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 to 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 outreach and 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 represent the Body of Christ doing what they can given the circumstances.

It is interesting to note that while 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.  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 Korean’s essential heart needs in a way that is truly redemptive, and 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 the 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 propaganda which frames the ruling Kim family in God-like terms, and which use analogies applied to the Kims which are coopted 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.  ALSO HUMANISM AND EVOLUTION

The people have been taught to equate Christianity with America and the perceived injustices perpetrated on them, 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, which in many ways is 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.

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?

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Grace comes from Christ, out of His love and goodness, through faith (Ephesians 2:7-9). so at its simplest and at the same time deepest and most profound level, the North Koreans need only two beliefs:

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)

 

It is the depths of these 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.

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Belief 1:  Those who come to God must believe that “HE IS”………..

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To truly believe that HE IS (Exodus 3:14) means 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 God,  helping people believe 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, and 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 understand who God is also means helping them to understand God’s goodness which He already provides through His common grace to everyone.  As “the goodness of God leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4), it means making clear the common grace which God has already shown to them.  God is good to everyone every day, in myriads of ways, if they would just open their eyes and look.

It is not just 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 the attributes 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.

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Belief #2 – And that HE is a rewarder (ie – grace in it’s broadest application) of those who seek Him

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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.  (This also implies a warning that the attributes available to those who do not seek Him are His holiness and justice).  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.

As good stewards of the manifold – “many colored”, like the infinite spectrum of color embedded in light – grace of God, 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.  This will provide the ultimate foundation for healing and reconciliation.

For the North Koreans to truly and completely turn to God from idols (I Thessalonians 1:9) they need to understand that God truly will provide everything they need, at the point of need – that His grace is sufficient – in every aspect of their lives.  God wants to show the riches of His grace as part of the display of His glory, in the North Korean context, with North Koreans as the beneficiaries of that grace.  For a people that are used to navigating a graceless society by any human means possible this will be a radical shift in perspective.

The link that ties faith with grace with is to truly understand that God, flowing of His super-abundant goodness, has made everything available as a gift to those who ask and seek.  This 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.  The riches of His grace is not the prosperity gospel, and truly seeking Him includes knowing the fellowship of His sufferings and being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10).

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It is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast (and God will get the glory)

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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 a society based on self-effort (Juche) and pride, this underscores the importance of sure that our approach to God is faith alone, resulting in grace, with works as the result and not the primary driver.

If we do not make sure that the North Korean’s 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 to lead toward a Christianity based on pride of achievement, denying God His rightful glory and denying themselves the grace which comes from walking humbly 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.

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The trust required to turn to God from idols

The North Korean’s embrace of layers of false gods is ultimately based on a lack of understanding of God’s loving provision for those who seek Him, and a fear-driven search in every other direction than God for the solutions to their needs.  For the North Koreans to genuinely turn to God from idols, (I Thess 1:9) they need to be able to trust (ie – faith) that God is completely loving, good, all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful – and always that way (immutable).

Trust in God can be thought of as a four-cornered stool.  really requires full, complete, 100 percent confidence in four things – 1.  that God completely loves me and is looking to be good to me, 2.  that has infinite knowledge of everything that can or is happening to me, and that He has the perfect wisdom to choose what is the most good for me, 3.  that He has the total power to accomplish those things that He in His wisdom chose, and 4.  that He totally consistent, unchangeable, and not arbitrary.  If we doubt any one of these 4 things we will be very tempted to come up with our own solutions (relying on false idols).

NK’ers need a big God.  We need to magnify the Lord to the maximum.  Every bit of our Gospel message needs to emphasize the greatness of God in every aspect.  The greatness of His love

The emphasis is truly relying on God, instead of a veneer of Christian practices plastered over a continued reliance (and hence worship of) former false God’s.

Of course, we also need to make sure that God’s justice is included as the flip side of understanding that will God rewards those who seek Him is and an understanding the Judgement that 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.

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We Can’t Shortcut the Process

Any alternatives to this of laying a strong foundation based on a true and full-understanding of the nature and existence of God, and of 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 be unsustainable due to it’s 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).  To be truly transformational, the gospel to the North Koreans must not be syncretized mixed with borrowed 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 the NK’s to approach God with the humble, childlike attitude of “Daddy may I please have more?”  With a clear understanding that “more” is ultimately more of Him.

The core of this gospel runs totally counter to their history, but is required for there to be a true transformation.  Unique culture, unique demonstrations and applications of His grace.

The ultimate goal is genuine internal communion and worship of the only One who truly meets needs.  This grace will focus 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.

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Paul Provides The Template

We can look to the example which Paul demonstrated in Acts 17 to the Greeks who had no foundation of a knowledge of the one true God, as opposed to Peter’s message to the Jews who had a multigenerational foundation of the knowledge of God.  This is especially true as they have been inoculated to Christianity.   Paul modeled this in Acts 17:22-31 – 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 and the need to repent.   Paul made very clear Focus on creation and proof of the resurrection

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Additional ideas

  1. Korean nation is proud of national progress made through hard work.  SK gospel often approached from a perspective of work and success, not need and grace.  The fundamental issue is a lack of understanding for who God really is.  A poor doctrine of God.
  2. There that will break through the layers of shamanism, confucianism, self-reliance, and the Kim-cult, with it’s underlying roots of a culture of pride, fear, in an honor shame culture.  must start with laying a solid foundation of existence and nature of the One True God – a clear understanding of His nature, power, love, goodness, and justice.  Then move on to His reflected through His incarnation as Jesus.  Ultimately it’s the Light of The World – a gospel firmly rooted in God’s glory and grace, and fundamentally address people’s hearts.   And wrapped up with His sovereign rule, which will be plain for all to see in His coming
  3. In this context, sharing the gospel with North Koreans from the perspective of Ephesians 2:8-9 is more important than ever:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Their culture is strongly based on self-effort, not grace.  It focuses on what is right in front of them, not faith.  It wants to boast about it’s own achievements, rather than on what God has done.    Resulting in the praise of the glory of His grace.
  4. Repentance

 

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How To Approach Things

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10 As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11 Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.    (1 Peter 4:10-11 (NASB))

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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))

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Good stewardship of the manifold grace of God not only applies to the message we take, but also the taking 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 deigns “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.

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 may have started with sincere response to a genuine call from God, but then fulfilled with 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 vs the glory of what He is doing in building His kingdom.  The resulting quest for greater personal (or group) performance for God can result in a temptation to find human solutions in order to achieve greater performance.  This can lead to short cut solutions, easily justified by an un-Biblical rationalization that the “end justifies the means”.  This can possibly even lead to the ultimate shortcut of syncretism – and a “Christianity” that does not truly transform the culture to a Biblical foundation, and possibly even a no gospel result.  This has been seen in places in South Korea, where incorporating practices from shamanism with Christianity added to numerical growth but has resulted in some Christianized cults.   VITALITY    NATIONALISM

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, this means not preaching ourselves or our good works (Cor), letting our light shine in such a way that they will glorify God as the result, and not us (Matthew 6), 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 not add to it through our own approach to missions.

Jesus illustrated this all very well with His mustard-seed analogy for the development of God’s kingdom (Matthew 13:31-32).  If we are content for a church in NK to arise from seemingly nowhere, we but if we are seeking some measure of personal (or our own organization, etc) credit for the creation of a church NK, we should stop and take a serious look at our goals and motives – and whether we are truly seeking walking in grace through faith, or have a self-aggrandizing works-based based approach is the opposite of God’s “mustard seed” way of Kingdom building, seeking personal credit over God’s glory.

God wants to show His glory in it’s infinite facets. As Isaiah 2 says, The Lord alone will be exalted in that day – in NK’ers and in us.

 

Conclusion

All of the above may seem so 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 the wranglings of the current affairs of men to deeply consider the best Gospel to His glory.