A theory of relativity

Ancient Roman Bronze Coins - The Widow's Mite

Once upon a time there was a golden land of equal opportunity, universal free education and profound egalitarianism. A level playing field ensured that everyone could be fully productive and reap the fair reward for their labours.

(Oh, and nobody got sick so they all remained equal.)
(Also, everyone had the same IQ.)
(Furthermore, the government and leaders were impeccably fair to all.)
(And nobody had social disadvantages stemming from inept parenting.)
(There were no inherited diseases.)
(Accidents never disabled anyone.)

You probably get my drift – “Life isn’t fair. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.”1 This applies not only in good books and movies but also in real life. Some folks are bigger, stronger, more intelligent, better looking, luckier, and wealthier. Regardless of where you are at in life, there will be somebody who is better off than you according to whatever standard you choose to measure such things by.

Fortunately, in God’s economy the ideals of fairness and justice are based on better foundations than the incomplete measures we generally use2. Jesus describes God’s assessment of how well we have done in both absolute (see John 5:30) and relative terms:

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44)

God will certainly hold us each accountable, but it will be in accordance with the gifts, abilities and opportunities we have been given rather than in comparison to what others might achieve. In this sense, God uses relative standards to measure our achievements.

In these days of Facebook and Pinterest comparisons, this is a huge comfort and corrective for those of us who perceive ourselves to be somehow disadvantaged in the popularity and ‘success’ contest. God will judge me, not according to what I achieve in comparison to others, but according to what I do with what He has given me. Will I be a faithful servant to Him or will I slack off and waste His gifts?

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required (Luke 12:48)

Who would want to stand before God in judgment fumbling for excuses to justify wasting the life He gave? When I consider this it opens my eyes to understand how much I have been blessed with, in contrast to wallowing in self pity as happens when I look at my weaknesses compared to the apparent strengths of others. In fact, even weakness may be given by God for purposes only He knows:

…I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

What I must keep in mind is that the strength God gives in my weakness could be a ‘just enough’ strength; enough to get through but not so much that I begin to boast in having strength to cope with anything life throws at me.3

1. Quote from The Princess Bride by William Goldman 
2. Romans 2:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 illustrate this.
3. As with the widow of Zarephath; God blessed her with enough to feed herself, her son and Elijah but the provision was only ever just enough and by our standards quite meager (see 1 Kings 17:8-16).

I am an anxious parent

Another  biblical exhortation to not fear.

This one is also from Genesis (I will jump into the New Testament also), when Hagar was sent away by Sarah and is convinced both her and Ishmael will perish in the desert.

What troubles you?

Hagar has little food and no water. It is obvious what the outcome will be and she cannot bear to watch her own child die of thirst. How many millions of women have wept in Africa and elsewhere as their children slip from this world for lack of water? How many have desperately cried out to God and received no answer?

And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. (Genesis 21:17 ESV)

The unseen

In this particular case God says to Hagar, “Fear not”. Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. (Genesis 21:19 ESV)

These incidents always seem odd to me – how come there was a well of water there but she couldn’t see it? How this actually happens is a mystery but these sorts of incidents are moderately common in the Bible (see Numbers 22:31, 2 Kings 6:17-20, Luke 24:31), reminding us that there are realities out there which we are not usually able to see without God’s enabling.

Can I claim it?

Given that this promise to Hagar doesn’t really apply to Christians directly – let’s face it, Ishmael’s descendants are not particularly favourable towards Christians – can we claim this ‘fear not’ as having any relevance to us?

I think there is at least one way in which it does apply: When we are stressing over how to provide for our children we need to remember that God has a destiny mapped out for every child ever born. Sin, corruption and evil do their utmost to derail our destinies but I think we can at least be assured that it is never wrong to commit our children into God’s hands when we are anxious over being able to provide for them. In fact, Jesus tells us not to fret over food and drink because God knows we need them and we do better to seek God’s kingdom first (Luke 22:22-30).

Why children die of starvation and hunger even when their parents pray and beseech God to save them remains unanswered. The reasons for poverty, drought and food scarcity are many and I suspect God’s reasons for allowing these things are likewise very complex. I do think that regardless of our circumstances the person who pleases God most is the one who seeks him and His kingdom in all situations, even poverty. How, I do not know – I’ve never been in such a place and based on my previous performance I doubt that I would be pleasing to God in my own responses.

Try it with me

In my current circumstances I am going to turn my heart to God today and seek to glorify Him rather than my ability to plan, save, hoard or work for a paycheck.

So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
(Genesis 21:14–19 ESV)

Photo of man anxious over bills: sturti (iStock)

Nothing looks the same

Last Friday evening my wife and I went to a concert by New Zealand’s two best gospel singers, Derek Lind and Steve Apirana.

Steve & Derek regularly tour NZ in support of Tear Fund, playing for donations in local churches. Their concerts are humorous and spontaneous, these guys are relaxed and genuine. They also have depth, there is no flashy lights or stage makeup, what you get is real faith accompanied by experience and wisdom.

This particular concert has challenged me. It occurred at a time when God seems to really be on my case about reaching unreached people groups in hard places with the Gospel and love of Jesus. Then along comes the Christian singer who has been in my ears since 1989 and seriously reinforces that message!

In fact God niggling at me about missions work is nothing new either, over 20 years on that one too! (I’m a slow learner). There has also been a lot of background work needing done before I would be fit to inflict upon the world.

During the month of October I was praying and writing about the Shan people of Burma. For over a year now they have been on my heart and I would love to do more than praying only. Recently I was offered the possibility of going to Thailand to visit some of the work being done amongst the Shan people there and see first hand what I have been writing and praying about.

What I am finding is that my perspective is changing. I am seeing things differently, myself, my life, my place in the world, the realities facing others don’t look the same.  There is no undoing the knowledge I now have of how much suffering is happening in Burma. With that knowledge I am responsible (to paraphrase Brooke Fraser), I cannot just pretend it is not a problem.

Nothing Looks the Same

Fly the friendly skies,
nothing looks the same.
From this distance,
nothing looks the same.
Fly the friendly skies,
and hang your head in shame.
From this altitude,
nothing looks the same.

Was that a lightning bolt?
Nothing looks the same.
Was that a camera flash?
Nothing looks the same.
Is God taking photographs,
for evidence for blame?

From this distance,
nothing looks the same.

But under the spell of gravity,
there is dissonance and danger.
This voyeur gets to touch,
and taste and small and see,
This is not fiction,
it’s fact, and it’s stranger.

This is not a checkerboard,
these are paddy fields and fishponds.
This is not quaint,
it stinks and it’s ugly.

From this distance,
nothing looks the same.
From arm’s length,
nothing looks the same.
Even from 35 millimetres,
nothing looks the same.

Just remember this
at the end of a long hard day,
I get to fly away,
you get to stay

Nothing looks the same
Nothing looks the same
Nothing looks the same

Derek Lind – Nothing Looks the Same

External Links:

I am one of the richest men in the world

Community well in Burma
Community well in Burma

Lately I have been thinking about poverty and the gap between the wealthy in this world and the poor. Oddly enough, I am actually one of the ‘wealthy’ pretty much by virtue of where I happened to be born. So here I am, wondering how we will manage to pay the bills this month, with Christmas and about 6 family birthdays looming, and an economy class summer holiday to scrape some dollars together for, wondering how I happened to get classified as ‘rich’?

Realistically, it costs a lot to live even a modest lifestyle in this country, yet people on the poverty line here are still considered to be among the wealthiest 20% of people in the world! That seems a bit screwy.

Where is our wealth?

Our family has a car. It may be 10 years old and have a few dents in it but it is reliable. However, a car is not much use without roads to drive it on. There is a network of roads from my house to any place in the country that I would like to go. These roads are maintained by thousands of workers using very expensive equipment. All paid for by taxes.

When I want some water I simply turn a tap and there it is, fresh, clean water piped into my house. The city council ensures that the water is of good quality and free from microbial contamination. This is paid for through the combined rates of all property owners in the city. New Zealand has good water supplies, we even have schemes funded by central government to assist in providing good quality water to small communities (though some politicians have taken an axe to the scheme’s budget!). Nobody here has to carry water for hours from the nearest well.

At night our family sleeps in peace. Fortunately our politicians have kept our nation free of conflict internally and have provided us with good international relations such that there is no significant threat of invasion. We have a police force that mostly keeps on top of crime and is largely free of corruption. I can go to work, even on night shift, confident that my family will be safe.

I have several tertiary qualifications, my wife also has a degree. My children are all being educated well at little personal expense to me. They learn their own language, are taught science, art and mathematics. At primary school the kids are even taught to swim because our nation is an island and kiwis love to be on, near and in the water. In addition, one of my daughters has been learning violin for 5 years in classes subsidised by the Ministry of Education.

This is only a small sampling of the riches I enjoy simply by being a citizen of this particular nation.

So even when the bills are mounting up and I grumble at the unrelenting costs of living, so long as I have even $1 in my pocket not urgently needed for basic necessities, I am rich. Our society likes to makes us think that everyone should have vast reserves of discretionary money to spend in order to be ‘happy’. The perfect dream for many is to win Lotto and have millions of dollars to spend as they like. That sort of ‘happiness’ is of little value according to Jesus:

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36 ESV)

Gifts I have noticed recently:

673) More than enough food to eat.
674) Water at the turn of a tap.
675) Clean water, with no pathogens in it.
676) Hot water.
677) A water filter to remove the chlorine from and cool my clean water!
678) Electricity reliably provided to my home.
679) The ability to pay the electricity bill
680) Shops where I can buy what I need.
681) Phone and internet connections.
682) Choices in what I want to eat.
683) Freedom to worship God without harassment.
684) Bibles for sale in the local bookshops.
685) Enough clothes to be warm and comfortable.
686) Access to healthcare when I need it.
687) Good dental care, even if it does cost a lot – when necessary I manage to find the money.
688) A vote of equal significance to everyone else in elections.
689) Warm shoes.
690) Abundance of what I need.

Image of well in Burma: Vision Beyond Borders

From pew warmer to poverty fighter

The Unlikely Missionary is an ebook by Dan King, a blogger who has moved from having vague thoughts about poverty to writing about the topic on his blog to taking a trip to Africa with Five Talents International.

In taking this trip from Florida to Kenya and Uganda with the purpose of helping teach basic small business skills to local people, Dan doesn’t set out to change the world, the purpose in his heart is to sow seeds. In the process a seed is also sown in his own heart:

What if my greatest impact on a trip like this went beyond the work that I did while I was there? What if I could continue to have an even greater impact in the life of my son by showing him that I’m serious about making the world a better place, and that he can help? What if this whole thing sets off a chain reaction (even if it is just in my family) to make a difference not only half-way around the world, but even in our own backyard?

He comes face to face with the reality of poverty and also hope. Beyond the stereotypes of what “poor people” look like or act like, he sees the daily struggle to cope under difficult conditions which are not of their own doing.

How is this relevant to me?

What attracted me to this ebook is what I see God doing in me through my own blog. I have just spent a month writing and praying about the difficult circumstances of the Shan people. Doing this is changing me.

Many of us live in unbelievable wealth compared to most people in this world. It is easy to forget this when the budget won’t balance and the cost of fuel and groceries goes up. But even having a vehicle which requires fuel is a sign of wealth, being able to buy a week’s worth of food all at once would be unthinkable to many. Much of the wealth we have is in the infrastructure of our society – water to our taps, education systems, healthcare – all these make our lives easy and provide opportunities for us.

Lacking infrastructure makes life really tough for people in poorer countries. Then there are injustices, exploitation, environmental disasters and wars which compound their suffering. Our world in broken. None of us can fix all this brokenness, but I challenge you to pray for what is broken.

Whatever it is that most bothers you in this broken world, pray about it consistently. Do this and I am sure God will both use you, and change you.