At a conference I attended recently there was lengthy discussion about the Paul’s missionary methods. The question repeatedly arose as to how we communicate the gospel effectively today given the vast differences between ancient and modern cultures. The ancient world was saturated with deities. When Paul preached in Athens the Greek philosophers quipped, ““He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18 ESV). They took it that “Jesus” and “resurrection” were names of two new gods that could be added to their existing set of deities. Controversy only broke out at the point when Paul preached a coming time of judgement through a resurrected man; “because he (God) has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31 ESV). The notion of a Final Judgement and a glorified body was repugnant to popular Greek thought; but some “believed” (v.34). The problem the Australian Church faces today is not a polytheism which assimilates any deity but ingrained cultural indifference towards a Sovereign power. In prayer about this situation I sensed that the Lord wanted to direct our attention to a deep point of contact between the gods of the Roman Empire and the religious climate in Australia today- the prevailing conviction that whatever God or gods may exist they are fundamentally apathetic to the human condition.
According to the highest deliberations of ancient philosophy the supreme deity was unmoved by the state of humanity. To be affected by mortals was a defect. Whilst the ordinary gods and goddesses were passionate, the notion that they possessed an unconditional love that would cause them in any way to sacrifice themselves for humans was unthinkable. In terms of practical spirituality we are at the same point today. The dominant secular worldview of contemporary Australia has trampled underfoot the notion that God passionately loves and sacrifices himself for us. The existence of a Creator and Judge is deemed irrelevant to everyday life so that our culture has become functionally atheistic. Much of the sociologically informed apologetic thrust of Evangelical Christianity aimed at altering the mindset of modern Australia misses the point. Our core issue is not intellectual but spiritual. From a biblical point of view the reality of God is unavoidable, men and women constantly and wickedly “suppress the truth” of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” by their “unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18-20). Whilst our unbelieving friends are consciously apathetic towards a “God” whom they believe is apathetic towards them in reality they are objects of the divine wrath (John 3:36; Rom 1:18; Eph 2:3)! If we seek the blessing of God on our evangelistic strategies we must get inside the guts of the great missionaries of scripture and history if this spiritually drastic state of affairs is ever to change.
All successful mission springs from empathetic intercession as a style of life that actualises revelation in spiritually lethargic communities. God becomes real to the lost through hurting believers. The Old Testament prophesied that Jesus would, “make intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53:12). It is the “loud cries and tears” of Gethsemane and Calvary on our behalf which the Father heard and answered by outpoured mercy (Heb 5:7). In union with Christ Paul has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart” for the unsaved (Rom 9:2). The “methodology” that God will always bless with his powerful presence is the very opposite of the apathy that strangles societies ancient and modern. It was said of the great evangelist George Whitfield that whenever he spoke of judgement he wept profusely. Mission pioneer William Carey was a man of tears. When some of William Booth’s Salvation Army officers pleaded for his advice in breaking through to a particularly hardened group he wrote back, “Try tears”. When his soldiers were broken before God over the condition of the lost a revival followed.
What are we Missing?
My lack of empathy and relative tearlessness over the condition of the lost has moved me to considerable prayer over the last few days. The sort of concern needed to bring spiritual openness in Australia must come from Christ, and not self effort. In prayer with others the other day that the Spirit shed new light on a familiar passage. Approaching the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus Jesus “groaned in spirit” and “wept” (Jon 11:33, 35, 38). As he sensed the glory lost to the Father through humanity’s Fall under the power of sin, Satan and death sent a shock wave of trauma went through Christ’s spirit. This proved to be the foundation for the flow of resurrection power (John 11: 41-44 cf. Luke 8:46). Many pray for signs, wonders and mighty works, but the connection most of us are missing is one of a broken heart. We need to be in touch with the travailing heart of God over lost children deprived of his glory. When this happens our lives will surely be shaped by a level of empathy, identification and intercession that will dethrone those spirits of apathy that blind the minds of the unbelieving culture which surrounds us (cf. Gal 4:19; 2 Cor 4:4). Then Australian Christianity will no longer be known for its negativity and judgementalism but its soft hearted compassion and visible sacrificial service to the broken. People will see Jesus!
What Must we Do?
This is a trick question because it points us away from sharing in Christ’s own experience. I am however reminded of a moving story told by Christian psychiatrist and author John White. During the years of trouble in Northern Ireland a believer from there visited California and shared at a Vineyard Church. Then in place of an expository sermon the leader, John Wimber, said, “I believe the Holy Spirit wants to share God’s heart towards Northern Ireland with us.” Weeping and intercession broke out all over the auditorium. Surely this supernatural outpouring was part of the Lord’s bringing peace and healing to that land. Conformity to the image of God in Christ is a painful experience but worth it for the sake of the glory of God and the salvation of lost Australians.
God speaks to us disturbingly through the prophet, “And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.” (Ezek 22:30). Eventually God did find a man to stand in the gap, Jesus. The Spirit’s call is for all of us to stand in the gap for the lost in fellowship with Jesus. I am not greatly motivated to do this, and experience teaches me that there are relatively few Aussie Christians who are. Perhaps however we can pray for one another to receive a revelation of God’s empathetic interceding heart. If such prayers become our style of life even a nation as spiritually apathetic as ours can be transformed by the love of God.