31. Belief

Short Meditations in John 7:  31.  Belief

Jn 7:31  Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”

There are times, possibly because they deserted him at the Cross, that we think that few people believed in the Jesus, but John challenges that belief. First, his disciples: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (Jn 2:11) Then others: “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.” (2:23) Also Samaritans: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (4:39) Families: “the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.” (4:53) Generally: “Still, many in the crowd believed in him,” (7:31) and, “Even as he spoke, many believed in him,” (8:31) and, “And in that place many believed in Jesus,” (10:42)and, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him,” (11:45) and, “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed.” (12:42)

Isn’t that amazing! It started with the disciples, picked up many Jews who saw what he did, included Samaritans, other specific people touched by him, then the crowd, specifically the Jews, and finally even Jewish leaders!

Far from receiving rejection, John shows us that in fact all along the way there were people becoming believers. The fact that most of them did not appear to be there on that last morning before Pilate, or perhaps were overawed by the directions of the religious leaders of the Temple, including the High Priest, does not mean that people’s hearts were not being changed.

None of the Synoptic writers picked up on this for perhaps they were too busy simply putting together the basics of what had taken place in those three years. It was left to John, after decades more of pondering on exactly what went on, to pick up on this. It also fits with his overall goal stated near the end: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30,31). It is perhaps no coincidence that the word ‘believe’ occurs 84 times in John, but only 9 in Matthew, 15 in Mark and 10 in Luke.  

In verse 31 we see the start of the final phase in the chapter where questions are asked, and we see how the tension builds and the authorities are moved to act- but don’t!  But there are lots of believers!  

13. A People of Faith

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 2 – A Different People

13.  A People of Faith

Heb 11:6 without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Lk 18:8  when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Rom 10:17  faith comes from hearing the message

Faith? I have a feeling that as we come to this subject we come to the heart of the challenges that I find confront me as a leader and as I let my eyes wander over the congregation of whom I am a part today. But it is also at the heart of what it is to be a true Christian. It is this subject of ‘faith’, and it is vital that we distinguish belief from faith.

Faith & Belief:  Now we must not confuse faith with belief. The apostle James nailed this one. Listen: faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (Jas 2:17-19) We started this particular Part by considering that all Christians are believers (Study 9) but see what James says: (i) Faith has to be accompanied by action.  (ii) Deeds alone are not a substitute. (iii) Belief alone is not adequate. Faith is belief in action.

Belief, the Starting Point: In that previous study no.9 I noted that there has to be a body of belief which led us through into this new life, and we considered believing that Jesus is the unique Son of God who has to be our Lord and Saviour. It is that initial belief that motivates us and which the Holy Spirit uses to convict us so that we come to a point of surrender and repentance. That initial believing and that initial action is what theologians call ‘saving faith’, it is the belief plus action that opens the door for God to come and declare us justified (which we will go on to consider in the next study) and adopted (the subsequent study) and then indwelt by His Spirit. We tend to be a little casual in our language and so we often just call Christians ‘believers’ (as I have done previously) but the reality is that ‘belief’ is just the starting point and the ongoing life is – if there is to be any reality in it – a life of faith. So what does that mean?

Faith comes from hearing: One of our verses above from Romans 10 suggests that, not only is faith belief in action, it is action in response to God. God speaks, we hear and we respond. THAT is faith. Now if you are stuck in unbelief you will say, “But I can’t hear God.” Yes, you can. There are different levels of ‘hearing’. For instance Rom 10:17 that we only partly quoted, goes on, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Where do you find that “word about Christ”? In the Gospels in the New Testament. The apostle Paul declared, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe,” (1 Thess 2:13) and thus put his own speech on the level as that of the prophets of old, and was therefore ‘the word of God’. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” (Heb 13:7) Then of course there are Paul’s famous words, “All Scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Tim 3:16) If God breathes it, it is His word.

We ‘hear’ when we read the Bible, we hear when we hear a preacher or a prophetic word brought, we ‘hear’ when the Holy Spirit whispers truth into our hearts and minds – but it depends on the state of our heart.  You could listen to a preacher and say, “What rubbish!” despite the fact that he was anointed and spoke with God’s authority. You can open the Bible and randomly read and nothing happens. On the other hand you can feel spiritually hungry and pray, “Lord, please speak to me through your word,” and suddenly it goes alive and you are challenged and transformed. So faith is also a heart response – a right heart response – to what you hear. If you have set in your mind that God doesn’t speak then you won’t hear.

A Personal Story: Relationship with God, which is what faith is all about, can touch our hearts and minds and emotions. I was recently reminded of something that happened to my wife and I many years ago. We belonged to a little evangelical church. We knew little of the life of the Spirit, even less of gifts. One day we heard some news about someone in our family, someone not particularly close and also many miles away. I found myself strangely disturbed by this news and felt in real anguish for them. This feeling carried on and I shared it with my wife and said I had a feeling that I was feeling what God felt for this relative. She responded negatively, “That’s presumptuous, we can’t feel what God feels.” Well we had an ongoing conversation about this that went on and off for the next three days. It was three days later that we attended the church prayer meeting and during the course of it, the pastor’s wife brought this ‘prophecy’. It wasn’t directed so no one else knew it was for us but in it the Lord said very clearly that He had been listening to us and, yes, He had shared His heart with me so that what I had been feeling was from him. It then got scary, because the prophecy went on to literally quote things we had both said in this ongoing three-day conversation, giving point by point answers to what we had both said!  That woman spoke out in faith; we heard it as God speaking by faith. That was relationship, that was communication with God.

Belief then Faith: Consider for a moment the first of our starter verses from above: “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb 11:6) Do you see that? Belief in God comes first but it is clear that the writer means a belief that goes into action – seeking God – and that action is faith. Indeed, as Christians, everything we do is supposed to be by faith. My starting point is turning to God. I do that freshly every morning. For me, my personal practice is first thing in my ‘Quiet Listening Time’ to declare my submission to Him and reliance upon Him, for His salvation, His direction and His presence. I present me and my family to Him with thanksgiving. And I listen. That is just my practice. These days I have learnt to have a notebook beside me and I jot down the things that start flowing in my mind. I get guidance for the day or the days ahead. Look at the verse again. Do I hear complaints that “God never rewards me”? Is it because we don’t “earnestly seek him”?

Ready for Return: Finally, let’s pick up that verse we’ve mention before, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) I’ve said it before, but I find that a real challenge. The things I wrote about in study no.4, ‘Wondering about Fitness of Purpose’, make me feel we are rushing towards this Doomsday scenario and I wonder how much more the Lord will allow, and I wonder if He will use these things to bring the catastrophes that are spoken about in the book of Revelation. Godless mankind has brought into being – and is in the process of bringing into being – means of self-destruction in ways and magnitude never dreamt of a hundred years ago. Whether it is then, or simply when He calls us home, will He find in us a people of faith? Not a people who live by rules or rituals but a people who live out of a living relationship with the One True God, mediated by His Son who sits at His right-hand ruling in the midst of his enemies, and enabled by His Spirit who indwells all true believers. A people of faith? THAT is ‘church’.

Next we will go on to see what happens to us that make us different when we come to God through Christ and are born again.

(Here again at the end of this Part we provide an overview of the series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

47. Belief & Life

Short Meditations in John 6:  47. Belief and Life

Jn 6:47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life

Go into any good bookshop (and a few remain) and you will see shelves whose books can only be described as ‘self-help’. Thirty years ago those shelves would have been virtually empty. Those shelves today tell us there is a small industry catering for the need that people have to improve themselves, to take control of their lives, make something more of them than they are at present. In some ways it is a healthy sign, that people recognize their present inadequacies. In other ways it is very unhealthy, this belief that if only I can ‘do this’ I will improve and change my life and that is enough.

How short-sighted that thinking is. For some, to give up smoking is a major achievement. For others to control their temper is a great accomplishment. In business to find a new profitable purpose and direction sets goals and gives a sense of achievement. But all these are tiny in comparison to the big questions of life. How can I truly become ‘good’? What will happen when I die? What meaning or purpose is there in this life today?

If God’s plans had slid what happened back two thousand years so that Jesus came into the world today, what would he find? Some enthusiasts energetically following him, but many not. If he spoke today and said (as he still does), simply believe in me and I will give you a new quality of life that will have no ending, yes, that will continue on past death, many would reject him a) because their jaded cynicism of having lived in the twenty-first century and tried it all has left then believing there are no real ‘answers’ or b) because they would prefer to work at it themselves so that they can see clear goals, have clear things to work for and remains masters of their universe.

And so this present verse has two essential components to be understood – belief and eternal life. We have considered a little already recently what believing in Jesus meant, believing that his is the unique Son of God etc., but the big question is, how do you measure someone’s belief? Surely it must be by the effects it has on their life. Surely it must mean that of a person is truly a believer in Jesus Christ, their life will start changing immediately, to conform to the goodness that God has revealed through His design for us seen through all the teaching of the Bible, the Law in the Old Testament, the apostles teaching in the New. Goals become God orientated, God directed, and a new life is revealed, a Spirit indwelt and thus Spirit-empowered life and because of His presence in us, we receive and live NOW this eternal life, a life that started when we came to Christ and will continue on into eternity, believing in Jesus, living with Jesus and for Jesus. Amen.

36. Unbelief

Short Meditations in John 6:  36. Unbelief

Jn 6:36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 

I believe the challenge of unbelief to be the greatest challenge that the modern church faces. It is not a case of ‘total unbelief’ but certainly of ‘partial unbelief’. It is exhibited, I believe, in two primary ways. The first is theological but that doesn’t mean to say it is confined to theologians. Many of us work of the basis of “I believe what I understand or what I feel comfortable with”, and thus if we come across verses of Scripture that are challenging, we find ways of writing them off. I simply ask, do you believe every word of the New Testament’s teaching? If you have problems with such verses, for example, as Jn 14:12 or 1 Cor 14:5 and make excuses why they don’t apply to you, you are in ‘partial unbelief’. The second way unbelief is exhibited is in the ‘social church’ mentality. This portrays church as a nice place to go where we follow set, comfortable-formula services that leave us happy and contented – and unchallenged!

Earlier Jesus has said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (v.29) and he had already chided them, “you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (v.26) In other words, you saw the miracle that I performed but instead of praising God for the wonder of it, you are simply self-concerned, thinking how you can get more bread from me. You are entirely materialistic in your thinking and you miss the spiritual wonders going on under your noses!

Moreover, that ‘sign’ should have made them focus on Jesus and, instead of wanting to make him king so that he could keep on providing for them, it should have set them thinking about who he actually was, the one from heaven with the authority of God to bring in the kingdom or rule of God. That is a rule to bring about God’s will, not their will. The ironic thing is that the outworkings of His will and their will is basically the same – their blessing, but God knows it is bigger than simply providing a regular meal for them. That is only a tiny part of the package!

To receive this blessing that we have just referred to relies on them coming to belief in Jesus as the Son of God who has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth through his eventual substitutionary death on the Cross. But that understanding is only going to come in slow stages, the first of which is simply coming to a realisation that he is the Son of God. That they are struggling with and that is what so many struggle with, remaining self-concerned and blind to the wonders seen in the Gospels. May it not be us!

61. On the Way (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 61. On the Way (1)

Acts 9:1,2   He went to the Chief Priest and got arrest warrants to take to the meeting places in Damascus so that if he found anyone there belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he could arrest them

Gal 2:2   I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.

A Journey: It is interesting that in Acts the new faith was referred to as ‘the Way’ which suggests a journey going from somewhere to somewhere. The apostle Paul several times refers to our faith as a race and of course a race has a beginning and an end. In addition to our Galatians verse above, he said to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Throughout this series we have contended for the idea that our lives as Christians are a long redemptive process, that it is God’s intention to change me, and you, and the world. Why? Because He wants something better for us than that which we have presently. Never settle for the present, there is more on God’s heart for you.

The Range of God’s desire: I have just recently been listening online to a Bible week in the UK, a week that always has very high faith levels, excellent teaching and an expectation of the power of the Holy Spirit working. What I have found interesting and challenging is the language of worship leaders and other leaders as they lead the worship and wait on God, such as, “I believe the Lord wants to reach out to those who have been holding onto fears for many years and release you from them,” or “there are people here tonight who have been struggling with their marriages and tonight I believe the Lord wants you to recommit yourselves to making them work with His grace.”   Now I don’t have a problem with those words as such, but they have triggered a thought in me that I have never seen so clearly before: Yes, God does want to come and minister to those people but also those who struggle with anger, with sexual temptations, with worries at work, with worries about their children, and those who are feeling spiritually lethargic, those who are feeling like giving up, those who feel failures, those who are struggling in a myriad of ways, yes, He wants to minister to ALL of these things, all of these people, so why doesn’t He, because these are surely things He wants to redeem us from? The change in respect of each of these things IS God’s will for us, so how does it work?

Aspects of Change: Does God wave a magic wand and we are changed? No, of course not. The Lord works through clearly defined channels. We can see them in the New Testament and there is nothing hyper-mystical about them. They are easily understood, so let’s consider each of them.

My Self Will: Now there is a clear indication in the Bible that we do genuinely have free will and we have the ability to choose how to act in response to anything God says. The Bible shows that God speaks and expects people to respond. He wouldn’t bother to speak if He didn’t have that expectation. Now we also have examples in the Bible of people who did respond positively in belief (and many of our earlier studies showed individuals who did respond positively to God) but we also have examples of people who rejected what God said and disobeyed Him. At the outset Eve could have refused to listen to Satan, but didn’t and so gave way to his suggestions, the temptation in the Garden of Eden.

Heart Condition? You and I can choose how we respond when we hear the word preached, but it is not that simple. There is our ‘heart condition’ and the things that impact upon it. Heart condition? The Bible speaks about hungering and thirsting (Psa 42:2, 63:1, 107:9, 143:6, Isa 44:3, 55:1, Mt 5:6, Jn 7:37, Rev 21:6, 22:17). The person who hungers and thirst is, without doubt, a more open vessel to receive from God. In the Gospels we find people crying out to Jesus to help them. Is that us? Is it possible to make yourself ‘thirst’ for God or is it something He has to do? Both!

Our Choices: I can choose, in respect of the so-called spiritual disciplines, to make more time to wait on God in stillness, I can choose to deepen my study of His word, I can choose to deepen my prayer experiences, I can choose to purpose to worship more fully, I can choose to take notes, listen more carefully and more purposefully respond to the preached word, and all of these things are our efforts to draw near to God. As I do these things I believe there is a changing that will take place in me as He responds (“Come near to God and he will come near to you” – Jas 4:8), and I will find a raising of faith within me, an increase in awareness of Him, and a thrill and sense of thanksgiving rise in me. I can choose to do these things and then have to trust in His responses. This is my contribution to this part of the redemption process.

But there are also the big life choices – not to steal, not to covet, not to commit adultery, not to tell lies, not to abuse others in word or deed, not to defame others. Those are the negative choices I have to make, but there are also positive ones – to speak well of others, to encourage others, to love others, care for them with compassion, accept others and be there for them.  These are another set of choices that I have to make as part of my redemptive process.

The Faith Level Present: Now there is no doubt that faith is a key issue. John Wimber used to say that faith was present in someone in every recorded instance of healing in the Gospels. But I have watched over the years and this I know, the preacher who faithfully expounds God’s word under the anointing of the Holy Spirit releases faith in his hearers. Such preaching should produce a ‘wow factor’ response. That may be “Wow, that was amazing, isn’t God good, I must serve Him,” or “Wow, God is holy I must bow before Him and commit myself afresh to Him”. If preaching leaves people unmoved, either they have hard hearts, or the preacher is unexcited by God’s word and lacking the anointing of God. Bringing God’s word, preachers can come with a high faith level and expectation and generate or release faith.

‘Non-Faith’ Churches & People: Very often ‘church services’ or ‘church meetings’ completely lack faith. Why do you need to depend on God turning up when you have a service all laid out and it must be stuck to? Where is there room for the Holy Spirit to move to bring revelation, fresh direction, empowering to bring healing, deliverance or change generally? Being part of a church that is like this means spiritual growth – the journey along the path of God’s redemptive work in us – is slowed down, either to snail’s pace or actual standstill.  I used to agree with those who said you never stand still, you either go forward or backwards. I’m not so sure that is true, because I do know Christians who appear at a complete standstill in their lives and I suspect they are still thinking the same way and doing exactly the same things as ten years ago. That is not growth, but it is also not backsliding, for they would say they are bona-fide Christians who pray, read the Bible, go to church, worship etc. But have they grown in character and spirituality, wisdom, revelation and insight, are they moving in gifts of the Spirit, being more available and more used of God? No.  Yes, sadly I also know those who once were part of church life but no longer, and who now appear to exhibit little if any spiritual life. Their complaints tend to be about the lack of reality in much church life, but they have opted out from trying to change that from the inside and so simply sit outside and criticize.

The Church Spectrum: But the point I wish to make here is we are not people in isolation in this redemption process, we are part of the church and ‘the church’ can encourage us, release faith in us (which is what the Eph 4:12 ministries are supposed to do) and generally help us to grow – or not! The ‘Church’ worldwide is a complex organism and often more an organisation than an organism. In some places you might find a group of ten believers meeting together with a measure of life flowing between them but having little impact on anyone else. At the other end of the spectrum it is possible to find mega-churches with superstar preachers who justify why a personal jet is necessary, and their pew fodder are supporters who simply finance these stars but show little similarity to the disciples of the New Testament, and the ‘body of Christ’ is no more than an untouched idea in Paul’s writings.  Wherever we worship on this spectrum, can we blame the leaders for failing to lead us to the spiritual heights with God and in transforming the world by His Spirit?  Yes we can, but that is no excuse for us making poor choices that limit our growth. I can choose to study God’s word, to pray and seek God’s face, and worship and witness – or not. I can choose to read books that will stir, challenge and build my faith – or not. I can choose to go on spiritual retreats, Bible conferences and the like – or not. I can choose to contribute to my spiritual growth – or not!

Locked in to circumstances? Sometimes it feels like our life circumstances lock us in and lock us down. Sometimes personal illness strikes, sometimes accidents occur, sometimes we get abandoned or falsely accused and hurt, sometimes we lose a loved one unexpectedly and prematurely and life seems seriously unfair. Sometimes the clouds of gloom or depression hang over us and no one seems to care, and so talk of a redemptive process appears unreal; we don’t appear to be going anywhere. But the thing is that despite what we are choosing to do, or not, and despite what others in the church are doing, or not, God is always there quietly working in the background. and that well known verse of Rom 8:28 still proves to be true: “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.” (JBP version) or “we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Message version). Our part in this redemptive process is sometimes to simply hang on in there and be able say, “Yes, I still love God,” and then just trust that in all the imperfect circumstances surrounding us, He IS still working through His redemptive process in us.   Amen.

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.

36. Islands of Belief

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 36. Islands of Belief

Acts 17:22,23   Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Different Approaches: In Athens the apostle Paul was distressed to see the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16) and when he was given the opportunity, in this pagan city, he used an approach we see him using nowhere else – because it fitted the time and place. Today in the West, we are living in a time when the majority have put aside their Judeo-Christian heritage and basically anything goes. The result of that is that attitudes and practices are being accepted as normal in the world that a hundred years ago would have been considered unthinkable. If you read sufficiently – and I am not advocating wide reading today – you will find that much in paperback is unwholesome and literally anything goes. Some have suggested that we live in a day where there is a market place of ideas and the world believes that no one has the right to claim their ideas are better than anyone else’s ideas. For this reason I believe we need to come up with a different approach to communicate with the rest of the world, ideas that just may scale down antagonism, so may I introduce you to my idea of ‘islands’.

The ‘Island Approach’:  Islands are a familiar tool of novelists and so there is nothing original about this. Imagine a large expanse of ocean if you like, and in it, in fairly close proximity, are a number of islands. Now in reality, in the world at large (the earth I mean) there are many different nations and many different cultures, and we accept their differences. We may struggle with some practices found around the world, e.g. the Hindu practice of a wife being required to die on the funeral pyre of her dead husband, or traditional Islamic female circumcision, but mostly we accept different countries have different cultural beliefs. In our own Western countries we take it as perfectly normal that we have different political beliefs and that it is completely legitimate to work to convert people to our particular party’s beliefs.  The same is not so of religious belief in the West. Perhaps we need to challenge that a bit more.

Now each of my ‘islands’ are places of different beliefs. On my island we are Christians following the Christian faith. Over there, there is a small island where atheists live. (There actually aren’t that many of them in the total world population). Over there, there is an island of Hindus. Over there, there is another island populated by Jews. There are thus a number of islands with different religious faiths and, contrary to the wrong beliefs of many of the non-faith islands, these ‘faith islands’ are definitely not the same as each other. Over there, there is a large island of agnostics, unsure what to believe, and next them an even bigger island of people with no beliefs (they say) and who seem little concerned about it.

Remove defensive antagonism: Now I want to suggest that if we see the world as made up like this today and if the mantra of the world, that all our beliefs are all equally acceptable, is true, then I suggest that each of these islands should exist without any feelings of being under threat from other islands and equally should not feel antagonistic towards other islands. Now some of you are going to start to feel uncomfortable at this point and want to shout about the uniqueness of Christ and of our faith, and I would be the first to agree with you, but please understand I am simply putting forward a tool for communication that is not belligerently, aggressively and arrogantly antagonistic.

Sharing Dialogue: On each of our islands – and ours is no different – we will have a set of beliefs about the world and the way to live life in the light of those beliefs.  In this approach it is legitimate to say, “these are our beliefs, these are the ways we live, what are yours?”  Dialogue is finding out what you believe and sharing what I believe. Now I happen to believe that the system that is on my island is in fact the best, but if I do, then I need to say why it is in an intelligent and coherent manner, and then invite other islanders to explain how their islands work and show that they are equally good – or not – without them feeling threatened. I don’t believe they will be able to do that, but it is a good way to communicate with openness to one another.

Beliefs on my Island: Each one of us on our ‘islands’ have a system of beliefs and we are all different, but it is not that simple. For instance, my wife and I come from the same perspective, the same island, and yet if you were able to peer into our minds and see every single thing we’ve ever thought, every conclusion we’ve ever drawn, every belief in minute detail, we would not be identical. Our ‘big-belief patterns’ (there is a God who made the world) are the same, and that is our island. Our island is different from someone with different ‘big-belief patterns’; they have their own island (that may be there is no God, it is all pure chance). The fact that we may inhabit the same island with other people, doesn’t mean to say we will have identical beliefs. Thus, although we are Christians, you and I may have different understandings but when Jesus commanded us to love one another that meant we should be open to one another, share our hearts with one another and look for unity within diversity. That we’ll need to look at in the next study as we pursue this redemption theme further.

The Faith Dimension on my island:  The Bible is the basis for belief on my island. Some people are certain about that, others have question marks but essentially, we refer back to it in making our arguments. But there is something important we have to accept about the Bible. To start with, I am utterly convinced that, with all the available evidence about the Bible, it reassures me that I can rely on what I have as being as close to the original as makes no odds and is worth my hours and decades of study, and it leaves me believing it is the ultimate source of truth about the ‘why questions’ of life.

However, having said that, we have to recognize that this is a statement of faith that cannot be ‘proved conclusively’. Note also that is also true of scientific conclusions about the ‘why questions’ as any honest philosopher of science will agree. We have, to take a basic example, the knowledge of something we call gravimetric pull, but there is no way of explaining why such a thing exists. Coming from a faith background adds a sense of humility to our discussion. The boldly arrogant about their beliefs, also tend to be ignorant about the beliefs of others or even the outworking of their own. Arrogance and ignorance tend to go together. May we be humble and secure enough in our faith to be open to listen to those from other islands, and possibly learn something from them.

Back to Redemption: Oh yes, nothing has changed, we are still working towards redemption. On my island we believe, as this whole series has suggested, that there is a God who is in the process of redeeming all of us. From our perspective it would be lovely to think that every other island will be emptied, and everyone dwell on our island, but the lessons of the Bible, especially in respect of free will, suggest this will never be like this on this earth in time-space history. However, in this amazingly changing world in which we live today, if we think creatively, it is just possible that we might be able to cross boundaries and show others, who are no longer putting up their defensive barriers through this approach, that our island is in fact the one worth being on. As we communicate between the islands, without losing anything of our uniqueness, our goal is to communicate with grace and truth. These following ‘studies’ are, therefore, not only for us, to sharpen us up in these things but maybe, as we approach these subjects with sensitivity, to win over some from other islands, or at least equip you to communicate with them without raising their defenses in order that that might happen.

And So? I am simply suggesting a paradigm that hopefully enables us to dialogue with others of different beliefs and different outlooks without raising their defenses. It says don’t come in attacking mode but come with humility and openness that doesn’t provoke others to put up resisting defenses, but just possibly enable them to listen to us without hostility.  This approach will be particularly valuable, I believe, when we come to consider viewpoints that are at odds with our own and I will seek to show this in some of the studies that follow. In the background, remember the words of the apostle Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) or as the Message version puts that end part, “and always with the utmost courtesy.”  I would thus encourage you to think about this approach and see if we can use it to achieve those ends. May it be so.