I Recommend Unbelievable?

I know that not everybody has the same enquiring mind as I do. I have a tendency to over-think, and over-analyse, nearly everything if I give myself the chance. When it comes to faith I think there’s a delicate balancing act to perform. On the one hand, absolute certainty (whether that’s religious or atheistic) can lead you down a fundamentalist road that damages both you and those you influence, no matter how pure your intent. And certainty allows no room for spiritual growth and development. Can you ever truly believe you have all the answers? On the other hand, too much doubt will leave you open to being like a wave blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6, Ephesians 4:14).

Apart from my internal questions about what my faith means and how I should live it, I am fascinated and sometimes disturbed by the reactions to faith that I see in the world. I want to understand why people, who often seem to have access to all the same evidence as me, can interpret it in such different ways. Partly I want to understand so that I’m better able to express my own reasons to believe (1 Peter 3:15), but I also want to learn from them. Because I do believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on this planet if we take the time to do so. Everybody, even your closest relation, has lived a different life to you, and has something unique to teach you from their own life experience. In some cases you may learn something, like a way of thinking, that you completely reject, but even that has value.

This is why I’m so pleased to have recently discovered “Unbelievable?” on Premier Christian Radio. That’s the same source as “Be Still And Know” that I’ve written about previously. Unbelievable? is a weekly debate hosted by Justin Brierley and typically involving a discussion between a Christian and a sceptic, although there can be variations on this format. I listen to it as a podcast, but for other methods you can check out the show page here.

I’m not going to pretend that I always find the discussions satisfying – in fact that is very rarely the case! Even in the nearly hour and a half dedicated to each topic it’s obvious that sometimes we are only scratching the surface. And I will often find myself frustrated by unconvincing arguments put forward by both sides of the conversation. Nevertheless, I learn something about other worldviews, and I also learn something about my own, understanding more about the areas where I have surety and those where I am less confident.

No matter what belief you have, if you are interested in the big questions of life, and what it means, I recommend that you have a listen to Unbelievable? It’s guaranteed to provide food for thought.

 

Advertisements

Father, Forgive Them

A few months ago a friend asked a question on Facebook. It concerned forgiveness, and the willingness of “the world” to forgive, compared with the willingness of those in the Church. It made me think. A lot. Forgiveness, seemingly such a simple concept, has become a hugely complex and difficult subject in the heart of mankind.

The Bible speaks often of forgiveness. As Christians we are exhorted to forgive one another.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

These verses are in the context of living as a Christian community. But Christ doesn’t seem to limit the scope of forgiveness when he says, immediately after teaching the Lord’s Prayer,

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

He is emphasising one verse from the prayer. Think about it. Jesus is emphasising one verse from the most famous, most widely spoken prayer in the history of the world. What does that say about the importance of forgiveness?

There is something about these verses though. Something that I think our fallen hearts focus on even if we are not aware of it. We see a transaction taking place. God forgave us and so, in return, we should forgive others. If we don’t forgive others then, in return, God will not forgive us.

And sometimes that’s how we forgive. We do so because we know we should, or worse, because we want to be seen as good Christians – or if we are not believers, to be seen as good people. Like the giving, praying and fasting of the hypocrites in Matthew 6, we forgive for show, not for love. For forgiveness to count for anything, it must come from the heart, as Christ explained in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

There’s another way our hearts lead us to misunderstand forgiveness. Consider these words of Jesus.

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. (Luke 17:3-4)

It is an unambiguous instruction. Depending on the nature of the sin, it might be a very difficult instruction to follow, but Jesus never said that following Him would be easy.

But I’m not thinking about the difficulty of forgiveness, so much as what comes before it in the verse – repentance. Repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand at various points in the Bible. And we have come to believe that repentance is a condition for forgiveness. Unless the one who has sinned against us repents, apologises, begs forgiveness, in some way admits their wrongdoing, they don’t deserve our forgiveness, and we are entitled to withhold it. (Oswald Chambers wrote a short, interesting devotional on repentance, you might like to read it.)

In this world there will be times that we feel sinned against when the “sinner” has actually done no wrong, but the hurt is based on some kind of misunderstanding or disagreement, not on any intention of harm. But even when harm is deliberate, and there is no sign of repentance, we can still forgive.

When I consider this, I remember Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987. After describing her last words to him, he said to the BBC,

But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.

Tears come to my eyes as I read his words again. This is true forgiveness, from the heart, born out of faith, unconditional.

And that brings me to Christ’s words on the cross,

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

I think about the Roman soldiers casting lots for His clothes as Jesus forgives them. I think of the people of Jerusalem who had cried out for His crucifixion, not understanding who He really was, and He forgives them as He hangs there.

It was only when I thought about His words again recently that I realised He was also speaking of me. I understood that this was the moment in history that Jesus saw all my sin and prepared Himself to suffer the full consequences of everything I will ever do in defiance of God’s will. And He knew that in my humanity I can never completely change, that every day I will sin in word or thought or deed. He knew that sometimes those sins would be wilful, and sometimes neglectful or thoughtless. And He knew that I can’t possibly truly know what I’m doing, because I can barely comprehend the cost of my sin or the depth of God’s love for me in spite of it.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

A Glimpse of Cross Vision

I would be very interested to read your comments on this article, Frank Viola’s interview with Greg Boyd:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/gregboydnew/

It’s a lengthy interview, in which Greg discusses some of the ideas in his latest books, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and its shorter version Cross Vision.

The principal argument of Boyd’s work is that when you read the whole Bible – specifically the Old Testament – through the lens of the cross, all kinds of problems we have with the picture of an angry, violent OT God can disappear. In Boyd’s words

On the cross, God stoops to meet us, and to enter into solidarity with us, right where we are at, which is in bondage to sin and to Satan. And he does this to free us and to bring us where he wants us to be, which is united with him in Christ.  The cross is thus the paradigmatic example of God mercifully stooping to accommodate people in their fallen conditioning.

In a similar way, every time we prove ourselves incapable of living up to God’s ideal behaviour, God will Himself “stoop to accommodate” us. This even extends to allowing Himself to be portrayed in the Bible as something other than His “true” self, because culturally His people have been conditioned to believe that this is what a god is “supposed” to look like.

In fact, many passages that exalt Yahweh as a warrior contain phrases from songs that Israel’s neighbors sang to their own warrior deities. The biblical author just switched out the name of the pagan god and replaced it with Yahweh.

After reading the whole interview a few times I’m left with several thoughts. The first is that I want to read Cross Vision, and understand the reasoning – scriptural, cultural and logical – that lies behind Boyd’s claim. Because I very much want this to be true. To finally have a solution to one of the most troubling issues of Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith would be beyond exciting.

And that leads me to my next thought, which is that when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. This lens of the cross, while on the surface it seems totally Biblical, is surely just too simple. I find myself returning to Isaiah 55.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

Isaiah 55:8-9

And the most troubling thought of all is this: if I can use God’s “stooping to accommodate” as an explanation for the particular “atrocities” mentioned in the book, why can’t I use it to explain anything at all that I don’t like? And how can we tell the difference between the times that God is pleased with an action and the times that he is accommodating us? And how does this then apply outside of scripture, in our daily lives? What can we trust to be God’s genuine will? Do we just follow the 10 commandments and for everything else do our own thing, confident that God will accommodate us?

There are answers to these questions, the simplest one being that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us we can have confidence in what He says to us. But nevertheless I think Greg Boyd’s ideas are just as likely to unsettle as to comfort us, and if I can be sure of one thing, it’s that his books will not end the debate about the “Old Testament God”.

But I’m very much looking forward to reading more.

Calling It In Its Face

If you have a minute to spare, you could do worse than to spend it reading this short post by one of my favourite Christian writers, Frank Viola.

http://frankviola.org/2016/12/08/face/

As I was reading it again today I was struck by the personal example I encountered yesterday.

I’m a fairly swift walker, and I was walking, fairly swiftly, across a crowded bridge in the early evening. I was listening to a podcast through headphones but I was well aware, as I usually am, of what was going on around me.

I was approaching an elderly lady who was walking in the same direction, but was naturally slower, and there wasn’t much of a gap through which to pass. She moved slightly to the right and the gap opened. I started heading for it and she moved slightly to the left so I held back just behind her.

I wasn’t in a hurry, so there was no need to ask her to “excuse me” or to find an alternative route. I decided to slow down and follow at her pace.

A moment later I heard someone calling “watch out!” and two younger ladies grabbed the older one and pulled her to the side. I heard them warning her about the selfish oaf who was about to run over her, and I felt the tension rise inside me.

Years ago I would have stopped, removed my headphones, turned to those “helpful” ladies and angrily explained their mistake. It would have been intimidating to them, and they would most likely have assumed that they were in fact right about me and that I was only trying to justify my bad behaviour by bending the truth to suit myself.

Instead I walked on. Yes, they undoubtedly thought they’d done a good deed, and that the man walking ahead was ignorant and rude. And yes, it frustrated me hugely that I’d been so misrepresented. I would have loved to set the record straight but the anger was there and no matter how fair and well judged my words might have been, my voice would have told a different story and the situation would have escalated unnecessarily.

So I’m pleased that I didn’t react to defend myself, that while I was angry I did not sin. I hope and pray that as I let the Holy Spirit continue to work in me the day will come when anger doesn’t start bubbling up on such occasions.

But at the same time, this brief incident is a reminder to all of us that things are not always as they seem, that we can easily misinterpret others’ intentions, and that doing so can bring unintended hurt to innocent parties.

Those young ladies thought they were doing the right thing, and I’m pleased that they acted on the impulse to help their neighbour. But I’m much more pleased that the One who will ultimately judge me doesn’t look at outward appearances, but looks at my heart.

The Exclusive Church

I’d like you to read this blog post from Thom Shultz, Is It Wrong for Christians to Attend Multiple Churches?

When I moved town a few years ago I knew that realistically I would have to stop worshipping regularly at my current church. I found a wonderful new church in my new town and I don’t have any regrets about settling there and becoming a member.

However, at the transition time I asked my then-Pastor about keeping my ties to the old church, and I was told it wasn’t possible to be a member of both. I remember thinking it was a shame, and it didn’t make total sense to me, but I was younger and less experienced then, and I accepted that this was the way it worked. There had to be some sound theological reason why I could only ‘belong’ to one church.

Thom’s blog has reminded me of that time, and has awakened something. I don’t know what to call it – resentment is too strong a word but is the one that comes most easily to mind. Maybe disappointment is a more appropriate term.

As a Christian, I want to feel that my church is the global church, that every other Christian is my brother or sister in Christ, and as soon as church membership becomes exclusive, I feel that I’m actually becoming a member of a local club, an insular organisation more interested in promoting its own ministries (which are probably laudable in their own right) than it is in promoting the unity of the Body of Christ.

When I visit different churches, I often find that the differences of style, and even the small differences of creed, are invigorating, thought-provoking and faith-affirming. There are several churches that have had profound effects on my spiritual growth, and I feel that I am a part of each of them, and they are each a part of me.

Churches don’t need to compete with each other – we have competition enough from the secular world and from more fashionable religions. A church that is filled with the spirit and strength of Christ doesn’t need to feel threatened by anything or anyone. Let God’s will be done in love, diversity and universal brotherhood.

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

Psalm 133

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

Mark 9:38-41

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:3-6

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

John 17:20-26