Divine Empowerment to do Evil

BACKGROUND STORY

Today I have reached my 11th anniversary on this webpage. A few months ago I figured out that if I took all my my writing, removed the images from it, and then published it as a standard hard-cover book, it would be over 2000 pages long. That is a lot of writing. Today, I am breaking a record that I have had for years. I have had more views of my website in 2021 (as of October 25th) than I have had in any other year. That is not hugely impressive. I don’t get huge numbers and that is fine. But I have now passed 2016 as my formerly biggest year as well as 2013.

Those two years, my relatively high numbers came from people doing bad things. In 2016 there was a Russian ponzi scheme (apparently) that had the initials “MMM,” like my site. The 2013 stats was even a bit more disturbing. In 2012 a self-styled prophet declared all sorts of bad things happening in the Philippines. One of those predictions seemed to come true— a typhoon came through the Visaya region of the Philippines and did great damage. A moderate earthquake in Bohol seemed to reinforce his predictive skills.

Many Filipino Christians began rallying to the support of this (again, so-called) prophet of God. They began looking into his prophecies for more guidance as to the future, despite this man’s poor scorecard in other parts of the world. I wrote a couple of posts where I took his predictions and tried to come up with an overall score for him in the Philippines. I could not do a straight-up Yes or No on many of the prophecies because of their overall vagueness., The Philippines is among the most prone to natural disasters in the world, so almost any natural disaster (earthquake, typhoon, volcanic eruption and such) will come true somewhere in the Philippines. So I gave weighting to different predictions based on their level of fulfillment as well as their specificity. I came up with a score of 35%. Truthfully, I was very generous in that number.

I found it strange that many Filipino Christians wanted this man’s predictions to be true. He claimed this was God’s judgment for Filipino Christians not being on fire enough and judgmental enough. I have known some people talk of the judgments noted in Revelation with a certain glee, so I suppose it is not that strange— especially for those who embrace a war-metaphor understanding of the the Christian faith.

So here is what happened. I kept hearing about there being a flesh-eating bacteria in Pangasinan. I live less than 2 hours from Pangasinan and heard no such warnings, so I assumed it was over-enthusiastic followers of this (still so-called) prophet. That is because that man had made two predictions that were quite specific. One was a flesh-eating bacteria that would begin in Pangasinan and spread around the world. The other was a skin disease in Cebu that would cause skin to turn black, and it would spread around the world. This second prediction was not promulgated much, perhaps because it could be seen as having racist overtones (Filipinos have more than a bit of a post-colonial preference for lighter skin tones). The Pangasinan plague was pumped up on line. Then one day, a major news source in the Philippines put up a report about a flesh-eating bacteria spreading in Pangasinan. This proved not to be true. Perhaps an overzealous reporter took these rumors of the plague shared online by followers of the “prophet.” In a matter of minutes after that news piece came out, my little blog post was inundated by people trying to find out what was going on.

REFLECTION #1: Can a true prophet be a bad prophet?

My first thought on this story is the classic test of a prophet. A prophet who says something that is not consonant with Scripture or not consonant with truth is a false prophet. I rather wish that more American Christians would embrace this simple truth when it comes to so-called prophets predicting the results of the 2020 election incorrectly.

But then I got thinking— That may be the test of a false prophet, but is it an adequate test of a good prophet. Note, I am separating “true prophet” from “good prophet.” The Bible has false prophets, like Hananiah, who foretold based on what tickled the ears of his patron. However, the Bible does appear to have many true prophets who were flawed, and at least one who was downright bad. Balaam appears to have been a true prophet. Some may disagree with this, but our only interaction with him as an oracle showed him accurately giving God’s revelation to others. However, the Bible looks at him as being bad— opposing God’s work.

I have heard preachers dance around this issue in a number of ways, but I believe there is support elsewhere for recognizing Balaam as a true prophet who was not on God’s side.

REFLECTION #2: Can a true miracle worker be not on God’s side?

We, of course, see fakes in the Bible, and we see those who at least might be doing the miraculous works through demonic empowerment. The miracle workers who opposed Moses and Yahweh may be frauds or may be using demonic empowerment. Ultimately it does not matter. But if a miracle worker does do something by God’s empowerment, does it necessarily mean they are on God’s side? We know, of course, the Scripture (Matthew 7:21-23)where Jesus talks of those who have done miraculous things in God’s name (prophesying, exorcising, and doing mighty deeds) but end their life with the very clear statement, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” This seems to suggest that a person who is not a follower of Christ may be able to successfully take on these roles (prophet and exorcist at least) successfully. However, there is wiggle room as far as whether these roles were divinely empowered. An example of this may be Judas Iscariot who appears to have been able to do divine healing and teaching Christ’s message, while still being identified as the “Son of Perdition.”

This suggests that some people may not be on God’s side, and yet still do miraculous works (presumably empowered by God).

REFLECTION #3: Can a good and true follower of God do something evil with divine empowerment?

An interesting tiny story is found in Luke 9:53-55. In it, Jesus and His disciples were rejected and sent packing from a Samaritan village. James and John asked if Jesus would want them to call down fire from Heaven to consume the village. Jesus rebuked them. In essence, James and John asked Jesus permission to use God’s power to destroy a village. Jesus said NO. But are there other times where a sincere follower of God “lost it” and reacted with wrath— where God did not disempower them? I have written on Elisha and the bears before. While I have heard valiant attempts to put this story in a better light, I feel the best light is that Elisha was young (newly taking on the mantle of Elijah at least) and impulsive and reacted with malevolence to some detractors. The fact that God did not stop him does not necessarily mean that what he did was good. Peter with Ananias and Sapphira could be another example. While, again, some have tried to put it in a positive light, Luke appears to respond negatively to it in noting that the church was filled with fear after this event. Moses lashed out in anger on a number of occasions. On one occasion God carried out a necessary miracle due to compassion for the people even though Moses disobeyed God. It is hard to be dogmatic whether every miraculous thing that Moses did, was God approved.

But if God would not stop someone from doing wrong by disempowering them, why would this be? I can think of at least a couple of reasons. First, it can help give maturity to the servant of God. “Be careful what you wish for” may be useful guidance for children, but it is important for us as well. I like to think that Elisha and Peter (two volatile men) were better stewards of their gifts afterwards. Second, we need maturity as well. Jesus did not simply say, “I am doing miracles so you must accept everything I say and do.” While it was clear that one of the reasons He did it was as a sign, it was clear that He actively tied His ministry to the Hebrew Scriptures, as consistent with them, in character with the God revealed in Scripture, and as fulfillment of them. Miraculous power is simply not enough.

REFLECTION #4. So what about us?

I am not a miracle worker. I don’t foretell the future. In fact I am pretty sceptical of people who do. I doubt their power and I doubt their motives. However, we are all given power. God gives us spiritual gifts and talents. He gives us passions and interests. He gives us experiences and spheres of influence. God also gives us open access to the throne of God through prayer. These are divine empowerments. Are we able to use these empowerments for evil? Certainly. People argue about why God would place “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” inside the Garden of Eden. The garden (paradise) was a hedged-in place. That is, it was a protected place. Yet, the tree was placed, prohibitions and all, inside the protected zone. Adam and Even were empowered by God to do evil. We can ask why this is, but we would also need to ask why God has given us empowerment that can be used for evil? Why doesn’t God stop us?

For me, as interesting a question that is, I rather take a different response…

“KNOWING THAT IT IS GOD’S WILL TO EMPOWER ME TO DO WHAT IS GOOD, WITHOUT CONSTRAINING ME, NECESSARILY, FROM DOING WHAT IS BAD, I SHOULD FOCUS MORE ON SEEKING GOD’S CHARACTER, HEART, AND WISDOM, RATHER THAN HIS EMPOWERMENT.”

Christian Medical Missions Quote

Twelve years ago, I finished my dissertation at Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary. It was on medical missions in the Northern Philippines. Although I would have written some of it different now than I did back then; still, the findings were solid. I hope that the findings are helpful to people, but all too often dissertations (even more so ones published in Asia) go up on shelves and are not looked at again (except perhaps by a few doctoral students trying to pad out their bibliography).

So I was glad to see some of my dissertation utilized in a recent book on Medical Missions. The book is called, SHALOM: GOD’S PURPOSE FOR THE WORLD: MODERN MEDICAL MISSIONS IN THE ISLAMIC CONTEXT (by Dae-Young Lee, Wipf & Stock, 2021). Technically, the book used an article I developed from the dissertation, and a book that summarized the dissertation. Lee is a medical doctor who served for years as a medical missionary in an Islamic region. As such, he is well positioned to see the best and worse of medical missions— as well as its potential.

I have only just recently started reading the book, but so far it has been excellent. Actually, the first two paragraphs of the Preface (by Jerry M. Ireland) summarizes a lot of the concerns with Christian Medical Missions I found in my research, as well as my personal experience. (since I spent around 8 doing monthly medical missions in the Philippines). Here are the two paragraphs:

In the world of Christian compassionate missions, and, more precisely, the world of Christian medical missions to the Arab world, pitfalls abound. There exists the ever-present danger of doing medical missions merely as a “platform,” and thereby disingenuously. Or, more palatably to the non-Christian world, one might engage in medical work in a foreign land that has no genuine Christian content because there exists no explicit link to the gospel. Additionally, medical mission efforts have too often subverted, ignored, or dismissed local medical professionals, guidelines, and government regulations, putting the missionaries at odds with civil authorities in ways incompatible with the gospel and with truth. Paternalistic tendencies, especially among western mission workers have at times resulted in the sending of so-called “medical teams” that lacked even basic medical and missionary training.

These far-too-common shortcomings in medical mission work have minimally left dark stain on the church but also raised (further) questions as to the legitimacy of the entire mission enterprise. If Christians cannot show compassion to the most needy and vulnerable, especially the sick, in ways that are Christ-honoring, culturally considerate, and carried out with honesty and integrity, then is there any hope at all for Christian cross-cultural efforts?

— Jerry M. Ireland, Preface to “Shalom: God’s Purpose for the World,” by Dae-Young Lee

Lee’s book can be found by CLICKING HERE

My book on medical missions is found by CLICKING HERE

My article on medical missions quoted in the book is found by CLICKING HERE

Jerry M. Ireland has an interesting blog worth reading. One article I really enjoyed is on “Verbal Assault Evangelism (And Why It Doesn’t Work)“.

The Missionary’s Two Homes

Sometimes as Christians we talk about the idea that this world is not our real home— heaven is our real home. One of my favorite gospel songs as a youth spoke of this. The first verse said,

“This wold is not my my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.

If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do.

The angels beckon me, from Heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

It is a fun song. It is not totally accurate, of course. The Bible speaks of Earth as our eternal home— Heaven on Earth. In effect, this is our one home.

But as missionaries, we typically have two homes. One is in our home country, and one is our in our country of service. For years that wasn’t really important to me. We sold our house in the US and moved into our house in the Philippines. We spent 90% of our time in the Philippines, and the plan of my wife and I was (is?) to retire in the Philippines. As such, the US was not our home, but a place we visit on occasion.

However, this has changed somewhat. Our three children are now grown up and have chosen to live in the US. Additionally, one of them has some health needs that have required us to be a bit more involved in helping her along. Our old solution of just coming over and staying with relatives and friends has not worked. Additionally, short-term and long term rentals of houses and of cars have proven to be prohibitively expensive. We were actually pretty desperate for awhile. Thankfully, do some truly divine grace, we were able to work out things to have a house (with mortgage of course), and car (with loan of course).

This did remind me of the rope metaphor used by Ryland and Carey back in 1792, where Carey expressed willingness to explore into the unknown (like as into a deep pit or cave) as long as his friends back home would “hold onto the rope.”

It is hard to serve as a missionary when the rope is cut back in one’s birth country. This can be in terms of financial support. But this can also be in terms of a “home base”— a place one can call home when “home.”

Things are a bit different, perhaps, for people who serve with a full-service mission organization. However, most of the people I know in missions are independent or semi-independent missionaries. I have known some who have been completely cut off from their home base. Several of them did eventually have to return to their sending country and start ‘from scratch.’ Another got stranded in their home country during COVID, but have been able to move in with their son. Another such family had similar things occur and they moved in with their parents. One lost contact with their home country, but another country and associated church adopted him and that helped him serve. Another married into his missionary country, and as such has set quite deep roots in his service country. However, one never knows when the lack of a second home may cause issues.

As much as we may focus on the Philippines being our new home, times change. We don’t know the future, and we cannot assume that God’s best for us aligns with what we think is best.

We now have a home in the US that is our home when we are home. Two of our adult children live there year-around. We cannot afford to be homeless when back in our sending country, so this is a great blessing. We also have a home in the Philippines… perhaps it is our home until we die. Perhaps not. Regardless, it is our home.

When we return to the US, we can say it is good to be home. When we return to the Philippines, we can say it is good to be home.

We found that we needed an anchor point in both countries— we did not for 17 years, but we do now. It was a tough decision to take preciously collected savings to put into a house in the US (especially during a time of ridiculous housing prices). However, God has been good, and we found something pretty close to the perfect place (for us). Now we can go back and forth between our two countries much easier— between our two homes.

Extra thought—- In English we have two different words— house and home. They are overlapping words. A house is a building that people live in. A home usually is a building, and it has to do with where people live. But there is an emotional side to home that is not in house. The word home has a deeply emotional sense of belongingness. In Tagalog, there is a similar equivalent. The word ‘bahay’ means house— building to live in. But there is another word as well, ‘tahanan.’ It has a similar sense as home… a place of belongingness. I wonder how many other languages have this equivalent pair of terms?

The Unappetizing Worm and the Squid Game

Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn on Pexels.com

I did a lot of fishing when I was young. Truthfully, I did not care for fishing all that much. I enjoyed hiking and exploring, but fishing only allowed one to do those things for a short while followed by hours of sitting or standing in a hot sticky itchy place.

I was not good at fishing. To some extent my lack of success was due to lack of patience. I couldn’t just let my line out and then relax. Additionally, because I did not enjoy fishing, I did not become a student of fishing.

A big mistake I did in fishing was with worms. I would most commonly use earthworms to catch fish. <For those traumatized by worm impalement, please skip a bit ahead.> I would stick the hook through the worm. Then I would stick it through again and again and again. In the end I would end up with a tangled ball of worm on the hook.

Why in the world would I do that? I was afraid that a fish would come along and take a bite out of the worm and get away without being caught by the fishhook. It made perfect sense to me that a bite on the worm that did not have the hook in it is a wasted bite.

If I had talked to my friends or researched books from experts in fishing, I would have realized that having the worm alive and well and wiggling is a good thing. And having the fish take a nip on the bait without getting hooked, makes it more motivated to come in for more. In an effort to make nibbles turn into a catch, I made the worm unappealing to most fish.

Evangelism has been described in terms of fishing. Jesus described His disciples as fishers of men. More recently, there has been the modern parable where people get so caught up in the science of fishing and gathering together to discuss fishing theories that no one is actually fishing. Tied to that story is the question, “Who do you want to learn from someone who studies fishing or one who actually fishes?” Relating that to missions or evangelism, the question becomes, “Who do you want to learn from, one who does the work or the one who analyzes and theorizes about the work?” In truth, to be a GREAT fisherman it is helpful to draw from both. To be a great car driver it is good to learn from great drivers, but it is also good to talk to those who design and test cars as well.

But in this case, my lesson from the worm is a bit different. In the mid-1800s there were huge sawdust revivals. Big musical numbers of peppy gospel songs, firy preaching and a hard-sell altar call. Walking forward and praying the sinners prayer was so linked to the idea of being saved that it matched the early church’s tendency to see getting baptized as the same as getting saved.

Into the 20th century the question was how to lead people to Christ the quickest. Some suggested that one should throw out social ministry. The sawdust revivals still met a social need, since many communities had little entertainment, little quality music, and few great orators. But in a reaction to the so-called “social gospel” the removal of the social side of the gospel seemed to make sense since it took time and money— essentially slowing things down. This reached a local peak in the 1960s with Evangelical reaction against conciliar missions. Another peak in this happened more recently with focus on bible studies in creating church-planting movements (CPM). Additionally, revivals are had to quantify without a simple metric… so saying the sinners prayer became so much the focus that some methods were developed that almost tricked someone into saying the sinner’s prayer. (This reminds me of a missionary friend who was almost tricked into saying the Shahada three times by some neighbors who held a reductionist belief that doing so “made one a Muslim.”)

I think these are like what I was doing in fishing. I tried to make it so that a fish could hardly go after the worm without getting hooked. Some things done in missions seeks to ensure a positive response (even if that positive response is ambiguous). However, what I did to the worm made it more unappealing to most fish. I increased the likelihood that a bite would result in a catch, but I greatly reduced the number of bites. It is possible that our tactics can increase the percentage of positive responses to a direct plea for the gospel, but only doing so through driving more away.

Binging the Squid Game this last weekend brought this to light. There were a number of references to Christianity in this Korean series. However, all of them showed Christianity as being a bit weird— people dressed funny (much like Mormon missionaries in the US and Philippines dress), and a bit loud and preachy. I don’t think anyone watching the show would come to the conclusion that Christians are called upon to be meek, kind, hospitable, loving, and self-sacrificing. If you haven’t watched Squid Game, try watching it as if you have never heard of Christianity before. What characteristics would you gain of Christianity from watching the show? Now before you get the idea that Squid Game is — “Anti-Christian”— I think it may be better to think of it as a fairly neutral portrayal of how Christians have often chosen to portray themselves. Preaching the word, using a lot of Christian-speak and dressing in a way that strongly contrasts those around them can seem like a good idea… being good witnesses of the truth. However, few would be attracted to Christianity— it is an unappealing worm— much like the primary Christian in the Squid Game is so focused on himself and his faith, that he offers nothing of Christ or himself to others that would be appealing.

This is a bit off on a tangent, but perhaps it is better today to identify people who come to Christ though tracking (believer’s) baptisms rather than through saying the Sinner’s Prayer. Neither one is actually the same as salvation (a transformation of the heart) but I suppose baptism demonstrates a deeper level of thought or commitment than does repeating a prayer that someone else gives you. Of course, there is the risk of falling into the mistake of many groups that confuse salvation with baptism, but it is probably less in error than associating the sinner’s prayer with salvation. <Sorry… just was thinking off the top of my head while I was typing.>

The Wrong Answer to Grief

A guilty pleasure of mine, of sorts, is true crime podcasts. I was listening to one recently. It was on “Crime Junkies,” regarding “The Hendricks Case.” In that case, a woman and her three children were killed in their home while the father was on a business trip. More information can be found in the book “Reasonable Doubt” by Steve Vogel.

The man, David Hendricks, along with the family were intensely religious. The exact denomination is not particularly important, but I would describe them as “Conservative Evangelical” or perhaps Fundamentalist.

Although Hendricks was convicted originally for the crime, the conviction was eventually overturned. It was determined that the evidence was not adequate to convict, and the case is officially unsolved to this day.

One thing that led David Hendricks to be thought guilty was something he said to reporters during the initial investigation. “Hendricks said that he knew that ‘Suzie and my three kids are much better off and I wish them back for me as a selfish thing, but I know that they are with the Lord Jesus in heaven, and I am satisfied in knowing this.'” Then asked about what would happen to the one who did the crime. His response was, “I would like to see him get saved. It would be worth it if one person found their way to heaven, don’t you think?” <Vogel’s book, pages 61-62>

Many people reacted strongly to these statements. The first statement could sound a bit like the presumed thought process of a family annihilator— “The world is horrible and I am doing them a favor by killing them.” The second one is just as open to uncertain interpretations. It could be interpreted as saying that killing his family is ‘worth it.’

Now, I will admit that I wasn’t really brought up in a religious setting that would answer in this way. However, I certainly am familiar with these sort of responses. Some Christians are encouraged not to cry or mourn at funerals. After all, isn’t the deceased in a better place. Isn’t it selfish to want them back? Shouldn’t we celebrate their entry to heaven rather than grieve the loss?

Even in ministry we sometimes get the “if only one person comes to Christ, isn’t it worth it?” It seems so wrong to argue against it. Nevertheless, I will. Often a ministry is done poorly— and then justified by that expression— “if only one….” The problem is that it is commonly not one gain with no loss. I have seen activities where many are potentially turned off due to manipulative tactics, ‘hard sell’ regimens, and general mistreatment. In those situations, the question really should be worded, “If dozens of people are led to believe that the Gospel of Christ is odious because of our activity, but one person comes to Christ, isn’t it worth it?” Well, in that case, the answer is clearly NO… it is not worth it. To cause immature believers to stumble and seekers discouraged to keep seeking, is a grave mistake.

Actually, if you think about it, Hendrick’s statements are very much in line with the “Use every opportunity to stare the faith— in season and out of season.” I would argue that this situation was very much “out of season” and his talk about salvation and heaven probably did more to turn people off to Christians than make people consider being a follower of Christ. Instead of thinking “Wow, Mr. Hendricks is such a man of holy faith!” they were thinking, “Oh my, Mr. Hendricks is either insane, or a killer, or both.”

But I would like to add another reason why I think the responses here were in error. They were attempts to theologize or spiritualize, rather than address grief. Of course, maybe he “did it” and maybe he felt no grief. I simply don’t know. But assuming he is grieving, throwing out spiritual platitudes is, sadly, not a good way to deal with grief. Christians are, often, not the best at dealing with downer feelings. This is strange since the Jews are. The Laments in the Psalms are absolutely wonderful songs of sadness, grief, pain, and anger. Many Christians did not get the message. One of the silliest things I heard was a preacher who said that Jesus was crying at the gravesite of Lazarus, NOT because of grief (He knew He was about to raise up Lazarus after all), but because of the lack of faith of the people there. If Jesus had empathy, however, crying was quite appropriate. His friend was sick and died… and others were tormented in the loss. The fact that things would get better does not undermine the pain in the community and in the moment.

Loss and pain are part of being human— Christians are human too, and are at our best when we behave as humans, truly acquainted with grief.

Reading the “Lost Books of the Bible”?

I have been reading a fairly old book “The Lost Books of the Bible” that is a collection of books from much longer ago. So far I have read, “The Gospel of the Birth of Mary,” “The Protoevangelium,” “The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,” “Thomas Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,” “The Epistles of Jesus Christ and Abgarus King of Edessa,” and presently in “The Gospel of Nicodemus.”

One surprising things I found was that the collection was compiled in 1926. What I found surprising is that the compiler sets a strong line of demarcation between the canonical books of the New Testament and these books. Based on the title, I was expecting the compiler/editor to be seeking to “muddy the waters.” That is, based on the title, I thought the editor was promoting the idea that the present Bible was a collection of “the winners” with other books equal in reliability but kept out or lost for some reason. However, the editor makes it clear that the books of the New Testament not only have a historical basis for superiority but a textual superiority as well. For the editor, this did not suggest that the “lost books” should be ignored. Rather, one should read these books oneself and decide for oneself.

It is interesting to read these other gospels. They serve as “miracle dumps.” That is, they focus on miraculous signs. In the Four Gospels, miracles by Jesus tend to serve three purposes—- a sign of Jesus’s identity, demonstration of His compassion, and serve as a foundation for His message. The “Lost Gospels” are all about signs. A few of the miracles also point to the compassion of Jesus. However, none seem to serve as a foundation for His message (as far as I see). Strangely, some of them show Jesus very negatively— doing miracles seemingly on a whim, and sometimes as a powerful tyrant.

In these, especially the Infancy Gospels, it is pretty clear that the storyteller is struggling with Jesus as God versus Jesus as Man. Thus, in some stories, Jesus is talking like an adult while still an infant, and not needing any instruction. On the other hand, in some, Jesus is a spoiled child who harms others (miraculously) who harm Him.

From this, we see an interesting quality to many of these writings is that they often feel a bit as if they are serving as a midrash. A midrash is a commentary on a Biblical (Hebrew Bible) story. Sometimes they are works of speculative fiction. As such, they are not seeking to replace the Scriptural text, but instead seeks to address questions that a student of the NT scriptures would have. That makes some of these “lost books” works of speculative theology.

In recent years, people have banked on the ignorance of Christian and non-Christian alike regarding early Christianity. That has led to an awful lot of confusion about what early Christians believed. It is best for us to read them ourselves. While there are certainly works from the early centuries that would be described as heretical works, most are works of sincere Christians dealing with both Scripture and Experience.

We gain from learning from them through their writings… understanding that they are dealing with issues very different from our own in many ways, and very much like our own in others.

Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden

“Enoughness” Part 2

You are welcome to look back on Part 1 if you want. However, that was more of a critique of a podcast and where I was inspired by the ‘not-so-correct’ English term “Enoughness.”

For me, I would like to think of “Enoughness” as a characteristic of commonality of humans. None of us are identical with anyone, or anything, else. In fact, we are all unique.

  • We have different experiences. I cannot say to someone else “I know exactly how you feel.” I cannot do this because I don’t know exactly. We have had different experiences, and different ways of emotionally coping.
  • We have different social connections. Some people thrive under stress, while others crumble. We may think it is about “strength of character,” but often it is because of network of support and history of support that each of us (uniquely) have.
  • We share cultural and language similarities with some and not with others. This cultural and language uniqueness draws us to some and pushes us from others.

But this uniqueness is balanced by a certain “enoughness” of similarities that we have with all. I don’t want to draw out this point since I am looking at it more from a missiological perspective. However, even though there are thousands of human languages, all human languages share many common features. The similarity is so strong that all of them are generally translatable… or translatable enough. For humans, there is certainly a language barrier, but that barrier is quite porous. Two people with the same language, culture, and even family brought up together will never be able to communicate fully with no limits or errors. On the other hand, two people from wildly different settings (I am ignoring here the question of one or more people suffering from a severe mental or neurological malfunctions) can come to the point of pretty good mutual understanding with some effort and time.

There are enough similarities in humans such that human languages are mutually translatable with each other. You may think that all languages no matter the source would be translatable. However, that is pretty uncertain. We are struggling to decide if other animal species have something akin to language. Some appear to, but we are not able to understand their communication beyond the most surface-level. Some animals are able to understand and respond to human language on a rudimentary level. However, if some animal species do have language as we do, there does not appear to be enough similarities for mutual comprehensibility. We are able to communicate with computers but we designed computers and their language interfaces. But if an alien intelligent species came and landed on our planet, would we be able to communicate? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

There are certainly cultural barriers… but the barriers are also porous. We can never completely change cultures. However, the similarities among humans does carry across to cultures, where even the strangest cultural habits can generally be explained in such a way as to be understood through comparable traits in another culture. Even if one found something completely incomprehensible in another culture, the vast majority of traits would make sense because of common human needs and social drives.

When we take these areas of “enoughness” into account (and I am only taking a couple of examples for our purposes here), I think a couple of things are worth considering.

#1. There has been a lot of discussion about the “supracultural” quality of the gospel of Christ. In some ways this could be thought of as about the commonalities of culture… but ultimately it comes from the enoughness of similarity of human needs. However, sometimes this has led people to think that there is no need to contextualize the gospel. I think that is a mistake.

#2. The same cultural needs are present in all cultures but not in equal amounts. So all cultures have social motivators of seeking honor in one’s social grouping, meeting ethical standards, living without fear, and achieving personal pleasure or mastery of one’s environment, but they are not equally important.

Because of this, when one says that the gospel must be radically contextualized/localized to make it intelligible in another culture, it is not really true. They can understand (at least potentially) that the gospel meets needs that they have. However, often when people speak of the supracultural aspect of the gospel, what they are saying is that the emphases that they resonate to in the gospel are the ones others should be resonant to as well. That certainly is in error.

The gospel of Christ provides:

  • Recognition of being ‘guilt-free’ before God.
  • Honored member of God’s family.
  • Ultimate peace and power over fear.
  • Meaning and purpose in life.
  • Communion with Christ.
  • Ability to endure in the face of pain and suffering.
  • Having a right relationship with God.
  • Achieving harmony with God and creation.
  • <Add more if you wish>
  • Free from the “Second Death.”

Not all of these are equal. I feel strong connection with peace and endurance. Many Evangelicals focus on the guilt-free aspect of the gospel. I understand its importance from that perspective, but (truthfully) it is not one the resonates with me. So if one shared the gospel with me from the perspective of being guilt-free or avoiding the second death, I would be likely to understand the message as well as its relevance. However, it would likely not resonate with my primary concerns.

So where does that lead us. One does not need to wait to have the perfect contextual presentation of the message of God before entering a culture. Jonah certainly did not know how to enter Ninevah with a nuanced contextual presentation. Perhaps it was the miraculous act of God that caused the people of the city to respond. Still, they had lived through plagues and famines and wars to connect these with a message of divine judgment. There is likely to be some who will respond to most any linguistically intelligible presentation of the gospel. However, caring nothing of the differences can make the gospel (filtered through the priorities of the missionary’s culture) seem relatively uninteresting or unimportant.

“Enoughness” Part One

I was listening to the podcast “The Missions Podcast” (by ABWE). They had a guest, E.D. Burns, who wrote a book called “The Transcultural Gospel: Jesus Is Enough for Sinners in Cultures of Shame, Fear, Bondage, and Weakness.” I have not read the book, it just came out, but here are a few quick thoughts before I delve into a tangent.

  1. I liked his emphasis on “scandal” of the gospel. Burns seems to suggest that some proponents of contextualization (he focuses not on primary proponents so much as over-exuberant adopters) are so focused on making the gospel palatable that key challenges are ignored. This is certainly true in the Philippines where some presentations say, in essence, “Oh, you already believe the gospel fully— but you aren’t saved until you say this little prayer that I have here.” If there was no change of heart or mind, they were either already saved, or they are not saved in saying the prayer.
  2. I sort of like his reframing “Guilt-Innocence” in terms of “Guilt-Righteousness.” His argument was that Innocence means that one is NOT a lawbreaker, while Righteousness means that one is declared a lawkeeper (through imputation). I like the reframing, as I said, but I don’t care for the reason. I like Ladd’s perspective of Righteousness in terms of “Right Relationship With God.” As such, Righteousness is the opposite of a lot of the cultural motivators. Guilt is countered by righteousness (meeting the standards of God). Honor is countered by righteousness ((re)establishment of role as a chosen and welcome member of God’s family). Disharmony is countered by righteousness (removal of conflict with God). But then, if righteousness works for so many of the categories, maybe it is not useful to link righteousness to only one category. So maybe I don’t like this point.
  3. I liked his approach of sharing the gospel in a new culture by seeking to learn what the felt needs are within that culture. The gospel meets many needs— both real and felt. By discovering the felt needs, you honor the person, honor the culture, and honor the gospel (by embracing its breadth of transformation and needs-meeting). It helps ensure the gospel scratches where it itches.
  4. I don’t really get Burns’s bringing everything back to Adam and then pushing forward to the “Second Adam.” This may simply be a personal thing, but the illustration never had much of an impact on me. I certainly know that Paul uses it and there is certainly nothing wrong with it. However, if after years and years of Bible reading, Sunday school and Bible classes, I have found this metaphor unenlightening, why would I assume that I am alone in this? I am glad I did not have gospel presented to me in that way.
  5. I was a bit concerned that there still was a bit of a tendency to see guilt as a superior or primary need. I felt that the conversants danced around it a bit. However, Burns appeared to argue that the metaphors used by Paul (especially in terms of law and guilt) drew deeply Jewish OT stories and images. This was used to suggest a bit of primacy of this metaphor and perhaps a transcultural nature to this metaphor. I couldn’t really see the point. First, most of the metaphors have an OT connection… not just one metaphor. I find adoption to be a strong metaphor in the NT. It isn:t made stronger or weaker if it was used in OT Jewish culture. Second, since much of the early church was connected to Jewish culture and writings, the use of these images in the NT, may not support a transcultural gospel, but a gospel presentation contextualized to Hellenistic Jews.

Since I have not read the book, I can’t say whether my comments (positive and negative) stand up. The book may clarify things. It certainly looks worthy of a read> But one term I liked was THE ENOUGHNESS OF THE GOSPEL.

While ENOUGHNESS is a made-up word, I think it holds a bit of usefulness in missions anthropology and contextualization of the gospel. Based on the podcast, I am pretty sure I am using the expression differently, but that is okay. I think Burns is saying that there is ENOUGH similarities between different cultures and people that the gospel message doesn’t need to be contextualized all that much. Probably some truth there, but I would like to play with the term… IN PART TWO.

Faith Seeking Understanding

St. Anselm (1033-1109 AD) had a well-known motto— “fides quaerens intellectum.” This is Latin and translates as “Faith Seeking Understanding.” This can be seen as a good explanation of Theology. I believe that Theology must draw from a place of Faith. One can study Christian Theology without having Christian faith. However, that should be thought of as Religious Studies. To DO Christian Theology, one must have the Christian Faith and thus doing Christian Theology involves one seeking to relate reason and understanding to that Faith.

That works for Biblical Theology and for Systematic Theology. I suppose that works fairly well to Historical Theology and Philosophical/Natural Theology as well. However, in Practical Theology, the description needs to church. This includes Homiletics, Theology of Worship, Missiology, and more.

For these, I would say, it is the Practice of Faith Seeking Understanding. It deals with the Whats of Practice as well as the Whys.

I don’t know Latin, but I tried a translator program for “The Practice of Faith Seeking Understanding” and it said,

Praxis Fidei Quaerens Intellectus

If someone knows Latn, I would welcome corrections or improvements on this. In general, Mission Theology would be The Practice of Faith (relating to Missions) Seeking understanding.

The Faithful Servant

<A sermon I did for seminary chapel>

I would like to go over a very familiar parable of Jesus. It is the parable of the Faithful Servant. It is found in Matthew 24:45-51 However, I would like to go through it with a bit of a missiological spin to it.

An expression that has been commonly thrown about in the late 20th century up to today in Missions is “Finishing the Task.” The idea is that God has a missional task for His people and that particular task is almost done… or perhaps can be almost done. Groups like Student Volunteer Mission, Discipling a Whole Nation and AD2000 have used this phrase or a similar one like “Evangelizing the Whole World in This Generation” to inspire people to do certain things. When this is tied to Unreached People Groups and linking it to a dubious interpretation of Matthew 24:14, the idea has sprung up that once Missionaries have shared the gospel to every single unreached people group on earth in a way such that they can now form an indigenized church, the task of missions is done, and Christ can finally return. Until then, Jesus is waiting in heaven for us to Finish the Task.

I don’t believe in that interpretation, and, frankly, I don’t really like the expression FINISHING THE TASK. I prefer the expression FAITHFUL TO CHRIST’S MISSION. Why is that? It is because I believe that the first one puts the focus in the wrong things.

First of all… Finishing the task has the focus on… finishing… or being done. This doesn’t sound bad. However, I believe that it commonly leads to problems. Decades ago I ran on the track team at my high school, believe it or not. Watching runners near the finish line— most of them would slow down before they reached the end. Why? Because they are so focused on the finish line that they lose focus on running. The same happens with jobs where people often begin to work less hard as one nears the end of one’s time on the job. But perhaps even more common is for people to do the exact opposite. It is tempting to be lazy or sluggish until a deadline nears. Perhaps teenagers are supposed to take care of the house while the parents are gone. They might be tempted to leave it a mess until just before mom and dad get home.

They hope they can get everything done just in time. Or perhaps one is a seminarian and should be faithfully studying every day. But it is tempting to not study very hard until right before the test. Focusing on the finish line often leads to laziness and lack of quality in one’s work. I believe it is better to focus on faithfulness to the work and on the one who assigned that work

Second, I don’t really like the term “Task” in the expression Finishing the task. Over time, people tend to become confused about what their task really is. Early on it may seem clear that their task is to act as ambassadors of Christ, serving as witnesses of Christ, and following the example of Christ. But as time goes on, there is a tendency to drift away from this. The task often becomes something that may sound like it is the same… but is very different. Maybe the task is now… Growing the number of people in my church… or Growing the people who are part of my sect or denomination… or me planting as many churches as fast as possible… or get people to dress and act like me rather than like people in their own culture…. or see how many people I can get to say the sinner’s prayer. Some of these may sound right and good… but they really aren’t the mission that Christ has given the you or the church

So with all of that in mind, let’s go to Matthew 24:45-51

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

When we first look at this, it is tempting to see this as a contrast between Saint and Sinner— between the Narrow Path and the Wide Path. However, there are no unsaved in this story.

This is about two servants… trusted and competent servants of the Master.

In fact, it is not even about two servants, but only one. And only one Master. This one servant has been given the job to maintain the Master’s business of the household including those who serve within the household until he returns. The Master leaves, and this servant is doing a good job taking care of things.

But then one day the servant realizes something. The Master has not returned as soon as he expected. The servant will have to keep doing his job for longer time… not sure when it will end.

This is the challenge. We can handle almost anything except time.We can be enthusiastic and committed for a day… a week… maybe a month. But as time goes on, it becomes harder to keep the motivation going— even more so when it is unclear when the end will come. The servant can choose NOT to focus on when the master returns… but in doing each day what the master wants, in the way the master wanted it done. This decision is identified as being for a faithful and wise servant, one who pleases the master.

But that is not the only possibility. The servant could become focused on when the master returns, and allow his understanding of his task to drift. He still does his job generally. He still keeps the household running. He still handles the accounting. He still feeds the people under his care. We know that because the business has not collapsed, the bank has not foreclosed on the house, and the other servants have not starved. But he is no longer doing things the way the master wanted. He begins seeing the other servants not as people but as tools to get his job done and make his life easier. When they fail to do this, he beats them.. He uses the benefits accorded to him to increase his comfort and extend his authority and power. He is not stupid… he knows the master could return, but he probably thinks that he can get warning when the master will return and can get things in order in time. But much like the seminary student who thinks he or she can figure out when there will be a pop quiz in class, this servant is likely to be shocked and disappointed. He will not know when the master will return. He was focused on the wrong thing. Jesus calls this servant a wicked servant. It may be true, but frankly, few of us can keep our motivation and focus unchanged year after year.

As I suggested before, I don’t believe the parable is about good versus evil in the classic dualistic sense. The servant corresponds to a disciple of Christ. But the story gives warning that it is all too easy to lose track of what it takes to be a good disciple— faithful to the mission of Christ— following the example of Christ.

Let me give a parallel story from church history. A few years after Pentecost, Philip of the Seven traveled into Samaria to be a witness of Christ to the people there. He followed the example that Christ gave. Jesus healed the people and shared the good news. He did not use His power and authority to abuse them. When they did not want to listen to Him, Jesus simply went to another village. When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples to Jewish, Gentile, and Samaritan villages, He ensured that they would bless the people and in no way harm them. In fact, if the people of the village did not want them there, Jesus instructed them to leave and take nothing from them… not even the dust that stuck to their sandals.

I believe Philip was a good and faithful servant. He was focused not only on the mission of Christ, but sought to follow the example of Christ.

A few centuries later, things changed. In the late 400s, Emperor Zeno, of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, ruled over Samaria. The Byzantines were Christians and they had legal authority and military power now over the Samaritans. Emperor Zeno was the Christian leader given responsibility over the land and people of his dominion. Emperor Zeno decided to require all Samaritans to become Christianity. At this time there were between 1 and 2 million Samaritans in his realm. The Samaritans, understandably, revolted. So, tens of thousands were killed by the Byzantine army. A few decades later, Emperor Justinian, also the Christian leader of the land, essentially made being a Samaritan illegal. To avoid charges of being a criminal, they had to convert to Christianity. Again the Samaritans revolted and tens of thousands more Samaritans were killed by the Christian Byzantine army.

Some time later the Muslims invaded. At first they were better than the Byzantine Christians. However, they also gradually gave in to the temptation to abuse power and lose track of their own mission… so much so that by 1000 AD, there were only around 1000 Samaritans alive— a 99.9% reduction of their numbers.

I cannot speak for the leaders of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate, but I believe that the Christian Byzantine emperors felt like they were good servants of God. By using their political and military power to require Samaritans to convert, I think they felt that they were doing the task of bringing people into the church. And Samaritans rebelling against the Christian rulers probably felt like them rebelling against God and so killing these rebels could certainly feel like finishing the task. Using the power God gave them to force people to become Christians might sound like doing the Lord’s work. Nevertheless, I believe they were bad servants. They had lost track of the mission given to them by Christ, and had become abusive much like the servant in the parable became abusive.

Probably none of us will have an army that we can control… or have millions of people that we use or abuse. But all of us will have to decide whether in church, in school, or the mission field… what type of servant will we be. Will we be focused on finishing or on being faithful. Will we have our attention caught up in tasks, or on Christ has has sent us on mission.