The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering
Desiring God 2005 National Conference
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
We serve the sovereign God who will accomplish his will no matter what. We find this truth all the way back to creation. When we were created, we were in covenant relationship with God. This was the covenant of creation (others call it the covenant of works). According to the terms of the covenant, obedience would result in blessing. We would experience pleasure as the sovereign will of God was accomplished through us. However, if we broke the covenant, we would be under its curse, and we would experience pain as the sovereign will of God was accomplished through us.
We know from the biblical text that we broke the covenant. The fall was the result, and the path of pain was the outcome. By eating from the forbidden tree, humans were, in essence, attempting to replace God as ultimate judge of good and evil. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:16-17, NIV). It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the nature of good and evil. The real temptation was: what would be the basis for judging good and evil? Would it be the Word of God or human opinion?
What happens just before we fall to temptation? We decide that the thing we desire is good for us. In essence, we reenact the fall every time we give in to temptation. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were rejecting the Word of God as the basis of life. This was an example of creature-ism — the creature attempts to judge the Creator by creaturely standards.
Instead of immediately sending us to the lake of fire, God showed us grace. He gave us another covenant, the covenant of salvation (the covenant of grace as some call it). The covenant of salvation was designed to deliver us from the curse of the broken covenant of creation. Until salvation was fully applied we would still experience many of the effects of the fall. Among these effects would be human power differentials. These power differentials would lead to human power struggles. This is the basis of the ethnic-based strife and suffering.
Let us make some observations about power. The Bible tells us that God is all-powerful, and yet there are no power struggles between the persons of the godhead. Why? Because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. Before the fall Adam and Eve had significant power of dominion, yet there were no power struggles between them. Why? Because they were one. Their oneness was like God’s oneness only on a human level. This is a perspective on what it means to be in the image of God. Adam was the head, but he was the first among equals.
After the fall their oneness was broken. This is where we began to have our problems. We began to think individualistically, and this led to self-centeredness. Look at what Adam told God after God confronted him about his sin: “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’” (Genesis 3:12). The man and the woman began to seek dominion and dominance over each other, and inequality was the result.
Thus, the first manifestation of human power struggles was seen in the marriage relationship. When God spoke to the woman in Genesis 3:16, he said, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” When God said “Your desire shall be for your husband,” he was not speaking of the “come hither” kind of desire. The word desire here is the exact same word God used when he confronted Cain about his sin. He said, “Sin . . . desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7, NIV). Biases
Because of the loss of oneness, power struggles infected the marriage relationship. Eventually it infected all human relationships. Thus, human inequality became universal, not only between individuals like Cain and Abel but also between people groups. It makes no difference how you define people groups, whether ethnically, culturally, linguistically, or generationally. There will be inequalities among them and power struggles between them.
Another result of the fall was persecution. We see this in the struggle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15, AT). The “seed of the woman” refers to the coming of the Savior, and the “seed of the serpent” refers to Satan himself; however, we often fail to see the collective application of this.
From this perspective, “the seed of the woman” refers to God’s covenant people, and the “seed of the serpent” refers to the enemies of God. God’s enemies would persecute and seek to destroy God’s people — their heel will be struck. But, God’s people would successfully resist this persecution. The people of God would have a power-struggle disadvantage on a human level, yet by God’s grace they would persevere and ultimately prevail over God’s enemies. The enemy’s head would be crushed. This struggle would be painful. Persecution has become a significant manifestation of human power struggles, and it continues to this day.
The Mystery of Suffering
The book of Job deals with the relationship between human suffering and divine justice. This is what the scholars call theodicy. Most of us assume a one-to-one relationship between our suffering and our sin, or between prosperity and obedience. This is what Job’s friends were trying to say. They were articulating old evangelical clichés: “There must be some sin in your life, brother.” Job repeatedly answered, “What else is new!” The account of Job clearly demonstrates that the bad things that happen to us are not necessarily related to our sin, anymore than the good things that happen to us are related to our righteousness, of which we have none (Isaiah 64:6). The account of Job shows us that God will not abandon those who suffer for his sake. Job had a “for-realness” about his pain.
Likewise, God wants us to have that same “for-realness.” In many ways suffering is a mystery. I take comfort in what Francis Schaeffer told me many times: “We only see the debit side of the ledger now. We don’t see the credit side yet. When we see the whole ledger we will say, ‘Oh, why didn’t I see it that way before?’” This is why the Bible tells us to see now by faith. Though suffering is a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to God. Mysteries may be painful, but they should not perplex us. To God, there is no mystery. He is satisfied because he sees the whole ledger. We will also be satisfied when we see things from God’s perspective. Till then, we must learn to be satisfied with God’s satisfaction. If we do, we will have peace.
The Basis of Suffering
The cause of suffering is sin. This much is obvious. Suffering from sin has two general categories. First, there are the apparently random effects of sin — storms, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, wildfires, etc. Then there are the direct results of sin, which come in two categories — ungodliness and oppression. Ungodliness involves sinning and suffering one’s own consequences. (Examples are carelessness, laziness, recklessness, irresponsibility, and things like that.) Oppression involves sinning and forcing others to suffer the consequences, or imposing our sin on others. God says a lot about oppression in Scripture.
Let us make some observations. Oppression is sin plus power. If you’ve ever been in a dominant position over people, and you sin against them, you have oppressed them. The power to oppress doesn’t require a particular skin color, ethnicity, or economic status.
I’ll never forget when God opened my eyes to this. God has given me the privilege of raising two children, a boy and a girl. I’m very proud of them. They both love the Lord. When my girl was little, it was my job to braid her hair. I must admit, I became quite skilled at it. As a father, I was in a dominant position over her. One Sunday morning, her hair was looking particularly good. When I was almost finished, she said, “Daddy, the braid is too tight. It hurts!” Of course it was not my intention to inflict pain on her, yet pain was the result.
Because I was in a dominant position over her I just dismissed her pain. “Oh Nikki, it doesn’t hurt.”
Then she repeated, “Daddy, it hurts!” And then she started to cry. As her tears began to flow, I began to realize what I had done: I oppressed my own daughter when I denied her reality.
I strongly disagree with those who narrowly define oppression only in terms of race. Though racial oppression is real, oppression itself is universal.
Because oppression is sin plus power, it is driven by power struggles. How does oppression affect individual victims? Based on my observations, it increases their proportion of bad choices and decreases their proportion of good choices. For example, let’s suppose each of us has ten choices to make in life. If we are not oppressed, we would expect eight of the ten choices to be good ones and two to be bad. However, oppression might cause eight choices to be bad and two to be good. Given the law of averages, how likely is one to make bad choices? It should not surprise us that oppressed people end up in prison in higher proportions.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the foundations of oppression is creature-ism, which is judging the Creator by the standard of the creature. Creature-ism has several applications:
- me-ism — judging others by the standard of myself
- cultural imperialism — judging other cultures by the standard of my culture
- sexism — judging the other gender by the standard of my gender
- racism — judging the other races by the standard of my race
- ethno-centrism — judging other people groups by the standard of my people group
If I am guilty of any of those, I will see others as inferior. Why? Because no one else can be me as well as I can be me; no other culture can be my culture as well as my culture can; no other race can be my race as well as my race can. When we use ourselves as the standard of judgment instead of the Word of God, we begin to think of others as inferior, not worthy of our respect. Power differentials serve to aggravate the situation.
Israel was plagued by ethnocentrism. God repeatedly showed them they were to be Jews because they were chosen. To be a Jew was a response to God’s saving grace. But they foolishly assumed that they were chosen because they were Jews. They assumed they would always have the status of dominant culture in the kingdom of God. And they did not tolerate anything that would contradict this notion.
Let us look at Acts 13:14-48 from this perspective. In this passage we see that Paul and his companions went to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath day they entered the synagogue and sat down, and after the reading of some of the Scriptures, the brothers in the synagogue asked if they had a message of encouragement: “Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: ‘Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!’” (verse 16, NIV).
He began to review Israel’s history: from Egypt to the conquest of Canaan (verses 18-28); from the judges to King David (verses 20-22); then to the Savior, Jesus Christ, descended from David and greater than all the prophets (verses 23-25). We would expect resistance to Paul’s message, but none materialized. Paul continued: Jerusalem failed to recognize Jesus and condemned him to death. Yet this fulfilled the Scripture and God raised Jesus from the dead (verses 26-31). Still there was no negative reaction to all this new theology. Paul explained that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of Scripture and that Jesus is greater than King David (verses 32-37). Yet they did not react.
Then Paul stated that forgiveness of sin comes through Jesus, and justification cannot come by the works of the law of Moses (verses 38-39). Even this did not upset them. Paul wrapped up his message: “Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: ‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish. I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you’” (verses 40-41).
Notice the reaction to the message: “As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath” (verse 42). So far the situation looked promising, but watch what happened next: On the next Sabbath day, almost the whole city gathered to hear the Word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds they were filled with jealousy and began to talk abusively against what Paul was saying (verse 44). The Jews took the response of the whole town as a threat to their position of dominance when it came to the things of God. This was a manifestation of power struggles.
A similar thing happened in Acts 21–22:
- On his visit to the temple in Jerusalem Paul was spotted, seized, and accused of teaching against Israel and the law. Furthermore, he was accused of defiling the temple by bringing Greeks into it. (21:17-29)
- Paul was dragged out of the temple and almost killed by mob violence. The commander of the Roman troops saved Paul by taking him into custody. (21:30-36)
- Paul was able to get permission to address the crowd. (21:37-40)
- Paul introduced himself as a Jew. He showed forth his pedigree: born and raised in Tarsus, taught by Gamaliel, persecuted the church in his zeal for God. (22:1-5)
- Paul explained his encounter with Jesus and his dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road: “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” I asked. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” (22:6-13)
The crowd did not react. Then Paul replied to the Lord, “These men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (22:19-20).
There was still no reaction, but watch this: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live’” (verses 21-22).
The Jewish crowd was willing to deal with all that testimony about Jesus. But when testifying to the Gentiles came into play, the dominance of the Jews was threatened. They got upset. The violence of the crowd became so intense that Paul had to be rescued by Roman soldiers (verses 23-24).
Ethnic-based suffering comes out of these power struggles, out of dominant/sub-dominant dynamics. There is a lot of talk today about reconciliation. But, if we ignore the dominant/sub-dominant dynamics, we will never bridge the gap. We will wonder why racial reconciliation does not seem to work, and people will continue to suffer. These passages in Acts should give us insights as to why.
One of the results of oppression is marginalization. Marginalization happens when that which is valid is regarded as invalid merely because it differs from the prevailing standards of creature-ism. Thus, people who fit this description are relegated to a position of insignificance, devalued importance, minor influence, or diminished power. How does marginalization affect human interaction?
Every society has a dominant culture and at least one sub-dominant culture. Each of these has a corresponding cultural agenda and intracultural consciousness. Those in the dominant culture tend not to realize they have a culture, and those in the sub-dominant culture know very well that everybody has a culture.
All in the sub-dominant culture are exposed to the dominant cultural agenda. But few in the dominant culture are even aware that there is a sub-dominant cultural agenda. Therefore, to those in the dominant culture, the concerns of the sub-dominant culture tend to be marginalized. We can define these dominant and sub-dominant cultures in terms of race, generation, gender, geography, language, etc.
This begs the question: who is going to show the world how to deal with these kind of power differential dynamics? It must be the body of Christ. There are four dimensions of marginalization: (1) relational (face-to-face) marginalization — like what I did with my daughter; (2) systemic marginalization, which is marginalization by way of time-honored conventions and protocols; (3) marginalization by design, which is intentional marginalization resulting from subjugation; and (4) marginalization by default, which is marginalization resulting from a lack of either real or perceived power.
When you pair these four dimensions in all the possible combinations, you come out with the window of marginalization (Figure 1). The top two panes of the window are relational; the bottom two panes, systemic; the left two panes, marginalization by design; the right two, marginalization by default.
One thing that exacerbates ethnic-based suffering in the world today is the lack of a full understanding of marginalization. For example, we tend to think of only one manifestation — relational by design — which we find in the upper left-hand quadrant. We don’t think much about what’s in the other three quadrants. If we in the church are going to have something prophetic to say to the issue of ethnic-based suffering, we must deal with all four panes of the window.
Every subdominant group has a distinct paradigm for marginalization. For example, the African-American experience has largely been a struggle against racism and its effects — an application of creature-ism. Therefore, racism is regarded as the paradigm for all marginalization. We may know that marginalization does not ultimately require a racist motive. However, from an African-American perspective, marginalization is assumed to have a racist motive.
Anglo-Americans without this paradigm tend to view AfricanAmerican protest against marginalization as “playing the race card.” African-Americans, on the other hand, may view Anglo-Americans’ protest as being in denial. When this happens we will speak past each other, because we do not understand that marginalization is the foundation of ethnic-based suffering. The theology of the Christian community has been weak in that area. If we are going to be a prophetic voice against marginalization, we will need to address it with some serious theology.
A young lady named Camara Phyllis Jones wrote a fascinating article called “Levels of Racism: A Theoretical Framework and a Gardener’s Tale” (Camara Phyllis Jones, “Levels of Racism: A Theoretical Framework and a Gardener’s Tale,” American Journal of Public Health [August 2000]). I am not going to review the whole article, but I will share some of her insightful illustrations. According to Ms. Jones, there are three levels of racism: (1) institutionalized, (2) personally mediated, and (3) internalized.
Jones bought a house in a major city, and on the front porch were two flower boxes. One already had dirt in it, and the other was empty. She did not realize the existing soil was poor and rocky. Because she wanted to plant flowers in both boxes, she filled the empty box with rich potting soil and planted six flower seeds in each box. The growth of the flowers in the boxes showed her how racism develops and functions.
To illustrate her point, Jones supposed the following: (1) the gardener decided to plant flowers yielding red blossoms in one box and flowers yielding pink blossoms in the other; (2) she knows which box has the rich potting soil and which has the poor soil; (3) the gardener prefers red blossoms over pink.
In this case, the gardener would plant seeds for red blossoms in the rich soil and seeds for pink blossoms in the poor soil. All six seeds sprout in the rich soil. The three strongest seeds grew tall. The weaker seeds grew to middling height. In the poor soil, only the strongest seeds grew, but only to middling height (Figure 2).
- Initial historical insult
- Structural barriers
- Inaction in face of need
- Societal norms
- Biological determinism
- Unearned privilege
This is how she illustrates institutionalized racism. It starts with what she calls an initial historical insult — the decision was made to plant the red flowers in the better soil. It is carried on by structural barriers — the two boxes separate the two soils. It involves inaction in the face of need — the poor, rocky soil needs fertilizer, but “it does not matter because they are just pink flowers anyway.” It reflects societal norms. Everybody knows that if you have sick plants, you don’t waste your time on them. Your best efforts should be directed to the best plants. Institutionalized racism also involves biological determinism (the red blossoms are considered superior to the pink blossoms). Finally, it involves unearned privilege (the red flower seeds are planted in the good soil, but they did not earn this privilege).
Ms. Jones illustrates personally mediated racism in the following way. The weak pink blossoms and the strong red ones are about to produce pollen. However, the gardener does not want good, strong plants to be pollinated by obviously weak, inferior ones. So the gardener will pluck the pink blossoms off before they can pollinate. As a result, the weak plants will wither and die (Figure 3).
- Acts of Commission
- Acts of Omission
- Maintains structural barriers
- Condoned by social norms
This is equivalent to relational marginalization by design. Thus, personally mediated racism is intentional and unintentional. It involves acts of commission and acts of omission. It maintains the structural barriers, in this case the two different soils. It is also condoned by societal norms. After all, everybody knows the weak blossoms are plucked off before they can pollinate.
The third level is the most devastating — internalized racism. In this case, the “pink blossoms” themselves begin to believe that “red pollen” is superior. When people are marginalized long enough, when people are under the yoke of oppression long enough, they begin to believe in their own inferiority. This is what makes internalized racism so tragic.
Suppose a bee carrying pollen was to land on one of the pink blossoms. What kind of pollen would it prefer: pink or red? It would say, “Stop! I prefer red pollen. I don’t want any of that inferior pink pollen!” Why this response? Because it believes in its own inferiority (Figure 4).
- Reflects systems of privilege
- Reflects social values
- Erodes individual sense of value
- Undermines collective action
The pain of ethnic-based suffering is bad enough. It is devastating when they begin to think of themselves as inferior, not deserving respect.
Thus, internalized racism reflects the system of privileges and societal values. It erodes the individual sense of value and undermines collective action. The pink flowers are so convinced that they are inferior that they begin to despise each other. Pink-on-pink crime becomes a problem.
Let me share with you two biblical examples of internalized oppression. They both happened while the Hebrews were under the yoke of Egyptian slavery.
The First Example of Internalized Oppression
Most of us know the story of how Moses, a Hebrew, grew up in Pharaoh’s palace (“the big house”). Contrary to the depiction of Moses in Cecil B. deMille’s movie The Ten Commandments, the biblical text indicates that Moses’ Egyptian mother never hid his true identity from him. The Hebrews in Goshen (“the hood”) evidently were aware of who Moses was also.
One day, after he had grown up, Moses decided to go to the “hood” and hang out — to “kick it” with the brothers (Exodus 2:11-14). He saw a fellow Hebrew being brutally beaten by an Egyptian. Moses intervened, and in the struggle he killed the Egyptian.
He returned to the “hood” the next day and saw two Hebrews fighting. He said to the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” This man replied, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?”(Exodus 2:14, NIV).
If we do not understand internalized oppression, we will miss one of the subtle things that God shows us. After four hundred years of slavery and humiliation, the Hebrews had come to believe they were inferior; they had contempt for themselves. Therefore, if Moses had been an Egyptian, the angry Hebrew would have respected him, but the man in the wrong knew Moses was Hebrew, so he totally disrespected him. He asked, “Are you thinking of killing me like you killed the Egyptian?” Notice he didn’t say, “your fellow Egyptian.” In other words, the man was saying, “Who do you think you are? You’re still a Hebrew.” In those days Hebrew was a derogatory term.
The Second Example of Internalized Oppression
When God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai, God told him to go to the Pharaoh and say, “The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God” (Exodus 3:18, NIV). Perhaps one of the reasons the children of Israel complained and murmured against God was because he identified with them; in their minds, any God who would identify with the Hebrews had to be inferior. Thus, when Moses was overdue returning from the mountaintop, the Hebrews quickly made an idol and wanted to return to Egypt (Exodus 32:1-9).
God’s Awareness of Suffering
Isaiah 53:3 (NIV) says the suffering Servant “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” Mary and Martha were overcome with grief at the death of Lazarus. Jesus knew that he was going to resurrect Lazarus, but he identified with their grief and wept with them (John 11:33). If we follow Jesus, we too should be in touch with the sorrow of those in pain and the suffering of the oppressed.
Listen to what God says to King Jehoiakim in Jeremiah 22:3, 15-16.
This is what the LORD says, “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.” (verse 3)
Remember, people were robbed, not only by thugs, but by the corrupt legal system.
Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (verse 3)
That has application across the board. And then he says:
Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? (verse 15)
In other words, is “bling-bling” the thing?
“Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. (verses 15-16, NIV)
Daniel understood this perspective when he advised Nebuchadnezzar:
“Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” (Daniel 4:27, NIV)
The issue here was not whether or not the king had quiet times or said grace before he ate.
How Should We Respond to Suffering?
According to Cornelius Van Til, we are called to restrain sin and destroy the consequences of sin in this world as much as possible:
It is our duty not only to seek to destroy evil in ourselves and in our fellow Christians, but it is our further duty to seek to destroy evil in all our fellow men. It may be, humanly speaking, hopeless in some instances that we should succeed in bringing them to Christ. This does not absolve us, however, from seeking to restrain their sins to some extent for this life. We must be active first of all in the field of special grace, but we also have a task to perform with respect to the destruction of evil in the field of common grace.
Still further we must note that our task with respect to the destruction of evil is not done if we have sought to fight sin itself everywhere we see it. We have the further obligation to destroy the consequences of sin in this world as far as we can. We must do good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. To help relieve something of the sufferings of the creatures of God is our privilege and our task. (Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, vol. 3 of In Defense of the Faith* [Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977], 87)
An aspect of restraining evil involves seeking to minimize the dominant/sub-dominant dynamics in human relationships in general and within the body of Christ in particular. We may not be able to do a lot about the consequences of sin in the fallen world, but we can certainly do something about it within the household of faith.
Remember what the apostle James says:
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes [the bling-bling], and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4, NIV)
Being sensitive to the cultural, core concerns of sub-dominant people groups is an application of this passage. By core concerns, I mean lifecontrolling and life-defining concerns. The core concerns of the dominant culture tend to revolve around preservation of the status quo, while the concerns of the sub-dominant culture revolve around changing the status quo.
I used to play King of the Mountain when I was a young boy. I am sure many of you men used to play this game also. One of us would stand on top of the hill, and the other players would struggle to push him off and replace him. Whoever succeeded would become the new king and the one to knock off the hill.
Who would be the most conservative player in the game? Who would most want to preserve the status quo? The king, of course. Why? Because he was in the dominant position. His attitude was, “let there be tranquility,” while everybody else clamored for self-empowerment by seeking to be king. When we played this game, we never thought of race or ethnicity, which shows that these dominant/sub-dominant dynamics transcend all people group categories.
These dynamics speak to the issue of cultural diversity. Diversity is not just a matter of clapping our hands on “one-and-three” or “twoand-four.” It also involves whether we look at things from a dominant or sub-dominant perspective. The Bible has much to say about power differentials. If we understand the issue of ethnic-based suffering from the perspective of power differentials, our insights will be light-years ahead of those the world offers.
Perhaps our inability to model solutions to this issue comes from having lost the doxological dimension of spirituality. What should distinguish the body of Christ is gratitude to God for his saving grace. This gratitude should be characterized by two expressions. The first is faith, which is our response of trusting Christ and his saving grace. The second expression is works, the resulting demonstration of our faith and thanksgiving to Christ for his saving grace.
These two expressions of gratitude should be empowered by two motivations. The first is a salvific motivation for faith. By “salvific” I mean an ongoing, strong desire to grow in our knowledge and experience of God’s salvation. The second motivation is a doxological motivation for works. By “doxological” I mean an ongoing strong desire to show the excellence of God’s glory.
The relationship between these dimensions can be seen in the “Window of Practical Spirituality” (Figure 5).
When our motivation is salvific, faith has high value; when our motivation is doxological, works have high value. This is why Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This is a doxological statement.
We do faith fairly well, but we don’t do works well at all. Why? Because we have lost the doxological motivation in spirituality. Maybe it is time for a new reformation. The first Reformation rediscovered the salvific dimension. The new reformation will rediscover the doxological dimension. Doxology was what distinguished the Reformed movement. But somehow we’ve lost it. This is why our works have become shabby. This is why we have not had a strong prophetic voice regarding issues like ethnic-based suffering. And the world is poorer for it.
The People of God and Suffering
Since the fall, God has worked through his people as a sub-dominant group. Have you ever thought of yourself this way? As far as the world system is concerned, we in the body of Christ are a sub-dominant people group. Remember, Jesus our leader said, “My kingdom is not of this world system” (John 18:36, AT). God reminds us to consider ourselves strangers and aliens in the context of this world system.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10)
Today, the whole world is the Promised Land, and God calls us to be strangers and aliens like Abraham:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. . . . They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. . . . They were longing for a better country, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13, 16, NIV)
Peter refers to the elect as strangers in this world: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:17, NIV). Again Peter says: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, NIV).
As strangers and aliens, we in the body of Christ should have no real vested interest in the world system as it exists. We should be completely focused on our sovereign God and his kingdom. We are called to be change-agents for the kingdom in this world. Thus, to identify with suffering should be as natural as breathing. Ethnic-based suffering should be a rare occurrence within the body of Christ. Indeed, we have a long way to go.
We have lost the concept of what it means to be the worldwide church. Christians do things in this country that directly hurt and harm our fellow Christians in other parts of the world, especially the Muslim world. We should be champions of kingdom empowerment and kingdom transformation. Israel, the Old Testament church, was to be a community marked by righteousness, social justice, and compassion for the oppressed. And these covenant requirements also apply to the church, the New Testament Israel. When Jesus said, “Let your light shine” (Matthew 5:16), it was against the backdrop of these same covenant requirements. Isaiah says:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn. . . . (Isaiah 58:6-8, NIV)
As the downtrodden looked to Christ in the first century, so should they be able to look to the body of Christ today. But we must let our light shine. God is calling us to model what it means to be a people without ethnic-based suffering.
What is the purpose of ethnicity anyway? We get a glimpse of this in Haggai 2:7 (NIV), “I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the LORD Almighty. The “desired of the nations” is the best the nations have to offer. All people groups have a unique contribution to make to the glory of God. We see the fulfillment of this in Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
May God give us the grace to glorify him by discipling the nations. May God give us the grace to disciple the nations by demonstrating the true meaning of ethnicity rather than imitating the world with ethnic power struggles, marginalization, and oppression. We need to glorify God by being on the vanguard of spiritual unity with ethnic diversity.
Yes, there is ethnic-based suffering. Yes, we can understand it. Yes, by grace we can make a difference to the glory of God.