has God become god?

I am musing about a question that has bounced around in my brain for decades. I am not suggesting that I have just come up with THE answer: I have probably just discovered some more questions. I have decided to do some God-thinking here about it. Apologies if you came to this bloggage hoping for something different.

The perpetual question is: why do Christians (me included) keep on doing wrong things? I should make clear that ‘wrong things’ covers a multitude of sins. Literally. It includes the little things that don’t bother us (such as ‘a little white lie’) through to the things that create a scandal when they become public. And everything in between.

You see if we Christians really put into practice what we say we believe surely we would not fall down flat on our moral faces, would we? If we live in a relationship with GOD (caps intended to convey bigness, majesty, divinity, and all of the rest of the attributes we would give him) and are filled with his Spirit to help us to live in a way that follows Jesus and reflects that relationship then surely we wouldn’t give in to temptation, we wouldn’t get things wrong, we wouldn’t wander from the path, we wouldn’t trip up… or any other euphemistic metaphor you want to use.

inspired“Ah,” I hear some of your say, “but God has given us all free will and that means we can choose how to live and what to do.”

Yes he has. But having free will is as much the freedom to choose to do what is right, albeit with the potential that we will choose to do what is wrong. Why don’t we always choose to do what is right? The reality of free will does not explain why Christians let themselves and God down, it just explains how it is possible.

“OK,” others say, “But add to free will the reality there is evil in the world that tempts us and seeks to distort the way God intended things and mask our experience of God.”

Again, yes. Evil has the capacity to take what is good and use it nefariously. For example, ‘leadership’ is important for human organisation and society to run smoothly. At its best it can empower, encourage and serve the well-being of all. But it can become distorted towards tyranny and even dictatorship if unchecked. The presence of evil in the world explains what is happening behind the scenes when anyone does something ‘wrong’.

But it still doesn’t explain why Christians, who have had an experience / awareness / understanding (limited) of God would give in to unwise short-term pleasures in place of doing what they know would be right. However it’s important to recognise that nobody is perfect and we are all still subject to an inherent bias away from God that we have learned and perfected throughout our life. We won’t always get it right. Read what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome in a very honest admission of his struggles (Romans 7 (NIVUK):

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

The internal battle between the old and new, between the bias towards evil and the desire to serve God, between good and evil is clear in this passage. And it’s something that I know all Christians wrestle with. We are all a work in progress. The war has been won but the battles rage on. An eventual awareness of that is what stopped people stoning a woman who’d been dragged before Jesus when caught in the act of adultery: “The one who is without sin should throw the first stone!” was Jesus’ intervention.

Maybe there’s also something biological here (and that can be distorted by evil working on our free will). We humans are organic beings and our complex systems (created to allow us to respond to outside stimuli in appropriate ways) include the capacity to experience pleasure. In his generosity of creation God has made us with the capacity to enjoy. The hormonal surge of pleasure we can experience in positive circumstances can be very powerful and even diminish our capacity to think rationally. It can distort our thinking in the heat of the moment. How often have you heard, “I wasn’t thinking” as a pseudo-defence when someone has been caught out? Is it that the pleasure-urge is so powerful that for Christians it can override our consciousness of God in the pursuit of short-term pleasure? For example, a Christian should know that gossiping about another person is wrong but the pleasure of having an audience (and their reaction to us) and being able to denigrate someone else might take over before they have thought clearly about what they are saying.

There are some things everyone would classify as wrong – murder for example. But while there is a life-sentence for murder there would be an outcry of someone was given a life-sentence for parking on a double-yellow line (it’s a no parking zone for non-Brits who may be reading this). But with God there’s no hierarchy of wrong. If it’s wrong it’s wrong. But maybe because we have a judicial system that gives different sentences for different crimes we have inadvertently allowed ourselves (maybe subconsciously) to categorise things that way for God. Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to become tolerant of some things because we deem them to be less serious offences to him. We allow the occasional lie, the hidden malicious thought, the occasional cruel mockery because the harm is not so great.

And then there’s grace. God’s grace. Christians know deep down that God loves us and if we come to him genuinely seeking forgiveness and restoration he will do that. Every time. Is the knowledge of that aspect of God’s character distorted (by evil?) to cheapen God’s grace? Do we know so much about his grace and forget how much evil is abhorrent to him? As we remind ourselves of the lengths God went to in order to deal with the problem of human rebellion against him because he loves us so much, have we lost sight of how much that human rebellion offends / hurts / injures / scandalises / exasperates God?

Yet when the rubber hits the road I can’t help wondering whether the real problem is that for many Christians God has become god. Is it possible that in a well-meaning attempt to help people understand who God is we have diminished him? Is it possible that emphasising God’s love (which can never be over-emphasised) and approachability in Jesus we have lost some of the awe and wonder? Could it be that the many other things that demand our time and attention become elevated in importance above and beyond the primacy of our relationship with God?

This may all seem rather down-beat and depressing. So let me offer some positives too. I remind myself that with free will comes the freedom to choose good as well as the freedom to choose bad – bad is not inevitable. I remind myself that God has given us his Spirit and that he does prompt us in the right direction (even if we choose to ignore him) – he counterbalances the bias towards evil and can even diminish it over time. I remind myself that love wins in the battle between good and evil. I remind myself that God’s good plan for people is that we enjoy ourselves. I remind myself that God is for LIFE and not just for Sundays and when my relationship with him is a daily, hourly, constant experience I am more likely to choose God’s way. I remind myself that I am not alone – I have family and friends who encourage and support and pray for me (as I do for them).

I remind myself that Jesus taught his followers to pray “deliver us from evil” so praying about it is a good idea to reengage myself with his help. I ask that God will help me become more aware of who he is, how he is, what he is and ever more aware of him.

It helps.

I’m not perfect. I am not sinless. I want to be. But I know that I can’t be without God’s help and that this side of eternity I will always struggle with the allure of evil, as all of us will. But please God help me so that my relationship with you deepens daily and may one of the outcomes of that be that I sin less.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

Black Friday deal

image

Great news. I’m pleased to be able to announce an incredible Black Friday deal. You won’t be able to find a better one!

You can get a fresh start in life, forgiveness for the past, a relationship with God, a helper who is always with you, live life in all its fullness, a global family of billions, the sting of death drawn so you can experience eternity in God’s presence, and a promise that it won’t be easy.

And for one day only you can get all of this ABSOLUTELY FREE.

That’s right, it won’t cost you a penny. The price has already been paid (see Good Friday).

Terms and conditions apply – you need to be willing to allow God’s Spirit to change you, admit past failings and turn away from them, acknowledge that your fresh start in life is a gift from God made possible by Jesus and live your life accordingly.

This offer has previously been available at any of God’s outlets (aka churches) on any day of the year at the same price.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

harumph!?

Embed from Getty Images

In case you didn’t realise I was away at a conference for the first three days of this week. While I was there I was checking my emails when I saw an urgent message from someone who needed a relatively instant response from me that I was unable to deal with until I got home. It was nothing to do with church stuff but needed attention. Harumph!

I felt a bit helpless and also (if I am honest) a bit put upon. There is nothing I can do about it until tomorrow (Thursday). I can’t change that fact. But the email did not seem to take into account the possibility that I might not be able to do anything until tomorrow and set an impossible deadline for me to comply with. It felt a bit unfair. Because someone else had not got their administrative act together soon enough now I felt under pressure and was being expected to sort things out in an unrealistic time frame. Harumph!

Then I wondered how often I do that to other people. Do I place them under pressure to fit in with me and my plans? Do I ask other people to adjust to me (perhaps even because of my own inefficiency) to dig me out of a hole? Do I assume that everyone else is as available as me? Do I expect other people to put aside what is important for them in order to do what is important for me? Harumph?

At the conference there was a moment where we reflected on a description of Jesus ’emptying himself’ – divesting himself of his divine rights to take on humanity (while not compromising his God-ness – kaboom! [the sound of theological brains exploding as they grapple with it). There is so much in this but one aspect is that of humility: he did the unthinkable and reversed the expectations of the day that were about social climbing and looking down on others. One part of the Christian message is that in Jesus God re-turned humility from being regarded as something despicable into a virtue. hmmm.

With that in mind I decided that I should stop grumpily harumphing and get on with being gracious. And I should try to ensure that I was not expecting everyone else to dance to my rhythm and join in with me on my terms.

Be blessed, be a blessing

under new management?

So I went into the garage and asked the man, “Have you got a fuel cap for my Skoda?”

And the man thought for a moment and said, “Sounds like a fair swap!”

I wonder if you’ve come across that joke before? Skoda cars used to be the butt of jokes that were based on their build quality, style, reliability, cheapness and so on. But nowadays these jokes are redundant. Skoda come top in surveys about customer satisfaction.

The reason is that they were taken over by Volkswagen about 20 years ago and have adopted their parent company’s values about style and quality. They have undergone a transformation since they became under new management.

Christians often describe ourselves as being under new management – followers of Jesus. But have we really adopted the new management’s values? Are we willing to be transformed? Can you imagine what would have happened to Skoda if they had refused to change?

(In case you are wondering, no I have not taken on a job as a Skoda salesperson. But I have joined the ranks of Skoda drivers… starting on Saturday.)

Be blessed, be a blessing

forms, details and arrangements

paperworkThere’s a lot to sort out when you are moving job. All sorts of forms need filling, lots of details need dealing with, arrangements need arranging and so on.

It is probably not the case but it feels more complicated when the ‘jobs’ are church-related. In addition to the forms, details and arrangements, there is a church family to say goodbye to, there are lots of ‘last [insert meeting type here] meetings’, there are final thoughts to share and at the same time (unless you are retiring) there is a new church / role to be anticipated with forms, details and arrangements (like arranging an Induction service). It’s complicated and (occasionally) confusing.

I made a mistake when I was trying to arrange a time to visit a church in my new role but looking at my current diary. I got the wrong month and thought I was available on certain dates, which I offered, and then when one was accepted this morning I tried to put the meeting in the correct month and found that I was double booked with a meeting for my current church and the need for a meeting in the new role at the same time on the same evening. I hate it when I do that because it means that I am letting at least one of the groups down.

I now have to ask for grace from the people with whom the second meeting was trying to be arranged and look more disorganised than I usually am.

All of this has got me thinking about how churches can fail to realise how big a thing it can be for someone to say that they want to become a Christian: we might say that they are moving from darkness to light. When we talk to people about it, or preach about it, we can make it all seem so easy and simple.

There are far fewer forms to fill and perhaps fewer arrangements to arrange, but all of a sudden there are new details to deal with: possible lifestyle changes; a new timetable (to allow church attendance); loss of sleep (if Sunday morning lie-ins have to be surrendered in the new timetable); friends and family to tell (and their unpredictable reactions to consider); possible implications for employment; a new language to learn (church-speak) and so much more.

When Jesus said, “Follow me,” it all sounded so simple. So how did we make it so complicated? But at least he warned people about the cost… do we?

Be blessed, be a blessing

re-branded?

Live Coals
Branding can be painful!

There’s an interesting article on the BBC News website about brands that have crossed over to become household names for the item we use: think ‘hoover’, ‘jacuzzi’, even ‘escalator’, ‘google’ and ‘yo yo’! The suggestion is that while the transition of a brand name to becoming a generic name suggests success it actually can sound the death knell for a company because at that point the brand has lost its distinctiveness.

Most of us don’t ‘vacuum-clean’ a room (some of us don’t hoover either but that’s a different issue). We don’t use the ‘moving staircase’ in a shop or on the Underground. And because of that the brand name no longer means just that product: in our thinking it includes any similar product, including those from a different manufacturer.

It got me thinking: has ‘Christian’ had the same experience? It used to mean ‘follower of Jesus Christ’ but now seems to have crossed over to mean ‘Christened as a baby’, ‘knows where the local Anglican Church is’, ‘nice person’, ‘has a residual awareness of church’ or even ‘not a member of another faith’. I have suggested on this blog before that the word ‘Christian’ has been devalued and the article from the Beeb made me think further on that.

I think a similar thing has happened to the word ‘church’ (at this point you can imagine me climbing upon one of my hobby horses!). It used to be the collective noun for Christians – the name of a gathered community of believers – but has now been reduced to describing buildings or as a sloppy shorthand for ‘Church of England’*.

So what’s to be done about it? We could abandon the words – allowing them to float like verbal flotsam and jetsam in the Linguistic Sea. We’d have to come up with some alternatives but they can seem a bit clumsy: ‘Jesusite’ (oops, Jesuit!); Christfollower; born-again Christian (but that’s now a loaded term and anyway we only have a record of Jesus saying that to one person), ‘free sample of Jesus (sounds familiar)…

Or we can reclaim them but reasserting our distinctiveness. Surely those brands are not lost. Surely if those brands were so good, so significant, so much better than the rest people would want them first. So how does that look for ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’? It starts with us being filled with God’s Spirit and then letting him flow out through us so we can be the best free samples of Jesus possible.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I listened to an interview on Radio 5 Live this morning where ‘the Church’ was used 10 times in the matter of a few sentences instead of ‘the Church of England’. It irks me because it suggests / assumes that there are no other churches in this country… [deep breath, and r e l a x]

Britain is not a Christian country

light bulbOver the weekend it seems that some people have got their undergarments tangled over whether or not Britain is a Christian country. I struggled for a while to work out why it made me feel uneasy and then I had a lightbulb moment:

This is not a Christian country.

My conclusion has nothing to do with the culture or heritage of our country. You cannot deny that this country has been formed and shaped by reference to the Bible and by Christians who have made a difference in politics and as social campaigners. We should honour those who have allowed their faith to change this country for the better.

My conclusion also has nothing to do with the multi-faith landscape we have today in this country – probably all world faiths are represented here alongside those who vehemently state that they have no faith.

No, my conclusion is based on an incorrect use of the word ‘Christian’. It was first and foremost a noun – a word coined by the people of Antioch to identify followers of Jesus and his Way. I think we have got ourselves into all sorts of trouble ever since it was first used as an adjective. To say that we are a ‘Christian country’ is a grammatical error, and it is a descriptive error. To say we are a Christian country would mean that the study in which I am writing this is a ‘Lightbulb room’ because it has a lightbulb in it that illuminates the rest of the room.

I think we should ban the use of the word ‘Christian’ as an adjective. We seem to use it as an inappropriate descriptor for all sorts of things:

There is a genre of music called ‘Christian music’ – but the notes are the same notes that are used in all music. The lyrics may be about Jesus or about following him, but the words used are (on the whole) the same words that would be used in a seedy novel or even a humanist rant against Christians – they are just words (except for the jargon we somehow allow to infuse our language in churches).

We describe resources used in churches as ‘Christian’ (there are exhibitions devoted to them) – but they are just resources. If they are sold to people who are not Christians do they stop being Christian resources? What makes them ‘Christian’?

We even (heaven help us) describe churches as ‘Christian churches’. I know it is to distinguish them from other ‘churches’ but it is surely tautologous – a church is a gathering of Christians.

If Christians stopped using our name as an adjective I think we would find it easier to be Christians. We would not be confused with ‘Christian Scientists’ (Scientology). We could see all of the world’s resources as gifts from God that he may want us to use (wisely and with good stewardship) in his service. We might be able to see and experience God in the ordinary and the everyday rather than just in the ‘Christian’ so he could speak to us through a Batman film as much as through the Bible (was that a stone whizzing past my head?).

I am a Christian. But none of the things I possess are Christian. None of the things I do are Christian. None of the words I write on this blog are Christian. They may belong to a Christian, be done by a Christian and be written by a Christian. But that’s different.

Do you see the difference? Instead of this computer being a Christian computer, it is a computer that belongs to a Christian (to be precise it belongs to the church of Christians that I serve). Suddenly instead of a passive adjective (‘Christian computer’) it becomes more active – there are verbs involved. And I think that is the conclusion I have reached. If we label things as ‘Christian’ then we can become lazy and relax and think we have done a good job. But if there are verbs involved we are continually involved in the mission of Jesus – as Christians. And like the lightbulb in this room we will shine brightly in our communities, our homes, our workplaces and even our churches!

Be blessed, be a blessing.