Throughout pretty much all of philosophical and religious history, including irreligious history (if I could call it that!) the central focus has always been, and remains, our ‘good works’. Our righteousness. Our goodness.
But nothing is as valuable as trust. Or, its more olden-day word, ‘faith’.
The trouble is, faith has come to mean all sorts of things today. Songs and books tell us to “just believe” when things go wrong. But believe what? Who? We’re told to ‘believe in ourselves’ – to have faith that we have what it takes. Really? Not all of us can keep that sort of thing up. Sooner or later, we’ve got to be a bit more honest about our limitations. If we’re not, life will certainly force us to be!
In other quarters, faith is synonymous with a sort-of willpower, or a magic force, that you must have ‘a lot’ of for God to heal or bless or for you to feel good about yourself.
But faith is, essentially, trust. We trust that despite our goodness or evil, our failures or our successes, we remain valuable to God. He doesn’t change his mind about us. His love remains.
We all adore good works. The image of success. The man or woman who has it all together. Some of us have made idols of things like money and sex or whatever, but others of us have made idols of holiness and virtue and goodness and productivity. It’s amazing that good works might be the most subtle, under-rated idolatry ever in the history of the world. Surely God would have it that we should pursue being good? Isn’t that what he wants?
He just wants your trust. Your faith.
Not the vague “just believe” faith of Oprah-like positivism. And not the equally vague “faith” of the success and prosperity crowd. But simple trust in him. Not trust in our goodness. Not even trust in him being God, but trust in him, himself.
Only once that’s settled, then good works follow freely and fruit in our lives really starts happening!
I’ve just finished reading Thomas Jay Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. Most people who will read this will have no idea who he is. He is a scholar, philosopher, and a theologian. This latest book of his offers a ‘new way’ to look at the subject of providence — how God works in this world. In so doing, he addresses the problem of evil: the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in philosophical and theological approaches to the subject, or anyone truly battling with making sense of life, who can also read something a bit on the heavy side and are familiar with big philosophical and theological ideas. (It’s not that bad, but it’s also not for everyone!). I learned quite a few things. I also recommend it to skeptics, they might find it interesting that Oord, a Christian, is able to recognize the clear issues of theism and admit they are real issues, and deal with them honestly and creatively.
If I had to summarize the main thought of the book, I’d say this: God’s primary nature is love, and this love forces him (so to speak) to create a world comprised of various degrees of free agency, and never override or coerce this world in respect of this agency. Some will say my choice of words is poor and doesn’t quite reflect Oord’s thoughts, but this is my impression of what he stated by the time I finished the book. I think such impressions count when you are reviewing these sorts of things.
The book opens up with real-life stories of tragedy and evil, each showcasing a particular “kind” of evil: a chance accident with a falling rock, a horrific rape, and a sad story of birth defect. It then moves to scientific and philosophical reasons why randomness (chance) is real. It also argues that free will is real and not an illusion. Skeptics might benefit from some up to date arguments on these topics (Sam Harris may be behind!) and it gives plenty of food for thought, challenging pat Christian answers to evil — God’s plan is mysterious, we grow from tragedy, you’ll have to wait until you get to heaven until you know, sort of stuff.
Oord seems to be a philosophical realist. This means, in general, that the way we experience the world intuitively is how it really is. I am more aligned to this. (This is one reason why I’m not an atheist). So I appreciate attempts to make sense of the world. This sort of thing actually affects me deeply.
Oord is also a process theologian, or at least seems to be, which is difficult to define. But he does prescribe to open theism in a way. This means that he believes God does not exhaustively know the future, because the future doesn’t exist yet. Choices are real things. God can move in history according to his plan, but the choices of free agents can frustrate or change his plan — at least in the details.
In Oord’s scheme, God’s creation is an extension of his primary nature, love. So in other words, God could never create a world where he is fully in control, as that would be a world that does not reflect his nature of perfect love. Perfect love must require others to make their own free choices and never be coerced.
But while God is not fully in control, he is able to influence creatures to choose to collaborate with him. This is the thrust of Oord’s argument, as I understand it. God never coerces, he only ever invites collaboration. This collaboration is not just an invitation to humans, but also extends to micro-organisms or other aspects of creation, including those that help our bodies function. This is one reason why someone with faith might not get healed — organisms in their body may decide not to comply to God’s request. In this case, it’s not God’s fault, it’s not the person’s fault, it’s the fault of the body and / or the disease itself. (Oord does present some scientific findings as to why he believes free will can be found in micro-organisms, etc.).
So what do I think of it? Does it solve the problem?
It’s a noble attempt at the issue, that’s for sure. You’ll find it really provides satisfying answers, logically, that make sense of terribly perplexing questions. The problem is that logic can often lead you pretty much anywhere, if you create a sufficient starting base (presuppositions). Logically, I could show you why infanticide is right, so long as I get you to agree to a few presuppositions.
But it has its strong points and they’re great. Firstly, to think of God as love first, power second (as Oord reiterates) is (I think) a brilliant exercise. God IS love, says 1 John 4:8 — not just that God loves. I really took that to heart. Oord makes an effort to work out the implications of this, but I disagree with how he always works it out. (Also, I think that we ought to rather put them together — God’s power is his love, his love defines his power and motivates it. Oord might agree to this, I just word it differently).
But this doesn’t mean God is only love. Why I say this is because a God who cannot choose to love strikes me as a God without much personality. While Oord criticises models of providence that make God out to be an impersonal force or the universe etc., there’s a tendency to strip God of actually being a person when we take aspects of God’s own free will away. Oord tries to get around this by saying God loves of necessity (he must love) and choice. So he recognizes God must also make a choice. But he doesn’t qualify this much though. I wish he did.
Rather, I think God could choose to not love his creatures. Of course, one would criticize this and say this implies God could hate, and surely he can’t hate, it goes against his character. Maybe. But I’m not too sure. God surely hates evil, and sin, and many other things too, if you take the Bible as scripture (as I do). It’s just that God consistently chooses to love his creatures, despite their rejection of him. This, for me, lines up much more closely with God’s love in grace.
There’s also an argument here I think Oord misses. If God can only create a world from his own nature (being love), it’s hard to understand why he was able to create creatures that could choose not to love. God can’t choose not to love, according to Oord, but yet his creatures can. That must mean God is able to create a world that is different to his own nature. However, if God is able to choose to love, or not, it would make sense that those made “in his image” (as Genesis puts it) have the same sort of freedom.
We are to trust God for who he is, not what he is.
God is perfectly free, as far as I’m concerned. The tough bit of Christianity is you have to choose to trust Jesus for who he is, not what he is. Calvinists who emphasize God’s sovereignty and power (especially in predestination) put a lot of faith in God’s attributes of power and sovereignty, while — in this case — Oord’s model makes us put our faith in God’s attribute of love. This would be like me putting my faith in my wife because she is a woman, not because I trust her, the person. See the difference?
Therefore, I must trust God that he makes right decisions, not that he isincapable of ever making a wrong decision. Again, Oord criticises ‘negative’ theology (the idea that God can only be described in what he is not, not by what he is) but there is a sense in which his understanding of God can very much take us there.
Does God never coerce?
Oord’s hypothesis that God can’t coerce anyone or even, to a degree, micro-organisms (and perhaps even objects) but only enlist their co-operation lines up to many things we see in scripture. He does a brilliant job of highlighting how miracles in the scriptures tend to only happen when people are involved. Even big ones, like the Read Sea crossing, required Moses to some degree.
He has a positive view of this coercion. It’s only ever for the well-being of creation. “Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being.” (page 94.) I like this positive view and I really like the way this is worded and carefully presented.
But then I come across Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. God strikes these two dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. Again, we see Peter’s involvement (so maybe Oord is right that God always needs co-operation) but the end result just doesn’t line up to the general idea that God inspires creation only ever toward well-being. Maybe Oord doesn’t want to take this story literally, or wants to claim that the writer of the book assumed that it was God when it wasn’t (I don’t know the specifics of Oord’s take on scripture) but then he has to be consistent with other miraculous accounts, positive or negative. Unfortunately, he didn’t address this. But he does address many other honest questions, so I think it might have been an oversight in the edit of the book.
Oord’s take on randomness and spontaneity is refreshing, and I loved reading some of the science and philosophy behind it all. Quantum mechanics fascinates me, and so does Chaos Theory. I also loved how he views randomness positively: the fact that God has made the world with chance and randomness often brings great adventure and creativity, not to mention the ability for us to enjoy sports.
But sometimes this randomness goes wrong. At this point, mention of the Fall in Genesis 3 would bolster his overall argument. But he never mentions it. Maybe he doesn’t believe in it as it’s usually presented, but I think he might be missing out on a fantastic reason why what God created for good can be used, or turned into, evil.
Does God’s love stop him from preventing evil?
No, I don’t think so. So what’s my theory? I think we’re getting there, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Here’s some news for those who might not know: my newest foray into the non-fiction, Christian living / theology territory, releases next week Wednesday, 3 February. It’s called Jesus Crushes Sin: A down-to-earth, Jesus-centred holiness for those who keep losing.
It’s a book for the losers in Christian living. Those of us who know what God expects of us, but find we just can’t do it. We never quite seem to reach the place where we know we’re supposed to be. And the “good news” doesn’t seem to be so good anymore.
When I started writing I wanted to release my Christian-specific books for free to the public, and print versions at cost. I just think that kind of stuff should be free. But, of course, a writer has to also make a living. Plus, many people have told me that they actually want to support me financially, but if I keep doing everything for free they can’t really do that, unless I take donations (which I’ll feel a bit weird about, to be honest).
Over the years I’ve never quite known what to do. But now I think I’ve finally found a way to do both, and why on earth I never realised it at first, I don’t know.
I’ll be offering up the ebook and PDF versions of Jesus Crushes Sin at my website for free download from 3 Feb.
The paperback version (I’m still busy with the printers) will be made available at just above cost, to give me some margin for calculation errors (I’ve learned that there are all sorts of sneaky costs that come in with print at various stages of getting it to people). It’ll be available directly from a distributor’s website. The link will be made available here when it’s all ready. ** UPDATE ** – it’s now available for preorder.
Those who want to support me financially and want the ebook can purchase it from their favourite platforms. All the main distributor links will be on my site. ** UPDATE ** now available for preorder.
From February 3rd, you can download the free ebook here at my website.
I’m really excited about this book as I’ve been working on it for about three years, on and off! It’s finally ready, and I think what it has inside is going to be super helpful for people who struggle to live the Christian calling.
NCMI World Equip 2015 has been so very encouraging. If you don’t know what it is, check out the website. NCMI works into over 80 nations and the World Equip brings churches across the world together to make much of Jesus in one place, during one week. I’m super grateful and so privileged to be a part of this amazing team who work so hard at making Jesus known all over the world.
Seeing guys from Columbia all the way to New Zealand, The U.S all the way to Mongolia and Singapore and further, and from the U.K. all the way to South Africa, get together in one place with one heart and one passion and one God is really pretty incredible. This is Ephesians 2:14,15 in real-time, where one of the promises of God is to bring people together with no dividing walls between them. We often talk about such things in theory. Philosophers love to wax lyrical about this sort of thing. But no philosophy in this world seems to really do this – there’s no philosophy or idea or political theory out there that really seems to be able to bring people together. We can pump out as many world peace songs as we like, but it really doesn’t ever amount to anything. We can speak about how we’re all children of the earth and are all brothers and sisters of humanity, but that still doesn’t seem to change anything. Politicians can tell the nations to just get along forever and ever, but it never really amounts to much, does it? Quite frankly, this requires a miracle of God, and that’s precisely what he has done and continues to do through Christ’s work in our world, who works through the Church. That’s why “He Himself is our peace” (Eph 2:14). Or as Colossians 3:11 says, “Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.”
Holiness is only found in Christ
One of the amazing things about these particular scriptures is that the focus is on Jesus and what he has done, and does today, rather than on some ministry or idea or on our own ability to be moral and good and righteous. I think this is an important point, and one of the themes I’m seeing come up during the World Equip is the theme of holiness. Here’s the thing about holiness, however – it is only found in Christ and not in ourselves. We have to die and have our lives ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3). Scripture often expounds on this truth before exhorting us to live lives of holiness. Colossians 3:3 continues into Colossians 3:5, which talks about living a holy life. Holiness is something God gives to us as a gift, and the ability to shake off temptation and give up anything that has a hold on us, is all a gift of God. That ability is never truly our own, but only becomes a reality when we are ‘in Christ’. Being ‘in Christ’ is something God has done, but it is something that we have to live in. The Christian life is not one where we try and be moral and righteous, but rather one where we make every effort to remain in him and only out of that is there any holiness and righteousness at all.
Which is why a focus on Jesus is so important
The main theme of NCMI is to be completely obsessed with Jesus. Tyrone Daniel, who leads this team, has been so emphatic about that. A focus on Jesus makes for a holy people, and a holy people are a people who go into all the world and make disciples of the nations. For ‘holy’ actually means to be set apart for God’s special purposes (the Hebrew word Kadosh) and we’ve been made into God’s ‘holy people’ to ‘proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light (see 1 Peter 2:9). We cannot exist for the mission of God because that mission will undo us. The Gospel is not a message where we tell people to tell people to tell people that they must tell people, because there is no message in that! The Gospel is about Jesus!
We also cannot exist for holiness because holiness will undo us. We exist for Jesus, and once we truly exist for Jesus alone, the Holy One, then all these other things fall in place. In Christ we are not only holy positionally (declared holy by God) but become holy in our life experience – and as we become more holy we become more missional, more apostolic, because holiness and God’s apostolic call are tied together. God himself is an apostolic God of perfect love – and the more we live in Him, the more that perfect love of God lives through us. Holiness is God’s love acting in us and then through us, giving Him the glory.
The big challenge for me this week is the question: am I truly obsessed with Jesus? We’ll all say “Yes” very quickly. But we have to pause and consider. We have to ask God to tell us the truth. A love of singing songs to Jesus does not mean that we are truly obsessed with him. Even a love for the scriptures does not mean we are truly obsessed with Jesus. This is a much deeper question than we realise. How much of ministry and life and everything I do is actually about me? Rather, he must increase and I must decrease. (John 3:3.) I know that if I become too obsessed with Jesus I’m probably going to look like a bit of a fool to others, and that is, I think, one thing that scares me. Yet we are to be fools for Christ! (1 Corinthians 4:10.) And then we get Christ’s very wisdom! (1 Corinthians 1:30.) Let our very lives, then, be hidden with Christ in God!
Recently, among friends and colleagues, I’ve seen and been involved in a lot of discussion on the issue of white privilege in South Africa. This discussion seems to have come to the forefront after the events in Ferguson in the U.S. I’m not going to comment on Ferguson, but I am going to talk about some of the South African discussion.
Meanwhile Stephen Murray, on Facebook, stirred up the same conversation when posting this:
Reading posts by Anthony Bradley it seems evangelicalism failed in the US during the civil rights movement in the same way that it failed here during apartheid. The formal structures of apartheid are now gone but the effects are still powerfully in play, ensuring ongoing racism and unchallenged privilege. I feel like we’re at another key point in our country’s history. Will evangelicalism fail again?
Out of all this I’ve had one question and one observation. My question has basically been this: why is it, in my church, have our strongest and most keen black leaders not been South African but from other African countries? My observation, in an attempt to answer this question, is that South Africans have bought into the Western individualistic, market-driven narrative in a big way. I actually think we’ve bought into it a great deal more than other African countries who are doing well, such as Botswana.
At the risk of generalising, I have found that many born frees (for those outside of South Africa, this refers to the generation of people who were born after apartheid was dismantled) are very individualistic in the way they approach their life. In fact, I find myself often feeling a little out-westernised by born frees. While they’re listening to Beyonce or rappers from the U.S., I’m listening to African roots and world music. (I’m a big world music fan. But I won’t deny that I still enjoy my British rock!) On Twitter most of the born frees I follow talk a lot about their career and what they’re doing, following the general millennial American trend of creating an online “brand”. They also talk a lot about iPhones and fashion and so forth. In short, the marketers have done their job well: we really believe them about having stuff.
I also find it interesting that our malls are full but our museums are not. The biggest and most important conversations seem to always be about economics. We seem to view ’empowering’ as the same thing as ‘enriching materially’. We don’t talk much about art at all in South Africa and seem very uninterested in much of our heritage. (So much so that we had to make a day to remember it!) Modern liberals continue to insist that Western problems are our problems too. Identity politics have become the big thing at the expense of the actual community.
Western culture’s highly individualised, market-driven narrative where economical power is the point of life is failing us at every level – but yet South Africans are lapping it up. At precisely the time when we’ve needed uniquely South African solutions to South African problems, we think that importing solutions is a far better idea.
But the church isn’t helping in this respect. In fact, by and large, the church – or the evangelical church – is perpetuating the problem. On the conservative side there seems to a keenness to adopt the American culture war here. On the liberal side I feel like we’re often just speaking about American identity politics and economics. Poverty appears to be our biggest evil, but actually materialism is a far worse evil – yet we don’t address it directly. I mean, materialism leads to poverty in the long run, a fact that I don’t think I need to demonstrate. Common sense tells us it does. On a church level, it seems the most successful churches filled with people who aren’t white are the prosperity churches – or those churches who only ever teach on personal growth, personal success, and personal prosperity. By all accounts, a very American gospel. (Please forgive me, my American friends, for putting it like that!)
I’m okay with speaking about personal growth, but not to the detriment of everything else. Anthony Bradley, who by the way is a black American guy, wrote a recent blog post on how even the great commission has become too individualised. I found it insightful.
The reality of an individualised narrative is that it strips away any actual grounding for work. In other words, work becomes a means to an end for personal enrichment, mostly in the form of material enrichment. Without a work ethic that’s grounded in the reality that what we do every day has actual consequences for others, we’re really not going to think further than our nose.
This is part of why those who were colonised are now perpetuating colonial principles. Years ago I wrote an article for The Star that highlighted this point: for all our talk of colonisation, we’ve adopted the founding principles of colonisation of self-enrichment at all costs. This is not Christian and, interestingly enough, not really African either.
As a white guy I’ve dealt with my white guilt largely by noting that this has nothing to do with who’s white and who’s black but has to do with sin and ideology. We can’t talk about white privilege and how bad white attitudes are without noting that right now we’re trying to create a new privileged elite and we’re trying to ensure we’re going to be a part of it. The whole Zuma situation is a case in point: here we have a struggle hero who fought for the people and now seems to live for nothing but self-enrichment. So much so that I wonder if this wasn’t his plan from the beginning! If Nkandla isn’t a picture of colonial, white western materialistic ideologies in play in the heart of a man whose blood is as African as old Shaka himself, then I don’t know what is.
White privilege sucks and I can’t deny that power still lies in the hands of white people in South Africa – but if political and economical power matters that much to us we ought to question why we think we’ll build any differently and how we won’t just create some new injustice with some new elite. From a Christian perspective neither political or economic power is anything. We are called out of that into something far more glorious – the Kingdom. When Christians want to talk about white privilege I honestly wonder if we haven’t just bought into the wrong narrative. Since when was Jesus concerned about who had power? He was far more concerned about who knew that they were loved and valuable and he was far more concerned with how we ought to build for the future.
I guess the question of “white privilege” also just doesn’t affect me any more in the way it used to as I lost my privileges a long time ago. The first half of my adult life I felt what it was like to have no economic power and to be abused by those who do. Both the first and the second half has been full of financial insecurity and career instability. I know the powerlessness most of our country feels in the face of a government which doesn’t seem to care for anything except its ruling party and its president.
How individualistic is your theology / ideology? And why? This for me is an important question. Because it seems, by and large, from liberal to conservative churches across our country the message is the same: me.
That’s the key phrase that changed everything for me. What is perfect love? It is God’s love. All of sin is the opposite of love. Even private sin, that we think only affects ourselves, like watching pornography. The question is: Can I live in perfect love? Can perfect love live through me? Because if God’s love can live through me then surely my sin will start to get rooted out of my heart?
In Dealing with Addictive Sin: How I Came to See Holiness in a Brand New Way pt 2 I highlighted how 1 Thessalonians 5:23 began to make me see that God promises that he will finish a completing work of holiness in this life. What does holiness look like, ultimately? It looks like Jesus – everything we know about him; his character, his life, his sacrifice, his resurrection. Holiness looks like perfect love. If Jesus lives in me, as the scriptures promise, perfect love lives in me. Because God is love. (1 John 4:8.) But I also want him, perfect love, to live through me.
And that’s the hard part.
But if there is a promise that he will, in fullness, in this life, then everything changes. And indeed, I’ve come to see that there is.
The grand narrative in this is one of inheritance. Throughout all the scriptures, God promises an inheritance to his people, that they come to in this life. Here are some details from the scriptures of what this inheritance looks like:
2 Peter 1:4
Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire.
Hebrews 4:1; 9
Therefore we must be wary that, while the promise of entering his rest remains open, none of you may seem to have come short of it… Consequently a Sabbath rest remains for the people of God.
We can see two things here: one, our inheritance in Christ consists of becoming partakers of the divine nature. Two, that our inheritance consists of rest. I could quote a lot more but these will do. The crux of my “seeing holiness in a new way” is this: that we come into this inheritance in this life. Sure, there are things for the next life that we can also call our inheritance (like new bodies and a new heaven and a new earth) but the argument in Hebrews 3 and 4 shows us that God promises this rest as “long as it is called ‘Today,'” (Hebrews 3:13) and we’re exhorted to not harden our hearts ‘today’ in unbelief because the promise is coming. Just like Israel entered into their inheritance (the promised land) so we will enter ours (holiness of heart and mind). 1 Thessalonians 5:23 shows us that the plan is to keep us in this inheritance unto the return of Christ.
When I came to this conclusion my life changed. Because I finally found out what faith is really about – a relying on Christ’s work in me to make me into a partaker of Christ’s very own nature, in this life, so that he could live his perfect love through me. It no longer became about God ’empowering me’ to live the godly live, it became about God living through me to live the godly life. It became about, to put it in a crude way, being possessed by God to love his possession: people.
Instead of life being one big battle against what seems to be a dualistic nature within me (it isn’t really, but more on that some other time) it suddenly made sense that the time through the wilderness of sin, even addictive sin (borrowing from the narrative of Israel in the wilderness) was something God has done to get rid of my unbelief and my reliance on myself and my work for my own sanctification and my own self-righteousness, and rely on Christ’s full work (not just his death, but his life, his birth, his resurrection) for my sanctification. As justification is by faith, sanctification is by faith, and so is missional living. As perfect love lives in and through me, my very heart is really being changed, and the change will eventually be completed in this life, as far as it’s possible for it to be done in this body of mine – and that ‘far as possible’ is very far indeed!
For in his incarnation, Jesus brought man and the divine together; in my life in Him, he brings me and the divine together. My life can look like his in his humanity here on earth. In his death, Jesus dispossessed Satan’s hold on man so that He could make us into his very own possession. In his resurrection, Jesus was victorious over death and sin, so that in my life – in this life – my intimate union with Him would bring the same into actual reality.
It all put scripture together in such a cohesive way. But also, it brought great peace and joy to me in ways I can’t fully translate onto paper. I finally realised one other thing: for many years I wondered why, after having the most amazing experiences with God that shortly afterwards I would sin in some of the worst ways. Wasn’t God’s presence supposed to sustain me? Only now did I realise that this conundrum had made me reject God’s presence because I could not believe, due to how my old theology framed my experience, that he really could fulfill the deepest desire of my heart that he himself seemed to give me when I was in his presence: holiness. God’s presence would make me deeply long to be like him and be with him, and the Bible confirmed that I should expect that, but it seemed that holiness was never something I could really have in this life – so why would I want to get into God’s presence only to get desires that will never be fulfilled until I die? God’s presence kept leading me into despair, not joy! So I had started to avoid his presence. Rather than get back into this conundrum I had secretly decided that I was far happier living on the fringes of his glorious love.
But now I realised I could have my desire. And my prayer changed to “Lord, give it all to me! I’ll have as much of you as I can possibly have in this life! Take me to the very fringes of what is possible in this life! To the very edge of how much I can have of your holy presence without dying!”
Because I realised that God, indeed, saves to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25). And my relationship with Christ, with myself, and with others has not been the same. A heart of worship returned to me. And, interestingly enough, so did my enjoyment of other things that I used to enjoy (such as music and nature and reading fiction).
If I could put it this way: I came back to the ordinary life. This has helped to deal with guilt and helping me to accept sin as normal to the human experience while, at the same time, knowing that a day will come when I will grow out of it because of the Holy Spirit’s work.
“God is love and all who live in love live in God and God lives in them. And as we live in God our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgement but we can face Him with confidence because we are like Christ here in this world.” (1 John 4:15-17, NLT)
For those who didn’t read McKaiser’s article or know about the debate, McKaiser, as an agnostic, asserts that we don’t need God to know what is right and wrong. Of course I cannot speak for all Christians, but there are several problems with McKaiser’s attempt to put Christian ethics on the “backfoot” in an “800 word article” that are at least worth thinking about. (By the way, it was 1278 words – I say cheekily.) The main problem is this: I think he may be barking up the wrong tree.
McKaiser’s sentiments appear well-founded but I think he is ignorant of Christian theology and philosophy which has addressed the problem in many ways. So much so, that in many respects, Christian theology actually agrees with McKaiser’s analysis.
Really? Yes. McKaiser says he was “shocked that Lennox’s main response” to him “was that he partly agrees” that God is not needed for morality. I didn’t find it shocking but consistent. Christian theology forces Lennox to do so. The book of Genesis says that God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. Many people don’t think about that. It wasn’t a tree of sin or of pleasure or even of just knowledge, but knowledge of good and evil. This is why Christian theology asserts an interesting philosophical point: our knowledge of good and evil is actually core to our problem.
We know what’s right but we repeatedly fail to do what’s right. We constantly judge others by standards we believe in but can’t even live up to. We live under guilt and try to justify our actions to get rid of it. We’re an inherently self-righteous and prideful bunch to be honest, and Christian theology teaches that God didn’t want us to live by good and evil but in a trust-filled relationship with Him.
Many miss the relational aspect of the Christian God, which is why they are confused about what Christians really mean by faith. Sure, we all know it’s all about a “personal relationship with Jesus” but many just don’t make the link as to how that looks. Many Christians don’t even know, thanks to decades of prosperity name-it-and-claim-it nonsense.
McKaiser says he can “communicate sensible rules to children: ‘Don’t hit your sister, Johnny! It’s wrong to go around just hitting people for no reason my boy!’. He is right and Christian theology actually agrees with him. But atheists and agnostics hardly ever address why Johnny needs to have this communicated to him if he inherently knows it. Most of us know that even though children know right from wrong, they still often choose the wrong. We do it too. All the time. But why?
According to Christianity it’s because we ultimately have a heart problem not a knowledge problem or even an ability problem. (The fact that Christians believe no one has an excuse for not knowing right from wrong actually gets people’s backs up.) The heart problem limits our ability and distorts our knowledge, but those are just symptoms of the real problem.
Agnostics and atheists don’t like this kind of language because it comes close to speaking about a soul or acknowledging a spiritual problem. But that doesn’t mean that we can be accused of thinking what McKaiser and / or others accuse us of thinking. Let’s reiterate: for the Christian, the issue of whether or not we need God to tell us if something is right or wrong isn’t the issue. What is the issue is whether we need God so that we will do what is right. Can anyone be moral without God?
As far as the Christian is concerned, the answer is yes on the one hand but no on the other. “Yes” because we can all be moral to a certain degree, “no” because even when we do what is right our motives and our pride and self-righteousness still come into play. Many an outwardly righteous person is inwardly hateful and full of themselves. We call them hypocrites. And we’re all one.
Jesus was all about this in Matthew 5 – 7. And this is where Christian theology differs from other religions in that it states that we are saved from our propensity to evil (we are saved from sin) by faith (trust in God) because of grace (God’s love for us) instead of works (doing what’s right). Furthermore we can grow morally inside (grow in perfect love) which results in outward action – not by principles or laws or religious codes, but ultimately by God himself living in us (the Holy Spirit). For those wondering: I’m speaking beyond just Protestantism here.
If a society continues down the path of self-righteousness, it eventually ends up not being very righteous at all. All religion faces this problem and this is also my personal problem with modern liberalism. Left to our own, morality goes one of two ways: either to horrific licentiousness or to oppressive legalism. And so the question isn’t whether or not we need God to know right from wrong, it’s whether we need God to live it out consistently.
Does mankind need a parent or not? Christians say we do but others say we don’t. McKaiser says we don’t, but I wonder why we need to teach children any morality at all in his framework (they know it already, why do we have to guide them?) and I have questions around how he doesn’t fall into some kind of moral relativism when he says humankind is learning how to be more moral over time. (“…flowing from social and psychological truths we have come to know about human beings over time like a general negative preference for being beaten up…”). I also think he is speaking beyond epistemology and ventures into ontology here, and such a statement puts his moral realism into a quagmire. But it was only an 800 (1278) word article, not his thesis, and I don’t expect him to lay it all out in this forum.
You’ll have to make up your own mind – just make sure you have good reasons to do so that go beyond, “I just don’t like someone else telling me what to do.”
Last night, well-known Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, PowerFM talk show host and agnostic philosophical lecturer, went head to head (mind to mind, more like it!) in a debate on morality at WITS. You can pick some of the conversation on Twitter at the #GMWits hashtag and a Youtube video will be pasted later (I’ll update this blog with it when it comes out).
So what happened? It was invigorating and stimulating, as these debates should be. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was impressed with the turn-out. I loved the brilliance and civility of both speakers. However, I did feel that Lennox could have been stronger, McKaiser could have been clearer. I loved the debate but felt it got bogged down in the wrong areas.
The topic was whether or not God is required for morality. Can morality exist on its own? Or does it require God? (How you frame the question really betrays your bias, doesn’t it?) Each speaker opened up with a brief breakdown of how they came to believe in the existence or non-existence of God. Some interesting points: Lennox said that the conflict between Science and Religion is superficial and then stated, “I am coming to believe that atheism and science don’t mix at all.” From McKaiser’s side, he simply stated that he does not believe that “God exists” is a true claim and all of his philosophical study has never really produced any viable evidence for the existence of God. At the very best you can come to the conclusion there is a deity, but not that the Christian god exists, he said.
But onto the real debate
But this was a debate on morality and it’s here where I felt McKaiser didn’t address the key question I was hoping he would. McKaiser, interestingly enough, believes that objective morality exists, but it doesn’t require God to exist. That was fascinating for me. He is not a moral relativist. (He even stated that relativism is, in his opinion, highly dangerous.) But what does he ground objective morality in? The answer seems to be rationality (or his own rationality, I would imagine, as a starting point). So the question posed to him from Lennox was, “Why do you put so much faith in your own rationality?”
Why does McKaiser believe this is a reliable base? Unfortunately I didn’t feel he answered this question or articulated his position clearly. This for me was really what I wanted to hear. But whether he dodged the question or just didn’t make it clear, I didn’t hear an answer that satisfied me (I’m using that phrase deliberately in a tongue-in-cheek way to McKaiser’s argument about evidence for God). At first he answered the question by highlighting that Lennox is thoroughly convinced of the reliability of scientific method, but makes a jump to believing that water could turn to wine. It was a brilliant challenge and Lennox didn’t really answer it directly in my mind either, but it didn’t really answer the question. I suppose he was saying that Lennox himself places great faith in rationality, but Lennox was clear that the only reason why that is is he believes we are made in God’s image and as a result we share some attributes of God, such as the ability to be rational.
Why does McKaiser believe people have intrinsic value? On what basis does he make that claim? As my friend Wesley asked, “If moral objectivity exists outside of God and we say rape is bad, because that person has value, who / what determines that value?” I wondered: if I must trust my own rationality for morality, how do I know I can trust it? What if I’m actually mentally ill and don’t know?
So I’m left to play a bit of a guessing game on McKaiser’s position. I wondered if McKaiser was going to bring up some sort of Kantian model for his position, but he didn’t go there. I wondered if he was going to bring in society and “nurture”, or evolutionary arguments, but he seems to reject either of those. It would seem to me that he takes rationality for granted. Where does rationality come from? What is the standard for rationality? Where does that standard come from? Does it come from an external place (society?) or an internal place (EQ?). Is this really about cosmology? (For example, the universe is an ordered place, and therefore we are naturally inclined to order. But of course, the drive for order has resulted in some pretty immoral actions!) Is this really about the conscience? And where does that come from? McKaiser obviously wants to avoid anything that sounds like an inner light or mysterious “knowing” or a soul or even the “heart”, or something along those lines, and talking about the conscience might force him in that direction (and besides, it seems the conscience can be tweaked).
I realise the limits of this sort of debate in terms of time and structure, but I really didn’t feel satisfied by the end that this was answered. Yes, I know my own presuppositions but try my best to be open-minded.
Usually arguments that say we don’t need God for morality seems to venture around the idea of how we “ought” to be. (Lennox brought this up saying it seems people move from “is” to “ought”.) We “ought” to not need anyone to tell us right from wrong, but we all know the world is not like that. (Lennox’s statement that atheism in particular has no argument for the problem of evil was an interesting one.) Simple observation tells us that not all people are rational and not all societies are rational – including some religious ones. So where is this grand objective rationality coming from?
Obviously, given my beliefs, I would agree with Lennox that it comes from something external and bigger than us, built into us as part of our very make-up. That, of course, is God.
Two common answers
There are generally two common answers I find to the question of “If it’s not God, what are you basing your rationality on?” The first is, “It doesn’t need to be God” and then we need to know what it is. Unfortunately, like last night, I never quite find that people who hold that position really get to what it really is. The second is, “Why does it need to be God?” which doesn’t answer the question. That answer is really just being the irritating mountain man seer who only ever answers your questions with a question; or a psychologist who is trained to just ask you questions to help you come to your own conclusions. That doesn’t work for philosophy, though.
Lennox could have been stronger last night and could have pushed this question harder, in my opinion. Yes, there are some questions he didn’t really answer either, but what I really wanted to hear addressed wasn’t – not to a degree that satisfied me, at least!
The point of debate
But don’t get me wrong – I learned a lot last night, which is the point of this sort of debate. It’s about learning, not about winning. All the smack down comments on Twitter and some of the blogs I’m expecting to see today I think will miss this point. Some people seem to go to these things pre-deciding who will “win”. What’s the point of that? You’re never going to learn anything like that.
There was no clear winner last night (there seldom is) but there was a ton of stuff to think about and consider from both sides, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It didn’t get into ridicule zone (which I was afraid it might) and the crowd was fantastic too. Thanks Eusebius and John for an invigorating, enjoyable evening!
LAST LAUGH: Someone put a Dianetics book from L.Ron Hubbard on McKaiser’s seat when he wasn’t looking. Chuckled at that!
Well-known radio personality, political commentator, debater and philosophical lecturer Eusebius McKaiser published an article through The Star this morning entitled: “No need to treat God with kid gloves“. It’s the perfect example of apologetics gone wrong – atheist or Christian.
(In the article McKaiser advertises his upcoming debate with well-known Christian apologist John Lennox, which will be taking place this Thursday, 7pm, at WITS University JHB’s Great Hall. I’ll live-tweet the debate and blog about it on Friday. My Twitter handle is @RyanPeterWrites.)
McKaiser basically takes religious people apart in his article for being sensitive when their personal beliefs are questioned, especially publically. He is right that “too many religious believers think that debating their beliefs is intrinsically offensive” and that questions about our beliefs should turn us on. He is wrong about how this should be done – or at least he hasn’t explained his position too well.
On one hand, McKaiser states that he “doesn’t mean being offensive is acceptable” but on the other hand he says, “Why do many people who believe in some sort of higher power think that religious convictions are beyond lampooning, ridiculing, criticism or close intellectual scrutiny?”
Unfortunately, ‘close intellectual scrutiny’ and ‘lampooning’ and ‘ridiculing’ don’t really belong in the same sentence. McKaiser says that ideas should be engaged with a ‘mix of reason and ridicule’ but I fail to see how the latter has ever helped the former to take place. He uses Richard Dawkins as a prime example, but it runs against his point – Dawkins has, in recent years, decided that ridicule works better than reason, but all we’re seeing is a quick degrade into irrelevance and silliness.
Much like the comments section at McKaiser’s article. (Don’t read the comments – you’ll waste precious hours of your life.)
If he is talking about comedy, that’s fair and well, but he isn’t. Substitute all that he says about how ridicule and lampooning is perfectly acceptable with homosexuality or race and it all falls flat. In fact, all he would look like then is that wonderful debate-stirring word used for anything these days, ‘bigot’. Why should religious people have to grow thick skin but everyone else is the victim of some vicious hate speech crime if you disagree with their views?
McKaiser’s article represents all that can go wrong with apologetics because it encourages the wrong things. Respect should be encouraged. And so should love.
Respect doesn’t mean that everything is relative and there is no truth and facts fly out the window. Respect simply means that, regardless of your views, I still see you as a person of intrinsic value and treat you as such. Ridicule, however, never does that as it’s about attacking the person.
Unfortunately, anything McKaiser wants to say about morality (that’s what his debate with Lennox will be about on Thursday) is weakened when he says ridicule is a valid form of debate. Does McKaiser have any reason outside of his own relative and changing morality to respect or love someone despite their beliefs? Is that kind of morality something we can build our lives on?
This is the kind of question the debate on Thursday will probably cover. Should be a good one!
When it was announced that Mark Driscoll, well-known evangelical pastor at Mars Hill Seattle, has stepped down for six weeks while allegations against him are examined, it resulted in a flurry of opinion, conversation, and finger pointing. I don’t like to say too much about this sort of thing. I don’t know Driscoll, have never been to his church (they just never appealed to me) and live on the other side of the planet anyway. But some of the opinions around this are worth talking about.
If you’re not quite up to speed on who Driscoll is and the background of the allegations, an article at Vox.com summarises it well, although I don’t care for the overall tone of it. However, what’s interesting to note is how Driscoll is called an “evangelical rock star.” That perception is, perhaps, exactly right and, perhaps, exactly the problem with modern Christianity.
So here are, what I found, the more interesting opinion and interests about the matter:
Nate Pyle in his post “The Tweetable-Tale of Two Mars Hill Pastors” speaks about how the evangelical community seems to place more importance on what you believe over what you practice. It’s a fair point and one worth thinking long and hard about. He asks:
“…I can’t help but wonder, are we as a church in danger of conflating right thinking with salvation, thus making it a work by which we are saved? Are actions more forgivable when a person’s theology is right?”
This spawned several public and private conversations on social media. Those outside of the Protestant fold have been questioning just how Protestant churches decide on orthodoxy anyway and why there seems to be a lack of accountability. In particular, there have been questions around why no one said or did anything when Driscoll preached a sermon like this one: God Hates You. (Personally, I think Driscoll was trying to re-preach Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”)
Conversations around how we all seem to put more emphasis on belief over practice also abounded. I think this is a solid point and one worth thinking about.
Jesse Johnson in his post “Driscoll Drama: To those who sold tickets” takes influential evangelicals to task for neglecting to actually deal with obvious issues from the beginning and willingly exposing their people to Driscoll’s teaching, even though there were issues.
“It strikes me that in the chorus of calls to pray for Driscoll’s repentance, or hope for his hopeful repentance, or whatever other optimistic attitude we are supposed to have for that aforementioned repentance, there is something missing. Namely, the ownership of the problem.”
What I found most interesting was how Johnson felt that the doctrine of sanctification was being ignored and now we’re seeing the result. He says:
“By 2009 it was obvious that the doctrine of sanctification was seriously neglected in the theology that was coming out of Acts 29 and specifically Driscoll’s preaching… While I am always in favor of repentance, and remain hopeful for it in everyone, the call for it here is exceptionally tone deaf. That’s because to pastors outside the Christian-rock-star echo chamber, the issue has never really been one of “will Driscoll repent?” Rather the issue has always been one of “will Christian leaders recognize how foolish it was to expose their people to Driscoll’s preaching and leadership?”
(Notice Johnson talking about the Christian-rock-star echo chamber.)
Doug Wils’ post “Though There Is a Difference” takes evangelical leaders to task for jumping on the Driscoll band-wagon when it was cool and then jumping off when that became cool.
“Part of me wants to pop bottles and strike up the band. I want to rejoice like one person in my twitterfeed who responded to the announcement, “Good riddance, Mark Driscoll”. But as I’ve given it more thought, I cannot celebrate the demise of Mark Driscoll, and I don’t think Christians should either.”
He goes on to quote Proverbs 24:17: “Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble.” I didn’t like this post for reasons I won’t get into but I include it because it shows how some evangelicals felt embarrassed about Driscoll.
Who cares about my thoughts? But I’ll offer this up for consideration anyway because I think this is the core problem of not only this scandal but many of the others popping up from time to time in the evangelical world: there is a lack of real relationship between leaders. Especially big-name evangelical leaders. You can’t build an accountable and proper relationship using documents and contracts and signed a creedal statement. Unfortunately, in many ways, evangelical organisations do just that.
Dudley Daniel, who used to lead the NCMI team (which my church partners with) used to say “Friendship before function.” Over and again I see the wisdom in this simple little saying. While my own church group has had its fair share of controversy, most of it hasn’t been public, precisely because if friendship comes first accountability can happen properly. Friendship before function means something takes longer to build and perhaps doesn’t gain the kind of prominence other movements / organisations etc. enjoy (or do they enjoy it?) but its roots run deeper, making it effective in the long run.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that Driscoll’s situation (as in many others) may be a case of too much too soon. I don’t really blame him for that; perhaps the general evangelical culture and approach to accountability in ministry and friendship is to blame.
In my last post in this series: How I Came to see Holiness in a Brand New Way, pt 1, I briefly wrote about how my struggles with sin became a faith crisis. Addictive sin leads you into despair and makes you question every aspect of your beliefs. You wonder: is there something I’m supposed to know that’s supposed to help me get over this? Why is this easier for others but not for me?
As a Christian, an addiction to pornography led me to asking: Does Christianity have any real power? Can Jesus really save me from my sin? Or is Christianity just about forgiveness and then trying as hard as you can not to do it again?
I worked this out by doing lots and lots of reading. My views on holiness became mainly Puritan in their construct. But while my outward conduct changed in a big way, what I couldn’t quite change was what kept happening inside whenever temptations came or someone even just spoke about their own addictions. In short, I felt like my desires would never change – but I resolved that that’s just the way it is. Martin Luther was particularly helpful for me.
“No man is to despair of salvation just because he is aware of the lust of the flesh. Let him be aware of it so long as he does not yield to it. The passion of lust, wrath, and other vices may shake him, but they are not to get him down. Sin may assail him, but he is not to welcome it. Yes, the better Christian a man is, the more he will experience the heat of the conflict. This explains the many expressions of regret in the Psalms and in the entire Bible…. Everybody is to determine his peculiar weakness and guard against it. Watch and wrestle in spirit against your weakness. Even if you cannot completely overcome it, at least you ought to fight against it.” – Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians.
In his writings, Luther says a lot about the difference between having a desire and giving into a desire. This is fairly standard faire in Christian theology. I eventually decided to write a book called Holy Sinwhere I was going to contend that Jesus has already made us holy when he saved us (1 Corinthians 6:11) and therefore, we ought not to worry about how holy we really are but ought to just keep on fighting.
But when I found 1 Thessalonians 5:23,24 I was stumped. I simply couldn’t find any way to read this in any other way except to read a promise in it that at once both scared me and excited me. Could it be true?
1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NET) Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this.
He will in fact do what? He will, in fact, make you completely holy. When? I checked other translations – the word ‘at [the coming]’ is often translated as ‘unto’ (Geneva Bible, KJV) – which is the same as ‘until’ – or translated as ‘for’ in other Bibles. This indicated, to me, that he would make us completely holy before he comes again. (The way the verse is written would indicate that even if you didn’t use ‘unto’ or ‘for’). The context of the scripture certainly implies that while the Thessalonians were holy and set apart for God, God would make them completely holy. (In my forthcoming book, Holy Sin I go into this scripture in more detail.)
I had previously read in John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection this:
“A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin. This is the glorious privilege of every Christian, yea, though he be but a babe in Christ. But it is only of grown Christians it can be affirmed, they are in such a sense perfect, as, Secondly to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. First, from evil or sinful thoughts… If, therefore, the heart be no longer evil, then evil thoughts no longer proceed out of it: For a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit… a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
When I had first read this in Wesley’s book I was shocked. I had simply never heard this anywhere else before. I had thought he was just a well-known evangelist, but where did this come from? It was so different to anything else I had ever heard at all. In truth, it all seemed crazy. I read through the entire book and found it encouraging but perplexing. I wondered if it may be true – but decided that it probably wasn’t. Then months later I read 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24 and realised: this sounds like what Wesley was saying! But could it be true? Could it be that God would sanctify me completely? Wholly? Entirely?
I immediately researched this crazy notion. What I found was a whole new world I had simply never ever heard about. Not even the Methodists I knew (John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church, for those that don’t know) had ever told me about this. In all my years of studying and learning and reading, I had simply never heard of this. I wondered why. Then I realised it’s because what it is promising seems so far out of reach and so absolutely amazing that it’s too difficult to believe. When I checked out what some of my favourite writers had to say about it (for many I had to dig deep) I discovered that it’s been something that’s been generally looked down upon.
Well that piqued my interest. I know I’m interested in heresies since it’s my job to know as a Christian writer, but was this really a heresy, as some called it?
Well, not wanting to be seen as crazy, I kept it all to myself and decided that if all these people who I respected so much didn’t see this in the Bible then it couldn’t be there. There must be some other way to read 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24 and many other scriptures that looked like they could be saying something different than I thought they had before.
So I checked to see if there was any other way of reading it. I read plenty of explanations. I even asked one particular well-known and respected American evangelical who had come to visit my church what he thought. He told me he had actually been brought up in the teaching of ‘entire sanctification’ (what it’s commonly called) but he had changed his mind on it. But I found his explanations less than straightforward.
Then I started seeing it all over the Bible. I had heard that 1 John was Wesley’s favourite book, so I decided I would read it and see why that would be. 1 John is a difficult book and I’ve always found it particularly hard. But suddenly the book completely changed. I read it and read it and read it and couldn’t believe it. It seemed, that, in fact, you could see this there. Perhaps it was true! God wants to do a work in us where he will change ourdesires to be completely for him – where he will take out the root of sin and not just the guilt of sin (as Wesley put it). Where he will sanctify us completely! Where all those old desires will be gone and only the new remain! Where we will actually have victory in our battle with sin and will actually find ourselves in a place where those old desires mean nothing to us any more. Not in the next life but in this life.
I still found it difficult to believe. But yet, I knew that, if it was true, it was good news! And if it was good news, could it be wrong? Because the Gospel is good news. I also knew that, if it was true, it would sort out several issues in my spiritual walk and it would explain several other experiences and plenty of difficult scriptures.
Robin Williams. Talented. Funny. Wacky. Deep. Able to move from one subject to another without even taking a breath. Sometimes accused of being sentimental, although I always thought that he seemed to choose his roles carefully. I used to criticise him a bit – perhaps because I often saw him represent a shallow everything-will-be-ok, you’re-ok and I’m-ok modern liberal sort of philosophy so prevalent in our western culture. I realise now that he actually didn’t – in fact, now I think I get him. I was wrong. Badly wrong. But, of course, it’s too late.
In fact, if anything, the real shallow philosophy worth speaking about is the general church culture and hopelessly pathetic theology around depression. Yesterday when I read the news of Williams’ death and how he battled with depression I felt a jab in my heart. I’ve known too many people who’ve lost their lives to this disease. In fact, I think I know more people who’ve battled with this than any other disease, including cancer. And I’ve been a first-hand sufferer of it too.
If you’ve battled with depression you know – modern ideas of success and happiness miss the point. Motivational clichés lack power. I think Robin Williams knew that. I think that’s why he chose the film roles he did.
I know that feeling of being surrounded by friends and family and people who really do love you at a dinner table – and everyone is laughing – and you’re laughing – and suddenly, out of nowhere, something deep inside you changes. It’s hard to explain what it is, but heartbroken kind of does explain it. You literally feel like something inside is broken, as if you’ve just been cut open inside, and it burns. Before you realise it, you’re talking to yourself in your mind about how you’re really not worth anything – that it would be better if you just didn’t exist. All of your fears and your guilt and your absolute inability to win with anything crush any semblance of happiness inside. Some might call it an existential crisis, saying that everyone gets that, but here you’re having an experience where you wish life itself just didn’t exist.
It’s interesting to me that at the age of 63, Williams still hadn’t “gotten over it”. People who don’t really experience this sort of thing to this sort of degree perhaps don’t realise how “getting over it” and “think positively” and all the usual motivational nonsense means precious little. Motivational posters aren’t going to cut it, and your sayings like “your attitude determines your altitude” are just nonsense. And, (some) Christians, “praise music” is not a cure-all. At the wrong time it can do the very opposite to what you think and can diminish faith.
Good grief does this bring memories – Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam”.
While I don’t think I’ve ever suffered to the degree of others I know (including loved ones in my family) I do think I’ve suffered a bit more than I was ever comfortable admitting when I was going through my worst time. It was then that I realised just how shallow modern theology is – how so much of what we preach from the pulpit is geared for the winners and the successful and the strong and mighty and the able and the moral and the cool and the popular and the leaders.
So much of our modern day preaching is more to do with being a good leader and a success in life and taking it by the horns and being a good example and on and on and on it goes. You must be this, do that, look like this, act like that, and only then will God or anyone else take you seriously. It’s all a formula. People have built ministry empires around providing all the formulas to make you healthy, successful, and a strong, respected leader. Some has its place but most of it isn’t the gospel, it’s just shallow motivational-speak.
Ann Voskamp, in a recent blog post on the subject, says it perfectly when she says: “The Jesus I know never preached some Health Prosperity Gospel, some pseudo-good news that if you just pray well, sing well, worship well, live well and deposit all that into some Divine ATM — you get to take home a mind and body that are well. That’s not how the complex beauty of life unfolds.”
How true. But don’t think it’s just prosperity churches – evangelical churches can place such a big emphasis on leadership and success in that area that the result is fewer leaders, not more, because so many people feel they can’t make the grade, don’t have the right personality, or just don’t have the right ambitions in life. (Meanwhile, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 tells us to live a quiet life!) I often wonder if we now, in the evangelical church, have too many leaders and too little actual pastors. Pastoring is hard work. And thankless.
Over the years when I really had to face my depression head-on I realised that modern Christian pop-theology offers no real answer: it’s too shallow, full of clichés, and only seems to work for the strong. My depression did two things: one, it opened me up to a pornography addiction and, two, it (and the addiction) forced me to really get to the bottom of my faith. In a strange way, I’m thankful for it and even the addiction. It’s brought me to a place where I can say this with experience and conviction: what most people think Christianity is, it actually isn’t. What most people think Christian theology teaches, it actually doesn’t. What most people think Jesus was about, he wasn’t.
In my struggles I discovered some funny things: Christianity isn’t for the winners at all. It’s not for the big names and the popular. God isn’t actually impressed with big leadership and big ambitions (although we certainly are!). He isn’t into categorising people. He also isn’t just into accepting everything about our sin. He it totally Other, yet we can know him. Jesus wasn’t a success by the world’s standards – he died without creating a political movement or creating a squeaky clean philosophy with all the answers. He himself had to cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46.) Read Lamentations and see how real Christianity can get. This is a faith full of promise and positivity without ever side-lining the reality of the brokenness of our world and the souls that live in it. Christian theology isn’t squeaky clean – it makes space for the questions and often only answers by saying: You don’t need answers.What you need is Presence. Intimacy and union with God.
Life is a romance – it’s full of heartbreak and it’s full of beauty. All at the same time. Often beauty and joy actually rise out of the heartbreak. “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5.) There is something deeply perplexing about this and our rational mind finds difficulty in grasping it. It just doesn’t make sense. Yet, actually, it does, if we think of sense in the fullest meaning of the word. Christianity is both rational and experiential, just like life is; and ultimately just like God is. He is not all mind. He is not all spirit. He is a person. Once you come to accept mystery you come to find that mystery is actually far more rational than cold, hard logic.
Williams was an episcopalian, which he jokingly called “Catholic lite – half the religion, half the guilt!” My prayer is that somewhere in there he found Jesus and who he really is. Perhaps he never explored the depths of Christian theology and perhaps he had some other funny ideas, who knows? There is so much rubbish in this world I’m sure we all have some funny ideas that just aren’t true. But Christianity isn’t about knowing the facts but knowing the Person who is true – God the Father, revealed in Jesus Christ.
A journey of many, many years comes to a solid foundation to work from.
I don’t generally come to conclusions quickly when it comes to theology. It’s taken me years to decide where I sit on many things. And I’m fine with changing my mind, so I’m not very dogmatic. The subject of holiness, however, has probably been the central driving factor of most of my theological searching.
That might not be obvious when you look at what I’ve blogged about and written over the years. It may seem like I view the subject as an afterthought. That’s because, in the background, it’s been the “niggling factor” of my Christianity; the one piece of theology that has haunted my faith for over a decade; that has shot my faith into dizzying heights of joy and, in the very next instant, crushed it into the dark soil of despair.
The reason why is because so much of the truth of Jesus rides on this one fact: Can you, Jesus, sort out my inward sin? Those horrible thoughts… those temptations that are so easy to fall into… that little bit of jealousy… or that little bit of superiority. When you begin to realise just how sinful you are, despair is lurking around the corner – which is precisely why so many people, including Christian teachers and pastors etc., avoid the issue. These days, we sugar coat the topic with motivational talks, positive thinking, modern liberal-leaning theology, or hyper-grace hermeneutics.
When you realise that you’re pretty much incapable of sorting out your internal life – or that your capabilities only go so far – you have to either accept that this is life, or that some miracle need to happen to change it. But what does God promise? Does he promise the forgiveness of sins and that’s it? Does he promise the ability to sort it out? Does he want to sort it out by His power? And, to what degree will He sort it out?
I realise not everyone is a loser like me when it comes to holiness. There are some pretty strong people out there, even in my circle of friends. They battle with only the “little” sins, such as a bit of ambition (which they fight); a bit of gossip (which they fight); or just a bit of looking too long at a girl. But they’re able to keep themselves in check and never really move into big-sin zone. They don’t live their lives looking for affirmation from others (ambition and gossip) and they’re able to easily say no to pornography when temptation comes.
Me, not so much. I battled with pornography for practically a decade. I wanted to be a rock star and be a big deal. And I battled with depression and anxiety as a result. Depression has largely gone away in my life, anxiety hasn’t.
So what’s my point? My point is that it’s not until you struggle with the big sins, with the not-so-subtle ones, and you realise that despite all your strength and your desire to do what you know is better; and despite all your intentions; you still fall, badly (not just “a little”) that you start to seriously ask: Can Christ’s power save me from my sin?Not just forgive me; not just give me power to say no sometimes (or even most of the time); but really, truly, save me?
“Save” as in, well, SAVE. Bring me out of it. Or, rather, bring it out of me.
Does God promise rest from the endless, despairing battle with sin in this life? Or does rest only come when they put us six feet underground and talk about whether or not we loved enough in this life? These are the questions I think every Christian has to face sooner or later, and reconcile with the answers.
All my theological studies around this question led me to certain conclusions, and for the longest time my conclusion was that life will always be a mixture of victory and defeat and as long as you’re fighting against sin you will be OK.
I was reluctant to admit it to myself, but I found this conclusion unliveable. I tried to work it out positively. Martin Luther’s theology drew me as the most encouraging way of dealing with this – and so I eventually decided to write a book on it, to both help me put together my thoughts on holiness in a systematic way, and help the many others I know feel their Christian life is nothing but a slog and fight every day (or, at least, most days).
Once I decided to write the book (but hadn’t started) I – for some reason – gained an interest in John Wesley. I don’t know why. It was like something was drawing me there. I just felt I wanted to know more about the guy.
What I found out stunned me. But it didn’t convince me. I spoke to a few friends about it and came out thinking that his views on holiness seemed all rather strange. I came to the conclusion that Wesley was probably wrong – in fact, I realised that I could trace his theology to the hard-lined, spitting preacher, pentecostal law-holiness stuff many of us have been exposed to. This made me reject it.
But as I got my book going and got a few chapters in and needed to start addressing the scriptures in my book, I came across 1 Thessalonians 5:23. And it was there where I put my keyboard down and couldn’t write for months. Because, what I read there – this time, when I really read it and read it again, and again – didn’t make any sense at all. Yet, it sounded strangely familiar…
I suppose the first thing I should say is, is Christian music really a big question? When I was younger, I thought so. My teenage years as a Christian were largely formed by my fledging album collection. I never really paid much attention to preaching or reading (besides the Bible) – my Christian music heroes discipled me from afar. My dream was to be a like them – a Christian rock star. I used to stare at the back of the CD covers of my Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, and Tree63 CD’s, dreaming about the day when it would be my turn – when my music would also count and make an impression on people.
Recently, John Ellis from Tree63 came under a great deal of fire when he had jokingly said in an interview with well-known personality Gareth Cliff that he had written Christians songs ‘for the money’. He also stated that Tree63 were not a Christian band – in an effort to try and make the (rather tired, by now) distinction between a “Christian band” and a “band full of Christians”.
Over at JohnEllis.co.za, Ellis put the record straight and apologised for the whole ordeal. The money comment was, in Ellis’s words, a “wry joke, badly timed,” and regarding the issue of a Christian band versus a band full of Christians, Ellis says:
“I tried to make the age-old distinction between a band full of Christians and a ‘Christian’ band. It’s a thorny issue that’s been raging since the very first idea of Christian-themed pop music ever surfaced, and any band that has sung about spiritual things in the secular arena (Stryper, U2, Kula Shaker, Delirious?, Switchfoot, Tree63 etc.) has had to field those questions. It can come across as splitting hairs, which is ironic for a bald man to do… essentially Tree63, as ‘Christian’ as it became, was primarily a rock band singing about Jesus, not a church band with a missional agenda and music as second-thought.”
Meanwhile, in the comments section at his post, you can see how people responded. Some happy, others shocked.
Is there such a thing as a Christian dentist?
My brother-in-law, Jonno Warmington, said this to me the other day when we chatted about this: Is there such a thing as a Christian dentist? If you mean a dentist who does his work for the glory of God, well that’s fine and well – that’s what we all do. But if you mean a dentist who only ever does dentistry on Christians; only ever works in Christian mouths; and only ever pulls out Christian teeth; wouldn’t that be a rather odd practice? Most of us wouldn’t think it strange and a sell-out when a Christian dentist says he is happy to work on anyone’s teeth.
But when it comes to music, we seem to think that, for some reason, it ought to be different. In fact, it seems that this is really a general problem for most of Art – there’s some reason why you can’t be a Christian musician, or a Christian writer, or a Christian painter, without looking to use your art exclusively for overt evangelism. Why is this?
Perhaps it’s because of how art appeals to the imagination. But the problem is this: once you try and dictate to an artist what his art is supposed to look like (AKA, how Christian it’s meant to be) you sell the art out to the corporate, one-size-fits-all squeeky clean mass-produced culture. In other words, you actually force the artist to become the very thing you complain about: a sell-out.
Let artists be artists and then you’ll be surprised what they can do. Force them to fit your mould and wishes and you’ll be shocked at how they’ll respond. Never corner an artist. In place of it you’ll get a raging beast who will bite back, feeling trapped and confined. They don’t fit in the box, so why expect them to? Why tell them they must? It goes against the very God-given gift and personality they have.
Christian leaders are not always the best in telling people not to be rock stars
In my younger years, when I wanted to be a rock star, I noticed something that’s worth saying here, even if it is a bit harsh. A lot of Christian leaders had a lot to say to me about my desire to be a rock star, but for some reason they were blind to their own “rock star” ambitions. You know, the very real ambition to become a big deal in the church. A superstar preacher. An apostolic asteroid. The guy with the biggest church and the most influence. And for some reason, all that kind of ambition is okay because a lot of Christian leaders hide behind the idea that all that is “for the advancement of the Kingdom.” Actually, it’s the advancement of their own Kingdom and built on their own need for affirmation, and pastors and preachers and evangelists and apostolic guys need to face the reality and motivation behind the ambition in their own hearts.
I feel perfectly comfortable calling this what it is because I’ve had to work through it. Here’s a post I wrote that spoke a bit about it: I’m not interested in counting for God anymore. This sort of unhealthy ambition is one of those sins in the church that too few leaders bother to address in their own lives but are quick to see in others. I’m by no means pointing fingers at anyone in particular, but I am making the point because I think it does add value, especially when I consider how celebrity focused the evangelical church has become. (Cue this week’s unhealthy finger-pointing furore over Mark Driscoll.)
So, is Christian music important?
In short, I say no. Or, rather, not as much as we seem to think. I believe music is a nice-to-have for church services, but I don’t believe (as I used to) that it’s imperative. Most of the mainstream evangelical church puts a heck of a lot of stock in it, and I can’t really see why any more. We can use music as a “means of grace” (a way in which we connect with God and experience his grace in an intimate way) but there are plenty of other “means of grace” (I use the term loosely, not as some liturgical churches would use it) which seem to get less airtime. In fact, one of the most legitimately Biblical “means of grace”, the breaking of bread, gets far less airtime in contemporary evangelical churches than music – yet there’s scant reference to music in the New Testament.
In fact, we can’t really know for sure how the early church incorporated music into its worship services (one can build a stronger argument for liturgical practices than for the modern day contemporary service, by the way). If we thought about how we’ve put music on a pedestal in Christian living carefully, we wouldn’t get so easily shocked and shout the “sell-out” label when good musicians want to just be good musicians and make a living off it. Rather than do that, why not find ways to support the arts in our country – because you may not realise just how little support it receives in Corporate South Africa.
The big international news these past two weeks has been the eruption of war in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Opinions abound. Emotions are charged. Suspicion is high.
To be honest, I don’t really have an opinion on the actual conflict. It’s too complex and layered for most of us to actually have a well informed opinion on it that isn’t formed by our prejudice (in my “non-opinion”). To speak on it in any way makes people put you into only one of two camps – either you’re Anti-Semitic or you’re a Zionist. There doesn’t seem to be another viewpoint available!
So why write anything at all? Well, there is an aspect of this conversation I’m interested in and that is the Christian response. Is there even a Christian response? Yes, I think there is a valid one, but the response I deem appropriate isn’t the response I see coming from mainstream Christian circles in South Africa. I ask myself: why is this?
The first response I believe that is legitimate from a Bible and Christian tradition perspective is that we pray for peace, as we do every day, for the whole world – including both Palestine and Israel (not just peace for the one and destruction for the other!). In the (Online) Book of Common Prayer (the Anglican Prayerbook) which I use most days to kick start my prayer times, peace in this world is a common theme. Christians are concerned about peace and we’re called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Peace is obviously what it means to see the Kingdom on earth.
Interestingly, however, there seem to be a lot of South African Christians who are very charged about praying for peace in Israel but seem, by observation, to pray very little for peace in our own country – and peace is something we really need as discontentment brews in our society. Am I saying what’s happening in South Africa is more important than in the Middle-East? No, but what I am saying is that I’ve seen Christians turn a blind eye to the needs in their own neighbourhoods because they’re so distracted by Israel and what’s going on there – they’re so distracted by it that they forget to live out their Christian faith in their own community.
I think he is right when I look at how many South African Christians “pray” for peace in Israel in the public sphere. It seems that many believe that our calling to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and our calling to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44) is over-ridden by the blessing to be received by praying and blessing Israel (Genesis 12:3 and other places).
Christian Zionists should be praying for the people of Palestine too, not just for the people of Israel. I’ve seen Christians openly pray that Israel find military success in its campaign and that a military victory for Israel over Palestine would now come to fruit. They support this war because it’s Israel, forgetting our higher Christian calling from Christ to love all – even those of a different religion. You can’t complain about the violence in South Africa and openly endorse violence somewhere else in the world, regardless of who the victims really are. How does that work?
Why is this?
Personally, I blame the very popular negative dispensational pre-millenialism that most Christians (at least Protestant Christians) appear to believe these days. I realise that eschatology (the study of last things) is a touchy subject in most Christian circles, but I’m going there anyway. I also realise that many readers won’t know what dispensational pre-millenialism means, so I’ll provide a summary.
In Revelation 20 it talks of a ‘thousand years’ where Christ will reign with His people on earth. Pre-millenialism is the idea that this will be a physical reigning on earth and a literal thousand years and it will take place after a great tribulation (a time of persecution). The idea is also that most Christians will be raptured (taken up to heaven) before this great tribulation, leaving space for the anti-christ to move in and rule the world. Some Christians may be raptured in the middle of this tribulation.
The ‘dispensational’ part basically teaches that God has dealt with man in different ‘dispensations’ – “a distinctive arrangement or period in history that forms the framework through which God relates to mankind.” (Wikipedia). Dispensationalism has traditionally taught that there is a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church.
Because of dispensational pre-millenialism’s general negative outlook on where the world is going – that the world is getting darker and the anti-christ is coming; and that Christians are called to just hang on faithfully until God raptures us from the world before it completely collapses – it makes sense that many respond as they do to the Israel/Palestine conflict. War against Israel is proof of the world’s darkness and how soon the Battle of Armageddon is around the corner. Each time a nation condemns Israel, it is seen to be getting on the wrong side of the battle of Armageddon. When the ANC’s Jessie Duarte condemned Israel last week in a scathing and inappropriate manner, saying “The African National Congress condemns in the strongest terms the barbaric attacks on the defenseless Palestinian people of Gaza… As we move towards the month of August and are reminded of [t]he atrocities of Nazi Germany, surely we must ask the people of Israel has the term ‘lest we forget’ lost it[s] meaning?” it’s not just what she said that concerned many SA Christians but the fact that this is seen as putting South Africa in harms way and on the wrong side of the war to end all wars. In short, many Christians seem to believe that God will curse a country if it doesn’t support Israel (regardless of what Israel does).
Meanwhile, at Ecumenical News Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying, “Once again, the people of Israel and Palestine are embroiled in a deadly contest of tit-for-tat violence in which there can never be victors, only losers… Like children following a playground dust-up, political and religious leaders fall over each other, not to make peace, but to proclaim: It wasn’t us, they started it.” I agree with him here, but compare Tutu’s comments to the comments of readers at Gateway News and you will see that many South African Christians really believe that Israel is right because, well, it’s Israel. (Tutu also does touch on a two-state solution and it’s here where I wonder if he goes beyond what he should have said.)
Perhaps I’m being too negative about pre-millenialism. But even if it’s right, doctrinally speaking, it needs to be balanced with Christ’s teachings to love our enemies, go into all the world, love all, live at peace with everyone, preach the Gospel, and so on. I wonder if many of the Christians who pray for Israel and support Israel are just looking to receive the promised blessings of the Bible if they do (and avoid what they see as curses if they don’t) but don’t really care about the fact that people are actually dying. It may be unfair to question motives in such a generalised way, but I do wonder.
I’m not one for the latest and greatest thing, especially when it comes to trends in church leadership and models. In my younger years I was all for everything that was different and cool and underground. These days I still have certain things that I like that others don’t, but I’ve learned that not everyone is the same, and I’ve learned that – when it comes to church trends – fads come and go and when you jump on a fad you confuse and hurt a lot of people and, before you realise it, become irrelevant. Jesus isn’t building his church on fads, branding, and hype. And he isn’t building it on philosophy, either.
But it’s for these same reasons, however, that I’m interested in what is something of an obscure, emerging, almost fad-like discussion that is about how we run organised church. I say it’s fad-like because it borrows terms from what could be seen as a faddish, hipster movement – namely, the Slow Food movement. Not sure what that is? Here it is on Wikipedia. (Truth be told, though, the Slow Food movement has been around for longer than hipsters. But then again, hipsters aren’t new either – every generation has its own version: hippies, greasers etc.)
I’m drawn to this for several reasons. I don’t know what the book will say and I hope it doesn’t just judge a whole lot of people. But nevertheless, here’s why I’m drawn to the title and what it seems to be about:
Franchised, commercialised church does not produce Gospel fruit
I’m convicted about this. This problem isn’t only in America but we see it in South Africa all the time. Once churches run more like businesses they can often pull in large numbers, but not always. This is because a business is often about “location, location, location.” Put a business in the wrong location and it doesn’t work. Location is about the right product marketed to the right people at the right time. If you want to run like a business, you have to always keep up with the trends – good luck doing that on a limited budget.
Church is not about product. Commercialisation of a church makes us lose too much – namely involvement, community, an authentic faith, a living faith, loving hearts and even multi-culturalism. Church becomes about entertainment, hype, numbers and “excellence” rather than about, well, people. And you need to ‘market’ to a niche market, so you attract people of only a certain income group or certain race or culture. Meanwhile, the Gospel is for all.
Hype makes less people involved
Less hype, more involvement. I only know this from experience – I don’t have research – but I’m sure I’m right. When a church (and its leaders) hype something up and over-brand it (branding is fine – it’s professionalism I’m talking about here, see below) the result is less involvement, not more. If something looks and feels too professional then people will just leave the professionals to do itand not get involved.
Too many pastors love to talk about excellence but fail to realise that there is a particular kind of excellence which makes a church lean towards professionalism, image and perfection, and a particular kind of excellence that is about expression and art. There’s a big difference between a musician who loves music and a musician who loves entertainment. There’s a big difference between the local jazz musicians down the road who are brilliant and the pop music machine. But because the latter brings in the people by the droves, too many pastors assume the latter is more effective.
It’s not. Pop is known to be ‘bubblegum’ music for a reason – you chew it and you spit it out, then you move on. That’s hardly what church is about. That’s why commercialised, franchised churches have lots of people who come in and leave but don’t stay and get involved for very long. Some do, but most move on. If you want involvement then stop pursuing excellence and start pursuing people. A healthy excellence will follow when excellence isn’t the goal or, dare I say it, even the means.
Church is meant to be counter-cultural
The culture of the day is about big business, mass production, and fast results. In South Africa we’re not as far away from this in our cities as people think. Right now, South Africa is all about economics – we have developed into a super-materialistic culture where we must see results and the bigger the hype, the better.
We’re meant to run counter-cultural to our surrounding culture’s excesses and idols, but too many churches just absorb the excesses under the guise of ‘being all things to all men’ (1 Corinthians 9:19 – 23). Unfortunately, that’s taking that scripture out of context. You can’t worship money in your church in order to be relevant to people who worship money. You can’t serve two masters.
We’re a people of peace
In busy cities like Johannesburg, productivity and busyness are idols. Some people worship work and garner too much of their identity from it. Some Christian leaders have made external results more important than inward change.
I’ve observed this first-hand. I’ve heard too many pastors pridefully say, “Yeah, I have a very busy church.” They think busyness equates to effectiveness. I disagree. I don’t think busyness is really anything to be proud of, to be honest. What are your people busy doing? They’re busy being busy, that’s what, and nothing much else. Instead I’d much rather hear a pastor say, “We have a loving church.” My point is too many pastors mistake busyness for life. Maybe your people are being driven by guilt, not love, and that’s why they’re busy. No amount of busyness will ever bring revival, so why all the fuss about being busy?
Let the work follow the inward change, the Spirit’s infilling – don’t try and create the Spirit’s work through busyness. Maybe you think you’re not a legalist, but if you make busyness some form of way to measure the Spirit’s work, you probably are an undercover legalist.
Church is about real people in a real world
Church isn’t about “the numbers’. People aren’t numbers. When it’s about “the numbers” it’s as if we believe that Jesus died for a statistic. Why the heck are you so worried about the amount of people who came to your church last night? Perhaps it’s because you need to save face – after all you just spent a whole lot of money on a big event, hyped it up to 10,000 degrees, and convinced everyone that it was going to change the world. Next time, try being a church and not an events centre.
Local church is the antithesis to capitalistic big business and big government
I believe that the answer to our over-materialistic culture is that we rely too much on big business and big government. I’m not being a libertarian – I believe that we need stronger communities and a local church plays a vital part in strengthening community and strengthening the family. I’m a communitarian, if I’m anything philosophically speaking. Today’s church has fallen prey to the modern materialistic hope in big business and big government so much that we’ve just copied these models and tried to implement them in our churches through franchising, commercialising, and over-governing.
We can be so ambitious sometimes that we malign the seemingly small changes to people’s lives we can make and forget that those small changes are big to those people. We want greatness and reputation and people in their thousands to come out and dance in the streets “for Jesus” in the name of our church and think these things will change a city. We think that a march for Jesus counts more than all getting together and repairing a poor person’s house. Thousands of people rock up for political marches all the time but how much really changes? God works underground not in the mainstream, but we want to work in the mainstream, because somehow we think that this is how change will come. It won’t.
I don’t usually talk about these things because I know too many writers who are critical of the way churches work but they never do anything about it. I also don’t believe all my opinions are right and realise this is also about opinion and personal taste. But there they are nevertheless and maybe they’ll at least stir some thought.
Whether or not Slow Church will give me some ideas which I can put to practice in ensuring my church never slips into a franchised culture remains to be seen. I’m grateful for where I’m at but I’m serious about building things well for the future. I’ll pop up a review after I’m done with the book – perhaps some people who don’t have the time or money to read it right now will find my review useful.
Apologetics is one of my big interests – given my interest in theology. I tend to feel that good apologetics is actually more about knowing the theology of your faith than knowing metaphysics, philosophy and science – but I don’t discount those topics at all (I particularly like philosophy and I respect science a great deal!)
These days you can sharpen your wits and theology, and test your heart, on the Internet in a thousand different forums. Over time I’ve developed some “rules of engagement” for apologetics (although, these rules will work for any topic you would like to debate). Not that I’m the best in the world at this, but I thought these might be helpful to you. If anything, they help to prevent an online debate becoming a bloodbath – and help you keep your sanity and heart intact. At least, that’s what they do for me.
So, here are the ten rules for engagement:
1. You are there to serve, not to win
A debate – especially an online one – can often be an angry one. Passion is one thing, but calling a person a dumb idiot another. Do not engage in a debate to win. Engage in it to serve; to add to the discussion; to help people think through their own choices and thought processes. You’re there to love and respect people. You want to help people dig deep. This is because, ultimately, our choices take place in our heart, not our heads. Many atheists might claim that their choice to be an atheist was a head decision and emotions had nothing to do with it, but those atheists will frequently betray that thought by the way they will talk to you and about the topic.
2. Respect. Always.
People have intrinsic value – they are made in the image of God and we must love and respect them. Always. Remember, once again, you are not there to win! Many people are going to read the comments section and the first thing they are going to notice is who is acting with respect and who is being immature.
3. Don’t be afraid to call people out
Does this go against (2)? Not really. Respect people, but try and look for their hearts in the discussion and address that. I don’t mean we should get all psycho-analytic, but I do mean that when people are arrogant or self-righteous and they’ve got a high opinion of themselves, there’s no problem with – respectfully – saying so.
Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers and a whole lot of other rather hectic things. He wasn’t scared to call them out on their self-righteousness. I frequently call out people who claim that “they don’t need a crutch for religion” for their self-righteousness and arrogance. I have no problem with saying that Jesus is a crutch, and more; they, however, seem to have a very high opinion of themselves and a very low opinion of people who don’t make their grade and who aren’t as tough, intelligent, and accomplished as they are. This hidden self-righteousness should be called out. I think that, perhaps, self-righteousness is the one thing we can always be confident in calling people out on, because Jesus did it.
4. Know the topic fairly well
Don’t debate something you actually know very little about and don’t write a blog about a topic you don’t know much about! There’s no reason to enter that kind of debate unless you are more keen on winning than serving, which you shouldn’t be. How are you going to add to a discussion if you don’t really even know much about the topic?
For example, I won’t debate economical theory or evolution. Neither of these, in my opinion, really have any bearing on my faith anyway (evolution is not a big deal – honestly, it doesn’t matter if it’s true) so I’m not going to talk about the third law of thermodynamics or engage in a debate about the fossil record. If anyone tries to bait me that direction I won’t bite. It’s not my field. I might, however, engage with an atheist who claims that evolution is the nail in the coffin for Christianity. It’s not, and I know enough about the topic of whether or not it is – and I know Genesis 1, 2 and 3 well enough; and I know Christian theology, both present and historic, well enough – to know that evolution has very little bearing on Christianity and the Bible.
People make this mistake all too often. Atheists do it too – it’s not uncommon for an atheist to try their hand at theology, trying to prove why the Bible is self-contradictory or claim that certain verses mean what they actually don’t. Richard Dawkins is often trying his hand at theology and philosophy, when his field is biology, and he fails at the former two. Help them to understand the Bible and you’ll help them get over their bias around the topic. Remember, they are usually projecting their understanding onto the Bible and then criticising the Bible based on their own projection!
5. Don’t get distracted
A debate can go nowhere soon. Someone posts a blog that says, “Christians don’t believe in Science” and you reply with some stats that show that to be untrue. Then, instead of talking about that, they post “Your God is evil! What about violence in the Old Testament!” After your brief answer about that, the next one will be, “Yeah, but he’s going to roast everyone in hell! Some god that is! And look how many pastors steal money!”
Stick to the topic, even if they don’t. If they want to talk about violence in the Old Testament, don’t engage it unless you are able to somehow come to the heart of the issue fast (their heart, mostly) or you know the topic well enough that you can easily dismiss their claims and guide the conversation into something more helpful, healthier and of benefit to everyone who is reading it and those engaged in the conversation. And remember, if you don’t know the topic well enough, don’t engage it! I won’t engage most discussions around Old Testament violence, for example; I just don’t know enough about the topic to do so.
6. Be a good sport
If someone attacks you personally, laugh it off or try and see the funny side to it. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
7. Remember, it’s usually more beneficial to the readers
While the person who you are engaging will nine times out of ten put their back up, the people who are reading or listening to the debate are carefully considering the different thoughts being presented. So, keep them in mind and always remember how you can also help them to find value in the discussion.
8. Admit when you’re wrong, learn, and move on
Swallow your pride, admit your mistake, and move on. Don’t try and defend an obvious gaff!
9. Ask questions
Questions are a great way to help everyone relax and also probe the heart. You don’t want to be the mountain mystic who only ever answers a question with a question! If someone wants to know what you think then tell them. But ask them questions too – find out why they think what they think; their background; their story; and see how you can help them think carefully about their decisions and thought process. Remember, you want to serve them, not beat them!
10. Write / speak on topics that don’t always attack
As soon as you attack people are going to put their back up. Rather, write or speak on interesting topics that add to the discussion. For example, a post on a recent study on how many scientists are theists might stir discussion around whether or not religion and science really are at odds. It’s good to let atheists see that their common perception on this topic is incorrect, without directly attacking them on it.
Or, use allegory and poetry – Jesus spoke in parables and also made use of poetry. This is because poetry and allegory and art are able to often bypass the “dragons” as C.S. Lewis called them and go straight to people’s hearts. This is an apologetic method I’m exploring right now and, to be honest, I think is probably the most effective – not that debates on logic and philosophy are not valuable, but it’s the heart that matters.
Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, U.S.A. (Soon to be renamed “Christ Cathedral”.) Photo by Arnold C.
I want to actually highlight an article at The American Scholar by Jim Hinch, which is a far better (and insightful) read than my post and if you don’t have much time, rather read that article than my post. The article is about the Crystal Cathedral, a well-known church in American evangelical churches, and its ceasing to be a church.
The Crystal Cathedral is a church building in Garden Grove, Orange County, California, in the United States. The reflective glass building, designed by American architect Philip Johnson, was completed in 1981 and seats 2,736 people. The church is known for one of the largest musical instruments in the world, the Hazel Wright Memorial organ.
The Crystal Cathedral is now owned by the Catholic Church as Robert H. Schuller‘s ministry went bankrupt and had to sell the building last year. Amongst Christian evangelical circles, that’s all old news, but the article has inspired me to highlight something that I think is worth talking about when it comes to Church: the quest for relevancy is irrelevant.
What do I mean by that and why do I say that? It’s simple. Note how Schuller was brilliant at assessing his surrounding culture at a specific time and place, became really good at speaking to that culture, but was then was unable to speak into (or out of) any other culture, rendering his entire style (and perhaps even message) irrelevant merely decades later. The quest to be relevant had no sustainability. Yet, when you get involved in church leadership, it seems as if – many times – relevancy to culture is everything.
Here’s my opinion on this subject: it’s not. Being relevant has never been the goal of God and you certainly don’t find it in the Bible. That’s not because the good news of Jesus Christ is irrelevant, it’s just that it’s timeless, yet modern evangelicalism has, in so many ways, traded timelessness for relevancy to culture, and that relevancy is always short-lived because cultures and people change. It’s one of the many reasons why so many churches just become outdated, boring, and, well, old.
About fifteen years ago, I remember many people who hailed people like Schuller as a hero highlighting how traditional Christian denominations had become so stale, boring and irrelevant (usually stated under spiritual language like, ‘There is no life of God there.’ No, maybe you just don’t like the music.) Guess what? Those who criticised traditional churches are now the old, boring, irrelevant leaders and churches. And also, interestingly enough, the denominations carry on while Schuller’s church didn’t even last 50 years. (I’m not taking a dig at Schuller, I’m simply being frank.)
The good news (Gospel) of Jesus Christ is timeless because it’s made up of a timeless message, timeless practice and a timeless person. While you might want to highlight certain aspects of these – particularly the message and the person – and present them in creative ways, there’s a big difference between what is art and what is this relentless quest for relevancy. The former often speaks to people’s souls and minds in a powerful way (and can continue to speak over generations) while the latter usually speaks only to pop culture. Well, they don’t call pop culture bubblegum culture for nothing – when people are done chewing all the taste out of it, they spit it out. If your church wants to appeal to what’s popular now, the only way to keep doing that is usually to have a lot of money. And at some stage, you’ll find the money dies out, like Schuller found.
Let’s not forget timeless practice – loving the poor, the marginalised, the outcasts and the hated is something that will always be relevant. I don’t care about your culture, loving these people is going to impress far more people in any culture than cool smoke machines and flashing lights, or perfectly practiced liturgies, or amazing preaches. Spending 10 hours to preach to impress might have some fruit, but spending ten hours loving someone unloveable… it may be more difficult, but it will bear far more fruit. The practices of prayer and working on your character to become more loving to others will also always be relevant. So, what’s more important – cool music or solid character? It’s obvious. Yet where do so many evangelical churches spend their money, time and effort?
Obviously, there’s a lot to say about celebrity culture and the Prosperity Gospel and those sorts of things, in light of Schuller, but both of those developments in the church are about the quest to be relevant. It’s not the quest of the Church, folks, and if you want to build something sustainable that will outlast your lifespan, I say: build on timeless Truth.
Wealth gained hastily will dwindle,
but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.
This is true of the whole Christian life.
We are saved into something radically different to this impatient, frenzied world that demands it gets everything now – and demands that anything it receives must be grandiose and extravagant. In short, the world is a world of bling and the culture is one where we ought to walk over each other, use each other, negotiate with each other, have power over each other, and all such things in a frantic race to the top. He who has all the bling wins.
The Christian life runs counter-cultural to this and we need to think carefully about what we save people into when it comes to our churches. Do we save people into a culture where we teach them that they can have it all now? That they can have all of God’s blessings now? We must be careful, because trees need well established roots to weather the storm, and if we save people into a shallow faith where they think they can demand everything from God now and expect it – because, after all, He is a big God capable of doing anything – are we not just saving them into a worldly culture now just covered with a pious veneer?
God’s culture is “little by little.” We will not live the holy life straight away. We will not have clean hearts straight away. We will not reach maturity straight away. (Ever seen anything in creation reach maturity straight away?) We will not even have all of the joy available to us in God straight away. And wealth? Well, we won’t have any of that straight away – we might not even ever have much of it. We will not walk in the power of the Spirit straight away. We won’t live in the calling that God has for us straight away.
Yet we do teach people that they can have all these things and more now. Well, maybe they can – if God desires it to be so. But it seems, in general, that most people don’t and God does not desire it so. He has plans to establish us, not just give us everything now, which would only ruin us. We only get tastes of it, and then slowly mature to receiving these gifts of God little by little, day by day, line upon line (Isaiah 28:10). The Christian life is one of continued faith – encapsulated by the word faithfulness. Every day, we’re closer to the finish line. Every day, we grow a little more, our roots go deeper, our branches extend and our fruit becomes riper. Step by step, and there’s no other way.
When we save people into our faith – because what we save them into is often more important than what we save them out of (Dudley Daniel) – let’s make sure we save them into faithfulness, not into another culture of impatience and restlessness. The world will laugh at our slow, deliberate ways.
3 [The righteous] is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Ever seen a tree grow over night? Didn’t think so. But the world which insists on getting everything now will be like chaff that the wind drives away. They may even get it all now, they may spring up quickly and enjoy an abundance of things, but they will lose it all just as quickly and they will be remembered no more. None of it will have any eternal reward. But trees, well they can stand forever.
In my Matthew and Money series, I looked at what Jesus taught about money and we looked at most of the famous verses in the book of Matthew. But what I didn’t cover much is what Jesus himself did about money – how did he live? How did he make a living?
The answer to this question is very important. If we’re Christian, then our model for living is Jesus – after all, we are a “Christ Follower” (a “Christian”.) If we can get even just a glimpse into how Jesus ran a business, and how he ran his ministry, and how he managed his finances, and how he made money, we’ll have a model we can emulate in our context.
The trouble is, the Bible doesn’t really tell us how Jesus made a living. All we can really surmise is that, since He was brought up by a carpenter, it’s more than likely that he was trained in that craft and traded as one before he decided to go into, what looks like, a ‘full-time ministry’.
Jesus might have done a bit of trade on the side during his full-time ministry time, but we don’t know. We only have a few glimpses into what he did about money, and those glimpses tell me things that make me very uncomfortable. They’re hard to accept.
The first over-arching theme I can see is that wealth does not equal God’s blessing, and God’s blessing does not equal wealth. In fact, wealth can sometimes be a curse. So if we’re doing particularly badly we need to be realistic – we might be there because we were irresponsible, but sometimes we were also just ignorant. Furthermore, there are so many things we can’t control – like the economy etc. At this point our only next recourse is to think, “God must be teaching me something,” or “God is angry.” But this is all because we keep making material wealth a sign of God’s favour.
Yet, as we shall see, Jesus wasn’t well off at all. Yet, He was God’s very Son. If anyone was favoured by God, it was Jesus. But He lives a life of very little material wealth and then even ends up suffering on a cross. That ought to make us question some of our assumptions of how God works!
1. Jesus wasn’t rich and neither were His disciples
This isn’t a popular thing to teach these days, but it seems so obvious that even atheists who read the Gospels pick it up. In some ways, they have an advantage – they don’t have to deal with a lot of today’s pop-theology (mostly coming from Christian media). The fact is that Jesus really did live a radically different life – He didn’t seem to have a lot of money at all and yet never seemed anxious about it. He didn’t seem to think any of the disciples should be anxious about it either but called them to join Him in this lifestyle.
In Mark 6:37, Jesus suggests that the disciples feed the five thousand and they mention that all the money they have is “…two hundred denarii…” According to some sources, that’s about $28 – R280. So that’s the best they could scrounge around and find, amidst thirteen of them! If it was just a bad time of the month, it seems that they didn’t have much in savings.
In Matthew 17:24- 27, it appears that Jesus doesn’t have the money to pay the temple tax. Sure, he might have decided to use the situation to teach Peter something, but he might also have just not had the money.
We know that Jesus wasn’t exactly born into a rich family, meaning he probably didn’t inherit a lot of money, if at all. He had to be born in a stable, and archaeological evidence shows that Nazareth (where he grew up) was probably mostly inhabited by poor people (mostly agricultural).
There are many other examples too – remember Peter’s famous line, “Silver and gold have I none…?” It doesn’t seem as if he is joking around, he really doesn’t have money. (Acts 3:6.)
Did Jesus have a home? Mark 2:1 implies that He did, except when we read it in light of Mark 1: 29-36, it appears the His home was actually Peter’s home. (And note that when they removed the roof in this house to lower the paralysed man for healing, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for not respecting property!)
What we can gather here is Jesus didn’t invest in property and that He more than likely didn’t get much (if any) of an inheritance from His family. He didn’t even receive a home, by the looks of it. Maybe He sold the one He had, but still, He didn’t use His money to get another one, even though He did have a home-base at Capernaum (where Peter’s home was).
2. Jesus was funded from donations, but He never asked for donations
Luke 8:3 shows us how Jesus was funded from donations. John 12:6 shows us that the money bag was shared between the thirteen of them (Jesus and His disciples). But we can’t find one instance where Jesus ever asks for donations, it appears that it was entirely at the discretion of others. He may have asked for donations, but it just doesn’t seem likely.
But what’s even more interesting is that when Jesus wants to be generous, it seems he trusts God to provide him the opportunity to do so (the feeding of the five thousand and four thousand are examples). He really trusts God. He doesn’t live out a capitalist or a socialist ideal – despite that many have said that He taught one or the other of these. He seems to do what we might think are “foolish” things and expects God to provide. He didn’t even sort out His death plans – a grave had to be donated to Him by Joseph of Arimathea, a rich disciple. (Luke 23: 50-56.)
It doesn’t appear that Peter and Andrew’s fishing business supported them either. We would have expected to hear something about it when Jesus fed the five thousand. It seems that Peter and Andrew really did give up their business, at least for the most part. Yet remember, we know that Peter had a wife! (Matthew 8:14.)
3. Jesus sent His disciples to minister and told them not to bother about money
Where it gets even more challenging is when Jesus specifically tells His disciples to not even worry about money as they go out to minister. Matthew 10: 9 – 12 says:
9 Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the labourer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it.
Amazingly, later on in Luke 22: 35 – 36, Jesus asks His disciples if they lacked anything when they did this. Their answer? “Nothing.”
35 And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no money bag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a money bag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.
Naturally, if they had a bit of money, I’m not sure that Jesus would have to tell some of them to sell a cloak to get one. And He wouldn’t need to say, “If you’ve got a money bag, then take it.”
So it seems that Jesus taught His disciples not to save a lot of cash and then go out and minister, but to go and trust God along the way.
How does that make me feel? Incredibly uncomfortable and incredibly challenged. But there’s more.
The Pharisees teach that blessing comes from God’s favour
In those days, the Pharisees (you might recall that Jesus repeatedly rebuked them) believed that riches were a sign of God’s favour. It seems that one of the reasons why they were so baffled with Jesus is because it was clear that God was with Him – yet He wasn’t rich! He wasn’t privileged in any way – his home town was some backward village that many Jews actually detested. (John 1:46.) This would baffle a modern-day prosperity preacher, too, because it just doesn’t add up.
I’ve heard many prosperity preachers say that we are “God’s Sons” and therefore, since we would never leave our children without good, material things, would God leave us without such things? But Jesus was God’s Son and God seemed quite happy to not give Him an abundance of possessions and material blessing. God seemed to even think that sending Him to the cross was a good idea, for our sake.
So, what does this tell us? The Gospel includes a strong suffering element. While I think it may be dangerous to think of it as “all suffering”, we can’t get away that suffering is part and parcel of our calling as Christians.
Some thoughts on Paul
While Paul isn’t as big a deal of Jesus, of course, we at least know things about his life that we don’t from the other disciples. One of the things we do know is that while he travelled a great deal, he also worked in many of the cities where he ministered. (Acts 18:3.) Even if he only worked one time, as some say, we can see that there was still an occasion where he worked.
So Paul placed ministry first but wasn’t keen on asking for donations. He accepts them when they come, but he doesn’t necessarily ask for them, rather looking to pay his own way. Once again, this must have taken tremendous trust – he goes first to a place and then looks for a way he can find a job and make money. Not exactly smart.
But what we can also gather from this is we’re not meant to be idle. If we can work, we must work. But we must keep our focus clear – it’s for the Kingdom first, not for a career first.
What are we to make of all this?
So, what are we to make of all this? It’s challenging in every single way.
1. God really does expect we trust Him in this
I cringe at this because I try and avoid over-spirituality, and this feels like it is. But there it is – we can see it in Jesus’ life. God really expects us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” He really expects us to trust Him and not trust anything or anyone else. He really does expect us to live without many things – like even homes. He really does expect us to just go and expect Him to provide.
2. God does not see a lack of money as foolishness
Jesus lived as He lived and surely He was wiser than even old rich Solomon himself. But He lives what looks like a lower middle-class lifestyle, or middle-class at the very best. He doesn’t have a home and seems to have no qualms about teaching Peter not to worry too much about providing for his family. If we don’t have a lot of money, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t favour us or we’re stupid. In fact, blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3.)
3. It’s not foolish to not care about money.
Many will say that it is, but actually – if we look at Jesus – we can see that it isn’t. What is foolish is to be careless with money.
And what is carelessness? It appears that, first of all, carelessness is a lack of generosity, a desire after fine clothes and good food (and any other material wealth), which are more important to us than the needs of others, and a refusal to look after the family.
It also appears that carelessness is getting into debt. Why do we get into debt? Because we also want the fine clothes and good food and want to keep up appearances and have cool stuff that we enjoy. This is usually why we do and it seems Jesus rather lived within His means, and that means wasn’t a lot, and He wasn’t embarrassed about it and certainly didn’t see this as tainting God’s testimony.
Peter had a family, yet it seems there was no teaching from Jesus about how he should save his money and build wealth to give his children an inheritance. It appears, when we look at what we know of Peter’s life, this wasn’t something he wasn’t too concerned about either. (Tradition has that he had children, although we can’t say for sure.)
4. God does not see wealth as a good testimony
Prosperity teachers like to say that wealth is a great testimony of God’s goodness. It seems to me, however, that God doesn’t see it like that at all. And it also seems to me that non-believers are impressed by Jesus’ choice of lifestyle and are less impressed with wealth than prosperity preachers would have us believe.
5. God will have all of us and He will make sure He does
Obviously building an inheritance for our kids is not a bad thing, it’s all about focus and energy and the heart. But in our world, we place tremendous security on these things, and God – really and truly – wants to rip that security from us. And if it means that our businesses struggle and our family struggles, so be it.He will have all of us.
6. We must place ministry first, but not become idle
Working at a job and ministering (also a job) is tough work. Yet God doesn’t seem to think it’s really that tough. In the tough, turbulent financial times we are in now, many pastors are having to work and lead churches at the same time. It seems that in God’s eyes this isn’t all that bad. Tough, but not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean anyone is a failure, it’s a simple reality.
7. Not being rich or well off doesn’t make you a failure
If Jesus thought it wise to live as He did, and we don’t believe He is a failure, then we should realise that if we’re not well off there’s nothing wrong with us! In fact, those that are constantly planning their next purchase may be the ones who need to look at their hearts and souls closely. And, sometimes wealth is a curse, not a blessing!
So should we all not own businesses and make money?
Jesus accepted donations from people who did have money and who worked a business or had a job that gave them a good income. Obviously, God has called some to do that and this seems evident throughout the Bible. The reality is, however, that we need to accept that God calls some to do that and others not to do that, but to do something else. And the challenge, above all, is that even if He has called someone to make money, He doesn’t call them to live necessarily as wealthy people, but calls them to be as generous as they can, for this will have eternal rewards.
9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
God’s way of wealth
So we’ve covered living within our means and all these things. In closing, it seems to me that when it comes to providing for our family and creating wealth, there is one Biblical principle that is often overlooked but is actually the most down-to-earth one. As we live our lives and put the Kingdom first, doing our best to not be anxious (and trusting the Spirit in this), we can trust God and remember that the Christian life is often one of hardship now and reward later. (This is an evident reality in most things we do – parenting, praying, etc. and we even see it in God’s creation too.)
God’s way is ‘little by little’ while the world’s way is “now!” This is even true in the life of holiness. As Christians, we’re called to live counter-culturally to the culture of “now” and instant gratification. And to the culture of amassing huge amounts of wealth that will carry zero reward into eternity. So I close with this:
Wealth gained hastily will dwindle,
but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.
This is all tough to accept. But equally as tough to avoid. But our God is a loving Father who cares deeply for us.