Tension. Miriam Webster has several definitions, but this one stood out to me. “A balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements.” As humans, we experience many forms of this everyday. The tension between discipline and grace, rules and freedom, truth speaking and overlooking an offense. (To be a bit more practical: what about the tension between healthy eating and cheat days??) They feel like opposing forces, but I have been learning that each compliments the other and both are needed. As my mom says, they are two vital sides of a train track.
I’ve been reading a book titled What is the Mission of the Church?, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. It exegetically walks through the mission of the Christian and the Church. In a time in which words like “missions”, “ministry”, “missionary”, “social justice”, etc, are thrown around, what is the Biblical basis for Christ followers seeking to make sense and live in light of these things? There is a lot I could say about what I am learning and how it is challenging me (and likely will in a later post), but for now I want to highlight just a portion of it.
Lately I have been wrestling with this tension of renunciation and enjoyment.
Let me give somewhat of a context for the thoughts that have been constantly in my mind these days. For the last 6.5 months, I have been living in one of the most impoverished countries in the world. I’ve never seen poverty before like this. Yes, I have done a decent amount of inner city ministry in my hometown in America for many years and have interacted and learned from many impoverished people. But never before in my life have I encountered multitudes of children (and adults) begging on every street corner, knocking on my car door asking for money, and following me when I walk in the market shouting for all to hear, “Anasara, anasara!” (“white person, white person!”). I cannot give money to every person, and yet my heart breaks when I try to be brave, look them in the eye, smile, shake my head but still greet them and give them the dignity they deserve. (yes, sometimes I do give money, but it entirely depends on the circumstance and what I think God is asking me to do in that moment).
I struggle deeply here. How can I buy groceries (that they could never afford) at the international grocery store and pass by the mama asking me for money to give food to her hungry children? How is it that I have access to a car, 3 meals a day, and a safe house? Why has God opened my eyes to my need for a Savior while less than 1% of this country of many millions know of Him? It feels so wrong. I cried myself to sleep last night. Why me, God? How do I process this feeling of guilt over the abundance of resources I have been given in light of the abundance of lack around me? And more importantly, does my heart break more over the reality of spiritual poverty and brokenness when I see the graphic pictures of physical brokenness?
This is where I feel the tension pulling at me. Does being a Christian and missionary in this corner of West Africa mean that I ditch my resources, house with running water, and electricity (albeit unreliable at times) to live in a mud brick home next door to my neighbors? Or does it mean I simply live the life God has given me without stewarding the resources, time, and energy I’ve been given? This is a vast grey area, but I can assure you that it is not an either/or but rather a both/and situation.
(Please note: I am writing to share and process the things that I am experiencing. My aim is not to pass judgement or make suggestions by which any Christian – regardless of location – should live his/her life. This is just ramblings from my raw heart on things I’ve never had to face while living in a far away place that is home for now).
In the aforementioned book, DeYoung and Gilbert encourage the reader to, “Accept the complexities of determining a Biblical theology of wealth, poverty, and material possessions.” There is no one way to approach this difficult topic. On the one hand, our God is a God of abundance and delights in giving good gifts to His people. And, get this, we look forward to Heaven being a dwelling place of abundance with no lack of worship, enjoyment, and rich feasting. On the other hand, in case you haven’t noticed, we are not to heaven yet but still living the complexities of this broken and impoverished (spiritually, materially, emotionally…) world and are called to the share with those in need while primarily carrying the message of salvation to all nations.
The book quotes Gilbert Meilaender on this subject:
“Christians can, therefore, adopt and recommend no single attitude toward possessions. When they attempt to understand their lives within the world of biblical narrative, they are caught in the double movement of enjoyment and renunciation. Neither half of the movement, taken by itself, is the Christian way of life. Trust is the Christian way of life. In order to trust, renunciation is necessary, lest we immerse ourselves entirely in the things we possess, trying to grasp and keep what we need to be secure. In order to trust, enjoyment is necessary, lest renunciation become a principled rejection of the creation through which God draws our hearts to Himself.”
“To be a Christian, then, is to receive God’s good gifts and to enjoy them the most, need them the least, and give them away most freely.” (What is the Mission of the Church, p. 179)
Why has God chosen to gift me with many resources that a large majority of the world does not have? I do not know. It is a gift of grace that I have the privilege of using for Him and the advancement of the Good News of salvation across all lands. More importantly, it is an opportunity to grow in trust, communication, and intimacy in my relationship with God. He knows what it is like to be impoverished and to be rich, and He only is the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). He is the only one who will give joy and direction in this messy but beautiful life we are living.
Here are a few important implications for my life that the Lord has been teaching me as I process these difficult things.
1. In this area, I must daily rehearse to my heart the Gospel message, “I am a child of God. Loved, redeemed, and forgiven of my vast failures. I am not loved based on my stewardship or lack thereof. I am saved only because of the One who was impoverished for me and carried my shame and guilt to Calvary.”
2. Beware of the lies from the devil that would seek to condemn my failures in these areas. He would seek to estrange me from my loving Father as well as disguise questions of God’s goodness and sovereignty amidst a broken and impoverished land.
3. Pray continually for a heart that breaks more for spiritual poverty and alienation from God than over the physical poverty that I could never have the resources to “fix”. It seems harsh from a human and Western perspective, but I must face the truth: If individuals are simply relieved of their physical oppression but do not know Jesus, have I actually done them any good? No. Not in light of the eternity ahead.
4. Pray for specific ways, small and big, to steward my resources in light of the mandate of the Great Commission (simply put: evangelism and discipleship)
5. Live in grace. It is a gift, undeserved, but nonetheless a gift. The greatest gift is having a restored relationship with our God. A friend penned these words to me today, “We really are jars of clay. Broken on our own, useful through His grace.”
As I wrestled with these things over the last week, a simple song that my family used to sing during family devotions invaded my mind: More Precious Than Silver. The very next day, as I sat in a blue plastic chair at my local church, I heard the familiar tune being sung in French. Coincidence? I think not.
“Seigneur, tu es plus précieux que l’argent
Seigneur, tu es plus précieux que l’or
Seigneur, tu es plus beau que les diamants
Rien de ce que je désire ne se compare à toi”
“Lord, you are more precious than silver
Lord, you are more costly than gold
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds
Nothing I desire compares with You”
He is the Treasure. He is riches beyond compare. I pray that all the nations would see their poverty of spirit and find forgiveness and abundance in the Savior.
These words hold new meaning these days…
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed. Rich beyond compare. Grace indeed.