The Refugee Crisis: How to Respond?

November 25, 2015

How should we love our neighbor? Should we love our Syrian refugee neighbors by bringing 10,000 into this country, as the President has decided? Or should we love our American neighbors by prioritizing their safety, keeping out many true refugees in order to exclude extremists?

Since the Paris bombings, there has been heated rhetoric on both sides of this issue. Both sides have cited Scripture to support their positions.  Some have engaged in name-calling, labeling those they disagree with bigots or un-American. Unfortunately, both the President of the United States and Republicans trying to be President have been among those doing the name-calling.

How can we cut through the inflammatory rhetoric and respond biblically? Here are a few guidelines:

First: Acknowledge that there are legitimate arguments on both sides (as on most public policy issues). The US government does have a primary responsibility to protect its citizens. And the US surely has a responsibility to help resolve a crisis which is in part the result of our own past policy failures.

Second: Do your best to ignore the strident voices and the political talking points. Instead, seek out and listen to those making calm, rational arguments – especially those making such arguments from a different perspective than your own. As Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” If this was true 3000 years ago, how much truer today in the age of social media, in which we often never hear from “the other,” but simply like or re-post those statements that agree with our preconceptions? Here are a couple of links that I have come across that are indeed calm and rational. Note that they disagree with each other – but they marshal arguments for their position and don’t denigrate those who disagree with them: 3 Tips For A More Civil Conversation About Syrian Refugees, Myths vs Facts in the Syrian Refugee Issue

Third: In your interactions with others, keep repeating and acknowledging key, indisputable facts that are often ignored. Here are some on this issue:

1)      Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, a couple of thousand Syrian refugees have come to the US, and they have been model refugees.

2)      The present vetting mechanism for Syrian refugees coming to the US is a lengthy, laborious process, completely unlike the process of gaining refugee status in Europe. Whether or not one of the terrorists responsible for the Paris attack entered Europe as a refugee is irrelevant to refugee policy in this country.

3)      Islamic terrorist groups are looking for ways both to radicalize American Muslims and to bring foreign terrorists into this country.

4)      The FBI Director and the Secretary for Homeland Security have both acknowledged in recent weeks that there are special challenges in ensuring that Syrian refugees pose no threat to the US.

5)      After 9/11, the refugee program was put on hold for a while and procedures reviewed and revised for the safety of the country. Eventually, the program was improved. In the end it was both larger and more secure than before those attacks.

6)      Prior to 1980, refugees in the US were resettled in a completely different way, with much more local participation and control. There is nothing sacrosanct about the present method of refugee resettlement.

7)      The bill that passed the House of Representatives does not stop Syrian refugees from entering the country, but directs the FBI Director and the Secretary for Homeland Security (along with one other official) to certify that the vetting process for each refugee protects American safety. One quarter of House Democrats voted for the measure.

8)      Whether the US admits 10,000 Syrian refugees or none is at most a minor blip in resolving the Syrian crisis. (About one out of every twelve persons in Jordan is a Syrian refugee. The US would have to host 27 million refugees to achieve the same proportion.) Regardless of what happens on US refugee policy, other major initiatives are necessary.

Fourth: Focus on the bigger picture, and help others to see that picture. Consider two aspects of this bigger picture:

a)       The bigger public policy picture. Focus on the major issues, the greatest dangers, not the minor issues. (Note that both political parties often try to direct your focus to minor issues where they think they can gain support.) Ask questions such as: What mistakes have been made in US policy toward Syria that have led to the huge number of refugees? What can be done now to slow down that flood? What can we do to resolve the Syrian civil war? Some have been asking these bigger questions, even including a few politicians – see for example these press releases from Senator Dan Coats (first, second). This article (authored in part by Paul Collier, an economist I know) is an excellent example of out-of-the-box thinking on how to resolve the bigger issues. An excerpt:

An effective refugee policy should improve the lives of the refugees in the short term and the prospects of the region in the long term, and it should also serve the economic and security interests of the host states.

Jordan offers one place to begin. There, a reconsidered refugee policy would integrate displaced Syrians into specially created economic zones, offering Syrian refugees employment and autonomy, incubating businesses in preparation for the eventual end of the civil war in Syria, and aiding Jordan’s aspirations for industrial development. Such an approach would align the interests of a host state with the needs of refugees. . . .

By understanding refugees as not only a humanitarian challenge but also a development opportunity, states could do much to sustainably improve the lives of the dispossessed. To suggest that the displaced could contribute to the cost of their own care is not harsh: refugees are already voting with their feet for self-reliance.

b)      The bigger spiritual picture. God is fulfilling all His promises. He is fulfilling the promise to Abraham by bringing those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Himself – including those from the many Syrian peoples. Throughout history He has moved in the midst of tragedies and wars to glorify His Name and to pour out saving mercy on millions. He is doing that today. We have an opportunity both to display and to proclaim the love of God through Jesus Christ to those suffering loss and hardship. May we, the church of Jesus Christ, live out His mandates, loving Him and loving our neighbor, for His glory, for our joy, and for the joy of all peoples.

Two Kingdoms: Repentance

November 17, 2015

Consider the “Two Kingdoms” Gospel summary:

Here is a truth I have come to know.  God created the world as His Kingdom, and all was very good. But Satan rebelled, desiring worship that only God deserved. He set up his own kingdom, at war with God’s kingdom of light. The first man and woman, deceived by Satan, chose to rebel also. Since then, all of us have joined that rebellion against our rightful king.

Satan’s kingdom is the kingdom of darkness. He deceives people, saying, “You don’t have to serve me, just serve yourself!” Yet as we serve ourselves, we end up destroying all that is good, even all true pleasure. That is Satan’s goal.

God’s kingdom of light has overcome the kingdom of darkness. For God sent Jesus to earth to live as man should live. Jesus then died on a cross, suffering to pay the penalty we deserve for our rebellion. But God raised Him from the dead, showing that Jesus has authority even over death and the kingdom of darkness. Jesus will reign forever and ever.

God commands all men to turn from their rebellion against Him. He invites all of us to leave the kingdom of darkness and to become citizens of the Kingdom of light. We must turn from our selfish ways and acknowledge that Jesus is our rightful King. We must let Him tell us what to do. By God’s mercy on account of the cross, we can receive His forgiveness and escape from the kingdom of darkness, gaining love, joy, and peace in the Kingdom of light forever.

We live in this little bubble called life for 70 to 80 years. When it pops, we join whichever king we served for all eternity. Which king are you serving?

In a series of blog posts, we are examining in more detail topics raised in this summary of the Gospel. Previous topics are our rebellion, the consequent destruction of pleasure, and the defeat of the kingdom of darkness. Today: Repentance.

Jesus said that calling sinners to repentance was central to His earthly ministry (Luke 5:32). He began this ministry by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). When responding to a local tragedy that had killed several people, He stated that we should not infer that these people died suddenly on account of their sins, but we should rather see this tragedy as a warning to those who do not repent about judgment: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:3). After His resurrection, Jesus made repentance central to the proclamation that His followers are to make to all nations (Luke 26:47).

What, then, are the elements of biblical repentance? Here are six:

1) Repentance begins by admitting your sin

King Solomon describes such repentance in his prayer for the dedication of the temple:

If they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart . . . then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their causeand forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you (from 1 Kings 8:47-50).

The people do not hide their sin. They do not excuse their sin. They do not belittle their sin. They admit both what they have done and the wickedness of those acts. That is repentance.

2) Repentance includes turning away from sin and turning towards God.

The link between turning and repentance is strong. In the “Two Kingdoms” Gospel presentation, the word “turn” (underlined above) is used twice in place of “repent.” This link is grounded in Scripture. For example, Solomon notes says in the passage above: “If they turn their heart . . .” Consider also how God speaks through Ezekiel:

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 18:30-31, emphasis added)

When we sin we are turning away from God as the source of joy and turning to some other object. We think that by disobeying God we will get or achieve something He won’t give us. This is the essence of sin: Doubting God’s goodness toward us. When we repent, we reverse the turning: As Ezekiel says, we turn from our transgressions, and turn our new hearts toward God.

3) Repentance results in a changed life.

Turning our hearts to God is not simply internal. That turning must result in changed behavior. John the Baptist tells those who are coming to him, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8) – and then goes on to tell his listeners to be generous givers, to be content with their wages, and not to misuse their authority.

Similarly, when Paul looks back at his own ministry, he describes it as calling all types of people to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). Repentance results in a changed life.

4) Repentance is a command of God

We have seen that Scripture tells us that repentance is for our good. That is one motivation to repent. But repentance is also a command of God. As the Apostle Paul tells us when preaching in Athens:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

He commands us to repent. He commands all of us to repent. We are thus obligated to repent. To refuse to repent is to add that obstinate sin to our record of rebellion against our loving and merciful God.

5) Repentance is a gift of God

So God commands repentance. But He also enables repentance. We see this in the story of Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius. After Peter reports on Cornelius and his household coming to faith in Jesus, his listeners:

glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18, emphasis added)

Similarly, the Apostle Paul instructs Timothy to correct his opponents with gentleness, for:

God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25, emphasis  added).

This is our hope – for ourselves as well as for those we are witnessing to: God is able to break through to the hardest heart and grant repentance. We must therefore pray for God to tear down the walls that separate those we love from Him, to grant repentance, and to save them by His grace.

6) Finally, repentance leads to joy in heaven.

Repentance results not only in our salvation. And repentance results not only in our changed lives. Repentance also results in a great celebration. Jesus says:

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)

We have already seen that God calls all people to repent. There is no such thing as a righteous person who doesn’t need repentance. So every individual can be that one sinner whose repentance leads to a heavenly celebration. Indeed, your repentance can lead to such joy in heaven.

So turn. Repent. Pray for God to grant repentance. Bring about that great joy in heaven. And then live a changed life – to the glory of God.


Sowing in Tears

November 5, 2015

How do you respond to suffering?

During our recent trip to India, Karl Dauber and I taught several seminars on a biblical approach to suffering. Participants discussed this case study to help get at the issues:

Ravi came to faith in Jesus a year ago, after having a bad infection in his leg that was getting worse and worse. An evangelist came to his village, and was preaching the Gospel. Ravi, hearing him, mockingly asked, “Can your God heal my leg?” The evangelist replied, “Jesus Christ died and rose again so that you could become God’s child. If He can do that, He can certainly heal your leg.” He then prayed for Ravi – for healing, and for faith in Jesus. Nothing happened immediately – but the next morning, Ravi woke up and his leg was healed. He trusted Jesus, and began to meet with other Christians.

But since then his life has been tough. His parents disowned him and kicked him out of the house. Then, when Ravi began to speak the Gospel to his old friends, a group of them yelled at him, beat him, and drove him away. No one has come to faith through his witness. And now, the infection has returned. Other believers have prayed for healing, but nothing has happened.

Suppose you meet Ravi in his village, and he says, “Nothing good has happened since I started following Jesus. Even the initial healing seems to have gone away. I can’t witness effectively, I’ve been persecuted, I’ve lost my family, I’ve lost my home. What hope do I have? Why is God treating me this way?”

What would you say to Ravi?

Consider Psalm 126 in this context. The psalmist recalls a time when God worked in an amazing fashion to restore the Israelites after a period of defeat and failure – most likely, the return from Babylonian exile. He recalls the joy, the laughter, the amazement at what God had done:

Psalm 126:1-3 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.

But now the nation once again is in the depths. Now once again all seems lost. Now that past restoration of fortunes seems long ago. So the psalmist cries out:

Psalm 126:4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!

“You’ve done it in the past, Lord! You have shown yourself faithful when all seemed lost! Please, Lord, do it again! The streams in the Negeb disappear in the dry season, but roar again when the rains come. Restore our fortunes like that!”

In the midst of his cries, in the midst of his pain, the psalmist, reflecting on the character of God revealed in the past, states His confidence in God’s future grace. Using a farming image, he pictures his nation’s current state as planting seeds in the midst of sorrow:

Psalm 126:5-6 Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

Note: They don’t wallow in their pain and do nothing. They are planting, even though they are hurting.

A farmer can make a thousand excuses for not planting:

  • The rains probably won’t come anyway.
  • Too much rain will fall and wash away the seed.
  • The seed probably is no good.
  • The insects likely will come and destroy the crop.
  • Raiders will come and steal the harvest.

So why go through with the hard work of preparing the field and planting? It seems like that hard work won’t yield any benefits anyway.

But the psalmist exhorts us: Put away the excuses. In your tears, sow. In your sorrow, step out in the work of the Lord. While you are hurting, minister to others. When God seems distant, act as if He seems close. And when you do so –  when you are faithful and trust in His faithfulness in the midst of pain – there will be a harvest. Indeed, there will be an abundant, joyful harvest. It may well look different from past harvests; it may well include pain as long as you are in this fallen world. But that sowing in tears will lead to reaping with shouts of joy. For God has promised.

So remember God’s promises. Ask for God’s grace to trust in those promises. And step out in faith to serve in your tears. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Lift your eyes to Him – and in your serving, you will be blessed.

Our Only Hope

November 3, 2015

How serious is sin? How serious is your sin?

How would you answer that question? Would you describe the impact of your sin on those you love – your family, your friends, your neighbors? Or would you focus on the impact of sin on yourself – destroying what you love most, changing you into something you hate?

Sin does hurt others. Sin does destroy us.

But so often we fail to consider the greatest impact of our sin: The affront against a holy and loving God.

John Bunyan’s The Holy War highlights this truth in startling terms. In this allegory, the town of Mansoul rebels against its King Shaddai and makes Diabolus its ruler. King Shaddai sends his armies, led by Captain Conviction and Captain Judgment, to battle against the town. They eventually call for more assistance, so the King sends His Son, Emmanuel. Emmanuel offers them mercy, but, spurred on by Diabolus, Mansoul continues to resist. So Emmanuel’s forces break down the gates, conquer the town, throw out Diabolus, and execute a number of his commanders.

At this point, frightened of impending judgment and seeing the foolishness of their past actions, the town sends a petition to Emmanuel asking for mercy. What does Emmanuel do?

Bunyan’s picture of Emmanuel’s response is almost shocking to our contemporary ears. He initially does nothing, sending the messengers back. They send petition after petition. Finally, Emmanuel speaks to the messenger:

The town of Mansoul hath grievously rebelled against my Father, in that they have rejected him from being their King, and did choose to themselves for their captain a liar, a murderer, and a runagate slave. For this Diabolus, your pretended prince, though once so highly accounted of by you, made rebellion against my Father and me, even in our palace and highest court there, thinking to become a prince and king. But being there timely discovered and apprehended, and for his wickedness bound in chains, and separated to the pit with those that were his companions, he offered himself to you, and you have received him.

Now this is, and for a long time hath been, a high affront to my Father; wherefore my Father sent to you a powerful army to reduce you to your obedience. But you know how these men, their captains and their counsels, were esteemed of you, and what they received at your hand. You rebelled against them, you shut your gates upon them, you bid them battle, you fought them, and fought for Diabolus against them. So they sent to my Father for more power, and I, with my men, are come to subdue you. But as you treated the servants, so you treated their Lord. You stood up in hostile manner against me, you shut up your gates against me, you turned the deaf ear to me, and resisted as long as you could; but now I have made a conquest of you. Did you cry me mercy so long as you had hopes that you might prevail against me? But now that I have taken the town, you cry; but why did you not cry before, when the white flag of my mercy, the red flag of justice, and the black flag that threatened execution, were set up to cite you to it? Now I have conquered your Diabolus, you come to me for favour; but why did you not help me against the mighty?

Many of us today picture God as sitting in the heavens, desperately hoping that we might turn to Him. When we make the least step towards regret for past sins, we then think God is overwhelmed with joy.

But God desires much more than regret for past actions. Remember Esau: As Hebrews 12:15-17 tells us, he regretted selling his birthright – he even wept over that – but God rejected him.

Bunyan rightly pictures Emmanuel opening the eyes of the petitioners to the depth of their sinfulness. The fundamental problem was not that Diabolus was a tyrant, though he was; the fundamental problem was not that the town failed to flourish under him, though it did. The fundamental problem was that the town spurned its rightful king and submitted to His enemy.

What can the petitioners say in response? Why did they not cry before? The only answer: They are desperate sinners, and have absolutely no basis on which to approach Emmanuel except his mercy.

Does Emmanuel offer any hope? He concludes His speech with these words:

Yet I will consider your petition, and will answer it so as will be for my glory.

That is the town’s only hope: That Emmanuel might be glorified through His mercy.

Just so with us. God saves us “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

My friends, regret does not save. Acknowledging the negative consequences of sin does not save. Wanting to live a better life, to be a better person, does not save.

We are rebels. We deserve execution. Our petition to the King we have so grievously offended can be based on nothing else except the mercy that He offers us by the blood of His Son, to the praise of His glorious grace. May He be pleased to grant such true repentance to you. And may He open our eyes to the extent of His majesty and holiness, so that we might comprehend the enormity of His grace.

(A free Kindle version of The Holy War is available at this link.)