God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. (Acts 17:27 CEB Other versions say, ‘feel after Him’, or even ‘grope for Him and find Him’).
Last week I had the joy and privilege of staying for a few days in a friend’s flat in Haarlem while they were away. It was the perfect, secluded place to write and pray and to explore a town I had not been to before. With a population of around 160,000, Haarlem is almost joined with Amsterdam in one of the most densely populated metropolis in Europe. It is a place blessed with a network of lovely canals, and many fine medieval buildings.
Haarlem gave its name to Harlem, originally a Dutch settlement to the north of New Amsterdam (which I believe some people have taken to calling New York these days!)
As many of us are know that well versed in European history, a few brief historical details might be helpful here. From 1581 to 1714 the Low Countries, (that is most of modern Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as parts of northern France and western Germany were controlled (often very cruelly) from Spain, from the regional capital of Brussels. The region was collectively known as Spanish Netherlands (also known as Hapsburg Spain).
Part of the Netherlands separated from the rule of Philip II of Spain to form the autonomous Dutch Republic in 1581. The remainder of the area stayed under Spanish rule until the War of the Spanish Succession. (The Philippines were named after this Philip, who was also the ruler who so seriously threatened Britain through the Spanish Armada in 1588).
Virtually the entire Spanish invasion force besieged Haarlem from December 1572-July 1573, and all but destroyed the town. This gruelling seven month siege, in which troops loyal to Spain from Amsterdam took part, did at least enable the rest of Holland to rearm and finally defeat the invaders who had wrought such carnage. More pain followed hard on the heels of the war when a decimating plague set in three years later – rather as the Spanish flu took an excessive toll in the aftermath of the First World War.
After Holland became a republic, Haarlem acquired a reputation for religious tolerance. The Catholic Church in Haarlem was taken over and became the Reformed church that it still is to this day, complete with a vast 30 metre high organ that both Handel and Mozart played.
It was during this period that many Huguenots made their way here to escape the terrible persecution they faced in France.*
In an earlier publication, Focus on France, we shared the disturbing results of an opinion poll taken in 2010 that uncovered the relatively low percentage of French people who still believe in God in this post Christian era. A much higher percentage, however, profess belief in some sort of life force, with faith being very a pick and mix of what appeals rather than a clear discipleship following the Lord Jesus.
The Dutch have coined a word for this: Ietsism. If you were to ask many Dutch person if they believe in Christ, they might typically reply, “No, but there must be ‘something’ – ‘iets’ in Dutch. This concept of ietsism is now spreading fast across Europe. (In North America people are more inclined to speak of being ‘spiritual but not religious).’
More recently, the word ietsers (“somethingers”) has emerged in the Netherlands to describe people who adopt this viewpoint. So far as I am aware, the phrase has yet to cross the English Channel.
Wikipedia puts it like this:
Ietsists believe in an undetermined higher power or in spiritual energies, souls or some form of afterlife. Ietsism often coincides with a belief in pseudoscience or paranormal phenomena such as acupuncture, angels, animistic deities and creatures, astrology, aura reading, chakras, clairvoyance, deities, elves, energy medicine, esoteric energy, ghosts, healing gemstones, homeopathy and karma.
Where I was staying was far from the trouble spots that have given both Dutch football fans and immigrant matters a violent reputation, but when we remember the stories of faithful Dutch believers through the years, (who have sent so many missionaries and aid workers abroad) the massive falling away in the churches is a sad state for the nation to be in.
The fact is that people have tired of a diet of Reformed religion that through the years was often too much a matter of the mind rather than of the heart. Rigid structures, and a tendency dispute fiercely over secondary matters, have put millions off and caused them to cast themselves adrift from biblical moorings – and yet still their hearts are feeling after something.
Like Paul we must strive to find ways to help people feel after God. I brought a copy of Corrie Ten Boom’s Not good if detached back from Holland with me. It is full of powerful stories of clear and courageous witnessing in her ministry to 60+ countries, often recognising and overcoming demonic forces at work and often at very great personal cost. We need such directness!**
I likewise greatly admire the work Mission Africa do in sharing the gospel in unreached parts of Africa, and going into prisons and bringing new life in Christ to many. But different challenges apply again when it comes to witnessing to the ‘somethingers’ generation: the ietsists.
Where people do not recognise their need of a saviour, we can seek to interest them in our Friend. If they are in distress we can speak of His comfort – and find other ways to present Him in accordance with both their needs and who He is. This is to apply the gospel it exactly the way that Jesus did for the benefit of His hearers.
In this land that has inspired Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh and so many other fine artists, may the Lord raise up prophetic artists and musicians to reach the Dutch speaking people – who are, of course, fluent in English too.
*One day, I hope I will have the opportunity to write up the research I have done concerning what happened to the Huguenots in France. For an introduction to the struggles the Huguenots had in France, see this article.
** This is a link to the e-book version of Corrie Ten Boom’s Tramp for the Lord, the sequel to the Hiding Place.