Naturally Supernatural: Contemplative and Charismatic

I have just returned from the Naturally Supernatural Winter conference, held and hosted by Soul Survivor Church Watford. The form and substance of it would be familiar to anyone who has attended any of the Soul Survivor youth festivals in the last couple of decades: Charismatic worship and ministry that is both invigoratingly contemporary and solidly cemented in old school Wimberesque wisdom.

My intention here is to give a short reflection on my own personal experience of this week, and highlight one particular realisation: Not only was this a charismatic conference, with all its joys and highlights, it was also, unexpectedly, a contemplative retreat. Let me explain:

The charismatic aspect is obvious, not just in the substance of it, but in the form:  Three sessions a day, each headed up by 45 minutes to an hour of musical worship, before a teaching time, and “ministry time.” NSN does it well. The songs (while occasionally a little, um, committed to the “high rotation” list) were declarative; they were worshipful in the truest sense of recognising God and our right place before him. The teaching was biblical, the personalities large but self-effacing, the prophetic words were gentle and constructive, and the times of expecting the Spirit to be ministering were emphatically disconnected from hype and manipulation. The focus was not on some glitzy self-prospering, but true mission; it was an exhortation to change the world, beginning by lining ourselves up with the love of God in Jesus. I’ve touched on this before.

The contemplative aspect of it, however, may not be a first thought. But look at it like this: My personal experience this week was a spiritual journey. It had this sort of shape:

  1. An encounter with hope. The early times of worship (and excellent teaching from Ali Martin) connected me with the hope of the gospel. My encounter began with comfort, feelings of being able to soar, and of being called to deep life-changing gospel truths.
  2. An encounter with brokenness. The Word of God reveals. We find ourselves exposed with our hurts, sins, brokenness. I felt blocked, incapable of fully grasping or expressing the love of God. It was a time of thirsting, of being uncomfortable. As the deer pants for the water, I experienced a longing for the rich absolution of a renewed “right spirit” within me.
  3. An encounter with godly frustration. As speaker after speaker (but I’m thinking especially of Tre Sheppard) reminded us again and again of the mission of God, those old vocational fires began to burn. They had been smouldering and now they were blown into a consuming flame.  “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Even if it means I burn up, “for the sake of the world, burn like a fire in me.”
  4. An encounter with painful release. There are times when Mike Pilavachi is Grecian comic, and then there are times when he speaks words of heavy, pregnant, prophetic, truth. As he spoke about the call of the church away from dysfunction to mission, the truth lapped upon me like antiseptic on a wound. The Spirit of God took me by the hand to encounter some of those hurts and burdens that accrue in ordained ministry, even and especially in this otherwise green and pleasant land. I groaned from the depths of myself, as the Holy One reached in to heal. “Even what the enemy means for evil, he turns it for our good.”
  5. An encounter with gentle mercy and ministry. I could describe it like this – “I was able to pray for and minister to others” – but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. It was more a case of being allowed to stand close to people and watch the Spirit of Christ do his thing.  I got to watch and pray, to observe and listen, to simply be alongside those who were being brought to something new.  What a privilege. When I got to say something, all I was doing was describing what I could see: “prophetic” words as a simple testimony of the immediate.  And others did the same for me; loving words were both given and received.
  6. An encounter with peace. At the end of the week I received a benediction, spoken over me not by the grand Greek guru at the front, but by a young woman who had the boldness to approach a big ugly Australian with a word of encouragement. It released, commissioned, and completed something. What a gift.
  7. An encounter with fellowship. Connections of kindredness that welled up and simply happened. Brothers and sisters to know by name. Recognition of one another. Collegiality. “Your bride will come together, and we’ll sing.”

The thing is, I’ve been on these sorts of spiritual journeys before. On quiet days, or in weeks of gentle guidance and “alone time” at a retreat centre, I’ve also had these encounters with hope, brokenness, pain, mercy, ministry, peace, and fellowship. I have wept similar tears on top of a Tasmanian mountain reading 1 Corinthians during a day “away from it all.” I have been led through pain into peace in quiet services of compline after a day walking in the Gloucestershire countryside. I have found fellowship and fraternity in weeks spent with brothers in a mutual mentoring “pastor’s retreat group.”

Similarly, in the last little while I’ve been exploring different ways in which I am able to pray. After all, prayer is the only thing left in the belly of the whale. Sometimes the point of the season is to lean back into fishy stomach walls, and learn to trust that the Lord will bring about a vomiting at the right time and place. There we pray. This prayer is prayers of suffering, prayers of forsakenness, and simple prayers of quietness. We seek the face God and we learn to offer an inner sacrifice, not only of our praise, but of our buzzing anxieties and frantic minds. And we breathe.

In the midst of this week’s charismatic experience, I have been finding myself praying this way. I have drawn on contemplative depths to fathom the charismatic ones. In the midst of worship, I am offering contemplative prayer. While observing the Holy Spirit at work in the tears around me, I am quietening my soul. I am content to allow, and observe, and not to push and to strive. There is grace in that.

There’s no doubt about it, Naturally Supernatural is not the same experience as a silent retreat. But in this week I’ve seen something of the depths of spirituality that are common to both the charismatic and the contemplative. I knew it intellectually, and I’ve seen it in Gill (who is years ahead of me on this), but this week I’ve realised it profoundly. The charismatic and the contemplative are not so far apart: they draw us to the heart of God. Both whisper to us the Word of God. Both fuel us with the Spirit of God. Both embrace us with the blessing of being in Jesus Christ.

For the sake of the world, burn like a fire in me.

Photo credit: peasap licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Q&A: Does a desire for forgiveness mean faith?

Anonymous asks:

If someone claims to be without faith, yet morally knows they have done something “wrong” due to our God given in built moral compass (even if said person chooses to not believe that God gave them the compass) and is looking for forgiveness, does that mean they have faith…? I guess they will only feel forgiven if they realise who they must submit to, which leads them to faith…? It is almost like our inbuilt ability to continually fall short of the inbuilt compass leads us to God. Smart design. Seek and you shall find.

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

This question has come in response to our latest sermon series in the evening at St. Nic’s. Thank you for it. You’ve put forward something very interesting. Let’s unpack it a little, explore this hypothetical person’s situation, and look to see where faith can be found…

You talk about someone who “morally knows that they have done something wrong.” This is an experience that is common to all people (excluding a sociopath or two) and is simply the operation of our conscience. Theologically, we can find the roots of conscience in our identity as image-bearers of God, and in the loss of innocence grasped by the eating of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But our conscience doesn’t depend on faith, it is simply a part of who we are as human beings. Similarly, a pricked conscience doesn’t necessarily lead to faith, or anything else in particular. We all know what it means to deaden our conscience, and harden our hearts.

However, there is also an experience that we might describe as “being convicted of sin.” This something different to feeling guilty about something, it is about an awareness of a fractured relationship with our maker. It can feel like dread, but always has a sense of hunger to make it right, even if we are at a loss for words and aren’t sure of what we can do about it. It’s what is happening when the psalmist writes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” This is what is happening when Peter witnesses Jesus at work and cries out “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

The big question is whether this sense of conviction is an aspect of faith. I think I’d like to turn it the other way around and consider how faith is present in the conviction of sin. After all, you cannot understand yourself to be disconnected from God’s holiness if you don’t have some sense of belief that God exists, and that he is holy. The longing for forgiveness is a longing for restoration of relationship, and for me, that is faith:

 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

True conviction of sin, a ministry of God’s Spirit awakening our own, draws us to God in search of his grace, even if it is on our knees.  And, as you say, “seek and you shall find.”

The conundrum with your hypothetical person is that we see something of an existential wrestle:  Clearly he is looking for forgiveness from someone, yet has “chosen to believe that God has not given them their moral compass.” It’s a tension that can’t last! Either what we are seeing is simply the operation of conscience, or it is true conviction and will find its end. In the meantime it is existential disequilibrium, and while it may take some time for it to resolve, that is what will happen. As you say, it’s a smart design.

What is clear is that it presents an urgency to be ready with the gospel, in word and deed. If someone is seeking the path of reconciliation, we show them Jesus, and bear witness to how he has overcome the power of sin with newness of life. Conviction finds its end in Jesus as forgiveness and assurance, and that is very much the stuff of a life of faith.

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Q&A: What is the significance of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel?

Anonymous asks:

My question is the significance of Jerusalem being made capital again. My reaction is yay, hallelujah!!

In Nehemiah 2 an Arab was amongst those ridiculing Nehemiah m helpers n in b 20 saying they have no right to any property in Jerusalem n no share in traditions.
My feelings run along side as God gave His people the Jews, Jerusalem.

It’s all in end time prophecy but I’m seriously out of date wth the latest happenings.

Your enlightenment would b so appreciated. Tks so much.

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

Thanks for the question. The topic is loaded with some political energy, so I’m hoping to tread carefully.

I need to begin with the significant caveat that I have no expertise in international politics, and certainly not in Middle Eastern affairs!  My limited understanding of the current situation leads me to the following initial thoughts.

1) There has not actually been any significant change in the actual status of Jerusalem. As far as I am aware, the nation state of Israel has pretty much always claimed Jerusalem to be its capital, even if the administrative centre is in Tel Aviv. The complexity is that the displaced Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital. What has changed is that President Trump has announced that the US will recognise that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and implement this through the relocation of the US embassy. While this is controversial, it is not a surprise, and it is an action that has been mooted by other US presidents in recent years.

2) Personally, I don’t think my reaction can be “yay, hallelujah!”  Irrespective of its justifications or otherwise, this is a provocative action on President Trump’s part. It seems pretty clear that the socio-political situation in and around Jerusalem is highly anxious. The cliche of “powderkeg waiting for a spark” seems to fit. Bloodshed is possible. Diplomacy and care is needed. While I’m not in full disagreement about the US recognition of Jerusalem, (the “recognition of reality” line has some merit), I’m not sure President Trump has pursued the way of peace in this situation. Certainly, many other leaders, including the UN, have decried the escalation.

3) Before I get to the theological aspects (see below), it is clear that Jerusalem is a conundrum of competing claims, all of which have at least some degree of validity. I understand that the Palestinians, through no fault of their own, have been displaced from a city and a land in which they have lived for generations. I understand that the Jewish community has also experienced displacement (and worse!) in the last century, and that they have genuine ethnic links to Jerusalem and the land also. I also suspect that there is some significant “proxy activity” going on as the tensions in Jerusalem connect with the power plays of broader political forces. Injustice is the order of the day, and it’s a difficult thing to wade through.

Theologically, I can only begin to approach this issue by noting the differences between the people and nation of Israel that we see in the Bible, and the contemporary nation and state of Israel in modern politics. The biblical notion of Israel is that of a covenant people (a people of promise), descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who was later, personally, called Israel). They are a people defined by these roots of divine promise, and the subsequent foundation of divine rescue as they are brought out from Egypt under Moses, and called by the Law towards the goals of the original covenant. This identity reached something of a zenith under King David, who established Jerusalem as a political capital in about 1000 BC. His son, King Solomon, responding to the Mosaic law, established Jerusalem as a holy city, building the temple that encapsulated all that the Mosaic tabernacle had beforehand.  It became the tangible and symbolic manifestation of God’s promise and presence.

The modern state of Israel, while having clear ethnic and historical roots in this theological understanding, can be considered in contrast: It is a “Jewish and democratic state”, and, as I understand it, the “Jewish” part is understood ethnically not religiously. As a political entity there is very little that sets it apart as being particularly shaped by an Abrahamic, Mosaic, or Davidic identity.  Its establishment as a nation state lies in post-war turmoil and involves the actions of Zionist activists, and the political machinations of Western powers, leading to a formal recognition in 1948.  Even among orthodox Jews, there has been controversy about the form and formation of modern Israel. I understand that Haredi Jews, for instance, consider the re-establishment of Israel without the Messiah to be an act of presumption and rebellion against God.

The presence of Jesus in salvation history also impacts our understanding. The person of Jesus interacts with the base shapes of theological identity – Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic – in a way that cannot be ignored. In particular, we understand that Jesus fulfils these covenant. Jesus fulfils the Abrahamic covenant – the family who was “blessed to be a blessing” has brought forth its ultimate blessing. Jesus fulfils the Mosaic covenant – he obeys the law and receives the covenant blessings, sharing them with his people as he covers them sacrificially. Jesus fulfils the Davidic covenant – he is the “big-M” Messiah, the anointed King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus is the Temple, where the presence of God is manifest. Jesus is the Promised Land, in which we have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” In his risen life, Jesus extends this promise to all those (Jews and Gentiles alike) who would follow him, put their faith and trust in him, and so receive his Spirt and be counted amongst his people.

What this means, is that when I read stories in the Old Testament, such as the one you mention where Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem and faces his opponents, I understand the story in the light of Jesus.  Nehemiah, in verse 20 of chapter two, says to Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” For me, I see a man, grasping the promises of God and moving forward in faith and favour in order to see the covenant promises manifest once more.  I see the powers of this world, that would frustrate God’s purposes, put rightly in their place.  This is, with bricks and mortar, the same prayer as “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Nehemiah wants to re-establish Jerusalem, and I draw from that a desire for Christ’s rule to be made more manifest.

This is something that the New Testament imagines as the “New Jerusalem.” And President Trump’s declaration does not particularly enter into it!

Nevertheless, I am not intending to completely spiritualise the reality of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Physical locations are important. Ethnic identity is important also.  And these are particularly so when they are filled with such historical and theological meaning. For myself, I turn to Romans 11, where Paul speaks not only of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the promises of God, but mourns the apparent intransigence of his own people, the Jews.  Yet he is full of hope, that even in their stumbling they are fulfilling their calling:

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in,  and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:

‘The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.’

(Romans 11:25-27)

The calling on Israel and Jerusalem is to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). That calling is caught up into the Messiah, Jesus, who has embraced it, fulfilled it, and continued it by “grafting” the Gentiles of faith into the covenant people of God. But that doesn’t mean the calling has waned. It remains Jerusalem’s calling – to shine a light, to bless the world, to truly be the city of peace.  For that to happen, for the “end” to be reached, Jerusalem doesn’t so much need the proclamation of a President, but the ministry of her Messiah.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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Q&A: Do we neglect the doctrine of hell?

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

Do we neglect the doctrine of hell? I recently read Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God” and my reaction was:

To marvel at the magnitude of my rescue;
To be reminded of the urgency of sharing the gospel and my part in that.
(I also thought you’d have to be brave to talk like that in our generation!)

I understand that Jesus spoke more of hell than heaven. Salvation is a rescue – should we talk more about the reality of hell both to draw people to the Rescuer, and to increase our worship of God and our evangelism, whilst avoiding both the Middle Ages fascination with grisly imagery and the laughed off sandwich board person proclaiming that the end is nigh. If I am honest, (and holding this alongside election) I want to belong to God to escape the horror of hell.

A related question is do we neglect the doctrine of heaven…

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

Hi Sarah, thanks for the question.

I must admit, I’ve never read this sermon from Edwards, (which was penned in 1741, and now available online for those who are interested).  He is preaching on Deuteronomy 32:25 :- To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time… (to use Edwards’ probable translation).  I haven’t been able to look at it in depth, but there are a couple of things to note that can help us here:

Firstly, Edwards gets the audience right, at least initially. The text is not so much about God raging against the world, it is about God’s broken heart about his own people!  Edwards describes them as “wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained… void of counsel, having no understanding in them.”

In this he is, indeed, reflecting the focus of judgement language in the New Testament. e.g. Jesus uses language such as “hypocrites” and John talks about “a brood of vipers”, referring to his own people. Similarly, it is the temple which will have no stone left on top of another. It is a message, first and foremost, to the people of God, including the church.

This understanding locates judgement in the midst of grace. Jesus is no Pharisee, loading down but not lifting a finger to help. No, he is the good shepherd, reflecting the heart of his Father.  He has come to his intransigent people, to take responsibility for them if they would have him.

You ask “should we talk more about the reality of hell?”  If we do, we need to take heed; we can’t preach judgement without going through our own refining fires.  And sometimes I see a whole bunch of tinder-dry unChristlikeness amongst those who take Christ’s name. I fear it needs to be a great conflagration, and I am well and truly including myself in this brood.

Secondly, Edwards asserts that the wrath of God is real and present, withheld only by his grace, and he is right about this.  This is hard for people to hear, (we are understandably uncomfortable with divine anger!), and it should always be communicated clearly.  But it must be, and can be, communicated:

After all, the wrath of God is simply an aspect of his justice. It isn’t fickle, or out-of-control. It is the appropriate response to wrongdoing. We are bland and apathetic, God is not. We harden our hearts and walk past injustice, God does not. There are times we should be more angry at the unchecked sin in the world, and certainly at the unchecked sin in our own lives. The fact that there are homeless people on the streets of my otherwise middle-class town, is an injustice, it should move us. The tears of a teenager misused by her porn-addicted boyfriend, should induce something in us; a cry for justice at the least, the power to act if we can. Those who don’t want God to be wrathful shouldn’t also ask us to care about #metoo. God is not #meh about this world.

Similarly, the wrath of God is never disconnected from his righteousness and his grace.  We sometimes have this image of God as someone caught in an internal battle “Do I love them, or do I hate them?” No, God is love in all things. “Making things right” through bringing justice in judgement is an act of love. Withholding judgement as an act of grace is love. When we face analogous issues – say, perhaps, in our parenting – we often experience conflict because we lack the wisdom, or the security, or, indeed, the affection to do it well. God does not lack those things.

So should we talk about these things? Yes. In fact, our current series at the St. Nic’s evening service is looking at the foundations of faith, drawing on the list in Hebrews 6:1-2 as an inspiration. “Eternal judgement” is one of the topics we will be looking at.  The application will likely include those things that you mention: gratitude about the grace of God, and urgency about declaring the gospel. It will also include the imperatives that relate to pursuing God’s the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

But your question is not just about judgement, it is about the concept of hell. And this is where you’ll probably find that I differ from Edwards. I push back at the caricature of “total eternal torment”, for I find little, if any, of it in the Bible.  If anything, the exact nature of the final state after judgement, is a second-order issue for me; I won’t go to the stake for it.

My eschatology (my understanding of “the end”) looks to the renewal of this earth as the gospel hope.  I’ve talked about this in my review of N. T. Wright’s excellent Surprised By Hope. Wright draws on C. S. Lewis with regards to the outcome of judgement, and speaks of a final state of “beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.”

Wright’s view has merit. My own take is closer to annihilationism, that the outcome of eternal judgement is either eternal life (for those in Christ), or simply ceasing to exist (you can’t get more eternal than that). I’ve written about this before, and I won’t reiterate it here.

So yes, we should talk about these things more. But here’s my final thought: You say “I want to belong to God to escape the horror of hell” and I get that. But I don’t think I would quickly, if ever, say it that way. I would say this: I want to belong to God, because he is the most holy, delightful, awe-inspiring, identity-giving, glorious One. He is my eternal Father, and I love him.

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Q&A: How should I understand (theophanies and) christophanies?

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

How should I understand Christophanies? I’ve been pondering Jesus appearing bodily in the Old Testament and his incarnation in the New Testament

In the OT is he:

  1. God appearing in the form of a (sometimes glorified human body?) but not human in any way other than physical;
  2. Not appearing as a man in these Christophanies anyway, but something else we can’t define;
  3. Appearing as fully God and fully man before the incarnation;
  4. Or something else!

I’m asking this question to better understand how Christophanies relate to / contrast with the uniqueness, cosmic significance and humility of the incarnation where Jesus became forever the man who is God.

What can I understand about God and what can I understand about the Bible being all about Jesus, through Jesus walking on our planet before Bethlehem?

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

Thanks for the question, Sarah. There’s a lot in here.

Firstly, to clarify some language. “Christophany” means “appearances of Christ” and my understanding of that term is that it is about post-incarnation post-ascension appearances of Jesus. Paul on the road to Damascus appears to have had a christophany. The account of John in Revelation can be thought of as a christophany, depending on how you take the narrative and the genre; simple visions or dreams of Jesus don’t usually count as a full-bodied appearance!

In my mind, manifestations of God before the incarnation are more properly described as “theophanies” – i.e. “appearances of God.” Some people would still use the word “christophany”, arguing that they are manifestations of the Son of God, the Divine “Word” or “Logos” (referencing John 1).  I’m unconvinced. In my mind, the word “Christ”, meaning “Anointed One”, is entirely adhered to Jesus’ messiahship; it is a human title and therefore makes no sense apart from (or before) the incarnation.

Similarly, while our understanding of the Trinity can be unearthed in the Old Testament, that understanding is grounded in our understanding of Jesus in the New Testament. The thrust of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Whatever we see in the Old Testament should firstly be taken as a manifestation of the one true God.

So “theophany” is, I think, the better term. And I’m not just quibbling about terminology.  I hope I have also begun to answer your question about the unique significance of the incarnation; let’s not use incarnational language to describe pre-incarnational phenomena. The Son of God (fully divine) may have appeared to his people in some form, but Jesus (fully divine, fully human) never walked on our planet before Bethlehem.

But what are we actually talking about? By way of example, some events that are considered to be theophanies are:

  1. God “walking and talking” with Adam & Eve at creation (see Genesis 3 in particular).
  2. The Lord “appears” to Abram (later called Abraham) in Genesis 12 and then later as a covenant-making “smoking fire pot” in Genesis 15.
  3. Abraham famously had three divine visitors (Genesis 18)
  4. Jacob wrestles all night with a man (Genesis 32) and is then told that he has wrestling with God.
  5. The Burning Bush of Moses (Exodus 3).

Clarity does not quickly come:

Even in compiling this list I was running into ambiguity of category. Should the “pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night” (Exodus 13:21) be considered a manifestation of God, or simply a manifestation of his glory, a physical symbol of his presence? If so, would Abraham’s smoking fire pot and Moses’ burning bush also be in the same category? Where do we draw the line?

There are also literary questions to ask. Old Testament imagery is full of anthropomorphisms of God. e.g God has a “mighty arm,” or “comes down to see” etc. These are appropriately considered to be metaphors. Is that what’s happening with Adam & Eve? Perhaps. I don’t think we could argue that Jacob’s wrestling was merely metaphorical; metaphor usually doesn’t lead to a limp!

And so there’s some ambiguity, but I think it’s an ambiguity of our own making. In all these cases, the story is clear, and doesn’t depend on who or what is appearing and how. e.g. in Abraham’s encounter with his visitors, the point of the story, the essence of Abraham’s experience revolves around his conversation… and it makes sense irrespective of whether or not the visitors were divine, human, or angelic.  But when it comes to Jesus there is no ambiguity. In the birth narratives, the gospels, and all that follows, the incarnation of God as fully human and fully divine is entirely the point.

So I’ll stand firm on the incarnation, but I’ll allow some ambiguity about the exact nature of the OT theophanies, because the Bible allows it. And so my answer to the first part of your question is to allow all of your suggestions, except for 3); God is not incarnate before Jesus.

This is my take on it: in pre-incarnation theophanies, we are seeing God taking a form, but not taking on the essence of that form. e.g. The most we can say for Moses’ experience is that God took the form of a burning bush, he certainly did not become one.  It is likely that this was a ministry of God the Son, the Word of God.  After all, these forms are aspects of God’s communication, his revelation of himself and his purposes.

God spoke “in many different ways”, we read in Hebrews 1:1-3, and these manifestations were some of those ways.  But the point Hebrews makes is the point we should end with: Now God has “spoken through his son”, he has revealed himself ultimately by becoming one of us. He has not just taken on the form, but the substance of who we are.

Hope that helps. Thanks for the question.

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Q&A: How can we cultivate a ‘space’ for God to move?

Anonymous asks:

In your experience, how can we cultivate a ‘space’ for God to move in a way that is natural & supernatural, expected & unexpected? How do we do this in different contexts? Church, work, school, family, relationships etc?

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

What a great question.  If we dived in deep we would have enough to write books and books. We can only skim over the surface here.

So let’s begin by considering what it might mean for “God to move”…

It is partly, I think, an experiential question. It’s the same sort of thing when we talk about God being “present”; the raw theological truth is that God is omni-present, he is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that we are talking nonsense. There are times when we have a greater sense of the presence of God than at other times.  The psalms (e.g. Psalm 73:28) speak of the “nearness” of God as something to be experienced, he is a God who can be found. The implication is that sometimes we might “grope for him” like someone stumbling in the dark, and this is our experience even though, in reality, “he is not far from each one of us.”.

Similarly, then, when we talk about God “moving,” the raw theological truth is that God is always active. What we are talking about is our experience of God’s activity. Sometimes it is a vague sense of the wind blowing. Other times it is a clear sense of direction or even divine frustration.. Sometimes the Spirit is “present to heal”, so to speak, and sometimes it is otherwise.  In my own experience, there are seasons when I do not experience God’s movement; prayer seems lifeless, life seems hard, sin looms, and all ambitions and pursuits seem to turn to dust.

In all this I am glad of the way you have phrased your question. You have said “cultivating space for God to move” and this is different to what we are usually tempted to do: to cultivate the movement of God itself.  When God seems to be absent or static, we long to experience his presence and movement, and we try and mimic that experience.  We resort to positive thinking, hype, self-determination, and even belligerence. A lot of the prosperity gospel “name it and claim it” manipulation happens in this space, and we need to be wary of it.

Not that there is anything innately wrong with a little bit of positive thinking, though.  Deliberate choices to use our body positively have their place in raising our eyes and counting our blessings. Because the flip side of trying to generate the movement of God is to believe the lie that he isn’t moving at all.  Ezekiel’s depression, after seeing God work wondrously on Mt. Carmel, is both understandable and instructive. He is locked into a narrative that almost assumes defeat: ” I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Taken to their end, these two responses of not experiencing God at work, close us to the truth that God is actually at work, whether we like it or not. The first presumes that his movement depends on our inflated experience. The second presumes that his movement can not overcome our deflated experience. Neither is what we are looking for.

The reality is, is that Jesus is building his kingdom; the prayer of his people, “thy kingdom come”, is being answered. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him; his kingdom is inaugurated and will reach its end, and in the meantime he is with us always to the end of the age, empowering us to immerse this world in his name and his ways (Matthew 28:18-20). Theologically speaking, that makes me a missional inaugurated-eschatology man.

We cultivate our experience of this work of Jesus when we respond to it in faith, actively seeking to follow him on his terms. We diminish our experience of that movement, when we dictate our own terms. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is control.

In practice, then, what does that look like? You ask for my experience, let me give you an overview:

It looks like plodding.  I remember during our church planting days, when asked to reflect on our experience, I would say “It’s slog work for Jesus.”  It looks like preaching week in and week out, in season and out of it. It looks like simply being bothered – bothering to care for people, to take time, to talk, to listen, to fix what can be fixed and to allow the rest of the serenity prayer to kick in as well. It looks like not avoiding responsibility but carrying whatever loads are given to us along the way.  It looks like roads in the valley more than soaring above the mountain.

What we come to experience is that the movement of God can be incredibly ordinary, and awe-inspiring in that ordinariness if we care to look. We may want the hair-standing-on-end experience, but heaven cheers for the ordinary extraordinary life-bringing moment just as hard, probably more. e.g. I once returned to my church after a holiday to discover some of my brothers and sisters had taken it upon themselves to befriend and draw close to a survivor of child abuse who was taking a lonely stand in the witness box as she faced her abuser.

Some of the most profoundly applicable spiritual teaching I’ve heard has been from my wife… while she was talking to our children in the car, driving home from school, in a conversation that started with “How was your day?” We plod along, we seize the ordinary, we don’t avoid the mess, we simply bother. And God moves.

The regular rhythm of spiritual disciplines is part of this. You may have heard how God has moved at the Ffald-y-Brenin retreat centre in Wales. Their experience rests on their regular rhythm of prayer that invades the landscape. They simply pray, and if God moves in someone, they simply entrust that person to God… and continue to pray.  We have brought these sorts of rhythms into our family; morning prayer before school, thanking God around the table for something in the day. It is ordinary space, in which God can move.

It looks like waiting.  This is similar to plodding, but has a slightly different direction. Plodding “gets on with the mission”. Waiting is worship, when God seems absent. Waiting is the space of emptiness.

There are many things about the world, church, and life in general that can seem impressive. I have learned in my experience to be less impressed. These things are usually “achievements” – scores, marks, promotions, wealth, numbers, activities, tasks, and programmes. None of them are bad in themselves, many of them are blessings in their way. And we want them.  We want them, so we grasp them.  We use our strength and our power to pursue them.  I count myself in this!  God is gracious, and sometimes he uses us, but I have learned that they are not usually the stuff of a “move of God” in the sene that we are talking about. We can’t seize God’s plan, we are called to active waiting.

The right response to “unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1) is to wait. This does not mean passivity (we keep on plodding after all!), nor does it mean a lack of expectancy in which we fail to seize opportunities.  What it does mean is that we refuse to despise the fallow years.  We refuse to fill our lives with busy self-justifying activities, a conglomeration of straws to cling to for the sake of self-worth.  Rather, we offer ourselves, we put ourselves on the line for his sake by stopping and waiting.

In that waiting, God moves, sometimes more than ever.  It is there that he brings about adaptive change in us – a  change in who we are, not just in what we might do. The sense of his absence draws us deeper into him.  As the level of our spiritual fervour recedes hidden sins are revealed, insecurities manifest, and we find how shallow we actually are… and he calls us deeper.

The movement of God is deep. And we may not even know it until after it is over.  A current favourite story of mine is the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  The two on the road are despondent and low, plodding along in their experience of everything falling apart.  We know that Jesus is with them, but they don’t. It is not until afterwards do they realise that during their journey of despondency, their hearts had actually been burning the whole time. God moves when we wait; he makes our hearts burn.

It looks like active, discerning, worship.  This is one of the things I have appreciated in the Soul Survivor movement (which also has its roots in plodding and waiting).  They have high production values and excellent musical skills, but they have done well (by and large) to keep these as means rather than ends.  They keep their eyes open to discern how God is moving during the time of worship. When they sense an experience of God they often stop the music and allow the silence.

What they are doing is using worship – musical declarations of God’s grace and other words – as a form of creating space, encouraging an openness to God, expressing faith. I have found similar in other traditions: devout Anglo Catholics who find this space in ancient rites and the presence of God in the sacraments;  reformed evangelicals who thirst for the spoken exposition which brings the Word alive.

There are some things in common to these worship experiences: 1) The focus is God, it is declarative rather than subjunctive (“Lord, you are” rather than “This is how I feel”); 2) The senses are entertained (it is an experience), but nothing is forced or coerced; 3) What is done is good in its own right – praises are sung, sacraments administered, the word is preached – and even if there is no significant experience, there’s a real sense in which good has been done, we have worshipped the Lord; 4) Time is taken as we diminish our control; whether it be 45 minutes of praise worship, bible teaching, or contemplative prayer, we give God the gift of time to do what he wants in us.  You’d be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t) how easy it is for a worship leader to be driven by the demands of the clock and the expectations of the flock about style more than substance.

These things from corporate worship can be brought into “school, work, family etc.”  Whatever we do, we take time to focus on God through something innately good (e.g. private or shared devotions), we allow him to move, we don’t try and generate it, and so we rest in him.

It looks like response.  Some people talk about seeking a move of God through expectancy. We are to pray with expectancy, mustering a belief that our prayers not only will be answered, but must be. I get what is meant, but it’s hard to imagine it in practice: Somehow an attitude of “OK God, this is what I’m expecting” doesn’t exactly create space for God to move; and anything that does happen could easily be taken as self-justification of prayers well prayed.

Rather, I think that sense of expectancy is better described like this: when we seek a move of God, we do so with a readiness to respond.  If we ask God to “move in us” and he confronts us with our sin, our response should be to repent. If we feel called to pursue something, we should count the cost and act according to our faith. If we find someone or something laid on our hearts, we shouldn’t let that pass but should pursue it further.

For me, that is more helpful than some of the caricatured answers you see: e.g. “The Holy Spirit can’t work if you have sin in your life, a lack of expectancy, or if you don’t have enough faith.” Ouch. Rather, God is moving, and our experience of that movement simply doesn’t make sense if we don’t respond, so we get ready to respond.

To conclude:  This is a big topic and a simple blog post can’t do it justice.  But you ask for my experience, and this is where I’m coming from. Thank you for the question – I haven’t really had the opportunity to put words down on this topic before.  You’ve stirred my thinking, and I’m sure my thoughts and words will develop.

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Review: Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making – An Anglican Guide for Christian Life and Formation

The word “discipleship” has become such a buzzword in recent years that when it is used, particularly in official documents or vision statements, it’s intended meaning is not always certain.

I have a vested interest in pursuing discipleship in an Anglican context.  It is useful, therefore, to familiarise myself with how discipleship is being understood, talked about, and promoted.  Practical on-the-ground examples are the most valuable.  But perspectives from the heights of the institution are also important.  Last year’s Archbishops’ Council report, Setting God’s People Free pointed out that the main obstacle to discipleship is cultural intransigence.  Sometimes it is possible for papers at the top to cut across the lower tides of avoidance; they can simply state what needs to be stated, even if their immediate effect is not obvious.

This small book, published by the Anglican Consultative Council in 2016, is a case in point.  It is a Communion-level, globally-scoped report.  It brings some important insights, especially from the Global South.  I’m finding it invaluable as I prepare some thoughts on discipleship for our Deanery strategic planning process.

It is available for download in pdf.

One of the ways we avoid a discipleship culture is by subsuming the term into our existing church culture, rather than allowing it to provoke much-needed adaptive change.  That is, we undertake “discipleship activities” or, worse yet, we simply shoehorn the word “discipleship” into the description of our existing activities, and we quench the Spirit. In the end, discipleship is about being a disciple/student/follower of Jesus himself. If we think we can do that and remain unchanged. If we think we can avoid having our “self-identity” challenged (page 5), we are deluding ourselves. Yet we try.

Archbishop Ng Moon Hing of South East Asia addresses this symptom from the very beginning, in his foreword:

To follow Jesus of Nazareth into his cosmic reign is simply the most challenging, the most beautiful, the most costly, the most rewarding journey we could ever choose to begin…  our following Jesus requires much more than the latest course or introduction to Christian living. Courses have their place… but our apostleship, our discipleship demands much more – in fact it demands everything. (Page vii)

A definition of discipleship is needed for this book to make any sense.  The definition it gives is not so much provided as located; discipleship “encompasses this total God-ward transformation which takes place when individuals and communities intentionally, sacrificially, and consistently live every aspect of their daily life in commitment to following Jesus Christ” (Page 4).

This is a wonderfully Anglican way of doing it: Discipleship is not so delicately defined that it adheres to one time or place, but it is bounded so that we know what we’re talking about.

It is also wonderfully Anglican to begin from the basis of biblical theology.  Discipleship themes are quickly traced through the Old Testament before focusing on Jesus himself, with his “group of ‘learners’ who were selected to be with him” (page 11).  The book does well to go beyond the prosaic picture of Jesus merely as pedagogical examplar, as if Jesus is defined by his discipleship methods.  Rather, the fundamentals of Christ’s person and mission are first and foremost.  It is discipleship that is defined by Jesus, not the other way around.  Therefore, true discipleship bears the mark of the cross. It is much more than a spiritualised self-help program, “much more than belief and personal growth in Christian character” (page 16):

For the original twelve there was a literal journey following Jesus up from Galilee into the eye of the storm, Jerusalem – a journey marked with misguided hopes and some trepidation…: we are all on a journey, following Jesus… we are to leave things behind… we are to trust him both for our eventual arrival in the city and also for the surprising details along the way and through the desert; above all, we are to ‘take up [our] cross daily’ and follow Jesus (Lk 9.23) (Page 15)

From this biblical starting point, we are taken through a cursory look at discipleship in the early and historical church and arrive at a multi-faceted examination in recent and contemporary Christianity.  Like the charismatic renewals of that latter 20th Century, there appears to be evidence of similarly transdenominational currents in this area. I find this encouraging.

Consequently, this book has stimulated my thinking.  For instance, there is a harmony in discipleship between separation (as in the monastic tradition of withdrawing from “the accommodation of Christian communities to the ways of the secular world” (page 35), or the Latin American emphasis (page 101) on “preparing Christ’s disciples to act differently”), and missional engagement that connects with and promotes a relevant gospel.  Popular evangelicalism lacks the language to tackle this.

For instance, I found myself unexpectedly pushing back at how we describe secular “work and other human activities as a form of vocation” (page 65). It’s not that I disagree that secular work is vocational. Nor do I wish to slip into some sort of clericalism that elevates church work as somehow spiritually superior.  It’s just that the language does not prevent an apparent lack of distinctiveness in the pursuit of vocation. The consequence is our propensity to sacralise all work and so fall into the careerism of our surrounding culture; to assert the divine right to pursue the career of my choice. Rather, the journey of discipleship necessarily moves us away from careerism; it may take us on either path of secular work or ecclesial ministry, (if we need to make the distinction at all), but whatever it is, whatever we do, it is to be submitted to the call of Christ. Our career is first and foremost shaped by our vocation, our discipleship, and not the other way around.

This book has stirred my consideration of practice The way it draws on the experiences of discipleship in various parts of the world and diverse cultures is stimulating. The common threads recognise that discipleship is holisticcommunal, missional, and deliberate.  Jesus is the beginning and the end.

Churches should be assemblies of disciples of Christ and not pew-warming believers. All sermons should be discipleship-driven and not entertain spectators with feel-good sensation. Christ’s death is costly, and it would be considered worthy if he knew that his life was laid down for people who became his disciples. It would be sad for him if he knew that it is for pew-warmer Christians. A disciple of Christ will ask, ‘What and how shall I serve and live for Christ?’ A pew-warmer believer will ask, ‘What will Christ do for me?’ (Page 89)

These experiences are wells to draw from. They help us get to some practicalities without becoming programmatic.

For instance, the importance of cultural analysis is present in the reflection from the Middle East. Cultural self-awareness is something that can be learned and practised.  It is a skill that is sadly missing in much of the Western Church, an aspect of our normative missional illiteracy. The book speaks of “an adventure for the ‘disciple-maker’ as for the ‘disciple’… discovering where the Spirit of God applauds the norms of our culture, where he accepts some norms as a fair enough starting point and where he says ‘not good enough!’ about them” (page 91). Similarly, the cultural questions posed by “insider movements” (page 120) poses important cultural questions that can and should be more readily asked; we are all inside a culture.

The practical importance of relational and emotional courage is present in the reflection from Latin America. This pushes back at the Western tendency (or perhaps it’s British?) to confuse harmony with polite silence and emotional avoidance.  This lesson moves away from an attitude of “waiting for someone else to solve [the] problem.”  Drawing upon the lessons of the Road to Emmaus, it speaks of the importance of the final movement back “to Jerusalem – to community, joy, dynamism, but also to the conflicts, to the Cross… to the crises” (page 102).

There is one significant weakness, a gap that is almost bewildering: Despite the brief acknowledgement of the “importance of the parents’ role in teaching each new generation to walk in the ways of the Lord” (page 9, see also page 68), there is very little at all on the place of family, children and youth.  The one perfunctory chapter (page 107) is insufficient.  A discipleship culture is inherently intergenerational and that characteristic deserves more engagement.  Our prevailing habit in the Western church of splitting the Body of Christ into homogenous age brackets is fundamentally antagonistic to Christ’s heart for mission.  A failure to engage with that diminishes this book.

Nevertheless, the book’s ambition is valuable: It is fundamentally vocational. i.e it issues a call that is coherent across all Anglican contexts.  Without whitewashing the “rich diversity in the understanding and practice of discipleship and disciple-making” (page 3), it nevertheless affirms a “strong intentionality” and lays it before us: “…the Church needs to be called back to its roots as a community of disciples who make disciples.”

It is therefore yet another resonance to the growing prophetic voice caling for a shift in culture. More voices are still needed.

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Review: Prayer – Finding the Heart’s True Home

Richard Foster’s Prayer is a classic of the early ’90s but I’m glad that I have only just recently read it. I don’t think I would have truly understood it, or been impacted by it, if I had come to it before I’d lived some life.

Foster is, of course, known for his teaching on spiritual disciplines with contemporary application. This book is in the same vein. It is a compendium of independent chapters, each considering the sorts of prayer that we see in the biblical narrative and in Christian experience. A quick look at the table of contents reveals the gist: “Simple Prayer, Prayer of the Forsaken, The Prayer of Examen, The Prayer of Tears, The Prayer of Relinquishiment…” and so on.

Foster takes us to the base foundation of spirituality, to the character of God himself. God is a God who speaks, and who listens, and who creates and restores the relationship between himself and his people. How we interact with him, i.e. how we pray, is the question that takes us into these depths.  Like similar relational questions (e.g. “How do I speak and be closer to my husband, my wife, my child?”) the answer is both simple (“Just speak!”) and profoundly deep, even mysterious.  Like all relational issues, it requires both deliberate action and humble response. Prayer is not something to “master, the way we master algebra or motor mechanics” (page 8), but “we come ‘underneath’, where we calmly and deliberately surrender control and become incompetent.”

As I record my thoughts here I am not going to touch on every chapter, but on those parts that have challenged me, taken me deeper, or have reminded me of the gracious permission I have, as a child of God, to come to him in prayer.

Prayer of the Forsaken.

It is right that Foster touchs on forsakenness early in the book. This sense, occasional or frequent, is part and parcel of the Christian experience; we feel as if we are praying to bronzed-over heavens, when everything would scream at us that God is absent.  Foster has drawn on “old writers” to give me a new phrase, “Deus Absconditus – the God who is hidden” (page 17) for those times when God appears to have disappeared.

The prayer of the forsaken is the prayer of the pair on the road to Emmaus who stand with “downcast faces” because of their dashed hopes about the one who was “going to redeem Israel.”  They walk with Jesus, but he is hidden from them.  It is the prayer of Jonah in the belly of the whale. It is the prayer of David, and Jesus himself, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Times of forsakenness are a given in the Christian pilgrimage of life.  And they are necessary. They take us to the bedrock of God’s sovereign grace where we are stripped of any pretence that we might manipulate God in relationship or prayer.

That is the next thing that should be said about our sense of the absence of God, namely that we are entering into a living relationship that begins and develops in mutual freedom. God grants us perfect freedom because he desires creatures who freely choose to be in relationship with him. Through the Prayer of the Forsaken we are learning to give God the same freedom. Relationships of this kind can never be manipulated or forced. (Page 20)

Such seasons are seasons of refining that burn hot.  We question ourselves, and “nagging questions assail us with a force they never had before” (Page 23)… “‘Is there any real meaning in the universe?’ ‘Does God really love me?'”

Through all of this, paradoxically, God is purifying our faith by threatening to destroy it. We are led to a profound and holy distrust of all superficial drives and human strivings. We know more deeply than ever before our capacity for infinite self-deception. Slowly we are being taken off vain securities and false allegiances. Our trust in all exterior and interior results is being shattered so that we can learn faith in God alone. Through our barrenness of sould God is producing detachment, humility, patience, perseverance. (Page 23)

In the last year we have experienced a sense of this forsakenness. One instructive experience stands out for me: At a summer festival in 2017, ironically surrounded by the joy and bustle of the worshipping people of God, we found ourselves in this dark place – a deep sense of being lonely, abandoned, forsaken.  As I breathed and paced myself to get to the next workshop a leader approached me and gave me a word that had been impressed upon him as he saw me randomly within the crowd. What was that word of the Lord in the midst of emptiness, frailty, darkness, and lost hope? “God is saying, he is giving you the courage of a lion.”  It broke me, I wept, and it was bitter. It was bitter, but right.

True courage rests not on ourselves, but on faith. The prayer of the forsaken takes us deeper yet; faith rests on trust.

When you are unable to put your spiritual life into drive, do not put it into reverse; put it into neutral… Trust is confidence in the character of God… I do not understand what God is doing or even where God is, but I know that he is out do me good.” This is trust. (Page 25)

We cry out to the infinite mercy of God. We learn that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” finds its answer in “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

The Prayer of Relinquishment.

There is faithfulness in the simple prayer of petition, in which our needs are laid out before our Lord and provider. But I have noticed that this form of petition can actually play an opposite role; we often use it as a defense against the leading of the Spirit. We lay out our needs before God and say “Lord, bless us” with a heart that actually says “I am going this way. I am doing these things. Now do your part, God, and make them work.” We build self-reliant castles, and hold our petitionary facade as evidence of faithfulness.

I have noted this tendency in my own journey with Jesus, sometimes with a desperate internal monologue: “Look at these things, fix them, sort them, don’t let me fall! I’ve turned up to work, where are you?” In an era of church which is fundamentally performance-driven, and amongst my generation of church leaders who are so readily anxiety-driven, I have heard this insecure form of “prayer” echoed time and time again.

The prayer of relinquishment calls us away from this dysfunction.  It is the spiritual equivalent of a trust exercise, or, as Foster describes, “a person falling into the arms of Jesus, with a thirst-quenching sense of ‘ahhh!'” (page 50).  Yet while this “soul-satisfying rest” is the end result of the Prayer of Relinquishment, it is not the journey.

The journey is Gethsemane. It is “yet not my will but yours be done”, prayed not as a catch-all default at the end of a prayer, but as a positive deliberate choice to submit our plans, our desires, our lives to the will of God. “All of my ambitions, hopes and plans,” sings Robin Mark, “I surrender these into your hands.”

We pray. We struggle. We weep. We go back and forth, back and forth, weighing option after option. We pray again, struggle again, weep again. (Page 53)

Indeed, “relinquishment brings to us a priceless treasure: the crucifixion of the will.” (Page 55) Personally speaking, given my first name, I can almost take this literally!  And it is a treasure. In many ways, the battle of the cross was won at Gethsemane; from this point in the garden, Jesus endures for the sake of the joy set before him.

There is death to the self-life. But there is also a releasing with hope… It means freedom from the self-sins: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-absorption, self-abuse, self-aggrandizement, self-castigation, self-deception, self-exaltation, self-depreciation, self-indulgence, self-hatred and a host of others just like them. (Page 56)

The Prayer of Suffering

When the journey with Jesus takes us to fields of forsakenness, or roads of relinquishment, our prayer can bear substantial internal fruit; we grow spiritually and the path leads to maturity. But prayer is not all about introspection. As his book concludes, Foster’s focus becomes increasingly external, even missional. He turns to intercession, to what he calls “radical” prayer, and to a vision for church as missional community (Page 268) that the rest of us are only just starting to realise.

The prayer of suffering embraces the missional concept of incarnation.  This is not to undermine, as some have taken it, the salvation-bringing incarnation of Jesus. Rather, it takes the character of God in Christ as a model for how we obey the Great Commission and are sent as Christ was sent.

Christ serves us not from above and beyond our condition, but from within it.  And so Paul can speak of a participation in the afflictions of Christ as part and parcel of his participation in his mission. And Peter can extend that participation in both suffering and glory to his readers, and so to us.  In this sense we talk about suffering as redemptive, the same sense in which confession, preaching, evangelism, and other forms of witness are redemptive. The prayer of suffering expresses it.

In redemptive suffering we stand with people in their sin and in their sorrow. There can be no sterile, arms-length purity. Their suffering is a messy business and we must be prepared to step smack into the middle of the mess. We are ‘crucified’ not just for others but with others. (Page 234)

This is a conscious shouldering of the sins and sorrows of others in order that they may be healed and given new life. George MacDonald notes, ‘The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.” (Page 238)

As Foster points out, (page 233), the concept of suffering is almost anathema to the consumerist culture of comfort that coerces conformity in the contemporary church. But this, itself, can create the redemptive suffering. Uncomfortable prophets and travailing intercessors are politely pushed aside or even directly silenced; their suffering and sorrow embodies the plight of the church and they cry out in the anguish of the church’s self-abuse.  And so Jesus yearns for his Jerusalem and Moses refuses to give up the Golden-Calf-enslaved people of God:

‘I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin’ (Exod. 32:30b). And this is exactly what he does, boldly standing between God and the people, arguing with God to withhold his hand of judgment. Listen to the next words Moses speaks: ‘But now, if you will only forgive their sin – but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written’ (Exod. 32:32). What a prayer! What a reckless, mediatorial, suffering prayer! It is exactly the kind of prayer in which we are privileged to participate. (Page 257)

What I have learned from Foster here is that this form of suffering is not only permitted, but valued in the dynamic of Jesus with his followers. In recent years I have come across many of the faithful who are have been all but submerged in the bloody mess that flows from the machinations of our religious organisations. I have come across the abused with their wounds flowing. I have witnessed the weary weeping of senior leaders overcome by the inertia of apathy. I have seen the delicate shells of those discounted, despised, condescended to and cut off by orphan-hearted panderers.  I can count myself amongst both the wounding and the wounded.

The prayer of suffering turns this pain towards redemption. Daniel prays in the pain of exile, confessing the sins of those others that sent him there.  Jesus, impaled by the nails of desperate human rebellion, prays for their forgiveness and Stephen later echoes him as the stones descend and Saul looks on.  Their prayers availeth much, redeemeth much. They are prayers of suffering.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that when we pray for our enemies, ‘we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.’ (Page 240)

There is intimacy in this prayer, and it brings intimacy to our mission with Jesus. Only in intimacy can we pummel the chest of our heavenly Father, offering prayers of “holy violence to God” (Page 241). Only in intimacy can the accusatory cry of the martyrs, “How long, oh Lord?” find its answer in the divine heart.

This is not anger. It is not whining. It is, as Martin Luther puts it, ‘a continuous violent action of the spirit as it is lifted up to God’. We are engaging in serious business. Our prayers are important, having effect with God. We want God to know the earnestness of our heart. We beat on the doors of heaven because we want to be heard on high. We agonize. We cry out. We shout. We pray with sobs and tears. Our prayers become the groanings of a struggling faith. (Pages 241-242)

Foster has reminded us here that suffering can be redemptive and should be released, not suppressed, in prayer. It is not wrong to demand a divine audience. It is not wrong to be more persistent than the widow. It is entirely right to bring our cause before our righteous, just, and loving Father.  Maybe our cause is unjust; he can meet us in our prayer and change our heart. But maybe it is true, and we have been unknowingly sharing the heart of God, who mourns with those who mourn, and is stirred to redemptive action.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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

Sarah writes:

Hi Will,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

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

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

This is way better than Eden isn’t it?

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

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

Thanks Sarah,

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

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

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

You ask what does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

Again, there’s something amazing about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is outrageously amazing.

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

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