Checkpoint Summer 2021: Communicating grace
Posted on: 15th November 2021
CMS worker B serves in the Middle East, teaching English and learning about her adopted culture. Here she speaks of the challenges in communicating grace to Muslims.
My lecturer drew her chair closer to mine. It was the last class for my course in formal Arabic at university, and she was conducting a conversational review of topics we’d covered, including Islamic history, principles and practice. She taught with passion, gentleness and dignity; my heart had warmed to her and she too appreciated our rapport. “In your interactions as you’ve got to know people here, have you experienced any significant, core difference between the two faiths?” she asked me, the only Christian in the class.
I’ve found that my Muslim friends struggle to understand the need for atoning sacrifice, let alone accept that Jesus is that sacrifice, provided by God himself.
With Islam often portrayed negatively in the West, she is keen to redeem its image. And rightly so; my Muslim majority neighbours are kind, generous, seeking of peace
and full of love. To her, the differences between us are largely superficial. But there is a difference—right at the core. I faltered. How could I explain? Our conversation
moved from motivations for good deeds, to Jesus’ gift of forgiveness and life, and then to the accounting by God that will occur. “Yes, there will be an accounting,” I said, “But the account has been paid.”
Time and again, over the past several years living in the Middle East, I have been struck—and at times frustrated—by how incomprehensible the concept of grace is to my Muslim friends. Several friends have told me how life’s purpose is basically an exam: life in this world is a test to determine whether or not we deserve to enter heaven. One friend described how there’s an angel that sits on each shoulder—one writes down a person’s good deeds, and the other angel records all the bad deeds.
At one level, these friends recognise that we can’t actually be good enough to attain God’s standard of perfection. We must rely on God’s mercy and willingness to forgive. However, there is never any assurance of this forgiveness. How could there be, without Christ’s decisive, victorious act in history? I’ve found that my Muslim friends struggle to understand the need for atoning sacrifice, let alone accept that Jesus is that sacrifice, provided by God himself. It’s as though they’ve been blinded, by lies and distortions of truth that are passed down the generations through lines of trust.
But there are glimmers of hope—where God’s Spirit seems to be at work, giving sight to the blind. One dear friend, Milak* , once commented to me, with remarkable clarity, ‘‘You Christians depend on Jesus. We depend on our own works.” Milak has been a language tutor for me and several other co-workers over the past six years. I’ve been told by colleagues that for a long time she was not at all open to talking about Jesus or what we believe. However, through years of sharing life and friendship with us and in observing our interactions with each other, she has softened and changed.
Milak is wrestling with questions around what is true. She still holds to Islam. But she is attracted by what she sees in the lives of believers in Jesus: the outworking of God’s grace. In fact, she recently commented that she has noticed a change in her own attitude. She shared about a shameful situation concerning a female relative. Whilst other family members were judging the woman, Milak found herself standing up for her. Years ago, she said, she too would probably have sided against her.
It’s only by the powerful work of God’s Spirit that any of us can accept his gift of grace. I long for these dear friends, and many others, who are blinded by lies, to truly know Jesus and have life in him! And as I stumble along—with moments of frustration, joy, failure, and unexpected blessings—I am reminded that it’s only by grace that I, also, live each day.
Thank God for the opportunities that B has had to explain the gospel of grace to her friends. Pray that their lives will be transformed as they grasp the offer of forgiveness through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.
*Name changed for privacy reasons