30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World

Several months ago, an arsonist set fire to the Bellevue Islamic Center.  In response, several churches, agencies, and leaders in Bellevue reached out to express their sympathy and offered help.  BelPres and our leadership were among those.  Since then, a few pastors and a similar number of Eastside Muslim leaders have been meeting regularly for religious conversation and relationship building.    Recently, a fellow pastor asked our Muslim friends about the notion of forgiveness in Islam.  Do Muslims believe God forgives?  How does one know that they are forgiven enough to receive eternal life? And must a Muslim forgive someone who sins against them?  Stereotypical pastor conversation, right?

In Islam, God is transcendent, meaning that God is free to do as God wills and is not bound in any way by physical laws like time and space.  Christians believe the same thing.  So God can be Creator without being created, and God can continually work in and outside of specific situations and events to accomplish God’s ultimate purposes.

For a Muslim, transcendence also means God is free to forgive whatever and whenever God wants.  A Muslim must be sincerely sorry for their sin. When they express their sincere remorse, then God forgives. Muslims must also practice good deeds during their lifetime, which are saved up in a sort of bank account of good deeds.  Good deeds are deposited, and bad deeds result in withdrawals.  For a Muslim to receive Eternal Life, their good deeds must outnumber their bad deeds.  When a Muslim sins against another Muslim, not only should that person ask for forgiveness, but the one who was sinned against gets to take some of that person’s good deeds and deposit them in their own bank account.  It is like a money transfer, transferring good deeds from one bank account to another.  So a Muslim hopes they have done enough good deeds to receive Eternal Life.  But they can never be certain.  Ultimately, God is transcendent and can choose to forgive or not to forgive.  “In Sha Allah,” if God wills.

This is very different than what the Bible tells us as Christians.  The Bible shows us that God is rich in mercy (Psalm 51:1-2; Micah 7:18.)  God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love (Psalm 86:15, Psalm 145:8).    But God is also just (Isaiah 61:8, Psalm 9:7-8).  God holds us all accountable for the way we live our lives.  Justice, the idea that people should not get away with the bad things they do, comes from God.

Justice and mercy appear to put God in conflict with God’s self.  God is just and holds us accountable for the things we do to one another but God is also merciful and desires to treat us better than we deserve.  God’s answer to the apparent dilemma is grace.   Grace means God can be both just and merciful at the same time.  The most powerful demonstration of God’s grace is what Jesus did for us on the cross.  There, Jesus met the full requirements of justice and mercy.  By dying for us, Jesus served the sentence justice requires.  By stepping in our place, Jesus unleashes God’s rich mercy on each of us.  We didn’t earn it.  We didn’t deserve it.  But God did it anyway.  That’s grace.  Grace means, we get what we do not deserve.  We get forgiveness, freedom, new life now, and new life forever.  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” Romans 3:23-24. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Eph 2:4-5.

May 27th to June 25th marks the 30 days of Ramadan.  For a Muslim, Ramadan is a time for getting closer to God.  Muslims will pray daily for God to reveal Himself to them and they will do things like fast from sunrise to sunset and give financially to the poor as spiritual practices to help them get closer to God.  I encourage you to join Christians all across the world in praying for Muslims during Ramadan.  Pray that the transcendent God will become close, personal, and intimate for Muslims.  Pray they will discover Jesus, the one who ensures our forgiveness and secures our salvation.  God is doing amazing things throughout the Middle East and Europe among Muslims, and they are discovering the love and hope found in Jesus.  It is a unique time in history.  You can become part of it through prayer.

Pick up a copy of “30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World” at BelPres located at the info-walls in sanctuary lobby, walkway, and upper campus lobby.  Or go online to 30daysprayer.com to participate. 

Are We Inherently Good? Not So Much.

I have been writing a series about Islam to help us understand our Muslim neighbors better.  The topic of this blog comes from an email I received from a BelPres member.

A few weeks ago, he was walking through his neighborhood when he met someone from the local Mosque.  They had a nice conversation together and the gentleman from the local Mosque invited the BelPres member to join him for prayers on Fridays. Afterwards, the church member was curious about the way this new acquaintance spoke about the inherent goodness that is in everyone.  This idea came up a few times while they were talking.  He went along with it at first but when his new acquaintance brought it up a second time, the church member realized he might be on to something.  That is when he emailed me.  Do Muslims and Christians believe people are inherently good?

Muhammad taught, so most Muslims believe, that human beings are created good. Muhammad said people are born innocent and pure but we need some help so we can stay that way.  The Quran, Bible, and Torah (Muslims believe the Quran is the only true word of God) are all intended to provide divine guidance so that human beings can stay pure. In Islam, there is no such thing as a sin nature so people (like Adam and Eve) sin because they forget God’s guidance or they have a weak moment.   Therefore, people are inherently good.

Most Christians believe the exact opposite.  In Romans 5, Paul tells us sin entered the world through one man, Adam, and death came because of sin.  Grace and forgiveness come through Jesus.  The Bible tells us sin has altered our human nature so we cannot not sin – I realize that is a double negative, but it is true.  The point is, we cannot help ourselves.  There are many examples; some even involve you and me. In Romans 7, just two chapters later, Paul himself admits to being a slave to sin because he ends up doing the bad things he knows he should not do instead of doing the good things he knows he should do.  He is a mess.  At that point, Paul cries out “Who will save me from this body that is subject to death?  Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ!”

Recognizing we have a sin nature helps us understand our need for someone who can rescue us.  Someone who will pay the price for our sin.  Someone who has the authority to really forgive us.  Someone who can change, transform and make us whole and new people.  His name is Jesus!  The Christian faith is built on the foundation of God’s marvelous love and grace, specifically shown to us in Jesus.

Islam is built on the practice of submission to God (Muslim = one who submits). Practicing Muslims are deeply devoted people. The five pillars of Islam: professing there is no other God but God and Muhammad is His messenger, prayer, giving, fasting and making a once in a lifetime trip to Mecca, are the ways a Muslim demonstrates their submission. It is a religion focused on works .  A Muslim practices these pillars so they can live as the inherently pure and innocent people they believe God created them to be.  Then God will reward them with heaven.  The problem with any works based religion is that you cannot ever really know if God forgives you when you mess up and you are never certain you have been good enough or done enough to get to heaven.

This brings me back to the email from our church member and the issue of what Christians can say to Muslims if this subject comes up.   My suggestion is to listen, ask questions and when asked, share what you believe. I find that exercising the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control) is the best approach.  You might even invite them to read some passages from the Bible with you and compare the verse from the Bible with passages from the Quran.  Many Christians want to debate theology with a Muslim but that approach really does not work. The fruits of the spirit are what are winning Muslims to Christ these days, particularly the sacrificial love and grace shown through Jesus’ followers.

What Bible verses speak to you about your need for a Savior and the forgiveness you have in Jesus?  What has Jesus done for you? Build some friendships.  Engage some conversations.  Enjoy the Adventure!

 

Jesus and Muhammad

It has been nearly two weeks since an arsonist destroyed the Bellevue Islamic Center. The person who did it has been apprehended. The specific reason behind the arsonist’s actions is not known but appears to be something other than a hate-crime. In many ways, this has been a catalyzing event for our community. It has brought many of us together in a stand of sympathy and support for our Muslim neighbors. It has also opened our eyes to the changing demographics of our neighborhoods.

This is the fifth blog in a series on Islam. I am writing this because more and more Muslims are moving to the Eastside. Some are moving here because of jobs they have received with high-tech businesses like Microsoft. Others have come because they are fleeing traumatic places in the world like Iran, Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. Some Muslims are not immigrants. They are natural born citizens of the United States who have converted to Islam.

The point of this series is to help us understand our Muslim neighbors better. The subject of today’s blog is the main figures of each religion, Muhammad for Muslims and Jesus for Christians.

The Arabic world, prior to the rise of Islam, was primarily tribal, nomadic and polytheistic. Mecca served as a crossroads for the region and featured a shrine, called the “Ka’aba”, which recognized some 360 gods. Muhammad was born into this context in AD 570. He grew up questioning why Arabs worshiped so many idols rather than one God like the Christians and Jews. Muhammad became a successful businessman and married a wealthy widow. Her wealth enabled him to spend much of his time thinking, reflecting and meditating. It was during one of these times, that Muhammad received his first revelation and understood from that moment on that he was the final messenger of God. Muhammad soon felt compelled to warn Arabs of the coming judgment day and to bring them to complete obedience and submission to the one God so they could escape his anger. The religious group that formed around him became known as ‘Islam’, meaning surrender, i.e. those surrendered to Allah.

Although Muhammad was just a man; Muslims believe his love for all humankind and revelations from God, which are recorded in the Quran word for word, make him unique and unlike any other man who ever lived. Muslims believe in the same prophets as Christians, most notably, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. They believe each prophet was sent by God to speak to a specific people at a specific time but Muhammad is the last and greatest prophet. He has spoken to all humankind for all time.

By contrast, the Bible tells us Jesus is much more than the Quran or Islam recognizes. John starts his gospel with these words; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:1. The beginning John is speaking about here is the antecedent to all time and space. It is the beginning of all beginnings. The point in time where there was nothing else and no one else but God. Then John says something so scandalous and unthinkable that its blasphemy to a Muslim. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” John 1:14.

God became one of us and assumed all the frailty that comes with being human. Jesus got hurt, stubbed his toe, bled, laughed, cried, went hungry, and became thirsty. Jesus experienced everything we will experience in this life. Since he has experienced it all, he knows what we need when we go through those times too. Hebrews 5:15 says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…”

Jesus perfectly identifies with us. That means so much more than that he can relate with us. The Bible tells us he took all the sin and brokenness of every human being and placed it on Himself. He became our substitute. By his death on the cross, Jesus paid the price and served the sentence justice requires.

The claim of the Old Testament is that God is One. Muslims can agree with that. The claim of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior over heaven and earth. “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11. That is the great dividing line between Jesus and Muhammad, Christianity and Islam.

Jesus shows us the radical, unrelenting, fierce love of God for you and for me. His love is like no other. His love pursues us, never gives up on us, seeks us until we are found, changes us and makes us radical lovers ourselves. It is not the mountains, or the oceans or the stars or all of creation that so spectacularly reveals our Heavenly Father. It is the incarnation. God became one of us and lived among us.

Without Jesus, it is possible to know who God is but it is impossible to know God personally.