Jesus in John 11: Somehow from Love, Somehow for Glory and Faith

This post is part two in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read part one here and part three here.

Jesus explains the Father for us. The eternal Son makes the Father understandable for us. As we mentioned in part one, this interpretive principle is vital for us if we seek to read John 11 and understand what Jesus’ dealings with his friends have to do with us and our own suffering and deaths. We have seen that Jesus said no to the good, faith-filled request of Mary and Martha for the healing of their brother – a request completely in line with Jesus’ character. And so we can know that the Father can also say no to our good faith-filled requests that are consistent with his character.

Today’s point will begin to answer some of the why when God denies our good requests, when he allows his people to experience profound suffering. Specifically, we’ll see in John 11 Jesus’ motive for saying no, and two of his good purposes. It’s not until the end of the story that we’ll be able to reconcile this motive and these purposes with Jesus’ conduct, but they are presented to us at the beginning of the story so that we might know and wrestle with what Jesus says, striving to somehow believe that it is true, even though we can’t yet put the pieces together. The point we will seek to flesh out today is that Jesus says no to good requests because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith.

[1] Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. [3] So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” [4] But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

[5] Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” [8] The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” [9] Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. [10] But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” [11] After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [12] The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” [16] So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 11:1-16, ESV

Jesus says no to a good request for Lazarus’ healing because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith. This is why he lets his dear friend die and Mary and Martha’s world come undone. We see this motive of love and these purposes of glory and increased faith in verses 1-16.

The cause-and-effect grammar of verses 5 and 6 is unmistakable. Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. So, he stays put and lets Lazarus die. Because he loves them, he says no. Because he loves them, he allows their suffering and death. Our own logic and emotions may want to reject this kind of connection, but it is crystal clear in the text, daring us to believe it in spite of everything. Somehow, we will eventually be able to clearly trace Jesus’ conduct toward this family to his love for them. Although at this point, verses 5 and 6 likely serve to make our disorientation worse. “We know he loved them, so why is he treating them like this? How is this possibly consistent with love?”

We also see in this passage how Jesus’ goal through these events, his aims, are greater glory and greater faith. Right away in verse 4, he tells the disciples that Lazarus’ sickness “does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Whatever the enigmatic statement means that Lazarus’ sickness does not lead to death, it is clear that a greater display of the Father and the Son’s glory is going to come because of it. And what follows when the glory of God is displayed? The increased faith of his people. “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (11:14-15). Somehow, Lazarus’ death is going to lead to a display of God’s glory, and that glory is going to grow the faith of God’s people who see it and hear about it. These things are so certain in the mind of Jesus that he can even be glad for the coming greater faith of his disciples, as he looks ahead to the end of the story.

Notice here the genuine complexity of Jesus’ emotions, an important theme in this story. He is able to hold both gladness and sorrow for his friends, sovereignty and grief. His love for his friends would have meant genuine grief at the news of Lazarus’ sickness and the knowledge of his death. We see this grief spill over later in the chapter. Yet at the same time that he knows his dear friend has died he is able to be glad for the sake of his disciples, as he keeps in mind the glory and faith that is coming through this tragedy. Jesus holds these emotions in tension at the same time, and because of his humanity we can understand how this might be possible. Who hasn’t felt profound grief at the same time as gladness at seeing a friend or relative give a courageous eulogy at the funeral of a loved one? We are crushed by the loss, and yet we are also profoundly glad for what that loss has drawn out of the one speaking up front. We see this kind of authentic complexity in Jesus’ affections in this story and it helps us – because we want to deny God that same kind of authentic complexity in the midst of our own suffering. “He can’t truly be loving and sovereign at the same time, his love must be a sham.” But Jesus in John 11 confronts us with another reality, a truer window into the heart of God when we suffer.

But can we say from the rest of scripture that this is indeed true of God? Does God really allow suffering because of his love for his people and for the sake of greater glory and faith? Here I am reminded of Genesis 50, and Joseph’s response to his brothers when they fear he will take his revenge on them for the great suffering they inflicted on him in their youth. But Joseph’s response is one that acknowledges the good purposes of God in his suffering. “‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:19-21). Joseph responds kindly to his brothers because he has seen God’s kindness in his past slavery and imprisonment. God was working life for countless others through his pain and loss. This kind of sovereign love reveals God’s glory, and that revealed glory changes hearts, infusing them with faith and kindness toward others.

The difference between Joseph and where we find ourselves in John 11 and so often in our own suffering is that he is looking back at the beautiful threads of God’s motive and purposes revealed in history. We, on the other hand, are still in the dark, called to believe in Jesus’ love and working greater glory and faith when we can’t yet see how that can possibly make sense. This kind of position is the sort of crucible that proves genuine faith. It’s easy to believe when we see it. But when everything in our experience screams that God cannot possibly be good in this situation, when we strain our eyes of faith and can’t see anything good, that is when Jesus’ promises – and our faith in them – matter most.

I remember the pre-baptism conversation the men in our church-plant had with Hank*, a former Mullah in training from a city well-known for its Islamic radicals. In the previous months, Hank’s wife had abandoned him when she’d learned of his faith in Jesus. This had been disastrous for Hank on many fronts, a massive blow that he was still reeling from even as he shared his testimony with us that evening. Afterward, each of the believing men present had a chance to ask Hank questions about his faith or to offer encouragement. When it was my turn to share, I encouraged Hank from 2nd Corinthians 4, that our suffering as believers is resulting in an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. I desperately wanted Hank to know that every bit of his suffering was known by God and counted, somehow, for an increase of eternal glory. His wife’s abandoning him and the wreckage that ensued was not meaningless, nor was it God punishing him. Even if we never see the pieces fully come together in this life, one day we would see the love, the glory, and the faith that God was working in it all along. I hoped that, for Hank, this truth might help him to hold on to his new faith in the midst of great loss.

We don’t have to be able to trace the specific threads of God’s purposes in our suffering to know what he is ultimately up to. We see in John 11 that Jesus allows his friends’ suffering and death somehow because of his love for them, and that through it he is somehow working greater glory and greater faith. And that somehow, clung to in the disorienting fog of suffering like the tiniest bit of light, may make all the difference for a suffering saint.

*names changed for security

Seven Dangers of Ministry Method Dogmatism

“Before we agree for you to meet with these ladies, we need to know what your ministry strategy is.” I could see my wife’s face cloud over as she read this text. During a difficult season of ministry where she was struggling to make meaningful connections with local ladies in our new city, she had heard of a community center run by other believing expats that was in need of someone who could do local language Bible study with a few local women. As one gifted to do this very thing, we were excited for her to be able to help these ladies understand God’s word, especially since there was no one else at this community center who could currently help them. But once again, the “S word” was being deployed as the primary filter for partnership. Not my wife’s testimony, not her doctrine, not questions regarding her character or competency, but the deal-breaker for simple Bible study with local women was going to be her position on strategy of all things. Her ministry methods would mean she would or would not be allowed to study the Bible with several open women from an unreached people group. If my wife didn’t espouse the right strategy, then these expats would effectively deny these local women the chance to study the Bible. During a season of attempting to bring healthy change in a city deeply divided by ministry methods and strategy, this text made us feel somewhat angry and somewhat sick.

Many Christians in ministry are prone to be dogmatic about their methods – even more dogmatic than they are about their actual dogma (their teaching/doctrine). Missionaries are particularly at risk of this, likely due to the specific needs and gifts required by the mission field context. There are a few methods that are commanded more explicitly by the scriptures, things like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, but most of our ministry methods are an effort in trying to apply biblical principles faithfully so as to come up with faithful expressions of those principles for our unique setting. Study what the New Testament has to say about musical worship and you’ll see what I mean here. Lots of principles about worship, almost nothing regarding the actual forms we should employ. Nevertheless, Christians in ministry become very dogmatic about our own preferred methods, even when the scriptures don’t speak to them specifically. Rather than treating a method’s importance as primary, secondary, or tertiary depending on how clear God’s word is about it, particular methods are elevated to be primary based on some other standard – a standard which is sometimes unexamined, and other times mere pragmatism. When this happens, we expose ourselves to at least seven profound dangers.

  1. Limiting our biblical options. When we zero in on one expression of a biblical principle as the way to do it, rather than understanding that it is a faithful way to do it, we limit our biblical options. As a former house-church-only advocate, this was an error that I fell into. House church is a great biblical option for some contexts. But if we are in place where church can happen in other settings outside the home, why would we automatically rule those options out as less faithful or less effective? Ministry is hard anywhere in the world. It is particularly hard when we are seeking to plant churches among the unreached. We need all our biblical options on the table.
  2. Failing to do good contextualization. We often become dogmatic about certain methods merely because of reasons that are personal and tied to our own cultural background. “We will not use a projector for songs because of the baggage I have with it from the church I grew up in.” But have we stopped to study our focus culture to understand what using a projector might mean to the actual locals? It really does not matter all that much what it means back home. Instead, is it a biblical option and how does it communicate in the local culture? Good contextualization is often prevented because those in ministry enter their new contexts with a prepackaged set of methods that they have gotten from their books, their trainers, their past experiences, or some study based on a movement in another part of the world. Thus, they fail to first stop and ask insightful questions of their actual target culture – and so they fail to do good contextualization.
  3. Encouraging unnecessary division. Paul says that division among Christians is necessary (1 Cor 11:19). But we must strive to keep these divisions appropriate to how central something is to the truth of the gospel and the central teachings of the Bible. As others have so helpfully written, we must know the right hills to die on. Some issues are worth dying for since they separate saving faith from false gospels. Others are worth dividing over and require us to be in separate churches, such as our ecclesiology. Then others are worth debating for within the same church, like our understanding of the end times. Then there are issues to personally decide for, such as whether we should drink alcohol or eat pork in a Muslim context. When we fail to do “triage” like this with our ministry methods, we end up treating tertiary things as if they are secondary or even primary. For example, if one missionary is fine with introducing one local believer to another when they are not naturally part of the same “household,” other workers might ostracize this missionary because they are violating their movement strategy. Sadly, these kinds of divisions will also not be limited to the community of ministry professionals, but will trickle down to those we disciple as well.
  4. Exposing others to false condemnation. Our preferred methods often have an uncanny correlation to our personal gifts and strengths. When we get dogmatic about these methods, we can cause other believers to feel as if they are a less valuable part of the body of Christ because they are not as strong of an evangelist, not as good at reproducing stories, not as expressive in corporate worship, etc. We must be aware of the accusations that our brothers and sisters will hear when we speak or believe too dogmatically about our ministry methods. We may be exposing them to struggle with false condemnation.
  5. Becoming a silver bullet salesman. This danger is particularly for those of us who experience seasons of success or breakthrough in ministry. After a year of very encouraging ministry in college, one mentor cautioned me to make sure I didn’t assume that my experience would be true for all others also. It was sound advice. Fresh off a year of seeing my Muslim friends miraculously come to faith, I was at risk of sharing the “gospel” of my methods with any who would listen, implicitly communicating that they would see the same results if they followed the same formula. The ministry and missions world is full of books and speakers who are effectively silver bullet salesmen. Praise God, they saw breakthrough in their particular ministry. But now they’ve written a book and reverse-engineered their experience so that if you follow these simple steps you too can be a part of this new thing that God is doing! Some will even imply that they have uniquely rediscovered the methods of the early church which have been lost over the centuries. This kind of talk is heady stuff, but is really spiritual naivete – self-deception at best and spiritual pride at worst.
  6. Leaving a more temporary impact. When we become dogmatic about our ministry methods, we zero in on things that may be proving to be effective in our own little slice of culture and history. But by focusing on these expressions rather than on the principles they come from, we end up leaving a more temporary – rather than lomg-term – impact. The next generation’s context may be drastically different from my own. If I try to pass on my methods, they may prove to be ineffective. If I pass on my principles, these have the flexibility to be applied in countless diverse contexts. This is what separates the Christian books that continue to be read century after century from those that are forgotten. This is also why Protestant principles such ad fontes (to the source) and semper reformanda (always reforming) have given Protestant Christianity such dynamism and flexibility in the last 500 years compared to the older churches that became so chained to their Latin, Greek, or Syriac ministry methods (i.e. traditions).
  7. Opening the door to doctrinal drifting. We have a limited capacity for dogmatism. I have often observed that missionaries who are dogmatic about methodology are less convictional when it comes to theology, and vice-versa. It seems we simply cannot live in the real world and be dogmatic about everything. We must fix ourselves to some particular area of importance which then becomes our ballast for navigating everything else. If our north star is “right” methodology, then that means right doctrine is not what we ultimately look to for guidance. This opens the door to doctrine and theology slowly feeling less and less important, as we convince ourselves that right practice is really the main thing in the end. Yet dogmatism in our methods has another path that leads to doctrinal drifting, or to what many are calling deconstruction – when our much-hyped methods let us down. If we have been fixated on the false promise that the “right” methods will be a guaranteed formula for success, then we are in for a gut punch when they inevitably fail. And the enemy uses that season of disorientation to convince us that it wasn’t just the methods, it was also the theology that we believed that led us here. This seems to be happening all around us as in the West as Christians grapple with abuse in the church, and proceed throw out both unhealthy leadership methods along with complementarian theology.

Ministry method dogmatism will lead us to some bad places if we let it shape our lives and ministries. We need to open our eyes to the dangers of this very common malady and put ministry methods and strategies where they belong – as the flexible servants of solid biblical principles and doctrine. While a few areas of methodology are commanded more specifically in the New Testament, most of our methods are not the kind of thing we need be dogmatic about. Should we be convinced of our methods? Sure, let’s have well-formed opinions and make intentional choices about what methods we employ. But let’s not hope in our methods, as if they are what will make or break our ministries. Our methodology – and the Christians around us – can’t handle that kind of pressure. Only the word of God can. Let’s keep the dogma in the dogmatic, keep the central things central, and hold the other stuff with lots of grace, a willingness to change, and a good dose of humility.

Photo by Bernd 📷 Dittrich on Unsplash

A Rather Inflammatory Sermon

Despite this renewed condemnation of Arianism, it had adherents in the Eastern Roman Empire until the fifth century. It was for Nestorius, of all people, that this state of affairs had particularly bitter consequences. In his sermon on the occasion of his consecration as patriarch of Constantinople on 10 April 428, he threw down the gauntlet before the Arians by addressing Emperor Theodosius II with these words: ‘Emperor, give me your kingdom purified of the [Arian] heretics, and I will give you in return the Kingdom of Heaven.’ The Arian partisans, thus provoked, preferred to burn down their own church rather than had it over to the new patriarch. The fire spread to neighboring houses, and an entire quarter of Constantinople went up in flames, leading to great unrest. Nestorius’s inaugural sermon literally turned into an inflammatory oration. The situation was that much more explosive because all the Gothic soldiers stationed in Constantinople were Arian. Although the soldiers remained in their barracks, Nestorius had on his very first day in office incurred the anger of the Byzantine military leadership and a segment of their nobility.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 33

Whatever you make of the theological arguments surrounding what would later become known as Nestorianism, Nestorius himself is a historical object lesson in how to rashly make enemies and immediately burn bridges. It’s not without reason that Titus 1:7 calls for church leaders to “not be arrogant or quick-tempered.”

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

Jesus in John 11: He Says No to Good Requests

This post is part one in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read parts two and three here.

When it comes to the problem of evil and a theology of suffering, there is no text I have turned to more often that John chapter eleven. This post is the first of a series where I hope to mine some of the riches of this text, one point per each post. Well, really, it will be two points per post, because for this text to apply to personal or universal suffering, we must keep an initial point constantly before us. That point is one of the main themes of John’s gospel, namely that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

Essentially, this point means that Jesus explains the Father for us, he makes him understandable. He translates him for us so that our limited human brains and senses can understand and know him truly, though not completely. Why do we need help understanding God? Because he is so different from us and therefore so hard for us to comprehend. Everything else in existence that we interact with had a beginning. God was there before the beginning. Everything else is limited in its scale and presence. God is everywhere present, at the same time. Everything else has at least the capacity for evil. God is pure goodness and holiness. On top of all of it, we cannot in this age see God with our physical eyes and touch him with our hands. So yes, there is a need for a translator, someone who can explain and model God for us in ways and at a scale that we can comprehend. This is one of the reasons the eternal son became a human, so that he might become this crucial, necessary exegete of what God is really like. When we hear Jesus speak and see him act in the gospels, we are hearing and seeing things that are not just true of Jesus in the first century, we are hearing and seeing things that communicate the eternal nature of God himself.

This point is what makes Jesus’ conduct in John 11 relevant to our personal suffering, and the suffering of the entire creation. The problem of evil is huge, cosmic in its scope. It is difficult to grapple with, and on a scale that involves billions of humans throughout all time and history. If only we could have a story where God as a human character interacts with the suffering of a few friends – then we might be able to have some handles for how his sovereignty and love, our brokenness and faith, and the reality of evil and death truly intersect. That’s where John 11 comes in. Remember, Jesus explains the Father to us. So his interactions with his disciples and the family of the ill, later dead, later resurrected Lazarus show us what God is truly doing when his people suffer. Because we can see how he loved Lazarus and his family, we can also see how he loves us. And that gives us clues about how he also loves his entire created universe.

Entering into John 11 then, the first point we’ll focus on is that Jesus says no to a good, faith-filled request.

[1] Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. [3] So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” [4] But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

[5] Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

John 11:17, ESV

The family of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are close friends with Jesus. The text even says that he loves them. So this indirect request for healing, “he whom you love is ill,” is not coming from an enemy or even a seeker, but from loving friends. There is no cynical sign-seeking going on here. Add to this that it is a request utterly consistent with Jesus’ conduct up to that point. Everywhere else where the gospel writers record a request for healing, Jesus grants it, even when it’s a healing from a distance. Mary and Martha therefore have every reason to believe that Jesus will say yes and will heal their brother. So they reach out in good faith, knowing that he is able to do this. This is a very good request, stemming from love, faith, and sound knowledge of Jesus’ character.

Yet Jesus says no. It is an indirect, Middle-Eastern-style no. He doesn’t reply. He merely stays where he is another two days. Silence and absence. This is a good request effectively denied, a refusal to heal Lazarus, and therefore a permitting of his death when Jesus could have stopped it. For those who knew Jesus then, and for any reading the gospels now, this should cause some serious disorientation. What is going on here? This is not the Jesus we know and love. This seems cruel and heartless. When 1) he has the power to heal and 2) healing is consistent with his good character, why has he not done it? The text of John 11 will help us navigate this disorientation. For today, it is enough to slow down and take in the fact that Jesus sometimes says no to good, faith-filled requests that for the life of us seem to be according to his will.

I had a very close friend while growing up in Melanesia. We became friends in fifth grade and regularly spent time together through all the years that followed. In high school, this friend became like a spiritual brother to me. We attended discipleship groups together, prayed together, confessed sin to one another, and stayed up late on sleepovers talking about spiritual things. Then in 11th grade his father, a missionary and Bible translator, was caught with STDs. A double life of sexual sin was eventually exposed, meaning my close friend’s family was forced to return to the US. Their departure was heart-breaking for me and many others. I had made a vow seven years previous to no longer cry, but at that airport I could no longer keep the tears back, and I wept on my friend’s shoulders. Several years later this same friend was staying with my family over the summer as we attended different Christian colleges. His behavior had us concerned. He no longer seemed interested in the things of the Spirit that had bonded us so closely in high school. Eventually it came out that he was living a secret homosexual lifestyle, and about to go public with it. After much prayer that God would grant my dear friend repentance,we sat at the kitchen table one summer night. I pleaded with him to not give up the superior joy of following Jesus for the lesser pleasures of a homosexual lifestyle. I tried to reason with him from scripture. “I’m sorry,” he responded, “I’ve just never seen the joy of following Jesus match the kind of happiness I am experiencing as a gay man.” I was crushed. God had said no to my prayers for my friend’s repentance, who proceeded to plunge headlong into a homosexual lifestyle. Fifteen years later, God is still saying no to my good, faith-filled requests for my friend.

Sometimes, God will say no to our good requests. How can he do this and still be consistent with his character? Why would he not show his power when we know that he is able? John 11 will help us navigate these tensions. For now, it is enough to note that Jesus says no to the healing of Lazarus. And Jesus reveals the Father, which means that God will, at times, deny our faithful requests.

We must know this about our God so that when it happens to us, the natural disorientation that results will not shipwreck our faith. Having this category is crucial when our experience has thus far been an unbroken chain of answered prayer for a certain request. When multiple other couples have now been healed of infertility, why is it not working for us? When I have always before been provided with timely employment, why am I now out of a job and unable to pay these bills? My last three unbelieving friends came to faith after sustained prayer, so why has this one now cut me off? We also need to know this truth of God’s no for when other believers want to turn promises that will ultimately come true in the end into promises that they insist will come true in our own preferred timelines. When these promises don’t come about in our lives, these other Christians may try to claim that it’s actually our motives or our faith – or lack thereof – that is the culprit.

But we must have a category for God saying no, even when our requests are good, faith-filled, and according to his character. We see Jesus doing this very thing with Mary and Martha. When this happens, the reason is not some flaw in our asking. No, when God says no in these situations – like John 11 – there is something much deeper going on.

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How a Christian Marriage Was Saved by a Wise Guerilla Leader

I woke up to texts that several of the exiled political party/guerrilla bases in our area had been bombed. One main base was hit with a devastating rocket attack. I scanned the updates, wondering if any of the teenage guards or kind officials that we had interacted with there had been killed. I was struck again by the sad security realities of our area of Central Asia. Things could seem so stable and safe, then all of the sudden, the veneer of security gets shattered as someone you interacted with gets disappeared, assassinated, or targeted by a neighboring country’s rockets or drones. It hadn’t been very long since I myself had been at that same base that now had a smoking rocket crater in its central building. Though in general we tried to stay away from sensitive locations like these, it was a crisis among local believers that had brought me there. In fact, the leadership of this guerrilla base had even helped to save the marriage of two local believers.

Two months earlier, things had reached a breaking point in Pauline* and Karim’s* marriage. Their daily arguments about money and respect had escalated, household items had been smashed, and they were at risk of falling back into their pre-conversion violent outbursts toward one another. We asked Karim to come and stay with us for a few days until things could cool off. After initially protesting at how shameful this would be for a Central Asian man to be “kicked out” of his home by his wife, he eventually relented. I was grateful for that humility that won out over cultural pride.

The following weeks were full of crisis counseling, and that in another language. It is one thing to have technically achieved advanced language. It is another thing altogether to keep up with conflict conversation, when accusations and insults you’ve never heard before are flying. Somehow we muddled through it. After a few days, Karim moved back in with his wife and daughter, but things were still not great. Sixteen years of tumultuous marriage as unbelievers had left some mighty deep scars. And in spite of the tremendous growth in knowledge they had achieved in their several years of being believers, both husband and wife accused the other of failing to put their Christian beliefs into practice when it actually counted – in the home.

Karim was willing to work on things, and while truly at fault for a great many things, was willing to take some initial steps of repentance. Pauline was done. Day after day she insisted they get an official divorce. To do this, they would have to visit the headquarters of their political party, an ethnic organization and paramilitary group that had been exiled from one of the neighboring countries and was now based out of our area. The unique way our regional government handles groups like this is to require them to have a separate legal infrastructure for all their party members who live as asylum seekers or freedom fighters in the region. The party is thereby able to grant some measure of legality and protection to it members, who are not granted many of the basic rights that local citizens enjoy. To get a certificate of divorce, Pauline couldn’t go to the local courts. She’d need to work through this parallel system, she’d have to make her case to her party leadership.

Continued pleading and counseling with Pauline had little effect. We asked specifically for a month’s time for her to think over the huge decision she was about to make. But it seemed she had run out of hope entirely that she and her husband could change. She insisted that they go and request an official divorce, and, being without transportation, she asked that I drive them. After weighing the risks with the team, I decided to go with them, hoping that the hour and a half drive might provide some opportunity to talk further.

When we began the drive, I realized how unrealistic my hopes for vehicular counseling had been. Pauline and Karim could barely look at one another, and had no interest in talking. Their teenage daughter merely stared out the window and sometimes cried quietly. The atmosphere in the car was tense and silent. I decided to turn on my playlist of English worship songs. In happier times, Pauline and Karim regularly made jokes about how bad their English was, so there was little chance that songs by City Alight, Josh Garrels, and Poor Bishop Hooper were going to have much effect on them. Still, they might pump some faith into my heart. And it was better than driving in the heavy silence. Maybe they’d pick up on the Hallelujahs and the name of Jesus as the songs played.

I stewed on our depressing situation. Pauline, a member of our church, was stubbornly pursuing an unbiblical divorce against all the counsel she was receiving. Karim was acting like a punk as well, taking angry jabs at Pauline that only made things worse. We were driving to a guerilla base that a neighboring country counted as a terrorist hub, and one they periodically bombed. But the worst part of it all was the horrible witness this whole adventure would likely be to the unbelieving party members that we interacted with. How were they supposed to see the difference Jesus makes if their only comrades claiming to be Christians have a marriage that is falling apart? I shook my head, imaging the kind of bickering they might get into once each was asked to make their case to the judge. Maybe, just maybe, my presence there as their pastor could serve to do some good in all the mess. In all likelihood, their party leadership, influenced primarily by Marxism and ethnic pride, would give them worldly advice, and issue a certificate of divorce. Even if they leaned on their Islamic background, supporting a divorce was the most likely outcome.

I drove and prayed. We had tried everything, and it hadn’t been enough. If Pauline proceeded, we’d need to shift into a church discipline process as our final option. What else could be done? Some moments in ministry we feel only too keenly the powerlessness of our words to effect change upon hardened hearts.

After an hour and a half we passed the last local government checkpoint and drove down the desert road toward the area where the exiles had built a neighborhood and their political party and paramilitary facilities. Eucalyptus trees swayed in the spring wind. Rain clouds teased the thirsty orange soil with small sprinklings here and there. It was a beautiful day, the kind likely to produce a rainbow or two over the distant foothills. It was too bad our excursion to this small desert outpost had to be for such a sobering reason.

We pulled up to the base’s checkpoint and were approached by a gate guard who looked like he was seventeen. He and the other young female guard with him were dressed in dark solid green fatigues and had checkered black and white scarfs around their necks. I remembered how idealistic I was at seventeen and wondered if these kids were true believers in the guerrilla cause or if this was simply what one does growing up in this kind of community of political exiles – a high school job of sorts. After checking Karim’s papers, they waved us through and we found a place to park in a small gravel lot.

A party official with a large mustache soon arrived in his vehicle and parked next to us. He recognized Karim and was familiar with their situation. Having been responsible for some of their official processes in the past, he felt some responsibility for their family and quickly shifted from respectful greetings to an almost fatherly demeanor. He put his hand on Pauline’s shoulder and began warmly but earnestly entreating them to do whatever it took to save their marriage. This was when I began to realize that some of my assumptions about the day might not be correct. This man was talking sense, sound wisdom that backed up the counsel they had been getting from their church. I looked at Pauline to see if it was having any effect. Negative. Her respectful nods were accompanied by a steely gaze.

We soon transitioned into a nearby trailer office, a sort of triage room for those with appointments with party officials. Here we sat on reception couches as the younger official behind the desk ordered tea for us and began to confirm the details of the visit with Karim and Pauline. Once again, this official bore a look of kind concern. He also began reasoning with Pauline, asking her to reconsider her decision to divorce, if only for the sake of their daughter. But Pauline held firm, quietly insisting to see the judge. The official then asked who I was, and Karim shared how I was one of the pastors of their church, and an American. Both of these things surprised the official, who seemed both confused and intrigued at my presence. While they couldn’t have interacted with many Christians, or that many Westerners for that matter, I was encouraged that the hospitable responses so far seemed to indicate my presence at least wasn’t going to make things worse.

We finished up our tea and walked back out to the gravel lot, where were met again by the first mustachioed official. He now learned who I was, and as he walked us into the main building to see the judge, he dropped back to walk beside me.

“If we work together, I bet we can change her mind,” he told me under his breath. “She’s not as set on divorce as she appears. I can tell.”

I found this interpretation encouraging, though Pauline sure seemed hell-bent on divorce to me. Hopefully he was right. As we walked through the corridors, multiple energetic and respectful greetings were exchanged with each person that we passed. I was struck by how well this paramilitary context fit with the formal, honorable tendencies of our local culture. The militaristic structure seemed to bring out some of the best aspects of the culture, and to dampen some of the negative aspects that Islam reinforces, such as the demeaning of women. In fact, there was an easy respect among the men and women on this guerilla base that was downright refreshing. I also noticed that the female soldiers were still very feminine, sporting long black braids for example, and everyone seemed fine with that. This, and the fact that many joined up because all their brothers had already been killed presented a more nuanced picture than is usually present in evangelical discussions about women in the military.

At last we were ushered into the large room where we would do the interview for the certificate of divorce. It was carpeted, stiff high-backed couches lined the walls, and portraits of party leaders were prominently displayed. A large, very official looking desk sat in front of the windows. We sat on the couches facing the desk, and were served a second round of tea.

Two women then entered. Like all of those who worked at this base, they were dressed in simple green fatigues. The younger woman was a lawyer. The short woman in her fifties was a high ranking official, and would serve as judge for Pauline and Karim’s case. She had a mature – though tired – look in her eyes and a no-nonsense bearing that called for a respectful hearing. Yet she also seemed kind and approachable. I instinctively trusted her to see through any of the nonsense that might emerge in the following conversation.

After confirming the details of the visit one more time, she proceeded to ask some basic questions. This led to the only funny thing that would come out of the day.

“You are Karim and Pauline, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve been married how many years?”

“Twenty one.”

“And these two are your children?”

“This is our daughter, and… uh, this is our, um, pastor,” Karim managed to say with only a hint of a smile.

I shot the family a quick glance and could tell they got a kick out of the judge thinking I was their son. That Karim and Pauline are my “dear mother and father” would become a story often told and an inside joke that continues to the present day. But the welcome moment of levity was over all too soon.

“So you are here to request a divorce. Pauline, please explain your situation.”

Pauline proceeded to lay out her complaints for the next ten minutes or so while the judge took careful notes by hand and the lawyer leaned in to listen. After this, the judge allowed Karim to respond and explain his desire to remain married. So far, everything remained calm and orderly. I found myself envying the gravitas this older woman brought, and wondering how I could learn to do likewise in my conflict-mediation conversations with locals that tended to explode.

After hearing both sides and effectively shutting down some bickering, the judge began to reason with Pauline.

“My dear, none of these problems that you are describing are abnormal for a marriage. These are not massive issues. They are the everyday frustrations of a husband and wife that must be navigated and worked through. You are not describing anything to me that seems to warrant a divorce. Think of the great costs you and your daughter will incur if you do this. Think of the regret. Pay attention to your husband’s openness to making change. Why should you give up at this point? Be wise and careful, my dear. This is a very serious thing you are requesting.”

The judge continued on this vein for some time, patiently and wisely attempting to help Pauline see reason. For my part, I was thrilled that the judge was taking this position. Over and over again, these unbelieving freedom fighters were dropping wise and sober counsel. Eventually, the judge turned to me and asked what our church’s advice had been regarding the marriage. I was surprised at this invitation to speak, but grateful.

“Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, and that a situation like this does not call for a divorce, but reconciliation. We have counseled them to stay married, to commit to regular counseling, and to follow Jesus in this way.”

The judge nodded respectfully and took more notes. A middle aged man with a red mustache came into the room with some files for the judge to sign. He knew Karim and proceeded to make efficient greetings to all present. He seemed very kind.* Following this, the judge rose and excused herself to deal with another situation that had arisen, promising to return soon with her verdict.

We sat in the room for the next fifteen minutes. The lawyer decided now was a good time to wax eloquent about her views on marriage and feminism. It was the first counsel of the day that was less than helpful. But I could tell that neither Karim nor Pauline seemed to like her. The lawyer continued her spiel, seeming not to notice.

At last the judge returned, sinking into her seat with the look of a woman who has to deal with multiple crises every day.

“Having reviewed everything in your case and heard all of your answers, we have decided to give you a month to think things over.”

This same period of waiting was what the church had asked for as well. I smiled, since the judge hadn’t heard that part. She continued.

“We will not be issuing you a certificate of divorce today. Go home. Think it over for a month. If after a month you still desire a divorce, then come back and we’ll give you the certificate. But dear, do you think carefully and wisely about what you really want.”

Karim, his daughter, and myself were relieved. Pauline was furious. The verbal outbursts that followed confirmed for the judge even more that she had made the right call and that Pauline was in no condition to be making this kind of life-altering decision that day. The guerilla leader saw a chance to save the marriage, and she took it, believing that Pauline might come to her senses and stick with her flawed, but loyal husband. And she was right, this is exactly what would happen. God would use the legal decision taken by this party official to buy time for repentance to begin. I had been very concerned that this leftist group of freedom fighters would only help to undermine Karim and Pauline’s marriage. Instead, we had surprisingly found ourselves to be allies, pleading for the goodness and sanctity of marriage together. God uses all kinds of means – apparently even Marxist-leaning paramilitaries and “terrorists.”

It was early afternoon by the time we left, and we were all starving. We stopped by a hole in the wall restaurant to eat some chicken before the drive home. Karim stepped outside to take a call and I seized the opportunity to draw out Pauline without him present.

“Dearest mother,” I started, alluding to judge’s humorous mistake. “How are you doing? Will you not take this month to reconsider your decision?”

Pauline smiled and chuckled, “Oh my dear son, I’m still getting divorced, believe me! We’ll be back in a month, you’ll see. Now pass me some of that chicken.”

But already there was a new softness in her eyes. And she continued smiling. Somehow I knew we wouldn’t be back at that base after a month. She had tried very hard to go her own way. And God had kindly placed obstacle after obstacle in her path.

Today, Pauline and Karim are still married, and doing better than ever.

*Names changed for security

*Sadly, this man would be assassinated in a hotel room two days later.

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

A Proverb On Proximity and Affections

The one before the eyes is the one upon the heart.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the effect proximity and distance have upon our affections. We have a similar saying in English, though it focuses on the inverse of this idea – “Out of sight, out of mind.” As humans, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the relationships that are immediately in front of us, and we struggle to maintain those relationships that are long-distance. We quickly give resources to the needs that we are faced with, and have trouble feeling the weight of those needs that we don’t ourselves physically interact with.

A wise person will therefore do what they can to to be reminded of those important people and needs in ways their eyes can see and body can sense. This is particularly important for those who have grown up with a lot of transition and goodbyes, as missionary kids have. The temptation after a move is to cut off contact completely and to only focus on those relationships right in front of us. This is because continued contact reminds us of the distance and the change, and therefore the loss. But the seemingly easy way is not really the healthy way here. MKs and others like us need to learn to be present friends, even from a distance. I still have a long way to go on this front.

This is also why daily spiritual disciplines and corporate worship are also so crucial. We do not physically interact with Jesus in the ways his first disciples did. Instead, we interact with him by spirit, through faith, in the realm of the unseen. Our affections for him will fade and we will largely forget him if we do not have ways in which we are reminded regularly of his friendship for us. Hence Bible study which engages our eyes and hands, prayer which engages our lips and ears, and tangible reminders like the Lord’s Supper that engage our taste buds. In fact, Christians should be known as those whose deepest love is for the one not before our eyes, the one we can’t yet see and touch.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” – 1st Peter 1:8

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

A Tale of Two Pythons

If you happen to be growing up in a place like Melanesia, then you want to have a mother as adventurous as mine. My mom allowed us to have all kinds of unique pets over the years, and enjoyed them right along with us. In addition to seasons with dogs and cats, we also at times cared for snakes, tree frogs, owls, parrots, tree kangaroos, rabbits, lizards, turtles, praying mantises, and a baby bat. I would bring my pets proudly to school for show and tell, where they would wow my classmates and inevitably manage to relieve themselves on the classroom floor. Only one pet (a tree kangaroo) ever bit a classmate. Poor guy’s parents made him get a rabies shot. Do tree kangaroos even get rabies? Anyway, I digress.

When I was in junior high we purchased* our first emerald tree python from a local who was selling him on the street of the small government town nearby our missionary compound. These snakes are beautiful creatures, sporting bright yellow scales when they are young, which fade to a bright emerald green as they mature. They are small to medium constrictor snakes that like to eat birds and small mammals when they are in the wild. While newspaper flashbacks to the mid-twentieth century regularly included reports of giant pythons dropping out of the trees to attack an unsuspecting villager, we never saw any get to that size – with the exception of one terrifying carcass I saw at the river where we regularly swam. But the pythons that we owned were still adolescents, so only about a meter long, with a body diameter about the size of the hole made by a finger and thumb making the OK sign.

The first snake was as friendly and gentle as you could hope for. He never tried to bite us, and he enjoyed coiling up on my oldest brother’s laptop or on our shoulders, nestling in to get access to body heat. I have no idea what happened to him earlier in his serpentine life to give him such a pleasant disposition, but he was great, a true pal. Unfortunately, he managed to escape one day. An enterprising local caught him nearby our property and tried to resell him to us, in spite of our insistance that we were the rightful owners. But finders-keepers prevailed and we decided on principle not to buy him back. This was probably the wrong decision.

Some time later we saw another similar-sized python for sale for a good price. Fresh off such a positive experience with our first snake, we decided to get him. Unfortunately, while the first snake was a kindly soul, the second python proved to be very mean and aggressive. I remember staring through the glass terrarium walls with my brothers as the angry thing repeatedly lunged at the glass, trying to bite our faces. He would even snap at us when we attempted to feed him. Whatever we had named him in the beginning, we began to call him Demon Snake. Needless to say, Demon Snake did not get any snuggle time on our shoulders. He did, however, also manage to escape.

In the end, this was probably the best outcome for all parties. Like many pets taken from the jungle after a certain age, our second snake was wild and unlikely to get accustomed to relationships with humans. He needed his freedom where he could live out his grumpy ways in peace. But it seemed he didn’t desire complete independence from humans. One day my mom walked out onto our downstairs patio area where we had clotheslines hung under the roof for when it rained. Above the lines on the wooden rafters lounged the python, snoozing and looking fatter than usual.

Our former pet had managed to find himself a pretty good living situation. The rafters from the patio disappeared into a gap in between the upper and lower floors – a gap that apparently made for nice snake lodging, and one where big rats also lived. It seemed that he had learned to spend his days hunting the scratching rodents in between the floors and then lounging on the patio rafters where he could soak up the heat from the corrugated metal roof directly above him. Not a bad gig.

We developed quite the complementary relationship in the end. We let him be, and attracted the rats – presumably just by living normal life and eating delicious food, like fried and salted Asian sweet potatoes. He in turn hunted and ate the ROUS’s* which we had been until that point largely unable to trap or catch. We actually grew quite comfortable seeing him up above our heads taking his naps, and just had to make sure he wasn’t around to create any surprise appearances when we were hosting locals, most of whom were completely petrified of snakes.

We moved on from snakes after this experience, purchasing instead a gorgeous green and red Eclectus parrot who was one of our longer-lasting pets, managing in the end to very effectively confuse passersby with the whistles and unique phrases he had learned in the voice of each member of the family.

I’m not sure what became of the Demon Snake python in the end. We came back to the US for furlough for my eight grade year and never heard of him again. But I am grateful for all those rats he ate. Melanesian rats are no joke. I hope he lived out the remainder of his snake days a happier serpent than he had been, full of rodent, warm from corrugated metal roofing, and free from any more missionary kids hoping to snuggle with him.

*Correction: My mom has informed me that we did not actually buy the first snake. He was given to us as a gift from a colleague who heard that our dad had wanted to get us one before he passed away. This then was a very kind gift of a very kind snake.

*For those who haven’t seen The Princess Bride, ROUS stands for Rodent of Unusual Size, which inhabit the Fire Swamp, as well as the walls of my childhood in Melanesia.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Fickle Gods and the Wondrous Clarity of the Law

It’s the time of year again when countless Bible readers are about to get bogged down in Leviticus. It’s easy to quickly skim through these sections of the Pentateuch that deal with Israel’s laws, our brains struggling to stay focused and longing to get back to some narrative passages. We read the minute detail of Israel’s purity requirements and wonder if the ancient audience was just as bored as we are. Could there have been a time and a place where hearing Leviticus read actually held the hearers in rapt attention?

Apparently so, even centuries after the fact. No reading of the Psalms can avoid the evidence that the writers of that anthology – and faithful Israel through them – not only found God’s Law interesting, but even delightful. Why did ancient Israel love God’s law so dearly? It was in Tremper Longman III’s How to Read the Psalms where I first came across one of the powerful answers to this question, an answer that continues to serve me today as I try to read and put myself in the shoes of those during that period of redemptive history. In short, they loved the Law so intensely because of its clarity.

To understand this, we need to step back into the religious worldview of the ancient near east. All of the peoples surrounding Israel would have believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Think Dagon, Baal, Ashtoreth (Ishtar), Chemosh, Ra, etc. These so-called gods and goddesses were not necessarily moral, nor were they necessarily loving and committed to the good of their people. They were deeply flawed like humans, except immensely more powerful. And they needed to be constantly appeased in order to guarantee a good harvest, fertility in marriage, or safety from enemy armies.

To top it off, these gods were fickle and hard to predict. Their will could change on a whim. Elaborate divination ceremonies were needed to discern their wills and to (hopefully) avoid outbursts of their wrath. These divination attempts included things like reading the livers of animals, interpreting dreams, and slapping kings until they cried to see if they still enjoyed the gods’ favor. Ancient Arabs, for example, threw a handful of arrows on the ground in hopes of finding meaning in the unique design thereby created.

Remember, life and death and eternity depended on these shifting signs and their subjective interpretations. This meant that the inhabitants of the ancient world lived in a kind of hell of relativity. Their religious systems taught them that your crop’s failure or your wife’s death in childbirth was due to your failure to rightly appease the gods – whose requirements were always opaque and were always shifting, always arbitrary. How could this not foster fanaticism, resignation, or even madness? There was precious little that was solid and unchanging that you could hold onto. You might do everything right according to the oracles, only to find out after the fact that the gods had mysteriously changed the requirements without telling you. How easy it would have been for the priestly class to abuse this system for its own benefit, while the commoners and kings either gave up or gave themselves over to a life of endless striving and fear.

Into this kind of context came the Law of Moses, not only revealed, but even written in language that could be understood by the people. Written down so that it could be regularly accessible for the entire people group and for each new generation. And it was marvelously clear, on points major as well as minor. Don’t make any idols, take the seventh day off and rest, don’t drink blood, treat the foreigners in your midst well, make sure you rinse that pot when you find a dead lizard in it.

We tend to chafe at the sheer number of laws given to the people of Israel, viewing things primary through our new covenant perspective where so many of these laws have now been fulfilled in Christ. And yet a primary response of the ancient Israelites to these laws would not have been a sense of burden. It would have been a sense of tearful relief, even rest. They did not have to live at the fickle mercy of cruel gods. They had one true and unchanging God, who rescued them because of his steadfast love and who now called them to a life conformed to his clear will – his will that would not change or shift. It was solid, dependable, steadfast, not going to cut their knees out from under them when least expected out of some kind of twisted divine freedom. No wonder they loved the law.

Our own age of diversity echoes the fickle relativity of the ancient gods. Within our own cultures, the changing pace of public morality is increasingly hard to keep up with. Lives are destroyed as one slip of the tongue or keyboard violates the shifting sands of what phrases are now safe (clean) and what is bigoted (unclean). The man on the street must live at the whim of the “priestly class” of academics, politicians, celebrities, and journalists who somehow have the inside scoop on what is newly demanded in order to be a virtuous person.

The interconnectedness of the world also brings with it an invitation to fall into relativity. As diverse cultures increasingly interact, the morality of one is seen to be vastly different from the morality of another. For many, this casts doubt on the existence of a universal morality at all. Then languages interact with other languages, highlighting the limitations, weaknesses, and localized viewpoints of each. This casts doubt on any ability to access universal truth through such an imperfect medium as human language. Similarly, the more exposure you have to other cultures and languages, the greater the sense that it’s foolishness to think that you just happened to grow up with the true answers. Yet just like those in the ancient near east, all must be risked upon our attempts to get it right, to rightly discern “the will of the gods.” It’s not surprising then if some of us also turn to fanaticism, resignation, or even madness in response to this uncertainty.

However, just like ancient Israel, believers now don’t have to live at the mercy of the fickle gods. We have God’s Law and his gospel, wondrously clear and accessible. It proved to be a solid rock in the churning sea of ancient polytheism. It is just as stable of a rock in the contemporary sea of progressive culture and globalization.

In a world with nothing to hold onto, we should conduct ourselves with a certain knowing confidence, always ready to invite those weary of the world’s arbitrary demands to something eternally steadfast. “Don’t you want something solid and truly good to hang onto?” “In all the noise, don’t you long for something that is clear and always true?” “Don’t you want access to an eternal definition of love?” We need to keep our eyes peeled for the castaways around us who already know from awful experience how the gods of this age turn on those who were desperately trying to keep up and get it right. They are in need of rescue and rest. We can offer it to them.

The shifting will of the culture, the contradictory decrees of different global cultures, these are not a problem for us as believers. They are echoes of humanity’s desperate need for something solid, universal, and unchanging. And like a weary ancient near east worshiper hearing Leviticus for the first time, we have God’s word. And it is wondrously clear. So clear, it’s worthy of delight.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

A Song on Vanity and Meaningful Work

“The Storm” by The Arcadian Wild

There are some serious echoes of Ecclesiastes in this song that explores the drudgery of work, the things that all men long for, and the meaning of a life well-lived. Lyrics below.

Making a living has a way of killing men
The lungs keep breathing, but the soul suffocates within
There is nothing new under the sun, it's all the same
Need revival 'cause survival's a losing game

Am I fighting the good fight? Am I on the run?
Am I chasing vanity or doing what needs to be done?

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

I've seen an evil that overcomes us all
The backs of good and wicked men are both against the wall
What then shall we do when we are destined for the dust?
Dig our feet into the earth and roll them sleeves up

No matter our station, wages, or trade
Our labor is loving, it's a worthy way to spend all our days

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

This life's a vapor that quickly escapes
My love, my hate, my memory will soon be erased
So let's breathe in this vapor and drink this sea dry
To do and dare greatly 'til our last day arrives

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

Tell Me About a Time You Deeply Hurt Someone

We learn to ask certain questions only after experiencing significant pain or dysfunction. A new question was recently clarified for me, one that I will be sure to ask in any future interviews with those who desire to serve overseas. That question is, “Tell me about a time you deeply hurt someone, and how you made things right.” The ability to answer this question – or not – might make the difference between a teammate you can trust in the midst of conflict versus one who is dangerously self-deceived.

It is said (accurately, in my experience) that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. That means that sending and receiving missionaries who are mature in the midst of conflict is of utmost importance. The pressures on missionary teams are immense. Culture shock can send stress levels sky-rocketing. Language learning can make you want to pull your hair out. Life logistics can be maddeningly cumbersome. Security threats can keep missionaries constantly on edge. Cross-cultural relationships are complex and often hurtful. Ministry disappoints. The organization’s or supporters’ demands can be overwhelming. Health issues press in. Marriage and parenting struggles often escalate in a foreign culture.

Who must bear the brunt of these pressures? Often, the small missionary team. A good team will seek to care for one another and as others have wisely emphasized, be “the front line of member care.” But the team itself is also a pressurized environment. Thorny ministry decisions must be decided. Work responsibilities need to be juggled and shared according to the season and abilities of the individual missionaries. The team is often church for one another, family for holidays, the friends who throw you a birthday party, and those you must depend on for all manner of life logistics.

Conflict is inevitable because teams are made up of humans, each of whom has a sin nature. But add in the above pressures, and it’s no wonder that teammates blow up at one another. It is in the prevention of these blowups and in their aftermath that someone’s maturity or character is so vital. Specifically, a certain kind of humility and honesty is needed regarding our own capacity to wound others, a self-awareness that leads to owning our sharp words, our weaponized silence, and our sinfully-expressed emotions. What I am speaking of here is the hard yet simple thing of taking responsibility for our own sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have hurt others.

Many Christians end up on the mission field who do not possess this kind of maturity. In conflict situations, these individuals refuse to see or admit any wrong-doing on their part. They vigorously fend off any attempt to lay at their feet any part of the blame. They posture themselves like Teflon – nothing is allowed to stick. They claim there are circumstantial factors that explain everything. Or the wounded party is in the wrong for understanding it that way. Or it’s actually the team leader’s fault for creating this mess in the first place. Deflect, justify, attack.

The defenses employed by this sort of person are legion. But they all serve the purpose of protecting that individual from having to admit any blame or sin in the situation. And this kind of posture kills the possibility of true reconciliation. It can also kill the team – and any hope of doing healthy ministry through the team.

These teammates who refuse to own their sin seem to be engaged in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. From what exactly? What is so terrifying about admitting that we have wronged another believer? After all, it’s Christianity 101 to admit that we are forgiven sinners and saints who still stumble. In reflecting on a number of these situations, it seems there is a kind of terror there at what might have to be faced if they admit that they can and have hurt others. So the door to this part of their heart is guarded at all costs because they are horrified of what it might mean about them to be in the wrong. There are likely voices of condemnation always running in the background that must be silenced at all costs – even at the cost of a fellow teammate. This terror leads to enormous efforts to suppress these thoughts and emotions, to a kind of self-deception. They cannot admit to their team that they were wrong, because they do not dare admit it to themselves.

This kind of person needs the freedom of the gospel. They need godly pastors and counselors. They need to understand where their terror-fueled defense comes from and how to heal those deep roots. They do not need to be on the mission field. If they remain, they will slowly but surely poison their relationships through their inability to admit blame and pursue true reconciliation.

I have learned to ask upfront about a person’s awareness of their weaknesses, of those areas in which they will need to lean on others’ strengths. This is helpful, since it can show if someone has the spiritual maturity to delight in and depend on the diversity of the body’s members and gifts. This will prevent a certain kind of team conflict, since this missionary will be less likely to fall into the trap of thinking his unique gifts are really the superior ones. He will thus be less threatened by his teammates and more thankful for the ways they are different from him and the areas where they excel and he does not. But there is a way to acknowledge our own weaknesses that still might not show that a person is capable of being in the wrong, of truly repenting. “Sure! I’m bad at admin…” That’s why I want to ask about how they have deeply hurt someone in the past. This has the chance of getting closer to “seeing” their character. The cost on the field is too great to not have at least some evidence that a missionary will actually be able to navigate conflict with some maturity.

Some would name the kind of person I have described here as a narcissist. I heard a podcast this week where author Chuck DeGroat drew that connection. Just as the mythical character Narcissus was not in love with himself, but with an image of himself in the water, so some kinds of narcissists are committed to seeing themselves as never truly in the wrong. It was a new category for me, and one that I want to think more about. But if this dynamic really is describing narcissists, then that would mean that Central Asian culture (and most honor-shame cultures) is full of them. We must therefore be able to model on our teams something drastically different. We must be able to admit when we have hurt others, and to repent. We must even learn to glory in the ways the gospel has healed relationships where we have deeply hurt others.

Every spring the fields of our corner of Central Asia burst to life with green grass and spring flowers – among them the yellow and white narcissus. They are beautiful flowers, but they are ever so fragile, wilting remarkably quickly after being plucked. And they don’t stand a chance against the summer sun. In a similar way, too many missionaries have a kind of fragility in the midst of conflict that keeps them from admitting wrong, and which keeps them from faithfully enduring the tremendous pressure of the mission field.

Pastors and sending churches, make sure you only send missionaries to the field who are deeply honest about the ways they have wounded others, and who have the kind of character that is ready to own it when they do it again. Missionaries on the field, please screen those you are interviewing for these things. Conflict on the field is inevitable. Let’s do everything we can to be sending those who can navigate it with humility.

Photo by Mohammad Asadi on Unsplash