Literally The Man on the Island

A few years back we ran an experimental outreach with some local friends. We were having an awfully hard time getting locals (believers and nonbelievers) to commit to weekly Bible studies in our homes, but we were always being hounded by friends wanting to practice their English with us in cafes. So we decided to start a cafe book group with locals where we would read, in English, Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.

The goals of this time were multiple. See if locals would commit to anything on a weekly schedule. See what kind of buy-in we got by combining a desire to improve English with a desire to learn more about the message of Jesus. See if we ourselves could get some rich technical and theological vocabulary in the local language as the group worked through the advanced English of The Prodigal God. And above all, give our local friends the chance to soak for a good long time in the message of the gospel of God’s grace. Turns out all of these good things would come out of this very simple book group. But not without a good deal of surprises along the way.

One of the local men who became a regular at this group was a professing new believer. One week we were discussing some aspect of the gospel in detail when out of his mouth came the classic “man on the island” objection. “But what about the good person who died in a remote place (like India) without hearing this good news about Jesus? Does God really still send them to hell? And what about my ancestors? How is that just?”

The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Here was a man who had been in almost this very same situation. He was literally the man on the island!* He was living in a remote part of the world with much less gospel access than India. And yet the gospel had reached him. But here he was, wrestling with the very same question that so many have in the West. Accordingly, our first response was to have him look in the mirror. “Consider all of the millions of things required for the gospel to have reached you. Jesus has his sheep and they will hear his voice. He will get his gospel to his chosen ones no matter the obstacles. Just as he reached you.”

We next pointed him to the related point that the gospel had gone forth through much of the world in previous centuries. In his own homeland the Church had been established very early on in Christian history, even though it had eventually died out. How many of his ancestors had heard the message and believed or rejected it? We won’t know until heaven. The ancient church took the gospel as far as Ethiopia, Socotra, India, China, and even Korea – all places in which the modern church renewed the witness that had been there but died out long ago. And this is only from the small evidence that remains from those extinct Christian communities. What might have been lost? We shouldn’t be too hasty to assume that any part of the Eurasian-African landmass has had no Christian witness at some point predating the modern missions movement. After all, there’s even a possibility that early medieval Irish monks reached North America!

However, in addition to these historical points, we also pointed him to the sober but consistent logic of the scriptures. The command of Jesus is to preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19, Luke 24:47). If people are safe without hearing the gospel and condemned only if they reject it, how does this command make sense? In fact, we are not condemned only after rejecting the gospel. We were condemned already by rejecting all of the light that we had by virtue of nature and conscience and religion (Rom 2:15). We always resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), we consistently suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:8), without exception. We are guilty because of who we are – in Adam’s race – and we are guilty because we go on and rebel just as our first father did, without exception and as soon as we are morally able to do so (Rom 5:12).

These things are true of everyone in the world. There are no “Holy Indian Uncles” who are somehow different from we are (Rom 3:23). Again, we should look in the mirror. Deep down our conscience confirms that we have failed even our own broken standards, let alone God’s – we know this in the core of our being. And every other human in the world is just. like. us.

Our local friends chewed on these responses as they simultaneously chewed on pieces from the fancy fruit plate we typically ordered at the cafe where we met. I sipped my bitter Americano and also pondered. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised that my friend would ask “the man on the island” question. Ultimately, it turns out that objections to the gospel really are quite universal. There is a certain logic of the lost mind that doesn’t change that much from New York to Kabul, Mumbai to Paris. We naturally just don’t like the justice and the grace of God – whatever our religious and cultural background. And without the word of God to enlighten our fallen minds and hearts, we never would have chosen for him to apply justice and grace in the somewhat offensive ways that he has. We come to the Word of God. We are offended. We are then either humbled, or hardened. Such is the effect of confronting the prodigal love of the just Father.

“Friends,” we began again, “One more point. This topic is why you must, even now, look up and see the darkness around you, and in many other parts of the world. So many have never heard this message of Jesus. Right now, even though the gospel is brand new to you and to your people, you should begin to pray and to dream of sending the gospel to those who might never hear otherwise. It’s really good that you’re disturbed that many have had no opportunity to hear. But what should we do about the person with no access to the gospel? Pray. And do everything we can to get it to them. Jesus will find his sheep. But your prayers and your witness is his means by which he does that.”

And with that, someone asked a question about what Keller meant by the word bohemian, and the study moved on.

*For any who might object to my use of literally whereas historical usage requires the use of figuratively, rest assured, I feel your pain. Alas, the meanings of words change by popular usage and that of literally has literally come to mean its opposite of figuratively. Figuratively the man on the island just doesn’t sound quite the same!

*In this kind of discussion I often find it helpful to also point out that the perfect justice of God is not without perfect nuance. Even though we all reject the light that we have, we have evidence in the scriptures that a greater degree of condemnation is deserved by those with greater access to the light, such as Capernaum vs. Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:23-24). God’s justice will perfectly account for these differences.

Photo by Tom Winckels on Unsplash

Walking the Graveyards

But why go to the other side of the world when there are so many lost people right here in the homeland?

It’s a valid question, and one that feels weightier the more post-Christian the West becomes. Before we moved overseas as a family, we used to share an image to answer this objection.

Imagine a huge and ancient graveyard, full of wooded hills which are covered with thousands of tombstones. But the graveyard is not completely still and silent. Here and there individuals and small groups make their way from one grave to another, pausing to push one or several seeds into the grassy earth. They might move on quickly or linger at a certain grave for some time. Usually nothing happens right away. But sometimes a sudden flash of light occurs, and the one who was dead emerges completely alive and made new. This newly living one (after a period of understandable disorientation and celebration) then joins the others in their methodical and mysterious work of seed-pushing.

It’s not predictable when and where the seeds that are planted will bloom in an explosion of light and dirt and life. Sometimes there are weeks and months with nothing. Other times multiple dead ones suddenly come to life simultaneously. The only trend the planters have been able to gather is that the more graves that receive planted seeds, the more resurrections tend to take place. The planters go about their work steadily, but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of graves, somewhere in the ratio of ten thousand to one.

One day one of the planters climbs a cemetery ridge to conduct his work. From the top of that ridge he can for the first time make out the existence of another graveyard, just within eyesight. It’s even bigger than the one he and his friends have been working in. Yet strain as he might he’s unable to see any movement within that graveyard. There are no planters to been seen anywhere. The reality dawns on him that there are none to walk that graveyard. None to sow the seeds that can raise the dead. The graves there will never stir nor give up their bones.

Gradually he comes under conviction that he must go and be the first planter to walk that graveyard, though the ratio be as bad as one to ten million. It’s not right that all the planters (small in number though they are) be concentrated in one graveyard when there are other cemeteries with just as much potential for resurrection that have no one to sow the seeds.

Everywhere that seeds have been planted, sooner or later, the dirt gives up its dead, who in turn become faithful living workers. Everywhere. So he goes. It’s not a matter of the absence of need in the first graveyard, it’s the presence of such disproportionate need in the faraway graveyard which has no planters. And perhaps one day that graveyard will give birth to enough of its own workers to be able to send some back to lend a hand in the first one. Or perhaps from that vantage point they will see yet another graveyard further away, itself also lacking even one to plant seeds of hope in the dirt of its ancient graves.

This image helps to explain why we came to Central Asia when there is so much good gospel work that needs doing in our homeland. Though the work is daunting, our home “graveyard” has many more workers who are going to keep doing the work faithfully. But our corner of Central Asia? There are towns and villages that we have visited that have no known believers. Places where we may have been the first to ever share the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we’re not even as remote as some of our colleagues are. Many over here are working at a ratio of a million to one. A million graves for every seed pusher. That would be like having only three hundred people to reach the entire population of the US with the gospel. In God’s miraculous power, it’s possible. But man, someone please send those people some reinforcements!

Are there dead people in the homeland? Absolutely. But are there also crews of faithful seed pushers? Yes. That’s why we left. And why we’ve come to another graveyard with just as many dead, but with precious few planters.

Photo by Elizabeth Jamieson on Unsplash

Closer to Islam than to Liberal Christianity

When I was twenty one, *Henry, a good friend from the Middle East, came to the US on a summer exchange program. I was excited to see him again and eager to see how he was doing in his young and still mostly-secret faith. He had not been willing to gather with other believers yet, which was disappointing, and he was terrified to tell his family. Still, like a Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, his faith had continued. I was relieved when we met up and he was eager to pull me aside to talk in hushed tones about spiritual things.

His hosting situation was a peculiar one. He was staying with an elderly couple, the husband a retired pastor in a liberal mainline denomination. Another student, a conservative Muslim from Egypt, was also staying there. This Egyptian student was eager to ply the elderly pastor with hard questions about Christianity. His host was mostly willing to engage his questions, but with an inclusivist air that made the answers quite disappointing for the Egyptian – and for me. Now, this elderly couple was wonderfully kind and hospitable, admirably so, hosting two young Muslims (or so they thought) during the height of the War on Terror. But having had very little interaction with liberal American Christianity, I found myself growing more and more concerned that his answers were so, well, squishy. Did this man actually believe that Christianity was true? If so, where was his backbone, where was his conviction, where was his Bible? The Egyptian’s bias against Christianity was only being confirmed by this man’s very NPR-style politically correct responses. Henry, for his part, was not going to jump in and risk revealing to his Muslim Brotherhood-influenced roommate that he himself had apostatized.

I listened respectfully to their conversation, observing the retired pastor with a good deal of inner astonishment – and hoped that Henry would not be led astray by this well-meaning but watered-down Christianity. And I prayed for a chance to get to talk with the Egyptian myself. Thankfully, after a pleasant dinner and evening together, we got our chance as the three of us ended up bunking in the same room. Out came the polemics. The Bible has been changed. Christians Believe in three gods. Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God. The Bible prophesies Mohammad. And finally, out came the Bibles.

We discussed Christianity and Islam late into the night, open Bibles in front of us. Even Henry got into it, making some good points here and there while never quite revealing his own faith. Long after midnight we got into the concept of the Trinity. It was a rousing debate. Both the Egyptian and I loved it. We loved it because, young though we were, we both knew that truth matters. We both knew that Islam and Christianity make exclusive truth claims. We both believed that an honorable believer doesn’t insult his opponent by pretending that the differences aren’t real. We knew that the promises of squishy humanism were coming up empty. Somehow, strangely, we knew we were “older” than our elders and that we must muddle forward together in the pursuit of absolute truth. We debated and muddled until we finally called it a night around 2 a.m. To my great joy, Henry’s heart was freshly encouraged in the gospel.

The next morning we attended the mainline church where our hosts were members. Having grown up a Baptist in Melanesia and having recently been part of underground house churches in the Middle East, it was just as much a cultural spectacle for me as it was for my Middle Eastern friends. I had never been part of a liberal mainline service before. I was encouraged that so much truth was still remnant in the liturgy, but discouraged that no one seemed to take it seriously, not even the female pastor. At the end of the service, she called us up to the front. She wanted to welcome us as guests and to present the three of us to the elderly congregation. She let us introduce ourselves and when we were finished, turned to the congregation.

“Pastor *Smith,” she said with a smile, “who is hosting these young men, tells me they were up until 2 a.m. discussing, of all things… the Trinity!”

The congregation erupted into chortles of laughter and knowing smiles. The pastor egged them on.

Well, boys, when you’ve figured it out, be sure to come and let us know!” More laughter. More respectable snickering.

There we were – the secret young believer, the Egyptian who would later become a mullah, the young American missionary – the brunt of a joke because we took the Trinity seriously.

We stood there awkwardly as the laughter died away. I looked at Henry and at my new Egyptian friend, realizing in that moment that we had more in common with one another than we did with all these chuckling church-goers. In fact, we lived in a different world. As a believer, I had more in common with my Muslim friends like this Egyptian than I did with many of my own countrymen who claimed to be Christians. What a strange and tragic thing.

There have been few moments where I’ve been more ashamed of Christianity in my homeland than I was that day. Though as Machen rightly maintained in Christianity and Liberalism, it was not Christianity at all, but a new religion entirely, gutted of the gospel. What would these cultural Christians say if Henry’s family found out about his faith and kicked him out, or tried to kill him? Would they try to comfort him by telling him that “We all really believe the same thing, after all?” What would they say to my other Middle Eastern friends who had lost everything for the sake of Jesus, for holding to beliefs that these wealthy westerners had long ago dismissed as intolerant or not progressive enough? For all of the residue of truth that clung to that church because of its once-faithful tradition, it had become a community impotent. Impotent to represent Jesus to serious Muslim theists, and even more impotent to mentor those who could lose their lives for their faith. Just a shell of what is was supposed to be, full of nice and polite grey-haired members who chuckled at the silly young men who thought it was worth it to stay up late and debate the nature of God.

It’s not always easy to live among Muslims. Sometimes we want to pull out our hair in frustration at how illogical Islamic belief and practice are. But there are many times when we actually find ourselves strange bedfellows with our Muslim neighbors, scratching our heads side by side at the absurd but confident assertions of Western modernity. It’s frankly refreshing to live in a society where the existence of God is strongly believed by most, where male and female still mean male and female, and where the question most wrestle with is What is the truth? rather than What is truth?

My neighbors largely believe that God exists, that he created the world, that he sent prophets and holy books, that heaven and hell are real, and that we should strive to live according to God’s will. This is not a bad theistic starting point, even given all of the distortions that Islam introduces. For many Muslims, like Henry, they are not far from the kingdom of God. They need a friend. One who will tell them of Jesus, open the Bible with them, and pray until the miracle of the new birth crashes in and changes everything.

Woe to the many respectable, progressive, and nice church-goers of the West. For while they chuckle and exchange the power of the gospel for niceness, it is the scrappy Middle Easterners who will get into the kingdom of Heaven before they do.

Photo by Alexis Mette on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

So You Really Believe Your Daughter’s Disease Will Result in Good?

Since returning to Central Asia we have been talking about the phrase once said of J.I. Packer, that he lived slowly enough to think deeply about God. What an aim. Connected to this we have also been trying to live slowly enough to see “normal” interactions with locals as opportunities for eternal impact. This might seem like a basic concept, but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into a mindset where certain types of relationships are ministry and others are just business. Some are very gifted at turning everyday interactions into spiritual conversations – with gas station attendants, neighbors, restaurant servers, etc. That has never been me. I’ve been prone to mostly dismiss many necessary and brief interactions as not really fertile ground for spiritual conversation. We’re hoping to change this orientation of ours toward relationships. It will require leaving enough margin in our days to be able to stop, slow down, visit, and converse in-depth when God opens that door. But so far we have been very encouraged by the conversations God has given through our initial attempts at this more relational pace. In a city where we have struggled to find our “fishing holes” for evangelistic conversations, this has been doubly encouraging.

One surprising outcome has been a new friendship with our local lawyer. I’ve always had difficult interactions with the various local lawyers that help us foreigners acquire our visas. Their task is an unenviable one, navigating a labyrinthine bureaucracy of forms, numbered windows, and changing policies. We are deeply indebted to their tireless efforts to make sure that we can live here legally. And yet most of the local lawyers I’ve interacted with have seemed self-important suited men, hurried and shady individuals who weren’t always completely honest with us and the government. We have been left stranded at times because of faulty legal advice given – not to mention struggling to adjust to the crazy and unpredictable schedules they keep. “Hello? Mister? Were you sleeping? Good morning. I’m on my way to your house with an officer of the secret police. He needs to see your documents. We’ll be there in five minutes.”

But this time around we were set up to show some basic hospitality to our local lawyer during each step of the process. It’s amazing what a small table and chairs in a courtyard with a little bit of chai can do. It’s as if these basic elements (married to a genuine invitation to sit down) snuck past the lawyer identity of this man and tapped into his deeper Central Asian wiring. We’ve actually had a really good time getting to know one another and working together. He came by the other night to drop off the successfully acquired new visas and once again accepted the offer to take a seat. Eventually the conversation turned to our daughter’s type-1 diabetes because of an emergency travel exception he had acquired for us.

“You know,” I said, “we believe that even this kind of illness and suffering is a gift from God, because he loves us.”

“Wait,” responded the lawyer. “What do you mean? Don’t you think that people suffer because they do wrong?”

“Yes,” that is also a common cause of suffering, according to the Bible. “And yet for those who love God and walk with him faithfully, the suffering in their lives is given for a different reason – so that they would know the love of God more deeply. God will teach us more deeply about his love through this suffering and will do many things through my daughter’s illness.”

“So you really believe your daughter’s disease will result in good?”

“Yes! Do you know about the prophet Joseph?” I asked. The lawyer nodded. “After being sold into slavery (by his brothers no less), he became the prime minister of Egypt. In that role he was able to save the whole Middle East from a terrible famine. God used something terrible to do something very good. Joseph says so himself.”

I opened up my phone to show my friend Genesis 50:20 in parallel English and the local language, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” We then went on to talk about the story of Lazarus, how Jesus had denied a good request – Lazarus’ healing – in order to bring about something better, a resurrection from the dead. I shared with my lawyer friend how this idea is actually at the very heart of Christianity, since the murder of Jesus was meant for evil, but through his death on the cross he made a way for someone like me two thousand years later to have all my sins forgiven.

My lawyer didn’t push back on my claim that Jesus had died on the cross and risen three days later. Instead he listened intently, pulling his face mask up and down as he sipped his chai.

“We trust that God is going to do so many good things through my daughter’s diabetes. We don’t know what they are yet, but we are waiting, like excited children, to see all the good he is going to accomplish.”

I continued in this vein for a little while longer, sharing some more examples, then paused.

As if catching himself, my friend quickly blurted out, “We believe the same thing too.” But it was clear he was thinking deeply about the conversation, perhaps wondering about the suffering in his own life.

In my mind I thought to myself, and here’s one good purpose already, getting to share the gospel with you for the first timea member of an unengaged people group no less! I had recently learned that despite seeming like a member of my focus people group, our lawyer was actually a member of another minority group, four million strong, with zero confirmed believers among them. (This is one reason these groups remain unreached. They get good at blending in and remain “hidden.”)

The visit wrapped up and we said farewell. It was an encouraging conversation. My wife and daughter lit up when I later told them about it. This kind of deep and practical trust in God’s sovereignty doesn’t lessen the reality of the suffering. We still shudder when we look at pictures from seven months ago, when the undetected diabetic ketoacidosis was wreaking quiet havoc on my daughter’s body, bringing her right up to the brink of a diabetic coma and possibly even death. We caught it just in time. After rushing to the hospital, she and I spent a surreal week there together during the first local Covid-19 lockdown as her body was slowly stabilizing. Seeing the same kind of ambulance the other day brought it all rushing back. Most of the time she’s remarkably strong for a six year old going through something like this. Other days, well, that favorite food she’s no longer allowed to have or the jab of yet another needle is just too much for her heart and she breaks down.

A thousand good things. That is what we strive to trust that God is doing through her illness. Like getting to share the gospel with our lawyer. Like teaching us as a family how to add one more weakness to our growing collection, learning once again to lean on God’s power and not our own. Like pointing our kids to the reality of a new heavens and a new earth, where the ever so practical hope of unbroken bodies awaits us if we will love and trust in Jesus. One way or another, glory.

This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

-John 11:4

Photo by Matt Chesin on Unsplash

God Said No to Their Prayers So You Could Believe

Last night we read 2nd Peter 3 for our bedtime devotions with our kids. Our brief discussion afterward focused on verse nine, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

As the passage points out earlier (v. 4), scoffers say that Christ is taking too long to return and therefore that his promise is not trustworthy. Even we believers can be tempted to feel that God is slow to fulfill his promise. So Peter helpfully points out first that time is different for God. “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day” (v.8). On the one hand, to God it’s been like a mere two days since Jesus was here on earth. On the other hand it’s been like 728 million years. Clearly, we need to be slow to accuse God of slowness given how little we understand of his existence related to time. In Job-like fashion, we’d be better to put our hand over our mouth here (Job 40:4).

But his second point speaks to God’s motive for his delay. God’s reason for waiting is that he is patient toward his people – “toward you” – and he desires all of them to be saved, that the full number of his sheep throughout history would come into the fold (John 10:16). In this context the any and all in this passage are referring to God’s beloved chosen people, known and set apart for him before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). God is waiting until every single chosen one, set apart in his heart from all eternity, has had the chance to exist and to repent and believe.

Now, since the first generation of believers, Christians have been praying that Christ return quickly, “Maranatha!” (Rev 22:20). And yet he has not returned. This delay feels slow to us, yet God has over and over again said “No” to these very good prayers. Why? On our account. So that you might live and believe. So that I might live and believe. So that the chosen ones in the unreached people groups of the world with zero current believers might live and believe. I am so glad that God delayed the end of the world so that I could be born and then born again! I am so glad that he has given my children a chance to live and a chance to believe – and likewise for my dear Central Asian friends. He didn’t have to. Yet out the depths of his patience he delayed for us.

2020 has been a brutal year for the world. Even worse years have happened in the course of the last two millennia. Consider how apocalyptic it must have felt to be a Christian living in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the communities of Europe later annihilated by the Vikings, the Central Asian and Middle Eastern cities where the Mongols slaughtered every single inhabitant and piled their heads in giant pyramids. It’s said the Tigris ran red from the slaughter. Consider being a believer during the great plagues, chattel slavery, the world wars, or the horrific famines. In light of such suffering, it’s understandable that believers’ prayers would have been full of pleading and struggle. “Why isn’t Christ coming and setting things right? Where is he?”

Their questions had already been answered in the text of 2nd Peter. There are more yet to be gathered. A little American boy in Melanesia needs to be born in the future and to hear the gospel from his parents. His kids need to be born and hear the gospel (one has so far professed faith – pray for the younger two!), their friends in Central Asia like Hama and Tara, Henry, Darius, and others need to be born so that they can also become followers of Jesus. There are tribes and languages and people groups with as yet no gospel witness whatsoever. And yet they too contain a remnant, lost sheep that belong in Jesus’ fold. For their sake others will need to be born, to believe, to be sent, and to preach.

Have we ever thanked God for Christ’s return not happening sooner? Have we thanked him that for our sake he said “No” to all those prayers prayed by faithful suffering saints in previous eras?

We should pray for Christ to return soon. This is a godly and appropriate prayer. And yet if he continues to delay, we should not scratch our heads as to why that is. There are more yet to be gathered in. And the Lord will wait until he has secured every single one of them.

Photo by Samuel Martins on Unsplash

The Scale Versus the Sacrifice

Today a painter friend is doing some touch up work in our house. Leaking water and life with three kids has left their mark on our white on plaster walls. I found out that he hadn’t eaten breakfast before he came, so my wonderfully hospitable wife set us up in the courtyard with some fresh chai, hot bread, walnuts, honey, tahini, cream cheese, and fried eggs. “Your wife is just like a local!” my painter friend proclaimed. Moments like this this missionary husband’s heart glows warm with pride. She has also surpassed me in her knowledge of the local language. Not bad for a homeschooling mom of three! A wife of noble character I have found.

Over breakfast my painter friend asked me if I have read the Qur’an. I shared with him that I have read most of it and am working through a good English translation to finally finish it (I highly recommend The Qur’an by A.J. Droge – so much more readable with lots of helpful footnotes). I was able to share with him the importance of reading the primary sources for ourselves and not just trusting what experts say. Most locals will not even read a translation of the Qur’an for themselves, cannot read the Arabic original, and simply trust that what they’re hearing from their local teachers and the internet apologists is accurate.

“Sometime I will introduce you to my mullah friend,” the painter said. “He is brilliant and can explain everything to you. I’m not a smart book person, just a practicing Muslim.”

I responded, “But every religion and religion and philosophy has brilliant scholars. And they don’t agree with one another! We can’t trust only in what the smart people say. We need to humbly read these books for ourselves and search for the truth.”

Walking inside, my friend stopped at our bookcase to take a look at my Bibles and my Qur’an. He has read some verses from the Bible in his language in the past, thanks to the faithful witness my colleagues. But I also hope to later have the chance to help him download the new audio bible that has been made available in his language on the YouVersion Bible app. So many of our local friends struggle to read books, being functionally but not truly literate in their preferences and ability. Audio can be a real help for the functionally literate like my Central Asia painter friend or my working class relatives in the US. I love audio learning as well, perhaps a side effect of growing up in primarily oral cultures.

Talking about the written sources led to the opportunity to clarify a crucial difference between the Qur’an and the Bible – the way of salvation. I tried to use a sentence that I learned from the Qur’an to summarize its philosophy, “Good deeds take away bad deeds” (Sura 11:114 Hūd). But for some reason my friend wasn’t quite understanding my meaning. So I switched to the image of the scale. Here he nodded with understanding. “That’s right, Islam teaches that there is a scale that weighs your good deeds and your bad deeds.” If the bad outweigh the good, most likely you’ll go to paradise (after a possible time in purgatory). With this image of the scale in mind, we then shifted to talking about how the way of salvation in the Bible is through faith in God’s sacrifice. This was foreshadowed by all of the Old Testament animal sacrifices and fulfilled through Jesus’ death as a substitute on the cross. Instead of being saved by our deeds, we are saved by faith alone in the sacrifice of Jesus. All our sins can be forgiven, pardoned by God if we will trust alone in the blood of his provided sacrifice.

“You can see this difference and understand this, right?” I asked.

“Yes, I can see that they are very different,” my friend responded.

This alone is a small victory. So many of my local friends stubbornly insist that the Bible and the Qur’an have the same message, even after we’ve spent an hour explaining their contradictory messages. My friend ended our conversation by encouraging me to read the Qur’an several more times. He told me that he knows the day of judgment is coming and he’s concerned about me and my family being safe on that day. So he’s not exactly ready to give his life to Jesus. But I do hope that another chance to hear the gospel contrasted with what he is currently trusting in will eventually have its effect. Put another pebble in his shoe, I told myself.

Once again I’m grateful for the contrasting images of the scale and the sacrifice. They consistently help to paint the contrast between true Christianity and Islam (and all works-based religion) in a vibrant yet simple way. My local friends currently treat the scale as a simple, matter-of-fact way that God runs the universe. My hope is that someday they will come to view the scales of God’s justice as a terrifying thing, something that only offers condemnation and death – and that they will on that day remember Jesus and flee to the sacrifice.

Photo by Flavio Gasperini on Unsplash

His Joy in Suffering Overcame Her Fear

My best friend, *Hama, had come to faith. On a mountain picnic overlooking the city, he had professed to me his love for Jesus, his brokenness over his own sin, and his desire to live and die for Jesus. Several months of Bible study in the book of Matthew, many long discussions, a near-death experience, and a dramatic answer to prayer had led him to this point. Really, it was more like decades of preparation as the Holy Spirit used even events in Hama’s childhood to make him ready for the gospel when he finally had a friend to explain it to him. An elderly ethnic Christian woman in his neighborhood had modeled a heartfelt love and respect. Italian Christians had sheltered him in a church when he was making his way through Europe as a desperate refugee. The Muslim taxi drivers in the UK had begun to unwittingly reveal to him his own hypocrisy in his professed Islamic faith.

It had been a long journey for Hama to be ready to give his life to Jesus. But, like many new believers, Hama immediately began aggressively sharing his faith with his family and friends as if they should be able to see the truth immediately. His passion was admirable. His methods, well, I often had to encourage him to talk about Jesus more and spend less time bashing Mohammad and Islam. He was in what he and his wife *Tara would later call the “attack helicopter” phase. He quickly got into heated arguments with his mother and sisters and he and his pregnant wife were kicked out of the family home. Work as a wedding musician was already slim for Hama and now they were practically homeless, heading into the hottest months of the summer.

Hama had a nephew who invited him to stay with him in his house. It’s not typical for young men to have their own house, but Hama’s nephew had been gifted one by a very powerful patron, the wife of the president. In a previous era this nephew’s father had served as a bodyguard for this powerful woman and had died in the line of duty – at the hand of Islamic extremists, if I remember correctly. Because of his father’s loyalty, Hama’s nephew was taken care of. He later went on to become a famous television personality who regularly got into trouble for taking shots at Islam while on air. He had a house, he was close to Hama, and he was no sympathizer with conservative Islam, so it made sense that Hama and Tara would end up staying with him. He was utterly confused by Hama’s new faith, in spite of our attempts to explain it to him. But it was a good temporary solution until Hama’s family cooled down and accepted his new identity, which they did, several months later.

Tara, however, felt as if her world were collapsing. Her first pregnancy had ended in a traumatic miscarriage. Her new husband had now apostatized. Midway through her second pregnancy, they had been kicked out of their home. She was terrified that God would punish them for Hama’s apostasy by causing the second child to die also. We began to pray specifically that God’s protection for this baby would soften Tara to the faith of her husband. I would still spend the night at their place once a week, often studying English and the Bible late into the night with Hama. Tara was still as respectful a hostess toward me as ever. But every time the Bibles came out, Tara would get agitated and leave the room. Hama insisted that we keep going because he noticed that sometimes she would do chores just close enough to be able to overhear our discussion.

This went on for the next couple months. Hama’s family refused to talk to them. Tara’s pregnancy got more uncomfortable. The summer heat reached its worst stretch. And Hama’s work almost completely dried up. It was 2008 and the financial crisis had brought the local economy to a standstill, leaving precious little money to spend on live wedding musicians like Hama. Tara’s stress and anxiety has reached the boiling point.

One evening she couldn’t take it anymore. After yelling and arguing with Hama about how all this had been his fault, she broke down in tears. Hama tried to comfort her and to help her calm down. In spite of everything, their love for one another was deep and strong, enduring the kind of season that has destroyed many other local marriages. When a little while had passed, Tara asked Hama how, in contrast to her, he could possibly have peace and joy in the midst of such a terrible season.

“It’s Jesus,” Hama had replied. “Jesus has filled me with such joy. Even though this is the hardest time of our lives, it is the best time of my life because I now know Him.”

Tara chewed on Hama’s response. Then she replied that whatever Hama had, she wanted it. From that point on she began sitting in on our Bible study together, listening intently. Hama soon began reading the scriptures to her when she had trouble getting to sleep because of pregnancy pain or fear. Soon she started devouring the Bible on her own, surpassing Hama in her passion for reading. Their suffering had brought Tara to a point of desperation. But it was Hama’s joy in the midst of suffering that had overcome her fear. She had seen that deep peace and joy in the midst of suffering were possible – and the power of that sight overcame her fear of studying the Bible. She was not yet a sister in the faith, but she was well on her way.

*names changed for security

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An Analogy for Sin that Hits Home

Our Muslim friends do not feel the weight of the word sin when we use it. There’s a reason for this. Islam has a different definition for sin, one more akin to mistake, flaw, or excusable offense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had local friends shrug off the concept of sin. “Of course we sin, we’re all humans after all. God understands! He made us like this and he’s full of mercy.” Missing is the deeper understanding of depravity. We are not just good beings that make mistakes. We actually have evil natures and without Jesus we commit evil continually from those natures. Sin has mercilessly infected every part of our lives. And this sinfulness has rendered us eternally incompatible with a holy God. Whereas the Bible presents sin as a disaster of eternal proportions, my local friends talk like it is something that can be remedied by a quick trip to the pharmacy.

We have found that while the concept of sin is shrugged off, the concepts of shame and uncleanness are felt keenly. Thus, these are good avenues to start with when explaining the biblical idea of sin. Sin not only makes us guilty, but it also makes us ashamed (Gen 3:10) and unclean (Is 6:5) before a just, honorable, and pure God. Leveraging these categories that already exist for fallenness can help us as we work to build new biblical categories that are absent or undeveloped in the local worldview. Someday our local friends will feel the sinfulness of sin after their minds and affections have been renewed by biblical truth. But it might take years. But they already feel the concept of shame deeply. And they feel uncleanness.

We should chew on how we can take this into account, how we can take a multi-faceted approach when explaining the biblical concept of sin to our Muslim friends. At the very least, we can use the biblical words for fallenness in clusters. We can regularly speak of sin and shame or of sin, shame, and uncleanness. By clustering these words like this, not only are we presenting a more holistic understanding of fallenness, we’re also sharing in a way that is more likely to pierce the heart. “What’s that? Jesus also cares about my secret shame? My constant uncleanness? That’s what separates me from God? This is not as easy to brush off as I thought it would be.”

I once did a home-stay with a Muslim immigrant family in the US. They were pretty moderate in their faith overall. But one day the teenage daughter brought home some takeout given to her by a friend. She didn’t know what the meat was and innocently put it in the fridge. Her mom later discovered the leftovers and was raving about how good they were. Then she looked at the receipt. It was pork. Immediately, the color drained from her face, she started muttering prayers of contrition, and she started trying to make herself throw up. She had become unwittingly unclean and that prospect left her terrified. She pleaded again and again for God to forgive her. This immigrant mother would debate for hours that humans are basically good, and yet she was very much alive to the concept of spiritual uncleanness.

Because of these things, I’ve come to start using an analogy on sin and uncleanness that I learned from a coworker. I like it in particular because it illustrates biblical truth in categories my local friends can understand. It meets them where they are at. The analogy is a simple one designed to help in conversations where Muslims are struggling to understand why sin is such a big deal. It goes like this: Imagine a delicious pot of rice, rich, steaming, seasoned, and ready to eat. Now imagine that one tiny piece of pork is mixed into that pot. What has happened to that rice? By nature of the tiny piece of pork, all the rice has become utterly unclean, or haram in Arabic. (Good Muslims should vehemently agree on this point. Islam abominates pork as the filthiest of foods). In an analogous way, one small sin pollutes and corrupts our entire nature, making us totally unclean and unworthy to be in the presence of a pure and holy God.

I’ve been able to try out this analogy with some of my local friends and so far have found it readily understood. Then from there, it’s just one step to telling the story of Jesus healing the unclean leper from Matthew chapter 8. Jesus touches the unclean and instead of himself becoming unclean, he makes the leper clean! Each of us needs him to do that for us also, to touch us and to purify us as only he can. This paints a stark contrast with the teaching of Islam. It means we are cursed with uncleanness and in need of a miracle to become spiritually pure. No more weak attempts to do ritual washings five times a day. We need something infinitely more powerful and permanent than that. Something that only Jesus can accomplish. If we will come to him in faith and repentance, he will kindly reach his hand and touch us. He will once again say, “I am willing. Be clean.”

p.s. We would of course later deal with the fact that pork is no longer actually unclean. Bacon is now back on the menu, if a believer so desires. But to temporarily use pork as a step toward understanding spiritual uncleanness is not necessarily to give credence to Islam. It is rather to do exactly what the food laws in the Old Testament did.

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It Is The Glory of God to Conceal Things

*Henry was a local friend who had volunteered to help our relief and development office. He was extremely ambitious and his desire to leverage his connection with us for his future prospects was not exactly subtle. Even other locals were a bit taken back by his drive and abnormal energy to get ahead. He represented a certain slice of the younger generation who were reacting against the fatalism of their culture and a bit too intoxicated with the Western ideals of self-determinism and the power to set one’s own destiny.

Yet alongside of his drive he had the normal Central Asian abundance of hospitality and relational energy. It was an interesting mix. One of my teammates befriended Henry and began taking trips with him to visit Henry’s father’s village and flocks and going on mountain picnics with him. During these outings they began to study the Bible together. I was really encouraged to hear that this was happening as much of my time in that season was taken up by my focus on Hama and his network. Occasionally I would have the opportunity to speak briefly into these conversations, but mostly my teammate took point and I prayed and supported as I could.

This state of things continued for a couple of months or so, with Henry seeming close to understanding the gospel and then pulling back in defensiveness. Still, it seemed to be an upward spiral. One summer afternoon I was present in our office as the debate reached a tipping point.

“I need you guys to find me a priest,” Henry said.

“Why do you need a priest?” asked my teammate.

“I need someone who can explain the Bible to me better than you guys can. I just can’t understand it, no matter how hard I try. I need a religious professional.”

“Henry,” my teammate protested, “we are telling you plainly what the Bible says, you don’t need a priest or a pastor.”

“No! I need a priest. I need a professional religious teacher. Then this book will make sense to me.”

The back and forth continued like this for a bit longer. I eventually chimed in as well.

“Henry, you don’t need another human teacher. We’ve been telling you clearly what this book means, but you can’t understand it because you need God’s help. You need the Holy Spirit of God to be your teacher. Only he can open up your eyes now to understand this book. You need the Holy Spirit, not a priest.”

Henry ended up leaving, frustrated. Perhaps we could somehow connect him with a like-minded pastor. Maybe that would make the difference?

The next day Henry came back to our office, pale as a sheet.

“Henry, what is it? Come in!”

“I need to sit down,” Henry said. “I need to tell you something that happened.”

Henry’s entire demeanor was changed. No longer was he projecting his confidant, ambitious, driven persona. For the first time, I saw in his eyes what could have been humility. And fear, there was definitely fear.

Henry insisted we go into an inner room of the house and lock the door behind us.

“I have to tell you what happened last night. You need to help me know what to do,” Henry said. “Last night I was reading in the Bible you gave me. I was reading the book of Proverbs for the first time. I got to chapter three or four I think. I remember thinking about the part where it says ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and do not lean on your own understanding.’ Then I fell asleep, with the Bible on my chest.”

Henry paused as he collected his thoughts in the dim light of the inner room. There was no electricity so we were sitting in a quiet but somewhat dark space. The taste of a room that needed to be dusted was in the air. Henry was on the couch, we were on two chairs, pulled up close and facing him.

“I had a dream. In my dream I saw a man in shining white robes that came to me. I do not remember everything that he said, but he said to me, in my own language, ‘My son!’ – In my own language!”

“Do you know who that was, Henry?” we asked.

“I know it was Jesus. I don’t know how I know, but I know it was him,” he said. “He had an open book in his hand. He told me that I need to read it. Behind him were several people, also wearing white robes, also with books in their hands. It was you guys. I saw you in my dream standing behind Jesus. I asked Jesus who you were and he said to me, ‘These are my people. You need to listen to them!”

At this point my teammate and turned to one another, wide-eyed with chills going through our bodies. I think we may have laughed in amazement and high-fived.

“Did he really say that, Henry? Did he really say that we were his people and that you should listen to us?! Ha! That’s wonderful, that’s amazing! Wow!”

“Yes,” Henry said, “He said that, and you were there. It was your faces and you were holding books, like you were eager to give them to me.” My teammate and I shot each other knowing glances. We had been vindicated.

“What else did he say?” we asked.

“I can’t remember everything. The only other thing that is clear is that he said, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal things…’ Strange sentence. Does that mean anything to you?”

It had a familiar ring to it, but neither of us could remember off the top of our heads where it was from. So we pulled out our Bibles and laptops and began searching. It didn’t take very long for us to point out to Henry that it was from Proverbs 25:2 – It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search them out. We showed this passage to Henry.

Henry backed away from us, looking frightened.

“I… I didn’t read that part of Proverbs yet. I fell asleep in chapter four. I didn’t read that! But that’s what Jesus said, and there it is, in the Bible, right there! How did he do that?”

My teammate and I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear and shaking our heads. For a couple of college guys who had volunteered to spend a year in the Middle East, we never expected anything like this. It was enough to get to share the gospel with our friends and study the Bible with them. But it seemed that the Holy Spirit was out to rescue some of our friends, like Henry. And he was displaying his sovereign power in doing so.

“Guys,” Henry said, his face now in his hands. “It all makes sense to me now. Everything you’ve been trying to tell me. Everything that the Bible says. It’s so clear now, when yesterday I just couldn’t grasp it. Something has changed.”

“Henry,” we said, “It seems that you found your teacher… or that he found you. The Holy Spirit has given you the light you need to understand God’s word.”

“So what do I do now?” Henry asked.

“Well, now you follow Jesus.”

“But how do I do that?”

We proceeded to walk Henry through the gospel one more time – God as holy creator, man as a fallen sinner, Christ as our savior and sacrifice, and the need to repent and believe. Henry affirmed that he believed all those things. We weren’t exactly sure what to do at that point, having ourselves been chewing on the issues related to the traditional sinner’s prayer as we had inherited it. So we opted to instead lay hands on Henry and to pray that God would confirm his gospel confession as true and if so, establish him in his new faith.

After we prayed Henry looked up, no longer afraid, but now full of joy. He was now a brother. He has quietly continued in his faith to the present day.

But what was going on with the quotation of Proverbs 25:2 in his dream? I am no dream interpreter, but my best guess is that this verse was quoted in Henry’s dream to emphasize that the truth had indeed been sovereignly concealed from him as he wrestled to understand it in his own wisdom. No matter how strong his drive was, Henry just couldn’t make sense of this book. Biblically, there is a particular glory of God that manifests itself in the concealing of mysteries. After all, he is a God with secrets and with thick darkness all around him (Deut 29:29, Ps 97:2). He wanted Henry to know that only the Holy Spirit could remove the veil from his eyes so that he could see the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ. Why? So that it would be all of grace, clearly all of grace with no room for boasting (Eph 2:8-9).

All of grace. Henry didn’t deserve to be given spiritual sight. Neither did I. It is the glory of God to conceal things. Yet praise God, it is also the glory of God to reveal them.

*names changed for security

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

But Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed?

“But the Bible has been changed.”

It doesn’t take very long for someone sharing their Christian faith with Muslims to hear this response. And if you continue sharing your faith with Muslims, you never stop hearing it. The concept that the Bible has been corrupted and changed is so deeply ingrained in the Islamic mind that it seems like common sense to the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world. For those who have grown up in a Muslim family, they have likely never heard anyone challenge this claim, so it is simply accepted as established truth. It is one of the most common and earliest objections to the gospel. Even if someone has never thought deeply about this question, it will certainly come out when they are in conversation with a Christian friend.

We’ve noticed among our friends a curious pattern with these kinds of common objections, such as the corruption of the Bible and Jesus not being the Son of God. Early on, these same objections always come out, almost on autopilot. It’s what they’ve been trained to say by their upbringing. Then later, if someone is close to coming to faith in Jesus, the same objections come out again, but this time with a different tone. In the beginning it was someone simply parroting an objection they thought would be unanswerable. Later on, they’re looking for deeper answers, looking for reassurance, and looking to see if they themselves will be able to have an answer when their friends and family hit them with the same responses. It’s therefore helpful to have a solid initial response and deeper answers that can be dealt with later on. I’d recommend avoiding getting bogged down arguing about this topic in the beginning.

My go-to initial response is to appeal to the character of God and the character of his word. In response to my friend’s statement that the Bible has been changed, I will assert that the Bible is the word of God. Instead of Bible I’ll use the terms Tawrat (Torah-Writings), Zabur (Psalms), and Injil (New Testament) – these are the parts of the Bible that Muslims have heard of. There is usually a statement of agreement from my friend when I make this point that these three “books” are the word of God. Islam does not contest this (and good Muslims shouldn’t either). But then I will share that the Tawrat, Zabur, and Injil all contain promises that God’s word will remain fixed forever. These are promises like Psalm 119:89, Isaiah 40:8, 1st Peter 1:24-25. I will often share Isaiah 40:8 in the local language, The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever. Then I simply appeal to God’s character.

“God has made promises that his word remains forever. He keeps his promises. God is strong enough to protect his word from being lost through man’s tampering. Do you really believe that man is stronger than God? That some puny group of Christians or Jews were stronger than God and able to change his eternal word? We should not believe that about our great God. Do you actually believe that or do you believe like me that God was strong enough to protect his word in history?”

This response, of course, is no silver bullet. Some squirm and make up hypotheticals about the real Bible being hidden in Yemen or somewhere, claiming that the Bible that we have is corrupted. But it’s the rare Muslim who is eager to admit that man was stronger than God and therefore able to change his word. Many will say that the quality of the inspiration of the Bible was less than the Qur’an, therefore God had to send a final revelation that could not be changed. But because the original Bible is affirmed as the word of God by Islam it’s a logical mess any way you look at it. There’s often power in just letting the question sit: You really think that man was stronger than God? Wow.

Some, never having faced this information and question before, will accept it as a good response and move on to other questions and objections. When this happens, it’s a win. The rabbit-hole of tit-for-tat arguments has been avoided on this difficult topic. And how? By an appeal to the character of God and to his word. If the argument can be sidestepped so that someone is willing to study the Bible with you and thereby let it defend itself, then that is ideal. The word of God is its own best defense. We should be ready with solid arguments, but we should leverage them cautiously as it’s not usually the intellectual and logical disagreements that are the main barriers for Muslims coming to faith. There will be a minority for whom a more detailed apologetics conversation needs to take place. An even smaller minority of those will actually hear the detailed arguments presented and consider them. These people do exist – and sometimes they go on to become a Nabeel Qureshi, the late author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. But most of my friends need help to simply get past these objections so that we can focus on the gospel message in the text of scripture and displayed in the lives of believers.

There are many other possible answers to this topic. Some of my colleagues like to put forward a series of questions. “Who, What, Where, Why, How was the Bible changed?” Challenging locals to find answers to these questions can lead them to the awkward place of realizing their teachers don’t have any. There is also the fact that the Qur’an itself commends the Bible as a book to be believed and followed. And the Qur’an never says that the Bible has been changed. All that’s there is an obscure reference to Jews twisting some spoken words. Earliest Islam simply did not teach that the Bible has been changed, but that the message of the Bible was in agreement with the Qur’an, albeit misunderstood by its followers. It was only later, when the differences were understood to be as stark as they actually are, that the whole doctrine of the corruption of the Bible came into play. The Jews and Christians twisted the meaning of the words evolved into the Jews and Christians changed the actual words. Today the latter is the almost-universal belief of Muslims.

Finally, there is the amazing manuscript evidence for the New Testament that can be appealed to. The evidence for the reliability of the Bible is stunning – over 5,600 Greek NT manuscripts with 99.5% copying accuracy between them. And yet in my experience I have found digging into these details, as encouraging as they are for me, seem to have very mixed results among my Muslims friends. Many of my local friends don’t use logic in the same way I do. They rely instead on trusted authority, even when it goes against logic and evidence. They also have the honor of their heritage to defend and will shift arguments as needed. Be prepared to hear strange claims about The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Barnabas and maybe the Illuminati.

It’s a subtle trap, getting stuck arguing about the history of the Bible such that you never get to the message of the gospel itself. My counsel would be to simply appeal to the character of God, to ask good questions that your Muslim friends have never heard before, and then to get them in the actual Bible as soon as possible. Studying the Bible with a believer is the best way for Muslims to overcome the inherited belief that the scriptures have been corrupted.

Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89 ESV)

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103 ESV)

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