Freedom In Christ

I thought I’d share an insight I had last week while discussing “freedom” with my small group. It was a fascinating evening, with so many different ways of looking at the word itself, its meaning(s), and its consequences. I expressed this particular thought in a couple of sentences. I’ll expand slightly here – not much – and I hope it will bless you. It’s a very simple idea, but with huge significance. It was new to me, but I’m sure it has been explored at length elsewhere and I would love to be pointed in the direction of some of those explorations.

We think about freedom most often as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.” Paul wrote much in his epistles about freedom in Christ, but often spoke at the same time of being a slave to righteousness. In fact, it seems that slavery rather than freedom seems to be his main focus. For example, read Romans 6:20-23, at the heart of a lengthy discussion on the nature of sin, law and grace:

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You can choose to be a slave to sin or a slave of God – where is the freedom in that? As Bob Dylan put it in his song Gotta Serve Somebody:

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

But Jesus said the truth will make us free, as he also described our slavery to sin (John 8:31-36). So how does this work?

I think the answer lies in the call for us to be Christ-like (see scripture like John 13:13-17, Ephesians 5:1-2 and 1 Peter 2:21).

Because Jesus Christ is God, is the Truth, and is Good. He did not sin. He was tempted but chose not to fall for those temptations. Jesus is able to do whatever He wants to do, and so by the definition I gave previously He has total freedom. The key is in our minds. As we seek to become more and more like Christ, our minds are continually transformed and our slavery to sin is continually diminished. If we could just become totally Christ-like, then we too would be totally free, able to do whatever we want, because it would be good. In this world our sinful nature keeps that ultimate goal just out of reach, but somehow, in a way that remains to me beautifully mysterious, when we are gathered together to dwell with God at the culmination of His plan, we will experience that perfect freedom. Until then, we can keep striving, and enjoy the glimpses of spiritual freedom with which He blesses us all, even in the most difficult of earthly circumstances.

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Self-Imposed Exile

It’s far too easy to become self-obsessed. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into recently. It’s not that I’ve withdrawn from the world, or that I’m thinking only of myself, but that I’m too much a part of everything that concerns me. My prayers are too much about getting my life in order, oh and by the way, Lord, please look after these people too.

Anyone who knows anything about salvation can tell you that it’s pointless waiting until you’re good enough for Christ to save you – the whole point is that none of us are ever good enough (mostly due to our selfishness and pride), but we receive our salvation as a free gift, by God’s grace, if we choose to accept it.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)

But in a similar way I want God now to fix all my weaknesses and the issues in my life, because somehow I have this crazy idea that I can’t be any use to anyone until I’m made perfect. What nonsense! God has given me all the gifts I need, all the qualities and all the abilities. No, I can’t do everything, and I can’t help everyone. But I can do my part, and each day God is giving me opportunities to make a difference, and to do what he is calling me to do.

Maybe when I start taking those opportunities instead of worrying about my inadequacies, I’ll find some of those weaknesses and issues start to melt away.

The truth is that when you worry too much about yourself you not only exile yourself from people who love you, and people who need your love, but you cut yourself off from God. You might be praying constantly to Him but you’re not hearing His reply, or seeing it all around you.

Unprovable God

I enjoy reading articles on ChurchLeaders.com. I don’t always agree with them, indeed there have been a few that I would question strongly, but in general they are helpful in getting me to look at my faith and my life in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

I was very excited when I saw that a recent article was titled “Why God Does Not Want To Be Proven.” I was excited because I’ve been feeling so frustrated recently when reading the public comments attached to various news stories related to Christianity. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Take the recent announcement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The constant flow of mocking comments from atheists can be disheartening. Many will refer to the ‘victory’ of science over faith. Of course, nobody has ever proved that God does not exist, but they can counter that with similar tales of Flying Spaghetti Monsters etc. How I wish that I could just prove to them what I know of God.

Well, Matt Appling’s article makes some good points, and some not so good. I’ll let you make your own judgements on it. But as I read it, a clear message came to me, which wasn’t actually mentioned in the article, so I’ll state it here:

God doesn’t want to be proven because He loves us.

I’d better explain. I find one of the most persuasive arguments for why God allows people to do evil things, is that He loves us enough to give us the choice of whether to follow Him or not. I believe strongly that if we didn’t have that freedom – if God really was the Almighty Puppet Master – that there would be no purpose to our lives. It is only by having an option of doing wrong, that doing right has any merit, and can bring us real joy.

In a similar way, if God was to make Himself known to the world in a way that would convince the most hardened atheist – whether it be by regally floating above our heads, or by reversing time like Superman – then there would suddenly be no room for faith, and the choice of believing in Christ and serving Him as our Lord and Master would lose most of its meaning.

There’s a big part of me that wishes it were so in any case, so billions of people could see the wonderful glory of God for themselves and become part of His family. But that’s not the way He has chosen to work His plan in these days. There was a time when He was intervening regularly with the Israelites (for example, Exodus 12). There was a time when He walked among us as a Man (John 1:14-18). And since then His Spirit has moved among us, connecting to those of us who reach for Him (John 14:15-18).

He will come again, and He will be unmistakeable (Matthew 24:29-31). The proof I want atheists to see is also evident all around us right now (Romans 1:18-23).

I’ll continue to state my case for God, by logic and by my testimony, whenever it can serve a purpose, but I think I’ll have to take a more relaxed approach to the militant and mocking atheists. It’s not my arguments that will change their minds. It’s only their own choice to open their minds to a new possibility and allow the Holy Spirit to work in them that will save them. And if I can help anyone through any part of that process then I will thank God for the privilege of doing so, as I thank Him now for giving me the freedom to choose life in Jesus Christ.

The “R” Word

In March 2011 I sat down to complete my UK Census form. For the most part it was straightforward and uncontroversial, but then I reached a question and my heart sank. I had to make a decision about whether to lie or to express my beliefs.

I chose to lie.

What question could cause me such a dilemma? Why would I lie? Here is the question:

20 What is your religion?

  • No religion
  • Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
  • Buddhist
  • Hindu
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Sikh
  • Any other religion, write in ____________________________

Ever since I was saved, and for a short while before that, I’ve had it drummed into me, from preachers, from God’s word in the New Testament, and from the Holy Spirit’s influence within my heart and mind – that I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship with God through His Son and my Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is in Him, and my relationship with Him is what persuades me to do things that the world might consider “religious”. But to me, religion is the law, religion is doing what I’m told out of fear of consequences, religion is following traditions for their own sake, or to fit in to a group. It is so many wrong things.

I wrote about religion in my John Lennon post. I referred to what I consider to be Jesus’ response to that religion which I just described, found in Matthew 23, from verse 13. I don’t want any part of religion, and I don’t want to be thought of as religious.

I haven’t read any of his books yet, but whenever I’ve heard Richard Dawkins speak about his atheism, I can only recall him rallying against ‘religion’, rather than particular faiths. Yes, he will use an Old Testament example of his “evil God” idea, but the main thrust of his argument seems to be against religion in general, and the way he thinks it stops people from thinking critically or objectively because it forces people (especially vulnerable children) to accept blindly and unconditionally what the religious leaders tell them.

This isn’t the Christianity I recognise. I am expected to test the spirit of those who teach (2 Corinthians 11:3-4, Hebrews 13:9, 1 John 4:1). I am expected to give the reason for the hope I have (1 Peter 3:15).

Maybe there was once a definition of religion that concerned itself with obedience to God’s commands out of the love of God – a reflection, or consequence, of our faith, rather than being its own purpose. Maybe this is the religion we see mentioned in the Bible, for example in James 1:26-27. But the definition in common use today seems very different.

So I was strongly tempted to answer the Census question with “No religion,” but I realised that this would be a hollow kind of protest against a poorly worded question. And I would be reducing the official count of Christians in the country, which definitely felt like a foolish thing to do. So I chose to read “religion” as “faith” and answered it accordingly.

I’m reminded of my Census quandary every time I read or hear the word “religion” in the media. And it still troubles me. But why do I have such a problem with the word? Am I just making a big fuss over nothing? Am I getting tied up in an argument about semantics and does it hinder me when I want to spread the good news of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation? I think probably yes, and I think I need to get over it. I include “Religion” as a category for my posts because I think it is something people will search for. It hurts a bit to do so, but perhaps I’m making a start in my rehabilitation.

What do you think? Words are important, and we need to use them wisely, precisely, to be properly understood. Has religion become a barrier between man and God? Does the word “religion” and its connotations form another kind of barrier? Or is it commonly understood in a more positive light than I see it myself?

I Believe..?

Every so often a line will hit you hard, and you’ll never forget it. Maybe from a film, book or song, or maybe in everyday conversation. Of course there’s quite a few memorable lines in the Bible.

There were a few lines that struck me back in my early school days. There was “go to the ant, thou sluggard,” (Proverbs 6:6) for no particular reason, except it had a pleasing rhythm when I spoke or thought it. Then there was “the plank in your own eye,” and the rest of that small section of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 7:1-5) that I had to memorise and recite in a morning assembly, aged 9 or 10. But the most memorable Bible quotation in my entire life is found at the end of Mark 5:9, and it has to be the King James Version:

My name is Legion: for we are many.

I didn’t have any understanding of the context – I think I still have a lot to learn from the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man – but I was just mesmerised by the weirdness of the line. It was the creepiest thing I’d ever heard. And because of the way my neural pathways were being laid down at that time, it probably still is! I think I got the idea that the Bible was an exciting book just from the knowledge and remembrance of those eight words. And though I drifted far from Jesus over the years that followed, that line never left me, and never lost its power to enthral me.

More recently, last year to be rather imprecise, another verse got under my skin in a similar way. And as I write I am only just realising that it is very similar because of the paradox it encapsulates. It’s Mark 9:24…

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

Is it presumptuous of me to suggest that if you ask any Christian “Do you believe in God?” then there’s a very high probability that they’ll answer “Yes”?

But if I was ever asked that question, even though I’ve surrendered my life to Christ, I wouldn’t want to say “Yes”!

Why?

Because to “believe” something, or to “believe in” something, there has to be an element of doubt – or room for doubt. I believe it’s going to rain tomorrow, but it might not. I believe in my ability to hit a tennis ball over a net, but I might fail. Whenever I hear someone say “I believe in God,” I can’t help hearing the unspoken continuation, “…but I could be wrong.

I believed in God for as long as I can remember. There were times when that belief was more important and times when it drifted out of my consciousness. When it was important, I’d seek answers to the meaning of life and what was the exact nature of God. I looked at various religions, they all had their pros and cons. None fully met my requirements, or fitted completely with whatever I might call my world view. So I defined myself as “spiritual but not religious” and left it at that.

During a difficult time in my life, in late 2008, I was invited to a church conference which ignited a passion in me. Over the course of several weeks I found myself drawn to Christ, and on 14 December I accepted Him as my personal Saviour.

The moment before I made that commitment I believed in God, and I believed in His Son Jesus. Moments afterwards, “believe” became the wrong word.

God touched me in a physical way, He shook my body, moving from my head down to my feet, in a way I can’t describe and which I’ve never experienced before or since. It was a completely unexpected manifestation, although I’ve since heard that other people have felt His presence in a similar way.

Because of what I’ve experienced, I no longer “believe” in God, I “know” Him in a personal way.

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. (Job 19:25)

Is the distinction important? Is it just semantics? It’s difficult to say. On a personal level, yes it feels very important to me. Knowing the reality of God makes it much easier to have faith at those times when He feels far away from me. But what about those Christians who haven’t had such a tangible confirmation? I can’t help thinking about Jesus’ words to Thomas:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Maybe God touched me because it’s what I needed. Maybe if He hasn’t touched you, the faith He’s given you is strong enough without further intervention. Whether it’s connected to your personality, or your life story, or because of His plans for you, I don’t know. Maybe He will touch you some time in the future when you need it most.

I’m also aware that certainty brings danger as well as comfort. There’s a danger of certainty leading to arrogance. There’s a danger that that I could lack patience or understanding when I’m talking to people who still have doubts.

And finally, my certainty about the existence of God is not going to answer the other questions that naturally arise in my journey through life. There is so much for me to learn about God’s nature, about His plan for me and for those who are close to me. There is so much for me to understand about everyday issues, and my personal trials and my weaknesses. There are more questions than will ever be answered in my lifetime, but I’ll keep learning all I can while I have breath, and then look forward to learning the rest when I find my way home to my Heavenly Father.

Abundant Life

A thought I scribbled on 7 June 2011. Was I being fair?

Too many people are just thanking God that they’re still alive.

Yes, life is a wonderful gift from God, and yes we should be thankful for it.

But Christ lived, and died, not only that we should have life, but that we should have it abundantly (John 10:10).

So don’t just settle for being alive, take the opportunities God is giving you to fill your life, and other people’s, with the blessings He provides.

And don’t just thank God for your life, thank Him for the amazing way He has enriched it, thank Him for the unique gifts, opportunities and experiences He has given you in your abundant life.

Goldilocks and the Three Prayers

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for as long as I can remember. I started watching regularly towards the end of the Tom Baker era, and Peter Davison was the first Doctor I saw from beginning to end, so I guess those two are my ‘favourites’ though I can see merits in all of them (yes all of them!)

I’ve enjoyed the 21st Century reboot as well, but there was one particular change that bothered me. I think it bothered me so much that I even complained about it on internet message boards! It was the change in episode format and story length.

In the good old days the episode was generally around 25 minutes long, and a story typically ran over 4 episodes. That gave opportunities for classic (or not-so-classic) cliffhangers, but more importantly it gave a degree of flexibility to the story length. If necessary the story could be spread over a shorter or longer number of episodes – I remember the all time great Genesis of the Daleks was a 6-parter. In theory you could also have a one-off 25 minute story if you wanted to. Somewhere in my archives I probably have a list of all the stories that I could check to see if they ever did that – but I won’t!

The reboot changed the format more in line with the current US TV vogue. There was a 13 episode ‘season’ which had on underlying/overarching storyline ‘arc’, but within that were 45 minute episodes that were usually self-contained stories. Yes there was the occasional 2-parter but they were the exception, and in any case putting together 45 minute episodes naturally gives less flexibility than 25 minute ones.

Many stories work brilliantly within that format, but more often than I’d like, I’d see stories that seemed either padded out or squeezed to fit them into the required number of minutes. In my perfect world I would let the writers write a story that worked, of whatever length was necessary, and I’d let the director film it in as many parts, of whatever length, so that they would work on screen for maximum audience satisfaction. So a 30 minute story one week could be followed by a 2 hour TV movie the next, followed by a 90 minute story spread over two weeks with a terrific cliffhanger in the middle.

Of course that’s not how TV schedules work these days – I don’t know if they ever did. If you want the flexibility to produce a moving picture that is the perfect length for the story you want to tell, cinema is your best hope.

Other art forms aren’t as restricted by schedules – although some might be moving that way, as Billy Joel noted in his 1974 song The Entertainer:

I am the entertainer,
I come to do my show.
You’ve heard my latest record,
It’s been on the radio.
Ah, it took me years to write it,
They were the best years of my life.
It was a beautiful song.
But it ran too long.
If you’re gonna have a hit,
You gotta make it fit –
So they cut it down to 3:05.

I recall a magazine interview Mark Knopfler gave, back in the late 1980s I think, although he’s told the story on other occasions. He spoke about being in a bar, listening to “Telegraph Road” which was on the jukebox, and he found it overlong, overblown and lifeless. Straight afterwards, he heard Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!”, about 13 minutes shorter, which was the complete opposite, and to Knopfler’s ears sounded so much better for it.

Of course he wasn’t comparing apples even with oranges, but rather with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding! Completely different songs, trying to achieve entirely different results, with entirely different things to say. Each one works perfectly well in its own terms.

You might be wondering by now, just what all this has to do with my Christian journey? Well these examples were brought to mind when I was reflecting on this blog. What I like about the blog format is that I can write as much or as little as I want on a particular subject. I can even produce a series of posts on a theme (as I intend to shortly) to extend the scope wider if I feel it’s necessary.

But I’m still not convinced that I’m getting it right. There’s a danger of me writing too much, and just getting boring, or overly-analytical. I feel there’s even more danger of me not writing enough. I usually think about my posts for a few days before I write, though some are more spontaneous. I’ll tend to write them out in draft form, then read over them again a short time later to correct obvious grammar problems and generally tidy them up. But still I often look back on a post and realise that there was so much more I could have added to explain my thoughts, and my faith, more clearly.

Hopefully I will improve as a writer over the next weeks, months and years. And one of the advantages of a blog is that I can go back later to revise them if I really need to, although I’ll try to avoid that if possible, and maybe add links to better articles, or footnotes, instead. I’m not George Lucas and this blog isn’t Star Wars. I’ll try to avoid tinkering. If Greedo should have shot first, then I can only apologise.

Thinking about this also reminded me of other places where I’ve noticed the problem in Christian life. And the first of these is in sermons.

I haven’t been a Christian for that long – less than four years at the time of writing. I don’t have a vast personal experience of the variety of preaching styles that are available, but I’ve heard a few, and I’ve also heard that one of the hallmarks of some denominations can be the length of sermons. I hope I’m not stating the obvious when I say that I don’t mind how long the sermon is, as long as it’s appropriate for the message being delivered. Actually I hope I am stating the obvious there!

I was troubled to read this statement by James MacDonald in an article titled 5 Things We Do Today Instead of Preach the Word (on page 3):

“Twenty minute sermons”

I don’t know how it works at your church, but for us it takes 5 minutes to set the rig up and another 5 or 10 minutes to take it down. If you’re only preaching for 20 minutes, that gives you 5 minutes to drill. You’re not going very deep, are you? It takes some time.

Judging by the comments on the article there were several others who shared my concern. Of course, I’m not arguing in any way that 20 minutes is always long enough to explain even a single verse, but 45 minutes? An hour? 2 hours? How much is enough? How much can the congregation take? How much will sink in? If you preach the most devastatingly insightful and life changing message of the last 2000 years, but you’ve lost your audience, then what glory will God get from it?

Some services are unrestricted, while others are strictly scheduled, especially when multiple services are running through the day, so the preacher’s hands may be tied in some respects. But I would like to think that room can be found for flexibility in most cases.

I’m not going to make arguments comparing Jesus’ sermons and teaching, because what is written doesn’t necessarily reflect everything He said, and there are often layers of meaning to read into His words. But at other times He was able to encapsulate a major message in the simplest of ways, and that simplicity is something I cherish and want more of from my spiritual leaders.

There is a time for every sermon under the sun. Sometimes that time will be 20 minutes or less. Sometimes it will be 2 hours or more. Let wisdom decide.

And finally to something I’ve struggled with many times – prayer.

I’ve thought about prayer a lot over the years. Talked about it. Prayed about it! No doubt I’ll blog about it plenty in the future. I don’t understand how it can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time – particularly public prayer.

More than once I’ve been asked to pray at the start or end of an occasion, and the person before me has reeled off what seems an unfeasibly long prayer, full of the right turns of phrase, and making my own words that follow feel pitifully inadequate. In some circles there’s almost a cachet surrounding lengthy prayer.

But again, does the content justify the length? I don’t believe any of the people listening to the prayer need to be told the same thing in half a dozen ways. And I’m absolutely sure that God doesn’t. It saddens me that I’ve found myself not sharing a sense of God’s presence on occasions but instead thinking of Jesus’ words:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

(Matthew 6:5-13)

The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words in the New King James Version. Of course that’s not enough to cover everything that you may wish to pray about on every occasion, but as a model it comprehensively refutes the idea that a lengthy prayer has more innate worth than a short one. And in case you want another example, turn to Luke 18, and say together with me:

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

But I say yet again that a short prayer isn’t always appropriate either. It’s all about proportion and balance. I’ve had quiet times alone with God when my prayers have gone on for twenty minutes, half an hour, or more. God knows it all already, so it’s really for my benefit as my conversation with Him helps me understand more clearly the situation and what He wants me to do in it.

And there will be times of corporate prayer where much does need to be said, and something serious will be lost if we short-change ourselves.

So let’s use the right prayer for the right occasion, be it 7 words, or 66, or 1000. And let’s give God thanks for the amazing privilege of speaking to Him directly about whatever concerns us.

(1894 words, excluding this line!)

Update 8 November 2012 – This article describes a different perspective on the length of church services, and sermons. I don’t agree with the rigid structure it suggests, but I can see its merits, unlike most of the commentators!