Sitting in the pub the other day I got into a conversation about the existence of God….as one does! The conversation went something like this…. ‘Seeing all the terrible atrocities and evil going on in the world, how can you possibly believe in the existence of a loving God?’
In the course of my travels I have certainly visited many dark places where I have seen and reported on terrible atrocities and heard testimonies from people who have suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of their fellow men. Rwanda genocide; the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia; the Vietnamese boat people slaughtered by Thai pirates, the child sex trade; the persecution and murder of Christians, to name a few. I have visited places of extreme hardship, especially the slums in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia, where people exist, crowded in the most awful, unhygienic shacks with several families sharing the same room and even the same bed.
In 1985 I spent time in the Ethiopian refugee camps with survivors of the devastating famine which is estimated to have claimed the lives of around 1 million people, and which sparked off Live Aid and Band Aid. Interestingly, I flew out on the same plane as Bob Geldof, but we didn’t speak as he was travelling in a different class! I’ve been in drought and flood hit regions in Bangladesh and India; earthquake devastation in Central America and Haiti… the list goes on and on!
In some places the battle between good and evil is seen clearly in stark contrast. It is highly visible and tangible. Lt Gen Romeo Daliare, who was part of the UN Mission to rule Rwanda and witnessed the genocide was asked how he could still believe in God. He replied
“I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God”.
Seeing these things in person, or from the safety of our comfortable homes, it is tempting to question how can there be a god with all this evil abounding? But what convinces me of the existence of a loving God is that I have met utterly amazing people living in each of these situations, who refuse to turn their back on God. They are working, loving, and yes, suffering too, sometimes in extremely difficult circumstances. And they are gladly serving God by bringing comfort and hope to those who have lost all hope and shining the light of compassion in these darkest of places.
I have been greatly inspired and encouraged in my faith by spending time with such people. There are many examples, and it seems invidious to select one, but I must, and because of the sensitivity of her story, I have changed her name to protect her identity.
Suzy lives in El Salvador and works for a Christian development organisation. When she was 16 she spent her evenings studying at the local university so she could become of greater service to God. One evening as she was leaving university to go home, she was captured by a gang. The gangs in El Salvador are, as in other Latin American countries, notoriously violent and dangerous. At the same time, I was in El Salvador hosting a small group of Italian Christian leaders, my son, Tim, was also with me making a film of their visit. We were told that such abductions were a common occurrence and that it would inevitably result in her being killed. Gangs would often capture a young girl, keep her for a period of time, repeatedly gang rape her until she was either killed by the experience, or until they tired of her. They would then kill her and dump her body in front of the police station to show their contempt for law and order.
As a group, we all met every morning and evening to pray for Suzy’s release, but I was told by our guide that girls are never released and that she would certainly be killed. A week later, on the morning of our last day in El Salvador, our guide burst into our meeting shouting, “It’s a miracle, Suzy has been released”. She was immediately taken to hospital and we returned home happy that she was alive and receiving the care she so desperately needed.
Several months later, Tim and I returned to El Salvador to make another film. We asked if it would be possible to meet with Suzy and were told that it was highly unlikely as she did not receive visitors. However, to everyone’s surprise she agreed.
Suzy wanted to tell us her story and for some reason, she was willing to go into more detail with us than she had shared even with her counsellors. What she told us of her ordeal is too graphic to recount here, but suffice to say she was subjected to the most unimaginable violent rape and torture. It sends shivers down my spine to think of what this brave young woman went through.
I remember asking her what she thought of the men as they did these things to her. I was totally unprepared for her answer. She said that of course she was terrified and in agony, and at first she hated them and indeed wanted them dead. Then after a few days she said that a strange emotion took over. She felt desperately sorry for them as they were empty, lost and in pain themselves, otherwise why would they do such things? And she began to pray for them! A couple of days later the leader asked if she was a Christian. She said she was and he quite inexplicably ordered her immediate release.
And what of Suzy now? She is back working with the same Christian development agency, counselling children who are suffering from all kinds abuse, especially sexual abuse from family members. I remember her saying to us that by being open about her experiences, many children have found great strength to cope with their own situation. She said that children often say to her, “If you could survive what you went through, we can survive too.”
There are countless heroes like Suzy all over the world who are living in and experiencing awful situations of danger, poverty and oppression, while standing firm in their faith and sharing the love of God with others who are experiencing similar suffering.
I’ve told this story because it deeply saddens, and indeed frustrates me that many people who are living in relative comfort and ease, use the suffering and injustices in our world as a reason for why they ‘cannot believe in God who allows such things to happen.’
Somehow this holds them back from seriously exploring the most important question that has ever been asked: Does God really exist? As a result, many are sadly missing out experiencing for themselves a life of fulfilment, and amazing inner peace that comes with an intimate relationship with Jesus.
But it’s not entirely their fault.
Tragically so many churches are like a club for people who do religion on Sundays, a comfortable non-challenging and uninviting ritual dished up for the regulars. The revolutionary and exciting teaching of Jesus is rarely, if ever taught and there is little to inspire and equip them to live out their faith in their workplace, school or home. These churches are like a hall of mirrors, where the focus is on those inside and as numbers inevitably decline, the dwindling few become even more entrenched. When you stop to think of what God has done for us, such a lukewarm response is shameful. This self centred isolationism is not attractive to the unchurched and is causing many to reject God as irrelevant in today’s world.
Recent surveys in the USA highlight the percentage of people who believe in God, attend religious services and pray has declined significantly in the last eight years, especially among adolescents.
In his excellent daily devotional, Bible in One Year, Nicky Gumbel, the founder of the Alpha course, commented recently on UK society which is also sliding down this path. He said
“In the UK we are seeing the results of society that is attempting to shut God out. Every day, in Britain, at least 312 couples are divorced. Somebody calls the Samaritans helpline every five seconds. The pornographic industry in the UK is worth over £1 billion annually.”
I feel a greater sense of urgency about this than ever before and believe we must do all we can to encourage a more biblical approach to church life. And in this respect, we in the wealthy nations could learn a great deal from churches in some of the poorest places in our world.
But thankfully there are a growing number of churches that are more outward looking where members are inspired and encouraged to move out of their comfort zone to embrace a more relevant and challenging form of teaching and worship and to engage more deeply with contemporary society. As my dear friend and spiritual mentor, Revd Ian Barclay says,
“It’s about preaching God’s unchanging Word to a rapidly changing world”.
It’s these churches that are penetrating the difficult areas and issues in their communities and beyond, and this kind of worship is infectious, as a result they are bursting at the seams.
If all Christians were inspired to live as Jesus taught, (and I have a long way to go in this respect!) such would be the impact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would spread across the world like a global spiritual tsunami, engulfing everyone in its path, as was witnessed by the spread of Christianity in the early church. This world would be a dramatically different place, and Christians would enjoy a life of greater fulfilment, purpose and joy.
Of course, there would still be the consequences of living in a fallen world – greed, persecution, cruelty, injustice and oppression. But vastly more committed Christians would, as many are today, be at the forefront of tackling these evils. The difference would be incalculable. This mighty army would be infinitely more empowered and emboldened. It would be unstoppable, and the impact would be immeasurable. But for this to happen, we need more committed, courageous and inspired leaders and a willingness of people to be led by God out of their comfort zone into a more counter cultural lifestyle.
We are all called to be light in the darkness. We need to stand up and be counted, and to be prepared to share our own stories of our relationship with the living and all powerful eternal God. We need to immerse ourselves in the fight for justice for the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable, whether here on our doorsteps or thousands of miles away.