My time here in Kenya got off to a fast start. I left the airport a little past 8pm after just over 24 hours traveling (and not sleeping). After a refresher on the insanity of Nairobi traffic during the ride to the house, I rested for few hours before getting up and getting started. Four days later I had logged in about 40 hours of observation and conversation with missionaries and Kenyans who are either leading or learning in two different pastor training programs. I had nine formal interviews, six hours of traffic time (in one day) getting to know my new Kenyan best friend, and plenty of chai tea. That first week was a bit of blur.
Then I had a lunch on Sunday that helped begin to crystallize some of what I have observed so far. We ate at Java House, home of the finest Mexican food to be found at an American style coffee house in all of Kenya. The food was great, but this post isn’t about the food. Some missionary friends of my family joined us for lunch. One of these friends told me he was a consultant with their mission agency and was only in town for a little while. I asked him what exactly he does as a consultant, and he answered, “I pretty much walk around and ask questions.”
Turns out this guy is really good at his job.
After asking about the nature of my research and what I was hoping would come out of it, he landed on a single question that has stuck with me for the past two days…
“What can the American church learn from the Kenyan church?”
Huge question. Huge answer. (Someone should probably write a whole thesis to explore the intricacies of how Kenyans are being shaped according to God’s Word.) Western missionaries first landed on the coast of Kenya back in 1844. That was more than 170 years ago. In those years some incredible, God-blessed work has taken place. In the same 170 years, some awful acts have been carried out in Jesus’ name by both colonizers and missionaries. After all of that Kenya stands today as one of the most Christian nations on the planet. Some estimates place the number of Kenyan Christians at more than 80 percent of the national population. The gospel of Jesus Christ has found fertile soil here in east Africa.
So how would I answer that question? I have several thoughts at this point, but one in particular stands out far above the others.
Our Kenyan brothers and sisters are hungry to hear exactly what God has spoken, and then to obey it.
At first glance that idea may not sound so revolutionary, but let me ask you a question. When was the last time you studied the Bible ready and eager to change just because you knew God had spoken?
This is the one theme that has emerged in every single interview I have had with pastoral students here so far. When I ask what topic they have studied that has most changed their theology and ministry, the runaway winner is biblical interpretation. Each student has a slightly different version of the same story. It goes something like this:
“Before I began my training I didn’t know how to preach or teach the Bible. I woke up on Sunday morning, picked out a Bible verse, and then tried to think about what I would like to say about that. Biblical interpretation has taught me how to understand what God is actually saying in the Bible so that I can teach my church God’s truth. It has changed everything for us.”
(Not an actual quote.)
Kenyan faith is both simple and profound. It is simple in the sense there is an innocent trust in many believers here which says, in essence, “If God has said, I will obey it.”
It is profound for exactly the same reason. Many of us (myself included) stand in a long and sinfully proud line that has an uncanny ability to justify or rationalize away straightforward commands that we are not yet prepared to obey. This kind of reluctance to obedience existed in Jesus’ day as well. Mark’s gospel tells us about rich young man who approached Jesus to ask what he must do to receive eternal life. After being assured that the man had obeyed the Law since his youth, Mark writes:
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possession.”
So what are we to do when we find within ourselves a heart that is unwilling to yield to the God who speaks through the pages of the Bible? How do you respond when you discover that you don’t want to forgive? You don’t want care about your neighbor’s suffering? You don’t want to sacrifice you time, money, or energy for a church that has hurt you (and will probably do it again)? What do you do when you hear those old, comforting lies in your heart again: “Did God really say you have to do that? God understands. God knows your heart. He knows you’re not quite ready yet. God just wants you to be happy.” Sound familiar?
Here are three brief thoughts to remember the next time you are tempted to explain why you don’t need to obey a simple command in God’s Word.
- God has spoken. That Bible you hold in your hand in the true and authoritative word of the Living God. In its pages he has revealed everything about himself, yourself, and this world that you need to live a godly life and receive his salvation (2 Peter 1:3). He promises that the Holy Spirit within us will reveal the fullness of his truth and that this very Word is his chosen instrument to make you more like Christ (John 14:26; 17:17).
- Remember the Gospel. You are not saved by how well you obey. If you were, we would all be in trouble. The Good News is that God loved us despite our sin and sent his Son to save us, not to condemn us (John 3:16-17). Your eternal life is a gift based on the sheer goodness and kindness of the God who made you. God sent Jesus to take upon himself the full cost of your sin – past, present, and future. If you are in Christ, your momentary struggle with disobedience cannot undo the perfect righteousness of Christ that is yours through faith (2 Corinthians 5:21).
- To love is to obey. So how do we show our love to a God who loves us and saves us in spite of our weakness and disbelief? We choose to obey. We choose to gladly take each part of our lives, one day at a time, and give them back to him for his service. Jesus said simply, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
God has given us a gift in the Bible. We are not left to wonder who he is or what he would have us to do. It’s all right there. The question that remains is, do we really want to hear what God has to say? Our Kenyan brothers and sisters have encouraged me to hear the Word again with fresh ears and a new joy. I hope their enthusiasm spurs you on to reconsider what God would do in you.