My last post was about discovering a simplicity on the other side of complexity in my journey of faith. In the next two posts I explore two significant incidents in my life that illustrate the principle
When I went to work in Nepal in my twenties I went believing that faith gave answers to questions. The ultimate answer to all questions was, of course, Jesus (see my previous post).
Living in one of the poorest countries in the world introduced an element of complexity my simplistic faith. Getting to know people who faced real poverty posed new questions.
I realised that poverty is not just about possessions and money; it is also about choices and security. Pretty much no matter what happened to us I and my family would have options. If there was a medical emergency, earthquake or civil unrest we would be able to make choices about treatment or evacuation. Now we were building relationships with people who could not even afford a course of antibiotics for their children. Poverty reduces the available options and heightens insecurity.
There are also cultural and structural aspects to poverty. I saw that the structure of the caste system excluded many from opportunities to improve their situation. Belief in karma and reincarnation also led to a fatalism that prevented people from having the hope or desire to work for improvement.1 Poverty can become internalised.
It had been easy for me to say ‘Jesus is the answer’ and that he offers life in all its fullness (John 10:10) when my already had choice and security.
But getting to know people who had grown up in poverty, I had to ask how, from my position of privilege, security and luxury, could I say to them ‘Jesus is the answer to your problems’? What would that mean for people who were going to remain desperately poor for the rest of their lives? Hope for life after death may be some comfort, but that alone seemed inadequate in the face of the lives people were living. And the prosperity gospel preached in our Nepali church by some visiting rich westerners on one occasion simply made me livid!
So, I was in an evangelical quandary. I still believed in Christ and the gospel, but I was struggling to see how it could really made a difference to desperately poor people.
The other side of complexity
Then we went with the pastor of our Nepali church to visit a village he had been working in. After several hours on the bus we had to walk for about four hours up a hill, on a path that meant wading across a river about 12 times. This was not the remotest area of Nepal, but the village was poor. All the children showed signs of malnourishment. At night we slept in our sleeping bags, but could hear children crying with the cold because they had no blankets.
The next day we watched over forty people being baptised in the icy waters of a Himalayan river. Almost the entire village had decided to become disciples of Jesus. They seemed to think that he was the answer. When I was chatting with some of them I asked why they had made this choice.
They told me that previously they had worshipped gods who were at best unconcerned about them, or at worst against them. The gods constantly had to be appeased. Now, they said, they had heard that the God of creation loved them and was on their side. That made a difference.
Hearing some of the poorest of the poor make such a statement had a profound effect on me then, and continues to teach me now. It is a statement of simplicity on the other side of complexity.
Not why? but where?
I continue to struggle with the problem of suffering in relation to the idea of a good God and the promises in the Bible. But it was undeniable that experiencing God’s love made a real difference in these people’s lives (and many others). And, it turns out, this was much more than a comforting religious sentiment and much more transformative than a ‘prosperity gospel’.
Seeing themselves in a world created by a God who loved them and was on their side began to overcome the fatalism and hopelessness that contributed to the village’s poverty. Over time, with some outside help, they began to improve several aspects of village life. The village is still poor, but things have changed and are changing.
When facing the complexity of poverty and suffering I am often asking the question, ‘why?’ In their experience of working with marginalised people Rocke and Van Dyke state that the question marginalised people tend to ask most is not, ‘why’. They are more concerned about ‘where is God?’ The village in Nepal taught me that intellectually grasping the ‘why’ is perhaps not as important as grasping the relational ‘where’, and discovering ‘Immanuel, God with us’.
This leads on to addressing my inner poverty. I appear to have so much choice in life, but how often does my fear limit me from choosing what I know to be right, or what I feel I am called to be and do? Poverty increases insecurity. But doesn’t Christ challenge me to give up security, to leave everything, and to follow him? Isn’t the security of wealth shown to be a deceptive mirage?
Simplicity on the other side of complexity: Immanuel, God is with us.