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.

Photo by Pixzolo Photography on Unsplash

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)

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In Praise of The Dogpile Effect

The dogpile effect. My former team gave this name to our response against territorialism. Territorialism is a common danger on the mission field where certain believing or unbelieving locals are “claimed” by a given missionary and the other foreigners are not invited into that relationship. Sometimes there are decent reasons for limiting the number of foreigners a local has speaking into their life. Too many diverse voices can cause unhelpful confusion. Somebody needs to run point. And yet most of the time it’s simple fear, insecurity, or pride that leads a cross-cultural worker to not let their teammates or trusted partners get to know their local disciple. What if they like them better than they like me? What if they give them counsel I don’t agree with? Why should I need others investing in my friend if I’m already discipling them?

Desiring to move into a better posture regarding our ministry relationships with locals, we came to instead embrace the idea of the dogpile effect. The premise is simple. A team of believers pouring into a local will be healthier and more powerful in the long run. In the presence of many counselors there is safety (Prov 11:14). Turns out there are several very important reasons to bring others into your discipleship relationships. And while I’m primarily speaking into the world of cross-cultural workers, these things apply to any believer seeking to disciple others.

Transience is the first reason to bring others in. Humans are transient beings, and missionaries even more so. While it’s true for all of us that our lives are mere vapor (James 4:14), fading much more quickly than we thought, this effect is compounded on the mission field. Missionaries may have to leave their context of service abruptly due to political developments, visa issues, health problems, brokenness, family situations back home, or sin. So many plan for forty years and due to unforeseen difficulties have to go back to their home country after four. The average long-termer in our corner of Central Asia stays for only six years. A realistic view of our own transience means we should have other mentors that our local friends can lean on when we get that dreaded phone call saying it’s suddenly time to go. Handing off discipleship relationships is easier said than done. It takes time for trust to be built. We should be bringing in others early on in the process.

My family only ended up serving three years in our previous city, never imagining that we would be called to serve elsewhere after such a brief season. Yet that’s exactly what happened. By God’s grace our local friends were already plugged into a community, a team that was able to carry on with spiritual friendship and their discipleship – even in the relationships where we had previously taken point. This brought comfort in the midst of our transition. Our friends would not be left as spiritual orphans.

Our own lopsided spiritual gifts also advocate for inviting others into our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. Every believer is given particular gifts by the Holy Spirit, but no one is given every gift (1st Cor 12). While we all have strengths, each strength comes with its accompanying weakness. We need other believers investing in our friends because our own discipleship will have some serious holes and shortcomings. Something wonderful happens when several believers invest together in a particular person – their complementary gifts work together for a more holistic and healthy mentorship than would have been possible one-on-one. The body of Christ simply does better work when the members are working together. This doesn’t change simply because we are working in a foreign context.

I will never forget a church discipline situation with a Central Asian friend where I had used every tool and argument that I knew of to plead with my friend to repent. In the end it was insufficient. Yet breakthrough unexpectedly came through a conversation with an East Asian brother who was able to apply a surprising passage of scripture to the situation in a masterful way I never would have. His gifting in wisdom made all the difference. My friend repented and was restored.

Transience and giftedness argue for communal ministry relationships. Yet I would be amiss if I did not also mention one more aspect: beauty. There is a particular compelling beauty that comes about through a community of believers on mission together. This beauty results in the world knowing that we are Jesus’ disciples as our love for one another is displayed (John 13:35). It results in the world believing that the Father has sent the Son as our unity shines (John 11:21). An isolated disciple maker is simply not as spiritually compelling as a dogpile of believers doing the work together. These are the basic dynamics of the kingdom, how it grows and blossoms.We may not think of a dogpile as a particularly beautiful thing, but this kind most certainly is.

What does a compelling communal witness look like? It can be the simplest relationships on display. One friend came to faith in part because he witnessed the dynamics of our marriage – and we were newlyweds at the time, very much figuring things out. Another friend believed the gospel after coming to know the members our small church plant in communal settings. The beauty of believers interacting together and on display is beautiful and powerful – even to raise the spiritually dead.

Territorialism is a constant temptation for disciple makers. My encouragement is that we fight our fears, insecurities, and pride, instead choosing to invite other believers into our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. Because we are transient. Because we need one another’s gifts. Because of beauty.

Let’s embrace the dogpile effect. We won’t regret having done so.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

If You Don’t Evangelize at Home, You Won’t Overseas?

In this post I hope to offer a qualification to a good general principle. I have often heard it said that if you don’t share the gospel in your home culture, you won’t share it in a foreign culture either. There is no sanctification by aviation, it is said. I largely agree with this sentiment. Whether you live on mission at home is a very good indication of whether you will live on mission overseas or not.

However, I have also spent many years of my life living in places where it’s actually easier to share the gospel than it is in the secular West. Frankly, the Western church needs to know that it’s hard to share the gospel where they live compared to many other parts of the world. It’s not just that we all struggle with fear of man. Western culture itself has built-in societal mechanisms to shut down conversation with others about religious things. Many other cultures don’t do that to the same extent. Sure, the government won’t get you in trouble for sharing the gospel in the West. But believe it or not, it’s actually easier to share the gospel in a context where the people are hungry for it, but the government will arrest you. In the West, the government may be fine with it, but the people are prone to be offended.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Christians in the West should excuse themselves from sharing the gospel. But open admissions of difficulty are often helpful in and of themselves. They help us adequately prepare for the task at hand. Yes, it’s tough. So what do we need to do to account for the toughness?

But the fact that it is often harder in the West might also mean that some need to go overseas in order to get training in how to evangelize. Common experience dictates that trainees need to begin with tasks that are more attainable as they work their way up to more difficult tasks. This provides them an opportunity to gain experience and confidence as they progress toward greater challenges. In this vein we start kids off with pool noodles as they work their way toward swimming on their own and we train teenagers to drive in parking lots or country roads before they get on the highway.

For some in the category of trainee, newer disciple, or even veteran believer who has never shared the gospel regularly, dropping them into a foreign context just might be the most helpful thing for their growth in evangelism.

Some foreign cultures are very comfortable speaking openly about religious things. In our corner of Central Asia, the first things many want to know about are our views on Trump and our views on Islam. It’s as if the Western rule of “no politics or religion in small talk” has been flipped on its head. This makes our overseas context a wonderful place to practice and grow as an evangelist. When we or our visitors are spending time with locals, there tend to be many softballs thrown inviting a gospel presentation and lots of room to make mistakes. I know that our setting is not unique in this regard.

Foreign cultures can also be helpful training grounds for evangelism because we are often freer from the fear of man when speaking through linguistic and cultural barriers. In our home culture we feel how awkward a certain direct question about sin or death might be. In another culture, we initially don’t feel this. We instead feel greater freedom to be as blunt as we should be, blissfully ignorant as we are of how awkward that kind of a question was. This can be helpful as we come to see the good fruit that can come from direct gospel conversation, regardless of the awkwardness or strangeness of it. Greater gospel sharing leads to both greater willingness to do the awkward thing and a greater ability to make gospel conversations natural.

A particular intentionality toward spiritual things also tends to accompany us when we are in a foreign context. Whether it’s a one-week trip or a one-year term, the constant strangeness of our surroundings reminds us of the purpose of our presence in said foreign land. We are here to share the gospel. We have a limited time to do it. This kind of intentionality naturally leads towards more actual gospel proclamation. We think about it more. We pray about it more. So we share more. In our home cultures we can be in danger of a certain spiritual forgetfulness. Because everything feels so familiar we can forget that we ourselves are spiritual strangers and sojourners, placed here for a particular mission.

If you don’t share the gospel at home, you won’t share it overseas. This is a trustworthy statement. At the same time, some may need to go overseas in order to learn the confidence, craft, and intentionality required to share the gospel regularly back at home. This argues in favor of short term and mid term mission assignments to locations where this kind of growth can take place. Not sure how this kind of a trip can take place? Well, myself and hundreds of other missionaries would be overjoyed to help your church find the right kind of setting for a short-term trip that helps your people grow in evangelism (once the post-pandemic world returns to greater normalcy in travel, that is).

Helping timid evangelists grow in their craft and confidence may not seem to make a huge impact on the work of long term missionaries. But it would be a worthwhile investment in the saints of partner churches nonetheless. We can’t always trace the Spirit’s plans. It may be that a timid believer finds his evangelistic gifting while on a short term trip overseas. Coming back home, he is then helped to live a more faithful evangelistic lifestyle. A coworker he then leads to faith ends up overseas long-term himself, leading to breakthrough in an unreached people group. Stranger things have happened in the advance of the kingdom.

Let us strive to share the gospel faithfully no matter where we live. “Woe to me if I do not share the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Yet let us also keep our eyes open to those places that can be strategic training grounds for Timothy-types who might need a season overseas as solid preparation for living faithfully back home.

The Core of the Qur’anic Worldview

At the center of the Qur’an’s view of reality are three concepts: The oneness of God, the day of judgement, and prophethood. I had this pointed out to me at a training about five years ago (my thanks, Scott, if you ever read this) and have since tested this framework with the Qur’an itself and with my Muslim friends. It is definitely built into the logic of the Qur’an and also functions as a self-evident truth in the minds of many Muslims that I have known.

The oneness of God (tawhid) means that there is only one God who is supreme over all others beings. Islam emerged at a time when most Arabs were polytheistic and worshiped many gods. The holiest shrine of the Arabs, the Kaaba, is said to have contained over three hundred idols. Muhammad focused on attacking polytheism with this doctrine of the oneness of God. In the process he also used it to attack the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, though there is much evidence that the Qur’an itself is ignorant of what most Christians actually believed (and believe) about the Trinity, since it focuses its rhetoric against the idea that Christians worship three gods: God, Jesus, and Mary. The Qur’an teaches an absolute and simple unity of God. There is one God and any attempt to ascribe partners or distinctions of personhood within God are the worst kind of blasphemy, known as shirk.

The second element of the Qur’anic worldview is the day of judgement. While the Qur’an doesn’t teach that humanity is fallen in the Christian understanding of having a sinful nature, nevertheless, most of humanity is understood to be ignorant and unbelieving. Because humanity has so often turned to idolatry and away from the worship of the one God, they are in danger of being condemned at the final day of judgment. The day of judgment is understood to be a straightforward day of reckoning where God weighs a person’s good deeds and their bad deeds. If the scale is heavier on the side of the good, then that person will go to gardens of paradise. If the bad is the heavier side, then that person will begin suffering right away in fiery torment. The day of judgment is taught to be inevitable, bearing down upon humanity and previewed in history by many destroyed cities and civilizations that were left in ruins because they refused to turn from their idolatry.

However, because the Qur’an teaches that humanity is morally free and able to do righteous deeds which merit eternal life, God sends prophets to call societies back to belief in the oneness of God and the day of judgment. This is where prophethood, the third aspect of the Qur’anic worldview, fits in. The Qur’an teaches that prophethood is a pattern of history that plays itself out repeatedly. A society turns away from God to idolatry and scoffs at the day of judgment. God sends that society a prophet from among them, often with his own book of God’s revelation. That society either repents and returns to the worship of one God and the proper fear of the day of judgment (with accompanying good deeds) or they continue to scoff and God utterly destroys them. This pattern is said to have repeated itself countless times before the emergence of Muhammad among the Arabs.

As the creation, fall, redemption, restoration pattern sets the big plot line for the Bible and shows itself in many smaller, foreshadowing narratives, so the cyclical pattern of Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood play a similar role in the Qur’an. Muhammad is cast as the seal of the prophets, meaning that he is the final messenger who brings this pattern to its final global manifestation. Muhammad is calling the Arabs, and through them the whole world, away from idolatry and to faith in one God and the day of judgment. The regional prophets of earlier times are understood to have been superseded by the global prophet with the final book of God’s revelation.

To tell a Muslim the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is to tell them a new kind of story foreign to Islam, even though they themselves end up echoing this story in other ways. The primary narrative of salvation history painted by the Qur’an is much simpler than the Bible’s. According to the Qur’an, humanity’s need is not salvation, but teaching and warning – teaching about the oneness of God, warning about the coming judgment. As long as someone submits themselves to that basic theology as mediated by Muhammad and the Qur’an, Islam gives them a pretty good chance of being able to earn eternal life.

Many of my Central Asian friends believe that Islam and Christianity basically teach the same thing. It’s all we can do to eventually convince them of the mutually exclusive narratives at the heart of both religions. They believe that all the Abrahamic religions hold to this same simple narrative – because the Qur’an teaches that this agreement exists. So using Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood and explicitly pointing out the differences between that metanarrative and the Bible’s can be a helpful path to take when laboring to demonstrate how the message of the Bible is actually very different from that of the Qur’an.

It also helps to explain the shocking differences Muslims find if they actually read the Old Testament. Many prophets who are held up as simple yet exemplary warners in the Qur’an, men like Lot, Noah, and Abraham, prove to be quite complicated, flawed, and sinful in the book of Genesis. Prophets are understood in the Qur’an to be the holiest of humans, essentially sinless in their mission of proclaiming repentance and submission. In the Scriptures, Muslims find out that prophets deserve hell, just like everyone else, and must be saved by God’s sacrifice alone.

Initially that lands as very bad news. But when Muslims have a good Christian friend who can explain and model the grace of God for them, then it can become the very best news of all.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Waiting For the Ice to Melt

Back in 2007 I was a student in Minneapolis and able to attend the Desiring God Pastors Conference. William Mackenzie, the director of Christian Focus Publications, was one of the speakers that year. During one of the sessions he shared an analogy that has continued to be of help to me over the years. To preface his illustration, this question was asked: What are we doing when we share biblical truth with our unbelieving children? If they do not have hearts of flesh, but hearts of stone, are our efforts to teach them the truth of the Bible pointless or making them hypocrites?

Then he shared this image, which I have recounted here in paraphrase:

Imagine a frozen lake [which was not very hard to do in Minneapolis in January]. When we teach our children God’s truth, it’s like we are sliding frozen rocks out onto the ice. True, we have no power to break the ice ourselves, but we slide the rocks out onto the ice nonetheless. We know that when the sun eventually melts the ice, all those rocks will sink all the way to the bottom of the lake. The sun is the Holy Spirit. When he melts the ice of our children’s hearts, all of those lessons we have imparted will sink in. It will not have been in vain.

As a father of three now, I’ve often remembered this image as we plod through yet another bedtime routine of reading the word, singing, and prayer. Will my children ever have soft hearts to these things that we have shared with them a thousand times? It’s not uncommon for these times to feel like we are spinning our wheels, or for homeschooling to be the most stressful and frustrating part of my wife’s day.

We also have Central Asian friends like this. The sheer amount of believing friends and gospel conversations these individuals have had is, frankly, ridiculous. We keep bringing up Jesus to them, they keep not becoming believers, yet they keep coming around. What should we do with these types of friends? We need to prioritize those who are open to the gospel, yet we also don’t want to cut off these relationships, unresponsive though they seem. We hold out hope that in some way, if we keep sharing the gospel with them and they keep being open to our friendship, then they may be open to Jesus after all. Our practice has usually been to have some kind of regular communal/relational time where we can invite friends like this. That way we can prioritize meeting with those who are responding to the word throughout the week, but still stay in touch with those whose metaphorical lakes are still frozen, yet brimming with rocks. “I’m sorry this week I’m so busy, but why don’t you come to this open meal/coffee-tea gathering we have every week? I’d love to see you there and catch up.”

My dad came to faith as an adult and he used to tell us how grateful he was that we were being raised in a Christian home. “You’ll be so much further along than I was.” My dad was raised almost completely unchurched and I think he was getting at the dynamics I’m discussing here. He longed for his children to be raised knowing the word of God. True, we do not know when (or ultimately, if) the wind of the Spirit will blow and produce the miracle of the new birth. But when the word of God has been relentlessly imparted to the children or friends of believers, it waits, dormant and ready for the life-giving touch of the Spirit, like some kind of sleeper cell, waiting for the signal to overthrow the corrupt illegitimate tyrant with a new government of justice and truth – with the true king returned.

What are we to do with the hard hearts in our children or unbelieving friends? Keep teaching and keep praying. Keep sliding those rocks. We keep going in patience and faith, believing that the spring sun will come and melt the ice, sooner or later. And when he does, it is our intention for those frozen lakes to be positively covered with rocks.

Photo by Michael Aleo on Unsplash

The Reputations of Tent-Makers

A local friend of mine invited me to his birthday party a few years ago. I was excited to get the invitation, since this was a good friend who had once professed faith, but had sadly been drifting away for years. He was one of many young men in our Central Asian city who had eagerly identified as a Christian in the first wave of house churches planted, only to grow cynical after they imploded. Many of this first generation of believers have fallen away and no longer claim faith in Jesus. Others hold out, but are determined to never gather with other locals again. Such is the devastation wrought when new churches are destroyed by domineering leadership, outside money, power conflicts, and prosperity theology. The foundation wasn’t deep enough when the missionaries (eager to not be paternalistic) went home. Little today remains of that budding movement of house churches once touted as a great success.

Right as things were falling apart, a new group of missionaries arrived and got to work opening an English center. They were to become close partners for my team when we arrived some years later. The birthday party I attended took place after about a decade of steady labor by these partners, a point that I think should not be lost in the account to follow. In the wake of the collapse of generation one, our partners faithfully taught English, learned the local language, and told people about Jesus. When this birthday party took place, I had probably only been teaching at that particular center for two years. I have since realized just how well set up I was by the labors of this partner team.

Our local Central Asian people group is very much into Instagram-worthy birthday party celebrations. At this particular party (where everyone was dressed seemingly for prom) they included candles that were essentially fireworks and a gorgeous cake that tasted like cardboard – the norm, sadly. While the smoke was still hanging in the air and the world-conquering “Happy Birthday” song had been sung in our local tongue, one of the guests approached me.

“So, you teach at the _____ English Center, right?”

“Yes, I do! You have heard of it?” I asked.

“Of course I have! All over the city people say that there is no better place to learn the English language. Tell me, what’s your secret?”

“Well,” I said, “All of our teachers are native English speakers, so that’s part of it. But our teachers also have a culture of spending time with their students, even outside the classroom. It’s normal for us to go to the tea houses with our students and to go on picnics with them. This kind of relational and conversational way of learning English has a big effect. We’re not like some other foreigners that you only see in the classroom, but not in the bazaar.”

“I see,” my questioner said, narrowing his eyes and leaning in. “But I also hear that you can learn about Jesus there.”

I wasn’t sure where this man was coming from. Could he be a seeker? A Salafi? Unlikely in his spiffy suit. A member of the secret police? Thankfully, I don’t remember my anxiety spiking, as sometimes happens when it feels like someone is trying to “out” our work as missionaries in a country where it is illegal. This time I felt a welcome confidence and a clear mind. Perhaps it was the effect of the gunpowder birthday candles, or just a simple Spirit-given calm.

“You are right that all of our teachers are followers of Jesus, true Christians. And this makes a huge difference in how we teach, because we genuinely love our students as God has loved us. When teachers truly love their students in this way, of course their students are going to learn well.”

My new friend smiled and seemed to accept this answer. I invited him to visit our center soon, but I’m not aware that he ever took me up on the offer. To this day I don’t know exactly where he was going with his questions, but I’ve often remembered that conversation as I’ve thought about what it means to do “platform,” or tent-making work, well as a missionary – or even how to work any job for the glory of God.

This man may have not intended this, but he paid our English Center two huge compliments, all the more so because many would view his observations as being in opposition to each other. Sometimes we are faced with a false choice – either work excellently and leave the witnessing to non-business hours, or we just do what it takes to get by with the platform, focusing instead on sharing the gospel. Because it could be used by the secret police to shut us down, we tried not to share the gospel too explicitly in our English Center, but we also had a softball policy. If someone lobs you one, hit it out of the park and trust God with the consequences. Plus, even though not always sharing explicit gospel, we labored to model Christian character and alluded to God’s word as much as we could in the classroom and in our discussion groups.

To be known all over the city as offering an excellent product and to be known as a place where people can learn about Jesus – that’s just about as ideal a reputation as you could ask for when running a business or NGO among an unreached people group. Our partners had truly done some great work. And my fellow guest at the birthday party may never know it, but he has helped me better frame my goals for my new team’s current and future platforms: How can we offer an excellent product that gives glory to God? And how can we be the subjects of good gossip as those who can help others know more of Jesus? We don’t have to choose one over the other.

I remember NPR doing an interview with a coffeeshop in our home city in the US. The owners were Christians and NPR showed up because, along with winning national awards, this coffeeshop had a steady presence of Christians and those becoming Christians. Some locals murmured about it being “a front” for evangelicals. There was suspicion that conspiracy was afoot.

The owner responded to the NPR interviewer with wisdom and truth.

“We are Christians, so we are motivated by the glory of God. Of course, that affects the quality of each drink that we make and the care we put into it! And this naturally leads to good conversations about our product and about who we are as well.”

Exactly. No conspiracy. Just good Christian work, done to the glory of God – and the kind of reputations that follow.

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

A Solid Piece of Advice for Living on Mission

I once took part in an intro to church planting class where leaders of different local church plants were invited to come in and share their wisdom. Being newly back in the US at the time, I was eager to compare notes with what I had seen in the Middle East.

Some leaders from a multicultural house-church plant visited our class one day. These leaders were also students at the seminary where I was working on my undergrad. I don’t remember much from their presentation, but one nugget of wisdom stuck with me and proved to be enormously helpful.

“Listen,” they said. “It’s awfully hard to be a working student who is faithful to your church and still find the time to reach out cross-culturally in this city. The busyness of life can make evangelistic friendships with internationals here very hard to fit in. But we have learned one very important lesson that’s made it more accessible.”

I leaned forward as they continued.

“It’s simply much more possible to live on mission when you are living next door to those you are seeking to reach. When we lived on campus, we found it much harder to find the margin to engage the lost. But when we moved into an apartment complex where many internationals lived, we couldn’t help but interact as a part of our daily routines. With intentionality, this actually led to friendships and chances to share the gospel.”

“Interesting,” I thought. I was a new student, kept very busy by my friendships with believers, my jobs, and my homework (especially NT Greek!). Yet I earnestly desired to find a few Middle Eastern friends with whom I could spend time and share the gospel. I already felt the difficulty of making this happen, living in a suburban-type neighborhood just off of campus in a duplex full of believers.

I took note of this piece of counsel and a few years later my new wife and I had the chance to put it into practice. We were given the chance to move into an apartment complex which had historically been one of the city’s main communities for refugee resettlement. This apartment complex had a reputation for crime and drugs, but after praying and both sensing God’s leading, we moved in.

The counsel I received several years previously proved to be sound. Engaging internationals missionally in America was indeed much more accessible when we lived next door to them and underneath them.

True, there were plenty of challenges. A gang of Somali youth tried to kick in our back door late one evening. The Cuban men shamelessly objectified any woman who dared walk down the sidewalk. We had to break up fist fights between Sudanese neighbors. One friend had a tooth punched out and another his phone stolen at gun point. And there were lots of roaches and bed bugs. Yep, we’ve had bed bugs. Multiple times (written with a shiver).

Yet there were also the chances to talk about Jesus late into the evening with Iraqis in their first year of living in the US. There were the Bible studies that incorporated Nepalese, American, Honduran, and Afghani friends. When many of our friends needed help, they could simply come by and knock on our door, or call us and we could rush over there – as when some Iranian friends called 911 because they couldn’t figure out how to turn off their central heating and needed help communicating clearly with the police that had for some reason shown up!

The first step of mission is access. In the ultra-busy life of the West, access to relationships with the lost is harder than it sounds. While not everyone is able to move into this kind of refugee community, it’s worth asking the question: Is there some way in which living in a different community might help me rub shoulders more often with the lost? Geography is not everything, but it’s one important piece that is worth thinking through as believers seek to live on mission.

Now, it’s certainly possible to have lost neighbors for years and to still not have any meaningful friendship with them. Prayer and intentional hospitality are key to tapping the potential that close geography provides. But after all, we are called to be a people who live prayerfully and intentionally in every area of life for the sake of the gospel.

Therefore, for some, that will mean moving for the sake of more natural access to your lost neighbors. It’s simply much more possible to live on mission when you are living next door to those you are seeking to reach.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Why I Would Get a Dog If I Lived in America

This post is for those Christian parents in the US who have managed to make it this far in 2020 without yet getting a dog. You have bravely held out in spite of your kids’ tearful pleading, many of your friends getting puppies, and all those extra quarantine hours at home almost second-guessing your decision to go without a canine companion. Your resilience is admirable. As they say in Hobbiton, may the hair on your toes never fall off. Yet, while I commend your resilience, I will also attempt to provide a cultural-missional justification for getting a puppy – seriously – or at least why I would get one if I lived in the US.

You see, when you leave your own culture and begin to deeply study another, you can’t help but see your own culture back home in a new light. You also have no power over what kind of insights unexpectedly emerge as you, the metaphorical goldfish, get a chance to look back on the fish bowl. These insights are sometimes life-changing and other times, well, they more in the category of, “Aren’t Americans odd for never using their front doors?” Sometimes, these insights helpfully have to do with challenges believers face everywhere, such as how to share the gospel.

Living primarily in the non-Western world and traveling back occasionally, we have noticed a few things about when Americans feel its appropriate to talk to strangers. Generally, it feels like it’s harder to talk to strangers in the US than it is in many other parts of the world. The justification required for striking up a conversation with a stranger that could approach deeper things, things like Jesus, seems to be higher. Especially among the middle and upper classes, a good reason seems to be expected for the question, “Why are you talking to me?” This presents a challenge for those who want to regularly engage others with the good news, yet who also do not want to be unnecessarily rude or awkward.

The exceptions for talking to Western strangers that we have noticed are as follows:

  1. If that stranger is pregnant. If this is the case, not only can you strike up a conversation, but many also strangely impart a flood of unrequested advice and anecdotes. I don’t necessarily recommend this, but we have certainly observed it! On the other hand, go forth and multiply.
  2. If you have one of those amazing extrovert personalities, like my grandpa, and somehow random people just light up when you engage them. However, these charming extrovert types seem to be a small minority. If this is you, you have a gift.
  3. If that stranger has a dog, if you have a dog, or both. If this is true, than the high wall of Western resistance to talking to strangers seems to immediately disintegrate in an unexpectedly warm camaraderie of canine appreciators.

This dynamic about dogs is truly there. If you doubt me, try it out the next time you’re at the park. Approach that intimidating total stranger who is walking their dog. Ask a few genuinely happy questions about their pooch (while asking permission to shower said canine with affection). That scary suburban scowl will immediately melt like you had just dropped a polite greeting in the tribal tongue to the grumpy village grandma. Next thing you know it, you’re being invited to marry one of the villagers – or in the American equivalent, you’ll actually be shooting the breeze with a total stranger who just might become a genuine friend.

We’ve seen this confirmed as we’ve spent the last few months in the US. Even in the midst of a pandemic, those who have dogs, walk them, and take them to dog parks are regularly involved in happy interaction with neighbors and strangers. Dogs even make Americans warm up to families with lots of small children, which aren’t always appreciated by mainstream American culture. Friends who have recently acquired dogs have confirmed that it’s been one of the best things for getting to know their neighbors.

All of this leads me to this conclusion: In America, having a friendly dog is a big win for hospitality and meeting strangers. A canine might set you back if your primary ministry is with refugees, but if you live and work primarily among mainstream middle class folk or other similar demographics, a dog is a serious tool for mission!

We live in Central Asia and so far we still sense that a dog would be more of a hindrance to knowing our neighbors than a help. Dogs are traditionally viewed as religiously unclean and dangerous, due to an unfortunate hadith (authoritative religious tradition) where the angel Gabriel tells Mohammad that he hates dogs and won’t come in the tent where young Aisha has hidden a puppy. However, the younger generation is slowly beginning to adopt more of a dog culture.

But, if I lived in America, I would get a puppy and work so that he grows up trained and friendly. Then, as a family we’d think through what stepping-stone invitation makes sense next for the acquaintances we’d make at the dog park or in the neighborhood. Even before the lock downs, Americans were starved for community and friendship – though they are slower than internationals to accept a quick offer of hospitality.

Like when we lived in the US before, we’d probably aim to invite contacts to some kind of weekly or monthly open meal or coffee/chai time at our house or a park where we bring in our relationally-gifted international friends who are believers and pros at the art of good conversation and friendship-building around food. Then with that normal rhythm of hospitality, we’d have a way to simply bless our neighbors with good food or coffee and community. And as always, with prayer and intentionality, this simple yet rare kind of gathering would lead to many gospel conversations. In the past, pairing a regular time like this with a regular Bible study happening another time of the week led to a natural next step.

So, if you’ve been on the fence about getting a dog, let me add one more point in favor of doing so. When done well, having a dog in America can make you more approachable and even more hospitable. In a culture starving for genuine friendship and community, a dog, of all things, could be exactly what God uses to help you reach your neighbors. It’s a bridge of common ground that somehow helps Americans sidestep their normal avoidance of engaging strangers. It’s no silver bullet, but it could help in one of the hardest parts of engaging the lost in busy America – finding regular and natural ways to meet and befriend strangers. Meeting can lead to hospitality which can lead to Bible study which can lead to new birth – and to eternal friendship in the resurrection.

The first phase of mission is always access. So, consider the ways a furry and slobbery friend might increase your access to the lost.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash