The Christian faith is relevant. At least, it’s meant to be.

We have, of course, skewed our definition of “relevant” to mean something like “trendy, hip, and attractive to young people.” Relevance is actually deeper than that. It is about being connected, responsive, and impactful with respect to the real moment. 2020 is a very real moment.

In the midst of the pandemic the relevance of following Jesus has been (understandably) questioned. The doors of Christian churches have been shut, our liturgical and summer festivals halted. The rites and rituals for births, marriages, and deaths, have been cancelled, postponed, or severely curtailed. What are we left with?

Some have given a utilitarian defense: We have kept foodbanks open. We have provided meals, and pastoral care networks. We have coordinated volunteers, and generally been facilitators of decent folk. It’s true. But others have done that too.

Some have slipped into seize-the-moment optimism: We have expanded our horizons. We’ve gone online. We’re more accessible then ever before. Our viewer numbers are bigger than our former congregations. This is great. We have responded well. But so have others. What makes this distinctively Christian?

Real relevance happens at the level of our core message and way of life. For us, it is all about Jesus. If Jesus is relevant, then Jesus makes sense, and Jesus makes sense of life. This is the essense of the Scriptures; the Bible is not some abstract articulation of doctrine, it is applied belief which grows from the intervention of God in real times and places.  As people devoted to Jesus, our words and actions are meant to be similarly connected, responsive, and impactful. Frankly, we should have something to say.

Many have said things poorly. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of prosperity preachers naming and claiming immunity and right-wing political conservatives anathematising face-masks, even the estimable John Lennox has asked Where is God in a coronavirus world? but doesn’t do much more than reiterate his defense against New Atheism. Relevance isn’t just about seizing a new opportunity to say the same things in the same ways, it’s about showing how the same truths are alive enough to connect with, respond to, and impact a new set of circumstances; the gospel is not defeated by shifts in context.

Tom Wright’s God and the Pandemic, is relevant, properly relevant.

It’s short, it’s easy to read, and it’s substantial. It is simple. Five chapters: Introduction to the context, followed by relevant expositions of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, and a conclusion asking “where do we go from here?”

And it is not trite. In fact, the essence of Wright’s message is to push back at our propensity for platitudes. To read the signs of the times isn’t about digging in to the moment to find some hidden “inner cosmic moral mechanism” (p17), as if 2020 locates us on the end-times roadmap for those who are privy to a plan. It’s about locating ourselves within the revealed heart of God and the divine narrative of his history.

Necessarily, that centres us on Jesus. “The minute we find ourselves looking at the world around us and jumping to conclusions about God and what he might be doing, but without looking carefully at Jesus, we are in serious danger of forcing through an ‘interpretation’ which might look attractive… but which actually screens Jesus out of the picture.” (pp19-20). “If there is one God, and if he has come in the person of his own son to unveil his rescuing purposes for the world, then there can be no other signs, no other warning events, to compare with this one” (p22).  “Jesus is already reigning”, he assures us, his “rule over this world” is a present one, “starting with his resurrection and ending when he has finished the work of subduing all ‘enemies’ – the last of which is death itself, a very relevant consideration at this time (1 Corin. 15.25-26)” (p24).

If you want to know what it means to talk about God being ‘in charge of’ the world, or being ‘in control’, or being ‘sovereign’, then Jesus himself instructs you to rethink the notion of ‘kingdom’, ‘control’ and ‘sovereignty’ themselves, around his death on the cross. (Page 25)

Wright reaches into the Scriptures and shows how Jesus is presently present. That is relevance. He is neither located in the past with dusty words of lore, or waiting in the future with fantastical notions of shallow victory. Jesus is present, ruling, reigning, working, within the broken plagued world.

The demonstration and inauguration of that ruling, reigning work is the cross. And therefore the victory, the hope, the renewal, and all the other things we’re looking for in this present moment, is also found there. Pointing to the episode of Lazarus’ death, Wright reminds us how the King brings the Kingdom of God: “He just weeps. And then – with the authority born of that mixture of tears and trust – he commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb” (p28, emphasis mine). How much more the authority revealed in the pain of Gethsemane? How much more the authority revealed at Calvary? Christ’s power is the form of authority that is made strongest in weakness, and which we discover by sharing in the suffering of Christ as we (relevantly!) engage with this world.

The clearest call from Wright, then, in this season, is to lament. We weep, we mourn, and we respond as the Holy Spirit empowers us within that helplessness. Isn’t that the sort of kingdom that Jesus envisages, inherited by the meek and those who mourn and those who are poor in spirit (crf. the beatitudes)?  Isn’t that a conceivable embrace of the current moment?

…God does send thunderbolts – human ones. He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hunger-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world…. They will use their initiative; they will see where the real needs are and go to o meet them. They will weep at the tombs of their friends. At the tombs of their enemies. Soem of them will get hurt. Some may be killed. That is the story of Acts, all through. There will be problems, punishments, setbacks, shipwrecks, but God’s purposes will come through. These people, prayerful, humble, faithful, will be the answer, not to the question Why? But to the question What? What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help? Who shall we send? God works in all things with and through those who love him. (Pages 34-35)

Wright’s book, therefore, has a prophetic edge. A lot of our church energy has gone into shoring ourselves up, battening down the hatches. We are either fearful or comfortable with respect to how disturbed our church meetings and finances are. But those things are irrelevant. We are not about re-spinning our strength for the “new normal”, we are to be moved by lament in the gift of the present time.

We groan with all creation, Paul tells us in Romans, as we long for the completion of it all.  This is a revelation in our Scriptures, the word of the Lord to us. Can we not proclaim to this world, by giving voice to this groan? Do we not know the deep joy of meeting the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit of the Father, the Spirit of Jesus, who also groans within us?  A happy dapper brave face will just reveal ourselves. But if we groan with his Spirit, we don’t just have some sort of chance of experiencing an awareness of Jesus, we find ourselves being sent in the same way he was sent, sharing in his authority, following his commission. “We hold the vision and the reality side by side as we groan wih the groaning of all creation, as as the Spirit gorans within us so that the new creation may come to birth” (p74).

This, then, is also a vocational book. If there is any utilitarian potential in this pandemic it is this: that it may catalyse the church to remember itself, by remembering Jesus and the raw, almost primal nature of his kingdom. The tears of the King are the pathway to a new creation and Wright calls us to it.

The followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain. (Page 42)

Wright does unpack some of the outworking of it all. He dips into how Christians have turned their groans into actions in the past, willing to care where the state has not, and so showing how God’s kingdom is different to the world. He cautions against the privatising of worship through the prolonged pivot to online services. He warns of following the “secularising lead” – “The sign of the new creation, from the ministry of Jesus forward, has been the healing presence of Jesus himself, and his death and resurrection above all” (p69). There is a necessary place for public worship, public help, public speech as a way to express God’s Kingdom. The world is destabilised, and the “pagan subtexts” (p 72) of our secularised situation will play out in a fight between the gods of money, health, and deadening pleasure.

These are not unprecedented times. But this is a season that is forcing us to be honest. This is the case for the Western world particularly, and the Western church as well. Wright’s book helps express that honesty, and perhaps some repentance. If nothing else, it helps us groan well.

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A common experience of being involved in church life is a collision, between vision and aspiration, and the hard reality of what church is actually like. It can come as some sort of crisis (e.g. being on the wrong end of hypocrisy or abuse) or simply a nagging sense that something is “off,” an “I don’t think we’re being who we’re called to be.”

I mention this, not because this is the primary topic of Ned Lunn’s, Ash Water Oil, but because those who have had that experience may find particular solace and even inspiration in its pages.

You see, the collision I speak of is not necessarily a bad thing. I often find it in the clash between the joyous ecclesiological reality of church (the Spirit-filled, Jesus-led, worshipful people of God seeking to make disciples of all nations) and the ecclesiastical reality (institutions filled with politics, anachronisms, and corruptible personalities). I find that the collision exists within myself more often than not.

It is a creative collision. It’s where we wrestle with God to lay hold of his blessing, clarify his promise, and pursue our shared vocation as real people in a real time and place. It is where we move past faith and church as mere expressions of the pleasure principle, and lay hold of what being a Jesus-shaped community is all about.

For that creative task, Ash Water Oil, is an excellent resource. It is the work of an author who clearly loves the church, and he has used his significant intellect and passion to lay out a vision of what might be.

Lunn draws upon “monasticism” as his defining guide, in both its ancient and newer forms.

We are used to examining monasticism through the lens of avowed “poverty, chastity, and obedience.”  We understand these words but they are somewhat inaccessible to the life of the ordinary church. Lunn’s distillate is much more helpful. He prefers the principles of “stability, conversion, and obedience.”  This is what he explores, carrying them across the liturgical lessons of Ash Wednesday, Easter, and Pentecost (hence “Ash, Water, Oil”), and a matrix of trinitarian themes (“Creation, Redemption, Sanctification”) and practices (“Prayer, Study, Service”).

What I want to propose… is a set of virtues to seek to inhabit… I wonder what would emerge if we acknowledged together, a sense that the New Monastic call is, like our brothers and sisters of the religious life, a commitment to ‘stability, conversion and obedience’. To explicitly seek to live a life rooted somewhere or with someone no matter what the spiritual weather is like, no matter what temptations afflict you. To respond to the call to stay and remain faithful. [i.e. ‘Stability’]  Secondly, to continually engage in the work of personal change; to turn away, step by step, from the things of this world to the Kingdom of God; to intentionally become, in different circumstances and in different ways, more and more Christ-like, poor and dependent on God. [i.e. ‘Conversion’]  And, thirdly, to desire to place yourself the decisions of something or someone else; to curb that deeply human temptation to be in control of ourselves and our decisions; to hold onto the power of our own lives. [i.e. ‘Obedience’] (Pages 12-13, [with my annotations])

For Gill and I, this resonates at the creative collision point. When we think of ourselves and our church (both local and wide), it explains our frustration. We are so often fickle and fleeting, comfort-driven, and not stable; we are so often self-secure, sin-denying, and grace-defying, and unconverted; we are so often individualistic, consumeristic, and voyeuristic, and disobedient to the way of Christ and unaccountable to each other. The monastic path expresses a counter-cultural path, in the best sense of it.  The Church needs a new form of monasticism.

At the beginning, in creation, the monastic way reminds us that we are but dust. It speaks to our fundamental identity.

We are not, despite the depth in which we feel it, the main part in our story… Without Him above us we become drunk on our own achievements as a species. We begin to tell ourselves that we can do anything, be anything, form the world into our own dreams and fantasies; we are the main protagonists and will drive the story. To remind ourselves of our creation, of our createdness, is to place ourselves into the right role in the true story and the story begins with some earth. (Page 35)

We are called to embed ourselves solely in the reality of the love of God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and taught to us through the lives of the saints, which provokes us to see ourselves and others not as different in gender, sexuality, race or class but as equal under the authority of God. We are to receive our identity in Him and Him alone. In this way we no longer need to fear abandonment or rejection of others because our roots are entwined with the one who gives us life and brings us to our true self. (Page 59)

The image of the monastic life speaks of a sense of devotedness, of having one’s entire self set apart for divine purposes.  If there is an opposite descriptor, it is of the “secular” life. There is a creative collision when the church secularises even as  we maintain a religious aesthetic. There is invariably a rub point focused on identity and autonomy. On whose terms do I live my life? On whose terms do we manifest our shared identity as church? Control collides with childlikeness. Self-definition collides with the numbering of the hairs of our head. Life as a self-made construct collides with life received as gift.

The way through it is to to rediscover our createdness. We need to know this truly religious path.

In redemption we remember we are Christ’s. We belong to him now, and this is life to us.

In his grace, He lifts us out of our world of transaction, karma and Fate, washes us and places us back in the garden of His delight. He can, if we allow Him, birth us anew through the water of baptism. He begins, from the moment we see the Father in His Son, Jesus, shaping the dirt and mud of our lives into new life. He recalibrates our journeys (page 98)

If we are called to continual conversion into the likeness of Christ, then we should follow Him into His rich life of kenosis and empty ourselves so that others may become rich by God’s grace. Our conversion is an emptying of that which we possess and which possesses us. (page 104)

I have come to say in recent years that my church growth strategy can be boiled down to one principle: those who seek to save their own life will lose it. The creative collision is real, particularly in my evangelical world, where we tend to default back to mechanistic approaches to strengthening and empowering our organsiations at the expense of worship, mortification, and more mystical devotion. At one point Lunn confronts the narrative in which we “must secure our inner identity”, and make “our autonomy… a thing to be protected and sustained. The life of poverty and kenosis, however, demands that we follow Christ in dying to self in order that we can be raised with Him in new life” (page 105). It includes acquiesence to the “shared narrative” of Scripture that “gives shape to our interpretation of existence” and without which “we are forced to make up our own narrative and return to the masks that hide us from truly knowing ourselves.” (page 127).

Whilst we, as God’s people, continue to focus on our own survival, perpetuating our own, albeit noble and good activities and arguments, we fail to witness to the power of grace…. God does come and meet us where we are, but He comes to turn us around, to recalibrate us and for our whole lives to be changed.(Page 113).

Finally in sanctification, we remember we are called to be moved towards him.

A sacred community is one that is defined, not by an exoskeleton, a cast around a limb, but, rather, an endoskeleton; a form around which we gather. Sanctification, the redefinition of our being, occurs when we are in pure communion with the divine source of holiness and true life. (page 155)

That imitation of Jesus, of course, is where we have creative collisions, it is the painful process of becoming.

A pertinent case in Lunn’s consideration is the question of leadership in the church.  As ministers of the gospel, we want to serve as Jesus did, and lead as he did. We want to give ourselves, and receive others as he has received. We want to live in the knowledge of his power. All of this gets expressed within community dynamics, including the necessities of hierarchy and the exercise of authority, and it often goes wrong. No wonder the monastics had to wrestle with the concept of obedience in their walk of holiness.

Gill and I have observed a tendency to resolve this process by a form of avoidance: A falling back of how we see leadership, not into some form of accountability in community, but into a form of nihilism that renders anything other than the unboundaried inclusion as inherently violent and abusive. Leadership is anathema, not aspiration. Community is merely the gathering of individuals, because personhood will inevitably collide with any sense of moving together; it is best to keep the collective impotent and stationary and allow each one their own self-adventure.  In the end, such a mode denies that Christ is present in our (often flawed, but very real) ways of being, and would rather embrace a painless vacuum in which the Body of Christ is close to meaningless.

I would argue that, for a society to function, authority must remain external to the self. Narcisissistic tribalism is not a healthy way to exist but there are elements of it that should be encouraged; togetherness, sociality, loyalty… (page 164)

There is a generalized view that ‘millenials’, the generation who grew up straddling the millennium, have no respect for authority. In reality I think we do respect authority, but we do not acknowledge them, as an acknowledgement of them would insist that we were not totally independent and ‘free’. These more subtle authorities hold sway over their subjects and coerce an unconscious obedience from them. They maintain this power by continuing to challenge the very idea of authority which they freely exert on people in order that any alternative that challenges their influence can be undermined swiftly and easily. This leads to the dangerous tendency to dismiss clear, transparent authority whilst allowing deceptive and sycophantic forms to hold power over us. (page 160-161)

And there it is: the mantra for the Church at the present time. No one can tell anyone what is right or wrong. All must be accepted and placed as equally authoritative and by so doing authority is displaced and no longer shared. (Page 163)

The alternative monastic vision of leadership is more worthy. Gill and I have attempted to encapsulate it as “church as family.” The focus is on person rather than program, discipleship shaped by devotion to God. We echo Soul Survivor’s Mike Pilavachi who has spoken of a desire to “raise up sons and daughters” rather than “hire and fire employees.” We have become aware of the critiques, e.g. the dangers of heavy shepherding and the avoidance of objective accountability.  But this is exactly the value of looking to the long traditions; they can assist and enable the life-giving modes of leadership to be pursued healthily.  When, for instance, Lunn desires for bishops to learn the ways of the abbot, he’s calling them to a vocation with a substantial legacy of knowing what it is to be both released and bounded by the way of Christ.

“It is within this captialist context that leaders have begun to be more obedient to plans, initiatives and strategies than to people. It is after this shift that we being to experience the degradation and humiliation that comes with abuse of power. We become pawns in a game rather than treasured companions in a journey. St. Benedict wants the abbot to model his leadership on Christ who, as we saw… was ‘self-determined and self-limited’ (page 168)

In conclusion, I agree with Lunn, the Church needs a new form of monasticism. The more Gill and I read, the more we realise that this is why we answered the call so many years ago. If we are to be anything more than cogs in a Western World machinery of self-actualisation, or competitors in the marketplace of feelgoods and flourishing, we need to return to some ancient roads. We need a rediscovery of the way of Christ.

Being sent somewhere to to tell our story is easy. Being sent to live a life dependent on God, to be stripped of all our identities, comfort, power and influence; that’s mission. We are looking not to interrupt our lives with acts of service but to find that our life with God is a perpetual life of servanthood to God, with God and by God. (page 181)

The Church needs to recapture a vision for a shared life, bound together by a shared narrative, shared principles and shared practices. (page 177)

We wholeheartedly agree that  “this living out of discipleship in a community distinct by its core will draw others towards the Church” (page 180).  At the moment, we are wrestling with what this means in practice.

During the pandemic lockdown we have attempted monastic rhythms within our large vicarage household. We have stumbled in our little community as I’m sure many communities have struggled. Yet we are more convinced than ever that a more monastic mode of life is a vital part of bridging the gospel into upcoming generations. In the midst of our experiment, Lunn’s book is a resource as it gives words to the questions we were asking, but not voicing: As our context turned us inwards into introspection, we were encouraged to realise that “…as we seek a theological framework for the sustainable life of community, we must start with our shared, a-contextual story” (Page 57). We remembered to worship. Surrounded by the expectation to do and perform, we became grounded in the monastic balance of “the prayerful and devoted… and the more overtly missional, serving mendicant” (page 62).

As we come out of pandemic into the season ahead, we ponder, with Lunn, a crucial question: “Could an Anglican parish church reate and adopt a Rule of Life? I, myself, have asked the same question and came to the conclusion: no” (page 200)  His answer looks to the incompatibility of statutory responsibilities and the devoted way of life.

I think I agree. In the pandemic lockdown, much of the parochial responsibilities were suspended, and we could operate more monastically. Now we are coming back out, the creative collisions resurface.  An Anglican parish, as an ecclesiastical unit, is barely fit for purpose as an expression of ecclesiological reality. Yet it can, I think, offer a place of harmony: A village around the monastery, the community around the community, intertwined, served and blessed.

The collisions will continue. But so will the creativity.

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God is leading us and calling us in this strange season. It’s an opportunity to invest in a mode of being his people that draws us closer to him, stimulates our call, and increases our delight in the leadership of Jesus. This immediate time will shape us and serve us as we go into what is ahead.

Gill and I and others in our household have been putting together some thoughts and talks about how we might respond. In particular, how we might grow in the reality that we are currently expressing as “church in our homes” and while our homes are the location of God’s church. In our homes, households, and “telehouseholds” we minister to one another, and draw closer to God.

Two videos have been uploaded, we’ll be releasing more over the next little while from time to time.

Video 1: Introduction

Video 2: Lectio Divina: Being immersed in God’s word 

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Anonymous asks (in response to a teaching time from one of our recent livestreams):

How would you distinguish between the words in your head and what God is saying?

I’m sure the Bible says not to act in feelings but if it’s a feeling God is giving you how can you know it’s from him?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

I really appreciate this question. It’s an honest question. I think many of us ask (and answer it) without noticing, particularly when we are uncomfortable. It’s when we find ourselves confronted by or disagreeing with something we read in the Bible, for instance, that these questions arise: What is wrong here? What doesn’t sit right with me? Why doesn’t it sit right? How do I wrestle with it?

Too often, rather than wrestle with it, we put the niggly thing aside so that we can simply feel comfortable again. It is rarely the best way forward.

So how might we explore your question?

Firstly, let’s look at things in general: 

Your question is what we call an epistemological question. Epistemology is how we think about knowing stuff, particularly how we know what is right and what is wrong.

It the words in my head say something is true, is that enough or do I need something else? If it feels right, does that make it right? That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Our answer is affected by historical and cultural differences:

  • Some cultures emphasise tradition as more important than individual feelings or realisations. If you feel something is wrong, but the cultural tradition says it’s right, then the individual gives way to the collective wisdom. The internal process is like this: “I recognise that my experience is limited. Our tradition reflects the shared experience of generations of people, and is therefore less limited. Besides, I want to continue to fit in, so it is therefore more likely that I am wrong and the tradition is right.”
  • Some times in history have emphasised reason as more important than feelings or individual intuitions. The so-called “Age of Enlightenment” from the 1600’s through to the 20th Century picked up on this. “Truth” is determined by logic, and science, and cold hard calculations. This is an aspect of what we call modernism.
  • In the “post-modern” era (20th Century into the present day) we have elevated the value of individual feelings and thoughts. “Truth is experience” is our catch-cry; if we can’t feel it, it is not true. There’s value in this. Cold, hard, abstract theory, is not enough to guide and shape our lives. Our lives are also full of creativity, mystery, and the delights of the senses. We are also aware that beneath traditions and logical frameworks there are often hidden emotions and prejudices and unspoken power dynamics; we deconstruct these so-called truths as the self-serving assertions they actually are. “Going with your gut” rather than arguing yourself into subservience is a virtue in this worldview.

What does this tell us? That the “words in your head” and your “feelings” are not without value, but neither do they solely determine what is true and what is right. I know from my own experience, that my emotions are often broken. For instance, I have had a break down and depression; during that time my feelings about myself did not match the reality about myself and I had to learn to realise that. There have also been plenty of times when I held a view fervently that I subsequently came to realise was wrong. It is impossible to learn or grow without agreeing with the possibility that I’ve got something to learn.

Secondly, how do we approach this from a Christian perspective?

Our faith in God introduces something else into our epistemology.  We belive in a God who is not distant and aloof, but is involved, not only in the history of the world, but in our lives. We therefore belive in a God who speaks, through word and action. What he says is a revelation; it reveals truth about who he is, about who we are, and about what this world is like.

So how do we know what that truth is? How do we know what is being revealed? What is God’s revelation to us?

The beauty of it is that God’s revelation is objective and external to us. God’s truth doesn’t depend on us. This is a good thing! If it did, our sense of truth and of right and wrong would be self-defined. The truth is that God loves the world, and loves me, whether or not I feel it or “know” it. The truth is that there is right and wrong in God’s perfect justice, even if my heart has been hardened and my mind has been dulled, and I am either justifying myself or falsely tearing myself down.

This sense of God’s revelation is found in two forms:

It is found in what we call “general revelation”; there is truth to be found within creation and from looking at what is in front of us. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, the psalmist says.  “Since the creation of the world”, Paul says, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” This is how Christian belief embraces and recognises the value of the scineces; it is a study of creation and of humanity that reveals much truth.

It is also found in what we call “special revelation.” That is, if God is close, and interacts with his creation, then God reveals himself in history. The written accounts of that history will then also reveal him.  From looking at that written history we also see how God speaks through inspiration. He speaks to his people. Sometimes (but not often, it usually freaks people out), this is a direct “voice from heaven” (Exodus 20:18-19, Matthew 17:5). Often it is through the inspiration of a prophet who is set apart by God to speak to the people on God’s behalf. It is also through the giving of the Law, and in the inspiration of songs and poetry. The Bible is full of these things: history, law, prophetic writings, wisdom and creative writings, the accounts of Jesus’ life, and letters from his followers.

When we say “The Bible says” what we mean is that “God has revealed himself, in history, saying.” God has even spoken about how he speaks. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:216). The Bible is therefore an authoritative objective revelation for us.

The beauty of it is also that God’s revelation is subjective and personal to us. God isn’t relegated to speak to us in dry and dusty texts with dogmatic formulae; he whispers deeply and personally into the deepest parts of our heart. He calls us by name. He knows us. Jesus revealed himself to others in this way. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit who is our Advocate and Counsellor.  Sometimes the whispers in my head are prompts by the Spirit of Jesus. Sometimes my feelings are the way in which God is waking me up to his truth, a light in the darkness around me.

So how , then, do we know?

We can be certain of something when it all lines up and there is agreement in our epistemology. When our own feelings and logical thoughts agree with the traditions around us… when those things line up with what we read in the Bible and how we feel the Spirit is speaking deeply into our souls… then all is well and good. We have a sense of being sure.

When there is disagreement between these epistemological sources, however, we have some wrestling to do.

In particular, when I find myself wrestling with a part of the Bible that doesn’t “sit well” with me, I churn it over.

  1. I look to myself. What I’m trying to do is to work out what is happening within me. I name up the feeling: Am I feeling angry, guilty, annoyed, fired up and frustrated? What’s going on in me? Are those feelings associated with experiences in my life that I haven’t resolved yet; is there some pain and trauma that is getting poked? How is this Scripture offending me or moving me? I don’t pass judgement and soothe the feeling, I consider myself and work out what the problem is. I recognise that my heart is often fickle, I don’t quickly agree with it, but I acknowledge the reality of my feelings.
  2. I apply some reason and look to logic and tradition. Am I reading this part of Scripture correctly? Do I actually understand what is being said? Have I properly got into the world of those who first read it, and understood what they were hearing? Have I shoved my situation into the text and reacted to something that was never intended in the first place? How have other people understood it over the years? How have they applied it? What can I learn from them?
  3. In all this, I pray for the Holy Spirit to help me. I ask for the Spirit to illuminate my wrestle – to give me insight into the Scripture, or an insight into myself. I trust that the Lord has something for me in the revelation of himself. Sometimes I’ve had a sense of words “jumping out at me” from the page, or stuck in my mind while I dwell on them. Sometimes the Spirit of God works through these things. But! Just because I feel it, doesn’t mean that it’s the Spirit at work. In particular, the personal revelation of God to my spirit will never be at odds with his objective truth in Scripture.
  4. I do it in community. I share all this wrestling with others, even it’s just one person like my wife or a friend. I explain to them what I’m feeling, and how that’s colliding with the words in the Bible. We pray together. We reflect on it together. We wrestle together. And sometimes there’s a prophetic word within that community that sheds light and makes things clear.
  5. I allow God to be God. In the end, I entrust myself to God. It’s nice to have our feelings resolved, and to be comfortable with the Bible and God’s word, but it’s not always the way that leads to growth. Sometimes God is drawing us deeper, and we need to give it time. I can avoid the pain of that growth by setting God’s word aside by either judging it to be wrong, or subjectifying it as irrelevant to me. But, if I want to grow, I need to allow the wrestle to remain. I fall back in confidence on the things that are sure – e.g. God’s love and truth and the beaty of Jesus – and trust God with the rest. Even, and especially, when we cannot see, we acknowledge our blindness, and reach out for God even more.

I hope that answers the question. How we wrestle with our feelings and our own understandings is key to our discipleship and our caring for one another. Thanks for asking. Hope these thoughts help.

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If you’re anywhere within 200ft of a Christian’s social media you will have encountered this youtube video. Musicians and worship leaders from a number of churches across the UK, singing “The Blessing” over the nation.

The video is here in case you’ve missed it: The UK Blessing on youtube.

Let me be clear from the outset here: I delight in this song and how it’s being used. This post isn’t a substantial critique. It’s a bit of wondering, a bit of defence, a bit of leaning off from it to think about the times we’re in and the church of which we are a part.  The song itself (attributed in the main to Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) came into the limelight coincidentally with the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve sung it ourselves as a household in this strange season.

So here goes: I delight in this song.

I delight in the content of the song. Its main motif draws upon the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:22-27:

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
‘“‘The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face towards you
and give you peace.’”

These are deep and rich words that Scripture leans on from time to time to give assurance of God’s love and favour. It’s there again in Psalm 67, for instance. It’s not about individualistic blessing: the focus is on nation and generations.  This also has rich grounding (Exodus 20:6, Deuteronomy 7:9) as does the invocation of God’s presence (e.g. Joshua 1:9) and God being for his people. These deep waters well up in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8:31) as declarations of how fundamentally, totally, existentially, substantially, utterly, profoundly is the blessing of God to be found in Jesus of Nazareth, died and risen again as Lord and Saviour!

Notice how a lot of this biblical grounding is from the formative days of God’s people, Israel, in the time of their rescue from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, and the entering into the promised land. These were not easy roads. There were afflictions from around them, and the afflictions of sin and wayward hearts within them. Sometimes it may seem like the loving heart of God looks like discipline (some of us are feeling that at the moment) and feels like his absence (ditto): but the deeper truth remains and calls the heart to trust him. He is for you. He is with you, to the thousandth generation. May his face look upon you and give you peace. At this time of affliction, however we might feel it and experience it, these are life-giving words to sing.

Of course, some may (and have) suggested that the blessing that the Scriptures reserves to God’s people shouldn’t be invoked over the world at large. The critique is not invalid: the blessing of God is not merely a universally and thinly applied sense of warmth, it is deep and located and especially attached to God’s determined work, his promises to his people, and his presence in the person and work of Jesus. But it’s not wrong to pray for the blessing of many. I’ve addressed this question before. I long for all people to know the loving presence and saving grace of God, who knows us and made us and has given us his Son to save us and lead us into an eternal life that begins now. Especially now.

I delight in the recording and release of this song.  Having had to come to grips with sermon recording and livestreaming, I can very much delight in the video and audio editing skills!

It’s not perfect, of course. I’ve already seen some comments from those who haven’t seen someone who looks like this that or the other; not all the intersectional categories have been covered. I feel it a bit myself; there’s a lot of big evangelical charismatic mega-churches in that mix:  Where are the “ordinary worshippers” who look more like me and mine? I’ve got a well-honed cynicism after years in this church game. The “what about me?” response is an understandable human reaction, but in this case I/we should get over it.

This song hasn’t come from some tightly planned bureaucratic focus-group vetted process of fine-tuned diversity management. If there is anyone who has “made it happen” it’s Tim Hughes (formerly of Soul Survivor, and now of Gas Street Church Birmingham) and his espoused attitude towards the song is commendable. It has come about from a loose arrangement of friends and networks and invited and offered contributions. It’s organic and messy, and therefore not perfect. And that’s good.

It also hits a pretty good balance regarding the spotlight and avoiding the sort of brand-driven recognition we often slip into. One of the points of this song is to show that the churches are alive and working together. So it needs some sense of being able to recognise people and places and names of congregations. It does a good job of avoiding the celebrity factor. People are not named, churches are. It’s been released under a neutral brand. The naming of churches serves the purpose of showing a community of communities without overdriving the brands.  And I love knowing that there are Eastern Orthodox and Catholics and !Pentecostals and St. Someone’s of Somewhere all in the mix.

For me, unlike other attempts at this sort of thing, this feels like my brothers and sisters, and I can sing with them. I know these faces. I have seen quite a few of them in real life. I’ve had conversations with a number of them. There’s at least one face in that mix that I’ve served coffee to across my dining room table. The family of God is both bigger and smaller than we think.

Again, I’m good at cynicism. I’ve seen ego-driven light-show presentations done with not much more than a Christian aesthetic. This is not that. It’s not absolutely pure and precise, but so what? It’s a cracked-jar crumpled-paper offering of people who want to declare the love of God over a hurting nation. It is something to delight in.

The only thing that wears my heart, just a little, is this. There’s not enough of Jesus. One of the cracks in our jar (that I think this current season is rubbing at, one of the loving disciplines of God for us right now) is that we have been in a rut of church being about church rather than church being about Jesus. The church is a blessing – but that’s a truth of vocation (what we are called to and enabled to be) rather than identity (what we are by our own right in and of ourselves). The declaration at the end: “Our buildings may be closed… but the church is alive” is great, but it’s unfortunate in that it’s simply about us.  It’s the same with the blurb in the video description which is about our unity and our good works. It’s almost there, but not quite. We are only a blessing because Jesus is. We are only alive, because Jesus is. Let’s say that. We embody the blessing, but Jesus is the substance of it.

We’re not singing ourselves over the nation, we are singing the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Keep doing it.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

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Like many of us, I’ve been pondering things in this current pandemic season. I’m finding it helpful to see some parallels between these times and the effect of Jesus’ teaching, especially his parables.

Allow me to explain myself:  Jesus, famously, made use of parables. Rather than “answering plainly” he would tell a short story.  We know many of them by name: The Parable of The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sheep, The Good Samaritan, etc. They have become well-known to us. So well-known, in fact, that we have become immune to their force.

Parables are meant to impact.

Here’s an example from someone other than Jesus: In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts King David about his corruption. He could have spoken plainly, but I doubt he would have been heard. Instead, he tells a parable, the story of a rich man who oppresses his poor neighbour. David is drawn into the story until he is confronted: “You are the man!”

Nathan’s parable brings David to a crisis. He cannot stay where he is. The status quo is not possible anymore. He must respond, one way or another. He can either respond with hardened heart, or he can fall into faith. In this case David softens his heart and responds with contrition and repentance. The parable has its impact.

When Jesus speaks in parables he brings his hearers to a similar crisis. They cannot remain unmoved. They will either harden themselves against his word, or they will fall into faith.

In Matthew 13:1-9, Jesus shares the famous Parable of the Sower. It’s a beautiful metaphor involving a farmer sowing seed indiscriminately; it lands on shallow soil, weedy soil, hardened soil, and good soil. He later explains the metaphor; the seed is the word of God which can come to nothing in the poor soil of the pleasures and pressures of life, or bear much fruit in the good soil of those who “hear and retain it.”

This story prompts his disciples to ask, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”.  Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Isaiah 6:9-10

Isaiah spoke to God’s people at a point when they were wallowing in complacency after a period of prosperity, even as their world was threatened by a looming invader. They had lost their way. They had forgotten who they were. They were God’s people but they had become self-assured, oppressive, and unrighteous, just like the other nations.  They didn’t just need teaching, they needed impacting. Like Nathan with David, they needed a real crisisSo Isaiah was to speak to them in a way that only faith would grasp. Without that soft heart, they would be “hearing but never understanding”, confirmed in their hardness.

Jesus speaks in parables to do the same for his generation.

Consider the Parable of the Sower. For those with “ears to hear” with a heart of faith, it is wonderful truth. God’s life-giving word is scattered indiscriminately; it’s not just for the strong or wise or holy. God has spoken to everyone, in all places and all circumstances. Heard with a heart of faith, this story generates a yearning to be good soil. It impacts faith and leads to more faith.

But for those who can’t hear it that way, it will have the opposite effect. For those who hold the word of God as something reserved for the upright and pure, a tool for those who have been schooled in the right Pharisaical school, this parable is a confrontation, even an offense. The reponse of the Pharisees to Jesus was often condescension, derision, or anger. They heard but didn’t understand. The parable reveals their lack of faith.

When it comes to faith (or the lack of it) within God’s people, parables have a prophetic amplifying effect. “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matthew 13:12)

This then, is my reflection: This coronavirus season is working like a parable to us, the church.  It is having a similar prophetic amplifying effect.  It is bringing us to a crisis. It’s not just a crisis of medical and economic management (although that is real). It’s not just a crisis of bereavement and trauma (although that is very very real). It is bringing us to a crisis of faith.

In the westernised world we have chuffed along in our churches in a context of comfort and prosperity. It’s a bit like Isaiah’s day. We have built a religious industry. We have made our appeals to the masses. We have gotten good at offering something decent on a Sunday, and mechanisms attuned to felt needs throughout the week. But that edifice has been shaken; we cannot even meet together at the moment.

Even as we do our best (and there is much good) in the netflix world of livestreams and zoom, we recognise that the former status quo is gone.  If we can put 90% of our “product” online, just what were we doing anyway? The question is raised. The moment is impacting us.

The impact is also similar to Isaiah’s day; it is raising the question of identity. Whose are we? The difference is literally a matter of faith: We are either God’s people, and confirmed in that, or we are self-made with a borrowed Christian aesthetic, and that is what will emerge. It’s a parabolic moment.

We can imagine the two different responses:

We could do it without God. We can rebuild the edifice. We can market the spiritual experience. We can even do a decent job of being a neighbourly community on a par with any decent Mutual Aid Group. We can find our activism of choice that wants to put the world back together again a certain way, and get on board. We may even take some of our current moment with us: the comfort of doing church in our pyjamas is not nothing!

It’s not necessarily malicious or morally bad, but in this direction it can all be done in our own strength. Like Isaiah’s people seeking help from Egypt… like religious leaders dismissing the up-start from Nazareth and turning back to their traditions… we will not hear the call to faith in the current moment. Just put it back the way it was, or the way we now want it to be.

In this direction, the trust is not in God, it’s all about us. Extend it out and we imagine not just church, but divinity itself in the form that we want it, purged of all that we find disagreeable.  This can manifest at any point on the church spectrum: From woke do-goodery, to blinkered protestations, to marketing tactics, to immovable emptied traditions, it can be sweet, or acidic, stimulating, or soporific. But it has this in common: My world, My terms. A Christian aesthetic, but God not needed, not really.

I can see our current parabolic moment amplifying this faith-less response. Yes, I see it around me, but mostly I mean this with respect to myself. I want to do. I want to seize the moment. I want to plan the future. This is my time! Let us choose the future that most aligns with our sense of self-security and call that “faithful”!

The real difference isn’t about choosing one self-made future as more virtuous than another self-made future. If we look at it like that, we are hearing but not understanding.

Rather, the other effect of this moment is to undo us, and bring us to God. That is the heart of faith.

We are also seeing this in this moment. People are being  undone. They are wondering, seeking, yearning, thirsting for something beyond themselves. Perhaps its because we’re facing mortality honestly again. Perhaps our pretenses of safety have gone and our simple smallness has re-emerged as real. Perhaps life once looked like a rut and rail in a predetermined direction, but now there are possibliities. Whatever it is, this moment is undoing us. It is at this moment in the parable that we look up to see the face of Jesus speaking.

Look at the response to Jesus’ teaching. Faith often looks like bewilderment. It’s the Pharisees that go off with self-assured certaintity of how they want things to be, but the path of faith looks more like confusion. Eyes have been opened, now blinking in the sun, exclaiming both  “Lord, at last!” and “Lord, I don’t know what to do!”  The Bible describes this moment in many ways – from amazement to being “cut to the heart” to declarations of bewailing truth “I am ruined.” “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.”, and “My Lord, and my God.”

The faith-filled response is not so much as a position or determined direction, as a posture.

It is a posture of surrender. It is cross-shaped, a laying down of everything. It can feel like a refining death. Let it be that it is no longer we that live, but Christ that lives within us! We repent. We believe.

It is a posture of response. Jesus says, “Come, follow me!”, and we leave our nets and follow him. We are stripped of our security, and led into the unknown. But it’s OK, we are led by Jesus. He is of greatest value.

It’s a posture that bows to grace in the suffering. Of weeping when needed, and laughing at other times. Of praying “Lord, your will be done!”

It’s a posture that waits for him, as the edifices crumble, and the collapse of more substantial things is more than possible. And it ponders firstly, not “What can we make of this?” but “What will our Lord now do?” It is aware of needs, and fears, and griefs, and opportunities, and possibilities; but it doesn’t just up and thrust forward. We only do what we see the Father doing. We wait.

Above all, it is a posture of worship. We remember who we are, and we are His. Our distinctive is our worship: before anything (even before we all manner of good things, like a loving community), we are Jesus’ people. Everything else comes from that, or we lose it all, even our love in the end. So we sit at his feet. We stare at his face. We rest our head against his breast. Our love is in him, bearing his name.

Across the spectrum, it has this in common:  Lord, your world. Lord, your terms. Lead us, in this moment, lead us. It’s all about you, Jesus.

This season is like a parable, it is impacting us with a crisis of faith.  The status quo is not possible. And there are two responses for the churches: to harden ourselves in self-assurance and build our future, or be softened in faith and be his right now.

Photo credit: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-ooqmj marked as royalty-free and available for re-use.

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At the core of human identity is what we desire. As the saying goes, “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” I think Cranmer said it, and it is true. I know it in myself; when I wrestle with who I am, I end up at questions of “What do I really love? What is my heart’s desire? What moves me at my deepest?”

It’s the same with church communities. We can talk about vision-casting and strategic planning and the rest of it, but 99% of the time a church’s problems come down to this question of passion. What moves us? What do we want? Whom do we desire? 

To be frank, the honest answer for most churches is that we are enamoured with ourselves: our way of doing things, our past glories, our insecurities, our past pains, our desire to be bigger and stronger. Even when we are going about our worship (which is meant to be, by definition, God-focused), our eyes can drop to ourselves; to our feelings, our power, our benefits of being Christians. There’s a fine-line between thanking God for making us worthy, clean, and beautiful as his bride, and staring adoringly into a mirror.

Mike Bickle’s Passion for Jesus has, for this reason, been a refreshing read. Bickle is the founder of International House of Prayer, Kansas City (IHOPKC), a movement that is arguably the American correlation to the UK’s Pete Greig and the 24-7 Prayer Movement. This book is his definitive, slightly autobiographical, tome, originally released in the 90’s and updated a decade or so ago.

Bickle’s mission is to move people to pray. His wisdom recognises that that is a thoroughly impossible task if we do not understand the centrality of God in our very identity, or if we misconstrue God and don’t see his loving heart. And so he lays before us the truths of what God has revealed to us about himself. It’s not just the theological categories of God’s nature, but the personal categories of God’s character, his emotions and passions.

…passion for Jesus does not come from natural human zeal or enthusiasm. Passion for Jesus comes first and foremost by seeing His passion for us. (Page 4)

Bickle explores this partly through his own story, and recounts the crises by which he came to reflect on and grasp God’s love and affection. His project is to go to the foundational place of desire in our walk with Jesus. We could talk about Christian ethics, Christian morals, or the boundaries on the straight and narrow way that should bind our wayward heart. Bickle would rather talk about the beauty, glory, and intimacy of God. Rather than focusing on the edges of the path, he would have our heart be drawn down the road.

Expositions of intimacy with God are rarely adequate. Bickle is better than most when he urges us to be lovers “fascinated with God’s beauty” (page 37). Like others on this topic, he draws on the Song of Songs – that romantic, even erotic, love song-play between King Solomon and the Shullamite girl. He does it reasonably well, despite some exegetical slips (I much prefer David Pawson’s exposition of the Song). Nevertheless, Bickle draws some valuable insights, particularly around the dynamic of absence in the growth and expression of desire (pages 127-128). This is crucial, because the absence of God, rather than intimacy with God, is what most Christians predominantly feel. Yet the Beloved turns that sorrow of absence into yearning and searching and courageous abandonment of comfort and security because of her desire. These are helpful reflections.

In a similar vein, he spends an entire chapter outlining “twelve expressions of God’s beauty” (page 132): God’s beautiful light, his music, his fragrance, and other unashamedly affective contemplations. It’s a fascinating exercise, and has informed the counsels of my own heart when I am praying and dwelling on God in my everyday.

But the reason it all works, and what sets Bickle apart from other writers and speakers in the charismatic and pentecostal scenes, is that he doesn’t forget the theology. It is good, beautiful, theology influenced by the likes of Tozer, Piper, Packer, Edwards and “the devotional classics written by the Puritans” (page 171).

This book is nowhere near the slightly Freudian caricature of loving God as a starry-eyed swooning at Jesus and a desiring to be filled by his powerful Spirit. Here is an exposition that not only reveals God’s love and affection, but his transcendence and sovereignty. Bickle warns of how a blindness to God’s magnificence is a “shocking disregard for Him” (page 28) and that a dismissal of God’s holiness renders the cross of Christ insignificant. “They understand neither the greatness of their need nor the glory of God’s gift” (page 32). This is the antidote to the prevailing false gospel of today’s church, that we can have God on our terms.

When we gaze upon His loveliness, we will gladly die to those things that are not like Him. (page 35)

I particularly appreciated how Bickle makes use of Jesus’ famous prayer in John 17. It’s a prayer for intimacy (“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you”) and it includes our Lord’s specific prayer for us (“for those who will believe in me through their message”). Too often this prayer gets turned into pious moralising manipulation: Don’t disagree with me, don’t you know that Jesus wanted us to be one, you wouldn’t want to disappoint him, would you?” Bickle sees the prayer as a manifestation of God’s sovereign heart; Jesus has prayed this prayer, as an act of love and affection for his people, and his Father will answer it. “The Holy Spirit will enable us to experience the deep things of God, as the apostle Paul taught” (page 42, emphasis mine).

It takes the power of God to make God known to the human spirit. This knowledge enables us to love God… it takes God to love God, and it takes God to know God… The church will be filled with the knowledge of God. Jesus said it. His promises never fail. The Holy Spirit will use the release of this knowledge to awaken a deep intimacy with Jesus. A revival of the knowledge of God is coming, and as a result the church will be filled with holy passion for Jesus. Divinely imparted passion for Jesus is on the Holy Spirit’s agenda as seen in Jesus’ prayer. (Page 60, emphasis mine)

I have looked at the lukewarm, compromising church of our day and wondered, How shall these things be? Will such a glorious revival come to pass? Then I remember Israel’s negative spiritual condition during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The church’s only hope is that God is rich in mercy. Therefore, at His appointed time, God will supernaturally intervene. The same flaming zeal in the heart of the Father that complelled Him to send Jesus the first time will manifest as He revives the compromising church in this generaiton. The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall perform it. (Page 62)

This book is not about twanging charismatic heart-strings, it is an eschatologically scoped book, standing awe-struck at the plans and purposes of God. It looks for a “church that is joyfully abandoned to Jesus’ lordship” (page 76) as our Lord inherits the nations for his possession (Psalm 2:8).

I went to a concert last night, where Andrew Peterson lifted our hearts and minds towards the things of God. We were moved. Ironically, I found myself downcast and dejected. I had been taken to something deep – to the plans and hearts of the Someone who made and bled for this world and for his people. And it had left me feeling lonely. This desire for God is the root and core of who we are. I delight that Gill and I have learned (and are still learning) to orbit it together. And there are many others to stand beside and share the awe. But, in general, I am weary of an unmoved church, especially in the West, consumed in itself and discarding its own on the path to self-preservation or self-engrandisement.  I feel the same weariness in Bickle’s book, but also hope, and joy, and confidence in Jesus. The gift of that is its value.

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Sarah, responding to my previous post, asks:

Hi Will, could you write another blog post on what conviction and humility look like? Speaking truth to power as you say.

Conviction is essential for obedience; it doesn’t forsake humility. And if we are saying and doing things that our society agrees with, they will recognise humility. But if we are humbly speaking God’s truth that is at odds with the world around us, it won’t be liked, it will be hated, and the world won’t see any humility at all because we are pointing to an authority higher than all others. We endure, we bless, we answer kindly, we are humble. But we will have to be prepared to not be seen as humble whilst we are bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah, and to others who have asked me if I could follow up on my previous post that deals with a perceived incoherence between two aspects of the gospel:

  1. The truth-claim that Jesus is Lord. (The message of the gospel).
  2. The character of humility. (The mode of the gospel).

As a wise friend commented, “Great stuff, Will. You outlined the dilemma well. I’d like to hear a fleshing out of the solution a bit more.” This is my attempt.

I’m not going to ground this attempt in anything more profound than my own experience and an aspiration towards common sense.

It begins with an agreement with the premise of the question: the Christian call is towards both conviction and humility. These two are not at odds. In fact, in the Christian worldview, conviction and humility cohere, that is, they go together and can’t be separated.

And I also agree with the premise that, in the end, the fact of this can’t be determined by other people; it is centred on Jesus. This is point of contention, perhaps. Almost by definition, humility involves an awareness of others, a willingness to listen, to be open to being changed and moved by someone and not hardened towards them. Paul is right: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3,4)

The key to my thoughts is this: our other-awareness derives from our Jesus-centredness. That is, our humble approach towards others, in the end, relies upon us being found in Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That is, our conviction about the gospel is the source from which our humility derives. There are a number of senses to this:

Firstly, there is a sense in which Jesus is the greatest example of humility. We saw that in the previous post when we looked at Philippians 2:6-8. To be apprentices of Jesus is to have the same “mind of Christ” and approach others in his mode. This is essentially “WWJD”, which isn’t always easy to practice: sometimes being silent, sometimes speaking up, sometimes standing against, sometimes submitting. Whatever the exact behaviour, the heart is humble.

Secondly, there is a deeper sense in which Jesus enables us to be humble. Humility is aware of others, but there can be a flip-side to that. I am also other-focused when I am driven by fear, pride, panic, hate, lust, and so on. If my sense of identity and worth is bound up in others, then it is impossible to be truly humble. If my identity is other-centred then any actions I do, even if they are nice and acquiescent will be at least tinged by self-preservation or self-fulfillment. Rather, if Jesus has captured my life (Galatians 2:20) then I am his and his alone; therefore I am free of obligation towards anyone else. I owe my eternal life to no-one else. Therefore I am free to be humble. John 2:24 describes this of Jesus, who in his humility, “would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” He was free of them, he was free to love them.

Thirdlythere is a similar sense in which the Spirit of Jesus compels us to be humble. There is a conceptual and practical aspect to this. Conceptually, the gospel is a great leveller: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Practically, we trust that the Spirit of Jesus is at work in us. “Christ love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14a), says Paul, and he is right. However that compulsion is manifest – speaking, listening, acting, resisting, or simply solidly being – Jesus doesn’t just show us the way and give us the freedom to walk it, he leads, guides, propels us forward. The more we look to him, the more we are moved by his humble, life-giving Spirit.

I think the the premise of Sarah’s question is right. Our humility towards others rests upon our dependence on Jesus. Because of this, we cannot, in the end, measure the “success” of our humility by whether it is recognised or not. It doesn’t mean we ignore others, or dismiss other’s opinions and beliefs – after all, Jesus, didn’t do that. It does mean we don’t fear others, slip into their traps, or concur with their brokenness; we are embraced by Jesus first, and we love others out of freedom.

And it won’t always “work.” It didn’t work for Jesus. “If the world hates you,” Jesus said (John 15:18), “keep in mind that it hated me first.”

Gill and I have certainly known what means to be rejected. It does lead to some soul-searching. Many times, we have fallen short of the humility of the gospel, and have not been careful enough in manner or mode. Sometimes, we have compromised on the truth. At other times, I have had to conclude that I could do no more: My physical size has had me perceived as overbearing, and I can do little about that. I inhabit the role of vicar, and sometimes people respond to previous negative experiences of other vicars, and I can do little about that. All I can do is focus on Jesus and seek to be more like him.

But when it works, it works! I received a voice message today from a friend of mine. Here is someone who is fully committed to the gospel, and feels very free to share it. But there is no sense (beyond ordinary human brokenness) that that conviction is not manifest in a Jesus-centred humility. Take a listen to Uncle Nige:

 

And finally, I was struck today by an article that summed it up really well, from the point of view of Adam Neder, a Christian teacher. He conceives of humility as an awareness of our weakness, and therefore a dependence on the Spirit.

Many of us who teach Christian theology are keenly aware of the poverty of our language in comparison to the reality of God. We try our best to speak truthfully and faithfully, but our words often seem thin and unreal, they taste like ashes on our tongues, and we wonder if our teaching will add up to anything more than wasted time. In extreme cases, this trajectory of thought and feeling can lead to a deadening acedia that takes root within us and leaves us hopeless or in despair.

But an awareness of our dependence on the Spirit moves us in the opposite direction. It eases the pressure by displacing the teacher from the center of the educational process. It relativizes our weaknesses. It does not eliminate them, and it certainly does not excuse them, but it assures us that God rises above them. And this awareness becomes an essential source of freedom and joy for those who believe and depend on it, whereas for those who do not, teaching can become a burden too heavy to bear—at least for teachers who want their students to know God personally.

Humility is an awareness of the “poverty of our language” and a “displacing the teacher from the center.” When we come full of ourselves, with controlling systems, asserted techniques, and market-proven strategies, we are missing the mode of the gospel. When we come dependent on the Spirit, that is the power and freedom to humbly gift ourselves to the world. Whether the world receives us or not is not for us to know or control.

That then is the only “solution” I can offer: Jesus first, the rest of it will follow.

Image credit: Pjposullivan

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The heart of the gospel includes a mode as well as a message. Jesus is the substance of both of them.

The mode of the gospel is one of humility. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul exhorts us in Philippians 2:3-11.  “Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves… have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:… he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”

Here is what theologians call kenosis, the self-emptying character of the gospel. Jesus, who had the power to command twelve legions of angels, doesn’t use the sword (Matthew 5:52-53) but lays down his life. This is the Teacher who sets the example of washing feet (John 13:1-17). “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” he says to his disciples when they jostle for position, “whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-27).

We, who follow Jesus, are meant to reflect this mode. It’s why we wince when there is hypocrisy in our midst, when we see the drippingly wealthy lifestyle of teleevangelists, or the coercive and oppressive legacy of Western colonialism. We align more clearly with the likes of Mother Teresa or William & Catherine Booth, and above all recognise that the greatest gospel heroes are usually unknown and unsung.

It isn’t always simple. Jesus’ humility, particularly during his passion and crucifixion, was one of complete surrender to the will of God; he was acquiescent, and was “led to the slaughter… like a sheep silent before her shearers” (Isaiah 53:7). At other times, he is forceful in his actions and language, particularly towards those who exercise and abuse their power. He turns over the tables of the exploitative money changers (Matthew 21:12-13). The pharisees and teachers of the law are “snakes”, a “brood of vipers” and worthy of judgement (Matthew 23:33-36).

When we consider these oppressive people, we agree with Jesus’ actions. Whatever humility means, it doesn’t mean being a doormat, or agreeing with oppression. In fact, our postmodern world might give us an insight that Jesus appears to be addressing: truth claims are power plays. By asserting what they declare to be true (in how the temple operates, or in the application of God’s law), Jesus’ opponents are constructing a social framework in which they get to have power and influence. Jesus is right to undermine it!

But here, if we are not careful, we run into an incoherence. Because the gospel is not just the mode of humility, it is a message of truth. Its shortest declaration is three words long: Jesus is Lord. We are making a truth claim.

We don’t want to lose humility. Should we therefore refrain from laying out this truth? Let us not fall into the trap of the Pharisees and assert our truth, especially when we inhabit a dominant or privileged Christian position in the Western World. Would it not be more Christ-like to withhold our voice, and be silent like lambs?

Perhaps we should not only lay aside our voice, but be aware of our own heart and attitude. Jesus was humble, so why should we be so arrogant as to hold that we have any particularly correct insight into the ways of the world, the way of God, and the wisdom of what is and what might be? Jesus was self-effacing, so if we speak his name, we must be doing it for our sake, not his. Evangelism itself, therefore, is a form of oppression. We should lay down our power-claiming truths even within the confines of our heart; we should let go of our beliefs.

Thus, we arrive at our incoherence: For the sake of the gospel, we should stop sharing the gospel. Indeed, for the sake of the gospel, we should stop holding to the truth of the gospel. 

If there is a defining dynamic of Western church life, this is it. We want Jesus, but we’re embarrassed to believe much about him, let alone speak of him. What if we’re wrong? We could so much damage!

I understand the dilemma. After all, other ways of resolving the incoherence may not be particularly attractive to us:

We could modify our sense of Jesus’ example of humility and so be less humble ourselves: If he was humble at all, it was an acquiescence tightly attached to his self-sacrificial death on the cross – something he chose to do, and therefore a demonstration of his power and strength. The kingdom of Jesus is muscular and assertive: it lays a claim on truth, and on our lives, and dictates some specific ways of living. This world is caught up in a war between good and evil, and we must fight for righteousness in every area of influence: politically, financially, sociologically. This isn’t dominance for its own sake, it’s justice. We must protect the innocent, particularly the unborn, and hold back the warped worldviews that will pollute the world of our children.

I’m sure you’ve heard this rhetoric.

We could modify our sense of Jesus’ claim to truth and so have less to believe and say: If he made any truth claims about himself at all, they were probably misinterpreted by his biographers, and later given the authority of holy writings by power-hungry men. Jesus is not the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and if he said it, it only applies within the Jewish world that he inhabited, and he never meant it absolutely. Jesus may have claimed authority in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 28:18) but he meant it subversively, that we might further his Kingdom the way he intended: through dialogue with the oppressed, and inclusion of those discarded by society. The Kingdom of God is made present wherever the compassion that Jesus exemplifies is exercised by any of God’s creatures.

I’m sure you’ve heard this rhetoric also.

Both extremes in this dialectic have a degree of appeal. But it’s not a coherent resolution. Within the church, we find ourselves lurching between nihilism (“We can’t really know or be anything, let us just be, resting in the empty and meaningless”) and more explicit forms of control (“This is how it is, now get on and make the church bigger, don’t fail or we will lose influence”). In over-simplification, it’s so-called liberalism on one end, and traditionalism (even modern market-driven traditions) on the other.

The synthesis is where we need to be. Neither Jesus’ humility, or his claim to truth, can be modified without losing the essence of who he is, and the gospel we believe.

This comes when mode and message combine. As we saw above, Jesus operates in humility. At the same time, Jesus surely does make truth claims about himself. His declaration to the Jews in John 8:58 – “Before Abraham was, I am” – is undoubtedly a claim to divinity. John 14:6 is unequivocal, “No one comes to the Father, except by me.” Even the example of humility in Philippians 2 is not a denial that Jesus is “in very nature God”, but an exposition of how Jesus didn’t cling to it for self-grandeur. We are not nihilistic. Jesus is Lord.

Jesus is the only one who can lay claim to holding “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18) and do so with humility. Why? Because he is the only person for whom that is true, and who holds it rightly and justly and appropriately, and not by some pretense.

To hold that Jesus is Lord, therefore, not only speaks truth, it also embraces humility. If Jesus is Lord, then I am not. If Jesus mediates the way, the truth, and the life, then I can not. It sets the mode of the gospel: I can not speak the truth in and of myself, I can only seek to echo his words. I can not heal and transform, I can only seek to reflect his heart, and point others towards his safe life-giving arms. I can not untangle the warp and wefts of injustice and human brokenness, I can only, daily, seek to follow the lead of the Spirit of Jesus. We are not authoritarian. Jesus is Lord.

If we really hold to the truth of Jesus, we will be committed to humility. We will entrust others to his care, not try to control them. We will speak truth to power, without fear or favour. “We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13). How? Because it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus. We live for Him.

The mode of humility involves a self-surrender. The message is that Jesus is the Lord. The two together is the heart of the gospel.

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