How can you answer troubling questions about God that have no easy answers? How can you talk about God’s love to traumatized people in a war zone, when God seems so distant and disengaged from their suffering? During my weekly Bible study that I conduct for a group of 20-30 doctors (pictured below) in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I’m often asked, “What should we say to our patients, whose family, friends, or neighbors have been driven from their homes or brutally murdered?” In Eastern Congo, some six million people have died due to violence, starvation, and disease over the past 25 years. Their nightmare has raised earnest questions about God that are difficult to answer, such as, “Does God care?” and “Why didn’t God protect us?”
Meanwhile, in Europe, Russian troops are wreaking havoc across Ukraine, thousands are being injured or killed, and over three million people have been forced to flee the country in a matter of a few weeks so far. In Asia, as you well know, the crisis in Myanmar continues unabated and the suffering keeps multiplying. Everywhere there is great suffering from injustice and violence, the same kinds of questions keep arising among Christians. Even my Burmeses theological students want to know, “Are we suffering because God is punishing us?” “Is God ignoring us?” “Should we expect any help from God?”
In my role as seminary professor and Bible teacher in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia over the past 15 years, I’ve been asked these kinds of questions repeatedly by people who are being traumatized by genocide, war, or oppression. However, rather than try to make up answers to unanswerable questions or offer up false hope, it’s been far more helpful to admit the limitations of human understanding about God and to focus practically and realistically on how we know that God works in the midst of great evil.
As I have struggled with my own understanding of what to expect from God, I have longed ceased to put my hope in God’s sudden appearance out of nowhere to save the people. I’d be delighted for any miraculous intervention God may choose to make, and I pray for God’s help and deliverance daily. But most of my hope rests on how God works in, among, and through those who know, love, and serve Jesus Christ.
I have never had a vision of Jesus, but I see Jesus in his body of believers all the time—in their compassionate acts of kindness, self-sacrificial service, hospitality, and generosity. They are riddled with all sorts of imperfections and failings, yet they treasure their relationship with God. They keep drawing from the well of God’s love and grace for light and life in the midst of their darkness. They love Jesus, and they genuinely want to share Jesus’ love with others. And do so, sometimes even at great personal cost.
It’s been inspiring to me to see the outpouring of support for those who are suffering in all the places where I serve— including, Ukraine, Myanmar, and the Congo—both from faithful followers of Christ within the countries and from a wide variety of caring people internationally. This is surely part of God’s plan to minister to those who call upon the name of the Lord in their distress.
There are no easy answers to the cries and confusion of people in a war zone. Nevertheless, when we, as the body of Christ, fulfill our purpose to be the heart, voice, hands, and feet of Jesus, the world will know that there is a God who cares. The power, presence, and love of God will be evident for others to experience through us. And we who serve in Jesus’ name will be less overwhelmed by the evil all around us, because our eyes will be focused more on what we can do and less on what we can’t; on what God is doing through us, and not on just on what we hope and pray that God will do for us.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
It’s such a disturbing and frightening time in so many other places around the world right now. The past weeks have been especially terrifying for the Burmese people in Myanmar. More brutality. More death. More uncertainty. More and more displaced people are on the run, fleeing for their lives. The spiritual question on the minds of many is, what is the relevance of faith and one’s relationship with God in the face of such horrors and challenges? What is the role of prayer when we all we are experiencing is oppression, deprivation, and suffering?
This week, in the chapter I’m reading from my book, “What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times,” I share some biblical answers to these extremely important questions. In it, I talk about how the Apostle Paul encouraged other followers of Christ who were facing great suffering, deprivation, and even death in their day. His teaching is both reassuring and practical for all those who looking for more strength, courage, and confidence to sustain them throughout their long dark night, whenever and wherever it comes.
Though you may experience much suffering in this life, nothing can separate you from the love of God which comes to you through Jesus Christ. This kind of love is nothing less than God’s presence with you through his Holy Spirit, who consoles you in your suffering and enables you to live, to love, and to experience the love and support from other brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s enduring love and presence also guarantees that no matter what happens in your life, suffering and death are not the final chapters for followers of Christ. Once this life is finished, you will spend eternity in God’s loving presence.
In this short video, I talk about where I see God’s light shining amid the darkness in Myanmar’s current crisis. The darkness is great, but the power of God’s love is inspiring and very encouraging, as lives are being nourished, strengthened, and changed among those who are actively seeking to reflect the light and love of Jesus Christ.
Ahlone. Mingalarbar. I’m so glad you are watching this week’s video. I’m Dr. Tim Geoffrion, a biblical professor and a friend to the people of Myanmar. I’m particularly looking forward to sharing something with you that has been really encouraging to me this week.
But first, in case you haven’t been following the news, the situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate. Since just February 1, there are now some 175,000 newly Internally Displaced People (IDP’s). This is on top of the 370,000 IDP’s that were already living in camps or church yards or makeshift structures prior to the current crisis. Many of these new IDP’s are running for their lives. They have become extremely vulnerable, living in the jungles, in caves, and small villages, some of them just waiting to die. As the rainy season begins, many of these people will not have adequate shelter, food, or medicine.
Some of the stories I hear are horrifying and very frightening. And every day, I’m terrified thinking about will one of my students or colleagues or acquaintances be arrested, beaten, imprisoned for years, or even killed. These are indeed dark and difficult days for all those who live in Myanmar, and it’s that way for all those of us who love the Burmese people.
In this video, as I suggested at the beginning, my purpose is not just to update you on all the darkness, but also to talk to you about where I am seeing God’s light, shining in the darkness, and why I feel so encouraged.
Every day, I keep hearing new stories about individuals and groups of people, all over the country, who are providing rice, advocating for the defenseless, praying with the broken-hearted, helping people escape from danger, listening to one another’s stories, visiting the sick, and so much more. The love is coming from so many different places and going out in so many different directions. As a result, many people are surviving who would not otherwise; many people are finding some strength, and encouragement that would just not be available if it were not for those reaching out to them; and, among those who are giving so generously of themselves, even at great personal risk, I’m seeing more smiles on their faces, energy in their voices, pride, satisfaction, and inner strength. It’s really beautiful, and very encouraging, because it says to me, God is present, and God is at work. There is hope.
From a spiritual point of view, what I’m talking about is what happens when we accept God’s call to be a conduit of his love to those around us. By letting God’s love flow to us and through us, we experience the abundant life that Christ came to give us. We rediscover the hope that the Holy Spirit wants to breathe into our hearts. We find meaning and purpose, because we are taking our eyes off ourselves and giving our lives to serve others, just as Jesus taught us to do and showed us how to do by his amazing example (Mark 10:45)
I like the way the Apostle John explained it when he said, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; whoever loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
This past week, I was particularly encouraged by hearing about one young seminarian, a person who chose to become an instrument of God’s love and light to some fellow refugees. He, himself, had recently barely escaped after a dozen rocket propelled grenades were fired into his home, in a compound where he lived. After moving from place to place, just to survive, he finally settled in a place, at least for now, and he got the idea one night of holding “family devotions,” something he experienced as a child growing up. But he did it with nine other refugees, who weren’t actually related, but in those circumstances, they were a small family, victims of the same catastrophe, huddled together, so far away from home, facing the same fears and dangers. Under this young man’s leadership, they spent time reading Scripture, praying, and just talking and listening to one another about their fears and experiences with one another. By his own account, he didn’t have much to offer them, but he gave them what he could. And that was something really precious, in that moment, for that day, in that hour, when people in need needed to experience Jesus, and needed to experience God’s love.
So, it’s stories like this one that are encouraging me so much this week. This is where I see the power of God’s light and love sustaining and changing lives, in the midst of so much darkness and evil.
Until the next time, let God’s love flow through you. I’ll be praying for you every day.
ကိုယ့်ကိုယ်ကို ဂရုစိုက်ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
မြန်မာပြည်အမြန် ငြိမ်းချမ်းပါစေ (Peace be upon Myanmar soon.)
On October 10, 2020, I had the privilege of preaching at the marriage ceremony of the son of close family friends and his fiancée, both of whom I have come to know and love over the past several years. The following Charge to the Couple was edited both to protect their privacy and to make it applicable to anyone who wants more love and grace in their marriage.
The marriage day is one of the most important days of your life. It’s a day of celebration. It’s a day of commitment. And it’s a day of testimony to your love and intention to spend the rest of your lives together as husband and wife.
And yet, today is obviously not the beginning of your love and relationship. Today is a highpoint to be sure, but it is just one day, albeit one very special day, in a long flow that began when you first fell in love. So, for a few minutes, I’m going to talk about what you’ve been creating and what’s going to help you successfully continue on this path of mutual love and commitment, which we call marriage.
Live in love
To begin, it’s worth stating the obvious that we’re here today because of love. But, what’s not so obvious to everyone is that there are several different kinds of love, each of which has an important purpose in our relationships, and especially in marriage. C.S. Lewis famously wrote about each one in his book, The Four Loves. To make your marriage strong and enduring, commit yourselves to living in love and by love.
First of all, there is family love. This kind of love isn’t exactly the same for everyone, given that each of us has unique experiences growing up. For many it’s that special bond and affection that they feel for their family of origin. But for others, especially those who have had a painful childhood or been alienated from family members, family love may be felt for a group of people they have identified as their family members, whether they are actually related to them or not. No matter how we may define it, “family” is really important for most of us, because family love, at its best, is what gives us an emotional place of belonging, a place where we can experience unconditional love, and a place we can always return to in order to find people who accept us and want to be with us. What you’re doing today is creating a new family, and inheriting new, extended family members. Don’t take this love for granted. Commit yourself now to doing the hard work to nurture and develop family love as deeply and broadly as possible.
There is also the love between close friends. This kind of love enables you to be each other’s best friend—not only on date nights, but on Monday mornings when you don’t feel like going back to work, on Wednesday evenings when you’re having a hard time getting through the week, and on those long, cold days when there’s nothing to do and all you have is each other. No matter what you might have to face in the years to come, hold on to each other as best friends, and keep cultivating your friendship with one another at deeper and deeper levels.
Then, for a married couple, there is the love of mutual attraction, or what the ancient Greeks called, eros. This kind of love is God’s way of binding a man and a woman together in a unique way, creating a bond that is intended to last for a lifetime within the context of marriage. Celebrate it, thoroughly enjoy it, and carefully protect it. Reserve this level of intimacy for each other and no one else; and enjoy the special closeness that comes from it.
And then, finally, there is agape love. This is the kind of love that the Apostle Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13. Agape love is “patient and kind. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In other words, agape love goes beyond constantly changing moods and feelings, and expresses a commitment to do what is in the best interest of the other person, even when it requires personal sacrifice.
This is the kind of love God shows us, and the kind of love he wants us to show toward one another, regardless of attraction, friendship or family relations. It’s the kind of love that led Jesus to sacrifice his own comfort and personal agenda to stand up for others, and ultimately to give his life to demonstrate the unimaginable extent of God’s love.
One of my favorite stories in the Gospels actually started out on a sad note. Jesus’ cousin and close friend, John the Baptist, had just been killed. Jesus, shocked and heart-broken, gathered his disciples together to get away by themselves for a little while. They got in a boat and intended to get some rest and time alone, away from the demands of ministry, at their “lake home.” However, we read in Matthew (14:13-14) that when Jesus got to the other side of the lake, a crowd was already there, looking for him. When he saw them, he had compassion on them, because, in his perception, they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he gave up his vacation plans and began to heal and teach them many things.
In marriage, there are going to be those times when your spouse is going to need something from you that you’d rather not give. Maybe you just sat down in your favorite chair with a book or turned on the TV to watch a show or game. Maybe you’re tired and just want some time to yourself. Maybe your annoyed or have lost patience. But you’re going to have to make a decision. Will you stop what you’re doing, or give up whatever you’d rather be doing, in order to care for your spouse? The degree to which you make these hard, self-sacrificial decisions will greatly determine how much love there will be in your marriage.
I know this is the kind of love you want to have in your marriage and in your family. It’s a noble ideal; but to live it out you’re going to need to help. And that leads us to the subject of God’s love and grace.
Be filled with grace
Your ability to be loving toward others is directly linked to your experience of being loved, especially by God. When you experience the kind of gracious love that God offers—unconditional, generous love, without strings attached—you develop your capacity to be loving and gracious toward others.
God lavishes his love on us not because of our worthiness, but because of who he is. It’s how he wants to relate to his creation. He wants to love us, and he has within himself the unlimited capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst.
We read in Romans chapter two, that God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance. In other words, God often chooses to be patient, kind, and merciful toward us, not because he’s soft or doesn’t care, but because he knows that mercy is more powerful than judgment. He knows that the real goal: changing our hearts, producing lasting change, and cultivating love for him will rarely come from harsh judgment and punishment. Changes in the heart come from experiencing agape love, mercy and grace.
In marriage, if you want, you can judge and punish one another when the other person fails you. You have a right to do so. But it’s not the better way. And it won’t make the other person love you more. It simply can’t produce the heart change and the love you truly long for from one another. Kindness, mercy, and grace is what your partner needs when they are trying to get back on their feet and have no right to ask for anything from you.
In other words, grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than on what’s wrong. Grace accepts the other person as they are, and it forgives when necessary. Grace believes in the other person, even when he or she cannot believe in him- or herself.
Put Christ at the center
When Jill and I got married 38 years ago, we had no idea what we were getting into! We loved each other very much and had become each other’s best friend, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves, let alone the other person. We had so much growing up still to do. Sometimes, in our immaturity, frustration, and disappointment, we hurt each other, and said or did things we now regret.
Yet, God’s love and grace gave us the ability to forgive each other when need be. And our common commitment to Christ helped us to rise above ourselves to find direction and purpose that was bigger than our own self-centered instincts. We haven’t been perfect in following Christ by any means, but our relationship with him has been an anchor when we’ve needed stability; it’s been a lighthouse, when we’ve needed to avoid danger in the darkness; he’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to reorient ourselves and figure out which direction to go. And he’s been our common root, which nourishes, renews, and empowers us from day to day. In other words, Christ is at the center of our relationship and we depend on him to lead and guide and empower our marriage.
To use the well-known metaphor of the cross, we have been seeking to cultivate both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our relationship with God. The vertical dimension represents our personal relationship with God. It’s grounded in God’s love for us and in Jesus’ sacrificial act of love in dying for us. We respond by putting our trust in God’s grace and mercy and by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. Then, in the horizontal dimension, we express our faith in Christ by extending God’s love and grace toward others. This Christ-centered, multi-dimensional spirituality is God’s will for our lives.
So, on this wedding day, fill your relationship with every kind of love, but especially agape love. Put Christ at the center of your marriage and family, and learn how to draw more and more on Christ’s Spirit so that you can offer God’s agape love and grace freely and generously to each other and to others around you.
If you will do these things, you’re going to make it. But far more than just make it, alongside all the mundane and difficult moments, your life together will flourish. It will be full of joy, meaning, and purpose in more ways than you can even imagine now. It will never be perfect, but there will be love, and there will be grace. May this be your marriage story now and for the rest of your lives. Amen.
In light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this series of posts explores how Jesus’s teaching and example call us to reach out across racial lines to respond compassionately to unjust suffering in society.
I started feeling emotion the moment I began walking up 38th Street. I could see the memorial site just ahead on the corner. Flowers, placards, graffiti, and personal notes were everywhere. There was so much to take in. I could feel the grief, rage, and despair hanging thickly in the air.
When I reached the place on the pavement, where George Floyd gasped for his final breaths, begging for his life and calling for his mama, tears came to my eyes. I could feel anger well up within me. This killing was so wrong. How could someone who was hired to “protect and serve” the community, callously, slowly, choke the life out of a subdued, handcuffed suspect, lying on the ground?
The vast majority of police throughout the country do not harass, let alone kill, people of color; but the bad ones have given rise to fear, rage, and despair among many African Americans nationwide. Much of the graffiti and signage seethed with anger at the police.
Just to the north of where George died, well over a hundred names are painted in multi-colors on Chicago Avenue, memorials to black people who have died at the hands of police in recent years. George’s killing by a white policeman wasn’t the first time. Though such killings are relatively rare (according to statistics), what happened to him has happened to others. And the perception (rightly or not) of police bullying and brutal treatment was widespread enough to strike a nerve in urban communities across the country.
George’s now famous plea, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” has become a rallying cry for black protesters. A recent New York Times article indicated that at least 70 other people of color over the past decade have died in police custody, crying out that they couldn’t breathe before they died. Songwriters, rappers, and activists throughout the country are saying, this is what it feels like to be black in America—we can’t breathe.
How many black people feel this way? What does the average black person feel when a police car drives by or when they are stopped on the road? I don’t think anybody really knows. It may not even be the majority of people of color, but it is a sizable minority. A 2015 Gallup poll indicates that more blacks, nationally, believe the police treat minorities fairly than unfairly, but the numbers are very close (52% vs. 48%, respectively).
These statistics should make us pause before demonizing the police or assuming that the police should be abolished, but we are still left with the question, why do 48% (+/- 5% for margin of error) of black people feel that the police treat minorities unfairly? And what could we, as a society, do to lower those numbers? What could any of us, as individuals, do to advocate better for those who do not have the power or opportunity to effectively advocate for themselves?
What would Jesus do?
The cultural context in Jesus’s day is not the same as today in America, and there is no one teaching or story that directly applies to the complex racial strife in America. However, as we have been saying in this series, there is material in the Gospels that pertain to racism and injustice.
In Jesus’s context, he was very concerned about the treatment of those with less power or status in society, those who were being neglected, exploited, or abused by others. Jesus did not offer systemic solutions to racism or social injustice, but, by his personal example and teaching, he provided a powerful witness to God’s compassion and concern for those at the so-called, “bottom” of society.
As another example (in addition to those we’ve already looked at), the story of Jesus and the two blind men speaks to God’s heart, values, and response to the needs of those who cry out in distress. Notice how Jesus’s behavior stands in contrast to the crowd.
There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:30-34, NRSV
In glaring contrast to those who felt they had the power and position to silence the shouting men, Jesus actually cared and listened. He stopped in his tracks. He asked questions. He wanted to know what was wrong and how he could help. And when he heard what they had to say, he was moved by compassion. Then, he took action.
Seven practical steps you can take now
White people’s response to the protests and riots has ranged from sympathy to condemnation, but overall, my impression is that most of us (white people) care and want to help. In just Minneapolis, millions of dollars have poured into the hands of nonprofits seeking to rebuild burned out businesses and rally around black communities. Thousands of people have been volunteering to do clean up. However, at the same time, many of my white friends feel powerless to do anything of substance to address underlying issues. Sometimes, I feel that way, too.
Yet, as we grapple with how to respond to cries for justice, greater safety in black neighborhoods, and more equity and opportunity for people of color, Jesus’s compassionate response to human beings in need provides an example for us. While there are no easy, quick solutions, there are at least seven practical steps each of us can take now.
Stop, look, and listen. Over and over again, I’m hearing pleas from black people to “see us.” In other words, African Americans are not asking white people to become “color-blind,” but to remember that when white people see a black face that that person’s experience has likely been quite different from theirs. Don’t assume you know what their experience is. If you don’t know whom to listen to, many inner-city organizations are very willing to talk with anyone who sincerely wants to hear the stories and perspective of blacks living in America.
Hang in there, without becoming defensive or judgmental. If you are listening to someone from a different cultural background, you are likely to be upset by something that person says. If you react harshly, turn them off, walk away, or jump right into trying to counter their point of view, you will be no further ahead. Keep listening. Stephen Covey famously advocated that we should “first seek to understand, then to be understood.”
Learn about the issues from multiple perspectives. Don’t buy into one of the extreme narratives, whether it is police-bashing and assailing white supremacy (as if all whites are conspiring against black people), on one side; or putting all the blame on the minorities for their own problems (as if the only thing black people need to do is take more responsibility), on the other. The truth is always more complicated than broad caricatures and over-generalizations. And voicing the extreme narratives only fuels the fires of conflict.
Let your compassion move you. If you’re not already grieving over the killings and struggles of African Americans, ask God to soften your heart. Consider their suffering with greater empathy. Feel more deeply. Think of the children.
Be patient, but diligent. Making personal, let alone societal, progress will take time and a great deal of effort. The racial and social issues that are in sharp relief right now have been centuries in the making. Stay with the process of listening and learning. Ask God to show you what you need to see in yourself, in the other person, and in our society’s structures and systems. Get ready to make changes.
Link arms with others. Find out who’s already doing good work on the street level to address social, educational, justice, and other human welfare needs. Seriously consider the merits of proposed policy changes in local and state government. There are countless opportunities to volunteer, donate money or materials, or simply stand up and be counted.
Start somewhere. Don’t get stuck in analysis-paralysis or freeze up because you don’t know what to think or do. If you haven’t already starting engaging in practical ways, do something today, however small. Go beyond just feeling sorry for others and confessing your sins. Get involved.
I don’t have all the answers for myself, let alone for society as a whole. But, Jesus’s teaching and example are convicting me of my own unexplored racist attitudes and are motivating me to do more than I’ve been doing, relationally and financially. It’s a start. But only a start. From here, I plan to get a better handle on public policy and societal structures that may be inadvertently working against people of color. Then comes advocacy.
In light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this series of posts explores how Jesus’s teaching and example call us to reach out across racial lines to respond compassionately to unjust suffering in society.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28, NIV
Accept God’s purpose for your life
In short, by reciting the two greatest commandments, Jesus was teaching us that God’s purpose for our lives is to know, love, and serve God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love is the chief characteristic of God. Loving others is thus the hallmark of godliness (literally, god-likeness). This is our calling as followers of Jesus Christ.
Such a message is not hard to understand, intellectually, but living by this kind of love can be very difficult in practice. Why? Because we human beings tend to put ourselves or something else at the center of our universe instead of God (the Bible calls that, idolatry). Then, by nature, we are selfish and driven by all sorts of desires and impulses that run contrary to love. Even when we love those who love us, our “love” tends to be conditional, with strings attached. (I’ll love you, if…. I’ll continue to love you, as long as you….) But the moment we’re afraid, we’d rather do something else, we’re mistreated, or loving others becomes inconvenient or too costly, love can easily fly out the window.
So, not surprisingly, the religious leaders of Jesus day easily agreed with him about the priority of love, intellectually. But then they quickly sought ways to excuse themselves from actually putting love into practice when they didn’t want to do it.
But wanting to justify himself, [the religious lawyer] asked Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
Luke 10:29, NIV
But Jesus was ready to close the loophole. He responded by telling the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan to put in no uncertain terms his answer.
Why the Samaritanis Good
When Jesus identifies the role model for Jewish people in the parable as a Samaritan, he is both (deliberately) offending them and challenging them to raise their standard for loving others in society. Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day looked down on Samaritans, who were a racially mixed people. Their religion was also a syncretistic blend of Judaism and pagan religions. After the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (722 BC), most of the people were taken away into captivity. When they eventually returned, many had intermarried with the Assyrians. These racially mixed people became known as Samaritans. They were rejected by the so-called, pure-blood Jewish people from the southern kingdom (Judah).
By choosing a Samaritan as the hero of the parable, Jesus is making at least three points, which have relevance to us today in working to mitigate racism and create a more just society.
Who pleases God?
Not those who have the “right” color of skin
Butthose who have compassion on those in need, who show mercy and kindness to those who don’t deserve it or who can’t repay them
Who is our neighbor?
Not just those of our own color, tribe, or race
But anyone in our society, especially those who have been victimized, exploited, or mistreated by others, or who may simply need an extra helping hand
How far are we expected to go?
Not only as much as is comfortable or convenient
But as far as necessary to adequately address the needs and suffering in society
Love is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling, or cute emoji. Showing mercy costs us something. The two religious leaders, no doubt, could have preached wonderful sermons on love and the God of mercy. But when it came to addressing real-life, human needs in their society, they crossed to the other side of the road and just walked on by. In glaring contrast, the Samaritan paid for the beaten man’s medical, housing, and food expenses out of his own pocket. He took time away from his business. He planned to check back in to see if there was more he could, if he hadn’t done enough the first time.
Hot and cold racism
My Apple dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”
This definition does a good job highlighting what I call “hot” racism— outright, overt hostility or aggression toward a different race or person of a different color. Everyone knows what that looks, sounds, and feels like. In my experience, most white people don’t act like that.
However, as sociologists Robin DiAngelo and Michael Dyson point out in their thought-provoking, insightful book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), by only defining racism in extreme terms, we easily fail to recognize our own, underlying racist attitudes and behavior.
In other words, there is also what I call “cold” racism. Cold racism is far more subtle and difficult to detect, even in ourselves. Cold racism can simply be apathy or preoccupation with the concerns of one’s own family, tribe, or group to the neglect of others who don’t fit in with us, for various reasons. For example, to ignore the cries of black people for greater justice, or to refuse to seriously consider ways that our society favors white people over minorities is to be complicit with racism. DiAngelo’s and Dyson’s book provides numerous, convicting examples.
This essay barely scratches the surface of the kinds of changes needed in our society, since I’m focusing on the individual. But one very good place to start is for each of us (including me) to become more self-aware of our implicit biases and to be a whole lot more humble about how we might be unwittingly contributing to racial discrimination and injustice.
Let’s be honest. Like the well-educated, sincerely religious, lawyer in Jesus’s day, most of us would prefer to justify our own way of living and acting rather than do much more than make a contribution, read a few articles, and watch news shows. Many of us would rather spiel off all our good deeds and righteous behavior than do the soul-searching work to examine our deepest attitudes toward minorities. We would rather just be outraged or find reasons to congratulate our progressiveness than ask ourselves, “Am I truly loving my neighbor to the extent Jesus calls for?”
Jesus answer to the Pharisee’s attempt to justify his inhospitality and neglect of people in need was clear: Your neighbor is precisely the person you may least want to reach out to, and probably has done nothing to deserve your help. Loving him or her is going to cost you more than you want to give, and is likely to take more of your time and energy than is convenient.
The Good Samaritan does not offer a role model for working for systemic change, something essential for real change in America. Yet he does offer a concrete example of a godly (God-like) attitude toward those who are disadvantaged, suffering from racial discrimination, injustice, or just “different” from us. It’s called compassion. And when we put it into action, it’s called mercy.
[Jesus said,] Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” [The expert in the Jewish Law] said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36-37, NRSV
Who is your neighbor?
The full text of the parable of the Good Samaritan
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this series of posts explores how Jesus’s teaching and example call us to reach out across racial lines to respond compassionately to unjust suffering in society.
Since George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis and the ensuing protests and riots, I have felt overwhelmed with emotions and questions. I have been reading articles and editorials every day. I have been listening to blacks and whites talking, preaching, warning, advising, and arguing about racism and injustice in America. I have been watching troubling documentaries and historically-based movies on the history of race relations, law enforcement, and the justice system in recent years.
It’s not just what’s being said or portrayed that’s making me feel so upset. It’s the underlying reality of widespread disparities between whites and blacks, and a whole set of troubling societal issues, stemming from years of slavery followed by 135 years of (at times) improving, yet often pitiable, treatment of African-Americans in my country. Intelligent people are fiercely debating causes and responsibility, as they should be. But, at this point, I’m more concerned with what is actually going to produce meaningful change?
So much is needed to reduce racism and create a more just society; but here, for a moment, let’s step back from the intense emotion of these issues–not to diminish our passion to thoroughly understand what is going on, what has led to this point, and to eliminate racial discrimination. Our passion for these goals should increase, not decrease. However, at the same time, as followers of Christ, we also need to create enough space to let the Holy Spirit bring some needed, fresh perspective to us from the Bible.
What would Jesus say about all this?
The parable of the sheep and the goats
In Matthew 25, Jesus references the great Judgment Day, when the Son of Man (a reference to himself, God’s messiah, who will ultimately rule the world) will separate the “sheep” from the “goats.” The sheep, on his right hand, will inherit the Kingdom of God. The goats, on his left, will be cursed and sentenced to eternity in Hell, along with the devil and his angels.
If you’re not accustomed to this kind of preaching, Jesus was employing a popular way in his day to get people’s attention. The rhetoric was stark, frightening, and powerful, based on a core theological conviction found in all Western religious traditions: those who do what is right in God’s eyes will be rewarded. Those who do not will face eternal punishment.
And what will be the basis for judgment?
To the sheep, the King will say:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Matt. 25:34-36, NRSV
When the perplexed righteous ask when they had ever done these things for him, Jesus will explain:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Matthew 25:40, NRSV
See God in Jesus
By talking in this way, Jesus is telling us something very important about God and about what God expects from us, his creation. He’s saying, God cares deeply about human suffering, and those who want to please God will, too. Or, else.
Christians know from the full teaching of the Bible that we cannot save ourselves, by our own good deeds, but only by faith in Jesus Christ. However, especially in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we also know that true believers are called to live righteously, which means, above all, to show love to others in concrete ways. And not just toward our families and people we like or who love us. Jesus taught that we’re to love everyone, even our enemies.
Jesus, himself, showed us what this kind of non-discriminatory love looks like. For example, he identified with the poor and marginalized in ways that contradicted the dominant views of his day. By associating with the “least” (not least in God’s eyes, but those who hold the lowest status in society), and by welcoming and treating everyone (except the hypocritical authorities) with respect and kindness, Jesus provides a basis for dignity and self-respect for even the most discouraged, downtrodden person.
Then, he was killed. Jesus was crucified, because he dared to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves, and to fulfill the will of God that he die for the sins of the world. By God’s mysterious design, Jesus’s ignominious death wound up simultaneously judging humankind’s self-serving, unjust ways and showing us the breathtaking extent of God’s love.
In Jesus, we see who God is and what god-likeness (godliness) looks like in a social context. God is just, in condemning discrimination, exploitation, and neglect of the needy; and God is loving, kind, and merciful, in welcoming and caring for those who cry out to him for forgiveness and help in their time of need.
See Jesus in “others”
I met Kevin T. at Holmesburg maximum security prison in Philadelphia, which was officially closed in 1995, after decades of abusive and exploitative treatment of prisoners. I was only 23 years old, serving as a part time prison chaplain, while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Looking back, I realize I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I cared. I wanted to do something. I was willing to learn and to try.
Kevin was also a young man, but his future outlook was far different than mine. He was serving a life sentence, for murder. I had never met a murderer before. I didn’t know what to expect. What was both comforting and disturbing was that Kevin seemed rather normal. As I got to know him I could see his humanity. I could feel our brotherhood, in spite of his crimes.
One day, I drove my old Catalina across town to search for his parents. I knocked on the door of an old, two story building, in a dilapidated part of town. It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only white person on the block, and probably in the whole neighborhood. Peering down at a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it, I silently prayed that I was in the right place.
When the door opened, I introduced myself and was taken to a big open room in the back. I’ll never forget the shock and the deep, deep sadness that I saw in the eyes of Kevin’s father. He was hunched over a table, surrounded by maybe a dozen family members. They weren’t expecting me. They weren’t expecting anyone like me, ever.
In that first awkward moment, I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I just wanted to show that I cared and wanted to help their son, if I could. Fortunately, they quickly welcomed me and invited me to sit and talk. It turned out, they didn’t want anything more from me. My visit was enough.
The parable of the sheep and goats challenges us to think carefully about who we think God is, where we find him, and what God expects of followers of Jesus in a world full of suffering and need, racial discrimination and injustice.
In the parable, Jesus doesn’t focus on who’s to blame for social problems. He doesn’t analyze why some people are poor, some are in prison, others are hungry, etc., as if we should first decide if someone is worthy of our help before caring or taking action. No, Jesus teaches us to first respond to “others” with compassion, mercy, and kindness, as if we were caring for Jesus himself.
Kevin deserved to be in prison. It was a just sentence. But when I visited him, and when I visited his grief-stricken parents, I experienced God’s loving presence through the encounters. I felt it. They felt it. And the racial barriers began melting away.
I learned, what I have experienced hundreds of times since, that when we get over our fears and prejudices to reach out to those who are different from us, from a place of genuine love and respect, beautiful things often happen. When we give of ourselves to someone in Jesus’s name, we often find that Jesus is already there.
Next week: It’s time.
For those wishing to read the full parable.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. … Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Truth 5: Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God.
I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night more often than usual. I just can’t seem to sleep as well as before. Sometimes, it’s a bad dream. Other times, I can’t get out of mind the people who are suffering from war, hunger, or looming economic collapse. One very early morning this past week, I woke up feeling empty and drained. I had hit a wall. I tossed and turned in bed for a long time, trying to pray, trying to go back to sleep, trying to decide if it would be better just to get up. It was going to be a hard day.
So far in this essay series, we have emphasized the hopeful messages in the Bible for those who are suffering or facing crisis. There are many reasons to be encouraged in spite of our circumstances. As Christians, for example, we can look for God to actively lead and guide, to produce character and hope, or to use us to help others in some way.
But what do you do when your darkness is just dark? What if you can’t see anything good coming out of your suffering? What if you expect only more of the same—more uncertainty, more loss, more pain? Or, what if you just don’t have any more energy to try?
Spiritual Truth 5 Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God. (Hebrews 2:18; 13:5; Romans 8:19-28, 38-39)
“Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you,” says the Lord.
Hebrews 13:5 NIV
These words from Hebrews are usually interpreted as a promise of God’s ongoing presence and provision. And rightly so. This is why we don’t panic in hard times. This is why we keep reaching out to God for help in our times of need.
At the same time, the promise of God’s abiding presence is also meant to remind us to look beyond this life’s troubles. The Apostle Paul taught us that all creation is groaning, waiting for the redemption of the world. Likewise, we, too, are groaning, looking eagerly for the day our bodies will be completely delivered from suffering, decay, and mortality. (Rom. 8: 19-23)
In other words, sometimes, we must wait for heaven to find the relief we are longing for. As Paul explained, this is the very definition of Christian hope:
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
To Paul, the most important gift of the Christian faith is not how much God can fix or improve our earthly lives. Rather, our most treasured possession is our eternal bond with our Creator, our Father in Heaven, which comes through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If this bond of love is secure, and it is, then no matter what happens to us in this life, we’re going to be O.K. We have an amazing, wonderful relationship with God that extends throughout eternity that no one can take away from us. By God’s grace, through faith, we have a precious and secure hope that can carry us through the darkest of days.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks rhetorically. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8:35). The answer, of course, is, No. No one. Nothing.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 NIV
The power of prayer
As I lay in bed on that difficult morning not long ago, not knowing when I would find the motivation to get up,the prayers from Psalms 61 and 62 kept coming to my mind. “Lord, you are my rock…. Lift my feet to the rock that is higher than I.” Whenever I feel so empty or sad, what helps me the most is reaching out to God. I may not have many words to pray, but I keep asking him to do something inside my mind and heart that I cannot do on my own. I pour out my heart to God.
In moments like these, I am not praying for solutions, healing, or even deliverance. I’m just looking for some comfort, maybe renewed strength, or just an ability to feel some joy again. And answers come. Not usually right away. I need to listen and respond to the still, small voice of the Spirit; and in time, help comes. I follow the prompting to open my Bible, get up and go for a walk outside, reach out to good friend, talk to someone who loves me, or turn my attention to someone who needs my love or help in some way. Or, maybe I find the freedom to just sit with my sadness and not feel compelled to try to make myself happy, as I wait for the Holy Spirit to restore my peace and joy.
The one to whom we have entrusted our lives for salvation, whose sufferings we share throughout this mortal life, is also the one who is able to comfort us in our time of trial.
Because [Jesus Christ] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
And when we do not know what to pray or we can’t find the words, Christ’s Spirit prays through us and for us. Paul put it this way:
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
What are you doing when you feel low and are struggling to strength or motivation to get up and get going ? As the COVID-19 crisis continues on, how are you reaching out to God to help you through the darkest days?
Pour out your heart to God. Pray in the Spirit. As Christ prays with you and for you, you will come to realize that you are not alone, not abandoned, not hopeless. Even though you may not know what to say or ask for, the Spirit will transform your tears, gasps, and grasping into requests that fit with God’s will for you. You may not feel bubbly happiness every time, but your mood is likely to shift. You will be able to cope again. Your peace will return. Your ability to love others will re-emerge. And joy will not be far behind.
Contemplate the photo above. What do you notice? What do you feel? Meditate on the words of the Psalmist:
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I…
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. Selah
Psa. 61:2; 62:2, 5-8
Whatever painful experiences you are going through are simply not the final word in your life. Christ is. The Lord’s love and presence will not spare you from all suffering or from death, but he can and will hold you securely in his loving arms for eternity.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
To read this essay in Burmese and certain Chin dialects, go to “Resources in Burmese” in Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries’ Resource Library, or look for it on my Facebook page, later this week.
I created this essay series in response to the COVID-19 global crisis, though the biblical teaching is applicable in many troubling situations involving human suffering. Each essay expands on the practical suggestions offered in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-90.
Truth 3: Expect God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and lovingly restore your hope through your suffering
Ahhhh! When can I get out of this house? When is life going to go back to normal?!
Currently, some 95% of Americans are required to stay at home. Globally, billions are on some form of lockdown. For some people, it’s been OK. For most people, even if they welcomed a nice break from their normal life, are feeling more and more stress as the crisis continues with no end in sight. After weeks of living in close quarters 24/7, loss of work, fears of what’s to come, the pressure is mounting. Last week, protests started springing up. The people are taking to the streets. All this on top of 2.5 million (verified) people who have been infected, and over 160,000 deaths in just a few months so far.
In such times, what are Christians supposed to think, feel, and do?
Under different but equally difficult circumstances (such as beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment), the Apostle Paul famously said, “Now, these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). So, what does faith look like today? Where can we find hope? Where is love?
When I look around, I am deeply grateful for the action-takers among us. The heroism and dedication of countless doctors, medical workers, researchers, and other public servants, some of whom are literally risking their lives to save others, is humbling and inspiring. Furthermore, the creative expression from artists, musicians, and poets; the compassion and generosity of rich and poor alike; and the kind, thoughtfulness of so many individuals comforts and encourages me.
Then, there are the positive thinkers, who are refusing to be imprisoned in their hearts and minds, even if their bodies are locked down. These inspiring, glass-half-full folks are seeing opportunities everywhere and are making the most of them—more time with family, space for creativity and music, quiet and rest, reading and reflection, communication with friends, and so forth. They are learning new things and finding meaningful ways to show Christ’s love to those near and far.
However, for multiple reasons, not everyone can be an action-taker or a positive thinker. For those hit hardest by the coronavirus, lockdowns, or closure of businesses, there is a great deal of pain, fear, and loss. Some feel like Job, whose children were suddenly killed and health destroyed. All he could do was sit on the ground, weeping or calling out to God, grappling with a tragedy beyond comprehension. A growing number of people globally are grieving the unexpected death of loved ones or the shutdown of their lives and livelihood. They perceive no rhyme or reason in their suffering. They have no idea what hit them or where to go from here.
If this describes how you’re feeling, please know that, sometimes, in the midst of our suffering, we just can’t rise above our distress or despair. Sometimes, we cannot be hopeful, no matter how much we may want to be a positive thinker. And it’s OK. Faith in God doesn’t always mean being upbeat and emotionally stable. Faith in God is not just for the action-takers and positive thinkers. Faith includes trusting that he’s holding you even when you don’t have the emotional strength or wherewithal to hold on to him.
But there is hope.
Spiritual Truth 3: Expect your loving God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and restore your hope through your suffering. (Romans 5:3-5; 8:28-29; 2 Cor. 1:8-9; Lam. 3:22-24)
In the biblical book of Romans, Paul does not offer an explanation or defense of God for human suffering, but rather focuses on how a loving God works through human suffering for good. He writes:
We…glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5, NIV
Paul knew very well that when any of us suffer extensively, we can easily reach our physical and emotional limits. We may reach out to God for help, but when we’re not healed or our suffering persists, we may despair, panic, or want to abandon faith in God. But it is at just such a low point that many of us have been wonderfully surprised by God. We may unexpectedly feel peace. We may suddenly perceive his love through the kindness of those around us. We may find new motivation and power to finally put aside the sin that has been controlling our lives. We may unexpectedly see beauty in something or someone just when we may have lost hope of ever feeling that way again.
Through these kinds of surprising touches from God, our faith in God is rekindled. Our ability to persevere faithfully in the midst of our suffering increases. Our encounter with the goodness of God refines and strengthens our own moral character. Our spiritual vitality is renewed. We perceive God’s love for us in a fresh way. We see Christ’s love being expressed through us, and we feel purpose, meaning, and joy. Hope suddenly springs up within us again—now, not because we have been healed or delivered from our troubles, but because the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see God’s loving, caring presence in the midst of our circumstances. Right when we were about to give up—or actually had given up already—God touched us.
As the Holy Spirit works in our lives in the midst of our suffering, we will realize that we are not abandoned. We have somewhere and someone to go to in our darkest hours. We may weep, wail, confess sin with a broken heart, or simply shuffle along in grief, as Israel did after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem (586 BC) on their way to captivity in Bablyon. Yet, with them, we will reach a point where we also can say with Jeremiah, the prophet:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:22-24, NIV
Are you experiencing overwhelming loss, hopelessness, or fear right now? Or, if not you, then surely there is someone you’re living with or whom you care about, who is. If so, this is not an easy place to be. But there is hope. There’s a bigger reality than what you are perceiving and experiencing at the moment. God may not be delivering you from all your trouble or distress, but that doesn’t mean God is irrelevant. On the contrary, it’s in your powerlessness and despair that God can produce some good in your life that would not be possible under different circumstances.
In the context of talking about human suffering, the groaning of creation, and our sometimes inability to even know how to pray, the Apostle Paul offers these words of perspective and hope:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
Romans 8:28-29 NRSV
And what is the good God has in mind?
The “good” is not necessarily your healing, prosperity, or anything else that you be asking for in your desperation. The ultimate good that God produces through your suffering is to make you more and more like Jesus Christ, God’s son—more and more full of faith, hope, and love.
Your greatest desire will probably always be for relief from your suffering or for some miracle in your life. Mine usually is. Yet, none of us knows what God will or won’t do. Are you willing to live with that uncertainty, yet keep reaching out to God? Are you willing to let go of expecting God to act as you want him to act, and yet never quit expecting him to work through your suffering for good, according to his priorities and values? This is our faith. This is our hope.
This essay series, “What We Can Expect from God Now?” was created in response to the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. It focuses on how believers can better trust God in troubled times. The essays expand on the practical suggestions offered in Chapter eight, “Trusting God,” in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-190.
What are your top priorities for your growth and development as a Christian? If you are a parent, what are you emphasizing to your children to guide them into adulthood? If you are a youth group leader or mentor, what spiritual guidance are you offering to ground and direct those under your care. If you were on the Board of Trustees for a Christian college or seminary, apart from emphasizing education and developing skills, what would you most want the students to learn and to gain from their education at your school? In other words, how should we be preparing ourselves and the next generation of Christian leaders to make significant contributions in our troubled and needy world? Are our priorities right?
Recently, I was given the opportunity to answer these questions for the sake of the school where I teach, the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The school theme that I proposed for the academic year, “Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service,” was chosen by the MIT faculty members as particularly fitting for our 1200+ students. What follows below is the Bible study that I prepared to present this theme to the student body and all of our constituents. While the context is clearly a particular Christian college and seminary in Southeast Asia, this teaching applies to Christians everywhere. The writers of the New Testament insist over and over again that we need to keep our spiritual priorities straight—in our personal lives, families, churches, youth groups, and Christian schools. So much is at stake.
“Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service”
This year’s theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, is intended to concisely articulate the core theological and spiritual foundation of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and to remind us all of why MIT primarily exists. In other words, the primary purpose of this theme is to encourage MIT Liberal Arts Program (LAP) and Theology students, faculty, and staff to focus on developing their relationship with Christ as their first priority, and to humbly dedicate themselves to serving Christ, church, and country with greater knowledge, skills, and spiritual vitality.
Drawing largely on Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commands and on Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel, we can say that the primary purpose for every human being is to know, love, and serve God, who is revealed preeminently in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. For Christians, this life purpose is not simply a matter of doctrine; it cannot be fulfilled just by believing or by being baptized. Rather, it requires growing in our relationship with Jesus Christ all our lives. Our vocation—that is, our unique work in the world—flows from this relationship into a lifetime of service, no matter what our particular position, assignment, or activity may be. We may be called to serve primarily in the Church, the broader society, or simply at home with our families, but every Christian has the same general vocation to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life…for many” (Mark 10:45). In short, then, our theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, draws our attention to our top spiritual priority of knowing and loving God in Christ more and more, and to MIT’s chief responsibility from a biblical point of view to prepare men and women to serve Christ and the Church in a wide variety of ways upon graduation.
Our Bible study will take Paul’s teaching on the purpose of the Church and the significance of growing in Christ as our point of departure. We will then look how Peter contextualized Paul’s ecclesiology, teaching marginalized and persecuted Christians how they should live and serve Christ in a religiously pluralistic world, and what kind of preparation is needed to do so. Finally, a few comments will be offered on the relevance of this biblical teaching and theme to MIT.
The priority of growing in Christ according to Paul
The Church was established by the preaching of the Gospel, the working of the Holy Spirit through its proclamation, and the common faith of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation. According to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, believers in the Christian Gospel become members of the body of Christ, and together form the universal Church (1 Cor. 12). Further, God gave spiritual gifts to every member of the body of Christ (12:7). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul focuses on a subset of the body to emphasize particular gifts given to those who are in positions of leadership—namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, in order both to identify these leadership gifts and to discuss the purpose for which they were given.
In general, Paul taught that God gives spiritual gifts among the members of the body of Christ in order that they may minister to, serve, and build up one another. In 1 Corinthians, Paul simply says that the gifts are given for “the common good” (12:7), meaning the good of the body of Christ (the Church). All believers in Christ have the responsibility to serve in ways that strengthen the body. Leaders have the additional duty “to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-12). To be built up means that all the members of the body of Christ would “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). When the body of Christ is mature, they “will no longer be infants,” liable to being misled and confused by false teaching (4:14). Instead of being crippled by instability and division, they would “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (4:15, emphasis added), as the whole body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (4:16, emphasis added).
In Paul’s vision for the Church, everyone is expected to keep growing in Christ and to be actively serving one another for the common good and the upbuilding of the whole Church. If we have accurately summed up the priorities for the body of Christ as a whole, how much more important is growing in Christ, preparing for service for the Church’s future leaders.
The necessity of growing in Christ as preparation for service according to Peter
When we turn to the Apostle Peter’s teaching, we see how he contextualizes Paul’s teaching on growing in Christ for Christians who were marginalized by the broader, religiously pluralistic society and sometimes even persecuted for their faith. In the face of such hardship and danger, he urged Christian believers to go deeper into their own relationship with God in Christ, to strengthen their self-understanding as the people of God, and to prepare themselves intellectually as well as spiritually, morally, and behaviorally, so that their witness to their largely nonChristian neighbors would be more clear, vibrant and persuasive. They were not to shy away from suffering for Christ. Yet, at the same time, they should avoid unnecessary persecution (that which comes from outright rebellion or immoral behavior) and live exemplary lives for all to see. He urged them to “live such good lives among the pagans though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12).
To live up to our calling and to the demands of serving Christ requires ongoing spiritual growth and development. So, Peter says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:2-3, NIV, emphasis added). Peter writes elsewhere, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18, NIV, emphasis added). He knows well that his readers already have experienced the grace of God and know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, he also knows that the Christian faith calls us to keep growing in our knowledge and experience of God in ever-new and more meaningful ways.
Throughout his letters, Peter gives many practical teachings on what it means to grow spiritually and prepare better for Christian service. In one place, Peter urged his readers, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15a, NIV). Acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord, or leader, is not something a believer does just once at baptism. Rather, surrendering to the lordship of Christ is ongoing struggle and process that continues throughout our lifetimes. This, too, is an important part of growing in Christ. According to New Testament writers, accepting Christ as our Savior and Lord is an essential turning point in our spiritual journey, but it is only that—a significant turning point (not, endpoint). Bending our knee to Christ as Lord repositions us to eagerly pursue a fuller and more significant relationship with Christ on an ever-deepening basis. Then, as we grow, Peter tells his readers, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15b, NIV). Here Peter calls Christians to keep growing intellectually and to develop communication skills to talk about their faith (and not hide or minimize it) with those who don’t know Jesus Christ. And so forth.
In sum, Peter teaches Christians how they should think of themselves and respond to nonChristians in the face of marginalization, misunderstanding, ignorance, and even persecution in a religiously pluralistic context. They are to neither hide from nor belligerently fight against those who oppose or mistreat them. He didn’t advise them to change their theology or view themselves as inferior to the majority and the powerful. Instead, they should sharpen their self-understanding as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [they] may declare the praises of him who called [them] out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once [they] were not a people, but now [they] are the people of God; once [they] had not received mercy, but now [they] have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Then they should learn how to better reflect their faith, hope, and love to the nonChristians surrounding them in intelligent and positive ways. In short, the best response for Christians in a hostile, religiously pluralistic setting is to keep growing in Christ and to prepare themselves to serve both within the Church and within the broader society.
Conclusion: Implications for MIT
So, how does this Bible study apply to MIT? Just this. For MIT to fulfill its duty to Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) and the churches it serves, we must be diligent to teach our students how to grow in Christ. We must adequately prepare them for a lifetime of service. And, since many MIT graduates will be given significant opportunities to lead in the Church and society, we must also teach them how to lead and how to help others to grow in Christ and to be humble, faithful servants of Christ.
You may be wondering, does this Bible study suggest that growing in Christ should come at the expense of academic excellence, sharing the Gospel, participating in inter-faith dialogue, or working to address societal ills and needs? No, not at all. All these endeavors and missions remain important objectives for Christians, and especially for MIT students and graduates. Yet, growing in Christ is the mostimportant priority, and is the pre-requisite for all our intellectual, academic, mission, and societal activities. Why? Because Jesus taught that the only way we can hope to bear fruit in our lives is by maintaining a close (“abiding”) relationship with him (John 15). Paul and Peter taught the same thing, as we have briefly seen in this Bible study. They only added that our personal relationship with God in Christ needs to keep growing and deepening as well. They taught that we must become more and more like Christ and learn how to relate better to nonChristians in a religiously pluralistic world.
The implications of this Bible study for MIT, as well as for the broader Church in Myanmar, seem obvious. The Church’s current leaders (including MIT faculty and staff) would teach, preach, and model the importance of growing in Christ as the top priority for Christians and the essential pre-requisite for everything we want to do in the name of Christ. Throughout the school year, MIT would actively promote the spiritual life of students, faculty, and staff (helping each one to grow in Christ) while organizing the school’s curriculum and student activities with the ultimate purpose of a MIT education in mind, namely, to prepare future leaders to serve Christ faithfully and fruitfully in their various leadership roles. Future leaders (including MIT students) would embrace these priorities for themselves and take personal responsibility to pursue them in every way they can.
May God bless MIT and all the churches that support and are served by MIT as, together, we keep growing in Christ, preparing for service.