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The humid air mingled with clouds of swirling dust, producing a layer of sweat and grime as we jostled around potholes, fruit vendors, carts, and motorbikes. Southeast Asia is a powerful experience for one’s senses: huge jackfruits, orange-robed Buddhist monks, zigzagging tuk-tuks, packed slum dwellings, wafts of lemongrass, and everywhere—people. Yet beyond the energetic streets and smiling faces, a painful reality exists.
Five of eleven Southeast Asian nations have the lowest possible rating for human trafficking. This indicates a pervasive level of exploitation woven into the fabric of life and the economy. People’s abusing their position and power to exploit others for personal gain is a global reality. But its sheer visibility and extent in the region are overwhelming.
Human trafficking marks the desperate slum communities disregarded by governments. It marks the lives of farmers who’ve lost everything to loan sharks. It marks the lives of the rescued women and girls I visited. It marks a little girl, my youngest daughter’s age, who lost her arm making bricks and was trafficked to bring in money another way.
An active Christian presence is engaged in the region and does tremendous good, yet evil seems only to increase. A Christian worker shared, “Every time we rescue a person, the reality is another will be trafficked to fill their spot.” The lament from Isaiah 59:9 is fitting: “Justice is far from us . . . ; we hope for light, and behold, darkness.”
To fix a problem, we need to understand its beginnings. Exploitation did not begin in Southeast Asia. It started in a garden with a hand grasping for fruit—a fruit not for the taking but for proclaiming the authority of God’s words and rule.
As Eve took the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she did so with gifts in hand: the gift of presence in the garden (position), the gift of dominion (role), and the gift of God’s rule (purpose and protection). And there in the garden, as she took the fruit to her lips and passed it to Adam, man fell, exploiting God’s gifts to bring glory to himself instead of God.
It wasn’t long before the stories of men’s exploiting one another piled up: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Judah and Tamar. It is a reality that continues to devastate us. It is a reflection that repels us. But thanks be to God, it is a reality that compelled Him to deliver us: “[God] saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation” (Isa. 59:16).
God’s grace restrains us, but we all have an exploiting heart. It can show up as simmering self-love hidden behind acceptable things to a flagrant violation of human rights. Teaching, opportunity, and social norms can change behavior, but we need a new nature and a new way of being. Only Christ’s sacrifice makes this possible: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Exploiters receive life because Jesus gave Himself to death.
The difference between exploitation and sacrifice is the order of one’s love. Exploitation loves self at the expense of others, while sacrifice loves others at the expense of self. The righting of disordered loves happens only by experiencing the love of God through salvation in Christ. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
There is no room for self-righteousness, I realized as we traveled the streets. Anger at sin? Yes. Relentless effort to protect the vulnerable and bring justice to offenders? Imperative. But because grace alone transforms us from darkness to light, our posture should be one of humility and love. So how do we live that out?
Whenever we face problems that are too great for us, it’s tempting to become apathetic (not my problem), fatalistic (can’t change it anyway), or defeated (all is lost). But the Psalms present a startling and hopeful lifestyle for the redeemed living in a troubled world: “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!” (Ps. 107:21–22).
The life of the Christian is meant to be lived as a song of joy, a life marked by sacrifices of thanksgiving offered in the middle of a fallen world. This is the life that becomes the aroma of Christ to the world around us. It all sounds very ethereal and lofty (and it is), but it has very human hands and feet. It is characterized by acts of love, hospitality to strangers, coming alongside the mistreated, faithfulness, and contentment (Heb. 13:1–6).
In the middle of the harsher realities of Southeast Asia, there are incredible songs of joy and sacrifices of thanksgiving offered. They are the lives of faithful brothers and sisters witnessing to God’s great love through word and deed. It’s the woman pioneering a place for kids with disabilities to experience care and belonging. It’s the one in a bustling kitchen getting ready to welcome the widows. It’s the doctor whose eyes overflow as he shares stories of rescue and need. For most of us, sacrifices of praise may look more ordinary: loving our family members, being faithful to our spouse, caring for our neighbors, sharing what we have, seeking out the suffering, and doing it all in His name.
May our collective resolve be: “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.” May our lives be a sacrifice of praise that witnesses to God’s transformative love to our exploited and exploiting world.