“Africa” conjures up many striking associations- jubilant singing, spectacular scenery, huge animals, and the tragedies of war, famine and poverty. Several times during our journey locals spontaneously offered explanations for the comparative slowness of the African continent to develop peace and prosperity: tribalism, slavery, colonialism, geographical barriers, the fertility of the land reducing the need for future planning, widespread corruption of power and influence. Whilst none of these realities can be denied, I believe that there is a more foundational problem restricting Africa’s potential. This is an issue I have encountered in other places, including my own nation, but it seems particularly pronounced amongst Africans, I call this “the spirit of the strong man”.
‘Strong Man’ or “Righteous Father”?
The “strong man” is an authoritarian figure who projects the solution to every challenge if only people will follow him. The challenge may be political or religious, but the powerful charismatic figure always knows the way forward. Dictatorships in Africa obviously conform to this image, but so do the hierarchical patterns of church leadership throughout the continent. However the influence of the “strong man” is only a symptom of the deep rooted pain of F/father hunger. In all my life I have never had so many men, of all ages, address me as father/papa or dad. Some of this is healthy and appropriately respectful, but other factors point to the need for radical spiritual healing.
In Uganda I came across a different sort of begging than I have encountered in other Third World nations. I am not referring to street beggars, but begging for money by healthy looking individuals, including pastors. I believe the Lord gave me a scripture about this. “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” (Ps 37:25). The children of a righteous God trust in his justice to deliver them and they possess a dignity that frees them from the need to beg! When Jesus was on the threshold of a painful, unjust and agonising death he confidently prayed, “O Righteous Father…I know you” (John 17:25) and the just Father raised him from the dead (Acts 2:24). The begging and dishonesty corruption in the Christian nations of Africa is a transparent revelation that so many “believers” do not personally and intimately know God as Righteous delivering Father. This strange situation can be traced back to a foundational matter of Christian identity.
Have you been Born Again?
The question “Have you been born again?” seems almost an obsession amongst African Christians; but this is not a question asked in the Bible. Jesus privately told Nicodemus he needed rebirth (John 3:3-8), and the letters of the New Testament speak of Christians as “born again” in a past tense (1 Pet 1:3; 23), but there is NO PUBLIC PREACHING to unbelievers, “You must be born again.” Nor is “Have you been born again?” asked of believers. I myself had a powerful conversion experience, but it is my ongoing relationship with God as the Father of Jesus that is the most important thing in my life, not a past experience. This is how the New Testament approaches what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
The greatest thing said about the followers of Jesus in the Bible is that we are now “sons of God” (John 1:12; Rom 8:14; Gal 3:26) with God as our “Abba Father” (Rom 8:16; Gal 4:6). Our relationship as sons to the Father is as secure as the one Christ himself has with God (John 10:29; 1 Pet 1:23; 1 John 4:17). It is this inner witness of being perfectly loved that makes a mature believer immune to the shame-based false fathering of political and spiritual “strong men”. In the New Testament to be an adopted son of God is to possess all the privileges of a natural born child (Rom 8:17). Those who know the glory and dignity of having God as their Father will resist the lesser glories of money, sex and power (Eph 1:18). A major shift in African Christian spirituality will come via a new revelation of God’s character in the cross.
Tender Father Costly Grace
It was prophesied that “the tender mercy of our God” would be revealed to the lost through “the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-79). It is the cost to God of forgiving us that exposes our hearts to his kindness and teaches us that he is not a “strong man”. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9), this means that his terrible cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) is a reflection of the measureless pain in the heart of God as a Father. When Jesus prayed, ““Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.””(Luke 23:34) he was fulfilling the prophecy of a new covenant; ““I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”” (Hebrews 8:12). An ancient prayer puts this very well, “O God, you declare your almighty power above all by showing mercy”. The greatest act of God’s power was not creating the world but fully forgiving our sins. The message of forgiving power has profound impact.
A Deeper Repentance
Much African Christianity has been characterised by a heavy emphasis on sin, confession and repentance. As I have grown older I have changed my approach to these important issues. Today I believe that the depth of the penetration of the Word of God (Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12-13) into our hearts is dependent upon a revelation of the tenderness of the heart of the Father; “the riches of God’s kindness…is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom 2:4). Turning from sin to God comes most deeply not when we are convicted of our personal wretchedness but of how wrong we have been in thinking of God as a heartless Father, or a “strong man” (Ps 119:32). Gratitude for sins forgiven is the key to confession and lasting repentance. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47). The blatant inconsistencies of nations which claim to be 80-90% “Christian” and suffer from corruption and immorality testifies of the need for a divine visitation bringing lasting heart repentance.
It was faith in the justice of the Father that delivered Jesus from the pain of death and raised him in power (Acts 2:24; Heb 5:7-8). When African Christians receive a mature revelation of the Righteous Father they will cease to be beggars and be delivered from all divisions and dishonesties. This is how the political, religious, domestic, and economic climate of Africa can be transformed by the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. All of us, Africans or Australians, must turn away from following the shallow and self-centred “strong man” and turn to the gentle and kind Father of Jesus who alone can deliver us from all our ills.
AFRICA INSIGHTS SERIES