Has God Revealed Himself Differently in Different Cultures?

The Bible says, “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Darwin’s theory of evolution has not only presumed an alternative view of the origin of life, but also stated that religion is evolutionary, moving from primitive to complex; from the worship of many gods (polytheism) to the worship of one God (monotheism). However, the Bible declares just the opposite; that the belief in one God is humanity’s basic presupposition.

God allowed nations to go their own way (disintegrate into polytheism), “yet He did not leave Himself without a witness” (Acts 14:16, 17). God revealed himself in different ways to successive cultures. He revealed himself as Yahweh (the Lord of the covenant) to a polytheist by the name of Abram in Ur. God revealed himself to the mysterious Melchizedek (Genesis 14), who did not worship the gods of Canaan, but was called a priest of the God Most High (El Elyon). Later in the Old Testament we read that God revealed himself through dreams to the Pharaoh of Egypt (Genesis 41) and to Abimelech, a Philistine King (Genesis 20:6).

He revealed himself more directly to Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius (Daniel 4-6). All of these were from different cultures and time periods. God also used the stars and planets (general revelation) to lead the Wise Men from the East to Christ (special revelation).

In the same way, God is at work today in the darkest corners of the world revealing himself through dreams and visions, and preparing people of different cultures for the gospel. Don Richardson once said that the God who has prepared the Gospel for the world has prepared the world for the Gospel. Richardson details this using a number of very interesting examples from the history of missions in his book “Eternity in Their Hearts.” Here is one of my favorites:

Scattered through the mountains rising between the Kachin and Lahu tribes [of Burma] lived another 100,000 tribesman called the Wa people. The Wa were headhunters [and spirit worshippers] . . . A benign influence was at work within the folk religion of the Wa people. From time to time, the prophets of the true God, whom the Wa called “Siyeh,” arose to condemn the headhunting and spirit-appeasement! One such prophet appeared during the 1880’s. He was called Pu Chan [and he] persuaded several thousand Wa tribesman in Pong Lai village . . . to abandon headhunting and spirit-appeasement. On what grounds? “Siyeh,” the true God, was about to send a long awaited white brother with a copy of the lost book. If he came close to Wa territory and heard that the Wa were practicing these evil things, he might think them unworthy of the true God’s book and draw away again!

One morning Pu Chan saddled a pony and told some of his disciples to follow it. “Siyeh told me last night that the brother has finally come near! Siyeh will cause this pony to lead you to him” . . . . While Pu Chan’s disciples gaped in astonishment, the pony started walking . . . and they followed it. The pony led those amazed disciples over approximately 200 miles of mountainous trails and down into the city of Kengtung. Then it turned into the gate of a mission compound and headed straight for a well. . . . They looked inside it and saw no water, but . . . a bearded white face. William Marcus Young climbed out of the well (he was digging) and faced them. “Have you brought a book of God,” they asked. “This pony is saddled for you. Our people are all waiting. Fetch the book! We must be on our way!” 

The Youngs and the Karen [people] colleagues—in addition to recently baptizing about 60,000 Lahu people—soon found themselves with another 10,000 baptized Wa converts, who in turn spread the gospel still further in eastern Burma and southwestern China! Does anyone doubt that God could cause a pony to lead those Wa men so unerringly over so great a distance? Surely the God who used a star to lead the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem could use a mere pony to find a certain well in Kengtung.

The Church has not always been faithful to its mission, but there should be no doubt that God is a Missionary God who has “pre-tuned” the world for the gospel by placing a witness to himself in every culture. (Acts 14:17)

The Children of Ethiopia… Part 2

pic 2The most sobering moments of my trip to Ethiopia with Compassion International were the three home visits I made. I want to tell you about two of them. The first was to a home in a village about 26 km out of Addis Ababa; a mud hut with a mud and dung floor strewn with fresh straw to cover up the odor. The “living room” of the 10’ by 10’ house composed three-quarters of its area and was separated from the “bedroom” by a dirty frayed curtain. There were holes in the corrugated metal roof and all the cooking was done just outside under a shelter to the left of the doorway. They had no electricity. We spoke with a young mother (I’ll call her Martha) and her 3-yr.old daughter, Hope, who was in the Compassion program. The father was off working somewhere in the fields.

Martha was a sad woman who had already lost a child to disease. When asked what her life was like before Hope entered into the child sponsorship program, Martha began to weep and could not speak. She eventually said that she and her husband would have no more children because life was too hard. She shared her testimony of coming to faith in Jesus. She also admitted that her little Hope was her only hope for the future. I question whether this family will ever break out of the cycle of poverty. However, if there is a chance at all it will be through the development of little Hope as a sponsored child of Compassion.

My second visit was to an extremely poor slum area within the city of Addis. It was like a city within a city with cobblestone walkways spider-webbing their way throughout the development; an open drain (sewer?) running along the walkways. Everything was on a hill so that the water ran down from top to bottom. All of the homes were owned by the government and leased to the occupants. We visited a household headed by 20-yr. old “Frank,” his 11-yr. old sister Zabella and a 14-yr. old brother “Ernie,” whom we did not meet because he was in school. Their parents died of AIDS several years ago.

They live in a very small dirt floor home, with a corrugated metal roof and walls made of cloth and other material that flapped in the breeze as we sat inside. There was one small energy-saver light bulb hanging from the ceiling. “Frank” (pictured above with Zabella) works a construction job all day to support the family. After he cooks supper each evening, he attends computer night school. The family was raised Muslim but Zabella has become a believer in Jesus because she is a sponsored child through Compassion. She proudly showed us a shoebox filled with letters and pictures from her sponsored family. We were told how important these are to a child because it reminds them that they are not alone in their poverty; someone knows who they are, loves them and prays for them.

They did a coffee ceremony for us and gave us bread to eat. Zabella loves music and so she sang us a song. It was a song of thanks to God in which she asked what she should give Him for all He has done for her. The song finished, “I will give Him my heart.” I think there is hope that this young family will break out of the cycle of poverty and I think Zabella’s gift will be used to accomplish great things in her small community because of the opportunities afforded her by Compassion.

If you support a Compassion child, you are making a difference. If not, give it some prayerful consideration. Next week I want to tell you about a relatively new initiative that Compassion is taking which may just change the entire nation of Ethiopia.

Afraid of God?

Afraid of GodSome could rightly argue that our culture no longer has a fear of God. Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741) would today be re-entitled, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” However, there are many very religious people in our world who are seeking a relationship with God based upon fear and desperately need to hear the overwhelming joyful news of the gospel.

I was reading the testimony of a woman who became a Christian in Iran. When she was fourteen, she joined a Zeinabiyeh (the house of the Imam Hazrat Zeinab), a sort of holy club where women would study the Koran and learn how to please Allah. For seven years she awoke every morning to pray from 1- 5 am. She would go to school and then back to the Zeinab House to pray from 5 pm to the early evening. Sometimes there would be a special program and she would be there until midnight, go home for an hour or so of sleep, and then begin the regimen again. There were certain “dark celebrations” in which the women would mourn for the dead Imams. They would fall down and scratch their faces, bang their heads on the floor, and pull out their hair. They would beat their chests so hard that they would be black and blue. All of her prayers, all of her tears, all of her service were to please Allah.

She feared death. She was always aware of her sin and believed that Allah was angry at her and would judge her when she died. “I feared that if any of my hair stuck out of my scarf, Allah would hang me from my hair in heaven. Heavy black socks covered my legs. If I accidentally revealed my ankles to anyone, Allah would drop me repeatedly into hell to burn my legs. I could reach heaven only if I wore all this stuff and cried all the time. Finally a young woman of twenty-one, I left the Zeinab House. My studies were complete. They had shown me a very angry God.” Here was a woman who had memorized the Koran and was able to translate portions from Arabic into Farsi, and yet she could not find a God who loved her.

After a suicide attempt, she began watching a Christian TV program. It was actually a worship service beamed in from another country and as the camera panned the congregation she saw people who actually looked happy. They were singing and clapping their hands. There was no music in her worship. She was immediately drawn to a God whose worshippers were filled with joy—something that she had never experienced. She had always observed that holy men in her country, such as Imam Khomeini, never cracked a smile. They always looked sad and angry as they lashed out at this or that. So when an international number appeared on the TV screen, she called it. Over the next several months she was given a Bible in Farsi, which she read voraciously. She also continued to watch the TV program and soon came to know a God of love revealed through Jesus Christ.

What an amazing joyful gospel we have to share with the world! “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17). If your worship service this weekend were beamed into someone else’s living room, what would they conclude about your God?

Luther or Khomeini?

On this day after All Saints, what does Martin Luther have in common with the Ayatollah Khomeini? Very little, except for each man being radically committed to his faith. The radicality of Khomeini has produced thousands of refugees fleeing Iran because of its religious oppression, while the faith of Luther has been a means of conversion for thousands of these Iranians immigrants to Christianity. Germany is home to the largest Iranian community numbering 150,000. In an article in Christianity Today titled The Other Iranian Revolution (July/August 2012), Matthias Pankau and Uwe Siemon-Netto chronicled the impact of the gospel on Germany’s Iranian population, especially among the Lutherans. Twelve years ago, a tiny independent Lutheran church in Leipzig began teaching German as a second language to refugees. The church used Luther’s German translation of the Bible as a textbook. Continue reading “Luther or Khomeini?”