When People Screw Up the Gospel You Preach

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gospel you preach

My years in Uganda were pockmarked with many “aha” moments–those moments when everything clicked.

Usually, I wished everything had clicked sooner.

One of those moments took place in the upper level of the refugee center where I taught Bible. Leadership had agreed to a new “Bible II” class for students primed by the Old Testament Bible storytelling we used, considering half of our students were Muslim. (J.D. Greear, in his book Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Code of Every Muslim, is one of many who recommend chronological Bible storytelling.)

Few of the center’s Muslim students chose the level II class. But one was a young Somali woman, whose tenacity soon revealed itself among the Christian majority. She asked questions, but also willingly voiced her opinion–say, on Allah’s will in the middle of suffering. I’ll call her Zainab.

Seven years later, I still pray for her.

I don’t even remember what point I made in my lesson that day. But some of my South Sudanese students rose, pumping fists in the air in agreement. And one even specifically made some gesture or comment to Zainab, alluding to how Muslims were clearly inferior.

In an instant, I realized that similar moments in my other classes may not have just been about the power of the Gospel.

The victorious assent of my “Christian” students–some Christian only because of their culture–may have been just as much about a cultural victory over someone else.

When Christians Pile Obstacles in the Gospel’s Path

There in a sweaty classroom in Africa, dismay settled over me like a shroud.

I realized part of Zainab’s struggle wasn’t just to come to Jesus. And it wasn’t only the myriad obstacles I had already studied: the social pressure of her community (the Muslim “ummah”), their impression of Christian nations, their instructions about how Christianity has corrupted Islam.

To outsiders–and many insiders!–Christianity has acquired the bitter taste of people who use Jesus to be superior over others. I feel this powerfully in my home culture.

Many will never come to Jesus because of their distaste for Christians and/or Christian culture.

My Sudanese students had been at war in one form or another since 1983 (how old were you in 1983?!). And despite what a lot of Christian activist groups may claim, the BBC clarifies much of the war is more about ethnic discrimination (Arabs–typically Muslims–versus Africans, often Christian).

Unwittingly, my teaching about the Bible was hijacked for political and power purposes, at least in this instance. And because of it, even more emotional static was heaped on Zainab as she sat there in her hijab.

I still don’t remember my reaction. (I’ve tried.) But I doubt it was anything close to how I might have used my words to build a bridge–gently correcting the “victorious” students, gently reaching out to Zainab, who looked straight-up peeved..

And like she’d rather not be sitting in Bible II.

What We Maneuver to Get from God

As I’ve turned that particular “aha” moment over in my head, I realized Paul dealt with this more than once.

Check out Luke’s Acts 16 retelling of one example:

One day as we were going to the place to pray, we met a servant-girl who could tell what was going to happen in the future by a demon she had. Her owner made much money from her power. She followed Paul and us crying out, “These are servants of the Highest God. They are telling you how to be saved from the punishment of sin.” She did this many days. Paul was troubled. Then he turned and said to the demon in her, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I speak to you. Come out of her!” At once it left her.

The girl’s owners saw that they could not make money with her anymore. Then they took hold of Paul and Silas and dragged them to the leaders.

The girl proclaimed the Gospel–but was being used as a cash cow.

Earlier in Acts, Paul had sternly rebuked a sorcerer offering to pay Paul for the gift of the Holy Spirit: “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (8:21).

Paul has strong words about coming to God with right motives.

Whether False Motives or True–

Paul also spoke directly to ulterior motives in Philippians 1–but pointed out God still uses those motives, too.

Paul’s in prison, and reflecting on those teaching the Gospel outside his walls. (Welp. Probably most everything was outside those walls.)

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. … The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (vv. 15, 17-18)

Surely Jesus knew his own words, too, would be used as political trump cards for millennia–not to mention skewed by abusive parents, misrepresented by cults, manipulated for racist ends, or even used to condemn the innocent to death.

What Not to StOP: the Gospel You Preach

Obviously, I don’t wish I could reel back in those Bible stories. And someone’s less-pure motives don’t change the fact that God’s Word doesn’t return void (Isaiah 55:11). And though I wish my cultural research had led to a sooner “aha,” I trust God’s timing and purposes are perfect for revealing what he did, when he did.

It brings to mind the word of an author friend of mine, when someone came up to him, complimented him on his book, and promptly told him how she made a core life decision based on his book…the nature of which horrified him.

Someday on a mission field far, far away, someone may use your words, your teaching, or the Gospel itself for their own corrupted ends.

For my part, can I really insist everything I was teaching was completely how God would say it, never corrupted by my own sin, selfish ambition, or vain conceit [Philippians 2:3]? Can I say I’ve never done things for God to get things from him?

Not a chance. Evil motives checker the gospel you and I preach, too.

But whether by false motives or true, the Gospel’s preached. And that’s something to get excited about.



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