“I’m pregnant,” our friend tells my wife, “for the fourth time, so I won’t be able to leave my house for a year.” Our friend is afraid that the government will discover her pregnancy and not allow it to continue. She’s also afraid of evil spirits that will harm her new baby.
“I’ve never seen a happy marriage,” another friend tells me over coffee. “I can’t imagine ever getting married.”
It’s hard for us to understand the kind of oppression and cultural hopelessness that people face in the part of Central Asia where we have lived for the past three years. But we hear it regularly, and it’s taken its toll on us as well.
Other friends have a mother who is sick with cancer. When we ask them about the possibility of God healing her, they only shrug their shoulders and say, “If God wills it.” In similar situations, others visit the medicine man who mixes folk remedies with spells and incantations to induce healing in people. Others give money to beggars on the street, not out of goodness or mercy, but because the beggar will pray to God for them on their behalf in hopes of gaining divine favor and ensuring a place in eternity. Others visit holy people who dole out prayers or potions for a variety of ailments. Others visit witches for help in cursing people or advancing their business plans. Others suffer from unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, domestic abuse, governmental oppression, family pressures and on and on.
“There’s no other way,” our friends say to us. As we talk to them and share our lives with them, we continually face this hopelessness that seems endemic to their worldview. Not only do our Muslim friends not know salvation in Jesus or the assurance of heaven through his atoning blood, they simply have no understanding that God loves them. They are without hope for the future and they are stuck believing that nothing will change. With government policies on one side and Islamic extremism on the other, our friends ask us sincerely, “What do we have to look forward to?”
It’s not easy to live in the midst of this hopelessness. For missionaries in this part of the world, sometimes the negativity is catching. Although we feel privileged to have numerous co-laborers from different agencies, we have too often heard the lies of the enemy spoken from the discouragement that plagues even these workers: “This area is too tough to reach. The Gospel just can’t break through this hard ground.” Even when we don’t hear these words, the attitudes are there. It’s not uncommon for missionaries to give up on language learning and relationship building, and to stop praying. They begin to feel that nothing will change, that God won’t work in this place.
At times, during the past three years, we also fell into the trap of hopelessness, believing that nothing would change or that we wouldn’t see the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we desire for these people. At times, we believed that our language ability wouldn’t improve and that our relationships wouldn’t grow. We believed that our friends would never truly be able to understand the Good News of Jesus. We even believed that we ourselves had stopped growing and would never see change in our own lives.
Yet we have hope. We come back time and time again to the truth that hope not only exists, it transforms. We remind ourselves that Jesus has redeemed us and changed us and he is continuing to do so. We affirm that he has already entered into our marriage, our family, and our team and he is at work. In the same way, Jesus is working in Central Asia. By faith, we affirm that he is reaching out to people, changing them, transforming their lives. He is pouring out his Spirit in great and mighty ways. In his great love, God is active; he still desires that none should perish but that all would be saved. God is playing the long game. His ways are not my ways, his wisdom is not earthly wisdom and his timing is not worldly timing. We know these things to be true, just as we know that Jesus has already won the battle.
As I reflect on our three years in Central Asia and I continue to pray for our Muslim friends, I am driven by the hope and anticipation of seeing what God will do there. I choose to resist the lie of hopelessness, and I choose to move forward in faith, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.