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7 Days of Thankfulness – Extended.

So… I’ve been nominated for the ‘7 days of thankfulness’. Today I’m thankful to God, and to everyone he has put in my path to bring about the following:

1) Today I was thankful for godly company at the Christian radio station where I volunteer. Watching the love pass between three followers of Christ who are many years my senior in the faith, seeing them help and support each other in their work, and experiencing that love being passed on to me in encouragements, opportunities to exercise gifts, and assurances of prayer, was really lovely. I was inspired to watch them, and learned much about my shortcomings, and my aspirations for growing in holiness in the Lord as I mature.

2) Fretting over my parsley and basil seedlings today as I repotted them I was thankful, as a mid-twenties, single, childless woman, that I could appreciate what it is to be a cultivator of life. Time and time again, God speaks through the prophets about his children through the metaphor of a gardener delighting or lamenting over his prized plants. As I dropped everything to dive after my poor sun-scorched babies with a watering jug, there was a moment where I realised what a charade of the bigger picture I was playing out, and it was a moment of joy.

3) I was listening to a song by a French evangelical music artist today, and for reasons I’ll underline below, I was very thankful to know that this kind of song existed. French evangelical Christianity – of the native kind, not the imported kind – bears some marked differences from the Anglo-American sort. Their perceptions of what will be well-received evangelistically and what won’t, are different, and I think that this is because the fabric of French thought is different. France is the land of the Revolution, the land of the guillotine, the land of protests, the land of the enlightenment, the land of existentialism, the land of human rights. France served as a battlefield for two World Wars that rocked the world in two consecutive generations, and if they hadn’t seen enough violence, anger and death in preceding ages, they saw them then. Following the wars, many lost faith in God, humanity and the meaning of life itself, and a lot of the proponents of the Postmodern philosophy that grew out of this sentiment owe their geographical and intellectual roots to France. France has the highest rate of depression in the world. The French are not shy about death as the British are: you only need to read a translation of the lyrics of the Marseillaise, or still, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from Les Misérables. Nor are the French squeamish about judgement – including, evidently, judgement that is retributive.

But there is a silver lining to this cloud, and I saw (or rather, heard) it as I was listening to my French evangelical song today. It was a song about hell. Yes, a funny thing to encounter, an evangelical song about hell, and an even funnier thing to be thankful for, but I was genuinely relieved to hear it. Of all the aspects of our beliefs that we English-speaking, British Christians like to preach and represent in our songs, hell is one we tend to push under the carpet because it is unpalatable in our culture, a culture of a nation that sapped its monarchs’ power and placed it into the people’s hands far less violently, a nation that was last successfully invaded many, many centuries ago, and subsists on a strained peace between political factions that are boiling with anger inside but dare not grumble too loudly in public lest they lose their social and/or political credibility. The British erasure of hell, with its custom of genteel silence over discontent and everything else that isn’t deemed worthy of expression in polite society – pains me. I’m tired of the justice aspect of the gospel being suppressed. I just want to hear the truth. Hell is a place where God’s righteous anger is expressed against people who perpetuate evil. As his anger is righteous, it is good, and wholly appropriate to be expressed. When we suppress hell, we shut away not only our feelings about evil and suffering – but also, I feel, we try to repress God’s anger too. What’s more, without allowing myself to feel anger and be satisfied that God will bring evildoers to justice, I find it hard to then take pity on them for the price that they would have to pay for their crimes, or to weigh my own sins up and realise the debt that I myself have been spared, and pray instead that they turn to follow Jesus and ask him to pay their debts as he paid mine. When we acknowledge God’s expressions of righteous anger and judgement, the teaching that we will be measured with the measures we use takes on new significance, and we realise the imperative of forgiving as we have been forgiven. In this way, in hiding hell, we hide a part of the gospel that is crucial as the counterpart to Christ’s atoning death: we hide the awful but merited wrath of God from which Christ’s atonement saves us. Nobody enjoys the thought of people perishing, but as long as evil is given its just desert, either on the Cross or in the other place, there is justice, and when that justice is upheld, we know that all is right with the world, and that good triumphs over evil. The song was a song that validates God’s righteous anger and champions God’s just treatment of sin, allowing it a space to be expressed, and a platform for God to be declared right in this part of his plan, that one day, those evildoers who do not turn back from their evil ways will receive the fruit of their deeds. To hear this is a consolation to those who have been wronged.

With all this, the song also carries a sobering and possibly life-saving warning: we must be mindful of where we will eventually stand when the books are cracked open, and we must act accordingly. It forces us to turn our eyes on ourselves. Listening to this truth expressed plainly and Biblically through a song was a breath of fresh air to me. I feel it would be very unwise to sing a song like this for a congregation from an Anglo-Saxon culture: there would be outcry. But hearing it, I was thankful to God that for all the brokenness from which the French nation suffers, the doctrinal blind spots of its church are different from ours, and that their cultural lens allows them to see what we often cannot. Through this song sinners can hear about what they need to be saved from, and respond to it, and I was given the space and catharsis that I needed to help me express my feelings about evil and injustice authentically and anticipate the wages of that evil, so that I could be moved to pray that God have mercy on the other evildoers as he had mercy on me. It provided relief from the straitjacket of wishful thinking – which is to me as insipid, weak and tepid as some English teas with milk and sugar can be – that tends to view with suspicion any emotion that doesn’t fall within a bland spectrum of ‘pleasant’. It is a window onto God’s rightly and justly appointed reality for those who do not belong to the covenant of forgiveness for sins in Christ’s blood. As truth, though it was hard and unpalatable, it was not dissimulated. Moreover, in its non-dissimulated form, it was a spur to action. I was very thankful that at last, the truth about God’s justice had prevailed in at least one worship culture.

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For a Sacramental Non-Conformism

I love Communion. I think we undervalue it – possibly because we often seem to place more emphasis on what it isn’t than on what it is. We try to delineate our definitions more smoothly than (I think) Scripture does itself, lest we trample on a piece of Sacramentology for which our forbears of the English Reformation gave their lives, by appearing too ‘Catholic’. Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m saying this as a conservative evangelical Protestant. A New Calvinist, no less. But I’m not scared of how I might ‘look’ if I speak of my convictions. We Protestants and Catholics share the heritage of the Early Church, if we would claim to be one catholic (universal) body of Christ, and the zeal of the Early Church for the Lord’s Supper is not to be sniffed at. I understand where the theological boundary lines lie. I can’t claim that I have the whole truth as I proceed, but I’m not going to hold back purely for the sake of tribalism.

My thought at Communion this evening was this: what a great sense of assurance that we have, when we are mandated to appropriate the body broken for us and the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of the sins of many, by taking them into ourselves as bread and wine. There’s little room to doubt whether Christ’s death on the cross can really bring salvation when we stand before the Communion table – Jesus made the promise at the Last Supper and embodied it in a sign, and taught us not only to love that sign as we love the sign of the rainbow, but to take it into ourselves bodily and digest it. There really are few bolder ways to appropriate something as your own, than to incorporate it into a consumable of some sort and to eat it. If ever you needed assurance that Christ’s blood was meant for you, struggling believer, then the Communion table should remove all doubt. There, you don’t just see your covenant membership articulated: you pass it through your lips and taste it and swallow it.

Moreover, when we consume that sign, we’re acknowledging that Jesus’ body broken for us, and his forgiveness-conferring blood, are our spiritual staple food and drink. We keep on consuming Christ’s body and blood, at his Table and in Spirit and in the Word, and we do it to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Until he comes again, Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out, will never cease to be our sustenance in this life no matter how advanced we are in our spiritual walk, as we were commanded to drink of the cup until Christ comes again. He pointed to his flesh and called it bread, and he pointed to the bread and called it his flesh; he called his blood “true drink”, and he called the cup of wine, the cup of the New Covenant in his blood. He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”. Would we tire of this bread, as the Israelites tired of the Manna that rained down on them, and demand ‘meat’ instead? What, pray, could we conceive this ‘meat’ might be but something bound to bring us to ruin? It would seem paramount to tempting God’s wrath if we implied at any moment that his grace, secured for us by what Christ has done (that is, with his body and blood on the tree), were not sufficient for us, as they were sufficient to the Apostle Paul though he had a thorn in his flesh.

Matt Redman puts it beautifully:

“Now that I’m living as a risen child of God, my every road leads to the Cross.”

I used to sympathise with people who complained about ‘leaving Christ on the cross’, because crucifixes seemed oppressive Catholic things to me, and we preached the Resurrection life. But now I think differently. The empty tomb may well be an apt depiction of the triumphant Christian life, as some like to say who claim that they have ‘moved on’ from a Cross-centred identity, but the tomb is not where Christ is, and it is Christ whom we worship and model. All the same, Christ is risen, they would say: we do not keep him on the Cross, for he is not there. Maybe so. Yes, I will concede that geographically speaking Christ is not on the Cross. But if he’s not on the Cross and not in the tomb, then where in fact is Christ? Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven. What is he doing there? Making intercession for sins. By what? By his blood. How? By his death – which happened on the Cross, when he became a curse for us. Ah, they might say, that’s his blood – but that was poured out 2000 years ago! The body that died on the on the Cross isn’t the same one as the one he has now, is it? He left the old broken one behind and got a new one – right?  Indeed he did, it seems. And his Resurrection body, albeit apparently new, was no less than perfect for the fact that it had the same holes in the hands and side as the old one did. You cannot separate Christ from his wounds: even the Resurrected flesh bore the marks of Christ’s affliction for us on the Cross, and surely if it was perfect with the marks, then the marks participated in its perfection, and it would thus have been imperfect without them. This is to say that though Christ was Resurrected, he clearly did not ‘move on’ from the Atonement that he made. He might have ‘sat down’ at the right hand of the Father, but that didn’t mean that he stopped making intercession by his blood. Even at the end of the age, when time ceases, the angels will sing of Jesus, “Worthy is the Lamb” – the name ‘Lamb’ enshrining him for all eternity in his identity as sacrifice.

We can have Christ without depicting him on the Cross, but we can never have Christ without the wounds by which we are healed. What good is an empty tomb – or even an empty cross – if it wasn’t for the sin-bearing body and the wrath-appeasing blood, broken and poured out on the Cross where he died? It was what Christ achieved that we bring to remembrance when we go on taking our Communion elements until Christ returns as commanded; it is this blood which forgives us our sins, and bids us die, and provides the ballast that raises us and keeps us raised. Even as a risen child of God – a child of God living the Resurrection life – I cannot wander from the Cross where that body was broken and that blood was spilled, because the wounds from that breakage and spillage did not disappear from Christ’s body even when he took on a new one in his own Resurrection life and sat at the right hand of the Father in glory. Besides this, if I neglected to sate my heart daily on the Bread of Heaven and quench my thirst on the True Drink, then I fear I’d starve and thirst to death.

In a mystical way, the Lord’s Supper makes Christ’s wounds feel nearer to my heart and my soul in a real way. I think we do the Eucharist a disservice by saying it is “just” a symbol, and has no further significance. For between the body and blood of Christ, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist, there is a textual unity; a poetics of bread and wine, body and blood that is repeated throughout Scripture. Now, when a poetics or a textual unity like this is found in merely human literature, we say that the bread and wine are just ‘metaphorical’, or a ‘figure of speech’ – and if the Bible is merely human literature, we can claim that they are ‘just’ a symbol. But can a unity like that be ‘just metaphorical’ or ‘just a symbol’ and have no function in the realm of the ‘real’, when ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ and ‘body’ and ‘blood’ constitute words uttered by the Mouth that makes concepts into things of real significance just by giving them utterance? The utterance doesn’t need to make them into material things: it is only a naturalistic worldview onto reality that says that a thing cannot be ‘real’ if it is not ‘material’. If the property of the Mouth of God is that its Words create things and bring things about by speaking them, then to my mind, the unique ‘creation-engendering’ power of this Word would necessitate that the symbol and the thing symbolised must be equally ‘real’: for both were spoken into being by this same creator Mouth. ‘Real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’. We are Christians, not naturalists. Jesus is a concrete, material man, but his work is spiritual. God the Father is not material, he is Spirit, and we worship him in Spirit and in truth. But for the fact that he is Spirit, he is no less real than the woman sitting at home typing these words to you now.

If Christ said “this is my body”, then textually, spiritually, it is, as it has been declared so, by the voice that brings about what it utters. He gave the declaration utterance, so in every sense that matters spiritually in accordance with his purpose and aims, the broken bread was his body. Again, it is not that I would want to go into an essentialist description of precisely what it is chemically: I don’t think this is required. Again, I say that ‘real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’ if it can yet mean ‘spiritual’, whatever we understand ‘spiritual’ to mean. As a ramification of this thought, I don’t think we even need to decide whether to define the bread and wine as either a symbol of the real thing, or the real thing thing itself, to determine whether it is ‘real’ or not. Whether the bread and wine are chemically and physically the body and blood of Christ, or whether they merely represent it, is immaterial (no pun intended): it is declared to be what it is declared to be, and the word that declares it is more powerful to create, and engender, and set in motion than any living creature that walks on the earth besides the Son of Man himself, and is capable of doing so in many more ways and modalities than the industry of any human being alone. Whatever the act of ‘being’ of these Communion elements looks like, if the Word binds that act of ‘being’ into existence, then so it must be, even if its ‘being’ is of a different order than the sort of ‘being’ that most things perform. Between the conventional mode of ‘being’, and the conventional mode of ‘non-being’, I believe that there is fillable space. If quantum physics has shown that even material objects can be and not be something at the same time, and that they can be in two places at the same time, then it’s not too far a stretch to propose that spiritual things can be when they don’t appear to be in a material sense. It is a question of there being different modes of ‘being’; different levels of reality. At what did Balaam’s donkey baulk before it showed itself?

As well as being and non-being, we may also perceive there is an alternative to the binary distinction between ‘symbol’ and ‘thing symbolized’. It might be helpful to think about it in the way we think about states of righteousness. There is an alternative to the binary distinction between righteous and unrighteous. For besides these two things, righteous and unrighteous, there is ‘counted righteous’. That is, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, we are ‘counted’ righteous through faith, even though we ourselves are not personally righteous. Now, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, can the bread and wine not also be ‘counted’ as the body and blood of Christ, even though they remain bread and wine? Can they not be statutory tokens of the things they represent, acting as and on behalf of them in substitute for them, and having the efficacy of the same in what they are appointed to do?

I’m not claiming to have the truth here. I’m not outlining a new theology, and God forbid that anyone should pick this up and base their practical belief system on it without any further study or consideration. I don’t want to make trouble for anyone; it’s just an idea that has been rolling around inside my messy, over-populated head. In truth, it’s one that I’d like to discuss. Until then, I would feel privileged just to be heard.

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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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Awesomed out by God’s Sovereign grace – and shown what it looks like.

I was awesomed out by the sovereign grace and faithfulness of God today whilst reading Chapter 4 of God’s Big Picture (Vaughan Roberts).  I’ve heard the words “Sovereign,” “grace” and “faithfulness” thrown around a lot, but the overview of the history of Israel that I read today has really helped me to appreciate what they actually look like.

God chose Abraham to be the father of his chosen people.  By God’s Sovereign choice, and not by birthright or individual merit, Jacob became the father of the people Israel, as heir of Abraham.  Jacob was the younger of two sons, and by the inheritance custom his brother should have been the heir.  However, it was prophesised from before his birth that “The older will serve the younger”, and as God is Sovereign, that was what happened, even though Jacob got to be Abraham’s heir by trickery and deception.  A generation down the line, when the sons of Jacob sold their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt and told their father that he was dead, God still upheld his promise to protect them as his people.  He made Joseph Prime Minister there so that Jacob and his sons could flee to Egypt from famine and live.

When the descendants of Jacob’s sons were enslaved by the Egyptians (which has a certain ring of justice about it, in my opinion), God went to great lengths to redeem them, until they were saved by the blood of the Passover lamb from the destroying angel that killed the Egyptians’ firstborn.  God, who is Sovereign, ordained that to happen.

Israel did not deserve God’s favour and nor do we.  But this is his grace to us, and God, being Sovereign, arranged things so that it would be within our grasp.  Jesus is our Passover lamb, and through his blood God protects us from destruction just as he protected his people Israel, whilst the Egyptians perished by God’s wrath for their sins.  Nor do we understand why God chose to unfold his purposes in the way that he did.  But what we do know is that God made a promise to Abraham to uphold his descendants as his own chosen people, and whatever lengths God went to in order to bring this about, and however treacherous and undeserving the people were, he deliberately and Sovereignly ordained things to come to pass so as they did so that this could remain the case.  As he has proven himself a faithful and merciful God to his Old Covenant people, we have reason to believe that he will uphold his promise to us too.

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A lesson about repentance

Something the Lord taught me today…

You know when you feel bad about something and want to repent and get it off your shoulders, but you feel like the shame is too much and that repenting isn’t enough?  That happened to me today.  My temper had got the better of me and I had made a hurtful comment.  But then a thought about the nature of repentance flashed across my mind, and I found myself praying, “Lord, put my shame for that on Jesus”.  Immediately, I was utterly disgusted that I had even dreamt of praying that.  I envisaged Jesus carrying his cross, stumbling along in agony, covered in blood from tip to toe.  How could I dare to pray such a thing against my Lord and Saviour who died for me, when I had no right to walk away Scot-free for saying such a horrid thing?  I should be the one feeling ashamed here, not the sinless Saviour who died for me!
Then I realised.  That’s precisely what Jesus came to do.  The scars, the blood, the agony, Jesus went through it all so that I wouldn’t have to be held responsible for that horrid comment I made today.  In fact, you could say that it was because of that horrible comment that he had to go through it.  Let’s forget ‘churchy’ language and niceties here. “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe; sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow” is all very well.  But what it means is that I can pray “Lord, put the blame for that horrible comment I made today on your blameless son Jesus whom I killed” and walk away knowing that I’ve been made innocent.  It’s scandalous.  It makes my stomach churn just thinking about it.
And it’s made me never want to sin ever, ever again.

I know that I will sin, and that Christ’s blood will cover it.  But just as the scandalous nature of God’s love prompted me to  cry out, “No! I don’t want Jesus to take my shame!” before remembering that the reality of Jesus’ suffering is God’s overwhelming love for a guilty humanity that doesn’t deserve to have its sentence waived, in the same way I hope that it will make sin seem ever-repugnant in times of temptation.

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