Christian

Posts which have to do with my Christian faith.

A young servant

How can a young Christian serve their church?

I get the impression that young people in churches are sometimes keen to help, but don’t know how. They get put on teams to serve tea, or do other fairly small tasks, and this is great. I think it’s really valuable to be involved in practical service, but I want to suggest there is a real spiritual service open to even the youngest Christians.

In order to serve the church, it is necessary to serve the people within the church. There is no abstract ‘church’ which is somehow distinct from the Christians who meet together. The church is the body of Christ, a united nation. Time and time again, the New Testament speaks of the church in language which is both corporate and personal.

So how can a young person serve their church? They may not be able to preach, or help with regular meetings, but they can serve the people of the church. Serving tea is a great example, but it needn’t stop there. Befriending people is a valuable service to the church. Talking about God’s work in your life is bound to encourage other believers. Asking people for help to understand the Bible will bring the church together. Offering to pray for people will not go unappreciated. The list is almost endless.

A good church should be a loving community of Christians, mirroring the loving community of God. Let us show love to those Christians around us, seeking to build them up and helping them fix their eyes upon Jesus.

If you want to serve your church, serve the people.

Only a famous death will do

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

Commodus, talking to Maximus in Gladiator (2000)

Commodus talks to Maximus in the film Gladiator (2000)

I love gladiator. It’s an epic film telling an epic story full of epic quotes set to epic music (spotify link). And like so many good stories, it follows the plot of the greatest story ever told. The true story of the famous death.

It starts with a general. Someone with power. Someone who tells people what to do, and is obeyed. Someone who has a formidable army at his disposal. And the general becomes a slave. He gives up his rights, his authority, his power. He is humbled, even humiliated, and becomes a gladiator. He fights many enemies, but before too long matters come to a head. He defies the emperor.

It’s a striking story, but now we need to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the emperor in the great arena? The final showdown must take place somewhere public, where it will be seen. The emperor seems to take a quick advantage, just as Commodus stabs Maximus. The gladiator dies of the wound.

But the story is not over. We need to know what happens to the emperor. He is defeated, shown to be weaker than the gladiator slave. And the gladiator, killed in the battle, is honoured and we will see him again – but not yet.

The effect is much wider though. His people are liberated, no longer living under the rule of the tyrannical emperor. And that is why we remember his famous death. That is why we have good Friday.

Building me up

The internet has contributed much to the world in which we briefly live. Some is, of course, undesirable to say the least, but there is much good on the internet. For the Christian it is a fantastic resource giving us sermons, articles, blogs, books, and just about anything else we could want to build us up as Christians. Much of it is even free of charge. But is this the way God intends us to be built up in our spiritual lives?

We read nothing of the internet in the Bible, of course, but we read much about the church. We know it is the church which God has ordained to be His vehicle for helping His children grow more like our Saviour Jesus Christ (among other things). It is in a church context that Christians are expected to encourage each other to live holy lives for God

What, I wonder, is the proper place of the internet in Christians growing to be more like Christ? As we are being sanctified before God, how much should we rely on the many wonderful resources afforded to us by it? With so many sermons, blogs and videos available online from mature Christians, it must surely be possible to get more spiritual input in a day than previous generations have had in a month. How much impact such input could possibly have on your life would be quite another matter, of course.

So how much should we listen to online sermons? How many theology articles should be read online? How many Christian blogs should we read? I daresay we can all agree that these would be poor substitutes for hearing our pastor preach on a Sunday, reading theology books and having face to face conversation with mature Christians. But we can have them as well. We should use them as much as possible, for there is no downside to them!

But is that statement true? While it cannot be denied that the use of the internet enables ordinary Christians to access a great variety of teaching and discussion more quickly than has ever been possible before, it could be argued that as quantity has increased, quality has decreased. I am very aware that I really do live in a soundbite generation, feeding off short snippets. Has this propensity of short snappy sayings replaced the time consuming act of Christian meditation, filling the mind with the glory of God for a long period of time? Do we study God’s word in the same depth we used to? I say ‘we’ – I of course have never known a time without the internet, and wouldn’t know how saints acted in years gone by, but this is a serious question. Are Christians such as myself inadvertently reducing our growth in Christ by removing the work of it? It is obvious that we get less out of reading someone else’s analysis of a Bible passage than we do from writing our own – does the same principle hold to more general Christian growth?

The internet has also changed where Christians look for encouragement, edification and rebuke. Once very definitely the preserve of the local church, now that there is free and easy access to all of the above on the internet do we rely on them? I certainly do not think it is a bad thing to grow because of something read, watched, or listened to on the internet, but a more mature believer who knows us can surely do a better job of telling us what we need to hear. It is easy to avoid a rebuke if it is on a stranger’s blog, or a sermon delivered by a pastor you’ve never met. It is easy to reject the advice of someone you don’t know. Is this not one value of a local church member, or pastor, telling you what you need to hear?

Would you remove free will?

What would you do if you were God for a day?

I once spent a few hours asking people that very question. It was a question board I did with the Christian Union at university.

The premise of a question board is simple. There is a board with a question on it, passers by are asked to answer the question, those answers are stuck on the board using post-it notes. It’s a good way to quickly gauge opinions about something, and discuss them if people are interested in doing so. On this occasion the question put people in the place of God. How would people use the power? How would you?

Most of the responses I received have been lost to the mists of an imperfect memory, but one sticks very clearly in the mind. I remember it because I was shocked by it, and because it was by far the most common answer that the people I spoke to had.

I’d remove free will.

At the time I was totally unprepared for that answer. It had simply never occurred to me that people thought they had too much free will. Too little, maybe – after all, plenty of people seem to think of religion as a set of restrictive rules – but too much free will?!

I guess we can think of free will as being free to do what we want to do. I’m sure a philosopher could pick holes in such a simplistic definition (do leave comments to help me refine it), but it’ll do for my purposes. If I have a certain desire, can I satisfy it? Can I do the things which I most want to do?

Is this a type of free will which we have? It seems to me that people do have this freedom, but paradoxically are enslaved by it. We can do what we want, but I’m not sure we can do anything else! We always act according to our desires, and when we deny ourselves it simply shows we have found a greater desire. I may forgo the pleasure of some food, but only the greater pleasure (or at least, what I perceive as the greater pleasure) of losing weight. Or conversely, I might (and often do!) forgo the pleasure of fitness for the greater pleasure of laziness. We are constrained to follow our own free will.

Into this world, Jesus came and offered freedom. Freedom from what? From slavery to our desires which often go against God’s good desires for our lives. That is why Jesus calls you and me “slaves to sin”. How does Jesus give us this freedom? He changes our desires. He cuts right to the heart of the problem, and changes us from being slaves to sin to being slaves to righteousness. We are still constrained, but to live a completely different way. The way that God knows is best for us.

I assume that the people who told me they would remove free will had in mind that they would impose perfection on the world. I assume they would prevent people from doing things which cause suffering. Perhaps they would even force people to worship them. How different the God of the Bible is! Rather than making people act against their will, He changes people from the inside out. The Christian isn’t compelled to do good, but longs to do it. God doesn’t force us to worship Him, but shows us how wonderful He is and our worship flows naturally from it. What a gentle way of dealing with a race of sinful humans!

What would you do if you were God for a day? What do you think of the idea of removing free will?

The ground of salvation

I’m currently in the middle of a surprisingly busy fortnight, but I thought this quote I found earlier today at the gospel driven church was well worth sharing:

A young minister, while visiting the cabin of a veteran Scotch woman who had grown ripe in experience, said to her, ‘Nannie, what if, after all your prayers and watching and waiting, God should allow your soul to be eternally lost?’

Looking at the youthful novice in divinity, she replied, ‘Ah, let me tell you, that God would have the greatest loss. Poor me would lose her soul, and that would be a great loss; but God would lose his honor and his character. If he broke his word, he would make himself a liar, and the universe would go to ruin.’

The veteran believer was right. Our only real ground of salvation lies in God’s everlasting word.

—- Theodore Cuyler, “Wayside Springs”

What a reminder of the centrality of God’s character to everything!

Rejoice, believer

I recently rediscovered a fantastic hymn written by John Newton. Many a time I’ve sung a hymn which was particularly refreshing and looked up the author only to find it was Newton. I think what I love about many of his hymns are that they show God’s grace not on its own, but in the light of human failing. Amazing grace is obviously Newton’s most famous hymn, and the first verse illustrates the point well. In it, grace is not an abstract concept, but a gift to “a wretch like me” who was “lost” and “blind”. This is what makes the grace amazing – the extent to which we don’t deserve it!

The hymn below is similar, but instead of applying grace to wretches it speaks of how the gospel applies strength to the weak. I find it helpful to regularly remind myself of God’s strength in the context of my weakness, rather than as an independent concept. This way my expectations of a Christian life are accurate. I do have God’s strength, the incredible strength that makes anything possible, but I am also living in a weak body, and I should expect a daily tension between the two.

I won’t say anything else about the hymn, just enjoy Newton’s voice echoing down the centuries.

Rejoice, believer, in the Lord
who makes your cause His own;
the hope that’s built upon His work
shall ne’er be overthrown.

Though many foes beset your road
and feeble is your arm,
your life is hid with Christ in God
beyond the reach of harm.

Weak as you are, you shall not faint,
or fainting shall not die.
Jesus, the strength of ev’ry saint,
will aid you from on high.

Though unperceived by mortal sense,
faith sees Him always near.
A guide, a glory, a defence;
then what have you to fear?

As surely as He overcame
and triumphed once for you,
so surely you that love His name
shall in Him triumph too.

#prayforjapan

In the wake of a huge earthquake and resultant tsunami, the hashtag #prayforjapan is trending, even in UK. For those not familiar with the lingo, that means people on twitter are talking lots about praying for Japan. Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor and author, was good enough to tweet against the flow.

Is this how Christians are meant to pray? Is prayer our plan A, with practical aid as plan B? Are the two mutually exclusive?

My guess is that this view comes from thinking that answers to prayer must be miraculous, breaking laws of nature. In this case, an answer to prayer would presumably be considered to consist of the miraculous appearance of food and shelter, without any aid agency involvement. Answers to prayer may be miraculous, of course, but the simple fact remains they often aren’t.

The Bible never speaks about God being constrained by external forces. The laws of nature are not laws external to God which He may choose to keep or break. They are a normative description of the way in which God usually maintains the universe. A miracle isn’t so much God breaking the laws of nature as God choosing to uphold the world differently on a single occasion. By definition, therefore, we should expect miracles to be rare.

So what should we expect to see resulting from prayer for Japan? God may answer prayers for Japan miraculously, but by definition it is more likely He will provide for them through non-miraculous means. These means may well include aid from other governments or from individuals. If we pray for God to provide physical aid to the Japanese, we should not be trying to twist an unwilling God’s arm. We should be willing to use the resources God has given us to bless others. That prayer should be prayed not so much in a spirit of trying to change God, but a willingness to see Him change us.

Of course, this all assumes that Christians are praying for God to provide shelter, food and other material blessings for Japan. We are assuming our prayers are answerable by an aid agency. Not all prayers fit this category though. No amount of financial giving will provide wisdom to Japan’s politicians, energy to their emergency services or spiritual comfort to suffering families. John Piper’s prayer for Japan is not one material aid agencies have the ability to answer.

Please do pray for Japan. Please do contribute money to those less fortunate than yourself. But please don’t view those actions as diametrically opposed to each other.

Relay 2 summary

Following on from last week’s summary of the Relay 1 conference, this is my (less well connected) summary of what I learnt at Relay 2.

  • Malachi shows God’s condemnation of religiosity.
  • When we don’t care about sin we cheapen grace and reduce our view of God.
  • Half-hearted worship reveals we care about people seeing us look good, rather than caring about pleasing God.
  • Everyone worships. Mission is about showing why God is more worthy of their worship than their idols are, and pointing them toward praising Him.
  • Our motivation for mission should be knowing God is great and worthy of praise.
  • All of life is about making God’s name great.
  • We are not chosen by God because we are better than others, but because He displays His strength in our weaknesses.
  • We need to know what people think we are saying when we talk to them about Jesus.
  • It is Christlike to sacrifice comfort for the sake of others, not to expect them to become like us and enter our culture.
  • Any privileges we have are given to us by God for the benefit of others.
  • We engage with the world by thanking god for the goodness it has, rather than isolating it. We let blessings point to the Blesser, rather than making them an ultimate end in themselves.

Relay 1 summary

The observation which struck me the most after Relay 2 was how different I though it was from Relay 1. At Relay 1 I wrote a summary of what I learned, which was largely theological.

Don’t compare yourself to others. You’ll either become proud or despairing. Instead, remember you are compete in Christ. Trust me, you don’t need anything else, even for a short confidence  boost. No, really, you don’t! You know He is gracious. You know He is faithful. Now live in that truth. Walk in Christ, and remind yourself of His grace. Don’t delay – remind yourself now, and be thankful. Knowing that the gospel of Christ’s grace really is powerful, be unashamed of it. Speak to people about it. Be joyful in it. But be faithful – it is a valuable treasure, and you must not change it, for it cannot be improved, only ruined. How could you even begin to try to improve upon Christ on the cross? Keep the cross central, for that is where the atoning blood of Jesus belongs. This deals with our biggest problem – not sin, but God’s settled, righteous fury at our sin. This atonement is explained in the Old Testament, and the New Testament shows the cross of Christ is where it is fulfilled. Our union with Christ means we bear the punishment for our sins not in ourselves, but in Christ. This is truly radical, and every thought and belief needs testing at the cross, to be discarded or cherished. The cross destroys our self-confidence, and replaces it with confidence in God. It is vital (in the truest sense of the word) that you open your Bible and study it, not for information but to gaze at the crucified Saviour. As you understand this gospel, and grace in Christ, ensure you pass it on faithfully. To do this you need to study it carefully and love those to whom you pass it. Christians will already know the gospel, but faithfully remind them of it. Always remember, rejoice in Christ as you grow in Him.

You are complete in Christ because of God’s grace on the cross.

[Edit] My summary of Relay 2 is now also online.

This is not the blog you are looking for

Since Monday I’ve been residing in the “unusually luxurious” Cloverly Hall on the Relay 2 training conference. As a consequence I’ve not had the opportunity to write a blog post for today. Next week I daresay I’ll post some reflections on the conference, but if you find the intervening period just too long to cope without something from me, I have provided the following for your viewing/reading pleasure: