“As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God”

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Matt Harmon, that was published in London’s The Times, on why “Africa Needs God”:

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

Three Biblical Purposes of Marriage

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5:32

Marriage in the Bible is laden with a deep meaning and significance. What follows is Three Biblical Purposes of Marriage, beginning in Genesis (where the foundational purposes are given for marriage) and ending with Ephesians (where the purpose of marriage is given a fuller, transcendent, and eternal meaning):

1. Unitive

Genesis 2:18it is not good for man to be alone.”  Adam is created first, and yet it is “not good” for him to be alone. By himself he is unable to fulfil the purposes for which God created him. The remedy to this is the creation of the first woman. In contrast to the various animals Adam has just named, the woman perfectly corresponds to him. In response, the man said,

This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called “woman”,
for she was taken out of “Man.”

Genesis 2:23 Adam’s astonishment  She is like him in the right way (she is of the same kind) and unlike him in the right way (woman, rather than man). She is a different example of the same kind of thing as him. It is this complementarity that leads to profound unity between them when they eventually come together in sexual union.

Genesis 2:24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The purpose of sex here is to express and deepen the unity between them. And the writer makes it clear that he is no longer just talking about Adam and Eve, but their posterity. The writer pulls back from their immediate setting to make the general observation: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife…”

What was going on with Adam and Eve explains what has gone on ever since. The perfect “fit” between the two of them is the foundation for every human marriage since. The account is not just about their union but every marriage union. The man and woman become “one flesh.”

Jesus teaches that it is God who joins couples together in marriage and makes them one (Matthew 19:6). God himself produces this union between them. Physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, two people are becoming knitted together. God has designed it to work that way.

2. Procreative

God is the one who makes humankind male and female, and God is the one who commands them to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28). Sex is God’s idea. It was not our invention but his gift. And it was not begrudgingly given, as if God said: “Well go on, if you have to.” No, God gave us a means of reproduction that was not just functional, but deeply pleasurable. Sex is a sign of his goodness.

This one-flesh union is designed to be the way in which Adam and Eve fulfil God’s command “to be fruitful and multiply.” From this union flows the possibility of new life—for children to result from it. Procreation is not the sole purpose of marriage (those unable to have children are no less married because of that), but it is clear that procreation is intended to be rooted in marriage.

Typological

Human marriage is also meant to reflect the grace that, in Christ, God shows to his people: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the churchEphesians 5:31-32. Here, Paul quotes that foundational Genesis passage and then adds a rich texture to it. He is saying that marriage is intended to picture the relationship that Jesus has with the church. It, too, is a union between two different, yet complementary, entities. The church is not the same as Christ, and Christ is not the same as the church (a wonderful truth given the imperfections of the church!). And it is because Christ is different to his people that he is able to draw them to himself, pledge himself to them, and have them be united to him. Human marriage is a reflection of this supreme, heavenly marriage between Christ and his people.

As the Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said when writing advice to a family member who was getting married: “From this point forward, it is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, it is the marriage that sustains your love.” As we have seen, marriage is far more than a feeling, or a social arrangement that is good as long as both parties are happy. It is far deeper than that, it points to a far greater reality than we might ever imagine, it is a commitment that is intended to reflect the character and good purposes of God, and it is to be received as a gift from that good God.

Religious Liberty: What is it and is it Worth Keeping?

There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.  —John Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men

What is Religious Liberty?

It is the freedom for all people to live out their faith according to their deepest convictions. (Important caveat: there are limitations, when it legitimately harms the common good, such as public health, it is fair and reasonable for the government to restrict religious liberty, but to do so, it must demonstrate a compelling interest for why it is a must to impede a person’s religious liberty while doing so in the least infringing way possible).

Why Should Christians Care About Religious Liberty?

Genesis 1:26-27. Humans are made in God’s image and they possess a conscience that helps them understand right and wrong. Human beings should be free to act on what they believe is their highest responsibility, obligation, and to pursue truth. True faith is always voluntary.

Mark 12:31. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This simple truth implies a fundamental truth about living together in a diverse world. We should treat others the way we want to be treated. If we do not want our religious beliefs targeted for harassment by the government, we should not want the religious beliefs of other religions targeted either.

Matthew 19:16-22. Rich young ruler – The man’s wishes to reject Jesus were respected by Jesus. The man was not coerced to follow Jesus.

1 Corinthians 10:31. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Religion entails a way of life. It is more than singing and praying and gathering in fellowship halls and sanctuaries. Religion stakes a claim on a person. Christianity demands that the believer live an integrated life. To have integrity is to integrate one’s beliefs with one’s actions.

Acts 17:6-7. “And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” Christians do not take our ultimate orders from any president or legislature, but ultimately from Jesus. Christians also understand that they will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The government should not aim to be Lord of one’s religiously informed conscience.

Matthew 28:18-20. Christians should care about religious liberty because it’s the pillar that allows the church to fulfill its mission. The effective and mass communication of the gospel depends on the freedom to proclaim it.

Constitutionally – Religious Liberty is Enshrined in the American Bill of Rights:

The Bill of Rights, established what is called the ‘first freedom’, that of Religious Liberty. The first Bill of Rights begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The freedom of religion is the foundation for all other freedoms. After all, if government can mandate what you believe or deny you the opportunity to live within your beliefs, then where will its reach end?

Why Did the Founders of Our Country Lay this Principle at the Very Foundation of Our Country?

• To be free to believe (or not believe), and free to live out those beliefs, is at the very cornerstone of a free society.

• Religious liberty arises from the truth that a person’s relationship with God is the most important relationship a person can have. No law or state should be able to interfere with a person’s relationship to God or his or her ability to live out his or her faith.

• In the same way, religious liberty teaches that religious truth cannot be coerced. Because it cannot be coerced, religion ought to be freely pursued.

• A government shouldn’t tell a citizen who God is or how God is to be worshipped. It is therefore right and good for persons, governments, or institutions to restrict themselves to the area that they’re designed to have authority over. A government is designed to see that laws are followed and that citizens are protected. The government is not designed to tell you or me what the me what the meaning of baptism is.

Religious liberty entails the careful balancing of a state’s right to uphold public order and the rights of citizens to freely exercise their religion in peaceful ways.

The state has legitimate authority under God (Though its authority is limited). The state should not set itself up as lord or god over the consciences of its people. The state exists not for the establishment of religion or the elimination of religion, but to protect the “free exercise of religion.”

Common Misunderstandings of Religious Liberty:

Religious liberty is often misunderstood today because we live in a society that is increasingly less religious. As a result, the views that religious liberty are designed to protect have less traction and support than they once did, which builds misunderstanding and even hostility.

Some opponents of religious liberty characterize “religious liberty” as a code word for bigotry. They warn that religious liberty is really a disguise for anti-gay, anti-liberal, or anti-progressive policies. Journalist now place scare quotes around “religious liberty” as though it were a pseudonym for discrimination.

It has now been customary to restrict the definition of religious liberty to freedom to worship. Freedom of worship communicates that individual should have only the right to gather together in houses of worship, and that a person’s ability to live out their faith is not protected. This is a reduction of the protections given in the Constitution.

With government expanding, it increasingly seeks to right wrongs and to encourage a set of behaviors and beliefs that is sometimes at odds with sincerely held religious beliefs. As governments continue to grow, we can expect that there will be more conflict with religion. This has come to a head recently with the growing numbers of conflicts between sexual liberties and religious liberty, including the pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving Lakewood, Colorado baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Biblical Perspectives on Suffering

Pastor William Willimon tells a story about visiting a woman in his church who had just given birth. When he got there, the husband and wife were waiting forth doctor because they had received the ominous news that “there were problems with the birth.” When the doctor arrived, he told the couple that the child had been born with Down syndrome, but he also had a minor and correctible respiratory condition. He said, “My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course, and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.” The child would die “naturally” if they just left things as they were. The couple was confused and asked why they shouldn’t fix the problem. The doctor looked at them and said that raising a Down syndrome child would create enormous amounts of stress in the marriage, and that studies showed that many parents of Down syndrome children separated or divorced. He then said, “Is it fair of you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?”

At the word suffering, the wife suddenly seemed to understand. She countered that her children had lived a safe and comfortable life with every advantage in the world. They had known, if anything, too little of suffering and the difficulty of life in the world. She spoke of “God’s hand” and said, “I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will do just fine. When you think about it, it could be a great opportunity.”

The doctor was dumbfounded and turned to the pastor, urging him to “talk some reason into them.” Willimon of course knew that the couple needed to be given good instruction as to what lay ahead so that they did not take up their parenting of this new child without some notion of what to expect. But, he wrote, the couple was using reasoning, though it was reasoning foreign to the doctor. It was the reasoning that suffering is not to be avoided at all costs.

The Bible does not give us all the answers we would like when it comes to all the particulars of suffering, but it does take it seriously, it provides a perspective from which to face it, and it does tell us what will finally become of suffering.

The book of Job tells us that though we may not understand from our limited perspectives, there is greater purposes at play even in the midst of suffering. Like Job, the New Testament book of Romans tells us that God is in control and does have a plan (Romans 8:28; see also Ephesians 1:11), and Revelation tells us that one day suffering will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

In the meantime, the Bible assures us that suffering can be used by God to instruct us, humble us, and teach us not to set our ultimate hopes on transitory things (Romans 5:3-4). Pastor Tim Keller sums this up well, “One of the main teachings of the Bible is that almost no one grows into greatness or finds God without suffering, without pain coming into our lives like smelling salts to wake us up to all sorts of facts about life and our own hearts to which we were blind.”

Christians may understand many doctrinal truths, but those truths seldom make the journey down into the heart except through enduring times of disappointment, hardship, and loss. As C.S. Lewis famously put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”

Your Labor in the Lord Endures

In his book In, But Not of. A Guide to Christian Ambition and the Desire to Influence the World, Hugh Hewitt shares the following story as a warning and then follows it up with an encouragement:

“On exiting Richard Nixon’s house in San Clemente, CA., I noticed a man of about seventy wanting to see the president, but I did not recognize him. I asked Nixon’s secretary who he was and learned that he had been a senior Eisenhower aide in the fifties – one of the bright young men of that era. Thirty years later he was a slow-moving, genial fellow in a blue suit whom the young movers and shakers don’t recognize. “He used to be quite important,” the receptionist explained to me. There are hundreds of thousands of people about whom it could be said that they “used to be important.””

This reminded me of the story of when Billy Graham was receiving the Golden Congressional Medal in 1996, he had gathered before him in the Capitol rotunda the Who’s Who of Washington D.C. politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists. At one point in his message he asked, pointing to all the busts and paintings of American dignitaries around him: “what is the one thing they all have in common? I will tell you, the one thing they all have in common is that they are all dead. It does not matter who you are, time like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away.”

Hewitt continues: “The obituaries drive home this point. Everyone is eventually diminished by age. The world just doesn’t take much time to notice if he was a major filmmaker or she was a gifted novelist. Fame fades and almost everyone is eventually forgotten. When this happens in your life, it is a guarantee that you will be amazed at how quickly it passed.”

But…if you are a Christian, it is also a guarantee that your investment in the lives of others, in your ministry will endure. That is what the Bible promises: 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

If we live simply in a material universe, then all we are is gone the moment we die (and forgotten when those close to us die). The Christian worldview, by contrast, is more textured. What we do in this life matters. It matters in life and it matters into eternity. Because we are physical and spiritual beings, the impact that we are able to have in the lives of eternal beings have eternal consequences. It is on this basis that the Apostle Paul can say that “your Labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

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