Reading this in my current quest to explore the connection between trauma and church culture, I have found a book that is well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed.

Dave Burchett’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive gets a lot right. He is honest about how church can and has been a painful experience for many. He has a pastoral heart that yearns for the church to reach out to those so wounded. There is some helpful advice for those who care and some useful insights for those who have been hurt. But this book is far from the “healing plan” it is touted to be.

A defining image (page 13) in the book is of the “lost sheep”, the one who has wandered, as opposed to the 99 who remain in the fold. He exhorts us to have the heart of the Good Shepherd who seeks out that one lost sheep. The image draws on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, of course, but it’s a somewhat tortured connection with the parable. Not only does Burchett avoid a nuanced exposition, he misses the plain correlation between the lost sheep and the “little child” of Matthew 18:5 who “enters the kingdom of heaven.” His use of The Message as his biblical text throughout severely restricts the depths from which he can draw.

It’s a shame, because Matthew 18 can really help us in this area. The wandering sheep is a “little” one, who exhibits a childlike faith. Jesus has just talked about the consequences for those who would cause such a “little one” to stumble, or sin, or wander. The dramatic image of a “millstone hung around the neck” and being drowned in the sea should give us pause for thought! It is a prophetic parable against those “who look down on one of these little ones” and has more implications for the character of the flock, than that of the little lamb.

And here lies Burchett’s problem. As he rightly appeals to church leaders to value those who have wandered away, he misses this prophetic trajectory against the existing flock, and therefore embraces some worrisome assumptions. I’ve tried to bluntly distill them here:

  1. The point of reaching out to the wounded is to bolster the strength of the church. “How much depth have we, the collective church, lost by not aggressively seeking to find and heal our wounded lambs?” he asks on page 2, in the introduction. Somehow the utilitarian power of the wounding community has become the point.
  2. The problem lies with those who have left. “So many people out there have been given up for lost,” he writes. “They could be found, healed, and returned. If we could only begin to communicate that we are willing to accompany them on the road back, forgive them, love them, and celebrate their return” (page 18). Frankly, this sentence made me angry. The subtitle of the book aims it at “those wounded by the church”, yet here it is the wounded ones that need to be “found”, “returned”, and “forgiven.” This is close to the language of an abusive husband, offering “reconciliation” because he is gracious enough to forgive his wounded wife.
  3. People leave because of their immaturity. “Like a thirsty sheep, a bored and unfulfilled Christian who is without spiritual shepherding may wander onto paths that lead away from God.” (Page 36). Which is fine to say, perhaps, if this is a book about being better shepherds. But it’s not, and it infantilises those who have left and diminishes the principles (some of them dearly held) that shape that departure.
  4. Unity trumps holiness and justice. “The Good Shepherd has a cure for us, and it starts with His prescription for unity.” (Page 48). “Division within the body of Christ is sin. Jesus’s teaching about unity is indissoluble.” (Page 56). His words, in themselves, are not wrong. They are simply not careful enough. Again, he inadvertently echoes the words of an abusive husband insisting that marital unity is more important than any particular transgression on his part. Sometimes separation is necessary for unity. Even Paul (quoted by Burchett on page 53) exhorts Titus to have “nothing to do with” the (truly) divisive person. I know too many people who have appropriately departed their church community, and have then be shamed as divisive or schismatic, when the real wound to the body of Christ was done to them, not by them.

I’ve deliberately painted a stark image here, to make my point.  Despite the flaws, Burchett does get to some helpful places.

The chapter entitled The Heart of a Shepherd is generally good. Occasionally he has the same sentiments as people like Mike Pilavachi who reimagines church as family. “Peter did not advise the shepherd to show difficult rams and ewes the sheep gate”, Burchett writes (page 76), and I hear Pilavachi echoing “We don’t have employees to hire and fire, but sons and daughters to raise.” Burchett’s one clear point is well made: We have a responsibility to the wounded(page 78), and we should take it seriously.

The second part of the book is also useful. It is actually aimed at those who have been hurt, rather than those who might seek them out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is good, solid, stuff. He would turn our wounded eyes towards Jesus who “understands the pain, betrayal, and anguish that… selfish and sinful behavior causes” (page 117). He exhorts us towards forgiveness (page 180). He gives guidance about living in the present (page 153).

Occasionally, the era of the book shows. Published in 2004, it is just before the heyday of the emerging and emergent church movements. As he scratches on the disaffection of those in church who are “tired of pretending their lives are better than they actually are” (page 90), he has not yet seen the growth of movements that did arise from those who left that plastic world.  Perhaps there is a glimpse of some generational wistfulness: “…they need to hear from their former flock that we care, we miss them, we need them, and we want them to come back” (Page 91). Having lived and led in that era, what we actually needed to hear was “that we care, we miss you, and we long for you to fly, and do, and build what that the Lord is leading you to do, we’ve got your back.”

I shook my head a little, when he talks about churches setting up classes and seminars for those wounded (by the same churches running the classes, presumably!), so that the “injured lambs” might not “feel alone… having a forum where they can express their hurt, and share their concerns.” I don’t think he realises how patronising that idea sounds.

You see, in the end, the lost wounded sheep don’t want to be found by a hurtful church, even a regretful hurting church. I know this from my own experience. I know those because many of those I’ve met are wary of being found by me; I wear a clerical collar, I embody that which has been the source of their trauma.  They don’t want to be found by us, they want to be found by Jesus. Yes, they also want community, but they want it real, spiritually authentic. Which means, Jesus first.

Helping the wounded isn’t about classes or offers of therapy. It’s not about technical change in tired institutions. It’s not even about “revivals” of a surge of life into ordinary auditoriums. It’s not our task to “bring ’em back alive.”  Yes, we follow Jesus as we search for them, care for them, breathe life into them, back them, cover them, and cheer them on. But it’s not about slotting them back in to where they were first injured. It’s about the Lord doing something new. When I meet the “little ones” who find no place at the institutional table, laden with looming millstones, I am increasingly realising that the kingdom of God belongs to those such as these.

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In recent years there has been a resurgence in thinking about the so-called “fivefold” “ascension gifts” shape to ministry. It has been furthered by the likes of Alan Hirsch and Mike Breen. It draws on Ephesians 4:11-12 in which Paul refers to five gifts from Christ, “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service…”

In general, despite a growing tendency to reduce it to some sort of personality inventory, fivefold thinking is helpful. I have, for instance, used it as a starting point to unpack what it means to be prophetic.

Here, however, I want to focus on the apostolic. 

There’s a lot to commend in typical fivefold thinking about the apostolic. It will usually draw on the root word of “apostle” and the associated verb “apostello” which means simply “to send” with the nuance (in context) of being sent with purpose: i.e. appointed to go and do something. Hence the disciples who were the direct recipients of Jesus’ Great Commission are, rightly, “big-A” Apostles. And so is Paul, who received his appointment directly from the risen Christ later as one “untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8).

This can appropriately be applied to aspects of ministry today. There is something about the apostolic, for instance, that pertains to movement. The apostolic stimulates movement and seeks to lead a community into places where it needs to go but hasn’t. Just as the original Apostles took the gospel into Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, so the contemporary apostolic desires to extend the Kingdom of God in some way. In any new venture – church plant, missionary movement, activist community – you will likely find the apostolic at work, hearing the call of some “Macedonian Man” and heading out to answer (Acts 16:9-10).

The apostolic, therefore, is often associated with words like “entrepreneurial” or “visionary.” Mike Breen, answering a blog post question, says, for instance, “Apostles can’t help but start new things.”  A site that expounds Breen’s lifeshapes, describes an apostle as a “Vision-keeper for the extension of the church’s mission, an entrepreneur/starter… bring strategic skills, risk taking, get things off the ground (church planting?).”

There is some truth to this. But it is also where I want to push back.

The apostolic is NOT primarily entrepreneurial. In my experience, it’s the evangelists who often have the crazy new ideas. Some of them even work!

The apostolic IS primarily parental. The original Apostles didn’t just break new ground, or go into new territory, they took the church with them, and birthed and grew whatever was begun. They bring the body of Christ on the journey, and they hold and cover whatever is formed.

Entrepreneurs can often be the worst at bringing people with them. To be sure, none of us are as friendly as the pastors, but belligerence is not the mark of the apostolic. Neither is a “vision and dump” mentality that says “well, I’ve started it, now you carry it.” I’ve even heard excuses made for toxic leadership, “It’s OK, some people have had trouble responding to the apostolic in him.” A corrective is needed.

Healthy apostles don’t behave like that. They don’t behave like bosses pursuing a vision despite the collateral damage. Yes, they are deliberate, determined evenAnd the movement is, often, outward, ground-breaking, map-making, and pioneering. But they take a “family” with them, and they form a household on the way, wherever they have gone. Because that is the point!

I thought it would be useful, therefore, to list some of the characteristics of the apostolic that I see in the pages of Scripture. It’s not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to receive other suggestions.

These are marks of the apostle that I see in Scripture:

The Apostolic Way is PARENTAL.

Paul writes the following to the Corinthians:

I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son, whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. 1 Corinthians 4:14-17

The language Paul uses of a father with his children or, (in the case of Timothy), his son, is obvious. His heart isn’t just to direct or dictate, but to impart, through relationship. The gospel is something to be modelled and embodied, and therefore imitated, not simply pursued as a function or task. This marks apostolic ministry.

Paul makes it even more explicit when he applies a maternal image to his ministry, as he writes to the Thessalonians:

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)

This is why churches and church structures that revolve around programs and pragmatics have a sense of lifelessness to them – a stagnancy even in their busyness and sense of “success”; they have stepped away from the apostolic sharing of life to sterile functionalism.

The most apostolic people I know bring movement to the church, not just by leading the church, but by carrying it. They weep and laugh with it. They are broken by it, delighted by it. They hold it in some place primal, and there they carry it to the Lord and Father of us all. They imitate him, and are therefore worthy of imitation.

This does, however, lead to the second mark:

The Apostolic Way is PAINFUL.

The cost of parenthood is significant. There is great joy and fruitfulness in it, but also great pain. Any parent can tell you that. God, our Father, reveals the truest sense of this. The Apostle John alludes to this constantly:

“…to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)

“…for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

And Paul, writing to the Romans, having spoken of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Adoption, by which we cry out “Abba, Father” then speaks of suffering as something of a family trait:

“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. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:17-19)

The apostle’s “imitation” of the Father will lead the apostle, and any church that can rightly be called “apostolic,” on a path of suffering. This is not a defeatist trajectory, rather it is the “mind of Christ” – the kenotic (self-emptying) way that Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:1-11. No wonder, when Paul wants to speak of his apostolic power and authority, he sees the madness of leaning on his own strength and learning (2 Corinthians 11:21). Rather, “if I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30) so that “Christ’s power may rest on me.” (12:9).

Too often, we look up to a triumphalist form of church leadership. We look to persons who have been successful, who have achieved some empowerment of our organisation, and in them we place our trust. We are not far from accolading the so-called “super-apostles” that had bewitched the Corinthian church. In what I think is the defining description of apostleship, in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul pushes back at those who delight in being winners in the Christian world:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings – and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. (1 Corinthians 4:8-13)

I have learned to look for this “scum and refuse” moment in apostolic movements. If it is not there, I am wary. For instance, the apostolic qualification of a contemporary movement like Soul Survivor doesn’t lie in its many achievements (although I surely delight in them!), but in its foundation in the Wasteland.

The most apostolic people I know weep for, and because of, the church. In this sense they share in the sufferings of Christ, and lead the people on the same self-emptying path. Their tears take them to the heart of God. They cry themselves to sleep at night, and know the grace of God new in the morning. That is what makes a movement, and it can’t be generated by any entrepreneurial technique.

Which reveals a final mark of the apostolic:

The Apostolic Way is Compelled, not Controlled.

In some ways, this is just a natural consequence of the “sentness” of the apostolic. A pioneer cannot predict the path ahead. A pioneer cannot take a controlled path around obstacles and difficulties. By definition a pioneer is not following a map, they are making the map!

An apostle goes out with the family of God, not with a plan of control (“This is what we are going to do.”) but with a plan of purpose (“This is why we are going.”) And then they have to roll with whatever comes along. So often it is not what they planned; it is almost beyond them, in a direction where they must rely on the Holy Spirit. They are only strong because they are weak.

Paul’s plans for the evangelisation of all of the province of Asia were halted. Instead he and his companions are compelled by the Holy Spirit and find themselves bringing the gospel to Europe (Acts 16:6-10).  And throughout Acts, we find a similar sense of Paul being out of control: he is imprisoned, driven by storms, compelled to escape violence. Even what seems like an attempt to free himself from prison by asserting his Roman citizenship only leads to further captivity… but still many opportunities for the gospel. So often, it seems, apostolic movement is more rightly characterised by “a wing and a prayer” than clever, entrepreneurial, goals.

The Apostle Peter, as he is (re)commissioned by Jesus at the end of John’s gospel, has a foreshadowing of the manner of his death. Jesus tells him “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). John tells us that, most specifically, this statement indicates the kind of death that Peter would have. But it also colours the sense of Jesus’ very next words: “Follow me.”

So often, the apostle finds themselves “being led where you do not want to go.” Their plans go out the window, and they learn to return to the Father’s heart. There, in the midst of uncertainty, they follow the Spirit of Jesus, who only ever does what he sees the Father doing.

Paul, in his chains, brings the gospel even to members of Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22). Peter, even in his death, glorifies God (John 21:19). It is not the path they may have chosen, but it is the path chosen for them. The apostle leads the apostolic church in embracing the weakness (and therefore the power) of this way.

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They came up in a discussion I was having recently: the so-called “Five Marks of Mission”, here taken from the Anglican Communion, in which they were developed over the last 30-40 years.

The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ:
1) To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
2) To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
3) To respond to human need by loving service
4) To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
5) To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

They are intended to “express the Anglican Communion’s common commitment to, and understanding of, God’s holistic and integral mission.” They’ve got a lot going for them.

They’re not perfect, of course. The Anglican Communion website recognises, for instance, that they don’t fit together like five equal parts.

The first Mark of Mission, identified with personal evangelism at the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 (ACC-6) is a summary of what all mission is about, because it is based on Jesus’ own summary of his mission. This should be the key statement about everything we do in mission.

And this is a worthy observation. After all, you clearly can’t do 2) (teaching and nurturing) without also doing 1) (proclamation).

The last three are, in my mind, in a slightly different category, because they incorporate forms of activity in which the specific revelation of the gospel in Jesus is not entirely necessary. What I mean is this: It is conceptually impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and nurture new believers in Jesus without actually having a faith in Jesus. However, it is possible to engage in loving service, transforming unjust structures, and renewing the life of the earth without knowing or speaking the name of Jesus.

This does not denigrate these last three. They are a necessary and important outworking of the gospel in the lives of Christians and Christian communities. Moreover, they are forms of mission where our cause overlaps with many other activists who do not follow Jesus. Not only are they achieving a good in their own right, they also facilitate the first two as we are provided with opportunities to give reason for the hope that we hold (1 Peter 3:15).

In many ways I applaud them. I love it when the church is moved to do, rather than to sit apathetically behind rose-colour stained glass windows. As the saying goes, “It’s not the the Church of God that has a mission in the world, it is the God of Mission who has a Church in the world.”

My critique of the Five Marks, then, is not about what they say, but what they don’t say. It’s more than omission, it’s like there’s something askew. It’s a slant that is often present in conversations about mission. I think of the “Mission Minded” tool that we used during my training years; in many ways it was excellent, but there was something missing.  That tool outlined various activities that churches could be involved in, but there wasn’t a clear place for something that seemed crucial to church life. That something was worship. Where is the doxological character of Christian mission?

Christian mission, for it to be something deeper than “mere” activism, must be essentially worshipful.

After all, the “chief end of man”, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states in its very first question is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” What an excellent definition of worship! The “chief end” is not the making of Christians and the bringing of justice (although they are necessary corollaries) it is to the glory of God.

The Catechism is not going out on a limb here. Jesus, himself, would have us pray “hallowed be your name” even before we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The hallowing of God’s name is not just prior, it is integral to our seeking the kingdom and the will of God.

Similarly, the mission of Jesus is not essentially pragmatic but is rooted and immersed in the adoring, loving relationship between Messiah and God, Son and Heavenly Father.

Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.
John 5:19-20

In the big-picture eschatological scope, the glory of God is also the chief point of mission. When Paul speaks to the Corinthians about the end of time, he speaks of Christ’s mission as “putting all his enemies under his feet,” and then submitting himself, and all that is under him (that is, everything!), to God his Father. Christ’s mission is to ensnare all of creation into his own worship of his eternal Father.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
1 Corinthians 15:20-28

When I was young, I was moved towards activism. I was moved towards doing mission. In my zeal I misunderstood or even disparaged more “worshipful” aspects of our spirituality such as contemplation, adoration, and prophetic acts.  At best, I used “quiet times” and “retreat days” as ways of stoking the fire for the “real work” of reaching people with the gospel or “building the church.” If I used the “up-in-out” triangle, my emphasis was on the “out.”

I was wrong. And I am not alone. The “up” must come first, because it is the heart of both the “in” and the “out.” Even now I run into situations where there is a false dichotomy between “worship” and “mission.” If there is a separation between doing the “work of God”, “drawing people to God”, and “adoring and worshipping God” then, frankly, we’re doing it wrong!

One of my greatest concerns for the contemporary Western church is our entrepreneuralism. When that speaks of innovation and focused pursuit of the gospel, I cheer it on. But sometimes it lapses into pragmatism, or even task-oriented rationalism, and, more often than we might care to realise, self-glorification. When we are at risk of asserting control for the sake of our own existence or empowerment, even as we pursue the five marks of mission, we risk losing the way of faith. We must return to worship, attuned to a King who will bring all things under the father at the end, by being a living sacrifice now, hallowing his name. That is the chief mark of mission – to glorify God.

We are encountering, more than we ever have, a growing number of people who are moved to worshipSometimes it is through prayer and intercession; they travail, literally groaning as they filled with the Spirit. Sometimes they adore, and rest, and exhibit the peace, sometimes ecstasy, of that very same Spirit. Sometimes they offer words of knowledge and wisdom, speaking prophetic truths that do what all prophetic truths do; they call us back to hallowed ground where Father’s name is all in all.

Many (but not all) of these feel homeless in today’s church. They feel tangential to the missional machine, un-embraced and unreleased, because the missional return on investing in them is not clear to a “missional church.” Yet, I am fully convinced, without their leadership, we have lost our way. Without their heart, we can do “our” mission, and find on the last day that we already had our reward.

This is not a new thing. And I’m not trying to paint a black picture. Different traditions have the tools to do the recalibration of mission around the heart of worship. The Catholic propensity to interweave mission and the eucharist encapsulates, at the very least, the missional value of simply bringing the presence of God to where it is needed and administering his grace. The Charismatic and Pentecostal world values times of “worship and ministry” as a place where the Holy Spirit administers healing, revelation, acceptance, and conviction; a space into which Christian and non-Christian like can be invited. The Liberal claim to self-effacement, to be followers of the Word rather than asserting ourselves, can line up with this. And the Evangelical posture of submission to the Word of God in all things, for its own sake, takes us to where we need to be.

For myself, as I think about mission in my own context, and have found myself being led by worshippers: Let us first turn our face to our Heavenly Father. Let our hearts and our very beings resonate in adoration. Let us cry “Holy Holy Holy” with the choir of heaven. The chief mark of mission is to glorify God, who made heaven and earth.

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Anonymous asks:

What’s your take on spiritual attack, Satan, demons and all that kind of stuff?

How do you know what’s actually ‘powers and principalities in the heavenly realms’ and us over spiritualising stuff (ie: ‘I lost my keys… IT MUST BE SATAN!!!!!’)

[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/]

Thank you for an interesting question. I’m going to approach it in two different directions: Firstly, by looking at Ephesians 6, which you are quoting. Secondly, by unpacking some of the popular thinking and experiences of “spiritual attack” and seeing if we can make sense of it.

So, firstly, POWERS AND PRINCIPALITIES IN THE HEAVENLY PLACES.

You are quoting Ephesians 6:12:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (NIV)

As with all snap quotes from the Bible, the best way to grasp the meaning is to look at the verse in its context. This verse, for instance, uses a bunch of keywords and phrases that Paul is threading into his letter to the Ephesians.

One of these threads is the phrase “heavenly realms” which, here in 6:12, is the location of “spiritual forces of evil.” However, at the beginning of the letter, in his opening lines (Ephesians 1:3), it is also the place of “every spiritual blessing:”

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (NIV)

The phrase “every spiritual blessing” ties back into the fundamental hope and mission of God’s people, to embody the covenant promise of God, that Abraham would be blessed, and so bless the whole world. God keeps his word, and fulfils his promise in Jesus. And now the whole world – Jew and Gentile – are drawn together in Christ into that same blessing. This is God’s victory, purpose, and wisdom, and it is also present “in the heavenly realms.” In Ephesians 3:10-11 we read:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What, then, are the “heavenly realms”? The popular caricature is of clouds and cherubs or something like what is imagined in The Good Place.  In this imagining, heaven is “up there”, the real world is “down here” and while there may be the occasional cross-over, with souls coming and going and angels and demons intervening from time to time, they are essentially separate. Perhaps this is close to the imagined scenario of demonic key thievery that you allude to in your question.

It’s the same with the word “spiritual.” We take this word and we often make it mean something like “ethereal” or “out there” or “other.”  So “spiritual blessing” becomes something pie in the sky and “spiritual warfare” makes us think of some Greek-legend type battle going on in some distant galactic plane; we participate by making sure our little patch of the here-and-now on earth is backing the right side.

I don’t see any of that in Ephesians.

Rather, for Paul, the idea of “heavenly realms” and spiritual things is fully intertwined and interconnected with real-world experiences, and real-world “powers and principalities.” He uses language that draws on a cosmology in which the earth itself is immersed in the “heavens”, plural.

In this framework, one of the heavens is the very atmosphere we breathe. After all, you can’t see the wind, but you can see what it does; it’s an unseen power, intertwined and interacting with all that exists and all that happens. And so Paul speaks of a spiritual power in Ephesians 2:2 as the “ruler of the kingdom of the air.”  He literally means the air. The word “spirit” in the Greek is “pneuma” – meaning “breath” or “wind” – from which we get words like “pneumatic tires.”  Your car tyres are filled with the heavens, and your lungs are spiritual pumps. We live, breathe, and are immersed in this spiritual realm.

Paul’s worldview simply extrapolates this. The wind speaks of unseen power, and Paul sees other unseen “powers and principalities” that are, nevertheless, real and present and intertwined with our existence. Think of how we talk about people being affected by “market forces” or having circumstances that change with the “political atmosphere” and you’re starting to get a glimpse of what he’s talking about. We talk about the scourge of “long-term unemployment” or an “epidemic of alcoholism” or an “hypersexual milieu” or “a patriarchal culture” and we have a sense of encountering powerful things that are real but invisible. For Paul these grounded, connected, intertwined-with-reality heavenly realms are a location for God’s activity and intervention.

These “heavenly realms” include “spiritual forces of evil.” I can imagine the winds of the military conflict, or engrained injustice, or the bondage of addictive behaviours, being expressions of demonic activity as well as human sin. That’s Ephesians 6. But I also see God’s assurance to his people: “I have blessed you with every spiritual blessing” in these heavenly realms. God’s intervention in his creation is through his new people, brought together in Jesus. Against the injustice, and cruelty, and diabolical hatred of the image of God in humanity – i.e. against the powers and principalities – God has made his people not to be caged and slaves to fear, but blessed and victorious. We now put on the armour of God, and live and work towards extending that blessing in the power of the Spirit.

So, to return to your question, what’s my take on “spiritual attack”? It is the very essence of growing the Kingdom of God. As we worship, and proclaim, and act in accord with God’s truth and purpose, we impact and overcome the unseen powerful things that are in the air around us. We look to see lives, families, communities, cities, nations moved by the right Spirit. After all, that is what it means to “baptise nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-20); it is to immerse nations in God’s character, under the authority of King Jesus, and “teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded us.” Just as Jesus rose from the dead, just as the earth and the heavens will be made new at the end, so this evangelistic good-news bringing mission overcomes these unseen evil powers.

I can imagine some of those unseen powers wanting to undermine that work: lie instead of truth, bondage instead of freedom, cruelty instead of justice, chaos instead of peace. When we encounter those strongholds, or when they encounter us, that’s what I think of as “spiritual attack.” This is where Ephesians takes me.

But secondly, to reflect, just quickly on our PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF SPIRITUAL ATTACK.

Often this comes into play when we have a negative experience: e.g. We experience loss, bereavement, disappointment, hurt, pain, frustration, sinfulness.  Maybe we even lose our car keys (I once couldn’t find my car keys and missed out on an important family occasion, that certainly felt like a loss).  We interpret this pain as “spiritual attack” and somehow deflect the pain and attempt to give it some meaning. Sometimes we are grasping at something that’s not there.

Are negative times like these “spiritual attack”? I have a “yes” and “no” answer.

My “yes” comes when I can discern an active aspect of those powers in Paul’s heavenly realms.

I have, for instance, seen good people, doing good things for the kingdom, facing vehement accusation and even hatred. It’s a step beyond mere frustration, it is almost irrational; something in the atmosphere shifts and it is conceivable that something unseen is out to get good people, and tear them down. It makes me want to put some Ephesians 6 armour on.

Similarly, I have seen people battling addictive behaviours and the general malaise of life; I have seen them begin to lift their heads, breathe some freedom, get some vision, only to be broadsided by something and brought back down. It’s as if something has reached up, like the Balrog with Gandalf, and dragged them back into bondage. It makes me want to pick up some of God’s truth, and fight for them.

My “no” comes when I discern other things at work:

We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, simply, detritus happens, as the saying goes. The focus at these times is to bring it all back to Father God, the source of the evil is neither here nor there.

Sometimes the adversity is a “time of trial.” Was Israel’s wandering in the wilderness “spiritual attack”? Was David’s time in exile “spiritual attack”? Is Job’s story a story of “spiritual attack”? I’m not sure I’d even classify Jesus in the wilderness as “spiritual attack”, despite the actual demonic presence! Rather, these are often times when the devil must beat a hasty retreat! It is in these times that the Lord builds our faith, bolsters our reliance on him, and draws us to himself. If there is any “spiritual attack” on the church, it is not so much in the adversity we face, but in our addiction to comfort and our demand to meet God on our own terms! Be wary of the evil one when things are easy, not when things are hard.

Thanks for the question.

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Alan asks:

Just read your blog. It sounded very true to life in the church. I have a couple of questions.

Is a prophet under the New Covenant different to one under the Old Covenants? The Old Covenant prophets had the potential to write Scripture. The word of the Lord came to them. In the New Covenant the church is required to weigh prophecy and is not allowed to become Scripture. How do we recognise the genuine prophecy from the mistaken or deliberately misleading. For example, it is easy to find prophecies on the internet about the rightness of Brexit. Given the divided opinion of Christians on this issue, how would the church “weigh” such prophecy?

[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 Alan, thanks for the question. What I offer here isn’t particularly systematic, but it’s how I’ve wrestled with it.

The tricky thing is in the definition of “prophet.” The term can get used very broadly and also very narrowly, and while neither use is improper, we need to understand what is meant. I’m going to work from broad to narrow:

BROADLY SPEAKING a “prophet”…

  • speaks truth. This is often in adverse circumstances; a prophet often speaks truth to power. The “speech” may not actually be words, e.g. prophetic “speech acts” are recognised in the Bible, but it does involve communication.
  • guards values. There is an idealism in the prophetic, and lip-service doesn’t count. Prophets tend to understand and call-out motivations as well as actions.
  • expects movement or change. Whatever a prophet says has a landing point, a point of application, a place to repent, or from which to be spurred on.

We can refer to “prophetic people” or even “modern day prophets” in this broad sense. Think of the agitators and dissenters in society, the “activists.” Their activism may be misplaced, or not, but they are acting “prophetically”; they are guarding values, speaking truth, expecting change.  It can look like environmentalism, or speaking out on the hypersexualisation of society, or civil disobedience against compulsory school curriculum, or any number of things… you know what I mean.

Interestingly, perhaps, recent thinking about the “fivefold” ministry of Ephesians 4 considers the fivefold to be a recapitulation of human gifting more generally. At this broad level we are recognising the prophetic in humanity more generally. This is certainly Hirsch’s position in his exhaustive, although somewhat flawed, 5Q.

Let’s keep NARROWING IT DOWN, though.

The Bible recognises, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, charismatically gifted prophets.

  • They speak truth, as some sense of divine truth. They bring a “word from God” in some sense.
  • They guard values, as some sense of God’s values. They often articulate the gap between our wayward hearts and idolatrous attitudes, and God’s call, purpose, and instruction.
  • They expect movement or change. Sometimes encouraging, sometimes warning, always showing the way for people to draw closer to God. Often kind and encouraging, occasionally a tough-love “Stop! Turn around!”

This is where I would locate the exercise of prophetic gifts in today’s world.  It is also where I would locate most of the New Testament prophets.

I don’t like demarcating things here at the “Old Covenant / New Covenant” line, though. There are many examples in the Old Testament in which the term “prophets” means what I think it means here. e.g. 1 Samuel 10:10-11 refers to Saul’s Spirit-filled prophesying; in and around Elijah and Elisha there are “groups of prophets” who are clearly prophets of a less authoritative sort (1 Samuel 10:5-6); Ezra 5:2 talks about attempts at rebuilding the temple being supported by “the prophets of God.”

In the New Testament, we can see people like Paul encouraging God’s people to exercise the gift of prophecy, because “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” (1 Corinthians 14:3). Indeed, the meaning of Pentecost in Acts 2 is explained using Zechariah’s words that “in the last days… your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). Prophecy is not only listed in the fivefold giftings of Ephesians 4, but also within Paul’s gift-lists of 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12; “If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith” (Romans 12:6).

The example I like the most is found in Acts in the person of Agabus. We encounter him twice. The first is in Acts 11:28 where he prophesies (accurately) that a famine would spread over the whole Roman world. This prophecy prompts the Christians in Antioch to “provide help for the brothers and sisters in Judea.” Our second encounter with Agabus is in Acts 21:10 where he binds his hands with Paul’s belt, as a speech-act, and declares “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” It is an accurate warning, it steels Paul’s resolve, and he sets his face for Jerusalem.

It is this form of prophecy that I recognise today. Some would assert that prophecy of this sort is now only expressed as preaching and exposition of Scripture. I don’t disagree that preaching is often prophetic, but I don’t apply the same restriction. Certainly Agabus was doing something different than delivering a sermon.

What I do see are members of God’s people who are moved in a prophetic way to speak truth, guard values, and provoke movement. Oftentimes (but not always) their ministry is exercised through insights, understandings, and knowledge that are also ministries of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is a prophetic word for the whole church or for a congregation. A lot of the time it is for a person or family, and the spiritual insights express a profound and personal care in God’s heart for the people who are being addressed.

The thing is, of course, that like every exercise of every gift in the church, it is done by fallible people. I have come across prophetic people (in the broadest sense) whose passion has turned into anger, bitterness, or even self-protective apathy. I have come across prophetic people in this narrower sense, who have acted impulsively, immaturely, and without due care. But I have also come across flawed evangelists, preachers, and pastoral carers!

Sometimes prophets get it wrong. And this informs the second part of your question: How do we weigh prophecy?

Firstly, we must recognise the final step in my movement from broad to narrow. There is one more sense in which we use the word “prophecy” and that is with regard to AUTHORITATIVE PROPHECY. This is, as you allude to in your question, related to the authority of Scripture.

In the Old Testament God ordains certainty people to act as Prophet (with a capital P) to his people. Like every prophet, they speak truth, guard values, and expect movement. In the sense we mean it here, however, these things come with the weight of divine imprimatur.  The truth that these prophets spoke was of such weight, that they came to be recognised as authoritative instruction to God’s people, and applicable outside of their original context. Their utterances were proven by accuracy, adversity, and consistency; they were true, they were often true despite the resistance of the people who were meant to hear them, and they were consistently true.  Take a look at Elijah and Elisha (in 1 and 2 Kings) and the written-down prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest. You will find a consistent exhortation based on the promises of God and the identity of Israel as God’s covenant people.

Any other form of prophecy that does not heed this authority, therefore, is suspect. Ultimately, such “prophecies” are a rejection of God’s promises and the call of the covenant, and end up being a rejection of God himself. I don’t mean the sort of times when a “prophetic word” is given and it’s a little bit haphazard and not quite holding the sword of God’s word by the correct end. I do mean the sort of times when we hear “prophetic” words that seek to place us over and above the Scriptures, rather than under them to be shaped by them. This is not fanciful. I have heard people say “the church wrote the Bible, the church can rewrite it.” More gently, but perhaps more insidiously, I have heard people exhort that to step away from the Bible is to embrace a positive trust in the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Such an exhortation is not only self-defeating and self-serving, (it asserts that we cannot trust the Holy Spirit to talk to anyone else, including those who came before us in the biblical era), but cannot avoid undermining the (historic) promises of God, and our identity in Jesus as God’s covenant people. Such things are, by definition, false prophecy.

Beyond assessing prophecy by the authority of Scripture, however, it comes down to common sense. Each of us ministers according to the diverse gifts of the Spirit. Each of us started off immature and green, and (hopefully) we have grown in maturity, capacity, and ability. Young prophets need to be guided, just as new pastoral carers, and apprentice preachers. That guidance is not only about things like technique, but about deeper things of identity: a pastoral carer needs to identify when they are risking codependence, a prophet often needs to discern between godly zeal and the churn of their own brokenness. We give more weight to a seasoned, mature prophet, and generous attention and care to those who are first stepping out in faith to offer a word. We embrace all with a caring, loving, edifying community which desires everyone to grow in gifting.

For my part, I have appreciated when people have called me out on my own brokenness – it was motivated (usually) by a desire to see me heal and grow. In turn, I always try to keep an open door with prophetic people. Sometimes, having received “a word”, I might even say “I’m not sure you’re right, can you go back to God and seek more insight.” Or I might say, “I think you’re holding some truth there, I wonder if you need to hold it some more until God releases you to speak it, and shows you what to do.” Or I might say, “I think you’re catching a glimpse of something, but you need to go through some of your own fire before you can fully grasp it, or have the authority to speak it.” Hopefully, at the right time, these are constructive things!

Prophecy best works when the prophet is in “in the family.” There they have the freedom to speak prophetically, and the context in which it can be weighed up, clarified, and responded to. I have seen big meetings set in one direction, suddenly shift as a gentle but powerful word was shared.

Again, it’s common sense: The mature prophets I know have been through the fire, they have had their edges knocked off, and you can see the fruit of the Spirit in them as well as the prophetic gift. Younger prophets tend to catch the big picture (“God is calling us to love!”) and the more mature prophets begin to get a track record of well-hearted Jesus-honouring specific accurate words.

And this is how I weigh controversial prophecies about things like Brexit and Trump. Is it lined up with Scripture (e.g. are they blessing what cannot be blessed, trying to trump the Bible with their own agenda)? Are they speaking gently, from maturity, or grandstanding out of brokenness? Is the word hope-filled or fear-mongering, even if it is a “hard word”? Is it a word from them alone, or do I see the “family” moved? Is there accountability and relationship and a willingness to “let it go” and weigh it again? These, I think, are questions of common sense more than anything else.

In the end, which was the point of the original blog post, we need our prophets. We need them in our world and society. We need them in the church. We need them in our lives. We need God’s word.

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At some point, we all stagnate, and we collectively lose our way.  It’s a kind of law of entropy that applies to community, society, and every human organisation. At this point we need our prophets.

A wise person once told me about the lifecycle of every organisation. It begins with Vision and purpose and values, which then attracts People to pursue the Actions that will further the cause. To do it well, these people organise themselves and develop an Institution with all its necessary bureaucracy and systems. At this point, things are humming along; we have Vision + People + Actions + Institution all working in harmony.

Invariably, however, the Vision begins to wane. Generations shift, priorities diversify, and what was peripheral begins to displace the original heart.  People are still involved, at least initially, but as the purpose and point becomes less clear, their energy and numbers lessen.  At some point it becomes hard to maintain the Actions for which the organisation has become known. All that is left is the Institution, and nothing much more.

We’ve all seen it, board meetings run by the last people standing attempting to do something for a long-lost reason.  When we begin to lose the people, we try to put back the people: “Let’s appeal for volunteers, let’s twist some arms!” When we begin to lose activity, we try and put that back: “Let’s do what we did before!” When it’s just the institution left, we get tired and fade away. Without a restoration of vision, and purpose, and values, it all begins to stagnate.

This is why we need prophets. They’re the people who kick back at the status quo. They’re the ones who remind us, “This is not who we are!” They’re the ones who guard the values. They tell us when something has become an edifice which needs to be torn down, or when the small and emerging needs to be protected at all costs. While others are caught up in the here and now of activity and institution, or even the present needs of the people, they are the ones who extrapolate the trajectory to its natural consequence, and dare to say, “We should stop!”

We need them. But, to be honest, in my experience, we don’t often like them. And we tend to ignore them, condescend to them, or even mistreat them.

Those who attend to the People may write the prophetic person off as being harsh and uncaring. Those who attend to the Activities and functions, may resent them as a spanner in the works, a stumbling block in the way. Those who attend to the Institution, may push them away as rebellious ingrates intent on tearing things down. Sometimes there might be a modicum of truth to their assessment of the prophet, particularly if the prophetic person has not been wise in their dealings. But the prophet is still needed. Or else we will die.

I’ve come to this thought partly through a recent series we are running in a small group as an introduction to the Old Testament. We’ve just come to the prophet Elijah, who prophesied in Israel as King Ahab turned the nation (with all its people, and purposes, and institutions) away from the ways of God. In the face of Ahab’s idolatry, and cruelty, and injustice, surely Elijah is a voice of reason, a voice of compassion, a voice of hope in the midst of despair. Yet how does Ahab greet him, when they meet in 1 King 18:16?

“Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”

You see, Ahab turns it around, and the prophet becomes the “troubler.”

At some point, we all stagnate, and we collectively lose our way. At that point we need someone to exercise the gift of troubling us, whether we like it or not. Let us not be like Ahab.

Or consider the prophet Jeremiah. The word he brought from the Lord was about passing through the necessary fire of God’s judgement. Against those who declared there would be victory, Jeremiah stood and announced defeat! He wrote to those who had been taken away by the invading Babylonians, and he did not stir them to resistance or to recapture the glory they had lost; he urged them to submit and settle down in a foreign land (Jeremiah 29), until they were led of the Lord into restoration.

No wonder they tried to kill Jeremiah! His words were tantamount to sedition. He was trying to shift aside the very substance of the edifice that they had become. You can imagine, even the most soft-hearted listener, walking away from Jeremiah, shaking their head as if to say “Mate, you’ve gone too far. Don’t try and tear us down.”

At some point, we all stagnate, and we collectively lose our way. And at that point we need someone willing to show us how to start again, or how to get back to the foundations. Some of what we have built may actually need to fall, lest we end up clinging to dust. We need our prophets. Let us not be like the people of Jeremiah’s day.

It’s the same today, you see. There are prophetic people throughout the breadth human experience. They dissent against the status quo. They cannot help but speak. It’s not just in the churchy world. We have prophetic people insisting that a status quo that leads to climate change is untenable and immoral. We have prophetic people persistently whispering #metoo, niggling and nagging, troubling us, until we notice.

We need them.

Over the years of church leadership, I’ve been engaged with by many prophetic people. I’ve tried to listen to all of them. Some of them have been downright wrong; they manifested their own brokenness more than anything else.  I hope I didn’t just write them off and that I took time to listen. Some of them go off a little half-cocked; they come with a passion and a fire, but we had to dig for the kernel of truth together. I hope I helped them as they helped me. Others are “uncomfortable but wise”; they shared words and spoke of truth that I would rather avoid, but shouldn’t. I have learned to value these people, and to ensure they have access and means of communication with me.

Above all, the thing I have learned is this: Most prophetic people are sweet-hearted. They are moved by a longing for things such as shalom peace, or true unity, or justice and truth, and sweet whole-life worship. They see what’s in the way of those things, and long to see things move.

They are sweet-hearted, yet I have seen them torn down, and named “arrogant”, “overbearing”, “destructive”, and “hard-hearted.” I have seen them condescended to, allowed enough voice so that no-one can say they weren’t allowed to speak, but then dismissed. Sometimes their very presence draws out the hypocrisy in the room, as they bear the brunt of it. Those hypocrites tend to be us. If I heed the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:37 it would reveal our heart that would rather kill the prophets and stone God’s messengers than heed or hear. The most prophetic person this world has ever known was crucified, by us.

Which is why prophets weep, and hide in caves. Some of them retreat into silence, and burn until it hurts. Some get together amongst the few who understand; the prophetic voice is reduced to an echo-chamber, and the rest of us miss out. Prophets break. Prophets feel the pain of the world. Yet they would point us to life, deep life, true value, and a vision of hope.

Without them we stagnate, and we collectively lose our way.

Image Credit: Maxpixel licensed under Creative Commons Zero – CC0 

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Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

I have always been muddled by Christian encouragement to observe the man-made tradition of Lent. I have been asked plenty of times over the years what I am giving up for Lent and I have been asked to teach about Lent in Sunday School and declined. I have attended wonderful teaching sessions that have been given the title “Lent Bible School” and I have been to Lent prayer meetings. This year I had a mailing from a brilliant Christian publisher promoting a book called “Lent devotions for the whole family”.

I have never been directly taught that I must observe Lent by Christian leaders, but perhaps even more confusingly, I have been encouraged to think about my personal response as if observing Lent is assumed. It obviously retains its place on the church calendar despite the Reformation and my experience is that it is referred to in passing when we are entering Lent, as if we all know what we should be doing with it.

So, my question is can we ignore the background of:

  1. The paganism at the root of Lent from Christianising pagan traditions;
  2. The penance involved in confessing sin to a priest to receive absolution on Shrove Tuesday and be shriven by a sinful man rather than God; and the penance also behind self-denial for 40 days.
  3. The debauchery associated with partying before Lent seen in Mardi Gras, and, although not celebrated like Mardi Gras in our culture, a feasting before self-denial;

Why are we so casual about all of this? Can we reject what is bad and leave something good? Is it a matter of personal conviction?

Or do we have a duty to actively teach that Christians should avoid anything to do with Lent, to reject the traditions of men?

I’d be really interested to hear what you think. Thank you.

P.S. So you have an idea of where I’m coming from, here is a summary of my concerns (feel free to cut this if you publish my question!) [I’ve included some of these by referring to them in my answer -Will]

[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/]

 

My last opportunity to be a part of a pancake race, in 2018, was (ironically perhaps) affected by inclement weather…

Thanks Sarah,

As always, really appreciate your questions. Let me respond to your questions from the last to first.

First up, can I agree with you that Lent can seem a little weird. In human terms, it’s about a big party on a Tuesday, some inconsequential “self denial” for a few weeks, before suddenly being allowed to eat chocolate again! What on earth has this got to do with how I follow Jesus? It’s similar to the experience I had as an Australian on my first Christmas in the UK: what on earth does a bunch of sweets stuck into an orange with toothpicks have to do with the birth of this world’s Lord and Saviour!? We’re a weird bunch, us Christian folk, sometimes.

But to turn to your comments. You conclude by asking the foundational question of whether we should actively avoid Lent because we ought to “reject the traditions of men.”

My general response to this general question connects with general idea of whether we take a “proscriptive” or “prescriptive” view of Scripture. (It’s actually a false dichotomy, but I’ll get to that in a minute). A prescriptive view is, basically, “unless the Bible commands it or explicitly allows it, it is wrong.” A proscriptive view is, basically, “unless the Bible prohibits it or explicitly commands avoiding it, it is fine.”

The excesses of the prescriptive view (e.g. not being allowed to sing any other songs except biblical psalms, because anything else is not prescribed) are obvious. When Spurgeon writes (in the supporting material you gave), “When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by divine statute, we will also attend to them, but not until then,” he’s pushing a prescriptive barrow, at least to some degree. In the end, I find this hermeneutic unhelpfully inapplicable to the real world, and I don’t see the New Testament writers, or Jesus himself, treating Scripture (our Old Testament) in this way. Just because Lent isn’t commanded (or even mentioned) in Scripture (and therefore, necessarily, derives from traditional and cultural practice alone), doesn’t mean it’s bad! This is my first point.

We might ask, though, whether there is a proscription in Scripture that applies. You refer to “traditions of men” and this phrase connects us to Colossians 2:8 – “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (NIV). Paul’s concern here is the misuse of human traditions, as a means of mediating God’s favour (“Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” – Colossians 2:16, NIV). If we elevated seasons and traditions to this level of importance, we are, in effect, denying (rather than trusting), Jesus: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:17, NIV).  In this regard, any insistence on observing Lent is, in my mind, wrong, it is proscribed. This is my second point. If someone doesn’t observe Lent (which, to be honest, has included myself on many a year), that does not mean they are doing anything wrong or “lesser.” Your provided quote from Spurgeon has it right, perhaps: “We ask concerning every rite and rubric, ‘Is this a law of the God of Jacob?’ and if it not be clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.”  We have liberty, freedom as to whether or not we observe Lent.

However, as something of a post-post-modernist (read that carefully!), I’m wary of the propositionalism behind the proscriptive-prescriptive dichotomy. Applying Scripture is not so much about distilling it down to clinical propositions, it is about being caught up into the narrative of God’s action in the world. Unlike a postmodernist, I don’t hold that this narrative is ultimately determined by my own experience of it, which locates truth in myself. Rather, God, the foundational “Other”, has acted in this world, has spoken his Word of Truth, ultimately in Jesus, as recorded in Scripture, and the history of our planet is moved along according to his story. This connection with divine narrative has both proscription (so that I don’t set my course against the movement of Jesus) and prescription (it compels me to seek the face of Jesus and follow him actively). It doesn’t work if I don’t trust him. It’s into this mix that I look at Lent and wonder if it is cutting across God’s story, or getting me closer to the current, so to speak. Most human traditions do both in some way, and we must exercise discernment.

Which brings me to your next questions (as I work through them backwards).  You ask “Why are we so casual about all of this? Can we reject what is bad and leave something good? Is it a matter of personal conviction?” To which I say yes, it is a matter of personal conviction. And yes, there is some good that we can accept amidst the bad that we must reject (I’ll unpack that below). This is my third point.

As to why we are so casual about it… well, in my experience I find that the Christian propensity to be casual about much of what we do is, sadly, not to be underestimated. I long for us all to long for more depth, more truth, more awareness of God (crf. Ephesians 1:17). Regrettably, most church dynamics reward exploration of the stable shallows of human experience rather than the rocky, lively, depths.

Let’s conclude, then, where you begin, by looking at Lent itself.

Firstly, I’m not surprised that there is an intermix of Christian with pagan themes in the tradition.  Following the kenotic dynamic of Jesus himself (Philippians 2:1-11) – i.e. the mode in which God comes to us – at our best we have always gone to others. At our best, we bear witness to Jesus in, with, and through the language and culture of those to whom we go. Of course, this doesn’t mean an unquestioning embrace of all that is around us, but it does mean speaking into it, reinterpreting it, turning its witness towards Jesus. Paul’s use of the “Unknown God” in the pagan tradition of the Athenians is the sort of thing I’m talking about (Acts 17:16-34). The fact that Lent, connects with Easter, connects with Passover, connects with lunar calendars, connects with Spring and fertility (Lent literally means the season in which the days LENGThen) doesn’t surprise me, or overly concern me. As with each season, moment, or event in the world around us, our job (and our joy) is to discern how it can best bear witness to the new life of Jesus.

Secondly, I’m not surprised that there are connections within the tradition related to Roman Catholicism, in both its pre- and post-reformation forms. Lent is part of the liturgical calendar that is embraced by a number of traditions. And yes, there are connections with some Catholic practices which I, personally, don’t find helpful. I agree that “use up all the food before Lent, have a party, and then make sure you go get your forgiveness from the priest” is both real in folklore, and unedifying for the gospel. But the question is whether these unedifying things are integral to the tradition, or simply misuses of it, and I lean towards the latter. Every generation must discern when its traditions still hold positive meaning, and when they must be allowed to fade away. In the history of Protestantism, many traditions have been done away with, but Lent has (by and large) persisted, and that gives at least some indication that it can have some positivity for the gospel when not misused.

For myself, I find Lent helpful. The aspect of the tradition I draw upon is twofold:

1) The tradition in the early Church was to have baptisms on Easter Day. The candidates were led through a season of catechism (teaching about faith in Jesus) and this culminated in a season of fasting before the day of celebration. I therefore use this season to be deliberate about catechesis, both for myself (I hope to reinvigorate a discipline of personal bible study) and for my church (where I might often offer a course or sermon series that is designed to dig a little deeper).

2) The tradition is that Lent is a season of fasting, and in this way it is penitential. This doesn’t mean penance in the sense of alleviating guilty, but it does mean renewing and reflecting upon my posture before God. Have I become self-confident, worrisome, fearful; have I excused my own sin, rather than dealing with it? This is not dour or morose, although it can be solemn and sometimes painful; it is a desire to be deepened, stretched, extended. It’s a desire for growth. It’s a season for finally dealing with stuff that should have been dealt with before. Psalm 139:23-24 says the following, and it is the essence of what I use Lent for. I put aside the distractions and anesthetic practices (this year, it is giving up the netflix binge!) which I hide behind, and ask Jesus to continue to deal with me and sanctify me:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Of course, this could be done at any point in the year, but here is a season which not only acts as a reminder and stimulus, but helps me share that journey with my brothers and sisters as we coordinate the rhythms of our year.  There is no compulsion (there is freedom), and it is in accord with the “Lenten tradition” in it is best sense, serving gospel purposes. I “do” Lent.

What disheartens me the most is not that Lent exists as a season, nor some of the bad things that have attached to it; rather it is when we use it to dive into the shallows of popular Christianity and play the game of mere lip-service: The giving up of chocolate, “because it’s Lent”, rather than for any deeper engagement with our walk with the Lord; the use of Ash Wednesday as an excuse for a party the night before. Shallow Christians do that, and shallow churches promote it that way. It’s at that point the tradition becomes an idol – the use of God to worship an empty practice, rather than the use of the practice to worship God.  Maybe, at that point, the prophetic act is to give up the tradition totally; I think you are alluding to this, and it is entirely valid. As for myself, at this point, I’d rather capture it for Jesus, and have it speak again of the deep work of Word and Spirit that is so needed in the hearts of his people.

Thanks for the question.
W.

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I remember a Bible college lecturer asking the class once, “What aspect of the gospel first impacted you?” For some it was about truth. For some it was about forgiveness and renewal. For others it was about belonging and reconciliation. The aim of the question was to get us to think about how the gospel is a passionate thing. How are we movedenlivenedstimulated by the good news that Jesus, who calls us to himself, is King of this world?

There’s a similar question about our sense of vocation, the part we play in God’s mission. How does the command to “Go and make disciples of all nations” move us?  For some it is a passion to teach and preach. For others, it’s about embracing the broken with care and comfort. Some simply want to introduce people to Jesus. [Aside: there’s a strangely fivefold shape to these missional passions].

It’s a question worth pondering, because vocational fires dwindle. We come to plod from day to day, being as faithful as we can. Even church life can become a lurch from Sunday to Sunday; it can revolve around the management of buildings, and the placating of opinions. Individually, and together, we Christians are adept at curling up into ourselves and maintaining a static equilibrium of spiritual excuses.

Sometimes we even forget what those old fires felt like. But then annoying books like Pete Greig’s Dirty Glory come along and douse us in rocket-powering oxidiser.

I wasn’t really expecting to begin to burn again when I read Greig’s book. It was “just” another book; the standalone autobiographical sequel of “just” another hipster church leader and his well-marketed 24-7 prayer movement, (I mean, Bear Grylls wrote the foreword and everything!). I hadn’t really looked into 24-7 much (it’s mostly a UK-US thing and not as big in Australia). I’d heard enough to be both interested and slightly sceptical. And the thing is, I’ve read the book, and we’ve even visited Greig’s Emmaus Road church in Guildford, and I still don’t know much about the practicalities of the movement and the exact details of what they do. But there’s something at the heart of this book, something in the intermingled testimonies and teachings, that has caused my heart to be strangely warmed.

Here are the principles that I can glean from what Greig has written:

Dissatisfaction. I get this. Without a sense of discontent, mission is reduced to “more of what we already have.”  Church health is reduced the static health of numbers and money, and not the dynamic growth of vision and depth.

I began to realise that it would now be possible to live the rest of my life as a minor entity on a Christian production line, busy and occasionally even applauded, peddling religious experiences without ever really nurturing the kind of inner garden that I admired in others, and which could make it all mean something in the end… It dawned on me, but only very slowly, that my inner turmoil could not be dismissed as a quarter-life crisis, it wasn’t boredom, nor could it be attributed to a besetting sin from the predictable checklist. Worryingly, nothing was wrong. Everything was right and yet I felt hollow. ‘Within me’, confessed St Augustine, ‘was a famine of that inward food: Thyself, my God.’ This hunger in my soul, I began to realise was not bad. In fact it was good: a gift of dissatisfaction directly from the Holy Spirit. (Pages 29-30)

For Greig, the touchstone of holy dissatisfaction is prayer. To express this he turns to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, a house of prayer that had become filled with corrupt traders. He wants us to hear the rebuke of Jesus: “…[T]here could be large, impressive, popular churches… attracting large crowds… impressive buildings, strong brands, great wealth and a remarkable history…” but they might “evoke a similar rebuke” if “they have lost the fundamental heart of prayer”, (page 44). From this, he develops his “blueprint” of Presence, Prayer, Mission, Justice, and Joy (page 45) which becomes the essence and structure of the book.

Presence speaks of the fundamental imperative in prayer to “seek his face always” (page 51). I have been exploring these thoughts in different ways recently, and I was able to rest in Greig’s words here. What is fanned into flame is a posture of intimacy (page 71) and of surrender:

Urgent voices are calling us to abandon the familiar comforts of Christendom, to strike out into the unknown and rediscover the Nazarene. Let him hack our systems and take us back to the place of willing surrender in which we will simply do anything, go anywhere, say anything he tells us, whenever, wherever, whatever it takes… We need a theophany, a rediscovery of the terror of his proximity. (Page 57)

Learning to dwell (and even to sleep) in the love of the Father is offensive to the strategic part of our brains: a violation of the ego; a sort of dying. It can seem irresponsible… It can appear profiligate… It can seem naive and scandalous… It can appear selfish… It can seem rude… It can seem unstrategic… [but] ‘To be a witness’, says the writer Madeleine L’Engle, ‘is to be a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.’ (Page 77)

Prayer speaks of power. Greig recounts some amazing stories of answered prayer, of course, but this isn’t about hype. This is about simple prayers – bold, simple prayers – simply answered.  It is also about “predictable valleys of the mundane” in between, in which “we mature; our faith fills up into faithfulness, we learn to push into community and into God’s presence, which is, after all, the greatest miracle of all” (page 108).

Luke 18:8 asks, “Will the Son of Man find faith, when he comes?” and Greig ponders “a big, fat, screaming ‘if’ hanging over the people of God in every generation: will we, will we not, pray when trouble comes?” (page 118). It is a real question. I used to think about ministry and church and simply assume that, of course, we would pray. After two decades in church ministry, I am no longer that naive.

Whenever prayer is reduced to a clumsy technique for getting God to mutter a reluctant ‘Amen’ to our selfish desires, it is merely wishful thinking in a religious disguise. But when prayer is an ‘Amen’ to God’s desires, it is profoundly Christian and powerful beyond measure. (page 126)

What is fanned into flame here is a connection of our worship with the renewal of the land. Greig draws on the promises to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 to do this, and takes us to “God’s great project to see creation remade” (page 120). He speaks of prayer as a travailing and wrestling (page 129), as childbirth (page 130), and even of violence (page 131); to not have that in church makes as much sense as a soldier not having a gun, “a boxer his fists, or a theologian great tracts of his Bible” (page 132).

I would pushback a little at Greig at this point, though, because he sometimes slips into a false progression: “Once the church is back to normal, pulsing with life, God’s great project is to see creation remade” (page 120). These are not distinct steps, as if once God has finished building the church, he’ll move on to the world! A church does not pulse to life unless it is already yearning for God’s great project. Christ grows his church as he calls us out into his world-changing purposes, not before he does. I think Greig gets this though.

Mission reflects how God intends us to be a house of prayer for the nations. Greig takes us to stories of God’s people being present – in America, Ibiza, and (later in the book) “Boy’s Town” on the Mexican border. These are missionary stories of the old kind, like the ones that stirred Gill and I in our YWAM days. They are of ordinary folk stepping out in faith, daring to go where others would not, for the sake of bringing light to a life, to a place, to a generation.

There’s some decent missiology in Greig’s approach:

“In approaching any new culture our first task is always to remove our shoes, recognising that we are standing on holy ground. We are not bringing the Lord somewhere new, because he is already here. Our primary task, therefore, is to identify God’s fingerprints and to trace his footprints in the new environment.” (Page 208).

And he helpfully addresses our propensity to perform mission as some form of service provision by professionals:

“Our own journeys of salvation and spiritual formation will… become intertwined with those to whom Christ is sending us… We go to the lost and make space for them to preach to us, to teach us, to minister to our unbelief. This requires stillness, and humility, a deeply anchored assurance in the gospel, and the ability to ask gently disruptive questions.” (Page 213)

Justice is the touchpoint at which mission impacts the real world. “Prayer without action is just religion in hiding”, (page 238). Justice is where mission gets real. Greig quotes Bob Pierce as he tells us that “one of the most dangerous prayers you can ever pray: ‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God'” (page 247).

There’s a lengthy exposition of Kelly Teitsort’s ministry in Boy’s Town Mexico which fans these flames well. And Greig backs it up biblically: He runs a thread through the pre-exilic prophets (page 255), Christ’s cleansing of the temple, and his claim to fulfill Luke 4:18-19 (page 250) and then connects it to our own worship and mission. We are not just about reaching souls, we are about “recognising that “something [is] wrong systemically and it [is] only going to be changed by a profound cultural shift” (page 283).

“Compassion for the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner is not an optional extra for those with a strong social conscience. It bleeds from the heart of true Christian worship. When we care for the poor, we minister to Jesus himself.” (Page 254)

When God freed the Israelites from captivity in Egypt he did it literally – not just metaphorically. Similarly, when Jesus forgave the sins of the paralysed man… he proceeded to heal him physically too… Down the ages, it has always been the tendency of the rich to reduce salvation to a purely spiritual experience. But if you’re hungry you need real bread before you will consider the heavenly variety. If you’re in chains you take the Bible verses about freedom very literally indeed. (Pages 278-279, emphasis mine)

Joy is the outcome of faith as it works itself out through dissatisfaction. We are content with nothing else but the presence of God, manifest in power, mission, justice, etc. Jesus is our answer, and his presence is our joy, in with and through all circumstance. Greig spends much of this section talking about the fifteenth anniversary celebrations of his movement. He truly celebrates, but there is a warning away from triumphalism. He points us to the “Jesuit ‘Litany of humility’… From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, O Jesus…”  (Page 315).

So why does all this make me burn up (in a good way)? I’m not entirely sure.

There are certainly some points of personal connection. I know what it is like to share the journey with a chronically-ill wife (“I’m sick of being sick”, page 116).  I know what it’s like to travel internationally as a family, involving our children in the discernment and the cost (page 300). My tears flowed as Greig spoke of his wife’s graduation after “illness had robbed her of so many precious moments” (page 299).  They flowed even more when I encountered the thought of “the Lord inviting us to pioneer together once again” (page 299).

I found myself repenting at points, or at least, crying out with a desire to repent. In our current season I know I have had to turn from the idolatry of comfort. I have had to repent of the faithlessness by which I have placed my sense of identity and worth, and the source of my family’s protection and care, not in God’s hands, but in broken ecclesial systems.

There was also times of frustration in my reading of this book. Having had my passions awakened, the engines are revved up and that is accompanied by a familiar sense of wheels spinning. No grip, nowhere to go. It’s time to turn this towards intimacy, towards trusting God not just for the fire, but the fireplace in which to burn, and the specific promises for a specific people to cling to.

For me then, the greatest help was Greig’s image of “Blue Camp 20.” This is drawn from his time in America where he learned the history of his local town: It was once a camp, a place where pioneers, originally intending to go on further, often decided to settle down instead. It speaks of premature comfort with a road not yet travelled.

I was moved by Greig’s confession of the temptation to “settle down here and stop pioneering… would it really be wrong to serve the Lord with a bit more cash, a bit more kudos, and a lot less rain?” (Page 141). Indeed, having experienced church planting, and time-limited placements, I am sometimes jealous of the seemingly comfortable run that some of my clerical colleagues get to enjoy! But then there’s that annoying, calling, stimulating and painful fire: “I signed up to change the world. I never wanted to be like it.” (Page 153).

It’s easy to pioneer when you’re too young to know what it will cost you, when you feel immortal and invincible and the whole of life is an adventure waiting to begin. But pioneering a second time is hard. Abraham was one of the few who never settled down – even in his old age he lived ‘like a stranger in a foreign country… For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and build is God’ (Heb. 11:9-10). (Page 143)

We tend to assume that Blue Camp 20 is the frontier from which we can pioneer into new territory geographically, or into new effectiveness professionally, but ultimately it is the place of testing from which we can pioneer into deeper intimacy with Jesus than ever before. We wrestle with God at Blue Camp 20… to come close to him in greater intimacy. We lay down comfort at Blue Camp 20… We pioneer from Blue Camp 20 not to achieve something for God, but to receive something from him – a deeper fellowship with him in his death and resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11). (Pages 147-148)

Perhaps all that is happened in me is that Greig’s prayer for his book has been answered. It has deepened my thirst, because it has “rubbed salt on my lips” and woken me up, (page 12). It has had me shaking off the protections and pretenses of being a performing parson. It has had me reflecting on the past and the present. It has got me dreaming for the future. It has got me longing for his kingdom to come, real, substantial, local, global.

I no longer have the vigour and brashness of my youth and younger pioneering days. I know what real mission costs. I have regrets, and I have hopes. And all I can do is pray, to the glorious God who meets us in the dirt. Somehow, that’s where life happens, and I long for more of it.

I give you back today the prayers I have prayed that are not answered – yet. The seeds I’ve sown that haven’t borne a harvest – yet. The dreams I’ve buried that haven’t risen – yet. Restore the years, the prayers, the trust that the locusts have eaten. Remember me, Lord, redeem my life, and answer my oldest, truest, prayers. Amen.
(Page 307)

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Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

My Mormon friends believe that they are saved by grace after all that they can do.

One of their former presidents said: “One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation”.

How would you unpack the Bible step by step to show them God’s big picture – that grace is a free, unmerited gift? (And importantly doesn’t lead to licentiousness, which is what they have been taught.)

I’ve talked about the purpose of the OT law, that all our works are like filthy rags, that Jesus takes my sin and gives me his righteousness. But I think I need a logical structure that walks them through it rather than my scatter gun approach. Your thoughts would be much appreciated!

[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,

Intriguing question!  A good place to begin our thoughts is in Ephesians 2, especially verses 1-10.

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.

3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

There are two reasons to ground ourselves here:

1) There’s some explicit language about salvation by grace alone. Firstly, the language is about the necessity of grace: Verse 5, “…it is by grace you have been saved…”, verses 8-9, “…For it is by grace you have been saved… not by works, so that no one may boast.” Secondly, the language is about the absolute extent of grace, i.e. that grace does more than provide the means for our rescue, the grace of God is what actually does the rescuing.  This is found in the depths of our predicament: Verse 1, “…you were dead in your transgressions”, Verse 3, “…by nature deserving of wrath”. It is also found in the agency of God: Verses 4-5, “God made us alive with Christ”, Verse 6, “God raised us up…”, Verse 10, “We are God’s handiwork…”

2) The context of this passage connects us with a bigger picture; Paul sees the work of Jesus on the cross resulting in the creation of a “new humanity” in which the great “mystery” of the Gospel is the inclusion of all people in the covenant promises made to Israel: that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise….” (Ephesians 3:6).

It’s this second point that perhaps guides us to a framework for the story of grace: It is best to tell the story of God’s covenant; his promises to his people, and especially to Abraham. Perhaps it might go something like this, as my own feeble attempt:

1) The human predicament is one of rebellion against the ways of God, and God’s response is always both righteous deserved judgement and undeserved gracious provision. Consider Genesis 1-11; the fall itself, the murder of Abel, the hardness in the time of Noah, the attempted usurpation of God by human empire at Babel.  In each part the judgement is obvious, but also consider how God clothes Adam & Eve, protects Cain, puts a rainbow in the sky etc.

2) By grace, therefore, the ultimate provision of God is his intervention in human history.  In our historical record, this intervention is grounded in the life of a man called Abram (later Abraham). This intervention is fundamentally gracious and it is received by faith. There is nothing particularly special about Abraham. He was weak and old. Any righteousness he has derives not from his works or moral fortitude, but as a gift bestowed (“credited”) by God and received as Abraham trusted him. Consider Genesis 12 and how God’s gracious involvement with Abraham naturally follows from the rebellion at Babel. Consider also Romans 4:1-3

3) By grace, God binds himself to Abraham in a covenant, i.e. a promise. Chief among these promises is that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This is the intervention, the promise of salvation; a new heaven and a new earth. Consider Hebrews 11:8-10 and consider Abraham’s vision with that of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation 21

4) By grace, God guides Abraham’s children towards this blessing. He protects his chosen people, he saves them from Egypt, and instructs them on how they can be true to the promise: “This is how you embrace this grace! This is how you bless the families of the earth.” In this way, the Law itself is grace, and there are times when we get a glimpse of that blessing. But mostly, what we see is the rejection of the promise, a refusal to trust God; the law continues to point to the promise and so reveals how far away God’s people are from it. Consider: the entire OT.

5) By grace, God provides a true Son of Abraham; he is not only of Abraham’s flesh, but also a Son of the Promise as well; i.e. he has faith after that of Abraham. He takes responsibility for his people; by meeting the just requirement of their transgression he deals with their separation from the promise. And he receives the fullness of the promise – the renewal of life, resurrection itself.  Consider: John 3:16 and Romans 4.

6) By grace, the promise to Abraham is now fulfilled. The blessing of salvation now applies to all the “families of the earth.” It applies as we all (both Jew and Gentile), dead in our sins, are “raised up with Christ.” We are all made heirs of Abraham, children of his promise. Consider: Ephesians 2-3 (which is where we started).

It’s a narrative of salvation in which the defining agency is God, the defining action is his promise, and the basis on which the promise applies to me is not me and my faithfulness, but Christ and his faithfulness.  When we add anything else to this dynamic, we actually disavow it; Embraced by Jesus, I am child of Abraham and so called to live by faith as he did. Any attempt to prove myself worthy is a disagreement that the heart of salvation is promise; and if I do not share in the promise, I am not a child of the promise; I do not share in Abraham, or in the fulfilment of all that God bound himself to do; I do not share in Christ, and I am not saved. In short: grace is essential, and absolute. It is necessary for salvation, and cannot be added to.

Does this lead to licentiousness? As Paul would say, “Absolutely not!”. To deliberately sin is also to depart from the way of promise; how can licentiousness bless all the families of the earth? Grace abounds, I am still raised with Christ; but that grace calls me to holiness.

I hope that helps. Having just gone back and read what I have written, it seems terribly insufficient. In the end, what you are doing is proclaiming the gospel. Can I encourage you as you take your question to the Scriptures? Have you noticed how many of my references have been to the book of Romans, especially chapters 4-6? It’s a good place to begin, and perhaps to take your Mormon friends.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Virginia

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I have recently been engaging with the more contemplative side of Christian spirituality. It hasn’t been a mere academic exercise. My current circumstance demands I reflect on all matter of things regarding life, and church, and the ways of the world and it has led me to something of an eddy, of going around in circles a bit.

It’s an intellectual eddy; I know what I think about things, and while I will always have an enquiring mind, it’s been a long time since I have come across new thoughts about the things that matter.

It’s a leadership eddy; I am aware of all manner of strategies for mission, and while it will always be a defining passion, it’s been a long time since I have come across anything that is essentially able to reach beyond insubstantial churchy forms.

The grace in this is that God has led me deeper, to an unsettling proposition: that the answers to life’s deepest questions are not fundamentally about intellect. The foundations of vocation are not, in the end, matters of skill, ability, or even opportunity. Rather, we are called to spiritual depths, to simple mystical things such as the love of God, and the fact that, lo, the Spirit of Jesus is actually with us to the end of the age.

In these eddies, I have remembered an experience I had about eight years ago. At that time I experienced what some might term a “breakdown.” It was also a “breakthrough.” I found myself in a place where intellect and leadership had been taken away from me by my overworked and broken brain. All that was left was worship, rest, silence. Jesus’ Spirit was present, and all that was required of me was to simply, trustingly, “be” in his presence. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.

My brain healed, and life moved on. Now in recent years, with my brain and body well and able, I am facing again the end of intellect and “leadership skills.” In that place, I have been helped by Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.

It’s not a perfect book by any means. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it might be a hindrance to those who are not confident in their biblical theology. There are, for instance, clear influences of late 20th-Century pseudo-Eastern spiritualism when he oversteps from seeking closeness and oneness with God, to an almost panentheistic sense of “union” in which we avoid the “illusion of separation” (page 15).  Nevertheless, I found it a helpful book. If we are to discipline ourselves, including our interior life of thoughts and feelings and anxieties, we need some equipping. We can learn to quieten our soul.

I can certainly identify with the experience of the “wild hawk of the mind” (chapter two) as the “mind’s obsessive running in tight circles generates and sustains the anguish that forms the mental cage in which we live much of our lives – or what we take to be our lives…” (page 20). I see the turmoil of anxiety and fantasy that can dominate my thoughts. But it takes more than recognition to resolve it; like attempting to calm waters by splashing down on the waves that rear up, our attempts at “self-control” can simply add to the churn. We need quietness, silence; we need to find ourselves abiding in Christ, not striving for peace but living in the peace that he has already given us.

Laird draws, of course, on contemplative practice, and particularly on the notion of “breath prayer.” This is nothing magical, it is simply a discipline of praying and breathing that assists internal quietness. We use our body to respond to spiritual things all the time – standing to sing, closing our eyes for prayer, sitting attentively to learn, etc. – and this is of the same kind. It is the use of posture, a simple “prayer word” or phrase, and a focus on breathing. It has a quietening effect:

At times the mind flits like a finch from branch to branch and at other times it is like the three-headed dog, Cerberus, unable to decide from which bowl which of its heads should feed at any given moment. Then again, and more often that we may like to admit, the mind is uninspired and limp as a mildewed dish cloth. The mind has countless faces. For centuries the advice of the contemplative tradition has been: well, then, give the mind something to do. If it can’t be still, give it a short phrase or a word to repeat silently. And so when we sit, we give our attention wholly to the gentle repetition of the prayer word. We will find that our attention is forever being stolen. As soon as we become aware that our attention has been stolen by some thought, we gently bring ourselves back to the prayer word. (Pages 34-35)

For me, this is not an eradication of self or something equally as eery, it is simply the quietening of all that is in me that tunes God out. Faced with various anxieties or concerns, I could push into them with my intellect or strength of will, and I all I would find would be more anxieties or concerns. Any wisdom, any insight, any creativity – that simple sense of “hearing from God” is elusive when I am noisy. In order to hear the groanings of the Spirit, to watch the glow of illuminated Scripture, I need the quiet.

If I confront my anxieties, I add to the noise. But instead, using a simple act of worship with my body, I “look over the shoulder” of the anxiousness, trusting that the Spirit of Christ is present in the moment of all that’s left. It’s a surrender, an offering, a laying down, by relaxing the clawing clinging fingers of my mind. Into his hands I commit my anxious spirit… by meeting it with silence.

As I have practiced and adapted what Laird speaks of, I have found it beneficial. Whether it be times set aside, or five minutes caught during the day; I have resolved two things: 1) Not to reach for my phone and dull myself by flicking through distractions, and 2) Not to run with the bulls of my anxieties and fears. Instead, I have sat myself down, grasped hold of a phrase (usually a line from a worship song or psalm), and have leant back into that gentle worshipful repetition. I don’t look for “results” (that would defeat the purpose), but there has been fruit nonetheless: a sense of peace, a word of encouragement for someone, a gentle prod to pray in a specific way, the strength to forgive.

Laird’s ongoing explanation of this practice has described something of my experience. He speaks of “three doorways of the present moment” (page 52) and I get what he’s talking about.

The “first doorway” is the sense in which we seek quietness as a refuge. We sense the noisiness. The “videos” of anxiety and fantasy are coming thick and fast, and we seek silence as a solace. We calm ourselves. We respond to the content of our thoughts. Has someone made me angry? Instead of responding to that anger, I quieten myself. In that place of quiet, God can change the narrative, or give me quiet resilience.

The “second doorway” is the sense in which we find ourselves using silence not only as a refuge, but almost as a deliberate form of engagement. Here we respond not just to the content of the thoughts, but the anxious thoughts themselves; we don’t just look over the should of the person who has made us angry, we look over the shoulder of the anger itself.

The deeper we delve into the prayer word, the less we use it as a shield from afflictive thoughts. Rather we meet the thoughts with stillness instead of commentary. We let the thoughts simply be, but without chasing them and whipping up commentaries on them. (Page 63)

From my own experience, I find myself noticing “I am anxious”, rather than “I am anxious about X.” In the first doorway, I seek silence, rather than chasing down the solutions to X.  In the second doorway, there’s a gentle recognition that anxiety is not my bedrock, Jesus is. Rather than focusing on the anxiety, I quieten myself, and so allow his presence, on his terms. The anxiety may be or not be, I will look over its shoulder, to the quietness of trusting Jesus.

The “third doorway” is where I think Laird slips too far (“my ‘I am’ is one with Christ’s ‘I am'”, page 67). But there is some substance in his gist. It was something like this in the midst of my breakdown-breakthough: I could not do anything else, other than be.  Being was simply enough. Outside of my triggering stressors, I could watch and observe almost everything, including myself. I didn’t have a need to perform, to strive, to prove. I have heard people talking of “falling into the arms of Jesus”, of finding themselves able to “breathe underwater.” The words are hard to find – for me, it was like the gravitational pull of God was inside of myself, pulling me inwards towards a truer sense of self, that was God-centred, not me-centred.  It was the utter contrast of the anxieties that would rip me apart. It wasn’t mystical or amazing. It simply was.

My aspiration, moving forward, is to grow in this sense of abiding in Christ. I don’t want to be defined by my circumstances. I don’t want to be defined by my emotional chemical response. I want to be defined by the present character of God. It can’t be manipulated into being by my intellect. It can’t be manufactured by my strength of will. It is a place of embodied trust.

The bottom line is this: minimize the time given over to chasing thoughts, dramatizing them in grand videos, and believing these videos to be your identity. Otherwise life will pass you by. (Page 71)

This contemplative area is new to me. But it matches my experience. Above all, it has been a way for me to apply hope; a vehicle for faith in my inner world.

We move from being victim of what is happening to being a witness to what is happening. Things  keep happening, but we experience them differently. This move from victim to witness is an early psychological fruit of the contemplative journey. (Page 81)

I sometimes wonder what Jesus used to do in his times of solitude. I don’t think it was complicated. I think it matched the “emptying out” of Philippians 2:1-11.  In fact, I have been reflecting on Hebrews 5:7 where the writer talks of how Jesus often offered up anguished prayers that turned to “reverent submission.” He didn’t lose himself, but was able to place himself in his father’s hands; it marked his ministry, most clearly on the cross. Truly, he must have ministered from an experience of shalom – the “stillness [not] of a rabbit hiding from a predator, but the stillness of a mountain presiding over a valley” (page 101).

Laird ends his book well, by finding application in the experience of our woundedness (“The Liturgy of Our Wounds: Temptation, Humility, and Failure.”)  Our rights-based culture cannot cope with woundedness, except by increasing the clamour, within and without. Yet the joy and blessing of failure and hurt is the thirstiness which draws us to look beyond the noisy experience. It’s not an avoidance of woundedness, it is of finding God even there.  “I am going to seduce her and lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:14).

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