The Smell and Sent of Mission
My wife and I had been away for over two weeks. Arriving back at our home, I opened the door only to be greeted by an utterly revolting smell. We’d managed, mistakenly, to turn off our freezer before we left and so all the meat had gone rotten. It was a very unpleasant task to clean out the freezer and then there was the challenge of getting rid of that obnoxious lingering smell. Recently my wife and I were away for another couple of weeks and before we departed we made absolutely sure that we had not turned off the freezer.
Mission is a meaty subject. A very unpleasant odour is created by churches and Christians who have switched off their Bible and have thereby failed to preserve a sound biblical understanding of mission. There have been times, and continue to be times, when Christians engage in mission in ways that contravene sound biblical teaching. When this happens it lends credence to those in our community who see Christian missions as essentially harmful and destructive of culture. The name of our Lord is brought into disrepute.
Many smell a rat when they think about religion in general. Religion is charged with being the primary cause of violence in our world and, notwithstanding 9/11 and the havoc wrought by Islamists, it is Christians, as a relatively soft target, who often find themselves primarily in the firing line. There is the view that Christian mission has spread superstition and bigotry; that it has been a tool of Western imperialism. Christians are considered to be wowsers and Christian mission is all about telling people how bad they are and producing people who have an unhealthy negative self-image. Some think Christianity produces what Nietzsche called a slave morality; that Christian morality strips people of their freedom by suppressing desires they should be free to satisfy.
Mission is a meaty subject and in all these cases the meat of so-called mission truly gives off a foul stench. That’s because all of these ways of thinking about mission are not biblically preserved understandings of mission. In all these cases the meat has well and truly gone off.
A sound biblical understanding of mission is like a good juicy steak: great to sink your teeth into. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about mission if you understand what it is about. Paul declared, “I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of every one who believes… (Romans 1:16).
Rotting meat gives off a foul odour. There’s another idea of mission that gives off an even more revolting stink. It’s an idea of mission held by those who are ashamed of mission.
Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He was a Muslim. After he converted to Christianity in Gambia a strange thing happened. He went to a Methodist church and the senior minister, an English missionary, invited Sanneh to reconsider his decision, encouraging him to remain a Muslim and not become a Christian. This missionary, sad to say, was embarrassed at the idea of receiving a Muslim convert into his church. Sanneh discovered that many Western Christians have a guilt complex about missions.
In our pluralistic society there is pressure upon us as Christians to think that we should just live and let live. According to this way of thinking we should not be seeking to convert Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims or people from any other religious background. Well, let’s not stop there. Why not add secular humanists and atheists. Let me be blunt. This understanding of mission produces a stench that is even more nauseating than that produced by rotting meat. For truth itself has now been treated as a piece of rotting garbage.
Mary Midgley is a respected British philosopher. She likens philosophy to plumbing: something that nobody notices till it goes wrong. She explains, “Then suddenly we become aware of some bad smells, and we have to take up the floorboards and look at the concepts of even the most ordinary piece of thinking.” The same is true in Christian theology, Christian thinking.
Clearly, we need to do some plumbing to deal with those bad smells. We need to take up the floorboards and look at the concept of mission. To have a sound and healthy concept of Christian mission we must take human evil seriously. Concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, has commented, “Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake.”
There are a lot of people who delude themselves into believing that people are basically good. But, if you say that people are essentially good you are just making an emotional statement, something you want to believe is true. For to make such a statement you need to explain, for example, how some people who are supposedly essentially good become sadistic monsters like Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot.
Human evil is clearly a reality. There are adults who have sex with children. Terrorists post videos of themselves slowly cutting off the heads of their victims with a knife and clearly believe that what they do pleases the god they worship.
Many people find it convenient to blame God for human evil. Mary Midgley is a humanist, not a Christian. Yet she has no patience with those who blame God for human evil. Here is what she says about human evil:
“What is evil must in a way be part of our nature, since what stands right outside it could be no temptation to us, would even be beyond our power. It has to be something possible for us, something for which we are equipped and to which we are drawn – but outrageous, damaging to the proper arrangement of the whole” (Beast and Man).
Mary Midgley is just speaking sound common sense. She is stating the obvious: humans can only be drawn to commit acts of enormous evil if there is something in human nature that makes this possible. To blame God for human evil is a cop out.
A sound biblical understanding of mission presupposes that we are living in a radically evil world. Think how Paul commences his letter to the churches in Galatia (in modern-day Anatolia in Turkey). You find these words written right above the front door: “the Lord Jesus Christ…gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.” If this Age is not characterised by radical evil then Jesus did not need to give himself for our sins to rescue us from it. If this Age is not characterised by radical evil then Jesus was an absolute fool to willingly undergo such an excruciating and horrific death. This is an evil Age because evil is present in all people, not just in the terrorist responsible for the recent attack in Manhattan. If people are basically good, then there was no need for Christ’s mission and there is no need for any church or any Christian to take mission seriously. But if the Bible speaks truly and every human being, including every one of us, has to deal with the evil within, then Christians need to take mission very, very seriously.
But does this mean that our critics are correct when they say that Christian mission is all about telling people how bad they are; that Christian mission is responsible for making people have a negative and destructive self-image that makes them miserable?
No! That is not a sound biblical understanding of mission. Don’t grab this stick of an issue by the wrong end. Just think of our Lord. We don’t see him coming into the world to rub our noses in it. The Jesus who walked this earth, who did what he did, and said what he said, was anything but a self-righteous prig who looked down his nose at others. Our Lord is the one who said of himself, “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). Jesus did not treat us as if we are all a bunch of no-hopers. He was even criticised for fraternising with prostitutes and other people despised in the society of his day.
Jesus had another way of describing his mission purpose. He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31). Jesus likens our sinful, fallen condition to being sick.
My wife and I recently spent precious time with a dear friend who had had major surgery for cancer. We were told that the prognosis was not good. When we were with our friend he said he was about to enter the second stage of a six stage recovery process and he was optimistic about making a recovery. Within two weeks of saying this he was dead. As a friend of his said later, he had no idea how gravely ill he really was. He was dying and he did not know it.
The vast majority of people in our world are like my friend. They don’t know how sick they are. Any who have not experienced Jesus’ healing hand have a terminal illness. They are dying but the death that lies ahead is not just physical death, it is never-ending spiritual death. Christians will never get serious about true biblical mission if they don’t really believe that everybody who hasn’t experienced Jesus’ healing touch is terminally ill.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Remember the context. The hypocritical Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law demanded to know, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replied in effect, “You hypocrites wrongly think you are healthy and don’t need a doctor. You think that you are good people who do not need to radically change, to repent. So as the Great Physician there is absolutely nothing I can do for you.”
C.S. Lewis was both an Oxford and Cambridge University professor. He converted from atheism, with J.R. Tolkien playing a large part in this. C.S. Lewis described himself in his book, Mere Christianity:
“For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Did C.S. Lewis see himself as a fundamentally good and decent man? No! He found within himself two signs of profound inner sickness. Firstly, he was conscious of inner lusts and evil desires that tugged at him and threatened to pull him away from living a life that pleases and honours God, what he calls “the Animal self.” Secondly, and even more seriously, he saw how prone he was to be a hypocrite or, as he put it, “a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church”, what he calls “the Diabolical self.”
Jesus put his finger on what it was that really motivated the Pharisees when he said, “Everything they do is done for people to see” (Matthew 23:5). If the Diabolical self is shaping who we are then any involvement in mission is all about what can I do to make myself look good and feel good about myself. He lampooned the Pharisees, saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Mt 23:15). By contrast, a sound biblical understanding of mission is about helping people to see that Jesus is the Great Physician who has come to save us from terrible eternal death by healing us of the dreadful disease that is secretly killing us.
We have noted the foul smells associated with wrong understandings of mission. But a sound biblical understanding of mission also has smells associated with it. In British Columbia, Canada, researchers noticed that when they rinsed their hands in a stream containing migrating Pacific salmon, those salmon below the wash site suddenly became agitated, broke school, and retreated downstream. Experiments revealed that the odor of human skin was the culprit. Salmon were repelled but other fish, for example, bass were not repulsed by this at all.
In 2 Corinthians 2 Paul says:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? 17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God (vv14-17).
We engage in mission “as those sent from God” and for us mission involves ‘spreading the aroma of the knowledge of [Jesus] everywhere.’ We might expect that hose ‘who are perishing’ would find that their own sinful, diseased state exudes an unpleasant odour. It is tragic, therefore, that those who are heading for unending spiritual death, are repelled by the aroma of the knowledge of Jesus. They experience God-honouring Christians as the ones who stink because they are spreading this fragrance. But not all respond this way. A significant number are attracted by the sweet scent that emanates from the lives of those who truly know Jesus. God is saving people; he is gathering a people for himself from every tribe, tongue, people and nation.