In our predominantly Christian corner of East Africa, the prosperity gospel is often preached in churches and curses are often pronounced by witch doctors in villages. We have fewer encounters with other religions than with skewed interpretations and applications of our own religion.
As with anywhere in the world, there is still more room for the Gospel to go forth, to take root, and to grow deep. In our particular context, the message of Christ has gone forth and taken root in many hearts, but the soil is shallow and the roots are thin. As Jesus himself said, faith is easily uprooted in those conditions (Matthew 13:20-21).
With the intention of deepening and strengthening roots, we work to impart the truth of who God really is and how he interacts with us and our world. This deeply matters because who God is – and isn’t – shapes not only how we live our lives but how we relate to our Savior.
Last year I sat outside a Buddhist temple with my nine-year-old son and talked about what God requires of us. Our family had traveled to Thailand for a missions conference and had the privilege of visiting two temples during our time there. The first temple we visited was particularly memorable because of its design. We had never been to a place like that before and our fantasy-loving boys were instantly enamored with the dragons carved into the temple architecture.
Truth be told, I was enamored too. But it wasn’t just the dragons that intrigued me. The entire building was magnificent, clearly constructed with care and tended to with honor and respect. The red walls complimented the gold columns and statues and perfectly matched the red, white, and gold patterned tiles on the floor.
We admired the devotion of the Buddhists who had originally built the structure as well as the worshippers visiting the temple that day. We ourselves had walked through the temple, first taking off our shoes like everyone else, and marveled at the architectural masterpiece we found ourselves in. Incense filled our noses with unfamiliar scents and filled our minds with questions. The numerous Buddhas sprinkled throughout the temple drew our attention again and again.
The entire experience proved a powerful conversation tool for talking with our children about religion. We talked about why people were lighting incense, why they knelt before the Buddha, why they walked laps around the temple. The experience ignited their minds.
It was at the second temple we visited, with a golden Buddha as tall as the building itself, that our son asked me pointed questions about God and people as we sat outside putting our shoes back on. “Why are all these people doing this? God said we don’t have to do stuff like this to be saved.”
My son was right, but these people didn’t know that. When I told him such, he heaved a huge sigh. His heart was full of the truth of God and full of the grief that comes with knowing other people are unaware of that truth.
I told my son the worshippers walking in and out of the temple were doing what they thought was best, or even necessary, to please God. They wanted to please God, which is good. But our human nature thinks we need to do something to win God’s approval, to do something to earn salvation. “But we don’t need to,” my son said. And he was right – because he knows who God really is and who he isn’t.
Sometime later, back in Kenya, I read The Iliad with our boys as a part of our homeschool history unit on ancient civilizations. What stood out to us was how often the Greek gods meddled with the minds of men and women for their own selfish ends, or, perhaps worse, for their own entertainment.
It was shocking, really, to read about gods who came to earth to dwell among men but who did so to take advantage of them or to prove their own power and authority. Those gods deceived their worshippers, tearing them down in order to build themselves up.
After Ancient Greece we studied Ancient Rome, and then we had the privilege of visiting Rome during travels to Europe for a leadership conference where we walked the same ancient streets as emperors who attained godhood upon their deaths (and were sometimes worshipped as a god during their lifetime).
God didn’t have to come down; God was already here, an inherent deity running through the veins of a man in power over an empire. This “emperor god” had his own interests at heart – that of expanding the empire and ensuring his supreme authority by enforcing submissive “peace” throughout the empire, the same “peace” that destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 and used the spoils of war to fund the building of the Colosseum back in Rome.
Our globally mobile lifestyle has helped us think about religions around the world, both ancient and contemporary. Learning about the gods of other religions helps us learn about our own God too – who He is and who He isn’t.
Our God is love, and our God is near. He is Love Come Down, not to have his own needs met but to meet our needs instead.
Our God makes no demands. He is graciously present – gracious because His very presence is an unmerited gift which expects nothing in return. He chooses to dwell with us not to exact punishment or mischief or deception, but to demonstrate His choice of us.
Our God is hope personified. We have eternal hope in Him because salvation comes to us, not because of us or our good deeds.
In the captivating book, God With Us: A Journey Home, Jeremy Pierre beautifully describes who our God is when he explains the two names of the Messiah: Jesus (The Lord Saves) and Immanuel (God With Us). “These two names are only good news when they go together. God With Us is dangerous news for sinners, unless he also comes as God is Salvation. Together, these names are the gospel.”
As we conclude this holiday season and enter the new year, we continue to celebrate this gospel story. We celebrate that God kept His promise to send a Savior. We celebrate that God came near. We celebrate that God came in love. We celebrate that His coming is our salvation. We celebrate that His salvation calls for repentance without penance.
We rejoice in these truths, and we proclaim them. This is the Good News, and we hope and pray it will not only go forth, but also take root and grow deep in our corner of the world.