Theology That Carries On In The Dark
The lights didn’t flicker before they went out, and it illuminated the difference between people from developed countries and people from developing ones.
As a delegate to the conference in Indonesia from Laos, where I had worked the previous year and a half, I stood speaking with others from Southeast Asia and Africa accustomed to power outages. When the power went out, we continued chatting, unfazed, while delegates from Europe and North America, uncomfortable with being plunged into darkness, ran after solutions to fix it.
To me, this episode highlighted a core difference in outlook between the "haves" and the "have-nots," between those accustomed to comfort and those who—in more ways than one—could carry on in the dark. It suggested an orientation toward the world and suboptimal conditions I only really learned while living in developing countries.
Since working and doing ministry abroad, my understanding and communication of God’s faithfulness and promises has been shaped by considering what would hold true for “the least of these,” my neighbor living through extreme poverty, corrupt and oppressive governments, famine, war, and disease who, regardless of the strength of their faith, may never materially or temporally know anything else. In his book, The Bottom Billion: Why The Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, Paul Collier asks of the international development community what I ask of the gospel and God’s promises, “How can we give credible hope to that billion people?”
In considering that question, I’ve come to see just how much our Western understanding of God’s will and promises is cross-bred with worldly optimism, prosperity, short-sided patriotism, and a preference for the temporal.
Even those who reject the prosperity gospel have more prosperity in their gospel than they think. And not the future-glory, all-spiritual-blessings-in-Christ varieties, either. Who doesn’t love the promise of Jeremiah 29:11?
I know I am guilty of imagining an easy life as the foregone conclusion to my faithfulness and I’m sure I’m not alone. After Hurricane Harvey, I watched on the news as the widow of a minister who was a victim of the storm explained she couldn’t believe this happened to her husband because, “He was a minister; he’d done everything right.” I found two tragedies in this: First, his death, and second, that part of her grief was due to thinking that you might somehow be able to avoid hardship by being good.
If the desperate situation for many around the world were not reason enough to be convinced that the prosperity Jeremiah mentions must mean more than success or happiness, there is also the question Jeremiah raises to the Lord, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” The innocent suffer and the unrighteous thrive. Yet in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out the poor as first among the blessed. Earthly success and prosperity cannot be coterminous and neither can happiness and wealth.
So then is the message for the person in hardship perhaps that hope is a better measure of prosperity than wealth? That hope is the measure? That he is richest and most prosperous who is most full of that ‘hope that remains’ that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 that’s rooted in the love of Christ?
It is easy to think that a positive turn will come to us in our lifetimes, if not at least this month, this year, or this presidential term. But I need only to look back to my own heritage to see generations of black slaves, part of America’s own historical bottom, dying before being freed, before having whole families, before having work that used their gifts and full potential. You can also look to generations of poor people who live in conditions that only continue to deteriorate. I often wonder how much of our faith is really worldly optimism—a Disneyesque insistence on happy endings that believes success is the terminus to all trials—or how much really rests on the unseen stability blanket of a strong economy and global power.
When we say that things will work out, we usually mean they will have a happy ending. Here. In this breath we call life. But while worldly pessimism hardly seems the answer, there is a precedent for taking a more sober view of things. As Amy Carmichael reminds in If:
To move from thinking it strange to counting it joy, I need to be able to say with confidence that I serve a God who can even if he doesn’t. I also need to be convinced that if he doesn’t it is neither for lack of love on his part or of worthiness on mine.
In 2008, Michelle Obama was lambasted as unpatriotic for commenting that she felt proud of her country "for the first time." What is it to be a patriot if not to take pride in one’s country and freedoms? We hold our American brand of patriotism up right next to holiness, sometimes even entirely blurring the lines between them. But to someone from a country with a repressive government, what biblical guidance could I offer on living as a child of God there?
I find no pomp and circumstance, no wisdom about flags or anthems, prescribed in the Bible. What I do find suggests that set-apart citizenship requires me to pray for the place I live (Jeremiah 29:7), to reject the idols of the land (Deuteronomy 12:4), to show kindness to the alien, to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, to pursue justice, and to look forward to that promised greater country. Love for country and freedom often morphs into brandishing power and glorifying our rights. To my brothers and sisters who lack representation in their governments, here’s hope: It is better to be without power than to abuse or be corrupted by it.
Patriotism is about witness.
If Jesus says even your very eye and hand are better parted with than forfeiting our certain eternal joy (Mark 9:45, 47), how much more should we be willing to part with power? And if the words of Jesus do not convince you, then let his life—he “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped ... emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7). There was never a man with more power nor with more wisdom about how to judiciously exercise it. This self-subordinating, neighbor-elevating use of power was his glory and it is ours as well. What’s more, no man is powerless who has the ear of God. The Christian may find themselves without resource on earth but never unable to avail themselves of the abundant resources of heaven.
Our English word "patriot" is derived from the Greek patrios (which means "of one’s father") and patris (meaning "fatherland"). This is where we look. For the Christian, patriotism—in the truest sense of the word—is about witness. It is about doing what we can to enlarge, enrich, and diversify the many-nationed kingdom of lasts and leasts we are to inherit.
I am not saying God does not desire to bless people materially or care about our physical well-being. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry. But, implicit in the question, “Doesn’t he want good things for us, too?” is the idea that spiritual blessings miss the “good” mark. Spiritual blessings are no consolation prize. Rather, they taste of heaven and they alone unlock the abundance and prosperity we’re promised. So, to my neighbors the world sees as last I offer this: We from the nation of the invisibly-shackled are not to be envied; freedom is more easily yours than ours. Instead, in this hope rejoice: If you mourn, you will be comforted; if you hunger, you will be filled; if you are broken hearted, God is near; if you are oppressed, you have a deliverer. Rejoice and sing the anthem of your country-to-come, the Magnificat of the lowly (Luke 1:46–55). Take heart as this sweet benediction is spoken over you, “Let the brother of low degree rejoice that he is exalted.”
When a cloud came over the temple in 1 Kings 8 and the surrounding crowd filled with fear, Solomon thought back over how the Lord had revealed himself to his people before and said, “The Lord said he would dwell in the thick darkness.” Though there was no light, the Lord was there. This too is credible hope for each of us.
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