it says in the book of Hebrews, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
This one may get a little long, and I’m going to try not to let it get complicated, but here it goes.
Growing up in the American church, being saved was always about what happens to you when you die. When we read about the kingdom of Heaven in the Bible it was always about pearly gates and meeting God. Furthermore, when we’re doing a class on poverty alleviation and we ask, why did Jesus come to Earth, the answer we inevitably get is the one I would have given growing up. “Jesus came to save me from my sins so that I can go to Heaven.” It’s an incredibly self-centered, egotistical view. This view made it very hard to understand a lot of what the scriptures were trying to tell me. As I’ve been learning, you have to know what you don’t understand before you can begin to understand.
The story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus with questions is one of those stories. It goes as follows.
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?”
But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
We learn a number of things from the rich young ruler in this passage. First of all, he’s rich, but he’s also young, which likely means he didn’t earn his wealth, and he grew up rich. We also know that he doesn’t know enough to ask the right question, also because of his wealth and upbringing.
So why did Jesus come? We find that elsewhere in the scriptures. In Luke 4, Jesus begins his ministry.
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is vastly different from what I was taught. Yes, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place we will see in the future, but it is also now. You see, a kingdom is a place where the authority of the king rules, and as long as we walk in the authority of the king, the Kingdom of Heaven is now and it resides wherever we are. So when the rich young ruler asks “how can I obtain eternal life?” he is doing what we so often do and asking “how can I obtain the benefits of salvation later without doing what’s required of me to bring about God’s Kingdom now?
But what does being rich have to do with any of this? The obvious answer I was always given was that his riches were more important to him than following God. And yes, that’s true, but it’s a simplistic and simple answer, and it misses so much. And once again, it comes from the perspective that Heaven is a place we go to and not a Kingdom that is here and now.
For the rest of the answer, let’s go back to why Jesus said he came. “Preach to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, free the captives, sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed.” The rich, (and let’s face it, if we’re Americans there’s a very good chance we’re rich by historical or global standards). As I was saying, the rich know nothing or very little of being poor, or brokenhearted or captive or blind or oppressed. Here’s the problem, the rich THINK they understand these things, but all of these concepts are only known second or third hand. I see this in Facebook posts and hear it in conversations all the time. Listening to white Americans discuss poverty and oppression is like listening to a couple of lifelong vegans discuss what would make beef wellington taste better. They might think they know, but they just don’t.
Covid has been hard on many people in many ways. But as Christians, especially Christians in the richest nation on earth, we have been given an opportunity to partake in some of the poverty and suffering that our brothers and sisters overseas see on a daily basis, and in so doing begin to understand what we do not. Yes, you read that right. I said opportunity. If we are truly to be effective in the gospel, we must be imitators of Christ. As it says in Philippians 2
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
If Jesus had to make himself of no reputation and make himself a servant, how much more us? How much better can we be a servant if we truly understand the struggles and the needs of those we are to serve?
As I’ve written in a previous blog, the only thing worse than going through a trial is going through a trial from which I learn nothing. Covid has been a wake up call for the church. I just pray we don’t hit the snooze, roll over, and go back to sleep. Let’s use this opportunity to be more like we were created to be.
When I go overseas to Africa or elsewhere, one of the universal factors I see is trials and suffering. A pastor friend of mine once talked about when he went to teach some pastors in Africa, and when asked what they wanted to learn about, they wanted to be taught how to stand up under suffering and difficulty. My pastor friend at that point felt unqualified to speak on that subject. And this is what got me thinking.
I’ve been in church my entire life. I’ve heard sermons on Christ’s suffering, and lots of sermons on how God will carry you through suffering. But the attitude towards suffering by the preacher, and until the last few years by myself as well, was that suffering was an arms length transaction. That it was not normal or God’s will or something that we should consider as an integral part of our faith.
But then I started noticing some passages in the bible that rarely if ever get preached on, and a lot of things began to make sense to me. The first idea that I had to put away was that Christ did all the hard work and therefore my work is easy. On the contrary, although Jesus provided his own life for our salvation, he also provided the example by which we should live. He became the perfect imitation of God the Father so that we by imitation of Jesus would imitate the Father. Essentially we imitate the Father through transitive property. In the book of John it says, “44Then Jesus cried out and said, “He who believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me. 45And he who sees Me sees Him who sent Me. 46I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. 47And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. 49For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. 50And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak.”
Ok, so Jesus is the perfect imitation of the Father, but how did he become this. It’s easy to say Jesus was born as God, but he was also born as man, so something had to happen along the way. After all, the fall from perfection for man came through Adam by a choice that he made, so Jesus’ perfect imitation of the Father had to come as a choice as well. But when did this happen?
The thing that got me thinking about this were some verses in the book of Hebrews that I’d never known about until recently. I’d read them of course, but never paid attention I guess. I’d certainly never heard anyone preach on them. The first verse is Hebrews 2:10 “For it was fitting for Him, (speaking of God the Father) for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The second verse is in the same chapter, verse 17. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”
Ok, so wait a second. How could Jesus, being perfect, be perfected? I mean, he’s already perfect, right? The answer to that comes in the book of Matthew, right at the beginning of Jesus ministry.
“Matthew 4:1 “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not [a]tempt the Lord your God.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
So how many times have we read this and not really thought about it? Jesus and the devil were out in the desert and Jesus proved he knew the scripture better than the devil did. Right? But I never asked the deeper questions about it, like; What was the point of all this? or If Jesus was God and perfect then what was the point of tempting him? Or “Why did Jesus fast for 40 days?”
There are all kinds of conclusions I’ve come up with, but I’m only going to touch on a few here. The first is that, just as Adam had to make a choice, and one that he ultimately failed, it was at this point that Jesus had to make a choice. Jesus being born both God and man, he had the choice of will to go down either path. It was at this point, while under the self-imposed suffering of fasting and the temptation of the devil, that he made the choice to become the perfect imitation of the Father. After all, it doesn’t do any good for the devil to tempt someone with something for which they have no desire. But where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded and so became the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Which leads to my second point and the one that more directly applies to us. And that is that perfection that is not tested through trial is not perfection. If Jesus himself was not perfected without suffering, how much more must we, who were born in a fallen state, suffer trials and affliction in order to imitate Christ?
Am I suggesting that we need to seek out trials and afflictions and be sad and mope about all the time in order to be a better imitator of Christ? No. There is a season and a time for everything. Our problem is that we have largely told ourselves that suffering is not part of the Christian walk. This is a lie. Not only is trials and suffering a part of the Christian walk, it is essential to gaining wisdom, to denying self, and to being effective in ministry. I looked for a good verse to illustrate this, but they were frankly too numerous to pick just one. Some notable places to look though are in the book of 1st Peter and the first chapter of James. The early apostles had a much better understanding of suffering, and in very few cases did they ask that those trials be removed, but rather that they would grow and gain wisdom from them. This is exactly what I find when I go to the hard places in the world. Pastors don’t ask us to pray that their trials would be removed, but rather that they would be given the strength and the faith to stand up under trial. They understand that every trial is an opportunity to be more like Christ, that the miraculous salvation that he gave would then be played out to the lost nations and peoples around them. They understand that when they stand up under trials and persecution, the lost people around them see that God has done a work in them. They become imitators of Christ in his suffering and in so doing, they become the face of Christ to the nations around them.
James chapter 1 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Because the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” Lacking NOTHING it says. Immediately after this it says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” So when we go through trial, we are not told to ask that the trial end, because as it says above, “perseverance must finish its work,” but rather, that we are to ask for wisdom. This is the choice we have, to avoid suffering (though in practice this is not really possible), or to use the suffering and trials that come as an opportunity to gain wisdom, become more like Christ, and to fulfill the purpose for which we were placed on this earth. The only thing worse than having to bear a trial is to bear a trial for which I learn nothing.
I know this is not an easy message today, but it is an essential one for the Christian walk. For those who feel they are trying to stand up under a weight they feel they can’t bear, first of all, understand that it is not for nothing. Ask God for wisdom, both in dealing with it but also in what is to be learned from it. Also understand that you’re not alone. There is nothing you’re going through the Christ didn’t also suffer through. I’d like to finish with a story about the apostle Paul. This is one of the only passages I can think of where someone asks that a trial be removed. The apostle Paul says that he had a “thorn in his side”. Now what this was we don’t know. It could have been a recurring sin he had to deal with, it could have been a sickness, it could have been something else. The point is that it was something that tormented him. Paul asked God on several occasions to remove it from him, but the answer Paul received was different from what he asked for. The answer Paul got was, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” It is Paul’s acceptance of this answer that is even more telling, because he understands what it means, and his reply is this; “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Even though it wasn’t until I became an adult that I started entering races, I’ve always been into endurance sports. Even as a kid, I would go out into the school field behind my house and just see how long I could run. When I became an adult, I got into mountain biking and started racing in that sport. Later I started running marathons, half-marathons, and triathlons. At the peak of my obsession with it, I did a race where I had to bike for twelve hours, then run for twelve hours, unsupported. I ended up biking 105 miles, then running (walking really by that point) another 15.5 miles. I looked physically different when I was done from when I started the race.
But in the past few years, I’ve either had schedule issues get in the way, or had overuse injuries, or just gotten bored with the tedium that can come when you run for two hours at a time. So about two years ago, I started lifting weights just to mix things up a bit. As I lifted more, I started enjoying it more. As I enjoyed it more, I started lifting heavier weights. But as I lifted heavier and heavier weights and built up muscle, I also started to weigh more. And as I got heavier, my endurance for running got worse. Now I’m not complaining, because I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, but I’m also quite a bit slower than I was before.
As my mind is want to do in its obsession to find correlations, I found a metaphor in the above story. There are two verses that came to mind.
The first is Hebrews 12:1 and 2, which says, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The second verses are in 2nd Corinthians 12. They say, “And He (The Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
A lot of times we think that God is looking for strong, perfect people to serve him. On the contrary, he only asks us to run the race put before us with perseverance. The strength is up to him. He even says to put aside every weight. I’ve always read this to mean that we should put away sin and unhealthy and unhelpful habits, which is of course what the verse explicitly says. But when we tie this in 2nd Corinthians, it becomes apparent that our own strength can be a weight that slows us down as well.
Let me explain a bit. When we are weak, or poor, or sick, or inexperienced, or any other form of weakness, we find that we need to fully rely on God to run the race he’s set before us. As we become stronger, though we may find it easier to run the race using our own strength, often we end up straying from what God has called us to do, and so end up going the wrong way. We lose the intimacy of our relationship with God because, instead of fully relying on him for everything, we take control of some of the aspects of the race because we feel we can do it ourselves. It is a difficult pit not to fall into.
I am not suggesting we should not become stronger or more capable. These things should be a natural outgrowth of a life of serving. But we must not lose our humility and forget the lowly places we came from. We need to serve God with every capacity that he gives us while at the same time realizing that every ounce of it comes from him, and without him we are nothing. We must wake up every morning and declare to God, “more of You and less of me”.
Let me not stand before God some day and have him say to me, “I could have done so much more with you if there had just been less of you.” I pray that my own strength would not be something that slows me down.
Every time I go to Africa I learn something new. I learn new things about the places and cultures, and about how one country or one region or one tribe is different from another. And whereas when I first went to Africa everything was new and different and very black and white, over the years I’ve begun to understand the subtle nuances of why some things are the way they are. More exciting for me is that in coming to understand more about Africa and the Africans, I’ve come to understand more about myself.
My most recent revelation was on my last trip to Kenya. As a missionary, you grow in your relationships with the people you’re partnering with. As that happens, you begin to learn more not only about their interactions with you, but their interactions with each other. What I learned this time was that, with some notable exceptions, Kenyans are very hospitable people, but not very generous. They are willing to take people into their homes and spend time with them, but when it comes to giving money or volunteering for a cause, it’s a much more difficult proposition.
So I started thinking about that. How do we (missionaries) show a good example of how to be generous? Because we’re generous, right? And it was at that point that I learned the lesson about myself.
In the book of Mark, Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem, and makes an observation to his disciples.
“Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”
So how is this different from how we as missionaries act when we go overseas? We go to a foreign places, throw some money around, go home, and congratulate ourselves on how generous and giving we were. We give away used shoes and clothing, undermining the local merchants, and hand out money that creates dependency, ruining Africa one person at a time. Is this generosity? I think not. We give money because for us, relatively speaking, it’s easy to come by. They (the Kenyans) give of their time, because (again, relatively speaking) it’s easy to come by. Neither is really generous when it comes down to it, because, as we learned from the story of the widow’s mite, true generosity is when you give out of your lack.
I’m not saying that giving money is a bad thing, far from it. But what would it look like if we gave not only our money, but invested in meaningful relationships with those we are partnering with. What if we truly gave of our time and emotional reserves and truly bore each other’s burdens as if we were family? This is the model that Jesus set up for us, because we are brothers and sisters in Christ and therefore heirs of the same Kingdom. And that is the example of generosity.
Some people see life as a pie, and there’s only so much pie to go around. When you see life that way, you do all you can to get as much pie as you can, because the pie will soon be gone.
Others see a life of infinite pie. There will always be more pie. As Christians, we need to see life this way. We know the one who makes all the pie, and if we just ask for it with the intention of giving it away, he will give us more. But in order to receive it, there has to be less of us, and more of Jesus. That’s when we’ll see generosity take hold.
In about six weeks I’ll be going back to Kenya, and as usual God has been speaking to me about His Kingdom. Last week He revealed something to me that broke my heart; something about the western Church and about myself as well. I wanted to break this up into a couple blogs, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible, so I apologize in advance for the length.
This will be my thirteenth trip to Africa in the last eight years. When you go somewhere outside of your own culture, there are certain things that become impossible to miss. One of those is how closely the African Church, at least as far as I’ve seen it, mirrors the church in Acts, and conversely, how poorly the western church mirrors the early Church.
As Jesus was just about to go up to Heaven, he gave instructions. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16)
Largely this is what I see in Africa. I see the sight of the blind restored, the sick healed, the insane restored and their entire lives changed, addicts recover. I see people pray for what we would consider crazy and God answers it, and the list goes on, reflecting what Jesus said would happen as signs that would happen after the gospel is preached.
While I see some of that in America, I don’t see nearly as much of it. So why would that be? Well, that was what God spoke to me about.
There are a number of gifts of the Spirit of God that are listed in the bible, besides the signs that Jesus mentioned in Mark. There’s a somewhat comprehensive list of the more common ones in 1 Corinthians 12.
“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works [e]all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.”
There are largely two lines of thought on this in the west. Those who think that the gifts of the Spirit mentioned above are to be sought above all other things, and those who don’t think they exist anymore. So how do we get such polar opposite views in a supposedly singular Church? Well the answer to that question is where we went wrong, and where the African church can save us, because we’ve gone way off course.
I’m going to start with those who seek the gifts over all things. There are churches that will tell you that if you do not speak in tongues then you are not saved, or other similar statements about the gifts of the Spirit. But what are the gifts? If you look at what they are and how they are used, they not only display the glory of God, but more importantly they display the love of God to a lost world. It is no mistake that the next chapter in 1 Corinthians after the one about the gifts is the chapter about love, summed up in the verse, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
If we seek the gifts of the Spirit but do not love our neighbor, we only seek to perform spiritual parlor tricks. If we do not love our neighbor, who was created in God’s image, then we do not represent the God who created them.
The other side of the coin is those who say that the gifts of the Spirit died with the apostles, and that God no longer does these things today. Dispensationalism is the name for this doctrine for anyone that cares. I’ve heard prominent pastors engage in spiritual contortions in order to make this work in their own minds, going so far as to forbid these gifts. (How you can forbid something that supposedly doesn’t exist, I don’t know, but that’s beside the point.)
Here’s the problem; When those gifts start showing up, who am I going to believe, your preaching or my own lying eyes? Faith is the evidence of things unseen, but when God shows up in powerful ways and we still don’t believe it, that’s something straight out of hell.
But when we don’t see God show up in the ways He said He would, it’s easier to build a doctrine around how God has changed and not have to face the fact that we were unfaithful. You see, if we were faithful to love our neighbors as ourselves, as we were commanded to do; if we were to give of ourselves sacrificially to the poor and the lost, then the gifts of the Spirit would show up as a matter of course. If on the other hand we seek the gifts without doing what Christ commanded, then we are guilty of idolatry, worshipping the gifts rather than the giver.
So boiling it down, and this is going to make people mad, but so be it; the African church loves the lost, and we don’t. We don’t love the lost every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, every time we refer to immigrants as filthy criminals, every time we judge the addict because they “made bad choices and they’re just reaping what they sow. Shall I go on?
How do the Africans love their neighbors? By blessing people and praying the love of God over people even as they’re being beaten, by exercising gifts of healing over the son of someone who tried to burn down his house, by giving sacrificially to the needy, even in their own poverty. This is what the Church was created for.
As Jesus said when he started his ministry,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
We’ve, no, I’ve got so much I have to learn.
Photo of the woman who’s sight was restored after two years of blindness in Ethiopia.
I remember back in the early 1980’s, there was a boy known as “The bubble boy” who had to permanently live in a plastic bubble. He had a compromised immune system, and any exposure to the outside world could cause him to get sick and die. As I prayed this morning, the Lord brought that analogy to my mind as I thought about missions and service. You see, many of us are living our lives trying to avoid the world. While the boy in the bubble was safe from the world around him, he was relegated to a life of ineffectiveness.
The book of James says, “true religion is this, to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unpolluted by the world.”
We spend an awful lot of time on the second part while often ignoring the first part. I think we are often afraid of what will happen if we take the world on for God’s Kingdom. But there is no reason for fear. Hebrews 13 20-21 says, “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ.” That’s right, we have access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and we walk in that victory as more than conquerors.
Jesus showed us the example we should live by in that he was the perfect imitator of The Father. How did he show that? By being a servant.
Are you feeling ineffective? Serve someone.
Feeling beaten down? Serve someone.
Are you feeling like you don’t know your place in the church? Serve someone.
Do you feel called to missions but don’t know how? Serve someone.
Feel like you are still working on you? Serve someone.
The more we take the focus off of ourselves and place it on God, the more he can do with us. And God will take faithfulness with little and give you larger things to be faithful with.
I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for nearly a month. I’ve thought about a lot of things in that time, from the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, to the vision I have for what God is doing. It’s very exciting, but also upon returning, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve come back to an American church that is fast asleep. The bible says that “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” Well, without knowledge, you can’t move on to wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no vision. Without vision, we have no purpose. Without purpose, we start chasing all kinds of crazy things, and the church gives up the gospel in exchange for prostituting itself to the world in the hope of finding “cultural relevance.” The bride of Christ is searching the street corners, looking for someone to tell her she’s beautiful.
I often teach a class on missions and poverty alleviation, and one of the questions we open with is, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” The two most common answers I get are, “So my sins could be forgiven,” and “so I can go to Heaven.” Though both answers are technically correct, they are both tertiary reasons and completely egocentric.
In Luke 4, Jesus himself states why he came. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus came to restore what was lost, and to put us back into relationship with God. He set in motion a restoration of relationship between God and creation. It wasn’t just so we could be saved from Hell but continue to do what we were already doing. It states right in the beginning of Genesis that men and women were created in God’s image. That being the case, we ought to imitate Christ as he imitates God the Father. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice without accepting this second part, we have reduced ourselves to God’s immortal pet, his hamster, if you will, existing for God’s amusement but with no purpose, born only to consume.
I believe that this is why the American church is largely devoid of men. Men are designed and built to serve a larger purpose, to take hold of a challenge and to serve a greater purpose than themselves. But if we accept a Christianity that says “I’m saved now. Just sit in the pew on Sunday and listen to a watered down message of meek and mild Jesus,” a great injustice has been done. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip….twice?
Jesus gave us a lot of instructions, most of which we aren’t following. Sure, we follow the ones about keeping ourselves pure…..sometimes, but what about all those ones about going out like sheep among wolves? What about all those instructions about feeding the poor, standing up for the widow, the orphan, and the alien? What about blessing those who curse us, or showing love to our enemies, or were those instructions for somebody else? What about dying to self?
I have to ask these things, because if we say we’re going to be Christ followers, then certainly we should take a cue from Jesus, who “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2)
God is looking for men and women of purpose. The Church has got to wake up.
I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for three weeks, and have had some time to reflect on the things I saw and experienced. I want to convey a surreal event that happened November 26th. The week in Dire Dawa was finished, and I was prepared to move on to the second half of my trip. I had just gone for a run, and I walked back up to my room and onto the balcony overlooking the city to cool off. As the sun went down, the Muslim call to prayer rung out over loudspeakers from minarets around the city. At the same time this was happening, there were at least hundreds, if not over a thousand birds of prey circling over the city. It was one of those times I wished I’d grabbed the camera. As it got darker, they began to dissipate into different directions, and it got me thinking about the spiritual aspects of what was going on in that city. I just stood on the balcony and prayed over that city that God’s grace and power would come to it.
In Daniel 10, there is a very interesting passage. Daniel the prophet has received a vision that is very disturbing to him. In response, he humbles himself, fasting and praying and mourning for three weeks. He waits for an answer from God. After the 21st day, he receives his answer.
“Suddenly, a hand touched me, which made me tremble on my knees and on the palms of my hands. 11 And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for I have now been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood trembling.
12 Then he said to me, “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. 13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; and behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left alone there with the kings of Persia.”
It’s the last passage that I find particularly interesting. A messenger is sent from God to Daniel, but is unable to get through to him because of opposition from, as would be called in the New Testament “principalities and powers.” What breaks this opposition is Daniel standing in the gap in fasting and prayer.
I bring this up because there are places in this world where principalities and powers have had free reign for hundreds or thousands of years. Dire Dawa is one of those places. I hear it in the interviews of the missionary pastors being sent out. Their converts slide back into their old ways of life because they are opposed at every front. They are rejected by family, fired from jobs, physically beaten, and sometimes even killed, and all for their decision to follow Christ. On top of this, Saudi Arabia is pouring oil money into the region to build madrassas that teach the austere, severe form of Islam called Wahhabism. Even as they oppose this type of teaching in their own nation because of the insecurity and instability it produces, they are exporting it to Ethiopia.
I say all this to try to paint a picture of how hard it is to be a church planter in Eastern Ethiopia. The people I talked to who seem to have had the most success are those who are willing to take a new Christian into their home and disciple them on an intensive basis.
So let me bring this back around, because this is, after all, written to a Western audience for the most part. We like to send out missionaries who will send back quarterly reports telling of their successes. How many converts were there? How many children were fed? How many shoes were handed out?
If we truly want to reach the unreached areas, we need to be willing to be supportive when there is little or no good news. We need to be willing to fast and pray, and humble ourselves, and mourn. You see the enemy knows that sometimes all he has to do is delay God’s messenger long enough, and we with our short attention spans and merit based giving, will give up. Sometimes we need to put our resources and time and money and prayer into the places where nothing seems to be happening. And on that metaphorical 22nd day, God’s messenger will show up. At that point, the enemy will be exposed for what he is, and as it says in Colossians, speaking of Christ on the cross “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.”
So in closing, I would ask that when you see missionaries in difficult areas having trouble, to pray harder, and back them even more. After all, there’s a reason not everyone goes to the hard places.
I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for a week. I rolled into town on Saturday night, and had to be at a conference on world missions literally the next morning. That conference ended this morning and now I have a moment to stop and gather my thoughts. I saw a number of encouraging and discouraging things on this last trip to Ethiopia, but fortunately it was mostly the former. Back in 2012 I began to pray that I would see God move, and that prayer has not just been answered, but continues to be answered in ways more profound than I knew I was asking.
My first trip to the Borana region along the borderlands of Ethiopia and Kenya was no exception. It was like no place I’ve been before. I wondered in a previous blog if it would be similar to South Sudan, due to its proximity, and the answer is that it wasn’t similar to South Sudan in either landscape or culture.
I’ve been to eastern Ethiopia a few times now, and whereas that region is dominated mostly by Islam, the southern region is mostly animist or traditional religion. Books and movies tend to have a somewhat romantic vision of animism, but when you actually go and talk to the people living it, you find out just how oppressive it is. I will probably get into the details of that in a later blog, but for now I’d just like to tell a short story about a woman (a girl really) that I interviewed last week, and how it relates to the western church.
My main function in going to the places I do is to tell the story to others when I get back, through photography, video, and writing. Consequently I always have my ears and eyes open for compelling stories when I’m out in the field. As I listen to reports of the indigenous church planters, patterns develop. One of those patterns is one of persecution. It’s almost universal, which is something the western church has a hard time understanding. This again is something for a future blog, and why persecution is not only to be expected, but in some ways is necessary to complete our calling.
So when I hear a story that goes completely against the grain of what’s normal, I take notice. I met a woman who was 24 years old, though honestly she didn’t look over 18. She was both quiet and unassuming, yet at the same time fierce. She had gone out to a village where the gospel of Jesus had not been heard yet, and in six months sixty people had committed their lives to Christ, and 51 had already been baptized. She was not being persecuted, and in fact more people were hungry to hear what she had to say.
When I bring this report home, the church is of course elated. It is, after all, good news. But then I started to think about it, and the broader issues of what this means.
You see, Jesus told us to go, figuratively speaking, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth, teaching all he commanded and making disciples. When we hear stories over and over again of persecution and people falling away because they are physically attacked, or rejected by their families, or they’re fired from their jobs, it’s easy for us to tell ourselves this is why we haven’t fulfilled this command. But when I meet a woman that goes to a new village and has huge success with no persecution, the truth comes out; the truth that there was a village out there that was hungry for the gospel, the the only reason they didn’t receive it was because in 2000 years since the instructions had been given, no one had bothered to go.
The good news is that it’s never to late to change our priorities, but how many have been lost in the interim? While we send 40% of our short term missionaries to Mexico, a nation with a sizable church presence capable of doing their own work, we virtually ignore the thousands of people groups that have never once heard the gospel. Oswald Smith said, “No one has the right to hear the gospel twice when there are those who haven’t heard it once.” I agree with him. We go repeatedly to the places that are easy and saturated, while ignoring the places that are hard. But awareness and faithfulness are everything. Now that we are aware, let us be faithful to do the job that we have been given.
I’m not putting up a picture of the girl I spoke of, but I am posting a few other pictures from the southern region of Ethiopia.