Insider Believers and the Empathy of God

by Lowell de Jong

Increasingly, new converts from Islam are asking to be heard through the din. They are asking for empathy as they follow Jesus while maintaining a Muslim identity.

Religious debates can sometimes take on a life of their own. Standing up for the faith and winning the argument can become a noisy cacophony that drowns out the symphony. With regard to the insider believer debate, the players in the symphony are the Muslim background followers of Jesus. We must never take our ears off the symphony.

Increasingly, new converts from Islam are asking to be heard through the din. They are asking for empathy as they follow Jesus while maintaining a Muslim identity. Can we empathize with them? Can we respect the long-term process of conversion which most Muslims undergo? Can we trust the Holy Spirit’s leading in their lives?

I should hope we can trust the Spirit, but as we do, we must be prepared for the possibility that God might permit new believers to head in unexpected directions. A study of the Bible shows that God, rather than being a doctrinaire enforcer, is much more understanding of human foibles and cultural constraints than we are. The Bible, in fact, presents a number of apparent contradictions which reveal a God who bends in response to our social/cultural contexts and who is empathetic to those whose heart direction is pointed toward him (see Matt. 12:20-21; Hos. 11:2-3, 8; Amos 7:3; Jer. 18:7-10). Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel calls this the “pathos of God.” To list a few:

Polygamy. The biblical norm is monogamy, and yet polygamy is permitted without comment.  God even says he himself gave David “wives” (plural; 2 Sam. 12:8).

Divorce. Divorce is condemned and goes against God’s creation norm, and yet Jesus said it is permitted in certain circumstances because of the stubbornness of human hearts (Matt. 19:3-9).

Abraham. Abraham lies to authorities twice. However, in the aftermath, he is blessed by God, whereas the authorities are cursed (Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20). In both cases, Abraham is responding to overwhelming social circumstances.

The Israelites. God did not want the Israelites to have a human king, and yet he consented to their wishes (1 Sam. 8:6-22). Later, King David became a man “after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14) and the most notable ancestor of the Messiah. Jesus is called “Son of David” nine times in Matthew. Jesus says to John in Revelation that he is “the root and offspring of David” (Rev. 22:16; cf. 3:7; 5:5; Isa. 11; Jer. 23:5-6; Jer. 33:14-16).

Naaman. Naaman, after he was healed of his leprosy, presents the following dilemma to Elisha and asks for his blessing:

“…for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing:  When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.” “Go in peace,” Elisha said. (2 Kings 5:17-19)

This is not meant to be a proof text for insider believers, but it is a curious and controversial enigma. Elisha’s response seems to be committing Naaman to God’s working in his life. If God wants us to pursue martyrdom or do a miracle through us, he will lead.

King Hezekiah and the Passover. King Hezekiah ruled after King Ahaz, who for sixteen years had not done “what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” The first thing King Hezekiah did was to reopen and purify the temple and celebrate a Passover feast. Many from the northern kingdom also came to celebrate this Passover, but because idol worship had been practiced in Israel for many years and the people had forgotten God’s law:

…most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” (2 Chron. 30:18-20; Num. 9:1-14)

According to Numbers 9 the Passover could not be celebrated by those who were ceremonially impure, but God knew the direction of their hearts, had compassion, and answered Hezekiah’s prayer.

Esther. Esther became the wife of King Xerxes, but to accomplish this, Mordecai had ordered her to hide “her nationality and family background” (Esther 2:10, 20). To become queen, she had to make a night “visit” to the king before they were married and may have been obliged to eat unclean foods (in order to hide her identity). Later, when the Jews were threatened destruction by King Xerxes’ and Haman’s decree, Mordecai sent a message to Esther telling her “who knows that you have come to royal position for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

The disciples. The disciples wanted to stop a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus replied, “…whoever is not against us is for us…” His words rebuked the disciples’ narrow exclusivism, leaving room for a more inclusive point of view than is usually accepted. Further, Jesus pointed to a potential broad range of participation in his mission when he stated that “anyone who gives you a cup of cold water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward” (Mark 9:38-41).

God’s Empathy
The unifying thread through nearly all of these examples is that the very real and pressing social context of these situations leads to behavior that is exceptional to the norm, but the exceptions are permitted. In each case, God empathizes with his followers, permitting human/social factors to come into play. In the Bible, God shows little mercy toward those who turn to idols, who turn their backs on him, or who head in an adverse direction, but he shows great mercy for those heading toward him, working out their salvation in truth and in humility in a fallen world. Matthew writes: “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matt. 12:20; Isa. 42:3).

Can we also empathize with new followers of Jesus who are working out their faith in difficult Muslim contexts? Can we give them the freedom to work out their lives with Christ in the light of scripture? Even though they may at times make decisions that we find unsettling, we must remember that they are now centered on Christ, just as Abraham, Naaman, and Esther were centered on God and his promised Messiah.

Too often, we make unfair demands on new believers in Muslim contexts. We expect lone followers of Jesus, new in the faith, living in isolated circumstances, to make public professions of their faith in Christ. This would be difficult enough, but we also expect them to make a public denial of their Muslim identity. To be fair, we have to ask ourselves: What is the setting of our own public professions of Christ in our own “Christian” nations? Is it not made in a semi-private assembly of believers in a sub-cultural context, safely hidden away from our non-believing friends and colleagues?

How many of our pastors require evidence of a public profession in the marketplace, in the workplace, or in the school setting, along with a public denial of Western, secular culture, before baptism? How many of us would be so bold, especially if it were our own lives and families being placed on the line? Is it our business to interfere, to prescribe God’s will for another?

We must resist prescribing and instead learn to listen to new seekers and believers as they walk toward Christ. We must be empathetic with the long-term process of seeking, conversion, and discipleship, permitting it to play out in the light of scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The believer knows his or her capacities, situation, and work of the Spirit in his or her life better than anyone else. Our responsibility is to continually bring the new believer face to face with Jesus through Bible study and prayer, but then give him or her freedom of decision, entrust him or her to the Holy Spirit, and refrain from judgment. Following Christ is a lifelong journey—for the former Muslim and for us. Let’s sharpen our hearing.


Lowell de Jong (pseudonym) grew up on the mission field and for thirty-eight years has been working as a missionary in West Africa. For more than two decades he has been ministering to the nomadic Muslim Fulani.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 10-12. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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