In my “Who Am I” post at the start this journey, I explained that one reason I am doing this blog anonymously is that I have been involved (for more than a decade now) in a missions work in a sensitive part of the world. That “sensitive area” is North Korea. I was recently invited to submit an article on North Korea to a prominent Christian publication, and felt a strong burden to share the conclusion of some key lessons learned along my particular journey. The article is below. If and when it comes out, my actual name will not be attached because doing so would put some other people at risk .
I am sharing it on this blog for two reasons. One is t0 partially make up for my absence while I was pressing to get this article done (writing does not come easy for me). The second is that the North Korean culture has certain narcissistic tendencies, so some of the following lessons provide a bit of broader context in that respect.
Here’s a draft of the article:
A Manifesto For North Korean Missions
A Call to Grace Through Faith
“As good stewards of the manifold grace of God….” (I Peter 4:10)……..
One of the beautiful things about God’s mission to the world is that it provides opportunities for God to reveal and demonstrate additional facets of His glory and grace in new cultures and new contexts. This is certainly true in North Korea, where the “hermit kingdom” has created new challenges for the Gospel, and new opportunities for God to show Himself in ways unseen before now.
As we read about North Korea, we may think about a variety of things – from how the unfolding events impact world security, to the pain of heart-wrenching stories of human suffering. While from a human perspective the problems seem intractable, we know that a wise and sovereign God is purposefully working inexorably for His kingdom and glory.
Underneath the very visible headline news, various groups and individuals are currently engaging in activities for the purpose of ministering to the North Korean people – such as focused attention on human rights abuses, humanitarian relief and medical work, refugee work, and praying for national healing and reunification. These activities also include careful person-to-person, radio, and media outreach, including some sermons as well as “news from the outside”. The Christians who are involved in these activities typically put them under a broad umbrella which they call “NK Missions”. While there are a wide range of goals and motives on the part of the people involved in these things, we should generally consider them in a positive light, as they often represent the Body of Christ doing what they can given the circumstances.
It is interesting to note that at the same time that the South Korean church has certain limitations on how they can be involved, the rest of the worldwide church is keenly interested and getting involved. Prayer movements and personal involvement in “NK missions” have arisen from virtually every continent of the world. For North Koreans, this is an in-your-face illustration that God is far beyond nations and cultures. God is up to something special.
In the midst of this, it is important to have a clear view of what a genuine Christ-centered Gospel that radically transforms hearts and minds looks like in the uniquely difficult North Korean context. As we seek for opportunities for the Gospel to NK, it is important to get right to the heart of North Koreans’ essential heart needs in a way that is truly redemptive, and truly transformational at the core level. We need to be ready with an approach to the gospel that gets right to the heart of God’s desires and addresses the North Korean people’s deepest need of all – to be reconciled to God through Christ, and to have God as their God and ultimate Provider.
The North Korea national philosophy of “Juche” – roughly translated “self-reliance” – is layered on a historical foundation of a mixture of Korean shamanism (or “Musim”) and Confucianism. North Koreans have also been fed a diet of evolution and humanism, along with propaganda which frames the ruling Kim family in God-like terms and which uses analogies applied to the Kims co-opted from Christianity. Not all North Koreans completely buy into the cult of the Kims. But underlying it all, most tellingly, missionaries have expressed more than once the deep seated pride and even arrogance they have seen from even the poorest of the North Koreans. This pride, however, can ultimately be traced to deep-seated fear.
The NK people have been taught to equate Christianity with the perceived injustices perpetrated on them by America, and to equate the Cross with the Statue of Liberty. This has been part of the ruling elite’s plan to suppress Christianity while acting as harsh taskmasters, similar to the Stalinist model. The church in NK did experience strong growth in the early part of the late 19th and early 20th century, but the government has stomped this down.
All of this has had a profound impact on North Korean society.
The answer to the North Koreans’ spiritual needs is of course a God-exalting, Christ-centered Gospel of grace. But, how does this apply in it’s “manifold” fullest expression in this unique context? How can the North Koreans truly, completely, genuinely, and permanently turn to God from the idols and false gods of shamanism, confucianism, the self-effort of Juche, and Kim-worship?
It is the depths of two beliefs that will determine the degree to which they turn to God from idols, and the extent to which true spiritual reformation takes place in North Korea.
6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. Hebrews 11:6 (NASB)
Belief #1: Those who come to God must believe that “HE IS”………..
To truly believe that HE IS (Exodus 3:14) requires an understanding and acceptance of not merely the existence of God, but the deepest possible understanding of His nature and attributes – including God’s fundamental love and goodness, His perfect knowledge of everything, His sovereignty over every detail of life both large and small, His wisdom in applying His goodness and knowledge, His absolute power over all things, and His perfect holiness and justice.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism‘s definition of God enumerates these attributes: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
For people in a graceless society led by rulers which have dedicated the past 70 years to getting rid of God, believing that HE IS starts with the basics. It includes God’s revealing of Himself through the goodness, knowledge, wisdom and power He has displayed in His creation (Romans 1:20), through His work in the past recorded in the pages of Scripture, His work in the present through His visible actions, and the testimony of His work on the part of His people. It includes a myriad of examples of God’s love as shown through His people.
As Jesus fully reflected God’s glory (John 1:14), the ultimate proof of the existence and nature of God is found in Jesus – His life, death, and resurrection.
Especially in North Korean society, helping people to understand who God is also means helping them to understand God’s goodness which He already provides through His common grace to everyone. The “goodness of God leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4), underscoring the need to help them see that God is good to everyone, every day, in myriads of ways – if they would just open their eyes and look.
Their ability to trust Him will not just depend on their belief in God’s existence and attributes, but also their degree. This means our constantly magnifying the Lord (Psalm 34:3) and pointing to the infinite depth and breadth of His glory in everything. God wants people to know Him, so we can be sure that God will be actively working to reveal Himself, as we seek to make Him known.
Belief #2 – ….. That HE is a rewarder of those who seek Him
The fundamental nature of God’s goodness in belief #1 is the reason He actively makes Himself and His unlimited provision – His grace – available as a “reward” to those who truly seek Him. The “reward for those who seek Him” is the “surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” spoken of in Ephesians 2:7-10.
In I Peter 4:10 the word “manifold” means “many colored”, like the infinite spectrum of color embedded in light. For us to be good stewards of this infinitely varied, infinite amount of God’s grace, we must help the North Koreans understand that this grace goes far beyond the riches of His grace shown in salvation to include the broadest sense of the meaning of grace as God’s full provision at the point of need for the need at hand – in any and all situations. This includes things particularly relevant to the North Koreans – ministering to their need for inclusion through the grace of adoption into God’s family, ministering to their need to replace shame with honor through the honor of their high standing in Christ, and myriads of instances of God’s specific provision for living in and navigating a poor society which has been wracked with many kinds of evil.
For a society built on fear and wracked with lack of forgiveness, God’s grace will go far beyond eternal salvation and enable His (new) creations to be full of His love and and forgiveness to the point of overflowing to others. We love because He first loved us (I John 4:19). This provides the ultimate foundation for healing and reconciliation.
The link that ties faith with grace is truly understanding that God, flowing out of His super-abundant resources and goodness, has made everything available as a gift to those who ask and seek (Matthew 7:7). This riches of His grace is not a prosperity gospel asking for whatever we want, but an understanding that God will give what is good to those who ask Him. (Matthew 7:11). This is ultimately about seeking the Giver, not His gifts, and includes knowing the fellowship of His sufferings and being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10).
We also need to make sure that God’s justice is included as the flip side of understanding that God rewards those who seek Him, and that His Judgement will come to those who do not. This is not only as a warning to evildoers, but as a comfort to those who have had evil done to them.
It is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast (and God will get the glory)
While good works as the result of faith proves faith to be genuine (James 2), good works instead of faith denies everything about the God it is purporting to serve, and displays a complete lack of understanding of who God is. In effect, borrowing from the Puritan writer Stephen Charnock, it is “practical atheism.” Things can look outwardly the same, but have radically different motives and results – and more importantly one brings glory to God and the other results in pride and brings glory to ourselves. Given an NK society based on self-effort (Juche) and pride, this underscores the importance that our approach to God must be faith alone, resulting in grace, with works as the result and not the primary driver.
If we do not make sure that the North Koreans understand this, they may risk putting God on the periphery of their lives while meeting their own needs as they have always done. This will tend toward a Christianity based on pride of achievement, denying God His rightful glory and denying themselves the grace which comes from walking humbly with God.
Any gospel other than God’s grace through Jesus, given as a free gift of God and not earned through works, and accepted through faith alone will fail to counter the deep pride at the root of their society. Good works will result, but any gospel that places works as equal or higher than grace through faith will undermine the message and play to the already existing tendency toward self-effort and looking to other things (idols) rather than Christ.
We Can’t Shortcut the Process
Bypassing this true and full-understanding of the nature and existence of God, and the reward and all-sufficient provision He provides through Christ to those who seek Him, will result in a church that may start with eye-opening numbers but have a weak and compromised foundation. We do not want a “Christianity” that replaces one set of false idols (Kim family, juche, shamanism, etc.) with a slightly “better” set of idols (human-based wise-sounding answers, materialism, prosperity, self-glorification, etc.). To be truly transformational, the gospel to the North Koreans must not be mixed with spiritual-sounding shamanistic characteristics, nor emphasize conformity to a western style Christianity which results in outward conformance when the spotlight is on, but no real change at the most fundamental level of the heart.
What would be an ideal outcome? For North Koreans to approach the loving, wise, powerful God of all grace with a humble, childlike attitude of “Daddy may I please have more?” – with a clear understanding that “more” is ultimately more of Him. The ultimate goal is genuine internal communion with and worship of the only One who truly meets needs, with a focus on the fullness of Christ who is all and in all – to the greatest display of the glory of God. And as North Koreans embrace the full grace of God, it will be an attractive picture for others to do the same.
This kind of gospel will run totally counter to their history, but is required for there to be a true transformation. It will result in a unique display of God’s grace and glory, further displaying God’s manifold grace to be marvelled at for all eternity.
Paul Provides The Message Template
We can look to the example which Paul demonstrated in his message to the Greeks (Acts 17:22-31) who had no foundational knowledge of the one true God. This contrasted with Peter’s message to the Jews who had a multigenerational foundation of the knowledge of God. Paul’s gracious and diplomatic framing of the Athenian’s ignorance did not prevent him from also clearly pointing out key tenets regarding the existence of God, the fact that everything comes from Him, His giving nature, the need to seek Him through Jesus, and the fact that judgement is coming resulting in the need to repent. Paul made very clear that in it all, God provided the ultimate proof through the resurrection of Jesus.
How The Messengers Should Approach It
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10 (NASB))
Good stewardship of the manifold grace of God not only applies to the message we bring, but also the bringing of that message. God’s wants to display an infinite amount of His grace (loving provision of everything needed at the point of need) and glory (His love, wisdom, power, etc.) through the myriad times and ways in which He overcomes the barriers of evil on behalf of His message and His messengers in the unique North Korean context. Each obstacle, from large to micro, is an additional opportunity for the exercise and display of His glory, as an example for all eternity. He desires for us to be His willing vessels toward that end (2 Chronicles 16:9).
In the same way that Paul and his colleagues experienced excessive burdens beyond their strength in Asia (2 Cor 1:8-9), God designs “impossible situations”, beyond our human ability to handle, in order to force us to rely on God instead of our own abilities – to walk in His grace through faith.
Those who have worked in the field of “NK Missions” are acutely aware of the inherent difficulties in that work. Because of the human persistence which the Korean people have learned over time, the natural tendency has been to respond with even more persistence and greater human effort to break through walls. Perseverance in ministry is a good thing, but only when driven by greater faith-based trust in God, and not as a substitute. The unique difficulties of NK missions should be a special call to faith and grace, and not to “overcoming” through human effort.
Grace-Based Missions For A Grace-Based Message
Overcoming obstacles through human effort is a close cousin to “works-based missions”. It is a natural tendency to take an original God-given burden and vision for loving and serving others, and then attempt to fulfill it primarily through human effort. An initiative which may have started with a sincere response to a genuine call from God can get sidetracked by fulfillment through a heavy emphasis on a works-based effort of what we are going to do for God. The result of this is pride in our “accomplishments” and feeding the temptation to do things out of selfishness and empty conceit (Phil 2:3), contrary to the example of the Lord Jesus. We are left with weak human effort, building houses which God is not building (Psalm 127).
A “works-based approach” focuses on “what I am accomplishing for God” versus the glory of what He is doing in building His kingdom. Going down this road tends toward a desire to do better in a quest to accomplish more. The resulting drive for greater personal (or group) performance for God may lead to a temptation to find human shortcuts in order to achieve greater performance. We may try to justify this by an un-Biblical rationalization that the “end justifies the means”, possibly even leading to the ultimate shortcut of syncretism and a false “Christianity”. This has already happened in a few instances in South Korea, where incorporating practices from shamanism with Christianity added to numerical growth but resulted in some Christianized cults.
Pride Undercuts The Message
Going even further, since insolent pride is a root issue in the NK context, it is extra important that we approach the work from the opposite of pride. Since grace comes through humility, not pride, (I Peter 5:5), and since pride is a natural result of a works-based approach to the things of God (Eph 2:8-9), it further underscores the need to get faith and works in the right order (James 2:14-26). To properly model His message, we must not preach ourselves or our good works (2 Corinthians 4:5), letting our light shine in such a way that they will glorify God as the result, and not us (Matthew 5:16), and walking by grace through faith, not works (Eph 2:8-9). Prideful seeking of glory is at the heart of the issue in NK, and we must therefore be careful to not add to it by our own prideful approach to missions.
Jesus’ mustard-seed analogy for the development of God’s kingdom (Matthew 13:31-32) is a good test of our hearts. If we are content for the Church in NK to arise from seemingly nowhere, with no credit to us, it is a good thing. But if we are seeking some measure of personal or organizational credit for the creation of a church in NK, we should stop and take a serious look at our goals and motives.
God seeks the “praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). A greater application of His grace in North Korea will display more of His glory, resulting in more praise for His goodness. “The Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11,17), in the North Koreans and in us.
What Will It Be?
All of the above seems simple and basic, but as we collectively proceed in North Korean missions it is important to be reminded of, and not wander away from, the ultimate foundations for what is truly transformational and lasting.
God has His mostly indiscernible reasons for making North Korea the Hermit Kingdom with difficult access to the Gospel. And He has indiscernible reasons for making the most likely nation to reach NK with the Gospel – South Korea – to currently have the least direct access to do so. However, we do know that all of this is intended for a more comprehensive and true Gospel. We would do well in the midst of all of current uproar in the affairs of men to deeply consider the best Gospel to His glory.