Thinking for the Sake of Global Faithfulness: Confronting Islam with the Mind of Christ
Desiring God 2010 National Conference
Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God
This message appears as a chapter in Thinking. Loving. Doing.: A Call to Glorify God with Heart and Mind.
The fullest expression of Christian living is a combination of head, heart, and hands. It involves receiving truth through the head, which ignites new affections in the heart and flows out in action through the hands.
There is an increasing anti-intellectualism and mindless entertainment built on stereotype when it comes to Islam and Muslims. Have you noticed in the popular mediums of television and film how twenty years ago the bad guys were always the “Red Soviet threat”? But now you cannot watch a sitcom or drama without “Arab Muslim terrorists” featured as the bad guys.
How We Commonly Feel and Talk about Islam
Along with that shift in imagery comes a shift to adversarial language that creates a posture of at least skepticism and often hostility. We use combative words and phrases such as “the threat of Islam,” “clash of civilization,” “extremists,” and “confrontation.”
Along with these popular cultural expressions and images, you may hear certain frequently asked questions such as, “How do I witness to Muslims?” and “What should we do about Islam?” Beneath these questions are assumptions that Muslims are unreachable or are perhaps the most unreasonable of all people.
Underlying both the anti-intellectual and mindless entertainment as well as the frequently asked questions is one basic emotion: fear. A lot of us are afraid of Muslims and Islam. Perhaps as we walk about our neighborhoods or shopping malls and see people dressed in Muslim clothing, we have noticed in ourselves a skepticism, a hesitancy or pulling back in our hearts. It’s fear. And where fear takes control, thinking does not.
We notice all kinds of typical responses triggered by fear. For example, we see fear manifested in “fight” responses. Think of the verbal sparring in the summer of 2010 over the proposed mosque at Ground Zero. At other times, fear surfaces as a “flight” response. Perhaps our lack of zeal in evangelism and missions simply reflects our running in fear from Muslim neighbors. Or, in fear some simply accommodate or acquiesce. Sometimes the fear is manifested in plain, ugly hatred.
Thinking for Global Faithfulness
But we are called to be thinking people, especially as Christians. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our mind, all our intellect, in the cause of being faithful to God and enjoying him forever.
Thinking, very simply, is using one’s mind rationally in the evaluation of a subject or situation. It is to develop or have a belief, opinion, or judgment of something.
Thinking is not the same as reacting. And perhaps nowhere is it more important to distinguish between solid, rich, deep thinking and reacting than in our consideration of Islam.
Thinking is not sloganeering. We can’t be said to be thinking people if all we’re really doing is parroting favorite quips and phrases and positions on things we have not thought through. Talk of “clash of civilizations” may make for provocative phraseology, but it does little to help us think.
Thinking is not stereotyping. A stereotype is a really efficient way to simplify complexity. Stereotypes tend to reduce vast amounts of information and data to a kernel of truth, but stereotyping is not thinking through complexity. The problem with stereotypes is that they tend to eliminate data and information that don’t conform to the bias we have. So, adopting stereotypes, by definition, limits our thinking.
Thinking is not the same as feeling. The two should be rightly joined by thinking first, igniting rich, true, and right emotional responses. But we may feel — even feel deeply and quickly — before we ever think through a topic. This is true in our encounter with Islam and our Muslim friends and neighbors. When we feel without thinking, we endanger both our heads and our hearts. A fearful heart undermines a faithful head.
To think well, we must fasten the mind on the right subjects, preferably the fundamental issues, not just symptoms, curiosities, or secondary issues. We must think about the heart of the matter because the heart of the matter affects the matters of the heart.
Stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are perpetuated by thoughtless media consumption.
In the remainder of this chapter, we want to pursue three questions as a way of helping us frame our engagement with Muslims and Islam.
First, we want to ask and answer the question, “What is pluralism?” Here we will consider the pluralistic context we find ourselves in, think about both good and bad forms of pluralism, and set the stage for evaluating Islam. Second, we want to consider the questions, “What is Islam, and is Islam consistently compatible with pluralism?” Finally, we wish to think about the question, “What should be the Christian response to Islam in a pluralistic ethos?”
1) What Is Pluralism?
Pluralism is the belief or condition in which minority groups (ethnic, religious, and more) participate fully in the dominant society yet maintain their cultural differences and full freedom. Most forms of pluralism hold that pluralism benefits society by making society stronger through the interaction of diverse peoples.
There are terms that are close cousins to pluralism. For instance, there are some who use the term multicultural or diversity for the belief that groups with differing backgrounds should be able to joyfully and mutually coexist in the same society without giving up their cultural, religious, or social distinctives.
There are, however, good and bad forms of pluralism. Let’s consider them in turn.
There are some good and right things about pluralism. First, good pluralism recognizes a basic reality about the world: our world is diverse. There are real differences in culture, philosophy, religion, and ethics between peoples of the world. And increasingly those differences are not a part of some land “over there” but are right here at our doorstep. The world is getting smaller, and people are closer geographically. The evidence of pluralism lies right before our faces. So, pluralism at least begins by recognizing a present reality — the real diversity in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.
Second, pluralism at its best honors basic human rights such as individual freedom and freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. Insofar as pluralism helps us to see people for who they are and respect them, it is a good belief or practice. Insofar as it validates the dignity and uniqueness of human life, pluralism is a protection of cherished and fundamental virtues and hopes.
Third, pluralism attempts to recognize value in diversity, the variegated forms of thinking, being, and acting in the world. Some people really act as though the mere existence of diversity or difference is wrong or evil. Some live with a suspicious fear of the other, a xenophobia. Some think that the mere existence or recognition of existing differences under the banner of “multiculturalism” or “diversity” somehow is to “lose” or cede ground that should not be ceded.
Pluralism, in its good forms, helps push back against xenophobia, bigotry, and cultural hegemony. It makes room for the differences that really exist. Pluralism arises, at least in some quarters, as a response to ethnocentrism and colonial oppression that subjugated people to one cultural, philosophical, and sometimes religious regime.
These are all benefits of a pluralistic philosophy and society.
But, on the other hand, there also exists what we might call an uncritical, unthinking, even naïve pluralism. This is the kind of pluralism, multiculturalism, or diversity seeking that fails to distinguish between the inherent worth of people made in God’s image and ideas. There’s a difference between valuing people as equal and valuing ideas as though every idea is equal in worth. Not all ideas are created equal. Failing to remember this is the first mistake we make in our thinking when encountering religious perspectives, including Islam.
We see an example of this in the kind of religious pluralism that says, “All religions are true and all are beautiful.” Or, “All roads lead to God. All religions are climbing the same mountain.” Those comments reflect a naïve pluralism.
What makes this approach to pluralism naïve and unhelpful? First, this approach to pluralism flattens differences — real and significant differences — that matter to the practitioners of various religions or cultural views. There is a cultural tendency to downplay anything that divides or differentiates.
Therefore, second, this kind of naïve pluralism proves ethically irresponsible because it doesn’t address real social problems and challenges occasioned by the diversity of our world. While a pluralistic society offers benefits, it also poses challenges stemming from the same diversity. We ignore these differences at significant risk to the true well-being and peace of society. We live in a world where failing to understand real and significant differences leads to car bombs, plane hijackings, bullets flying, and civil wars.
Third, a naïve pluralism is unhelpful because it fails to account for the far-reaching effects of diversity. In most cultures, diversity influences nearly every aspect of society. For example, religious diversity alone impacts everything from economics (no-interest banking among Arab Muslims), to politics (evangelical voting blocks in American elections), to military and war (Protestant and Catholic “troubles” in Northern Ireland).
Pluralism, in its good forms, helps push back against bigotry and values diversity.
To understand our world, we have to understand something about the differences among people — especially religious differences.
As Stephen Prothero puts it, “Even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religions to make sense of the world” (God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter [HarperOne, 2010], 8). A naïve pluralism turns us into ostriches with our heads buried beneath the sand and our rear ends in the air, hoping no one will see us and harm us. It’s not a thinking posture.
My three-year-old son, Titus, likes to play hide-and-seek while we’re driving in the car. He throws his favorite blanket over his head and calls, “Dad, you can’t find me.” His legs dangle exposed beneath the blanket, but he thinks he’s hidden and safe. I like to reach back and gently pluck him in the forehead as he giggles. So much of our engagement with people not like us reminds me of Titus cowering beneath his blanket while exposed.
Why Does Naïve Pluralism Take Root in Society?
But if a naïve pluralism is so bad, then why does it find support in our culture? What causes it to grow in our society? There are at least six reasons. Understanding these reasons helps us to see why engaging Islam in a naïvely pluralistic context is fraught with so many difficulties. (For good discussions of religious pluralism and associated problems, see the introductory essay in Prothero, God Is Not One, 1–24; and Harold A. Netland and Keith E. Johnson, “Why Is Religious Pluralism Fun — and Dangerous?” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, [Zondervan, 2002], 47–67)
1) We have become uncomfortable with argument. Prothero helpfully points out, “The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into religious agreement” (God Is Not One, 4). We hear people say, as if it is a superior virtue, “I never talk about politics and religion.” When you hear someone say that, realize you may have a talking ostrich expressing his or her discomfort with disagreement and argument.
2) There is a readiness to blur the significant differences in the major goals of religion. Christians customarily think that every religion has personal salvation as its main aim. But not every religion maintains the same goal for its religious practice. To illustrate this point, Prothero offers a helpful multiple-choice question: Which sport is best at producing runs: basketball, football, hockey, or baseball?
The obvious answer is baseball. Why? Because “runs” are not the goal in other sports; “runs” only make sense in baseball. So it is with religious ideals. If we are to understand and engage other religious perspectives, we will need to resist a naïve pluralism that fails to ask, “What is the major goal of this or that religion or cultural practice?” All religions are not seeking the same goal or, to use the popular expression, climbing the same mountain. They are not even pretending to do so. Not all religions are motivated by the goal of salvation from sin and wrath. In fact, salvation is a distinctively Christian concept.
3) There is a tendency to avoid the big questions in life. We are amusing ourselves to death. We do not want to ponder questions such as: Why are we here? Where are we going? How are we to live? Does God exist? Does evil exist? Do we exist? So, naïve pluralism becomes a grand pact in avoidance and finds a comfortable home in a culture that doesn’t want to face big questions.
4) The culture emphasizes subjective privatism and sincerity. The highest ideals are all tailor-made to the individual and protected by a privacy fence. Sincerity and undiscriminating tolerance matter most, not facts and final judgments. We live in a culture that prizes preferences over propositions.
5) The naïve pluralist regards religion in highly pragmatic, consumerist terms. Consequently, the major questions are: “What works for me?” “What do I want to purchase with my time and resources?” The consumer is always right, even if he cobbles together bits and pieces of various religious perspectives and tastes over truth. For that reason, the culture silences rigorous thinking and discussion about differences. So, a religious pragmatism motivates behavior and decisions.
6) The naïve pluralist, therefore, does not prize universals, absolutes, or superlatives. Asking, “Which religion is true?” becomes off-limits. Fundamentals and absolutes receive harsh rejection. Such a pluralist embraces a kind of perspectivalism (not to be confused with the multiperspectival [and triperspectival] framework found in writings of John M. Frame and Vern S. Poythress) that views truth from a personal vantage point.
Think of the old story of three blind men touching different parts of an elephant. One man holds an elephant’s trunk and says it is a tree limb. A second man grasps the elephant’s leg and describes it as a tree trunk. The third holds the elephant’s tail and insists it is a snake. They each know truth according to their perspective. But the reality is that each man holds the same elephant. They lose sight of the whole truth, the absolute reality that an elephant is in the room. Naïve pluralism exists because people would rather have their personal hold on life than do the hard work of discovering the truth.
Naïve pluralism flattens significant differences in the name of tolerance.
Basically, wherever naïve pluralism reigns, religious gullibility sits enthroned with it. Just when Western culture is becoming most uncritical, accepting, and open in pluralism, in comes Islam. Now, the irony is this: despite some brief historic periods of openness, Islam is not a liberal or pluralistic religion.
So what happens when a culture becomes naïvely pluralistic and encounters a religious system that is not? The culture welcomes the religious system with wide-open arms, and the religious system slowly works toward dominance. That’s why it is important to ask our second set of questions.
2) What Is Islam, and Why Is It Not Consistently Compatible with Pluralism?
What Is Islam?
Islam is a religion, of course, but not primarily a theology. Islam is a religion with one major creed — the shahada or confession that “God is one and Muhammad is his messenger.” This means that if we think of Islam in categories typical to Christian thought (systematic theology, for example), we will fundamentally misunderstand what Islam is.
In one sense, given Islam’s radical view of Allah’s transcendence, his utter otherness, we might say the religion is largely agnostic. Because God is beyond finding out and knowing personally, the Muslim believes he cannot assert anything about the essence of God. Therefore, Islamic theology largely boils down to a series of negations — what God is not — rather than assertions about the essence of God.
Islam is not an institution but primarily an identity. When we think of being Christians, most of us retain as a primary identifier some other label or categorization. We think of ourselves as African-American Christians, Baptist Christians, and so on. Often those other identifiers come first. Islam reverses that. Of first importance is to be Muslim; the second thing is to belong to a national or ethnic category.
So Islam lays great stress on the brotherhood and solidarity of all Muslims and makes vastly secondary those considerations so often prominent in our thinking. From its earliest history of conquest and conversion, through the great Caliphates and empires, to the development of its law and tradition, there grew an intense solidarity, belonging, and identity as Muslim.
One Muslim writer states it well: “In the last analysis the solidarity engendered by Islam stems not from a rallying institution or figure, but from pride of belonging” (Cesar E. Farah, Islam: Beliefs and Observances [Barron’s, 2003], 10, emphasis added). Over a billion people practice Islam and regard themselves as Muslims on every continent of the earth. “But be he a Nigerian or a Pakistani, an Egyptian or an Iranian, his historical heritage still favors pride of identity inside the pale of Islam over pride of adherence to nationality” (Ibid, 14).
This is why any perceived attack against Islam the religion gets regarded as an attack against Muslims everywhere. Recall the widespread protests when one European newspaper featured unflattering editorial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. An outcry went up from Muslims all over the world. Why? To understand the Muslim response we must understand that Islam is primarily an identity. Muslims regard themselves as Muslims wherever they are.
Islam has religious pillars but is a system for governing all of life. Islam cannot be reduced to its five pillars or religious practices. (The five pillars — shahada, prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage — emerged as a consensus regarding the religious duties of the faith. Early in the history of Islam some Muslim clerics and scholars argued jihad should be the fifth pillar because jihad, or striving in the cause of Allah, runs throughout the entire practice of the faith. For a discussion, see Farah, Islam, 176.) The pillars are no doubt important. But if we reduce Islam to these religious duties, we will fundamentally misunderstand what Islam is.
The major goal of Islam is to Dar al-Islam, to bring the “house of Islam” or ruling precept and practice of Islam to every area of society. Islam seeks to regulate not just the religious life of the Muslim but all of life — economic, family, military, and so on.
Incidentally, as a convert from Islam, this is why I am very cautious and skeptical about contextualization approaches to Muslim evangelism that leaves the convert in the outward forms and practices of Islam. The forms are as integral to Islam as the theology. Islam is significantly constituted by outward form.
If you take someone who converts from Islam and leave him in that outward form, my experience says you are not serving him as effectively as possible. As a convert, it took me years, for example, to remove the Qur’an from its exalted place in my home, because the system of Islam still had its strong tentacles on me. Converts need to be helped with the sucking, entangling system of Islamic forms, even if it means wisely facing persecution and other risks.
How is this goal of Dar al-Islam sought? It is not done by teaching the pillars of Islam but by advancing sharia, the law of Islam. So if we want to think about Islam more carefully, we must think about sharia.
What Is Sharia?
Sharia is basically the system of laws that govern Islamic life. One Muslim writer describes sharia as “the epitome of the true Islamic spirit, the most decisive expression of Islamic thought, the essential kernel of Islam” (Ferah, Islam, 201). Another Muslim writer says simply, “The Sharia is Islam’s constitution” (Ibid., 160). For many Muslims and Muslim leaders, the sharia is the fullest embodiment of the Islamic ideal. Sharia is what we are contending with in our encounter with Islam — not prayer on Friday. We are contending with sharia, the whole of it, not a few practices and theological ideas abstracted from it.
From the beginning of the spread of Islam, the Islamic community needed more than just the “five pillars” to shape and govern life. In the prophet Muhammad’s lifetime and the generations following, Islam entered into more and more lands — from Arabia, Africa, Europe, Asia, and beyond — with differing local cultures and sometimes differing approaches to authority in the community.
“Islam is not an institution but primarily an identity.”
As Islam spread, great empires were founded and established. With the spread of Islam, major questions developed: How do you regulate life under an Islamic ideal with such a diversity of people coming into Islam through conquest, conversion, and caravan trading? How are we going to govern this life? It was a pressing question of authority and coherence. This meant that a more uniform standard for governing life and society was needed. In the first two to three centuries of the Islamic empire, we find the development and codification of sharia to answer this need.
Four sources were combined to comprise sharia (For brief discussions of the development of Islamic law, see ibid., 159–65; and Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples [Warner, 1991], 65–69, 113–16, 160–62). The obvious starting place was the Qur’an. Every Muslim believed that the Qur’an revealed God’s will for man’s life. In it were the signs or miracles from God, through the prophet, that were to be obeyed.
During his lifetime, Muhammad served not only as the religious leader of Islam but also as civic leader, judge, and military general. After his lifetime, the companions and successors of Muhammad had to figure out how to govern the expanding empire under Islamic rule. Early in Islam’s development, Muslim leaders recognized that effective application of the Qur’an required some commentary.
So, added to the Qur’an as a second source for sharia were the sunna and hadith. The sunna recorded the life and ways of Muhammad, while the hadith became a collection of sayings attributed to the prophet. The companions of the prophet and the wider Muslim community looked to these writings for guidance in Islamic society. Eventually, some Muslim scholars would come to regard the sunna and hadith with as much authority as the Qur’an itself.
So today you will meet some Muslims who claim you cannot properly understand the Qur’an unless you speak Arabic and without consulting the sunna and hadith. So, sharia finds its basis not just in the precepts of the Qur’an but also in the example and sayings of the prophet Muhammad as perfect exemplar.
Third, religious belief and practices among orthodox Muslims could be established by the principle of analogy. Keep in mind we are not talking about a system of case law or systematized doctrine. So, whenever a situation arose not answered clearly by the Qur’an or hadith, the Islamic judge was permitted to find a situation from the Qur’an or hadith that was analogous in motive, cause, or material similarity and base a ruling on that information. One reason for this principle was the Islamic aversion to “innovation” and private interpretation, which were seen as weakening fidelity to the Qur’an and hadith. As analogies are added, there is pressure to codify quickly.
Finally, there was the consensus of the communities. Things not sanctioned specifically by the Qur’an, but nevertheless practiced by the Muslim faithful, could become legal through consensus and inclusion in sharia. How consensus was obtained varied from location to location. And as you might expect, the commonly accepted traditions and practices varied from context to context. But by the third century after the prophet’s lifetime, there were traditions incorporated into sharia.
This is how sharia developed in the Islamic world. And it is under this rule that Muslims seek to live.
Three Challenges to the Islamic Ideal of Sharia
Over the last two hundred years, the advance of Islam has faced three significant challenges: the competing ideals and military might of the West, secularism, and internal weakness. In the face of these challenges, some Muslim groups look to sharia for recovery of Islamic strength and progress.
The traditionalist or fundamentalist says, “Purify Islam by advancing a pristine sharia and reforming society.” We find this approach in the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia and Sudan, in Libya, Qatar, UAE, and Iran since the revolution. But the modernist takes the opposite approach. He says, “No, we need to reform Islam and sharia while advancing society.” This is the approach of Egypt, India, Syria, and Indonesia.
Meanwhile, the smaller group of secularists seeks to divide Islam and secular society, as in modern-day Turkey. Most Muslims fall into either modernists or traditionalists groups, with the traditionalists often riding the coattails of the modernists.
“Sharia is what we are contending with in our encounter with Islam — not prayer on Friday.”
So, we often see the modernist face of Islam, which appears compatible with good pluralistic ideals, but traditionalists follow in the modernist wake, and societies end up with sharia being advanced in some way.
Why Is Sharia Not Consistently Compatible with Pluralism?
There are four brief reasons sharia is not compatible with a healthy pluralism:
1) Sharia, at best, is theocratic and theonomistic at the very least. If sharia is the “constitution of Islam,” then sharia offers very different legal footing from American constitutional law. American constitutional law is grounded in natural law and individual liberty when the Declaration of Independence declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But Islam declares that Allah rules all things, and all societies must be brought under the rule of Islam.
2) Because sharia leaves no room for modernization or flexibility in interpretation, it leaves no room for healthy pluralism. With the Islamic bias against “innovation” and “interpretation,” sharia remains largely locked into the body of rulings and ideas set within the first three hundred years of the Muslim era (ninth century).
3) Because sharia incorporates cultural consensus into law, the certain cultural practices enter into the legal framework of countries unaware. In our context, when we refer to “cultural practices,” we do not necessarily associate such things with a particular religious practice. So a person may participate in a cultural milieu without our necessarily making any religious assumptions about that practice at all.
But in Islam, culture is religion and religion is culture. So to admit elements of sharia into the legal framework of any country such as the United States under the guise of “cultural practice” or “multiculturalism” is to give ground to sharia and to establish a constitutional footing quite at odds with the assumptions the country was founded upon.
We cannot admit cultural practices into Western law without opening the gate to all of sharia. Think, for example, about Muslim women in France wearing veils, until recently, while driving. Most people think of the veil largely as a cultural preference or practice issue. But the adorning of veils is as much about sharia and its legal requirements as it is about culture. Protecting the wearing of veils begins the process of extending other sharia-inspired practices in Western societies.
4) Advocacy for sharia sometimes reaches a point where it can no longer tolerate difference or accept minority status. If Muslim communities come to define sharia as the only acceptable framework for living freely and worshiping freely as Muslims, then we can understand why substantial Muslim minorities in places like the Philippines and Indonesia look to secede from the wider country to form separate Muslim states.
And if living under sharia becomes the only acceptable way to live, we understand why militarism and force become acceptable strategies for some people. Such Muslims view aggressive advocacy and militarism as self-defense or acceptable jihad because their view of sharia does not include Western-styled pluralism.
3) What Should the Christian Response Be to Islam?
The Christian lives in two kingdoms or cities. The Christian is both a citizen of a nation and a citizen of heaven. Therefore, our response must distinguish between these two kingdoms and our responsibility in each.
How Should We Respond to Islam?
When I am asked, “How should we respond to Islam?” I am usually being asked a political question. The questioner usually wants to know how to act as a citizen of the United States in response to the growth of Islam. They ask a policy-level question.
Here is what I would say: as a citizen of the United States, work for the faithful continuance and application of the nonestablishment and free exercise clause. Constitutionally, Congress shall not make any laws that establish religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof.
Now, that is a bit of constitutional genius. Granted, it is not always well applied. But it needs to be — especially in our engagement with Islam. What the nonestablishment clause prohibits is the adoption of laws that make a religion something the state supports.
This means that at least in the American constitutional system sharia and elements of sharia are off-limits. The main way to hold back the inappropriate advance of Islamic law and custom — which tend to restrict basic liberties — is to consistently apply the nonestablishment clause.
But, at the same time, Congress cannot make any laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion. Here, we want to defend our Muslim neighbor’s rights to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience and not be afraid to do so.
As citizens of an earthly kingdom, we want to be hospitable, kind, and diligent in pursuing that fundamental liberty called “religious freedom.” We want to work for such freedom so we can honestly and faithfully engage our Muslim neighbors with the gospel. This is how we maintain a good pluralism — we resist the establishment of religion while promoting free exercise.
How Should We Respond to Muslims?
But sometimes I am asked the question, “How should I respond or talk to my Muslim neighbor or friend?” That is a street-level question that’s really about our citizenship in heaven. Here, I would counsel a few things drawn from Matthew 10.
First, remember the gospel. “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 10:7 NIV). As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, our main responsibility is to proclaim this message, to make Jesus known, to be ambassadors of Christ. We are to speak of his love, grace, judgment, coming, and salvation.
However, I fear many of us lack confidence in the gospel. When I am asked, “How do I witness to my Muslim friend?” most people want me to tell them something other than the gospel. They want a trick or a secret. They are asking, “What worked for you? Can I push that same ‘easy’ button?” But the button was the gospel! The secret was Christ and him crucified, buried, and resurrected to save sinners from the wrath of a holy God, to make them new creatures, and bring them into the family of God!
When our mouths are open and the gospel comes out, divine power comes out. The Word gives life and makes people new. Think about how powerful our speaking is. Apart from God, we are the only speaking beings in existence. And the form of speaking that has the most power is the gospel. Be confident in the gospel and talk about Jesus. That same gospel that saved you and me is the same gospel that will save our Muslim neighbors and friends.
Let us have confidence in this gospel. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Have confidence in the gospel. God puts power — saving power — in our mouths. So as the gospel goes out, the Spirit grants life. Have confidence in that. Trust it. Share it.
Second, return to the world. Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 NIV). Here is a verse that calls the Christian to be a thinker. It calls us to face devouring wolves with intelligence and purity. There are a lot of animals in this verse, but it is no petting zoo. The world is a dangerous place, and Jesus sends his people into it.
The same gospel that saved you is the same gospel that will save your Muslim neighbors and friends.
But do not think that because Jesus sends his people into the world as sheep for slaughter, that he wastes our lives. He does not! The Father does not waste the lives of those he has purchased with the blood of his Son.
So Jesus says to go into the world with the gospel and know that you need to be wise and pure because a dangerous world opposes you. We will face persecution (verses 17–20), betrayal (verses 21–23), and slander (verses 24–25). I don’t know anyone who knows this truth as personally and painfully as men and women from Muslim backgrounds.
Once during a visit to the Middle East, someone introduced me to a young man from Saudi Arabia. He came to faith in Christ while attending university in the United States. After his conversion, he returned home during the Christmas break and took with him his Bible and some Christian music hidden in his bag.
While at home, his mother went through his things, found his Bible and music, and, along with the men of his family, confronted him. They demanded to know if he had converted to Christianity and if he had been baptized. Under serious threat, he confessed he had converted but had not yet been baptized. The family immediately forced him to recant, withdrew him from his studies, and kept him under house arrest for two years. When I met him, he had finally been allowed to move to another country in the region to continue studies.
The thought of ever renouncing Jesus still grieved him bitterly. He wanted to speak with me about his plans to be baptized and to return home to profess his faith to his family. He feared being disowned at the least, and possibly more. He knew what he would face, but he also knew Jesus sent him into the world bearing testimony of his glory, grace, and love.
Jesus sends us out to engage the world. So it is no surprise that lands once Christian but that adopted monasticism and withdrawal from the culture are now thoroughly Muslim. They failed to go out!
Third, repent of fear. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NIV). The one who has all authority in heaven and earth and promises to be with us always says, “Do not be afraid.” That fear is destroying our love for our neighbors, destroying evangelistic and missionary zeal, and destroying souls.
Recently I had the privilege of participating in a radio interview to discuss the topic of witnessing to Muslims. While on the program, the host told me of a caller who said of Muslim evangelism, “Let them stay over there. They don’t want to hear the gospel or want us in their lands, so let them stay over there. Let them perish in their sins.”
Where is the weeping over hell? In our fear, we betray the fact that we may not have begun to weep over the reality of 1.5 billion people made in God’s image perishing in everlasting torment and judgment. This man did not know what spirit he was of.
We must repent of fear. And instead, think on God’s providence and provision (Matthew 10:29–31). His eye is on the sparrow; we know he watches us. Not one passage of Scripture gives us the slightest grounds for fear!
Fourth, retrieve the reward. “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. . . . If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:39, 42 NIV). Christian, throw safety and security and ease and comfort and convenience to the dogs! Give yourself to something greater — the glory of God and the joy of God.
Jesus is our reward. Lose your life for Jesus and the gospel so that you will find your life. Give that cup of water — in other words, do even small acts of mercy in the name of Jesus and the gospel — and you will have a reward you cannot lose. Count it all loss so that you might gain Christ. Stop fearing man — and go get your reward, which is loving fellowship with God in heaven. God is your portion, your inheritance. And to everyone who goes out with the gospel of the kingdom, God gives himself as the fulfillment of all their hopes and joy. Go get him.
Can you imagine that day? Psalm 17:15 says when we awake in our righteousness, we shall see him and be satisfied. That is what lies on the other side of the Christian’s engagement with Islam — satisfaction, joy unspeakable and full of glory. Don’t you want it? Let’s go get it.
Make these words helpful and useful for our souls. Stir up your people. Lord, most of the readers of this chapter, if not all, know the gospel, so they know everything they need, to see Muslims come to know you.
Grant us confidence that comes from resting in your power. Grant us boldness that comes from resting in your grace and not in our thoughts and intellects. Grant us boldness to open our mouths and speak as we ought.
May Muslim people, made in your image, made for your glory, intended to be around your throne, hear this good news and be saved for the glory of your name and the joy of the nations. In Jesus’s name we pray.
More Messages from Desiring God 2010 National Conference
The Battle for Your Mind (Rick Warren)
The Way the World Thinks: Meeting the Natural Mind in the Mirror and in the Marketplace (R. Albert Mohler Jr.)