53. Drowning in Knowledge (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 53. Drowning in Knowledge (1)

Psa 90:2,4 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God….  A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

Quick Recap: We are still in the series about ‘ongoing redemption’ but are now looking at those things in our modern world that have a tendency to swamp or drown the unthinking believer. They are things I have observed the younger generation struggle with because they have been insufficiently taught both the Bible and about these things. The older generations struggle more at a sub-conscious level because these things have subtly become the atmosphere of modern life and they have a tendency to stifle belief and faith, but so slowly they are often hardly noticeable.

Today we move on to consider the subtle way big numbers in science, big people in science, or even big theories may appear to some to bring challenges to the truth in such ways that they stand above contradiction. So let’s be like Hans Anderson’s little unknowing boy in the story of ‘The Emperors New Clothes’ and ask some challenging question about things that are cast in concrete as far as modern science is concerned. Now I have to say from the outset that everything our leading scientists say may be absolutely right. It is unlikely because science has a history of changing theories and ‘facts’, so we should hold these things lightly. We won’t know the truth until we get to heaven.

Way Back! Let’s start with a history book on my shelves entitled “A History of the World”, an authoritative and comprehensive work. Page 1, line 2: “There is the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.” Page 1, second paragraph, “We could start more locally with the early history of Earth, beginning some 4.5 billion years ago.” I’m never sure about billions or trillions but Wikipedia says a billion is a thousand million. (Trillion = a million million).

Measurement: Now I am not a scientist, but my understanding is that we measure these periods not by a time machine but by observing an ‘expanding universe’ and extrapolating backwards in the assumption of a uniform continuation of movement to a point derived mathematically to have been the point of origin (The Big Bang). The other way of determining age is by carbon dating (used for objects less than 50,000 years old) and radiometric or radioactive dating, both of which assume a uniformity of decay.  Notice my emphasis on the word ‘uniformity’ which makes all we are saying here pure theory – you cannot prove it, you have to assume the uniformity and once you do, then, yes, it works. As I said before, they may be right, but it is a fool who is dogmatically certain.

‘Big Time’: I have a problem with “4.5 billion years” because it is utterly meaningless. It is merely a figure on paper (or screen) and although that figure is then broken down into smaller chunks of ‘events’, it is absolutely impossible for the human mind to grasp the concept of a million years, let alone 4500 million years. You and I struggle to envisage a hundred years. We do it by filling it with events. My wife and I have been married 45 years and we make sense of that time by going through all our past diaries and filled ten sheets with things we’ve done in that time.

Stephen Hawking was the expert on time with his book, “A Brief History of Time”, bought by many, understood by few. My only problem with people like Hawking or Einstein, is that with brains the size of a bus they are beyond contradiction by the rest of us mere mortals. If, as some predict, we will live longer and longer lives, if I were able to live another hundred years (more ‘time’) I would break a habit of a lifetime and lay a bet (who would take it?) that another genius will come along and question the current theories of all of these great men – but of course that is heresy in a scientific world that worships these men uncritically.

A Crutch for Evolution: I don’t have a problem with the theory of evolution; it may be the way God brought the present world into being, but I doubt it (note that would have to be ‘guided evolution’). I say that because there are so many holes in it that any intelligent critical person (not a negative person, but a person who questions, which is what is missing in life today) will say, “Yes…. but!” You know the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ of evolution that evolutionary scientists struggle with – biological sex! If you dare think about it, the very concept of male and female ‘complementary equipment’ as coming about through survival of the fittest, is pure nonsense.  I leave you to seriously ponder that one.

But the thing about evolution is that it only becomes vaguely credible if you have staggeringly big times to play with, for ‘accidents’ to happen, for mutations to die out or develop. It isn’t just a case of this is how it happened, it is a case of this is how it would HAVE to have happened. It is only when you think about millions and then billions of years that you have a big enough, long enough laboratory for the necessary changes to come about. If one day some super-mathematician appears and says, “The maths is all wrong; here is a viable alternative,” or scientists suddenly find that uranium breakdown occurs in spurts rather than uniformly, and both conclude that the age of the earth is say ten thousand years (now currently a scary, stupid or impossible thought) suddenly evolution would be in trouble, even more, impossible.

I am simply setting up what ARE possibilities to challenge the set mind, the mind set in concrete that is thus not ‘scientific’. When Stephen Hawking said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change,” he perhaps unwittingly laid down a challenge to mathematicians and scientists generally, because at the moment, people (clever scientists) are persecuted for saying of modern scientific dogma, “I’m not sure about that.”

More Big Figures: It is big figures that intimidate us. Try this from a book of science on my shelves; this is about the ‘Big Bang’.  Health Warning: “A yoctosecond (ys) is a septillionth of a second or 10–24 s”. Can you think that small? Here’s my science book quote, starting to explain the Big Bang: “At the moment of the Big Bang, the entire Universe was much smaller than an atomic nucleus. Within a tiny fraction of a second, it underwent an inconceivably rapid expansion called cosmic inflation”.  Additional notes suggest that the temperature was “100 trillion trillion deg.C”.   Hullo? Is your mind still switched on? Well, let’s see the additional note of how fast the first change took place: “a hundred-billionth of a yoctosecond.” Wow! We saw how small a yoctosecond was just now and now you’re saying a hundred billionth of one septillionth of a second!  That was only the first part of the explanation of the Big Bang; there are four more stages of incredibly short periods of time, but you can do you own research. But I do like the word ‘inconceivably’ in that quote above.

Why all this? Why have I bothered to fill this Bible-blog with scientific information? Very simply because I find that when books baldly state these sort of things, people generally, let alone believers, are intimidated by the ‘fact-ness’ of print, the certainty of modern science. When it comes to Christian believers, it is almost natural, when looking at the short period of history covered by the Bible and the Bible’s lack of scientific detail, to wonder about the reality of all that we have been thinking about to do with ongoing redemption in this series. I will say it again: the numbers are meaningless, the results of mathematicians’ and scientists’ speculations, sounding so credible – if only we could understand them. I am not saying don’t believe them, but I am saying hold them lightly, see them as theories that are not so set in concrete as many would like to suggest, and see them (IF they are true) as explanations of how God made the world.

The God-Perspective: Our starter verses attempt to poetically convey something of God’s greatness: Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God….  A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”  Not an explanation of how, but simply an attempt at conveying greatness.  The apostle Paul suggested that all of ‘Creation’ reveals the might and majesty of God (Rom 1:20).

The modern atheistic scientist (and many aren’t) seeks to explain the world in purely ‘mechanical’ terms so that there is no need for a God, because if there is a God that you and I speak about, that would lay a question against that person’s life – how should I live in the light of the knowledge of the existence of such a Being? – and many people don’t want their lives directed by someone greater than them. Outlook is often not formulated by facts (which so often need interpreting) but by personal prejudices and fears. How does Genesis fit into all this? We’ll look at that in the next study. Meanwhile, keep a clear head, do not be intimidated by great men, great brains, great theories, and great numbers. They may be right, and they may not, but put them all in perspective before the greatness (size and majesty) of Almighty God and we just find a marvelous world brought about by a marvelous Creator who deserves our worship, and in that, nothing has changed.


52. Drowning in Unreality

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 52. Drowning in Unreality

Ex 20:22,23    Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me

Unreal gods: A problem that constantly seemed to face Israel was that of idol worship, which was forbidden by the Lord – yet all the surrounding nations worshipped idols. So why did God forbid it and why is it relevant here? The answer to both questions is that worshiping idols is worshipping something that is unreal. The truth is that ‘gods’ don’t exist, the gods of Athens or Rome that we learn about in history are figments of human imagination, made in the image of fallen human beings. The gods of the nations surrounding Israel were expressions of superstition, unreal, make-believe. Don’t worship what is unreal is the message from heaven.

Facing Unreality: So what does our heading today mean, this ‘drowning in unreality’? It means there is a way of thinking today that is quite unreal and its very presence undermines the way Christians think and opens them up, if not to giving way to temptation, certainly to tolerating a lifestyle and failing to speak into the folly of the ways of the world. So what is the unreality that I am speaking about? It is that portrayed in films, TV ‘soaps’ and videos. There is also the unreality of ‘computer games’. I have mentioned temptation and toleration as two outworkings of this unreality (and I will go on to explain more in a moment) but within that there are two things to be observed. First, the behaviour is unreal and second, the very culture that we are looking at challenges biblical norms.

Considering ‘Soaps’ & ‘Sitcoms’: I hope you are familiar with the terms. Soaps are defined on the internet as follows, “A soap opera is an ongoing drama serial on television or radio, featuring the lives of many characters and their emotional relationships.”  A Sitcom is simply a ‘situation comedy’ based on a fixed group of characters.  The reason they are so pernicious is that they appear every week on TV. The ‘sitcom’ genre usually has a very much lighter feel to them and although infidelity is dealt with, it is in much more light-hearted way. Perhaps that makes it more acceptable.

Two Case Studies: Historically there have been two leading influential series, clearly aimed at the younger generation. The first was ‘Friends’ which ran from September 1994 to May 2004 (10 series) and the group being followed were described as, “not above sticking their noses into one another’s businesses and swapping romantic partners, which always leads to the kind of hilarity average people will never experience – especially during breakups.” That softening comment does nothing to undermine the culture that is conveyed which I will define in a moment. The second is the Big Bang Theory’, running from September 2007 and currently to series 11 in 2018.

The Culture: There are certain characteristics that are common to both of these long-running series: a) they are very funny, b) sex has a high profile and is portrayed as normal among young people, c) sex is distinct from committed relationship and indeed both series show the horror that is experienced when one member of a couple uses the words, ‘I love you’, being seen as words of commitment for which neither of them are clearly ready, d) both series had an almost cult following, especially among the younger generations. Neither series deals with inconveniences such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, abortions etc. Sex is problem free.

The deceptions: I would suggest (at the risk of being called a kill-joy by the younger generation) the following follies of this culture:

i) Sex is reduced to a simple pleasure with no unpalatable outworkings (see my last comment above; these ‘inconveniences’ do in fact have a substantial negative impact on modern society).

ii) As sex is separated from love and a committed lasting relationship, such a relationship has clearly become a difficult thing to acquire and the fruit of this is clearly observed in the trials and tribulations of the younger generations, many of whom now despair of the possibility of any lasting, loving, long-term relationship, especially with the ease of divorce in modern western societies being as it is.

iii) Sex is portrayed as easy, and always enjoyable and instantly on demand, and having no negative impact on the relationship, whereas surveys indicate a) many women confess that very often sexual experience is not pleasurable but they have to do it because that is what is done, and it wins affection from the male (both untruths), and b) the realities of tiredness, monthly periods (often suppressed by the pill), feeling unwell etc. etc. mean that one or other partner, in reality,  aren’t feeling like it.

iv) Sex is designed (by God and many psychologists would agree) to be just one strand of a growing relationship, friendship, growing trust and sense of security being others. Putting sex before the others (or even using it as a one-night stand) means that the likelihood of a long-term relationship developing is reduced, as is the possibility of creating a family.

v) Despite all the talk of ‘prevention’, a surprising number of (therefore) unwanted pregnancies take place, creating either the single parent syndrome (with its negatives), or a forced ‘marriage’, or a cohabiting partnership which, by its very nature, has an unstable foundation and often results in the man leaving and we are back to the single-parent syndrome again. There is also the matter of abortions often taken as the norm in this culture.

And in Church? We are often very good at accepting single mothers into the church community but in so-doing we are loath to make negative corrective comments and so our own young people see this as normal for society. It should not be; there are too many negative sides to this for both the mother and certainly the fatherless children. What I observe is an almost casual attitude to these things growing in the church. If we allow this to continue we will be helping the world in undermining the value and benefits of a committed life-long relationship, and of the family unit being a foundation for a safe and secure environment in which children can be raised. Society is very slow to link the growing number of child behavioral problems with family breakdown. If we were honest about these things, our communities would be transformed. We need to talk these things in depth within our church communities, recognizing the unreality ethos we are battling against and carefully revealing the good of God’s design.

Standards generally:   So far, we have talked about the ethos to be countered, and the very folly of the lifestyle, in respect of sex and modern relationships, but I think we should be honestly aware of the impact of various other things coming out of Hollywood. In the US, (not the UK) I have observed many times an inconsistency in believers’ attitudes to certain films. Because C.S.Lewis appears to have such a following in the US, Narnia films and then the Lord of the Rings films and subsequently the Hobbit films are perfectly acceptable. Harry Potter films, by comparison, are abhorred, because ‘witchcraft is bad’. Yes, real witchcraft is, and the manufacturing industry that capitalizes on it, also is, I believe, but no more the industry that exalts in Halloween which certainly has a dark or even ‘black’ background.  But actually, all of these films exalt good over bad and ‘good’ triumphs. (If you want to be really discerning, you will note the difference between the first two HP books and the last ones). And do you watch ‘vampire’ films or TV???? We need to think about this.

But then I found an acceptance in the evangelical community of ‘The Passion’ the worst example of the most extreme, shock-violence possible. Don’t say it happened; so did many other atrocities that you and I (I hope) would abhor if they were on screen. My other horror, on both sides of the water, is of the acceptance of the first of the Hunger Games films  shown to young teenagers. It’s about teenagers murdering other teenagers for public spectacle! I think Paul’s “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” (Phil 4:8) would be an overstatement taken out of context if we try to apply it to modern watching, but there is a truth there to be pondered.

An Approach? These days I would never recommend any watching (My own may be wider than some of you, but I would never recommend it). As a young Christian I was wary, having been brought up in my twenties in a strict evangelical mould, of even watching Crocodile Dundee, and I know there are some Christians who never watch any films. Well that is an extreme, but I would prefer it to the ‘watch anything’ extreme. Paul’s advice about not putting stumbling blocks before others (Rom 14:13, 1 Cor 8:9) is worth considering. The balance is, how can I remain aware of the standards being pushed by the world?  A question to be asked is, “If I watch this particular film/TV series, does it fill my mind, give me nightmares, or diminish my steadfast resolve to hold to God’s laws?” i.e. does it undermine my standards?  Accepting the ethos, whether it is to do with sex or the taking of life, is the danger that I believe is undermining the standards of many Christians. Even more, because there is this ‘clash of cultures’, the ‘modern outlook’ of tolerance, I am certain, undermines both the clarity and certainty of the biblical culture, if I may put it like that, in the minds of many. If in doubt, don’t watch.

Personal Guidelines: My own personal guidelines for watching today (while seeking to be an informed commentator) are:

  • Avoid explicit sex on screen which causes images to be retained and thus causes further difficulties of personal management.
  • Avoid constant use of the ‘f’ word or similar for the same reason.
  • Where relationships involve infidelity, remember the folly and the reality, and where there is violence (either don’t watch it or) remember this is manufactured in a studio and unreal. But don’t let it anesthetize you to the horror.
  • If in doubt, don’t watch; there is plenty else to do in life!

Finally, does this aspect of life, diminish the reality of ‘ongoing redemption’ we have been considering? If yes, it’s time for a change.

51. Drowning in Materialism (2)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 51. Drowning in Materialism (2)

Gen 1:1   In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

Recap: Yesterday we observed two definitions of materialism and we thought about the first one, encompassed in the abbreviated form: “Material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.”   The second definition is more a philosophical one: “the theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.”  To remind ourselves why we are even thinking about these things, we have to go back to a comment that I made, that I believe modern man is drowning in a variety of things in modern life, and for the Christian these things have the potential of undermining our belief systems and no more so than in this subject of ongoing redemption.

Pondering the basics of life and living:  I am sitting at a keyboard. I feel the keys and the mouse. I am observing the words appearing on a screen. If I lived five hundred years ago I could consider this is magic. Today I understand a little about electrical currents and what goes into computer software and hardware. In a while I will go into the kitchen, turn on a tap and water will flow; I will fill and turn on a kettle and not be surprised when it starts making a noise and gets hot. Everything about my modern life is about reacting to and responding to material objects and yet, much of it is unseen. I understand that ‘electricity’ is in fact just a form of energy resulting from the existence of charged particles, electrons and protons. There is no marvel about that today although there would have been two hundred years ago. We have to thank Einstein’s E=MC2 for linking mass and energy, and energy is the stuff we cannot see but can experience. We even take this idea of ‘energy’ for granted – “power derived from the utilization of physical or chemical resources, especially to provide light and heat or to work machines”. It is all part of the ‘material world’ and as such these are the nuts and bolts of modern science.

Modern Science: Science is founded on the ‘scientific method’, an empirical method of knowledge acquisition. Now ‘empirical evidence’, “also known as sensory experience, is the information received by means of the senses, particularly by observation and documentation of patterns and behaviour through experimentation.” (Isn’t the Internet a wonderful thing!) So we have a material world and we investigate that material world – to find out how it works and what we can do with it – through the senses that we ‘material beings’ have.

Limitations and Questions: And that is as far as science can go and so we don’t need to be defensive when scientists in laboratories say, ‘we cannot see signs of a spiritual world’. At that point we need to gently smile and ask, “Have you got good and meaningful reasons everything works as it does, why we actually exist – and please don’t just give me a ‘mechanical’ answer because everything in me and in millions of other people, if not most people, feel there is more to existence that mere physical existence?” You see, a rock has no ‘meaning’, it just exists. We can possibly explain the scientific process how it came to be a rock and ultimately it all goes back to ‘particles’ (no longer mere atoms and molecules of my school days) but there we hit the biggest mystery of all when we come to the so-called’ “Big Bang”.

Francis Schaeffer, a Christian philosopher in the middle of the twentieth century, said and did some memorable things. One of the most helpful here was his concept of ‘nothing-nothing’, the thought of there being absolutely nothing, no vacuum, no energy, nothing!  When we speak of nothing scientists usually dig themselves an escape tunnel by speaking about energy, but the existence of ‘energy’ explains nothing. Imagine the total absence of anything, and remember one of the things science used to say is that you cannot get something from absolutely nothing. Even IF you could explain the big-bang, you cannot explain what was before it that explained why it happened. If some scientific philosopher (and science and philosophy have joined hands in recent decades) postulates a theory (because it is all theory) that somehow energy could come from nowhere, they would be flying in the face of logical science.  If he postulates how energy came into being, it would have to be from ‘something’. Our minds cannot cope with nothing-nothing and something coming.

Living with the scientific environment: So yes, we have this material world and we have this approach to measuring it that we call science. No problem. The problem comes when we say (as atheists do) that this is all there is. The interesting fact is that many top world-class scientists are Christians and don’t see a conflict, for ultimately they believe there is more than ‘just’ a materialistic world. But when your son or daughter sits in a schoolroom, or a room in college or university, their teacher is operating on one level and the odds are that they will insist that that is the only level, materialism is all there is, but in doing that they reveal their ignorance of the amazing diversity of evidence to the existence of a spiritual dimension to life.

Now without doubt, we in the West live in a high state of awareness of science and of technology (science applied), an environment if you like unlike anything any previous generation has experienced. Because of that, perhaps, many people struggle to cope with the voices that are raised to explain it, the most obvious being, “There is nothing apart from the material world, we can explain it all and there is no need for a God.” No, all you are doing is explaining how God has made things to work. The worrying element is not this, but how we apply this knowledge and what we will do with it. (Non-Christian) Minds far greater than mine are, for example, giving warnings that the advances of artificial intelligence and robotics may well create a Matrix (see the film trilogy) scenario that will spell out the death of humanity.

History and Belief: But let’s get back to basics again. Historians (and most of the rest of us sane people) believe there was last century a war we refer to as World War Two. Many people alive today still remember it. No question. Choose any accepted historical event of say two hundred or five hundred or two thousand years ago, and historians build up a picture of what happened then by the evidence that has been found and the sequence of events that flowed from it to bring us up to the present. Historians argue and change their minds about various aspects of history but essentially it is all about playing with whatever evidence is available. Today, for example, there are very few scholars (history specialists) who deny the existence of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. Our beliefs about our past and who we are today are predicated on the evidence we have about historical events and that is as true about the Christian faith as it is about anything else. It’s all about evidence, past and present.

A Fundamental Starting Point: Now strangely our presuppositions (another thing Francis Schaeffer majored on) are key. You either begin from a starting point that you believe there can be a God, or you start by saying there can’t. We might also add, you may say there is a God, but He doesn’t involve Himself in this world, or He does. This was foundational to the confusion caused by so-called scholars at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century who approached the Bible from more of a materialistic standpoint and so denied that prophecy could exist, denied that God could speak to people, denied that miracles could happen, and therefore challenged and wrote off much of what they found in the Bible. It took many decades for greater scholarship in the church to realise that this was a faith battle not a scholarly battle. If you believe the Bible as a complete package, it makes total sense and that sense can be applied into everyday life. Take away a God who communicates, a God who can act powerfully into this world, and the content of the Bible doesn’t merely not make sense, it is an absolutely bizarre series of stories that can neither have meaning nor credibility. Start, with our header verse today, with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) and we have a completely different ball-game!

A Logical Outworking: If that statement is true, then the logical outworking of that is that this God must be all-powerful (able to do anything) and all-wise (knows everything and knows how everything works – knows every bit of knowledge before the scientist finds out about it) and is good (the world itself is fundamentally a good place if you don’t settle next to low coastal plains or volcanic areas – but that is ignoring the facts of the Fall and a perfect world beforehand). The uniformity of the Bible is a compelling piece of evidence; it is not full of contradictions and with at least 42 different writers of 66 books the uniformity of its claims about God are amazing, but you will only see that if you have eyes willing to look with an open mind – and you understand the place of ‘science’ in this world – AND don’t listen to those who are tunnel visioned and refuse to study more widely than their career specialism area.

If you want to criticize God, the Bible, the Christian faith, you can in reality only do it out of ignorance. If we let such voices pour at us without ourselves becoming learners in these things, then it is not surprising that some are showing signs of drowning, showing signs of abandoning their faith and losing a spiritual vitality in their lives. It is not because the faith is found wanting, it is because those individuals are found wanting, and there can be no excuses. When we speak of ongoing redemption as we have in this series, it must be surely, that part of His ongoing working in us is to teach us to see with a clearer perspective, so we have a broad canvas of understanding of science – and its limitations – and a broad spectrum of understanding of our beliefs as Christians that holds material and spiritual in true balance – as God has made it to be.

50. Drowning in Materialism (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 50. Drowning in Materialism (1)

Deut 6:10-12   When the Lord your God brings you into the land ….a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Refocus: We have a bird-spotting telescope; my wife is an avid bird-watcher. Much of the time it is focused on several bird feeders some way down our garden but every now and then she spots movement across the other side of the garden, perhaps a little further away, and the telescope is swivelled round but then has to be refocused. We have been focusing on this subject of ongoing redemption, first in the lives of individuals, then in the life of Israel, and then as it must apply to different, difficult practical questions of modern life relationships.   I concluded yesterday with the assertion that I believe many of us are drowning in a number of things that confront us today as never before. This is a day of unparalleled provision and prosperity and indeed peace (as far as wars go), a day of technological revolution like the world has never seen before. Part of that is the communications and cyber revolutions of which people of a hundred years ago would never have dreamt. In the midst of these changes the very way we think is being challenged and changed and so for the Christian with our minds focused regularly on the Bible, in ‘church’ and so on, it is a challenge to see how our ‘faith’ fits within this new world.

What is Materialism?  On the Internet we find, two basic definitions of materialism:

  • First, a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values” and then,
  • second, “the theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.”

We’ll take those two in order but will only have space to cover the first one in this study.  It is necessary to examine something of the nature of modern life in the West, before we can go on to apply the spiritual medicine, so bear with me.

Material possessions and physical comfort before spiritual values: What a neat description of the outlook of the majority of inhabitants of the West. Let’s try and be honest about this. How much time do most of us Christians give to ‘spiritual matters’ each week? How many minutes do we spend in prayer, or reading or studying the Bible, or in ‘church activities’? The importance we give to these things is revealed in the time we give to them. This is not to say that we should be filling our lives with them, because there is a life to lead, work to be done and so on, but looking at how much we value these things is a good starting point.

Possession Orientated: The wonderful truth is (and it is a good thing) that we live in a time when we, in the West at least – and it is not true across the rest of the world (and we need to keep that in mind and think about those not so well off as us) – have more possessions than we’ve ever had before. IKEA is a worldwide company with over 400 stores or warehouses, who epitomizes the cultural change in possessions with their ready-to-assemble furniture, kitchen appliances and home accessories. Essentially if you can think of it in your home, they’ve got it in the warehouse, somewhere. Indeed many people use their catalogue to get new ideas of what to do with their home. It is an ever-expanding world and house styles, and home interiors are always changing and, we are told, the modern person spends far more on their home, garden or back yard than ever before.

The Complexity of Modern Materialism: And this is just basic domestic usage; we haven’t gone anywhere near sound systems, video systems, electronic security, and not to mention the ever invading ‘Alexa’-type of sound control systems for the modern home. This also doesn’t cover cars, new, second-hand and classic, boats and even planes that modern affluent man so often has. If you don’t fit the ‘affluent’ bracket, you are probably just an envious onlooker, and because the range of manufactured ‘possessions’ gets ever greater as every day passes, so inevitably the gap grows greater between the ‘haves’ and the have-nots’, and often, it seems it is a generational thing; the older generation may have ‘gadgets’ while the younger generation has technology ‘lifestyles’.

The opportunities to make or earn more money is again, I believe, greater today than ever before as the world of software ever blossoms, whether it is in computer games or in artificial intelligence. In the UK at the present time, 80% of GDP (major economic measuring stick for a nation) is in ‘service provision’, not manufacturing. It is a sign of moving ‘beyond goods’ which for the UK, for example, mostly come from cheap imports. But knowledge and information is power and money, they say. So merely because you cannot touch it, don’t rule out of the material equation so much that goes on, on cell-phone screens, iPad or other hand-held devices, or that which goes into running the modern technology that is running so many modern Western lives.

Materialism by Travel: The definition above included the word ‘comfort’ but that underplays the reality of modern life dramatically.  If to comfort we can add pleasure, experience, leisure activities, travel, etc. etc. we maybe start to build a more accurate picture of modern life for many. One of the things I do these days is run a small group called ‘Nostalgia’, the purpose of which is twofold: first to build friendships and invite outsiders into the church complex and, second, to strengthen and build fading memory activity in the elderly. Friendship and worries about loss of memory are two of the key things that worry the older generation. We meet every two weeks for an hour and half, drink tea or coffee, talk and stir memory. The group has about a dozen or so members, ranging in age from 67 to 95. Now one of the things that has shocked me is how much this group of mostly single, aged, ordinary people have traveled. It is a sign of our affluence that this is possible.  Every single member of this group – who are not especially affluent – has travelled abroad considerably in the past, and many still do with destinations such as Australia and New Zealand, (and of course the States and Canada) as well as European cities, featuring regularly. This is the modern world and I will avoid getting into the world of cruises which is also big business in this generation. But these are expressions of modern materialism.

In Perspective: Now here is my point at this stage of our series. Using the analogy I shared yesterday, I suggested that we drown in water – or we learn to swim, surf, or sail. Applying this I would say I believe all the modern things I have mentioned above are part of God’s plan for His world. I believe He is the one who inspires inventors and researchers (although I am certain they are 99% ignorant of that fact) and although we do not develop or use many things wisely, I believe it is God’s intentions – in the light of the way He has designed us – to give us pleasure in this material world. The five senses – seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smell – are clear indicators that God has designed us to experience pleasure. Sexual pleasure is another similar indicator. When we think of ourselves as being made ‘in the image of God’ (see Gen 1:27) we start to think about the abilities He gave us, to communicate, think, plan, reason, invent, create, design, write, compose, and work, and the modern world that we have been considering is the fruit of all of that.

BUT!!!! Here we must come back to our starter verses which were a warning to Israel, that once they entered into the Promised Land they should not forget how they got there – God! This will take us into the second part of the definition and we will cover that tomorrow. For now there comes this incredibly strong warning which the apostle Paul echoed in his own warning in Romans 1:20-22 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” I stop it there because our ‘images’ (anything we tend to worship) are different from theirs. We are far more sophisticated and essentially worship our cell phones, our iPads and all the rest of it, and we know we do that if we push God out to the periphery of life as we focus our lives on these ‘toys’.

Redemption!  This that we have been considering all these weeks, is at the heart of the truth about life and none of the things mentioned in this study change that. Many today are like little children playing with their brand news toys at Christmas, getting so excited by these ‘new things’ that we forget who is behind them all and we fail to worship Him.  Hear it loud and clear, these things are good in themselves but if they distract you from God, if they come down and envelop your mind like a fog, they will be the cause of you losing touch with reality – and you will drown. If you like, all these things we’ve been considering are like the things inside your living place that are enjoyable and make life more pleasurable, but PLEASE NOTE they are not you and your unique existence, they are the things going on around you, but you, the person, are consciously or unwittingly interacting with God and He is working to bring changes to you.

Yes, the things, the ‘toys’, will change how you feel, but they are not to be the main determinants as to the sort of person you are. That is to come through your relationship with Him. Paul, in 1 Cor 3:9-17, spoke about building the church, and building people, and the end result can be either a cardboard imitation or the real thing, the reality of which is shown in the trials of life which will destroy the cardboard imitation life. If all we have is a cardboard replica of a real life, it will not last. Jesus said the same thing in his parable of the two house-builders (see Mt 7) and it is a warning we should take seriously as we consider these things.

49. Restatement

PART SEVEN: In Defense of the Faith

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 49. Restatement

Ex 15:13 In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.

Questions: Forty-eight studies so far on ‘redemption’.  Is it that important? Is it that significant? Have I wasted the last month and a half writing about something that is just a mere spiritual principle confined to the pages of an outdated book of myths, only believed by a bunch of people living in the dark ages of superstition? Is it just something for theologians living in their ivory towers of irrelevant academia that is high and lofty and divorced from the reality of us ordinary people living out our real lives in this ultra-sophisticated, this hyper-technological world of wonder and provision? Really, what is redemption all about?

The Fundamental Answer: The verse above comes from a song sung by Israel after they have been delivered out of Egypt and out of Pharaoh’s hands. It had been an amazing time and so now they write and sing this song of triumph, summed up in the verse above – God has redeemed us, God has delivered us, and God has got a place for us to get to. And that is what the heart of ‘redemption’ is all about; it is about the reality of having been in a bad place and God intervening to bring us out of that bad place and take us to a new good place.  And that new good place is here and now, AND it is also about tomorrow, an eternal future with Him.

The Significance of the Answer: Hopefully as we have worked our way through this long series, you will have seen the reality of this, how God works in our individual lives to keep us on track for eternity with Him.  In the ‘big picture’ nothing is more important than this. Without it we have no present purpose (than to survive) and no hope for the future (death equals a meaningless end, so why bother to do meaningful things, caring things, heroic things even?) This is the reality here, that all you and I as Christians are experiencing is part of the ongoing process of God to put a real meaning into the present and generate a hope for the eternal future. That hope for the eternal future helps bolster up and support the meaning of the present; we are working towards a very real something.

Our Part in it: Now everything in that immediate paragraph above, is really all about God, His working to deliver us, His working to keep us, and His working into eternity. But the other very significant side of the coin, is that His outcomes in us do depend on our responses. Yes, the person who is indifferent, the person who rejects God’s will, the person who is just self-focused, will not be experiencing the present as a wonder from God, it will not hold gems of glory as heaven breaks in to the mundane, it will not come alive with purpose, meaning and power from above.

The whole deliverance out of the past is dependent on our responding to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, so that we bow in repentance and submission to the Lord for Him to completely redirect and empower our lives. And once that initial deliverance has taken place, our progress, our growth, will be determined in measure by how we respond to His ongoing leading and guidance. How many are born again and then almost come to a standstill or crawl at snail’s pace through life, knowing little of the wonder of His presence, His power, His purposes being revealed and entered into? It is only as we sense this, or learn this, that we can fully enter into it – and even then, it will never be a perfect involvement on our part – and experience the wonder of the ongoing work of God in our lives. That is what this has been all about.

The mechanics of redemption: The nuts and bolts of this thing start, we said, with our recognition and acceptance of our guilt and failure; that is not to make us feel bad but to enable us to open our hearts to Him for Him to do His work of cleansing and forgiveness in us, and then impart His Holy Spirit into our lives. That, we have seen again and again in the earlier studies. But that was only the start. Then there is the process of getting the old world out of us and releasing faith in us to live in the wonder of the kingdom of God, here and now, even before we enter into the wonder of life with Him in eternity.

The process involves God intervening in our lives to bring correction and fresh direction and fresh enabling – we call that discipline.  The process also involves facing the new challenges that come along as life changes, as societies and cultures change, and as we learn to face the truth of the word of God and measure these life changes against it. We have sought to do that in small measure with limited considerations of the transgender issues that are rising in the world today, in the changes in modern family structures and the breakdown of traditional relationships and the ensuing frailty, weaknesses and pains of the modern alternatives that twenty-first century western man is struggling with.

The Challenges to Belief: Whenever there have been major cultural changes, they always bring a challenge to the Church, a challenge to understand our faith in the light of such changes. ‘Future Shock’ was a book written in 1970, I believe it was, by futurologist Alvin Toffler, possibly the first of a genre that has become common today, that seek to identify the changes going on around us and then seek to predict where they will take us. Essentially, ‘future shock’ was the struggle to cope with the future arriving now. Since that time, now approaching fifty years ago (!!!), changes in technology and outlook and lifestyles, in the West at least, have continued to multiply exponentially.

The result is that, not only has the world changed dramatically in the past fifty years, struggling to cope with the ongoing changes all the time, actually undermine our sense of reality. In some quarters ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are said to be illusions. With this sort of thinking, my questions at the beginning are truly pertinent – are we talking about ‘a mere spiritual principle confined to the pages of an outdated book of myths, only believed by a bunch of people living in the dark ages of superstition? Is it just something for theologians living in their ivory towers of irrelevant academia that is high and lofty and divorced from the reality of us ordinary people living out our real lives in this ultra-sophisticated, this hyper-technological world of wonder and provision?’

Drowning: As I have prayed and thought about this, I believe modern man – including Christians – are drowning in these changes. That is the picture I want to hold on to in the next few studies. These changes challenge you and me and threaten to undermine our faith, our well-established and well-founded beliefs, not on any logical grounds but more like a fog that comes down and envelops us and makes us lose sight of reality. So, I realise I have just used two analogies, but I believe they do convey a little of what is going on in this fast-changing world in which we all live.

But the thing about this drowning analogy, is that it pictures a person floundering in an environment – water – and not coping. The thing about water is that you can learn to swim in it, surf on it or sail on it, and all are pleasurable things.  I believe that many of these changes (not all as we will go on to see) are potentially good, but we have to learn to use them wisely, and see them in the light of the reality that this series has been emphasizing. There is no conflict between this series or these changes – except where we allow confusion to overwhelm and drown us.

Drowning means death and death in this context means the loss of reality, the loss of meaning, and the loss of a spiritual dimension which is essential to understand and fully experience reality. That is what is at stake here. So, I thought this present study was drawing near to the end, but we have some more to go, as we seek to put all this in the context, even more than we have been doing, of this modern constantly changing world. Stay with me. Keep the words of the song before you: “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.”  That ‘holy dwelling’ is not a physical building, but a life with the living God, both now and in eternity.

48. Women

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 48. Women

Gen 1:27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Introduction: Before we come to the end of this particular Part where we have sought to deal with particular issues that confront the modern church, I think we would do well to confront an issue that still, in some quarters at least, causes a lot of hot air – the role of women in the church. I think – but I may be wrong – that I have some things to say that are, I believe, the truth as seen in the Bible. Now don’t jump to conclusions. I am simply going to say what I see in the Bible and I hope I am going to put aside prejudice or partisanship, both of which have harmed the proper working of the body of Christ.

Equality? Often the water is muddied by talk of equality. Equality requires measurement using the same units of measurement. When it comes to gender that is decidedly difficult. If you do an identical job for an identical length of time, justice demands identical pay; no problem. An area of injustice that needs righting. Observe the verses that follow our header verse above: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:28) The ‘them’ indicates that this call to multiply is (obviously!) a joint thing, but so is the ruling over the earth part that follows. Man and woman are to share in this mandate but how they do it may differ. The curses of Gen 3 after the Fall clearly show that child-bearing would be the primary (but not only) role of the woman, while working the ground to provide food would be the primary (but not only) role of the man. The picture of an industrious woman in Prov 31:10-31 show her as potentially far more than a mere child-bearer. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) As far as the facts of salvation are concerned there are to be no distinctions.

In the Body of Christ: The concept of the ‘body of Christ’ is all about different gifts and ministries. Old and New Testaments make a number of statements that sometimes appear contradictory but in reality are not so, I believe. Let’s pick up some of the things the Bible shows us, by way of narrative and by way of specific teaching.

The twelve apostles: Twelve men, why not women?  Be real and imagine the homes of the people involved. It was bad enough, for the family, that Jesus called the ‘bread-winner’ away. To call away a mother and wife would have been twice as bad. (The wife is the key to nurture of the family). The culture of Israel permitted men to go off after a traveling rabbi but not women; that would have been scandalous – unless they were more elderly, no longer have family duties, were single or came from such dubious backgrounds that they just didn’t care. I suspect Jesus would have avoided adding further causes of opposition than he already had. In the culture – for the obvious reasons given in Gen 3 – women bore and raised the children, men were the breadwinners (although as Prov 31 shows her role was potentially much bigger, even overshadowing that of her husband.) Those who are wise and observant will know that often in such societies where ‘the men are men’ the power within the family is in reality often with the wife. There clearly were a number of women who traveled with Jesus (e.g. Lk 8:1-3) but the apostles (‘sent ones’) had to be men because it would be inconceivable for women to be sent out in pairs knocking on doors in the evangelistic task (see Mt 10:5- and Lk 10:1)

The later ‘body’: The case for ‘only men’ in ministry falls down when we observe the four daughters of Philip the evangelist who all had prophetic gifting (Acts 21:8,9) but the argument for female apostles in Rom 16:7 is uncertain and scholarship suggests these were men (but hold on for later). I tend to agree with those scholars if only for the reasons given above for men travelling on their own.  The gifts of the Spirit are given irrespective of gender, hence, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.” (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17) There is no reason to suppose that prophecy is the only gift available to women and so, as moved by the Spirit, the implication must be that wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation are open to all. Indeed in 1 Cor 12:1 and 1 Cor 14:6,26 and very specifically with gift-encouragement in v.39, Paul does address “brothers and sisters” and makes no distinctions in the three chapters about gifts.

What about silence in church? When he has just encouraged women as well as men to prophesy in church, we need to be careful about his injunction: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Cor 14:34,25). The meaning of the text in addition suggests this is a matter of order rather than of ministry. Why should Paul single out women in this way? Have you never watched a congregation of God’s people? In the left brain versus right brain argument, the message is always the same, and is clearly observable in any group: women are better interpersonal communicators (they talk more!!). If a church leader has a problem, it is how to get the room to come to quiet to start a service… and why? Just watch. It is a simple matter of order, not ministry.

I want to be a church leader?  You must be out of your mind! Yes, Paul did say to Timothy, “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” (1 Tim 3:1) and we should observe his teaching about such overseers in the next verse, that they be husband of one wife, but that doesn’t mean to say the leadership is easy stuff; it is not. The leader is the first in line for attacks from the enemy and they can come thick and fast. Few of the many leaders I know in my area are unscathed. What is the balance here? I believe if you want to be a leader because you want to be seen to be out front, it is a wrong motive. If you feel an urgency to love, care for, and minister to God’s people, do it, and then be recognised for the gifting that God has obviously given you. My own understanding is that mostly God calls men into leadership, but where there is a dearth of men or He sees a particular heart and particular gifting in a woman, He goes for it. I have observed a number of women preaching and been much blessed by them. Having said that I have seen an equal number of women leading or preaching and have cringed at the lack of servant-heartedness (and yes, I’ve seen the same in men) and anointing. Anyone who does it like another job or vocation has got it wrong, male or female.  Leading (and preaching and teaching) is a calling and requires the anointing of God.

A Godly Example: I love the example of Deborah in Judges 4. She is a prophet (v.4a), she is married (v.4b), and she was leading Israel (v.4c), but when it comes to battle, unlike some of the other judge-leaders, she gets a word from God and calls for someone else, a man, to lead the army, Barak (v.6). He is half-hearted and wants her to go along with him (v.8) and her reply is, “because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (v.9) She wanted the honor to go to a man, not her. What humility before God. Does God choose women leaders? Yes, clearly.

There is an issue of ‘authority’ and divine order here that is not understood by many. Authority comes from God. If He gives it to a woman, go with it. If it is absent (in man or woman) we’re in trouble. If men are not rising up to the task, He will use women. On average, men have certain characteristics that I believe make them better equipped to handle the opposition better. However some won’t, and some women will – but it is always God’s choice. If we try to be legalistic about it, we will get it wrong. Look at the character, look at the gifting, look at the grace, look at the anointing. What is the Holy Spirit doing? If we ignore Him and His calling and His equipping, we will be in trouble. Grace, humility, anointing and gifting. If they are absent, whoever you are, get out of the pulpit!

Redeeming this area?  Redemption, we have been saying is about God taking us out of a bad placed into a good place. Can we redeem leadership of the church, whether male or female, from human choice and career ambition and put it into the Spirit-led, Spirit-inspired, Spirit-anointed realm? May we honor our anointed and God-called men and women irrespective of gender. Can we look for and encourage servant-hearted humility that is devoid of human ambition and through it, may our men and women bring honor and glory to God through the church. And may we dare risk saying, where calling, anointing and grace are missing, may present leaders have the courage to seek God for something they have lost, or have the courage to step down and move into a more fruitful area of life where those things are missing and have never really been there.

47. Abuse

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 47. Abuse

1 Tim 5:1,2 Treat younger … older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

Introduction: Sometimes we naively think the Bible will cover any and every misdemeanour in life. You won’t find a verse that speaks specifically about not abusing your body with nicotine, alcohol or drugs generally (or even with over-eating or over-working or any other excess). The nearest you might get is, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 6:19) Those who quote this verse imply we should look after our bodies for this reason. But you may guess that in this section where we have been considering areas of sexual confusion or failures, the abuse we are referring to in our title above is that which has sexual connotations (and no we won’t be touching the area of pornography although it is really a problem for many Christian (mostly) men) but of sexual abuse.

The Range of Considerations: At the least difficult end of the spectrum of sexual abuses (but it is still abuse) is that of the husband or partner who ‘demands’ sex. I’ll come to this in a moment. At the other end of the spectrum is rape and in between there is a range of ‘inappropriate’ sexual behaviour where one person (the more dominant) takes advantage of the other by touching, caressing or other physical behaviour that demeans the weaker member of the couple. This can involve masturbation or sodomy. Where this occurs between an adult and children we call the adult a paedophile and such activity, according to Wikipedia is considered a mental disorder which involves persistent sexual thoughts, fantasies, urges, or behaviours.  Now this is the point here: this series is about redemption. If a rapist or paedophile, say, declares repentance, is God’s grace (and ours) big enough to receive him into the church? As unpleasant a subject as this is, it does require us to face what is not an uncommon problem in modern society.

Beware the kneejerk reaction: There have been sufficient number of occasions when there has been public outcry about say a known paedophile moving into the district, that we know this is a subject that produces very strong reactions. As much as I understand this and would be there against such threats against any of my grandchildren, grace asks that we give some calm intelligent thought to the realities. So, yes, there are men (and it is mostly men) who store child pornography pictures from the Internet and because such pictures are illegal (in the UK at least) they are guilty of criminal acts. Because I have been a pastor and have twice had men come to me in respect of child abuse issues, I have had some cause to think through some of the difficulties.  The first difficulty is that sexual infidelity in whatever form seems to create a tendency to tell lies, and therefore it is very difficult to know the truth unless the individual is actually confessing what he did.

In one of my cases the young man confessed touching his teenage step-daughter inappropriately while she was asleep, and in the other one the man denied the accusation that came from his two dysfunctional grand-children, that he had inappropriately touched them on the settee in their front room. Without going into detail, the whole family background was so dysfunctional that the accusations seemed to me to be likely to have been fabricated. Both men served prison sentences, and from what I know of both men and the situations, I was left feeling that justice had been seriously heavy-handed. Please don’t get me wrong, I believe that what are crimes deserve to be punished, but I have been left wondering about the appropriateness of crimes that are not major. Similarly with reports of celebrities in the media being accused of pinching a woman’s bottom or touching her lightly elsewhere inappropriately, I am left wondering why we do not teach such victims to slap the face of the perpetrator loudly and publicly. Perhaps fear is the answer.  In whatever form abuse takes, it is very difficult to get to the truth and to determine what is justice that will change the future.

The Grace of God: I worry sometimes about the whole so-called counselling arena because it seems so often that counselling goes on for months if not years. My wife and I used to pray quite often for the people within our church context and perhaps the greatest expression of the power of God changing a life, came to a particular young woman who was married and had two young children and who came to the Lord. We spent a whole morning listening to her story and then a whole afternoon praying over her. To cut an unpleasant story short, she had been frequently abused by her father throughout her younger years, who forced her to have sex with him. She thus found it incredibly difficult to let any man near her.   Amazingly she had been wooed by a man who became her husband and then had two children by him.  How, we enquired, did you manage that, as you wouldn’t let this man touch you? I got drunk both times, she replied.   We listened to her and prayed extensively for her and she went home. A week later her husband contacted me and said, “Whatever have you done to my wife? She’s become a raving sex-maniac!”  No, just making up for lost time, with the help of the power of God, I answered his exaggeration. But God had delivered her – in just one day!  If the power and wisdom of God is there, we should not need weeks or months or even years. This is redemption.

Who Needs the Counsel and Prayer? Now the situation may have changed but when the young man came and confessed to me his inappropriate behaviour we sought to find specialist counsellors but again and again when we contacted counselling organisations, we found the same response: “No, sorry we only counsel the abused.”  Where the Holy Spirit brings conviction, all of our studies about redemption say there is a need for counselling for the abuser as well as the abused. I do not in any way want to diminish the anguish felt by those who have been abused, but if we are to have a safer society then both abused and abuser need help in changing and becoming whole again.

The overbearing husband: May I just go back to the situation of the overbearing husband who ‘demands sex’. I say again, that is tantamount to abuse. Now before anyone quotes the apostle Paul out of context, “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time,” (1 Cor 7:5) this should not be used to excuse unloving and uncaring for one another in bed, and especially by the husband. Communication is essential, gently and with care, finding out what gives pleasure to each other, and the message to the man is go slow. As one counsellor put it, foreplay begins earlier in the day and by that they meant the way they cared for and spoke to each other throughout the day has a very real impact on what happens at the end of the day. The traditional, “I have a headache,” should not be necessary if the husband carries out the apostle Paul’s injunction, Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5:25) Christ sacrificed himself for the church so husbands, put your wife first, show loving tenderness and care, and watch for the changes, but don’t count days, earn your rights in bed.

Redeeming the mess of sexual wrongs: What have been the primary lessons we have learned in the earlier studies about redemption? Redemption starts with honesty, and facing failure, and repenting from the heart.  If we have been a perpetrator, if we want to proceed in God’s redemptive process, we need to come in repentance. If we have been abused, this is not the place to receive ministry; seek out counsel, receive God’s cleansing and healing. If we are the church, dare we be a people who are open and available to both the abused and repentant abusers, with hearts of gentle love, care and compassion, who can create a secure environment in which they can meet God and receive that redemptive work we’ve been speaking about in this series, where God delivers us out of a bad place and into a good place with Him. May that be so.  (PS. There is so much more that could be said on this subject, but I think we have covered the things the Lord wants here. If there are things here that resonate with you and which you wish to progress, may I recommend you speak to your own spiritual leaders).

46. The Unequal Yoke

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 46. The Unequal Yoke

2 Cor 6:14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

1 Pet 3:1,2 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

The Principle: We move on to another of those problems that exist in church, that of being married to an unbeliever.  This will come about in one of two ways. First, one of the partners in the marriage comes to Christ and the other doesn’t. Second, by wilful disobedience. But let’s consider the principle first, that the apostle Paul spells out so clearly: don’t become yoked or tied by marriage to an unbeliever. Some have suggested his words apply to business, but I suggest it is wider than that. See what he says: there will be a conflict between righteousness and wickedness. Oh, I sense your righteous indignation – my boyfriend/girlfriend is not wicked! If they have not surrendered to God through Jesus Christ, the Bible says they are. They think differently to you, their goals are different to you, their absence of desire for spiritual things is different from you.

The Great Challenge: This, for many, is the great challenge of faith. “But there are so few Christian men in our church,” I hear the cry. Listen to a lady in our church, now in her sixties, as she spoke to me a little while ago: “My father warned me not to marry —- because he wasn’t a Christian, but I went ahead and married him anyway and a day hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t regretted it.” She goes to church. He has no interest in church so every Sunday she goes out alone. They have a divided life. She reads her Bible and prays but he has no interest in spiritual things. She attends a house group and he does something else. It just goes to accentuate the division in their lives. So many women, and it does tend to be women, marry a non-Christian in the hope of saving him. It happens only occasionally – but we’ll come on to what to do about that in a few moments.

A Challenging Example: While my wife was at university, she came across a zany girl living in the same college house as her, who she was instrumental in bringing to the Lord. The only problem this girl had was that she had a boyfriend and they were intending getting married sometime. However this girl read Paul and turned to her boyfriend and said, “I’m very sorry, but we can no longer go out because I’ve become a Christian and you’re not, and it just won’t work.” She was devastated but did it. He was shaken and went away to investigate Christianity and was well and truly saved. Sometime later I had the privilege of being their best man. Now many years later, they have a lovely family, have been leaders within whatever church they have been in, he prospered marvellously in his career, and they have a most blessed life, these long-term friends of ours. Why? Because she was obedient to God.

The Challenge of Singleness: I did not marry until my late twenties. I recognise it is a challenge for many: Suppose no Mr. Right Christian comes along? It is possible but consider the positives: first, as you are at the moment you have a freedom to do what you like, go where you like and be what you like; rejoice in that, make the most of it for the moment and get God’s grace to cope like that. I know you may be yearning to have a partner but if it is the wrong one, a non-believer, you are simply storing up anguish for the days ahead. I know a number of those who would testify to the truth of this. (An aside: a word to the wise – sex doesn’t win partners. If you try to win a man this way it simply says you know little about male physiology and psychology.) Do we have to settle for singleness? No, and I’ll come to redeeming this area later, but in the meantime, you do need to have a heart at rest and peace for God’s apparent will for you at the moment. That is the starting place – His will and your being willing to submit to it. Obedience opens the door for blessing to flow.

The Guilt plus Hope: My friend in church who confessed her disobedience feels guilty. Why? Because she is, but that should not be the end of it because this is all about redemption and God delights in redeeming the bad and turning it into good. Good here is nothing less than the salvation of your partner and we’ll come to that shortly. Redemption starts with confession of guilt; it is a good starting place, but it is only the start.  There are, I believe, two areas to consider, to bring change to this situation, and I do not mean divorce.

Before we get there, let’s consider Paul’s teaching again: “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.” (1 Cor 7:12-14) He does say they can part if it doesn’t work (not divorce) in the following verses, but in those verses above, there is hope. The paraphrase versions struggle to put meaning to “has been sanctified through..” so the Message says, “The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is likewise touched by the holiness of her husband,” while the Living Bible says, “perhaps the husband who isn’t a Christian may become a Christian with the help of his Christian wife. And the wife who isn’t a Christian may become a Christian with the help of her Christian husband,” and the JBP version says, “the unbelieving husband is, in a sense, consecrated by being joined to the person of his wife; the unbelieving wife is similarly “consecrated” by the Christian brother she has married.”

What further adds to this is his comment that follows about children of the ‘mixed marriage’: “Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy,” (NIV) and “Otherwise, your children would be left out; as it is, they also are included in the spiritual purposes of God,” and “if the family separates, the children might never come to know the Lord; whereas a united family may, in God’s plan, result in the children’s salvation,” (Living) and “If this were not so then your children would bear the stains of paganism, whereas they are actually consecrated to God.” (JBP) What all these verses hint at is that somehow the Christian in the marriage somehow brings the presence of God into the marriage in such a way that He is able to impact the family. There are also those enigmatic words of the apostles to the Philippian jailor, “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:31) In jail they were clearly speaking just to him, so there must be a presumption that his salvation would so impact his family that they too would be saved. Whatever the truth of that situation, there is a clear indication that God does want to move in and through Christian spouses to the rest of their family. That must be out starting place for what follows. We said before that there are two areas to consider.

The Actions of a Believing Wife: Our starter verses apply here: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. (1 Pet 3:1,2) I think what Peter says to Christian wives should also apply to Christian husbands in a similar situation. Yes, if you communicate in your marriage, at some point you will have shared your faith with your unbelieving partner, either before you married (if you insist on marrying them) or after you came to Christ after you were married. Whatever we say, we need to recognize that such words are likely to appear threatening to your partner who will need reassuring. You are putting forward a life outlook that is foreign or alien to them. The challenge for you is that you should appear as a ‘new improved partner’ who should be more of a blessing to your partner than you were before.

As I say, a challenge to get God’s grace. What now follows is an even greater life of grace for it is, I believe, quite natural and thus legitimate, to share the things that bless you in your faith, but it must be in such a way that you are not being seen to be pressurizing your partner. That is the spirit behind Peter’s words – win them by who you are, not by what you say. So often in marriages we try to change our partner (and I believe it fair to say that women do this more than men) by the use of words. We call it nagging. Ladies, your brain is better developed than men on average to communicate using words, but words used on men merely make them defensive and rarely bring about change. Acts of love, care, understanding, and support are the things that change men. When you wake up in the morning, your best prayer in this context at least is, “Lord help me to bless my partner today.”

The Actions of a Believing Church: I have said it in our own church and I would declare it worldwide, if in our church we have men or women who have unbelieving partners, the TOP of God’s agenda is, I believe, how can we win those partners?  Now I have to deal with a phenomena that appears often in well-meaning churches, that of men or women’s groups that appear social and relaxed but then hit the unsuspecting unbeliever with the Gospel. If you are going to have such groups, have some integrity and say what will happen at those groups so people know what they are coming to. Having said that, the starting place is a regular, consistent and persistent prayer meeting that focuses on unsaved partners. We need to name people and partners in love (not superiority) crying out to the Lord for them AND seeking God’s wisdom to know what to DO in terms of building bridges to these partners and making opportunities for them to question, query and get answers in ways that are not threatening.

And So: Not to make any more of a meal of this than I already am, hold on to certain truths: a) God wants unsaved partners to come to know Him. b) He wants us to pray, for it is in prayer that spiritual strongholds are broken. c) He wants to give us wisdom to know how to bless unsaved partners, so their hearts will be opened, their minds informed and their will helped to come to a place where they are open to submit to Him and receive Him. Finally, ask Him to release faith in you to believe these things.

45. The Anguish of Divorce (3)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 45. The Anguish of Divorce (3)

1 Cor 15:9,10  For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect

Can I step into your shoes: No, don’t be confused with the above verses, we are staying with the subject of relational breakdown and divorce; we’ll come to those verses in a moment. For those of us who have not walked in the valley of rejection, it is perhaps hard to understand the depth of hurt that can come and has been experienced by many around us, especially when it is a marriage breakup, yet we are called to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Rom 12:15) and, “there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Cor 12:25) We must not sit on the fence of indifference.

A Bad Dream: There have been two occasions in my life when these realities crashed into my awareness. In the first one, many years back, I had a dream, a very real dream (and I believe, God-given dream), and in it my wife just turned to me without any warning and said, “I am leaving you and going to live in America.” I was absolutely devastated and woke up in tears, sobbing my heart out with the anguish I felt, and grabbed hold of her arm and cried, “You won’t leave me will you?” This was in the early years of our life (no it wasn’t my insecurity – listen on!) together. She quickly woke and asked whatever was the matter and reassured me, and I went off to work in my office in the City of London. I had been at my desk only a few minutes when a Christian friend, who worked elsewhere in the building, appeared in my office and said, “Can I talk to you?” I looked at his face and said yes, and we found somewhere quiet and as soon as we sat down, he burst out, “…. has left me,” and poured out how a man in their village had enticed his wife to leave with him. I looked at him, with my dream still very vivid in my mind, and said, “I do know how you feel,” and we wept together and for six months prayed together until his marriage was restored.

An Angry Letter: The second occasion was when one of the ladies in our church, who was in a group I was leading at the time, shared her feelings in the group about her broken marriage. She too had suffered from a husband who had abandoned her and her two children and gone off with another woman. She showed me a letter she had written to him, expressing her feelings, a letter she had not actually sent. To say it was angry and vitriolic would be a massive understatement but it showed me the immense depth of anguish at rejection she had felt. It is one thing to have a ‘one-night stand’ as the media popularly show happening, or even to cohabit for a while and then breakup, but that can in no way compare to the devastation of having years of intimacy thrown in your face as your marriage partner walks out for ever.

Anguish: This one with whom you made plans, this one with whom you stood before an altar and made vows, this one whose bed you shared for years and uttered the deepest intimacies, this one who bore your children or fathered your children, this one who went on holidays with you and helped make them such joyous memorable times, and now this one who says it means nothing, you mean nothing, and your life together means nothing – and walks off for ever with someone else. This is reckless abandonment, this is absolute rejection, and this is, without doubt, the most painful thing that can happen to you. Losing a partner to death is indeed an anguish-filled experience, but marriage breakup carries so much more with it. Yes, as we noted in an earlier study, there are two people in every partnership and no doubt each one of us can think of things we’ve said or done that did not contribute to building our relationship, but that is not an excuse for abandonment and rejection.

Redemption? But this is all about redemption, not just the tragedies of modern marriage breakups, this is about possibilities with God, this is about grace, and grace comes in some strange ways sometimes. In that first story above, I said we prayed for six months, every night on the phone and amazingly, I don’t know how, she came back, but so did the man to the village where they all lived. All I know was we prayed, and she came back. But there was still the threat of this man. As we prayed one night, I suddenly had a word of knowledge and without any thought simply said, “The man will not trouble you again.” Sometime in the next week I think it was, this man had a serious accident and was in hospital for months and never went near her again. With the passing of time I lost track of them but trust the long-term outlook was good. All I know was that in that period of time God was working to redeem their marriage in ways beyond my understanding. In the second case, the lady in question has been enabled to get on with life with her two daughters and has been able to move on.

Grace: I have used that word above, and in this context it simply means the resources of God that may involve comfort, reassurance, courage, strength, perseverance and a lot more that enables us not merely to cope but to change.  Now back to our header verses: “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”  We have said a number of times in these studies, we are sinners redeemed by God and ‘sinner’ is as much a generic description of us as ‘human’ is. The apostle Paul always had it in the back of his mind that despite all his human qualifications for good, he had been a persecutor of the church of God – he had been working against the will of God in his previous life before encountering Christ on the road to Damascus. Now he had given his heart to the Lord and his goal was to serve God every day of his life. It was a wonderful transformation, yet he was still aware that any good that was coming, was coming by the grace of God and it was that which was having ‘effect’ in him.

The former slave-trader, John Newton, who had obviously been a source of misery for many before he came to Christ, said, “I’m not what I ought to be, I am not what I would like to be, I am not what I hope to be, but I’m not what I was and by the grace of God I am what I am.” It is not said lightly, but that can be true of each of us, whatever anguish we have been through, whatever nightmares we still suffer, and whatever hopes we wonder about fitfully.

Practical Steps: There are some obvious steps towards redemption here:

  • If you were the one who committed the adultery, admit it as sin; you blew it, you got it wrong, you hurt and damaged others by your self-centred behaviour – but that was not the end. It was sin and sin has consequences. If you have a gracious openhearted spouse who might even countenance reconciliation, understand that it is no easy process; you have to rebuilt trust and that may take a long time. If it is now far past and divorce has occurred, you still have a duty to ask for forgiveness. Time and God’s grace can heal up the damage you caused but He requires your humility and willingness to face what you did. Then the way is open for a new day.
  • If you were the one abandoned and rejected, if you are a Christian, in the midst of your hurt I have a healing word for you: “pray for your enemies”! (Mt 5:44) You are still a child of God and I realise the impossibility of what I ask, but God’s grace will enable you to do it, even if it is legalistically at first without any feeling, and you will be surprised at what might follow. I am not talking about reconciliation here (they might have gone too far away for that) but I am talking about your freedom, your ability to be you and carve out a new God-blessed life, filled with wisdom and grace to see you
  • If you are ‘the church’, let these things touch you and reach out to this couple. It is possible you know the ‘offender’ who has left; keep links open, maintaining friendship does not mean accepting their folly, but it does mean you might be able to speak words of grace and truth in the days to come into their life. If you know the damaged, remaining partner, reach out in love and friendship, listen and don’t try and give advice, just be there for them. Seek to understand what they feel and pray for them regularly. Give support if they have a family that is also struggling with what is happening.

A final word: I think this needs saying: whoever you are in such situations, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t go on your own prejudged assumptions. I have often puzzled over the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah.  There are some fundamental lessons there that maybe need picking up here:

  • God may be warning us, but He doesn’t overrule our free will and so lets us do stupid things. Sin will happen, we’re human beings. (We can resist that path.)
  • There will be consequences and they will involve God’s discipline and He does look for repentance.
  • When it comes to the practical outworking it almost seems, if I may put it like this, that God seeks to make the best of a bad mess. Uriah was dead, Bathsheba was pregnant, and God does not try to put the situation back as it is was before it started, it was too late for that. He allows Bathsheba to continue as David’s wife; she, after all, is relatively innocent, a simple girl taken by a king. Sometimes we cannot get situations back as they were; in this fallen world we have to opt for situations that are less than perfect, but which can yet be redeemed and have good brought in them. For example, a previously married couple who part under bad circumstances and end up divorced, can yet get remarried by the grace of God and good can yet flow in both of their situations. This is God’s grace so I dare not suggest how much good, how limited that good might be, or anything in between!
  • When Jesus said, ‘God permitted divorce’, it was an acknowledgment that the best could not be followed, but an alternative could yet come about that would not exclude them from the grace of God. Avoid it at all possible, but if that is not possible, look to God’s grace and mercy to see what is yet possible. If there is no adultery, just a lack-luster marriage, receive counsel, receive help, receive grace and try for something better. Let’s aim for that together.

44. The Anguish of Divorce (2)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 44. The Anguish of Divorce (2)

Mt 19:8,9  Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Recap on Divorce: Let’s quickly recap what we said yesterday. Jesus showed that divorce was not God’s wish, even though He permitted it. He permitted it only because it was the second-best option in the light of hardness of heart in one or other of the couple. He declared that the only permissible reason for granting a divorce was the infidelity of one partner and divorcing for anything less, leading to a fresh partnership meant that was adultery. Divorce also means covenant breaking. I also gave an example, fictional admittedly, of a marriage that had lost its love and then asked questions about us, the Church, being the redeeming community that God wanted.

 Divorce or Separation: To reinforce this general teaching we also noted the apostle Paul’s words, “A wife must not separate from her husband…. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor 7:10,11) There can be, therefore, no hiding the New Testament teaching that we should do all we can to avoid divorces in the church. Why are there so many divorces in the Church therefore? The answer has to be because of a threefold failure. Dare we face this I wonder?

1. Personal Failure of the Guilty Party: Now I say these things, not to heap guilt and condemnation but simply because one of the key things we have observed time and time again in the whole subject of redemption, is that it must be started with an honest facing the truth about what we have done. We are all failures and we all need to accept that to receive Jesus’ salvation, but we also need to accept the truth that we remain imperfect this side of heaven, if we are to create a secure community of God’s people. Us failures need to stick together! It isn’t just that we are failures who sit around moping, muttering, “I am a failure, I am a failure,” but it is that we recognize, accept and confess it, so that God can work His redemption in us. Now for some, the acceptance has to be, “I was guilty of lust, I was guilty of forgetting my partner, I foolishly gave way to temptation, and I foolishly had a sexual encounter that was wrong, (and maybe) and which continues as wrong.” We’ll come to that latter part later. It maybe also that “I was too busy with my career so that I neglected my partner and our children and that contributed to our downfall.”

2. Personal Failure of the ‘Innocent’ Party: Being honest, I have to admit as a husband, I don’t always live as a husband in accord with Paul’s teaching which has to be the norm here in the New Testament, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5:25) The New Testament picture for Christian husbands is that they (we) live lives that are sacrificial, laid down for the good of the wife, just like Jesus laid down his life for the church to come into being. This means that I am there for her, often putting her first (and nowhere does this apply more than in bed). If I fail to do this, I make her vulnerable to temptations when other men try to make themselves attractive to her. Now, ladies, this is a two-way street, so there is corresponding teaching for wives: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Eph 2:22)

Now I am not going to get into arguments about whether Paul was a misogynist, or whether this was just a cultural edict, but simply ask, if you were doing this in the spirit that is perhaps best encapsulated by the Message version – “Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands,” – don’t you think being with you is going to act as a means of overcoming temptation when other (younger) women appear attractive to him?   I know you will want to exercise that escape clause, “not by domineering but by cherishing”, and you are quite right (men hear it!) but it doesn’t give you excuses to nag him, on one extreme, or simply leave him to his own devices, on the other extreme. He needs encouraging to take responsibility and take leadership in being the grace of God to the world (your world) that God wants.

If you are both Christians (and if that is not so I will deal with that in a later study), are we in need of a fresh look at what that means, and especially as what it could be for us as a couple. We go to church together (I hope – if not, consider the instructions above), we worship together at the very least. Praying together, at least occasionally, helps bond and focus us together.

Picking up on the paragraph above, where I said he needs encouraging, you both need encouraging and that will only come about when you spend time together, sharing in what you each like, and when you talk together, sharing the things on each of your hearts and minds. Taking interest in what your partner likes and does – and maybe sharing in it with them – is the mortar that bonds together and strengthens and builds relationships. I have a problem with anything that divides couples and so a ‘gender-mentality’ (e.g. hen nights, men’s nights) is all very well if it is not something that cultivates a sexist attitude. I hear comments made by women about men and vice-versa that are frankly demeaning. It is supposed to generate a ‘club’ or ‘group’ atmosphere, but it happens at the expense of the relationship. Couples need to be together (not all the time) but purposefully making memories and opportunities for closeness. Very often ‘work’ or ‘career’ is something that detracts from relationship building and we have to ask ourselves, in the long run, what do we want, to be lonely and successful or content and fulfilled with your partner? Be warned, the statistics say that once there has been a divorce there is more likely to be a second breakup, (and as a counsellor I would add,) unless positive steps are taken to deal with the personal causes of the previous breakup.

3. Failure of the Church: Obviously if we have people who come to Christ and are added to the church after they have had a divorce, there is little you can do, but I wonder how many churches there are that offer counselling for those who have been through a divorce? I wonder how many churches there are that provide counselling for children involved in family breakups. If being a deserted and abandoned partner in a divorce situation is bad enough, being children of divorces is worse. Many a school will testify to dozens of examples of children who were fine in school but then started playing up, dropping out, or failing classes, and when checked out, it was found the parents are just going through a bad breakup and the children are witnesses.

There is a danger that parents going through a breakup try to be ‘very civilized’ about it and the breakup is seen as a ‘good divorce’. The lie is seen by reading Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, “Between Two World – the inner lives of children of divorce”. Acknowledging that a ‘good amicable divorce’ is better than a bitter one, she tells of the problem of almost losing your identity, as you get passed backwards and forwards between the worlds of the two separated parents and their differing or contrasting lives, and you never can become one or the other, and thus become like ‘lost souls’. Divorce, however you look at it, is not good for children, with challenging and conflicting loyalties, loss of self-esteem, feelings of guilt and shame, hurt, feelings of rejection, and much more. My son-in-law counsels such children but his is a lonely ministry and I cannot help wondering why we, the church, are not training people regularly to minister into this tragic, damaged and shell-shocked area.

Help Questions: To sum up this part, there are obviously two main questions from which all others follow: First, what can we as the Church do to head off divorces, being ‘failing-marriage spotters’, helpers and wise friends and, second, how can we heal up those who are suffering from the pain of rejection when they have been abandoned by a partner, either to another person or to a career, or when their marriage just went sour for a variety of reasons and they have been left feeling failures putting on a brave face? I come to the end of this second ‘study’ on divorce, feeling very unsatisfactory. It is like we have just touched on the tip of the iceberg above water while nine-tenths of it remains out of sight.  We will have to continue this in a third study.

To conclude: Acknowledging that this is not the end of this subject, in the light of our starting point – about facing failure and guilt – we must conclude by emphasizing that such a start is just that, a start, and that the conclusion must be that given time, love, and grace, we come out of such devastating passages of life, no longer desiring vengeance, no longer feeling guilt-burdened, and freed to start to rebuild a life that is at peace, feels fulfilled and is going somewhere without fear, hurt and pain. That is the goal of the next study.