I’ve had a number of things on my mind lately that I’d like to write about, but I decided tonight to go back to the basics and tell a story of my travels. Specifically I’m going back four years to my last journey to South Sudan. At the time, South Sudan was the second most dangerous country in the world, and was quickly devolving to number one, which is where it currently stands. I’d like to be able to give reasons for why this is the case, but that would take volumes to describe. This being a blog, I fully expect to lose almost everyone if I go over 1000 words. If you’d like to know more about the how and why of the situation in South Sudan, feel free to look back through the archives where I write about it at length.
Staying put in South Sudan is not so bad. And if you have the opportunity to take a small plane where you need to go, you can avoid most of the danger, minus that of actually flying in poorly maintained small Russian planes.
The problem is when you have to travel the roads, and this is what we had to do. There was a village we had neglected to visit the last time we were there, and it was necessary to go and visit this time, despite the fact that the situation had gotten worse in the last six months since we’d been in country. The problem was two-fold. The first issue was what are known as “black snakes”. These are not literal snakes, though those exist as well, but rather armed bandits that wait along the road with Kalashnikovs for an easy looking target or a vehicle that has gotten separated. They then stop the vehicle and in the best case they only rob you. This is an ever present danger of road travel in South Sudan.
The other, more pressing problem was that of the White Army. An army of mostly children and teenagers from the Nuer tribe, they rub ashes on their faces as an insect repellent, hence the “white” moniker. They had been emboldened by the renegade vice-president and occasional war-lord of South Sudan, Riek Machar, to attack and raid villages of their cattle. The village we were visiting was directly in their path, and the only road back was in their territory. So to say the least, we were concerned about our road travel, especially since it would be nearing darkness as we were returning.
Many seemingly daunting or hopeless situations are punctuated by the simple phrase, “but God.” This one was no different. Normally I avoid soldiers in developing nations as much as possible, especially in South Sudan, where loyalties change at the drop of a hat. As Sung Tzu so famously wrote in “The Art of War”, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
As we turned out of the village along the Nile onto the rutted dirt road, a cattle truck full of SPLA soldiers was passing. We hung back a bit, but drove within sight of the truck the entire way back. Their presence offered a deterrent to any would-be attackers for the whole journey. As I thought about it later, a couple of things came to mind. Part of Psalm 23 was one of them.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;”
The table prepared came in the form of a cattle truck full of soldiers, and I was thankful for it. I managed to snap this clandestine picture as we drove.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about settlers, and I implied that there would be a second part. Well, after more thinking on the subject, here is the second part.
The word “settlers” has a couple of possible meanings. It could mean someone who follows in the footsteps of the pioneers and sets up camp when everything is safe. This was the angle I took in the first part if this blog. But there’s another possible meaning to the word settlers, that being the name given to people who settle for second best, or third best, or settle for the worst for that matter.
I wish I could say it wasn’t true, but when I look around myself, and when I look inward, I see an awful lot of settling, an awful lot of “that’ll do.”
Before we were saved, the enemy used tactics like lust, greed, hate, envy, and lots of other seemingly obvious ways to tempt us. After Jesus saved us, we (hopefully) stopped falling for those things so easily, though we will still often struggle. So the enemy changed his tactics to a more subtle line of offense, that being to get us involved in all sorts of good things, so long as those good things were not the best things that God had planned for us. This allows us to feel good about ourselves while still being disobedient. It allows us to continue to put ourselves first, and our faith atrophies like an unused muscle because we ignored the call to the best things God had for us.
Before someone starts thinking that I’m suggesting something that is too hard, I want to point out one truth that has been proven to me over and over again. God almost always wants better for us than we want for ourselves. Our recurring problem is that we’re unable to see it, because being Americans we associate blessings with money and power and things. Well I would go so far to say that the person that God chooses to give nothing but material wealth is truly cursed beyond all men.
God is not looking for our good, he’s looking for our best. He’s not looking for sacrifice, he’s looking for obedience. God is not looking for perfection, otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen us to do his work. Rather he’s looking for excellence, and a willing heart. God is looking for people that see that even though we live in temporary bodies, we are eternal beings, and our decisions should reflect that fact. He is looking for people who are not willing to settle for second best.
I don’t know what God has called any one person to except myself. What I do know is that it’s a question I have to continually ask, because each time I take a step, the decision about the next step is brand new. Each man and woman needs to ask that question, and then have the faith to take that next step.
I’d like to finish with some verses from Hebrews 11, which sums up what I’m talking about. The chapter is talking about many people who lived by faith, and it’s summed up with the following verses.
Hebrews 11:13-16. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Just as the people spoken of in these verses had the opportunity to turn back, so we have the opportunity to do the same. But just as they were pilgrims and strangers on this earth, so are we, whether we recognize it or not. We have eternity written in our bones, and we were built for far more excellent things.
Recently I was looking at a group I follow on Instagram. It’s an organization that puts together short term missions trips for which people can get involved. They put up a map showing all of the planned trips for the year. There were a lot of them, and they were certainly going to be very busy. But one thing stood out immediately, and that was the blank parts of the map, places where there were no trips planned. The entire Middle-East was missing. North and Central Africa were missing. Central Asia was missing. In short, the planned trips were all to places where the gospel has already been heavily preached. All or nearly all where there is a significantly large indigenous church presence to take up the job for which we’re sending short term missionaries.
Even in the first century, the Apostle Paul talked about this. Romans 15:20 says, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
The problem is this; when Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations, going to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the Earth, we weren’t all supposed to go to the same place. God was looking for pioneers. He was looking for people who would do the hard work, going into hostile, uncomfortable places. That’s what pioneers do. But at some point the settlers came in. Settlers are people who see that the wolves have been killed, the land has been cleared, and the railroad has been constructed. Settlers want to do something worthwhile but don’t like risk. In short, settlers build on someone else’s work. They not only settle the land, they settle for second best.
What we have to realize is that the Great Commission was never about us. It was not about feeling like we’re doing something worthwhile. It was not about being or looking busy, or having a life-changing experience. Sometimes these things happen. It’s good to have a life-changing experience and have a heart change. But it’s more important to be obedient. When Jesus said to go to the uttermost parts of the Earth, he meant the uttermost parts, and not just the convenient and easily accessible parts of Mexico. When we go to these places, we often go to places where we are not needed, and local ministries often find themselves taken from critical work in their own communities to accommodate our insatiable need to feel like we got something done. In cases like this, it’s better to have just stayed home. I don’t want to sound harsh, but the more quickly we figure out that missions is not about us, the more quickly we can fulfill the actual commission we were given.
So the next time an opportunity comes up to get involved in missions, ask yourself, “Am I a pioneer or a settler? Am I doing the best God has called me to, or am I settling for second best?”
The widow was ready for our arrival. She smiled warmly as she greeted us with “Akum Nagoma”. Her simple mud walled house had been cleaned and was in order. She was dressed in her best. New magazine pages had been plastered to the walls, as is the custom to beautify homes in this part of Ethiopia. A television sat under a plastic cover in the main room. She seemed to be doing well…if you chose not to really look.
The rows of dots tattooed on her shrunken neck were too close together; in fact she looked skeletal. When we complimented her on the new wallpaper, she said, “oh, that’s old,” even though we could see that it had just been put up. The television sat there conspicuously, but what good is a television when you don’t have electricity?
We knew something was up. The house had been beautified for our arrival. The wallpaper was obviously new. The television and many of the items in the home were likely borrowed from friends or neighbors. Though she tried to look happy, she was obviously either sick or starving or both. As we asked her questions about how she was doing, her smile and warmness changed. She at first said that she wasn’t able to express how she is doing, and finally broke into tears. It was likely that she knew we were there to help, but the thing about poverty that most people who are not financially poor don’t understand is that Poverty and its ugly siblings Shame and Isolation usually walk hand in hand. Though she knew she needed help, she also didn’t want anyone to know that she needed help, particularly not these strange foreigners coming into her home. She didn’t want anyone judging her ability to take care of her children or herself. Being poor is bad, but everyone knowing you’re poor is so much worse.
This situation cuts to the core of why Christ calls us not only into relationship with Him, but also into relationship with those around us, who are made in Christ’s image. The scriptures are numerous in this area, but I’ll just highlight one. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” It is because of this principal that the enemy seeks so much to divide us. If we remain in relationship with each other, we are less likely to fall into sin, less likely to fall into not only financial poverty, but poverty of spirit. Studies show that married people live longer than single people. It’s nothing magical, it’s just that it’s not good for people to be alone. Its why the writer of the book of Hebrews thought it important enough to write, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” The enemy knows that we are stronger together, that is why one of the most worn out tools in his box is Shame. How many times has someone disappeared from church when trouble hits? “Iron sharpens iron” is the saying, but we can’t sharpen each other if we isolate ourselves.
There is no shame if we realize that we are all broken people. We are all broken in different ways, but when we gather together as one body in Christ, my strength helps you in your weakness, and your strength helps me in my weakness. But we have to go in with the humility of knowing that “while we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us.”
The great thing about having indigenous staff in Ethiopia is that there are people who can check on this widow and see how she is doing. It’s also why short-term missions is so hard. It’s hard to build relationships from afar, but if you have people on the ground it’s that much easier. Hopefully this widow will realize that no one is there to judge her, only help. Starting is the hardest part, but if she goes the path of many of the other widows in this community, she will soon be sustainably feeding her own family and herself. In so doing, she will lift the community as a whole.
As is my tradition, before I take a trip overseas, I write a test blog from my iPad. The interface is a bit different on a mobile device than on a computer, so I like to write at least one blog from the iPad to work out any kinks while I have access to power and bandwidth.
Saturday I leave for Ethiopia. This is also the time when a hurricane is predicted to be passing through, but we will pray against that. If Jesus commanded the wind and the waves, and we are acting in his authority, then so can we.
We are traveling to Ethiopia to do the finishing work on the Tesfa Center, which is a center designed to give destitute widows in the rural countryside a place to work and sustainably support both themselves and their children. James 1:27 came to mind today. It says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unspotted by the world.” We have been given the awesome opportunity to do this. Notice that is not enough to be unspotted by the world? There are also things that must be done. Likewise we are not just called to be busy. Faith without works is dead, just as works without faith will not save us. By faith we show gratitude to the God that selflessly gave himself for us, that while we were yet sinners he died for us. We in turn should live as ransomed people. As God gave his life for us, we return it by giving ours back.
So long as I have internet I plan to give updates while I’m gone. Finally, I leave you with a picture of one of the widows we are going to minister to.
I was having a phone conversation recently with one of our partners overseas. He has been doing some evangelistic work with a very poor tribe of people. He has not been working with this particular group of people for very long, and he was conveying to me the conditions they are living under, and the social structures they’re forced (for now) to live under. It essentially boils down to medieval serfdom. A family will work the fields for the landowner. After they’ve harvested 80 kilograms of cotton, they are paid about $2.50. In addition to the meager wages, they are also in debt to the landowner. They are living in legalized slavery.
Throughout the world, this is not an uncommon thing, much as we’d like to tell ourselves that the world has advanced and moved on from such things. There’s a lot of talk lately about social justice, and particularly about evil governments, and evil corporations, and evil politicians. In all cases we are talking about social systems, from small local systems to national governments. All are social systems, but the evil part is where people get hung up.
Social systems are not evil in themselves, nor are they good. Social systems are amoral, meaning they have no morality in themselves. Social systems are like tofu. Just as tofu takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in, so social systems take on the character of whoever is running them. If you have evil people running the social system, the social system will be evil. If you have good people running the social system, you will likely have a good social system, unless the good people lack knowledge or wisdom, or are incompetent, which happens.
Social justice activists are spending an awful lot of time trying to dismantle evil systems, and in many cases this is a good thing. However, if you dismantle an evil system but the hearts of the people are still evil, you are wasting your time.
I have spent a good amount of time this week pouring over video footage I shot last time I was in Africa. (I finally have the time to do so.) We interviewed several pastors, many of whom came from a background where in their younger years, they were part of the evil systems we are talking about in their respective societies. They were persecutors, drug addicts, witch doctors, people who were cruel to their wives and families. The common thread between them was when they had an encounter with the living God, and he changed everything. Now these people are out risking their own lives in a dangerous land to tell others about what changed them and their families, and gave them hope. I hear people say sometimes that their faith is a personal thing. That’s hogwash. If your faith doesn’t make a tangible difference in yourself and the world around you, what good is it? As James says, “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You say you believe in God. Good! Even the demons believe, and shudder!”
My conversation with our overseas partner was informative for me, but also really got me thinking about how we are to handle these situations. In regards to the social systems already in place, the bible is very clear about it in many places. 1 Timothy 2 says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” First we need to pray for a turning of the landowner’s heart. If his heart is turned toward God, and it’s genuine, his attitude toward the people working his land will change. The second part of this is what praying for unjust leaders does in us. Jesus talks about this in Luke 6. “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
You see, everyone is running around trying to change everyone else, but change starts with us, and with the attitude of our own hearts. We pray for our enemies both because the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, but also because when we pray for our enemies, we cannot simultaneously hate them.
There may be other strategies we need to take to alleviate the slavery these people are living under, but to start them prematurely or to do them in lieu of praying for their enemies undermines the reason Christ came, that being “to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who arebound;” (Isaiah 61). Many are under the assumption that if people are oppressed, they are somehow angelic. I can tell you from personal experience from some of the places I’ve worked in that if you release a slave from his oppressor without taking the spirit of the slave out of the man, he will do worse atrocities to both his oppressor and the people around him than his oppressor ever did to him.
In closing, I’d like to relay a story from one of the interviews I did in Africa this year. The man I was interviewing hated Christians when he was younger. He would attack them and throw stones at them. One day, he came across a Christian and started beating him. The man he was beating continued to tell him about Jesus even while he was beating him. It’s this kind of self-sacrifice that changes the world. Not and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but praying for our enemies and telling them the good news even while they are beating us.
In October 1972, Private Kinshichi Akatsu of the Imperial Japanese Army emerged from the jungle of Lubang Island in the Philippines and burned the rice collected by Filipino farmers. Shortly afterward, he was killed by two shots from Filipino police. He was probably the last casualty of World War Two. Twenty nine years after the war ended, he was still engaging in guerrilla activity for an empire that no longer existed. Kinshichi had seen the information that the war ended August 15, 1945, but refused to believe that it was true. He and four other soldiers continued to fight, and at the time of his death, only one other holdout survived with him.
Kinshichi was living the epitome of a lost cause. The empire from where he drew his authority no longer existed. Consequently, even if he were to take the entire island hostage, there would be no victory for him. There was no Empire of Japan to hand the island of Lubang over to. He was wasting his life doing nothing more than being a thorn in the side of the islanders.
Now let’s change gears a bit. Romans 8:37-39 says the following. “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I’ve always wondered what exactly it means to be “more than a conqueror.” It seems to me that you are either a conqueror or you are not, but what does it mean to be more than a conqueror? The contrast of Kinshichi Akatsu’s story helps me to understand. You see, no matter how successful Kinshichi was in his activities, he was still a conquered man, whether he knew it or not.
In contrast, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus also says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So it stands to reason, that if Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, then by his authority we are conquerors through him also.
This causes a conundrum for Satan. He is already defeated and holds no authority over those who have been redeemed. He does not have the power to create his own kingdom, and holds no authority in the Kingdom of God. His situation is explained beautifully in the book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” by Rene Girard. Girard says, “Satan does not create by his own means. Rather he sustains himself as a parasite on what God creates by imitating God in a manner that is jealous, grotesque, perverse, and as contrary as possible to the upright and obedient imitation of Jesus. To repeat, Satan is an imitator in the rivalistic sense of the word. His kingdom is a caricature of the kingdom of God.”
So what does one do if your enemy has already conquered you and you hold no authority? You try to convince your enemy that he is not in fact a conqueror. If it is impossible for you to create victory, you attempt to limit the damage your enemy does to you by convincing them that they are not conquerors. How many churches refuse to walk in the gifts of the Spirit? How many Christians walk around like they are under the thumb of the enemy? How many Christians refuse to pray for God’s healing for themselves or others? How many refuse to fulfill the Great Commission out of fear? How many let the things of the world distract from eternal things?
We are more than conquerors because there is no doubt who the Winner is. Satan can never pull victory out of a hat. He can only delay his demise, and the longer we are convinced that we are not conquerors, the longer he will last. All he can do right now, metaphorically speaking, is burn the crops of the farmers. Make no mistake though. Just as two bullets from a Filipino policeman dispatched private Akatsu, so will Satan be dispatched in the end. Let’s start living like that.
I have to admit, my wife played a bit of a joke on my father-in-law this week. I need to give a little bit of a back story before it will make sense. I am currently planning a trip to Ethiopia in just about six weeks, and this time my son will be going with me. We will be taking a team to do the finishing work on a center to provide sustainable income for destitute widows and their children. Much of the work has been already done by locals, but we need to provide some support in some of the areas where they’re not familiar.
The other part of the story is that my 91 year old step-father is currently on his first missions trip…to the Philippines! Why he didn’t decide to do something like this fifty or sixty years ago when he was more physically able, I don’t know. Nevertheless, he’s been obedient to God, and he’s been an inspiration to a lot of people. I can’t wait to hear his stories when he comes back.
Now, onto my wife. She was talking to her father, my father-in-law, this week. She mentioned that I would be going to Ethiopia and that my son is going with me. He was surprised my son is going, but though it would be great. That was when my wife put out the hook. She said, “You know, there’s still room for one person on the team going to Ethiopia, and it would be right up your alley.” That brought on a lot of hem-hawing, and making nervous noises with his mouth, as is my father-in-law’s habit when he’s uncomfortable. He finally told her that he’s just too old for that kind of thing, being 88 years old. At that point, my wife pulled on the line and set the hook. She said, “Well, you know where Walter (my step-father) is right now? He’s in the Philippines on his first missions trip.”
She of course wasn’t completely serious, and let him off the hook at that point, but it made a couple of points clear to me. First of all, how many times do we make excuses when we’re called to go? Do we say, I am too old, or I don’t have the time, or I have other obligations, or any number of other excuses. My 91 year old dad going half way around the world really put a lot of excuses to shame.
The second point was made clear by what my wife did, tongue-in-cheek or not. That being that it’s good for us to surround ourselves with people who regularly remove us from our comfort zones; people who call us out on our excuses and make us better people by their presence. I’ve heard, and I think it’s at least partially true, that we are the average of the five people we surround ourselves with the most. If we surround ourselves with people who are unmotivated, have no goals, and make excuses, what does that do to us? Alternatively, if we surround ourselves with thinkers and doers, people who don’t accept excuses within themselves, and frankly, call us out on our B.S, will that not make us better and more effective people. Proverbs 27:17 says,
“As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
I would hope to be that kind of person as much as I would hope that the friends I choose would do that for me.
As a side, I have not done this before, but if you would like to contribute to the work we are doing in Ethiopia, I am providing a link both for information about the work we’re doing in Ethiopia as well as a link to the go fund me account where you can give towards that work. Thanks in advance to anyone willing to give.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s not because I haven’t had something to write, but rather I’ve been a bit stumped as to how to write it.
Sometimes when you’ve been doing something for a while, it’s hard to think back to the way you thought about those things when you were still new. But recent events have brought me back to some underlying assumptions I had about missions when I was growing up and even as an adult.
Before I was a missionary, I always assumed that if my church was involved in missions somewhere and was sending people, it must be safe. I know from the statements that people say to me, and from observing what goes on, that this is still a very prevalent assumption that people make. Why is that? Well, as a general rule, in most churches I’ve been a part of , that is the case. We only send people to “safe” places. But what makes a place safe?
The philosopher Jürgen Habermas deals with this in what is probably an unnecessarily wordy way. He says, “Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an antonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage.” Dumbing it down, the ideas of love and justice in society are a direct result of the Judeo-Christian heritage which we draw from, even if our societies have moved away from that underlying paradigm.
If we look around the world, most places follow that general rule. The most dangerous places are those places that do not have a current or recent Christian presence. So if that is the case, then why are we going to the “safe” places? Is it because we are afraid to go the the places that God is really calling us to go? If a place is considered safe, there’s a good chance that a lot of missionaries have already been there. Do we go to the places that have already been evangelized because we feel that doing something is better than nothing? Is it our ersatz way of fulfilling the Great Commission?
It is said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I would like to amend that statement. I think what is even more dangerous than good men doing nothing is good men doing something that is neither good nor bad, but leaves them feeling as if they did something good. Rather than go to the places where God would actually call us to go, we give in to fear. We still go, but we go somewhere else.
Decisions that are made based on fear are almost universally the wrong choice. When we choose to do missionary work only in places where we feel safe and comfortable, we are not only disobedient to the Lord’s calling, but we carry that spirit of fear with us wherever we go. I read a quote this week from an indigenous Christian overseas. He was asked what his church learns from the Western missionaries. His answer was very telling. He said, “the Western missionaries teach us to be afraid.”
Why do we fear so much? I believe it is because many of us are building a kingdom, but it isn’t God’s Kingdom, it is our own kingdom. We seek to be gods of an empty universe of our own creation; kings of a kingdom with no subjects. We do what we want to do first and ask God to bless what we’ve already decided to do. As our towers grow taller and taller, they become harder and harder to maintain, and we fear they will topple. This is why Jesus says, “whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it.” This isn’t some trite conundrum. When we literally give our life, and our plans, and our finances, and our spouses and children, and our present and future over to Christ, all fear is taken away, because you can’t fear the loss of what you’ve already given away.
Most of Romans 8 deals with this, and so in closing I am going to sum up with the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote,
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,[a]who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? 33 Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shalltribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Over the past seven years I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve covered about a dozen countries, several of them multiple times. I’ve been to Ethiopia three times, South Sudan four times, and Kenya about ten or so. I’ve stayed in cities, towns, villages, and some places so remote that when you try to enter it into Google earth, you get nothing. The great thing about being a missionary is that whenever possible, I’m either staying with the locals, or at least somewhere very nearby. I’ve seen all kinds of living conditions, from a family of six living in a 3 meter by 3 meter room, to relatively affluent people living in modern houses with soft furniture and satellite television. Having seen all that, what I’ve learned is that poverty and wealth have very little to do with income.
I learned this week that the average individual, non-mortgage debt in the United States right now is $37,000. That’s the average of every person, not every family. One in ten have non-mortgage debt over $100,000. That is a staggering figure. Now I realize that for some people this is medical debt, and there’s not much that can be done about that. But for a lot of people, it’s just lifestyle debt; the desire to attain some fictitious standard that we’ve either been told we need to achieve, or that we’ve decided we owe to ourselves. It’s the latter that’s the most insidious thing. As we tell ourselves and our children that we can be and have anything we want, we seek to self-glorify ourselves through things. It is the end product of the hyper-individualistic American mindset. In the land where the winner is the one who accumulates, and the king is the one who accumulates more than anyone else, is it any wonder that we see success as having the most stuff?
Here’s the cruel irony. The inevitable end-product to individualistic self-glorification is that we eventually become a slave to someone else. Don’t believe me? Which of the following two people is richer? An Ethiopian who makes enough money to put a simple roof over his head, feed his wife and children, and is content with his life, or an American making $75,000 a year with a mortgage that is going to take 30 years to pay off, student loans that don’t disappear even if he goes bankrupt, two car loans, and a year’s income worth of credit card debt? Who sleeps better? What good is having stuff if at any moment the bank can call in all my loans? Who has better security, if such a thing exists?
I write this today not as a condemning measure, but because for many of us, our paradigm is that this is the way it has to be. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, and in fact most of the world does not do it this way. Wealth is not just having a lot of things, it is also not having the things you don’t need. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
For those of us who have chosen to make missions our lifestyle, this is doubly important. Hebrews 12:1 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I can’t think of a bigger encumbrance than $37,000 of consumer debt. How can we be a servant of God, when we are already a slave to the bank? How can we give our time when our time is already spoken for to pay for our debts? Simple living is a virtue. I want to challenge us to learn from the African who lives simply, but enjoys his family and every blessing that God gives him. It’s not too late.