Tag Archives: faith

Identifying with Mary’s Mission

I have travelled many moonless nights
Cold and weary with a babe inside
And I wonder what I’ve done
Holy Father, You have come
And chosen me now to carry Your Son

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now, be with me now

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of Your plan
Help me be strong, help me be, help me

Read more: Amy Grant – Breath Of Heaven Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Because of this song, the figure of the Virgin Mary inspires me tonight.

She had every reason to mistrust or take fright, yet all she did was obey. That vulnerable young figure travelling to Bethlehem on a donkey, a long, wearying journey day after day and night after night, with a commission from God conceived and growing and deepening in her, ready to come to light any moment. All she had to trust in was the Word and the promise from God, and the growing load of the holy child filling her belly and transforming her body, which she could not see, understand or determine. She could not speak to her child; she could not seek succour from any church. She was alone with a unique and unprecedented commission from God of which she only had a vague outline, and which could endanger her life on multiple counts. Such was the first disciple of the incarnate Christ.

The revelation from the angel was such a solitary moment. Who could affirm the authenticity of her mission? Who witnessed his word to her? Was there any more vulnerable or lonely position as that, to bear a Calvary all her own and unlike that of any man or woman in history, to be led there, powerless before her own body, whilst being alone privy to its workings? For a time, even Joseph would have forsaken her. All she had was the Word, the promise, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit growing inside her to confirm that it was even real. The social and existential toll would have been crushing. Nothing else could tell her how her mission would take shape or what it would be, and nobody would stand by her in fellowship, except Joseph, Zechariah, the prophetess Anna, Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist, who leaped in his mother’s womb.

The church of Christ was so small, so ill-defined. Bearing the person of God alone, could she have been the loneliest person in the world as what no eye had seen and no ear had heard, was implanted in her womb and grew there? Not even her own eyes could see, not even her own ears could hear, not even her own mind could understand the person of the commission she bore: the blind, dumb forces of her physiology worked animally in spite of her, as her mission unfolded and the sword that would pierce her own heart drew ever closer while she waited powerlessly for the will and the plan of God to come to pass as angel and prophet had promised. Pregnant and waiting on her uncertain commission to come to light, her fate was ruled by her biological clock, the angel’s announcement, the words of prophecy: she had no control, and no options, but was a vessel to God. Blind, isolated and paralysed, she had no agency beyond the act of consent and the willingness of faith to carry on going, for beyond that affirmation of faith, there was nothing that was within the power of her will to determine or influence. All she could do was have faith, submit, and patiently receive the scourges and afflictions of life as they came to her. She could only sit on the donkey for the sake of Joseph’s obligation, listen to the rejection of the innkeeper, lie in the stable that had been assigned to her as she awaited the pains of childbirth. She did not need to go in search of her mission: the mission came to her; the journey to Bethlehem was decided for her; the place of the birth was neither of her choosing, nor even within her power to know in advance.

In assenting to the angel’s annunciation she had signed a blank cheque with God, and in faith she let herself be carried wherever she needed to be carried, like a leaf in the wind, for all that needed to be wrought on her body and her person, to be wrought. The magi, the shepherds, the angels would come to her, the escape to Egypt would be the angel’s prerogative, as long as she clung onto that Word and that promise. Besides the Word and the promise she had no other assurance, no other grounds for faith when she was alone and helpless with an ill-defined mission that would take over her life and break her, in the face of all that surrounded her, determined her days and threatened to oppress her.

Mary was astonishingly brave. Her faithful, patient submission to the workings of God was her only recourse in her time of vulnerability. Her courage is a lesson and an encouragement not to fear the Lord’s task even if it is only partially revealed and bears on an uncertain and potentially frightening future, and to trust that the Lord will both provide, and work all things according to his will, as long as you continue to say yes in faith; to respond at every turn with ‘I am the Lord’s servant’, to feel the privilege of his favour on you, no matter how uncertain the future, how profound the solitude, or how great your own powerlessness in the face of it. Mary was not passive: endurance and submission are not passive works. It is about saying ‘yes’ in faith to your commission and letting it grow in you, bearing your Calvary, alone in the dark if you have to, whatever shape it takes, because you know and trust that God is good and that all that he has revealed and planted in you is real, and believe in what you cannot see because it is yet to be revealed.

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Contending for the Faith: Adjusting to a new, subtler battle tactic

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‘Faith is a virus, columnist claims’, published by The Christian Institute on 22nd July 2014.
http://www.christian.org.uk/news/faith-is-a-virus-columnist-claims/ [last accessed 23rd July 2014]

‘[A Conservative Peer and columnist for The Times] said, “Rationalists no longer expect to get rid of religion altogether by explaining life and matter: they aim only to tame it instead, and to protect children from it”‘

My initial thought and reaction to this article was the following: be taking notes, Christian people, and be using them wisely. You can see that what is being envisaged here is not a complete overthrow, and not even a displacement – or at least, not immediately. These scientistic, naturalistic Darwin aficionados believe (wrongly) that their power to win lies in their monopoly on support from the institutions that shape and dictate the lives of everyday, uneducated individuals who have not been taught to question what they are told unless it comes out of the mouth of a religious cleric, an advocate of homeopathic medicine or a telesales operative. It is little use to assert a tu quoque in response to this: if ‘brainwashing’ is the British secularists’ cry of accusation against those with any kind of Christian faith, then they should not be using it themselves. I personally take a dim view of it, whether performed by Christians or secularists, or anyone else. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need brainwashers to win people’s hearts; he only needs witnesses to speak of Jesus Christ, and he has been effective especially in places where the brainwashing powers that be have been brainwashing people to believe in other things besides him, like China. Introducing Jesus to people is Christians’ work, but changing hearts and minds is God’s work, and he does it everso well by himself.

The institutions that make up the state machine have an incredible power to influence public opinion – and that is what they are doing. Now I’m going to make a risky statement. I think that most effective influencer of public opinion  that ever lived – and I’m sorry for the cliché – was Adolf Hitler. Let us take the focus off the concentration camps and the gas chambers, the atrocities for just one moment (by all means turn back to them afterwards), and let us look at Hitler as a politician and an ideologue. I think that one of the most unbelievable feats of Adolf Hitler was the fact that he made people believe that what he was doing was okay. Why do we not study this more and learn the dangers of it so that we can expose it where it happens and defend ourselves? As far as I’m concerned the biggest feat of Hitler was the fact that, using propaganda techniques and the rudimentary media that he had at his disposal, he managed to inculcate Nazi ideology into his people at large in the short space of a generation and a half, to the extent that a significant proportion of them genuinely believed it was the truth. That is what I find astonishing. Now I’ve read snippets of quotations from his writings on propaganda – not much, I have to say, but what I read was sufficient to make me feel very uncomfortable about the present times. The   burning question in my mind as I read was, “How on this earth could we have done Nazi Germany ad nauseam all the way up secondary school, and been fed a narrative about a faceless inhuman monster every time, rather than about a very human man and the insights into social engineering that lay behind the media strategy and statecraft that he used to achieve his ideological ends, so that we might become aware of these things and recognise when they’re being used on us for the sake of other people’s ideological ends?” As I read what these philosophical reflections and tools were, sickeningly, I could not help but notice as I read them how stridently the secular ideological engine – particularly the LGBT campaign – seems to have been using much the same techniques in the media which have spilled into statecraft what with dramatic changes being made to state legislation in a short space of time, perhaps by coincidence rather than by design, but still, the patterns are there. Again, I apologise for the perceived extremism of this, and you can come back at me with another tu quoque if you want, but I couldn’t help but make the association as I read, and like everything that makes me feel sick to my stomach, I cannot help but talk about it. The fact is that even some secularists have been alarmed at the pace of the progress of the LGBT cause as a cause qua cause, at the power to stigmatize and silence non-adherents that it acquired in about two or three decades from a former position of being stigmatized itself; at its stronghold of acceptance among the cultural elites rather than the workaday people like most civil rights movements in the past, and at the speed with which it has become the only side of the law on which to be, when not long ago it was on the wrong side. Both ideologies took little more than a generation to become normative, and the lowest common denominator of them is a commitment to a deliberate cultural engineering, which history shows is bad news for human freedoms. It is here that the parallels stop, however: it is cheap to smear your opponent as being ‘Nazi’, and it’s overly disparaging to do that. My aim is not to tar with the same brush, but to point out the potency of the media propaganda machine, and to invite questioning of the rights and wrongs of using it, given that we know what it is capable of masking and distorting when we read up on the chapters of history that our schoolbooks don’t teach us, what it is capable of unearthing from the human condition and what moral freedoms it deprives people of. The secular agenda can in theory allow for freedom of speech without undermining itself, because those who naively think they are making a free choice have for the large part had their hearts and minds made up for them. This is not freedom. If people uncritically imbibe the media and the academic establishment as their highest authorities on knowledge without taking note of how repetition, posturing, brown-nosing, skewing, narrative manipulation, and stigmatizing techniques work to present things as being acceptable or unacceptable and plausible or implausible, and to play to people’s emotions and sympathies whilst shaping them, then they will be persuaded of anything. If there is a culture of acceptance of something – a culture that has built up its own rationales and philosophical arguments and historical narratives around whatever it accepts – then standing against the culture might well be akin to claiming that you believe in garden fairies, and that is what is currently being levied against Christians. If even the sources of evidence you might draw from to  prove your opponents that you are worthy of being taken seriously are produced by those who are trying to cast you in that mould and are written in a way that flatters them rather than you, then it is understandably hard to produce a credible defence for yourself: the discursive rug has been taken out from under you. There are strong secularizing elements in our BBC media, and in light of these it is not surprising that Christians look like people who believe in garden fairies to those who view the world through media-tinted glasses. The reason why this happens is that we are being made to look that way. The very nuances of our language, as it has changed to reflect the cultural usage, make us look that way. So we should not be drawn in to think that there is nothing more to faith in Christ than faith in garden fairies. The burden of proof as to whether that is actually true is on the ones who claim such things, and if they paint us in a way that doesn’t accord with our practices, experience or knowledge, then they will not effectively be engaging with what we are. And if they are not really engaging with what we are, then they are talking about their idea of us, rather than about us, and the only way they can then touch us is if we let their idea of us pass for what we really are – which we all too often do, and by the time we’ve said “You’re not painting us right”, it’s often too late. From the very first instance we are often perfectly placed to say “Actually you’ve got it wrong” and present them with the evidence; we just often don’t think on.

The Tory peer in the article at hand is treats Christianity as a scientific object: a disease. Secularism has taken science and tried to use it as a form of institutional monopoly, so it is safe terrain for him. Scientific narratives have been formed that airbrush God out the picture and have been built upon for some generations now by others who do the same, to produce the impression that ‘we don’t need God’. But Christians know that God is not absent just because he is not given a voice: UV radiation was always in the electromagnetic spectrum before it was recognised as being there. It has been largely concealed that facts, figures and ‘evidence’ are not hard proofs of sociological phenomena on their own, but need to be construed to mean something, and that that ‘something’ that they are construed to mean, and the language that is used to describe them, is subject to ideological premises and narratives. The institution of science and the language it uses to express itself are thus firmly constructs. Manufacturing an empirical or otherwise philosophically coherent defence for something is often enough to convince people who pride themselves on being too canny to go along with the beliefs endorsed by their cultural surroundings. There is a tacit assumption for such people that philosophical coherence = truth, when in fact there is no reason why the connection that we believe to exist between our manmade systems of philosophical coherence and ‘the real’ cannot be mistaken, indirect, partial or disturbed. Philosophical coherence has been exploited to defend all sorts of despicable things – eugenics, for one. John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker exposes the ideological premises of the secularist agenda in science, and even demonstrates that devoid of these premises, science supports a theistic worldview better than an atheistic one. But I digress. The important thing is that in presenting Christianity as a scientific object, the Tory Peer is arguing against it from a terrain that is favourable to his cause. Treating Christianity according to the ‘scientific’ narrative of disease and infection, what the proponents of the views presented in the article at hand seem to hoping for is to leave a weak, diluted strain of Christianity in the genetics of our cultural values, and contain it (probably using legislation) from being transferred down any more generations while they wait for it to evolve into something else through a series of subtle, near-imperceptible changes over the course of a long period of time. Of course, people like the Tory Peer don’t believe in the power of the Word of God to change the hearts of those who seek God. Moreover, they don’t realise that the propagation of evangelical faith relies on conversionism before it relies on the transmission of family values: that evangelicalism (in all of the denominations and traditions in which it may be found) is more than just a ritualized form of conservativism with the sanction of hell for disobedience. Because of this you cannot stop evangelical Christianity by bringing in legal restrictions to constrict and kill its native roots: as long as it has a Bible, it will simply sprout new ones.

Richard Dawkins undercut his own campaign in May 2012 when he wrote in the Guardian that all schools should have a copy of the King James Bible in them because it is “a great work of literature”. If he thinks that the greatest danger to schoolchildren from the Bible is that they will view it as “a moral book” if they are not actively taught to eschew the ‘evils’ that it contains, and if he thinks that that sort of teaching will prevent converts from being won, then he does not understand the transformative power of it at all. And yet, I read in my Open Doors material recently about a miracle healing Afghanistan where Christians are severely persecuted and live in secret, in which a Christian man who had just acquired his first Bible merely brought it into his house, and his disabled daughter started to move, and when he read from it, she started to walk around. The Bible is such a hated book. It is so readily available that it is looked on as something cheap, and of little consequence. It looks so unimpressive and feeble when it’s sitting on the shelf, and when it’s portrayed in all the religious caricatures. But God made the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the powerless to shame the powerful, the things that are not to shame things that are. Whether the Bible is sitting in a humble school library in some deprived area, or in the hands of a persecuted Afghani family man, as long as the Word of God remains available and is read, I believe that it is very hard to kill Christianity even if you turn to massacre the believers.

All evangelicals are converts, whether they grew up with Christianity or not – and are quite different material from those who have just grown up with weak strains of ‘cultural Christianity’ and continued to propagate them down generations. These atheist belligerents cannot see that it is the conscious acquisition of active, living faith in Jesus Christ by hearing the Word of God that is giving life to this movement: many of them just regard Christianity as the sum of its practices and ethical standpoints, with faith in Jesus Christ as an adjunct – a ‘booby prize’ offered to the gullible and the uneducated – legitimizing the religious institution’s oppression of the weak. And in doing this, they severely underestimate their enemy, because these oppressive kinds of institutions are not where the heart-changing, belief-propagating power lies. It is not that Christianity is ‘becoming’ more evangelical (as if ‘evangelical’ were just a trend you could drift in and out of without noticing). It is that ‘born again’ Christianity is a completely different creature – and one that behaves very differently too. We know that ‘born againness’ is not an ‘idea’ but a spiritually transformative experience – and they can only see it as an ‘idea’ because they do not believe in spiritually transformative experiences! Rather than evangelicalism just being another modality of any other brand of Christianity as the Tory Peer seems to think, when people are born again and this manifests itself in something that looks ‘evangelical’, it means that they are becoming something palpably different from what they were before, even if they still called themselves ‘Christian’ before. This man’s sociology of religion doesn’t seem to be able to account for all of this – and consequently, I cannot imagine he will be able to grasp that ‘being born again’ is any different from ‘acquiring more conservative views, becoming more belligerent and proselytizing’. The suppression of youth work evangelism would be more of a worry to me than the curtailment of ‘cultural Christianity’ – though it’s starting to get harder to do that too.

The game of these opponents is long, and their tactics guerilla-like. Insisting on changing accepted definitions of things and influencing language use so that we imply and inculcate certain values when we speak even if we don’t mean them. Riding on the back of historical ‘liberation’ narratives such as the abolition of slavery and the right to vote, which are universally seen to be ‘good’ by anyone with a voice that matters, and fabricating reasons as to why they should be seen to be doing the same thing. Using populist tactics to rally political support and make sudden, hefty changes to the law and set up a trajectory for change, with safeguards designed to come down when popular support has increased. They realised how to play the democratic system, and they are playing it to win.

Now, the devil has just announced what he’s going to do, so use this leak to your advantage (unless he’s lying, but then we’re seeing this ‘taming’ of Christianity already, and it’s causing the ideological battle lines between evangelicalism on the one hand, and ‘soft’ anglicanism with secularism on the other, to become increasingly pronounced). My point is this: you have this Tory Peer’s admission in your hands, so be planning your counter-attacks and your preventative measures carefully. By all means be ready for a direct cavalry charge – but don’t expect that to be where the heart of the battle is. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens tried that, and only got the opposite of what they wanted: the strengthening of evangelical faith, not many casualties if you don’t count the ‘cultural Christian’ stragglers who were not doing anything that would pose much of a threat to Christianity’s cultural ‘replacement’, and fifteen minutes of fame. Dramatic, head-on attacks like that are far too easy to spot. Western history is full of instances in which they have only made Christianity grow: that tactic has been tried and tested, our opponents know their history, and now they’re moving onto something else.

It is crucially important to know what sort of battle we are fighting, because that helps us to anticipate what sorts of gains we should be making. No longer are we dealing with a culture whose elites glory in good-versus-evil narratives filled with heroic deeds, so I stress that we will find ourselves somewhere up the garden path if we let ourselves be distracted by dramatic public theology debates in the belief that these events lie at the heart of the broader issue. Really, I feel, the gains and losses that mean anything in this kind of battle are the small and at-a-glance inconsequential ones. As I’ve already mentioned, we’re dealing with the ‘evolution’ people now. Dramatic gains and sudden losses just aren’t what wars of words, modelled on an ‘evolutionary’ kind of movement, are about, unless the Holy Spirit provides us special means. Evolution is s-l-o-w.

It might shed some light on the nature of our battle to try to understand how our opponents perceive what is happening to the culture, and how they are trying to use that understanding to drive it where they want it to go. Richard Dawkins has a pseudo-scientific term for the ‘genetics’ of beliefs – he calls them ‘memes’, and he appears to have elaborated a theory about them. According to Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, the complex matrix of beliefs of civilizations are made up of ‘memes’ of cultural transmission, just as human beings are determined by genes of biological transmission (if, indeed, Biology is all that is transferred). For Dawkins, beliefs evolve like species of creatures. Every gain for an ideological argument, however small, is a gain because it is a push in the direction of a trajectory towards acceptance that is ideally placed to lead to another push in the same direction.

Observing the speed of cultural drift in the past ten years I would not be quick to dismiss ‘meme’ theory without trying to glean anything from it first, but I have not seen evidence of it working ‘organically’ in my lifetime, as evolution is purported to work. There has been much about the recent landslide in cultural change that has been orchestrated artificially and passed off as ‘natural’ – the introduction of  gay marriage into law as a case in point. Allowing the culture to appear to ‘evolve’ out of Christianity in a pseudo-natural, apparently inevitable way very much sits in line with Dawkins’ theory, and is what I would expect any good Dawkins-reading atheist will expect to happen and try to hurry along. In light of this, what this Times columnist is saying is hardly revolutionary: he is drawing from his own party line. Evolution or no evolution however, I maintain that the tide of cultural drift is too high and has gathered too much momentum for anyone to stem it unless there is a large-scale revival of Christian faith by the Holy Spirit. Let David Cameron say what he likes about Britain being a ‘Christian’ country as it currently stands: the locus of the people’s trust and affections does not lie with him, and our general trajectory of cultural progression is one that points away from Christ and not towards him. Attempting, in this climate, to change the general culture ‘back’ to something more genuinely Christian in one fell swoop would, I believe, be like trying to stop the momentum of a runaway steamroller while it’s careering down a hill at speed, with your bare hands. Nonetheless, with the help of God we can pray for revival, try to clear some of the stumbling blocks from people’s paths and stop ourselves from slipping if we know how to fight the downward pull.

Putting up a fight effectively requires more than partisan spirit and belligerence. To be effective in our battle to believe in truth and do righteousness we must be trained and vigilant to spot, and diligent and wise to resist, every attempt made to reshape us into what the state and surrounding culture is increasingly affirming. To do this we need suitable equipment, and the equipment I suggest is that suggested by Scripture: the belt of truth to keep everything strapped in place, the breastplate of righteousness sitting over our hearts, readiness to preach the gospel for our feet (presumably to keep them agile and to keep spiritual flabbiness at bay), the shield of faith to deflect the flaming arrows of the evil one, the helmet of salvation protecting our heads (with knowledge, hope, drive, or all of these things?), and for our only offensive weapon out of all of these, the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. If we do not avail ourselves of these provisions, I believe that we will be carried along with the momentum of this very intricately orchestrated drift that is going on inside the church as well as outside of it. Expect to see amongst the unprepared and unarmed, the conscientious objectors and the other non-combatants, a gradual, subtle softening of the gospel’s edges and ramifications, and the slow, near-imperceptible morphing of its general shape into something that you can’t tell apart from what the rest of the country is saying, except that some different words are used, along with the G-word and perhaps if they’re feeling daring, the J-word too. Expect secular values to enter the church steadily, stealthily and persistently by a guerilla-style infiltration of ‘tolerance’, ’empowerment’, ‘equality’ (so-called), and utilitarian laissez-faire masquerading as grace, as well other things you see and hear about on the BBC and in the newspapers. Don’t lose your patience. Expect skirmishes to be long, and fought over little ground – so little and for so long that you’re tempted ask yourself whether you’re just being legalistic/Puritanical/pietistic. The enemy is waging a long war, so prepare yourself for battle as for a test of endurance. Arm yourself with the Word of God daily: make sure you know it inside-out, upside-down, and double-check against it every ‘should’ that you’re presented with by church people, non-church people, your favourite TV programme, the radio, your favourite charity, and even your family and friends. Arm yourself with knowledge about the worldview that is surrounding you, because the roots of it aren’t obvious, and you need to know what forms your enemy takes if you are to fight him effectively. This will probably mean that you’ll need to do some reading, and for this, Meltdown: Making sense of a culture in crisisby Marcus Honeysett, makes for an excellent primer.

As a general piece of advice, be sure of the limits of what you’ll let yourself accept, and be sure of whom or what you’ll allow to change them, and on what grounds. Be on guard, have your Bible evidence, your knowledge and your anti-guerilla vigilance primed, and do not give up ground on Biblical mandates or orthodox doctrines, even if it makes you look like an extremist and a bigot. Because most of the time they’re really just meaningless, derogatory labels people stick on other people to try and shame them into losing their footing when they want to silence them.

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Escaping ‘the Terror of the Rings’: Christ, popularity and the draw of the inner circle.

While I was doing my Masters degree at Manchester there were some messages I heard that not only taught me something valuable, but contributed towards completely revamping my thinking. Amongst other things, these messages empowered me to start overcoming, with the Lord’s help, some of the old fears and griefs I struggled with in the face of matters social. The first one I’m going to expound here was something I learned from one of the weekly Student Bible Studies at my church. The second was a message from – surprise, surprise – my favourite preacher, John Piper.

I wasn’t far into primary school before I realised that the girls’ playground games were usually only won by certain individuals (who all happened to associate with each other closely), and that the rules governing who was allowed to participate in that arrangement, were something that I would never understand. It might have been after losing the contest for the girl with the brownest eyes (“Your eyes aren’t brown! They’re hazel!” one of my 6-year-old contemporaries snarled contemptuously), that I habitually resigned myself to hiding behind a playground bench to mope in tears of confusion and jealousy – to the point of wondering, sometimes, that if I was so bad at knowing whatever secret ‘game’ or series of ‘passwords’ it was that all these other girls seemed to be playing at and guessing to win each others’ confidential smiles and hugs and tokens of affection and rights to be told secrets and be treated with favouritism, then perhaps I didn’t deserve to be a girl. When I got older, passed my exams and found myself in a grammar school, the fight to win hearts and belong to inner circles didn’t get much easier.

The message at the Student Bible Study, I believe, came through a sermon delivered on some theological topic – I do not remember what. But what I do remember is that at the top of the handout there was a quotation by C.S. Lewis from The Inner Ring (a concept to which I have referred above, albeit vaguely, as the ‘inner circle’). Once this was explained and applied by the preacher, I was astonished. Not in the way people are astonished because they have heard something that they always knew, but astonished because I felt strangely liberated by this teaching. According to the preacher, you do not need to have gone very far in life before you will have discovered that there are exclusive social circles and cliques, and the feeling of either triumph or resentment because you have respectively either entered one, or failed to enter one. In God’s economy however, there is only one ‘Inner Ring’ in life that counts, and that is the ‘Inner Ring’ of Jesus Christ. To enter this ‘Inner Ring’, what is demanded of you is faith – the sort of faith that stands for an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen, and produces a determination to live for Christ in thought, word and deed. God gives his grace freely, but belonging to Christ will not be uncostly; notwithstanding this his yoke is easy and his burden is light. You do not need to follow all the usual social rules to earn Jesus’ love: in fact, Jesus’ love is not a thing that you can earn at all. Now it seems from the Bible that Christ had more and less intimate friends: he had his Twelve Apostles after all. But he also had Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and they were far from Apostles. Nobody could have done the Apostles’ work in their place and they were appointed as twelve men out of prophetical necessity, and not eleven or ten: but he never made them jump through hoops to get where they were, and he did not love them to the exclusion of others. He did not sneer at outsiders. He took Peter, James and John up the mountain with him, and he loved John supremely and spoke with Peter much, but he did not promise any one of them a place at his right hand or at his left in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Although he knew Judas Iscariot’s heart would be bent on corruption and on betraying him, he did not treat Judas as an outsider. The point is that your affections won’t be played off against someone else’s in Christ, because that was not how he worked. He didn’t demand that you be popular before he accepted you, or that you be rich, or that you satisfy any other requirement but to recognise the helplessness of your sin-dead state. He was happier for you to be the very thing that makes ‘Ring’ people run a mile: dependent and full of needs, like a little child. Once you’re ‘in’, you’re ‘in’ to work for him and alongside him, and to grow up in him like a branch grows out from a vine. Once Christ has claimed you, and the fruits you bear testify that you belong to him, then you can know that you are in him indeed. There is no other ‘Inner Ring’ that matters in life, but the ‘Inner Ring’ of Christ, and you belong to it, and belong to it irrevocably, by living by faith in the name of Jesus Christ until the end of your days. Jesus Christ is a friend indeed, and the only friend you need. He will not abandon those who diligently seek him and know him and work for him.

The passage from C.S. Lewis impressed me so much that I’ve included an abridged version of it here:

In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. (…) The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it. (…)

There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have despaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.

Badly as I may have described it, I hope you will all have recognised the thing I am describing. Not, of course, that you have been in the Russian Army, or perhaps in any army. But you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring. You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. … And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive … you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems.

All this is rather obvious. I wonder whether you will say the same of my next step, which is this. I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. (…)

Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an Evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organisation should coincide with its actual workings. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous. (…)

I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you, yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable.

I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.

My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man. (…)

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

Excerpts from Lewis, C.S. (1944) The Inner Ring, a memorial lecture delivered at King’s College, University of London. Copyright 2014, The C.S. Lewis Society of California. http://www.lewissociety.org/innerring.php [last accessed 15th July 2014]

C.S. Lewis testifies that working your way into to the ‘Inner Ring’ and staying there is hard, and almost invariably leads people into sinful dealings. Perhaps, in a sense, faith in Jesus Christ is hard: God may be the one converting your heart, but the humiliation of repentance to which this brings you is exhausting, if liberating. But it is not unforgiving. Similarly, working out our salvation with fear and trembling is hard work, even if it increases our joy and our zest for Christ. But it is not soul-numbing drudgery. There is nothing of the world in the business of being owned by Christ: it doesn’t waste you, except to make you less your worldly self, and more your Christ-like you. Moreover, to apply C.S. Lewis’ words a little more broadly, I am convinced that it is maximally those, like the craftsmen at their trades, who devote themselves to the work of God quietly and without competing for status in others’ ‘Inner Rings’, that end up being praised by the fruit of their works and bringing glory to God and life to his church. At twenty-four I still do not pretend to know what one must have to deserve to belong to a merely human Inner Ring. But those who came to Christ most prominently in the gospels came to him empty-handed and vile – as vile and as unimportant as a person can be, in fact. Christ came for the rejects. You don’t need to be in anyone’s inner circle to be Christ’s friend; you don’t need to have worked your way up any ranks of popularity to reach him. You don’t need to have sorted your life out, or done a long list of good works, before he will take you in. Those are things that he wants to do with you once you’re his. He takes the lowly – the dead – and brings them to life, restoring them in dignity through Christ’s blood on the cross, so that they can do the good works that God prepared in advance for them to do. Behold, the tenderness of Jesus here:

‘Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”’ (Matthew 19: 13-14 ESV)

‘Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.’ (John 5: 2-9 ESV)

‘When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”’ (Mark 2: 16-17 NIV)

‘One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat.When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.” […] Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume. I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”’ (Luke 7: 36-40, 44-47 NLT)

‘One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”’ (Luke 23: 39-43 NIV)

The graciousness of Jesus to such people is a balm. I’ve felt it in my life as a balm. As I’ve gone from place to place being unpopular, there Jesus was, welcoming me, validating me, accepting me, dignifying me. He covers these peoples’ indignity, suffering some part of it with them just by associating with them in front of the ‘right thinking’ people, and he blesses them. Never will I forget the first time I saw it, long before my own conversion, in a classmate of mine. Again, I must’ve been five years old and in my first year at primary school. One fateful day, as I was playing in a little alcove outside the classroom door with the water toys and the sandpit, I happened to pour water from the water trough into the sandpit, I can’t remember whether by accident or out of curiosity, but I had no idea what the consequences of doing it would be. My deed had the effect of staining the sand at my end of the sandpit an ugly, muddy brown, and any chance of making a ‘sand fairy cake’ like the other girls was ruined. I didn’t realise at that age that the sand in the sandpit would eventually dry out again and return to its soft, golden state; as far as I knew I had damaged it permanently, and this filled me with horror. The cliquey girls gloated over me with unkind words, and chided that I was ‘naughty’ and that our teacher would be everso cross with me, and inside I wished I could die. I dreaded the thought of the teacher’s condemnation. Our class teacher was formidably strict, and although in hindsight she was probably fair, her wrath was terrifying. Now there was another girl at the sandpit who would not join them. She was blonde and had hazel eyes, and because of liver problems that she had suffered as an infant, her skin had a slightly yellowish tinge. Clad in the green school uniform that we all had to wear, she reminded me a bit of Tinkerbell from the Disney Peter Pan cartoon (I held fairies in great awe, and at that age I couldn’t pin down the difference between a fairy and an angel). As the other girls poured their taunts out on me I feverishly piled clump upon clump of wet sand, arguing that my fairy cake was better than theirs because the wetness stuck it together so that it wouldn’t fall down. But it was to no avail. I knew deep down that I was just making excuses to make my crime seem less bad than it was. Still, Tinkerbell would not join in with them. She smiled at me from the other side of the sandpit, which the water hadn’t touched, and where the sand was still golden and soft. She made no mention of my deed at all. “That’s not a fairy cake,” she said, looking over at my work. “Here, have some of this nice soft sand.” And smiling, she brought some over in her cupped hands, and sprinkled it on top of my creation. “There!” she exclaimed delightedly, “That’s perfect! Now you have a perfect, beautiful fairy cake!” And at that moment nothing the other girls said could touch me. Words could not describe my gratitude. It was like being welcomed home after a long, cold, lonely night; like the moment of being found, after having been lost. It was like a long-deferred hug from a distant friend. My little heart broke. I loved her more than anything or anyone I knew at that moment. I was never close to her, and I could not call myself her friend: she was an elusive, secretive person, and I did not dare imagine myself worthy of her. But I will never forget how she dignified me in that moment. Such does Christ do for me now; such did he do for me then, through her, but he invites his followers to get close, no matter how unworthy they feel. When others revile me, and that, over far more than children’s play, he’s there. “Here. Have some of this nice soft sand.” O, blessed first lesson in grace! And with that, he sprinkles me and covers my indignity. With sand, and with countless greater and costlier coverings. Like his own blood poured out on a cross (no doubt that blood stained the pristine, golden wood indelibly!). And when in lucid moments I realise what he’s covered and removed from me to dignify me and make me worthy at that great cost, it makes my heart break again, and it makes me adore him.

The second message, which spurred me to an attitude of radical, Ring-defying action, was the following sermon from John Piper, in his talk, ‘Boasting Only in the Cross’, of which I will only reproduce a small excerpt from the transcript and encourage you warmly to listen to the rest yourself.

You don’t have to know a lot of things in order to make a huge difference in the world for the Lord. But you do need to know a few things that are great, and be willing to live for them and die for them. People that make a difference in the world are not people who have mastered a lot of things, they are people who have been mastered by a few things that are very, very great. If you want your life to count, you don’t have to have a high IQ and you don’t have to have a high EQ; you don’t have to be smart, you don’t have to have good looks; you don’t have to be from a good family or from a good school. You have to know a few basic, simple, glorious, majestic, obvious, unchanging, eternal things, and be gripped by them, and be willing to lay down your life for them. Which is why anybody in this crowd can make a worldwide difference. Because it isn’t you. It’s what you’re gripped with.

But one of the really sad things about this moment right now is that there are hundreds of you in this crowd who do not want your life to make a difference. All you want is to be liked. Maybe – finish school, get a good job, find a husband or a wife, a nice house, a nice car, long weekends, good vacations, grow old healthy, have a fun retirement, die easy, no hell. And that’s all you want. And you don’t give a rip whether your life counts on this earth for eternity. And that’s a tragedy in the making. That is a tragedy in the making.

Transcribed from the audio of Piper, John (2000) ‘Boasting in the Cross’, a live message delivered at Passion Conference 2000, available for download on http://www.desiringgod.org on 20th May 2000.
http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/boasting-only-in-the-cross [last accessed 15th July 2014]

What is life about? Is it about striving to be liked? Purposing to live the sorts of lives that ‘Ring’ people live? Pandering after their affections and following them around with flattery after flattery, in the hopes of ascending to the ranks of their ‘Inner Ring’ and finally laying hands on this pot of gold, namely ‘social acceptance’, at the foot of the rainbow – as if that were even possible? God taught me otherwise, and it liberated me. The hope of a ‘Ring’ person’s life is fragile and hollow, and the tragedy is that it reaps such paltry rewards, even for the relatively successful. What a tragedy, to be satisfied with so little, and so superficially at that, and to allow fear and addiction to box you in where you stand, when in Christ you can be satisfied so deeply and so wholesomely. Let the love of Christ abound, and the faith in him grow, that I might one day stand alone in Christ even if the church itself should fall into damnable heresies, and not look behind to see what the ‘Ring’ people are doing in their turn. The promises of Christ are far greater, and all he demands is an empty pair of hands, and the obedience and trust to use them, in faith and love, as only he knows best.

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