57. Drowning in the Sea (Recap)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 57. Drowning in the Sea (Recap)

2 Sam 22:4-6  “I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and have been saved from my enemies. The waves of death swirled about me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.

Recently: In the last seven studies we have been considering aspects of the culture we find in the West at this time in history, aspects that threaten our very spiritual lives if we allow them to overwhelm us, and I likened this to being drowned by these things. Now to draw these threads together to better enable us to see the big picture, let’s consider the analogy of the sea as a description of the culture that we live in. We said near the beginning that ‘drowning’ is the negative outcome of being out at sea, but alternatives are that we swim, we sail, or we surf. In other words the sea has the capability of killing us by drowning but it also has the capability of being used for enjoyment, business or travel, all legitimate pastimes or experiences. The analogy of the sea is also useful when we consider it is often tumultuous, there is constant movement and change and it can be threatening. (Jude used a similar analogy – Jude v.13)

What this says is that a godless culture is always bad and harmful, tumultuous and changing, but ‘culture’ in itself is neutral and so all of these things can be positive if they are godly, i.e. we enjoy them within the confines of God’s guidance and direction and we avoid excesses. These things we have been considering are not bad in themselves, but they are bad when we use or experience them in a godless fashion. When that happens they change from things provided by God for our blessing, into things that have the potential to destroy us. Let’s examine each of them again briefly to see these things.

The Possibilities of Materialism: Now the truth is that God has provided everything material and spiritual for our blessing. When we speak of materialism we tend to mean a life that excludes the spiritual and excludes God. All material things, we say again, are potentially things for blessing. Used in excess, most things become harmful. The ‘world’ is materialistic (godless) but we as Christians should always hold a balance that accepts, is aware of, and operates in, a spiritual dimension as well as a material dimension. Our spiritual lives are threatened when we forget or fail to operate within that balance and almost invariably it will be the spiritual side that will suffer. Having said that, there have been those who reject the material dimension and speak of it negatively, forgetting it is God’s provision for us to be used wisely and thankfully (Jas 1:17, 1 Tim 4:3,4). However our greater threat is likely to be we get caught up in materialistic living and that is a life where we forget the spiritual dimension that we are called to experience, live in and serve in. The call is therefore not to let enjoyment of the material world become the all-important thing in life but maintain a balance whereby we operate in, experience and enjoy both realms.

The Danger of Unreality: Being creative, which includes writing books, making films and so much more, is part of being made in the image of the Creator, but fiction is always fiction and we must never forget that. Even more we must always remember that the human author, film-maker etc. is a human being who may or may not be conveying an incomplete picture of what life is about. ‘Romanticism’ tends to view life unrealistically through rose-tinted glasses while ‘realism’ tends to point out only the harsh realities of life. Often a book or film will express one of the other but rarely both together, and therefore we should always remember what the author or film-producer is aiming to do and, in our minds, refocus in the light of the truth about God, and us as sinners with the possibility of redemption, i.e. remember what is and what is not ‘real’.   The danger is always that if we are regular readers or regular watchers of TV, videos and films (and computer gamers, for that matter) we can get swept up in what we have seen/experienced and lose contact with reality, how life really is. The temptation that the enemy puts before us, is to believe the lie that I can live in that unreal ‘reality’ and forget that actually there are always consequences to be born with such things in the real world.

Holding Knowledge Lightly: Knowledge in itself is neutral. The problem with ‘knowledge’ is that sometimes what we think is real or true is not, it is merely an opinion or a hypothesis that may yet change. Knowledge becomes dangerous when we allow untrue knowledge (rather like ‘fake news’) to determine our outlook on life, our perception of what is or is not real and true. It is also dangerous when we allow knowledge to boost our egos or more specifically our pride. Pride always means a loss of perspective, making us think we are greater, more powerful, cleverer, than we are. Pride also questions whether we need God.

There is a saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” which the Internet suggests means, “a small amount of knowledge can lead to overconfidence, leaping to invalid conclusions based on what you do know without taking into account the things that you don’t know.” The wise person knows that the more you do know the more you should realise how little you know, and thus will maintain an outlook of humility. Failing the understand these things means we can become overwhelmed and even intimidated by big people, big theories and big figures. At such times a healthy dose of reading the scriptures and remembering that God is THE big person who is all-knowing and all-wise, is a wise approach. He alone should be our ultimate source of wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” (Psa 111:10) and, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Prov 1:7) Never let go that perspective.

The Life of Social Media: The use of social media and social networking, we observed, has many benefits to our lives today AND many curses. In the light of the many fears that are being raised by a variety of professionals, we would be wise to take note of not only the warnings of abuses and harms that can ensue but also the very real fear of addiction to usage. There is also the concept of the loss of reality that can arise, in both security and knowledge terms that we noted can distort the reality about ourselves and the world around us. Really an extension of the previous paragraph.

A Confusing & Uncertain World:  In both the USA & the UK and indeed many other ‘Western’ countries, Christians are now clearly in the minority and since our nations have largely rejected God we have lost a moral base and no longer believe in absolutes – values or principles which are regarded as universally valid – and so relativism rules which says that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute, i.e. right or wrong depends on every unique situation and will be different for every situation. At least that is what is said except the moment someone harms ‘me or my family’ and which point we scream, “that’s not right, where are the police, justice needs to be done, someone needs to pay for this!”

So we live with the ‘law of exceptions’ that says, “well, yes, generally it is wrong for someone to steal but perhaps there are exceptions, such as when someone is on the point of starvation,” or “well, yes, it is wrong to kill another person, but perhaps there are exceptions such as when a SWAT team have to take out a terrorist carrying a bomb.”  Ever since Hiroshima we have accepted that killing a large number of people is an unpleasant fact of life to save a much larger number of people from an ongoing war. Perhaps as Christians we might say that we recognise that in a fallen world sometimes an evil is necessary to prevent a greater evil – but it is still evil. But these are ethical dilemmas, necessary evils from living in this fallen world, but that is very different from the blatant misrepresenting of truth, telling outright lies etc. that have become almost a fact of life in recent years across the global communication and media networks.

Coping with ‘the sea’: Surfing or sailing on the sea of modern culture is appreciating the wonder and goodness of so many aspects of this world. Culture is sometimes defined as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society,” i.e. the way societies think and then act. For us as Christians things like self-awareness, understanding, knowledge, wisdom and discernment must be major tools in our armoury as we seek to cope with the things these last studies have been dealing with.

Helps? Realizing that

  • we don’t have to comply with the pressures of peers and advertisers to get the latest piece of hi-tec,
  • rejecting the false and unreal perspectives that are often put before us,
  • rejecting the intimidating atheistic voices that seek to challenge with their skewed and incomplete ‘facts’, hypotheses and opinions,
  • taking control of thoughts about myself and others from Christ’s perspective and not that of my Facebook friends, and
  • refusing to be swayed by those who shout loudest in the noisy media market place of political, theological or simply ideological ideas.

Understanding & Living in Christ: Remaining above the surface of the water (culture) is what happens when we take hold of such truths as, God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,” (Eph 2:6). The threefold thrust of that is that:

  • we are to see ourselves as intimately united with Christ,
  • in a place where we are (with him) to rule over our circumstances, and
  • where we are above – and therefore can see clearly – the shambles of the world below us.

In the light of all this, we might do well to finish this study with Paul’s prayer: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:17-19)  Amen!

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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.

22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

Col 2:23    Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence

As we come to the end of the second chapter Paul drives his final nails into the coffin of human spirituality or human salvation, that brought about by our own endeavours. Again to catch the full flow of the logic of what is being said we need to go back to the previous verses. Earlier he denounced following rules: Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?” (v.20,21) and he had gone on to say that such rules were doomed to disappear: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22). It was these ‘rules’ that were “based on human commands” that he now refers to when he says, “such regulations”.

There is a temptation, I suspect, in many to feel these are words of warning against Gnostic malpractices and which therefore have little relevance to life today. I don’t think such a view could be more wrong. We live in a world where excessive provision of material blessing – especially in the West where choice of food is amazing – has actually caused much concern for health and wellbeing which in turn has resulted in an abundance of approaches towards dieting and other fitness regimes. A considerable number of people are concerned about their weight or their shape and perhaps greater numbers are concerned at following self-help manuals or the guidance of mentors or trainers to keep their lives in shape generally.

At the time of writing this meditation (mid 2015)  the trend towards pleasure through materialism is showing signs of collapse, as increasingly in the media there is a recognition that pleasure or satisfaction gained through collecting or owning ‘things’ is short lived. The signs are that people are moving away to seek meaning or pleasure or excitement through ‘experiences’ whether it be sky diving, going on cruises, taking drugs  or a multitude of other experience-creating activities.  So here we have these two streams – self-help and looking for ‘experiences’ – which although very much being twenty-first century manifestations of misguided mankind’s search for meaning and purpose, very much echo the lives and experiences of those following the Gnostic trail in the first century.

So let’s look again at our verse above. All of these approaches of following rules – or someone else’s self-discipline regime – “indeed have an appearance of wisdom.” How eagerly people scan these things today in the weekend papers. The eastern outlook on ‘mindfulness’ has become one of the more recent fads to sweep the Western world taking in both believers and non-believers, for both individual and corporate business  development. Each new thing creates an interest because past things have failed and just maybe this latest thing will provide the wisdom we need.

Note again the things Paul identifies in the Gnostic way that is also common today. First he speaks of “their self-imposed worship.”  Worship is simply highly esteeming something over everything else and when he says it is ‘self imposed’ he means it is brought about by the false teachers and does not flow naturally out of a genuine encounter with God.  If we ascribe to any regime, method or discipline honour that exalts it as ‘the answer’, we are in deception, for nothing and no one is worthy of our worship except God Himself.

Second he speaks of “their false humility,” which simply speaks of their appearance – they look good. You watch these people and initially their regime gives them a buzz and for a while they look good; it seems to work. Look again in two years and you will probably find them trying something else. The present is a false appearance.

Then third, he speaks of “their harsh treatment of the body,” and how people today are subject to fitness regimes which are really hard work. Yes, the motivation of the Gnostics was to do with thinking that the material or physical was bad, whereas today the workout is to improve personal health and appearance, but ultimately both have false foundations.

Paul concludes with a damning condemnation: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  For the Gnostics they beat themselves up because material things were evil, but actually their assessment was false and they often soon gave way to falling back to sensual pleasures. How often today does the person who struggles for months on a really harsh diet eventually give way and fall back into bad eating habits. The thing is that without the proper motivation, all these things are doomed to failure.

We so often hear of people “comfort eating”, meaning they eat to make themselves good because they have such poor self-esteem. When you really come to know you are loved by God and have a place in His plans for the world, you no longer need to use food (or even a fitness regime) to feel good. You feel good because you are loved and you know it! All of these things we have been considering can be summarized as self-help, and people do them because they do not go to the true source of all real help – Christ.

All of the things Paul has been speaking about in the later half of this chapter are substitutes for a genuine relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Observing special days, following rituals, trying to follow self-disciplinary rules, all of these things are substitutes that DO NOT WORK. That is the lesson of this chapter. Make Christ THE focus of your life, enter into a real relationship with him via his Holy Spirit, and you will know a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. May it be so!

22. Our Past Lives

Meditations in Titus: 22:  Our Past Lives

Titus 3:3   At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

One thing I have noticed over the years  is that when it comes to testimonies you either have people giving very low-key accounts of how they became a Christian or they give the lurid drink-drugs-sex background testimony that reveals what an awful person they were and how wonderful their conversion was.  What we don’t tend to hear are testimonies in terms of the things we now find in our verse above.

I believe the reason for this is that we simply don’t come to a realisation of what we were truly like until some while later in our spiritual life when we have become sufficiently secure in God’s love to be able to face the truth of what we were genuinely like before we came to Christ. In my experience of watching for many years and listening to people I honestly believe there are very few of us who came to Christ aware of these things and convicted because of them. We may have been aware that our life was in a mess and we needed help but the deep seated reasons were not obvious to us.

The first sentence of our verse above speaks of a) the focus of our past lives and b) the fact that we were locked into these things: At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.” The focus of our past lives had been “all kinds of passions and pleasures.” ‘Passions’ has a feel of emotional desires about it but is also a mind thing. We had set ways of thinking – that were self-centred and godless – meant we were defensive about ourselves, protective of self and out to make self feel good. We thought we were right and got upset if people opposed or contradicted us in our way of thinking and living (which is why Christianity is often seen as a threat and is therefore persecuted).

Hobbies and causes can even be expression of this. Seeking after self-pleasing experiences. I have recently seen secular writing that has suggested that the Western world has tried obtaining pleasure through materialism, and wanting more and more possessions, but has found it wanting and lacking satisfaction, and so is turning more and more to clocking up more and more ‘experiences’, hence so much travel to see ‘new places’ and encounter ‘new cultures’ and enter into their (to us) ‘new experiences. TV series, cult films and so many other ‘media experiences’ are also part of this ‘experience package’. These experiences are our new ‘pleasures’ that Paul speaks about.

To get meaning out of the godless life, people are locked into this seeking for (pleasurable) experiences, they are enslaved by them because they have to have them for without them (from this standpoint) life is meaningless. Satan has deceived people into believing this way about life and so they have become disobedient to God, searching after things in the creation rather than the Creator. How else can you describe them but foolish – senseless, unwise, silly! “Foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved.” What a condemnation and we didn’t realise it until the Holy Spirit started convicting us of the mess we were in, how hopeless and helpless we were, and showing us hope in Jesus.

But Paul doesn’t leave it there, he has specifics in mind of this godless and self-centred life that we used to live: “We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” Because we were, as we said above, defensive about ourselves, protective of self and out to make self feel good, we so often felt bad about other people, wishing them ill (that’s ‘malice’) and because we gained worth and pleasure through things, we constantly wanted more and more and so often more of what the people next door have (that is ‘envy’). ‘Keeping up with the Jones’’ became, for us, a familiar saying of the new prosperous materialistic world.

But of course such defensive feelings are divisive and our divisions are stoked by, first of all , dislike and then as it grows, hatred. There is racial division, class division and division of rich from not rich. Listen to the chants of demonstrators, one part against another, one group against another. Although they might deny it, strength of feeling indicates hatred. “I hate their way of life,” or “I hate their extreme affluence which is unfair on the rest of us,” and so on.

Life for the unbeliever involves conflict and although that is how we used to live, says Paul, now our lives should be exactly the opposite and none of these things we have been considering should be there in our lives in any form. This is one of the things that distinguishes us from our unbelieving neighbour, and our attitudes and words and behaviour should reflect and reveal faith to all around us. If we can be honest, that is what we once were like, but now we are completely different. Hallelujah!

39. Guidance for the Rich

Meditations in 1 Timothy: 39:  Guidance for the Rich

1 Tim 6:17   Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Perhaps we would do well to check the flow of Paul’s thoughts through this chapter. Earlier he had warned against false teachers again (v.3-5) and had concluded in response to their constant agitation that “godliness with contentment is great gain.” (v.6) This had led him to then warn against the love of money (v.7-10) and had then charged Timothy to flee that materialistic, wealth grabbing life and go all out to fulfil the calling on his life (v.11-16) With all these thoughts in the back of his mind about materialism and going for money, it is natural therefore for Paul now to give instructions to Timothy about those who are wealthy. Christian teaching does not deny wealth and say it is wrong, but is more positive and instructs on how to use it wisely.

So Paul starts with a warning to challenge those who are rich to maintain a right attitude: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth.” (v.17a) We have commented before that in the world there is this tendency for one class to look down on another. Those who are rich have the greatest temptation to allow pride to reign so they think much of themselves (having achieved much or being born into a rich family) and thus think less of others. Money has that capability of distorting one’s view of oneself. Even the rich are prone to illness, even the rich will die, even the rich will have to face God and give an account for how they lived. So Timothy, instruct such people not to be like that. Even more warn them against trusting in their wealth for they will not take it with them when they die and their wealth will not bring them salvation. Yes says Paul, wealth “is so uncertain.” It can go so easily, as Job found out and as so many investors and bankers have found out.

Warn them not to trust in their riches “but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (v.17b) Yes, their hope should be in God. It is not as if God wants to keep on taking away our money or possession; quite to the contrary He is a God who provides for us and all He provides is for our enjoyment. This is a wonderful verse to counter those kill-joys who take on ancient Greek thinking that says the material is bad and only the spiritual is good. Oh no, consider the incredible wonder of all that we have in the material world, incredible numbers of  different sorts of food or drink, and so many ways that with our five senses we can enjoy. In fact the more you think about it the more you realise that God has made us material beings who are designed to enjoy all the senses in so many ways. It is actually incredible when you think on it.

But these rich people have so much potential to do good so, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (v.18) These are people who have the potential to really bless the world. Bill Gates is an example of a man who found himself with incredible wealth and realised there were only so many things he could spend it on, so has created a foundation to spend much of it on blessing the human race. There have been other philanthropists who have done similarly. When you have so much that you just can’t spend it on yourself meaningfully, the only thing left is to give it away. But there are thousands upon thousands of rich people in the world who don’t have unlimited wealth like the few, and so their tendency is to be self-focused but in so doing they fail to become what they could become and will be answerable to God for their selfishness.

No, says Paul, warn these people to do good and so, “In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (v.19)  There is an echo here of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:19-21).

Each one of us has to decide what our values will be. Will we make our life focus achieving what I can for me, achieving in a career and obtain status through position and wealth, or will I put God first and submit everything to Him and let Him lead and guide me into ‘good works’ where I look to the welfare of others rather than myself? If I choose the former I will get to the end of my life possibly rich with money but bankrupt spiritually and as I pass through death the money will remain in the world I leave and I will find myself in total poverty in eternity. If I choose the latter I may well end up quite affluent when I leave this world but as I enter the next world I will find myself truly rich. Real life is following the latter path.

5. Trials Prove Faith

Meditations in 1 Peter : 5 :  Trials Prove Faith

1 Pet  1:6,7 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

The changes that have taken place in the West especially, in the past fifty years, have brought new pressures to Christians. Possibly the biggest pressure has come through the philosophy of materialism which has been bolstered because we have gone through a time of unparalleled affluence and technological change. This has had a number of effects but one of them is that we have entered into a new level of peace and comfort, which we have almost come to believe is our natural right. The only trouble is that we still live in a Fallen World and don’t seem to cope so well when things don’t go well.

Peter, like James in his letter, brings us right down to earth in terms of practical faith. He has just be saying how wonderful it is that we have this inheritance stored up for us once we leave this planet. That is why he starts here with, “In this you greatly rejoice”. It is really wonderful that we have this assured future. But then we stop looking up, and we look around us and we realise that all is not quite so wonderful here today! Oh no, Peter is very realistic when he speaks of us having to suffer “grief in all kinds of trials.” That paints the picture with big bold black strokes! You are going to have grief! Why? Because in this Fallen World we are going to experience things going wrong, which Peter refers to as ‘trials’.

James, in his letter, had exactly the same understanding: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (Jas 1:2,3). Do you see the language used by both of them: grief in all kinds of trials” and trials of many kinds.” It’s not just the odd, occasional thing going wrong; it’s a world that is Fallen and where things go wrong all the time!!!!   Be realistic! We get sick, we have accidents, we do things wrong or badly or not as well as we could, and that has consequences; other people are nasty and say or do bad things, and so it goes on. If that seems a black picture of the world, it is, but the truth also is that the Lord is with us in it and, as we’ve recently noted, His power and wisdom is available for us so we don’t have to feel bad about it all.

There are two ways we can respond when ‘things go wrong’. The first is to sag and get full of gloom and doom and be negative. When this happens we also tend to be in a place of generally weak faith. We become anaesthetised and spiritually weak at the knees, and fruitful is the last way we could describe ourselves. In other words we just go down under whatever it is.

The second way we can respond is to view whatever it is as a test or a trial of your faith, knowing that God has equipped you to cope with just such things. That is the positive approach in line with what the Bible teaches. This is what Peter says is going on when you suffer grief from the many and varied trials that come along. He says that it is so that, your faith– may be proved genuine.” You think you have faith, you say you have faith, but how do you know that you really do have faith? The answer has to be only when it is tested and shown, and that happens when things happen that require us to rely upon what God has told us. So often in these meditations we have noted that faith comes by hearing what God says and faith is responding to what He has said. So when the trial comes along, do we believe what He has said, that His grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor 12:9), and it is all sufficient for all we need (2 Cor 9:8) and that He will meet all our needs through Christ (Phil 4:19), so that we can do anything He puts before us (Phil 4:13)?

This faith, says Peter isof greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire.” What a comparison! Gold is of immense wealth and value, but gold when it is refined by fire can actually be destroyed, whereas our faith when it is refined by difficult circumstances becomes stronger.

But there is more. When we come through our trial and our faith is proved genuine, we see that it may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Our faith can bring glory to God. Jesus taught that: “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) i.e. the way we live our lives can point people to God and bring glory to Him. This is what Peter is saying as well. Your real faith will reveal Jesus to the people around you. That is the possibility for your life and mine. As we respond to what the Father has said, and continues to say, and our faith is shown to be real and based upon Him, others can see and understand and realise that He is real and we are what we are because of Him. May that be so!