Tropical Storm Henri made landfall Sunday afternoon in Rhode Island. More than 135,000 customers from Maine to New Jersey are without power this morning; storm surges threaten eastern Long Island and southern New England. A state of emergency was declared in New York and Connecticut due to the storm, with five hundred National Guard troops activated for deployment to Long Island and the Hudson Valley.
In other weather news, severe flooding in Middle Tennessee has left at least twenty-two people dead as of this morning and dozens of people missing. The dead reportedly include twin toddlers who were swept from their father’s arms.
President Biden spoke yesterday afternoon on the tropical storm and the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan. He announced that his administration had activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, ordering US commercial airlines to provide flights for the Afghanistan evacuation efforts. The flights would not go to Afghanistan but would be used to transport those already flown out of the country.
The conflict in Afghanistan continues to dominate headlines and hearts today. Germany’s armed forces reported a firefight at Kabul airport this morning between unidentified gunmen, Western security forces, and Afghan guards. One Afghan guard was killed and three were wounded at the airport’s north gate. All gates were closed in response.
An American mom trapped in the Taliban-controlled country pleaded for help in evacuating. Reports indicate that the Taliban set a woman on fire for “bad cooking” as other women are reportedly being forced into sex slavery. Many are concerned that the Taliban now possess tens of billions of dollars of military equipment and supplies formerly under control of the Afghan security forces, some of which they could transfer or sell to transnational terror groups such as al-Qaeda or ISIS.
And we continue to hear reports of the Taliban searching for Christians. The leader of an underground church in Afghanistan said, “The Taliban has a hit list of known Christians they are targeting to pursue and kill. The US Embassy is defunct and there is no longer a safe place for believers to take refuge.” An Afghan church leader said the Taliban will “eliminate the Christian population” in the country.
In a world racked with natural and man-made disasters, what is the way forward for the gospel?
“The Unconquerable Islamic World”
Robert Nicholson’s article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. Titled “The Unconquerable Islamic World,” it declares that “Afghanistan shows the folly of mistaking Christian ideals for ‘universal’ ones.”
Discussing the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, he writes: “We Westerners failed not for lack of effort, but because military and economic power alone cannot change the Islamic world in a lasting way.” He claims, “It never occurred to us that America was what it was because of Christianity, and Afghanistan was what it was because of Islam.”
He identifies the “pillars” on which Islam stands: “The Qur’an is Allah’s final revelation, binding on all humanity; faith is a matter of private devotion as well as public law, best lived out in a state that blends religion and politics; and Muslims should, where possible, hold power over non-Muslims to ensure that Allah’s law is rightly enforced.”
Nicholson claims, “It is doctrines like these that cause the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Hamas to fight the ‘Jews and Crusaders’ who tread on land that historically belonged to Islam. But their commitments are far from radical; most Muslims see them as normative even if they fail to act on them.”
As a result, he declares, “The West cannot change the Islamic world.” He believes that “the best strategy will move from rollback to containment and prioritize the defense of American interests and allies over the promotion of values and institutions.” He adds, “This does not mean we will stand by when their choices cross American red lines, but the US must affirm their right to make them.”
I am seeing similar arguments across the political spectrum as analysts begin dissecting what went wrong in Afghanistan and suggesting better paths forward. The consensus is that the West cannot change Islam. Unless we are forced to defend ourselves from Islamic extremists, we should learn to live and let live.
“The man in a white robe”
This argument is attractive and compelling for Americans, not just for our engagement with Muslims but for Christians’ engagement with the secular culture in which we live. As more and more Americans reject organized religion and embrace unbiblical morality, evangelicals are told that tolerance is our society’s highest value and that we should live and let live.
Secularists ask us: What business is it of ours if others choose abortion or euthanasia? What right do we have to tell people what gender they can love and marry? Isn’t everyone’s sexual orientation and gender identity their business? The “culture wars,” by which evangelicals have sought to declare and defend biblical truth and morality, are being lost—or so we’re told.
As with Muslims in Afghanistan, our critics claim that it would be best for us to recognize that we cannot change others and stop promoting “values and institutions” that are countercultural.
But Nicholson overlooks a crucial factor: the spiritual awakening now occurring in the Muslim world. As missionary Tom Doyle and many others have documented, Muslims in recent years have been coming to Christ in unprecedented numbers. Some are hearing the gospel through media ministries, while many are seeing visions and dreams of Jesus.
Tom Doyle told author Lee Strobel of ministries placing ads in Egyptian newspapers that say, “Have you seen the man in a white robe in your dreams? He has a message for you. Call this number.” Doyle added, “So many Muslims were having these dreams that Christian ministries started placing ads to reach them.”
What the Holy Spirit is doing in the Muslim world is the key to the transformation we need in our culture as well.
“Religion has become more important than God”
The fault is with us.
In his most recent newsletter, former Christianity Today editor-in-chief Mark Galli highlighted a sermon by German pastor Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842–1919). At one point, Blumhardt observed: “Our civilization simply doesn’t need God anymore. What good is God when you are on the train? The man at the controls, it is his job to get me to Stuttgart. The conductor can groan, the fireman can break his back, the engineer can worry, but isn’t it all the same to me? I just sit there on the train.
“That is why we can be so crude and ruthless about enjoying everything these modern times offer us; we do not need God. Science and technology do not need God. They are succeeding quite well without him!”
He added: “God is of no real importance, even for people with religion, because religion has become more important than God. Though people get into tremendous arguments about religious questions, all the time God is dead. And it is perfectly all right with them if he is dead, because they can do what they like. That is another trait of our times, people want to be able to do whatever pops into their heads or feels good at the moment.”
Blumhardt responds: “God in Christ is not dead; he still is the Alpha and the Omega. And everything in between is chaos, not just a spiritual alienation in which people don’t know where life is going, but real chaos. Men and women are meant to share in the work for the end, for God’s kingdom on earth, but they won’t share. And so the madness goes on.”
For his part, Blumhardt testifies: “I don’t want a minute of easy happiness until this earth knows that God is alive! We must bow down under the living God and weep aloud for having killed him up to now. We are born for trouble, born for battle. Shame on us Christians who are always wanting to have it nice and soft, with a bit of God in our lives! We’ve got to fight until we’re dead, or we aren’t worth Christ’s name. God calls out to us, ‘Share in my business!’ and we are fooling ourselves until we do this.”
He concludes: “Let each one of us be earnest with himself and get off his soft bed. Even if it costs you your life, go right in, into the thick of the fight! Jesus is alive, and Jesus is victor, and he has given us our part to carry out.”
“We must obey God rather than men”
Before Pentecost, when Peter was asked whether he was a follower of Jesus, “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak’” (Mark 15:71). After Pentecost, when the same Sanhedrin that arranged Jesus’ execution demanded that he cease preaching the gospel, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and proceeded to declare God’s word to them (vv. 30–32).
Before Pentecost, when John and his brother James encountered Samaritans who “did not receive” Jesus, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:53–54). After Pentecost, when John and Peter encountered a crippled man beside the temple gate, they stopped for him, shared Christ with him, and helped him experience Jesus’ healing transformation (Acts 3:1–10).
Before Pentecost, the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane “left Jesus and fled” (Matthew 26:56) and met together behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). After Pentecost, they were so bold in their faith that the religious authorities were “astonished” (Acts 4:13).
The difference was simple: at Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).
“The greatest imperative in the Christian life”
To be “filled” with the Spirit is to be controlled and empowered by him. God commands every Christian every day to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). To experience this “filling,” we must take these steps:
- Get alone with the Lord.
- Ask the Spirit to bring to mind anything in our lives that displeases God and is blocking the Spirit’s power in our lives (we will say more of this later in the week).
- Confess all that comes to our thoughts, claiming God’s forgiving grace (1 John 1:9).
- Ask the Spirit to take control of our feelings, attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions. Submit our plans for the day specifically to him.
- Believe that he has answered our prayer.
- Stay in surrendered communion with the Spirit throughout the day. When we face challenges and temptations, pray for his help. If we fall to temptation, pray for him to forgive us, cleanse us, and restore us. When we face opportunities and decisions, pray for him to lead us. Stay “connected” with him all day long.
When I lead study tours to Israel, we always go to the “Upper Room,” a Crusader-era structure located near the place where Pentecost occurred. I always teach the Acts 2 Pentecost miracle to the group and the steps I just outlined.
Then I say to them what I say to you today: “The greatest imperative in the Christian life is to be filled with the Spirit. The greatest enemy of the Christian life is self-sufficiency that resists such empowerment. Self-reliance is spiritual suicide. Spirit dependence is spiritual victory.”
Whether we are facing natural disasters, man-made crises, or the daily challenges of living in a fallen world, you and I were designed by God to depend daily on the power of his Spirit.
“In Afghanistan, the real church is going on”
An Afghan pastor and evangelist named David Paiman was recently interviewed by Christianity Today. His father was a Muslim imam; Paiman went to Mecca six times before coming to faith in Jesus. He first heard the gospel from a former Muslim who had a vision of Christ during a pilgrimage to Mecca. Paiman came to Christ after Christians prayed for a friend with epilepsy who was healed.
His explanation of the crisis in Afghanistan is different from what we are seeing in the secular media. When asked what life was like for Christians after the American invasion in 2001, he replied: “That’s what I call false hope. I will never forget in 2001 when the American army came and took over, everyone was celebrating, everyone got freedom and people were praising and thankful for America. Exactly twenty years later, we see what’s happening now.”
The interviewer asked, “With the hope that you experienced, what did you think might happen?”
In words that echo Pastor Blumhardt’s indictment of Western religion, Paiman replied, “The real hope is Jesus Christ. Afghanistan has been trying many ways to get hope, to get peace inside Afghanistan, but they did not try Jesus Christ. They did not try God. They did not try his love and his mercy. My prayer and zeal are to share Christ with them.
“They can receive Christ and they can get the real hope, the living hope that never ends.”
Then the pastor noted: “In Afghanistan, people know they are the church, and they understand that. But here, in most of America, they say the building is a church. There is a building with a cross on it. That’s what they call church but, in Afghanistan, the real church is going on.”
Would the Holy Spirit say “the real church is going on” in your life today?