“Yet while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” ― Romans 5:8
A while back I visited Jakarta, Indonesia on a business trip during the month of Ramadan and after watching and talking to many of the people there, I once again was reminded of how much we could learn from the true followers of Islam. Now there are many Christians that would have my head at that statement, but bear with me and allow me to explain what I mean. First, I don’t mean that I in any way endorse or believe in the Muslim faith. I truly believe, with all my heart, soul, and mind, that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. I believe that Christ died on the cross for my sins (I will talk about this later), was buried, and three days later, rose from the dead and provided a way for me, with my screwed up life and sinful nature (As Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am the worst of sinners”) to get into heaven. I believe that Jesus was wholly man and wholly God – a claim that Mohammad cannot make. Mohammad may have been a good teacher and a good man (so was Mr. Gunderson, my second grade teacher), but he was not God (neither was Mr. Gunderson).
Then what am I talking about when I say that I think there’s a lot we can learn from Muslims? I am talking about their dedication and devotion to their spiritual disciplines and their integrity to their faith.
Now, I should stop here and mention that when I’m talking about we, I really mean American Christians (myself included). I think that most of the rest of the world, particularly Christians in Third-World countries, or countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith, or have to practice their faith in secret, have a depth of understanding and an appreciation of the truths of Christianity and an integrity of faith that we in America struggle to attain, if we ever truly attain them at all.
So what are these spiritual disciplines that I’m talking about? These disciplines that Muslims seem to have a grasp on, but that I think eludes us? There are two areas that I think we need to look at: sacrifice and prayer.
As I was working there, I found that I often ate lunch by myself. Not because I was ostracized for being American, or shunned for not being Muslim, or smelled (I did bring deodorant), but because during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. No food all day. So the team would continue to work (so they don’t think about how much they’d like to eat) and I would have a sandwich down in the cafeteria alone. I spent a lot of this time thinking about how much we really don’t understand the concept of fasting and sacrifice. The majority of us here in America have no concept of hunger. What it means to go without. We would have trouble fasting one meal (or for some of us, one hour), let alone the entire day. Or the entire day for an entire month. What would we be willing to give up to get closer to God? What would we sacrifice to sharpen our spiritual discernment and discipline? Yet this is often the very thing that can release our giftings and ministry. Before Jesus began his ministry, he spent 40 days fasting in the desert. Then He went out and began to minister to the people, as the Father directed Him through prayer.
Which brings us to the second area of spiritual discipline. When I was planning the training sessions with the team there, I had to adjust our schedule to allow for their daily prayers. Three times a day we would take a break from the training sessions and the team would go to the room set aside and pray. Removing their shoes, facing Mecca, they would spend 10 to 15 minutes focusing on God and their faith. Again, I think about my own prayer life and find that it’s woefully scattered and inconsistent. My prayer life, like, I think, most of us, consists of evenings, lying in bed, falling asleep, or while driving in traffic, asking for God’s vengeance on that idiot who just cut me off. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. The NIV translates it as “pray continuously”. Without stopping. What difference would we be able to make if we actually did that? Jesus said that He does nothing except what He sees the Father doing. How amazing would our lives be if we actually lived that way? Imagine if we could combine the discipline and focus of the Muslims in prayer but with the power of the One True God and with Jesus, our Intercessor. Paul writes that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. And our weapons in this battle are prayer and the Word of God. Think about if we prayed, not three times a day, but 30. Or 300. Or truly without ceasing. Imagine how we could change this world. Imagine how many battles we could win, not against Muslims, or Buddhists, or Jews, but against our true enemy: the principalities and powers of this world.
I was walking around one of the malls in Jakarta during the latter part of my trip and hanging throughout the mall were banners proclaiming the statement The Alluring Beauty of the Merciful Moment. When I returned to my hotel, I was speaking with one of the hotel staff and I asked her what the phrase meant. She told me that the merciful moment was the one time, during Ramadan, when there was some hope that they could see a miracle in their lives. That perhaps God would be gracious enough to grant them a miracle. But as I walked around that mall and reflected on what I had experienced and seen that week, I began to realize that this phrase captures the fundamental truth of Christianity. And the reality of what keeps us connected and returning to the truth of Christ. That there is an alluring, mystical, beauty to the moment we receive Christ’s mercy. The moment we realize that God didn’t give us what we really deserve, but rather sent His only son to pay for our miserable sins. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me.” And this happens continually (like our prayer should). Daily. Hourly. Every time we screw up, put ourselves before others or before God. Every time we choose our will over God’s. Every time we reject God by choosing sin, we can return to this alluring beauty. This merciful moment when we can turn back to God and inexplicably, amazingly, unreasonably, God accepts us again. This is the miracle that we can see time and time again. it’s the miracle that we can don’t have to wait for. We don’t have to wait for Ramadan, or Passover, or any other special holiday. We don’t even have to wait for Sunday. We can receive God’s grace and mercy now. Today. Here. All we have to do is ask.
Combined with the truth of God’s mercy and grace, the two disciplines of prayer and fasting could transform us from an impotent people who are scorned and ignored to a people of influence who have an impact on the people and places around us. In these two disciplines lie the secret to a more powerful and influential ministry. As we practice these and make them a part of our life, we will begin to see a change, we will see things that were beyond our grasp come into reach. Jesus was talking to the disciples after they failed to cast out a demon, and they couldn’t figure out why they were having so much trouble in their ministry. Jesus told them that these ones only come out through prayer and fasting. The difficult times and tasks are conquered only through prayer and fasting. What demons haunt our lives that we could send back to hell if we would only heed Jesus’ words? What freedom would we experience in our lives and our ministries if we lived the way Jesus did? Imagine how we could put to shame other religions, not only because of our discipline and dedication, but because we would be showing the world a religion and faith that truly has power. A faith that has influence and integrity, beauty and mercy, grace and forgiveness. A religion that doesn’t just display these ideas on a billboard on a freeway or a banner hanging in a mall, but that displays them in the lives, the attitudes, the actions of the people who walk them out daily. Then the world would truly see the reality of the Alluring Beauty of the Merciful Moment. Amen. Let it be so with us, Lord.