As I write, it’s a rainy February afternoon in 2014, but the striking thing about this blog is that the last post is dated July 2011. I’ve been busy with all sorts since then, and I still am, but I have decided to give blogging another go. This time round I don’t intend to take quite the same approach. In the past I’ve often tried to write something that reflects a well thought through, settled opinion. Now I intend to use my blog more to process partial thoughts, and invite the input of others. There will probably be more quotes, and reflections on what I’m reading and watching, and most posts will probably be quite short. Think of them as starters, then come and join the conversation!
Sadly I don’t anticipate that this post will mark the beginning of a golden era of blog posts here, but I wanted to share this before I forget. Quoted below are two verses of a hymn I came across about a week ago. Take a minute or two now to reflect on the words, and what they say about God and us.
In Him is only good,
in me is only ill;
my ill but draws His goodess forth,
and me He loveth still.
‘Tis He who saveth me,
and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me,
I live because He lives.
From “I bless the Christ of God” by Horatius Bonar
What expectations do you have in life? How do they affect you?
I learnt to juggle when I was around 12 years old, and it didn’t take long. Partly that’s because young people pick up new skills quickly, and partly it’s because juggling isn’t really very difficult. Over Easter I spent a bit of time trying to learn to ride a unicycle, and it was much harder. I suffered from a combination of being almost a decade older, and unicycling being a much more challenging skill to learn.
To give you an idea of the progress I made from a week of regular practice, I have progressed from sitting on the unicycle holding onto two stationary objects to being able to cycle while holding onto a wall for a few feet before falling off. It’s slow progress, but I’m happy with it. Why? Because I read on the internet that unicycling is a difficult skill to learn, and takes a lot of practice. Also, a friend who is able to unicycle told that there was no shortcut which could remove the need to practice. I started to learn with the expectation of a difficult challenge, so when I made a small amount of progress I was pleased about it.
Imagine if my expectations had been different. Imagine I’d expected to be a skilled rider at the end of the week, perhaps learning to perform basic tricks. Imagine if I’d gone to a skate park, and tried unicycling up a ramp. It wouldn’t have ended well for me, that’ s for sure! Having the right expectations was important for how I felt about my progress, and is important for how we feel about life more generally.
What expectations should Christians have of what their lives will be like? Do we expect life as a Christian to be no different from anyone else’s life? Do we expect to radically and rapidly transform into a state of joyous perfection? Do we expect some compromise between the two, or perhaps a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs?
I continually forget what the Christian life is like. I’ve been a Christian for years, but still my expectations get warped out of all reality. I typically find myself making one of two mistakes – either expecting an easy life or expecting life to be so hard I can never progress.
The Christian life isn’t an easy one. Even without any external suffering (and there is no guarantee of freedom from that) there is a constant battle with sin. No Christian is free from it, and only an unhealthy Christian doesn’t keenly feel it. When I forget to expect this, I am discouraged by my frequent failures to live up to my own moral standards, let alone God’s! But when I remember to expect it, I can turn to God for help fighting my sin. I can remind myself that it is God who works in and through me, and it is God who makes me progressively more holy. And I can have joy in the fight.
The opposite mistake could actually be viewed as the flip side of the same wrong expectation. It is remembering that there is a fight to be had, but forgetting to actually fight it! When I forget that progress is to be expected, and expect stagnation, I am essentially surrendering the fight. I despair at my sinfulness, and my helplessness to change it. But when I remember to expect change, I can turn to God for the necessary power to change. While I still acknowledge my weakness and inability to change, I can remind myself of the God who is changing me. And I can have joy in the change.
Getting the right expectations matter. They protect me from expecting too much, and the discouragement which comes when I don’t live up to my own expectations. They protect me from expecting too little, and missing out on progress God is delighted to give me. I need the right expectations. I need gospel expectations.
What expectations do you think are important in your life?
(For the articles which inspired this one, see The secret cause of discouragement and How to turn ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones, both by Joshua Hood.)
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?
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?
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.
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.