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?
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Spirituality – Individual and Private?
I was a typical evangelical. I was also a typical charismatic, which in some ways made me have an even more lop-sided view of spirituality. Reflecting on my own theology, I have come to realize that spirituality among evangelicals and especially among charismatics 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 I did not reflect on this until much later that the greatest commandment includes both loving God and loving our neighbors and that surely must have something to say about what true spirituality is, if not being the yardstick or measure of spirituality.
Spiritual v. Non-Spiritual?
I think as evangelicals we commonly view the spiritual world as an interior private place and the spiritual realm as confined to the inner invisible life. Somehow we focus only on this spiritual world, while we leave the state and other human institutions to assume responsibility for what happens in everyday life. Our understanding of the gospel has its focus on eternity and has little to do with politics, economics and social issues of the world around us. From this viewpoint it does not appear to provide answers for the present. It is no wonder that the world thinks we are inadequate and irrelevant. I think we have failed to be salt and light in our communities largely because of our lop-sided theology differentiating between what is “spiritual” and what is “non-spiritual” and focusing only on what we consider as “spiritual”.
Since my first time in Bangladesh, I have through the years re-read the Bible with a new perspective. I do not see the Bible having this differentiation. I have been very much challenged by the words of St. Augustine : “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”. I believe no matter what culture, background or educational level a person may have, 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 through us, as children of Abraham) : Gal.3:8
Heaven or Earth?
When we think of the Gospel, we usually think of the Gospel as the message that people need to believe in to get into heaven. So for most Christians, the focus of the Gospel is heaven. And we preach the gospel to try and get more people into heaven. One day however, it hit me that we have got it wrong. In the “Lord’s Prayer” we are taught to pray “Let Your kingdom come and let Your will be done on earth as in heaven”. That tells me that the focus of the Gospel should be earth, not heaven. God wants His kingdom in all its fullness to come to earth. Salvation, as essential as that is, is but a part of that kingdom. God is not only concerned for each person’s eternal future but also his life and his relationships on earth. His kingdom begins here and now. He wants His kingdom to rule both in the hearts of individuals as well as in every family, community, workplace and nation. That necessarily encompasses the physical, mental, emotional and social; not just the spiritual.
Made in the Image of God
Jesus said that the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost. Well, what exactly was lost? Most Christians think only in terms of lost souls that need to be saved. Actually, there is so much more that was lost that Jesus came to restore. To really understand the gospel, we need to go back to Genesis and ask why God created us in the first place. Genesis tells us that God created us in His image. That tells me that it is in looking at Him that we find our purpose.
When we think of God, we usually think of God as one. We also think of God as a Trinity, but when we think of that, we usually think of it only doctrinally. I did not realize this but one day it came to me “out of the blues” that God : Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a community. So what does it mean to be made in the image of God? I believe that God intended us not to be individuals but to be community. We were made to be community - to share and to love. That’s why loving our neighbors as ourselves is part of the greatest commandment, and that has to permeate everything we do as ministry.
Intercession – the Heart of Crisis Relief
When I first started doing crisis relief, I understood it more as a strategy to bring the gospel to unreached peoples. At the first crisis relief training I attended, I learnt that crisis opens doors of opportunity where we can be salt and light and through that we can share the message of the gospel. That was the emphasis. No doubt that is true and that is one of God's strategies for the end times. Most crises happen among the most unreached (who are also the poorest).
However, when I actually began to work among the poor, God spoke to my heart and I began to realize that crisis relief is not only a good strategy from the Lord, but what was more important - crisis relief is about His love for the poor and broken peoples of the world. I began to realize also that crisis relief is actually intercession - God using us to intervene into a community to bring His love into the lives of people. We are there not just to bring a message of love but to actually come alongside the poor and help them rebuild their lives. The Lord began to speak to me and questioned some very fundamental things that I thought I had already understood very well. He asked me what the gospel is. I began to realize that the gospel is His love for the nations and His desire for the nations to be reconciled to Him expressed by 3 Ws : Word , Wonders and Works.
What is the Gospel?
From my observations, most of the evangelical world understands the gospel only in terms of it being Word (message of good news) - the first W : Christians try to tell people that God loves them and they need to be saved. Then came the pentecostal and charismatic move of the Holy Spirit. Christians began to realize that the gospel is not only good news but also signs and wonders. This is the second W. Christians wanted not only to tell people, they wanted to demonstrate the reality of God through the power of signs and wonders. The message was not only a God in heaven but also a God actively operating on earth who wants to set you free right now. The gospel is not only about future salvation in heaven but present salvation on earth too. Not only do you need to be saved, you need to be set free from demonic power and sicknesses etc. Inner healing also came on the scene - God wants to set you free from mental and emotional bondage too.
It appears that much of the church is still on the first W. Many have included the second W into their theology and understanding of the gospel, with some practice of it (only some). Many think that's all there is to the gospel. We think that we have the full gospel now. We call ourselves "Full Gospel” this and “Full Gospel” that. I thought so too. I discovered I was wrong.
I believe God began to show me that there is a third part of the gospel that the evangelical church at large has yet to realize - and for many years I did not realize it. This is represented by the third W : good works. Not just a message of love or the power of God to set you free. The gospel is also the love of God in action. In fact the heart of the gospel is love. Because God loves us, He doesn’t want us to be separated from Him. Because God loves us, He sent His Son. Because God loves us, He does not want us to continue in bondage and His power to set us free is a demonstration of His love for us. And because God loves us, He is concerned for our well being.
God created us to be spirit, soul and body. He is concerned for our whole being. Installing a well for a poor community or starting a health clinic or school in a poor community is not just a good strategy or means to enable us to share the gospel with the people. The installation of the well and the operating of the health clinic and school by themselves, motivated by God’s love, are already part of the Gospel.
Good Works – Good Strategy?
I think many Christians agree that helping people is good. No one disagrees with that. But not many understand that as part of the gospel. I believe God wants us to love people practically; not just talk about His love and not use good works only as a strategy.
When we see good works only as a strategy, then it will be only that way - just a strategy, and people will feel it. They will feel that all we want is to convert them. Can you imagine how you would feel if people of another faith did that to us just to try to win us over to their faith? Surely we would question how genuine their love is. But if we really understand that good works is in itself a part of the gospel as much as the message of John 3:16 is a part of the gospel and as much as God's power to set free is a part of the gospel, then the kingdom of God will come into a community. All 3 are necessary. Otherwise we are not bringing the full gospel to people.
What is Church?
Once our understanding of the gospel changes, then our ourstanding of why we exist as a church will necessarily also change. God has given me the privilege to travel and meet the church in many different nations and cultures. It has been a delight to meet brothers and sisters of various cultures all over the world. Sadly however, from my observations, most churches are introverted and withdrawn from the community around them. There are very few churches that are truly mission-minded. Most churches are still locked into a self-focused and self absorbed mentality. However, even for churches who are very mission minded, most talk of church planting only in terms of the first and second W. Church planting is centered in meetings. Any kind of community projects is seen only as incidental and as a strategy. When I talk of community projects, immediately most churches will think that it costs too much money and too much time and effort, and the time should better be spent doing "outreach, preaching and teaching".
Most churches do not see that good, clean and safe drinking water, and children learning Maths and English, and the creation of work opportunities so that parents can work to earn good profits so that they can feed their children well and not be enslaved to money lenders - that all these are also a very essential part of church. The amazing thing is, we believe all this is absolutely necessary for ourselves and our own children, but not for the people we are trying to reach. Why is that?
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 it is 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 that they had been having a fixed mindset/paradigm about church planting and ministry. It is amazing how the church has divorced church planting and ministry from life itself.
Actually, I don't like the term "church planting". The term implies something we do to create or bring about a certain grouping, fellowship and meeting of believers in a geographical location. I understand the need for church, but church as I understand it, from how it began in the book of Acts, is a sharing of lives, not a project. God Himself came and shared His life with us. He showed the extent of His love for us and died on the cross for us. Then on the day of Pentecost, which some say is the birth of the church, He poured out His Spirit, His life, upon us. Just as God shares His life with us, church is meant to be a community, a sharing of lives.
We meet, we talk, we share our thoughts, we go on to share our hearts, we make friends. That is how friendship comes about. We do not go about on a project with a target to make 10 friends by the end of this month, do we? If we did that, would that not be rather artificial and "plastic"? In the same way, church as it was meant to be, comes about through a sharing of lives. Church must not be confined to just preaching and teaching and meetings. In sharing of lives we would be concerned for the welfare of the community. In extending the blessings of Abraham, and in being concerned for what God is concerned, we would be concerned for their whole person which ultimately involves restoring their image of themselves as children of God and to recover their vocation as productive stewards of God’s creation. That involves restoring the ability to stand on their own feet and have the dignity of true children of God.
This is so important that we need to remind ourselves and emphasize it repeatedly. In our efforts to “win over the lost” we must not take nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, etc as just a means of reaching people with the Gospel. All these - nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, a means of livelihood, etc. are part of the Gospel and ought to be part of our mission. God cares and He has sent us to care irrespective of whether people respond to our message. Of course ultimately we desire that people be reconciled to God and that their eternal future be secured, but love must be unconditional. We should do our part in loving unconditionally and leave to God the results. People know when they are just the “targets” of an evangelistic project or if they are really being loved.
Church or Kingdom?
Here’s another thing that for many years that I did not realize, although I was a leader in church and in full time ministry. It struck me only much later that Jesus talked about church only twice, and He never even explained what He meant by “church”. All the time He kept talking about the kingdom of God. But we keep talking about church.
Imagine if you were Jesus and you were about to leave your apostles and go back to heaven. They are going to be the pioneers of a new worldwide movement called “church”. Won’t you prepare your apostles how to run church? Yet it is really amazing that Jesus never gave a seminar or training to His apostles what church is or should be or how church should be run. Could it be that we have really got it wrong and focused on the wrong thing – “church” instead of “God’s kingdom”? Isn’t it because we keep focusing on church rather than God’s kingdom, that there are now more than 38,000 denominations in the world?
Alongside the spiritual v. non-spiritual trap, this is another reason why the church has failed to be salt and light. We have retreated from the world because we have been focusing on “Church” rather than on the “Kingdom”. Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom, whereas the church has been preaching the Gospel of Salvation. What’s the difference?
From the Salvation perspective - 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.
From the Kingdom perspective however, 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 influencing 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.
On re-reading my Bible, I find that “church” is just the Body of Christ or the people of God. God did not intend the church to be an institution, organization or structure to do evangelism or missions or ministry. The command to disciple nations and to love and serve is to the church as the people of God, not to the church as an institution or organization or structure. But because we think of the church as the institution or organ to do ministry, that is why in an average church less than 10% of its members are engaged in ministry. 90% are just spectators, leaving it to the “full-time” people or their leaders to do that.
How did we become the way we are now? I think it has a lot to do with church history. It all began with how the pagan emperor Constantine became a Christian in order to solidify his political power and as part of his strategy he institutionalized the church. How sad that up till today, we continue to follow that unbiblical model or structure.
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. Our role would not be 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.
Entering Into Their World
One day I reflected on how God came as a man to dwell among us. The Word became flesh. 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. Jesus identified especially with the poor, with those who were the outcasts and rejects of society and He 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. Jesus emptied Himself and became a servant. We are called to the same thing – to serve, to be a servant, not to show them the way things ought to be done or to tell them what to do. It is not to be “big brother” to them or to go to them with a “savior mentality”.
When we understand this, then we will realize that the gospel is not just a philosophy, or a concept or a message that can be objectively stated and that we convey through verbal, written or some other kind of communication. The gospel is not just about Jesus; the gospel is Jesus - the Word made flesh. In the same way, the gospel cannot be a message that is separate from who we are. The gospel has to be "fleshed out". It is a living message. We have to be the gospel. We have to be the living Bible, read by all who we seek to share our faith and our lives.
May His Spirit so live in us and so move us to be good news for all we seek to share Jesus with. May they feel from our hearts and see on our faces something of His beauty and love.
"One day while asleep, I had an unusual dream. Maybe it was a vision? I found myself suddenly before God in heaven. How did I know it was God? I couldn’t see His face, but it was like looking straight at the sun. So very bright. Only, it wasn’t a burning feeling. Only a sense of great love and a power I didn’t understand.
I fell to my knees and began to apologize for myself. In fact, I didn’t quite know what to apologize for, but I figured that if this really was God, it would be a really smart thing to begin our conversation with my apologies.
“Oh God, I’m sorry that I have not prayed enough,” I said weakly.
“Well, that’s very important, but that’s not the most important thing,” He said in return in a very deep, rich voice.
“Then, well....yes, I’m so sorry that I eat too much. You know I can’t help myself sometimes. I know I should be fasting more, but I can’t seem to do it,” I apologized.
“Well, that’s very important, but that’s not the most important thing,” He said.
I began apologizing for everything I could think of. What else could I have done wrong? Maybe I didn’t give enough money to the poor? Maybe I didn’t have enough faith? Then a thought came to me.
“Oh God, I know now. I haven’t been very nice to my wife. I know I should love her better. That must be it!”
“Oh, that’s very, very important, but that’s not the most important thing,” He said once again.
“Oh God, oh God, what do you want from me anyway?” I asked, whining like a little spoiled child. He was really frustrating me! I just couldn’t figure Him out. What did He want from me anyway?
“When you appear before me the final time, I will only have one question to ask you......”
(Now to this day, I still don’t know exactly what “the final time” means).
“When you appear before me the final time, I will only have one question to ask of you......
DID YOU LEARN TO RECEIVE MY LOVE?
Then He said, “Now, go tell this to the world!”
With that, He waved His big, big hand and sent me
flying through the air.....
(like an astronaut flying through outer space)
and I landed back on my bed
with a thud!
I turned to my wife. “Honey, guess what happened? I just went to heaven,” I said loudly.
“Tell me tomorrow morning,” she replied, rolling over and going back to sleep.
Please write this down, and remember that phrase, “Did you learn to receive My love?” for I’m convinced that one day, you too will be asked that question about God’s great love for you."
- Joe Ozawa
There was a time in my life when I was in a quandry. I was desperately seeking the Lord to know what He wanted me to do. I was out of a job, I did not have any income and I did not have any savings. I had a wife and three children to feed. I could not get employed as I was already quite senior in my years as a practising lawyer. I was so much more senior than many of my colleagues who ran their own law firms. Of course I could enter into a partnership with some friends and draw a good salary and share business profits with them. Several of my friends were inviting me to do that, but that would also necessarily involve commitment to a long term business partnership. I could not bring myself to give my commitment to that because my heart was not in it and it wouldn’t be fair nor exactly honest to give my commitment to people when I had no intentions of staying in partnership with them long term.
Actually at that point, career, was really far away from my mind because God had laid a tremendous burden on my heart for missions to the poor and unreached peoples. I wanted very much to serve the Lord. However, because of several things that happened, I was also going through a lot of misunderstanding, being falsely accused by the church of some things, the result of which I could not work in any churches nor would any Christian organization take me into their employment. I wanted very much to be on the mission field but neither would any mission agency take me under their wings.
When I asked God what he wanted me to do, I expected Him to tell me exactly what to do, where to go, who to see, what arrangements to make, etc.. and how I am to feed my family and have a decent roof over our heads. Before He revealed to me anything more, He showed me that the underlying basic and fundamental thing I had to learn is faith. When questioned by His disciples, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”, Jesus answered, “The work of God is this : to believe in the One He has sent.”Jn.6:29. Yep, just simply this - to believe in Him.
My wife and I went through many struggles to learn to trust God. We were literally living from day to day, not knowing how we were going to have our next meal. Through a long and difficult time, we saw the faithfulness of God each day providing for us miraculously. We had no list of supporters. We had no newsletter or prayer letter. We did not have anyone or any organization providing us regular support. One thing was clear to us – we were not to let anyone know our needs, but to depend on the Lord alone. We were to rest assured that so long as the Lord knew, that would be sufficient. This meant that each time the Lord provided it was truly a miracle. This continued for several years. Yet God never failed to provide. Not only that, the Lord began sending me out to many poor nations, similarly miraculously providing for the air fare and cost of each trip every time.
Over a period of time we learnt what faith means. I would like to share here some of the things we learned. (Note – God leads each of us in different ways; how God led us may not be how He is leading you, but fundamentally He requires faith from each of us)
Some Things We Learnt
So what is faith? When asked, most Christians will quote from Heb.11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. This verse however does not tell us what faith is. It only tells us how faith operates. To understand first what faith is, we need to look at the meaning of the word as used in the Bible. The word “faith” is “pistis” in Greek in the NT. It means trusting, resting or leaning upon, being fully persuaded, even abandoning your entire weight upon…what you believe. ‘Believe’ in Greek in the NT is “pisteuo”. It is the verb for “pistis”. To have faith in God or to believe God is to trust, to rest or lean upon, to be fully persuaded, to abandon yourself, your entire weight upon… God.
When we first ran out of money (with a wife and 3 kids), this is what the Lord said to me, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. For the bread of life is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”Jn.6:35, 33. This is how God was speaking to me - All life comes from God. God is the one who gives life. If I understand that, then I need never ask myself how we would be able to live with no salary and no employment. As you know it has been more than 12 years now and we have never been late in our rent, never missed a meal, never had to ask or tell anyone we needed anything and never owed anyone any money. Not only that, to God’s glory, we have been able to bless more people now than when we had a salary!
God may lead you in different ways, but the fundamental thing is this - we need to believe Him. This requires a paradigm shift in our thinking. There is more to life than just working for our living. We need to rise above that. We need to rise even above the thought of serving God and earning a living at the same time. All I want to do is to serve God - that is all that matters. That is all He created me for. He’ll take care of the rest. Whether I earn a salary or a living or not makes no difference. He did not create me to earn a living. He created me to serve Him. If I take care of His business, He’ll take care of how I’m going to get my daily needs.
I believe that is what Matt.6:33 means : “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” You may not be called to live like we do; but in essence it is no different. Though you may earn a salary or operate a business, that is only incidental. The primary thing is we are all created by Him and for Him and His purpose. God can give you regular business or no business at all for weeks and then all of a sudden without you working for it at all he can send a whole lot of business at one go. Or nothing at all, but you’ll still get the money or food somehow. He is the source. He is the prime mover. We need to believe that.
Three Basic Essentials
When I first began to launch out living by faith, God taught me some things which I discovered later that Selwyn Hughes had in his counseling seminars, put it across so clearly, with 3 words - security, self-worth and significance :
God created us to have 3 basic needs :
1. the need for security or unconditional love
2. the need for a sense of self-worth or identity
3. the need for significance or purpose and direction in life
These needs are even more fundamental than the physical need for food and shelter. It goes into the very reason for our existence. Without this, people have no reason to go on living.
The interesting thing is that having these needs does not reveal a weakness. Instead, God designed us to have these needs and designed it so that these needs can only be met in God Himself. Not in anything or anyone other than God Himself. Whether people are aware of it or not, they try to satisfy these needs with things or a career or a profession or they look to people to give them love or acceptance or to give them their sense of identity and purpose. We men especially see our career or profession as the security for our lives, where we look to for a living, where we gain acceptance, recognition, find our identity in and it determines the purpose and direction of our lives. This of course is a false belief which sooner or later will be discovered to be lacking, frustrating or at any rate unsatisfactory.
How Will I Live? Who Am I? Where Am I Going?
I wonder if God has somehow been doing something in your life to shake your belief in yourself and He is addressing the question of your existence, identity and purpose. How am I going to live? What am I good for? Who am I? Where am I going? I have observed that very often, when people become Christians, their religious belief changes. But nothing else in their belief system about themselves and what they are doing changes. That remains unconverted. God however will not allow that to go on very long. If we take Him seriously, sooner or later He will bring these things to our attention. He wants to get to the core of our being to have a real change of heart. He wants us to know Him as our security, get from Him our identity and sense of self-worth, and for Him to determine for us our purpose and direction in life.
Whether I have a job or income or not, makes no difference. Even with a job and income, God is to be my security; not the job or the income. He wants me to know I am precious to Him; that He loves me unconditionally. I don’t have to earn His love. He wants me to know who I am in His creation, what He has designed me to be and how much He values me. I don’t have to prove myself or try to be someone I am not meant to be. He wants me to know the purpose for which He created me and it is in walking in that purpose that I will be fulfilled.
Self, in place of God
God designed us to have these 3 basic needs met by God alone; not by anything or anyone else. People however do not realise this and try to have these needs satisfied by things or people. Instead of focusing on God and receiving His love and loving others in return, man has become self-centered. All our energies are channeled to preserve and protect ourselves and serve our own interests. Instead of looking to God for love and acceptance and an understanding of who we are, a sense of our identity and value and getting from God purpose, meaning and direction, we have become independent of God and we are trying by self-effort to make our lives work. This really is the whole problem of man. Self-suffiency, self-determination, self-justification, self-effort, self-love, self-centeredness, etc. describe man's condition.
Satan's lie to Adam was that he could be a more fulfilled person by being independent of God. Ever since then, everyone has operated on the same belief. We don't want anyone to control our lives; not even God. We fear losing control of our lives. Satan told Adam, "You can be like God; you can be in control." Man has become his own god. What we don't realise is that we were never meant to function like this. God told Adam that if he became independent, he would die. The more we want to be independent, the more we are getting away from God's design and destroying ourselves. It is going back to God’s original design for us.
Faith is Resting in God’s Love
Through the struggles we went through, I came to realize, that faith, is returning to God and depending on Him and finding in Him the security, love and acceptance and approval we need. Faith is returning to the relationship that God originally intended for us - of total dependence upon Him, constantly drawing life from Him. Prov.3:5-6, Jn.5:26, Jn.15. It is going back to God’s original design for us. Faith is also knowing from God the unique and special person He has created each one of us to be. We have a true understanding of our identity and worth from God Himself. Faith is also receiving from God direction and understanding of the destiny He has planned and purposed for us based on how He has designed us.
When I know God loves me and I rest in His love, then :
• I am not fearful of my future
• I don't have to strive to make things work in my favor
• I know He will provide for all my needs and I don't have to strive to make sure my needs are met
• It is not important how others see me; whether others love or accept me; and it doesn't matter whether others misunderstand me or reject me. I know I am loved, accepted and valued by God
• I will not fall into the performance trap. God values me for who He has created me to be, not in how well I perform
• I will have meaning, direction and purpose in life
• I will be able to relate openly, genuinely, warmly and lovingly with others
• I will serve God to my utmost, not to prove to myself or anyone or even to God what I can do, nor to gain anything, but simply out of my love for Him as I share His heart and His concerns
“We love because He first loved us” – John, 1 Jn.4:19
“For the love of Christ compels me.” – Paul, 2Cor.5:14
When God is my security and when I know that God loves me unconditionally, then I need not fear anything. I don’t have to strive to survive. I don’t have to do or be anything to earn His love. I don’t have to strive to gain His acceptance and understanding. I just need to trust Him, rest in Him, and He will take care of me and all whom I love. I and my family are safe and secure in His hands. Knowing the Father’s love is everything. That’s the first and most fundamental thing God wants us to know deep in our hearts. We are to rest in His love.
Next, when I know God regards me as precious to Him, I have my sense of self-worth and identity. I am His son, His bond-servant. I belong to Him. That’s the greatest thing there can ever be. I know who I am. I don’t need the recognition of men to tell me who I am. As I press on to know Him and His calling on my life, I will understand more and more the position and function I occupy in His body. It is God who tells me who I am, what I was created to be. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, not even to my own self, to know my identity or my own worth.
Last of all, when I know God has uniquely designed and purposed me before the foundation of the world to not only be a part of His creation but also to be actively involved in the continuous creativity of God, then I have purpose and direction. It is God who will not only direct me specifically but also show me how He has purposed me to make a significant impact upon this world, to be part of His on-going work to bring about His eternal plan and purposes. This is what gives me my purpose and direction in life. I don’t have to figure out on my own what I’ll do or where I am going to end up. When I understand this then I know I was created for a purpose; I am not just an insignificant nobody who happens to be living in this time period in the history of the world. I am here to make history - to be a significant part of His story.
We must turn our lives over to Him. A.W. Tozer said, “Faith is resting upon the character of God.” God can be trusted. If we don’t trust Him, who shall we trust? As Peter said, “To whom shall we go to; You have the words of eternal life.”
As we were looking around for a place to sit, I happened to look out at the island with the building on it and I was shocked to see that massive black clouds were gathering very rapidly over the island. It happened so quickly. All of a sudden it was like the whole black sky came crashing down, like the wrath of God fell on that island with a thunderous roar. It was so thick that you could not see the building on the island anymore. Everyone was looking at the phenomenon in utter shock. Then the darkness cleared and to everyone’s amazement, we saw the building toppling and crashing into the sea with a deafening sound.
While everyone stood frozen and horrified, somehow I knew that the building we were in was also going to come crashing down any moment. Somehow I knew that the building that fell was like the epicenter of an earthquake that sent shock waves out and it would bring everything down. But it was like no one else knew it. I yelled to everybody to get out of the building we were in, but no one listened.
I yelled to my wife but she was busy looking for the shopping bags. Somehow she had put them somewhere and couldn’t find them. She asked me, “Where are the bags?” I replied, “I don’t know. You were carrying them. Forget the bags! We have to get out NOW, RIGHT NOW!” She ignored me and kept looking for the bags. In desperation with one arm I hung on to the baby and with the other I yanked her away and we ran out of the building. Even though I kept yelling “Get out! Get out!”, no one else followed. The ground started shaking violently and just as we got out of the building, the whole building we were in came crashing down with possibly thousands of people in it. It was frightening. Then we were running down a street and all the buildings around us were crashing down like a Hollywood doomsday movie. It was absolute chaos, like the end of the world. People on the streets were fleeing in all directions in absolute terror as buildings after buildings fell.
All of a sudden the scene changed and it was like many people were following me as we were running and we came to a flight of steps going down a grass slope. I don’t know where we were running to but I was still carrying the baby. Just as we were about to run down the stairs it was like I somehow just knew that the stairs would collapse under us if we did that, so I yelled to everyone, “Don’t run down the stairs. It will also collapse. Follow me.” I ran to the side and ran down the grass slope. Many followed me, but many did not and ran down the stairs. Just then, the stairs collapsed just as I said it would. Then I woke up with my heart pounding at 100 miles an hour. The dream was so vivid I was trembling and it took me a while to calm down.
I knew this was no ordinary dream. I knew God was showing me something. And I had such a keen sense of the presence of God. The first thing I did I woke my wife up and told her the dream. We talked about the end times and wondered if God was telling us that we were going to have another baby, and what it would be like to bring kids up in the end times. We had decided not to have any more kids. We already had three. So is God going to give us another baby in such awful times? I couldn’t understand the dream. I kept thinking about the baby.
Later in the afternoon, I was stuck in a traffic jam. The A/C in my car wasn’t working well. It was hot and I was almost nodding off to sleep. I wasn’t even praying or thinking about the dream, when all of a sudden, in a flash, God spoke to me very clearly :
"Don’t you understand? The baby is not a real baby. It’s symbolic. It represents what is really precious. Just as the shopping bags are symbolic also. They represent what is costly but not precious. The buildings are also symbolic. They represent all the structures and institutions that man has built, and all the pride of man. They are all going to come crashing down. Go and tell them that everything that I have not built will collapse and it will come very suddenly. And tell them this – they had better know how to distinguish between what is really precious (the baby) and what is costly but not precious (the shopping bags). Unless they can distinguish between the two, they are all going be caught up in it (like my wife searching for the bags) and perish in the collapse of everything. Remember the stairs? That is also symbolic. It represents what is man-made. Far better to trust what I created (the grass slope) than trust what is man-made (the stairs). Go and tell them …"