THE SOURCE OF EVERLASTING JOY

I had hoped that the heart of reality will be such a kind that we can best symbolize it as a place; instead, I found it to be a Person.

C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 1986.

From where does joy come and how may one get it? Is joy merely a feeling, unavoidably attached to given events (happenings), like happiness is? Is it found in some particular places, specific experiences, or is it a state of being, quite detached from happenings and more an encounter with a Person?

Let me venture to speak of joy in its proper place as a spiritual reality. I am not refuting that joy is something one feels, but I must testify it is more than just feelings. I felt I have betrayed the real source of joy in my previous reflection by not speaking directly on how I have experienced joy.

I tried to avoid this particular dimension for two reasons. One, it wouldn’t sync with everything else I wanted to say without presenting a seeming contradiction or overstretching the article, making it impossible to read.

The second reason is, even though the spiritual realm is much bigger (or the primary reality there is) more than our material realm, spiritual experiences themselves are highly subjective. God meets us differently. Yet, to experience God as joy or the source thereof is at the heart of every genuine experience of an encounter with him.

The Christian tradition within which I grew up emphasized God’s transcendence in such a way that relating with him seemed strictly on the basis of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment. I still remember how exhausting and uninspiring such a religion was for me.

But when I first encountered God (at the point that my faith became personal), he revealed himself as Love, and the bubbling joy that washed over me (and has washed over me many times since) made the very concept of joy deeply connected to him. Take away this connection and I’d be completely at my wit’s end. This reminds me of the song by Jesus Culture “Love has a Name.” Indeed, Joy has a name, Jesus!

Although there are many pleasures in this life that can induce a sense of joy, deep misfortunes can render these pleasures unenjoyable. This is the point at which life becomes unbearable and many either end it or deteriorate into meaningless existence.

Ordinarily, it would be impossible for me to experience joy in my present situation if joy were to be merely a feeling based on happenings. Let me illustrate by speaking of my situation beyond the obvious. Sorry; it might get a bit too personal.

What is obvious is the fact that I have lost a beloved daughter at a time when the world seems to be caving in, with nothing exciting happening or having the possibility of happening in the near future to divert me or produce hope for the foreseeable future.

What is not so obvious is the struggle that has characterized my life for a long time to this point. The past eight years were gruesome, dotted by occasional joys from God’s abundant blessing in the broadening of my mind and invaluable friendships. But last year appeared to be my worst yet. I had come to the end of my endurance and was hoping God will bless me with peace and rest.

I was drowned in fear and anxiety, typical with a major transition, especially over my children who are caught between two worlds at war with each other. How was I not to feel guilty for taking them away for so long and creating in them strangers who may never fit in their home country?

Anya, in particular, kept me in constant anxiety over how poorly she fared healthwise. My own sense of calling was drowned in this struggle. I wondered how God’s will in leading us first to a foreign country and then back home at this time will play out in my children’s lives.

I have been in this place many times before, a place where it seems impossible to move a single muscle of faith in the attempt to do anything. I have felt like the character Much-Afraid in Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds Feet On High Places, abandoned by the Shepherd. But in spite of the excruciating pain, I cannot deny the Shephard’s good intent.

I remember praying the Jabez prayer (1 Chronicles 4:9-10) at the beginning of the year 2020 (this past January), asking God to show me mercy and take my pain away. I asked him for relief in specific areas of my life.

Little did I know he was going to answer my desperate prayers by crushing me with a kind of pain I was yet to experience. For me, losing a child at this time of great anxiety and much prayer for their safety is like being hit on a tender wound. A mockery of my faith.

I have long learned the futility of placing faith in some random religious promises that I do not sense God giving to me directly. My faith and that of my husband seem bizarre at times. While many good Christians exercise their faith in the freedom to make convenient choices for themselves and their families and requesting God to bless it, we seem reduced to doing “God’s specific will,” which sounds at times like empty super-spirituality.

Does a relationship with this Supreme Being necessarily one of such reliance as though we have no commonsense to make informed decisions? What right have we now to claim he led us since the road has ended in such calamity? How can we be confident that this will not cause a shipwreck of faith for our children? Can we trust that God cares enough to shield them?

But God’s word says he leads through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalms 23:4)! We knew what we bargained for when we believed. As C. S. Lewis will say:

“I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for.”

Lewis 2004, p.36

It is not the first time God has seemed to betray us; not the first time he allowed things to go wrong at the very moment we expected him to prove our case. He has vindicated those who disagreed with our decision!

But we have no doubt he led us home at this time, and Anya’s death, as painful as it is, may only prove that the devil is enraged by our obedience. Now, that sounds cocky. Why would God allow satan to strike such a blow? What would Anya’s death accomplish for God? I do not know.

What I do know (which it took me a long time to accept) is that her assignment in our family is done, it was time she returned to the One who sent her—whether she died of preventable natural causes, or the devil has something to do with it is not what is at issue.

Am I happy now that I know this truth? No. Not at all. And I don’t know when I shall find happiness again. But I am joyful in God’s overarching plan, no matter how painful the present moment is. This brings me back to the subject of joy.

A Christian finds joy in God because of who God is and in the fact that life is not altogether bad because God’s goodness still remains even in a fallen world. S/he also knows that life does not end here. There is a bigger reality and God, who is all-loving and caring in spite of what he allows us to go through, is the heart and soul of that reality. No situation catches him unawares or can thwart his purpose.

I may have lost a child now, but I shall see her again. I may be bone-weary at present, but the day of perfect rest is coming. I may be hungry, sad, sick, discouraged now, but the day is coming when all of these will be set right. In short, I have hope; hope in an eternal future of bliss with the God who is Joy.

Sincerely, I don’t know how those who have no such hope cope in this world of pain. Suicide does not surprise me; it is the ability of the human being to carry on without God and without hope in this mean world that I do not understand.

Although this experience of God as Joy is very personal to me, I believe it is a genuine Christian experience because it has been the experiences of many before and after me, both in the Bible and in history. The Psalmist captures this for me very well when he says:

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”…

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
 with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

– Psalm 16:2, 11.

The whole Christian life is Testimony. We begin by placing our faith in the work of Christ for our sake; this is where the relationship begins. But from thence we begin to have experiences of divine presence and divine work in our lives which confirm to us that what we read about God in the Bible is true, that it didn’t just happen to Abraham, Peter, and Paul but to me also. When I look at life through this lens, I can have true joy in the midst of sorrow.  

JOY IN THE MIDST OF SORROW: LEARNING TO LIVE IN A PAINFUL WORLD

No situation, however wretched it seems, but has some sort of comfort attending it.”

Goldsmith

The following day after Anya died, we all sat down in the living room and were talking about her, about all the funny things she used to do and say. We were laughing hard. If someone were to walk in and see us, someone who had no idea what had happened, they would think Anya were sleeping or perhaps gone to play with a neighbor’s child. There was no way they would know she had just been buried the day before.

Could one find joy in the midst of such great sorrow? Yes, if the person involved is Anya. But beyond Anya, I believe the same truth applies to life generally. There are ways we can still find joy right in the midst of this present darkness—a world of COVID-19—not only when it is over. Who knows when that would be or what else lurks ahead?

I have often wondered at this human paradox; the co-existence of opposite realities and contrasting emotions within a single life at a given time. There are many human experiences, not often put together, that go on at once. These are realities (or resulting realities from the interaction of two or more opposing realities) that feed the crafts of the poet and the philosopher.

These spaces between opposing realities must also be what gives deeper meaning to the message of the preacher. Ignore it and your message will become abstracted, falling flat on the surface of human experience.

The memories of Anya as a person can only fill me with peace and joy. She was so enjoyable. But at the same time, I feel great sorrow for the same reason. A memory can bring a smile to my face and the next minute I am reduced to tears by it.

The presence of sadness or grieve does not mean a total absence of joy (and vice versa), even when one of the two takes preeminence over the other at a given moment in time. In a fallen world, the two can coexist. To find joy in God is not to tune off from life’s challenges and problems; an impossible thing to do anyway.

Anya was the sweetest and the most innocent person closest to me. My memories of her are of her smiling, giggling, or running around. She loved life and went all out to enjoy it; hers was a vividly outgoing and fun-filled life. She loved people unreservedly, especially other children. They were all her friends!

Of course, Anya was a human child with human faults. She was such a handful little tornado (a nickname she earned from a sweet friend of mine). I don’t miss the extra work she incurred for me, but that wasn’t what defined her; her sweetness was. Even for difficult children, parents know that what defines these children is not their difficulty but their personhood and the sweetness attached to it.

What defines life is not so much its difficulties, but the little joys that make life itself a gift. Like a quiet walk in the woods, or falling in love, or lying still on a stretch of warm, flat rock, listening to the flowing stream and exquisite bird songs. Or a cup of scented tea before bed, or a good book. Or a heart to heart chat with a good friend.

Some of these may seem like descriptions of the pleasures of a privileged life, I know. But the underprivileged can also be joyful; they have pleasures to enjoy in spite of their difficulties. I should know. I have often wondered at that. The poor seem the most happy sometimes. They have easy laughs and love jokes. I’d be happier if only my mind would be quieter and not think too much.

Anya had her manners in place and good emotional intelligence. She would always say “I am sorry” without any of us demanding that she apologized. Sometimes I would be so angry I won’t respond, but she won’t stop saying it until I did. “Mummy, I said I am sorry.” She had her “please,” and “thank you” in good use.

One very funny memory of Anya we have is, when she helped you and you forgot to say thank you, she would say, “You’re welcome!” reminding you that you needed to say thank you. That used to crack us all up. I have never felt sorrow in her death for her own sake; it is always for our own. She had nothing to lose by dying; we did.

I am relearning in a whole new way the default setting of a fallen world. Little successes here and there, sporadic joys and happiness produced by what is left of goodness in an otherwise chaotic reign of evil, can be quite deceptive for a moment. We keep expecting the world to be good and life to be fair all the time, but is this even a fair expectation given what we know?

A majority of the world’s population has always suffered what the whole world is now suffering as a result of COVID–19: the instability and suspense, the uncertainty, difficulties, and anxiety; the fear that your life or that of a loved one may be cut short and the accompanying feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness that torments the soul as a result. Welcome to the world of the deprived and destitute!

I am not saying we should not pray for fairness or even advocate for it. Why else are we in the world as salt and light? But we do so remembering the default setting of this fallen world like Jesus did. He stepped into a messy world to bring hope. Jesus gave hope to many through his miracles and his teachings without expecting the world to be good; he inspired hope in an otherwise hopeless world.

In a fallen world, life can only be generally difficult. We are caught between this paradox of good and evil, light and darkness, peace and war, joy and sorrow. The two realities are opposed to each other, but it is the presence of the one that distinguishes the other. We understand goodness only as it compares to badness or evil. Only in heaven and in hell do the two exist exclusively.

God’s gifts of love, friendships, family, good neighbors, and friendly strangers give us joy in the midst of sorrow. The poor know that. They have learned that joy can be found without material wealth and the comforts it can afford, places it can take you, and the things you can achieve. Joy is found in God and the gifts he gives in the midst of our sorrows. The truly destitute cannot afford to be irreligious even when they are inconsistent in their piety.

But this does not make the poor and needy immune to their suffering. Some eventually end their lives in hope of a permanent escape from their misery. Nor am I suggesting that the present pandemic has made life easier for the poor; it can only complicate an already difficult life. Nevertheless, the pandemic has given the privileged of the world a window into the brokenness of human systems.

I can’t escape the memories of Anya, or escape being saddened by them. She left a scar, not only in my heart but also on my body from her birth through cesarean section. Her two favorite stuffed animals and a pair of shoes I refused to give or put away, some clothing items yet to be given away, hairpins and beads that I sometimes find in my purse, or in a drawer, or at a corner somewhere in the house; pictures and videos of her on my phone…  

The things that remind me of Anya are innumerable.  The water dispenser—which I almost couldn’t use for a while because we have had quite a scene over the way she liked playing with it. Some kitchen items too. I remember her brother refusing to use a particular cup because it is “Anya’s cup.” She preferred to use it more than the other cups. These are painful memories because they remind us of someone very precious that we no longer have with us, yet they are joyful memories of the happy times we shared with Anya.

The very house itself from the gate—no, from the turn one takes to join the street from the main road—reminds me of her; of her funeral procession. And every new memory comes with a new round of grief. I feel guilty eating the things she used to enjoy as though she misses them.

For a while, I couldn’t pass by her school; couldn’t bring myself to see the playground on which I spent many hours with her. The sight of her teacher when she came to condole with us reduced me to sobs, just like the mere memory of her school and how she loved to be there subjected me to whimpering.

Things that caused her sadness upset me because they remind me of her misery. I am still unable to listen to the music we used to listen to together. Her light approaching steps rang in my head for quite a while, mostly when I was in the kitchen, in the bedroom or outside in the yard, places she often came to meet me. There were times I turned around quickly, expecting to see her approaching while still knowing that I would not see her approaching.

I have felt her presence sometimes in the early days of my grieving and even spoke to her once, begging her forgiveness for my negligence. You don’t have to believe me, but I know she heard me. Peace flooded my heart immediately. It was the last time I felt guilt over her death, even though I still experience regrets. Many times I have felt the urge to pray for her and I do, every time.

I do not attach any theological significance to these experiences. But I believe that the human mind is capable of experiencing other realities that are beyond the mundane, everyday experiences of our material existence. I am not referring to notional realities or mere imaginative power (though I have a surplus of it as a fiction writer). I mean that there are immaterial/metaphysical realities we can experience with our minds and spirits beyond the confines of scientific and logical positivism. Perhaps I should stop here; I am beginning to ramble.

In a world of COVID-19, I am resolved to find joy in family, friends (true ones), good neighbors, and in good memories. I find peace and joy also in nature. Have you noticed that the universe is still the same? Nothing has changed about the natural world.

The lilies and vibrant plants blooming from the abundant rain and the sassy afternoon sun remind me that, in spite of the way it is ravaging the human world, there is a world that COVID-19 is yet to touch. If anything, the lockdown (restricted human activity) across the world has only rejuvenated nature. We can find some joy in that fact.

THE MYTH OF MOVING ON AFTER LOSS

Will there come a time when I no longer ask why the world is like a mean street, because I shall take the squalor as normal? Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?

C. S. Lewis 2004, 36

Does grief ever pass? Can we say of it, “now I have gotten over it,” or “now I have gotten over the worst of it”? I thought so at some point. I think I was wrong. And I think one should never place such an expectation on oneself or on others.

About a couple of weeks after my loss, I had to write a short bio of myself for a website. Then came the moment I needed to state how many children I have. That seemingly simple decision rocked me silly. I couldn’t proceed for a day. I did all my crying and came back to it. Still, I was stuck.

I knew I had to decide how to move on. I toughened it out and typed three children. Panic seized me. Everything in me revolted. No! I have four children! I erased the number three and replaced it with four. It felt better.

But do I have four children? I ended up writing something to the effect that my marriage to Isuwa has been blessed with four children, but Anya had gone to be with the Lord. There! That sounded a lot better, I had my peace.

I had to remind myself many times after, for sanity’s sake, that Anya is still a member of the family who has only changed places; I am still unable to accept or explain her absence any other way.

How well this new way of viewing things—of defining my family and myself as a mother—has worked out for me and for how long it will continue to do so, I am yet to decipher beyond the fact that it gives me comfort and mental stability. But, does it mean I’m stubbornly holding to my old life and refusing to move on?

If by moving on it is meant continuing with the daily routine of existence, then, of course, life moves on after loss; it never stops. For example, that very morning we had to decide what to do with Anya’s body: whether to bury it that same day or keep it in the mortuary until our state’s COVID-19 lockdown—which was starting at midnight—was relaxed. That would be after a week. We also had to break the news to her siblings, one of the most difficult things Isuwa and I have ever done.

Later on, we had to make burial arrangements by first informing family, friends, and the church: digging a grave (deciding the place for the burial, to begin with), getting a coffin, bathe and dress her up, receive guests who were trooping in to condole with us. Indeed, life moved on. It had to.

But, if by moving on we mean setting aside the interruption that a loss brings and continuing with life where we left off, then it is impossible. It is even rude to tell anyone to move on in that sense. My life the way that it was ended the very moment Anya was pronounced dead.

Everything in me cries for the life I knew before that moment, yet I cannot return to it let alone move on with it. My life has been altered forever. This is a different life, a new reality that will, no doubt, soon become my new normal, but it is new alright.

Come to think of it, my life was altered when I first became a mother, and more specifically when I became Anya’s mother. It was a rocky beginning; I didn’t like that I was pregnant at that point in my life. I was terrified. Yet, needless to say what joy she brought to me later on. She became my light, my therapy from a difficult life of living and studying in a foreign land.

Grieving is a process, but it is neither a predictable process nor one that ends. I have stopped trying to make sense of it. It is intellectually impossible. I won’t even give myself time, however much, within which to heal (since I don’t know what healing will look like). I’d rather endure the unbearable suspense; one day I am hearty, the next I am back in a ditch.

The week before last I lived in a state of mental and emotional torture, a cyclonic storm that turned my world into chocking darkness. Nothing could divert me; no novel was good enough, not even Tolstoy with his literary charm could suck me into his universe of unending drama. Reading my Bible helped some.

I wrote a poem to describe sadness, hoping to gain a mental grasp of the world I had tumbled into. Writing the poem did work some magic. Perhaps grief belongs more in the world of poetry where words operate by a different logic.

The book of Job in the Bible makes that apparent. I watched my husband go through his own suffering wordlessly. I hope and pray that my children are too young to dwell too long in the valley of grief.

When I read C. S. Lewis’ description of his recurring grief in the early days of mine, it didn’t make the kind of sense it now does:

Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.

Lewis, 56-67

Both C. S. Lewis and Jerry Sittser describe their losses as amputation, a helpful description. The wound may heal, but the missing limb never grows back. We only learn to live with the inconvenience, the damage never fully amends.

The stump remains both as an aesthetic predicament and a painful reminder of an irreplaceable loss. I should know that. Twelve years ago, I lost the tips of two fingers on my left hand to an accident.

Sittser, who lost his mother, wife, and daughter in the same accident, writes:

Our sense of personal identity depends largely on the roles we play and the relationships we have. … My awareness of this amputation of the self comes to me like a reflex. Even after three years of widowhood, my psyche is still programmed to look for people who are no longer there. I crawl into bed at night and wait for Linda to cuddle with me.… .What defines me as a person—my sexuality, my intellect, my feelings, my convictions, my plans—still searches for her like a homing pigeon for its roost. But the self I once was cannot find its old place to land. It is homeless now.

Sittser 2004, 81-82.

I fear what losing a spouse must be like. I remember how thankful I was that I had Isuwa to grief with; to comfort me. I couldn’t imagine that he was the one who had died. Not that Anya is less important to me than her father, just that she was more dependent on me than I was on her.

My love for Anya is maternal, what C. S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves (1960) calls Need-love; the love of a child to its mother, and Gift-love; the love of a mother for her child. It is no less strong—in fact, it can be stronger—than romantic love. The loss of a child has ended many marriages. My maternal desire to protect her at all costs has been the source of my misery at her death.

I remember people who have been through loss such as mine telling me that it never goes away in the sense that you get over it and move on. I cannot say how many times I have wished they are wrong. An elderly woman, whom I admire and respect very much, came to greet us and we got talking. She referred to losing a nephew over 15 years ago, then became emotional and couldn’t speak much until she left. I panicked that my pain was never going to go away. I can already see how they are right.

Losing a loved one comes with variations of injuries, depending on the attachment formed with the deceased and perhaps also the condition under which they depart. Some losses are fatal; the one left behind is not able to survive it. But most are simply life-altering, and because most times losses are unexpected, the alteration is sharp and quick.

Anya’s demise was so unexpected. I have never been least prepared for anything my entire life. We all know that death is inevitable, but we expect to bury our parents, not our children, just as we expect that our own children would bury us. It was less than 22 hours from the time Anya complained of having a headache to the time she died. Nothing warned me.

I have always envisioned Anya by my side, even standing beside my deathbed when I finally die. I expected that she would be home with me when her older siblings grow up and leave (there is six years gap between her and my second youngest). Despite life’s uncertainties, I did not see her leaving me this early.

I have experienced a shrinking in my heart since Anya died, a certain incapacity to extend myself beyond my immediate family. I feel emotionally tired. This I know will pass someday. But her death has opened up a new world, a new reality that was closed to me before: a community of loss.

My heart now gravitates in that direction. Losing Anya took me back into the pain of people I know who lost loved ones but whose pain I was unable to understand or experience. I have a cousin who lost her husband barely a year after marriage. She was pregnant with their first child. This was more than twenty years ago, but I found myself mourning afresh for what she suffered.

I remembered those whose family members were wiped out by Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria, leaving them as sole survivors. Goerge Floyd’s murder, reminding me of the misfortunes of black people. The surge in bizarre rape cases in Nigeria and around the world, bringing to mind the sufferings of the female gender, young and old alike.

Several such incidents came to mind and I wept and prayed for the people. I have found extraordinary grace to pray for those who are suffering all manner of losses more than I have ever done before. I felt quite what C. S. Lewis is saying when he says,

If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness.’

Lewis, 37

But maybe that is how it is. I don’t know that we can quite understand the sorrows of others without experiencing severe sorrow ourselves. It is like birthing; no woman can truly understand the pain of labor without undergoing it herself. Jesus became our great high priest who is able to feel sympathy for our weaknesses by suffering what we suffer (Heb. 4:15).

Tragic loss isolates the sufferer from others, but it also creates in the sufferer an inexplicable connection with those who suffer like they do. Will I someday forget all these and move on? Not possible. Loss changes the sufferer for good; they never simply move on.

The irony is, I don’t even want to go back to the way I was before my loss, except if that would bring my baby back. I have received comfort from others more than I deserve. I may get over some specific painful memories of Anya, but I hope to continue to be bettered by her loss. Hopefully, I may become a better comforter myself.

I do not ask my cross to understand,

My way to see —

Better in darkness just to feel Your hand,

And follow Thee.

J. R. Macduff

BEYOND DEATH: My Grieving Journey

If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

1 Corinthians 15:19

That fateful morning, exactly eight weeks ago, when it became clear to me that my baby was dead and that God was not about to answer my prayers to bring her back, what came over me was a kind of despair I’ve never felt before.

The only Person who could save me—save my daughter—from the power of death, and save her siblings from the trauma that would follow, seemed aloof, his strong hand lifted from holding and covering us, leaving us exposed to the elements of a fallen world and the taunt of the enemy.

Death had the upper hand, its power so strong, it’s sting excruciating. Its terror paralyzing.

Death, it appeared, had the final say and there was nothing I or her wretched father, or anyone who loved her could do. At first I thought God was punishing us by taking her away from our careless hands. I felt we were to blame for her death: if only we had been more attentive and acted quickly!

I felt a mixture of relief and grieve. I was relieved that now she was in the safest hands possible and didn’t have to be at the mercy of my poor parenting skills, but also sorrowful that I had failed her terribly and disappointed God who had entrusted her to me.

fear…

However, my intense sorrow was soon to turn into intense fear. What next? Who next? Since I couldn’t see God’s hand still covering us, my reason for confidence was gone. I would never have believed I could fear death. I have wished many times that I were dead. Death meant rest from problems. It meant being at home with the Lord. I looked forward to heaven, to rest, to death. But now death haunted me.

Perhaps for the first time I felt the intensity of the horror of death. Death is nothing to look forward to even as a passage to heaven. Death is punishment, a necessary evil, the dreadful river to be crossed before we get to the yonder shore. Yes we long for heaven, but death couldn’t be desired. Jesus wrestled at the face of a brutal death; even when he knew the outcome, he did not downplay the sting.

Christians in my tradition have been taught—consciously or unconsciously—to downplay the power and devastation of death, almost the same way Halloween downplays death and the world of evil. Somehow we have come to believe that to mourn like those who have hope means not to mourn at all.

I wonder that Jesus, in John 11, did not dismiss Mary’s grief with a wave of the hand since he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead anyway. It seems pointless that he should weep with her and the others. His gesture shows that he recognized and respected her suffering even when it was to be for a short time.

Like Job’s friends, we are either embarrassed, angry, or disappointed at the bereaved’s prolonged grieve. We think that we should celebrate death rather than dread it, and are quick to commend those who seem to snap out of their grief speedily. I have learned that sometimes the option is not ours.

It is also assumed that the spiritually strong are above despair. Like Eliphaz says to Job, “Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees. But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed,” (Job 4:4-5). But that’s exactly what it should be! We all need comfort in our troubles. To be honest, I was ashamed to admit I was despaired or afraid, I who knew the truth. Or was it simply grief that felt like fear?

After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis writes about a similar experience thus:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

Lewis, A Grief Observed, 2004, 3.

I bless God that such a man could be so vulnerable as to put these words in writing for my sake! My own fluttering went beyond my stomach; it coursed through to the tips of every blood vessel down to my feet. One minute I am animated, the next I want to be alone and cry. A sort of darkness invaded my life. I had peace only when I was asleep; every waking moment brought back memories I wished were a nightmare I could wake from.

The valley of doubt…

A few days later, another thought gained an upper hand. I began to wonder about my baby’s state. Was she in heaven or in some intermediate state which I could not quite envision, and who will take care of her there? Or was that the end; had she disappeared into oblivion? Was I ever going to see her again?

Unlike many people feel when bereaved of a loved one, what I felt towards God was not anger. What I knew and believed about him would not permit such an emotion. He is absolute power and absolute goodness. And he never make mistakes. The only other explanation had to be that perhaps there wasn’t even a God to begin with, let alone the kind I had come to believe in.

Strangely, I decided that it didn’t matter whether I saw Anya again or not. It felt safer to maintain that she was now free from every harm and all the disappointments that await the living. She had passed through the worst; she was safe now, whether in oblivion or in heaven.

Before you judge me for my moment of doubt, consider that most of the time, our beliefs are nothing more than convenient judgments of what seem most plausible given what we know. In this case, faith is reasonable even when it is inexplicable.

There is no such thing as an unreasonable faith; we reason ourselves to faith. Another way to put it is, sometimes our proclaimed belief is a blind embrace of a truth we had no reason yet to question.

But when what is at stake is very precious; when our very life or that of someone very dear and close to our heart depends on it, belief automatically comes under intense scrutiny until it can prove that it is worth our trust. C.S. Lewis captures it more succinctly when he says:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?

Lewis, 23.

Reading C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed helped me greatly. At least it helped me make meaning of my suffering by ascertaining that my doubt and fear was not peculiar to me. I was such a wreck that I could not pray. Isuwa had to pray with me and read the book with me. But I read my Bible consistently because it was the only time that my fear subsided, which was strange because nothing in it gave me any particular comfort or the assurance I desperately wanted about the present state of my precious baby.

Believers, I know, will go to heaven and be with the Lord on the Resurrection Day at his Second Coming; but where would they be in the meantime? I dreaded that my baby could be floating alone with no one to care for her until then. Or was it?

I couldn’t comfort my children beyond just saying, “I am sorry.” The  usual optimistic statement, “God will protect/take care of us,” with which I encouraged them in the past was now meaningless. Why didn’t God protect their sister from dying? The words escaped me a few times, though, and the hollowness horrified me. For my children, their silent stares told me they didn’t believe me anymore than I believed myself.

Although C. S. Lewis helped me to understand my fear, his moment of doubt about the state of his dead wife left me momentarily shocked and embarrassed for his own sake. At the same time, the embarrassment mirrored my own, but I am not the great Christian thinker and apologist that he was.

Couldn’t his great intellect help him understand better? But, of course, active minds have greater propensity for wandering thoughts. They are good at casting doubts on fixed belief. Yet, when it is settled, they are belief’s most ardent defenders. He writes,

After the death of a friend, years ago, I had for some time a most vivid feeling of certainty about his continued life; even his enhanced life. I have begged to be given even one hundredth part of the same assurance about H.

Lewis, 8.

H is what he uses in place of his wife’s name in the book. Where was she, he asked? Was she free of pain, he wondered?

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats.

Lewis, 25.

C. S. Lewis never said there was no resurrection or after-life, he simply doubts that we understand that reality right. Suddenly I started a desperate search of my own to find for myself what the Bible actually says about these things. My own doubt was more than his own. While he was able to reason out his, mine was jumbled thoughts of a wretched soul.

I read the entire book of Revelation within a few days. Even though it assured me of the presence and power of God and of life after death, it said nothing of my daughter’s present state. If anything, it filled me with dread. I felt that God was too powerful to care about our petty emotions. Or about my tiny Anya. Well, he killed his only Son! Who was I to challenge him about her death or present state?

This possibility, however, did not nullify for me the fact that God is good. His “Goodness,” whatever it means, might only not be what I understand goodness to be. Then came the strangest bout of doubt I have ever experienced: could I then trust such a God, a God whose goodness could turn out to be so cruel and mercilessly painful? A God who cared only about his purposes and not about what I feel?

Over and over, the thought returned that perhaps my baby had gone to oblivion and that I and the rest of the family will do so when we die, which means it will not matter at the end whether or not we would see her again.

The crux of the matter

 It was at this point that I felt a sharp, albeit, gentle rebuke and a stern warning. Almost as if God decided to come out of his self-imposed silence and distancing in order to save my drowning soul. To doubt the truth of the life-after, I was told, is to doubt the central message of the gospel. It is to doubt the reality of both heaven and hell.

If there will be no resurrection and no life after death, Christ died in vain and the Christian gospel is null and void. Paul addresses this matter passionately in 1 Corinthians 15 (a passage I was led to) then also 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and several other passages.

Petra’s The Grave Robber

To believe that my baby is not lost is not simply for my comfort, it is the central message of the Christian gospel. Paul says if it is only for this life that we have hope in Christ, then we are of all men most miserable. Our ultimate hope is not for this life but for the one to come. In fact, what is seen—the present life—is temporal, it is what is not seen—the life to come—that is the real thing; eternal.

Jesus came purposely to save humanity from eternal death; he did not come to make this present life permanent. His miracles were not the purpose of his coming, even though it demonstrated the presence and power of God, and made life bearable for that moment. He came to defeat death which he did through his sacrificial death.

Jesus’s miracles always pointed to something beyond this earthly existence. When he fed people physical bread, he invited them to accept him as the bread of life. When he offered them water, he claimed he was the living water. When he raised the dead, he claimed he was the resurrection and life and those who believe in him will never die. Yet physical death is inevitable for the moment. It is the last enemy to be defeated.

Jerry Sittser, in his A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, captures it powerfully:

In his earthly ministry, Jesus performed signs and wonders as signs of God’s presence on earth. The deaf were made to hear, the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to live again. But sooner or later those who had their hearing restored went deaf again—if not before death, then obviously in death. Those who received sight went blind again, those who were made to walk went lame again, and those who were given life died again. Suffering and death won out in the end. In other words, Jesus’ miracles were not the ultimate reason for his coming. His great victory was not his miracles but his resurrection. The grave could not hold him, so perfect was his life, so perfectly sacrificial his death. Jesus conquered death and was raised to life by God to a life that would never die again. The Easter story tells us that the last chapter of the human story is not death but life. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees it. All tears and pain and sorrow will be swallowed up in everlasting life and pure, inextinguishable joy.

Sittser 2004, 165.

This is an important truth for a generation of Christians who believe that genuine faith or the highest demonstration of it is in performing or experiencing miracles. If Anya had received the miracle of healing, she would get sick again someday. If God had answered my and her father’s desperate prayers (later, her grandma’s too) and brought her back to life, she would still die again in the end.

Death always triumphs over mortality. Anya’s fate (or victory if you wish) awaits us all. As C.S Lewis will say, “What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.”

Without fully understanding the gloomy darkness and hopelessness associated with death, it is hard to appreciate fully the redemptive work of Christ which dealt a deathblow to the power of death. Death is not synonymous with rest; it is darkness and torture.

Physical death can lead to rest only for those whom Christ has already paid the price for their release. Death cannot hold down those whom Christ has set free, but until that final victory, death remains a horror.

Yes, I will see Anya again. Wherever she is right now, I know she is in God’s hands like she was when she was here and even before she got here. That she has gotten rid of her mortal body means she is free of all the suffering that is associated with our mortality.

But when I am finally reunited with Anya in death, it might not be in the same manner like it was here on earth. I may still be her mother, but she would no longer need my care and provision and protection. It will be a new relationship or, at least, a new understanding of the old one. I don’t know what it will be like. At present, she is like a beacon, beckoning me to my eternal home, keeping me focused on the things that truly matter. That will do for now.

Remembering Anya…

I woke up this morning with a project in mind: to make cement cast flower pots. Somehow, I am finding peace being outside again without Anya and the knowledge that she wouldn’t come running out and calling “mummy! What are you doing?”

It felt like I was doing something wrong every time I tried to get busy. Something in me wasn’t just ready to move on. For example, I couldn’t go out to sweep the yard because I always expected to hear Anya calling from the living room window: “Mummy, I can see you!” then she would run out to me.

Sometimes we ran around the house—her idea. She was such a runner! I had to really run to keep up with her. Her long legs and height gave the sign that she was going to be a tall, gorgeous lady; a black beauty. I looked forward to being the proud mother of this future charming young woman.

She would always use a phrase from one of her favorite TV shows, Blaze and the Monster Machines, to initiate the race: “Let’s blaze!!” and then she would take off in full speed, leaving Arum and me scrambling to catch up. We would go around the house twice, yet she would still want to go on.

However, this morning, as I dipped my hand into the sand and let the grains run through my fingers, I remember Anya’s powerful connection with nature. She wasn’t what some will call a “sharp” kid; she was too naïve and too trusting of other kids; every kid was her “friend.” And too quiet (in the sense that she had few intelligible words).

She wasn’t like her big brother, Atsen, who had clear speech before he was two years old, and said some of the coolest and most impressive things for a child of his age. Anya learned to speak good sentences only after she was three and almost four. School helped her to learn to speak more clearly.

When she started school for the first time after we returned to Nigeria, Anya was three months short of four years. By Nigerian standard she should have started school already and should’ve learned her numbers and letters, plus how to write them. But Anya, who had lots of educational toys she loved to play with and had picked up her numbers and letters from them, didn’t see why she had to say or write them.

For Anya, school was for play and she could play and dance all day long. But whenever her teacher asked her to work, she would say she was tired. Worse still, when kids made fun of her for not knowing anything, she would laugh with them rather than be embarrassed or offended. Was she too young to understand or she just didn’t care?

On the playground, Anya could neither defend herself against bullying kids (she had little social intelligence in that regard) nor get the swing started—something most Nigerian kids her age can do. She needed mummy or daddy to enjoy the playground and mummy or daddy was always there with her at the playground, while waiting for her older siblings to close for the day.

But Anya had a kind of keenness of mind that is uncommon in children her age. It didn’t escape my attention. Anya was able to pick out things she’s interested in from a distance and from among a cluster. That always blew my mind! It was bad when it was a book or a TV kids’ show character in a toy section of the store, because I would most of the time be forced to buy it (I was hardly able to resist her). But it was always fun when she was picking out nature’s hidden beauties.

Anya was not restricted from watching TV; the TV ran almost all day, but she was never addicted or distracted much by it. She was more an outdoor person and very particular about the things she loved. She loved books, though, and loved for them to be read to her. The house was always littered with books that Anya would not let rest on the shelves.

There was something about leaves, dried or fresh, that captivated her. Something in her recognized peculiar ones; she could have a leave collection and you would love it. She was also very much attracted to flowers, to snow, to a body of water, and to grass. The sky and clouds fascinated her. She picked out any little unusual appearance and called attention to it saying, “Look!!”

Above all, Anya had a thing for the moon that was exceptional. Many times she called my attention to many moons when the sun was still shining—mostly crescent moons that were barely a slender silver mark on a bright sky: “Look, moon!” There were times I couldn’t see the moon she was pointing at. I would say, “Where is the moon, Anya?” and she would say, “There, mummy! Look!” It always turned out she was right.

The night before Anya died (on April 8), there was a full bright moon that was spectacular, so beautiful I had to call attention to it on Facebook. She was too sick to gaze at it with me. I called her father and showed it to him. He watched it with me for a little bit and went away.

I didn’t mind; I knew who it was that would’ve stayed with me to watch it to our hearts’ content. The only other person in the family who shared my love for nature. Was the moon there that night to bid her farewell and her blind mother could not see that it was doing so?

A CALLOUS GENERATION AND THE FINAL JUDGEMENT

At the end of our lives, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made or how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in.

Mother Teresa

One late morning last November, I was driving down Murtala Muhammed way in Jos when a terrifying sight caught my attention. I had just rolled passed the British-American junction, and there, by the side of the road, lay a stiff-cold dead body; probably a poor victim of an occult activity from the night before.

At first sight, I thought it was a living person who had fallen from some form of illness. It could well have been the case initially. This is not something one sees very often. As such, what troubled me more than the sight itself was the normal activities going on around it.

People moved on with no hesitation. Commercial buses and keke drivers picked up and dropped off passengers without seeming to notice. Oh, poor, helpless man! Worse of all, there was a traffic police at the junction, some few feet away.

This later fact prevailed in checking the intense desire I felt to stop and rush to the man on the ground. If the policeman couldn’t help him, who was I and what could I possibly do? There was no emergency number to dial. Or perhaps the policeman had already called an ambulance?

A memory of twenty-some years ago came back forcefully as if it were just happening. I happened upon a dying woman in an uncompleted shop building by the roadside. She was young and conspicuously pregnant. She laid on the bare ground, convulsing. Desperate to save her and her unborn baby, I returned home and came back with a bucket of water and some dry clothes.

I emptied the bucket on the poor woman whom I assumed had fainted and needed reviving. She also appeared very thirsty so I tried to feed her some water. Now I have a feeling that my foolish action ended her life rather than save it. My efforts to change her into some dry clothes failed, and I knelt beside her weeping and praying.

A crowd had gathered at the scene and were laughing at my “naivety.” No one made any effort to help me. Suddenly a neighbor arrived and when she saw that I was the foolish girl people were watching, she became indignant: “Do you know what disease is killing the woman that you kneel there touching her? If you don’t leave right this minute, I am going to tell your uncle!” I was living with my uncle while attending school, but had just graduated.

Meanwhile, someone suggested that I get the police. I ran to the police station, about half a kilometer from the scene, and reported the case. I walked back home not convinced the police would do anything about it (save to pick up the corpse(s) and dump it somewhere), and angry at the world for its insensitivities.

That mid-morning at the British-American junction, I witnessed the same insensitivity and my guts failed me. Clearly I was the foolish, overzealous, overconfident heroin who wanted to save an unsavable world with no money, no influence, or any power.

These two incidents reveal a sickening disregard for human lives that so patently marks our society. Yet, when it comes down to it, a human live and how we treat it is all that matters to God. It is clear everywhere in Scripture that our piety or the lack thereof is measured by how much we care about others.

Of course, Nigerians are not all so heartless as this may imply. For example, we run to an accident scene to help victims, but a dying stranger by the roadside looks suspect, even to the kindest of us. So, perhaps many walked away from the corpse for the same reasons I did.

An indifferent world

easiestvocab.blogspot.com

As products of “the age of reason” who have been forbidden to feel, humanity has learned to reason away the sufferings of others. We have political, philosophical, scientific, or ethnic reasons—or in fact, like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, religious reasons—why some people deserve what they are going through and why we deserve our own safety and prosperity.

The girl I tried to help turned out to be from Eastern Nigeria. She had eloped with a tanker driver to Jos—or so the narrative went. The man had abandoned her after she became pregnant. That was reason enough for some people to watch her die rather than save her. In their estimation, she deserved to die for her immorality. For some, like my neighbor, it was fear for their own safety.

Disregard for human lives is the highest demonstration of our fallen state as human beings, what Francis Schaeffer refers to as man’s alienation from self and from others. Even as Christians, sometimes we neglect people out of a sense of piety. We fight for the life of an unborn child but watch a grown person die without intervening.

Ironically, modern civilization was founded upon a conviction about human dignity and liberty; the right of persons to be valued and respected for their own sake. Yet, history has revealed an intrinsic flaw in human nature: cruelty and indifference, tagging along with the undeniable achievements of modernity.

In the modern world, “material betterment,” observes Gresham Machen (1996, 15), “has gone hand in hand with spiritual decline,” and whether humanity likes it or not, value for human lives is not something that reason alone can instill.

Trauma and the assassination of sensibility

I lived through the trauma of the 2001 Jos crises that left hundreds of people dead and properties worth millions destroyed. Cell phones were very rare then—at least in Jos—and neither Facebook nor any of the now popular social media outlets had yet been founded. Images of maimed and charred human bodies I saw were not mediated by any device. I still have these images tugged away somewhere in my subconsciousness.

In the case of the recurrent killings in some parts of Middle-belt Nigeria (a reality we are still battling), I did not have to be there to see this gut-renting evil. Pictures of butchered men, women, and babies slashed in two or with half their faces gone that I saw on Facebook and on WhatsApp caused me severe mental and emotional agitation that lasted for months.

I couldn’t look at my baby without the tears starting because I could see in her face the faces of those unfortunate babies, equally loved deeply by their mothers, who had fallen victims of cruel, heartless men. As a Christian, I do not fear death; I only fear terrible deaths for the horrific memories they engrave in those who are left behind.

Benue Market attacked by gunmen, sunnewsonline.com

We destroy human beings with such unforgivable ease that should not be the case even if we were slaughtering animals. I haven’t been able to forget; I cannot forget. As a society and the church, we are yet to recon with what this is doing to us, to our sensibilities.

Prior to this experience, I couldn’t see a dead body for any reason. I refused to go close to see my grandfather at his internment. During the Jos crisis, I had no choice. Initial panic gave way to a desire to survive; in some cases, a desire to take vengeance on our inflictors.

We have been traumatized and hardened by violence, not just our own but also those of others, which—thanks to the media—we know all about to the point we no longer feel unless we are directly affected. Yes, to survive, the human mind adapts to things; we develop immunity to cope with unpleasant situations. It is the way we have come to cope with the world.

Another coping mechanism is to look away from evil and fixate on the positive side of things. We give false assurances as if positive thinking alone would make evil disappear.

Every day, for all of us who care enough to watch, read, or listen to the news, we pass stories of great tragedy without a second glance because, after all, it is a daily occurrence. In fact, we are more prone to stop and take photos of people in trouble to share on social media than to help them. We cannot change the world, so why bother?

Terror unlimited

For most parts of Africa (Nigeria being my focus here), the abnormal waste of human lives has become our normal; our sensibilities have eroded from trauma.

Should we talk about the civil war and its horrors, or the brutality of military regimes, or the ethno-religious crises we have faced since Mai-Tatsine, extending to Boko Haram and the Fulani Herdsmen, or talk about armed robbery and kidnappings (separate from the notorious activities of Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen), or occult activities, or militancy of one kind or another, or political violence?

The more I think about the problem of bloodshed in Nigeria, the more I am convinced that it will take a momentous miracle—like the parting of the red sea or the raising of Lazarus from the dead—for our leaders to resolve to fight the insecurity of lives. Not that with our God it is impossible.

If someone can offer human sacrifices, or pay for the assassination of political rivals or enemies, or send thugs to a polling unit to terrorize people (sometimes leading to the loss of lives) just to win an election, or in fact, aspire for political office for the sole purpose of driving an ethno-religious agenda to wipe out lesser ethnic groups or dominate them, it is a tall order to expect such a one—one who feeds his political ambition with human lives—to fight the killings of humans.

When government officials (law makers) pay kidnappers ransom to secure the release of loved ones, where then is the hope for the rest of the country? Some of these kidnappers are thugs they had used in the past to deal with their political enemies, so, it is business as usual for them. Governance is about their personal comfort and safety; the people pay for it with their tax monies and their blood.

When you live in a society in which taking the life of another in self-defense, or taking advantage of them, or—at least—ignoring their suffering, appears to be the only way you survive, valuing each human life for its own sake becomes a mighty task. Suspicion is heightened and personal survival becomes your chief pursuit.

From this we can conclude that the appearance of modern civilization we see in Africa is only a façade. Our societies have embraced the comforts of modernity without truly embracing liberal democracy with its emphasis on human dignity and liberty. Even Western societies that appear to have it all together practice selective civility. Barbarism is, increasingly, the order of the day. In Nigeria, it is not simply naïve but dangerous to live as though we are in a civilized society.

If this is the narrative of the secular society in which we live today, it cannot be the narrative for the church, and herein is my concern. I think that the devil’s attack on Christians in Nigeria and Africa is not only physical but also emotional and spiritual. If he is able to kill our sensibilities and get us focused on personal survival, then he’s done with us. Africa suffers; it will continue to suffer for a long time to come. Unless the church in Africa rises and shines forth the glory of the gospel.

Most importantly, the mere thought that we, all of humanity, are implicated by and responsible for what we know of the sufferings and needs of others, according to Jesus’ own words in the description of the final judgment, gives me a terrible start. It makes me wonder what social media—and by extension—technology has done to us. We now know not only our own sufferings but those of millions of others around the world.

God’s Value for Human Lives.

No story in the Bible (except, of course, the Incarnation and death of the Son of God himself) illustrates the value God places on a human life like the story of the lunatic from Gerasenes (Luke 8:26-39). What business had Jesus granting the request of demons except to demonstrate that a single human life is worth more than a large herd of pigs worth perhaps millions?

The judgment scene Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31-46 demonstrates that human life is so critically valued that he would base his judgment on how we treat it. This story derives its shock from the fact that it isn’t a “parable”—a mere illustration—but a description that implies salvation is somehow dependent on how we react (what we do, really) to a suffering world than on faith in the dead and resurrection of Jesus alone.

I ascribe to “faith in Christ Alone” salvation, and to the doctrine of eternal security. I understand the suspicion with which adherents to this doctrine respond to any notion of a consequential salvation; that is, salvation that is based on works. But that is not what this passage is about. I believe what Jesus is saying here is that true faith in him is demonstrated by how we act in response to the sufferings of other human beings. Most importantly, those human beings who have nothing—no favor whatsoever, now or in the future—to give in return. Hear how Jesus puts it:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:31-40

It is what we do to the “least” of these, those who do not count for anything. Politicians, for example, may help in order to accrue political capital. They usually calculate their gains vis-a-vis their kind gestures. Churches do it to get converts/members. Organizations like NGOs are founded in response to specific disasters, but we all know that some have become multi-millionaires as a result. There are hardly any helps organization that want nothing in return.

NGOs have helped millions in Africa. However, their funds are designated to helping only those affected by the specific humanitarian crises they are involved with. Either HIV, or war refugees, or internally displaced persons, and so on. Those whose misfortune has no such origin have no help.

There is no NGO for victims of a corrupt, exploitative system; people whose misery springs from the mere fact that they are part of a society that trades their safety and prosperity for the selfish ambitions of a few individuals. In fact, they are not even welcomed in countries that accept refugees. Technically, they are no refugees.

Whether we like it or not, there are victims of corruption; individuals and communities who are wallowing in untold poverty not because they are lazy or unsmart, but because their due, the favorable outcome of their hard labor, has been denied them. In Nigeria, hardly do any businesses thrive without the help or patronage of government, some highly placed officials, or rich family members willing to lend a helping hand. self-made individuals are in truth very few.

When an expert in the law asked Jesus about what one needs to do to inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus gave the same answer he gave when asked about the greatest commandment. He says—actually the man is the one who says it and Jesus affirms his answer—to love God and to love fellow humans. To justify himself, the man asks who his neighbor is. Here, Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in response. Your neighbor is another human being you happen upon who needs your help.

I find it exceedingly troubling that on the last day, God will not judge us based on how many “works of God” we did: how many preachings, baptisms, Bible studies we taught or attended, how many subgroup activities we attended, mission trips we took, or how much prayers and fastings, or miracles we performed (Matthew 7:21-23).

It won’t even be based on how much money we gave the church for the building of church auditoriums and schools. These things are good; they can demonstrate our desire to serve people or prepare us for works of service (Ephesians 4), but they are not an end in themselves. Until they translate into (and make us better at) serving people, they are meaningless.

Our gospel of salvation must derive its meaning from the value God places on human lives, not the other way around. Unless we see people with the eyes of God and value them just for being humans, our preaching can only come from self-righteous pride and cannot endure resistance without cursing in return. Neither can it withstand fear and suspicion, in which case, Christianity will make very little difference in our societies of Africa.

Sometimes, like the politicians do, people become potential badges we want to add to our collection of religious achievements. We want to be able to say we have preached to so so number of people, or led so so numbers to salvation, or invited so so numbers to church, and so on. In this case, unless people are in a situation in which they add to our badges, it does not occur to us to help them for their own sake.

The truth is, when we focus on people for their own sake, we forget how deserving or not they are and forget how good it will make us look because the focus is on them and not on us. In the same way, we will respond spontaneously to their needs, as far as we are able, even in situations where the spotlight will not be on us.

In the face of persecutions, we must revive our sensibilities for those within our flock and those outside who are facing the same cruel and unfeeling world as we are. This is something Jesus would do.

Learning to mourn—national, regional, or state mourning—as the church in Nigeria for the untold sufferings of human beings becomes urgent and necessary. We mourn as the church for the thousands of lives of Christians and non-Christians alike, killed in this country.

If truth is to be told, Boko Haram are not after Christians only. They are a malicious group of ethno-religious gorillas whose quest is to take over parts of northern Nigeria as its rightful owners. Same can be said of Fulani herdsmen, though in their case, the ethnic groups targeted are almost exclusively Christians. The Fulanis have dominated the Hausas for a long time; they now want to subdue the remaining ethnic groups of the North who happen to be majority Christians.

However, Christians (and Christianity) have always been a default target of Islamic banditry. But we must see our situation as being at once spiritual, political, and ethnic. When we isolate these factors we become foolish. We dismiss the sufferings of fellow Christians as merely an ethnic group and not as brothers and sisters in Christ, which reveals our callousness.

I worry for Nigerian Christians because Jesus says that on the last day, judgement will involve what we did with what we knew: the sufferings of fellow Nigerians. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:35-36). Clearly we will be judged according to how we respond to the sufferings of one another.

A Case for Christian Romantic Sensibilities?

People have asked me what the novel Silent Wail is about (probably hoping that I could tell them so they can walk away satisfied that they now know what it is about without having read it themselves). And each time that I tried to answer, I failed horribly.

True, I don’t yet know the full extent of what I have written. I only wanted to be honest. “I write to discover what I know,” says Flannery O’Connor, and it is true for me in this case. 

I could say that Silent Wail is about marital fidelity, or family values, or vulnerability, or any of those kinds of things. However, even though the novel speaks about these things, they are hardly what the crux of the story is about.

Silent Wail is an attempt to say something about the human soul and its quest for love and intimacy (which often plunges us into fierce temptations) that cannot be captured in simple expository writing. The meaning of a story is in the whole story; it takes every word in it to say what it means.

Perhaps you should never write a story if what you want to write about can be said adequately in a sentence or two. Flannery O’Connor—my newly found inspiration—says it better: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.”  There are some truths about human nature that have no simple way of saying them.

For all the reasons that I could have written this book, I did not write it for money or fame. Nobody makes money from writing a novel unless you are J. K Rowling. As for fame, I think the reverse is true.

When I say that I write to undo my reputation, it is perhaps more true in my writing of Silent Wail than in any controversial opinion I have dared to make public. And I am long reconciled to the fact that once you have dared to put out a piece of writing, the meaning that could be attached to it is totally out of your control.

Strangely, it is for that reason—that there is no single meaning to what I wrote—that I wrote it. Stories have the exceptional blessing of multiple (and multilayered) meanings.

Rather, I felt compelled to write (in spite of the fact that romantic fiction does not enjoy the fortune of respectability among Christians) because the issue I am addressing is of the severest concern to me and very urgent.

Flannery O’Connor commented in a letter to a friend about her first novel, The River—and I absolutely concur—that: “I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else,” (cited by James K. A. Smith in How Not to be Secular, 2014).

I am greatly concerned about the apparent disregard for marriage and family that is now in vogue even among Christians, and I believe that this should be of the gravest concern to us all.

We have proven beyond a doubt that Christians are as sensual as everybody else, and the only ways we have found to deal with our infidelities is to cover it up or treat it as a non-issue.

Personal salvation (and its attending assurances) has become a license, so to speak, to disregard communal responsibility; the pursuit of righteousness for the sake of the love of neighbor—whether that neighbor is my spouse, child, in-law, church or community member, or even a stranger.

Moral law, as we may well know, is not for the benefit of God; it is for our benefit as humans, and perhaps more importantly, for the good of those who mean the most to us.

Another thing that bothers me is, whereas there are some among us who totally disregard sexual purity (or staying married to one partner for as long as you both live), there are those who wish to deny that misplaced desires do occur among serious believers or that it is important enough to be talked about authentically.

We think that human sensuality and spiritual sensibilities are opposites and so we have become dualists who disconnect matter from spirit, casting away the former as if we can truly be free of it.

I am of the scandalous conviction that spiritual and romantic sensibilities belong in the same realm. Our soul is not as segregated as modern science has made us believe it is, nor can we truly step away from ourselves in order to “objectively” practice spirituality.

Why would the Bible say of God that he is husband to Israel and the church as the bride of Christ? Why in God’s world is the book Song of Solomon in the Bible, traditionally read by Jews in celebration of the love of YHWH at Passover?

Paul refers to the union of a husband and wife, an analogy for Christ and the church, as “profound mystery” (Eph 5:32). I think that Christian maturity is in the ability to reconcile our spiritual sensibilities and our natural passions.

The great Christian thinker, C. S. Lewis, explains this mystery of the human passions in his book “The Four Loves,” (originally a radio talk that drew some criticisms for its openness about sex). But you see, we are humans, susceptible to these passions.

Whatever happens between a man and a woman to make them fall in love (Eros) remains a mystery (Proverbs 30:18) and it is not always a case of lust (Venus). Also, there is nothing that says once people are married they cannot find themselves drawn to other people who are not their spouses (which we now refer to as temptation).

What I do not understand is why we don’t talk honestly about it while emphasizing that such attractions should not be indulged for the sake of other loves (ref C. S. Lewis). Other loves should restrain us.

Silent wail is an attempt to address, as authentically yet as sensitively as possible, our humanity; not so we can escape it, but so we can live with it victoriously.

I tried to show that Christians are just as human as everybody else and that our ability to live righteous lives does not consist in our not being tempted in the same manner that other humans are but in our ability to overcome all sorts of temptations. Temptation itself is a tool God uses to mature us rather than something we can avoid if we are mature.

I believe that marital infidelity is a grievous sin, but we have blurred the line between the temptation and the sin itself so that those who are struggling with the temptation already feel condemned and cannot, in all honesty, talk about it. We have encouraged isolation and secrecy which further exacerbates the problem. 

I tried to explore in Silent Wail why married people may end up in the place of marital infidelity. No Christian (I hope) marries their spouse with the thought of cheating on her/him in the future, nor do people usually think ahead to divorce their spouse and marry another before the marriage ever takes place. It is often a slow, unconscious process. So, can we find that delicate balance where we can help one another live beyond reproach yet without hypocrisy?

Silent Wail is meant as a conversation starter for couples who have things to talk about but do not know how to begin. It is for groups of friends who want to start an accountability group to help one another stay faithful to their spouses.

I hope very much that older Christian couples will be inspired to mentor younger couples. We must do more as the Church to escape the bombardment of immorality we “breathe in with the air of our time.”

Most importantly, Silent Wail is for those “silent wailers” out there. I hope that this book will provide you the comfort of knowing you are not alone and that you can break the silence and find healing for your soul. That you will know there is a way of escape that God has prepared for you for the taking.

May the story also provide for some of us the needed space to privately come off our spiritual high horses and examine our failings so that we may deal with them honestly.

What the Bible Says About Dressing for Women: My Theological Reflection

The debates about decency and propriety in dressing for women among Christians is not a question of whether the Bible says so, but what the Bible means by what it says.

Several Sundays ago, my family was rushing to church, trooping along with a crowd of worshippers when a church guard, who noticed that my 13 year old daughter was in trousers, stopped us. He said she would not be allowed into the church on that account.

I became numb with incredulity. What major Christian doctrine was at stake to warrant such a stance by a church that is supposedly “international” in its reach?

In another church service recently, my attention was caught by a style of sewn blouses worn by several women. The clinging blouses were cut low and broad at the back. It was like an unspoken display of a variety of female backs: light, dark, fat, thin, and in-between. I caught myself wondering how I would look in one such blouse. Oops!

Not given to such observations in the past, I knew this must be glaring to catch my attention. Or perhaps I was looking at it with fresh eyes, having been away for a while. I became uncomfortable for the sake of the men. But why didn’t anyone care, I asked myself?

In Nigerian evangelical circles, it seems decency or the lack thereof boils down to trousers or the covering of head. This is treated as a core Christian belief such that those who break it are termed heretical in some places and banned from the church.

While that action is a problem in itself, the question I am exploring is: who decides what is decent and appropriate? Is it context, or Scripture, or both?

If culture decides, then the dynamic of culture demands constant adjustments of our convictions. For the Nigerian context, trousers may have been foreign, like hair extensions and make-up, but they have come to stay.

On the other hand, if there are scriptural principles that determine what is acceptable for Christians, then these principles are binding for all Christian women in every culture at every time, irrespective of fashion and styles of the day. Why the fuss about trousers in particular?

In an increasingly global culture, the challenge for the church to go beyond cultural preferences to biblical principles on every matter is urgent. Although culture is important, Christian doctrine must be based on Scripture rather than on culture.

How Important is this Debate?

While most young people have settled this matter for themselves and have moved on to more serious questions about postmodernism and its attending vices; questions that border around core Christian convictions, spiritual leaders are still playing hide and seek (without convincing biblical explanations) on what women should or should not wear.

My concern is, if young people cannot trust that we are being truthful, knowledgable, and open on mundane issues like dressing, how can they trust us on issues that have far reaching consequences for their faith?

Homosexuality, gay marriage, transgender issues, nudism, cloning and genetic engineering, are among many disturbing issues that need urgent attention and answers from Christian leaders—in Africa as in other places.

If young people think that we do not know what we are doing, they may simply act cautiously around us while keeping to their doubts or contrary views—which, I think, is what is happening with the dressing debate.

I decided that a biblical reflection on the matter will be helpful for Christian women who, in the midst of all the noise, are sincerely seeking to know the mind of God concerning their appearance.

Whether in worship together with other believers, or generally in the way they carry themselves in society as holy women, called and sanctified for a meaningful kingdom existence in the world, women must do so from genuine faith, without fear or hypocrisy as men-pleasers rather than God.

What the Bible Says and How it Applies to Us

Nobody doubts that the most important thing about this debate is what the Scripture says on the matter. But a mere reading of Scripture itself does not always translate into understanding the will of God.

Jesus confronted the Jews once with a troubling reality:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

John 5:39-41

So one can be a diligent student of the Bible and yet miss what the Bible is saying. One can be always learning, but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim 3:7).

This is possible because, as surprising—or even alarming—as it may sound, the way we see the world and construct meaning or reality is not directly but indirectly, through so many filters.

When people talk of objective truth as though it is something that is readily accessible, they sound naïve at best. God alone knows truth objectively; we, unfortunately, access it only subjectively, even if we all arrive at the same truth.

Paul says we comprehend the thoughts of God through the Spirit we received from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God (1 Cor. 2:12).

But apart from God’s direct intervention through the Holy Spirit, there are other factors (filters) that could interfere with our understanding of the revealed will of God. One of such filters is human culture (or social orientation).

God does not bypass human culture to reveal himself, why? Because he created us in such a way that our senses (perceptions) and meaning-making function only within given cultures. In this case, culture is critical to understanding God’s revealed truth.

However, how we understand the relationship between faith and culture can constitute a hinderance to understanding what the Bible actually says about a matter.

God first revealed himself through the Jewish culture, yet it was these same cultural traditions, emanating from beliefs and worldview originally based on God’s previous revelation, that became a stumbling block for the Jews, hindering them from accepting God’s further revelation in Jesus Christ.

When the gospel enters a culture, it does not stand on its own as a separate entity. It diffuses into the core of the culture thus impacting its worldview. When Scripture informs a cultural practice, that practice becomes dogmatic and not merely cultural. This is when it becomes binding on Christians.

On the other hand, mundane cultural practices, which may have grown from practical wisdom of living in a particular environment over time, may change with new discoveries, developments, or cross-cultural experiences. Though we are not of this world, we are still living in it and part of the changing cultures of the world.

Now, problems arise when we make culture the ideal which we try to use Scripture to support. When such happens, we become resistant to cultural change on faulty grounds. We then find ourselves lifting verses out of their wider context to support our views. When those verses are confronted with other facts of Scripture, contradictions or inconsistencies ensue.

  • Old Testament Laws

Now, to the matter at hand. There is no place in the Bible where trousers, as a style of clothing or fashion, is mentioned.

In Deuteronomy 22:5, Scripture forbade cross-dressing between males and females, a popular passage among those who advocate that women should not put on trousers. Yet, there are questions we must answer about this passage, if it is to remain as a valid argument.

One, there are several laws stipulated in this passage, which Christians do not adhere to today. For example, why do we pick out cross-dressing and ignore cross-breeding? If some laws apply to us today as laws, then all the others should apply as well. James says whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles at just one, is guilty of breaking them all (James 2:10).

Two, let’s assume that it is a binding principle that cross-dressing is wrong. Men weren’t wearing trousers in those times but cloaks and tunics; “gowns.” Fashion has changed since then and men now wear trousers. Today, women’s fashion has also moved on. Not every trouser sold in the market are men’s clothing; there are women’s trousers and men will look ridiculous in them.

So fashion determines what is men’s clothing and women’s clothing. Yes, fashion is cultural and changes with time. Only God knows what men’s outfits will be tomorrow. Besides, there are cultures in which men tie wrappers (e.g., South-Eastern Nigeria, India) and others in which men wear skirts or kilt (e.g., Scotland, East Asia). Insisting that trousers are generally men’s outfit is ignorant at best.

  • The New Testament Injunction

The New Testament has presented us with guidelines regarding appropriate dressing, particularly for women. This is where we get our principle(s) for appropriate dressing. Paul said to Timothy,

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

1 Tim 2:9-10

While all these words relate, the standard for measuring appropriateness or decency is modesty. Wikipedia, for example, defines modesty as:

a mode of dress and deportment which intends to avoid the encouraging of sexual attraction in others. The word “modesty” comes from the Latin word modestus which means “keeping within measure.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modesty

We all agree that there is no fashion called “good deeds,” so Paul wasn’t being literal here. His emphasis, as I see it, is that a woman’s good deeds calls the right attention rather than her physical appearance.

Elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes—a typical church fashion for Africans—are mentioned here, which, to me, exemplify things that call attention to self. No article or style of clothing is picked out as bad in itself.

Decency is not dependent on a particular fashion but on accepted standard of morality. There are decent and indecent trousers, just as there are decent and indecent skirts and gowns and wraps. An excessive exposure or display of sexual appeal by a woman (or a man), for example, is indecent for all Christians, regardless of culture.

If a woman dresses in trousers with the intension of drawing illicit attentions to herself, she becomes guilty of unholy motives just as a woman who wears aso-ebi or skirt or make-up for the same reason.

Peter echo’s Paul’s injunction,

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands.” 

1 Pet 3:4-5

The overriding principle(s) for dressing we can take from these passages is modesty. A woman must be careful not to be extravagant in her physical appearance with the intent of calling the wrong attention to herself.

Now to the matter of veiling. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul begins his instructions about the covering of head for women by first establishing the issue of authority: the man has authority (the head) over the woman just as Christ has authority (the head) over the Church.

Could it be that his instruction about the covering of head has something to do with marriage? Are all females under the authority of all males or only wives to their own husbands?

There is so much about cultural expectations here. In most cultures of the time, veils were mandatory for married women, not for girls. Veils were symbolic of a woman’s marital status as well as a posture of decorum and respectability.

In that culture, long hair was a disgrace for a man as shaving was a disgrace for women. But women today, especially African women who cannot keep up with hair-dos, shave their hair—in fact, with relief rather than disgrace.

In verse 15, Paul concludes that long hair is given to the woman as her covering. So, is he arguing that long hair is the covering or a veil? I do not presume to know exactly what Paul is saying here, I only want to acknowledge the uncertainties surrounding the passage, which gives room for myriad interpretations.

Churches have their positions on this matter, which is totally okay. Some interpret it to mean that all women (including female children) must cover their heads in corporate worship, some believe that long hair in itself is the covering, some don’t care. Let every church practice what it believes without looking down on another.

My denomination, Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN), elects female elders in spite of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 which says that a woman should be quiet, should not teach and not assume leadership over a man.

In COCIN, women lead prayers during corporate worship, serve as elders, lead worship, and sometimes preach. But other evangelical churches don’t do that because they understand the passage differently.

Most Euro-American evangelicals who allow women to put on trousers and sit in services with their heads uncovered, do not allow women to play any public role in corporate worship (except perhaps singing). I thank God I am a COCIN member!

Yet there are churches that have gone farther than COCIN to ordain women as ministers. As uncomfortable as that makes me, I cannot pass judgment on the practice because it does not temper with the rudiments of our faith.

The issue of head-covering and the forbidding of trousers did not begin in Africa. These were issues even in the West. It became a “cultural” issue in most parts of Africa because of Islam and the teachings of Western missionaries who brought the gospel.

Is this still a cultural issue today in Nigeria or modern Africa generally? Not so much. Many women, even in evangelical churches that forbid women from wearing trousers, wear trousers to work/offices, to schools and other places, or simply to stay at home. But they will not wear them to church.

If trousers as a fashion is sinful, is it sinful in itself or when it is worn to certain places? If it is sinful in itself then very few women are without guilt. Most wear them for sports, exercises, certain kinds of jobs, or travels. 

Whatever it is, let everyone follow their conscience on these matters without demonizing those who think differently. I will not go to church in Nigeria wearing trousers or with my head uncovered. For me, it is a matter of “weak conscience,” because many still have a different orientation on these matters.

Will I speak about the matter when it comes up? You bet I will talk about it and call it what it is: a toothless dogma without Scriptural bite.

Am I advocating that women should start wearing trousers to church with their heads uncovered? I will never do that. Women must strive to be in submission to their own husbands in all matters, to their consciences, and to their church authorities, but they must do so knowingly and willingly, without hypocrisy.

Do I think that Christians should become radical about their positions to the point that they keep women out of churches because of it? No, I don’t believe so. This is evil, and must be challenged.

People come to your church not because of your pastor but because of Jesus. Will he who did not stop a sinful woman from clinging to his feet—to the criticism of Simon the pharisee—stop them from coming in (Luke 7:36-50)?

Wherever people may be coming from or whatever their beliefs, we have no authority to stop them from coming into a church. It is not a cult group, it is a church. Churches can have rules for their members, but should not close a church door at anybody.

I believe that whatever their convictions, churches should back their positions with Scriptures without condemning those who think differently. This way, we will elevate human souls above our personal convictions and respect other Christians who don’t think like us on matters that are not essential to our core beliefs.  

Finally, as Paul will say:

Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”     

2 Timothy 2:19

A Resilience of Faith

The Sunday before last, our family worshipped at COCIN Jos-Jarawa, Isuwa’s home church. He was born here, baptized here, called to ministry and sent out from here. We were also wed here. The very sight of this place of worship opened up a flood of memories, both sweet and bitter.

This church happens to be one of a number of churches in Jos-North that are hot-spots of the religious crises that has plagued our city for many years now. Many members were killed and their homes burned down, forcing their remaining family members to relocate. Isuwa’s father was killed in one of such crisis in 2001. It has been a sheer miracle that the church building itself has escaped the same fate, but at the cost of the lives of many people who came out to protect it.

Behind the church building and towards the right is a fast growing Muslim community; a very sad reality. The community kept encroaching further up towards the church as they take over places abandoned by fleeing Christians in those areas. The church is now the threshold that demarcates between the Muslim community to the south and the Christian community to the north. A very dangerous spot. For how long will it remain standing was a question I couldn’t shake off.

What astonished me as I entered the church this particular morning is how people have kept coming to this place of worship over the years, never abandoning the place from fear for their lives. Why? Is not life and safety more important than a mere place of worship?

Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:21-23). Why should anyone protect a physical place of worship to the point of shedding their blood or losing their lives?

This matter, unfortunately, is more complicated than that. It is as much a social and ethno-religious problem as it is spiritual. Yes, these people are Christians, but they are also part of a social and ethnic group that lays claim to this land. Would becoming a Christian mean people should allow themselves to be invaded and chased away from their lands in the name of not resisting their persecutor?

But consider also if Christians were to keep running away to save their lives at every threat, abandoning their physical location of worship (what the Muslims are hoping will happen), what spiritual significance would that have—in the long run if not immediately? What has physical location to do with spiritual faithfulness?

One needs only to look back in history and consider what happened to the church in Asia minor (present-day Turkey; North Africa and the Middle East), when Islamic jihadists took over the places. This gives a clear example of the significance of a physical location to spiritual realities. How separate are our spiritual lives from our physical realities?

In my years in the US, I’ve heard very cruel criticism propagated by some missionaries who lived in Northern Nigeria about the church in this region. They say Christians in Northern Nigeria do not show love to their Muslim neighbors simply because these Christians fight back to protect themselves and their communities.

These missionaries believe that the only Christian response to persecution is martyrdom; to allow ourselves be wiped out by our persecutors because Jesus says we should not resist an evil person but to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). Well, the Muslims themselves believe this very interpretation and that is why they attack Christians; they expect no resistance.

It is easy to theologize from a position of advantage, comfort and safety. These same missionaries have never bothered to demonstrate this love they talk about; the moment there is crisis anywhere, the US government evacuates its citizens immediately, leaving the people of the place to their fate.

Avoiding the old argument about what Jesus means in that passage of Scripture and how it relates to the persecuted church, all I can say is that I do not believe that self-defense is tantamount to retaliation, or that to love someone is not to resist him when he comes to kill you and wipe out your family. The devil uses Scriptures to justify his strategies…    

I believe instead that those who died protecting this physical location died for the sake of the Kingdom, and those who risk their lives daily and weekly to protect this territory by using it still instead of abandoning it in self-preservation are in the same vein risking their lives for the kingdom. If they ever get overpowered, at least they’ve done their best to resist an encroachment that will not only displace them but wipe out their spiritual legacy perhaps forever.

I was deeply inspired by the resilience of this community of faith. My tendency to choose what is convenient as a way of practicing my faith over what demands a greater sacrifice came to haunt me. What crowned the experience for me was the hymn that was sang that morning. The chorus goes:

            I love Him far better than in days of yore,

            I’ll serve Him more truly than ever before,

            I’ll do as He bids me whatever the cost,

            I’ll be a good soldier; I’ll die at my post.   

One challenge of the Christian faith is that we don’t choose our battles, our roles, or our location (“post”); the commander of the Lord’s armies chooses that for us. Our faithfulness or lack thereof is determine not only by general obedience to the moral law of God but also by our willingness to work within God’s plans for us.

We don’t choose our involvement based on what is convenient in our estimation or even a personal choice towards self-sacrifice that is not demanded of us. It is by discovering our specific assignment in a given season of our lives and obeying that; herein lies the determiner for whether we’ve been faithful servants or not.