Sunday, October 25, 2009
Many of us are familiar with the first part of Isa.6, of Isaiah seeing the Lord high and lifted up … and then the often quoted words of Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me.”
We quote that especially in mission conferences and we say, “Lord send me to the nations to bring Your love to them ..” However, not many people are aware of what God was sending Isaiah to. God did not send him to bring His love or good news. Instead, God sent Isaiah to bring them really bad news :
"Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
He said, "Go and tell this people:
"Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "For how long, O Lord?" And he answered: "Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land."
Because of the political situation in Aceh, and Aceh had been cut off from the rest of the world, even 3 days after the tsunami there was still no clear news report yet of the scale of the destruction. News began trickling in from the 4th day that a few thousand people had been killed. As the days went by, the numbers increased : “more than 10,000”, then "more than 30,000”, and so on. When I arrived in Aceh, I saw what was described in Isa.6 – more than 80% of Banda Aceh had been devastated. Whole villages along the Western coast of Aceh had been totally wiped out. The final figures reported more than 200,000 people in Aceh were killed or had gone missing. Clearly it fitted the description in Isa.6
But what was I to do about that? In verse 12, God said that the devastation in the land would be so bad that the land would be utterly forsaken, and even if a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. Did that mean that God would send another disaster that would totally destroy what remained, and wipe out the whole population of Aceh? Since God told Isaiah to tell them (the people of Israel), did it mean that God was sending me to tell the people of Aceh? I prayed, “Lord, is that what You want me to do, to go tell them another disaster is coming?” I was in fear and trembling. Me, a nobody, go and tell them? They will probably think I am mad. Or they might kill me. But the word was so clear and so strong, notwithstanding my fears, I was prepared to do that if indeed that was what the Lord wanted me to do.
There was however no answer from God. Just silence. I kept asking the Lord. Days passed. Still nothing. Just silence. As I helped various teams in Aceh, God showed me what to do, but He did not answer that one question that bothered me. Months passed, but I kept pondering over it and kept seeking understanding from the Lord. Eventually it became clear to me that God was talking to me not so much about Aceh, but He was giving me a prophetic or symbolic picture of a larger scale reality about the whole world, and also about the church. Just as the people in Aceh had hardened their hearts (see appendix), so the world, and the church, had hardened their hearts.
God was showing me that just like how He judged Israel, and in this case Aceh, that is also how He will judge the people of the world who have hardened their hearts against Him. What was more pertinent was that He was telling me that that is also how He has judged, and will judge the church who have hardened their hearts against Him. In the end, only a remnant will remain.
God Himself hardened the hearts of His people and blinded them and made them deaf so that they could not see, hear or understand the truth. Why? If we look at the history of Israel, it was because they had hardened their hearts against Him. Jesus quoted that to the Jews (Matt.13:11-15). Paul also quoted that to the Jews (Acts 28:25-27). The amazing thing is this, even after God judged them, they still did not wake up but continued to harden their hearts against Him.
I see today that that is the case of the church – church as we know it (to borrow a phrase from Wolfgang Simson). Churches today are not much different from the problem with the Pharisees. Churches are more concerned about doctrine and being right in their beliefs than about living and living right. I have spoken in churches about the poor, but hardly anything is ever done about it. No I am not looking for funds or support from them. That is not what I mean. I have never ever tried to raise any funds or support for any project whenever I have spoken about the poor, lest my message is diluted and people get the wrong idea that all they need to do to ease their conscience is to pull out some money from their pockets. When I say nothing happens, what I mean is that the church will do nothing about what they hear. Life and business will go on as usual. The church will not do a thing about the poor. A year passes and I ask the leaders what they have done about the poor and the answer I get is not much different from what it was before I spoke in their church.
I was once invited to give a message at a national church missions conference about crisis response. I spoke a little about crisis generally but focused instead on poverty and the challenge of poverty confronting us in missions. At the end of the message, an elderly gentleman asked a question. He said, “I have been an elder of the church for more than 38 years of my life. I have heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime. Yet I have never ever heard the message you just gave, or anything about poverty. Why is that?” He had a very troubled look on his face. In reply I asked him, “Sir, first of all, I need to ask you, is there anything I have said that is not Biblical?” He thought about it for a moment and replied, “No, there is nothing you said that is not Biblical. In fact everything you said is so Biblical and so true … and so vital … Yet it is never preached in church … Why is that?”
In reply I said, “Actually the one who should answer this question is you; not me. When you started becoming an elder of the church, I was still a kid running around in my shorts.” For a moment he was quiet. Then he had another question, “Tell me, have you spoken this message in other churches and what happened after you spoke?” In reply I said, “Thank you for that question. Yes I have spoken in many churches and meetings. Each time after I spoke, what happened was what will happen after this meeting. Some of you will come to me and tell me what a good speaker I am and what a challenging message it was, and you will thank me for the message, and next week you will look forward to another good speaker and good message. That’s all. In other words, nothing happened.” There was silence. The chairman of the meeting came forward looking quite embarrassed and promptly ended the meeting. Guess what happened after that? Exactly what I said!
What has become of the church? Our hearts are so hardened and we are so blind and deaf that we don’t realize how far we have fallen from what God intends for us. Even when we talk about revival, what is that today? As Joe Ozawa has pointed out, when the Holy Spirit fell on the early church they sold all and gave to the poor. But what is “revival” today? It is people falling down and getting goose bumps and then going home, back to life and business as usual.
In 2000, I was invited to speak in a gathering of more than 400 leaders from across Indonesia. They had gathered to ask why from 1998 – 2000, more than 3500 church buildings had been attacked and burned by muslim extremist and what was needed to transform the church and transform the nation. I spoke my heart out. At the end of my message, the one chairing the meeting took the microphone and said, “If we had not built all those church buildings and instead we had used the money to feed the poor, perhaps they would not have been so angry with us, and there would have been no church buildings to burn down.”
Has the church in Indonesia learned? I am sad to say, no it has not. Even bigger church buildings have come up since then, some rivaling Singapore’s indoor stadium, but hardly any churches are doing anything to reach out to the poor that surrounds them. Nearly half the population of Indonesia is living below the world bank’s poverty line, but the church is unmoved. That is the same I see in India, Pakistan, Myanmar, etc. Matt.25 on the sheep and goats has been there for the last 2000 years, yet no one seems to take any heed to it. Even when it is pointed out to them! How hardened our hearts have become!
The cry I hear on the heart of God today over His church is the same as what we read in Hosea. God told Hosea to go and marry a prostitute because He wanted Hosea to feel what was on His heart and He was going to get Hosea to deliver a heart breaking devastating message to Israel. Just as Gomer would again and again leave Hosea to go back to her adulteries, God wanted Hosea to tell Israel that that is what they kept doing to God. So God’s message to Hosea was that He is going to forsake Israel and judge her “for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.” Hos.2:2. Then He asked Hosea to take Gomer back as a prophetic act that would symbolize how He would bring Israel back to Himself :
“The LORD said to me, "Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes." Hos.3:1
The message of Hosea is heart breaking. God would judge Israel for their unfaithfulness but He would also be so grieved with having to do that, that in His mercy He would yet again show love to Israel and get for Himself a remnant that would return to Him and love Him :
“The more I called Israel, the further they went from me.” Hos.11:2 But …
"How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is churned within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man--the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. I will settle them in their homes," declares the LORD. Hos.3:8-11.
What are we to make of this and how would this “pan out” as the Americans would say, in the end times? I could be wrong, but what I see is that God has already judged the church – with spiritual blindness and deafness, and he has hardened the hearts of His people so that they cannot hear, and cannot see and cannot understand. How does that happen? Every time the word of God comes to us, something happens in our heart. Either we listen and respond in obedience or we make excuses why we will not obey it and harden our hearts against what we just heard. Each time the word of God is delivered, it also comes with a judgment. Jesus said, "You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going.” Jn.12:35. When we do not make a decision and act upon the word that comes to us, darkness will overtake us. We will become blind. And deaf. And the word of God will no longer have any effect on us.
When this came to me, I asked the Lord, “So what am I to do? If the church is so hardened that it cannot hear You, then what is the point of me speaking to a wall?” In response, the Lord reminded me to look at the last verse of Isa.6. Whether He is going to bring another disaster on Aceh, or whether He is going to bring disaster on the church is not the point. What He wanted me to know was that He was not interested in reforming the church. He has given up on trying to do that. The church is so hardened that even if He would bring disaster to His people, they would not listen. A case in point was what happened in Nias (see below). Instead, God brought my attention to 1 Chron.12:23. Just as God turned the kingdom of Israel from Saul over to David, He is doing the same today. Saul represents the current top-down ecclesiastical structure of church leadership. In God’s book, that is over. Just as Saul was defeated by his enemies and killed himself in the end, church as we know it will die a natural death. What happened with the church in Europe, is happening in the US, and will happen elsewhere around the world.
God is doing a new thing. He is raising up the Davids – those who have been through the fire of testing but remain true to Him; those who truly love Him. This is the “stump in the land” – the holy seed that remains. Just like what He said to Samuel, the Lord said to me, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul (church as we know it)? I am sending you to find the Davids. Go and teach them and help them to know My heart and My ways. I will show you who they are.”
As I understand it, those between 25 – 35 years old now are going to be the leaders of the church of the future. Shape them now and you will shape the church of the future. They will lead the younger ones in the ways of the Lord. When someone heard me say this, he immediately said, “Not the future, but right now! They are the church right now!” Amen. I agree. The kingdom of God will be made up of servant leaders who will not be concerned about denomination, or money, or position, or image. All they will be concerned about are others whom God puts on their hearts, to see them succeed. (See my other post "Servant Leaders"). To them will come “all those .. in distress, in debt or discontented” (1 Sam22:2). These servant leaders will disciple others in the ways of the Lord. They will reproduce themselves. It is through this spiritual birthing and multiplication that Jesus will get His end-time bride.
Where are the Davids right now? Not in leadership in church as we know it. They will not fit in. Like David and what the Lord took him through, I believe many are in their caves, running from one thing to another, restless, feeling in the dark most of the time, not quite settled on anything that they feel is truly God’s kingdom, dissatisfied with church as we know it, looking for what their hearts tell them - church as it ought to be, but not finding it anywhere, going through multiple testing, possibly stretched to their limits physically, financially, emotionally …
Through the crucible of testing, the Lord has reserved to Himself those who have not bowed their knees to Baal. God knows those who are His. The devil can do his worst on them, but it will only train and prepare them to be even more in love with the Lord and zealous for His kingdom.
* Aceh - After the tsunami, some reporters went around asking the people why God had allowed the tsunami to hit them so badly. The people of Aceh are super religious, possibly the most religious people in all of Indonesia. It was the birthplace of Islam for Indonesia. Islam was brought to Aceh by Indian muslim traders who sailed from India and landed in Aceh. The Acehnese say that Aceh is "the Porch of Islam". From Aceh, Islam spread throughout Indonesia.
It was amazing what responses the reporters got from the Acehnese. Everyone acknowledged that it was an act of God, but everyone blamed it on someone else - either on the sins of the central government of Indonesia, or the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, or the immoral practices of the Indonesian military which they hated, or on the west. Not a single person said, "God judged us because we are guilty." Amazing! It never occured to them that if it was the sins of others, why didn't they, for example the Indonesian government headquartered in Jakarta, get hit with the tsunami instead?
* Nias – is an island off the west coast of Sumatra. On 28th March 2005, an 8.7 earthquake rocked the island. More than 1750 church buildings collapsed, but the main mosque survived with just a few cracks. More than 85% of the islanders claim to be Christians, but I am told that about half of them are steeped in the occult. Even pastors I am told are involved in the occult. When I went with a team in response to the earthquake, many pastors approached me to help them with funds to rebuild their church building. I asked them, “Why did God not save your church building? Why did God save the mosque instead? If God did not save your church building, can you give me a good reason why I should help you with funds to rebuild it?” They just didn’t get it. They kept wanting my contact details.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
I believe God has allowed suffering to be central to why He created us in the first place. It may not be apparent immediately, but if we step back and get a “big picture” of the scriptures from Genesis to Revelations, it is sufficiently clear that God’s ultimate purpose in creating us is that He would ultimately have people who would be like Him, in order that they may be one with Him and enjoy love and communion with Him.
How does God go about to accomplish this?
Let’s start with Genesis. In Genesis we are told that God made us in His image or likeness. Does that mean that we were created to be exactly like Him? I don’t think so. I believe it means that we were made with a potential to be like Him. We are obviously so very, very far from the likeness of God. But God has a plan for how He will mold and shape us to be like Him and in the end He will accomplish His original purpose of making us into His likeness. The Bible refers to that process by different terms : “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb.2:10), “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom.8:29), “purify for Himself a people that are His very own” (Titus 2:14).
It has often been thought that God’s original plan to have a sinless utopia was ruined by Adam and Eve falling for Satan’s temptation and deception, and then God had to go into a rescue plan to get back what was lost. But that is a total misunderstanding and incorrect interpretation of scripture. On the contrary, the apostle Paul was clear especially from Romans chapters 8 – 11, that God’s plan from the very beginning was that He Himself subjected us to sin so that He would show His mercy and love for us. Not only that, but central to His purpose for creation is that God also subjected the whole of creation to frustration with the purpose that through all the sin and decay of this world we would be put through a process of purging, refining and molding and through it we would become overcomers of sin and death and be like Jesus :
“Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Rom.8:17-21
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Rom.8:29
“ .. to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory” Rom.9:23
“For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Rom.11:32
“Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.” Dan.11:3
So God uses trials, difficulties and suffering to purge, refine and mold our character. The writer of Hebrews calls it God’s discipline. God’s ultimate aim in molding our character is so that we may share in His holiness : Heb.12:10. Sharing in His holiness, I believe, means being set apart to be His – to be like Him and enjoy communion with Him. It is through trials and suffering that the Adamic self–nature within us is slowly whittled away from us. It is as we get less and less, and we learn to know His heart and character more and more that He becomes “formed” in us and we become like Him to enjoy communion with Him.
Understood in this light, contrary to what may seem to be God’s inattention or failure to intervene and save us, suffering is instead evidence of His love for us as His children and possibly the best thing that God can do for us :
“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons :
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Heb.12:4-12
A Job Test for Each of Us
Just like the Job story, I believe Satan has a wager/bet with God over each of us, and it goes something like this : “You can save them, but can You make them Your sons? Can You turn them into Your likeness?” This, I believe, is the ultimate destiny for us, and the end-goal for God. He does not just create us, and save us, but He also molds us to become like Him.
I believe the story of Job is prophetic for the end times when the whole world, including the church will be severely tested. Just as the Father did not deliver His Son, the question that God will ask of each of us is, “Will you still love Me if I don’t deliver you?”
Then the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” "Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan replied. "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face." Job 1:8-11
God is glorified in the eyes of the angels and demons when through the persevering patient suffering of His people He shows that He can accomplish and complete what He set out to do – to make us into His likeness – to develop us to the point where we will truly love Him for who He is, and not what He can do for us, so that like Jesus, who in love laid down His life for us, we too would in love lay down our lives for others :
“This is how we know what love is : Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” 1 Jn.3:16.
"The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed!" Rom.8:19
My brothers and sisters, I have no doubt about it, that if we are the last generation, then we will go through the tribulation. If not all of it, at least some part of it!
This question was put by Satan to God, “Will Job fear (serve) you for nothing?”
That same question ought to be asked of ourselves : Will we serve God for nothing?
• Will you serve God if there is no money, no salary or any other reward in it?
• Will you serve God if you had to put out your own money to do so?
• Will you serve God if no one will know about it?
• Will you serve God if no one will remember you for it?
• Will you serve God if you are the only one left to do the job and everyone else has gone on to something else?
• Will you serve God if you had to do it without any position or recognition?
• Will you serve God if you will be misunderstood for what you are doing?
• Will you serve God if you will be falsely accused of personal gain?
• Will you serve God if you will be ridiculed for the kind of work involved?
• Will you serve God if you will be humiliated by doing so?
• Will you serve God if the work involved is unimportant or “too little”?
• Will you serve God if you have to take orders from someone else?
• Will you serve God if you have to take orders from someone else who is less knowledgeable, less qualified, less experienced or younger than you?
• Will you serve God if the task is too demeaning to you?
• Will you serve God if it will cost you your health?
• Will you still serve God if God will not heal you?
• Will you serve God if he does not bless you in return for it?
• Will you serve God if you have to lose your possessions and everything else precious to you in doing so?
• Will you still serve God if He does not restore your possessions or that which is precious to you?
• Will you serve God if you have to give up your life in doing so?
• Will you still serve God if He does not rescue you?
• Will you serve God if He tells you there is no reward even in heaven for the job?
• Will you serve God for nothing?
Job said, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” Job 23:10
See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. Isa.48:10
Paul says it is through the church that God will reveal God’s plan of the ages :
Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me : to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, Eph.3:8-10
There is therefore a far greater cosmic reason and heavenly battle that is being waged, when God allows suffering in our lives, than we might be aware of.
It is only through suffering that we can learn to love, and it is through suffering that our love for Jesus is tested and perfected
It is easy to love when everything is fine. It is easy to give when we have plenty. But true love must involve sacrifice. It is when we have little, and when things are difficult, and our knowledge is partial, that our love is really tested : 1 Cor.13. It is only through suffering that we can really learn to love. There is no other way.
It is also through suffering that Jesus will get His bride – those who would love Him for Who He is, not what He can give them.
Jesus came as the Son of Man to suffer and show us the way to glory
There is no other way to glory than through suffering. Jesus Himself was glorified through testing and suffering. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent Me, I send you.” Jn.20:21. In the same way, God will take us through testing and suffering before we are brought to glory :
“ .. Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”Lk.24:26
“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” Heb.2:10-11
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Heb.5:8-9
The glory that awaits us will be worth far more than all the suffering we experience
Even when we are aware of all this, it is only human to avoid and recoil from suffering as far we might be able to. Jesus Himself agonized over the crucifixion and the separation from His father that awaited Him. However, knowing that no matter how bad it gets, it will ultimately pass, we are encouraged to endure it for the sake of the higher eternal glory that awaits us.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Rom.8:18
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Cor.4:16-18
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Pet.1:6-7
If you are reading this and you are going through your valley of pain and grief, I pray that these words would have brought you some comfort. God knows what you are going through and He feels your pain more than you can comprehend. My encouragement to you is to go to Him and immerse yourself in His embrace.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Heb.4:15-16
Through my darkest times, this has been a poem that has faithfully spoken to me each time :
Until I learned to trust, I did not learn to pray
And I did not learn to fully trust, till sorrows came my way
Until I felt my weakness, His strength I never knew
Nor dreamed till I was stricken, that He would see me through
Who deepest drinks of sorrow, drinks deepest too of grace
He sends the storm so he Himself, can be our Hiding Place
- Horatius Bonar
I have written a longer article on the subject of suffering – too long to post in this blog. If you would like to have a copy, do email me : email@example.com
A favorite verse in the Bible among Christians that lends to this picture is Rom.8:28 :
“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose”.
The “good” in this verse is usually understood from the human perspective; not God’s perspective. We think that God will somehow work everything out in our favor and everything will be alright. But Paul is actually saying the very opposite. The “all things” Paul is referring to, is suffering, and the “good” and "purpose" is explained in verse 29 – that we would through the suffering be molded to become like Jesus – God’s highest purpose for us. Rom.8:28 must be read in its context which begins from verses 16 – 39.
Begin reading from verse 16 and follow through Paul's thought until the end of the chapter and you will see why from verses 31–39 Paul says that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how condemned and abandoned we feel, and even though God does not deliver us, he is nevertheless convinced that God’s love for us is not diminished one bit. Instead, it is through the suffering that we are molded to become overcomers and conquerors :
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
"For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In other words, one of the best things that God can do for us, to mold us to become more like Him, is to send us suffering or to allow suffering to come into our lives. Quite shattering when we think about it! But let's face it. The problem with most Christians’ rosy, benevolent and benign picture of God is not only that it does not square up to scripture, but that it flies in the face of the harsh realities of life. It is far easier and more realistic for us to accept that God is not our servant to answer every prayer the way we would like it, nor is He always there to get a parking spot for us and cater to our comfort, but that He has far higher purposes for us than to make sissies out of us.
Rest in the Security of His Sovereign Love
How then are we to interpret all the trials and difficulties of life in general? Are all suffering therefore ordained by God with this purpose in mind? Is God sitting up there just waiting to strike us at our next turn? I don’t think so. Although there are times when God either directly sends or indirectly allows suffering for a purpose - when God judges sin or when He wants to discipline us, and He does it with His utmost love (see my other post “Further Reflections on Suffering”), I believe there may be times when suffering has nothing to do with punishment or discipline nor is it due to any fault on our part. Jesus was clear that when bad things happen to someone it may have nothing to do with sin or fault : Lk.13:1-5, Jn.9:2-3.
We live in a fallen world where accidents happen and we may become victims to bad weather and natural disasters or to sin and wickedness in the world. Even so, we may take comfort in this – that whatever it may be, it is still in the sovereign control and purposes of God. God has His purpose in everything that happens to us (Eph.1:11). No matter how bad it gets, for us, as God’s people, the simplest and most profound prayer that we can pray is to say to God, “You are God and I am not”, and rest in the security of His sovereign love :
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isa.55:8-9
God is Sovereign
Scripture is clear that God is always in sovereign control and nothing can happen without His will. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them can fall to the ground without the will of My Father” : Matt.10:29. This means that whatever it may be, and wherever the source of the suffering may be, and difficult as it may be, God is still in control. There are also numerous places in the Bible where God’s sovereignty extends to using the enemy for His purposes (email me for the references if you need them). We therefore need not fear what the devil can do because he can do only what God allows him to do and no more.
I have to put a caution here that there is a lot more that needs to be said on this subject. Please do not run away with what is said in this post as the "be all and end all" about suffering. I have written a longer article on the subject of suffering that is too long to post in this blog. If you would like to have a copy, email me for it. This is my email address : firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I was in an email conversation with someone in the US. He said it appears that people in politics who were against the bailout seemed to be taking that stand more out of consideration for their political career than anything else.
In reply, I agreed with him that self preservation / fear of death is what keeps all of us under bondage : Heb.2:15.
How are we to look at the global economic crisis? (Not only that, but also global terrorism, global outbreak of virus attacks, and so many other things that is happening?)
I believe it is all part of God's end time scenario. People think it is man's ingenuity and capability that we have been able to build up a system that keeps this world going. The truth is, it is God who has been sustaining everything. Were it not for God's mercy, everything would have collapsed long ago. But it is also His mercy, and the time has come, for Him to remove His hand and let things run their natural course … towards chaos .. in the hope that man would wake up and return to Him. I believe Rom.8:20-21 is coming into its final stages.
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
But the end is not yet. There is more to come. Now people have woken up just a little – they now realize we can't trust financial institutions. But governments are bailing financial institutions out and it looks like there is still some hope left in the system. We can still save ourselves somehow. But soon people will discover they can't trust governments either. Eventually everything is going to crash.
This might sound terribly cold and unkind, but I am not praying for things to settle and for security, sanity and stability to return. Instead I am praying and I think we should pray for more shaking. We should pray, "Let Your kingdom come. Come and shake what needs to be shaken so that only what cannot be shaken will remain. Come Lord Jesus."
How much do we want God's kingdom to come? How much are we attached to the kingdoms of this world?
In September-October of 2007 I had a very strong feeling that the world's economy was soon going to collapse. I shared it with two friends. One of them is my jogging buddy. The other an agent for unit trust investments. I said, "I don't know. Maybe I am wrong, but I think God is telling me this. But maybe it’s just my own imagination. But then again I can't seem to shake it off. I am pretty sure it is God." She did not accept what I said. She said the market had never been better. And in January 2008 the market was even more bullish. Many stock markets around the world hit all time highs. Hmmm …
Two years before the December 2004 tsunami, I had a very strong feeling that one day a massive EQ will strike Aceh and that God would open the door to Aceh through that EQ. I also had a very strong feeling that not just Aceh but the whole of Indonesia was about to experience a lot of disasters, and disasters would multiply around the world. I tried to get the church to get ready. No one seemed interested.
The tsunami came and went .. some churches are now a little more interested. Just a little. Like how the world has woken up .. just a little.
Massive disasters are coming. I can feel it in my bones. If I say I feel it in my spirit, you might think I am trying to sound spiritual! So I won’t say that .. but really, that’s what I intend to say :) Not just disasters, but all sorts of crises are coming. Will people ever wake up? Will the church ever wake up?
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Scott Peck begins his book “The Road Less Traveled” with the statement “Life is difficult”.
If we start with the premise that life is meant to be all fine and well, and God is there to make everything right, then we will always be expecting things to work in our favor and we will be upset, distressed and disappointed when it doesn’t. But if we begin from the premise that life is meant to be difficult, then we will be thankful for every grace, every little blessing, and we will be appreciative and have so much to be thankful for, all the time.
This reminds me of a particular time when I was distinctly thankful for what would otherwise have been a “take for granted” norm of everyday life. I had just returned from a whole month in Bangladesh. I made myself a cup of tea, took a sip, put it on the table behind me, sat at the computer and proceeded to type out an email telling of my experience in Bangladesh. After typing out a paragraph, I turned around to take another sip and I remember I was so thankful I did not see 10 flies sitting on the rim of my tea cup! It had been a daily experience for a whole month in Bangladesh of keeping those pesky flies off my tea cup. Most of the time we are so ignorant of what the people in Bangladesh, and other such nations trapped in the depths of poverty suffer every day. I need to remind myself ever so often how thankful I need to be every day, and the need for me to go and share what I have with them.
Those who are devout animists go the other extreme when they believe that life is meant to be suffering, and everything has already been fated or determined, and so their belief keeps them from working to improve anything, or seeing and appreciating the little joys in life. Most nations whose predominant culture is animistic remain in poverty, trapped in their worldview, unable to see the resources they have, and are ever dependent upon aid from more developed nations.
So how do we make sense of it all?
This side of heaven, I don’t think we will ever have a complete or accurate picture. In 1 Cor.13, Paul said we know in part, so we have to make the best of it and learn to live with the incomplete. But I believe a more accurate picture than what most Christians have is possible and necessary. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings : Prov.25:2. I believe that God purposely hides Himself and conceals things to give us the joy of discovering Him and discovering the “hidden” things.
I look back and realize that 10 years ago I did not know, see or understand life as I do now. That tells me that 10 years from now it is very possible that I may again look back and realize that what I know, see and understand today could be quite far from the truth – assuming I am progressively getting a more accurate picture as the years accumulate! So I could be very wrong in how I understand it now, but currently this is the picture I have :
I believe God meant life to be difficult. I believe God purposely subjected the whole of creation to frustration (Rom.8:20-21) for several reasons. First, it is in the hope that through the trials we go through, we would be desperate enough to seek Him and return to Him. He put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of eden knowing full well that man would take the fruit, with all the terrible consequences of that choice for all of mankind and for all time. Nevertheless it was a crucial part of His plan. If he had kept man from having a free choice, all He would have had would be automatons who would not know love.
God is love, and He desires a love relationship with us. Love cannot be programmed. Love cannot be compelled. Love is not love if it does not come freely from one’s heart. So He had to give us free choice and He had to let that free choice be tested. He had to let man go, for it is only when we return to Him that He can say, “Now you are truly mine.” (See my other post "Why God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of eden"). God longs for us to be passionately and madly in love with Him, just as He is passionately and madly in love with us. (See my other post : “Who was this Woman?”)
Second, He intended the whole of life to be a test. Our lives are very temporary, indeed a very short testing and training ground for what is to come. It is in the crucible now that we are tested. I believe God hides, silently watching to see what choices we make. What we do with what we’ve got, how we respond to the experiences of life, both good and bad, will determine how close we get to Him, how much He will reveal of Himself to us, what position we will occupy, and how we will relate to Him when He comes again in the fullness of His kingdom on earth. I have seen unknown, nameless, faceless nobodies do, "little things in great ways" (in the words of Mother Theresa) that God sees (like the widow with her two mites) that I am sure God will honor in time to come.
This short life is not all there is to it. There is much, much more to come. We were made for eternity, not just time. Nevertheless what choices we make and what lessons we learn in this short difficult life are significant. Notwithstanding that life would be difficult, life is meant to be appreciated and enjoyed. We are to make the most of what He has given to us – time, relationships, abilities, talents, opportunities, etc. Some have been given more, some less. Some have a better start in life, some a worse start, some have it very much better, and some really bad. What will we do with what He has given us?
Third, in the midst of the uncertainties, the trials and difficulties, and the limited knowledge we have, we have been given the opportunity and indeed privilege to learn to love and to learn to be overcomers, for how else can love be learnt and experienced? And how else would we learn to be overcomers? Each situation we encounter is therefore not only a test but also an opportunity to learn.
Fourth, I believe that trials, difficulties and suffering serves God's highest and ultimate agenda for each of us - to be molded and changed to become more like Jesus. I always say that Rom.8:28 is probably the most misunderstood verse in the Bible. Most Christians think that it means when bad things happen to us, we don't need to worry, we just need to pray and trust God and He will work and straighten everything out for our good, and everything will be OK. But that's not what the verse says. In fact quite the opposite. We make the mistake of understanding the "good" from our perspective of what's good. However, the "good" and the "purpose" that Paul is talking about in verse 28 is actually the suffering that God will use to change us to become like Jesus (verse 29). Verse 28 has to be read in its whole context beginning from verse 16 to verse 39. So one of the best things that God can do for us to to allow suffering to come into our lives. Not to straighten things out, but straighten us out! God desires to complete what He started out in Genesis - to make us into His image and likeness. (See my other post "Reflections on Suffering")
I see that at times God intervenes, but most of the time He does not. In His mercy and grace He somehow holds back the full consequences of our folly, for otherwise we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. So it is His grace that the world has lasted so long. Somehow, by His grace, there’s more sanity ruling in the minds of men than insanity, and His mercy and grace has saved us from an earlier self-annihilation. Most of the time however, He lets nature, from the time of the fall, run its course. He will intervene only if we pray, for prayer opens the door for Him to intervene (see my other post "Why Pray"). Otherwise He stays out of our world.
But even when we pray, He does not necessarily intervene in the way we want Him to, or expect Him to. Though God has a servant’s heart, God is not our bell boy nor servant. He does what He pleases and no one can question Him or hold Him to accountability for anything. He however delights to intervene when we truly call on Him with a sincere heart. So He waits for us to go to Him, and to come into union with Him for what is on His heart. When we discover His heart and become one with Him for His will to be done, then it would be not just His will but also our will and God can have His way into our world and we can together change and transform things from what is to what can be. Being made in His image, that is the glory He has destined for us – to be creative and to take dominion and reign and rule with Him over all that He created. (See my other post "Why pray?")
What about the positive choices that we make that are aligned to His will? Will we be able to bring complete transformation to this world? I don’t believe we will. The best we can do, even with and through His strength and power, will be limited. There is a time frame for this imperfect world. Everyone who got healed eventually died. We will only see the fullness of His kingdom when He comes again. Nevertheless, we are to work with Him at change and transformation and for His kingdom to come. It is not so much what is accomplished and what is achieved that counts, but how we ran the race.
As the time nears for this time of testing to end, for this world to end, God will withdraw His hand of mercy and grace and allow us the full consequences of our choices, and He will mete out His judgment for the choices we make. I believe we are near the end and we are already beginning to see that happening. We will see increasingly the breakdown and collapse of everything that God did not build. Every man-made system and institution will collapse. Every kingdom will fall. Everything will be exposed for what it is. God will remove His hand that has been holding things together and shake everything that can be shaken so that only what cannot be shaken – what He made and what He built will remain. (See my other post "Costly But Not Precious"). In the end, only His kingdom will remain. Rev.11:15
It is also through the shaking that our hearts will be tested. In His mercy He will push man up against the wall and confront him with what Watchman Nee calls “the most basic question in the whole universe” – Who’s in charge? In other words, every man will be confronted with this question from God, “Am I, or am I not God?” because until every person, including Christians, answer that question, we are doomed. God has no future for anyone who refuses to become part of His kingdom where only He rules and reigns. Every other little kingdom has to fall and will fall.
Where are we now on God's calendar?
I'm not sure. I could be very wrong, but this is what I see :
The current global economic crisis is testing us. Another test has been happening over the last 30 – 40 years with the exponential increase in disasters and explosion in poverty. Have a look at the graph in
and you will be shocked. Click on "Natural Disasters", then click on "World 1900 - 2008", then click on "Number of Disasters".
Jesus called the end-time crises the beginning of birth pangs. By that, we know that before the "birth" of the fullness of His kingdom on earth, there will be a tremendous increase in the number and intensity of crises. These are the "contractions" before the baby is born. I could be wrong but I believe we are already at the doorstep of Matt 24 and in the next few years we will see a massive outbreak of disease, ethnic conflicts, religious persecution, wars and natural disasters.
But the main point I would like to make here is not on the issue of timing or urgency but this - It is significant that Matt 25 on the sheep and goats comes immediately after Matt 24 on the crises that will hit the world with its resulting increase in humanitarian needs. How have we been responding to the needs of people in crisis? How will we respond to the poor and needy? I am still talking about tests. As I mentioned in another post, the poor are a test for the rich.
With the terribly poor record of how Christians have responded to the needs of the poor (see statistics in "Awakening to a World of Need"), it is no wonder that one day, many will say to Jesus, “When did we see you hungry, and thirsty, naked, sick and homeless and in prison?”
That is currently my “big picture”.
Monday, October 12, 2009
But is anyone qualified?
I don’t know about others, but I believe I would be in self deception if I ever think or feel I am qualified to say, teach, be or do anything. Truth needs to be spoken and heard, and it would be no less truth whether it comes from a donkey (Balaam’s donkey) or from a murderer (Moses, David, Paul).
I could be mistaken, but I think it could have been Michael Green who said that the right way to understand evangelism is to see it as one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. We are not trying to tell unbelievers that we are right and they are wrong, are we? I believe the same should be said of anything else in serving God. I’m hungry and I think I’ve discovered where to find bread and I’m just sharing it with those who are also hungry. Can any of us lord it over others? Do any of us have the answers because we have “arrived”? Is it not by God’s grace alone that we are just instruments and channels of what He deposits in us?
The more closely Paul walked with the Lord, the more he realized how far short he was of God’s righteousness and of God’s calling on his life. He first saw himself as the least of the apostles, then less than the least of all God’s people, and at the end of his life, he saw himself as the chief of sinners. Rick Joyner alluded to this, about how deceived people are, when they thought themselves as having qualified themselves to be anything in the service of God’s kingdom. And Paul also taught this in his epistles, and he went on to add that even if his conscience was clear, that did not mean he was thereby justified in God’s eyes.
Sadly, this is another one of the things in the institutional church that has disempowered people from serving the Lord, or discovering and realizing their God-given potential to do so. There is such a false sense in the church that you have to be more “holy”, more “spiritual”, more this or more that, before you are qualified to serve the Lord. As a result, many feel unqualified and stay away from ministry.
This false belief also breeds false expectations from church members of those who are in ministry. So those who are in ministry are put on a pedestal and they are pressured to put on a front. Many leaders’ personal lives and their families are a wreck but they are putting on a false front. I feel for them, but I am also sad that unwittingly they are breeding and reinforcing this culture in the church. Why keep putting up that front?
It is amazing how the world can see through all that, but the church itself remains blind to it. I have friends who have withdrawn from the church because they told me that the church was the place where they found the most hypocrisy and the least grace, the least forgiveness and least understanding. They felt they could breathe more freely when they were among “lesser mortals”.
So my friends, I am terribly unqualified. In fact, totally disqualified. The more I realize these things that I write about, the more they judge me, and the more I realize how far I fall short of these things. I tremble at the thought that one day what I really am inside, which is probably far, far worse and darker than I realize, will in the light of God’s judgment be shamefully exposed for all to see. But there is a stirring in my heart which I believe is from the Lord to share these things, because it is in acknowledging our hunger and need, that we also experience grace and find the Bread of life. So if some of these things help someone, I would be encouraged. :)
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The Devil has Deceived the Church into Accepting a Limited Gospel and a False Understanding of Church
I believe that it is because the devil has deceived the church into accepting a limited and much smaller scope of the gospel than what the gospel really is. The devil deceives unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel. But the devil has been deceiving the church also, because the church is God's agent for His kingdom to come on earth. If the agents are limited in their understanding of the scope of their task, then they won't be able to bring the fullness of all that God intended for His kingdom to come on earth.
The key to understanding this is to consider what Jesus said :
"You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies." John 8:44
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." John 10:10
How does the devil steal, kill and destroy? From what Jesus told us, it is obvious -by lies.
Lies lead to death. Truth leads to life.
Jesus wants His abundant life to be experienced by all. But the devil wants to take away life. So he deceives people by getting them to believe in half truths (see my other post "What Happened in the Garden of Eden?") - half truths that blind them from seeing the real thing and causing them to accept what they have as the whole truth. He does that with unbelievers. He does that with believers also.
The church clings closely to a salvation only gospel and miss the wood (forest) for the trees. Meanwhile millions around us live in squalid conditions with simple lack of sanitation and clean water killing between 30,000 - 35,000 children everyday, and other poverty related problems like human trafficking, child abuse, etc spiraling out of control, but the church doesn't care. When we keep 96% of all tithes and offering in the church and less than 1% go out to the poor, aren't we deceived? (see my other post "Awakening to a World of Need" for poverty and giving statistics)
Not only that, just as the apostles were stuck in Jerusalem for 25 years with an introverted vision of building up the church in Jerusalem as the center of worship, the church today is stuck within its four walls totally focused on building up a stronger church, and does not see the scope of the Gospel of the Kingdom penetrating and reaching into every sphere and aspect of life so that Jesus would be Lord of all.
The church is not the center of the kingdom. Yet all of Christian activity today is centered in the church. How many times did Jesus mention the word "church"? Only twice; and he did not even care to explain what He meant by "church". Instead He kept talking about the kingdom. What do we talk about today? We keep talking about church and hardly ever about the kingdom. No wonder we have more than 38,000 church denominations in the world today. What does that tell us of ourselves? Each denomination is trying to re-define what the church is. Otherwise there is no need for yet another denomination, is there? And everyone of the 38,000 think theirs' is right one.
Imagine if you are Jesus. You know you are about to be crucified, wouldn't you give a seminar to your disciples about church - what church is, how to organize and run it, etc.? After all, they are going to have to set up something called "church" for which they have had no idea or previous experience how to do that, right? Wrong! Clearly Jesus did not care to do that, either before His death or after He rose from the dead. Why? I think it is because He did not intend us to be introverted and focusing on ourselves. He wants us to get on with His kingdom advance. He wants us to look up and look out at the needs around us and bring His love to them. Not get them to come to "church".
The terms we use in missions "church planting" and "church growth", are so revealing of how we've got the ladder up against the wrong wall / we're climbing up the wrong wall. It is like we have been innoculated with a little bit against the real thing. We are so stuck on "church" we don't see kingdom. Why are we so focused on ourselves? Can we stop focusing on ourselves - how we can be a better and more complete church, and get on with God's kingdom advance instead?
I have highlighted only a part of the gospel of the kingdom that we have missed out and become blind to - of the need for us to engage with the poor and bring His kingdom to the poor. There is so much more of the gospel and power of the kingdom that we have yet to see and experience and become channels of to the world in every aspect of life.
Lord, have mercy on us. Open our eyes and set us free. Help us come back to You, surrender our concept of church, our ministries, our structures, our systems, our identity, our dreams, our fears, who we are, everything .. to You. Share Your heart with us. Help us feel afresh Your heartbeat for the people around us, especially those who are trapped in deep poverty. May we be transformed by Your love, and be agents of Your kingdom. Let Your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as in heaven. Amen.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I believe it is because the poor are generally meek, humble, childlike, vulnerable, and marginalized. The poor feel rejected and despised. They are voiceless and fearful. Such people are usually what the Bible describes as “contrite and lowly in spirit”. That makes their hearts the most attractive place for God to dwell! God said He lives in a high and lofty place but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit (Isa.57:15). And Isa.66:1-2 is astounding. God in effect says that He dwells with and His resting place is in, the heart of the humble and contrite and those who tremble at His word!!!
Of course not all poor are humble and contrite. But most poor people are. That’s why the poor are closer to the kingdom. And they are the people of the kingdom in the sense that they (who are humble and contrite) are the kind of people that God counts as His kind of people … along with children, and those who are meek, those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who mourn, who are peacemakers, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who are persecuted.
When Jesus came, He did not go to the rich and powerful. He went to the poor. He felt comfortable and at home with them. God seeks out those who are contrite and brokenhearted. That is what He is after. Why? I believe it is because they are of like heart, of like spirit to Him. Reflect on this for a moment – the Creator of the universe comes as a man, knowing full well that the world will reject him, and even his own people will reject him, and gets down on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples, including one whom he knows is about to betray him. Isn’t that mind blowing?
When we sing "How Great Thou Art" or "How Great is our God .." what picture do you have in your mind? For most people I think it is of God on His throne with the angels surrounding Him in worship, or it could be the majestic mountains and starry skies. One day I was singing "How Great is Our God .." and God gave me a picture of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples! I sank to my knees in tears and bowed in renewed awe of Jesus. When I shared this, in response someone shared with me that he had a dream in which he was taken up into heaven. As soon as he arrived, he was taken to meet Jesus. The first thing Jesus did was he hugged him and then got down on his knees and washed his feet!! Awesome!! That’s why all the angels worship Him. What kind of God is He? What is His heart like? Our God is a servant.
How can we understand this – that God is a servant? That’s something that can only be understood and appreciated in our hearts. Theological studies and seminaries have their place, but unfortunately most church leaders who graduate from seminary tend to run churches more from an intellectual approach than anything else. So most of Christianity has been centered on being doctrinally correct rather than experiencing God. Being right is paramount. Living the life is secondary. So most of “church” is in meetings, preaching, teaching, evangelism – all to do with textual truth than living truth.
We can attend a Bible study on the subject of joy and go home satisfied after a comprehensive study on the subject, with all our notes on joy, but not really have joy. But that doesn’t seem to bother us that much. It bothers us more if there was a disagreement during the Bible study on the correct way of understanding joy. In the same way, we can have a correct understanding of the subject of love, but we don’t actually go out and love. But it won’t bother us that much. Why is that?
I think that’s because evangelical Christianity arose from the west and was developed in the west. In the west, getting it right and being correct is everything! If you are born in that culture, in that paradigm, and you grow up in that paradigm, it is hard for you to come out of that paradigm and see things from any other perspective. I too was born again into a western Christian paradigm. I became a typical evangelical. Then I went and studied law in England. That made me even worse. I was more concerned about understanding things right than about living right.
But Jesus was not so concerned about people getting their doctrines and beliefs right. Even though they had obviously misinterpreted the Old Testament on the coming of the Messiah, Jesus never corrected the Pharisees on their doctrines or their interpretation of the Old Testament. Instead, He was against their hearts.
Life is not found in the knowledge of the Scriptures. Life is found in Jesus. Jesus told the Pharisees : “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Jn.5:39-40. In effect He said, “You think getting your doctrines right will get you into heaven? Well, you can have all your doctrines right and yet have no life in you.”
I heard someone once put it very well. He said when we die and we are taken to the pearly gates, the angel Gabriel is not going to give us a test on our Biblical knowledge or our doctrinal position to see if we qualify to enter. Instead he is going to put his stethoscope to our hearts and listen to find if there is life in us. “Because he who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son, does not have life; but the wrath of God remains on him.” Jn.3:36.
Someone said this : “The Word did not become a philosophy, theory or a concept to be discussed, debated or pondered. The Word became a person to be followed, enjoyed and loved.”
The strange thing is this. It is very possible to be committed and zealous for God but not know Him personally. Paul said this : “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Rom.10:2. Paul himself knew this - when Jesus appeared to Paul the first time, he asked, ”Who are You Lord?” Acts 9:5.
It is the heart that counts, not what’s in our heads. So poor people may not have correct beliefs, and they may even be trapped in false beliefs, which is why they are in such debilitating situations, but they are closer to the Kingdom than professors of theology who know their Bibles inside out but whose hearts know little of contrition or what it means to be servants. I was very grieved when I heard how evangelical theologians questioned whether Mother Theresa was saved. Some of her beliefs about salvation seemed questionable, but I bet you she was closer to the heart of God than many evangelical leaders of megachurches who doubt if she is now in “heaven” with the Lord.
At the end of the day, it is not material poverty or material riches that is the issue. Those who are materially rich might even be poor in spirit, although that is seldom the case. It is what material poverty or material riches does to our hearts. According to the Bible, material riches are a curse more than anything else, because material riches blinds us to the condition of our hearts, and to God and others. Jesus said how hard it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom. But "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Luke6:20. Want to be spiritually rich? Simple, be materially poor! Give it all away, and your heart will be rich. Hang on to it, and your heart will remain cold and dead.
At the end of the day, Jesus said how much we love God will be evident from how much we love the poor : Matt.25:31-46. Indeed not only does God identify with the poor, the poor are really a test for the rich.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
See corresponding passages in Mark14:3-9, Matt.26:6-13, Lk.7:36-47, Jn.11:1-2, Jn.12:1-7, Lk.10:38-42
Who was this woman? Why did she show such an outpouring of affection on Jesus? And why did Jesus say that wherever the gospel is preached, what she did will also be told in memory of her? Have any of us done that? Many of us have preached the gospel many times, but have any of us in sharing the gospel ever added to it this story of what she did? What is the connection between the gospel and what she did? Could it be that we have been missing something vital? Could it be that our understanding of the gospel falls short of what Jesus meant by the gospel?
To find answers to this, first we need to ask if there is anything in the record of the gospels that might give us a clue as to why this woman would show such an outpouring of affection on Jesus. Perhaps there is. I believe it is very possible that this woman could very well be the same woman who was caught in adultery in the account in Jn 8:1-11. There is a hint in the Luke passage that lends some weight to this. Luke describes her as a woman who had a lived a very sinful life. And Simon the leper thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is – that she is a sinner.”
Here’s the scenario. Her partner got away with not even a mention. She however was caught and dragged out to be humiliated in public. Where were all her “lovers”? Did no one love her enough to come forward to speak up on her behalf? This was the crunch. Not only was she shamefully exposed, she was being condemned to death. In her hour of crisis, condemned to the punishment of being stoned to death, no one showed her the kind of love like Jesus did. Not only did Jesus save her from being stoned to death, we can imagine how touched she was by Jesus’ kindness and love. That could give the background to why one day, she could hold it no more but she just showed up all of a sudden, uninvited, unannounced, and lavished her love upon Jesus. Her breaking of the alabaster box and the outpouring of the perfume symbolized so dramatically the breaking and outpouring of her passion from deep within her for Jesus.
It is quite possible too that this woman was Mary Magdalene who apparently had a very close relationship with the Lord. That however is another issue, which unfortunately has been twisted by Dan Brown in the Da Vincci Code.
OK, we can understand that Jesus would have been touched by her dramatic show of gratitude. But Jesus makes no mention of that. Instead He links what she did with the gospel. What is the connection between her show of affection and the gospel?
I could be wrong, but this is how I read it. I believe this is the picture that Jesus was giving us of the end goal of the Gospel – of a woman pouring out her love and passion upon Jesus. This is what the gospel is all about. It is not so much about eternal salvation as it is about God’s long lost bride forsaking all other love, leaving her adultery, and returning to Him and lavishing her love upon her Bridegroom. Throughout the ages, God has been looking for a bride – a people who will fall hopelessly in love with Him – a people who will forsake all, give all and lose themselves in response to His love.
Unfortunately most of what church is today has been built around nothing more than "fire insurance". Sadly, evangelical Christianity's focus on salvation, seems to appreciate nothing else for why Jesus came except to save us from hell. Evangelical Christianity that makes correct doctrine its cornerstone has no idea of a Jesus who came to die and win back His bride for Himself.
Why did God create us in the first place? Why a man and a woman - a husband and wife, as the image of God? Why did God call Israel His wife? Why did God say that Israel had committed adultery against Him? Were these just strange inappropriate metaphors that crazy wild eyed prophets conjured up in their minds on their own, or could it be that they understood just how hurt and jealous God felt for us and how passionately He longs for us to return to Him?
Have you ever fallen in love before? When you fall in love, madly in love, you become crazy. You become beside yourself. All decorum is swept aside for a display of what is raging in the heart. I believe that this is the crazy love that God is looking for. Does the present day church understand this?
Make no mistake but it is quite possible that there can be people who are committed and zealous for God but not know Him personally : “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Rom.10:2. Paul himself knew this - when Jesus appeared to Paul the first time, he asked, ”Who are You Lord?” Acts 9:5.
What do christians today understand of being filled with the Spirit? Being filled with the Holy Spirit is usually understood only in terms of power and anointing; not intimacy with God. I dare say many Christians, have never experienced being filled with God’s love. What do we know of God's love? Suppose I were to say to you, “God loves you.” What would come to your mind? God’s provision of food and shelter for you? His giving you a good family? His protection over you daily? His dying on the cross for you, saving you from hell, and giving you eternal life? These are what most christians would think about when they think about God’s love for them. In the Bible however, God’s love for us is described not only in terms of how He cares for us and provides for us, and how He saves us and gives us eternal life, but also in romantic terms :
• As a bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. Isa.62:5
• I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you to Myself. Jer.31:3
• The Lord your God will take great delight in you. He will quiet you with His love. He will rejoice over you with singing. Zeph.3:17
Various pictures are given to us in the Bible of God’s relationship with us : Shepherd and sheep, Master and servant, Commander of the Army and soldiers, Vine and branches, Potter and clay, etc. but the final picture in Revelations is the Bridegroom and His Bride. That is really the ultimate relationship the Lord seeks of us. Right from the very beginning we were made in the image of God – male and female (not only male) : Gen.5:2. In our earthly human relationship with each other as males and females, we have a picture and understanding of the relationship that God seeks from us. All through the Old Testament, God spoke of Israel as his wife who had deserted Him and committed adultery with other lovers.
God desires a passionate relationship with us. God longs to be intimate with us and us with Him. Eternal life is described by Jesus not in terms of length of time, but as “knowing” (ginosko) God : Jn.17:3 That is the same Greek word used for how Adam knew Eve his wife, in the Septuagint.
Though the Ephesian church was zealous for Jesus and totally committed to Him, yet they had “left their first love” : Rev.2:1-7. Look at how Jesus described the church of Ephesus. Is there any church you know of today that comes close to the dedication, commitment and zeal of the Ephesian church as described by Jesus Himself? I was baffled, so one day I asked the Lord what He meant by “first love”. In reply, the Lord asked me, “How did you love your wife when you first fell in love with her?” Ha! I immediately understood. I remembered how I longed to be with her all the time, how I could not bear being apart from her, how I would be dying to see her again whenever we had to be separated even for a few hours, how hours with her would feel like just minutes, how I delighted in her, how I dreamt of her all the time with open eyes, how crazy I was about her .... Yes there was a time I loved Jesus this way. Do I still love Jesus this way today?
Jesus is not looking for Marthas, but for Marys : Lk.38-42. God does not just want commitment and a sense of duty from us. In the story Jesus told of the two sons, contrary to the popular way it is understood, I believe the main character of the story is not the prodigal son. Some say it is about the father and his love. Perhaps so, however I ask what the main point of the story is about and I find that it is more about the elder son because Jesus was trying to tell the Jews how they were so much like the elder son. It was tragic that the elder son served his father obediently, even slaved for him, but did not know his father’s heart : Lk.15:11-32.
In Jn.4:24, John says that God seeks worshippers. In Acts13:22, it says that God found David a man after His own heart. What was it about David that God could say that of him? David said, “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek : that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” Ps.27:4. Not 5 things, not 3 things, but 1 thing. In Ps.63:1 David said, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
I believe that God wants us to go to Him in prayer not just as a time to request and petition Him for things, but as a time to enjoy being with Him, expressing our love for Him. That is what God ultimately desires and wants to move us towards – knowing His love and loving Him in return, as a bride would be in love with her bridegroom. Just enraptured in love and delight in each other.
God will not be satisfied with anything less than all of our hearts :
Search for me with all your heart : Jer.29:13
Return to Me with all your heart : Joel 2:12
Trust in the Lord with all your heart : Pr.3:5-6
Love the Lord with all your heart : Mark 12:30
Jesus reminded the pharisees that life is not found in the knowledge of the Scriptures. Life is found in Jesus. Jesus told the Pharisees : “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Jn.5:39-40.
Someone said this : “The Word did not become a philosophy, theory or a concept to be discussed, debated or pondered. The Word became a person to be followed, enjoyed and loved.”
Like lovers in love, when this love rages on in our hearts, it will compel us to be fools for Christ. Paul spoke of even being mad : “If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ's love compels us .. “ 2 Cor.5:13-14. True ministry is an outflow of this love.
How can we have this love? Dare we ask God for it? When a woman marries a man, she surrenders herself completely to him. She henceforth no longer belongs to any other, not even herself but to him. No doubt the liberated women of today would be upset with this, but I believe that that is because there is so little real love these days. I dare say things would immediately change if someone who would die for his woman were to show up in her life. That of course is our Jesus. The question for us is this : Are we willing to be possessed by His love with all the consequences that follow – that we will lose ourselves and our lives to Him?
So much of teaching in church encourages people to love more, to pray more, to fast more, to evangelize more, study more of the Bible, give more, attend more of this, get involved in more of that, go on more mission trips, etc. but where do we find the impetus to do more of all these? I see many church workers especially flat out trying to keep up with more of everything. It is no wonder that for many people, if we were to ask them what their picture of God is, quite honestly they will tell you it is Someone sitting supreme on His throne demanding more holiness and more of everything from us.
How about a change of picture? I want to share with you the Jesus who loves you romantically, who even now longs for you to just be alone with Him and immerse yourself in His love.
Who was this woman? This woman is the true church, His bride, who loves Him like crazy, that Jesus is coming back for.
"While serving with Operation Mobilization in India in 1967, I spent several months in a T.B. sanitarium with tuberculosis. After finally being admitted into the sanitarium, I tried to give tracts to the patients, doctors and nurses, but no one would take them. You could tell that they weren't really happy with me, a rich American, (to them all Americans were rich) being in a government-free sanitarium. They didn't know that serving with O.M., I was just as broke as they were. I was quite discouraged with being sick, everyone angry at me, not being able to witness because of the language barrier, and no one even bothered to take a tract or Gospel of John.
The first few nights, I would wake around two a.m. coughing. One morning as I was going through my coughing spell, I noticed one of the older (and certainly sicker) patients across the aisle trying to get out of bed - He would sit upon the edge of the bed, try to stand but because of weakness would fall back into bed. I really didn't understand what was happening or what he was trying to do. He finally fell back into bed exhausted. I then heard him begin to cry softly.
The next morning I realized what the man was trying to do. He was simply trying to get up and walk to the bathroom! Because of his sickness and extreme weakness he was not able to do this and being so ill he simply went to toilet in the bed.
The next morning the stench in our ward was awful. Most of the other patients yelled insults at the man because of the smell. The nurses were extremely agitated and angry because they had to clean up the mess and moved him roughly from side to side to take care of the problem. One of the nurses in her anger even slapped him. The man, terribly embarrassed just curled up into a ball and wept.
The next night, also around two O'clock, I again woke coughing. I noticed the man across the aisle sit up to again try to make his way to the washroom. However, still being so weak he fell back whimpering as the night before. I'm just like most of you. I don't like bad smells. I didn't want to become involved, I was sick myself but before I realized what had happened, not knowing why I did it, I got out of my bed and went over to the old man. He was still crying and did not hear me approaching. As I reached down and touched his shoulder, his eyes opened with a fearful questioning look. I simply smiled, put my arm under his head and neck and my other arm under his legs, and picked him up.
Even though I was sick and weak, I was certainly stronger than he was. He was extremely light because of his old age and advanced T.B. I walked down the hall to the washroom, which was really just a smelly, filthy small room with a hole in the floor. I stood behind him with my arms under his arms, holding him so he could take care of himself. After he finished, I picked him up and carried him back to his bed. As I began to lay him down, with my head next to his, he kissed me on the cheek, smiled and said something which I suppose was thank you.
It was amazing what happened the next morning, one of the other patients who I didn't know woke me around four o'clock with a steaming cup of delicious Indian tea. He then made motions with his hands (he knew no English) indicating he wanted a tract. As the sun came up, some of the other patients began to approach, motioning that they would also like one of the booklets I had tried to distribute before. Throughout the day people came to me, asking for the Gospel booklets. This included the nurses, the hospital interns, the doctors, until everybody in the hospital had a tract, booklet or Gospel of John. Over the next several days, several indicated they trusted Christ as Saviour as a result of reading the Good News!
What did it take to reach these people with the Good News of salvation in Christ? It certainly wasn't health. It definitely wasn't the ability to speak or to give an intellectually moving discourse... Health, ability to communicate cross-culturally and sensitivity to other cultures and peoples are all very important, but what did God use to open their hearts to the Gospel? I simply took an old man to the bathroom. Anyone could have done that!"
This is what I would call living out or fleshing out the gospel. Whoever you are, Mr.OMer, thank you for loving that old man, and thank you for sharing it with us.
When it was first discovered that the earth is spherical in shape, not flat, it came as a complete shock to most people. They could not accept it. Their eyes told them otherwise. It took a long time for many people to embrace that. Some refused to accept it no matter what scientific evidence was presented to them. Even up till today, there are those who refuse to accept it. They formed a society called the “Flat Earth Society”.
Another example was when Jesus was crucified and resurrected. His disciples went through a paradigm shift. Their idea of their Messiah was that he would lead them to overcome the Roman empire and establish His rule on earth. They were totally devastated when Jesus did not defend himself but needlessly surrendered and died at the hands of Roman soldiers. They had to go through a paradigm shift. When Jesus came back to life, they went through yet another paradigm shift about their Messiah and his mission. Eventually after their experience of Pentecost they went through yet another paradigm shift of their own identity and mission.
Did you know that despite having been commissioned by Jesus to go to all the world, the apostles remained in Jerusalem even though everyone else had scattered and went around sharing the gospel? (see Acts8:1-4). So in Acts 9 Jesus starts work on Paul to send him instead. But in Acts 10 and 11, I see God knocking Peter on his head with an open vision followed immediately with the Cornelius household experience, giving Peter and the apostles one final chance. But despite the fact that they finally recognized that the gospel was not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, yet they still remained in Jerusalem for the next 20 years!
Why were they stuck in Jerusalem? Quite obviously it was because the old Jewish idea that Jerusalem was to be the center of worship was stick stuck in their minds. Paul goes on his first missionary journey (about 2 years) and returns, and they are still in Jerusalem. Paul goes on his second missionary journey (at least 3 years) and they are still stuck in Jerusalem!! Amazing! After Acts 12, except for the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, there is no further mention of the original apostles. From then on, it is about Paul taking the gospel to all the world. We know from history that the apostles were finally forced out of Jerusalem and scattered to different parts when the Romans ransacked Jerusalem in AD70.
God’s Purposes Advance through Paradigm Shifts
Paradigm shifts require a death to long held (even sacrosanct) ideas first, before we are ready to embrace new ideas that contradict our old long-held ideas. The Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ days refused to do that. Jesus said new wine cannot be put into old wineskins. You need new wineskins for new wine. It is not easy for people to give up long-held ideas. Jesus also said that those who have drunk the old wine don’t want the new. They will say the old is better.
Such is our human nature. We are naturally resistant to change. It is therefore not surprising that there are numerous examples of paradigm shifts in the Bible. Each key person that was instrumental in God’s agenda, had to go through radical paradigm shifts before God’s purposes could advance through him/her : Job, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Mary the mother of Jesus, Peter and all the disciples, Paul, etc.
It is very evident as history unfolds, that for God’s purposes to take place, each step, each advance, required a paradigm shift of His people. We may think we have already understood God’s ways and His plans and purposes, but guess what? They are always far bigger and greater than our narrow minds can comprehend.
I believe the church needs a paradigm shift in its understanding of the gospel that will lead us to a paradigm shift in our understanding of our role, of God’s mission for us, in this world. When that happens, it would definitely also lead us to a paradigm shift in the way we “do” church and missions. Everything begins with our understanding of the gospel. When that changes, then church, ministry and missions will also change. Are you ready for a paradigm shift? I would like to invite you to read my other posts "What is the Gospel?" and "What is Church?"
We are commanded to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute, to defend the rights of the poor and needy, the cause of the fatherless, and to plead the case of the widow (Prov.31:89, Isa.1:17) because God commands us to love them as He loves them. Deut.10:18-19. That is the purpose of this article. The purpose is not to criticize and judge but to inform and provoke us to urgent action. May we feel the heart of God as we ponder over this message and its implications.
Some thoughts expressed in this message are mine, some are borrowed from others who share a similar burden. Statistics have been drawn from various sources including from UN agencies, World Relief Corporation, David Barrett and Todd Johnson of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, World Evangelization Research Center, Caleb Project, etc.
This is an urgent message for the church today. What are the basic humanitarian needs in the world today? What concern is it of the church? Should it be of concern to the church?
Facts and Figures
Here are some statistics :
· 34,000 children die everyday of hunger and preventable diseases.
· More than 1 million children join the sex trade each year.
· 120 million street children in mega-cities.
· 349 million homeless/family-less children.
· 670 million children work to earn a living instead of being in school.
· 250,000 children will become permanently blinded this year for lack of a 10 cent vitamin A capsule or a daily handful of green vegetables.
· Millions of children are orphaned by war, civil strife, revolution and terrorism.
· 55 million refugees and internally displaced people (35 million who are children).
· 2.64 billion people do not have basic sanitation and safe drinking water.
· 1 billion “absolute poor and destitute” defined as those whose existence is characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease, and do not have access to basic health care, education and safe drinking water (230 million or 23% are Christians).
· 500 million are on the verge of starvation.
· 246 million child laborers.
· 10 million babies born malnourished per year.
· 3 billion (nearly half the world’s population) living below the World bank’s poverty line.
Christians / the Church in the World Today
Now let’s take a look at how Christians and the church have responded to the plight of the poor :
· Christians today have a total annual income of over US$17 trillion
· It would cost less than US$70 billion a year (0.004% of total annual income of Christians) to provide all people in developing and under developed countries with basic education, health care and clean water - the fundamentals to eradicate poverty.
· However, 96% of all money given by Christians stays in the local church
· 3% of all money given goes to work among those who are already evangelized
· Less than 1% of all money given goes to work among the 2.2 billion unreached in the world (who are also the poorest) – that works out to roughly 0.00001% of the total annual income of Christians
God’s Laws Concerning the Poor
There are numerous verses and passages in the Bible that tell us how God has a special concern for the poor. A simple word check in a good concordance on words such as “poor”, “needy” “widows” “orphans” “fatherless” “destitute” “alien” “stranger” “sojourner” “hungry” “naked” “weak” “afflicted” etc. will tell us a great deal about how God feels for the poor and needy. Take for example God’s institution of the tithe and how it is to be used. The collection of tithes was an Old Testament law that was instituted for a particular purpose. Although there are no commands in the New Testament for the collection of tithes, the church today has adopted the practice of collecting tithes based on the Old Testament. The church today challenges its congregations to tithe with Old Testament verses and passages. But the church largely seems to be ignoring the commands in the Old Testament as to the purpose of the tithe and how it is to be used.
In the Old Testament, the tithe was in the form of food; not monetary currency “so that there would be food in My house” Mal.3:10. Who was in God’s house that needed feeding? Deuteronomy 14 and 26 tells us that the tithe was to feed the Levites, the fatherless, the widows and the aliens. The aliens were people who were landless - displaced because of war or famine. Today we call them refugees. God identified with the Levites, fatherless, widows and aliens when He commanded the Israelites to set aside that “sacred portion” for them. He considered giving to them and feeding them as giving to Himself. In the New Testament, Jesus said the same thing, “In as much as you have done it for the least of these My brethren, you have done it for Me” Matt. 25:40. That is how God feels for the poor and needy.
How about us? When we keep 96% in the church and give less than 1% to the most needy; that is surely a horrifying reflection of what we, the church think and feel about the poor. When only 0.00001% of our total global annual income goes to work among the poor; is that not a terrible indictment on the state of our hearts?
Parable of the Good Samaritan : Luke 10:25-37
Whenever we read scripture, we must ask ourselves how it applies to us today – what God is saying to our present day situation.
The lawyer asked, ”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer Jesus acknowledged as correct was not the confession of sins and acceptance of Him as our savior. Rather, it was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That should challenge our traditional evangelical understanding of salvation!
The Samaritans in those days were people who were not accepted by the Jews as true children of Abraham. They were not considered as part of the chosen people of God because they inter-married with other races. In today’s church language we would say they were mixed up with the world; not true Christians.
What about the priest and Levite? Who would they be in today’s context?
Why did the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side? Could it be because they didn’t want to get defiled? It seems to me they didn’t want anything to interfere in their religious duties. They didn’t want their schedule upset or interrupted. They were too busy with their own agendas and businesses to take care of. It was inconvenient to care.
The awful truth is that we are not much different from them. Most of us care enough to do anything only if it is convenient for us to do so; not like the Samaritan who went out of his way to care. Many in our churches today express a desire to serve God, but come short of full surrender. The honest truth is that people want to serve God only upon their own terms. When we want to serve God only when it is convenient to us; when we determine how, when and to what extent we will serve God, do we not remain master of our lives? Are we not just being religious?
I have been asking that question in many churches : “Why did the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side?” The best answers came from a group of Sunday school kids from a slum. One little boy said, ”I know Uncle, its because the priest and Levite did not want to get dirty”. Another little girl said, “I know Uncle, they thought that someone else would help the man”. Perhaps they were speaking from their own experiences.
The lawyer’s concern is not much different from the average person’s concern – who’s job is it to take care of the man? Who is my neighbor? To what extent am I under obligation to help? Jesus however side-stepped the issue brought up by the lawyer. Jesus looked at the whole thing from a different paradigm. To Him what is really in issue is not who’s job and responsibility it is – that’s looking at things from a selfish and legalistic perspective. What really matters is - how is our heart towards those in need? Who was truly a neighbor to that man? Are we being neighbors to people in need? The paradigm is shifted : we need to look at it from the perspective of those in need; not from our’s. From the perspective of those in need, are we being neighbors to them?
It is true that the command to love our neighbor does not just apply to the poor but to everyone around us. However it is also pertinent to note that Jesus answered the question of who our neighbor is, with this parable, focusing on people in need. Clearly Jesus was making a point to the lawyer that “love” was not to be kept within our own families and communities but reaching out especially to people in need.
In our world today, in our churches today, how much are we concerned for the poor and needy? How much are we like the Samaritan who went out of his way to care? How much are we like the priest and Levite? How much does our heart go out to the poor and needy? Aren’t we too busy with “church” to care about the poor and needy? Or do we think that it is someone else’s responsibility; not ours – “someone else will go and help them” ?
When we keep 96% in the church and give less than 1% to the most needy; when only 0.00001% of our total global annual income goes to the poor; are we not passing by on the other side?
Whose Responsibility is it to Feed the Poor?
Before Jesus fed the 5000 in Mark 6, the disciples told Jesus that the people were hungry. Jesus replied, “You feed them”. If Jesus were standing right in front of us and we were to say to Him, “Lord, 35,000 people are dying of hunger each day”, I believe He would reply no different to us today. I don’t believe He would tell us to call the UN to go and feed them.
We need only to ask ourselves two questions, “Does God care?” and “Is He able?” If the answers to both are a resounding “Yes”, then the question to ourselves must be, ”Why aren’t we doing anything about it?”
Perhaps the truth is, we don’t even care enough to ask what the situation is and where the poor and hungry are. I have shared these statistics in many churches and Christian meetings. It has come as a surprise to many. How is it that in our churches, we never ask about the poor? Many have responded that in all their 10 or 20 years or more in church they have never looked at, discussed or considered the problem of poverty, whether in the world or in their own communities. This is true even in churches in poor nations like India and Indonesia. Could it be we are so caught up in ourselves and our programs and activities that we don’t care? Or could it be that our whole theology and understanding of what Christianity is, is terribly misconceived?
Not Seeing the Wood (Forest) for the Trees?
Often we can get so caught up in the details that we loose sight of the big picture. The Pharisees were so caught up with the tiny little details of the law and making sure that everyone kept strictly to it, but clearly they lost sight of the heart and soul of what the law was all about. They loved the law but not the God of the law or the people whom He loved. They were so blind that when Jesus was standing right in front of them they couldn’t recognize Him as the very God they professed to serve.
It is important always to ask what’s the big picture. For example if we were to ask what the book of James is all about, many of us would agree that it can be summarized in one sentence – true faith will result in action. One day the Lord asked me a question : “How would you summarize the whole Old Testament?” I thought about it a while, scanning through in my mind the whole of the Old Testament. What was the cry of the prophets in the OT against the kings and religious leaders? For what was Israel and Judah judged by God? It was for idolatry, for worshipping false gods and for ignoring the plight of the poor, for failing to defend the poor, for passing unjust laws that oppress the poor, for forcing the poor to work for nothing, for enslaving the poor, for taking land from the poor. I realized the whole of the OT can be summarized in 2 points : Worship God and God only and obey all His commandments; and love people, especially the poor and needy. In response, the Lord reminded me that that was why Jesus said the whole of the law hangs on just these 2 commandments ; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourselves.” Mark12:30.
How would we summarize 1 John? I believe it might go something like this – if we really love God, we would love people. True love for God will naturally and evidently be expressed in love for people. If we truly love God we will feel His heart for people, especially His love for the poor.
What is True Spirituality?
The focus of evangelical teaching has been on personal spirituality alone. Spirituality is rarely understood or expressed to include love and concern for others. Spirituality is understood only on the individual and personal level/context. Spirituality is individualistic – private daily devotions, understanding of spiritual things, praying in tongues, etc. Spirituality is hardly ever understood in the context of the needs of others in the world. Yet the greatest commandment includes both loving God and loving our neighbors. That surely must have something to say about what true spirituality is if not being the yardstick or measure of spirituality.
As Bryant Myers has pointed out, if the spiritual world is only an interior private place and the church has allowed itself to be relegated to this spiritual world, while the state and other human institutions assume responsibility for what happens in everyday life, and since the spiritual realm is confined to the inner invisible life, the gospel as we know it has little to do with the material condition of the poor nor can it provide adequate solutions for the present. Again, in our limited understanding, since the gospel’s focus is on eternity, there is no vision for a better present, instead the Christian hope waits for the return of the Lord when He will be the final equalizer, where He will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the poor.
Gospel of the Kingdom or Gospel of Salvation?
What is God’s intention for this world? Many Christians today believe Jesus is coming back again soon. That He is not concerned about this world and neither should we. It is perishing. We ought not to have anything to do with this world. We just need to wait for Jesus to return when He will establish a new heaven and a new earth. Meanwhile let’s stay close together in our holy huddles and make sure the world doesn’t get into the church. It is for this reason that I believe the church has ceased to be “salt and light”. To be “salt and light” I believe, is to be visible and relevant.
Suppose I were to ask you to close your eyes and I would give you a word, let’s say “table”, what would you see in your mind’s eye? Each of us would imagine different sizes, types and colors of tables. Now let’s try another word, “church” – what do you see? I think for many of us who are evangelical Christians, we would no longer see a building but people. We are very proud to say that in our understanding the church is not a building but people. But in what you saw in your mind’s eye, what were the people doing? Many, if not all of us would see the people in a meeting – either in a church service or Bible study or cell group whether in a church building or some other building or even on the beach, but still in a meeting. The understanding of church has shifted from being a building to a meeting of people. There is a meeting on Sunday we call a Sunday service, then there is a meeting on Wednesday we call the mid week prayer meeting or Bible study, then there is another meeting on Saturday we call the youth meeting and another one we call the children’s meeting and another one we call the women’s meeting, etc. But is that all what church is supposed to be? No wonder the world thinks we are irrelevant. And we are invisible too because we are usually still stuck inside some building or other.
Jesus however preached the Gospel of the Kingdom; not the Gospel of Salvation. What's the difference? According to the Salvation concept - this world is evil, this world is perishing; have nothing to do with it. Let's get people saved from this world and its systems. Let’s get people into our churches and keep them away from this bad, bad world. Soon Jesus will return and take us away to heaven. According to the Kingdom concept - Jesus came to redeem all things to Himself. God is concerned with every aspect of what’s happening in this world, in people’s lives. Christians should be penetrating into the world and affecting the world by their values. Christians should be taking the lead in business, education, entertainment, sports, engineering, science, technology, civil administration, government, social concerns, family, environment, etc. to model to the world Kingdom values. Jesus told us to occupy till He comes; not run and hide till He comes.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.” The focus of the gospel should therefore be this world; not heaven. Our role is not to try and get people to heaven, but to live out kingdom values and be God’s agent for His kingdom to come into every sphere of life. If we confine “ministry” to the “spiritual”, and therefore only “full time” ministry workers do the work of the ministry, we will never be able to fulfill God’s mandate in Matt.28 to disciple nations, because the rate at which we are raising up “full time” ministry workers is being far exceeded by the natural birth rate of nations by millions of times. Instead, if “ministry” is understood not only as preaching, teaching, prayer, Bible study, etc. but being agents of reconciliation and transformation in every aspect of life and bringing the whole counsel of God and of His rule to every work place and community, and the skills and natural talents of every Christian is seen as ministry and harnessed and released into the world, only then would we be discipling nations and allowing His kingdom to come through us.
In Jesus’ ministry, Jesus showed a special concern and love for the poor and needy. He said He was anointed to preach the good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to release the oppressed, to give sight to the blind. He touched lepers, healed the sick who had no money for medical treatment. He had a special interest for the crippled, the lame, children and prostitutes. He said when you give a banquet, don’t invite your friends, or your relatives or your rich neighbors; instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Luke 14:12-13. Not everything of what Jesus did was recorded in the Gospels : John 21:25. However in Acts10:38, Peter who had been with Jesus, said this of Jesus : “You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.”
Compassion or Pity?
The church needs to rethink its mission. Where the poor and needy are concerned, the way the church thinks and responds seems to be no different from the world. Darrow Miller has pointed out that150 yrs ago, in the English language, the word “compassion” meant “suffering alongside someone”. Now in the English dictionary, the word “compassion” has a modern meaning – it means “pity”. Compassion is measured by how much we give ourselves to the plight of the person in need. Pity is merely feeling sorry for someone without getting involved with their situation. When we feel pity, we give money to ease our conscience. We are motivated by guilt; not by compassion. Compassion is a feeling that makes the person want to help or show mercy. Pity looks and feels but stops there. Compassion looks, feels and then does something.
Someone said this : "It might well be that the greatest threat to human survival now confronting us is the loss of compassion. We are confronted daily with the pain of human tragedy to such an extent that we soon learn to turn off what we see. In order to cope with our feelings of helplessness, we teach ourselves how not to feel. The tragedy in this response which is probably more widespread than we dare to believe is that we also deaden our capacity for love.”
When we have compassion, we will seek to enter into the world of the person in need. In the Gospel record, Jesus had compassion for the poor; He had compassion for us. God did not just throw down some food from heaven, or send His prophets with a rescue plan. He Himself came in person to identify with our situation. He identified so much with our condition, He took on our sins on His own body and took our punishment. In today’s context, it would be going to jail for someone else. It would be going to be executed in someone else’s place. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” Just as He entered into our world, we are to enter into the world of those in need. It is to suffer alongside the poor, the helpless, the oppressed.
What is Missions?
St. Augustine is attributed to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”. What did he mean? I believe no matter what culture, background or educational level a person may be, one belief is universal throughout this world : action speaks louder than words. Missions and Gospel must be redefined to reflect more of the Biblical mandate – not only of preaching and teaching but the original mandate given to Abraham – that all nations will be blessed through him (now us, as children of Abraham). See Gal.3:8.
Eph.2:8-9 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.” The next verse says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should do.” (verse 10). The preceding verse cannot be read on its own. The thought in the preceding verse continues into the next verse and often gives light and meaning to the preceding verse. We are certainly not saved by good works, but what are we saved for? We are saved to do good works! “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” James 2:14 -16. “If anyone … sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3: 17-18.
Why do we confine Church planting to getting people into meetings? Should we not be concerned for the welfare of the community? In extending the blessings of Abraham, and in being concerned for what God is concerned, nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, etc should not be taken as just a means of reaching people with the Gospel. All these - nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, a means of livelihood, etc. are a part of the Gospel and ought to be part of our mission. Why? Because God cares and He has sent us to care.
I was training a group of pastors and church planters working in very poor areas. I asked them, “If a child in the community was seriously sick and needed emergency medical evacuation, won’t you immediately take him to the hospital?” They answered “yes” without hesitation. I asked, “Why? Are you sure that is part of your ministry as church planters?” They replied, “Yes of course, because we are to love and care for people.”
Then I asked, “So its part of your ministry to love people only after a problem develops, but it is not a part of your ministry to prevent or mitigate the problem from happening in the first place? You mean giving someone medicine is part of your ministry as church planters, but helping his parents with livelihood so that they can provide nutritious food to that kid and he wouldn’t be so susceptible to sickness is not part of your church planting ministry? And visiting someone in prison is part of ministry, but helping him with getting good income so he wouldn’t get into crime in the first place is not part of ministry?”
They gave me a perplexed look. They confessed they hadn’t thought about that. They said they had been taught in seminary not to get involved in social work but to concentrate on ministry. They confessed they had been having a fixed mindset/paradigm about church planting and ministry. Its amazing how the church has divorced church planting and ministry from life itself. Notice how Jesus kept talking about the kingdom; and not about church. Unfortunately, for most of Christendom, we have been focusing on church instead of the kingdom. It is no wonder we have more than 38,000 denominations in the world today!
Seek first the Kingdom of God
Besides a faulty theology, there is a second reason why we don’t respond to the needs of the world. We give to the needs of the poor and missions but all too often only after we have paid our mortgage, our insurance, our car, etc. When Jesus taught us not to worry about life, food, clothes, etc. His purpose was not to just comfort us when things are financially tight. Rather, we are told not to worry about these things so that instead we can give ourselves in the service of God. What hinders our love is a lack of faith. Lacking faith in God’s ability to provide and care for us, our priorities are upside down. Darrow Miller was right when he said we have bought in to secularism and a closed system where the belief is - for one man to gain another man must lose. So we conserve and preserve and hold on tight to what we have in case we lose it. Even when we do share we share only what we think we can afford, “in case there’s not enough for ourselves”. But that is a big mistake. In God’s economy, the one who gives gets more in return. We must understand that Biblical Theism calls us to live in an open system where God can intervene; not a closed system where all we have is all there is. Churches challenge their congregation to give and to live by faith, but are churches themselves afraid to give “in case there’s not enough for ourselves”? Otherwise why do the statistics tell us that 96% of all money given stays in the local church?
Timothy Chester says this - the New Testament has little to say on how and when we should evangelize. Instead it has much to say on how Christians should live their lives. 1 Pet.3:13-16 tells us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us for the hope that we have. Why would anyone ask us this? Only when they see how we live our lives not caring for worldly things but living for others. If we live for the present blessings it is not surprising that we are not asked to explain our hope. No wonder then that our evangelism is ineffective. While we lay up treasure on earth or while we make future security a priority, while we live like the rest of the world, people are not going to ask about our hope. Having become like everyone else, we have nothing to tell them because our lives do not provoke their questions. When that happens, our evangelism ceases to be based upon a lifestyle of trust and hope and becomes a technique.
Books abound telling us how to evangelize effectively, how to turn conversations around to Christ. We are answering questions that people are not asking! When Christ is Lord of all our lives, when we are living radically for the kingdom, no conversation will need to be turned around.
I end this message with a plea that we hear the cry of the poor and needy. More than that, may we hear the cry on the heart of God.
PS. Please feel free to circulate this article. I also welcome your feed-back. I once shared this message (condensed form) in a church. As soon as I finished, an elderly man asked, “I have been an elder of the church for more than 38 years of my life and I’ve heard thousands of sermons and teaching, but I’ve never heard anything about poverty or what you just shared. Why is that?” Why do you think that is so?