Q&A: How can we best share the good news with friends who are indifferent due to self-reliance?

Sarah writes:

Hi Will,

How can we best share the good news with friends who are totally indifferent to the message of the gospel? Particularly when the indifference is due to self-reliance (working hard, planning ahead and being the best they can be in the responsibilities and relationships they have).

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah. An interesting question.  Allow me to answer it generally, and then more specifically.

Generally speaking: My first inclination is to say, “Perhaps you can’t, you may have to wait for the right time.”

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that sharing the good news of Jesus is a bad thing to do; it’s just that at any given time it may be that you’ve said and done all that you can.

I think of Jesus with the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-27.  This young man was pious and upright, yet the gospel for him was “‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”  Jesus delivered that message with a more perfect understanding than any of us could ever muster. Yet the man still walked away. And Jesus let him.

I think of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples that he sends out to the villages in Luke 10:1-23. They had a gospel of peace to proclaim, which they did. Yet Jesus fully expected that in some places they would not be welcomed and their peace would “return to them.” Their instruction was to move on.

Now, I recognise that in both these cases, even though Jesus is talking about people who are indifferent to the message, that is not quite the same as friends who are indifferent to the gospel. So there’s nothing here that should suggest a “moving on” from the friendship or anything like that!  Friendship is valuable for its own sake.  Be friends with your friends. Pray for your friends. Share your life with your friends.

But there is a certain wisdom in knowing that there is a time and place for explicit evangelism, and that may not be right now!  Within a friendship, it may be that at some point the wisdom of 1 Peter 3:15 will apply: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

More specifically you mention the particular circumstance “when the indifference is due to self-reliance (working hard, planning ahead and being the best they can be in the responsibilities and relationships they have).”

Thank you for this.  What you have done is an important part of the missiological task, which is to consider your context and to be aware of the prevailing presuppositions, assumptions, motivations and patterns that manifest in its culture.  It’s remarkable how often this necessary work is overlooked.

You have identified “self-reliance” and it is, indeed, prevalent in our culture, including within the church. We often find that our talking about the gospel is ineffective because, functionally, the culture we embrace as Christians and as a church proclaims its self-reliance more loudly.

Having identified this characteristic, what you are able to do is to be deliberately counter-cultural.  This means we think about how our life can proclaim faith and dependence on God, and we turn aside from self-reliance. This consequentially means that we need to be real, vulnerable, and emotionally honest.

After all, when our friends get to the end of themselves, (which we all do at some point), what will we say and do? A false-gospel of self-reliance in the name of Jesus (“Let’s buck up and smile and get on with life”) will not bring any sense of hope, peace, or restoration, and certainly not conviction and repentance.  Rather, our readiness to “give an answer to everyone who asks” will need to take the counter-cultural form, that shares in the suffering (“I’ve been there also, my friend.”) and lays hold of hope (“This is where I lean on Jesus.”)

So adding to your general readiness to share the good news, put your missiology into practice. Reflect on yourself and your culture. Be counter-cultural and Chistlike.  Come in close to the real world of your friends, especially when that’s a costly hard thing to do. Walk the hard roads next to them. Simply live out your faith.

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Q&A: What does it mean to be co-heirs with Christ?

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

What does it mean to be co-heirs with Christ in Romans 8:17?

It must be unfathomable, outrageous grace to inherit all that Christ has as God the Son!

This is way better than Eden isn’t it?

What does being co-heirs with Jesus look like expressed in our relationship with him for eternity – how does it fit in with us being the worshippers and him being worshipped? I suppose I mean what does it mean to be alongside God as heirs but being glorified humans, not divine?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah,

The passage you are quoting is (to use the NIV) Romans 8:14-17:

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

To respond to your first two points. Yes, this is “unfathomable, outrageous grace” and yes, “this is way better than Eden”!

You ask what does it mean?

Firstly, we need to grasp what Christ’s inheritance is. The answer is big and simple: Christ’s inheritance is everything.  It isn’t always spelled out; after all, how do you detail everything? What might it include? Big things, like “eternal life”, the “new heaven and the new earth”, and “peace.” It’s everything.

The go-to passage that helps us out is Hebrews 1:1-2

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

You might also be familiar with the “attitude of Christ” that Paul espouses in Philippians 2:1-11.  This passage talks about the “self-emptying” (the technical term is kenosis) of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”  Paul then talks about Christ’s exaltation, and in many ways he is talking about Christ’s inheritance – what God the Father rightly gives the Son who gave himself up for his people:

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Christ’s inheritance is the reverse kenosis, that comes not from himself, but from his Father.

And it’s not just every thing, it is also all authority.  Just look at Matthew 28:18 or 1 Corinthians 15:24 and many other places. Jesus really is the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 21:6).

That’s his inheritance.  Of which we are co-heirs.

That’s amazing.

We can pull it apart theologically, but the narrative is simple: The heart of God has always been to share the fullness of himself with his people. We see it in Eden. We see it as he reaches out to Abram, making his promises, intervening in history.  We see it as his presence goes with his people out of Egypt, through the sea, and on into the wilderness years. We see it as he speaks through his prophets. We see it as he nurtures a king whose heart is after his own. We see it as he pours himself out as a child, and in sharing our humanity, covers us with his grace and his purpose.  He now shares with us his sonship, his sweet heart of faith, his trust and dependence, his obedience even to the point of death, and the blessings that rightly flow from it.

We are “in Christ” as he covers us, and Christ is “in us” by his Spirit. Salvation catches us up into the relational dynamics of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thinking of salvation without any sense of sharing in Christ’s inheritance, is like conceiving of a banquet without any reference to food; you can sort of imagine something in the abstract, but it doesn’t really make any sense.

But your secondary question draws the meaning out even more.  You ask, “What does being co-heirs with Jesus look like expressed in our relationship with him for eternity – how does it fit in with us being the worshippers and him being worshipped?”

I think there’s something here: God is a worshipper.  The object of God’s worship is himself.  This is not vanity, it is truthful delight and entirely appropriate.  The Father adores the Son. The Son is devoted to the Father. The Spirit raises up the name of God!  Surely we can say that Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, rightly worships his Father, perfectly, throughout his life and especially in his death.

To be co-heirs with Christ is, therefore, to share in his role as a worshipper.  In Christ, we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and, in Christ, it is worthy and honourable and received in great delight by Almighty Creator God.

Again, there’s something amazing about that.

But does our inheritance with Christ also mean an inheritance in the worship he receives? In some sense, yes, but I mean this very carefully: as Christ’s people, we share in the worship he receives, not in any worship we receive, but in the worship he receives.

What I’m trying to grasp is in this account from the end of the book, in Revelation 21:9-27:

9 One of the seven angels… came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.

John then goes on to talk about the gates and walls of the New Jerusalem and includes imagery of apostolic foundations and things like that.  The overall picture is one of beauty, and purity, of the Bride of Christ, who shines (and this is the point) with the glory of God.  Jesus covers his bride with his glory.  That is our inheritance. It is not our glory. It is his.  But we share in it. All creation will gaze upon us, his people, and worship him.

And that brings us back to Romans 8:17, where we started, because there it is in the second part of the verse:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

It is outrageously amazing.

Image credit: Licensed by Waiting For The Word under CC BY 2.0

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Q&A: How do we bring about cultural change in our churches?

A Friend asks:

My question is, how do we, who are in Christian leadership encourage and bring about cultural change in our churches? I am sure that it is already a question that you are grappling with and probably have no easy answers to.

In the past I would have simply said the main component is leading by example. Lead and others will simply change. In recent experience I would say that, unfortunately that only seems to work when the people around are teachable and actively pursuing growth.

Previously I would have also said teach from the Scriptures and let them speak for themselves. But again, I have seen time and time again a misunderstanding of those Scriptures even when it is spelled out in black and white.

And then what do you do when there are different cultures in the mix? I don’t mean racial cultures, but church cultures. How do we authentically worship when so many different priorities are given to the various components of what constitutes a worship service or Bible study? How do we encourage true disciples in a way that is maintainable in Western society and yet still confronting, challenging and deep?

[This is a Q&A question. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thank you, dear friend. What a joyfully fundamental question! Answer this, and you will have answered the cry of the heart of every pastor who takes their calling seriously.  Books have been written about this. Even Archbishops’ Councils wrestle with the conundrum – I reflected on a recent attempt at “Setting God’s People Free” not too long ago.

You’re right. I am grappling with it, and I don’t have any easy answers.  There is a whole bunch of theory out there about changing organisational culture etc.  In my mind, however, it’s like mentoring and spiritual direction; it relies on discernment more than anything else and therefore can only truly be known in context and in practice, not in theory.  So here follows some random thoughts from what I’ve seen in the real world:

The first thing I want to do in response is to affirm the premise of the question. Cultural change is to a church what sanctification is to a person.  Just as individuals Christians are called to grow into maturity in Christ, so churches are called to grow into maturity as the Body of Christ.

The road of maturation for an individual is, necessarily, “a long road of obedience in the same direction” (I think I’m quoting Eugene Peterson there).  It involves confronting one’s past, one’s brokenness, one’s fears and pains. It involves repenting of sin, and seizing the lifegiving ways of God with a firm faith in his grace. It can involve times of trial and failure, as well as the temptations of both success and boredom.  This is something we all understand.

That leadership task is first and foremost not about the “professional” tasks of institutional refurbishment and resource management, it is the “pastoral” task of leading a community on a long road of obedience. As I said many years ago, this means “we have to talk about the real issues – rebellion, idolatry, lack of belief, hard-heartedness, and unfaithfulness – rather than the excuses of broken systems.”

More recently I have reflected a little more deeply on this. Culture itself can be conceived of in terms of the “stories we tell each other”, i.e. it is grounded in a narrative that encapsulates the collective worldview. A racist culture will share a narrative about the inhumanity of different ethnicities, for instance. Similarly, the grounding of an individual person’s life can also be thought of in terms of narrative: what story helps us conceive of ourselves within the world? This is why we consider things like “self-talk” when we help an individual to reflect. Individuals and churches share a narratival world, i.e. a cultural context.

The Christian task is to make sure we are operating out of the correct narrative so that we conceive of ourselves and the world according to God’s truth, and where we find ourselves in his story.  In fact, we can think of the conversion experience in terms of an exchange of stories, where we die to an old narrative of sin and self-centredness, and are raised to find ourselves in another story in which Jesus is King, and we are forgiven and embraced.  I alluded to this in a recent sermon on wisdom in Job, if you have some time to listen.

The sad fact is, in these terms, some churches, as much as any individual, need to convert to Christ.  That is the cultural change that is needed. And it is an ongoing journey. As the saying  goes: “I AM saved, I am BEING saved, I WILL be saved”

But your question is how do we bring cultural change about

Firstly, understand that just as with individual sanctification, it is not entirely humanly possible. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul says in Philippians 2, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”  Work it out, because God is at work in you, and in the church. Or as someone wise I know says, “We are Christ’s church, and he will grow us.”

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s a focus. And the practical application is this: It begins with worship. Sort out the upward focus of your life first, work on the upward focus of the church first, and all manner of other things will sort themselves out.

This rubs up against one of your subquestions about authentic worship in competing church cultures.  One form of worship can only compete with another if we are worshipping the wrong thing!  Yes, we need to attend to our attitudes, and recognise different styles, and compromise a bit about liturgical rigour. But I’ve only ever seen this work when the attitude has been “we are all here to help one another to worship Jesus.”

Secondly, your negative experiences don’t mean you had the wrong idea. You talk about leading by example, and about preaching the word. Sometimes they don’t seem to “work.” That doesn’t mean that they are the wrong thing to do.

In fact, they are the right thing to do.  Our story changes, our culture shifts, as individuals and as churches, when we pay heed to what the Lord has to say to us.  He has spoken the words of life, and by God’s grace, that word is present for us to read, hear and receive. Preach the word, brothers and sisters! Do it without fear or favour, without tickling ears. And by some miracle, and the power of the Spirit, that word will take root and shift our story.

Similarly, preach with your deeds. As Paul exhorted Timothy set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.

In both cases, of courses, the preaching may seem fruitless. People are hardened to the word, unteachable; they mishandle the Word of God to suit their own ends. You can’t do anything about that. But we preach the word both in and out of season.

As a leader, of course, there is a sense in which we must go ahead. We must preach to ourselves first. We must attend to our own sanctification. It is often the case that churches “catch up” to the culture of their leaders. Unless the leader is willing to attend to the long walk of obedience in themselves, they are likely to be content in their existing church culture where their insecurities are stabilised and their sins are acceptable.

So it’s an absolute imperative: Sanctification begins with me. Personally, I have to say that to myself, even today.

Thirdly, you ask about encouraging “true disciples… in a way that is maintainable in Western society and yet still confronting, challenging and deep?”

In my experience, what you are hoping for here is blocked by the blindness of the culture that you’re hoping to change. In the West our culture is significantly shaped by consumerism and individualism. When the term “discipleship” is used in churches it has often been emptied of its real meaning and held captive by the culture; it is reduced to a product by which consumer Christians are given “nice ideas by which I might build a successful spiritual life.”  It has elements of truth, but it has a self-righteous posture; there is an incomprehension that we might have to have our story shifted.

We need to cut across that dynamic somehow, and sometimes we need to be upfront about it. The gospel is encouraging and lifegiving, and it is about being unmade as much as it is about being remade.  The gospel is about conviction and confrontation as much as it is about affirmation. We can set expectations, explaining to people that we are expecting to be undone by God, in fact hoping to be challenged and confronted with ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point?

We also need to give them the tools to proceed.  A good tool is the ability to question our own cultural assumptions, to question ourselves. Help them to affirm what can be affirmed and question what needs to be questioned. Push for the story underneath the top layer. Ask “why?” a lot. “Why do we do that? Why, really?” What’s under the facade? “We have words to explain ourselves, but what do we really believe?”  It’s the difference, as they say, between “espoused theology” and “actual theology”.  The exposition of Moral Therapeutic Deism is an excellent case study in this; it is the actual religion of much of the Western church.

Above all, this is a pastoral task. The incarnation teaches us about how God enters into our world in order to bring us out of darkness into his wonderful light. We must have the same attitude of Christ. Enter the culture. Affirm what can be affirmed. Work out where the ugly bits rub against the gospel, and then bring that light to bear, beginning in yourself. Walk the hard road, and when others join you in it, rejoice.

Photo Credit: © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence.

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Q&A: Should we pray for blessings for unbelievers?

Sarah A writes:

Hi Will,
Should we as individuals or churches offer prayer for unbelievers for God to intervene in day to day challenges or bring his blessings on a situation?
I completely appreciate that the motivation to offer this is loving and evangelistic and that God of course can use these interactions for his glory.

But is it right to be offering this kind of prayer? It seems to be offering prayer for what God can do rather than seeking him for who he is. Clearly an unbeliever’s first and greatest need is to come to repentance and find Jesus. To me, offering prayer for problems or asking for blessings seems to put God in the role of fixer with the Christian acting as an intermediary therefore bypassing the need for a relationship between God and the one who wants prayer. But we know that only Jesus is the intermediary between man and God and the promise of Hebrews 4:14 – 16 is for Christians who now have access to the throne of God to receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

1 John 5:14 – 16 tells us that if we ask anything according to God’s will, he hears us. So does God hear these kind of prayers?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah,

Great question. In summary, you ask “Should we pray for unbelievers for God to intervene or bring blessings?” In summary, my answer is “Yes.”  Does he “hear these kind of prayers”? Yes, but as with all pastoral encounters, praying for someone in this way comes with a responsiblity to exercise care, faithfulness, and discernment.

There’s a lot going on behind this answer, though, and I’d like to unpack it if I may. The first thing to consider, although it may seem like a simplistic question, is this:

What do we mean by “unbeliever” anyway?

I’m not sure I actually like the term “unbeliever” as it’s a little denigrating: everybody believes in something after all.  But clearly we do need to grasp some sort of distinction between those who do and do not believe those things that Paul tells us are of “first importance”, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, [and] that he was raised on the third day.” We are at least talking about those who do not have a personal faith in Jesus.

That’s simple enough. If we start there, it is biblical example that leads us to conclude that praying for someone who doesn’t have this faith is not only permissible, but it is often desirable.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus himself intervened in the lives of many who had not yet put their faith in him in a formal sense. Similarly, in Matthew 10, he commissions the disciples to go and “freely give” just as they have “freely received” and in practice that means that they are to “heal those who are ill, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”  I think that puts us in the ballpark of “praying for God to intervene in day to day challenges and to bring his blessings on a situation”, to use your words.

I find the example of Peter and John in Acts 3 particularly informative.  Here the lame man does not ask for salvation, not even healing; he is simply asking for money.  Peter and John do not take the opportunity to evangelise to him (although the end result has the man dancing in praise to God), rather we get the following famous line (emphasised below):

When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.

This phenomenon appears to be writ large in Acts 5:12-16 where we read that  “a great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.” None of this appears to depend on those involved having a pre-existing state of belief in Jesus. In fact, usually the intervention and intercession leads to belief.

We could just about leave it there, but let’s push a little deeper.

That push begins with something of a counterpoint to what I’ve just suggested: You see, one problem in using the examples I have is that all those who are being blessed are, in some way, already part of the people of God.  That is, they are members of the Jewish people, under the covenant promises of God.  The miracles, blessings, and interventions that we see being ministered through Jesus and his disciples are not so much prayers for unbelievers, but a demonstration that God’s promises to his people have been fulfilled.

This, itself, is gospel: The kingdom of God is here, the blessings of the covenant are fulfilled in Jesus; enter into the hope of your people. Or simply, in application, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!”

In some sense, then, these blessings and interventions are “in-house.”  The covenant blessings come to God’s people when the covenant is obeyed, (just consider Deuteronomy 28 if you have the time). It is no surprise, then that these blessings of healing, restoration, and divine intervention are made manifest through the faithful obedience of Christ, especially in his death.  The blessings now flow, through him, to the “lost sheep of Israel”.  Examples such as the healing of the lame man in Acts 3 are not so much about “praying for unbelievers who are on the outside” but “demonstrating that the gospel is true on the inside.”

But that doesn’t mean I’ve contradicted myself.  What we’ve done is dug down to the roots of the gospel, and found them grounded on the covenant promises of God.  So let’s go back to that covenant:

What is at the heart of the promises of God? 

Look at the covenant that God makes with Abram (later called Abraham) in Genesis 12:

‘I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

Here’s the impetus: Whatever blessing comes to God’s people, it is to flow out into the world. Whatever blessing we have in Christ, we are to share it.

So perhaps we should turn to a different biblical example to interact with your question. Consider something like Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 as he heals her daughter.  This example is particularly telling: Both the woman and Jesus make a point about blessings for those who are currently outside of covenant grace.  The dialogue about Jesus only going to the “lost sheep of Israel” and whether or not she might “eat the crumbs that fall from the table” serves not to diminish but amplify the faith she has exhibited outside of the fold.  She was not yet been brought into the fold, so to speak, but the blessings can and do flow to her.  Her prayer was heard and it was answered.  Jesus is simply doing what the promises of God demand; sharing the blessing.

So our very foundation, the grounding of God’s words of promise that sets the shape of who we are in Jesus, shifts us to look outwards. Seeking the blessing of those who are “outside” in some sense is not just one possible outworking of our own belief and covenant inclusion, it’s essential to its very character. We bless because we are blessed, we freely give because we have freely received.  We, who are in Christ, are to act as he acted, and continues to act through his Spirit in us.

To pray for a person who is not yet “in Christ” doesn’t usurp Christ’s role as an intermediary, it exercises it, as long as we pray according to his character.  We can only pray from the basis of the covenant blessing we have in him, i.e. we can only pray in his name. To offer to pray for someone in their circumstances, is therefore an act that reveals Jesus more than it hides him. To pray for someone in their circumstances is to act according to the promises that God has fulfilled in Jesus, not against them.

That’s the foundation I’m coming from, in answering your question. There are, however, a couple of things to tease out:

Firstly, you write “It seems to be offering prayer for what God can do rather than seeking him for who he is. Clearly an unbeliever’s first and greatest need is to come to repentance and find Jesus. To me, offering prayer for problems or asking for blessings seems to put God in the role of fixer with the Christian acting as an intermediary therefore bypassing the need for a relationship between God and the one who wants prayer.” 

I think I get what you mean, but excuse me if I miss the mark.

Clearly, our longing for people to share in the blessings of God is ultimately met if they, too, become a part of the covenant people; if they turn to Jesus in faith, and receive forgiveness, renewal, and all the other things.  But we cannot separate prayer for other forms of blessing from this.  If comfort, healing, or divine intervention comes from answered prayer, this is more likely to draw people to the ultimate blessing rather than hide it.  To separate prayer for salvation from prayer for blessing in general creates a false dichotomy.

But secondly, your concerns are valid, and should remind us to be careful in how we pray.  In some way, this is why I bother to go to some of the depths that I do in answering these sorts of questions.  If we pray as if “God is a fixer” then that is the “gospel” that we will proclaim in those prayers; and, especially in the event that the “fix” doesn’t come as we thought it might, we might hinder people’s view of God.

But if we pray from an understanding of who we are in Christ, covered by his grace, filled with his spirit, inheriting his blessing, that is what we reveal.  We know how we pray for ourselves and for our fellow brothers and Christians, with confidence in God’s character, with an understanding of how he works all things together for good, with an assurance of God’s love even in the midst of suffering.  We pray from the same place when we pray for those who don’t share this understanding, and we must be additionally careful to ensure that this understanding, and our meaning, is clear.

I’ve seen it done badly. I’ve also seen it done well. I’ve been to big events where it’s all about the guru fixing things on some messiah’s behalf. I’ve also been to big events where sweet prayer and intercession has been offered, and things were gently and clearly explained along the way; the heart of God was spoken of, shared, manifested.

In short, wisdom is required. Whether it be a “Healing On The Streets” ministry, or an opportunity that comes from a conversation with a friend, as we come to our Father on their behalf, we need to ensure that our words help them to come along with us.

In the end, that’s the sweet childlike dynamic on which it all rests. We have found the one who is our, Saviour, Lord and Leader, who has the words of eternal life, the blessings of eternity.  In him we are caught up into our Creator. This is a precious, beautiful, sacred thing.  It’s not ours to hide, but we share it carefully, with wonder, joy, and delight. And who knows what our Lord will do?

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Q&A: What do we learn from the use of “saying” and “breathing” to describe creation in Genesis 1 and 2?

DaveO asks:

Will, looking at creation accounts a Gen 1 & 2. In Gen 1 in various English translations it is ‘And God said…’ In Gen 2 God’s creative act ( in English translation at least) becomes ‘breathed’.

Is this nuance there in the original Hebrew or is it the same word with a sense of say/breath and translators have followed precedent with said in the G1 and breathed in G2.

John picks this idea up and plays with word/life, at the start of his gospel.

I have some vague recollection of the idea that when we ‘speak’ this difference in our living being from the other creatures is this free will act of God emulating (in a very small way) speaking and changing, stewarding his creation.

Thanks, DaveO

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Oh I do miss your questions, DaveO. Forgive some interesting tangents in what follows!

Some interesting thoughts to think about here.  Three parts to my answer

  1. Let’s look at the original text.
  2. What does the story tell us about human distinctiveness?
  3. Let’s think about that in terms of creativity.

Part 1 – Original Text
(Intended for the technically minded; feel free to jump to the next heading)

I’ll start with a big caveat – I am nowhere near being a Hebrew scholar! In all that follows, I’m relying on internet tools, interlinears, and Strong’s numbers etc!  I know from my (slightly greater) NT Greek work that such tools can give a good beginning, but are sometimes a false path.

In Genesis 1, there is indeed a series of places where “God said.”  It begins in Genesis 1:3 with the famous:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light

Eventually we get to the creation of the man and the woman 1:26 and following.  Here we have (I’m using the ESV as it tends to have some lexical precision) this, with some highlighting from me:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

In each place, this speaking (“said”) is described using the Hebrew root word, amar (אָמַר) which simply means to “utter” or “say.” What God says he wishes to do is “make” (Hebrew asah (עָשָׂה) meaning “do” or “make”) and it is the same word used for the making of the various animals etc.  Here, however, in verse 27, when it comes to describing what God actually does, the word is bara’ (בָּרָא) meaning to “create”, “fashion”,”form”,”choose”.  It’s the same word used to describe creation of the heavens and earth in verse 1.  But while it is used distinctively here, it is not unique; bara’ is also used, for instance, to describe the creation of the sea creatures in verse 21.

There is a sense of breath/breathing which in the English in verse 30 with the reference to the “breath of life” but (and I found this surprising) this appears to be overplaying the “breath” imagery.  The Complete Jewish Bible (which tends to get its Hebrew nuances right) simply renders it as “everything… in which there is a living soul.” The Hebrew is more literally “everything with a living life” where “life/living being/soul” is nephesh (נָ֫פֶשׁ). There is some connection with the verb “to breathe” (naphach (נָפַח), see below) but this link is not emphasised.  Nor is it particularly connected with the speech-acts of God in this context; it is language that simply seems to be a descriptor of all of the living and breathing creatures – human and animal alike.

The Genesis 2 parallel hones in on verse 7 (in the ESV):

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Here “formed” is yatsar (יָצַר) meaning “to form” or “to fashion” and is used exclusively of the man and woman in this context.

“Breathed” is naphach (נָפַח) which is close to nephesh (נָ֫פֶשׁ), which we saw above relates simply to the liveliness of animal creatures.  It is interesting that the ESV has deviated from it’s earlier rendering, using “living creatures” rather than “everything that has the breath of life”.  It is forced to do so because there is an explicit reference to the “breath of life” here that uses neshamah (נְשָׁמָה).  This does seem to emphasise the breathing as part of God’s act of forming the man.  In my mangled grammar, the dynamic it’s like this: God forms by breathing (naphach) the breath (neshamah) of life so that the man becomes a living (i.e. “breathing” nephesh) creature. That is, there are three “breathing” words in the sentence – verb, noun, and adjective.

However, I don’t think this emphasis alone would make us consider that this “breathing” creative dynamic is unique to the creation of humanity here, differently to the creation of the other animals.  If there is any difference at this level of analysis between the creation of animals and the creation of the man, it is one of “more so” rather than “differently to”.

To draw a conclusion then, I would argue that while there is a contextual link between words relating to “creating”/”making”/”forming” and those relating to “breathing” and those related to “saying” this link is attached to the lexical choices, rather than derived from them.

Which is to say, that we’re on pretty safe ground with the decent English translations; there doesn’t appear to be anything of significance in the Hebrew that is particularly hidden or skewed by the translation choices. And so:

Part 2 – What does the story tell us about human distinctiveness?

Clearly, the creative acts of God are preceded by his speaking, and saying, his intent.  There is no narrative that expands this causation (e.g. we could imagine a mythology in which God makes his orders known and some minions carry it out). Rather, as we see from 1:3 – God says and then something simply is: God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. It is right to think of creation as a speech-act of God, an outworking of triune communication (as I alluded to in a previous post), which, as you point out, is later picked up in passages such as John 1.

It is also clear that there is both a similarity and a distinctiveness between the creation of the man and woman and the creation of other animals.  The similarity is clear as the word nephesh – “life”/”soul”/”existence” with a nuance of “breath” – is applied to all living things. And there is nothing theologically wrong with this – we are of the same category as animals for some sense of it, and it is right to affirm this.  Much gospel imagery, particularly when it derives from the concept of animal sacrifice, hangs on this point. But I’ll leave it to others to unpack the implications of animals having nephesh, which can have the sense of a “soul”!

But there is also a distinction.  It is only of human creatures that God declares them to be “made in our image, in the likeness of ourselves” (1:26).  It is only the human creatures that are delegated dominion over the other living things. There are little phrases that emphasise the distinction: For the other creatures, God decrees “let the earth bring them forth” (1:24) almost as natural outworkings of the creation at that point, but for the man God himself “forms him from the dust of the earth” (2:7); there is something much more intimate and “hands on” – the man and woman don’t just have the nephesh (life-breath) of the other creatures, but receive the very breath of life itself (2:7).

The speech-act of God with regards to the creation of humanity does indeed breathe something into us that makes us unique. The narrative makes this clear.

Part 3: Let’s think about that in terms of creativity.

Clearly there are ways in which we can be creative that is similar to the animals. Across the animal kingdom, not only is there reproduction and procreation, but degrees of communication, and even emotion.

But your point, I think, is about how humanity operates creatively in our unique divine image? Particularly, can we do speech-acts, can our speaking also be breathing something new?

The answer, I think, is in the affirmative.

To limit ourselves to Genesis, we see that Adam speaks things into existence.  In 2:19 it is the man who names the animals and in 2:23 Adam’s declaration over Eve is almost a consummation of God’s creative act, i.e. it does something.  Even the concept of sexual intercourse and conception as the man knowing his wife (4:1) is not some euphemism (have you known the Bible to be squeamish?) but a connection of the creative act with knowledge/understanding and the intercourse (defined in its broadest sense) of the couple. The ultimate “speech”/communication is the intimate sharing of oneself with another – no surprise that it is also creative!

We see it also in the concept of “blessing” – of speaking words over others, particular offspring.  God continues his speech acts, over, for instance, Noah, in 6:1. Noah then himself speaks over his sons (positively and negatively) in 9:25. It is also interesting that when the Lord wants to frustrate humanity’s creativity (with good reason!), he does it through confusing language (11:7).

To extend beyond Genesis, consider, of course, Jesus. His speech is powerful, but not just in terms of his teaching. Most of his miracles attend to a declaration, an imperative, or even a rebuke. The Kingdom of God comes near, in a real and material sense, through speech.  And the imagery comes full circle when Jesus breathes on the disciples as an act of imparting that same hovering Spirit of creation and re-creation. It is by that same Spirit that we pray, which is truly creative speech, resonant with intimate communion between our maker and ourselves.

The biblical narrative brings speech, breath, spirit, and creativity together as a powerful dynamic. And I don’t think this is something strange within the general human experience: it derives from our roots as created beings.

I think, then, that we can generalise:  Human creativity rests on our speech, and in a much more deeper sense than the mere passing on of information; our speech is creative, and unique amongst the animal kingdom.  It literally “puts ourselves out there” expressing ideas, imagination, hopes, dreams, and so forth.  It externalises our intent, our will, our purpose, our self-understanding. Its initial effect is relational (speech requires a speaker and a listener), but also sociological, and even material.

It also grounds the gospel in our createdness: it makes absolute sense that the gospel turns on the God who reveals himself to us still, who speaks to us, and would have us speak to him.  It is the basis of our mission, that would have us speak to the world, discipling and baptising nations in the name of the one who is the Word of God.

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Q&A: Do you believe in Soul Sleep after death?

Megan asks:

Do you believe in soul-sleep after death, where we will awake at the second coming, or that our spirits will be with God immediately after our death? I Googled this the other day, and found scriptural foundation for both answers. What does the church teach? What do you believe?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question, someone asked me something very similar a number of years ago: Q&A – As an Anglican, what do you believe [about the intermediate state]? and I still agree with the substance of my answer.  The focus of that answer is the “What does the church teach?” question and goes to some of the doctrinal formularies, with some of my personal conclusions.  My position is  that after death we will be “with God” in some way, and this is prior to the Lord’s return and the time of general resurrection.

Turning to the “scriptural foundation” that you explored – there isn’t an absolute-proof-text to turn to.  The difficulty is, of course, that the focus of the gospel has more to do with our present state and our final state.  The question of any intermediate state is a technical question that isn’t precisely addressed.

There are, of course, many biblical references in which those who have died are referred to as sleeping – e.g Psalm 13:3, 1 Kings 2:10, John 11:11 etc. etc.  I am unable to find any reference, however, that suggests that this is anything more than imagery.  In fact, it is powerful imagery – sleep as an image of death, from the point of view of those left behind, speaks of both the absence of a person in death, and also the temporary nature of it in the gospel scheme of things.  It is the sense of “they are gone, but we will be reunited one day.”

On the other hand, there are other descriptions of post-death experiences that make very little, if any, sense if that experience is limited to a form of slumber.  Jesus’ assurance to the thief on the cross, that “today, you will be with me in paradise” is the famous example.  Similarly, in Revelation 6 we hear the voices of those who have been martyred, crying out in a loud voice,”How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”  Clearly, this presumes a post-death, pre-resurrection-and-judgement, conscious existence!

Of course, one of the conceptual problems is as to what this non-sleeping intermediate state is actually like.  This question goes to theological anthropology, i.e. what is a human being after all?  Are we soul, spirit, and body, and what does that mean? Where is our personhood?  After all, Christian thought emphasises the value of the embodied self.  We affirm, for instance, that a violation of someone’s body is not just the wounding of flesh, it is an injury done to their person. It is why we (along with Jesus) mourn death, which is (at the very least), the ending of bodily function.  In the final state we are looking forward not towards an eternal disembodied state, but towards an immortally glorified bodily existence, an “eternal house”. Moreover, this is exactly what we understand of Jesus’ currrent existence as a physically resurrected human being: he has a human body that is real and glorified, and the first fruits of our final eternal life.

So how do we conceive of  ourselves in a disembodied state, if this is what happens immediately after death?  This is where I don’t have a complete answer.  Some resolve it by suggesting that there is no intermediate state at all – sleeping or otherwise – and it’s just that time works differently in paradise and our experience of death is to jump ahead to the general resurrection.  I’m not convinced.  Others suggest (and I lean this way) that it is possible to conceive of personhood without physical referent, especially in an interim or temporary sense.  We are much more than our bodies:  Close your eyes and imagine someone who is very close to you… you will be thinking of and “experiencing” them as much more than just the recollection of their physical face, you are touching upon a deeper sense of who they are.

The biggest question, however, (as it is for many theological things), is “so what?”  What difference does it make to the gospel itself, to our proclamation of the gospel, or to our experience of living out the gospel?  In my reflection I am taking to think about how, while this world is our home, being with Jesus is even more so.  Our “enduring city” is not here.  As Gill and I pass through more and more seasons of life, especially difficult ones, we get a growing sense of what Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 5.  We are of “good courage” and make it our purpose to please Jesus in our earthly life. Yet, we “long to be at home with him” even if that is “absent from the body.”

So here is good news to me (although it is not the whole of the good news): I know that, when I die, I shall be at home with the Lord.  And it is hard to think of such a joyous existence being of nothing but sleep.

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Q&A: Should we make more of Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

MK asks:

It’s taken me an age to get to this point, but certainly for some, baptism is just the start. Simply recognising another broken person wants to be fixed. Sometimes, of course, a recognition that parents see their child needs to be fixed which the child confirms later. There is another baptism we need, that from the Spirit. This one must necessarily come later as our brokenness is being mended. Nonetheless it seems crucial. We don’t seem to make too much of this in ‘official’ church, but should we?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

This is an interesting question, and it goes where angels fear to tread… to some of the most precious parts of our Christian experience, and the words that we use to describe them.  As a church we should be making more of these experiences, but we often struggle for the language, and the courage.

There is a pastoral dilemma, you see.  In our insecurities, often the exuberant expression of one person’s testimony can feel like an invalidation of our own.  And “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is fraught in this regard.  I think what you have described is an excellent expression of the Christian journey, but we must be careful in how we talk about it… but sometimes we are too careful and we avoid the difficult conversation.

Here’s the problem: the word “Baptism” is being used in multiple senses – to speak about both the beginning and promise of the Christian journey, and also for the ongoing experience of the Christian journey.

Baptism rightly describes the beginning.  Baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a sacramental beginning of the Christian journey – it so symbolically embraces the promises of salvation and covenantal inclusion that we can look upon it as the foundation on which our faith experience is built.  It incorporates a “fixing” as you say, either for ourselves or as an embrace of our children.

That “fixing” includes the understanding of being “born again” (Baptism symbolises a dying and resurrection), of having the Holy Spirit come and dwell within us (an important declaration in the act of confirming one’s Baptism), of being regenerate by the grace of God, and of taking our place within the Body of Christ.

Our Baptism with water is therefore much more than “John’s Baptism” of repentance only.  Yes, it is a sacramental symbol of repentance, but it is also a baptism into Christ.  John himself says “I baptised you with water; but He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8), and he is referring to the new beginning that Jesus will bring about.

Similarly, in Acts we see a couple of occasions when new Christians had only received John’s Baptism.  Paul’s experience in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-6 describes this:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’
They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’
So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’
‘John’s baptism,’ they replied.
Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Paul baptises them “in the name of Lord Jesus”, as the foundation and beginning of their faith, and the Holy Spirit coming upon them is part and parcel of that.  Amongst the baptised people of God there are no gradations, and no one is a second class Christian needing another dose of God’s grace, if you know what I mean.

It’s in this sense of beginnings that I prefer the use of the word “Baptism.”  The “official church” does talk about this lot, and usually reasonably well.

Nevertheless, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” describes a genuine experience, which I share and affirmeven if I might use slightly different language.  And, yes, it’s usually something we don’t talk about well at all.  Indeed, often we prefer stability and order, and so we inhibit new experiences, misconstrue and misunderstand them, or seek to restrict them to controllable structures and programs.  In so doing, even when well-intentioned, we discourage growth and maturity.

The genuine experience that we’re talking about here takes many forms. It invariably involves a sense of God being closer than he has before, of being filled, touched, moved, even overcome by the Spirit of God. It often comes with a sense of freedom, restoration, healing, and sometimes an increase in boldness and courage.  I think this is the sense of “being mended” that you are talking about.

It’s an experience that for some can be almost spontaneous and unexpected, for some it comes as an answer to prayer in the midst of trauma or darkness, for some it’s because someone has laid hands on them, others have experienced it in ecstatic worship, others have found an encounter in times of deep contemplation.  It is an experience that is often accompanied by the manifestations of the Spirit that we see in Acts and read about in places like 1 Corinthians 12 – tongues, interpretations, prophesying and all the other sorts of gifts of the Spirit.

For some it is a unique one-off phenomenon, for others it’s like a new chapter in their “deeper walk with thee.”  It is not wrong to call it a “baptism” with the Holy Spirit, in the broad sense of an “immersion” in the Holy Spirit, a filling up, an overflowing etc.  But I try to avoid the “baptism” language so as not to confuse with Baptism as the sacrament that speaks of being included in Christ.

The two senses come close together sometimes though. I have observed that an experience with the Holy Spirit can feel like a fundamental new beginning.  I observe this in three ways:

1) Sometimes, in people’s experience, their actual Baptism was not a matter of faith. It had meaning, but it was the meaningfulness of ritual, social expectation and so on. In experiential terms, their Baptism was akin to “the Baptism of John.”  The subsequent encounter and “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” coincides with a coming to faith. They have an experience of regeneration and renewal and the presence of God. Theologically, I would affirm this as a “coming to life” in faith of what was previously done in ceremony.  In experience, it would feel like a new beginning, an initiation in itself.

2) Sometimes, it is an experience that precedes receiving Baptism in water. People come to faith, and encounter the Holy Spirit in a real and tangible way.  In this experience the encounter is a new beginning, and the sacrament is a means of catching up to what God is doing, just like in Acts 10:47.

3) For others the experience so marks a significant step in their walk with God, that it feels like a new beginning, a refreshing, revitalisation of faith. This is especially so if there had previously been resisting of the work of God in their lives, or if they had received a fundamental shift in their understanding of God through the reading and hearing of Scripture, prayer, or prophetic word. This sense of a new beginning can also come with the  “laying on of hands” in a commissioning into a ministry (e.g. Acts 13:3) or to impart a spiritual gift (e.g 2 Timothy 1:6).  In all these cases, the encounter with the Spirit is a significant moment, and precious, but it’s a part of the journey, a fresh chapter in something already begun. Something broken has become significantly, experientially mended.

In all of these experiences I don’t mind if people call it a “baptism in (or of/with/by) the Holy Spirit” but often I find other language to be more helpful.

But your question is a necessary provocation. Whatever language we use, we must make more of these experiences. We must talk about what’s it like to journey with Jesus through the realities of life. This experience of God, as opposed to the mere theory, must be part of our preaching and teaching, our praying, our sharing, our testimony, our pastoral care, our intercession etc. We must be willing to pray for and help people encounter the Holy Spirit in their lives in real and substantial ways, and help provide the language to describe it.

Instead, it seems to me, that our tendency as the church at large is to practise a form of ongoing abandonment as we act more like a boarding school than the family of God: We’ll give you some rites of passage, teach you some theory, and expect you to act your part – but for everything else you’re on you’re own.  “Discipleship” in this caricature is a classroom, and “vocation” is about appointment to house captain or something.

Rather the Holy Spirit calls us to an intimacy with God and a vulnerability, a depth that can we come to share with one another.  As we receive him, are “overcome” by him, and yes, in that sense “baptised” in the Holy Spirit, we come to see God, and see one another. We walk with each other, share those experiences of brokenness and restoration (this is discipleship), and we call out to one another what we can see the Holy Spirit is doing and gifting in us and through us (this is vocation).

So yes, we should make much more of these experiences, providing the context, the space, the protection, the understanding, the language, and the simple care for people to grow and encounter God.  Sometimes I think we would rather be organised, but at what cost?!

Thanks for the question!

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Q&A: Who are the poor? Is our first challenge the spiritually poor?

Anonymous asks:

We are challenged certainly in some Anglican communities to look after the poor. I suppose the biggest question is going to be who are the poor? May seem a daft question, but in financial terms we have very few poor. However, certainly some of the financially richest people I know are very, very poor; spiritually and otherwise? My personal thought is that we do have poor with us, right now. Our challenge is to reveal those clothes they are wearing are actually rags. Is that our first big challenge?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question. I have some general thoughts on this in a recent review:  A Church for the Poor?

My first thoughts on the poor usually arrive with the famous “sheep and goats” passage of Matthew 25. In this passage the returning King, acting as judge, declares (for the righteous):

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”

‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

And of course, there’s an equivalent and negative judgement for those who did not feed, give drink, clothe, or visit etc.

This gets us into your question. Who are the poor? They are indeed those who are financially, physically impoverished: hungry, destitute, excluded by their circumstances.

We can’t overlook this. There is a clear gospel challenge to look after and to care for the physically poor. This is clear from the Scriptures: the laws on gleaning is about providing for those who are literally hungry, as are the many passages that talk about caring for widows and orphans, who lack the stability and security not only of societal standing, but also of the basics of life. James considers the care of these physically vulnerable people to be an aspect of “genuine religion”.

It also gives some exhortational force. Who are the poor? The ones who we can see. We are held to account for who is in front of us; e have personal responsiblity for those who God brings across our path. There is also communal responsiblity for those who are in front of us as a community.  This is just as serious and calls us to move our community towards caring for the poor through advocacy and social justice and personal example.

We cannot ignore the physically poor. As Keith Green would imply, we make too many excuses, individually and together, we ought to care for those who do not have as much we are do. It is good in its own right. It is a gospel imperative.  Or shall we insist that what we have is ours alone, and not God’s?

But you are right, there is also a spiritual poverty. But there are two ways in which we need to take this.

Firstly, there is spiritual poverty that speaks to a hardness of heart, a self-righteousness that, as you say, dresses itself in resplendent rags.  This is not just preening and pride, but facade, self-reliance, the idolisation of financial security, and other “decent” sins.

Such folk are the “goats” of Matthew 25. They are the rich man with Lazarus. They are the fat cows of Bashan. Such hardness of heart is rightly and justly judged harshly. And notice how the spiritual poverty is often marked by the hardened attitude towards those who are physically poor, or a general dismissiveness of those who are weak and dependent in some way.

Is it, then, as you say “our challenge to reveal those clothes… are actually rags”? That is, is it our task to reveal this hypocrisy, this hardness of heart? To some extent, yes. We are called to not only advocate for the poor, but also to exhort people to repentance, to soften their hearts, to take a posture of faith and humility, to enter into the insecurity of faith whereby their hearts might break with the massive longings of God’s own heart.  Biblical and Christian history is full of characters who have served us in this way, by provoking us towards righteousness.

We must feed them, as we must feed the physically poor.  These people need the Word of God (“All they need is Moses,” the rich man is told…), and they are in front of us. If church members and even clergy find themselves uncomprehending of how to apply the elementary teachings of the faith then it’s not somebody else’s job. We must dig into the Word, speak the truth, exhort repentance, paint a vision of hope, etc. etc. That is, we are called to “feed the sheep” that are in front of us, even if they think they are princes.

Secondly we might think of spiritual poverty in the sense of being poor in spirit. This is a more positive sense.

There is a recognition that those who are physically poor, by their circumstances, are dependent, vulnerable, reliant, weak.  The poor in spirit may have enough to eat, but they may be dependent, vulnerable, reliant and weak in other ways – even if they don’t know it.  In our middle class town I know those who are involved in picking up the pieces from addictive behaviours, neglected children. The book that I reviewed, A Church for the Poor?, understands this, for instance, and speaks of things such as aspirational poverty and relational poverty.

There is a similar imperative to care for these who are in front of us: If we encounter a depressed young man, we cannot turn aside. If there is a lonely widow in front of us, we should not simply “leave her to the professionals.”  And when society begins to produce a younger generation with increasing incidences of anxiety we should be amongst those standing up and saying “Come on, we can do better, let’s change how we do this!”

But here is the difference between hard-hearted “spiritual poverty” and being “poor in spirit.”  Itis this: the way of Christ moves away from one and toward the other.

You see, in this context, being “poor in spirit” is an indicator of faith, a positive thing – the opposite of being “poor in spirit” is being “rich in ourselves” that is, self-righteous.  The physically poor teach this lesson, they weather circumstances in which they are weak, vulnerable, and dependent, and God honours them by valuing the related things of faith, trust, and honesty and judges the rich-in-themselves for their lack of them. 

No wonder Jesus identifies with the physically poor!   They look more like Jesus than the self-secure rich!

Just as we are all relatively physically wealthy in the global scheme of things, we must realise that we are all relatively poverty stricken, hardened in the spiritual sense. I know for myself that while I might have “done good” from time to time, I am most likely to be moved by the financial and other physical insecurities that beset my own family. I find myself protecting myself emotionally as I encounter those who are wounded by life.  I cling to my wealth, my strength.

The Christian journey begins and continues with the basic understanding of “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” Any challenge to “reveal the rags” must begin in us.  When we realise that we are spiritually poor, we are also drawn to our weakness, vulnerability, and dependency, and, faith, trust, and honesty is the sweet fruit of it. We cannot turn to ourselves, so we turn to God, and inherit the kingdom of heaven.

The Christian journey is one of constant relinquishment and surrender in this regard, a long slow walk of obedience. We become poor in spirit, and find ourselves with riches that are not limited by our capacity, but strength in our weakness, life in our death. This is what Jesus looks like.

That is our first big challenge. To look to our own posture before God, a posture of faith that is soft towards God and others, and not self-reliance that just builds fine looking decent protective, hard, walls.

[Image Credit: Lithogr Wellcome V0021724 CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

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Q&A: Can we call the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Jesus?

SA asks:

Hi Will,
Can we call the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ Spirit? What do you think?
Clearly he isn’t Jesus because he is the third person of the trinity, but I am a bit muddled as we sometimes say Jesus is with us by his spirit. What do we mean by that? Do we mean Jesus? Do we mean the Holy Spirit? Or are we meaning specifically the Holy Spirit but also Jesus and the Father as our God is one?
For example, when Jesus said he would be with us until the end of the age did he mean himself or the Holy Spirit? In John 14 Jesus promises “another Counsellor to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” but also that the Father and he (Jesus) will make their home in the believer.
And then I look at Romans 8:9 where Paul talks about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and calls him both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ in quick succession and then says that “if Christ is in you….”
And Galatians 2:20 “Christ who lives in me..”
I’m not sure if I’ve even articulated my question clearly!

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question. It takes us into the area of trinitarian theology, which is notoriously brain-bending, but is also deep, profound, and joy-bringing.

The short answer to your question is yes, we can (and must) understand that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ Spirit.

The longer answer means exploring the conundrum that you have described.  Your exploration is great.  You’ve quoted the verse that I would have gone to as a way into it: In Romans 8:9-11 the Holy Spirit is referred to in the following ways:

  1. “the Spirit”
  2. “the Spirit of God”
  3. “the Spirit of Christ”
  4. “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead”

This passage also has a close correlation between “the Spirit” and “Christ” with regards to the one who dwells “in you.”  You’ve also rightly picked up other places where this is implied – Galatians 2:20 – and also Matthew 28:20 where Jesus says “I am with you always”, just before he leaves! Of course, the Spirit is subsequently present.

It can be a bit of a brain twister, so what do we do with it?

We can get a little bit theological: What is being emphasised here is the unity of the Trinity. We cannot separate Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit reveals the Son, and if we see the Son we have seen the Father (that’s John 14 again). This unity is at the heart of the gospel: Jesus is not one third of God of with us, he is truly God with us. As Paul assures us in Colossians 2:9, in Christ “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”

We can even get a bit metaphysical about it. My tentative exploration begins with thinking of God as a relational dynamic, and I start by looking to God the Father [As an aside, the Orthodox emphasis on the Father as the “Fountain of Deity” got me thinking here]:  The Father perfectly and eternally pours himself out into the Son. We call this “begetting” and think of the way in which a parent desires to pour themselves – their character, wisdom, understanding, etc. – into their children and extrapolate from that. This is so eternal and perfect that the Son isn’t just a reflection of the Father, the Father is pouring out his very being, and so the Son is of the same dynamic essence. The Son therefore pours himself back towards the Father, in response, agreement, and self-giving.

The Son’s eternal and perfect “pouring back” is an eternal and perfect “Yes and Amen” to the self-giving of the Father.  This eternal and perfect outpouring perfectly and eternally manifests not just the power and character of the Father and the Son, but the very substance of who they are.  This mutual outpouring manifests perfectly and eternally in the person of the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father’s eternally begetting love and the Son’s eternal returning joy.

Take any aspect of this away and then the dynamic is not eternal or perfect, and therefore not God.  That is, if the Spirit is not totally the Father’s Spirit, or the Son’s Spirit, or the Spirit of God Almighty, then God is not God.

Phew. That’s a bit heady. But can you see the passion and joy of it all? At the beginning of creation, the Father pours out in creative fervour – “Let there be light!” – the Son receives and responds in a “Yes and Amen” and from the power and joy of their agreement, the Spirit proceeds to hover over the waters of creation. Their unified love creates. It’s not like there’s some committee discussion in the Godhead about weighing up the pros and cons of creating the universe, rather the creative love and joy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply brings it about. After all:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

And here is the joyous gospel part of it. We know that “God so loved the World”. At some point the heart of the Father pours out in grace and love – “Let us go to our broken children” – the Son responds with a “Yes and Amen” and the Spirit manifests that loving purpose, hovering over the womb of a young woman.  And now the eternally, perfectly begetting God and Father, pours himself out, eternally, and perfectly, into a human child. The eternal, perfect dynamic that is God, can incorporate, does incorporate, and still incorporates a human being, Jesus.

The Father pours himself out into Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Son’s response now has human voice: “Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (John 5:19), and the Spirit manifests that desire as healings and miracles happen.

And then at some point it looks like the Father’s heart to save – “Let us take responsibility for our children” – and the Son, knowing exactly what that means, says “let your will be done” and enters into cruelty and injustice and forsakenness, until the sky goes dark and we hear “It is finished” and “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.”  And then the self-giving, outpouring, justice-loving, fierce joy of God is truly made manifest, and we really see the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead!

All the time, at every moment, the purposes of God occur from and within this dynamic of creative thought, creative response, creative power. Every aspect of God is like this – saving thought, saving response, saving power; healing, restoring, convicting, providing etc. etc. Every time we see the heart of the Father, grounded in the Son, manifest in the Spirit.

And then, lastly, the profound realisation of it is this, if we return to Romans 8:9 –  embraced as we are by Jesus, we are “in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells within you.” This tells me that we are not meeting God from the outside, as if we might occasionally have an audience with the Holy Spirit, or with Jesus, or (if we’re really lucky) the Father. No! In Christ, we have been caught up into the dynamic of God himself. We don’t pray from the outside, we pray from the inside. We seek to discern the will of the Father, we seek to respond with “Your will be done” and we find, amazingly, that the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead, the Holy Spirit, manifests the will of God, in, with, and through us.

So yes, we can call the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus – we must! If we can’t, then Jesus is not really God incarnate, and we’re not really abiding in the Father. And there’s less gospel (if any) in that.

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Review: Wasteland? – Encountering God in the Desert

I’d never really heard of Mike Pilavachi before coming to the UK. I’d vaguely heard of Soul Survivor and, to be honest, was a little sceptical, suspecting just another super-spiritual-guru-man-caricature hyping it up. Instead, I have found in my experiences over the last couple of years that there is depth to the Soul Survivor movement, and Pilavachi himself has come to intrigue me.  At the front he is part bumbling oaf, part lovable uncle, sometimes authoritatively prophetic and eloquent, other times lurching from anecdote to anecdote, self-effacing and yet stepping out in naturally supernatural words of knowledge and a ministry of restoration. In some ways it seems preposterous that God could work through him a successful and influential movement that reaches 1000’s of youth each year, and sustains works of justice and care across the globe.

Now here’s something I’ve learned over the years: you can’t trust leaders who aren’t dead yet. The more they are full of themselves, either in inferiority or superiority, the more they will injure, harm, or neglect. I include myself in that cohort. But those who have been through fire, who have been stripped away, who have been through wilderness and desert, and have learned to die and surrender all to God… well, I can trust them more.  They look more like Jesus and Jesus is trustworthy.

Here’s the same lesson: church leadership and the work of ministry can be either an act of self-focussed performance, or it can be an act of God-honouring worship.  In his grace, God often uses both, but there is a difference. That difference comes with brokenness, suffering, and wilderness. While we ask God to bless our ministry, we are performing, relying on our strengths. When we are stripped away, broken, we find ourselves operating out of weakness and dependence in ministry shaped less by our own (sometimes impressive) capability, but by the power and purpose and presence of the Spirit of God.

I think that’s what I see in Pilavachi: He’s a big man, and I see a bigger God.

All of this to introduce a book I picked up at a stall while attending Soul Survivor this year. Written in 2003, this is a somewhat autobiographical insight into where Pilavachi is coming from. And it’s called Wasteland? – Encountering God in the desert.

Here’s the dynamic I’m talking about:

The great need today is for deep and authentic people… In our attempts to be ‘culturally relevant’ we could, if we are not careful, become as shallow as the surrounding culture… Jesus came to usher in another way. He called it the Kingdom of God… Why do we prefer to stay in the Christian ghetto where it is safe?… Yet if we are to go further into the world and make a difference instead of being yet another voice that adds to the noise, we have to listen to the call to go on another journey, a journey into God himself. If we are to offer life instead of platitudes we need to catch more than a glimpse of glory… Specifically, if we want to move in the power of the Spirit, to live the life of the Spirit and to carry a depth of spirituality that alone can change a world, he invites us on a journey into the desert.  It is sometimes a very painful journey… but it is, I believe, a necessary journey. This adventure is only for those who are committed to being a voice to and not merely another echo of society… It is only for those who are sick of superficiality both in themselves and in the church. (Pages 13-16)

The desert is a dry place. Nobody goes to the desert in search of refreshment. The desert is an inhospitable place; it is not comfortable. The desert is an incredibly silent place; there are no background noises, no distractions to lessen the pain. The desert is the place where you have to come to terms with your humanity, with your weakness and fallibility. The desert is a lonely place; there is not usually many people there. Above all, the desert is God’s place; it is the place where he takes us in order to heal us. (Page 20)

This book simply unpacks this common, but often undescribed, dynamic. It is in the autobiographical content (“I wondered if God had forgotten me?”, p19; “More than anything else, when I came to the end of myself, I came to the beginning of God.“, p20 emphasis mine). And it is a common thread in his exposition of the biblical narrative (“In the desert Moses came to the end of himself. In so doing he came to the beginning of God.” p29). At all times it both excites and dreads, and is therefore compelling.

I found Wasteland? to be personally challenging. Ministry life is not easy, and can often feel like a desert. Pilavachi has helped me in my own reflection and crying out. For instance, he writes that “dependence and intimacy are the two major lessons we learn in the desert” (p22). Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot about dependence, but I know I need to learn more about intimacy with the Lord who is near to me, even if I can’t tell that he is there, even if he is setting my heart on fire. Pilavachi speaks of being determined to “seek God for himself whether I had ministry or not” (p21) and I know I need this example. He gives the forthright truth, “life’s a bitch, but God is good” (p79) and I must face my resentment, and the pain of knowing that that truth applies to church life just as much as any other domain. I am encouraged to continue “plodding” (p86).

The book certainly makes for insightful reflection. I do have a slight question as to whether it would always be helpful to someone who might be in the midst of their wilderness. After all, it’s very easy to slip into the despondency of (unfair) comparison: “It’s easy for him to write, he’s come through it, he’s a successful famous Christian!”. And sometimes the descriptions don’t totally match what someone might be experiencing: for instance, the wilderness is not always a “place where he slows us down” (p43), I have found it can also be something that feels like a dangerous jungle, a place of anxiety and fear.  These concerns are only minor though.

The aspect I most appreciate is how the book has a prophetic character, speaking truth to the church, the church of the West in particular. Consider this provocative truth:

When we turn from the spring of living water, we try to satisfy ourselves from any contaminated pool. We then become contaminated and diseased. Instead of seeking healing, we live in denial that there is anything wrong. The desert is a place of healing. Before that, however, it has to be the place where we discover that we are sick. When all the props are taken away we come face to face with our bankruptcy. The gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news. In the desert we find that we are ‘wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Revelation 3:17). Only then can we truly receive the Saviour. It is very dry and arid in the desert. Only when we truly thirst can we begin to drink the living water. (Page 43, emphasis mine).

This is the antidote to a faith that owes more to Western consumerism than to the word of God. It is out of suffering and death that life comes. If we have not learned that from the cross of Jesus, what have we learned? (Page 83, emphasis mine).

The lessons he draws from the Song of Songs are profound as he speaks of the longing of the Beloved seeking her Lover. If we resist being moved by the presence of God (which we do), how much more do we resist being moved by a sense of his absence? We would often rather numb out and muddle along in our own strength.

Sadly, for some Christians, for those who have never known themselves as the ‘beloved’, his presence is not missed. It is business as usual. I heard someone ask once, ‘If the Holy Spirit left your church, would anyone notice?’ The desert sorts out the spiritual men from the boys. [Like the Beloved in the Song of Songs], will we walk the streets until we find him in a deeper way, will we choose to sit in the desert until we hear him speaking tenderly to us? Or will we take the easy option?… God is not interested in a ‘satisfactory working relationship’ with his people. The passionate God wants a love affair with his church. A love so strong sthat we know we could never live without him. The desert is God’s means of taking us to that place. (Page 52)

This is an “if only” book. “If only” I could get the spirit of this book into the heart of the church at large.  We are so formulaic, pulling programs off the shelf, often to avoid our wasteland by busyness or some self-made productivity. Yet in the wilderness, we can be made into a “voice, not an echo” (p57), a people that can speak the gospel from depth to depth. This is what changes lives. This is what changes the world.

I have learned to consider prospective church leaders with the question “How dead are they?”  I have regretted it when I have gone past that question too quickly. I have regretted it when I haven’t asked that question of myself. Pilavachi puts it this way: “I am wary of trusting any leader who does not walk with a limp” (p87).  In many ways he is a Christian superstar, with big lights, big tents, and big band… but his limp is obvious.  In this book it becomes a provocation, exhortation, and encouragement for all of us. I have come to really appreciate the whole Mike Pilavachi, Soul Survivor thing, with all its chaotic, messy, haphazard, space where God is so often manifestly present.  It is that blessing, because of a limp.

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