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.

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39. Condemned

(We return to the series on Job to follow his anguishes with his three friends)

Meditations in Job : 39.  Do we condemn ourselves?

Job 15:6 Your own mouth condemns you, not mine; your own lips testify against you.

We come to the next round of the three ‘friends’ making further comment about Job. Eliphaz was the first one to have spoken and had, first time round, been fairly diplomatic in the way he brought out his assessment of Job’s situation. This time round he seems not so circumspect and speaks more directly. Our verse at the top today really sums up his initial strike: you condemn yourself. It’s like he says, I don’t need to pull you down; you do it yourself by what you say. Let’s see exactly what he says and then see it in a wider context.

He says Job condemns himself in four ways; first with empty words. Would a wise man answer with empty notions or fill his belly with the hot east wind” (v.2) Empty notions? Ideas that have no meaning! That’s not kind! A “hot east wind”? Words that come from an arid desert that have no effect except wear out the listeners. Job is like an arid desert? That’s not kind!  How do you think you might feel if you had been trying to explain something and then eventually they turn round, exasperated, and say you were just an empty wind bag?  We must not forget in all this how Job is physically. Nothing has changed. This is almost the equivalent of three philosophers coming in and sitting next to you when you are in a critical condition in a hospital bed. This is an unfair competition; they are feeling fine but he is feeling like he’s at death’s door!

Eliphaz continues: “Would he argue with useless words, with speeches that have no value?” (v.3) There is that same put-down: “useless words! This is not nice. This is the equivalent of the parent or teacher who says to the child who already feels a failure, “You are stupid!”  This is not what they need to hear. At such times we need gentle words of encouragement – even when we are wrong. Low self esteem is not helped by words of condemnation that are just plain unkind!

The second way he condemns himself, according to Eliphaz, is to undermine his relationship with the Lord. Previously he had said, Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?” (4:6). In other words, be confident in your piety, in the way you express your relationship with the Lord, but now he is saying that Job’s words even undermine that previous experience of the Lord: But you even undermine piety and hinder devotion to God.” (v.4). You might have started out well, he suggests, but now, “Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty.” (v.5). In other words, you’ve tried to argue from cleverness, appearing crafty and trying to twist God around your little finger, we might say. Thus he concludes, “Your own mouth condemns you, not mine; your own lips testify against you.” (v.6) i.e. just listening to what you say, I realize I don’t need to say anything; you are tearing yourself down.

But then comes the third put-down or third way he says Job’s words condemn him. Now he says Job’s youthful arrogance ignores the aged wisdom that is before him. Listen: Are you the first man ever born? Were you brought forth before the hills?” (v.7) i.e. have you lived longer than anyone else so that your wisdom is greater than anyone else’s (implied)? He goes on, “Do you listen in on God’s council? Do you limit wisdom to yourself” (v.8) i.e. do you claim to have been in the courts of heaven and overheard God so you know what He thinks? Are you the only wise person around? Really, come on, “What do you know that we do not know?  What insights do you have that we do not have?” (v.9). Why are you cleverer than we are? The obvious inference is that, of course none of this is true so he appeals to age and aged-wisdom to overcome Job: “The gray-haired and the aged are on our side, men even older than your father.” (v.10) He appeals to Job as coming from the older generation who demands respect. Whether Job is a lot younger is unclear, but at least Eliphaz is older and claims the wisdom of age.

Then we come to the fourth of these put down’s or ways that Job condemns himself through his words. He claims Job is even refusing God’s correction: Are God’s consolations not enough for you, words spoken gently to you?” (v.11). This infers that the words the three friends have spoken have been God’s words, correcting Job. Instead of receiving their words, Job has responded in anger: “Why has your heart carried you away, and why do your eyes flash,” (v.12). What this therefore means is that Job has actually railed against God. Look – “so that you vent your rage against God and pour out such words from your mouth?” (v.13). By implying that they, with their aged wisdom, were speaking as from God, it means that Job’s responses were responses against God.

In each way these put down’s really demean Job and are designed to take away any grounds he might have to respond. Recap: Job’s words are empty, they undermine his previous relationship with the Lord, they ignore the wisdom of his aged counselors who speak for God and thus he rejects the correction of God. Where do you go with all that? Well, what is the truth?

First of all simply deriding what someone says in their argument as empty wind, is the worst form of arguing. Abuse is not arguing! Modern atheistic crusaders use this tactic to seek to demean their believing opponents. It is, we say again, the worst form of arguing. Second, to challenge the spirituality of another person and challenge the way they work out their relationship with the Lord is a dangerous thing to do. It puts your own quality of relationship with the Lord under the spotlight because it infers that by comparison to yours, their relationship is less. Taking the words that come from another and implying it reveals a shaky relationship is similarly a dangerous thing to do. Merely because someone’s understanding of certain aspects of religious doctrine is a little faulty, it doesn’t mean their relationship with the Lord is defective. A relationship with the Lord is better measured by the obedience of that person to what they have heard from the Lord than the amount they know.

This leads us on to question the wisdom of the aged. Hopefully the aged have learnt a lot through their years of experience, but sadly that is often not true. The aged may not be obedient to the Lord and that counts a lot more with Him than how many sermons we have heard or how many Bible Studies we have attended. We also need to challenge a person’s right to claim to have spoken from the Lord. They may have done but there is no presumption that comes with age that that is so! Jesus was full of grace and truth, which meant that whenever the down trodden (such as Job) came to him, he treated them with gracious, gentle acceptance. That is not how Eliphaz has been treating Job. These are all significant issues that we should be thinking about in the way we treat other people.

1. Servants

Meditations in James: 1 :  Welcome to Servant heartedness

Jas 1:1   James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ

Leaders in the church of the first century seem to be so different from so many leaders in the church of the twenty first century. In big churches in the United States, leaders seem not far removed from a CEO of a big company. Some have big cars, big houses and big minders. Even in smaller churches, church leaders often seem to be ‘big people’ who command awe and respect. Now I may be wrong, but when I read some of Paul’s writings, his second letter to the Corinthians for example, although there are times when he speaks strongly, when he writes to them he spends much time appealing to them on the basis of his weakness. James starts us of in his letter referring to himself as a servant. Now this is remarkable because commentators and scholars tend to think that he was probably one of the brothers of Jesus: Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” (Mt 13:55). Now if he was a worldly person he would drop this little fact for us, just to quietly remind us of his closeness to the Messiah. I mean, a member of that special family! What tales he could have told of Jesus’ early years, probably the closest in age to Jesus, coming at the head of that list we’ve just quoted. But no, there is nothing of that. He tells us virtually nothing of himself. Even if the assumption that he was one of Jesus’ brothers is wrong, he is clearly a leader who is well known, but still he doesn’t put on airs. He simply sees himself as a servant, and that is the only designation he wants to go by.

Yet when he refers to himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a confidence implied within that.  A lot of people wouldn’t have the confidence to call themselves a servant of God; they might feel it sounds too pious, but James knows who he is and who has called him and who he serves. Some people might feel that it would be too presumptuous to call themselves that and might feel that God might hold them to account for saying such things, but James knows who he is. If he is the brother of Jesus, the designation he gives himself is all the more amazing, the servant of… the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no familiarity about this designation. He could have said, I am a servant of my brother Jesus, but he doesn’t! He elevates Jesus for he has come to see him as he truly is – the Lord. It hadn’t always been like that. Once he hadn’t even believed Jesus was who he said he was (see Jn 7:3-5). Now he understands, now he realizes Jesus is the One who has the right to call on James as his servant. There is a humility that comes out in James in this, that not only doesn’t draw attention to his pedigree, but also bows the knee both to God and to Jesus.

Servants are those who serve another and don’t draw attention to themselves. Jesus called his disciples to be servants: whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:26-28) To have a servant heart was to be the starting place of a disciple, yet as they developed their relationship with him, Jesus was able to say to them, You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (Jn 15:14,15). A servant doesn’t tend to know what is in his master’s mind, yet as Jesus shared his heart with his closest disciples he changed their designation from ‘servants’ to ‘friends’. Why, we might ask, doesn’t James call himself a friend of Jesus then, why a servant? Well the Greek word that James uses for ‘servant’ is doulos which means a bond-servant or slave, one who willingly submits themselves to their master. It is as if James says, yes, I know what our position is today, we are God’s children or friends of Jesus, and in my case he is my brother, but I want it to be known that I submit to him, he is my Lord and I don’t want to make any presumptions; I just want to be available to him, as his slave if need be.

How many of us come to God with this sort of self-imposed humility I wonder? Such humility only comes when there is a true awareness of just who Jesus is and just who we are. When we realise that he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 19:16) and that left to ourselves we are but helpless sinners, this gives us no room to boast and no room to feel great about ourselves. It only creates gratefulness and thankfulness and a desire to bow before our liege-Lord, as the servants of old did in feudal times, acknowledging their allegiance (do you see the similarity in words?). This is what James is doing as he describes himself like this; he is declaring his allegiance to Jesus as his Lord. It is almost as if he feels that he can only come as God’s representative to His church, if he comes in this manner. He can only speak the things he is going to speak to God’s people, if he comes with his heart bowed before his Lord. What a good attitude for any leader!

16. The Paralytic

People who met Jesus : 16 :  The Paralytic

Mt 9:1,2 Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a paralytic. I can try, but I fail. I hear of famous people who have had accidents and ended up paralysed, and I hear how they cope, but I struggle to imagine what it must be like being utterly dependent on other people. That is what it was like for the man at the heart of our meditation today. He is utterly dependent on others. Like many people who came to Jesus, we don’t know who he was, what his background was, what his name was, or even why he was paralysed. It seems those weren’t issues that concerned the Gospel writers. Perhaps sometimes they omitted names because nobody took note of it when it was happening, perhaps it was happening so often they just couldn’t keep up with everyone who was healed, or perhaps they felt that the individuals concerned deserved some privacy and so just didn’t tell us their name.

The thing that identifies this man, as against anyone else being healed, was, first of all, that he had four friends who brought him to Jesus on a mat or stretcher. Mark & Luke tell us of the perseverance of these men: Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on.” (Mk 2:4) We talk of these men as his ‘friends’ but they are just described as “some men” in all the accounts. We don’t know who they are and so we assume they are obviously his friends.

Now although we are focusing on the paralytic these men ought to have the spotlight shone on them, because it is “their faith” that Jesus responds to. The paralytic doesn’t seem to have the faith for healing, but his ‘friends’ do. It was because these men had heard of Jesus and saw (presumably) his power, that they had faith for their friend to be healed. Hence they are determined to get him to Jesus and are not going to be put off. That, I find, is a real challenge. How often, I wonder, do we get put off trying to bring our friends to Jesus? All they need is contact with him, but hindrances come and we give up!

But then we come to Jesus’ amazing response to the man: “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Now again this is one of those times when we wish there was further explanation given. Why did this man need forgiveness? What had he done? Were these words an acknowledgement by Jesus (who knows us completely even before we say a word) that he understood that this man saw Jesus as a ‘holy man’ and, having very low self-esteem (through his state), felt he wasn’t good enough to come to Jesus? Or had he done something silly that had brought about the paralysis? We aren’t told the cause, only that Jesus gladly and easily grants him forgiveness.

Now the thing about these accounts is that they often include quite a number of ‘players’. Some of the background cast, of this particular play, get upset: “At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” (Mt 9:3) We might be a bit slow to realise the significance of what Jesus says, but they weren’t. He’s claiming to be God because only God can forgive sins! That was the gist of their objection. Jesus’ response is delightful. He doesn’t enter into an argument about why he is God; he simply sidesteps it with a piece of indisputable action: “Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home.” (v.4-7) Wow! You can’t argue with that. OK, is what he is saying, it’s obviously easy to say words, but what if I heal him? Will you be happy that I am who my words imply I am? And he does!

Matthew and Mark simply observe that the man left of his own accord. We don’t know where Luke got his information from but as a Physician, being a people-person, he tells us that the man “went home praising God.” (Lk 5:25) This was one happy and grateful man!  Wouldn’t you be? One minute you’d been in an utterly hopeless situation and the next you are free to lead your life how you will. Forgiven and freed! One minute you have low self-esteem, feel bad about yourself, feeling guilty and a nobody, and the next you are forgiven, loved and free to be yourself.

Now there is one further thing I note here. It may just be that the ‘shorthand’ of the Gospel writers didn’t include it, but often in such accounts we find the healed person stays around with Jesus. In the previous meditation, Legion afterwards is noted to be “sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind.” (Lk 8:35), but this man just seems to disappear off home. Not for him is staying around. Again we don’t know why. Perhaps he wanted to get out of the public spotlight – it takes a while to get rid of low self-esteem! Perhaps he wanted to go home and tell his family what had happened. We just don’t know and Jesus doesn’t make any negative comment. At another time when ten lepers got healed and only one came back to give thanks, Jesus commented about the other nine, but there is none of that here.

It’s all right, Jesus understands. We all respond in different ways. There’s a lifetime ahead to be lived by this man now. That’s what counts, how he will make the most of his life from now on, not how he reacts to what has happened. I love the way some brand new Christians react to being born again. We want to hear certain words from them and see them respond in certain ways – and they don’t! They just get on with life and that is more real than any forced or implied or expected responses. No, when life flows, as it did in this situation, and the man is freed, don’t try and mould and channel that life into artificial religion. Let them LIVE in the joy of that and let the Holy Spirit lead them. I realise that these words make some people uneasy but if that is so, it is probably because of our insecurity and lack of confidence in God. Yes, we do need to teach and care for new believers but mostly we have got to let them live out the life that is now bubbling in them, and that may not always conform to our stereotypes.

Do you know anyone who you consider an ‘impossibility’?  Is their life ‘paralyzed’ and not going anywhere? The most crucial thing we can do is somehow introduce them to Jesus – and that is more than just speaking words. It is about encountering the living Son of God who has the authority to be able to make possible the impossible, and who has the love that desires to do it. Hallelujah!