Why Have Africans Suffered So Much?
Does God detest Africa? It’s a stark question, and it comes to us from inside the continent. “Pastor John, hello! My name is Jason from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. First, thank you for your continued ministry. It has been a huge blessing in my life. My question is this: Does God care for Africans? Providence has a long track record here. Throughout history we have been a beastly, deplorable, enslaveable race — constantly riddled with disease, famine, and suffering. How are we not to conclude that we are God’s least favorite race? Every day is pure struggle for most Ugandans. I know God promises to look after all people, but it still makes me wonder, why does he especially seem to hate Africa so much?”
I feel a special urgency about this question. It would be an easy question for us to ignore, but the reason I feel a special urgency is not only because it comes with such heartfelt, painful earnestness about Jason’s own experience and his love for his people in Uganda (not to mention the whole of Africa), but also because I wrote a big book on providence.
So, I feel indebted to give some accounting for his statement, “Providence has a long track record here” — meaning, God’s providence has been hard on the continent of Africa. None of us can just blindly say that we believe in the all-wise, all-embracing, all-pervasive, all-sovereign providence of God, and then just walk away from such questions. That won’t do. It just won’t do.
I have four observations that I have prayed over and thought about to suggest that I hope will shed some light on Jason’s question, his mind, as he wrestles with this question there in Uganda. He asked, “How are we not to conclude that we are God’s least favorite race?” What an explosive question. He’s not just talking about the continent of Africa; he’s talking about blackness. It’s national, it’s geographic, it’s racial. What is God’s providence in relation to these? That’s his heart-agonizing question. I doubt that he’s alone in it.
1. Comfort and hardship can call us to God.
First, I would make the absolutely crucial biblical observation that all human beings everywhere in the world, at all times in all history, are fallen, sinful, and (to use the words of Ephesians 2:2–3) “sons of disobedience” and “by nature children of wrath.” Or as Romans 5:12 says, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”
Now, in calling all human beings — of every race, every nationality, every age, every sex, every ethnicity — “children of wrath,” the Bible is teaching that every day not spent in hell under God’s full wrath is a reprieve. Whatever else it is by way of hardship in this world, it is a reprieve. Full judgment on us from God for our sin is being postponed as long as we are alive.
“God’s ways of accomplishing his wise and just and merciful purposes are not our ways.”
None of us deserves to live in the presence of God, before God, in relation to God. Therefore, none of us deserves to live well before God, in relation to God. Nobody, anywhere in the world, no matter their hardship, is being wronged by the just and all-holy God. If we think, for example, that the massive infant mortality rate around the world for thousands of years is an indictment of God’s justice, it isn’t, because death is a judgment on communities and families as well as individuals, and all of the nonaccountable infants enter into glory.
Now, in view of that universal sinfulness, with all human beings being under God’s just condemnation, this is the question: Which is the most disadvantageous condition for such condemned people to live in? Lives of ease, as they move toward the lake of fire in the prosperous West? Or lives of hardship, as they move toward the lake of fire elsewhere? Which condition is designed as possibly most effective in awakening people to their need for mercy and salvation?
Some nations live in comfort and prosperity while turning away from God. Other nations live with hardship and poverty while turning away from God. The Bible teaches that both have a design that can lead to repentance. Romans 2:4 speaks of God’s kindness leading people to repentance. Revelation 16:11 speaks of pain and disease leading people to repentance. Shall we say that one of those designs is hateful? Or should we not rather — wherever we live, under whatever hardship or comfort — see the hand of God beckoning us to turn to him? That’s my first observation.
2. We cannot quantify God’s favor.
My second observation, therefore, is that I do not know whether Africa, all things considered, has been favored less than India, or the South Sea islands, or the native peoples of North and South America, or the Germanic hordes of Europe, all those thousands and thousands of years — or any other place. I don’t know. Paul says in Acts 14:16–17,
In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.
I don’t know if for thousands of years that was less true of Africa than those other places and peoples. That’s my second observation: I just don’t know. It’s not obvious to me.
3. Providence defies our understanding.
Third observation: God simply does not treat all individuals the same, nor does he treat all families the same, nor does he treat all tribes the same, nor does he treat all nations the same or all continents the same, nor does he treat all races the same.
It is absolutely baffling from a human standpoint to try to figure out why one family seems to undergo hardship after hardship after hardship, while another family, perhaps totally unbelieving and irreligious, scarcely has any adversity at all. I’ve had a dad say to me, face to face after his baby died, “Are we under a curse, Pastor John?” Because this had been about the third tragedy in a row in just a few years. I’ve seen it over and over again in our church and beyond: the wicked prosper; the righteous suffer. There’s nothing even close to equal distribution of sorrow in this world.
The lesson is this: God’s ways of accomplishing his wise and just and merciful purposes are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). We better not look at such inequities and infer quickly that we know what God is doing, because we almost certainly don’t — at least not in any detail. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Just when you think you know what providence is doing by way of judgment and mercy, it can be dramatically reversed in a split second, and we are thrown back again and again on utter reliance upon God, which is one of his main designs (as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9).
4. Africa’s hour may have come.
This is my last observation: Peter says in his second letter,
Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Peter 3:8)
He said that to help us understand God’s purposes in delaying the second coming. My point here is this: though times of darkness may seem long, perhaps today, the hour of Africa has come. In the last century (that’s one tenth of one of those thousand-year days), the Christian population of Africa has grown from ten million Christians at the beginning of the twentieth century (about ten percent of the population), to close to five hundred million professing believers today.
“The brush strokes on the canvas of world history will not be plain until the masterpiece is finished.”
One scholar observes, “This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined.” Kenya has more people in Christian churches on Sunday than all of Canada. “This past Sunday more Presbyterians were at church in Ghana than in Scotland” (The New Shape of World Christianity, 20). We’re talking Presbyterians because it was born in Scotland, and there were more Presbyterians in church in Ghana than Scotland.
Well, here’s the point: Just when we thought we had God’s providence figured out and that he was partial to the West, he dramatically reverses course and causes his church in the Global South to explode. At the beginning of the twentieth century, 71 percent of professing Christians in the world lived in Europe. By the end of the twentieth century, that number had shrunk from 71 percent to 28 percent. Now, 43 percent of the Christians in the world live in Latin America and Africa. From that standpoint, one might be tempted to ask, “Does God hate Europe?”
Now, I don’t think that’s a good question to ask. I hope what I’ve shown here is that providence is not so easily read, and his work of salvation is not yet complete. The brush strokes on the canvas of world history will not be plain until the masterpiece is finished.