Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lessons from Turkey, part I

Prior to ever heading overseas, a large part of my motivation was not only to help spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also to see God in new ways and come out of my time a more mature man. When I ask myself, What am I learning from being here? How am I growing? it’s often a depressing exercise in futility. I usually have no ready answers, and I’ve only become aware of even more sin in my life. I don’t pray much, I crave everyone’s approval, I was lazy and easily frustrated about studying and using Turkish, I came up with excuses not to spend time with students, I sought independence more than supportive fellowship with my teammates . . . the list could go on.

But yet I do find that I have been learning and growing. Friends have pointed out my humble teachability and desire for change, my skills in teaching the truth of God’s Word, and that I do in fact care about reaching Turks with the truth. And while I have no idea what lessons I’ll continue to learn now that I've returned to America, some lessons have stuck out to me as more consistent ones from my life in the intercontinental metropolis of Istanbul, Turkey.

The Trinity is essential to the gospel.

Five times each day in the Muslim world the ezan is sung, calling the devout to offer their ritual prayers (namaz) to Allah. Included in the ezan is the essential “pillar” of Muslim theology: that God/Allah is one, and one alone (similar to the Judeo-Christian shema in Deuteronomy 6:4). To ascribe to others the divinity relegated to Allah is an unforgiveable sin.

At first I found the concept of the Trinity (üçlü birlik) to be one of the most common questions or objections to the Christian faith. We Christians are clearly lying polytheists, claiming that Jesus was not only the “Son of God"[1]—a blasphemy in itself, for God does not have sexual relations with humans—but even the Supreme Deity himself. Because there’s no truly satisfactory way to explain the tri-unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (especially in the eyes of a questioning Muslim), I started thinking more about what the Trinity teaches about the One God himself. [2]

Far from being the more distant, borderline deistic being that Allah is, the Trinity shows that God is emphatically personal, whose essential nature is one of relationship. “Trinity is not an attempt to explain or define God by means of abstractions . . . but a witness that God reveals himself as personal and in personal relations,” writes Eugene H. Peterson. “Under the image of the Trinity we discover that we do not know God by defining him but by being loved by him and loving in return." [3]

Because God has forever been in relationship with himself, this allows God to have always been loving without being dependent on the works of his hands. The Father has always and forever had his beloved Son, cementing love and joy at the very core of his being. For Allah to have someone to love, he needed to create humankind, and is therefore in some manner restrained and dependent upon us for his character. Thus love is not part of his truest nature, unlike that of our great and unchanging Yahweh.

On top of all that, the sheer mind-boggling physics of the Trinity itself, completely inexplicable by even man’s most strenuous intellectual gymnastics, upholds to me the validity of the Holy Scriptures themselves; their message is confirmed as “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and truly trustworthy. God is Someone far greater than my mind can ever conceive, making him worthy of worship, obedience, wonder, and fear-of-the-Lord.


[1] I suppose we are half to blame for perpetuating the misunderstanding, given that we continue the notion that “Son of God” refers chiefly to Jesus’ virgin birth. Yes, that’s partly true. But in Jewish understanding, “Son of God” was a common designation for the Messiah, the man who was to be Yahweh’s anointed king in the line of David through whom he would justly reign to fulfill his promises to Abraham and redeem Israel from her enemies (see, e.g., 2 Samuel 7:11-16; Psalms 2:6-7, 12; 72:1; Romans 1:3-4). Jesus as “Son of God” also shows that he is so closely united with God the Father that his actions and sayings are one and the same (Luke 10:21-22; John 5:17-22). This is particularly seen in John’s Gospel, where Jesus is portrayed as God living and acting in the flesh (John 20:31)—something far different from the mere human Messiah the Jews expected.

[2] Is it of note that I lived in the district of Kadıköy (on the Asian side of modern-day İstanbul)? It was once known as Khalkedon (or Chalcedon, Latin), where an important church council took place in A.D. 451, cementing the doctrine of the Trinity. I also had the opportunity to travel to the neaby town of İznik—historical Nikaea (Nicea)—where the Coptic “black dwarf” Athanasius fought so valiantly to oppose the Arians and uphold that Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (Nicene Creed).

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), p. 7.


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Great post! My favorite part is “Under the image of the Trinity we discover that we do not know God by defining him but by being loved by him and loving in return." I have found this to be so very true, especially recently when I've come so much closer to understanding that God loves me no matter how "bad" I am - that nothing I can do can make Him love me more or less.

gentleexit said...

No contemporary called Athanasius "the black dwarf". The label only became his in 1984. I've chronicled the mistake here: