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.

Posted in 2.0, Q&A, Theological Thoughts Tagged with: , , ,

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!

Posted in 2.0, General, Q&A, Theological Thoughts Tagged with: , , , ,

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]

Posted in 2.0, General, Q&A Tagged with: , , , ,

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.

Posted in 2.0, Q&A, Theological Thoughts Tagged with: , ,

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.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Ministry and Depression Tagged with: , , , ,

Review: A Church for the Poor

This book is about much more than reaching the poor. It is a handbook on mission. Missional illiteracy is high amongst our church leaders. Our structures are strictures on the strength of the gospel. This book, unassumingly, is something of a call to repentance. “Leaders… this book is for you” (p184).

Authors, Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, come from different backgrounds but bring the same passion. They are involved in the Jubilee+ movement, which I now have an inkling to investigate further.  Their foundation is clear: “the coming of God’s kingdom involve[s] dealing directly with urgent human needs and social issues – as an outworking of our personal salvation and as a key part of discipleship” (p23).

Their key strength is that they present more than an economic approach to poverty; they explore the spiritual and cultural aspects as well.  This is confronting; as church we can deal with economic matters through professionalism and program provision, but spiritual and cultural matters have us collide with ourselves, our weaknesses, and our hardness of heart.

The proliferation of church-based foodbanks, debt advice services, job clubs, educational projects, supported housing schemes, elderly support projects and much more are testimony to the energy and vision of churches in the face of increasing social needs of all types. However, the poor and deprived are still sometimes helped at a relational ‘arms length’. The church has more to offer those in need than just social action projects. People are more than ‘clients’ – outcomes are more than statistics. People need friendship and community. People need to be valued. Many need someone to walk alongside them as they try to find ways of rebuilding their lives.” (pp40-41, emphasis mine).

When the middle class culture is unchallenged the most likely outworking of the church’s approach to poverty is to confine its activity to social action projects alone. (Page 137, emphasis mine).

The authors explore the deeper aspects of poverty – “aspirational poverty – the loss of hope” (p41), “relational poverty – the loss of community” (p43), and “spiritual poverty – the loss of meaning” (p45).  Hope, community and meaning is the stuff of the gospel, but there is no false dichotomy between spiritual and temporal matters here. Clearly, real economic poverty causes things like hopelessness and this can be observed: There has been a generational shift from “millenial optimism” (p31) to post GFC austerity (p31) and the new class of “JAM’s” (“Just About Managing”, p33).  The authors’ concern is not just to present and analyse statistic, or to pontificate about the latest programs, but to delve into cultural shifts and values.

Here they demonstrate one of those basic aspects of mission that shouldn’t need to be said, but must: the church at mission does not begin with what it can do, but with cultural understanding. “Response to immediate need is one thing, but it can’t be sustained and built upon without careful reflection about underlying issues raised by the context” (p34).  We are about cultural change (what else does “making disciples of all nations” mean?) which begins in us, and our response to the poor is a touchstone, and often a point of conviction as to how obedient we are being.

We cannot use our donations to overseas projects as an excuse to walk by on the other side of the road and ignore the rough sleeper on our high street. Jesus doesn’t leave that option open to us: in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, he makes it abundantly plain that we’re to help the person in front of us. (p35)

Another basic aspect of mission is that we need to go (what else does “go and make disciples…” mean?) rather than rely on attractional methods alone. This is the principle of emulating the incarnational attitude of Christ, willing to empty ourselves in order to enter into the world which needs the gospel.

When people don’t come to us – as the working class aren’t coming to our churches – we need to find ways to reach out. But we cannot do it with an attitude of superiority. We simply must not approach wanting to draw working class and poorer people into our churches as something we ‘do to them’. If we’re to see churches that truly reflect all classes and economic situations, we need to be prepared to move into neighbourhoods that have bad reputations, to place our children in schools that may not achieve the best results, to shop where shopkeepers get to know their customers, to listen to people who we may feel we cannot relate to at all. (Page 95)

Another basic aspect of mission is that the medium is the message, and the medium is us. In technical terms, missiology brings ecclesiology and eschatology to life. This is why the tendency for churches to split into homogenous units based on age or background is fundamentally anti-gospel. The gospel doesn’t divide and avoid, it unifies and proclaims.

Wherever there is division, the church is to demonstrate reconciliation. So we need churches where the working class and the middle class sit together, speak with one another, share food and faith and find community that transcends postcodes and income levels and educational achievements (Page 96).

A mature church has a number of flourishing sub-cultures whose members feel both a security in their own sub-culture and an ownership of the main church culture, which, of course, takes them somewhat out of tehir sub-cultural comfort zone. (Page 120)

But this mission is not possible until the fundamental posture of the church is addressed, until we consider our attitude, our humility, our willingness to die to self. Charlesworth and Williams provide a constructive provocation that brings us to that place.

This provocation has its roots in their exegesis of how God calls his people to serve the poor in both Old and New Testaments and then in their exploration of church history.  In reflection we are left asking questions like: Are we over, under, or next to the poor?  Our answer is an indicator of our humility before God, our ability to self-reflect and discern the Spirit’s leading. It’s an indicator of whether our mission builds up ourselves or truly advances the kingdom of God.  Our response to the poor reflects the size of our mission heart, and how much we embrace the necessary attitudes of discernment, contrition, and courage so that we are willing to be “jolted out of our own understanding” of what we consider to be culturally normal (p76).

We need to ensure that we are not speaking about inclusivity without putting it into practice. It is one thing to say that we believe all people are equal before God, but another to create a level playing field where people from all backgrounds have the same opportunities. (Page 73, emphasis mine)

We need to break down these barriers so that our churches can increasingly reflect the kingdom of God. But in order to do that, we need to reflect on some of the attitudes in our hearts that might prevent our churches from more accurately reflecting our society, and welcoming people from all demographics, without expecting them to transition from on social group to another. (Page 78, emphasis mine)

In this light, their chapter on “British Culture: Materialism, Individualism, Cynicism” (Page 79) is an excellent mirror. It should be compulsory reading for all those who are considering church leadership; know your blind spots, be aware of your own culture, and discern the distinction between the essence of the gospel and how we have applied it for our own comfort.

There is no place in the church for the kind of individualism we see in our society, but we need to be intentional about rooting it out. Cultural concerns with personal space and boundaries may have influenced us in ways that we are not even aware of. (Page 87, emphasis mine)

Only by going against the grain of British Culture in these areas, can we build churches that really are homes for those who are poor or in need. (Page 90, emphasis mine)

If we are to build churches for all, we need to break out of mindsets that may have been formed by our own background and class or by the media and political narratives that surround us… We need to have a sober assessment of ourselves, asking God to highlight any biases we have and any commitment to middle class values that is unhelpful to reaching others who may not share them. I am trying to learn to let my first question, when I feel uncomfortable or judgmental or fearful around someone , be ‘what is going on in my heart?’ before I start to ask questions about the person in front of me. (Page 97, emphasis mine)

Are we growing in kindness? Are we looking for opportunities to be generous? Are we more concerned about looking like ‘good Christians’ or actually becoming like Jesus?… Changing the culture of our churches might also mean taking a cold, sober look at the prejudices of our hearts. (Page 128, emphasis mine)

Personally, I was confronted with my own growing cynicism. For me, it is a cynicism with regards to the middle class church itself. Moving in the opposite spirit is hard, but no matter who we are giving ourselves to, “we have to guard our hearts so that the disappointment we rightly feel doesn’t turn into a cynicism that wrongly hardens us to others.” (Page 89).

Charlesworth and Williams are intensely practical.  The entire second half of the book is about applying the spirit of the first.

I was particularly glad that they raise the issue of the “gentrification of leadership” (p104).  A key foundation for church maturity is the ability to have “native” leaders that rise up from within. Practically speaking, then, we must deal with our tendency to attach leadership to cultural markers such as tertiary-level training that is (sometimes merely) academic in nature.  Our system of severing ordinands from their context not only diminishes vocation and disempowers church communities, it can be an imposition of culture. Rather, real, on-the-ground discipleship is needed, “enabling leaders among the poor to emerge and begin to function in leadership roles within the church” (p146).

Their valuing of prophetic leadership (p111) is also of practical importance.  A case in point:  I read this book having recently come across Bp. Philip North’s prophetic word, “Hope for the Poor” at this year’s New Wine United conference. Similarly, Mike Pilavachi spoke at the Naturally Supernatural Summer Conference drawing on the call for justice in Amos. Gill and I are finding ourselves moved and impassioned by these issues and we look to people such as these for leadership as “prophetic advocates” (p152). Wise churches and wise leaders need to take steps to hear the prophetic, especially when it is uncomfortable. After all, cultural change never happens when leaders are comfortable, “in my experience the real problem has been the lack of commitment by the church leader(s) to care for the poor” (p160).

The role of the diaconate in this prophetic leadership is an interesting examination (p162). The diaconal role, when accepted and embraced, adds capacity to the pastoral role. A deacon is “someone called, equipped and able to work in social action while being appropriately linked to church pastors and the main life of the church.”  Gill and I are both ordained deacons, and as I currently wrestle with the fact and substance of my ordination, this is a fascinating thought. The exercise of diaconal ministry can avoid the church splitting into groups of lobbyist/activists who have competed for resources, and can lead corporate discernment where the body moves together. Food for thought.

Their hope into delving into practicalities such as these various pitfalls and possibilities is to give encouragement: it can be done! They act as consultants to those who have questions to ask.

I would go further. It can be done, it must be done. As the saying goes, it’s not that the Church of God has a mission in the world, it’s that the God of Mission has a Church in the world.  Charlesworth and Williams bring us to God’s heart for the poor and so give us a touchstone for our faithfulness.  Here we have the very basic principles of mission, the fundamental necessary attitudes to be a faithful church.  It’s not rocket science, it requires no preparatory steps. We shouldn’t just learn from what they have to say, we should simply get over ourselves and get on with it.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Review: 5Q – Reactivating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ

Just as in family life, when it comes to church life it’s sometimes necessary to call a family meeting and have an open and honest conversation around the dinner table. Who are we? What are we about? And what do we need to adjust in our family dynamic?

In church life that dynamic is about ministry.  And whether we call our leaders “ministers,” “priests,” “bishops,” “deacons,” “pastors,” “teachers,” “preachers,” “elders,” “vicars,” “rectors,” “curates,” “reverends,” “servers,” “carers,” or simply “workers,” the impetus remains the same: At our best, we want a dynamic which grows the church towards maturity.  The “family table” conversation means grasping for more than tired old formulae or the latest managerial gizmo.

We commonly recognise that, whatever the nomenclature, we desire for God to be in us, with us, and through us, by the power and presence of his Holy Spirit.  We might adhere to the traditional threefold order of deacons, priests, and bishops, and understood them as a variety of charisms – anointings of the Spirit through the laying on of hands.  Or we might emphasise the more universally “lay” charismata (spiritual gifts) through which the people of faith operate as one body as “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”.

Alan Hirsch, in his latest book 5Q, (I think it’s meant to rhyme with “IQ”), picks up on another emphasis – the so-called “fivefold” or “ascension gifts” outlined in Ephesians 4:11-13:

It was he (Jesus at his ascension) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

This dynamic involves the fivefold “offices” or “functions” of Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers, often abbreviated as APEST with Pastor renamed as Shepherd so as not to have two P’s. Unlike other biblical charismatic gift-lists (e.g. 1 Cor 12, Romans 12) these ascension gifts seem intended to form a more complete and coherent shape about our family dynamic.

A simple first glance shows that there is room to explore this in practice. We know what it means for the church itself, and for members of the church to be pastoral. We can also grasp when the church and its members act in a teaching capacity, or exercise evangelism.  But we are less able to grasp the prophetic and apostolic shape of church life.  Or, to put it another way, as I have observed, the church loves and embraces Shepherding and Teaching, appreciates and values Evangelism, generally tolerates the Prophetic (especially if prophets hold back and keep to themselves), and unknowingly yearns for the exercise of the Apostolic.

Emphasis on the fivefold has increased in recent times.  Hirsch’s book is a worthy contribution, emphasising a holistic and systemic approach rather than a highly individualised pop-psychology.  His motivation for a “great recalibration” (xxix) I share, and his yearning “for a new sense of wholeness that only an imaginative vision born… can provide” (xxi) definitely taps into the longings of the wider Western church. His recognition of how “the more dynamic APEST system has never suited the more static, hierarchical, fundamentally non-movemental form of the church that has dominated in the West” (xxxviii) is a frustration grounded in reality.

The whole understanding, of course, rests upon Ephesians 4:1-16. Hirsch’s exegesis in the first chapter is more than adequate. In particular, his drawing out of the imagery of the triumph in the ascension makes a powerful point about Jesus gifting the church with (ideally) a regenerated and regenerative human community.

In his ascension, Jesus has “given” APEST to the church as its lasting possession. In other words, the fivefold is part of the church’s inheritance in Jesus. (Page 6)

Similarly his systemic approach to the fivefold is founded on the point and purpose of “attaining maturity and fullness in Christ” (p8). The corollary, of course, is that if there is an imbalance (or absence) in the operation of the fivefold gifts in the church, immaturity is the result (pp11-13). He integrates this into his robust missiology (p80ff), unveiling it’s place in how we the (Body of Christ) now share in the Ministry of Christ, this participation being the essence of the Fullness of Christ (p80ff).

New Testament ministry in the Body of Christ cannot be done with anything less than all the dimensions of inherent in Christ’s own ministry. Without full APEST expression, a church cannot logically extend Jesus’ ministry in the world; neither can it attain to the fullness of Christ or achieve its purposes/mission – it will inevitably have dangerous gaps in its culture. And herein, folks, likes a huge amount of the church’s dysfunction! (Page 88)

These are firm foundations.

Hirsch does well to resist our individualising tendencies. It’s not until page 44 that he explicitly states that “it is quite conceivable that the fivefold could be used as a means to profiling personality and helping people live into their unique sense of identity as a follower of Christ.” The system and the symphony come first.

What we have then, is a properly exhaustive, internally consistent, framework which naturally applies to personality and leadership, and which has strong threads that connect it with the range of human experience and our understanding of God.

Grounded in God, laced into creation, redeemed by Jesus, granted to the church, lived out in the lives of its saints, to the glory of God – here we have a “system” that goes as deep as it does wide. (Page 61)

This is a very useful.

As he gets into the five APEST aspects themselves, Hirsch brings in a very useful distinction between what he calls “functions” and “callings” (p94). The distinction allows us to consider the fivefold, firstly, in terms of the church’s “innate purpose and functionality” and, secondly, in terms of individual calling or vocation.  That is, we can speak of how the church, exercising the Ministry of Christ as the Body of Christ, to avoid dysfunction, needs to be, in a corporate sense, apostolic (A), prophetic (P), evangelistic (E), pastoral (S), and didactic (T).  Any sense of individual calling is best seen as an expression of that, an outworking of the Ministry of Christ in one member of the Body of Christ.

And so, having foreshadowed them, Hirsch arrives at his definitions of the APEST functions and callings (p99ff):

Apostolic-Apostle (p99): Is rightly identified as correlating to the missionary “sentness” of the church. “The driving logic of the apostolicity is the extension of the Jesus movement in and through the lives of the adherents, as well as establishing the church onto new ground.”

From my own discernment, I feel that Hirsch overemphasises the functional and entrepreneurial aspects of the apostolic (entrepreneurship attaches more to the Evangelistic in my experience) and he also overlaps with the Prophetic when it comes to the guarding of values.  This is a common mis-step in fivefold literature, and can be avoided by looking just a little deeper.

The apostolic is at the heart of movement but doesn’t usually generate it by being out in front, but primarily through covering and parenting.  Come close to the apostolic and you find yourself connected in worship to the fathering heart of God, you find something kenotic, poured out for the sake of the body. Paul is a definitive example (e.g. 1 Cor 4:9, 2 Tim 4:6). The confusion comes, because, in providing the covering, the apostolic will often lead with the shape of the other functions, so as to guide and bring movement in that area.

Prophetic-Prophet (p102): Is rightly associated with the call to holistic worship, so that “as his people, we are to be the one place where God, and everything he stands for, is revered, cherished, and obeyed.”  Hirsch usefully observes a “vertically” orientated prophetic that feels what God feels and brings about an encounter with him, and a “horizontally” orientated prophetic that calls people to covenant obligations of justice, holiness, right worship, and right living.  It risks a false demarcation, but this properly recognises both the “mystical-charismatic” and “social justice” (p105) aspect of the prophetic.

Unlike some commentators, Hirsch doesn’t avoid the hard aspects of the prophetic function and calling.  “Prophets are often agitators for change” (p105), he says understatedly.

The prophetic vocation is likely the most difficult of all the APEST callings, partly because of the personal vulnerability involved (God is “dangerous”… he is a consuming fire) but also because the prophetic word, like the Word of God that the prophet seeks to represent, is often rejected by people who prefer their own ways. The prophet is likely the loneliest of all the vocations and the one most open to misunderstanding. I think this is why Jesus calls us to especially respect the prophets in our midst (Matthew 10:4-42) (Pages 105-106)

In my experience, the most common dysfunction of otherwise healthy churches, even those who have a sense of apostolic mission and evangelistic zeal is that they ignore or reject the prophetic. They end up forgetting even the elementary teachings about Christ (Hebrews 6:1) and become a self-referential self-absorbed shadow of who they are called to be.

Evangelistic-Evangelist (p106)Hirsch does well to move the understanding of evangelist beyond the Billy Graham caricature. Yes, evangelism is about communication and “getting the message out” but it’s also about “the infectious sharing of the movement’s core message” and “the demonstration of good news in word, sign, and deed” (p107).

An interesting thought that Hirsch mentions – one that I will need to dwell on more – is to consider a priestliness in the evangelistic calling. “They have a capacity to make connections with people in a way that demonstrates social as well as emotional intelligence… their function is genuinely priestly in that they mediate between God and people as well as between people and people.” (p108).

Shepherding-Shepherd (p108)The pastoral shepherding image is common in Scripture and Hirsch draws upon it to demonstrate a function and calling that emphasises “social connectivity”, healing and protection. They “champion inclusion and embrace” and desire formation in disciples-making that “lives locally and communally” (p110).

The use of “shepherd” instead of “pastor” is not just about having a better acrostic at this point. “Pastor” has become an honorific, the stuff of name plaques on office doors.  “Shepherd” re-engages with the necessary empathy and sharing of life that “knows the personal details of the particular people in one’s orbit” (p111).  All of the functions bring pain when they are done distantly and dispassionately, but shepherding that is merely theoretical and formulaic, or done without any self-giving, is the harshest dysfunction.

Teaching-Teacher (p111)This function is also commonly understood.  Hirsch draws us to the rabbinical tradition and the Wisdom Literature of the Scriptures to describe it.  The emphasis here is not just on the heady and intellectual love of the abstract truth (the development of a “biblical mind” that means “seeing the world as God sees it, as described in the Scriptures”) but also on the application in real life.

In many ways, teachers are similar to prophets and apostles in that they deal with ideas that shape life… From a biblical perspective, teaching is not about speculation in and of itself (idealism); rather, it is about the ministry of ideas in action (ethos), that is discipleship or formation. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know, and they cannot lead where they will not themselves go. Therefore, biblical teachers must have real participation in the ideas they propose.” (page 112)

All this is substantial…. But what to do with it?

The point of typologies and inventories is to consider and address imbalances, strengthen weaknesses, and avoid the “precociousness” of over-reliance on strengths (p118).  It takes maturity to do this, and sometimes maturation is not popular; “asymmetrical churches always end up attracting people who are like-minded and therefore asymmetrical… witness the many one-dimensional charismatic/vertical prophetic movements of the last century… or the asymmetrical mega-church that markets religion and ends up producing consumptive, dependent, underdeveloped, cultural Christians with an exaggerated sense of entitlement.” (p119).

Hirsch’s bold response is to suggest a re-evaluation, almost a reconstitution, of our ecclesiology that is based on the fivefold as the “marks of the church.” (p132).  This is bold.  Not only does this counter the ST imbalance of the “protestant marks” of “word and sacrament” (p130), but even challenges the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” marks of the Nicence Creed!

I’m not sure I’d go that far, and I think Hirsch’s is over-universalising the fivefold at this point. What is needed is not a reconstitution, but a reinvigoration, a substantiation of what we say and pretend we are into who we actually are.  For instance, I am currently working on some thoughts about how we have placed professionalism at odds with our vocationalism.  If we could be a church that actually values and practises vocation (an inherently apostolic function that the church is literally crying out for) rather than just stealing the word for our own mechanics, then we will have reinvigorated something and addressed an imbalance. But more of that another time.

Nevertheless, the point is well made. Organisations as much as individuals need discipling (p147), and the fivefold framework is a useful world of challenge and comfort in which to do that. It can even be a framework in which to make use of and respond to various tools for ecclesial self-reflection (NCD springs to mind) as well as the various tools and techniques that Hirsch hints at in the latter part of the book.

But it takes more than a brand, even a 5Q brand, it takes a brokenness, a contrition, a willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit through hard places. The Western church has a perverse resistance to such things.  My hope is that contributions such as Hirsch’s will not be quickly swallowed up as yet another branded technique to exploit for our own ecclesial self-gratification.  It has enough substance, enough comfort and challenge, to avoid the pitfalls. Wise leaders will read, mark, inwardly digest, and apply.

Hirsch’s contribution is therefore significant, and I recommend this book, but only as one dish at the fivefold restaurant.  Hirsch is a Michelin-star missiologist, but the discerning leader will also sit at the table of other similar chefs.  My recommendation comes with some caveats, you see:

1) I don’t often comment on the tone of a book, and it may play well in America, but there are times when Hirsch comes across with an air of arrogance that brought me to the brink of putting the book down. It has stopped me from pushing the book forwards in some contexts where I would like to promote fivefold thinking, because, frankly, the tone would undermine the case. Alan, you are not my Yoda, I am not your padawan (xxiiff, p7, p23, p80, etc. etc.), and you are not bringing forth some hidden ancient “world-renewing energy” (p31) that you have been personally bequeathed (p89) or have discovered (xxiii, p27 etc. etc.) like some great white Luther-like Indiana Jones who “blows his own mind” (p29). You are making a worthy contribution amongst many worthy contributions. Get over yourself, son.

2) The book is theological in the sense that it interacts with the fivefold as more than just a personality typology. But Hirsch’s theology, in terms of the discipline, is not great. I agree with many of the conclusions, but the arguments are not convincing.

Particularly this: Hirsch wants to show that the fivefold demarcations are not some arbitrary overlay but are inherent not only within the created order but within the character and operation of God. It’s a worthy hypothesis, however, condensed down, his argument proceeds as follows: 1) State what the fivefold demarcations look like in practice; 2) Observe these practices in creation (archetypes, p35, p63ff) and divinity (p55ff especially); 3) Conclude that the fivefold is therefore a derivation of something essential.

This is fallacious, I could also argue: 1) My fruit lollies have different colours and related flavours; 2) I observe these colours in the physical world, and symbolically throughout history; 3) My fruit lollies are therefore full of inherent meaning.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think the fivefold typology coheres with the wider sense of how personality, community, and divinity operate. I was hoping for some robust theology to help me out.  Hirsch’s observation is useful, but some derivation is needed, e.g. demonstrate how fivefold functions are a necessary outworking of God as Trinity. At the very least, begin with Biblical examples of the fivefold offices, and derive the typology from that.

e.g. Hirsch wants to show that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of the fivefold gifts But he describes it this way: “The fivefold typology is therefore not incidental to Christology but indelibly shapes it and gives it content” (p21, see also p78). No! To be meaningful, it should be that Christology is not incidental to the fivefold typology, but indelibly shapes it. Derive from Jesus, not to him! “Jesus cannot be understood apart from all fivefold identities” (p79) is simply an incorrect statement. I can also understand him as Son of God, as Prophet, Priest and King, as Advocate, as Lamb of God, as the Word/Logos etc. etc.

3) I am always wary of books that attach to products. 5Q is a brand name with a business model. This is not a unique problem – PMC is the same – and I understand why it happens. But the higher road is this: if you want to push along a movement, or have something profound and biblical to say, then put out the base theological material generically, and then you and any other person can use it to help and assist, consult and guide, and so build the body of Christ (towards Ephesians 4 maturity even!). Otherwise it looks like you are monetising truth, and God’s truth at that.

Around the family table, though, as we wrestle with our church family dynamic, the fivefold discussion needs to happen.  5Q gives us something to talk about, and, if we have the courage, to do.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews Tagged with: , , ,

Without Faith It Is Impossible to Please God

The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, visited us here in the Newbury Deanery this last week.  He spoke and took questions in the evening at a public service and he focused, as he has since his inauguration, on the beatitudes from Matthew 5.  For the rest of this week I have been mulling these over, especially the first one:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3)

In the current Western age, the beatitudes are a prophetic word. That is, they provide a holy and constructive challenge to the status quo of church and culture; they reveal depths in the shallows, stimulation in the slumber, truth in the lie. It appears that +Steven knows how to exercise his prophetic role with gentleness and sincerity. More power to him.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” has exactly this character. The “kingdom of heaven” is our goal, our longing (“…thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”). The temptation of having any goal, in the West in general and therefore in the church, is that we seek to achieve it in our own strength, in our richness. We gather our resources, we marshall our strengths, we determine our plan, we implement our strategy, we claim our prize! This is the methodology of the wealthy and strong and while it may have some level of “success” (for some definition) it simply cannot bear kingdom fruit. How can it? We can’t have the kingdom of heaven on our terms, only on the terms of the King!

The beatitudes are not commands, you see, they are simply statements of fact. It is the poor in spirit who receive the kingdom of heaven, because it naturally comes to them. Why? Because King Jesus founds the kingdom not in power and strength, but in servanthood, humility, and trusting faith, even unto death.  Look at all the characteristics of the beatitudes – poor in spirit, mourning with the world, meek, hungering for righteousness, pure, peacemaking, persecuted – and we see Jesus, who received the kingdom, from his Father, was comforted, by his Father, inherited the earth, from his Father, who was filled, by his Father, who was shown mercy, by his Father, who saw his Father, and was received by the Father even (and especially) as he took the curse of the cross upon himself and committed his spirit into the Father’s arms. Follow the king, and you will enter his kingdom. It’s not complicated, just hard!

It is a simple impossibility that the “rich in themselves” can participate in and build the kingdom. How can we serve the king by serving ourselves? How can we trust the king by relying on ourselves? Just because we can nail and weld something together and make it look like a tree, doesn’t mean we have the living, fruitful, thing.

My reflection on this has brought me to the letter to the Hebrews, particularly chapters 10 and 11. Here the “poor in spirit” are ones who exercise faith.  They are the ones who have “endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (Hebrews 10:32), who have been “publicly exposed to abuse and persecution”, often because they have shared in the mourning and pain of those who are “so treated” and “in prison” (Hebrews 10:33).  

They have not “shrunk back” (Hebrews 10:39), but this is not a muscular seizing the opportunity of victory, but an exercise of trust, of meekness, of reaching out to God and committing their spirit, just as Jesus didn’t shrink from the cross. Their “great reward” (Hebrews 10:35) is “what was promised”, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), which is to say, the kingdom of heaven, when all is well under the good harmonious rule of the Author of Life.

Throughout Hebrews 11, the writer puts forward examples of the faithful poor in spirit, simple demonstrations of the same fact of the beatitudes: Abel’s faith (Hebrews 11:4) naturally bears the fruit of approval, Enoch’s trust naturally pleases the King (Hebrews 11:5). And something of a summary is given:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

It’s a statement of fact, conceptually equivalent to the first beatitude.  Just as poverty of spirit leads to the kingdom of heaven, so believing in God, seeking himtrusting him, is the path to approach, please, and receive from the God of Life. Other approaches – the demonstration of strength, the whitewash of religious words – simply pertain to a different category, they bear their own fruit.

It’s not like God is petulant, holding back blessing unless he gets his dues; it’s just that if something else is worshipped, trusted, honoured, then we get the kingdom of That Thing, and it is destructive.  Who wants to live in the Kingdom of the Rich, the Kingdom of the Strong, the Kingdom of the “Look at Us Aren’t We A Lovely Church”? Yet that is where many of us live in the western world, seeking to please God without faith. It’s impossible to do.

Bishop Steven was thanked in the Q&A for his words and asked something about how we put it into practice. Being a good bishop, he didn’t give a directive answer; each local church needs to work out what the application of faith means for them. But he could have offered one general exhortation: repentance.

Richness in ourselves is simply a form of idolatry. It’s understandable, it’s prevalent, it’s culturally acceptable, it’s usually well-intentioned even if self-defeating – “Let’s not waste our many many awesome talents”…. by holding on to and relying on them!  But the simple fact is that without faith it is impossible to please God. And that gives us an imperative: We must turn to him, contrite, humble, poor in ourselves, entrusting our talents (and everything else) to him. The hardest thing, of course, is that it begins with me…

Posted in 2.0, General Tagged with: , , , ,

Review: The Land Between – Finding God in Difficult Transitions

I’m writing this seated under a large sycamore tree in an English country churchyard, surrounded by lush green fields, waving crops, and comfortable houses.  In my time I have had quiet times in many places like this, under random trees, at cafe tables, on picturesque Tasmanian beaches, or buffeted on a mountain by cloud-bearing winds.

Each place is a different context, each season is a different time, but I have found that each place has often been, spiritually speaking, a place of wilderness, a deserted place where (as I wrote to our then church many years ago) we are “laid bare before God… It is there that we are convicted of sin, assured of forgiveness, comforted, guided, and can consider the wisdom of God at work. It is there that we are matured, helped, strengthened…”

Wilderness is integral to the Christian journey. As we grow to be more like Jesus (what theologians call “sanctification”) we find that we must necessarily pass through a desert experience.  These are seasons that are never easy, often protracted, and invariably marked by encounters with hurt, grief, and mortification.

I’ve recently come across The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions, by Jeff Manion, and found it to be not only a decent description of this phenomenon, but also a companion, a textual spiritual director, for those who are plodding such paths at the moment.  He understands that wildernesses are crucial times, the crux of things in life.

I firmly believe that the Land Between – that space where we feel lost or lonely or deeply hurt – is fertile ground for our spiritual transformation and for God’s grace to be revealed in magnificent ways.  But while the Land Between is prime real estate for faith transformation, it is also the space were we can grow resentful, bitter, and caustic if our responses are unguarded. The wilderness where faith can thrive is the very desert where it can dry up and die” (Page 19)

Manion has us reflect on the Israelite’s wilderness in the time of Moses and, in particular, focuses in on the complaints that are voiced.

One form of complaint is the bitter complaint.  We all complain when the going gets tough, and the going was tough for the multitude in the Sinai desert. Even as they became recipients of daily divine manna they complained.  And we can identify with their frustration: “I’m sick of this!  I’m sick of this season!”  It is not abstract, as Manion demonstrates, and is manifest in our own situations. It’s certainly a refrain that’s been on my lips:

“I’m sick of living in my in-laws’ basement.”
“I’m sick of being asked what line of work I’m in and fumbling for an answer.”
“I’m sick of enduring wave after wave of medical tests without a clear diagnosis.”
“I’m sick of waiting for this depression to lift.”
“I’m sick of visiting a mother in a nursing home who repeatedly asks who I am.”
“I’m sick of this manna”
(Page 36)

To illustrate the second form of complaint, Manion turns to the “exhausted rant” of Moses in Numbers 11:11-15 where he hurls forth questions like “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms?… If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now.”  Despite the volatility of it, this is faithful complaint.

This sounds more like an exasperated meltdown than a prayer. You might say it sounds a little like the complaining Israelites in some respects – the despair, the frustration, the giving up, Moses’ dismissal of his calling, the reference to death. But there is a key difference: Moses’ attitude toward God. The Israelites are complaining about God. Moses is praying to God, and this is a huge distinction… He is not spiraling into spiteful complaint but is candidly pouring his heart out to God. He has maxed out and is in over his head. He is running on fumes. (Page 65)

Every admirable person I know has been in that place.  They are emotionally honest with God (page 70, page 86). Every person I know who has not yet fully entered into their calling, those who exercise leadership with a degree of immaturity, have not had this wilderness experience, they lack “experiential knowledge” (page 120) and have no words. They are unstripped, still full of themselves, unemptied, proto-kenotic, with faith soft and untested.

In response to faithful complaint, Manion paraphrases God’s heart:

“See you’re not alone. Some of my choice servants have felt intense failure and frustration. This is how they prayed when they felt empty and exhausted, and this is how I Invite you to pray. My shoulds are strong enough to absorb rants like this. But please speak! Cry out! Face me and give voice to your fatigue, your pain, your betrayal, your vast disappointment. Turn toward me and begin the conversation, even if it’s raw and ugly.” (Page 74, emphasis mine)

Wilderness brings us to the crux and puts before us the question that clarifies faith (page 55): Who will we trust?  Who will we trust with our past? Who will we trust with our future (page 52)? Will we attempt to take over and control? Or will we learn to bring ourselves to the presence and leadership of God?  The wilderness doesn’t just teach faith, it grows it. In the wilderness, “God demonstrates that he is a capable provider for his people.  What is he attempting to teach them as he leads them into dire hardship? ‘I am worthy of your trust. You need to learn to depend on me’” (Page 44).

The complacent avoid it. The bitter resent it. They turn from God: “We were better off without you as our rescuer, we were better off without your presence, we were better off as slaves… This is serious.” (Page 138).  And it is real. I have seen people echo this sentiment in their lives, in their churches!

But in his leading Moses and his people through the valley of death, God isn’t capricious or attempting to build a co-dependency.  He is growing them, making them ready.  He is maturing them, strengthening them. “Once they enter the Promised Land, they are going to have to resist looking to the likes of the god Baal for water, food, and survival” (Page 45). The wilderness is necessary for them to be the people of God, distinct and reflecting his life-giving ways.

The fruit of faith is life’s vocation: As the power of self-centredness dies in the desert, the power of sin, the ways of the world in maintaining and holding on to power and self-security, loose their grip. We learn to “cast our cares on the Lord” (page 83), where their hold and power on the soul is extinguished. We cast our cares as we learn to ask “How long, oh Lord?” (Page 84).

I only have one issue with Manion’s exposition and application: At times we get a whiff of a positive thinking gospel:

“A heart of bitter complaint is anchored in the suspicion that God is stingy – that he will hold out on you. But a heart of trust is anchored in the belief that God is good and will provide for you out of an inexhaustible reservoir of generosity. Your expectation of God’s provision will prove a determining factor in whether the Land Between results in spiritual life or spiritual death. Your trust in his future goodness keeps hope alive as you journey through the desert” (Page 99).

There is truth in this statement: Yes, faith holds to the goodness of God’s character.  However, we cannot make that faith contingent on having needs (or even wants) met according to expectation. Yes, we can hold to the eventual generous provision of the Promised Land of eternal life. But the heart of faith is not, “I will trust in God because he will eventually give me what I cry out for”, rather as with Job, “Even though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” His ways are perfect, even if they are beyond understanding, or have only the rich and healthy received the fruit of their faith?

Gill and I spoke with a wise, older, vicar recently. He was describing his breakdown, the wilderness that he had experienced in a season in his life. And he said words to this effect: “I’ve learned to turn towards the pain. I don’t like it, I don’t want to. But only there is life, when God works in my weakness, and there is fruit in the labour.”  For better or for worse, Gill and I have glimpsed what he means. Our resolve is to not waste the pain. To turn towards it and to trust God even when all appears as despair and abandonment. To do otherwise is to slip into bitterness, or to reach again for the numbness of worldly torpor.

Manion quotes Yancey, “Life is difficult. God is merciful. Heaven is sure.” (Page 175). I would add to that the words of the incomparable John Schlitt who looks to the cross and sings, “I know who I am, I know where I’ve been, I know sometimes love takes the hard way…  For now, forever, I take my stand, I place my whole life in Your hands…”

I know who He is, I know where He’s been, I know that love takes the hard way.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Ministry and Depression Tagged with: , , ,