On Tuesday, May 20, 2014, a bomb exploded in a central marketplace in Jos, Nigeria, killing at least 118 people. A bomb scare isn’t unusual in Jos. In the past decade, this burgeoning city in Nigeria’s Plateau State has been wracked by terrorist attacks from Boko Haram and tribal conflicts that have killed thousands of people and displaced many more.
But two Christian leaders from Jos, Benjamin Kwashi and his wife Gloria, have offered a remarkable response to the ongoing violence. They have adopted 60 orphans, gathering them into their home, a place called “Zambiri.” It started with what Gloria calls a “trickle”—a small school nearly 300 kilometers away was closing, and 20 orphans needed a home. A few weeks later, the Kwashis gathered in 10 more. In less than six months, they had 60 children. With help from their larger Christian community, the Kwashis provide for their kids just like every good mom or dad.
Last December, I visited Zambiri and saw all 60 “Kwashi kids,” but I can still almost understand the arguments against adopting five dozen children. Given that the Kwashis are in their early 60s and surrounded by violence and poverty, does this really make sense? Is it logical to scrape by on a daily basis, clinging to God for food, school tuition, clothes, and medical care?
In light of my encounters with the couple, I know they would say something like, “Based on worldly wisdom, no, none of this makes sense. But we had to follow Jesus’ command to care for the orphans, so we opened our home.”
“We are fools for Christ’s sake . . . when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world.”
Benjamin and Gloria Kwashi’s “nonsensible” approach to life epitomizes a stream of Christian spirituality that’s sometimes seen as holy folly. In other words, they are genuine, modern-day fools for Christ.
A Sprinkling of Fools
Most of us are familiar with the unholy fool mentioned in Proverbs. He’s the dolt who spurns advice, returns to his own vomit, and chatters like a nitwit. We’re told to glance at this fool and then do the opposite. But most of us haven’t considered another fool found in the Bible—the “fool for Christ.” Like the Kwashis, after encountering Christ’s lavish love, holy fools respond with an extravagant love for Christ and others that “sensible” people deem unwise, irrational, and even reckless.
The apostle Paul gets credit for the term. Writing to a church in the city of Corinth known for its gifted and slick but arrogant “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5 ESV), Paul ironically proclaimed, “We are fools for Christ’s sake . . . when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:10-13).
Paul may have gotten the phrase straight from the Old Testament prophets. At one point, Hosea complained that the people of his day called him and his fellow prophets fools (Hosea 9:7). But the people had a point. Hosea married a prostitute to demonstrate God’s faithful love for His unfaithful people. Jeremiah wore a backbreaking oxen yoke (Jer. 27:2). Isaiah “walked around naked and barefoot” to warn of God’s impending judgment (Isa. 20:2-3 NLT).
Since the time of those writings, God has sprinkled at least a few holy fools in every generation. In Russia during the 16th century, a yurodivy (Russian for “holy fool”) named Basil scandalized respectable church people by bathing the feet of prostitutes and demoniacs with his tears. In the late 1800s, Mary Slessor ventured into the heart of western Africa to preach the gospel, protecting vulnerable women and children while warding off enraged hippos and tribal leaders. About the same time, Hudson Taylor set sail for China. Today, he’s hailed as a paragon of cross-cultural missions, but in his time church leaders mocked his long Chinese braid.
Jesus filled these holy fools with His extravagant love, and it compelled them to pour forth lives of worship and service.
The Ultimate Holy Fool
Of course, the entire history of holy folly in Christianity is built on one ultimate “fool”—Jesus. Yes, His life and teachings sparkle with wit, power, and sanity. But based on the world’s standard of “wisdom,” Jesus is suspect at best, a downright fool at worst.
Consider His birth. The God of all creation entering His world as a tiny, helpless baby? The “smart” philosophers of His age—and almost any age—abhorred the idea. One ancient Greek intellectual named Porphyry sarcastically asked, “How can one admit the divine should become an embryo, that after his birth he is put in swaddling clothes, that he is soiled with blood and bile and worse things yet?”
In other words, “Christians, your Savior is weird.”
Call Jesus a fool if you like, but His folly has confounded the powers of darkness, sweeping us and all who trust Him into His victory over sin, death, injustice, and hell.
Consider what He taught. According to Jesus, who gets blessed with outrageous happiness? The poor in spirit, the mourners, the persecuted, the lepers, and the tax collectors. Guess who went home justified before God? Surprise, it wasn’t the guy who prayed those long, eloquent prayers; it’s the loser in the back pew who, with tears streaming down his face, doesn’t feel worthy to step through the church doors. Remember how the father responded when his prodigal son came home from “a distant country”? He ran full speed in his long robe, embraced his son, kissed him on both cheeks, and ordered servants to kill the fatted calf.
Finally, consider Jesus’ death. Crucifixions were bloody, degrading, and obscene (which is why decent people didn’t even say the word). God redeeming the world by dying on an instrument of torture reserved for low-life criminals? Why, that’s beyond inappropriate; it’s downright nonsense. Only a powerful, wonder-working God can really save people.
The Bible boldly acknowledges all of this “folly” to make a point. God could have crushed us with His power and judgment. God could have turned His face away and swept us all into hell. Instead, He came down, down, down into utter powerlessness, relinquishing every weapon except one: His arms stretched on the hard wood of the cross for us and for our salvation, taking our judgment, paying the debt for our sin, “disarm[ing] the spiritual rulers and authorities . . . by his victory over them on the cross” (Col. 2:15 NLT). So call Him a fool if you like, but His folly has confounded the powers of darkness, sweeping us and all who trust Him into His victory over sin, death, injustice, and hell.
The Church’s Party Crashers
What does it mean to live as a holy fool? First of all, no one should try to mimic another holy fool. I have not and probably never will adopt a child—let alone 60. And walking around naked like Isaiah would land me in jail. You get the point. Holy fools don’t arise for imitation; they exist for our inspiration.
It’s interesting that throughout church history, genuine fools for Christ rarely appear when the church suffers persecution or hardship. Instead, when the church revels in its own smug, comfortable, exclusive “success,” when Christians have lost their first love for Christ and their compassion for the sinful and marginalized, then the holy fools show up uninvited to crash the party carefully planned for the “righteous.” For instance, I just met with a man whose small coffee roasting business hires only ex-felons. Another ministry in my area reaches out to women in the sex industry, and one more ministers to male prostitutes. “Look,” I want to say, “this is great stuff, but that’s not exactly a church’s typical target audience.”
When you see holy fools, let them jar your spiritual mediocrity. Consider it an invitation from to return to “your first love” (Rev. 2:4).
For all their diversity, genuine fools for Christ have at least one common trait: They’ve become so utterly captivated by “how great a love the Father has bestowed on us” (1 John 3:1) and so committed to pouring out their lives in service to others (Phil. 2:17) that they make the rest of us feel a bit rattled. But that’s also their gift. So when you see holy fools, let them jar your spiritual mediocrity. Consider it an invitation from Christ Himself to return to “your first love” (Revelation 2:4).
But don’t just feel rattled. Don’t simply think, Well, I haven’t adopted 60 kids in a poverty-stricken part of the world. I’m just an “ordinary” follower of Christ. I haven’t done anything “radical” enough to earn God’s favor. That is clearly not the spirit of holy folly. Our striving for more Christian radicalness can be a cover for works-righteousness, or trying to earn the free gift of God’s grace. Holy fools want to throw you and me back on Christ and His amazing, foolhardy love for us.
Little Steps of Folly
When we watch a historical or contemporary holy fool in action, we should ask, What would my life look like if I became truly captivated by the love that Jesus has lavished on me? What risks would I take? How would that compel me to do something I consider at least a little reckless and unwise?ˆ
It might start with small, ordinary, non-radical steps of “foolish” faithfulness. For me, it’s meant moving to an economically challenged, racially diverse community outside the comforts of my familiar suburban life. A young single guy in our church is making a sizeable and sacrificial contribution to support the Kwashis in their work. To a friend of mine who is struggling with a painful betrayal, the practice of forgiveness seems like utter folly. Another family in our church is taking in foster kids. To some people, just admitting that their lives are out of control and they desperately need the help of a loving Christian community also seems foolhardy. And yet what seems foolish turns out to be the path to freedom. So it’s not the magnitude or public nature of our folly that counts. It’s all about the depth of our response to Christ, our openness to live faithful lives even when it seems over the top.
Jesus once told a story about a holy fool who found a treasure in a field and then got a little crazy, selling everything to buy that field (Matt. 13:44). “Be that guy,” Jesus said. You can keep your day job, love your family, and serve your church—but go over the top for Jesus. Find Him, the treasure of all treasures, and cry “Eureka!” Surrender everything. Show love to society’s outcasts. Go ahead—act like a fool.
Photography by Henrik Sorensen