Several years ago, I spent quite a lot of time going in and out of South Sudan during the decades-long civil war that ravaged the nation and its people. I took part in different missions to deliver much-needed food and life-saving medicine, encouraging the local Christians as we preached the gospel whenever we could.
These experiences were life-changing for me in so many ways, but one of the biggest things that stuck out—and began to stick to me—was how different “church” was in Sudan compared to the life I was living as a Christian, father, and pastor in the United States. It seemed that whenever I was over there in Africa with the Sudanese believers we were the Church.
Me and them. Together, we were the Church.
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They didn’t have buildings or any resources to “do” church. No elaborate Sunday services with lights and sound systems. They just are the Church. Loving each other, sharing what very, very little they had, literally laying their lives down for the sake of the gospel. And these Christians who owned nothing (no-things) were so filled with joy.
One day, while we were distributing food in a refuge camp near the border of Uganda, I met a young man who looked to be about twelve years old at the time.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
His name was James. He was tall, super thin, and just like everyone else in this camp, he had lived through near-starvation and brutal attacks by militant rebels that had decimated his village. I noticed that his left hand and arm were pretty scarred and disfigured, and he had a large patch of hair missing that seemed to have been burned off at some point in the past. I asked our translator if he knew what had happened to the boy. He asked James to tell me his story.
James shared that a few months earlier he and his two brothers were walking with their parents when radical, Islamic soldiers hacked his parents to death with machetes, right before their very eyes—because they were Christians. The soldiers then threw him and his two brothers onto a large pile of burning garbage. His brothers died in the fire that day, but James somehow managed to crawl out of the fire and escape with his life.
He then went on to tell me how grateful he was!
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I’m not kidding. He was thankful that God had spared his life against all odds that dreadful day, and he knew that he would one day see his family again in heaven and that they were in a safe place now with Jesus. I was blown away. I wept like a baby.
As I spent more time with James and other Christians in the refuge camp that day, I couldn’t help but notice that they exhibited a joy that was unbelievable. They were the happiest people I had ever been with in my life.
Amid the war, horrible famine, and persecution they suffered on a daily basis, these brothers and sisters in Christ were filled with a sense of peace and joy that I had never personally experienced. Shouldn’t I, with all of my American health, wealth, and comfort be happier and more grateful than them?!
I remember crying out to God, saying, “I would trade everything I have to experience the joy they find in you!”
And God replied, “Then do.”
Ouch. It sort of felt like what Jesus had to say to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. Paraphrasing, here’s the story:
“A young man came up to Jesus and asked, “What good things must I do to get into the Kingdom?” Jesus replied, “God is the only one who is good. Follow his commandments.” The man said, “I have obeyed his commands—what else must I do?” “Go sell everything you have and give the money to the poor and you will have heavenly treasures. Then, come and follow me.”
Did I need to get rid of all of my personal (and my family’s) possessions in order to find true joy and purpose in my Christian life? Did I need to move to Africa to really be the Church?
The point of this story Jesus told wasn’t to get us all to go and sell our stuff; it was for us to see where our true treasure, hope, and delight is found. Do we find our happiness, security and purpose in our stuff and from what we do—or in who we are because of who He is?