One of the distinguishing marks of Indians is that they talk as much with their head and hands as they do with their mouths. One morning in Bangkok, I happened to be talking to my sister-in-law, with my mouth, head and hands. Suddenly, my left hand caught the edge of my glasses and knocked them to the ground.
I carefully picked them up and found that the left lens had been completely shattered. Fortunately we were just a few steps from a shop equipped with computerized devices that could read the prescription, even from a broken lens. I was promised I'd have a new set of glasses by the evening.
Equally fortunately I had happened to take along with me an old pair of glasses, which I quickly put on. The prescription was somewhat weaker, so everything was blurred for a while. But within an hour or so, my eyes adjusted to the weaker glasses, so well that, when I got my glasses and everything began to come more sharply into view, it was actually quite uncomfortable. It took me two or three days to get used to the new glasses.
This made me wonder. Why could I get used to the weaker glasses within an hour or two but needed nearly two days to get used to the sharper lens?
This also happens in our Christian life, particularly with our global vision. Periodically, through missionary conferences and the occasional expository sermon (if the text happens to relate to it), the world comes a bit more sharply into focus. But we leave such services and quickly slip on our "old glasses" again. Consequently, our vision becomes myopic-it hardly extends beyond our own family and affairs. If we force ourselves to put on a new pair of glasses by thoughtfully reflecting on Global Vision, the world will keep on coming into sharper view, and it's likely to prove uncomfortable. Maybe we'd find we would love to throw off these "new glasses" and put on the old ones. Admittedly, things are blurred, but it's a lot more comfortable. I urge you, as you keep reading and redrawing your maps of the world, keep the glasses on. Keep them on until you get to the point where you're comfortable enough to live in the light of what you see.
In our first attempt to "catch the vision," we saw God's unchanging purposes for the nations. I now want to sharpen our view of the nations themselves, not the way National Geographic looks at them, but the way God sees them, as largely the lost and the poor.
Who are the lost? The Bible tells us that the first man and woman used their power of free will to exercise their independence of God. As a result, death came into this world. What form did this death take?
First, in their hiding from God we see alienation from the Father, or spiritual death. In their attempts to cover parts of their bodies, they were no longer comfortable with the way they had been made. That is internal alienation or psychological death. In their attempts to pass the buck (when Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent) we see alienation from one another or social death. When God pronounced the curse upon the ground, rendering Adam's job of producing food a difficult one, and also decreed that Eve would no longer be able to bring forth children without pain, we see that man and woman could not fulfill their primary responsibilities apart from pain. That is vocational or ecological death. Finally, when He said, "dust you are and to dust you shall return," we see the processes of physical death set into motion.
The fundamental consequence of Adam and Eve's rebellion was spiritual death or alienation from God; the other aspects of death came as a consequence. The Bible tells us that because every man and woman of every nation under the earth descended from this first man and woman, they are all marked by these five aspects of death, to a greater or lesser degree, and are under the wrath of God.
The solution is the reversal of the fundamental problem. Spiritually dead people must become spiritually alive. This happens when people hear about Jesus Christ and trust in His death and resurrection on their behalf. The lost man or woman, then, is every person in every nation who has not been spiritually regenerated through faith in Jesus' death and resurrection.
Viewed from that perspective, men and women everywhere are equally lost. Spiritual death has put the same gap between every person and God. The lost man in Rexdale, Ontario, is just as lost as the lost man in the jungles of Africa.
But from another perspective, the gap is unequal. David Bryant1 refers to "the gap of opportunity" to hear and understand the solution to the problem of spiritual death. Heathen in Rexdale only need to turn on their television on a Sunday morning, or to walk or drive to Rexdale Alliance Church or to any other church in a matter of five to 15 minutes to hear the "good news."
But in most of India's 600,000 villages, even if an individual wanted to hear the gospel, he would have to travel a minimum of 300 miles before he even bumped into a church. He'd have to walk even further in Irianjaya, which was so densely covered with forests and trees that the "civilized" world didn't even know anyone lived there until 1950. If such an individual wanted to hear the gospel it was physically impossible for him to do so, no matter how far he walked.
According to Bryant, we can consider this gap of opportunity from four different aspects:
a) The geographical gap
We occasionally hear people comment, "The Church in the Philippines (Indonesia or Southeast Asia) is so much larger than the Church in North America! Isn't it high time we redirected the primary focus of evangelism and broadcast Jesus as the light of the world right here?" Or it's put this way: "Of the approximately 223 countries in the world, there are viable churches in 215 of them. So really, the Great Commission is well on its way to fulfillment. We've only got eight more countries left. So what's all the fuss about?"
This is actually based on a misunderstanding of the word "nations" in the Bible. The Bible doesn't use it in the same sense as we do, i.e. the nation of India, the nation of Canada, the nation of China. Peter Wagner, former missionary to Bolivia and a professor of missions at Fuller School of World Missions, explains:
Human beings are not simply unrelated individuals. Each person is identified with a social group that becomes a very important part of his or her self-identity. That social group is called a "people" and is defined technically as a "significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves as having a common affinity with one another. For evangelistic purposes this is the largest subgroup within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of acceptance or cultural understanding."
That is what is meant by the word nations in the Bible.2 In this sense, there are not 223 nations but such "people groups" speaking at least 5,700 different languages. For example, the world's 750 million Muslims speak 580 languages and are divided into 4,000 people groups. In China, approximately 2,000 people groups speak approximately 50 different languages; of the 3,000 castes and tribes in the land of India, only 21 have really responded to the gospel. In 50 others there is a struggling church but in 2,929, there is absolutely no witness for Jesus at all. And here's the rub: not only have 17,000 out of the 19,000 or so people groups of the world not heard the gospel, it is impossible for them now to hear it because, at this point, there isn't a single church or a single Christian within that culture! The unfinished task, then, is not eight "nations" out of 223 countries, but 17,000 out of approximately 19,000. The geographical gap is large and it continues to deserve our urgent attention.
Further, when someone in a particular "people group" does hear the gospel, we run into other obstacles.
b) cultural gap
In January, 1987, I went to Bangkok to attend a strategy committee meeting on behalf of my brother-in-law's organization. The head of the committee is a brilliant young American businessman. The son of Alliance missionaries to Japan, he is fluent in Japanese. Japanese industrialists recognized his potential and made him vice-president of one of their largest companies in the United States. In one of our conversations, he shared with me the utter frustration of trying to communicate the gospel to his Japanese business colleagues. They respect him as a businessman; so, at last, after four years, they will allow him to speak about Christianity and they listen politely. Then he said, "I have tried everything I know how to get them to talk about their faith in a comparative sense, but they won't do it." Yes, they are Shintos, yes it's different from Christianity, but they can't understand why my friend even bothers to talk about such matters. Instead, they say, "let's get back to business." That's an example of a cultural gap.
c) theological gap
My visit to a Southeast Asian country put me in the midst of a Buddhist culture for the first time. I was familiar with Hindu culture but didn't know much about Buddhism. There I saw some practical outworkings of Buddhist theology in a way I hadn't seen before.
The Buddhist has one primary preoccupation in life and that is to "make merit" --to earn some "brownie" points. The problem is, we don't know whom he is trying to earn those points from, because Buddhism as a religion is nontheistic; it doesn't believe in God. But Buddhists believe in some kind of "super spirit." Every morning, up in the village where a missionary couple from our church were serving, I would see the people waiting in the morning, lined up with bowls of rice and other such goodies in their hands to give to the monks who would soon come by. But they don't view this giving as charity or the monks as beggars. The people aren't doing the monks a favor; the monks are doing the people a favor by allowing them to give to them and thereby "make merit" before God! Here's another illustration. A certain North American organization attempted to help Vietnamese fishermen along the coastline by supplying boats and gasoline-powered motors, presumably to augment their haul of fish. They were amazed when they never received any expression of thanks. Apparently the Vietnamese fishermen, who were Buddhist, interpreted the gesture not as the North American organization doing then a favor, but as them doing the North Americans a favor by allowing them to help them and thereby "make merit" and compensate for the sins in the Vietnam War.
In another instance, a Christian organization wanted to build an orphanage for handicapped orphans. Who would turn down an offer like that? Yet government officials wouldn't give permission, reasoning that by building the orphanage, the Christians would be interfering with the orphans' process of "making up" for their sins in their past life. The best thing one could do for them in their thinking, was to leave them alone so they could make merit before God.
Is it any wonder that the Buddhist finds the doctrine of substitutionary atonement almost impossible to grasp? Somebody else-dying to pay for your sins goes against the grain of "making merit." That's an example of the theological gap of opportunity.
Patrick Johnston, in his book, Operation World3, tells us that for 1,300 years Islam has stood like an impregnable fortress against Christianity. In the whole of the Middle East, after 160 years of missionary work, there are less than 5,000 converts. Why is that? Because of a theological law they have called the "law of apostasy" that permits any local community of Muslims to kill anybody who defects from the faith. Such violence is considered an act of worship to Allah. That, too, is a theological gap.
d) the resources gap.
Herbert Kane, in his book, Wanted: World Christians, writes:
In North America there are 300,000 evangelical churches, 30,000 evangelical Christian day schools, 9,000 evangelical bookstores, 3,000 Christian summer camps, 300 Bible schools, there are more preachers than policeman, more churches than schools. In the last 30 years we have produced 40 different versions of the Bible, we have more than a thousand Christian radio stations, some of them on the air seven days a week, the entire Bible is available in braille and on tape.4
In contrast, the resources of the countries where the 17,000 unreached groups are largely located, is unbelievably small. Because most of the people outside the western world are poor, the churches are largely poor. Because the churches are poor, the pastors are poor. In many cases, some pastors would have to pay two to three days' wages to get a Bible. Most of them don't even have a concordance or theological dictionary. As a consequence lay people are generally inadequately trained. The Assemblies of God tells us that in Brazil alone there are about 60,000 lay leaders, only 3,000 of whom have any kind of training.
This gap in resources would be bad enough if the task were the same for them as for us in North America. But it's much bigger; thus the resource imbalance represents a disproportionately large contribution to the gap of opportunity.
In sum, even though all men and women are equally lost and apart from God, most of the lost are further separated from the gospel by a geographical, cultural, theological and resources gap. This is how God sees the lost of the world.
In the second aspect of God's "glasses" on the world, there are the poor. Just as the first consequence of disobedience-spiritual death-brought about spiritual estrangement, the remaining consequences of death have wrought social evils in this world-suffering, poverty, and injustice. Just as spiritual death is universal, so too the remaining effects of sin are universal. Now, poverty and social injustice are just as heartbreaking when encountered here in North America as in other parts of the world. But as in the case of spiritual lostness, there is a tremendous inequality between the two.
Consider for example the disparity between the poorest and the richest thirds of the world. Infant mortality is about 10 times higher (140 versus 12 for every 1,000); life span is 47 years versus 74; literacy is 9% for women and 28% for men versus 90%; and the gross national product is about $300 versus $18,000. The "poverty level" in North America is rated between 10-20,000 a year, an unbelievably wealthy sum for most of those people. (All statistics from Kane5.)
To further illustrate the unequal gap of opportunity: 76% of the poorest fourth of the world also live in places where they have the smallest opportunity of hearing the gospel. That's the way God sees the "nations."
Some might say, "I knew all these things anyway. So what's new?" Maybe nothing! But remember what God says about the ''poor of the world.''
First, in the scriptures, God identifies with the poor. Proverbs says that "he that offends the poor insults the Lord." Yet, "he that gives to the poor lends to the Lord."
If God identifies with the poor, it's not surprising that He acts on behalf of the poor. The whole Bible is a record of this action. Three incidents from redemptive history illustrate this: the exodus, the exile and the incarnation.
In the "exodus," God called the children of Israel out from Egypt. His primary purpose was to build the nation of Israel through which He would work out the Abrahamic covenant (God's purpose for the world). But the Bible gives a second reason for the Exodus. Moses suggests this in Deuteronomy, when he reminded Israel not to forget to celebrate the Passover when they came into the Promised Land. Why? Because "you were an oppressed people in Egypt and your cry came to the heart of a compassionate God." The Exodus was an act of redemption as well as compassion.
Once in the Promised Land, the Israelites discovered a surprising truth. The same God who acted on their behalf when they were the oppressed people, didn't hesitate to act against them when they themselves became oppressors. Israel came to realize that God is always on the side of the oppressed, even if the oppressor is His own chosen people! The Northern Kingdom of Israel under the prophecy of Hosea and Amos and the Southern Kingdom under the prophecies of Jeremiah, Micah and others, were constantly challenged with this double sin: the spiritual problem of idolatry (and incorporation of all of the Caananite cultic worship practices); and the sin of social injustice (the distortion of the law in their courts to favor the rich over the poor; bribery; neglect of all the Sabbath laws and the laws of gleaning). A two-fold indictment was upon them. Yet for decades they refused to listen to the preaching of the prophets. So God sent them away to exile. The Bible makes it very clear that both types of sin played a part in Israel's exile -the spiritual and the social.
Perhaps the most vivid example of the identification of God with the poor is found in the incarnation, when God became a man walked the face of this earth. We see it in the person of Jesus Christ Himself. He was born into a very poor family. We know this from the offering Mary and Joseph brought at the time of Jesus' dedication-the one prescribed in Leviticus for the poorest of the poor. The first two years of His life, Jesus lived as a refugee, moving to Egypt, then back to Jerusalem before finally settling in Nazareth. Then, describing His adult life, He said to people who wanted to follow Him, "the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests but I don't even have a bed to call my own."
His identification with the poor is evident not only in His person, but also in His ministry. In the synagogue in Nazareth He described the nature of His ministry from Isaiah's text, as one that would focus on the spiritual needs of people but also as a ministry of compassion to those who suffered the other effects of the fall. He would heal the brokenhearted and set the prisoners free.
When John the Baptist sent his followers to find out whether Jesus was really the Messiah, His answer was very revealing. He said, "Go back to John and tell him what you've seen-the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear and the poor have the gospel preached to them." Does that mean He favours the poor over the rich? (When I use the word "rich," it probably includes every person who is reading this book. We are all rich compared to the "nations.")
Of course not; God is absolutely impartial. In the Old Testament there were explicit instructions to the judges not to favour the rich or the poor. On one occasion, when Jesus was pushing His way through a throng of people, He picked out the richest fellow in the whole group, Zacchaeus, and went to his house for tea. But after tea was over, Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this household." Why? Because Zaccheaus had announced he was going to give back to the people everything that he extorted from them and more. God saves the rich (you and me), so that we can become involved with Him in His concern for the poor and the lost. It shouldn't surprise us, therefore, that if God identifies with the poor and acts on behalf of the poor, He commands us to act concerning the poor. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said those well-known words-"Inasmuch as you gave a cup of cold water, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned, to the least of my brothers, you did it unto me."
The second half of this pronouncement should cause us even more concern-"Inasmuch as you did it not unto one of the least of these, you did it not unto me." Thus, in the New Testament, concern for the poor goes beyond that in the Old Testament. It's not enough to avoid active oppression of the poor; passive unconcern and uninvolvement in their plight is also an equally grievous sin.
Ronald Sider, in his book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, asks,
What does it mean to feed and clothe the Creator of all things? We cannot know. We can only look on the poor and the oppressed with new eyes and resolve to heal their hurts and help end their oppression.6
Then he comments on Jesus's words, "inasmuch as you did it not unto the least of these you did it not unto me":
What does it mean to see the Lord of the universe lying by the roadside starving and walk by on the other side uninvolved? We cannot know for sure. We can only pledge in fear and trembling not to kill Him again.7
Because of Adam's rebellion, all people are spiritually alienated from God. Most are also separated by a massive gap of opportunity, the geographical gap, the cultural gap, the theological gap, and the resources gap. The secondary effects of spiritual separation, i.e. the psychological, social, vocational and the ecological consequences, have conspired to bring about all kinds of misery and human suffering in their world which is also very unequally distributed. This is how God sees the nations. And this is the vision we have to catch. To use my opening analogy, we have to keep the glasses on, even though they may be uncomfortable, until they become our regular glasses, until we begin to act to close the gap!
1. David Bryant, In The Gap (California: Regal Books, 1979).
2. C. Peter Wagner, On The Crest of a Wave (California: Regal Books, 1983), p. 115.
3. Quoted by J. Herbert Kane, Wanted: World Christians (Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1986), p. 104.
4. Ibid., p. 94.
5. Ibid., p. 94.
6. R. J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 69.
7. Ibid., p. 69.