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FIRST-PERSON: The issue of race & a compassionate heart

PHOENIX (BP) — At the MLK50 conference in Memphis, Tenn., I looked forward to learning more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as how the Gospel informs and empowers us to be, as Tim Keller says, “just persons.”(1) That is, those changed by the Gospel should be persons of justice, particularly in reference to racial issues.

Candidly, I was spiritually unprepared for much of what was shared in keynote addresses, breakouts and short testimonials marking the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. When I say “spiritually unprepared,” I’m referring to the nature of my heart. There were many times when I affirmed the speaker’s words with a hearty amen or looked to several friends and stated, “wow.” The “wow” was in regard to a statement that dripped with such Gospel clarity and power that it was almost stunning. And yet, disappointingly, there were many times when irritation sprang from my heart and even, at times, dismissiveness.

Why did this happen? What was going on and, still goes on, within me? Let me share several reasons why I believe I reacted this way.

Failing to see the reality of spiritual warfare

I failed to keep in mind the reality of Ephesians 6:12, where the apostle Paul writes, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (ESV). A good friend reminded me earlier this year that our struggle is not against one another, but against a very real demonic presence and power that seeks to bring disunity, bitterness and chaos. We see this spiritual warfare rooted in the truth of Genesis 3 where the root of enmity and relational and ethnic tension is found.

Today, when we fail to see the beauty and awesomeness of God’s image in our racial distinction, the same insidious scheme of the devil is palpable. Furthermore, my irritation and dismissiveness were playing a part in giving “ground” to the devil, as I was choosing not to see the urgency and seriousness of the issue at hand. In doing so, I was not only failing to love my neighbor, but it necessarily meant that I was not loving God with the totality of my being.

Letting geographical context determine engagement

Second, I live in Phoenix, Ariz. Specifically, I live in a town called Ahwatukee. In my time here I have heard people sometimes refer to Ahwatukee as “all-white-tu-kee.” This is an unfortunate, wrong and unhelpful phrase to say the least. Though the issue of racial reconciliation and inequality is certainly prevalent in Phoenix, I live in a fairly monolithic part of the city. Currently, the Ahwatukee suburb of Phoenix is more than 80 percent Caucasian. The racial issue is a national issue; it doesn’t feel like a local issue. It’s simply not as conspicuous in the issues I deal with each week as a pastor.

And yet, some Christians in my context have been guilty of making comments and sharing illustrations particularly on social media that are not only unloving but are prejudicial and racist.

So what am I do? Part of my role as a pastor is specified in Ephesians 4:12, where Paul writes, “equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Therefore, by God’s grace I must lovingly point out the absence of love and remind them that our manner of life is to be worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). I must call them to repent of words, actions, feelings, thoughts, intentions and choices that are unbecoming of a Christ-follower.

Needing to pray for a compassionate heart

I simply lacked compassion for the issue of racial reconciliation and inequality. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:12, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts …” I realized I did not have the sympathy, the care and the concern for the issues like I was called to have. In God’s kindness, the Spirit pricked my conscience and prompted me to spend some time evaluating my thoughts, choices and feelings. In so doing, the ungodliness in my heart was exposed. I spent time repenting of my lack of compassion and asking God to help me see the issue as He does — and as my black brothers and sisters do, as well as many of my white brothers and sisters. I asked God to help me “put on a compassionate heart.”

Without a mindfulness of spiritual warfare, the insulating and blinding effect of my local context, and not putting on a compassionate heart, I can too easily slip back into a posture where I am not sensitive to the issues that God calls me to be sensitive about.

May the Lord continue to give me ears to hear and eyes to see as I seek to learn how to think about all things, including race and racism, from a God-centered worldview.


(1) Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 17.

    About the Author

  • Nate Millican

    Nate Millican is lead pastor of Foothills Baptist Church in Phoenix and the Cooperative Program catalyst for the western U.S. with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. This column first appeared at the Executive Committee’s talkCP.com website.

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