Category Archives: Knowledge of God

The scattered traces of his being

Have you ever wondered why we are here? Many of us have asked this question at one point or another. As Augustine hits his stride in this first book (XI) of Part 2 of The City of God he asks a number of incisive questions: why do we exist at this moment in time? Why here in this part of space? What is the origin of the two cities? When did time start?

As this book pivots away from ancient discussions on the spiritual realm to the very real existence of planet earth, Augustine is diving head first into deep waters. He is unafraid to tackle the biggest issues head on – the origin of humans, angels, demons, goodness, evil, and philosophy. Through it all he keeps his Rule of Faith to guide him in what is truthful, helpful and appropriate.

Two discussions in particular are worthy of highlighting: his treatment of the origin of pure & fallen angels and his masterful handling of God’s creative purpose (ie the who, how & why of creation).

It fascinating to read how Augustine builds his case using the creation account in Genesis 1. He proposes that time began with creation and that “the world was not created in time, but with time” – hypothesising that there is no time without change and motion, which both started with the act of creation.

Augustine refers to Job 38.7 as evidence that angels existed before stars were made. As the sun wasn’t made until Day 4 he proposes that the “Let their be light” of Day 1 refers to the creation of angelic beings, with the separation to greater and lesser light being the division of the obedient and fallen angels.

“Thus the angels, illuminated by that light by which they were created, themselves became lights, and are called “day”, by participation in the changeless light and day, which is the Word of God, through whom they themselves and all other things were made.”

XI.9

Building on his consideration of creation, Augustine reflects on God’s verdict on his work – declaring it is good. Like an expert surgeon he unpacks this divine declaration, on multiple levels. He recognises that “it is not that God discovered that it was good, after he had made it. Far from it… he is not discovering that fact but communicating it”.

Augustine goes on to say how God experiences things is totally different to us. He is not time bound like us mortals, no rather “he sees in some other manner, utterly remote from anything we experience or could imagine”. He says

“God comprehends all these (ie past, present & future) in a stable and eternal present. And with him there is no difference between seeing with the eyes and “seeing” with the mind, for he does not consist of mind and body”.

XI.21

So, says Augustine “he saw that what he had made was good when he saw that it was good that he should make it”. And why was it good that God should make such things? We find the answer by asking: “who made it, how he made it, and why he made it”. So for the statement Let their be light, the answer to these questions are: God / He said “let it be” / it was good!

“There can be no better author than God, no more effective skill than his word, no better cause than that a good product should be created by God, who is good.”

XI.21

This has tremendous implications as we consider our own existence: “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” XI.26.

In a world that has lost its grip on the divine intent and pleasure behind our existence it is no surprise that we are also losing our sense of purpose, inherent self-worth and the preciousness of existence.

If we take one thing away from Book XI it should be that each and every one of us is crafted by the heart of a God of love who is delighted at his good handiwork. We are his prized possession – one he was willing to rescue by sacrificing his only Son. May we discovery this afresh this Easter Sunday.

The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you

If there is one book that has incapsulated the journey I have been on in the last 15+ years it has been Canoeing The Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. I only read it three years ago, but little did I realise I had been experiencing the reality of its challenge long before Tod articulated it for me.

It was the summer of 2017 and I was sitting in Cafe Nero riveted to Tod’s description of explorers Lewis & Clark. They set out in 1803 to map the western part of America, an expanse previously unknown and assumed to hold a water course to the Pacific Ocean. Tod interlaces this analogy of exploration with the steady marginalisation of the church in western civilisation.

The beauty of what Tod does in this book is that he is able to draw insightful parallels from their unexpected adventures in the wilderness with the monumental shifts that have taken place in society’s relationship with the church.

The gems in this book are too rich to summarise in a soundbite, they reward the thoughtful. This book deals with how to lead transformational change within an organisation when all around us is shifting. In the military they call it VUCA – volition, uncertain, complex & ambiguous. How do we lead change in a VUCA world?

What kind of leader do we need to be in order to both care for people and lead them into uncharted territory?

I have found its wisdom has remained with me these last few years. It calls us to not remain in the shallows but cast out for deeper waters abandoning our preconceived assumptions of what life would hold. Complete surrender is the goal, letting go of the need to gain approval or acceptance.

Stepping in to the unknown will mean we let go of our human resource to find all sufficiency in God’s provision – often in the unlikeliest of places & the least listened to people.

Reflecting on this book helped me to see two things clearly that I will be forever thankful for:

I need to care less about what people think of me – I surrender my need for approval

I need to care less about the problems causing the decay – I surrender my need for control

This is the fifth book review ahead of Thrive Scotland 2020, a catalyst conference starting on 9th September for encouraging Christians in the workplace.

The father’s heart for authentic living

A review of Unravelled by Jon Peterson

Unravelled is the fourth book in my Recommended Reading ahead of Thrive Scotland conference in September 2020…and it is the most hard hitting so far. This book is part manifesto for a renewed vision for a 21st century way of being church, and part guidebook to experiencing unshakable spiritual security in the Father’s love.

This book came to mind as I was doing some amateur stone dyking in my garden. I wanted to jump straight to rebuilding the wall and filling in the gaps…but before I could do this I had to do the hard, boring, dirty work of removing soil, weeds and small stones from the collapsed section.

In exactly the same way Jon expertly deconstructs our false thinking about leadership, authority and spirituality in western church culture. As a master surgeon he splits our skin with his scalpel in order to extract the tumour. And some of it is close to the bone as a result – this is a deep examination of our motives and hidden drivers for how and why we do ministry.

If we would see churches and workplaces transformed by the power of the gospel some deep surgery may be required. We all know churches have individual characteristics that express the gifts and flaws of their family makeup…are we ready to put ourselves on the operating table in order to become more like Christ together?

One of the key questions I have found this book making me ask myself is how do shift from “attending” to “belonging”?

The first authentic step I found fairly painful was to examine my own heart and realise that I was putting the vision of what I thought God was calling me to do before the people I was doing it with. This vision-first dynamic creates dividing lines and weakens the family bonds.

The second step was realising I needed to deliberately put myself in a place of weakness and vulnerability to hear what God was saying to me through others. This Stumbling Edge, as Ken Janke (one of our Thrive speakers) calls it is the place of faith, failure and growth. Eventually, we can even come to enjoy our feet not being able to touch the bottom as we learn to live beyond the illusion of control.

There are many more lessons within these pages for those with the courage to walk this path with Jon. It was a blessing to meet him and Ken Janke in March 2019 – and then read some of Ken’s story in this book. My prayer is that God uses this book to help us become more humble, more real & more secure in the Father’s heart. Enjoy!

This book review series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Embedding whole life discipleship into your church’s DNA

A review of Scattered & Gathered by Neil Hudson

This is my third book review on our Thrive Scotland reading list. If the first book (Thank God it’s Monday) helped us understand our work as a joyous calling to kingdom living, and our second book (Every Great Endeavour) helped deepen our biblical basis for whole life discipleship, then this book is our manual for embedding these truths in our churches.

Neil writes with warmth, sensitivity and empathy, learnt no doubt through years of helping church leaders wrestle with these meaty topics. He uses his experience to gently unpack our established expectations of church – what it means to be a gathered community.

Throughout this is a book of encouragement and exhortation for church leaders, who Neil wants to spur on rather than drag down. This is not a book selling a new formula for quick fix discipleship, or a list of new initiatives to do on top of our current activities.

Instead it is a realigning of what we are already doing across a broader canvas and with our frontlines in sharper focus

Each chapter starts with a reframing of testimonies from biblical characters – shedding fresh light on some familiar stories. After delving into key topics such as worship, preaching, small groups and fellowship from a whole-life perspective, he then identifies helpful examples of how it might look in practice, alongside advice on making a start on incorporating a wider kingdom perspective into our church rhythms.

This is a timely and practical book for church leaders keen to equip their church for life on the frontline. For those who have sought to create a church culture more supportive of our scattered lives, but seen it remain a fringe issue, this book provides the blueprint to moving from gesture to posture, for…

“Gestures are fine and are appreciated when offered, but a posture is permanent“

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Essential reading for the Christian at work

A review of Every Good Endeavour by Tim Keller

It is a rare jewel of a book that effortlessly articulates and unpacks the complex struggles and dilemmas that those of us seeking to serve God in the workplace wrestle with, yet this book cracks the code of our unspoken questioning.

If you have ever wondered if your work is important to God; if God has a greater purpose in putting you in an organisation; or if your work can be meaningful in the midst of the mundane then read on.

Some of us are struggling just to survive in our jobs let alone thrive. How can I do what I do every day in a way that is more connected to God’s purpose of extending His kingdom? Throughout the book Keller explains the wrong thinking that has shaped our assumptions – like why society values certain types of roles over others and why work is so tough, even when you’re in the right role.

He meticulously unpicks our sloppy thinking around our subconscious spiritual hierarchy, and society’s beloved idols that unwittingly shape our thinking.

I found it a book of immense helpfulness in aligning my own job to how I can then serve others, serve society, model competence and witness to Christ – a formidable calling!

If you have all that sorted then feel free to skip this book, for the rest of us it is Induction Course 101 in essential frontline living – every Christian entering the workplace should digest its rich teaching before picking up your new lanyard and photo ID.

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming to in September.

Whom shall I release?

Here is a message I shared with Cupar Baptist Church in May on Mark 15 where Jesus is before Pilate, as we see the innocent presented as guilty and the guilty presented as innocent. Hope you enjoy it.

The antidote for our selfie generation

As I write this the UK is reeling from the use of chemical weapons on its home soil. It was a deadly attack and left two people in a critical condition and injured a third. We are rightly appalled at the blatant disregard for public safety and national sovereignty. It makes us thankful for our scientists who seek to ensure that should something like this happen we have the right antidotes to treat people who have been exposed.

As I have studied Book 8 of Augustine’s City of God this week I have been struck by its profound relevance for our contemporary situation. We are deep into the study now, and Book 8 is a masterpiece in unravelling the deepest desires of the human heart. As I have studied Augustine’s reasoning, it has forced me to wonder whether our modern UK society has been exposed to some sort of spiritually engineered soporific.

Could it be that our spiritual senses have been numbed into a Candy Crush-induced coma? Could our emoji expressions and 140 character limit be trivialising our soul? Like bodies that are weakened by an endless diet of donuts and Danish pastries, we have been feeding our souls on what is neither nourishing nor natural.

If Augustine was alive today I believe he would stand at the highest point of our nation and sound a clarion call for us to reclaim our souls. In this section of the City of God he explores what is the true food for our souls, he calls to us to feed on the right substance, for our souls were not made to consume, but to admire, to aspire, to adore. But what should we adore? Nothing that is of less worth than our soul, he says, for “the homage due from the soul cannot be due to something which is inferior to the soul”.

Throughout this section Augustine is seeking to find the true purpose and calling of our soul worship. To what do the wisest men of his time say we should direct our soul? If we ask people today, many may say that our greatest good is to be happy and to be true to yourself. But is this the right approach? Are we ourselves more worthy of the praise and adoration we give ourselves than anything else in the universe?

To answer these questions Augustine plunges into the philosophy of theology – the study of the divinity. Augustine wants to understand what we can learn from those thinkers who share a belief in a supernatural being. He works his way through the history of philosophers, until he reaches Socrates and Plato. They strived to answer this question by seeking to find the highest good, for when we know what that is, it is only right that we should adore only that which is worthy of adoration. Like a compass pointing to north, our souls will naturally turn towards it.

Socrates was the “first to turn the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality” as his predecessors had focussed on the study the natural sciences. Moreover, Socrates “saw that man had been trying to discover the causes of the universe”. He believed it had its “first and supreme cause in nothing but the will of the one supreme God, hence he thought that the causation of the universe could be grasped only by a purified intelligence”.

“He thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard” in order to “behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed stability”. If only we could rid ourselves of our corrupted thinking and deeds, reasoned Socrates, we could as a clean mirror more clearly perceive the mind of God. A noble aim no doubt, but is it possible? Can we lift ourselves up to this spiritual level?

If Socrates was clear on the process he thought would work, he was less clear on what we would discover behind the veil. He sought to understand and identify the Summum Bonumthe Highest or Final Good. “Everything else we desire for the sake of this, this we desire for itself alone” as it alone conveys blessedness. But his approach of refuting various hypotheses and countering every argument left his followers with different opinions on what this Final Good was – was it pleasure or virtue or something else?

Where Socrates brought questions, Plato brought structure. Up until Plato philosophy had been conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought. Or in other words, practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and nature of absolute truth. Plato “brought philosophy to perfection by joining together these two strands”. He then divided philosophy into three parts:

  1. Moral, relating to action (i.e. ethics…the Summum Bonum);
  2. Natural, devoted to speculation; and
  3. Rational (logic) which distinguishes truth from falsehood

Augustine summarises these three elements as relating to questions about:

  • “the blessedness of life” – ie how do I live a good life?
  • “the origin of existence” – ie why am I here?
  • “the truth of doctrine” – ie what is truth?

When the Christian views these three categories we get a deeper appreciation for how our divine creator fulfils and satisfies each question in turn. As Augustine says, the Christian finds in God “the rule of life (moral), the cause of existence (natural) and the principle of reason (rational)”. He then goes on to say that if we have been created to attain to the knowledge of God then “we should seek him in whom for us all things are held together, we should find him in whom for us all things are certain, we should love him, in whom is found all goodness.”

Is this not the true north of our souls? Finding the greatest source and fountain of goodness, the reason for our existence and the source of all truth can only lead to adoration, thankfulness and worship. Only by centring our souls on this spring of life can we avoid the temptation for self-love and discover the satisfaction of all our souls could ever desire.

Tellus the answer Mother

Long before any of us were born, before we ever had a thought or asked a question, a civilisation had been born, grown, conquered the known world and then died. In this society the great questions of life were asked by the philosophers, portrayed by the plays and idolised by the poets. An intricate web of personalities stood behind the cause and effect of the visible and invisible world. The civilisation was the Roman Empire, and the personalities were their pagan gods.

In chapter 7 of the City of God, Augustine dissects as an expert surgeon the layers upon layers of these gods. A complex hierarchy determined the degree of control or influence of each god. He again goes back to Varro to use one of their own philosophers to ensure he represents their position accurately. Augustine asks basic questions like, is there a logical reason why some gods have more important responsibilities or are given a greater degree of worship? After a lengthy analysis of these so-called principal or select gods, Augustine concludes that there is no logical system to explain the hierarchy, but “simply because those divinities have succeeded in winning greater renown of the general public”.

So far, so good. We, as a modern, sophisticated reader, can look back at these times as naive and easily discard their superstition. Maybe. This is when the chapter gets really interesting! For Augustine pushes on to the deeper question behind and beyond the pagan rituals, to ask, to what purpose was all this constructed? Why did all of this appear? According to Varro, all the images and attributes and ornaments were created in order that those initiated “could fix their eyes on them, and then apprehend with their minds the true gods, namely the Soul of the World and it’s manifestations”.

Don’t miss the significance of this, one of the leading experts and advocates of the Roman gods is saying that these hundreds of gods were created because there is something else that is indescribable, there is something Other that is untouchable. It is this that he calls the Soul of the World, this essence that is not human, or any created thing, that is beyond our senses but we can hear it’s echo in our lives.

What is this essence? Varro describes it using the three degrees of the soul (borrowed from Aristotle): the most basic level is the material body; the next is sensibility, the ability to experience sensation; the highest level is intelligence, “a faculty denied to all mortal beings except man”. Augustine then goes on to say that “it is this part of the World-Soul which, according to Varro is God; in man he calls it genius“. This genius connects all things together, and expresses itself as the god of the earth, Tellus, the Great Mother, and the god of the sea Neptune.

An essence within but beyond the created world? Something intelligent, like a person but not human? We may say we have left all of this superstition behind hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but when I went to see The Last Jedi at Christmas this could have been the script for Ray’s island training (a story that mirrors the sentiments of many who feel there must be something out there). Feel the force Ray, find the genius Varro. Why are we aching, reaching, yearning to find what is just out of reach? To describe something indescribable? To find a unifying purpose to make sense of all of life? We may have dropped the pagan gods, yet the human heart remains the same…looking for a way to explain our sense of unaloneness in the universe.

The seeking is good, the longing is innate, but the answer is wrong. For what Varro called the World-Soul, what the modern spirit-seekers may call the Force, what the Greeks called the logos, has been revealed once and for all. Not as a thing, or a system, but as a person. The mistake has been to look inside the created order for the answer, when all the signs pointed to the answer being outside of the natural order of things. “In the beginning was the logos (Word)” says John the apostle. And who is this Word? “And the word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.

All of the ancient pagan system was man’s Herculean attempt to explain the personality behind the planets. Years before Augustine another church father told us that “by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry hosts by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33). It is the breath of God that we can see on our rear view mirror, the word of the Lord that we can hear echoing across our our conscience. It is the call of Jesus, the Word made flesh, calling to our lost world to come home.

The Master’s mind

At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.

We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better.   Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:

i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:

  • Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
  • Cremation practice and law in Britain.
  • The banana industry.
  • Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.

Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.

So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.

ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.

Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel.   To the natural man it is foolishness.

There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.

iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.

Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.

My A to Z prayer for 2013

walking_alone_on_long_road-other-e1343172538576My A to Z prayer for 2013

Always you Lord; I do not seek success today, I seek only you

Before all others, you are the one I seek first and constantly

Consciously I turn from all other loves and choose to love only you

Dependent upon your Spirit I ask only to hear your voice and be with you

Everything else fades away when I steadfastly seek your face, help me stay in your presence each moment

Father, I desire you when I do not understand you; I love you when I cannot see you

Great God of the whole universe, help me to trust you are guiding me home and be thankful for your blessings

Hardness of heart is my enemy; give me a tender spirit and a fresh love for others

I am resolved not to base your love for me on my achievement; you love me as I love my children – unconditionally

Just one thing I seek; a full heart of blazing love for you Lord

Knackered is what I am expecting to be for most of the year; help me to accept this is your plan

Life is short and death comes quickly; I have everything I ever needed because I have you

Measure not my life by my accomplishments, or abilities, or reputation but my nearness to you Lord

Nothing… is what I need to be content, fulfilled, at peace. Help me remember this in the bustle of life

Only one day at a time, do not fret about what’s to come or what’s been done…

Peace comes from acceptance and resignation; I completely surrender my life to your hands

Quietness and silence – help me to meditate on you and be still in your presence

Restless is my spirit until you remove all the distractions and I see only you

Spirit, come fill me, lead me, mould me, shape me, satisfy me; all that I desire is more of you

Turn my eyes from worthless things Lord; do not let them dazzle me

Use me as you see fit Lord, no holding back; I do what I do today for you only – show me if you desire something else

Very short is the time I have with my children, they grow so quickly; help me make the most of each day

Work will demand much of me, help me Lord to be strong and do my best every day

X, the sign of the cross upon me wherever I go; always with me, marking me as your property Lord

Youth is disappearing; help me to live each day without deceit, regret or vanity

Zero… the credit in my spiritual account; never more or less than a sinner saved by grace

This post was written for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association – click here