Category Archives: Apologetics

The Enigma of Evil

AR-AE960_LEGO_P_20140130112656It is the age old problem – “How can a good God allow evil?” It is answered normally in two ways – either he is loving but unable to do anything to stop it (making him a benevolent but impotent being), or he is able to do something, but is unwilling to act (making him a malevolent dictator). This conundrum is not easily solved…if God really is as loving as he claims to be, then surely he would do more to stop the evil we see everywhere. If he is really as powerful as he claims to be then he could stop so much suffering instantly. We put ourselves in his shoes and see things so differently – we imagine what we would do if we were him.

Imagine for a moment you are the CEO of a large company. There are things in your company that are not good – people fighting, people getting emotionally hurt, people leaving in frustration. The situation really hurts the CEO because he or she cares about people and about their company. So what does he do? Does he have the power to sort things out? Obviously, he’s the boss. But is getting stuck in the best course of action? If he does nothing people will question whether he really cares about the hurt and pain they are experiencing. But if he intervenes in every case his employees will treat him as the police enforcement or judge to arbitrate even the smallest disagreements. They may also resent the fact that he is always interfering in things that are not his responsibility. Surely this is not the wisest thing for him to do either?

So, he comes up with a compromise – he decides to constantly lead by example and be the kind of leader he is looking for; he teaches his most senior leaders what it takes to be a good leader; he makes an example of some of the more serious grievances and he coaches people in private about how they should act in a given situation. There are some things that were set by his predecessor and he cannot change them easily (think of long term rental agreements) that are causing institutional pain, but eventually he will deal with these too.

Through these methods he slowly sees the company change, people becoming more what they could be, less what they shouldn’t be. All the time he has patiently waited and instructed, but not dictated the behaviours he expects from his staff. This is a good analogy of how God deals with the problem of evil….

1) He experiences our pain – rather than being a distant God, untouched by evil, he comes to earth to face it head on and feel the full force of corruption, jealousy, betrayal, greed, hatred, contempt and murder. In the life of Jesus God shows us how we should overcome evil with good, and learn how to not retaliate when we are reviled. Jesus was heartbroken by the death that took away his friend Lazarus, he is not immune to the pain caused by evil in this world.

2) He gives examples of a better way – the lives of the apostles and prophets give us ample examples of how to live in the midst of suffering and evil without succumbing to it. In the life of Job we learn how to suffer patiently and accept trial from God as well as blessing; in the life of Joseph we learn that what our brothers meant for evil God uses for good.

3) He shows us how seriously he takes evil – in the punishment dealt out to the rebellious Israelites in the Old Testament we have a vivid picture of how seriously God takes evil. Interestingly, these are the passages that people today use to try and argue that God is not loving – and yet it is his loving judgement on evil that shows us that he really does care enough about evil to do something about it.

4) He allows us room to learn – he does not intervene to stop every mistake we make. We do things that hurt ourselves and each other, we act selfishly and destructively, and he allows us to do it. Why? Because he wants us to grow in godliness through making our own choices, rather than restraining our freedom to act independently. We might wish he would stop people doing bad things, but would that apply to us as well when we act selfishly or self-centered or are proud?

5) He gives us his Spirit to teach us – if we are willing we can learn how to change the only evil we can control, the evil within our own hearts. We look at the world outside as the problem, but this problem is really inside of us. It is in our hearts where the darkness lies, and as we allow him into our lives he extinguishes the darkness with his light.

6) He is active to restrain it now and will ultimately remove it – just like the CEO, there are some things that are more structural than social. Unfortunately evil is a fundamental part of a corrupt and fallen world. While we may wish he would act now against evil, we should not take his patience for complacency. One day he will purge the world of evil, but if we would not be part of the problem on that day, we must come and submit to his rule in our lives in today. However, it is a mistake to think that he is distant from his creation and just waiting for the end, he acts in multitude of unseen ways to restrain evil everyday in the lives of his creation.

Maybe being a CEO isn’t that easy after all!

We are not ashamed

Losing my religion and finding my faith. Part 3: Fear and shame

In my first post I explored UK society has changed and how it’s view of the church has changed over recent years. In my last post I considered ways in which Christians can and should be a positive influence in society. The key question we must ask now is “How do we respond to a world that doesn’t want to hear about the light?”  Today Christians up and down our country are being pressurised to be silent about their beliefs, relegating them to the private sphere. We do not live in an open and respectful environment. So many are afraid of causing offence that we live in fear and silent compliance with society’s beliefs and values. In this post I have some ideas for how to stay undetected and not cause anyone to be uncomfortable…

1. How to protect society from the offence of the gospel:
Believe what you want but keep it to yourself
Pretend that what you have is not that important
Pretend that everybody is fine as they are
Pretend that every lifestyle choice is equally valid and equally meaningless
Never break the pretence of all of the above
Be totally committed to Jesus in your house and church building, but keep your mouth shut outside of those two places

2. How to protect our kids from the offence of the gospel:
Pass on your embarrassment of your faith to them so that they become automatically self-conscious whenever it is ever mentioned
Make sure they blend in to the background and fit in the social groups
Tell them about the love of God but never about the consequences of rejecting God
Don’t teach them a Christian worldview, especially avoid creation, sexuality & materialism
Apologise to their teachers whenever they bring up their faith at school
Leave them to make up their own minds about what they believe when they are old enough
Avoid any hint of indoctrination by never discussing spiritual truths
Never let your faith cost you anything – they might see that and realise it is a dangerous thing to believe
Always put their needs and desires above those of God, making sure that their every whim is met, while bathing them in the aroma of the God of Comfort

3. How to protect the church from the offence of the gospel:
Be self-apologetic: “We are nice people really if you get to know us”
Avoid talking about those parts of the NT that speak about judgement. Definitely avoid preaching on the OT law
Explain how we are much more refined now than those primitive times
Focus only on Jesus’ words, but only those words of his that are comforting & affirming
Never discuss the rejection passages or examples of spiritual darkness

4. How to protect God from the offence of the gospel:
Don’t mention his behaviour in the Old Testament and if it comes up by accident be apologetic and diffident
Explain that he is much more refined now and people back then were naive and ignorant
Explain that he didn’t really mean what he said about hell, human sexuality, judgement, punishment, sin, eternity…
Always present him in a positive light. Emphasise his grace, love, compassion, mercy, patience (it’s a long list of positive traits after all), but never his discipline, anger, wrath, punishment, judgement or justice.
Never teach, mention, preach about or discuss any of these latter points and they will die out from neglect, thus removing them from our vocabulary
Be apologetic before and after reading out any passages highlighting the latter characteristics
Teach that in order to be good,  God must mirror our values, or we won’t recognise his goodness

stand-out-from-the-crowdObviously the suggestions above are intentionally sarcastic. What people forget is that the more they tell us to be silent, the more they pressure us to conform, the more they stoke our fire of passion for real truth. Yes, many may comply, but the few who stand will stand taller, brighter, stronger, for longer. Brothers and sisters, we need to remember that we don’t need to deny a truth for it to die out, we just need to neglect to proclaim it for a generation and that will be enough. Let us proclaim the full counsel of God with love, mercy, compassion and tears, but just let it be the full counsel.

When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.” Isaiah 59.19

Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” Luke 9.26

Lord, give us the ability to love people enough that we are prepared to be unpopular; ready and willing to be depised and rejected. Your heart was full of love for people Lord Jesus, you always chose honest love over comfortable compliance. Help us to stand strong alongside you until that final day. Amen

So then how shoud we live?…Connected and Compassionate

Losing my religion and finding my faith, Part 2. Connected and Compassionate

So how do we respond to this decay in our Christian heritage (see Part 1)? I suggest there are five things we must do. In a world where good and bad have lost their absolute reference points and become synonymous with helpful and unhelpful, we must give people a living portrait of what absolute goodness means.

1. Strive to do good – in a land of exile it is not enough to only tell people about the truth, it is not enough to only argue at the theoretical or logical level. We must demonstrate our love in real ways to a lost world. We must find ways of touching needy people, of restoring broken lives, of healing bruised bodies. Only by living amongst people and loving them in practical ways will we ever create a hunger for ultimate truth. Society is too sceptical, cynical and secular to be convinced by rhetoric alone.

  • Are our words and actions balanced?
  • Do we spend as much time in practical service as we do in gaining knowledge?
  • What are we doing, what is your church doing, to tangibly serve its community?
  • Are we making a difference to the community we live in?
  • Would they noticed if you moved your church to another location?

2. Strive to be good – if our ghettoisation is the main cause for our ineffectiveness amongst society, then our lack of godliness is our Achilles’ heal once we make contact. Unfortunately our in-fighting and apathy, our self-seeking and pride fuel anti-Christian sentiment in anyone unfortunate enough to get close. We cannot continue to make excuses and expect people to be drawn to Christ. If we proclaim that Jesus has changed our lives, and show such weak evidence of change, are we surprised people are not hungry? Our compassion should be our hallmark, as much as our orthodoxy.

  • Are we top heavy with our passion for truth vs our mercy for sinners who oppose that truth?
  • Where do we make excuses for our lack of godliness?
  • What do we need to repent of and put to death?
  • Where do we need forgiveness and healing?

3. Affirm what is good – if you listen to what we communicate about society, all too often it is overwhelmingly negative. We disagree with this, we are horrified by that, we lobby about the other. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do all this preservative activity. Our saltiness should seek to prevent decay in society. My question is, is there anything positive we can say about society? Is there anything we can affirm as good? What can we celebrate in modern culture? Can we complement our pronouncements with some encouraging, affirming messages?

  • What can we say about our culture’s approach to creativity, innovation, equality, the poor, the workplace? Is there anything beautiful in all of this that we can endorse?
  • What can you think of that you really appreciate about culture & society? What can you privately and publicly celebrate about our culture?
  • What can you do to encourage your politician, social media network or friends about the good things in our society?

4. Love unconditionally – we have become so familiar with God’s unconditional love for us that it sometimes loses it’s shock value. To love someone unconditionally leaves you wide open to abuse, being taken advantage of, being used as a door mat. We love conditionally because it protects us from damage. Unconditional love requires no reciprocation, it does not say “I will love you if…”. It just loves. We have been shown this greater way. A love of no holds barred, no safety net, no damage limitation love. My prayer is that we Christians would realise that this is what God is calling us to do, not just for each other, but for our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family who don’t know Christ. In the past I have been guilty of seeing them as projects to be saved and won for God. I still long for everyone to come to know him, but now my end goal is love. To love them without any conditions, not so that they could become something, but because they already are something. Loved by God and precious to him. This is how God viewed us before we were saved. He came to save us while we were his enemies.

  • Are we prepared to love with no thought for hitting targets?
  • Who in society needs unconditional love the most?
  • Who else in this world could love the unlovable?

5. Sacrifice pre-emptively. Nevertheless, even if we strive to do good, and be good, and love unconditionally, there will be those who will reject our love. We should love despite our motives being questioned, we should love whether that love is returned or not, we should continue to offer the hand of fellowship, even if that hand is struck down. The response of the beloved will not determine the actions of the lover. At some point the cost of continuing down this path will escalate. We do not get to choose the cost of our devotion, only how much we are prepared to sacrifice to be obedient. Let us not wait until we are in the crucible to set our priorities.

  • Are we prepared to be unpopular, to be social rejects?
  • Are we prepared for our compassion to cost us our legal status as charities? What about losing our jobs?
  • Are we prepared to lose everything we have been blessed with, if doing so is the only way to remain faithful?
  • Have we rejected the god of popularity or are we still seeking to serve two masters?

f378ebca96aec2f12bc40fbd1e73f6b0As John Wesley said many years ago…

We must regain this wholistic view of life if we are to translate our compassion for people into a deep connectedness. Many individuals and churches are taking up the challenge, may God grant that we would all see our part.

Losing my religion and finding my faith (#1 Decay and Decline)

Losing my religion and finding my faith: Part 1

Decay and decline

boar-war-memorialAs I walked around Melbourne last night I came across a memorial to those Australians who lost their lives during the Boer war. Inscribed on the plaque were these words: “Fighting for the unity of the Empire, which is our strength and common heritage“. It struck me that the reason Australia sent its men and women to a foreign country to fight and die was to protect the unity of the British Empire. The Empire was considered worth fighting for, for it was the foundation they stood upon and common bond they had inherited.

How different the world is now. The Empire has dissolved and many are glad it is so. The idea that the British Empire was  a source of help and support in difficult times is anathema to many, all they see is the failings and corruption of power. The world has found a new strength, not in mutual dependence and sacrificial duty between countries, but in individual freedom of expression and unrelenting pursuit of self-interest.

The parallels to the decline of Western Christianity are obvious. In our generation we are living through the decay and decline of a Christian heritage that shaped our society so profoundly in earlier centuries. If we have eyes to see it, the planks of Christian values are being removed one by one. Many would say this is for the better given the scandals and abuse of power of the past.

Yes there was a day when the church wielded a measure of power, when the state allowed the church influence over state affairs. However, it should not be overlooked that much good was done in these times, with the spread of education, commerce and common law. Often it was churches and missionaries that started the first schools and taught people how to read. But the good has been airbrushed out by modern sceptics and cynics, to leave only the bad. Yes, we made mistakes, yes, there were abuses of power and corruption, yes, we look back now in horror at much of what done in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. But are we accountable for the sins of our fathers? Are we to hang our heads in shame and hold our tongues in silence when malicious powers are seeking to destroy the genuine good Christianity brings every society it encounters? No! This guilt by association is what insidiously saps our confidence to speak out today.

We are shackled by the real and perceived failures of past generations when they were given the opportunity to rule. We need a new humility to recognise and repent for things done in the past that we can see from the hindsight of history were not right. But we also need a new resolve to not be ashamed of who we are and what we believe. In the midst of a decaying religious tradition we must allow God to rebirth us through his cleansing fire.

Losing my religionWhat does that Christian jargon mean in practice? It means we must be ready to lose our religion in order to find our faith. We need to reassess our lives in every part in the light of the fact that we are now in exile. We may not have moved country, but our country has moved. The introspection and doubt of earlier times has been replaced with a brash confidence. Back in 1991 REM may have said “That’s me in the corner, That’s me in the spotlight, Losing my religion, Trying to keep up with you, And I don’t know if I can do it, Oh no, I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough”, but modern secular humanists have no such insecurity.

We are in a foreign land that is not just neutral, but increasingly hostile to our faith. We must start with our personal life, setting our foundations of personal holiness and complete abandonment to Christ. We must raise our children with the ability to survive as aliens and outcasts in their schools and universities. We must review our church activities to remove any barrier that prevents us from forming meaningful connections with the communities we live in. We must seek to reintegrate ourselves back into society. The church is no longer the centre of the community, we must find out where the new centres are, and how we can get involved. We must be ready to sacrifice, if need be, some of our comfortable fellowship with each other, if this is what is preventing us from being immersed in people’s lives outside the church’s walls.

The vestiges of our tradition are crumbling from constant attack. Christian values are being excluded from the public square. However, the irony is that nobody can stop us from being immersed in grass-roots public square discussions. Society will be changed one conversation at a time, if it is ever to be changed. Are we in a Christian ghetto, quivering from the angry world outside or are we picking each other up and sending each other out with fresh energy? Only when we have the conviction that our greatest ministry calling, after our own family, is to the people and places we visit everyday, will we make a meaningful and lasting impact.

It is a truism of every age that each one perceives its own wisdom, but not it’s faults just as accurately as it sees the faults but not the wisdom of the preceding ages. We have lost the British Empire and we are losing our national religion. Do we recognise what wisdom is being lost in this process? As Christians we know that the knowledge of God is the beginning of true wisdom, and only an intimate understanding of him can help us to rescue the good and hold back the bad in a confused and anchor-less nation.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9.10)

This is not The Truman Show

Jim-Carrey-in-The-Truman--001In chapter 6 of God Is Not Great, Hitchens focuses on the twin issues of believers thinking 1) the entire universe is absorbed with their petty interests, and conversely 2) that they are worthless wretches. His problem with this is that our own self-worth as humans is both exaggerated and diminished by these attitudes. He argues that we are not worth nothing – we are worth something, but we are not worth more than anyone else.

This is not The Truman Show

In his characteristically abrasive manner, Hitchens puts his unwavering finger on an uncomfortable home truth. Over many decades the Western church has slipped towards a man-centred view of the reality. We have rightly observed the great love that God has for his children, but over time we have allowed this truth to skew our perspective. It has slowly led to an unhealthy obsession with ourselves, as if God is running around in the sole attempt to make sure that we have the best life and the most fulfilled egos. It is almost as if some believers think they are on The Truman Show, and that the Creator of all things is solely concerned with their single life.

We have swallowed the lie that we are the centre of the universe. We have come to believe that eventually in this life, we must be fulfilled, we must be vindicated, we must be victorious, we must be visible successful. Solipsism is the belief that the whole world exists only in my mind – that you are all figments of my imagination. Many Christians act in such a way that they seem to believe this – that all their earthly desires and needs must be met. Some believers are so desperate for God to show them, or prove to them a particular issue of guidance or confirm some course of action that they are constantly doubting their Father’s care and desperately seeking signs in nature that will prove his love. A sign that he is out there watching over us.

Yet the reality is that God has a providential rule and care over the entire world. Each of the 9 billion people on the planet is under his watchful care (including a few billion animals and the entire natural world). While as believers we hold onto the truth that in the final analysis everything that happens to us will work out for our good, this is not the same as everyone else being bystanders in a play where we are the movie stars. Each person is of immense worth, each person is a beautiful, precious creation – for we all have the same Father. So, I must agree with much of what Hitchens says in these pages, we are not the centre of the universe.

A Glitch in the System

And yet there are times when we experience something that cannot be explained, that perhaps means nothing to those around us, but speaks powerfully to us. It is like when we used to tune in our TV sets manually (remember the days!) and there would be the white noise as the tuner moved through the frequencies. Then suddenly there appears half a picture and then a moment later, perfect clarity. Then it goes again and the white noise is back. Sometimes things happen in life that make us stop and look. They make us take a second glance. A bush on fire was something common in ancient Israel, but not one that didn’t stop burning. It made Moses stop and look. A bright star appears in the sky, nothing unusual in itself, but one that was not there last night and it makes us wonder what it is signalling. Men traveled far to find the child born at the foot of that star.

Before I left for my last trip to Houston I took a last look up into the night sky for what must have been 3 seconds. In those 3 seconds I saw a shooting star. Was that sent from God? Maybe. Do I need it to be from God in order that I know he loves me? No. Do I wonder if he sent it just for me, to show that he was going with me? Yes, I guess I do. Faith doesn’t need to believe the star was sent just for me. It sees the star and thanks God that whoever else saw that in Scotland at 5.00 am on that Sunday morning, I saw it, and I love Him. True faith doesn’t need props; it thrives in the darkest of nights.

The Unmistakable Smile of God

If that was all there was to it then, like Hitchens, I would be tempted to say that we are lost amid the universe’s white noise. No signal to receive, no hope for any meaningful communication. Our only knowledge of God would be limited to recognising he is big and powerful, if he exists at all (Romans 1.20). But underneath this, the most important question: “Is he friend or foe?” remains unresolved for all time. Unless…God himself decides to answer it.

Over time these system glitches gave us clues to what was coming. Like the tap, tap, tapping of Morse code, if you listened for long enough and were quiet enough you could just make out a message. The message was veiled in human frailty; it took on our contours, our fickle shape. For his own reasons he chose to speak to individuals over many years – in many different ways and very infrequently…but he did speak. And what did he say? I….am….coming….soon.the_truman_show_minimalist_poster_by_tchav-d601oxv

And he did come. One day, the invisible became visible, the eternal became time bound. The weakest of signals suddenly clicked into perfect resolution. Far too perfect for many – the image was not what they were expecting. Suddenly it wasn’t God speaking in intermittent Morse code over millennia, it was God in full surround sound, high definition 3D TV. It was overwhelming for the devoted, scandalous for the power hungry, but beautiful for the hurting. God had come and what did he say? What does he think about us? Are we the centre of the universe or a fleck of interstellar stardust?

The answer is too amazing to be so straightforward. We are not the centre of the universe. There is one who is, he is the one who came to speak God’s heart, to be the Word of God, the True-Man. He told us that we are both more precious than we ever hoped and less important than we ever imagined. God has set a value on us of infinite worth, our lives and destinies have immense importance. But they are corrupt to the core. Without remedy this corruption will ultimately crush our intrinsic worth, but when restored we see the true glory shine through.

God has smiled upon us, once for all, for all time, the vast love of God was poured out through his Son. This love was most fully demonstrated through the upside down conclusion to his life. Life through death, mercy through sacrifice, restoration through destruction. The Cross is the Rosetta stone to decode the entire history of God’s communication to mankind. Without it the message will always be just white noise, but, with it as our guide, we see the multicoloured messages he has for us, but not just for me, for all of his children.

New Atheism – A Third Way?

Last year I challenged a Christian magazine about an article that claimed that New Atheism was a passing fad and resorted to insulting the people who  follow this philosophical worldview for how they respond to church leaders and ministers. I wrote a response back challenging their use of offensive language and their conclusions about its transiency. It was not published.

I have decided to post my letter below as it seems to me that many in the church  have put this in the “too difficult” box and instead prefer to focus their efforts on those who are more obviously (to outward observers) aware of their need of a Saviour, while resorting to intellectual and philosophical ping pong with the most vocal and vociferous proponents of NA. As someone who is completely immersed in the secular business world I know that it is not too difficult, but it takes time, commitment, transparency, vulnerability and honesty for people to open up to you and invite you to challenge their beliefs. For most of us this means working alongside them in a full-time secular job. Then people will see that we are not wierd, naive or judgemental and will be curious about our beliefs. This happened again to me this week in a precious conversation with an atheist colleague.

Dear church, there is another way to engage with the challenge of New Atheism than head on debate with unknown and often  virtual “enemies”… and  it is happening right now, but it is happening through those outside the sphere of professional church leadership. Will you listen to, affirm, support and empower your people to follow a Third Way?

house

Hi there,
 
I’ve been a subscriber for what must be 10 years now. I have to say however, that I was really disappointed by the latest issue in regards to the article on New Atheism. While I liked the author’s analysis of the different groups impacted by atheistic thinking I was disturbed by the way he spoke about the proponents of new atheism. I know how disrespectful many of them are (you only have to follow Ricky Gervais on twitter to find out), however, calling them names is extremely counterproductive. Will this terminology endorse us to unbelievers or turn them away?
 
The whole system of the new atheists is based upon them trying to construct a false dichotomy between the rational, logical, intelligent, fair atheists and the irrational, ignorant, wishful thinking believers. By resorting to name calling we only reinforce this false polarisation and strengthen their hand.
 
I have written and spoken about how I see a third way for breaking this dichotomy – most recently for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers (http://www.sblpa.co.uk/?p=6181)  and also a sermon in April at my home church in Dundee (https://martynlink.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/running-on-empty/). I put the challenge to the church that rather than seeing the secular humanists and militant atheists as the enemy, perhaps we should see the hand of God refining his people through them? I have also written a review of Christopher Hitchen’s memoir Hitch-22 highlighting many of the things I genuinely respected about the guy (https://martynlink.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/looking-for-wilberforce-and-finding-hitchens/) and am blogging my way through his God Is Not Great.
 
My basic premise is this – the more we see the New Atheists as enemies to be fought against, the more we reinforce their straw man. I am passionately committed to living my life as a model for a different way of engagement. Yes we need to engage and confront their strongholds directly, but we must seek the higher ground, and be willing to give them credit for deconstructing some of our woolly thinking and shoddy illustrations.
 
I do not accept his statement that we cannot be seen as being “smart, educated and hold views that contradict New Atheism” – by engaging as an equal in the workplace they cannot so easily dismiss me as they would if I worked for the church or a theological or academic institution. During my 10+ years in the workplace I have made many friends who are strong atheists. My passion is to be a living challenge to their neat compartmentalisation – a fair, intelligent, reasonable person, who they can totally relate to on a professional level, while at the same time believing different presuppositions to them. I want to be impossible for them to easily dismiss.
 
Finally, I completely disagree with his conclusions, at least in the UK (I cannot speak for Australia). New Atheism is not a passing fad, it has strengthened the arm of thousands of nominal atheists who now have credibility for their rejection of Christianity. I live and breathe amongst these people every day and see how it has changed them, given them a new confidence, made them bolder to decry religion in whatever form. The effects, certainly in the UK, will remain in the minds and thought patterns of the thousands of young adults who imbibe this teaching unconsciously. It will reveal itself in the way of life that these people now live and will live for the rest of their lives (unless they are graciously saved), and the way they bring up their future children in an increasingly aggressive anti-Christian society. This is the challenge we face – how do we thrive and not just survive as a persecuted people of God?
 
Again, I send this not as a critic, but as a friend. I’ve appreciated your ministry over many years as it has helped me mature in the faith. Take this as an appeal from a brother in the common cause of the kingdom.
 
Every blessing,
Martyn

Indestructible Faith

This has been a crazy week…if there was ever a time when my message impacted my life and my life spoke into my message this is it.

My faith has been severely tested and yet I have been blessed because of the free gift that God has given me. And he offers it to each of us. If you don’t have faith, can I encourage you to listen to this message? It’s just 34 minutes of your life…what harm could it do? God gave me the blessing of Psalm 46 for this time and I share it with you as a gift. For those at Carnoustie Community Church on Sunday thank you for a special day.

So, the fourth message in my series of Characteristics of A Genuine Faith: #4 “Indestructible Faith” from Psalm 46. You can download the mp3 file here.

faith

The War of the Worldviews

22There is a seismic change  happening in the UK right now. For many years there have been significant cultural shifts that have occurred, many of them under the radar of society watchers. But now the results of these changes are evident everywhere. Two camps have been formed, each pitted against the other. Each seemly unable to understand the other side’s view, or give ground and work out a compromise.

The dividing line is not political or ideological, it cares not whether you are on the right or left, or centre. The dividing line in the UK is not between the haves and the have-nots, or between different social classes. It is not between the north and south or between public or private schools. It is not that these divisions no longer exist, but that this divide runs deeper than any social distinction, to the very thought processes of our minds. It goes so deep that many are even unaware that they have imbibed the assumptions, views and attitudes of the group they find themselves in.

Importantly, the dividing line is not even between those who claim an allegiance to God and those who do not. For it even splits right through the middle of the church. The most significant differences lie not between the various denominations of Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal or Presbyterian, but rather within each, for it divides each of these denomination in two.

However, despite the differences between the camps being so profound, there are very few external indicators of membership in each camp.  From the outside it is virtually impossible to recognise members of each camp, as the differences between the two groups are not easily articulated, or visibly displayed. In his book God In The Wasteland David Wells speaks of this dividing line. Read the following slowly and carefully:

“There are, then, two opposing ways of thinking about the world that can be found in the West today. The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding of the natural is framed by the supernatural.

The one takes in no more than what the senses can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent. The one indiscriminately celebrates diversity; the other seeks to understand life’s diversity in the light of its unity. The one can go no further than intuition; the other pierces through to truth.

The one presumes that everything changes and that change is the only constant; the other measures the things that change by the standard of things that are changeless. The one looks only to the shifting contents of human consciousness, which differ from one individual to the next; the other holds the individual consciousness up for comparison to the larger realms of meaning in which are rooted those things that are common to all human nature.

The one acknowledges no ultimate certainties; the other places the highest value on ultimate certainties. All of these differences arise from the simple fact that the one perspective receives its meaning from God and the other does not.”

Of course those who are in the “no absolutes” camp will deny that anything like certainty is ever possible and that we are wishing on fairy stories that we want to be true. Only an encounter with the living God can convince anyone of anything different. We believe that God has, and does, and will, break through into our finite world to communicate his unchanging truth. However, we must seek him, if we are to find him: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek for me with all your heart” Jeremiah 29.13.

The question for those of us who have met the one who is Truth, is, “how to live as a marginalised minority in the light of this knowledge?” We can and should try to explain why we hold to the beliefs we do, we should try to understand why we will, on the whole, not be heard. We should give a reason for our faith; gently and lovingly. But ultimately we must recognise that we are powerless to change anyone else’s mind. Only God can do this, we must pray for a spiritual revival in our land, for God to reveal himself in power.

Because the differences are below the surface, and originate in our different views of the world, the leaders of the other camp often make the mistake of questioning our motives. They assume that we believe what we do because we don’t like the people in their camp. We are prejudiced and bigoted and that’s why we hold to the things we do. This is a mistaken view based on a superficial understanding of our position. Unfortunately very few people take the time to dig deeper before making their judgement.

In one of the moving final scenes of The Last Battle, CS Lewis describes a small group of dwarfs who are in Paradise, but believe they are in a small, smelly, dirty, pitch black stable. The children try to convince them otherwise, but are unable to help them due to their cynicism. Chillingly, Aslan tells the children that the dwarfs are “so scared of being taken in, they cannot be taken out“. My prayer is that it is not too late for many in our nation.

My challenge for those of you who are sceptical about God and do not find the arguments for his existence convincing – “are you willing to open your mind and heart to him just a fraction?” Are we more scared of being considered gullible and naive by our peers or more scared of being wrong? Jesus said that we would know if he spoke the truth by following him (John 7.17). My challenge to you is to begin to follow Jesus of Nazareth. Then you will find out which of these worldviews is really true.

A Call To Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Silos

In our last post we considered how the way society thinks is changing. However, when we come to investigate why Christians have lost their voice and influence in society then the picture becomes even more stark. In the past the UK used to be a country that listened to, and even respected, Christian leaders as a voice of moral authority. This is no longer the case.  The structures within society do not lend themselves to helping us discuss the important issues of life and faith. Thus, this leaves us without a platform to defend or explain our position.

I see three main areas where these changes have occurred which mean that rather than being a city on a hill, we are now a city in a valley. We are hidden from society and our light is not shining as brightly because our platform, confidence and practice have been eroded. For each area I propose some ideas for how we can break out of our silos.

1. Erosion of Christian Structures

Many years ago Christianity was at the heart of the community. Everything happened either at the church, or through the church. Everyone knew the minister and the church had a dominant role in the life of individuals.  There were also strong community bonds that held influence over the behaviour and attitudes of the church and wider society. While not everyone liked the church or its leaders, they at least knew who they were and their opinion mattered within the local parish. However, there was undoubtably a nominalism and deadness to some of church life that sometimes put more importance on respectability and appearances than genuine faith and true piety.

In the past, we used to think we could just open the doors and people would come in, this is no longer the case. Secularisation has been one of the major causes of this change – diminishing the influence of the church as a public voice and removing it from the market place. Our place in the centre of society has gone, we are now on the periphery. New ways of establishing a presence in a secular nation and our communities must be found if we are to engage with our culture.

Breaking down the Silo: The only way we can break out of our silo is to establish living connections with those around us. We will have to balance the desire to share our faith, with the need to first listen to others. We need to first learn how to serve and love our community as an end in itself – to love it as God loves us, with no thought of what we will receive in return. For too long we have separated the word and deed – swinging to either extreme. Fortunately many churches are re-engaging in their community in various ways and many individuals are seeing the importance of establishing strong community connections. In the  business community and the arts, I see a vision among many for affirming what is good in society and building bridges. The task is to contribute something positive to society.

The challenge we must ask ourselves is: “Do we find ourselves only ever complaining or moaning about society? Do we find most of our time is spent with other Christians?” We need to learn how to affirm what is good; seek new ways to build connections with the community we live / work in and look to serve people holistically. If we do this, getting opportunities to share what is so important to us won’t be a problem.

2. Privitisation of Faith

We are constantly told that “It’s ok to believe what you want in the privacy of your own home, just don’t go forcing anyone else to believe in the tooth fairy”. Our lack of confidence means we retreat from engaging in public debates; we internalise our faith and it becomes private – not to be shared in public. A misrepresented view of science is used to support this pressure with prominent secularists claiming that “you cannot be logical, rational and have a faith”. This is made worse by the wide disagreement between Christians of how to understand scientific evidence and how this relates to biblical inspiration. We are divided and confused, so we stay silent.home-prison

Breaking down the Silo: I sometimes wonder if we have gone down a wrong alley by creating a space between apologetics and the gospel? Perhaps we see the gospel as the message about Jesus’ death and resurrection,  and apologetics about defending biblical inspiration, creation or explaining why there is suffering etc. This gives the impression they are two separate things, the former being essential, the latter optional. When our apologetics is weak or under threat we are tempted to retreat to focussing on the gospel. We then stick to communicating only these core themes, but they are detached from a broader meaning and context in society.

But does this fit with biblical patterns? In Acts 18 (in Athens) and 26 (before Agrippa) Paul takes the eternal truths of God’s saving plan and interweaves them with contemporary issues, values and culture through the backdrop of God’s redemption of mankind. There is no distinction between where apologetics starts and ends and the message about Jesus as Saviour and Judge starts and ends. We need to reclaim the pattern of communicating the gospel as: Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return >> within God’s redemptive plan >> within the broader Christian worldview. Our message needs to touch on each of these three areas every time we communicate. This is how the new testament authors explained the eternal truth that they were communicating. In Acts 26.1 Paul uses the Greek word apologeomai when describing the act of declaring his message – not the content of the message itself.

3. Compartmentalising our Lives

Because of the pressure we feel from #2, we make our lives fit into various boxes of work; home; social; church. We create a spiritual / secular divide and have in our minds a view of what constitutes a spiritual activity (i.e. things done at church or supporting the work of the church) and social / secular activities (that have little, if any, spiritual value). We see the value of activities as they relate to our ability to either fund or directly engage in spiritual activities (as defined previously). The impact of this is that we live in different worlds, adapting to the expected behaviours and norms within each box. The increasing pressure to keep faith out of the workplace means that while we may try our best to live out our Christian principles in our workplace, we struggle to articulate our faith. It will also mean that we become desperate to spend our time in activities which we deem to be the best use of our limited time. Time spent in secular activity will become simply waiting time until we can “do something of eternal value”.

Breaking down the Silo: I was fascinated by this interview with Tim Keller, particularly the fourth question. I think many of us are guilty of saying we believe all callings are equally valid (that’s not to say they are all equal), while at the same time we still act as though some callings are more God-honouring than others. In a mark of true humility and honesty, Keller admits that he feels this tension. The only way to break out of this silo is to reclaim a biblical view of work, where whatever we do can and should be done for the Lord – an incredibly liberating and affirming position.

So the question is: “Are we constantly feeling that our time is being wasted, because we are not doing more spiritual work?” (that’s not to say we shouldn’t prioritise our time or set aside individuals to be devoted to preaching and prayer). And: “Are we intentionally cross-fertilising our boxes, at the right time, so that people see us in a different context?” Social media is a perfect tool to do this cross-fertilisation – “Are we using social media intentionally; who is listening or following you? Is it only people who think the same way as you do?”

Let me know your thoughts on these and other silos and how we can break out of them.

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Chasms

Cultural Distance in the UK

When I had more spare time, I used to lead many Alpha and Christianity Explored courses. The first talk on the Alpha course is always: ”Christianity: Boring, Untrue & Irrelevant?” In order to engage we need to first understand where people are. This talk seeks to engage the pre-conceptions and misunderstandings that people have in order to re-engage them with Christianity.

I believe Alpha’s first talk was true to the questions people were asking a few years ago, but now, I believe, UK society has moved further away. Let me say that I’m a big fan of both Alpha and CE and I have used them both many times in the past. However, I believe we have underestimated both the size of the gap between us and society and the depth of the problem. 

As I watch UK culture, I believe that religion is no longer seen as something misguided but benign, but rather something that is actually harmful to an enlightened society. The case is being made by prominent secular humanists, parts of the media and some political figures that religion is actually a source of corruption and a dumbing down of our natural intellect. It is explained as a vestigial coping mechanism that might have had a use in giving us a misguided comfort before science removed our need for false hope in gods and superstitious fear of ghouls. It is now redundant and primitive.

As I was thinking about these things, I was studying Acts 26 for a message and it hit me the difference between Paul standing before Agrippa and us standing before our society today. Standing before Agrippa Paul could rely on three levels of common ground – general revelation (nature / creation), special revelation (biblical revelation) and shared cultural values (those of the Jewish nation).

My proposition was that all these three have been removed in our day, so I titled my talk: “A Reasonable Faith: Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt & Intolerant?” I believe these three areas describe the areas where society is questioning the integrity of the Christian faith. I recognise that it is a spectrum of views – not everyone is thinking like this, but many are and they are asking questions that we, on the whole are not answering.

  • Unscientific? We now face a credibility gap where science is seen to have provided the answers and we are holding onto out-dated ideas. It has removed the shared ground of General Revelation – a common understanding in our origins.
  • Corrupt? With the increasing confidence of authors such as Dan Brown and the decreasing biblical literacy, false information and inaccurate historical claims can easily sway public opinion. We now face a reliability gap when the historical reliability of the New Testament is assumed to be a matter of personal opinion. The church is thought to have re-interpreted or even edited earlier versions to suit their own political purposes. This has removed any remaining Special Revelation common ground, so that biblical authority is an oxymoron.
  • Intolerant? As the faithful believers continue to hold onto biblical truth and society’s moral standards diverge from these truths, our stance is seen as being intolerant of other positions. We now face a compassion gap, where we are seen as intolerant bigots for not allowing everyone a right to have their views accepted. This has eroded our common ground of Shared Cultural Values so that we can no longer assume or expect others to share or even understand our ethical views.

Do you agree that this is a fair assessment of where our society is at, or perhaps at least, the direction it is heading? If so, then the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are bridging the chasms in our cultural engagement or throwing well-intentioned homilies into the abyss? If people really are thinking this way, how do we leap across the chasms to speak something meaningful to them?

Paul himself explained that God was the creator, sustainer and saviour of the world to the mainly Greek audience in Athens is a way that would engage their cultural antenna – referring to their poets and influential thinkers of the time (see Acts 17.22 and following). He explained the good news of Jesus using the language and concepts of the Athenians – sometimes seeking to build common ground, at other times directly challenging it. But the important thing is that he had clearly thought through the challenges and adapted his style to his different audiences. Have we thought through the challenges these chasms present and come to a position that we can articulate? Are we prepared to think the hard thoughts that possibly our current ways of communicating are simply lost across the chasm because we are assuming a common ground that no longer exists? These are the challenges that face us in engaging with our culture. Tools such as CE and Alpha are still vital as we live in a heterogeneous society with the remnants of a Christian heritage, but we cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.

Or perhaps you are on the other side as you read this – an atheist, agnostic or you prefer not to label yourself. How do you see things from the other side of the chasm? Reach out and let me know. I’m listening.