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09 February 2023

The name that calms our fears


CMS missionary Mike Taylor serves with Katie in Tanzania, training local church leaders. Here, he reflects on the power of the gospel of grace to release people from slavery to fear. 

“’I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’”

John 16:33

Gospel preachers have the extraordinary privilege of seeing people set free by the truth about Jesus. Through his word and Spirit Jesus sets people free from legalism, self-centredness, alienation, guilt and the tyranny of sin. One of the many joys God has given us in our ministry in Tanzania is seeing people set free from fear, especially the fear of curses and of the spiritual powers all around them. 

Mission in 21st Century Tanzania is not generally to people who are living purely according to ancient customs and spirituality. The people we live and serve alongside have been shaped and influenced by Islam, Christianity and the West. Nevertheless, some of the traditional ways of thinking and seeing the world persist, especially about power, blessing, and curse.  

Tradition and fear 

Traditional religion in Africa holds that an Almighty God created the world and then departed, leaving the everyday management of life’s affairs to various types of spiritual beings. These beings have power over humanity, especially to bring curse. They must be appeased primarily by maintaining customs and avoiding taboos. There’s an old saying that when someone gets sick a Westerner will ask what is wrong, whereas an African will ask who caused this. 

Not only does this perspective result in fear, but it also places a strong emphasis on works and the performance of ritual. Do the right thing and you’ll attain a blessing, some kind of power to live well today. But do the wrong thing and you’ll be cursed. And while the spirits can be fickle, there is some comfort in knowing you have performed the right ritual. 

Fear of spirits, magic, and curse can heavily influence Christian thinking in this context. Preachers offer Christianity as a means to attain blessing and avoid curse: power for a better life now. Offerings are invited as a way to remove suffering and hardship. Evangelists offer holy objects as access to God’s power for healing and blessing. Christians are quick to identify spirit possession and put their hope in the speaking of Jesus’ name to defeat that power. Many fear converting to Christianity since they dread that any change from tradition will bring curse. 

These attitudes and behaviours reflect a deep-seated fear, a consequence of traditional belief where God is distant and uncaring, and life is controlled by powerful spirits.  

Freedom through grace 

As we grow in faith and listen to God’s voice our minds are renewed. As we serve alongside our Tanzanian brothers and sisters, our aim for ministry isn’t to pass on a Western mindset, but to help people understand the Bible and allow that to change their perspectives on God, life and spirituality. So, a key lesson I teach is the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24).  

In many places the story of Balaam is known because his donkey rebuked him. But here, we teach the story of Balaam with a different focus, because he was an mchawi, a witchdoctor employed to curse God’s people. Just as many of our students serve in communities where an mchawi is a threat, so too Balaam is a person of power and to be feared. But God does not listen to Balaam, and instead commands him to bless. God turns his curse into a blessing (Deuteronomy 23:5). 

This is good news for students like Yohana from the Hadzabe tribe. His tribal elders had placed a curse on him on account of his Christian faith and ministry. For months this curse had hung over him, threatening, frightening. But, as he told me with joy and thankfulness, seeing God’s grace and authority over everything has released him from fear of that curse. 

The lesson from Balaam isn’t that there is no magic or curse, but that there is no magic or curse against God’s people because God is present with them in grace to bless (Numbers 23:23). God is sovereign, free to bless as he chooses and not in thrall to words of power or rituals. The many spirits that seem to threaten do not have unbridled power: God is present in grace to rule all things for good. 

Christ’s victory 

“He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”

Galatians 3:14

Many of those we minister to live in constant fear: fear of spirits and curse, fear of people in power, fear of being found out, of being abandoned, of not having done what is required. Biblical truth shines as a bright light into this darkness, especially God’s goodness for us. The Bible shows how God is present in grace, that he cares for his creatures, that he sets his love upon them, and fills their hearts with joy (Acts 14:17). Jesus triumphs over the powers of darkness by the cross: he brings forgiveness and release from the tyranny of the devil, and in his resurrection he is exalted far above every power and dominion. 

My lesson on Balaam finds its way to Galatians 3 where the work of Jesus on the cross is described with the language of blessing and curse. Here God’s grace is displayed on the one hand in that Jesus was cursed by God in our place, and on the other that the blessing of God comes by faith and not law or works. God’s blessing comes to us freely because of his love, and not because we do good or perform the right rituals. God rejoices in saving us and blessing us with his Spirit. It is this message of grace that sets people free from fear. 

Sadly we know very few people who understand and teach the good news of the grace of God to us in Christ. This gospel is crowded out by many things and not least traditional thinking about spiritual powers, ritual, curse and blessing. We would love for God to raise up leaders who know his gospel and who preach it lovingly. 

Read about Katie Taylor’s ministry reaching children and youth in Tanzania here.

PRAY 

Please pray that the gospel would be widely and faithfully proclaimed in Tanzania, so that many would find true blessing through faith in Christ, rather than fearing curse and seeking blessing through ritual.