Prayer Puzzles

10 January 2022

I used to think prayer was simple: ‘Ask, and you will receive.’

Not anymore. Experience tells me it isn’t that simple at all: I often don’t get what I ask for, even when I’m pretty sure I have asked ‘in Jesus’ name’ and in line with what I reckon is the divine will.

I’m talking here, of course, about ‘petitionary prayer’: bringing requests to God. The New Testament writers, including Jesus himself, urge us to do that, and most of us do it regularly. ‘Lord, heal my child.’ ‘Let me get the job I was interviewed for.’ ‘Could you please temper my grandson’s autism.’ ‘Deal with that noisy neighbour who’s making our lives a misery.’ ‘Please stop Mum’s dementia from getting any worse.’

One problem, of course, is that answers to prayer are unverifiable. My child got better, yes, but would she have got better anyway, if I hadn’t prayed? After all, non-religious people often get things they long for. No-one can say for sure. Or if she didn’t get better, was it because I didn’t pray enough, or with sufficient faith (whatever that means)? So many unanswerable questions!

It’s not all bad, however. There have been a handful of occasions in my seventy years as a committed Christian where a prayer of mine has brought such a striking and immediate response that I will never doubt that God did it.[1] But the majority of the many thousands of my everyday requests remain in the grey area.

And a huge number have not been answered, in that I didn’t get what I asked for. Christians have come up with all sorts of clever ways of explaining that. ‘It was answered,’ they say; ‘it’s just that the answer was No.’ Which is not very satisfying at all. Yes, I trust my heavenly Father’s love, and I know that his perspective is far broader than my own little world, but it’s still frustrating and puzzling to hit yet another brick wall or ‘brass heavens’.

This has made me more selective these days about what requests I bring to God. And that, in turn, has made me explore other types of prayer. Praise and thanksgiving is one such type, and no Christian worth the name will be short on offering that to God, so no issue there. But what about ‘set prayers’?

I was raised to look down my nose at these, as examples of the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned against. Even saying the Lord’s Prayer was frowned upon in my circles. ‘Proper prayer’, I was taught, would always be extempore and from the heart, led by the Spirit. What a sad mistake—as if only ‘off the cuff’ prayers are in those categories! I have come to see that the Lord’s Prayer and other liturgical prayers from the church’s long history have immense value. I have learnt quite a few by heart, to my enrichment, and use them daily.

Someone has wisely said, ‘When you can’t pray, say your prayers.’ I have been blessed in using the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer, along with prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s devotional series The Divine Hours, and a variety of other sources. I find they keep my communion with God on sound lines and provide a security in that, in praying them, I am one with the countless believers who, down the centuries, have used them to channel the outpouring of their hearts to God.

And the benefits go further than that. Set prayers help shape our thinking and serve to form our character. When our thoughts and ‘talking to God’ are in danger of going off-piste into potentially dodgy territory, the boundaries of these ancient prayers keep us safe. They pull our focus back to the Lord himself, and away from selfish or misguided aspirations.

Along those lines, I am also finding ‘centering prayer’ helpful. This is a ‘contemplative’ practice used by Christians throughout the history of the church and revived in recent times by the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating.[2] It involves coming consciously into God’s presence for a period of, say, twenty minutes, not to ask for things, or even to praise him—in fact not with words at all—but just to ‘be’ before him. It is ‘centering’ in the sense that we pull right back from the chattering of our minds and imaginations to simply rest in his presence.

But back to petitionary prayer. Why does so much of it seem to bounce off the ceiling?

The ‘word of faith’ people put the blame squarely upon us, the pray-ers. We need to have more faith, they say. We should repeat relevant Bible verses till we go all glassy-eyed and ‘break through’ to God. I’m unconvinced, in spite of the fact that some of them are truly godly people. Their definition of ‘faith’ is, I think, open to question and their grip on reality sometimes painfully tenuous.

Others hold that God doesn’t give us what we ask for because he often can’t. His nature, they explain, is love, and love by definition ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5), so he needs the cooperation of human and other agencies in order to change things. That doesn’t go down well with Calvinistic types, but it is something to think about. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining all those unanswered petitions.[3]

So those are my prayer puzzles laid bare. Don’t worry about me, please. In raising these issues I’m not backsliding. The fact is, I pray a great deal more now than I ever did before. I ‘seek God’s face’ daily with determination. I love him and trust him wholeheartedly, and I hope you do, too.

And please don’t bombard me with Bible proof-texts on prayer—I’m familiar with them all. I’m just a learner doing my best to grapple with how they work out in practice, and I’ve still a long way to go. So I’ll wind up by echoing ‘one of his disciples [who] said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”’ (Luke 11:1).

 

  1. I relate one of these in my memoirs (p94-95), regarding being stuck with a group of youngsters on a dangerous mountain when darkness fell. Available here: https://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/index_htm_files/DM%20Memories.pdf
  2. A ‘how to’ leaflet on centering prayer is here: https://contemplativeoutreach.org.uk/leaflets/MethodLeaflet.pdf
  3. More on this in T.J. Oord’s book reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2020/07/25/god-cant/ Another book, by M.G. Karris relates the principles specifically to prayer and is reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2021/10/07/review-problems-with-prayer/

 

 


Review: It’s all about the journey

12 November 2021

This excellent book is hard to categorise; it straddles the divide between autobiography and spiritual insight. It is

Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light by Brandan Robertson (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2016)

Though still a young man (born 1992), Robertson has had more than his fair share of life’s ups and downs, as he has struggled to find his identity within evangelicalism in his native America. That has included coming to terms with his growing awareness of his own non-mainstream sexuality, which didn’t go down well in that circle, especially as he was in theological training to be a pastor.

He became a ‘nomad’—thrust out from mainstream church life and forced to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery and new alliances. And from these experiences he draws out some life-lessons of great value. These include the need to actually be with people we disagree with; the recognition that Jesus taught and modelled a way of life based on unconditional love; the need to stop trying to force our views on society through legislation; the fact that more of life is grey than black and white; the value of experience over doctrine—and more.

He leads us through some of his own discoveries, including the rich traditions of Orthodox and Catholic faith, and Celtic Christianity. He has found the contemplative approach to prayer of great benefit and has come to see the foolishness of writing off ‘tradition’—especially liturgy and ritual—the way most evangelical churches have done. And he is not alone: he has been surprised to find how many young Christians from charismatic and Pentecostal churches have moved in the same direction.

He tussles with the concept of what it means to be ‘holy’, and concludes that it is to embrace our own uniqueness as the products of an infinitely creative God. For him, of course, that has meant coming to terms with his sexuality—which he wisely refuses to be defined by. There are some challenging insights in this section of the book!

He has a chapter on the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Here, again, he has found the older traditions hugely helpful in appreciating its significance and depth. His eucharistic journey has also taught him the importance of ‘social justice’: feeding the poor, caring for the environment, and more—aspects which evangelicalism has tended to set over against the ‘important’ job of ‘preaching the gospel’.

He has much to say about grace, as expressed in forgiveness. Raised by a violent, alcoholic father who made his childhood a misery, his experience of putting this into practice is intensely down-to-earth, and I suspect many readers will find this deeply challenging. It was equally difficult for him to forgive his old pastor who, in the name of Christ, had treated him in an appalling way.

This really is a unique book. It is well-written and easy to read, but anything but shallow. And it’s one that will shake every reader out of smug complacency and urge them to get up and journey with Jesus.

Here is a selection of quotations, with Kindle location numbers.

I began to realise that I ‘struggled’ with same-sex attraction. As a good Evangelical Christian who felt called to be a pastor, I knew that this ‘struggle’ had to be kept quiet, lest I become the recipient of the harsh treatment I had seen the Church dish out to others.  (120)

I received handwritten letters from professors at my Bible college who were ‘deeply grieved’ by my support for same-sex marriage and even called for me to ‘renounce’ my degree, claiming that I received it under ‘false pretences’ as a ‘deceiver’.  (155)

The book you hold in your hand is not primarily about sexuality or gender identity. Instead, it’s about my journey so far from the rigid confines of religion to the vast desert sands of true spirituality.  (215)

Christians often define themselves by what they believe versus what others don’t. There is security in staying in a particular place with people who share our convictions and experiences. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all way of faith. For a growing number of us, this way of having faith is simply unrealistic and inconceivable. We need to move. We want to push the boundaries and traverse in lands where no one has gone before. We’re nomads.  (266)

Many people are leaving the safe confines of the faith of their upbringing and are roaming the streets, looking for and often discovering, new and innovative ways of expressing their devotion to God. This isn’t a symptom of unfaithfulness but is, I believe, a movement of God’s Spirit. As a new generation of Christians are taking to the streets of the world, looking for signs of God’s movement in the most unlikely and unexpected places, we are discovering that the God we worship is much bigger than we once expected. That Jesus is actually ‘alive and active’ as the Apostle Paul says in the book of Ephesians, in places we never thought he would show up.  (330)

What happens when the pat answers that once made so much sense now begin to seem uneducated, ill informed, and archaic?  (341)

Jesus wasn’t worried about giving anyone any answers. He was interested in leading them on a journey. Jesus created spiritual nomads, not doctrinal guards. Jesus stirred up doubt in the minds of those who thought they had it all figured out and honoured the seekers.  (414)

When I was still a Baptist, I believed that any church that used the NIV Bible were sell-outs and heretics. Seriously.  (583)

Fear and demonisation of ‘the other’ is one of the biggest problems with Christianity (and perhaps every religion) today. Anthropologists have long understood that one of the fundamental methods that humans use to create a unified community is to unite against a common enemy.  (620)

There is another means to fostering unity within our communities that brings life and breeds openness. There is a way that disarms both the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ and creates, in the midst of our great diversity and complexity, a ‘we’. And that way is love.  (645)

During my high-school years, I was very involved in inter-faith dialogue. What that really means is that I liked to argue with anyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian like me. Throughout my four years, I spent countless hours debating with Mormons, Muslims, Wiccans, Pagans, Atheists, Non-Religious and of course, the Methodists, trying to convert them from their way of false teaching to my way, or rather, the way.  (675)

Part of loving is sacrificing our ego’s need to be right.  (712)

Even though the average Christian isn’t actually militaristic, this mindset of war does affect the way we interact with the people and culture that surround us. We begin to see everything in our world as increasingly dark and hostile to us and our faith… It’s this impulse to defend our faith against perceived threats that has made Christians more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.  (764)

I was a fan of the Apostle Paul. His words were clear, straightforward, and deeply theological. When Paul wanted to say something, he said it. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke in parables. His words were often cryptic. And most perplexingly, he seemed to have really bad theology. Paul made it clear that salvation was ‘by faith alone, through grace’. But Jesus seemed to suggest that we would be ultimately judged based on what we did, how we lived, and not on what we believed.  (788)

On the cross Jesus put an end to all judgement, condemnation, and war. He revealed that the Kingdom of God would not be established through Christianising our culture but by sacrificing our rights, privileges, and positions of power out of love for our neighbours. For our enemies. This is indeed ‘foolishness’ to the world, but it is the wisdom of God.  (824)

We vocally war against legislation to support same-sex couples’ civil right to be married under the law, claiming that marriage is ‘our’ institution. But when did Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or anyone ever ask us to do that? As we force our worldview and values on a nation that cannot relate to them, is it any wonder that there are such negative perceptions of Christianity?  (860)

The modern pursuit of winning over the culture is ultimately a pursuit of power and domination… While many great contributions have been made by Christianity because of its position of influence over the centuries, the truth seems to be that whenever Christianity is given power and prominence, it ceases to be authentic Christianity.  (874)

I found myself amazed that at the core of every religious tradition, there seemed to be beliefs and values that aligned with mine. Many of the religions we learned about had similar ideas and practices that seemed to complement my Christian faith in unexpected ways.  (959)

Truth isn’t a set of absolute propositions; rather, it is a person. Jesus Christ. He is Truth and like all people, he is dynamic. He cannot be classified, systematised, and organised into neat little boxes and categories. He defies boundaries and descriptions. And if Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, as the Apostle Paul claims, then we must assume that God is just as dynamic.  (1033)

When I understood that everything didn’t have cut-and-dried answers, that theology was a complex and imprecise art, and that God himself was dynamic and filled with colour and tension, I began to finally feel … safe.  (1045)

We are told to confess and affirm, rather than to critically think, engage, or seek after a personal experience with God. Many are even told that desiring to experience God instead of mentally assenting to his existence is somehow sinful and untrustworthy.  (1096)

…the Pharisees, a hyper-orthodox, Scripture-centred group of religious leaders who, like many Christians today, valued theological accuracy and moral purity over an intimate relationship with God.  (1120)

The early Christians’ spirituality was far more than reading the Bible and praying every day. It was deeply rhythmic; a well-structured pattern of living that ensured a person would remain aware and connected to the presence of God throughout the day. Many traditions involved some form of meditation.  (1144)

In my journey to experience God, I have found great resonance in the contemplative traditions of the Franciscans.  (1179)

When our theology and language fall short, as they always do, it is our experiential knowledge of God that will ultimately sustain us. As spiritual nomads with an insatiable desire to delve deeper into the depths of the great mysteries of our Universe, we must learn to seek and sense the presence of God.  (1215)

Though many of us may find ourselves in a place where we feel like no one understands our struggle and no church could ever be a comfortable fit for us, it is essential to intentionally commit to a community and to relationships, no matter how much tension or discomfort there may be.  (1396)

To be holy means to be unique or different. So when God calls us to be holy, we’re being called to embrace our ‘True Selves,’ the authentic being God originally created us to be.  (1466)

To be holy is to be like Christ, and to be like Christ is to be rooted and confident in our God-given identity.  (1509)

When a person diverges from the normalised cultural image, we marginalise and demonise them. Those who rock the boat by being their authentic selves are often the ones society despises most. Why? Because in our bondage to our false identities, which we perceive as giving us value and security, we can’t stand to see someone else walking in liberation.  (1522)

Instead of preaching the Gospel, which invites all people to come just as they are, we began to preach a message that required LGBTQ people to conform to our standard of holiness before they were welcome into the body of Christ.  (1634)

I now believe that God blesses LGBTQ marriages, that covenanted same-sex relationships are a reflection of the love and glory of God, and that identifying as both LGBTQ and Christian is not contradictory.  (1646)

The sooner we relinquish our desire to label and classify each other in neat boxes where we can understand and ultimately control each other, the sooner we open up ourselves and our world to true freedom.  (1669)

Growing up as an Evangelical, I never really got what the whole communion thing was all about… It wasn’t until I began to explore the ancient traditions of the Church that the importance of the Eucharist began to radically change the way I viewed Christianity altogether.  (1712)

Jesus seemed less concerned about whether his disciples were exemplary theologians and more concerned with whether or not they embodied grace, forgiveness, and peace to their neighbours, their enemies, and themselves.  (1797)

The ritual of the Eucharist provides the image of what it looks like to be a Christian. Beyond having the right answers or believing the right things about God, being a Christian is first and foremost about following Christ. About being filled with the Spirit of God, and allowing ourselves to be broken and poured out in the world.  (1834)

To the natural mind, it seems absurd to assert that the way to foster healing from a toxic or abusive situation is to return to the situation and offer forgiveness, blessing, and love. But this is the way of the Kingdom.  (1963)

One thing that I have become absolutely confident of is that life is not about achieving goals, gaining notoriety, or reaching a destination. It is about the journey.  (2025)

It seems to me that God has always been more interested in faithfulness to his leading and direction, wherever it may take us, than about reaching a place of certainty and comprehension.  (2037)

Beyond all of our theology, traditions, and practices, to be a Christian means to live every moment consciously aware that ‘in God we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28a).  (2087)

This is the goal for which I strive. This is the desire for which I long. For myself, for you, and for the entire world. That we would live lives of wonder, totally amazed at the goodness of God, the complexity of life, the diversity of human experience, and the peculiar reality that it all fits together somehow on to the giant canvas of the cosmos on which God is painting a beautiful masterpiece that defies comprehension.  (2160)

 


4th Edition: A Poke In The Faith

23 October 2021

I launched my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, in 2016. It shows how many traditional evangelical beliefs have come under question in recent years. And this, not by enemies of the Christian faith, but by solid, committed followers of Jesus who have been bold enough to query some aspects of their faith.

My aim in writing the book was, first, to spell out some of the challenges being made—most of which I’m in sympathy with, but others not—and, second, to show how it’s possible to face up to them without losing your own faith.

The latter came, in turn, out of the grim awareness of an increasing number of Christians who have jacked in their faith all together. And the reason they have done so, it appears, is because they have held to an inter-connected belief system in which every item is linked to all the rest. As a result, if an attack on one item brings it down, the whole belief-system comes crashing down with it.

In my book, therefore, I set out to show that you don’t have to have a tightly inter-connected system. That sets you free, then, to let go of—or adopt a different view of—certain items without having the whole faith-structure collapse around you.

Since the book went public on my website, I’ve had a steady flow of responses from people in many countries  who have found it helpful in just the way I intended, which is gratifying. Most of these have been Christians with a long evangelical history. Many of them have been questioning certain aspects for years, but have never dared make it known, for fear of being thought to be ‘backsliders’.

Naturally, I’ve also had a handful of vitriolic responses writing me off as an irretrievable heretic!

A few of the topics covered are:

  • Heaven and hell
  • What happened at the cross?
  • Creation and evolution
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Belief-systems like Calvinism
  • What the Bible is and is not
  • The meaning of ‘justification’
  • What exactly is ‘the gospel’?
  • The kingdom of God
  • Christianity and other religions

In December 2019 I updated A Poke In The Faith to its Second Edition. This involved a few minor tweaks to the text, plus three new topics:

  1. A section on ‘the wrath of God’
  2. A chapter on the doctrine of ‘original sin’
  3. A chapter applying current thinking on Bible interpretation to the fraught topic of homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular

Hard on the heels of this, in August 2020, came the Third Edition. This added material on God and the problem of evil. In particular, it addressed the issue of why, if God is both loving and all-powerful, does he not do more to stop it? And, more recently still, the Fourth Edition appeared, with minor amendments and some material on the Bible viewed as ‘wisdom’ literature.

You can download the latest edition for free here. It’s available in PDF, Kindle and epub formats which, between them, mean you can read it on any computer, tablet or phone. I invite you to give it a read in the hope that, along with many other readers, you will find it informative and, hopefully, liberating.

The same link will give you access to my other current free e-book, Signposts To God. This is an evangelistic book aimed at people who at present don’t have any active faith but are beginning to feel their way towards God. Please don’t hesitate to download it and pass it on to anyone you feel might find it helpful.

And if you have any feedback to offer, I’d be very happy to receive it. You can email me via the link on my website at www.davidmatthew.org.uk

[If you have found this interesting, you might also like this post.]


Review: Help on the D/R journey

24 September 2021

Lots of one-time keen Christians are questioning many of their long-held beliefs. This can create enormous pressure because those beliefs have previously undergirded their mental and emotional stability. To help navigate a way through that pressure, books have been appearing in recent years, including this one:

Religious Refugees: (De)constructing toward spiritual and emotional healing by Mark Gregory Karris (Quoir, 2020)

The author, who is from a Pentecostal background, is an ordained pastor and licensed therapist, and writes as someone who has himself made the journey successfully. He calls it ‘the D/R journey’ (Deconstruction/ Reconstruction). His book is in three parts. Part 1 identifies and outlines the scale of the problem, which is huge internationally. Part 2 examines the emotional and spiritual pressure people feel in the midst of it. And Part 3 provides some guidelines for moving forward and maintaining faith—though that faith will likely be of a different form afterwards.

The book is substantial and detailed, covering every aspect of the subject. Each chapter ends with questions suitable for group discussion. It analyses the different ‘stations’ of the typical D/R journey, providing honest evaluations of what people feel in each one, before offering pointers to the way forward. I wondered sometimes whether the author’s treatment is too detailed? But he is commendably anxious to cover all the options and so can perhaps be excused.

As part of his suggestions for moving forward, Karris offers some helpful approaches to prayer—including ‘centering prayer’—which go far beyond the routine petitionary approach of most evangelicals. He also offers useful insights from psychology and neuroscience. And he shows himself aware of a range of approaches to God and the Bible currently being publicised by authors like Thomas Jay Oord and his ‘uncontrolling love of God’ conviction.

If you are struggling with some aspects of your own faith right now, this book is guaranteed to shed light on your situation and offer you real hope for a good outcome.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

The D/R journey is shorthand for those who are going through a seismic shift in their religious and spiritual orientation… I call the signs and symptoms of this disorientation Religious Disorientation Growth Syndrome (RDGS).  (p17)

It’s not your fault that your faith is shaken and your core beliefs about God, the church, the Bible, and yourself are shifting. Life happens. Shift happens. Life changes with or without our gracious consent.  (p23)

You are going through (or have gone through) a profound shift that has catapulted you into a season of doubt, distressing emotions, anxiety-provoking and painful social realities, and existential and identity concerns. You are not alone!  (p26)

Since church politics and bureaucracy are overseen mostly by men, there can be strains of misogyny and patriarchy, interlaced with theology, that are oppressive to women and marginalized people.  (p28)

With the power of the internet, people now have the ability to travel to exotic, cognitive-dissonance-producing, theological places with the click of a button. Stale, simple, myopic, and repetitive Christian teachings on Sunday mornings are no longer going to reach the hearts and minds of many church goers.  (p29)

The problem is, when church is all about positivity, singing solely upbeat music, and hearing shallow responses to complex individual and societal problems, some Christians just can’t stomach it.  (p31)

Some churches are functioning like powerful, foreign occupiers attempting to squash identities, individual desires, and anything that doesn’t fit in with their pathological ideologies that masquerade as divine intentions and holy prescriptions.  (p38)

When people finally awaken and realize how their once-beloved faith has sadly failed them (or worse, mentally or emotionally abused them), the result can be spiritual trauma.  (p40)

We had the answers. We were part of the in crowd and everyone else was on the outside. And, the best part? Because of our denomination’s perfect, unblemished doctrines, I knew I was one of a chosen few who were truly saved.   (p48)

There comes a time…when all of us…have to choose either to go home to what is familiar or to journey ahead toward foreign, potentially perilous, territory.  (p52)

I have heard firsthand from pastors who were in the midst of this kind of internal conundrum. Many have shared with me their terror just thinking about publicly acknowledging their doubts about important doctrines that their church holds dear. Knowing that they would be kicked out of the church, and perhaps be unable to provide for their families, forced them to hide. This is no easy predicament. It’s sad their professional roles don’t allow them to be exactly who they are: imperfect followers of Jesus on a messy spiritual journey just like everyone else.  (p53)

No single, unchangeable label captures the complexity of who anyone is. Labeling others is an attempt to dehumanize and erase the diverse complexities of individuals and groups in order to gain power over them.  (p61)

The more love-filled and inclusive one’s heart becomes, the less at home traditional beliefs, that lack such love and inclusivity, will feel.  (p68)

Years ago, amazingly, I wouldn’t even cringe at the idea of God commanding genocide (Joshua 1:12); flooding the planet and giving sharks a smorgasbord of human entrees (Genesis 6-9); killing precious Egyptian babies (Exodus 11:5); burning people to a crisp (Numbers 11:1); striking down seventy people for being curious and peeking into the ark of the covenant (1 Sam. 16:19); ordering someone to be stoned to death by an entire community for working on the sabbath (Numbers 15:32); being prejudiced against people with disabilities and those who looked different (Leviticus 21:17-24); or committing a host of other Hitleresque monstrosities. I suppose I was just going with the Christian flow.  (p74)

Am I supposed to believe that a God, who is vastly more loving and just than I am, would be less loving and just than me? No matter where you are on the liberal/conservative divide, I am sure we can agree that maiming, burning alive, stoning, and drowning our children, when they selfishly go against our wishes (even if they were our adult children), is not the most compassionate, just, wise, and loving thing to do.  (p79)

Here is my concern with the “God demands justice for sin” motif. It seems to me that God asks us to forgive, without the need for violent physical punishment, when people act unjustly toward us. So, how is it that God demands justice in the form of violent physical punishment if people sin against Him, but God calls us to extend love, mercy, and forgiveness when people sin against us?  (p79)

After many years of reading, wrestling, and reflecting on the biblical text, I cannot with a clear conscience hold to a flat reading of Scripture where all texts fully disclose and reveal the true nature of reality and of God.  (p81)

The Pentalateral Hermeneutic of Love (PHL) is a lens with which I currently look through the Scriptures… The five-part lens consists of:

  1. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)
  2. The biblical definition of love (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
  3. The only explicit parabolic picture Jesus gave of God the Father found in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31)
  4. Perfect love described in Matthew 5
  5. The radical self-giving, others-empowering life of Jesus Christ, who is the full revelation of God. (p82)

Even secular researchers are studying this phenomenon called spiritual disorientation, seeking to find a correlation between a person’s mental health, beliefs, and inner wrestling with God—what they call divine struggle.  (p90)

Because of our tribal brains, it’s almost impossible to stop singing the songs, to break the rules, to disobey the religious leaders in our lives, and to become anything different than the docile sheep that we are used to being.  (p92)

Some Christians, on the D/R journey, experience a sense of loss due to the tenuous relationship they now have with the Bible. What was once a comforting sacred text in which every passage of Scripture was God-breathed, is now an ambiguous book that is better left on the table collecting dust.  (p100)

It’s normal to experience strong jolts of emotion in the middle of your faith shift. After all, you loved deeply. You gave your heart to both God and the church. And you are now grieving a profound loss of connections, attachments, intimacy, conversations, rituals, and beliefs. You have every right to feel the way you do.  (p109)

The hardest dynamic of the deconstruction process is the confusion that sets in because of your chaotic emotional experiences. Your level of anxiety and suffering is increased by your inability to understand what is going on.  (p110)

Splitting is a defense mechanism that causes people to label others as either “good” or “bad”. Splitting enables people to steer away from complex feelings of ambivalence which are often uncomfortable. This shock absorber is wired inside of us because, let’s be honest, it is sometimes easier to see the world as black or white than to see in shades of gray.  (p128)

Because we can have so many thoughts—some of which are contradictory—and mixed emotions during our deconstructive process, our mind is on a mission to manage our mayhem and make sense of it all. Telling our story to others helps accomplish that mission.  (p140)

Finding healing in community is not an alternative, or fallback plan, for those who do not have enough faith in God. It is a biological imperative and part of God’s gold standard for successful healing and necessary for living life to its fullest.  (p147)

God loves it when we are truthful, no matter how ugly we think our experiences may be. And God much prefers truthfulness than to see us wearing a mask—pretending and bearing false witness. God can’t heal our masks because they are inanimate objects, but God can heal an authentic hurting soul that is laid bare before God’s presence.  (p152)

I have found Christians to be some of the most self-deprecating people I have ever met. Not only do many of us not love ourselves, we do not even like ourselves.  (p159)

Perpetuating the message of original sin and eternal torture, especially to children, can bring grievous, monumental, pathological ramifications from which a person might take a lifetime to heal.  (p166)

You have the option to relate to yourself as the Father of love (1 John 4:16) relates to you, or as the Father of lies (John 8:44) relates to you. Do I need to tell you which option is best?  (p169)

The descriptive words we use of God are not God. They are placeholders, and imperfect ones at that. They are fingers pointing to that which cannot be fully pointed to or named. I could tell you that God looks like Jesus. And, that is an incredible place to start. Jesus is God fully manifest in the flesh. But, even our conceptions of Jesus are diverse. Our minds, which are our filters that are conditioned by a great number of factors, such as the time and place in which we live, cannot even fully and perfectly conceptualize or reflect him.  (p181)

If it seems you have multiple personalities when it comes to your faith, rest assured, you are not crazy. Science validates our experience. We can have contradictory feelings and thoughts. We can have different parts of ourselves vying for their unique positions. The hope is that we can combine and integrate our head knowledge with our heart knowledge and align them with the truth of who God says we are and move a few degrees closer to who God really is.  (p188)

The primary metaphor Jesus gives us for God is that of a father. Premier New Testament scholar and historian John Dominic Crossan writes, “Despite its male-oriented prejudice, the biblical term ‘father’ is often simply a shorthand term for ‘father and mother.’”  (p191)

I am convinced that to reconstruct our faith, we must have a theology of suffering anchored in the unconventional love of God. This is especially important in a world full of pain, suffering, confusion, sorrow, and death. I believe that the unconventional love of God is shown in God’s perfect, moment-to-moment, uncontrolling, and co-operative love.  (p205)

Many Christians believe God can control but chooses not to. It is a complete paradigm shift (a heretical shift for some) to suggest that God simply cannot control because of God’s uncontrolling, loving nature.  (p208)

As you are in community with God and others, trust in your experience. I know that experience gets such a bad rap. But, unfortunately, the alternative is to trust everyone else’s experience and how they interpret the scriptures, God, and reality.  (p211)

What would we think of a man, watching a child be sexually assaulted, having the power to stop the event from happening, but simply choosing not to help? Our inner spirit captivated by love and justice would passionately rise up and object to the unjust and immoral actions of that man. In the same way, our spirit would also rise up against a view of God as someone with full ability to intervene in horrific events, but who simply chooses not to help (but unfairly decides to help others).  (p214)

Anyone who claims that God is in control of all things is implicitly stating that God is the Grand purveyor of evil.  (p223)

While God can always be trusted, the same cannot necessarily be said to be true of human beings. Creatures big and small, laws of regularity, and spooky quantum anomalies cannot always be trusted to have our well-being in mind. Horrific events occur because randomness, lawlike regularities, and human choices collide.  (p224)

The very fact that we can “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30), shows us that God doesn’t always get what God wants.  (p225)

I propose that we Christians need to get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused about God’s role or, worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary, cognitive, and emotional obstacle that prevents many from having a loving and grateful connection with their Creator.  (p226)

Your tears are not a sign of weakness but a powerful symbol that shows you were courageous; you took a risk on the unpredictable nature of love and loved anyway. Those who have ceased to cry have ceased to love and participate fully in life.  (p236)

Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is that which appears faithless. There are times when singing songs of lament, which appear to hyper-religious folk as faithless, would be far more honest than singing today’s all-too-common, upbeat, pop praise songs.  (p239)

Our interactions with those theologically different than us can devolve into the type of religious debates for which Jesus called out the Pharisees. I think Jesus would remind us that, in spite of our differences, what matters most is whether or not we love God and others. Period.  (p262)

When we prioritize love, we make sure we are compassionately present, embodying the gospel for each person we meet.  (p264)

At the end of my life, I don’t want to have regrets because I was afraid of being the unique person God has co-created and co-shaped me to become.  (p274)

Identifying your values, choosing them for yourself and living them out is a part of the reconstruction process. This process can restore authenticity and congruence to your life, propelling you to live the life you are meant to live and to lovingly serve others with more of your authentic self.  (p275)

 


Open and Relational Theology

30 July 2021

Among thinking people today there appears to be a huge surge of interest in what is commonly called ‘open and relational theology’. But what is it? One of its foremost exponents answers that question in:

Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas by Thomas J. Oord (SacraSage, 2021).

The book is aimed at ordinary people—and not all of them Christians. So it grounds its message in painful real-scenarios experienced by folk like you and me: a girl raped by friends from church; queries about God’s ‘sovereign plan’ and how it gels with human free will; misgivings about hell as traditionally portrayed; questions about why God answers so few prayers etc.

Surveys show that most people believe God to be in one of four broad categories: authoritative (a sovereign judge who punishes the disobedient), benevolent (empathetic and forgiving), distant (remote and uninvolved) or critical (disengaged now, but will judge at the end), and the book examines each of these in depth. It recognises that we can’t claim to know God in detail, because he is beyond human analysis. Yet he has given certain pointers to his nature.

Oord examines the ‘conventional’ God’s traits and finds them wanting. He then presents open and relational theology as in every way more satisfying, beginning with ‘God is love’. People come to it because it fits with the flow of Scripture, it harmonises with the logic of love, it is intuitive to the seeking heart, it matches the findings of social science and the way we relate in society, it reflects the life and teaching of Jesus, it echoes the findings of science and philosophy, it sits comfortably with trends in art and creativity, and it provides a framework for believing that our lives have meaning and purpose.

Against this background, he describes open and relational theology in some depth under the broad headings that God is: open, relational, ‘amipotent’, present and loving. This is the beating heart of the book, with much to stir both mind and emotions.

The author does not use ‘proof texts’, because he aims to include readers for whom Scripture may not carry a lot of weight. Nor does he use much theologically technical vocabulary, and when he does he explains it in simple terms. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to grasp the message: it is heart-warmingly accessible to all, and has the ring of truth about it.

For those who want to dig deeper, there is a useful appendix listing some scholars and movements that have embraced some form of open and relational theology, followed by a bibliography suggesting further reading. But you will probably be more than satisfied, and blessed, by this book itself!

Here’s a selection of quotations, with Kindle location numbers.

These ideas align with our deepest intuitions and everyday experiences. They match scripture well, although we must abandon some interpretations people have offered.  (30)

Without believable answers to life’s pressing questions, theology is of little use.  (191)

I believe an open and relational view of God makes the most sense overall. But I’m not certain. I don’t know God fully, so I can’t be 100% sure. I look at reality through limited and sometimes distorted lenses, which means my vision is cloudy. I just don’t know for sure. Open and relational thinkers can’t prove their view is the right one.  (251)

The conventional God exists above or outside time…  is usually thought of as masculine…  God is unaffected by what we do…  is in control…  is large and in charge…  is pristine…  usually keeps a distance, preoccupied with His own glory…  Our actions don’t make a difference to the future that the conventional God already knows as fact…  loves some people, sometimes…  I don’t believe in this God.  (280ff)

It’s common for open and relational thinkers to start with “God is love” as they consider theology, their lives, and existence.  (334)

Open and relational theology offers a framework to make sense of God in light of Jesus.  (375)

Artists and the artistically minded find open and relational theology attractive for how it fits their vision of the creative life.  (389)

The “open” in open and relational theology refers to the ongoing nature of time. Creation and Creator experience time moment by moment with no preordained future.  (434)

If we examine our own experiences, we’ll discover we already live as if the future is open. We live in the forward march of time and experience a relentless flow into the sea of possibilities. We think our decisions partly decide what will be, and already live as if these opportunities are a reality…  God experiences the flow of time too. The past is past for God, and not even God can change it. The present is present, and the future is open.  (449)

In the sacred texts of Christianity and Judaism, writers describe God responding to creation or deciding to do something new. These are time-oriented activities, not timeless ones.  (463)

A God who faces an open future can’t predestine everything. If God pre-decided it all, the future would be closed. This God ordained everything in advance, including torture, rape, disease, tragedy, accidents, violence, and ecological destruction.  (491)

Open and relational thinkers reject the idea that God knows in advance everything that will ever happen. We think God has plans and purposes, and God knows what might happen. But God can’t be certain about what free creatures will decide or what random events will occur until those decisions have been made or events happen…  If God foreknows all, freedom, love, and randomness are myths.  (505)

Does open and relational theology reject what scholars call “omniscience?” Is God not all-knowing? No. God knows everything. Open and relational thinkers say God knows all that can be known. God knows all that happened in the past, all that’s happening in the present, and all possibilities for the future.  (535)

Conventional theologies focus on scripture passages that say God never changes but cannot account for those saying God changes. And those passages are common…  God’s essence is eternally unchanging; it’s stable and steadfast. But God’s experience changes moment by moment; it’s flexible and forming.  (579)

My prayers become new data, pertinent information, relational input, and points of possibility that God can use in the next moments. My prayers are actions that generate new options.  (653)

Whether one relies on scripture, arguments, or intuition, open and relational thought provides a sense of freedom. Those who embrace it step outside confining categories, able to explore a way that reflects their experience of reality. Many feel invigorated. God seems more like a companion. Life seems expansive. Reality becomes a pulsing, living movement into possibilities. Life is open!  (682)

No human or pet connects with us perfectly, and none can feel all our pain. But a God who is always present, in all places, and in all aspects of our minds and bodies can and does empathize in ways that surpass any empathy we receive from others.  (758)

God is concerned about each creature, each entity, and the world. God shows concern without playing favorites. God also gives and receives in relationship like persons do. As one with intentions, plans, memories, and purposes, God is a personal agent. This meaning of “personal” makes sense.  (815)

Open and relational thinkers believe God experiences emotions without thinking those emotions lead to moral meltdowns. God relates intimately with creation and feels all that’s publicly feelable. But God’s emotions never lead to evil.  (830)

In our moment-by-moment experiences, we all make free choices. That’s non-negotiable. Even those who say they’re not free act as if they are.  (995)

Saying freedom or something like it extends to the tiniest things allows open and relational thinkers to say God never controls cells, atoms, or even the simplest entities of existence. Creation includes free processes.2 That helps when explaining evil.  (1040)

Open and relational theology doesn’t rise or fall on the question of free will among quarks and amoebae. But it insists humans and other creatures act freely, although freedom is always limited. Most say free will is a gift from a gracious God who desires loving relationships.  (1054)

While “love” doesn’t sit alongside “open” and “relational” in this theology’s title, open and relational thinkers emphasize it. And most conceive of God’s power in the light of love. An open and relational God exerts open and relational power. God doesn’t predetermine or singlehandedly decide all that happens but works with others in the ongoing adventure of life. As an actor, God convinces other actors who have power to co-labor.  (1068)

God can’t control, because uncontrolling love comes first in God’s unchanging nature. Because God can’t deny the divine nature, God can’t control anyone or anything.  (1123)

God is neither impotent nor omnipotent but what I call “amipotent.” I coined this word by combining the Latin word for power — “potent” — with a Latin prefix for love — “ami.”  (1137)

An amipotent God is active, but not a dictator. Amipotence is receptive but not overwhelmed. It engages without domineering, is generous but not pushy, and invites without monopolizing. Amipotence is divine strength working positively at all times and places.  (1151)

God doesn’t cause evil or control others. And God doesn’t permit evil for some greater good. Consequently, the open and relational God isn’t guilty of failing to stop the pointless pain and unnecessary suffering we endure.  (1191)

God acts to empower, inspire, and lure others in each moment. This is constructive activity on God’s part, because it makes a real difference to creation. As creatures respond, their actions are creative too.  (1284)

Most open and relational thinkers believe the scientific consensus that our universe is billions of years old. They affirm the development of complex life through a lengthy evolutionary process. But they say this process involves more than chance, genetic mutations, and natural selection. Creatures respond to their environments in self-organizing and self-causal ways. Symbiotic relations emerge and ideas pass through cultural forces that influence evolution’s course. And God works in the process as a real creating contributor.  (1311)

If we take seriously our role as co-creators with our Creator, we will live in particular ways. We no longer see ourselves as passive observers, drifting along without contributing to the world. No longer do we accept harmful practices in land management and animal care, for instance. No longer do we sit paralyzed as climate change alters our world for the worse.  (1340)

If we polled open and relational thinkers, I suspect many would say the second most important divine attribute (after love) is God’s universal and experiential presence.  (1405)

Creatures can be in the divine experience without altering the divine nature. Creaturely sin — lust, killing, cheating, and more — can affect God’s experience without altering God’s perfect love.  (1451)

Open and relational thinkers also think big when it comes to atonement. God doesn’t pre-decide that some people go to heaven and others roast in hell. All are invited to a loving relationship. No one is irredeemable. God cares about saving animals and creation too, because God loves everyone and everything.  (1494)

I know of no open and relational thinker who believes God sends people to eternal conscious torment. In other words, they reject the traditional idea of hell. The idea that God sends people to eternal punishment not only contradicts steadfast love, it also has little if any scriptural support.  (1564)

Theoretically, some people, even in the afterlife, may never say “yes” to God. But the steadfast love of God continues inviting them, moment by moment, everlastingly. Consequently, the idea of relentless love provides plausible grounds to believe all will eventually cooperate.  (1591)

I earlier listed reasons many embrace open and relational theology. Those reasons point to its usefulness, truthfulness, experiential fit, consonance with scripture, alignment with science, and more. I embrace them all. But the biggest reason I adopt open and relational theology is… LOVE! In my opinion, open and relational thought provides the best overall framework for understanding and promoting love.  (1612)

Augustine’s God is a complete narcissist. The very heart of how I understand the gospel — that God loves me, you, and all creation in the sense of wanting our salvation/well-being — collapses in Augustine’s logic.  (1669)

If we fail to answer love’s call, God doesn’t retaliate. An open and relational God keeps no record of wrongs and condemns the payback of eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Natural negative consequences come from saying no to love, but God doesn’t dish out those consequences. They’re naturally rendered within the situation. Unlike the God of many conventional theologies, the Faithful Forgiver in open and relational thought doesn’t run a retribution racket.  (1702)

Bad theology expressed in a kind way is still bad theology.  (1781)

Few conventional theologies focus on love or let it be their guide. Most start with God’s power, a sacred book, an ancient creed, particular religious experiences, or a doctrinal issue. Problems follow. Even though Jesus says love is the greatest command, Paul says the greatest of the virtues is love, and John says God is love, few theologies follow their lead.  (1796)

Some say God wants to teach us a lesson by causing or allowing tragedy or abuse. Others say evil is part of a divine plan, mysteriously working for some incomprehensible good. Some say those who suffer are being punished, getting what’s due to them. And others simply appeal to mystery: God’s ways are not our ways. If these were the only answers available, atheism would make better sense!  (1908)

Open and relational thinkers believe God gives and receives in relation to creation. That’s relational. Both God and creatures experientially move into an open future. That’s open.  (2039)

My reviews of other books by Thomas Jay Oord on related topics are:

  • God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse and Other Evils: here
  • Q & A on God Can’t: here
  • The Uncontrolling Love of God: here

Review: Water to Wine

10 November 2020

I’ve been a fan of Brian Zahnd for some time. I often listen to his online sermons from Word of Life Church, St Joseph, Missouri, USA, and have reviewed several of his books. I first read this one a couple of years ago. It is

Water To Wine: Some Of My Story by Brian Zahnd (Spello Press, 2016).

wtwAt the time, I chose not to review it. Maybe that’s because, as I discovered long ago, there is a ‘right time’ to read a book, and that clearly wasn’t it for me. But I have just read it again, and found it immensely helpful and reassuring as I pursue the adventure of my own pilgrimage of faith.

Zahnd describes how, as a successful American pastor with a large charismatic church, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the bland style of Christianity he was practising—the ‘water’. Events in 2004 led him to a crisis-point that set him off in a new direction—one he has been on ever since: the discovery of the ‘wine’.

His new direction took him to some new emphases. He found a new appreciation of the cross of Christ. And he began to revel in ‘mystery’ in his walk with God, where crisp answers have little place. He learned to appreciate the Christians he encountered in other traditions, such as the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches. He saw a way out of harmful dualistic thinking. And he began to question the individualism that dominates evangelical culture as he rediscovered the importance of community.

He came to believe that the ‘politics’ of Jesus, which is the kingdom of Godoutstandingbook and is rooted in love, cannot be associated with any human political system. At the same time, he began to value the use of some old liturgical forms as he explored dimensions of prayer that were new to him. This included an embracing of silence and the ’contemplative’ approach favoured by the mystics. And among all this, he found a new appreciation of Holy Communion and the sacramental aspect of the faith.

Zahnd is an accomplished author. His writing is meaty and substantial, but it also has poetry and heart. Indeed, he includes several poems that he wrote at key moments in his life.

The book comes out of the American religious scene, which is different in many ways from that in my home-country of the UK. But the bulk of what the author has to say remains fully applicable. If you are dissatisfied with your current Christianity, you will find some helpful pointers here.

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

I was wrestling with the uneasy feeling that the faith I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery, weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the faith I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. (2)

Grape juice Christianity is what is produced by the purveyors of the motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-psychology Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box. I don’t want to drink that anymore. I don’t want to serve that anymore. I want the vintage wine. (7)

God does not traffic in the empirically verifiable. God refuses to prove himself and perform circus tricks at our behest in order to obliterate doubt. (17)

I began to see the cross in a much deeper way—not as a mere factor in an atonement theory equation, but as the moment in time and space where God reclaimed creation. I saw the cross as the place where Jesus refounded the world. (24)

If we insist on explaining the mysteries of faith—mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the return of Christ, the new birth, baptism, the Eucharist—we inevitably reduce rich mysteries to cheap certitudes. (30)

Fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art. (30)

Christianity is a confession, not an explanation. We will attempt to explain what we legitimately can, but we will always confess more than we can explain. (31)

The revivalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to “industrialize” evangelism. While Henry Ford was mass-producing cars, Billy Sunday was mass-producing converts. (32)

Salvation is not a private, autonomous, individual, unmediated experience—salvation is being personally gathered by Christ into his salvation community. The individualistic view of salvation leads to the distinctly Protestant anxiety of having to convince yourself that you are saved. (40)

The Apostles don’t call us to “accept Jesus into our heart”—they call us to belong to the body of Christ. (44)

The politics of Jesus is without coercion. The kingdom of God persuades by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be, martyrdom—but never by force. (47)

Faith, serious thought, and prayer are not easily cultivated in the transient and trivial atmosphere of modern mass culture. Everything is a bit too fast, too loud, too superficial. (54)

Without a primary orientation of the soul toward God, life gets reduced to the pursuit of power and the acquisition of things. (56)

To belittle the work of the theologian is to advocate a spiritual poverty. We need more than Christian folk religion—we need a Christianity that is serious and substantive in its thought. (60)

One of the sad things about spiritual poverty is that the impoverished hardly ever know they’re suffering from it. (61)

I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious. Anyone can be spiritual. Atheists are spiritual these days! So of course I’m spiritual—we all are!—but I am also intentionally religious. I accept the rigors and disciplines of a religious tradition. (68)

We are formed as Christian people as we learn the regular rhythms of praying well-crafted, theologically-sound, time-tested prayers. (69)

The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do, but to be properly formed. (74)

The objection I often hear to the use of liturgy—a formal track of worship—is that it’s dead. But this is a category mistake. Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. Liturgy is either true or false. What is alive or dead is the worshiper. So what we need is a true liturgy and a living worshiper. (78)

Peter’s ethnocentric perspective began to change when he had a contemplative breakthrough while praying on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop. In a trance he was shown non-kosher food and told by God to break the law of Moses and eat it! Peter was being instructed to transgress the Torah! Talk about cognitive dissonance! (96)

Everything about God tends toward love. God is love. The highest form of knowing is not empiricism or rational thought—as the Enlightenment told us—but love. (99)

What is called “revival” today is mostly spectacle and religious entertainment playing upon the emotions of guilt, desire, and anger. (108)

I was beginning to understand how important it is to maintain an ongoing conversation with the Christians who have lived before us. We must resist the tyranny of the present. If we ignore the echoes of the past, we doom ourselves to an unrecognized ignorance. (112)

Without some intentional silence the weary soul is a prisoner being slowly worked to death in a merciless gulag of endless noise. (116)

Looking back on those days I realize that our eschatology wasn’t based in any sound reading of Scripture, but in childish impatience. Everything had to happen in our lifetime. We could not be content to be faithful in our generation and hand the task over to the next generation. (120)

I’m trying to learn how to mature like a dusty bottle of wine patiently resting in God’s cellar. If nothing particularly notable happens in church history during my lifetime, I’m fine with that. It’s not my church. It’s not my world. It’s God’s church and God’s world, and God has time on his side. I can afford to be patient. (122)

As the church has become a powerful institution, a consort with kings and queens, a confidante of presidents and prime ministers, our dispensing of grace has become distorted. We show grace to the institutions of systemic sin while condemning the individual sinner. It should be the other way around. (125)

For the secularist the sacred is mere symbol. But to this idea the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation offers a resounding, “No!” If we believe that “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” (John 1:14) then we believe in a sacred ontology, a sacredness of being. (129)

Looking through a eucharistic lens we discover that we live, not in a secular world, but a sacred world, a world where every tree can become a burning bush aflame with the presence of God. (131)

It is only our false hopes that are being disappointed in the death of Christendom. Jesus never intended to change the world through battlefields or voting booths. Jesus has always intended to transform the world one life at a time at a shared table. (134)

Jesus reversed the concept of kosher. When the unclean touched Jesus, Jesus was not made unclean, rather the unclean were made whole. (140)

The Lord’s Table bears witness to the new covenant truth that the holy land is the whole earth and the chosen people are the human race. (140)

Jesus was constantly teaching people not to worry about scarcity, but to trust in God. (144)

The oceans, deserts, forests, and mountains are medicinal; they are a tonic to the mind, a palliative to the soul. (152)

Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to love God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. (158)

Why did God create? Why did God say, “Let there be”? The mystics have always given the same answer—because God is love, love seeking expression. (162)

The “wrath of God” is but one way of describing the shards of suffering we inevitably subject ourselves to when we go against the grain of God’s love. God is all love, but we have to go with the grain of love or suffer the pain of self-inflicted sorrow. (164)

In the parable of the sheep and goats, the goats are not condemned for wrong belief or for failing to pray a sinner’s prayer, but for failing to love the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned. If Jesus is to be trusted, it seems we will not be judged by how rightly we believed, but by how well we loved. The judgment seat of Christ is not a theology quiz, but an evaluation of love. (165)

Once I’d found the good stuff of substantive theology, the Great Tradition, and historic Christianity, there was no going back. (172)

As long as our churches are led by those who view being a Christian primarily as a kind of conferred status instead of a lifelong journey, and view faith as a form of static certitude instead of an ongoing orientation of the soul toward God, I see little hope that we can build the kind of churches that can produce mature believers in any significant numbers. (181)

The Christian life is a journey. It’s a road. We have to walk it. Jesus’ call to discipleship is always the same—“Follow me.” It’s presumed that we are going to be on the move. We’re going somewhere. The Christian life really is following in the ancient footsteps of Jesus through a modern world. (185)


Dry powder

17 March 2020

‘Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry!’

That was Oliver Cromwell’s advice to his troops as they prepared to go into battle. He was a wise man. He understood that while trust in God’s providence was to be their basic attitude, it needed marrying with practical common sense—in their case, ensuring that the gunpowder used in their muskets was kept dry, and thus effective.

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_CooperThe same balance is vital in our coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

All committed Christians will say amen to the ‘trust in God’ bit. But I’ve already seen some weird Christian posts on social media suggesting that this is all we need. The gist is, ‘Repeat this Bible verse often and loudly, and shout your defiance at the devil, and you’ll be OK.’ No mention of taking sensible precautions in line with the guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer and others who are qualified to advise us.

At the other extreme are posts—from people without a faith—that make everything dependent on our own sensible actions, and give no room for God at all. That can leave us open to debilitating worry, or even panic.

So we need to embrace both factors: trust in God, and practical self-help steps.

I’m reminded of the young man developing as a preacher who, hearing that a famous preacher was in town, got an appointment to see him. He had a burning question. ‘When I’m booked to preach,’ he said, ‘how should I go about it? Some say I should prepare my sermon down to the last detail. Others say no, I should just stand up and rely on the Holy Spirit to give me the words. What’s your advice?’

‘That’s easy,’ replied the wise old man. ‘Work hard at your preparation, as if there were no Holy Spirit to depend on. Then, when you stand up to preach, rely on the Holy Spirit as if you hadn’t prepared.’

God has always shown himself to be committed to collaborating with human beings this way. Even in Eden, he did the donkey work of creation, you might say, but then handed over the running and shaping of the planet to human beings. That’s the way he continues to work: he asks us to trust him as the foundation of our lives while, at the same time, he expects us to do our own bit. It’s never one or the other; it’s always both.

Wise and godly people in every generation have understood this. Nehemiah is a case in point. He was in charge of rebuilding the broken-down walls of Jerusalem after Judah returned from exile. Not everybody liked the project, and ‘they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.’ How did Nehemiah react? ‘We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat’ (Nehemiah 4:8-9).

Not either/or, but both/and. Let’s tackle coronavirus the same way.


Bungalow Living: Rejecting dualism

24 January 2018

I’ve come across a disturbing trend: Christians who can’t cope—not with their own circumstances but with other people’s. For instance, someone today said about a chronically sick friend, ‘No, I never go to visit her. I just can’t cope with her condition.’

bungalowLet me tell you about this sick, unvisited friend. She’s an older woman who has spent most of her life in Christian service of one kind or another, including some years on the mission-field. Having developed cancer of the throat that destroyed her vocal cords, she has ended up with an electronic device attached to her throat that enables her to speak. But the sound is whispery, some would say quite sinister-sounding—and at least two of her longstanding Christian friends can’t cope with that.

Here’s another case. A retired couple decided to move house to be nearer their children. But a dead housing market meant that after several years they still hadn’t found a buyer, and they didn’t have the means to move without selling first. A well-meaning Christian brother wrote and advised, ‘You need to do what Jesus said: command the house to sell. That will clear the log-jam right away. You can start packing!’[1] When the couple informed their well-meaning friend that they had been doing this very thing for a long time, with no apparent change, the communication dried up. The friend couldn’t cope with it not working.[2]

And here’s another. When a young couple known to me had their first child, a son, it wasn’t long before routine tests discovered that the little boy had a birth defect: he was profoundly deaf. They prayed about it. They got the whole church praying about it, long and hard, but with no evident change.

Then the medical authorities informed them that a new technique had become available. A small device could be implanted into the child’s head. While it would not enable him to hear in the normal sense, it would move him a tiny step closer to being able to detect certain sounds and so provide a better chance of at least some aural communication. Most of the family’s friends rejoiced at the opportunity. But a few Christians said it would be a mistake to agree to the implant, because that would show a lack of faith in God’s power to heal. So when the implant went ahead, they cut the family off—they couldn’t cope with the situation. One such lady, who had been close to the family, now crossed the street rather than meet the mother and have to face up to the fact that God hadn’t healed the boy.

This is a shameful response, brought about by what I call two-storey living. These people have two distinct living-areas in their lives. There’s the ‘downstairs’ level, where everyday life takes place: going to work, painting the hallway, buying groceries, paying the mortgage, eating dinner. Then there’s the ‘upstairs’, which is ‘spiritual’. Here, you just quote the right healing scripture and healing takes place instantly. If you have a problem, you just ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ and he solves it for you right away. If you are short of money, you mention it to Jehovah Jireh[3] and, that same night, under cover of darkness, an anonymous person slips an envelope containing £500 through your letterbox. It always works. God says it will, so it must. It can’t not work. So when the going gets a bit rough downstairs, these folk take refuge upstairs where ‘rough’ doesn’t exist. Some in fact stay up there most of the time, reluctantly venturing down only when they need a sandwich from the fridge, or a couple of paracetamol.

This approach is a form of what theologians call dualism: two separate areas of experience, one in the physical world, the other in the metaphysical. Authentic Christianity has no place for it and has traditionally labelled it heresy. True Christian living calls us to abandon such two-storey living and move into a bungalow where there is no spiritual/secular divide, where everyday life and true spirituality co-exist in harmony, where the devil is God’s devil,[4] and where faith is robust enough to cope with anything—even God’s apparent failure to live up to his promises.

How does this apply to the lady who ‘couldn’t cope’ with visiting her one-time friend with the artificial voice-box?

For a start, she should be thoroughly ashamed of herself for her abysmal failure to show the Christian grace of caring. Then she should sort out her confused thinking that says, ‘Hmm. Betty is a good Christian woman. She forsook a lucrative career in the secular world in order to serve the Lord. She even suffered for the gospel while serving in a Muslim country. God must love her very much—certainly enough to reward her by preserving her health. But, oh dear, God hasn’t done it! I can’t square that with God’s love, so I’ll just stick my head in the sand and pretend the problem isn’t there. Unfortunately I won’t be able to visit the poor old girl, because that would be to yank my head out of the sand and see the grotesque problem yet again—and I can’t cope with that!’

You can apply the same approach to the person who can’t cope with the house-sale mountain not jumping into the sea as commanded, and to the pathetic woman who crossed the street rather than face the reality that the child of a Christian couple was profoundly deaf.

Fundamentally, these people all have a problem with God. They have him all neatly sewn up into a system whereby, provided they press the right faith-buttons and quote the Bible’s allegedly absolute promises with enough vigour and volume, God is somehow obliged to spring into action without delay and address the issue. Upstairs, he always does. But they can’t face the fact that in the real world of downstairs living sometimes—if we’re honest, often—God doesn’t do it. Of course, they have an escape clause to cover such eventualities: lack of faith on the part of the person who needs his help. It can’t possibly be God’s problem, so it must be a human one.

Now you shouldn’t kick a person when he’s down, yet that’s exactly what these mixed-up Christians do. Not only do they desert the poor woman with the voice-box when she needs Christian company most, they also tell her it’s her own fault entirely that she’s in that condition: ‘If you’d had faith, sister, you wouldn’t have got into this state in the first place.’ That’s going to make her depressed as well as sick. It is seriously unchristian.

Bungalow living means saying goodbye to all that unsanctified behaviour. It means admitting that we still live in an imperfect world, that there’s a ‘not yet’ aspect of the kingdom as well as an ‘already’, and that it can get messy downstairs.

Bungalow living means adjusting our view of God instead of turning our back on sufferers. Is God loving, good and kind? Most certainly; he has revealed himself plainly as such. Does that mean he is obliged to make our life a bed of roses? Absolutely not. He is working to a higher agenda than our personal comfort. Indeed, in the present age he often chooses to use suffering as a tool for maturing us and shaping us into a closer likeness to our Elder Brother. Facing up to these things is what real faith is about.[5]

At the great Messianic Banquet in the age to come we shall be able to feast to our hearts’ content on the goodness of God. There will be no delayed house-moves, no aural implants, no artificial voice-boxes there. There will be fulfilment, food and shalom for us all. But what about here and now? Happily, not everything is reserved for the future. From time to time the Lord, in his goodness, may grant us—as a privilege, not a right—a sample from his banquet-table, a tiny taste of the powers of the coming age—and no more.[6] Savour it when it comes, and stay real when it doesn’t.

And, oh yes—the dining room is downstairs.

Footnotes

  1. A reference to Mark 11:23.
  2. This was, at the time of writing, the situation my wife and I were in. There are some Christian people who avoided us because they couldn’t cope with the fact that God hadn’t yet opened the way for our relocation.
  3. This Hebrew name means ‘The Lord will provide’. It occurs in Genesis 22:14.
  4. An expression I first heard from the Canadian Bible teacher Ern Baxter. He meant that the devil, far from being God’s equal, is a created being under his control.
  5. Linguistic studies show that the New Testament word for ‘faith’ (Greek pistis) often means something more like the English ‘faithfulness’. So the notion of ‘having faith for something’—finance, health or whatever—needs at the very least to be balanced by that of ‘remaining faithful to God’ even when we can’t understand why he is allowing certain unpleasant things to happen to us and to our friends, and being honest about it.
  6. Hebrews 6:5

Review: What ‘faith’ is really all about

22 January 2018

It’s great when you meet a book confirming some of the conclusions you yourself have been coming to for a while. I’d long had doubts about the nature of ‘faith’ in the believer’s lifestyle. It may be faith for healing, for some friend’s salvation, for deliverance from pressure—or whatever. Now here comes Greg Boyd, ticking lots of boxes for me on the subject, and taking me much further than I’d got on my own. The book is: 

Benefit Of The Doubt: Breaking The Idol Of Certainty by Gregory A. Boyd (Baker Books, 2013).

botdlargeThe popular notion of trying to convince ourselves that we ‘believe’ for whatever it is, he shows, is seriously flawed. It is unbiblical, and it makes an idol of certainty. Real faith, by contrast, means holding on to God in spite of our doubts and being frank with him about them. It means facing up to facts and evidence, not denying their reality. It means ‘wrestling with God’, as did the likes of Jacob and Job.

He also deals with the folly of the ‘house of cards’ approach to Christian faith, where you have to take every biblical statement literally and subscribe to a host of interconnected doctrines to be considered a proper believer. If you pull any one of the cards out, the whole thing collapses. We need instead to come back to ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’, and hold everything else more loosely.

The author advocates a Christ-centred understanding of Scripture. All Scripture may be inspired, but it isn’t all of equal value, and the portraits of God it presents are not to be lumped together to create a composite image. The way Christ has revealed him, and that alone, is the way the Father truly is.

Boyd also shows how our relationship with God is covenantal, not contractual—a crucialoutstandingbook difference that, once grasped, will govern how we view him and his love for us. And this, too, will change how we view Scripture. We will stop looking for alleged ‘promises of God’ and treating his Word like a legal document that we can quote to our advantage.

This a deep book, in the best sense. It is sometimes annoyingly repetitive and is overloaded with italics and phrases like ‘As we saw in Chapter 3…’ But these are minor irritations. The author illustrates from his own experiences with frankness and warmth, and his approach to Scripture is commendably balanced. This book’s message, if taken to heart, could have a radically beneficial effect on today’s typical evangelicalism. I hope it does!

[Here are some quotations. I have also produced some notes on the book’s key points which you can find here.]

I’ve had questions, doubts, and confusions about most of the beliefs Christians typically espouse. (p12)

I am now persuaded that, at the end of the day, there is only one thing I really need to remain confident about, and that is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). (p12)

The people who are best at convincing themselves that something is true, beyond what a rational assessment of evidence warrants, are most often people who are either self-delusional or intellectually dull. (p13)

Certainty-seeking faith, combined with the all-or-nothing way evangelicals typically embrace it, is simply no longer viable in the postmodern world in which we live. (p16)

My re-examination of the biblical concept of faith led me to the conclusion that the concept of faith that equates strength with certainty and that views doubt as an enemy is, in fact, significantly different from the biblical model. (p17)

I’m going to offer eight arguments as to why I believe certainty-seeking faith is misguided, unhealthy, and dangerous. (p28)

Having the courage to embrace the pain of doubt and to face unpleasant facts, as well as to embrace challenging questions and to live with ambiguity, is the hallmark of a mature and responsible human being. (p31)

Trying to make ourselves certain that a friend will be healed because of our prayers when there is such overwhelming evidence of people who were not healed by the prayers of their friends is, frankly, the height of irrationality. (p35)

I­f God is so enamored with the ability to not doubt, why on earth did he bother to create critical minds that instinctively doubt truth claims and that are unable to believe anything until they’ve thoroughly examined the matter? (p36)

Most of us know firsthand, to one degree or another, how painful it is to doubt beliefs that are important to us. Cognitive dissonance over important matters can be excruciating! (p44)

Evangelical Christians generally assume that it’s arrogant, if not sinful, for people of other faiths to refuse to doubt their beliefs. And I think we’d all agree that it is arrogant for anyone to simply assume their views are right and to refuse to question them. But is this not how Christians who embrace certainty-seeking faith tend to hold on to their beliefs? (p46)

[Re John 5:39-40]  Jesus was trying to get them to see that there is no life in knowing the Bible and embracing Bible-based beliefs unless they lead to him. Yet by trying to wring life out of things that have no life apart from Christ, these leaders made an idol out of the Bible and their Bible-based beliefs. (p66)

This is the nature of biblical faith. It’s not about striving for certainty; it’s about a willingness to commit in the face of uncertainty. (p68)

The God revealed on the cross is a God who loves people more than right doctrines. (p69)

If we are really interested in embracing true beliefs, then the last thing we would ever do is to try to convince ourselves that we already embrace true beliefs. A genuine concern for truth is simply incompatible with a concern to feel certain that one already believes the truth. (p70)

In sharp contrast to many today who seek the comfortable feeling of certainty as a way of feeling at peace with God, biblical heroes are better known for their willingness to be uncomfortable and to honestly wrestle with God. (p82)

Though it initially sounded pious, the “Lord-gives-and-Lord-takes” philosophy implies that Job was right when he accused God of capricious cruelty. (p87)

While God had to confront his mistaken blame-God theology, he applauded Job’s raw honesty. He applauded the fact that Job wasn’t afraid to “argue [his] case with God” (13:3). (p88)

The very fact that Jesus tried to influence the Father to change the plan (and sweat blood in the process) demonstrates that his perfect faith and obedience didn’t mean he never struggled and never tried to push back on God’s plan. (p93)

When God displays his true eternal nature to a fallen world, it looks like Calvary. This is why the cross is presented in the New Testament as the quintessential expression of God’s love (John 3:16; Rom 5:8) and why the Son is put forth as “the exact representation” of God’s “being” or “essence” (hypostasis, Heb. 1:3). When we behold the crucified Christ, we are beholding the eternal essence of the Triune God. (p96)

A dishonest relationship with a false image of God always requires a dishonest relationship with oneself to be sustained. (p111)

Faith presupposes belief. But faith goes far beyond belief in that its focus is not on a mental conviction but on willingness to act on that mental conviction. (p113)

People enter into covenants because they trust one another; people enter into legally binding contracts precisely because they don’t. (p115)

There’s been, almost from the start, a strand within the Western theological tradition that has tended to conceive of our relationship with God in legal terms, where contractual concepts are more at home than covenantal concepts. (p116)

When our relationship with God gets framed in terms of a legal contract, people are inclined to treat the Bible like a confusing litigation manual, the purpose of which is to resolve technical theological disputes and clarify ambiguities surrounding the terms of our contractual acquittal before God. (p120)

Giving honest feedback is one of the roles fellow disciples are supposed to play within the body of Christ, according to the New Testament. This is how the bride is supposed to be making herself ready as she waits for her bridegroom to return. (p132)

I don’t believe it is anyone’s right or responsibility to entertain any opinion about the destiny of those who show little to no signs of God’s life within them, whether they profess faith in Christ or not. (p142)

So long as we remain confident enough that Jesus is Lord to commit to living as if he were Lord, then whatever doubts and questions we have about other theological, spiritual, or personal issues can and should be wrestled with from the inside of this covenantal commitment rather than as a precondition for entering into, or staying within, it. (p147)

A true and living faith is never a destination; it’s a journey. And to move forward on this journey we need the benefit of doubt. (p151)

I found a way to embrace the essence of Christianity while also embracing a degree of ambiguity about creation and evolution, as well as about the discrepancies and archeological problems I was beginning to discover in the Bible. (p158)

Rather than believing in Jesus because I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as evangelicals typically do, I came to believe the Bible was the inspired Word of God because I first believe in Jesus I discovered I have compelling reasons for believing that Jesus is the incarnation of God that have nothing to do with the belief in the inspiration of Scripture. (p159)

The most compelling and most objective reasons I have for believing in Christ are historical in nature. (p160)

Our faith in Christ and in Scripture is anchored in Christ, not in the absence of discrepancies or the absolute historical veracity of Scripture. (p166)

To accommodate the ever-expanding worldview of thoughtful people today, we need a model of faith that is flexible enough to accommodate people’s expanding worlds while being sufficiently grounded to help them to confidently embrace definitive convictions that keep them from floating off into a sea of postmodern relativism. (p167)

It is odd that, despite the common claim of conservative Christians to base everything on the Bible, the rigid, all-or-nothing way they typically hold onto their beliefs is actually not biblical. (p168)

I’ve become increasingly aware that the God of other-oriented love that the cross reveals is in tension with portraits of God that depict him commanding or engaging in horrific violence… My struggling has led me to the understanding that confessing Scripture to be completely “God-breathed” does not entail that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative or that every portrait of God carries the same weight. (p175)

Confessing Scripture to be completely “God-breathed” does not entail that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative or that every portrait of God carries the same weight. (p175)

The authors of the New Testament…, as much as they affirm the inspiration of the Old Testament, are even more emphatic in proclaiming that the revelation of God in Christ completes, and in this sense trumps, everything that preceded him. (p177)

We cannot read the Bible as we would a cookbook, giving equal weight to everything it teaches. We should rather read it like a novel in which the final chapter forces us to rethink everything that preceded it. (p183)

I confess, primarily on the authority of Christ, that Scripture is inspired and perfect for what God intends it to do. In this sense I can affirm that it is “infallible” and even, if one prefers the word, “inerrant.” But the thing that God most wants Scripture to do— point to the cross— leads me to expect it to reflect some limitations, imperfections, and faults rather than to feel the need to defend it against these things. (p185)

While God has always worked to reveal as much of his true self as his people could receive, he has also always been willing to acquiesce to the hard-heartedness of his people to whatever degree was necessary. It is for this reason that we find God sometimes taking on violent roles and giving violent commands in the Old Testament. Violence was unfortunately the only language most people of this time could understand, and so this is the language God was sometimes forced to speak. (p189)

[Re James 1:6-8]  James is…describing a person who is wavering between whether they will remain loyal and seek wisdom from God alone, on the one hand, or whether they will be duplicitous by also trying to derive wisdom from the world. (p197)

If we interpret Mark 11:24 literally, this instruction is simply impossible to obey. Think about it. We are instructed to believe we have already received what we ask for when we ask for it. But the very act of asking for something presupposes that we don’t believe we’ve already received it. If we truly believed we’d already received what we’re asking for, we obviously wouldn’t be asking for it. (p200)

Few things have caused as much misunderstanding and have led to such damaging consequences as the tendency of modern readers to mistake hyperbolic expressions for literal statements. (p203)

When the role of imagination in faith gets severed from the more fundamental point about trusting God, faith is transformed into a self-centered, mind-over-matter gimmick… If we always remember that the purpose of imagination in prayer is to help us more effectively lean on God, it becomes a crucial, God-glorifying dimension of what covenantal faith is all about. (p205)

The obvious but rarely noticed insight that we think with imaginative representations lies at the heart of the nature of faith, and I believe it’s what Jesus is hyperbolically alluding to in Mark 11:24. We can’t literally believe we have received what we’re asking for when we pray, but we can, and should, mentally envision receiving what we’re praying for as though it is present to us. (p208)

[Re Hebrews 11:1]  Faith involves embracing a vivid vision of an anticipated future that in turn gives rise to a compelling conviction that moves us toward that future. (p212)

If nothing is allowed to count as evidence against our belief in God’s faithfulness, one has to wonder if we’re really asserting anything meaningful when we point to events as evidence of God’s faithfulness. (p220)

Christians who try to find security in the magical promise that, if they can just “trust and obey,” God will bless them and protect them and their children… The unspoken rule is, don’t notice the obvious. And the obvious reality no one is supposed to notice is that this magical formula contradicts the way the world actually is. (p223)

To all who simply open their eyes, it’s obvious that the righteous suffer debilitating and fatal diseases the same way the unrighteous do. (p224)

There are a multitude of variables other than God’s will or our faith that influence what happens to children, marriages, careers, finances, health, and every other aspect of our lives. (p224)

I’ve discerned a tendency among conservative Christians to assume that anything in Scripture that looks like a promise is in fact something that God promises them. Sometimes driven by a need to find some security in a world that can be very scary, and paying little attention to the context or original meaning of passages, Christians tend to randomly cling to verses that seem to promise what they’re looking for. (p225)

Whenever we come upon unqualified promises or instructions in Scripture, whether in the Old or the New Testament, we should consider it likely that we are dealing with hyperbole, especially if the promises or instructions contradict reality or are otherwise absurd. (p226)

As part of the surprise ending of the biblical narrative, Jesus actually turned the Old Testament’s system of rewards and punishments on its head. (p227)

The practice of combing through the Bible in search of promises to stand on and to feel secure in is reflecting a contract mind-set more than a covenant mind-set. (p229)

I am proposing that we anchor our understanding of what we should trust God for in the same revelation that serves as the intellectual foundation of our faith, the same revelation that serves as the center of our interpretation of Scripture, and the same revelation that serves as the center of our theology. Every aspect of faith, in short, is centered on “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (p234)

When we find ourselves in the midst of radical suffering— our child dies, our marriage dissolves, cancer strikes, a tornado wipes out all we held dear— we should not infer anything about God’s character from this. The only one from whom we should ever draw conclusions about God’s character is Jesus. p238)

Jesus put an end to the fallen tendency to discern the hand of God behind “natural” disasters (Luke 13:1–5)… A central strategy of Satan has always been to do terrible things or to motivate others to do terrible things and then try to deceive us into attributing these terrible things to God… If we trust that the cross reveals what God is really like, I don’t see that we have any other choice but to conclude that every aspect of our circumstances that fails to reflect the loving character revealed on the cross is traceable back to wills other than God, whether human or angelic or both. (p238)

We can be confident that God is using our decisions to love rather than hate, to serve rather than retaliate, and to be killed rather than to kill to move the world closer to the time when God will fully reign on the earth. (p246)

…the bizarre and beautiful world of the realized eschatology of the New Testament… (p248)

An important part of my calling has been to continually seek out objections to my faith in order not only to re-examine my faith for myself, but also to help others who may struggle with these objections. (P251)


Review: What is saving ‘faith’?

11 January 2018

Faith versus works is a big thing for Protestant Christians. In elevating ‘by faith alone’, they pour scorn on the perceived ‘works’ aspect of Roman Catholic views of salvation. The danger of polarised views like these is a failure to give proper attention to the common features of the middle ground. Here is a book that examines one aspect of that middle ground. It is:

Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew W. Bates (Baker Academic, 2017).

sbaalarge_Bates looks at the meaning of ‘faith’ (Greek pistis) and makes a solid case for his argument that it means a good deal more than mere mental assent, or ‘belief’. He shows—from both the NT and other literature from the NT period—that it contains a strong element of faithfulness, or fidelity, and reckons that the word ‘allegiance’ is the best English word to sum it up.

He argues that the NT presents Jesus primarily as Lord, or King (with Saviour as a secondary aspect), and that the proper response to his lordship is allegiance. That, by definition, means a sustained commitment rather than a quick, one-off moment of commitment—though the latter may well be the start of the former. But salvation requires that ongoing allegiance, and the obedience to Christ that it entails. That, of course, is where many will cry, ‘This is salvation by works!’ And maybe it is, to some extent. But Protestants have long been good at ignoring the NT’s plain statements that works are somehow involved anyway.

En route to his conclusions, the author tackles various related issues. For example, like many scholars today, he holds that the biblical concept of election is chiefly corporate rather than individual. He is also strongly opposed to the notion that ‘going to heaven’ is our destiny.

You may not go along with all his opinions, but the book is worth reading to help you escape the faith vs. works polarisation that, since the Reformation, has probably caused as many problems as it has solved.

Here are some quotations.

The word pistis (and related terms) has a much broader range of meaning. This range includes ideas that aren’t usually associated in our contemporary culture with belief or faith, such as reliability, confidence, assurance, fidelity, faithfulness, commitment, and pledged loyalty. The question is, then, when a person today says, “I am saved by my faith in Jesus,” what portion of the range of meaning of “faith” is understood to effect salvation?  (p3)

I hope that the correct identification of the high point of the gospel as Jesus’s kingship and a retargeting of “faith” as allegiance will reinvigorate the life and mission of the church today.  (p9)

For many today faith is defined as the opposite of evidence-based truth. This is neither a biblical nor a Christian understanding of faith.  (p17)

The most straightforward explanations of what the word “gospel” meant for the earliest Christians are found in three passages in Paul’s Letters, Romans 1:1–5, 1:16–17, and 1 Corinthians 15:1–5 (cf. 2 Tim. 2:8). Another passage that does not use the word euangelion but aligns closely with the above mentioned is Philippians 2:6–11, which can help fill out our understanding.  (p30)

We might summarize Paul’s “by pistis for pistis” [Rom 1:17] in this way: in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed (1) by Jesus’s allegiance to God that ultimately led to his enthronement, and (2) in order to bring about our allegiance-yielding response to Jesus as the king.  (p43)

We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of “faith” (pistis) as “allegiance” in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object toward which our saving “faith”—that is, our saving allegiance—is directed.  (p67)

My intention is not to flatten the rich multiple meanings and nuances of pistis into a bland singleness. Rather it is to claim that, when discussing salvation in generalized terms, allegiance is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis word group than the more customary faith, belief, and trust.  (p78)

Scholarship committed to a hard faith/law antithesis has generally had to fall back on problematic explanations of “the law of the Christ” [Gal 6:2]…  The “law of the Christ” (and the like) is spoken of in a positive fashion because pistis is not fundamentally opposed to all law but involves enacted obedience to the wise rule that Jesus the king both embodies and institutes.  (p86)

What is essential for salvation? Public declaration that Jesus is Lord is at the bedrock, because this designates mental agreement with the gospel and the desire to live a life of personal fidelity to Jesus as the sovereign ruler of heaven and earth.  (p98)

Paul is firm even if some modern commentators are not: we will be judged, at least in part, for eternal life on the basis of our works.  (p108)

I do wonder…if the contemporary tendency, at least at the level of popular Christian teaching and preaching, to center “image of God” theology on the human essence (ontology) rather than on the human purpose (teleology) might give the doctrine short shrift.  (p147)

When a person is truly acting as the image of God, he or she serves as a genuine contact point between God and creation, mediating God’s presence to creation (including other humans and all other creatures).  (p152)

Properly speaking, at the present time Jesus the king is the only person who has already been directly judged by God (the Father), found to be in the right (justified), and vindicated. His resurrection from the dead is proof of his innocence—that he truly has been justified. Resurrection constitutes Jesus’s deliverance and total vindication. Currently no other person has been directly justified and declared righteous apart from him. All other cases are reserved for the final judgment.  (p168)

The transactional idea of the Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us so that it covers our unclean sins is nowhere to be found in Scripture…  The language of imputation can be preserved if it retains a more modest valence as a subset of union with the Christ-king. Paul favors the language not of covering for imputation, but of counting or reckoning or considering (logizomai) for those who are found to be “in the Messiah” (e.g., Rom. 4:3–11, 22–24; 2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 3:6). Imputation can be maintained from a biblical standpoint only if it is predicated on a prior or simultaneous union and if it is regarded as a counting or reckoning.  (p182)

This point should be regarded as absolutely nonnegotiable: a true gospel invitation must summon the hearer toward a confession of allegiance to Jesus as the king or cosmic Lord…  We must stop asking others to invite Jesus into their hearts and start asking them to swear allegiance to Jesus the king.  (p199)

Although contemporary Christian culture tends to separate personal salvation and discipleship, allegiance is where they finally meet—and they don’t just meet, they embrace. For when we discover that saving “faith” means above all allegiance to Jesus the king, the intimacy between discipleship and salvation is easy to recognize.  (p206)


A bit of negative confession is a good thing

22 December 2010

I just heard that a young businessman—a distant acquaintance of mine—has gone bankrupt. It has caused immense pain to him, his immediate family, and to the kind folk who, too late in the process, parted with money to help him try and avoid bankruptcy.

One telling feature of the story is that the business had been in financial problems for a very long time before he told anyone about it. Why, I ask myself, didn’t he open up at an earlier stage, in which case the worst might well have been avoided?

i-cantPart of the explanation, I’m sure, lies in the fact that he is a committed Christian.

At the start, of course, this was a huge ‘plus factor’ in the situation. His Christian standards ensured that he conducted his business with integrity. Also, it meant that divine help was available, and I don’t doubt that he called on the Lord many a time when things began going wrong.

But being a Christian also brought, I suspect, a ‘minus factor’ to the situation. In certain types of church culture there is strong pressure to be victorious, to be on top of things, to be seen to be the head and not the tail, to win success that will show the world how it’s done, to be people of faith, and generally to be up-beat about everything. And that, alas, makes many a believer reluctant to admit falling short of the ideal. When everybody else is apparently living in victory it’s doubly hard to admit defeat.

Most non-Christians in this young man’s position would probably have been a lot quicker to make the problems known and to seek advice and help early on. Unlike Christians they have no ‘faith culture’ to pressure them, no ‘I’m a winner’ reputation to maintain before their peers.

That’s why I’m all for a modified ‘victory’ culture that leaves room for vulnerability and the admission of failure. Leaders are especially responsible here. If they keep pumping out faith and victory all the time they will actually produce failures more serious than might otherwise have been the case.

Let church leaders, therefore, be judiciously frank about their own weaknesses and difficulties from time to time. A bit of negative confession can do a powerful lot of good.


Yom yom

25 November 2010

No, not ‘Yum yum’. I’m not talking food here; I’m talking God’s word to me about money.

Let me explain. Yom is the Hebrew word for ‘day’, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Doubling it up to yom yom gives a phrase meaning ‘day by day’ or ‘daily’. It occurs in Psalm 68:19 – ‘Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens.’ And that is a verse especially meaningful to me.

yom yomYears ago I was thinking how nice it would be to get a huge financial windfall. I imagined a lawyer calling me to say that my Great-uncle Eustace—who I’d never known existed—had died, that he had been rich, that I was his sole heir and that a couple of million pounds was about to be deposited in my account. Brill! I’d be set up for the rest of my days.

It never happened, of course. Instead I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘Don’t expect anything like that, son. I have different plans for your financial welfare. I’ll take care of you just one day at a time—I will ‘daily bear your burdens’—so you’ll have to trust me one day at a time. Can you manage that?’

I thought I probably could. Yes, I would continue to keep a budget and manage my accounts sensibly, and I would be grateful for any occasional extras that might come my way over and above my regular income—currently my smallish pension. But that said, daily reliance on the Lord would be my bottom line.

This has been my approach to financial security ever since, and the Lord has been true to his word. He puts unexpected extras my way now and again, and I remain solvent and well provided for. Praise him!


Joyless religion

23 November 2010

‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ (Phil 4:4).

That’s an easy command for true Christians to obey. In fact it’s impossible not to rejoice when the Holy Spirit lives within convincing us of the reality of God’s love for us, our relationship with him, the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance of coming glory.

I don’t mean the pseudo-joy of a fixed cheesy grin and a ‘hallelujah’ in every sentence. I mean the deep-seated, unshakable joy that comes from knowing all is well at the level that matters. This is the joy that, when Christians meet together, spills over in heartfelt, exuberant songs of praise to our God.

No other religion knows this. There’s no joy on the faces of ayatollahs. Buddhist monks may claim some inner peace, but their religion produces few smiles. Sikhs and Hindus know how to party, but joy is nowhere to be seen in their temple rituals.

Joy is a Christian hallmark. Let it show!


Naïve–again!

30 September 2010

‘Three score years and ten.’ Yes, I’ve recently had my 70th birthday. It’s a good time, I reckon, for assessing my life, my values and my intentions.

Naive-logoDoing so, I find myself coming back to the statement in Hebrews 11:6 that ‘Anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ That’s where I continue to take my stand, with deep satisfaction.

The theologian Paul Ricoeur wrote about a phase of the Christian life that he called the ‘second naivety’. When you first become a Christian, you are pretty naïve, taking everything you are taught at face value. Then, with the passing of time and the receiving of a few knocks, you begin to look at matters of faith, doctrine and practice more intently, and have to cope with the troublesome doubts that sometimes arise. But as you stick in there you come out of the storms and, in spite of still not understanding everything or resolving all the tricky issues, sail into the calm waters of a ‘second naivety’, where simple faith in our loving God rules supreme over every aspect of life.

This, I can testify, is a good place to be, and I plan to cruise around in these waters for the rest of my days, be they few or many.


%d bloggers like this: