We’ve already looked at Jesus as Creator (and therefore conqueror) but the question remains: if Jesus is so powerful, why doesn’t the name of Jesus ‘work’ or ‘win’ every time? Why do Tanzanians so often experience the spirits as more powerful than Jesus?
The typical evangelical answer is that we live in the ‘now and not yet’ — Jesus’ kingdom has been inaugurated but not yet consummated. The problem for an animistic worldview is that it sounds like Jesus’ lordship is incomplete, so it’s okay to use other powerful forces until Jesus ‘comes of age’. It sounds like, appealing to other spirits is a good option in the here and now, since Jesus isn’t yet powerful enough to come through for us when we appeal to him. ‘Now and not yet’ fails to challenge the most basic assumption of animism: that we control our lives.
Paul Hiebert argues that the idea that we can control our lives is the centre of sin: Satan tempted Adam and Eve not to worship him but to worship themselves! What is needed, then, is a fundamental shift away from me controlling my world (through spirits or Jesus or whatever) to allowing Jesus to control my world. It’s a massive leap from egocentrism to theocentrism; from control to trust; from fear to faith. It’s not about switching to the more powerful God, even though Jesus is the most powerful. Instead, it calls humans to submit themselves to God and live not by control but by faith, trusting in his plan and goodness.
I suggest that this is where the cross of Christ becomes particularly significant for an animist. When we are tempted to control things, it is Jesus’ example we follow; when we are fearful, it is Jesus’ faith we emulate; when we are worried God won’t come through, it is Jesus’ vindication that we remember.
|Jesus on the cross||Y/N||Your situation||Y/N|
|Could Jesus have taken himself off the cross?||Could you appeal to a witch doctor?|
|Would that have been better for him?||Would that prove better in the short-term?|
|Did it look like Satan was more powerful?||Would it look like the witch-doctor was more powerful than Jesus?|
|Was the cross still part of God’s plan?||Could this still be a part of God’s plan?|
|Was it a good plan?||Are God’s plans good?|
|Was Jesus vindicated?||Will God ultimately vindicate you?|
|Was God ultimately more powerful even though it didn’t look like it?||Is God ultimately more powerful even when it doesn’t look like it?|
It’s hard to trust God when it looks like God isn’t in control but faith chooses to trust God rather than becoming fearful. Hiebert tells a story from his time in India where the goddess of smallpox visited a plague on a village.
Money from every villager was needed for a water buffalo sacrifice to placate her but the Christian villager refused to be a part of it. As a result, a Christian girl was struck down and Hiebert was asked to pray for her healing. He did, and yet, the girl died. Hiebert felt completely defeated: why didn’t Jesus save the girl from the goddess of smallpox?
Several weeks later, he met the Christian elder who had asked him to pray for the little girl and found him rejoicing. Hiebert asked the elder, “How can you be so happy after the child died?”
“The village would have acknowledged the power of our God had he healed the child,” the elder said, “but they knew in the end she would have to die. When they saw in the funeral our hope of resurrection and reunion in heaven, they saw an even greater victory, over death itself and have begun to ask about the Christian way.”
The elder trusted — and saw — that God was at work even in this tragic situation. And it wasn’t just ‘the ends justifies the means’, as if one girl’s death was an appropriate price to pay for a village’s salvation. Rather, they knew that ultimately no harm could come to the girl because she was safe in the love of Christ. Hiebert reflected, “In a new way I began to realize that true answers to prayer are those that bring the greatest glory to God, not those that satisfy my immediate desires. It is all too easy to make Christianity a new magic in which we as gods can make God do our bidding.”
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.