This past week we hosted a Q&A time for the local believing men. For a couple hours, we sat in our living room and engaged difficult questions that they have wrestled with. Together, we attempted to first answer these questions from God’s word and then from other experience and logic.
We didn’t make it through very many questions, spending the time primarily engaging several apologetics issues that local Muslims regularly challenge the local believers with. One very common question is what we make of all the alleged miracles that support Islam’s claims.
Islam leans very heavily on claims of the miraculous in order to prove that it is indeed God’s final authoritative religion. The perfection of the Qur’an’s language – written by an illiterate prophet – is one alleged miracle most Muslims would agree to. It’s also very popular to go into detail about how mysterious Arabic phrases in the Qur’an were in fact prophecies of scientific realities only demonstrated in recent centuries (See the book, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” for an in-depth discussion of this kind of Islamic apologetics). Islam is divided over whether Mohammad himself did many miracles. His official biography, written in the 700’s by Ibn Is’haq, describes dozens of miracles he performed. But many conservative Muslims debate this, since the Qur’an seems to suggest that the prophet of Islam did no other miracles other than the recitation of the Qur’an.
However, on a folk level, many Muslims maintain that Mohammad did in fact perform many miracles, such as splitting the moon in half at one point, and that Allah continues to give testifying signs that confirm the truth of Islam. Not unlike a Catholic finding a portrait of the virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast, I’ve heard serious claims that “Allahu Akbar” has been written in the clouds or in the markings of a watermelon skin. Just last night I saw a post claiming that a Muslim scholar drank rat poison after eating some special dates and was unharmed. This was allegedly a fulfillment of a promise regarding said dates from either the Qur’an or the Hadith.
So, the local believers wanted to know, how should we respond when our friends or relatives we are sharing the gospel with make these claims?
“I always ask them, ‘What, where, when, how?'” said Darius*. “It’s all baseless.”
“But what Bible passages can we turn to to help answer this question,” I asked.
The group sat and mulled silently for a second.
“How about Matthew 7:15-20?” one of the other men suggested. “This talks about how we’ll know false prophets by their fruit. The fruit of Mohammad’s life was bad, so we know that we can’t trust his miracles.”
We read the passage together that begins with, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruit.”
“Good, and keep reading,” I suggested, “Until verse 23. Notice how it says that many will have prophesied and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but they don’t actually know Jesus. So there must be another power enabling them to do these signs.”
“The power of Satan?” the group asked. Several of us nodded.
“We have to admit that according to the Bible, it’s possible for people to do real miracles, but with evil power, not with God’s power. Remember Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus chapter 7, how they copied Aaron’s miracle and their staffs also became snakes?”
“Yes! But then Aaron’s snake swallowed the other snakes,” added Henry*.
“So, miracles done through an evil power really are possible, but we can say they will somehow fall short of God’s true miracles,” I suggested. “The magicians of Egypt are soon unable to duplicate the signs of Moses and Aaron.”
“Here’s a followup question, then. Are miracles even enough to validate the truth of a message?”
The group chewed on the question for a moment before affirming that no, miracles alone are insufficient proof.
“So what else is needed? How about agreement with the message of all God’s revelation that has come before?”
“That sounds like 1st John 4,” said one of my colleagues who was also part of the discussion.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Christ is not from God.” (1st John 4:1-3)
Here we spent a little time talking about the false teaching in the passage that denied Jesus’ humanity, and comparing it with Islam, which denies Jesus’ divinity. Even though opposite ends of the heresy spectrum, both are denying key tenets about the person and work of Christ, denying the core of the gospel message.
“So even if false prophets come with powerful signs, if their message denies the gospel taught from Genesis to Revelation, then they are false prophets. Signs must be accompanied by the same message,” we concluded.
“But so many of the miracles claimed by Islam are actually hogwash!” others chimed in.
“Yes, and you can have that discussion if you need to,” I responded. “But you can also just go to these verses (or others like Matthew 24:24 and Galatians 1:8) and show that miracles and signs alone simply aren’t proof of a correct message or religion. And then you can talk about the gospel message.”
The discussion moved on from there to responding to claims that the Bible has been changed and claims that Islam is the final “seal” religion. We ended the night by focusing on the need for God’s word to break down hard hearts, since consistent and clean logic is never enough in these kinds of apologetics conversations.
“Let’s make sure we are responding with God’s word. God promises to use his word in powerful ways, and it is the chosen vehicle of the Holy Spirit, like spiritual explosives. There’s simply no promise that he will use my logic or arguments or experience in the same way.”
My son and I were killing some time in a local mall when we entered a furniture store and happened upon a small ottoman-type foot rest. I had been keeping an eye out for one just like it, the kind of addition that would complete a great reading corner in our living room.
We called the salesperson over to ask if we could buy it and while discussing details he looked in confusion from my son to me. My son, blonde-haired and blue eyed, clearly looks like a Westerner. But locals aren’t always sure when it come to me since I have darker hair and features. In fact, the better our language gets, the more my wife and I get mistaken for locals. After many years of plodding language study and countless mistakes, we do enjoy these occasional instances of being viewed as not obviously foreigners. I always chuckle when the checkpoint police ask me, “What are doing with that foreigner there?”
This particular salesperson was really pleased that we could speak the local language, and turns out he himself was no local either, but a transplant from a neighboring country and from a sister people group – one we have no ability to access due to political difficulties.
As we moved toward the cashier I got to ask him questions about his people group and home city, a place with a storied past and a people known for their poetry, craftsmanship, and culture. For example, my particular old stone house was built by masons from his city back in the 1950s. The female cashier joined into our conversation as well, the only actual local among the three of us conversing.
“Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” They asked me.
“I’m a Christian, the type called Injili (Evangelical),” I told them.
“There’s a lot of different groups in Christianity, just like in Islam,” the salesman said to the cashier.
“That’s right!” I jumped in. “Injilis are distinct for focusing so much on the sources, God’s written word, and prioritizing it over human tradition.”
“So, you actually think that Jesus is the Son of God, right?”
“Yes, that’s what he is called in the Scriptures. But the meaning is different than what people think. God has an eternal Word. His word became a man and dwelt among us. When his Word became a human he had a nature that was sinless, unlike ours, because he is actually God’s eternal Word. That’s an important part of what that title, ‘Son of God,’ means.
Their brows were furrowed as I spoke. It was clearly the first time they had ever heard this.
“It’s not a physical sonship as most Muslims think,” I continued. “It has a deeper spiritual meaning. Sometimes we also use ‘son’ in a different way. A man from this city might be called a son of the city, or a son of the mountains. Even the Qur’an has a term, ‘son of the road.'”
My new friends looked skeptical, but they let me keep going.
“At the same time, Adam is also called, ‘Son of God’ for having no earthly father, but being created directly by God. In a similar way, Jesus’ birth was a miraculous act of creation by God.”
“That’s right, because Mary was a pure virgin,” chimed in the cashier.
“Correct! So the title, ‘Son of God’ has important deeper meanings in the Scriptures that are not understood by those who are quick to claim it’s blasphemy.”
They chewed on this information and got back to processing my purchase.
“You know,” said the salesman, “That’s the one big difference between what we believe and what you believe.”
I surveyed the empty store and realized we had time for a little bit more conversation. My phone was buzzing. My wife was done grocery shopping and was likely calling to try and find us. I knew she would let me ignore this call for a few minutes because of the nature of the conversation.
“There’s another big difference,” I continued. “The question of how a person is saved.”
My friends’ eyebrows raised and they paused to listen.
“In Islam people believe that salvation is like a scale. If your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you can go to paradise. But God’s word – The Torah, the Psalms, the New Testament – disagrees with this idea. It teaches that we are so sinful that our bad will always outweigh good, and that even our good is mixed up with our pride. The scale system doesn’t work.”
They were still listening even after this controversial statement, so I kept going.
“Instead, God instituted a system of sacrifice and pardon. All of the prophets were commanded to do animal sacrifices, and through the blood of the sacrifice their sins could be forgiven. God gave these animal sacrifices as a prophecy about the life and death of Jesus. As the eternal Word of God, Jesus had no sin, and his purpose in coming was to be the final sacrifice for sins. The value of his blood was so great – and the power of his resurrection from the dead three days later – that anyone who stops believing in their own scale and in his sacrifice instead, will be forever pardoned, safe, and saved.”
At this point my wife was calling again and I needed to take it. My new friends handed me my change, passed me my ottoman in a shopping cart, and said goodbye. As I met the rest of my family outside the store I glanced back. The salesman and the cashier seemed stunned almost, still standing there, deep in thought.
Just that morning at our weekly service I had been discouraged about not having opportunities to share the gospel recently. Then out of nowhere, a random furniture store interaction about a footrest turned into sharing about the incarnation and how to be saved by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice.
First-time interactions like this seldom lead to immediate professions of faith – the message is so new and so different it takes time and lots of repetition for it to be truly comprehended. But these kind of conversations serve almost as a shock tactic – like an ancient Persian war elephant breaking up a group of Greek hoplite infantry so that the cavalry can come in afterward with devastating effect. In this case, the elephant is the fact that none of their teachers have ever shared these things with them or portrayed accurately what Christians actually believe. And now they are faced with a bunch of new ideas – from an actual Christian – that frame things in an entirely different light. This in itself creates doubt. It puts what the locals call, “a worm in their mind.” One that can someday lead to more questions and even to true spiritual hunger.
Whether I get to do the followup or someone else does many years down the road, I pray that the gospel truths dropped in that short conversation will have their effect. And that the salesman and the cashier will know God’s eternal Word – God’s Son – for themselves.
The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a sobering milestone. As we traversed four US states today, we saw flags flying at half-mast.
When the attacks happened, I was in the US on furlough, in middle school in the Philadelphia area. Like most of my generation, I will never forget where I was when I first heard the news. For me, it was my English teacher, telling us that New York and Washington had been attacked – and that the world would never be the same. And I can never forget seeing those terrifying images on the TV as soon as we got home from school that afternoon. Like most households, we sat stunned, unable to turn away from the news for hours.
That same night small vigils gathered on street corners, holding flags and lighting candles. Drivers honked and shouted support as they drove by. The next day, pictures of Osama Bin Laden’s face with a target imposed over it went up on lockers all throughout my school.
The cultural and political fallout of 9/11 has reshaped the world as we know it. But one aspect of these attacks rarely gets mentioned: how they have also caused countless Muslims to question Islam – and to instead explore the claims of Jesus Christ.
This dynamic didn’t start with 9/11. In fact, some would trace it back to December 1979 and the siege of the great mosque in Mecca. It was that terrorist attack that served as the symbolic birth of modern Islamist extremism. Yet that attack – and others like 9/11 – has correlated with a greater openness to the gospel among Muslims than an any other known point in history.
It makes sense. I attended an Iranian Iftar dinner in Kentucky some years ago, when ISIS was still in control of a huge territory in Syria and Iraq and committing atrocities seemingly daily. And there at my table, one Iranian man put his fist down and argued vehemently with the rest of us that ISIS represented true Islam – according to the original sources and real history – and that’s why he wanted nothing to do with being a Muslim anymore. The other Iranian at the table of course argued back that the first man was completely incorrect and ISIS represented a mutant, cultish form of Islam (likely started by some foreign power for its own ends). But there they were, two men who had grown up mentored in the prayers of the mosque and the same traditions, now utterly divided by the atrocities of terrorists claiming to act in the name of their God.
In the years since, I have seen this argument played out countless times among the Central Asian people where we now serve. Every time a terrorist attack happens, it’s not only non-Muslims who hear the question, “Is this actually true Islam?” The same question is gnawing at the hearts of many Muslims as well. Or, as our locals say, it becomes a worm in their mind. The worm, as it were, gnaws. Many are able to suppress the question. Sadly, some decide to join the jihad. Yet others are pushed away from the faith of their fathers and pray desperately for God to reveal who he truly is.
Historically, the resistance of Muslims against the efforts of Christian missionaries has caused many to despair. One convert per lifetime was the former mantra. Yet it seems as if the Islamic extremism of the past forty years has done something stunning and unexpected – it has caused countless Muslims to doubt the validity of their faith for the first time, creating fertile ground for Christian evangelists.
Sovereign in all things. Do we believe in a God big enough to even turn terrorism somehow into good?
I pray that all terrorism done in the name of Islam will die out. It is a horrific and evil thing. So many victims have died unjustly, and the bulk of them have been the attackers’ fellow countrymen and Muslims themselves. At the same time, I see God using even these dark and wicked events to slowly create cracks in the foundations of Islamic confidence. Others have pointed this out in the past, we have seen it playing out among our own friends, and I have no doubt this dynamic will continue for the foreseeable future.
9/11 is rightly a time to lament. And yet with our lamenting we also soberly watch the sovereignty of God play out. We pray the attacks will end. We pray that justice will come. And we pray that eyes will continue to be opened – and the cracks will continue to grow.
We are teaching through the book of John at our small local church plant. This past week we were looking at chapter 8:31-38, a section often summarized as “The Truth Will Set You Free.” A couple of the local believing men came by earlier in the week to study through the passage with me and we spent an hour or so asking interpretive questions of the text and making observations. What a help it is as a teacher to meet with other men with their own eyes and their own insights into the text.
One of the final questions I like to ask in these study sessions is, “What connections does this passage have to your culture? Any proverbs, customs, or history that can serve to illustrate the truth that we see here?” This time around we couldn’t think of much that connected with the major themes of freedom, slavery, and truth. I decided to shelve the question and try to come back to it when I was crafting the sermon later. I was writing out my local language manuscript the next day when it came to me – sheikhood might work.
The local concept of sheikhood could serve as a negative illustration of true faith held out in this passage of John. In this passage, Jesus has proclaimed that true disciples are those who abide in his word, who know the truth, and who are set free by the truth (v. 31-32). In protest, the Jewish audience balks, responding that they are free, that they have never been slaves of anyone, because they are children of Abraham (v. 33). Jesus goes on to spell out their slavery to sin and their need to be set free from the temporary and dangerous situation of the slave, and into the eternal freedom of the son and his house (v. 34-36).
One of the main points of the sermon was that only the truth of Jesus can set us free – our physical lineage cannot. This is where sheikhood comes in. Locals believe that an Islamic holy man, a sheikh, passes on his title, his prestige, and to some extent his holiness automatically to his biological male descendants. This is regardless of the actual character or life of said male descendant. He might not pray, he might be a drinker, or he might even be an atheist, and many would still call him “Dear Sheikh So-And-So.” Locals freely acknowledge this, and see the inconsistency in it, but it continues to happen nonetheless. We even had a fun surprise during all this, discovering that one of our own believing members, *Darius, is technically a sheikh in this regard (Given the fun-loving nature of our church plant, we are sure to have a good time teasing Darius with this newfound knowledge).
My point in bringing up sheikhood was to compare it with the Jews’ misplaced faith in their physical descent from Abraham and to contrast it to the true faith that is experienced by the individual who is set free by the truth of Jesus alone. True faith is not like sheikhood. It is not passed automatically from father to son, merely downloaded through physical descent. This view of faith-by-blood is a real danger in this part of the world, one which can destroy gospel clarity in as little as one generation. Local believers begin with the assumption that their physical children are automatically born with the same faith as their father. However, instead of this we should not trust in our parents, our people, our supposed descent from holy men, or anything else. We should trust in Christ alone and continue abiding in his word.
It resonated. The believers knew what I was talking about when I made the connection in the sermon, and they seemed to grasp the contrast presented by the illustration from their own world.
Later on, a few of us were at lunch together, enjoying some good rice, lamb, soups, and flatbread. Our summer volunteer turned to Mr *Talent and asked him what he had learned from the sermon that day. Mr. Talent swallowed his mouthful of flatbread and rice, and furrowed his brow.
“Well, the point about sheikhood was a powerful one for me.”
I nodded, thinking I knew where he was going. Instead, he took it in a different direction.
“Just as sheikhood is given from father to son without the son doing anything, so God the father gives us the eternal freedom of Jesus apart from our good works, and we thus also become sons of God.”
I smiled to myself. How many times had I heard other teachers and preachers recount how some the most powerful takeaways from their messages were not actually connections they had made at all? And yet it was not an improper connection to make. The eternal freedom of the Son is indeed given to us freely, not entirely unlike how the honor of a practicing sheikh is given (imputed) also to his irreligious son. How interesting that Mr. Talent put the pieces together in this way.
So in the end, it seems that we could say that sheikhoodis and sheikhoodis not like true faith. We are not saved by being part of anyone’s physical line. But we are saved by being part of a certain spiritual line, that of Christ. And in this line we become so much more than mere sheikhs, with their false genetic titles and holiness. We become free indeed, eternal residents of the house of God himself.
A local friend today gave me a powerful example of how far we humans will go to excuse away shortcomings in our own tribe – something true Christians are not immune from either.
We were discussing the correct use of a new local proverb I had just learned. The proverb translates to something like, “your excuse is worse than your shameful action.” I thought it was to be used for a typical situation where someone does something disrespectful and then uses a lame excuse to defend themselves.
“No, no, no,” my friend insisted, “We use it when someone does something blatantly sinful and then right away tries to do something spiritual as if nothing had happened. Like someone boldly going to do Islamic prayers right away after doing something very shameful.”
This statement reminded me of a sad encounter I had a few years ago with a former English student. He had invited me to his workplace. While there we hung out with his coworkers. One of them, a middle aged woman, was in an unhappy marriage. To my dismay, as I sipped chai and ate the obligatory guest chocolate, I realized that my student was joyfully helping this woman set up secret social media accounts so that she could cheat on her husband. They were laughing and having a great time. I was grieved that this student would so willingly and openly participate in this kind of deceit and betrayal.
Then the call to prayer went off. There was a small mosque built right next to my coworker’s office. “Come! Let’s go pray!” He said to me. I let him know that I was content to sit at the back of the mosque while he prayed, but I wasn’t going to be joining in. One, I’m a follower of Jesus who believes in salvation by grace alone, and therefore can’t participate in a prayer ritual that is understood to count as merit that balances out sins committed. Two, I was not about to join this man in prayer after he had happily become an accomplice to adultery. I was angry inside at the blatant hypocrisy of my student, who then went on after prayers to extol to me the virtues of his religion.
I shared this situation with my friend today as we sat in the park, and he confirmed that this would be a very appropriate situation to use this proverb. But by bringing up this story, I had poked the honor-shame mechanism in my friend’s worldview, and even though he’s not a strict practicing Muslim, he felt obligated to defend his tribe.
“You know, my friend,” he began. “We have some people here, secretly among us.” I nodded. It’s Central Asia. There tend to be actual spies around, and basically everyone suspects everyone else of being some kind of spy for someone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people think I’m a spy. “They are from our people, but they are supported by a group called the Masons. The Masons pay these people a salary and order them to do shameful things and then to go and do Islamic rituals also. In this way they hope to give foreigners like you a negative view of Islam. They hope to make Islam look two-faced, but we are on to them and their schemes.”
Now, lest you get the wrong idea, my local friend who told me this is extremely intelligent. He is a language teacher who is fluent in multiple languages with a sharp mind for cultural, historical, and political information. But as is often the case, intelligence is no match for the deeper impulse of defending the honor of one’s own tribe. The mind will quickly become the servant of the deep emotional need to find some kind of scapegoat or explanation so that shame is deflected – no matter how implausible that explanation is.
I have heard some wild explanations in my time from very dear and very intelligent friends (Central Asians and Westerners). But to hear that the Freemasons were paying locals to act like hypocritical Muslims so that foreigners like me would discount Islam? That’s, um, that’s quite the stretch.
Not really knowing what to do with that story, I moved the conversation on to other topics. But I found myself inwardly grateful for the simple honesty that following Jesus affords. We don’t have to latch on to elaborate stories to excuse away the actions of Christians who are not acting according to the Bible. We can simply say that their words and actions contradict God’s word – and that if they are true believers they will come to repent of them sooner or later. We don’t have to hide our own two-facedness, or that of our tribe. We can admit it, call it what it is, and bring it to the cross for forgiveness and change. After all, our good news begins with the bad news that we are all hypocrites desperately in need of being made clean and being made new.
Those most grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ should be those most free from the lure of conspiracy theories. We simply don’t need them. We have plenty of clear reasons for what’s wrong with the world, starting with our own sin and brokenness. Thank God, there’s no need for tales of imaginary Masonic spies.
A while ago one of my teammates shared an object lesson with us that he used with one of his local friends, a teacher. This particular local friend has been on the fence for a long time, close to following Jesus, but wrestling with the cost. One day they were sitting down in my coworker’s kitchen discussing the gospel yet again. The local teacher was revisiting the concept of biblical forgiveness, specifically how Jesus’ work on the cross takes away our sin and purifies us from our unrighteousness. This concept is very foreign to Muslims who are raised in a very straight forward works-righteousness system. “Surely good deeds take away evil ones,” says the Qur’an.
Searching for an analogy, my coworker picked up his chai glass, partially full of dark black tea, and held it up.
“See this chai? Does it become clear when I add a drop of water to it?” And he proceeded to pour a small amount of water into the hour-glass shaped glass cup.
“No, it’s still brown,” said the teacher.
“What about now?” And he poured a little more water in. His local friend shook his head. My colleague did this a few times to drive the point home. Then he continued.
“This is like us when we try to purify ourselves from our sin by doing good deeds. Adding good deeds is not enough to truly purify us from the uncleanness of sin.”
“Yes,” the local teacher agreed. “I agree. It doesn’t really work. But we must try, right?”
Then my teammate got up and walked over to the kitchen sink. He turned it on.
“But this is what the righteousness of Jesus does to our sin when we become one with him.” And he held the chai glass underneath the rushing flow of clean, clear water. In seconds, all of the dark chai was gone, replaced by an overflowing stream of pure water that simply kept on flowing and flowing.”
The local teacher gasped. “Can that be true?! Can Jesus really purify you like that?”
“He did! When I believed in him. And his stream of purifying grace flows for me like this every single day.” The water kept on running as the two men watched and chewed on the power of this truth. One man living in the freedom of Jesus’ purifying grace every day and extending it to others (and this brother is truly a model of God’s grace to all he interacts with). The other man, hovering just outside and peeking over the fence as it were, not yet able to take the plunge. Wanting to and yet not wanting to, painfully within sight of the kingdom.
When I heard my teammate share this example, I was excited. What a clear and powerful opportunity for his friend! And what a simple and helpful object lesson on the difference between gospel and works religion. There’s not a home in this country without chai glasses – meaning we could reproduce this almost anywhere.
Our focus people are very much concrete thinkers. Even extremely intelligent people like this local teacher are wired to greatly appreciate analogy, metaphor, and hands-on examples over the abstract. We all are mixes of abstract and concrete learning to some extent, but in our corner of Central Asia concrete thinking is by far the more dominant stream. As highly literate, abstract-thinking, critically-trained Westerners, we are slowly learning how to better meet our friends half-way so that our message might be as clear and compelling as possible. Analogies like this might seem small, but we should be careful not to underestimate the potential for clarity that comes from small shifts in how the unchanging truth of the gospel is communicated in this world of such diverse lostness.
And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. (Ezekiel 47:9 ESV)
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 ESV)
“I’m writing an English language paper comparing the Islamic and the Christian position on holy war or jihad. Could you help me with this paper by telling me what you believe your holy book teaches about this?”
What an invitation! I compiled the following verses and wrote simple English summaries of the content and sent it to him. I post it here, in the chance that others may have Muslim friends with this same question. Groups like ISIS are making the very public claim that violent warfare and slavery is just as much a valid interpretation of the jihad passages as is the modernist interpretation of “inner spiritual struggle.” So Muslims the world over are faced with this question and are wrestling with these things afresh. The following is the response I sent to my friend.
The New Testament clearly teaches that no form of physical holy war (jihad) is permitted for true Christians.
In Matthew 5:38-45, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Instead of fighting against enemies or resisting them, these verses from Matthew teach that followers of Jesus should not resist them, but should serve them, love them, and pray for them.
In Romans 12:14 and 12:17, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In these verses from the book of Romans, instead of fighting enemies in the name of God, believers are told to bless them, to honor them, to live in peace, to not take revenge, to feed them, and to overcome evil by doing good.
In John 18:36, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.”
In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is! Or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
In these verses Jesus teaches that his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, not a physical kingdom. Because of this, his followers do not fight for him in this world.
The same thing is taught in Ephesians 6:11-18, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
In these verses believers are told clearly that we do not fight against physical flesh and blood enemies, but we do fight against spiritual enemies, Satan and his demons. So, believers need spiritual weapons and armor to fight in this spiritual battle. The sword of a believer is not a literal sword, but is the word of God. His shield is not a physical shield, but his faith.
Peter tried to defend Jesus with a sword when the mob was trying to arrest Jesus, Jesus told him to “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53)
Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword, that violence is not God’s way to advance his kingdom. If Jesus wanted to fight, he could ask God for 12,000 angels who would fight for him. But he would advance the kingdom of God by giving his life as a sacrifice, not by fighting. That is the same way followers of Jesus advance God’s kingdom, by giving our lives to others as holy sacrifices, not by fighting.
In the New Testament there is no command for Christians to fight unbelievers in a physical way. There are only commands not to fight them, but to love them and to speak truth to them.
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2nd Timothy 2:24-26)
While Jesus was being murdered and while one of the early leaders of the church, Stephen, was being murdered, both of them prayed that God would forgive those who were killing them.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 24:34)
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)
Some people say that Jesus supported fighting because in one passage he says that he came to bring a sword. But when the whole chapter is read, it is clear that Jesus is not talking about a physical sword, but that his message is like a sword that divides people because some believe and some will not. Those who do not believe will persecute those who do believe.
“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour… Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:17-22)
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)
In this chapter, Jesus is talking about how his followers will be persecuted by those of their own society when they try to spread the message of Jesus. He is not talking about them fighting, but about how their own families will attack them when they try to share the message.
It is clear from these passages that true Christians must never take part in holy war or jihad. They must not try to fight for God in a physical battle. This is because God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and God’s way is to defeat evil by love and sacrifice, not by fighting.
Some people will say that the Bible supports holy war or jihad because the nation of Israel was commanded to fight in order to conquer and defend the land of Israel. The history of this holy warfare is the subject of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. In this time of history, the people of Israel were commanded to fight for God. However, with the coming of Jesus, this kind of fighting was no longer good or necessary. This is because the physical nation of Israel was a temporary physical example of what God was going to do in a spiritual way for the whole world. God chose ethnic physical Israel for a limited time as an example, but his plan was to have a spiritual people, not only an ethnic people, who are believers in him from every nation of the world. When Jesus came, the old age of the temporary and physical things passed away and the new age of the spiritual and eternal things began. That is why Israel was commanded to fight its enemies and Christians are commanded not to fight our enemies any more, but to love them. We now know that our true enemies are not other nations, but are Satan and his evil spirits. This transition from a temporary physical people of God (Israel) to an eternal spiritual people of God (Christians, including Jewish Christian and those from every nation) is what explains the differences between the laws of the Jewish people in the Old Testament and the laws for Christians in the New Testament. Through Jesus, God made a better covenant or relationship with his people where physical fighting was no longer good or necessary.
“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt… For this is the new covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on them, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:11-12)
The New Testament teaches that we now live in the age of the New Covenant, where the temporary things of the Old Covenant have been completed by better, eternal things. The New Testament logic is that Christians must not fight for God in a physical way because we live in a new and better age where we overcome evil by love.
In the history of Christianity there have been some Christians who tried to fight in the name of God against others. The crusaders were one of these groups in the middle ages. They fought against Muslims in the Middle East and against Salah-al-Din. However, these Christians were following their own traditions and their own politics and not obeying what is clearly taught in the Bible. According to the Bible, we must never obey our own traditions if they are against what the Bible teaches. However, when the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church declared that Christians should fight in the crusades, they were disobeying what the Bible clearly teaches and following their own traditions.
Jesus says about these kind of people that, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)
“Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mark 15:3)
Any Christian who fights in a holy war is wrongly following his own tradition or thinking and is disobeying God’s word. Because true Christians are, through faith, citizens of a spiritual kingdom, they must not fight for their religion in a physical way. The only appropriate way to fight is in a spiritual way, through love for our enemies, by praying for them and giving up our lives for them. This is the Christian and biblical position on holy war or jihad.
“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”
“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”
With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.
“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”
Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.
The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.
Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.
But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.
Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?
Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.
Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.
It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.
These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.
I never wanted to work among Muslims. Having grown up in Melanesia, I had always assumed that if God called me to be a missionary, I would work with tribal animists. That would seem to make the most sense. Then, when I was an eighth grader on furlough in the US, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 took place. Living in the Northeast at the time, my school was directly affected by the attacks as a few students’ parents commuted to Manhattan for work every day. This and the ensuing War on Terror were my only real exposure to Islam. I knew that there were many Melanesian tribes asking for missionaries to come and live among them. And I knew that most Muslim countries were busy kicking missionaries out. Deep down, I think I didn’t want to work with Muslims because of these negative impressions. Why would anyone want to work with those who don’t want them to come? I wondered.
I have now been doing Muslim ministry for about thirteen years. So what changed? In brief, Muslims became real people to me, I became passionate about the overwhelming need, and God told me to go.
My first Muslim friend was a Somali refugee in Minneapolis named Uncle Abdi. I had volunteered for an English tutoring program where students would come a few times a week and help Somali refugees with basic English. It was in this context, sipping clove-heavy Somali chai and celebrating with students the fact that the English word finger is actually pronounced fingar in Somali (An easy one! Fingarrr!), that I came to really care about these dear people. They were very devout in their Islam, probably the most devout group of Muslims I’ve ever encountered. They were fiercely defensive of Islam and critical of Christianity. They had seen some terrible things happen in their homeland. They had interesting habits like dyeing their hair red with henna to show they had gone on hajj, or pilgrimage. They struggled, as I did, to adjust to the realities of the Minneapolis winter. We were a long way from the Somali desert and the warm Melanesian valleys. So we shivered together and became friends. And for the first time, Muslims were not some intimidating category. They were real people.
Around this time I began to also learn about the dire need for Christians to share the gospel with Muslims and to plant churches among them. I remember hearing that in 2006 there was only one missionary for every one million Muslims in the world, that the majority of those living in poverty worldwide were Muslims, and that the Muslim world had historically been one of the hardest and most neglected places for church planting. I heard of one Bedouin group who had only received two missionaries. One had died and the other had converted to Islam. I wrestled with a Somali camel herder’s quote, “If you can put your church on the back of my camel, then I will believe Christianity is for us.” I scrolled through the Joshua Project’s list of least-reached people groups. The vast majority? Muslim. What was to be done so that Jesus would get the glory he is due among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims? I sat under John Piper’s preaching, coming alive to the glory of God and the joy of the nations. A passion in my soul was growing.
Finally, while listening to a presentation about about the state of the church in a certain Middle Eastern country, I felt an unmistakable “Go” from the Holy Spirit. Not sure what that meant since I was only part-way through my freshman year, I reached out to the speaker’s organization and was surprisingly accepted for a gap year in the Middle East.
The ways that God calls his people to serve as cross-cultural missionaries are as diverse and varied as the missionaries themselves are. For some, it’s simple biblical logic that compels them. “Jesus commanded us to go, did he not?” For others, a particular moment of spiritual clarity, hearing the leading of the Spirit. For others, they join in their spouse’s calling, as my dad did. In church history, many were called through dreams. I find it strange that many of us tend to assume most others were initially called to missions in the same way we were.
For me, God called me to work with Muslims through Muslim friends like uncle Abdi the Somali, through a growing passion for the great need, and through a moment of unusual spiritual force and clarity. Goto the Muslims. That call continues to be confirmed every time I’m sitting down with a Muslim friend, drinking chai, and sharing about Jesus. There is a particular joy, freedom, and empowering that I experience in that kind of setting that has come to be my personal definition of calling. Eric Liddell said, “When I run, I feel his pleasure.” Well, I keenly feel his pleasure walking through passages of the Word with Muslims for the very first time, watching as the Spirit gives them spiritual eyes to see the beauty of Christ and how it is so much better than works-based religion. What is the kind of ministry or service in which you feel the greatest freedom, joy, and empowering of the Spirit? It may be that that’s where you’re supposed to focus in serving the Church.
It’s good for me to recall these things in this season of plodding ministry. The call to prayer is blaring outside my windows. My heart is tired from friends leaving and the good but heavy costs of team leadership. We have not seen all that we had hoped to in these thirteen years. And yet it’s good to be reminded again of how this all came about. An unexpected calling, yes. But a good one, the one the Lord knew that I needed. I would never have thought that the coffee gardens and mountains of Melanesia (plus the arctic winter of Minneapolis) would have prepared me to be working in Central Asia. But here I am. And here I hope to be for a good many decades.
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.