Archive for the category “Erich Bridges”

More than bread alone

Erich Bridges writes at WorldView Conversation:

search for GodWhat is the meaning of life?

That’s a question only rich people have time to ponder, some folks say. The world’s poor are too busy struggling for survival to concern themselves with something as nebulous as the “meaning of life” — unless it helps put food on the table.

Not true, according to a recent study published in the academic journal Psychological Science.

The study analyzed Gallup World Poll data from more than 130 countries, including the bottom 50 in terms of gross domestic product. Citizens of poorer countries actually ranked the importance of meaning in their lives higher than residents of more prosperous nations. The study looked at multiple factors contributing to this phenomenon, but in country after country, a common element emerged: faith.

“In part, meaning in life was higher in poor nations because people in those nations were more religious,” reported the study’s authors. “The mediating role of religiosity remained significant after we controlled for potential third variables, such as education, fertility rate, and individualism. As Frankl stated in Man’s Search for Meaning, it appears that meaning can be attained even under objectively dire living conditions, and religiosity plays an important role in this search.”

They meant Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychiatrist and author, who said, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” As a survivor of Nazi death camps, he had authority to speak personally on the subject. Echoing Nietzsche, Frankl wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

The “why” for many people who responded to the Gallup World Poll is faith.

I can hear the skeptics now: Faith is a rickety crutch the poor lean on — and an opiate the powerful use to lull the weak into accepting their lot. That might apply to certain lives or particular moments in history, but it can’t explain the power of faith in the human heart through the ages.

Even in affluent societies where secularism and materialism appear to be prevailing, people want something more, something deeper, so they look for God substitutes. “Instead of relying on religion to give life meaning, people in wealthy societies today try to create their own meaning via their identity and self-knowledge,” the study reported. Materialism and self-worship have become the “religions” of the rich, but they’re obscene counterfeits of the worship of God.

When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, the devil challenged Him to prove He was the Son of God by changing stones to bread. Jesus answered from the Scriptures: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”’ (Matthew 4:4, NASB).

Humanity needs bread to sustain life. But bread isn’t enough. People crave the Bread of Life: Jesus Christ. That’s why the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ and the making of disciples among all peoples are the primary mission of God for His church in the world.

There are many ways to carry out that mission — including feeding the poor, ministering to the sick and needy and seeking justice for the oppressed. Fair-minded observers who put aside stereotypes of evangelical Christians long enough to examine evangelical activities in the world quickly discover that they are doing all of those things (see some examples here). The love of Christ compels them. Above all, however, the Great Commission command of Christ and the mission of God compel them. There is no artificial division between the Word of Christ and the love of Christ in authentic ministry.

“Every time Jesus sent out His disciples and apostles, He always told them to heal the sick and preach the Gospel,” said a missionary doctor some years ago. “It’s not that we heal so that we can preach. We’re not ‘bait.’ We heal and preach together in obedience to the commands of Jesus. It’s like a two-handled plow: You heal, you preach and you push forward — and God cuts the path so He can plant the seeds of the Gospel through His power.”

The Gospel gives ultimate meaning.

Quiet revolutionaries of freedom

Kisouru BangalaErich Bridges writes at WorldView Conversation:

Having no faith in the existence of heaven, postmodern secularists dream of a paradise on earth.

This paradise — to be created and ruled by secularists themselves, since there is no God — will ensure freedom for all, eliminate oppression, eradicate poverty and guarantee equality. Perhaps most important, it will bury old religious superstitions once and for all and usher in a new era of universal “tolerance.”

Cue global group hug.

“Society will outgrow doctrinaire [religious] belief systems accepted on traditional ‘faith’ and inculcated by authoritarian intimidation,” confidently predicts one futurist. His forecast is echoed by many others.

Since this brave new world didn’t work out so well during the disastrous experiment on humanity called communism, secularists hold up post-religious, democratic Western Europe as a model. There, old cathedrals stand empty and traditional Christianity appears to be dying, but many Western Europeans still enjoy relative political and personal freedom — at least for now. In the new, post-religious world promoted by secularists, that’s enough. For them, freedom is an entirely material phenomenon, a new stage in the historical evolution of human beings striving to shake off the chains of oppressive institutions, especially religious ones.

Such a view is not only bigoted but reveals historical ignorance verging on amnesia.

Even a cursory study of the West locates the roots of the modern idea of human freedom in the radical Gospel liberation offered by the God of the New Testament. The spiritual revolution begun by the first Christian Apostles and missionaries, while Rome still ruled, was rekindled and powerfully amplified in the emerging modern world by the Protestant Reformation, the printing press and the spread of the Bible to the masses in their own languages. Freed from their spiritual and mental chains, Europeans eventually embraced democracy and the ideals of political liberty.

And what about the rest of the world?

A fascinating cover story in Christianity Today reaffirms a historical reality that will make the secular fundamentalists gnash their teeth: Missionaries have spread freedom and education, aided the poor, worked for the empowerment of women and advanced general human progress almost everywhere they have gone. Not just any missionaries, mind you, but “conversionary” Protestant missionaries — evangelical Christians who have gone into the world to spread the Gospel and make disciples.

The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” by Andrea Palpant Dilley, highlights the groundbreaking research of sociologist Robert Woodberry, associate professor and director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the National University of Singapore. As a young grad student in sociology 14 years ago at the University of North Carolina, Woodberry became intrigued with the connection between the spread of Protestant Christianity across the globe and the spread of freedom and democracy. He has made it his life’s work.

“In essence, Woodberry was digging into one of the great enigmas of modern history: why some nations develop stable representative democracies — in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely — while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict,” Dilley writes. “Public health and economic growth can also differ dramatically from one country to another, even among countries that share similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources.”

What he found in country after country was a direct correlation between the historical presence and mission activity of “conversionary Protestants” and the advance of freedom and social progress.

“I was shocked,” Woodberry told Dilley. “It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge. I kept adding variables to the model — factors that people had been studying and writing about for the past 40 years — and they all got wiped out. It was amazing. I knew, then, I was on to something really important.”

Woodberry “already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy,” Dilley reports. “Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren’t just part of the picture. They were central to it.”

In 2005, a $500,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation enabled Woodberry to hire a platoon of research assistants and launch a major database to gather more information. Armed with those results, he was able to assert:

“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

Woodberry’s findings explode the popular modern myth that most 19th- and early 20th-century missionaries were little more than agents or unwitting tools of Western colonialism. Yes, some fell into that tragic pattern. But many others sided with the people they served in the face of any form of exploitation, local or foreign. They fought the opium trade in China, defended Africans and Pacific islanders from encroaching white settlers, worked for the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, struggled against temple prostitution and the burning of widows in India. And nearly everywhere they went, they began schools and hospitals, taught people to read and helped the poor to better their lot.

“Pull out a map, says Woodberry, point to any place where ‘conversionary Protestants’ were active in the past, and you’ll typically find more printed books and more schools per capita,” Dilley writes. “You’ll find, too, that in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, most of the early nationalists who led their countries to independence graduated from Protestant mission schools.”

In most cases, Protestant missionaries of the past did these things not because they were radical social reformers or political revolutionaries, but because their Gospel ministry brought them close to the common people, the poor and the oppressed, whom they sought to serve in the love of Christ.

What is the message for evangelicals in a postmodern age that relentlessly strives to sneer the Gospel out of the public square? Stop apologizing for your missionary roots. Be proud of your spiritual ancestors. Many of them were gutsy heroes who braved all sorts of dangers to take the Gospel far beyond its traditional centers to the ends of the earth.

They changed the world of their day and ours — and they are worth following.

Listen to an audio version of this column.

The ‘disease of Me’

Erich Bridges writes at WorldView Conversation:

Legendary NBA basketball coach Pat Riley has led multiple teams stocked with superstars, so he knows something about dealing with egos.

He also knows about winning and losing. What prevents potentially great teams from winning championships, in his view? Not lack of size, speed or talent. Rather, they are sabotaged by what Riley calls the “disease of Me.” Selfish stars focus on themselves. They resent others getting any glory. They’re frustrated, even when the team is winning, if things aren’t going their way.

“The most difficult thing for individuals to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice,” Riley says. “It is much easier to be selfish.”

That pretty much describes the central challenge of the spiritual life. Following Christ requires sacrificing your own agenda. To do that, you have to get your eyes off yourself — and onto Him. You don’t have to be a superstar to struggle with that. As human beings, our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves, our wants and our needs. Others, including the Lord, get the leftovers.

“I start many sentences both out loud and in my heart with the words, ‘I feel like … ,’” admits a missionary in her most recent blog post. “That’s such a dangerous place for me. I’m a feeler and a discerner and many times that gets me in trouble, spiritually speaking. It causes me to presume that things are a certain way and that people think certain things about me. It makes me focus on myself. The enemy loves to use this in my life — to make me forget that it’s not about me at all.”

Why is it so hard to keep our eyes on Jesus? Sometimes it’s because we don’t believe He is enough. We want Him, but we want other things, too. Comfort. Perks. Recognition. Guarantees. Safety and security. Roadmaps. Faith doesn’t work that way.

Brad Bessent, a missions-hearted pastor who has taught me a lot, gets to the heart of the matter in a reflection on the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5: “Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow Him. The thing is, tax collectors were the scum of the earth. They were extortionists and hated by everyone. But Jesus says to Levi, ‘I want you.’ He had already assembled a pretty motley crew, a mosaic of people. Fishermen, a leper, a paralytic, all in the same chapter, and now Levi (also called Matthew).

“When Jesus calls, Levi gives up everything to follow Jesus. He was a wealthy man and he left all of that behind him. When you follow Jesus, there is only one guarantee. You are not guaranteed security; you are not guaranteed safety; you are not even guaranteed shelter. All you are absolutely guaranteed is if you follow Jesus, you will get Jesus. So everyone considering becoming a believer has to decide: Is Jesus enough?”

For Levi, Jesus was enough. And he believed Jesus was enough for everyone else. Before leaving all he had to follow the Master, he threw a big party at his house, gathered all his lowlife friends and invited Jesus as the honored guest and center of attention. Levi didn’t say, “Look at me and what I’m doing,” although his friends surely noticed the radical change in his life. Instead, he pointed his friends toward Christ.

Levi has something crucial to teach us today, whether we are reaching out to our own fallen culture or to an unreached people group far away: Jesus is enough, and we must point searching people toward Him alone.

Missionaries learned that truth in a particularly resistant area of Asia that had long been known as a “graveyard of missions.” Christian workers tried again and again to confront the evil practices accepted in the culture, to no avail. They tried to introduce their own customs and values — and failed miserably. At the edge of despair, they remembered Christ’s words: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32, NASB). They stopped cursing the darkness and began lifting up the Light that shines in the darkness. At last, seekers became followers, and a Christian church movement was born.

“Missions exists because worship doesn’t,” John Piper declares. But the most effective form of missions is worship — lifting Christ over all things. “Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions. … The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. … ‘Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee. O let the nations be glad and sing for joy’” (Psalm 67:3-4a, KJV).

Culture warriors and social justice seekers, take note. You can battle the encroachments of secularism, humanism, greed and injustice all you want, and you might succeed — for a while. But pasting Christian values onto fallen cultures is like putting makeup on a corpse. Without the transforming power of Christ Himself, Christian social and political movements inevitably falter.

It is a matter of focus. Are your eyes focused on the world, on yourself or on Jesus? Jesus says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9b, NASB)

A great old hymn puts it this way: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Reposted with permission from WorldView Conversation.

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