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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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Why doesn’t God answer our prayers for world peace?

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Before we begin in earnest, let me present you with a paradox: why should we pray for God to move the hearts of many hardened political leaders in such a way as to orchestrate world peace, if we are among those who insist that our same God cannot move the heart of an individual in such a way as to orchestrate their acceptance of Christ?

If we applied all the ink spilled on free will/predestination to our intercessory prayers, I think we’d get somewhere faster. In the first case – prayers for conversion – what is appealed to is the power of the human will to choose or reject God, a liberty that many insist God cannot encroach upon. In the case of world peace, what is emphasised is the power of God to move human will. On the one hand, we insist on humans controlling themselves independently of God; on the other, we insist on God controlling humans. There is a double standard here, and it becomes more recognisable when we accept that world peace is not actually a ‘state of being’ – it’s a complex matrix of actions based on the motivations of multiple human hearts with desires for self-advancement and self-protection that have driven them, thus far, to be at conflict with each other. And I well believe that even after a given conflict is taken up with inter-governmental giants like NATO and the UN, the conflict does not really heal; it just stops expressing itself in physical violence for a time.

That said, being the first to reduce weapons and cease fire requires immense self-sacrifice, humility, strength in the face of the world’s scrutiny, and you will most likely be hated you whatever you do. And so achieving worldwide peace would appear to be a monumental task. If we believe that God cannot move one human heart to accept Christ, how can he infuse into many sin-dead human hearts the humility, strength and will to self-sacrifice required to achieve peace in a world that they are continually filling with sin? So many prayers have been said over so many conflicts, and it seems that God has turned a deaf ear. Is God unfaithful or powerless to help these people? I personally don’t think that God is either of these things. I think the problem is that in praying for God to ‘move the hearts of our [unbelieving] political leaders’ to bring about a New Jerusalem of political peace with the present age being in the state that it is, we might be trying to square a circle. Not that I think God necessarily couldn’t do that – in the Bible there are instances of him moving the hearts of faithless rulers to do his bidding on earth (albeit to be instruments of his wrath rather than his grace) – but I just don’t think that bestowing godly motivations onto hearts that reject God, fits well with the way God works. If God wants to be recognised as God and have the world reconciled to himself, and be glorified by the nations who are content to cease from raging in vain and to instead be still and know he is God, he will normally do this through agents who are proud to bear his name and be heralds of his covenant, because with the exception of some strategically placed pagans, such as Balaam, this is the way he has a precedent of having acted.

God’s limitations – where we draw the line (or don’t), and why
In the case of conversion and that of world peace, the lines regarding God’s limitations are drawn in places that, as it stands from this perspective, produce a self-contradictory view of God, and one that seems to satisfy human sensibilities in conspicuous ways. In the case of conversion, God’s limitations in view of humanity’s free will accommodate our innate desire for self-determination, cushion us from disappointment when people we’ve prayed for don’t convert, and take perceived blame off God for not sparing these people from hell. In the case of world peace, God’s all-powerfulness cushions us from feelings of fear and hopelessness and accommodates our desire to feel secure and protected (or in some cases it even enables us hold God responsible and cushion humanity from blame). These two viewpoints accommodate human desires, swerve uncomfortable questions about the nature of God and humanity, and cushion human dissatisfactions, whilst offering an inadequate portrait of God. Both scenarios of prayer, for personal conversion or for world peace, require self-sacrificial resolutions of heart to be worked in the beneficiary of the prayer, but the problem is that it is assumed that God should orchestrate this irrespective of the beneficiary’s desire in the one case, and that God cannot thwart the human will to say ‘no’ in the other.

Much of this also sits in line with what appears unrepugnant to the naked secular eye, and where things comfortable to the naked secular eye converge too much with things comfortable to children of God who are alleged to crucify daily the nature that put them on a par with the secularists, I get a niggling twinge of concern. It is easy to embrace a God who sends nobody to hell, and not too hard to accept a God to who wants to save everyone from hell but can’t – but not a God who wants to save everyone from hell and doesn’t do it. It is easy to embrace a God who can quell our discomfort about war, suffering and conflict because he is powerful to overcome them – not a God who isn’t powerful to overcome them, or a God who is powerful to overcome them but doesn’t because he has bigger fish to fry. But God was never in the business of making himself easy to embrace. He does all things for his glory and in accordance with his nature; he cannot do the one and not the other, and he repeatedly manifests his nature in the Old Testament and the New through his words and deeds.

There seem to be some assumptions behind these things that are used and believed by some people I know, and so I’ve drawn up a list of them. I’ve read enough to know that they’re fairly common standpoints in themselves. But lest I appear to be setting up any straw men, I will say that I cannot think of many individuals for whom all apply, even though all of them apply at least to one person I know and have heard from:

1) That God doesn’t orchestrate things that he hates.
2) That God cannot be good if he has the power to send sinners to hell and uses it.
3) That God cannot be good if he does things that sit against natural human sensibilities.
4) That God cannot use sinful and evil vessels such as war to lead to ulterior purposes that we cannot yet see.
5) That ‘good’ precludes punishment for sins for the non-repentant.
6) That God, if he is to be worthy of his names, epithets and titles, must ‘deserve’ these by the reckoning of human beings, and not by his own reckoning.
7) That people are intrinsically good.
8) That the human creature has rights over God and ‘deserves’ anything from him.
9) That the human desire to enjoy ease and avoid pain is what drives God’s plans for humanity.
10) That human beings who fall short of the glory of God naturally deserve heaven, not hell.

All of these, I believe, are false. But there is one more that I want to discuss, that I feel encapsulates all of them. The final false assumption is the assumption that if something about God that is revealed in Scripture seems morally unacceptable to us, the problem that needs ‘fixing’ or ‘understanding’ necessarily lies either in the understanding of the Scripture or in the Scripture itself, and not in the heart that finds it morally unacceptable. And I find this false because this heart, whomsoever may lay claim to it, has inevitably yet to be moulded into the full likeness of God’s heart, and if it were, would agree with God on every point, that God had been morally right and just in what he declared, being one with the heart of God that declared it. Such a heart, struggling, ought not resign itself to its own resistance to becoming reconciled to God’s point of view in the name of decency, if it longs after godliness. For to insist that ‘we won’t understand this until we get to heaven and everything is revealed’ and to refuse to argue any further because of the moral discomfort of doing so, is to actively resist pursuing and reconciling one’s own heart to the heart of God, and in a sense, to refuse to crucify that part of oneself to God, as if human conscience uniquely transcended the corruption of the rest of the human creature. What kind of Christian sets an ‘acceptability’ limit to his own sanctification, if sanctification involves having one’s heart transformed into the likeness of God’s heart? And what if God should declare, before all that remains to be sanctified in us is sanctified and before we see Christ face to face and are transformed into his perfect likeness, “Yes, I ordered all of the Canaanite babies to be killed, and it was right and just of me to do so because this was the Word I delivered to Samuel the Prophet according to my Spirit-breathed Scriptures”? Would we dare utter that God was not good in doing this? Would we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit of God by calling him evil, to our ruin? In the event that God declared this to us, what should we reply? “But God, I thought you were better than that?” Is it not a sign of our own feebleness that we try to make excuses for the mind of Christ, as if we were ashamed of him? We’ve desensitized ourselves of the horror of God appointing for his only begotten Son to be nailed to a tree to die a bloody death in order to save former murderers, rapists, fraudsters, people more-or-less like what we once were and struggle not to be any longer, from our just punishment. Can we believe in such a brutal God as that? We can, and we do, or we would not live by that same cross.

There is something of the perceived ‘brutality’ of the Old Testament God in the cross. The kind of God who would proposition to nail his only begotten Son to a tree and leave him to die there for the sake of wretches – albeit with that Son’s full compliance, willingness and co-design, if we are good trinitarians – but it was propositioned nonetheless. We see how the means justified the ends to our benefit, and so we love God. But what about the instances of ‘brutality’ in God in which the ends are less apparent, or are less engrained in our culture as necessary? Figure Abraham. He saw no reason at all why it was a worthy or right thing to sacrifice Isaac for God. But he didn’t ask God questions. He just prepared himself to do the unspeakable, and he affirmed that God was good and right in commanding it. And those who are Abraham’s sons, as opposed to sons of the devil, are Abraham’s sons because they do Abraham’s works, said Jesus to the Pharisees, and those non-Jews who are in Christ must still be Abraham’s sons, because they are of necessity grafted onto Abraham’s genealogical tree, said the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews. If God asked you to kill your son for no reason at all, would you do Abraham’s works or would you doubt God’s goodness as the Israelites in the wilderness over the manna? Then what would you think of God’s goodness if he ordained for someone else’s son to be killed… what if God ordained lots of people’s sons to be killed…? Would God still be good then, or does the buck stop with you and Abraham?

“Surely Not, Lord!”
For me, the Apostle Peter is a prime example of how we are prone to posing limitations on God based on what we esteem he couldn’t or shouldn’t do if he is a good God. Now, the Apostle Peter was up on the mount with Jesus when Jesus was gloriously transfigured; it was the Apostle Peter to whom Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter replied correctly, “You are the Christ”. He was one of the most commonly mentioned Apostles in the gospels, and Jesus seems to have allowed him into his ‘inner circle’. But maybe his knowledge of Isaiah 52 and 53 wasn’t so good. When Jesus told Peter that he was going to be judged and put to death and that he was going to rise on the third day, Peter’s response is what a lot of people’s is, who insist that God cannot possibly will for anyone to suffer, or who, when it is put forward that God indeed willed Christ to suffer, find insufficient the reasons that God gives for making anyone else to suffer because they cannot see any obvious redemptive plan that may or may not be behind it, and on this ground, reject the notion that God stands over human suffering. When we reach these conclusions and insist that we must actually be interpreting the Bible ‘wrongly’ if we come to understand that God stands over people’s suffering as he stood over Christ’s, I think that we are effectively saying with Peter, “Surely not, Lord!” And the response of the Son of God to that kind of objection was, “Get behind me, Satan!” I cannot count the number of people who have struggled to understand why Christ responded so vehemently to Peter here. But I think it lies in the essence of what Peter was saying: Peter, not knowing the ultimate redemptive purpose for which God’s Son was to be brutally slain, refused to believe that a good and loving God would do that. Had he understood that Jesus was dying for the redemption of the world, the utilitarian principle might have put Jesus in the right in his eyes – but Jesus seems to be angry here, because an absence of utilitarian principle is not sufficient justification for unbelief, disgust or disavowal of what God himself has declared. In saying what he said, Peter put human limits and conditions on his trust in God’s words, assuming that they could not be God’s words if those limits and conditions were not met. Peter, essentially, was telling God that if he did such-and-such, he would be wrong. In so doing he was exalting his imperfectly informed, humanly weak judgement before God’s. To my mind, the indignation of the Author of Life (Acts 3:15) against Peter is the same here as it was when God spoke out of the whirlwind to Job: “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? … Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” (NLT Job 38: 2,3) Well might the Author of Life have been furious with Peter for putting him in the wrong, and said, as he did: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Do we need to know the reasons why God does things, if we are to believe that goodness and righteousness are intrinsic to his nature, and that his works, law and commandments are an expression of that nature worked out in a fallen world by sinful human instruments? Have we a right to say, with Peter, “Surely not, Lord!” just because we have a myopic vision and a sense of what is good and right that falls short of God’s? Shall our whole understanding of how God works be shaped by the things of man: human moral conscience, human liberty, human self-determination, freedom of the human will; rather than the things of God: the freedom of God’s will, God’s liberty, God’s moral conscience as an entity unshackled to human moral sensibilities, and most importantly, his right to be recognised as the only God and Lord of heaven and earth? For before there was a human being with moral sensibilities on the face of the earth there was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, unchanging and eternal in nature; and before we of the past two millennia were born and could exchange theological discourse about his nature and limitations, there was the Fall from Eden, the marring of God’s image in mankind, and the generational disease of ungodlikeness that made human nature other than God’s nature. Do we presume to exalt the concerns of a marred moral conscience above God and make those determine what God does? What is the essence and spirit of the things we allow to define our theology? Is it what we see him do and declare through Moses, the history-writers and the prophets; or is it what we can comfortably bear to believe he is? “Blessed is he who is not offended by me”, said Jesus. He did not recant anything he said because he was too repugnant for people to believe in him – he went on being offensive to people’s consciences until they crucified him. He did not even care to clarify what he meant by, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live in me and I in him” even though the Bible records that many turned away from him in disgust after he said this, and even though more recent history tells that it was this point, charged with all of the political and ecclesiastical implications it carried at the time, which was the main theological sticking point upon which the martyrdom of so many of our forefathers in English Reformation was given its justification.

God’s Sovereignty, Predestination and Moral Discomfort
As some will have recognised by now, I hold to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God – and the rest of this article is probably going to reek of it too. Not every Christian will agree with me on this – but do hear me out. To arrive at an agreement with this doctrine, I had to suspend my own sense of right and wrong to take in what the Bible was presenting me and what arguments seemed in keeping with it, and to mould it onto that. Along the way I learned a lot about liberal ideology and humanist assumptions about the inviolability of the freedom of the human will that are sold to us as universals on the authority of man-made institutions. This was easier for me to see from a bird’s eye view than for others, perhaps: the home environment in which I was raised was not Christian and did not leave me with a theological or spiritual heritage in which to grow, and so there was no room for the assumption that there was anything in me that didn’t need to change, and that included my moral conscience, which had hitherto been formed with the things of man in mind, and not the things of God, and I knew it well, because there was no spiritual fixture of my own heritage that could protect my natural assumptions from masquerading as anything holy or sound that God might have  incorruptibly bestowed upon me. The result of this is that I am freer than some others to view God as good and righteous in respect of anything that his Word says he ordained; I am not bound by a need to ‘explain away’ anything by recourse to indirect interpretations that hang on archaeology or anthropological research for their authority. Questions such as “How could a loving God…” do not make me sweat and shuffle my feet, or prompt me to say or imply that God isn’t the Lord of all the heavens and the earth to exonerate him from responsibility, or mumble the excuse that there are some things we will only know when we see Christ face to face. I can say with the Psalmist, in relative conscientious impunity, “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases”, and that includes things like, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they … will throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13: 41a-42), although it is a thing that I accept with a heavy heart and affirm that it is right to feel grief, as Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem for not knowing the time of her visitation (check out the active verb phrase in that Matthew quote: ‘The Son of Man’s angels will throw them’. There is nothing here about sinners ‘choosing’ hell: although the role of human will in soteriology is a complex one and ought not to be discounted by reductionist arguments such as the one that could facetiously be drawn here, this popular way of talking about hell almost leads one to think that it is a place into which sinners simply wander in a passive and unknowing manner, which according to this passage is far from the case: it is a place into which the Son of Man’s angels actively throws them; hell is a place where people are ‘sent’. To my mind, this is why we must preach the gospel with the same fervour and restless urgency of the Apostles, in order to be God’s instruments of grace now, as the Apostles were then, to spread the Word, so that by hearing, “as many as were ordained to eternal life, believe” (Acts 13:48 KJV). Yes, it is sober, and a matter for great weeping and re-prioritization; it is news such as ought to turn our lives upside down. The Son of Man has said he will come like a thief in the night: there is no time to lose. Well might the Apostle Paul say, “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2-3 ESV).)

Coming back to the list of assumptions above, if we accept that these assumptions are false, then our view of God is morally repugnant to the naked secular eye – and to the eye of many Christians. I am in no wise to refute humanism or liberal Christianity here, or to refute any particular brand of theology that some might perceive I’m having a dig at, but it behoves the individual Christian to ask, when they hear a theology or an ideology: is it things relating to God and the concerns of God that he has revealed by the Holy Spirit, or the things relating to man and the concerns of man as are apparent to political or naturally-felt ‘common sense’ arguments, that seem to be forming the stuff of the assumptions behind what I’m hearing? I do not necessarily view the repugnance of God to those whose opinions are formed of the stuff of human concerns, to be a bad thing as far as God is concerned. In this regard, I here take interest in the case of those non-believers who are such by ‘conscientious objection’, and I see it to be foolhardy to let our arguments for God rely on the theodicies (God-flattering arguments) that we build to pander after their affections, as if in tacit admission that God is undesirable and unworthy of praise simply as he is. To turn the issue on its head, it is my belief that if people find God repugnant, it is that they are unworthy of God, and not that God should be unworthy of them. Is it more of an indicator of Biblical faithfulness or is it less, when our God’s nature and character seem offensive to people still dead in their sins that have not been “transformed by the renewal of [their] mind”? Again I repeat, Jesus said, “blessed is he who is not offended by me” and Paul, “the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved it is the power of God”. The reactions of non-believers to the Judeo-Christian God, in Jesus’ time, were rightly that of disgust and ridicule. Why, on the surface, would a loving God knowingly and intentionally nail his only begotten Son to a tree and make him die an agonising death? “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10a). We know in retrospect that God did this as a propitiation for the sins of mankind – but the cynical outsiders who might have come up with this accusatory question mightn’t have understood that or taken it for an answer! If non-believers still view our God as repugnant, doesn’t it go to show that we still worship the same God as the first Christians did? (And should we be concerned, in this respect, when Christians try to make excuses for God?)

Onto this morally awkward kind of question we could model any other question that prompts an answer, in the absence of all Biblically-situated knowledge about God, of “because God is evil”. Why does God allow human beings to kill each other in war? Why doesn’t God end all war? The answers might not satisfy emotionally, but they’re there: firstly, human beings kill each other in war because they have sinful hearts and their actions are evidence of their hearts. Secondly, God has promised to end all war at the appointed time when the sin of humanity will be purged, and the righteous will receive everlasting reward, and the unrighteous will receive everlasting punishment. Now I’m the Predestinationist and the ‘Sovereignty-of-God’-ist, and I’ll answer as charged. Why does God let war go on now, if he’s sovereign? Because God promised an appointed time for the end of war, it has not arrived yet, and God always keeps his promises. I believe that the doctrines of Predestination and Sovereignty go hand-in-hand on these issues, because they both fundamentally assume that God can move human hearts to make godly decisions. Not that I believe that God ordinarily moves the hearts of non-believers to make godly decisions, because a decision is godly if done in the Spirit, and non-believers do not have the Spirit. If we say that humanity’s free will alone decides what his heart will be moved to do, then whilst God cannot ‘make’ a human heart believe, he cannot grant prayers for peace either, because if belief is an affair of the heart, peace is an affair of many hearts – and if even moving the heart of a non-believer to accept him is something, then moving the heart of a secular institution that deliberately writes him out of their affairs to be the ‘man of peace’ under his banner is something else entirely. My own belief is that human will itself, whilst free and active, is subject to predestination. Human will is still free because in exercising it, man acts according as his desires lead him – desires which God has placed into him. I hold to this synthesis that I cannot pin down any better until I’ve done more research, and am prepared to bear with paradox in the time being. Notwithstanding this, I’m starting to realise what I do not believe. To assume that God is more sovereign in some aspects of his dealings with the human heart than in others, is to paint a picture of a God whose nature is unstable.

How can this inform our prayers?
Nobody likes to hear of death. We yearn for the future days of eternal life and peace, when God will “shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4). God has promised to do this, and we look forward to that day, but we are still in the “former things” – the temporary stage. We know that God despises the evil of these “former things”. God himself said, “Do I delight in the death of the wicked? Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) God does not delight in death or pain, but as regards the age to come, the Ezekiel quotation sheds light on how distinct and unconverging the two paths are: repentance and life on the one hand or wickedness and death on the other, and precious little in between. Our temporary state in this life is no longer one of Edenic peace and harmony, and it hasn’t been for millennia. My belief is that whilst God hates war, he deems it necessary for this age as well as the Old Testament times. In Judges, God sent the Israelites to war with the Philistines and the Canaanites “only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before.” (Judges 3:2b). Did God do this because he delighted in the death that would reign among these nations of unbelievers? I think not – and Ezekiel 18:23 makes that clear. Evidently, God taught Israel war because it was something that wasn’t going to go away any time soon, even if it wasn’t going to last forever. I think that this is something that can be said of us, too. Among his end times prophesies Jesus promised, “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” (Matthew 24:6). Can we know that we are not in the end times now, and that if we pray, we are not praying against the Word of God, in which God has revealed his intentions? Moreover, even if we are not in the end times, to what end do we pray by default that war might cease wherever and whenever it arises – without any other reason than the fact that it is war? Why should we pray for the immediate abolition of war if Christ has proclaimed a prophecy for the future concerning it? If we do not pray against the Word of God in this way today, by making it a custom we may be praying against it on the day the prophecy is fulfilled.

If we will pray for an end to war per se, let us not do it in a way that is blind to the purpose that God has for his Kingdom, because it is the Kingdom that features most highly in God’s priorities, and it is to this end that on the top of our prayer agenda in the prayer our Saviour taught us – before any human concerns for aid or support are aired – is “Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come”. Firstly, war is one background amongst others upon which the redemption of the nations is going to be perfected, because Jesus promised that it would happen in the lead-up to the end. Secondly, I believe that onto this background of conflict, one of the main roles will occupied by God’s Kingdom on earth – that is, his church: his sons and daughters in Christ, folks like us, if we are in Christ. God has almost always displayed his grace to the world through his own appointed people – through the Israelites, through Christ, and through the gathering of his elect in Christ. God ultimately desires for his name to be known among the nations to save the lost so that his Kingdom may come, and one very obvious way to do that is through the church. So I think that the focus of our prayers should be about what God’s church does in conflict zones, rather than just the conflict zones themselves, because this is what will advance God’s purposes for these nations for their good. And if we pray also that the international leaders come to faith and acquire the motivations and desires of Christ very quickly, then there is much room to rejoice if God grants our prayer!

For all that generalized peace might grant the people within conflict zones ease and freedom from pain, it would not advance the far-reaching cause of God, which could encompass these things also. If we are still of a mind to believe that God cannot influence the heart of a non-believer to believe in him, then it constitutes a divine exception all the more when God influences the untransformed heart of a non-believer to bring about his purposes through self-sacrifice, humility and strength, along with joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All of these latter things, essential in peaceful but conflict-ridden dialogue, are fruits of the Holy Spirit, whom non-believers cannot have. But even if non-believers have a worldly shadow of them, what copies of these things does it profit God’s purposes for the Kingdom if a non-believer to displays them and Christ’s glory is not thus proclaimed to man? No doubt there is some profit, or God would not raise up leaders with evident virtues, but I am convinced that it is not where the most profit is to be had. Moreover, if Christ is the motivation of God’s elect to sacrifice self-interest in the name of doing what God honours, then what of other motivations? If human lives, money, power, global standing and personal reputation are at stake on a global level, what, besides Christ, could be sufficient motivation for sacrificing these immensely dear interests for the sake of justice and kindness, which will most likely go unrecognised and win only scorn and judgement from the critics? If anything could stand in the place of these interests, would our God smile on an other force, ideology or god occupying that coveted and elusive space in the human affections if it wasn’t himself? Whom would God be pleased to have the nations praise and call their ‘saviour’? The UN?

When people who attribute God’s gifts to other gods in their lives, God’s reaction appears, from Hosea, to be one of sorrow and wrath: “For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully. For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths” (Hosea 2:5-6 NIV). I understand that God speaks to Israel in this place as his own, and that the nations in which there is much conflict are not Judeo-Christian. But although they may now not know Christ, they once did; the Arab nations were one of the first among the nations that the apostles visited, and the Eastern Orthodox Church is still alive in Russia and Ukraine. These nations do stand very much where Israel stood in Hosea, having run after other gods, even if these gods cannot be dissimulated from humanity, self, money, power, territorial expansion or nationalism. In light of this, it does not make sense to pray for a generalized peace that is not established under the banner of the Lord, which is what would happen if it were achieved through an inter-governmental NGO like the UN or NATO. Such a peace would not be attributed to the Lord but to human ‘progress’, the secular agenda and liberalism, and I cannot see it occupy an obvious role in achieving progress for God’s Kingdom. Praying for a generalized peace does not show that we have God’s will at heart if all we aim to do is secure people ease and freedom from pain for a while, until they may go on to suffer eternal agony in hell for their lack of faith. Physical and practical care for the people of the world is important to enable their life and flourishing, but unless it is done through the gospel for the expansion of God’s Kingdom, it is foreseeably palliative.

I am in no position to dictate how others pray. But I know the following: “this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 John 5:14a). It figures that if we want God to hear our prayers, we must seek out what God’s will is and pray accordingly. Does God want conflict to end in Syria? Of course he does. Is it in accordance with God’s will to end conflict in Syria by next week? I’m not omniscient, so I daren’t pronounce anything too rashly. But I know that God has the interests of his glory and his Kingdom first at heart, that our institutional peace-keeping forces are not altogether friendly to the agenda of God’s Kingdom, and that God and has a long history of working through conflict rather than in spite of it. In light of this I think that there are ways in which God is working through his Kingdom – i.e. his church – in these conflicts, that can be prayed for more fruitfully than an end to the conflict by secular means. If God’s Word promises that fruitful and lasting peace is not going to happen until an appointed time, I suggest that we enquire into what God is doing in his Kingdom now and pray about that.

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Reflections on Jobseeking, British Government and Patriotism.

The more I go for job interviews, the more I realise how inadequate the whole recruitment system is. All they get is a CV, a begging letter; two, maybe three interviews, and a couple of statements from people who are being shoe-horned by generic conventions into writing nice things. Experience in marketing layout design, a flare for advert-writing and acting, a few meticulously cultivated contacts, and a certain lack of integrity, might be all it actually takes to persuade someone to give a person a job. Continue reading

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