In this poem, Ephrem the Syrian, poet of the ancient church, compares and contrasts the Passover lamb with Christ, the true lamb of God.
Hymns on the Unleavened Bread, no. 3
In Egypt the Passover lamb was slain,
in Sion the True Lamb slaughtered.
Refrain: Praise to the Son, the Lord of symbols
who fulfilled every symbol at his resurrection.
My brothers, let us consider the two lambs,
let us see where they bear resemblance and where they differ.
Let us weigh and compare their achievements
- of the lamb that was the symbol, and of the Lamb that is the Truth.
Let us look upon the symbol as a shadow,
let us look upon the Truth as the fulfillment.
Listen to the simple symbols that concern that Passover,
and to the double achievements of this our Passover.
With the Passover lamb there took place for the Jewish people
an Exodus from Egypt, and not an entry.
So with the True Lamb there took place for the Gentiles
an Exodus from error, and not an entry.
With the Living Lamb there was a further Exodus, too,
for the dead from Sheol, as from Egypt;
For in Egypt two symbols are depicted,
since it reflects both Sheol and Error.
With the Passover lamb, Egypt's greed
learnt to give back against its wont;
With the Living Lamb, Sheol's hunger
disgorged back the dead, against its nature.
With the True Lamb, greedy Error
rejected and cast up the Gentiles who were saved;
With that Passover lamb, Pharaoh returned the Jewish people
whom, like Death, he had held back.
With the Living Lamb, Death has returned
the just, who left their graves.
With the True Lamb, Satan gave up the Gentiles
whom, like Pharaoh, he had held back.
In Pharaoh two types were depicted;
he was a pointer to both Death and Satan.
With the Passover lamb, Egypt was breached
and a path stretched out before the Hebrews.
With the True Lamb, Satan, having fenced off all paths,
left free the path that leads to Truth.
The Living Lamb has trodden out, with that cry which He uttered,
the path from the grave for those who lie buried.
-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 52-54
Many missionaries experience the honor of being renamed by those in their host culture. This is often a kind act of respect and acceptance on the part of the locals. And, depending on the name itself, it can be a gift the missionary holds onto for years to come.
It’s a peculiar thing, the way we humans rename one another. The name itself is often a reflection of some characteristic already present in the person, although naming can also be reflective of the giver, where they project their hopes onto the recipient in the form of a new name. I’m struck by how much mileage these names often get, sometimes becoming a key part of our identity even when the name emerged as a nickname in jest.
During our local trade language class in high school, we were amused one day by some of the older obscure terms we were learning, such as the word for fine hair on plants, mosong. One of the boys in our class, named Ryan, had short, fine, spiky blonde hair both on the top of his head and poking out of his chin. Someone during that class period saw the correlation and dubbed him Mosong. We all (including Ryan, a good sport) laughed at how well the name fit, and it stuck. By the end of high school, no one called him Ryan anymore. He had become Mosong. Now almost two decades later, I would probably still call him Mosong if I saw him again.
This past week as we marked the anniversary of my dad’s death, my mom reminded my brothers and me about the tribal names we were given during our first term in Melanesia. She remarked that they were peculiarly well-given, still seeming to reflect what we are like even decades later. The names were given by new believers in remote village areas where my parents served, my dad providing interim leadership for small congregations while local pastors were being trained up and my mom teaching women and literacy.
My dad was named Kamtai, which means thunder. This was fitting, as he was bold and strong, a former marine and natural leader. My oldest brother was named Kampok, which means lightning. This was because everywhere my dad went, my brother went also – just as lightning and thunder always come in a pair. The middle brother who was always climbing trees was named Kamp, which means cuscus. For those not versed in obscure Melanesian marsupials, a cuscus is basically a cute jungle possum of sorts that is an expert climber. My name was Kilmanae, which translates as parrot. This is because when I was a child I did not have a blog, so all my ruminations about the world around me came out verbally – apparently striking a strong resemblance to a chattering bird. I’ve currently got a four-year-old of my own who could be given the same name. Some days there is an astounding stream of words that comes unceasingly out of that boy’s mouth.
My mom was given a name that she was initially not very excited about: Dogor, which means cicada. Cicadas are big ugly flying bugs with beady eyes and large claws that leave their larval exoskeletons hanging all over jungle tree trunks like little brown insect zombies. They shriek/sing in unison throughout the day, their loud “REEEEEEEE…. REEEEEEEE” filling many of my childhood memories. Curious and a little disappointed with this name, my mom asked her friend why she had chosen to name her after a bug. “Because you brought the light,” she responded, “just as cicadas sing and bring the sunrise.” After that, my mom was pretty happy with her tribal name.
These names still describe us well. My mom continues to bring the light, serving in counseling and cross-cultural roles here in the US. My oldest brother has always had a bold leader side to him, which can’t help but echo our dad. The middle brother has always been good with tactile work, whether climbing trees, fixing up cars, or remodeling houses. As for me, I still love good conversation. Tonight I’ll be getting together with some Central Asian friends just to enjoy talking with one another while sipping on some tea. While I may not be quite the verbalizer that I used to be, the flow of ideas and words these days comes out through the keyboard. The parrot has learned to write.
Of course, giving new names is quite a biblical concept. God renames Abram as Abraham, Sarai as Sarah, and Jacob as Israel. God promises to give Israel a new name in Isaiah 62:2, on the day of her salvation. While Simon is not renamed Peter and Saul is not renamed Paul (these were just their parallel Greek names), others like Barnabus do get a new name tied to their new identity that sticks: Son of Encouragement. And of course in Revelation 2:17 Jesus promises a new name to every believer who conquers, written on a white stone.
Our names given by wise tribal believers have proven to be strangely accurate over the decades. Even nicknames like Mosong have power. I can’t wait to know what meaning will be reflected by our new names given in eternity. Undoubtedly they will reflect us and shape us uniquely as no other name has. On that day we’ll be the same, and yet we’ll also be different – like a cicada that has shed the crawling exoskeleton of its youth, and now can fly. Our new names will surely be a part of this, somehow strangely familiar, somehow wonderfully new.
My wife has always maintained that those going into ministry should first work a few years in food service. Her main point in this claim is that you will never treat that server, barista, or otherwise unimpressive worker the same after you’ve known what it’s like to be in their shoes. My wife worked her way through college, picking up countless shifts in the campus cafe, serving at banquets, and working in the cafeteria. She finished her undergrad with no debt at all, a feat that her future husband was unfortunately not able to replicate.
Most of my wife’s jobs were on the campus of Southern seminary, where she attended Boyce college. Over the four years she worked on campus, her brief or repeated service interactions with students, staff, and visiting leaders gave her a unique window into the character of each. This is because the way we treat those with supposedly unimportant jobs always says something about our humility. Seminary can be a heady place. World-renowned scholars are teaching and being made. Current leaders rub shoulders with future leaders. Famous pastors preach in chapel and visit to give prestigious lectures. In other words, the temptations of fear of man and showing partiality are regularly present, made all the more slippery in that everything is set in a context of preparation for ministry. After all, why slow down and engage the college kid behind the counter in a black apron when standing right over there is the author of your favorite theology book?
These dynamics meant that my wife and others working service jobs always noticed the ones who would indeed slow down and truly engage them as people and fellow heirs of the kingdom. And of course, they would also notice when students or leaders didn’t extend even basic Christian courtesy. Now, everyone has bad days where we are lost in our thoughts or discouraged and forget to make eye contact or interact genuinely with the person behind the cash register. The issue is not what happens as a one-off, but what is the pattern of our lives and interactions with those in everyday or lowly roles around us? Do we truly see and value those around us whom the world deems unimportant? Do we ever slow down and genuinely engage them, seeking even to delight in them? Pay attention to those who do this well, for they are the kind of leaders worth following.
In the field of leadership training, some authors speak of the “waiter principle,” the idea that how a leader treats a server speaks to whether that leader is truly a leader of integrity or not. A true leader will understand that every role in their organization or company matters, and this will affect how they treat those in even the lowest roles. In Central Asia, it’s not so much the restaurant servers who get treated poorly, but the cleaners or the chai boys. When we’ve taught leadership seminars in local universities, we’ve learned to slow down and focus on this principle, because in a patron-client hierarchical society, the culture says that it’s actually shameful for leaders to treat the unimportant with respect. While Western culture is a little stronger on this point, the temptations toward showing favoritism toward the important are really universal. No matter where you live, our sin natures want to judge by appearances, honoring the rich, talented, and important, and belittling or ignoring the poor or average among us.
Somewhere like seminary can illustrate why it can be downright foolish to judge by appearances. That foreign exchange student making your sandwich might in a few years be leading a thriving church overseas and show up on a 9 Marks podcast (as took place in my earbuds this week). The guy doing landscaping may end up planting a church in one of the hardest cities in North America. The gal making your coffee may become a well-known author, or, in my wife’s case, serve faithfully on a frontier church-planting team in a region overseas where many others would never even consider raising their families. Basic wisdom tells us to honor even the lowly because we cannot predict if or when they will be lifted up to a place higher than ours – and if that someday happens, then our honor or shame is tied to how we treated them before.
But this strategic wisdom really shouldn’t be our primary motivation to show respect to those who appear unimportant among us. It still assumes that it’s the potentially-powerful who are worthy of more honor. Instead, the deeper motivation should be that God has welcomed the lowly, honored them, and even delights in them. We need to remember the upside-down logic of the kingdom of God, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30). Jesus welcomes little children and rebukes those who don’t (Mark 10:14). He befriends the outcasts (Mark 2:16). He pronounces blessing on the poor and pronounces woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20, 24). Not many of God’s chosen are rich, powerful, and important in this world (1 Cor 1:26-31). The sick and the poor are the true treasures of the church, and every person we interact with has a fascinating story that overflows with God’s glory, and the potential to themselves be eternally glorious – to even be a judge over angels (1 Cor 6:3).
Being reminded of the nature of God’s kingdom can help us live in such a way that we become believers and leaders who truly see the lowly. Picturing that service worker resurrected and remembering that we are to consider others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3) can transform our everyday interactions with those around us – and give life to those who often feel invisible. And if seeing and delighting in those deemed unimportant becomes a pattern in our lives, then we are well on our way to developing this character trait of a true and trustworthy leader ourselves.
While I didn’t have too many jobs in food service (Stints at Jamba Juice and Jimmy Johns showed me my hands could never seem to move fast enough), I have often experienced a similar dynamic because I don’t present as physically or interpersonally impressive. I have a pretty average appearance and bearing and I find myself not very good at first impressions in a Western context. This means that those I’m briefly introduced to often quickly move on to those who appear more interesting. I can’t help but notice that there’s often a very different sort of interest shown later – once they learn about my ministry and story. This means that those who show a kind engagement before they know about my background and ministry accomplishments truly stand out. Their posture toward an unimpressive person has shone a light on their character. Without knowing it, they have outed themselves as humble and trustworthy.
I’ll never forget the time I met a very well-known pastor and author during my first week as a green, 25-year-old missions pastor. This leader was a regular speaker at T4G. He had published numerous books and spoken to tens of thousands. He was at our church for an important meeting with our senior leadership, and I was somehow invited to sit in, even though I was the brand new kid on staff. Yet in the hallway, as we made cursory introductions, this leader didn’t quickly move on to talk with the more dynamic leaders like I was used to. Instead, he slowed down and turned to me, deeply interested in the couple of details that my lead pastor had told him about me. Looking me in the eyes, he seemed to be fascinated by what he had heard. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, I hear you’re just beginning a new role as a missions pastor. I am so excited about your ministry.” I was so taken aback by this kind of focus that I have no idea what I said in response. It was qualitatively different to be seen in that way. And it made me desire to be the kind of leader who would see others around me, even when they haven’t achieved enough to “deserve” that kind of focus. It also made me want to repent for the times I was guilty of ignoring the unimpressive.
Leaders who see the lowly and unimpressive are the kind of leaders worth following – and the kind of leaders we should want to become. This is because how we treat the lowly is truly a window into our character. Let’s keep that in mind the next time we meet someone who doesn’t appear that important. And if God is calling you to go into ministry, then follow a wise woman’s advice and consider first working some years in food service.
This post is part three in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read part one and two here and here.
So far in John 11 we have seen how Jesus says no to the good request to heal his friend, instead remaining where he is and allowing Lazarus to die. We have also seen how Jesus acts out of love for his friends and says that these events will result somehow in greater glory and greater faith. For each point of observation made about Jesus in John 11, and indeed throughout the whole Bible, we must remember that the role of the Son is to explain the Father to us, to make him known (John 1:18). By his words and conduct, Jesus the god-man makes the eternal and infinite God truly, though not wholly, understandable for us. This means that if Jesus can say no to his friends good requests and it somehow be from love and result in greater glory and faith, then God the Father also does this as he interacts with his people throughout the ages. The same principle applies to the point we will look at today, that Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering.
The conversation between Jesus and his disciples in John 11 tells us that Jesus’ decision to visit Bethany was a risky one. It put his life and the lives of his disciples in danger.
 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,  and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John 11:7-16, ESV
The last time Jesus was in Judea, the Jews were ready to stone him because they rightly understood him to be claiming equality with God (John 10:33). So, by Jesus going back there, his disciples are not wrong to be somewhat alarmed. You can hear the incredulity present in their question, “are you going there again?” Jesus’ answer about light and darkness amounts to basically, “Yep, I got work to do.” Then he gives us a tantalizing hint about the nature of his work. Lazarus is asleep (dead), and he is going to wake him up. The disciples seem to completely miss this stunning phrase, and Thomas serves as their mouthpiece, uttering a resigned “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” This is hardly bravery. It is much more likely a sarcastic remark made by those who feel that their leader is making a very bad decision. The key point to notice in all this is that Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering of his friends, despite the risk to his life.
Drawing near to the suffering in this context wouldn’t only be risking physical safety, however. By showing up two days late in Bethany, Jesus would be taking the brunt of his friends’ disoriented questions, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21, 32). In other words, “Why weren’t you here when we needed you? We know you love us, but why…?” Along with this risk is also the scoffing he would have to endure from the crowds of mourners who take a more cynical approach to the events. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37). Finally, by drawing near to the suffering, Jesus would be coming face to face with the horror of death in general, and the horror of the death of a loved one in particular. The weeping, the mourners, the tomb would all force him to engage with the darkness and wrongness of death, now personified in the lifeless body of his dear friend and in his weeping sisters. This would spur his soul to anger, and to deep grief (11:33, 35). Facing these kinds of risks, others would have chosen to keep their distance.
Jesus doesn’t keep his distance. He boldly comes close to the suffering, scorning the risks. In doing so he demonstrates that he is strong enough to face these risks, and he is strong enough to endure them faithfully. He moves into the storm like a mighty vessel expertly captained, steady in spite of the howling wind and driving rain, ready to throw lifelines to others who are floundering in the waves.
In his humanity Jesus shows great courage by going to Bethany. In his divinity he shows us that God is never hesitant to draw close to those who suffer, and to even take suffering upon himself. In the Old Testament, we see God covenant in steadfast love to an unfaithful people, even when he knows they will betray him again and again. Then in the New Testament we see him send his only Son, knowing that he will be rejected and murdered unjustly. Jesus will not only risk suffering and death, he will experience it himself and embrace it. He will endure the cross, “despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). He will thus become our great high priest who is able to sympathize with his suffering people in every way (Heb 4:15). Our God is not afraid to draw close to us when we are suffering. He has suffered once for all, and he is not afraid of the costs.
I worry sometimes that my flawed responses to suffering will scare God off. This week marked thirty years since my dad died of an asthma attack in Melanesia. Growing up without a dad after the age of four has often felt like living with a gaping hole in my chest that is dry, wheezy, and full sharp spikes. There is a certain painful loneliness that never quite goes away. As I navigate different seasons of life and struggle in various ways, I constantly endure the thought that things wouldn’t be this bad if I still had a dad, or if I had one for more years growing up. I would be more disciplined, wiser, less ignorant, more confident, holier, a better husband and dad, etc. I have at times had it out with God over this gaping absence in my life. I have flung questions and accusations at him that make those in John 11 look quite tame by comparison. I have tried to ignore him, tried to explain things away, and dared him to prove that he really means the things he has promised. In short, when I am honest in my suffering, I am not necessarily balanced and safe. None of us are. It is a great comfort then to know that he does not keep me at arms length when I am disoriented in my suffering. I cannot scare him off. He comes close, steady, strong, and kind. Like he does with his friends in John 11, he may not have spelled everything out yet, but he has not left me alone in my pain. He has come, in spite of the risk. And that is a mighty comfort – even when it feels like he is late.
Ours is the only God who enters into suffering with us. He does not remain aloof and untouched by the pain of this world, like the god of Islam or other religions. This truth is revolutionary for a world of sufferers. While there is more meaning to our suffering to be revealed in John 11 and in the rest of the Bible, it would almost be enough to simply know that we are not alone in our grief. Our God will stay with us all the way through the darkness. We know echoes of this whenever another human joins us in our grief, sacrificing their own comfort out of love for us, and offering us a measure of healing. What other believers do for us in a limited way, God offers us in fullness and forever.
Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering. He boldly draws near to us. May we find comfort in his presence, even when we don’t yet understand his plans.
This post is part two in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read part one here and part three here.
Jesus explains the Father for us. The eternal Son makes the Father understandable for us. As we mentioned in part one, this interpretive principle is vital for us if we seek to read John 11 and understand what Jesus’ dealings with his friends have to do with us and our own suffering and deaths. We have seen that Jesus said no to the good, faith-filled request of Mary and Martha for the healing of their brother – a request completely in line with Jesus’ character. And so we can know that the Father can also say no to our good faith-filled requests that are consistent with his character.
Today’s point will begin to answer some of the why when God denies our good requests, when he allows his people to experience profound suffering. Specifically, we’ll see in John 11 Jesus’ motive for saying no, and two of his good purposes. It’s not until the end of the story that we’ll be able to reconcile this motive and these purposes with Jesus’ conduct, but they are presented to us at the beginning of the story so that we might know and wrestle with what Jesus says, striving to somehow believe that it is true, even though we can’t yet put the pieces together. The point we will seek to flesh out today is that Jesus says no to good requests because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith.
 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,  and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John 11:1-16, ESV
Jesus says no to a good request for Lazarus’ healing because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith. This is why he lets his dear friend die and Mary and Martha’s world come undone. We see this motive of love and these purposes of glory and increased faith in verses 1-16.
The cause-and-effect grammar of verses 5 and 6 is unmistakable. Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. So, he stays put and lets Lazarus die. Because he loves them, he says no. Because he loves them, he allows their suffering and death. Our own logic and emotions may want to reject this kind of connection, but it is crystal clear in the text, daring us to believe it in spite of everything. Somehow, we will eventually be able to clearly trace Jesus’ conduct toward this family to his love for them. Although at this point, verses 5 and 6 likely serve to make our disorientation worse. “We know he loved them, so why is he treating them like this? How is this possibly consistent with love?”
We also see in this passage how Jesus’ goal through these events, his aims, are greater glory and greater faith. Right away in verse 4, he tells the disciples that Lazarus’ sickness “does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Whatever the enigmatic statement means that Lazarus’ sickness does not lead to death, it is clear that a greater display of the Father and the Son’s glory is going to come because of it. And what follows when the glory of God is displayed? The increased faith of his people. “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (11:14-15). Somehow, Lazarus’ death is going to lead to a display of God’s glory, and that glory is going to grow the faith of God’s people who see it and hear about it. These things are so certain in the mind of Jesus that he can even be glad for the coming greater faith of his disciples, as he looks ahead to the end of the story.
Notice here the genuine complexity of Jesus’ emotions, an important theme in this story. He is able to hold both gladness and sorrow for his friends, sovereignty and grief. His love for his friends would have meant genuine grief at the news of Lazarus’ sickness and the knowledge of his death. We see this grief spill over later in the chapter. Yet at the same time that he knows his dear friend has died he is able to be glad for the sake of his disciples, as he keeps in mind the glory and faith that is coming through this tragedy. Jesus holds these emotions in tension at the same time, and because of his humanity we can understand how this might be possible. Who hasn’t felt profound grief at the same time as gladness at seeing a friend or relative give a courageous eulogy at the funeral of a loved one? We are crushed by the loss, and yet we are also profoundly glad for what that loss has drawn out of the one speaking up front. We see this kind of authentic complexity in Jesus’ affections in this story and it helps us – because we want to deny God that same kind of authentic complexity in the midst of our own suffering. “He can’t truly be loving and sovereign at the same time, his love must be a sham.” But Jesus in John 11 confronts us with another reality, a truer window into the heart of God when we suffer.
But can we say from the rest of scripture that this is indeed true of God? Does God really allow suffering because of his love for his people and for the sake of greater glory and faith? Here I am reminded of Genesis 50, and Joseph’s response to his brothers when they fear he will take his revenge on them for the great suffering they inflicted on him in their youth. But Joseph’s response is one that acknowledges the good purposes of God in his suffering. “‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:19-21). Joseph responds kindly to his brothers because he has seen God’s kindness in his past slavery and imprisonment. God was working life for countless others through his pain and loss. This kind of sovereign love reveals God’s glory, and that revealed glory changes hearts, infusing them with faith and kindness toward others.
The difference between Joseph and where we find ourselves in John 11 and so often in our own suffering is that he is looking back at the beautiful threads of God’s motive and purposes revealed in history. We, on the other hand, are still in the dark, called to believe in Jesus’ love and working greater glory and faith when we can’t yet see how that can possibly make sense. This kind of position is the sort of crucible that proves genuine faith. It’s easy to believe when we see it. But when everything in our experience screams that God cannot possibly be good in this situation, when we strain our eyes of faith and can’t see anything good, that is when Jesus’ promises – and our faith in them – matter most.
I remember the pre-baptism conversation the men in our church-plant had with Hank*, a former Mullah in training from a city well-known for its Islamic radicals. In the previous months, Hank’s wife had abandoned him when she’d learned of his faith in Jesus. This had been disastrous for Hank on many fronts, a massive blow that he was still reeling from even as he shared his testimony with us that evening. Afterward, each of the believing men present had a chance to ask Hank questions about his faith or to offer encouragement. When it was my turn to share, I encouraged Hank from 2nd Corinthians 4, that our suffering as believers is resulting in an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. I desperately wanted Hank to know that every bit of his suffering was known by God and counted, somehow, for an increase of eternal glory. His wife’s abandoning him and the wreckage that ensued was not meaningless, nor was it God punishing him. Even if we never see the pieces fully come together in this life, one day we would see the love, the glory, and the faith that God was working in it all along. I hoped that, for Hank, this truth might help him to hold on to his new faith in the midst of great loss.
We don’t have to be able to trace the specific threads of God’s purposes in our suffering to know what he is ultimately up to. We see in John 11 that Jesus allows his friends’ suffering and death somehow because of his love for them, and that through it he is somehow working greater glory and greater faith. And that somehow, clung to in the disorienting fog of suffering like the tiniest bit of light, may make all the difference for a suffering saint.
This post is part one in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read parts two and three here.
When it comes to the problem of evil and a theology of suffering, there is no text I have turned to more often that John chapter eleven. This post is the first of a series where I hope to mine some of the riches of this text, one point per each post. Well, really, it will be two points per post, because for this text to apply to personal or universal suffering, we must keep an initial point constantly before us. That point is one of the main themes of John’s gospel, namely that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
Essentially, this point means that Jesus explains the Father for us, he makes him understandable. He translates him for us so that our limited human brains and senses can understand and know him truly, though not completely. Why do we need help understanding God? Because he is so different from us and therefore so hard for us to comprehend. Everything else in existence that we interact with had a beginning. God was there before the beginning. Everything else is limited in its scale and presence. God is everywhere present, at the same time. Everything else has at least the capacity for evil. God is pure goodness and holiness. On top of all of it, we cannot in this age see God with our physical eyes and touch him with our hands. So yes, there is a need for a translator, someone who can explain and model God for us in ways and at a scale that we can comprehend. This is one of the reasons the eternal son became a human, so that he might become this crucial, necessary exegete of what God is really like. When we hear Jesus speak and see him act in the gospels, we are hearing and seeing things that are not just true of Jesus in the first century, we are hearing and seeing things that communicate the eternal nature of God himself.
This point is what makes Jesus’ conduct in John 11 relevant to our personal suffering, and the suffering of the entire creation. The problem of evil is huge, cosmic in its scope. It is difficult to grapple with, and on a scale that involves billions of humans throughout all time and history. If only we could have a story where God as a human character interacts with the suffering of a few friends – then we might be able to have some handles for how his sovereignty and love, our brokenness and faith, and the reality of evil and death truly intersect. That’s where John 11 comes in. Remember, Jesus explains the Father to us. So his interactions with his disciples and the family of the ill, later dead, later resurrected Lazarus show us what God is truly doing when his people suffer. Because we can see how he loved Lazarus and his family, we can also see how he loves us. And that gives us clues about how he also loves his entire created universe.
Entering into John 11 then, the first point we’ll focus on is that Jesus says no to a good, faith-filled request.
 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
John 11:17, ESV
The family of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are close friends with Jesus. The text even says that he loves them. So this indirect request for healing, “he whom you love is ill,” is not coming from an enemy or even a seeker, but from loving friends. There is no cynical sign-seeking going on here. Add to this that it is a request utterly consistent with Jesus’ conduct up to that point. Everywhere else where the gospel writers record a request for healing, Jesus grants it, even when it’s a healing from a distance. Mary and Martha therefore have every reason to believe that Jesus will say yes and will heal their brother. So they reach out in good faith, knowing that he is able to do this. This is a very good request, stemming from love, faith, and sound knowledge of Jesus’ character.
Yet Jesus says no. It is an indirect, Middle-Eastern-style no. He doesn’t reply. He merely stays where he is another two days. Silence and absence. This is a good request effectively denied, a refusal to heal Lazarus, and therefore a permitting of his death when Jesus could have stopped it. For those who knew Jesus then, and for any reading the gospels now, this should cause some serious disorientation. What is going on here? This is not the Jesus we know and love. This seems cruel and heartless. When 1) he has the power to heal and 2) healing is consistent with his good character, why has he not done it? The text of John 11 will help us navigate this disorientation. For today, it is enough to slow down and take in the fact that Jesus sometimes says no to good, faith-filled requests that for the life of us seem to be according to his will.
I had a very close friend while growing up in Melanesia. We became friends in fifth grade and regularly spent time together through all the years that followed. In high school, this friend became like a spiritual brother to me. We attended discipleship groups together, prayed together, confessed sin to one another, and stayed up late on sleepovers talking about spiritual things. Then in 11th grade his father, a missionary and Bible translator, was caught with STDs. A double life of sexual sin was eventually exposed, meaning my close friend’s family was forced to return to the US. Their departure was heart-breaking for me and many others. I had made a vow seven years previous to no longer cry, but at that airport I could no longer keep the tears back, and I wept on my friend’s shoulders. Several years later this same friend was staying with my family over the summer as we attended different Christian colleges. His behavior had us concerned. He no longer seemed interested in the things of the Spirit that had bonded us so closely in high school. Eventually it came out that he was living a secret homosexual lifestyle, and about to go public with it. After much prayer that God would grant my dear friend repentance,we sat at the kitchen table one summer night. I pleaded with him to not give up the superior joy of following Jesus for the lesser pleasures of a homosexual lifestyle. I tried to reason with him from scripture. “I’m sorry,” he responded, “I’ve just never seen the joy of following Jesus match the kind of happiness I am experiencing as a gay man.” I was crushed. God had said no to my prayers for my friend’s repentance, who proceeded to plunge headlong into a homosexual lifestyle. Fifteen years later, God is still saying no to my good, faith-filled requests for my friend.
Sometimes, God will say no to our good requests. How can he do this and still be consistent with his character? Why would he not show his power when we know that he is able? John 11 will help us navigate these tensions. For now, it is enough to note that Jesus says no to the healing of Lazarus. And Jesus reveals the Father, which means that God will, at times, deny our faithful requests.
We must know this about our God so that when it happens to us, the natural disorientation that results will not shipwreck our faith. Having this category is crucial when our experience has thus far been an unbroken chain of answered prayer for a certain request. When multiple other couples have now been healed of infertility, why is it not working for us? When I have always before been provided with timely employment, why am I now out of a job and unable to pay these bills? My last three unbelieving friends came to faith after sustained prayer, so why has this one now cut me off? We also need to know this truth of God’s no for when other believers want to turn promises that will ultimately come true in the end into promises that they insist will come true in our own preferred timelines. When these promises don’t come about in our lives, these other Christians may try to claim that it’s actually our motives or our faith – or lack thereof – that is the culprit.
But we must have a category for God saying no, even when our requests are good, faith-filled, and according to his character. We see Jesus doing this very thing with Mary and Martha. When this happens, the reason is not some flaw in our asking. No, when God says no in these situations – like John 11 – there is something much deeper going on.
Eating out just hasn’t felt worth it these past couple months that we’ve been back in the US. While restaurants in the states are open again, most are understaffed and alarmingly expensive. The lack of staff usually means pretty poor service, and even the quality of food usually strikes us as not what it used to be. Hearing others in the US voice similar sentiments means it’s not just those of us who have been living overseas who notice these differences. The food service industry is creaking, trying to lurch back to what it was before the pandemic. There is this sense that – convenience though it is – we can’t count it like we used to.
Food service is not the only system struggling to regain its pre-pandemic efficiency. International air travel has still not recovered either. We’ve never had the kind of travel difficulties that we’ve experienced over this past year. Even business behemoths like Amazon seem past their, ahem, prime. More seriously, crime has also skyrocketed in many American cities, with the understanding in some places that if you are the victim of certain crimes, you are on your own.
The strange thing about all this for highly-educated millennials like us is that we’ve hardly ever known the systems around us to get worse, perhaps with the exception of our elected government. By and large, we’ve only known the infrastructure and services offered in the West to (eventually) get faster, more efficient, and more user-friendly. This was also the worldview of our parents’ generation. Progress in the systems we rely on for life necessities or conveniences has been assumed. The pandemic and its aftermath have challenged this assumption and, whether temporary or long-term, the systems around us are showing their weakness.
Systems don’t last forever. The prophecy of the twelve eagles was right – Rome would fall. The Roman legions would leave places like Britain in 409 and never come back. Which meant the structures of empire that the Romanized residents of Londinium (London) relied upon would have slowly but surely broken down. A thousand years later the Portuguese would successfully sail to India – thereby causing the economic collapse of the Central Asian silk road. Trade routes that were kept safe by the wealth and power of regional regimes would become frequented by violent robbers and be slowly abandoned by the caravans. Empires rise. Empires decline. At some point a certain generation realizes that things are breaking faster than they can be repaired, and life is likely going to get a lot worse before it someday gets better.
As the systems of West have begun to creak, we’ve had an opportunity to get a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a declining empire, what it’s like to have things regress, as it were. We’re nowhere near what someone like Augustine would have experienced as the Vandals laid siege to his city during the last year of his life. Bad food service, late packages, and lost luggage are not nearly the same thing as barbarians at the gate. But if we stop and pay attention, we might be able to identify just a little more with all those communities throughout history that have known what it’s like to have their faith in their systems shaken. This is not all bad.
Who among us in the West has not at times believed the myth of our society’s unceasing progress and influence? It’s only human to believe that the way things are is the way they are going to be – certainly for our lifetimes, if not for much longer. But a shockwave through society’s systems can function much like a personal health scare. It can awaken us to our own transience. Our lives are like a vapor (James 4:14). So are our civilizations. Like Ozymandius, all the great boasts of this world will one day end up the equivalent of a monument buried in sand, abandoned and forgotten. Remembering our transience fosters humility. And our God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
Creaking systems can also foster a hunger for better ones, those that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:27). It’s no mistake that Augustine writes The City of God in the twilight of the Roman Empire, and in light of the first sack of Rome. When the temporary systems (the City of Man) that we live in get shaken, believers are forced to cling to our true home, our eternal one (the city of God). Just as all the transitions of a refugee’s or a TCK’s upbringing can cause him to hope more tangibly in an eternal home, so the church collectively can come to believe more deeply in the steadfast kingdom of God when their own societies of sojourn are coming undone.
Shall we grieve for our Babylons when their time has come? Yes. The losses are real, if indeed we sought the good of the city where we sojourned. And yet there is also hope and a renewed clarity that must intermingle with the grieving. We knew all along our common grace systems were eventually going to fail. But we also knew that their creaking and their failure would also (ultimately) serve as the prelude to the eternal story of the New Jerusalem.
Finally, these things also help us identify with the Church global and historical. When we ourselves wrestle in faith to trust God in the breakdown of our systems, we learn better how to pray for Christians who live in failed states or economies, for those whose societies experience a great deal more instability and turmoil than ours have. We are reminded that we should have been primarily identifying with them all along, rather than with our temporary fellow citizens and partisans.
When the city of man begins to creak and groan we may naturally feel a good deal of fear or disorientation. I don’t think there’s any way around this. But this creaking is also an opportunity for humility, for renewed faith in the New Jerusalem, and for identification with the historical and global Church. In this way, no matter if the cracks get worse or if they get patched, we will be able to maintain hope, to serve our brothers and sisters and even the perishing, and to point to what is coming.
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
It’s been about nine years that I’ve been suffering from periodic anxiety attacks. Apparently, many third-culture kids experience some kind of health or mental health collapse in their mid-twenties, which some researchers in the TCK counseling community are saying is due to years of unprocessed grief and the built up stress of so many goodbyes, transitions, and losses. In my case, this pattern fits my story almost too well. I literally collapsed one morning as a 25-year-old while doing an evangelism training, passing out just a couple minutes after I had taken the stage. This started a long pattern of anxiety attacks connected to speaking in public and eventually, to anxiety attacks in many kinds of high pressure conversations.
It’s been a long road trying to pursue healing from this struggle. Certain years have been better than others. I’ve learned to recognize the occurrence or even the hints of the beginnings of these attacks as a warning light of sorts – a signal that I am pushing beyond my God-given limits in unwise ways. I’ve also been learning of the importance of digging into my story to better understand why things like conflict conversations and the possibility of public humiliation are so terrifying to my sympathetic nervous system, the part responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze emergency responses. These things always have a context. And we often can’t skillfully apply gospel truth to our deepest struggles unless we understand that context.
2021 was very stressful year for our family. Unexpected leadership transitions on the field meant some major reshuffling was needed in order to stabilize two of our teams. It also meant that another move was needed for our family, causing us to pack up our house in the desert city we were serving and to move back into the mountains, to the city where we had spent our first term. As is the case with most leadership transitions, there was some pretty serious conflict which ensued during this season on top of everything else. By the fall of 2021 I was in a pretty weak place, finding even doing public introductions to be an exhausting battle.
We were attending some training in the US and one of the trainers was also a trauma counselor who offered to meet with any of us that needed it. My wife and I quickly signed up for a slot, particularly wanting some insight into our struggles with anxiety. I described my long-term struggle with the counselor, and was met with a surprising response.
“First thing I would tell you is this: No caffeine or sugar for forty days, lots of water, lots of celery. We need to flush all that cortisol out and after that see what kind of effect that has.”
“Really?” I responded, “You think coffee could be affecting my anxiety?”
“How many cups do you drink a day?”
“Three or four.”
The counselor raised his eyebrows and gave me a “You should be able to put the pieces together here” look. Apparently, caffeine can interact significantly with cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, and make struggles like anxiety much worse. I thought back to the season when my anxiety attacks had started. Sure enough, in those years I transitioned from a free social drinker of chai and coffee into a lifestyle that was dependent on several cups of strong coffee a day. It was easy to do, given the fantastic coffee scene of Louisville, Kentucky. Many a ministry meeting took place in award-winning coffee shops like Sunergos and Quills. Much dark chai was drunk and spilled with our Middle Eastern refugee friends. I’m also not a very big guy, thinly built and weighing in at an average of 150 pounds/68 kilos. It makes sense that body type would also impact caffeine’s affect on the nerves. This is made worse if, like me in that season, one is not exercising regularly and in general ignoring that they are an embodied being with limits.
This bit about caffeine was one of the more practical pieces of counsel I had received, and I excitedly decided to start right away. The next day of the intense training I abstained from all coffee and sugar – and suffered an awful migraine. Right, I thought to myself, better figure out a way to do this gradually. I found a plan to cut caffeine out by a quarter of a cup every three days and proceeded at that pace, thankfully migraine-free. After several weeks I found myself spending entire days without any caffeine, and ready to see if it was actually going to help.
The short answer is yes, it helped tremendously. While I never got as serious about the no-sugar or lots of celery parts, the no-caffeine advice proved to make a dramatic reduction in my anxiety. It’s not that anxiety stopped surfacing, it’s that it was much less likely to tip over into the cold-sensations-up-the-back-of-the-head, heart-pounding, language-blurring, head fog arena of anxiety attacks. This bought me more room to focus on relevant truth vs. lies in situations where I was feeling anxious. It also eventually meant anxiety was no longer so close to the surface, right up in my throat as it were. There was more margin to endure hard things before the the anxiety started.
I was also surprised by how my body’s energy levels adjusted. It was as if if the high peaks and deep ravines of energy in my caffeine-infused days gave way to much more gentle hills and shallow valleys. Sure, I wasn’t feeling the same kind of creative, energized high that I would get after a good homemade pour-over – or if I was out in the bazaar, a punch-you-in-the-face bitter Central Asian Americano. But the upside was less crushing fatigue. Energy was more balanced all around. I also started sleeping better. And waking up was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.
I was worried about the gut effects of quitting coffee, since I’ve found it so helpful over the years as a way to supplement my weak stomach – something I learned from missionaries in China. A good cup of black coffee meant I could eat a greasy kabab in the bazaar and on a good day not suffer the consequences. But turns out decaf is almost as good as caffeinated coffee for providing these kinds of medicinal benefits. And yes, thankfully we live in a day where good decaf does indeed exist. I’ve enjoyed the aptly titled No Fun Jo for any who might be curious.
My Western and Central Asian friends responded in shock when I told them I was quitting caffeine. “Every time I see you, you have a caffeinated drink in your hand,” was how one colleague put it. Some openly doubted that I could do it, which provided some helpful challenge motivation when I was freshly mourning the loss of my delicious dark beverage. I was, however, never able to completely quit all caffeine entirely. I still lived in Central Asia, which meant that periodically I was honor-bound to drink that cup of thick black chai for the sake of my host. But for the most part I went a full nine months with almost no caffeine before I started experimenting with carefully adding some back in.
Truth be told, I missed the creativity and motivation boost that came from a good cup of coffee. For knocking out some needed admin work or writing up another blog post, there is something good and helpful about a healthy dose of caffeine. I think this is likely why God has given us so much caffeine in so many different kinds of plants and drinks around world. It’s a good gift for workers and creators, when it can be used wisely. While in Central Asia, this meant in the last six months I’ve gotten back to having one cup in the late morning or midday. Here in the US, with this country’s early morning culture and increased coffee options, I’ve been enjoying a half-caf* mid morning and another one midday. So far this has not seemed to have any negative impact on my anxiety.
On the spiritual side, it has been good to experience coffee again as something which can serve and equip, rather than something which I am bound to. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything'” (1 Cor 6:12). This time around, I hope to better navigate my use of caffeine such that I don’t have to become so dependent on it again. Even if I didn’t have the anxiety attacks, it would have been beneficial to fast from caffeine for a season for the sake of rightly-ordered affections.
What about public speaking and conflict conversations that previously led to anxiety attacks? Over the past year I have noticed a significant increase in my resilience in these settings. While not completely free of the initial waves of panic, in many of these challenging settings I’ve been able roll these waves of fear back and carry on with a high degree of freedom. Even conversations where I have been under attack and several high pressure public speaking situations have gone well. I don’t doubt that the counseling, journaling, prayer, exercise, and other aspects of pursuing healing in this area are also proving helpful. But the most immediate and dramatic change in my struggles with anxiety came from this very earthy kind of spirituality – that of quitting caffeine.
We are such complex creatures, with the body, the soul, and the mind intermingling in mysterious and surprising ways. We need to be careful that we are not so spiritually-minded that we miss the importance of the body when it comes to areas of deep struggle in our lives. Paul tells Timothy to no longer drink only water, but to drink it mixed with wine for the sake of his stomach (1 Tim 5:23). Wise Christian leaders have said that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap. For me, it was an act of practical spirituality to cut caffeine for a good long season.
I likely still have a long road ahead of me regarding battling anxiety – an area in which physical suffering and spiritual sin can overlap in confounding ways. Anxiety can be entered into as an act of sinful distrust in God’s provision. Anxiety attacks, however, seem to fall much more in the realm of suffering, when an experience of past suffering gets stuck in our bodies, reemerging to hijack us in situations which one part of the mind reads as dangerous. But whether suffering or sin, I rejoice that complete freedom is one day coming. In the resurrection we will only know courage, love, and freedom, and anxiety will be a distant memory. The coffee will be flowing, and we will drink it in perfect self-control and freedom.
So I sip my second and last half-caf of the day, and believe again that day is coming.
My kids had plain Greek yogurt for breakfast this morning. Later, my wife told me that our son complained about that other American yogurt while eating. “It’s so gross,” were apparently his exact words.
“Well,” my wife responded. “A lot of Americans might think you’re the strange one for enjoying thick yogurt without any flavoring or sugar in it.”
I smiled when she told me this later in the morning. “Well, except for all the Americans who now eat Chobani. That’s why it’s so popular, because it’s so different from the runny, sugary stuff that used to be the main kind sold here.
We were standing in the kitchen and she held the Greek yogurt container up to our noses.
“Smell this. Isn’t it wonderful? I miss it.”
I took a deep breath, enjoying the sour, rich aroma. “We will have new stomachs, my love, in the resurrection. And we will eat lots of amazing, resurrected yogurt.”
Something has happened to our digestive systems over the last decade, so we can’t handle much dairy anymore, no matter where it comes from.
In spite of this, I always smile to see how many inroads Chobani yogurt and its Greek yogurt competitors have made into the grocery stores and culture of my passport country. What most don’t recognize is that this represents a quiet Central Asian* culinary invasion.
Greek yogurt isn’t really Greek. It would be more accurate to call it Kurdish, Turkish, or Armenian. Even the name of the company that popularized “Greek” yogurt gives this away. Choban is the Turkish and Azerbaijani word for shepherd. It’s one of many related variants of the same word in the region. Kurds say shivan or shwan. Persians say shiban and Tajiks say supon. So, Chobani yogurt means shepherd yogurt, or, in a direct translation, shepherd-y or shepherd-ish yogurt.
The founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Kurd from southeast Turkey, who comes from a family of villagers and nomads who made and sold yogurt from their herds. He immigrated to the US in the mid 90’s, and like many from that region, was disappointed by the runny, sugary stuff that Americans called yogurt. Eventually, he purchased a shut-down Kraft factory and began selling denser, more natural yogurt to Americans. It got traction, and today Chobani has around twenty percent of the US market.
Calling it Greek was a shrewd marketing move. Hamdi says there was already a small category of yogurt which was called Greek in New York, but it’s also true that Middle Eastern and Central Asian restaurants and food brands regularly rely on terms like Greek and Mediterranean in order to market themselves effectively for Western customers. Occasionally you’ll find a Mediterranean restaurant that is actually run by Greeks, but more often than not it’s guys from Iraq or Syria. Truth be told, had Hamdi called it Kurdish yogurt, it’s a lot less likely it would have taken off in the way it has.
Hamdi brought with him not only a superior yogurt savvy, but also some sound wisdom from his Central Asian village roots. From the beginning, he opted to pay his factory workers good wages. He gives his employees stock in the company. He actively hires refugees and immigrants alongside of locals. His people-centered approach to business is a rebuke to much of American capitalism – and an example to Christians of how to hold on to your core principles even when your business takes off and grows exponentially. Check out this interview for more of Hamdi’s encouraging story.
Central Asian yogurt’s takeover of America illustrates the benefits that come when different cultural streams mix. Each stream can reintroduce its strengths to the other, in a reminder of sorts of things mostly forgotten. Central Asians teach us what good yogurt is. We teach them what good coffee is. They remind us about the importance of hospitality. We remind them of the importance of transparency.
Perhaps this is one reason God has cultural diversity baked into human history. We too easily forget his wisdom, not only personally, but also collectively. We are in need of other human groups to show us our group’s blindspots and to help us balance our weaknesses. This is an important way the global church can serve local bodies of believers, wherever they might be. By mixing our streams we can more effectively build local church gospel cultures – not uniform, but harmonious, a diversity of expression that grows out of a solid universal core of creed and principle.
The next time you see Chobani or Greek yogurt, think of Central Asia. And if you want to go all the way, eat it with some flatbread, eggs fried in an ungodly amount of oil, olives, honey, walnuts, and extremely sweet tea.
*Here I define Central Asia culturally, rather than geographically, as the collection of cultures in Asia that are Turkish or Persian-related.
Patronage is one area of foreign cultures that is hardest for us Westerners to comprehend. Sometimes described as patron-client systems, this is a global and historical way to structure society when you can’t rely on impersonal institutions. If Westerners need to borrow money to buy a house or a car, they get a loan from the bank. If they need a job, they submit a resume to a company. Impersonal institutions help us acquire some of our most important resources for succeeding in life. A patronage system instead relies on important people to get these needs met.
In the West, we sometimes hear that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. What this means for us is that relationships are still important, as a sort of lubricant that makes the institutions run more smoothly. In a contest of two equal resumes (or CVs), the resume of the person who is already known will win, because relational experience has been thrown in as the tie breaker. In places like Central Asia, resumes are almost meaningless. Far superior candidates are passed over for the unqualified relative or loyal client whose uncle or patron heads up the company. In patronage systems, who you know really is everything.
The basic logic of a patronage system is that society is set up like a pyramid, with patrons on top and clients on the bottom. To get ahead, members of society look to secure patrons, individuals higher up in the pyramid than they are. The client will offer their loyalty, services, and public praise to the patron who will in turn secure the material goods or connections that the client is looking for.
If you’ve ever seen The Godfather, the character Don Carleone spells this out explicitly. After agreeing to order a hit on a man who has shamed his new client’s daughter, he clarifies that this relationship is one of mutual obligation. “Someday – and that day may never come – I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” Don Carleone offers a favor of power and influence and the client is thereby indebted to offer any services which might be in his power to offer his patron in the future.
In the past in Central Asia, this could look like an important chief granting land, seed, a horse, and a rifle to a villager. The expectation would be that that villager would give the patron a portion of the crops, that he would fight for him when conflict arose with other tribes, and that he would in every way become his loyal man. Central Asian culture being what it is, this also would mean the client must regularly visit the patron in order to drink his tea and thereby honor him. The peasant was client to the chief, who was client to the regional governor, who was client the emir or king, who was himself client to the emperor or caliph. A current manifestation of Central Asian patronage might look like a politician giving cars or monthly salaries to individuals in order to ensure their votes and support come election time. Or a working class woman bringing food regularly to the family of a university professor to ensure that her son gets into university – while that same professor is indebted to a patron higher up for his job.
There are at least two types of patrons, the powerful individual and the one who connects you to the powerful individual. This latter person is sometimes called a broker. He may not be able to get you the job, but he’s got the ear of the guy who can. Individuals who are on an equivalent level in society with one another are either rivals or “friends,” equals who are in a positive relationship of helping one another out, perhaps sharing the same patron above them.
The mutual obligations of patron-client relationships are the sort of thing continually taught and modeled to kids by their parents and broader society as they grow up, in a sort of “how to invest and get ahead” informal mentoring. These obligations are then (unlike the quote from The Godfather) usually implied rather than spelled out. Patron-client realities are something everyone in society is just supposed to understand. This is what makes this aspect of culture such a minefield for Western missionaries, who arrive completely ignorant of how a patronage society works.
Westerners often look askance at a patron-client society as one in which unequal access to powerful individuals replaces a more just system of merit and equal opportunity. This critique is not always wrong. But remember that most of these societies do not have dependable impersonal institutions to rely on, such as insurance companies. So, your extended family serves as your insurance policy, and beyond that, your network of patrons and clients. Westerners often assume that everyone in their new society can depend on impersonal institutions as they can back home, not realizing that things like banks and government entities are often merely shells which actually contain an internal patronage system. Westerners come from a society which assumes that everyone should be equals, whether “friends,” rivals, or strangers. So a Central Asian may befriend a Westerner in hopes of finding a broker or a patron, only to have the Westerner treat him as an equal “friend” with no strong mutual obligations. Confusion and frustration results.
Patronage causes some big problems for missionaries and for the establishment of healthy churches in our region. For starters, the Western missionary is viewed as a potential patron with lots of wealth and connections. This brings a flood of relationships that are trying to get a leg up on the societal ladder, but which the missionary might mistake for purely friendship or spiritual interest. Missionaries hiring locals is another minefield. Far from the limited contractual relationship between employers and employees that we are used to, employers in Central Asia are patrons responsible for much more than the unsuspecting Westerner knows. Many warm relationships blow up when the Westerner ends the employment of a local. It’s even more dangerous for how locals might come to understand the local church, as a place where their loyalty and services are given in return for the patron-pastor’s providing them with their physical and spiritual goods. But viewing the pastor as patron or broker merely recasts the church in the image of a fallen patronage society.
After living these past seven years in a patronage society, I’m only now beginning to see the through the fog of it all a little bit. Since so much of this kind of a system is meant to be intuited rather than explicitly taught, I’ve had to find scholars who have studied these kind of systems in order to make sense of the patronage sea I’ve been swimming in. One of these helpful guides is a New Testament scholar who wasn’t writing with my context in mind at all, but instead doing historical context work on the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural world of the first century. David A. DeSilva’s book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, has proved to be a very helpful resource for better understanding how patronage still functions among our focus people group. Even my framing of patronage in this post relies heavily on language that that DeSilva uses to describe New Testament culture. Turns out much of the culture of the societies in the Bible has hung on in parts of our region – not entirely surprising given how the mountains tend to preserve things and Islam itself arose in and is compatible with a patronage culture.
The wonderful surprise I found, with DeSilva’s help, is that the New Testament authors model how to transform a patronage culture. I’d like to go into more detail of how this is done in future posts, so for now I’ll content myself with a preview. In short, the New Testament authors didn’t reject patronage, but they did radically redefine it. God is held up as our true patron, the generous patron of all humanity, yes, but the specific patron of believers to whom he freely gives gifts of salvation and new life. Jesus is presented as our true broker – or mediator, in first century language – who mediates creation, redemption, and continual access for us with God the Father. Believers are now all “friends” with one another, regardless of socioeconomic status, who share the same patron and are to work for one another’s good and honor, without rivalry. All of this results in a certain posture of gratitude and service toward God the Father and Jesus Christ which taps into the logic and motivations of a patronage system: what client could ever betray such a generous and trustworthy (faithful) patron? To do so would be unspeakably shameful. Instead, God is worthy of our eternal loyalty, public praise, and joyful service – for our patron has even more glorious gifts yet in store for us, namely resurrection.
This is how the New Testament authors transformed the patronage cultures of the early churches. To make sense out of patronage cultures, and to faithfully engage them ourselves, we need to follow their lead. Given that so many of the unreached people groups of the world are patronage cultures, how amazing that the New Testament authors can serve as such direct models of faithful engagement. My guides for understanding and engaging patronage were there all along, right under my nose.