On Fire Engines and the Nature of God

The following piece was written back in 1992 when Wanda and I lived in Nairobi, Kenya for a year. It was originally published in the Brethren in Christ Church magazine, The Evangelical Visitor. I had to borrow a copy of it from a colleague who had filed it in a folder entitled “Open Theology.” {insert nervous laughter here}  Also, I am happy to report I have violated the 750 word length rule.


I had been in Kenya a little over two months, and it suddenly dawned on me: I had not seen a fire truck. I thought perhaps there were no such devices of Western technology here. After all, a fire engine is a significant financial investment, and the grave nature of that investment is compounded by the fact that Kenya must import such equipment. The task of rounding up sufficient amounts of foreign currency is probably beyond most developing nations, or so I assumed. I simply concluded there were no fire engines in Kenya.

Later that week I sat in my office thinking about God. To be more exact, I was thinking about the way Africans view God and how that differs from my North American perspectives. I concluded that most, certainly not all, Americans see God as “preventer,” while most, again certainly not all, Africans view God as “redeemer.” Impressed by my own observation, as shallow as it was, I wrote on a scrap of paper, “God is primarily in the redemption business, not the prevention business.”

These two seemingly unrelated events came together in one “blinding” revelation about one week later. This event is certainly not to be confused with an earlier Christian’s Damascus Road revelation. [In fact, my revelation took place on Mbagathi Road, and there were no donkeys in the vicinity. There were, however, a few goats eating grass near the scene of the revelation.] Isaac Gyampadu, a third year student, and I were strolling to Daystar University College. There, before our eyes, sat a bright red fire engine. I, being a little more excited than he, exclaimed, “Isaac, look! A fire engine. I didn’t think Kenya had fire trucks.”

Unimpressed, he calmly responded, “There’s no reason.”

My mind, running full tilt in Western mode, said, “No reason?” Once my mouth caught up to my brain, it responded, “What do you mean ‘no reason’? There are fires in Kenya, so you need fire engines.”

Isaac proceeded to teach a brief lesson in cultural anthropology. “When you call the fire brigade, it takes 20 to 25 minutes to arrive. And when they arrive, they don’t know what to do. So let the house burn down, and rebuild it.” [The very next day this observation was confirmed by a front page photo in a daily newspaper, The Nation. The picture’s caption reported that it took the fire company two hours to arrive at the scene. I guess Isaac was being kind.]

Somewhat baffled, I shot back, “You mean people don’t want to prevent disasters?”

“Well, it’s not part of African culture. You don’t plan to prevent a crisis. You deal with it as it comes.”

I thought to myself, “Seemingly you deal with it well after it comes.”

At that moment my eyes were opened. My North American culture had, in fact, warped a primary element of God’s nature. We North Americans tend to avoid pain, disaster, and the like as much as possible. A well-known proverb is “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” As often as we repeat this line, one would think it was a part of Scripture. And we expect our God to help us avoid the potential unpleasantries of life. Even when facing the inevitable facts of the life cycle—like death—we ask God to keep the harsh realities from us. Whether we want to accept it or not, we desire a “preventer” God.

The central problem with this cultural impact on our theology is that God ends up looking like an uncaring, deaf, and incompetent minor deity. We ask that we might avoid trouble and yet troubles come. Thus God seems rather ineffective. The fact is that bad things happen to people, and God is not in the business of preventing these “bad things,” despite our desire for him to do so.

Africans, on the other hand, are light years ahead of us here; or, perhaps I should say centuries behind us. They are ages “behind us” in that their culture has allowed them to think like the writers of the Bible and, thereby, they can be more faithful to the biblical image of God as “redeemer.” Yahweh is one who brings salvation (or wholeness) out of disastrous events. The God of the Bible brings good from evil. His primary nature is to “redeem” not to “prevent.” It certainly is easier to pray to this type of God, and it’s a lot easier on God.

Instead of setting God up to become a big disappointment, this understanding of God opens the door for God to act in a way consistent with his nature. Remember, God did not prevent slavery in Egypt, but he did redeem the children of Israel. Nor did God help Israel avoid the Babylonian captivity, but Jerusalem was rebuilt. And finally, Jesus, God’s own Son, died on a cross, but this tragedy was followed by resurrection. African culture(s) allows Christians to better understand this aspect of God’s nature, while I fear our North American culture(s) clouds our eyes to this biblical truth.

In the final analysis, I am glad that the city of Nairobi has at least one fire engine. While the reports are not so encouraging about the fire company’s ability to extinguish fires, it certainly is helpful for people, such as me, who are interested in biblical theology.


Author: jaymcdermond

Hmmmm. Let's see. How about a string of descriptors: Christian, husband, father of two sons, father-in-law, retired (after 29 years) college prof, wrote one book--a commentary, lived in the UK for six years, rides a Vespa, and loves Newcastle United Football Club.

3 thoughts on “On Fire Engines and the Nature of God”

  1. You know, having spent years on the periphery of emergency planning / disater management I can so identify with this. We plan so hard to mitigate the crisis, and then forget to plan fully for the recovery. Prevention is not just about action to stop things happening, it is also about preventing the immediate effects of an event or preventing the long term consequence from affecting quality of life or environment etc.

    The balance between these types of prevention are more it less economically prioritised, the economic “haves” push the first two, the “have bots” the third. Perhaps human commonwealth needs to strive for a more equitable balance between all three, irrespective of culture?

    PS should there be a rule that this blog about the use of recycled material?

  2. YES. And a quote from my husband seems to apply here. Bad things happen to people.. and sometimes you’re that person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s