The theology I learned at seminary in the northwest suburbs of Chicago didn’t add up to much in South Asia when I sat across from a little girl moments before she was raped. I would have long since conveniently buried this experience beneath a mountain of rationalizations if I hadn’t looked deep into the vacant eyes of a 12-year-old sex slave and vowed never to forget. Returning to my past world of ignorance would relieve my grief, but I can’t go back; it no longer exists.
My job was to tag along and witness this heartbreaking tragedy with my own eyes. Arriving on an oppressively humid night, I taxied down into the red-light district with a guy I’ll call Ron. I was briefed on the drive that we would work undercover, posing as customers looking for action to identify brothels forcing young girls into prostitution. Peeing in my pants became a distinct possibility, and that little form I signed about “going at my own risk” began taking on a reality I never imagined.
Religion tends to place God somewhere out there or up there in the sky. The religious logic naturally follows then that people petition God to come down from the sky to intervene into human affairs, particularly to protect or rescue people from pain and suffering. When things are particularly bleak, the conversation turns to heaven and how God will eventually work everything out in the end. That’s nice theology unless you are the little girl being raped several times a day, six days a week.
The metaphor of “the body of Christ” found in the Bible actually conveys that the divine life is still present on earth in and through us. Strangely, Christians sometimes fail to realize and live out the implications of the truth..that the infinite God is dwelling within us and therefore placing Him in close proximity to the needs and problems of humankind.
I hear in Jesus’ words, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21, NIV), that the mind and power of God are within us to both conceive and give birth to His will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus was trying to illustrate this fact in the feeding of the 5,000. The crowd of people following Jesus was hungry, but there was no food readily available. The disciples petitioned Jesus to wave His magic God-wand and miraculously fix it. Jesus essentially responded by saying, “No, you fix it.” In the end, they met the need together. In the face of human suffering, we sometimes look into the sky petitioning God to come down and do His God-thing and solve it. Instead, I believe God replies by saying, “You fix it.” The reply, however, comes from within, reminding us that we move in concert with God as He lives in and through us.
The common question is, “Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering of the world?” The better question is, “Where are you, Jim, in the midst of the world’s suffering?” The people at International Justice Mission taught me that God shows up around the world to rescue these girls and other victims of injustice through the intervention of people like us. Confronting oppression wherever it exists and bringing rescue to victims of injustice wherever they are is a reflection of the heart of God. God’s kingdom is one of love, beauty, wholeness, freedom, peace, truth and justice. Some people seem to sit around waiting for God to drop it on us. Maybe God wants to give birth to it through us.
Whether it’s across the ocean or the other side of town, it’s never been about the number of people I can help relative to the size of the need. It’s about relationship with God. He cares deeply about the well-being of every person in every community. He is passionate about wholeness and peace. Humanity is hard-wired with free will. With that will, some people commit injustice, while others of us ignore it. To live faithfully in relationship with God requires facing the whole truth of our world, looking honestly at our part in it and being true to our identity as sons and daughters of God in the midst of it.
Thinking of those little girls I met in South Asia, the next time brothel doors are kicked down by rescuers, perhaps one of those girls will ask, “Where is God in my pain and suffering?” I believe the answer is, “God did not send your pain and suffering, but He enters into your pain and suffering and shares it with you. God is here now rescuing you, and He is able to bring deep healing and transformation from within.”