We’ve observed in Tanzanian students talk of ‘losing the Holy Spirit’ and before each exam period, we have been included in massive prayer days where students go from church service to church service, receiving a special blessing at each.
We were concerned that this was an issue of assurance. Did they think they were out of favor with God and had to get back into favor with him so they could receive blessing from him in the form of good exam marks? Or was it a faulty view of God, as a miserly Father who withholds good things from his children? I wrote part of my mentoring material addressing these two factors: the Fatherhood of God and the completion of Jesus’ work. However, what I discovered was that the issue at stake wasn’t salvation or our position before God, but about power, especially the Holy Spirit’s power for a holy and purposeful life.
Once again I’m reminded of the fundamental worldview differences between the west’s legal frameworks (‘how can I be in the right?’) and Tanzania’s fear/power framework (‘how can I find power for life?’) Western theologians have thus given great attention to the work of Christ which secures our position before God. My mentoree G, took this pretty much as a given. She is totally confident in her assurance of salvation and in the love of God for her. Her interest lies much more in pneumatology, and the role of the Spirit in the Christian life. Looking at Hebrews 10 simply didn’t get us anywhere because her issue was not confidence to approach God (she had that in spades!) but empowerment for life.
There are two other elements of worldview at play as well.
The first is how theology is done. Western pneumatology systematises our experience of the Spirit. We make distinctions between having the Spirit and being filled with the Spirit, for example. (We argue that this is biblical language, but the Bible language doesn’t always neatly fit our categories.) So ‘losing the Spirit’ sounds very drastic to us, on the level of being un-saved, because it’s much more extreme than simply failing to be filled with the Spirit. But Tanzanians are holistic thinkers. The notion of having the Spirit but not being filled by him is nonsense. These are unnecessary distinctions, and so they speak of indwelling, filling, falling away, etc with the same kind of language. A westerner might be concerned about the imprecision of language, or that this will lead the Christian to laziness because there is no next stage or step on the journey. However, to a Tanzanian, it can sound like we’re taking apart things that naturally belong together, as if we’re providing excuses to stagnate rather than seeing the Spirit’s full indwelling and filling as part of the Christian life.
The second element of worldview has to do with risk. We westerners love our contingencies. Not only do we believe in planning wisely, we try to see all the different possible outcomes and plan to rectify those. We are risk averse. This manifests in our theology as well. We read a passage about ‘falling away’ which is an exhortation to keep going, and rather than spending our time on the ‘keep going’ bit, we ask what exactly ‘falling away’ is, and whether you can come back from it, and whether you had the Holy Spirit in the first place. Tanzanians are much more likely to focus on the ‘keep going’ bit. They are risk tolerant. G didn’t want to talk about the ‘what ifs’, but she could speak eloquently about how being included in Jesus gives you confidence to approach God, knowing that your sins will be forgiven. When I see students coming to God to get forgiven before their exams, I’m worried this means they think they are constantly out of favor with God. When she sees them coming to God to get forgiven before their exams, she sees people confident in the love of God and ready to receive the Spirit’s power for the great trial ahead.
So for G, confessing sin is not a contingency, but a means of continuing with God. She’s not only less inclined to look for contingencies, but also because she doesn’t have the systematised categories that I’m thinking in, she doesn’t need them.
But I wanted to push further, so I asked, What about when a person feels God has abandoned them? She’s clear that God does not abandon us, citing Job and Joseph as examples of people whose situations looked hopeless. They clung to God and had power for living well even within suffering. Again, she comes back to this theme of keeping on going and sticking with God’s way. God will always accept you she says. Return to him and experience his power for holy living.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.