Years ago, when Shannon and I were living in a remote village in Thailand’s Surin province, we met a kind old man who was a well-to-do chicken farmer. Jovial and talkative, he loved to chat with me whenever our paths crossed. On one such occasion he said something that both bothers and challenges me every time I remember it. He didn’t say it argumentatively; it was just his honest assessment. “You know,” he said, “I’m sure your God is good. But for us, the Buddha is near, and your God is so far away.”
How could that be? I’ve often mused. David said that God is present everywhere in heaven and earth (Ps. 139:7-10). Paul described God as the One in whom “we live and move, and have our being,” and who “is not far from each one of us” (Acts 18:27, 28). How is it that people can think that this God—my God—is far away, while the Buddha, whom they claim has entered into Nirvana, never again to be reborn on this earth, seems so near?
Could it be the countless Buddha images that line their bookshelves, sit on the dashes of their cars, and reside under shelters in front of their government buildings, schools and shopping centers? Or is it because of their giant Buddha images that tower over valleys from their mountaintop perches? Nearer still are the little ornate Buddha medallions that dangle on strings around most people’s necks and rest over their hearts. All these idols that human hands have made, and which their own hands can actually handle and their eyes can see—perhaps it’s these that make the Buddha seem so near?
Or perhaps it might be that the teachings of the Buddha are portrayed so often on their TV shows, preached on their local community radio programs, glamorized in their movies, chronicled in their books and magazines, and posted in their social media. Could that be why the Buddha seems so near?
Or perhaps it’s his legion of representatives—hundreds of thousands of saffron-robed monks that daily walk the streets and sit in their myriad local temples receiving food offerings from their devotees’ hands and chanting soothing blessings in return upon them and their dead relatives. Monks are present at their weddings, their funerals, their housewarmings and all kinds of merit-making functions. Pictures of monks adorn many walls. Truly, they are ubiquitous! Perhaps that’s why the Buddha seems so near, and our God, by comparison, seems so far away?
I think the answer is: yes, yes, yes . . . and then some! I’ve not yet mentioned the impact of their many spirit encounters—their sorceries, their fortune-telling, their spirit possessions and exorcisms, their troubling dreams with dreadful messages supposedly from their dead relatives who urge them to make more merit on their behalf so that they might sooner escape from their place of suffering, as the Buddha taught. These all serve to confirm Thai people’s belief in the Buddha and deepen their commitment to following his path.
So what, in the face of all of this, could bring Jesus out of the shadows and into the foreground of a Thai person’s worldview, making Him seem more real, more present, more relevant? What can we do to help the Thai Buddhists (and those of every other nation) to know and feel that God is near?
God’s word reminds me: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:17). Jesus says, “He who receives you receives Me” (Matt. 10:40). “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12). And if we humbly follow Him, Jesus says to us, His disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).
So get out there—out of your house, out of your office, out of your virtual reality, out of your comfort zone—to where the people can actually see you! Mingle with them and “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Pray much! Love much! Then teach much! This is what I hear God’s Spirit telling me through His Word.
Whenever I hear someone, especially a Thai Buddhist friend of mine, say that God seems far away, I’m bothered, and I’m challenged. Yes, there are many things we could do, many good materials we could develop and share. But the most important thing I have to ask myself again and again is, Am I, as part of Jesus’ body on earth, following Him closely enough to actually shine His light? Am I mingling with people as I should? Or am I hiding my light under a basket? If Jesus, through the Spirit, is living in me today, and I am faithfully drawing near to lost people, how can they not begin to feel that God is near? Revive us again, O Lord, today!