‘Grace upon grace’; ‘Divine help’; ‘The Eternal is my Shepherd’; ‘If God says yes, who can say no?’
These are just a few of more than 200 names and phrases related to God or Jesus that students recorded on their daily trip from home to FATEB, the evangelical seminary in the Central African Republic (CAR) where I was teaching. I had asked them to record all the names and phrases they saw written on vehicles, boutiques and banners.
Reading through the lists a couple of themes caught my attention which we discussed in class. Through these names people confess their belief that God acts in our lives and provides for us. What we have received, be it a taxi or boutique, it all comes from him. He is often called ‘Good Shepherd,’ ‘Gift of God,’ and ‘Blessing of God’.
God is also with us within a context of conflict and insecurity. This becomes poignantly clear in names such as, ‘The Eternal will fight for you’; ‘If God is for you, who can stand against you?’ and ‘God of hosts’.
A student explained that the current insecurity is not only due to the realities of war, but also spiritual warfare. Spiritual powers are at work destabilising the country. These powers are also used by people for their own aims.
The student said, ‘In this battle, we feel vulnerable and anxious.’ He mentioned the battle between David and Goliath, indicating that he identified with David in the sense of being ‘insignificant’, facing a Goliath of military and spiritual powers. At times like this we need to remember that it was David who won the battle because God was on his side.
I was also struck by the regular use of the name ‘Eternal’. Does this name not indicate distance? I would more naturally use names and indicators of God’s identification with humanity, of Jesus sustaining us in our pain and fear.
However, upon hearing this the class fell silent. Then one student put up his hand and asked what good it would be for God to become like us if he could not overcome evil? Is our biggest consolation not in the fact that God is stronger than all other powers, and is the same yesterday, today and forever? This gives us the assurance that we can always trust him.
There is also this verse in the Bible about the power of the word: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit’ (Proverbs 18:21). The students explained that when a word is spoken or written it has the power to become a reality. So when one writes a name on a bus or a shop front, this name becomes a reality through faith. Did Jesus not say that those who ask will receive?
Even though to me this might come uncomfortably close to a manipulative attitude towards God, it has stopped me in my tracks. Do I truly believe that God is actively present in my life? I may confess the providence of God, but do I live out the reality of that confession?
Coming home to the Netherlands, back to the routine of living in an organised society, I struggle with the other part of my life, thinking of friends and loved ones back in CAR.
They have no choice but to live day by day. Societal structures are crumbling fast, with the threat of recurring violence always present. It leaves me asking the question, ‘God, how long? Do you really care?’
And yet, somehow, these are not the questions the students are asking. This is not to say that they do not experience fear, pain and even hatred. But somehow they are able to keep their eyes on God eternal.
They hear the call to trust in him. And to overcome their pain and hatred, to share the love of God. In following this call, they are not just victims but actors, co-actors with God.