God is gracious for cross-cultural missionaries

I recently ran a short preparation course for people about to go out as cross-cultural missionaries. We looked at some standard material on culture and contextualization. But half the course was based on a conversation with a missionary we have sent to the Middle-East. As we talked about what people need to know as they approach cross-cultural ministry it became clear that it added up to the ‘four Gs’ in You Can Change [available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk]. Here is the material I put together. First, God is gracious.

God is gracious

What gives you a sense of achievement?

All the normal things from which we gain a sense of worth, success, achievement, competence are stripped away when you move to another culture.

  • You will be unable to communicate because of your lack of language ability
  • You will be unable to relate because of your lack of cultural understanding.
  • You will be unable to do ministry or contribute to church life.
  • You will not achieve much because your work life is on hold for language learning.
  • You will feel incompetent to manage ordinary life. (Where do you buy glue? What do you say at a road block? How do you get your washing machine mended?)
  • Your self-justification framework is taken away. Your behaviour will be weird and your productivity will be low.

It is not wrong to feel a sense of achievement in these areas as long as your ultimate identity in found in Christ. The test of that is when the sense of achievement is taken away. What remains? Where does your sense of worth reside? You’re about to face that test.

Your true self will be revealed and exposed:

  • by the exhaustion of your routine
  • by the worry of ‘dramas’ in your life
  • by the pressure of ‘crises’ in church life and ministry
  • by the exhaustion of continually relating cross-culturally
  • Your marriage may come under pressure because you will have to cope with a different version of your partner and your self. The pressures of cross-cultural life will reveal new attitudes and behaviours.

Look at Luke 10:17-20. We are not to rejoice in success or in ministry. Nor need we be downcast by the lack of success and our inabilities in ministry. We rejoice that our names are written in heaven.

Look at Luke 10:21-24. We rejoice in God’s grace. We rejoice that we are God’s children.

Look at Luke 10:25-37. Why does Jesus tell this story? See verse 29. The lawyer wanted to justify himself. He wanted a checklist that he could tick off so he knew he had proved himself. But we cannot justify ourselves for the task is without limit.

Look at Luke 10:38-42. Martha wants to justify herself through her service. But the necessary thing is to sit at the feet of Jesus and to listen to his teaching – to hear his word of grace.

Expect less productivity. Expect cultural mistakes. Expect your sinful heart to be exposed. But when this happens find refuge in God.

The Russian tennis player Vera Zvonareva was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2010. She had previously had a reputation for cracking on court. She would often be in tears and her game would disintegrate. One of the techniques she used to turn her career around was to put a towel over her head during games. She would block out the world around her and focus on what mattered.

I want to suggest you do the gospel equivalent. When you feel the pressure, block out the world. Stop listening to its voice. Block out your own heart. Stop listening to its doubts and desires. Instead listen to the word of Jesus. Think of God’s word as a towel you can put over your head for a few moments. Keep telling your heart that God is gracious. This is the truth that will set your free and get you through. Say to yourself:

  • ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’  (Romans 8:1)
  • ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ (1 John 3:1)
  • ‘The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’ (Zephaniah 3:17)

What behaviour and emotions might follow from not embracing the truth that God is gracious?

What do you want other people to see in you? When you’re struggling, when you’re having marriage difficulties, when you make mistakes, when you mess up – will you want to hide this from people – from your team, from your unbelieving neighbours?

What do you want other people to see in you? That you are a great person or that you have a great Saviour?

Rewrite Psalm 103, either as a version adapted to your context or as a negative Psalm which says the opposite of the original.

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Thursday Review: The Prodigal DVD by Tim Keller

A review of Tim Keller, The Prodigal God: Finding Your Place at the Table DVD purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US and Discussion Guide purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, Zondervan, 2009.

I can’t praise this resource too much – it’s magnificent. The presentation of the DVD is beautiful and the content is dynamite. Even though I was familiar with the material from sermon mp3s and the book, I cried as I watched – twice!

The heart of this resource is a 40-minute DVD presentation. In effect it’s the movie version of Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. Keller stands on a stage with an empty auditorium. His only props are a table and two chairs. The layout of the table and the location of the chairs change as the talks unfolds. It’s all very simple, but beautifully done. The production values are superb. Imagine the best of a Keller sermon combined with a Nooma video and you’ll have a good idea what it’s like.

The DVD works very well as a stand alone resource. But there’s also six-session discussion guide that accompanies the DVD and book. Session one is the 40-minute DVD with a few response questions. After that the discussion guide is based on the book supplemented by short extracts for the DVD. There are 6-10 questions in each session, many inviting people to comment on a quote from the book.

It’s a resource for everyone. The 40-minute presentation is as good a one-off evangelical presentation as any I know. I’m salivating at the prospect of using it with unbelievers. But the material is also of vital importance for Christians, especially those with a legalistic bent (and I suspect that’s all of us). And it is so powerfully presented. I would also recommend pastors to watch it. We shouldn’t try to copy Keller – we must be ourselves – but we can learn a huge amount from him for our preaching, both in terms of content and style.

I know many pastors who’ve been hugely impacted by Keller’s ministry. This is your chance to share Keller with the non-reading members of your congregation!

It’s my top resource from 2009.

Click on the appropriate flag to purchase the DVD purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, book purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US or discussion guide purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

Here’s a sample …

For more resources go to theprodigalgod.com.

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Marilynne Robinson, God and Calvin

I loved Gilead purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, the novel by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson wrote her first novel, Housekeeping
purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, in 1980. It became a huge hit and was made into a film by Bill Forsyth. Yet it was 24 years before she published a second novel, Gilead. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Four years on and her third novel, Home purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, has just won the Orange Prize. Not a bad record!

Andrew Brown of The Guardian has a very interesting post on an interview with Robinson in which she talks about how the thought of Calvin has shaped her writing. Here’s a quote:

“One of the things that has really struck me, reading Calvin,” she said then, “is what a strong sense he has that the aesthetic is the signature of the divine. If someone in some sense lives a life that we can perceive as beautiful in its own way, that is something that suggests grace, even if by a strict moral standard … they might seem to fail.”

Now this is just about the opposite of the kind of rule-bound and wholly unforgiving religion which most people associate with Calvinism, but in her mind it was linked with predestination, in a most unexpected way. Because predestination implies God’s untramelled freedom, he can choose to save those whom the world and its rules – even the church with its rules – might condemn. The prodigal in these two books, Jack Boughton, has done some very terrible things, and all through the book goes on hurting everyone who loves him. Yet it is almost impossible not to suffer with him.

Here’s the interview with Marilynne Robinson in last Saturday’s Guardian and click here for an interview  Claire Armitstead interview Marilynne Robinson about Home …

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Satan does not mind family values and social justice as long as …

Here’s a helpful quote from Russell Moore (via Justin Taylor) reflecting on Satan’s third temptation of Jesus:

Satan ultimately has a power that is not found most importantly in moral decay or in cultural chaos. His power is in the authority to accuse. The power of accusation. The power of holding humanity captive through the fear of death and the certainty of judgment …

Satan is not fearful of external conformity to rule. Not even to the external conformity of the rule of Christ – provided there is no cross. Satan does not mind family values – as long as what you ultimately value is the family. Satan does not mind social justice – as long as you see justice as most importantly social. Satan does not tremble at a Christian worldview. He will let you have a Christian worldview as long as your ultimate goal is viewing the world …

He will let you get what it is that you want, no matter what it is – sanctity of marriage, environmental protection, orphan care, all of these good and wonderful things – he will allow you to gain those things provided you do not preach and proclaim and live through the power of a cross that cancels his power of condemnation.

When God stepped into the story: reflections on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I’ve just finished reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. (I’ve not seen the film.) The book is beautifully written with the amazing sustained descriptive passages that are characteristic of McEwan. It’s the story of a teenage , Briony Tallis, whose false accusations lead to a young man, Robbie, being wrongly imprisoned for se xual assault. Robbie and Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, are in love so Briony’s act destroys two lives. By the time Robbie is released, the second world war has begun and he has been conscripted. He and Cecilia, who has forsaken her family to become a nurse, meet only briefly before he is send away to France. As Briony realises what she has done, she endeavours to atone, leaving the privileges of her up-bringing and the pursuit of literature at university to devote herself to nursing during the war.

But she cannot self-atone.

On this first really fine day of May she sweated under her starchy uniform. All she wanted to do was work, then bathe and sleep until it was time for work again. But it was useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial she had relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable. (Ian McEwan, Atonement, Jonathan Cape, 2001, 285.)

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Spiritual experiences in the night

Not sure what it is, but many of my most profound spiritual experiences, or at least my most intense spiritual thoughts, come to me in the middle of the night. It might be the dark; it might be the quiet. Though they are not the result of time spent in contemplation. I usually wake with the thoughts fairly fully formed in the my mind. So perhaps they are the after-glow of dreams?!

Last night I had a strong conviction that, while in recent years I have come to a greater sense of how my sin is ridiculous and pathetic, I need a much stronger sense of its evil, horror, spite, darkness. I need to be repelled by my sin. I want to be brought low so that God might lift me up. I want to be horrified at my sin so that I might flee from it into the arms of God.

But I also suspected that such insight might crush me. I thought of Isaiah seeing the holiness of God in the temple and crying out, ‘Woe to me’.

So my prayer in the small hours was this. First, that God would give me as much of a sense of the evil of my sin as I can presently bear. And, second, that he would match a realization of my sin with a corresponding realization of his grace so that I could bear it.

Why does God allow so much suffering? #3

On Sundays at the moment we are focusing on and exploring ‘The Questions of Faith that People Ask.’ Here is the third part of the answer to the third question.

Suffering points to the glorious grace of God
What is the point of suffering? We don’t know because we’re not God. But maybe it is to demonstrate the glory of God’s grace. Paul says the purpose of God’s plan for the world is ‘that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.’ (Ephesians 2:7) Maybe suffering is designed to show the horrendous depth and consequences of our rebellion against God; maybe suffering is designed to show the glorious extent and cost of our redemption by God. Maybe without suffering we would never have appreciated God’s grace, nor felt secure in his love.

The reason there is a new heaven and a new earth is because when God conceived of a universe of material things he conceived of everything: ‘It will be created perfect. It will, by my decree, fall. I will labour patiently for thousands of years with a people recalcitrant showing the depth of human sin and I will at the centre and apex of my purpose, send my Son to bear my wrath on my people. And then I will gather a people who believe in him for myself. And then I will return and I will cast all of the unbelievers into hell, which will demonstrate the infinite worth of my glory and the infinite value of my Son’s sacrifice, which they have rejected. And I will renew the earth and I will make my people so beautiful and then tailor this universe for them with this purpose – that when my Son is lifted up with his wounds, they will sing the song of the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world in the mind of God who planned it all.’ Therefore, be it resolved: We will endure any suffering. We will endure any assault, any slander, any reviling, any disease, precisely because we have a great reward in heaven, namely, Jesus Christ crucified.[1]

Does this sound calculating on God’s part, as if human suffering was a price worth paying for his own self-aggrandisement? Then remember that God himself experiences our suffering. He dies experiencing the full extent of godforsakenness: ‘At the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice … “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”‘ (Mark 15:34) God himself cries out in protest against God!


[1] John Piper, sermon transcript, ‘The Triumph of the Gospel in the New Heavens and the New Earth.’ (desiringgod.org)

New Word Alive: John Piper on suffering and the praise of God’s grace

John Piper began his second address at New Word Alive (here are my notes on the first) by expanding his statement that suffering is judicial. Romans 8:20 says that creation subjected to futility by him (that is, God) in hope. Genesis 3:16-18 also speak of pain as God’s response to sin. The agony of pain is God’s witness to the outrage of sin.

This does not mean that when Christians suffer they are being punished. It dishonours Christ and his cross when a Christian feels judged by God since Christ has born our punishment in full (8:1, 3). For someone who never trusts Christ suffering is judgment. For a Christian suffering is purifying. For someone who is on their way to becoming a Christian suffering is awakening. So when asked by someone to interpret their suffering, you should respond, ‘It depends.’ It continue to reject Christ you’re your suffering is judgment, but your suffering could be God trying to get your attention in love.

God was not merely responding to sin when he subjected the world to futility. It was part of his eternal plan to glorify his grace.

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New Word Alive: Don Carson on the Cross and Propitiation

Here are my notes on Don Carson’s morning Bible reading on 1 John 1:1-2:2. Without directly addressing recent debates, it was an excellent defence of the content and significance of substitutionary atonement. (Remember: these are my notes of Don’s talk and I may not always rightly convey what he intended.)

It’s all too easy to present the gospel message and omit the relationship between our sin and God. We might talk of God creating a good world that we have messed up, but which God sorts it out. But this misses what is chiefly out of line in history and therefore misses out what the cross chiefly achieves. Understanding sin and understanding the cross go hand in hand. Miss out the wrath of God against sin and the story distorts. You do not simply minimise something; you change the whole picture.

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New Word Alive: Terry Virgo on grace and law

I think I’m doing what is called ‘live blogging’ – reporting live from a conference, in this case New Word Alive. It might actually be semi-live (half-dead?) blogging because I’m not making notes in real time as conference addresses are given.

The first New Word Alive kicked off last night with worship led by Stuart Townend and a great talk from Terry Virgo. Virgo expounded the opening verses of Romans 7. The law, he said, is like a demanding husband that never lifts a finger to help us. What’s more, the law is not going to go away. The law is not going to die off and leave us a free widow! But the good news is that we die. We are released form a marital obligations to the law because in Christ we die to the law. This is true not only for justification, but also for sanctification. The law cannot change us. If it could, says Paul, it would have been the way of righteousness. But Christ is our righteousness. Virgo was excellent on the way Satan accuses us, pointing out our failings and so we try harder. But his accusations come again and we feel defeated. But we can ‘reign in life’ through grace. when Satan’s accusations come we point to Christ’s righteousness which is now our righteousness.

This morning we have Don Carson on 1 John 2:2 and this evening  John Piper is speaking on Romans 8 on ‘treasuring Christ and the call to suffer’. In between are a host of seminars including a track from yours truly on ‘good news to the poor’.