“Who are You, God?” begets contradictory answers when left to experience or perception. Faced with an array of answers, the seeker often turns to argument. Are the philosophers able to tell us who God is?
Having read numerous debates, I have noticed the ease with which the sophisticated can hide behind a mountain of words and been left doubtful as to whether argument, even at its best, is able to untangle the mystery of God. While I do not wish to minimize the importance of philosophical debate, it seems that many find it easy to climb the ladder of abstraction. Yet I wonder: When the discussion rises to such high levels, how many are blocked from debate and our existential struggles obscured?
With the limitations of both experience and argument, frustration reaches a high point, and all kinds of caricatures of God can be fashioned to suit our desires.
Eugene Peterson tells a fascinating story about when he was a pastor in New York City. His church’s caretaker, a German man named Willi Ossa, was an artist by day and a janitor by night. Ossa offered to do a portrait of Peterson, and Peterson agreed, only to keep the friendship going, for Ossa harbored a quiet but hostile attitude toward Christianity. Day after day, Ossa would paint his subject, yet never permitting him to see how he was progressing.
One day, the artist’s wife dropped in and with one look at the picture she shrieked, “Sick! You paint him to look like a corpse!” Ossa, upset by this untimely revelation, snapped back, “He’s not sick; that is the way he will look when the compassion is gone, when the mercy gets squeezed out of him.” You see, Ossa hated the state church of his homeland, blaming it for not doing more to stop the Holocaust. He wanted to show Peterson his future if he persisted in what he perceived to be the “Christian way.” It is a sad story and an indictment against Christendom’s historic baggage.
But behind it all, one wonders if that is not the picture of God that many have, perhaps even you, my friend. Born out of some aberrant experience or radical philosophy, one is left with a portrait of an unloving and uncaring God, conditioned by the artist’s own misperceptions. Once again, a point of reference is needed in order to answer the question: “Who are you, God?” Ravi Zacharias
God's Instruments Celebrating Thirty Years of Ministry
October 10, 2006
Although I obviously don't compare myself to Moses, I think I know how he must have felt in the sunset of his life, standing at the edge of the Promised Land. For I approach the twilight of my own life and ministry at the very moment God is raising up Prison Fellowship for its greatest springtime.
As I look back over the last thirty years, I am overwhelmed by what God has done. In 1976, when it became clear that God wanted me working with prisoners, we incorporated the ministry. But we did not have any grand strategy—simply an eagerness to disciple inmates.
At first we took inmates out of prison, discipled them for two weeks, and returned them to disciple others. It was fruitful, but we soon realized that we could not reach enough people that way.
God gave us the answer at Wisconsin's Oxford Penitentiary. A hard-headed warden balked at our request for an inmate to come to Washington. "If you're so good, bring your program in here," he challenged us. It was winter, and Oxford is in the woods. We knew that he was testing us, so we called his bluff.
That began our first week-long in-prison seminar for ninety inmates—a huge success. These seminars have become the backbone of this ministry, spreading throughout thousands of prisons worldwide.
Over the decades, God continued to lead us, like Angel Tree, which was started by a woman just coming out of prison. I didn't even know about it. Or Justice Fellowship, or the InnerChange Freedom Initiative®, or Operation Starting Line, and Prison Fellowship International, which is now operating in 113 countries. In every instance it was not our strategy but the result of doors clearly opened by God.
In the 1980s we struck out in a new direction. We were evangelizing more people every day, but the prison population continued to climb—the result of cultural moral rot. That meant we not only had to continue evangelizing prisoners, but also speak to the culture about its failure to teach kids during the morally formative years.
Influenced by my study of Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, I began writing a column for Christianity Today addressing cultural trends from a biblical perspective. In 1991, we launched BreakPoint, and then the Wilberforce Forum and the Centurions program. Thus began our worldview teaching and equipping ministry.
The great lesson I've learned in these exciting thirty years is that we are merely instruments in God's hands, and that's what gives me such confidence for the future. He has uniquely positioned us to do two things that the Church most needs to be doing: overcoming evil with good (evangelizing prisoners, in our case) and defending the truth—in the face of growing hostility from those who paint Christians as uncaring bigots wanting to impose our will on others. They can't make those labels stick when we are seen laboring on behalf of society's outcasts.
Whenever the Church does these two things—to reach the suffering and speak to the powerful in the culture—it has an incredible power. This was the secret of Wilberforce's great campaign that brought about an end to the barbaric slave trade in England.
For thirty years God has raised up a great army of people willing to love the unlovable and witness to the truth. As the sun rises on our fourth decade, He continues to increase our number. That is why I say Prison Fellowship is in a glorious springtime.
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