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Love: Advent

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need[1]

Last week I began a short series of posts for advent thinking about how we can prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas. Each week I’m looking at a different aspect of what the coming of Jesus was and is intended to signify for us and how we can prepare ourselves to receive it.

My last post considered how Christmas is about hope. Hope is a good beginning but it isn’t enough by itself.  Hope implies that we are confident that things will change, even that they will change for the better, but we still need to give it content.

This is what the final three weeks of advent begin to fill in. This week we are looking at ‘Love’.

Suggested readings: Isaiah 40:1-12; 1 John 4:7-21; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

The Need for Love

‘All you need is love,’ so say the Beatles. It is a popular sentiment and it is easy to dismiss; love is not, obviously, all that we need. Yet with that said, the Beatles were on to something. In his sermon on marriage St John Chrysostom (the greatest preacher of the first thousand years of Christianity) commented that ‘The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together.’[2] Similarly, John Wesley, for whom the whole of Christian life was the pursuit of holy love argued that ‘Love is the end, the sole end, of every dispensation of God, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.’[3]

It isn’t just singers and saints who have argued for the centrality of love to humanity. Psychologist, Dr Raj Raghunathan, describes the need to be loved as ‘one of our most basic and fundamental needs’ while the need to show love ‘is hard-wired and deep-seated.’ [4]

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Jesus said that truly ‘it is better to give than to receive.’[5]

To love and to be loved is part of what we are created for – to be loved first by God and then to show love to each other. The failures of humanity can largely be traced back to the rebellion and insecurity which prevents us from receiving the divine love for which we were created and our subsequent failure show that love to one another. When we pray for God to come to us, when we become people of hope, we are praying for God to show us love, to teach us what it means to love and to enable us in turn to love one another.

Christmas is both God’s act of love for us and his demonstration to us of how we should love.

Christmas is God’s Love for Us

The passage I suggested reading from Isaiah speaks of a day when God would come to his people and demonstrate his love for them. It is taken up in the New Testament and explicitly referred to being fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.

In the prediction the prophet paints a picture of what God’s love for us is like and how we can experience it when he comes.

It is love that forgives.[6]

The birth of Jesus is about God doing everything that is necessary to restore our relationship with him. The prophet doesn’t hide from the fact that his people are sinners. We cannot hide from our failings, shame, or even our guilt. It simply won’t do to pretend that we are fine – for how then will we ever get better?

Christmas is not about pretending that we’re fine and God can come anyway – like a family barely containing their feud around a Turkey dinner. When Jesus comes he comes not to hide our sin but to deal with it. God has taken the punishment, paid the debt, healed the disease – whatever picture you like to use – that separated us from him. This is love that forgives and renews.

It is love that reveals.[7]

At Christmas we find out what God is like – he makes himself accessible to us by revealing himself to us in a way we can understand. This is the absolute minimum requirement for a relationship of love – to know the other person. Christmas is where we begin to see the glory of God in a way we can understand.

To put it another way, if you want to know what God is like, come and look at Jesus. This is love that reveals

It is love that is faithful and reliable.[8]

We know that human beings fail and are unreliable. We let each other down – we can’t help it. Isaiah uses the picture of flowers falling or grass withering when it gets hot.

Yet God’s love is not like that.

As Isaiah says ‘the word of our God endures forever.’ God’s love will not fail, is totally reliable, and endures forever. When Jesus was born, humanity encountered the first and only wholly dependable love that has ever been. This is love that endures.

It is love that is strong and protects.[9]

This may seem a strange theme to bring out in a prophecy about Christmas. After all, we are in the season where we worship a baby born, ‘meek and mild’, totally vulnerable, in relative poverty. Yet Isaiah points out that this baby will crush the head of our enemies and redeem us from the curse of death.

Isaiah wants to stand at the manger in Bethlehem and cry out ‘See the Sovereign LORD comes with power and rules with a mighty arm.’ By his life and death and resurrection this Son of God will love us by protecting us from all that can harm us. Here is love that is strong and protects.

Finally, we have a picture of love that is gentle and kind.[10]

Here is a God who is able to gather us up in his arms, who is gentle with those who are hurt and sore, who looks to restore and to heal his children. This is the Father who will fight furiously to protect his children and then gently carry them home to tend to their wounds, love them and hold them close to his heart.

This is THE love. The love that defines all other loves, that gives them meaning and inspiration.

As we read from 1 John,

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.[11]

Christmas is Love that Costs and Inspires

It is a wonderful picture, beautiful, true and making sense of all that we desire and intuitively know about ourselves but it is not yet complete.

John tells us that this is love that costs.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

The coming of the Son of God at Christmas was already a demonstration of God’s love but it was not enough to accomplish all that he had for us. To remove the curse of sin and death from us would cost the Son of God his life; to celebrate the child in a manger is to look forward to the man on a cross.

In other words, Christmas is the beginning of God’s demonstration of love for us, not the end.

God’s love cost him. True love will always cost us.  It calls us to be committed to the good of another, to prefer their interests ahead of ours, to seek their good even at the price of our pain. When the Son of God came to earth he loved us even to the cost of his life.

He loved you enough to die for you.

Even that is not enough, however. Most love-stories would end with death but not this one.

As surely as the stable led to the cross, the cross led to the resurrection. Jesus dying and coming back to life is the final demonstration that the vision and gift of love that we receive at Christmas can overcome everything. To coin a phrase, it is the proof that love, or if you prefer Christmas, wins. And now we are called to live it out.

John goes on:

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.[12]

John is talking about love between Christians but the principle extends further than that. We are called to embrace the love that characterises Christmas – that forgives, reveals God, keeps faith, protects, and nurtures – and to allow it to become completed in us.

Application

How can we live differently in light of this?

First, encounter Christ.

If you haven’t encountered the love of God given to us in his Son then this Christmas can be the best you have ever had. Isaiah speaks about ‘preparing the way of the Lord.’ You can prepare yourself to receive Christ by asking God and examining yourself to see where your life is out of line with what he wants. Then receive him by trusting him.

Second, embody Christ.

We can be a people who love others as God loves us. This begins with asking ourselves hard questions:

  • Do we love our family or friends with forgiveness, with gentleness, with protection, with nurture?
  • How are our relationships this Christmas?

If there is someone with whom you are not at peace then today is the day to fix that.

Third, present Christ to others.

We present Christ to others by demonstrating his love for them in our words and in our actions. Why not find someone to encourage or nurture? If you know of anyone with practical needs then go out and meet them. Don’t expect anything in return – do it for love.

 

This is part of a series of reflections focussed on preparing for Christmas. If you’re looking for a service to go to during this season, you’re welcome to join us at Hersham Baptist Church.

  • Sunday 10th December, 10:30 am family worship.
  • Sunday 17th December, 10:30 am, communion.
  • Sunday 17th December, 5:30pm, family carol service.
  • Sunday 24th December, 10:30am, communion.
  • Sunday 24th December, 3:00pm, come and join in nativity.
  • Monday 25th December, 10:00am, family Christmas celebration.

[1] ‘All You Need Is Love’, Lennon-McCartney, 1967.

[2] St John Chrysostom, Homily on Marriage, < http://www.roca.org/OA/121/121b.htm > [accessed 7 December 2017]

[3] John Wesley, ‘Sermon 36: The Law Established Through Faith’, Sermons on Several Occasions

[4] Raj Raghunathan, ‘The Need to Love’, Psychology Today (8 January 2014) < https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sapient-nature/201401/the-need-love > [accessed 7 December 2017]

[5] Acts 20:35.

[6] Isaiah 40:1-2

[7] Isaiah 40:3-5.

[8] Isaiah 40:6-8

[9] Isaiah 40:9-11.

[10] Isaiah 40:10-11.

[11] 1 John 4:9

[12] 1 John 4:11

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Hope: Advent

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes[1]

Over the next few weeks I’m posting some reflections on how we can prepare ourselves for Christmas. This week our topic is ‘Hope’.

Suggested readings: Isaiah 64:1-12; Mark 13:24-37; Romans 8:18-27

Introduction

Humanity needs hope.

To hope is to be confident that there is someone or something that can overcome the problems and futility of the world we live in and make it better. It is to believe that this is not all that there is but both that there is another world that could be – a world without cancer and crying, without heartache and lying, a world of peace and not war, where there is no famine and our hearts are content – and that there is someone who can bring that about. This is necessarily spiritual – it looks to something beyond us that can deliver us and heal us, that can save us from the darkness that lurks within each of us.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche who rejected the idea of God warned us ‘do not believe those who speak to you of extra terrestrial hopes!’ only to then conclude that hope itself was ‘the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.’[2] In other words, we might as well despair, because there is no one coming to help – there is no answer to the problems we face.

As a Spurs fan I can sympathise with Nietzsche; it is the hope that kills you.

Christianity rejects Nietzsche’s counsel of despair completely as contrary both to our experience of the world and God’s revelation to us.

We are programmed to hope and when we do not, we suffer enormously. [3] We cannot help it. Yet if our hope is to be well-founded, if it is to escape wishful thinking and become a confident assurance of something to come, we need to understand what the problem is that we believe needs to be overcome and what we believe needs to be done to fix it.

The Absence of Hope

Christians understand that the problems we face flow from the distance between humanity and God.

The reading I suggested from Isaiah is an extended meditation on the corruption that follows naturally when we are distant from God and a plea that God come to his people to heal them. Isaiah’s prayer is stark in its honesty about the consequences of that distance and the position that Israel found herself in. It holds a mirror up to our own lives. They often faced cruelty from others and in turn showed cruelty to each other. To use the language of Jesus, they lived in a world in which people do not love one another as they love themselves; they did not seek the good of others in everything but instead uses and abused them.

I can only speak from my own experience but I think Isaiah’s description is basically true of all of us.

We are capable of good; yet we do not always do it.

There are times when we are selfless and sense a call to look beyond ourselves; yet there are times when we are cruel and selfish.

It can be tempting to think that the problem is with another group of other people (Tories or Socialists, bigots or liberals, Jane down the road or Tim at work), who are the bad ones while we are entirely without blame. I understand that temptation but Isaiah will not allow us to go there.

We are all, he says, stained by the actions, thoughts and attitudes we do and cannot help doing.

Even the good that we do is tinged with unrighteousness. You can think of this theologically – if we are not acting from trust in God and for his glory then we are by definition acting apart from him and for the glory of another. Or we can think about it economically – we live in a world in which every single one of us benefits from injustices and perpetuates those injustices and we cannot escape from them. Or we can think socially – how often do we do what is good in part because we want the respect and applause of others?

This sin flows from our being distant from God and has the effect of re-affirming and deepening that separation.

Isaiah uses the picture of a leaf that is broken off the branch by the wind. The leaf inevitably, naturally withers and dies when it is removed from the tree. When we cut ourselves off from God the consequence is that we too wilt – we don’t have what we need to carry on living and so we die both physically and spiritually.

Christmas is About Hope

There is only one thing that can provide legitimate hope in this situation. We cannot reach back to God.  So Isaiah prays that God would come down from heaven and be reunited with his people.

Our hope is that God will not hold himself back forever but come to us. This is message of hope at Christmas: we cut ourselves off from God and yet God has chosen to come to us.

When God comes to dwell with his people, the corruption and death, the injustice and iniquity, that Isaiah laments and that is at the heart of much that causes us despair is changed. Where we were formerly cut off from the thing that gave us life, now we have been put back on. It is as if the tree stooped down and picked up its leaf, brown, curling and dying and reattached it.

The coming of Jesus at Christmas marks the beginning of God’s reversal of all that Isaiah laments and offers us hope that it will not always be like this.

  • If God has come to us then we can be confident in the promise of life in the midst of death.
  • If God has come to us then we can be confident in the promise of righteousness in the face of sin.
  • If God has come to us then we can be confident in the promise of love in the midst of hate.

The birth of Jesus is the absolute proof of God’s determination and desire not to abandon us to corruption but rather redeem us and grant us life.

To put it another way, Christmas is the best, truest and firmest ground for hope that we can imagine because God has come to us. When we call the child Immanuel – God with us – we are saying ‘you, in all your weakness and helplessness – are the proof that God has not finished with this world and its people but still loves it and cares for it.

Our Final Hope

Christmas, then, is the foundation of our hope. But it is not hope’s completion. Christmas is not the final word on the story of God’s redemption of the world. This is what St Paul was referring to in the passage I suggested from Romans.

We have hope because Jesus came to us. Yet there is a sense in which the story is not complete. We long for more. We, along with all creation, long for the hope to be completed: for God and creation to dwell together fully and permanently, for every tear-stained eye to be dried and broken heart to be healed, for wars to cease and disease to be destroyed.

Christmas prompts us not just to look back at hope begun but to look forward to the time when hope is completed. Jesus came once to bring us hope and he will come again to complete it. Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, referred to this as eternal hope ‘which is never put to shame’ and means ‘at every moment always to hope all things’.[4] It is to believe that anything and anyone, any situation and any problem, can be redeemed at the return of Christ.

Living as People of Hope

If this is true, then how can we live as people of hope?

First, let me ask if you have encountered Jesus and received the hope that he brings? To meet with God as a man is fundamentally to receive hope for the future if we will trust him and follow him. If you haven’t yet done that and you feel like you would like to then ask God to show himself to you this Christmas, resolve to trust him, to turn away from selfishness and sin, and to be baptised. You will receive the presence of God with you and in you and find a hope that cannot be taken away.

Second, even those of us who have already come to know Jesus can live as if we have not. I’m talking primarily about a sense of hopelessness. This is not what we are called to – we are called to live lives of hope.

Our lives should demonstrate that, however bad it seems, God is committed to our good, to redeeming us. Whatever situations we face, whether you are someone who despairs at the future of our country, or suffer unemployment or bereavement or frustration or failure, we should never lose hope.

Christians are not people of despair but of hope because we know the one person who can change the world, who can redeem our situations, who can keep us in any hardship. Who will even raise us from the dead.

This doesn’t mean that Christians will never suffer depression. I, myself, have gone through periods of depression and so have many of the great saints of history. When we do, we should recognise it and get help. But it does mean that our default position should not be cynical or negative, should not be harsh or hopeless. We should believe and trust that God will redeem and restore. This attitude of hope is cultivated through prayer, above all, and through fellowship and familiarity with Scripture.

Finally, we can then be people of hope for others. As we prepare for Christmas, we can resolve to be a cause of hope for others rather than for their despair. In our words and actions we can show them that the world can and will one day be redeemed by a God who loves it and came to be born as a part of it.

 

This is part of a series of reflections focused on preparing for Christmas. If you’re looking for a service to go to during this season, you’re welcome to join us at Hersham Baptist Church.

  • Sunday 10th December, 10:30 am family worship.
  • Sunday 17th December, 10:30 am, communion.
  • Sunday 17th December, 5:30pm, family carol service.
  • Sunday 24th December, 10:30am, communion.
  • Sunday 24th December, 3:00pm, come and join in nativity.
  • Monday 25th December, 10:00am, family Christmas celebration.

[1] High Hopes, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, 1959.

[2] Thus Spake Zarathrustra, [1883-85] 2006: 6; and Human, All Too Human, 1878: s.71 cited in Bloeser, Claudia and Stahl, Titus, “Hope”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hope/&gt;

[3] Dr Stephen A. Diamond, ‘Clinical Despair: Science, Psychotherapy and Spirituality in the Treatment of Depression’ in Psychology Today, 4 March 2011 < https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201103/clinical-despair-science-psychotherapy-and-spirituality-in-the-treatment > [accessed 30 November 2017]

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love [1847] 19995, p.260 and 249 cited in Bloeser,and Stahl.

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Introducing Advent

I’ve noticed that we’re entering the season running up to Christmas. When I was a child I remember Christmas starting when CITV was interrupted by adverts for coke featuring enormous and brightly lit lorries streaming across the country proclaiming that ‘Holidays are coming.’ Now we look out for mince pies.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is that there doesn’t seem to be a build up. We’re either in late summer / early autumn with no Christmas. Or it is full-Christmas and every shop looks like a grotto with fake snow and trees and songs and candy canes until I’m seriously wondering whether I’ve drunk the wrong tea in the morning (I’m looking at you, Garsons Farm). There is nothing in between.

I think that this is a shame. It actually diminishes Christmas. When we strip the celebration of its context, when we feast without fasting, it leads to a shallower rather than a deeper appreciation of the season. To put it another way, every gift has a significance that comes in part from the context in which and into which it is given.

Let me give an illustration. One of the major Christmas traditions in our family is watching the Muppets’ Christmas Carol. Several times. I make no apologies for this; it’s the best adaptation of Dickens by a country mile and in any case, the muppets are awesome. At the end of a Christmas Carol [SPOILER ALERT] Scrooge has a lovely Christmas dinner with Bob Cratchit and his family while they sing a song with muppets as far as the eye can see. On its own it’s a nice scene. But its emotional power, the depth of its meaning, comes from how mean Scrooge is at the beginning and the journey he has been on through the film.

This is true for Christmas as well. Jesus’s birth didn’t come out of nowhere. It is given meaning by the journey that led to it and the yearning and needs of humanity that it was designed to meet. Like any gift, the gift of Christ derives significance in part from the context into which he was given.

To put it another way, if we’re going to appreciate Christmas deeply, to let it move and challenge us, we need to spend some time understanding the depths of what we’re celebrating.

This is what Advent is all about – it is the preparation for Christmas. The season also has a second dimension –not only helps us to prepare ourselves for celebrating the birth of Jesus, it should prompt us to look forward to the day when Jesus returns and brings everything to completion.

Over the next four weeks I’m going to post reflections on a different aspect of advent (hope, love, joy, and peace) to help us to get ready. Later this week I’ll be posting my first advent reflection, considering our desire for hope.

 

This is part of a series of reflections focussed on preparing for Christmas. If you’re looking for a service to go to during this season, you’re welcome to join us at Hersham Baptist Church.

  • Sunday 10th December, 10:30 am family worship.
  • Sunday 17th December, 10:30 am, communion.
  • Sunday 17th December, 5:30pm, family carol service.
  • Sunday 24th December, 10:30am, communion.
  • Sunday 24th December, 3:00pm, come and join in nativity.
  • Monday 25th December, 10:00am, family Christmas celebration.

How to Live Well (Vision 2017 part 2)

Introduction

At the start of a new academic year, when we’re coming back from summer, we like to take time out to set our priorities for the year ahead.

Last week I began to describe how I felt God calling us to become a Christ Centred Community.

This week I want to offer some suggestions about how we can put this into practice.

How to Become Like Jesus

The first and most important thing we need to know is that meeting and becoming like Jesus is something that comes from God, not us. To use the language of Ephesians, ‘it is by grace we have been saved, through faith.’ If we encounter Christ and come to know him more deeply this year it will be because God has revealed himself to us and not because we have brought ourselves closer to him.

With that said, it is pretty clear from the teaching of Jesus and the apostles that how we respond to God’s grace really does matter. For example, in John 14 we are told how Jesus said to his followers:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”[1]

To encounter Christ we need to be willing to obey him; our response to God’s grace determines how we experience it. In particular we need to obey the commandments that Jesus placed at the centre of all the Jewish law and prophets:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[2]

The best way for us to encounter Christ, be changed to be like him and present him to others is to love God and love others.

This is easy to say but harder to know where to begin putting it into practise. When John Wesley was asked about how to pursue holiness he put the Christians he knew into groups and gave them some guidelines for how to make our love of God and others real.

At their heart these rules are just aids, reminders that we need to keep focused on Jesus and helping us to do that.

Three Rules for Life

First, Do No Harm (Or Stop Doing Stuff that Takes You from God)

Following Wesley, the first rule of life I want to suggest is that we ‘do no harm’. To put it another way, the first key to moving towards God is to do nothing that leads away from him.

This has always been the first thing step in encountering Jesus. When John the Baptist was preparing the Jewish people for Jesus’ first coming his whole message was repent and be baptised.[3] It means to turn away from the harm we are doing to our relationships with God and with others and start walking in a different direction.

In the same way Paul wrote to the first church in Rome:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.[4]

Paul wants to know whether what we’re doing helping us to love God or love others more. If it is then we should definitely pursue it. If not, then we need to ask why we’re spending our time on it.

This doesn’t mean abandoning fun or relaxation. God created us to take pleasure in him and enjoy the world he gave us. Moreover we are social animals; we need to enjoy each other and to be enjoyed by other people. We also need to rest and recharge our batteries.

Nevertheless we should feel challenged about how we’re spending our time. For example:

  • Do we need to be at work for as long as we are? Why are we there? Could we spend less time there and more time with family or encourage friends?
  • Are our habits leading us towards God or away from him?
    • In what we eat and drink?
    • In what we watch on the TV?
    • In how much TV we watch?

It might seem tempting to see even asking this type of question as being the worst cliché of a killjoy. I understand that but I want to challenge it. Actually very often what we think is making us happy is doing nothing of the sort. It is junk food – temporarily satisfying, bad for our long-term health, and addictive.

When we stop doing things that are not good for our relationship with God or with other people we find that we are far more satisfied, with a deeper joy, than when we were taking the junk food. The aim is not to kill our joy but to lead us to a far deeper and more satisfying joy in God through Christ.

Second, Do All the Good You Can

Often our understanding of being like Jesus or of becoming holy stops here. It’s as if Jesus’ life was one being ‘don’t’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stopping doing harm is the first part of our path to Christlikeness. Yet love requires more than simply not harming someone, it needs us positively to care for them. Jesus made a greater difference to the people he knew and through them to the world than anyone else. If we want to become like him we are called to make a difference too.

Jesus used a story to illustrate the impact that he wanted his followers to have on the world around them:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

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

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’[5]

Trying to do all the good we can is intensely practical. It means encouraging those we know who are struggling, giving food to those we know are hungry, clothing those we know are cold, helping those we know need help, and being willing to teach and correct those who look to us for guidance. Above all it means noticing opportunities to do good – being alert to what God is showing us – and being willing to do something about it.

A large part of this is seeing needs where they arise. I’m to be thinking about how we use our money in my blog next week. For now, however, it is enough to note that how we use our possessions and time is a huge part of this.

The church does an enormous amount of work with people in Hersham physically and spiritually. Giving money to the church that enables us to do this and brings hope and good news to others. Beyond that, if we notice those who need help and offer it even if that is simply listening or visiting them it can make a huge difference.

Third, Attend On the Ordinances of God

Our third rule is to practice Christian disciplines. The Methodist pastor and theologian Kevin Watson sees the heart of this rule as a commitment to ‘practice our faith with passion and dedication.’[6] In other words, if we are serious about putting our faith into practise, first we need to be willing to practise.

Let me give an illustration. When I was a boy I learned to play the trombone. There were exercises and disciplines I had to do to enable me to play well. Eventually I knew how to play without thinking about it – it had become second nature to me. In a similar way there are Christian disciplines that we can do that bring us closer to God and enable us to receive and respond to his grace.

First, come to church. This is basic. If we want to come closer to God and know his presence we need to worship with his people. It is in church that we hear the Word, receive communion, encourage one another, and express our faith together.

Second, read Scripture. If you want to get to know Jesus, listen to what he said, read about his followers, and listen to preaching.

Third, take communion. When we take communion we are encountering God’s grace in a real, physical way. There is grace for us every time we come to receive it, to taste God’s love and forgiveness and give thanks for his promise to be with us.

Fourth, pray. The best way to get to know someone and be like them is to talk with them. We are transformed when we pray and we find God transforms the world around us through our prayers. If you’re in a family, start to try and find a way to pray with your family or kids.

Finally, practise fasting or abstinence. This isn’t something we emphasise in our tradition but I think we lack something as a result. When we fast from food or abstain from something else we are reminding ourselves of our dependence on God. It reminds us that everything we have is a gift. We are also training our wills so that we learn self-control. It also adds time and direction to our prayer.

Fasting doesn’t need to be abstaining from all food. There are sometimes medical reasons why that might not be possible. This is the case for me – if I fast completely from food then the problems with my legs and hands I had earlier this year recur. But it is still possible to do some sort of fast. So, for example, we might abstain from meat or animal products. Similarly abstaining from something important to you for a season can give focus to prayer and provide perspective and rebalancing.

Putting this into Action

How then can we put these rules into action? Why not try one of these suggestions?

  • Come to a Life Group – that’s where we share our lives with each other, encourage one another, and challenge each other to keep following these rules.
  • Pray – each day ask God to show you where patterns in life are leading you away from him and to open your eyes to those who need your help.
  • Read the Scriptures – if it is your first time, why not start with one chapter of a gospel a day? Or if you prefer to use your phone, why not use the Bible in One Year App?

[1] John 14:21

[2] Matthew 22:37-40

[3] Eg Matthew 3:1-12.

[4] Romans 13:8-10.

[5] Matthew 25:31-40

[6] Kevin M. Watson, Blueprint for Discipleship (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 2009), p.82.

Sex and holiness

Introduction

Over the last few months I’ve been posting a series of reflections on the idea of holiness and how it relates to the big areas of life. My basic idea has been that holiness is a beautiful idea and one whose time has come again. It is about flourishing as human beings, becoming like Jesus and sharing in his nature.

This is the last topic in the series (you can find the others here) – what does holiness have to do with sex?

I’m conscious that I could write tens of blogs and not cover everything. This means that I’m not going to deal in detail with some of the controversial issues that you might want answers to. Please feel free to email me confidentially if you would like to talk or want answers to a particular issue.

There are two Bible readings that are particularly relevant to this blog. I’m not going to extract them here as this is already a long post. If you would like to read them, they are Genesis 2:4-7, 15-25 and 1 Corinthians 7:25-35.

I’m going to examine two aspects of sex that I think our culture gets wrong and begin to give some principles for thinking and acting in a Christian way.

The Idolatry of Sex

First I want to address the idolatry of sex.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with sex. Watching TV or movies or listening to songs one would be forgiven for imagining that having sex is an essential part of personal fulfilment. In some indefinable way, the idea of sex is sold to us, telling us that our purpose is to find a sexual partner and that if we do not then we are doomed to live unfulfilled and sub-optimal lives.

This idea is deeply problematic, even outside a religious context.

First, and foremost, it isn’t true. Expressing ourselves sexually may be enjoyable but it doesn’t satisfy our deepest longings and needs. Put simply it is a good and important part of life but it isn’t that important.

Second, because it isn’t true, it provokes frustration:

  • For those who are not in a sexual relationship there are often normal desires but now they can be tinged with the anxiety of missing out on something essential.
  • For those who are in a sexual relationship, the emphasis our culture places on sex can cause us a deeper anxiety – it doesn’t complete us or fulfil our lives so perhaps we are not with the right partner or we aren’t doing it right.

When we think about the archetypical story of humanity in Genesis 2, man was created, worked, prospered, and found community, partnership and connection with God and with another person before sex is mentioned in verse 24.

We can go further, singleness, while it can be painful and frustrating, can also be an enormous advantage once we realise that sex is not the most important part of life.

Think for a moment about the ultimate expression of a human life – Jesus. As far as we know he was not married, nor was he sexually active. It wouldn’t matter if he was but as far as we know he wasn’t. And his life touched more lives, was as full of friendship and purpose and joy and hope and suffering, more complete than any other, and accomplishing more than any other.

Sex is not an essential part of being human, nor is it the ultimate end for which we are here.

Flourishing as a person, finding the purpose for which we are living, contentment and enjoyment lies in our relationship with God and with others whether or not we are sexually active.

To believe otherwise is not only mistaken, it is a form of idolatry – locating our self-worth, our identity, our salvation outside of Christ.

The Ideal of Sex

Having said that, sex is an important part of life and the Bible has much to say about how it can be a positive and wonderful part of God’s creation.

Part of God’s Design

Sex is a part of God’s design of the universe. In the Genesis stories God’s first words to people are a blessing and a command – ‘Be fruitful and increase in number[1].

Too often Christian tradition has treated sex as something shameful or intrinsically connected with sin. That is fundamentally wrong.

Used correctly, sex is one important and powerful aspect of who we are. As with anything powerful, however, it is important to understand it and how it is designed to be used if we are to use it well.

It’s here that we come back to our reading from Genesis. We can see three aspects of God’s design for sex that are important if we are to want to live holy and flourishing lives.

Faithful

Sex is a union between two people and it should be faithful. It sticks them together, joins them.

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.[2]

It isn’t simply a recreation or something we can treat lightly. When we are sexually active with someone, in some way we are joined to them physically for a moment but also spiritually and emotionally.

It isn’t any coincidence that in the ancient Hebrew scriptures that we have as the Old Testament, the standard picture that is used for sex is ‘knowing’ someone.

The flip-side of this intimacy is that when you pull apart something stuck firmly to something else you almost always hurt or break one or both.

This means that sex is designed to be exercised in the context of a faithful relationship in which the partners are committed to one another. They are committed to not tearing apart that which has been stuck together.

This is what marriage is – a promise, to God, to another person, to the community around that what we are joining together we won’t pull apart. When that promise is made we can give ourselves completely, be completely vulnerable to another without fear that the glue will need to be ripped apart.

Christian teaching has always been that we should wait for a time when we are willing to make those promises, to commit to one another before being sexually active. This comes from a place of respecting and honouring the power of sex to unite us and its potential for hurting us.

Fruitful

Second, sex is designed to be fruitful.

Be fruitful and increase in number[3].

God’s design for sex embraces joy and commitment but it is also designed to produce life – to be fruitful.

The availability of effective contraceptives has changed much, in many ways, much for the better. Yet sex removed from the possibility of bearing children does also raise significant problems.

When we separate sex from the possibility of producing children we make it far more selfish – it is all about us and not about something bigger. We also diminish it – it becomes simply another form of recreation rather than the supreme act of creativity and of providing children not only for ourselves but also for society.

None of this means that we should not use contraception responsibly to manage and control when we have children.

Nor does it in anyway diminish or invalidate relationships which struggle to produce children. I have seen first-hand the pain that comes where couples have wanted children and have not been able to.

It does mean, however, that in principle when we counsel couples or get married, we should be open to children and make room for God to give them to us.

Sacrificial

Finally, sex is designed to be sacrificial.

In this as with every other area of Christian life we are giving ourselves for the sake of another. It is in doing so that we find our fulfilment and deepest joy.

St Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.[4]

Paul is saying that our partner’s joy and flourishing and satisfaction should be our main concern in our sex lives as in every other part of our relationship.

Sex is not designed as an opportunity to gratify ourselves but give ourselves to another and be joined to them.

This is one of the reasons why pornography is such a distortion of sex and, ultimately, our humanity:

  • it diminishes the person featured – they become an object to be used;
  • it diminishes the user – he or she turns in on themselves and become self-centred; and
  • it diminishes sex – it becomes merely another tool, no more special or significant than a video game.

Practical Applications

This, then, is the basis of God’s good design for sex. It is:

  • faithful;
  • fruitful; and
  • sacrificial.

As we come to apply this in our lives we need to remember that we all fall short. Noone is perfect, yet through Christ all our sins, sexual, or otherwise can be forgiven and removed from us.

How can we live in light of this? There is much that we could say but I want to suggest one application for those who are presently married, one for those who are not and one for us all as a community.

For those of us who are presently married, how do we treat our sex life?  We should be seeking to love our spouse, seeking for their joy and their fulfilment. This can be a sensitive subject but it is important. Why not talk it through and try to make it a priority? This may well involve apologies for where we have hurt one another or been selfish but it will bring us closer together and improve our marriages.

For those who are not presently married, can we embrace our position, using it to seek God for what he has for us, and developing wider friendships both male and female?

For us all, we should be living as a true community, providing friendship for all, bringing people into our lives. We need to make church a place free of judgment where people can find friendship and peace and hope, making space for others in our lives and families.

Further Reading

You can find a book of 9 reflections covering the material I’ll be sharing in these posts by clicking here. You can also check out our website to hear talks on the same subject.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are some of the resources I have found particularly helpful and which I have used to prepare these articles.

Foster, Richard J., Money, Sex and Power (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009)

Hays, Richard B., The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996)

Hosier, Matthew, Sex Talks (Amazon, 2011)

Piper, John, Living in the Light: Money, Sex and Power (Epsom: Good Book Company, 2016)

Wesley, John, The Complete Sermons (Hargreaves Publishing: Kindle Edition)

[1] Genesis 1:28.

[2] Genesis 2:24.

[3] Genesis 1:28.

[4] 1 Cor. 7:3-4

Our Vision for the Year Ahead

Introduction

When we return from the summer I like to look back on how God has led us over the past year and give a sense of what I feel God’s priorities are for us in the year ahead.

This is normally referred to as something like ‘setting out a vision.’ I feel a bit unsure about that language. The church has had basically the same mission and vision throughout the last two thousand years and all over the world. We are always about worshipping God in Spirit and in truth, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, and caring for the poor. There isn’t much new about that and, God willing, there never will be.

With that said, however, it is helpful to consider what it looks like to take part in that mission in our particular place and time. It is also helpful to step back and look at what we felt God calling us to prioritise last year so that we can see how we’ve done and how faithful he has been.

The Last Year

At HBC last year we felt God calling us to pursue three values in particular. We set out to be a church which is:

  • missionally active, bringing people to meet Jesus Christ;
  • pastorally close, caring for one another; and
  • theologically deep, exploring the deep things of God.

As I look back on the last year I see God’s blessing on us as we have grown in each of these areas.

We have shared the good news of Jesus Christ in through our words and actions:

  • The church has run two Alpha courses and seen people both returning to Christ and encountering him for the first time.
  • We have had people coming to our Sunday services and finding peace and hope in the good news of Christ.
  • We have cared for the poor by collecting and distributing toys, shoes, winter clothing, money, and food to those who need it.

Similarly, every week I hear stories of how members of this church care for one another:

  • Friends taking each other to the hospital;
  • Young people visiting and praying with those who can’t get out.
  • People providing counselling and coffee for those in distress.
  • Those with money sharing their finances with those who are struggling.

Everywhere I look the members of this church are demonstrating the love of Christ to one another.

Finally I see people’s understanding and appreciation of God and his calling on our lives deepening and growing.

  • The questions I am asked have become more penetrating.
  • The way people talk and which I overhear has become richer and deeper.
  • I have seen individuals lives transformed through their understanding of grace and holiness.

Through it all God has blessed us financially and in terms of numbers. Year on year we are growing and this church is becoming once again a sustainable, healthy and vibrant community.

All of this is the grace of God. We have worked hard and are entitled to be happy and feel satisfied yet we know that everything we do is done by, through and for the grace of God. To paraphrase St Paul:

By the grace of God we are what we are, and his grace to us was not without effect. No, we worked hard–yet not we, but the grace of God that was with us.[1]

God has done great things yet we do not want to be satisfied with what God has done. We want to be a part of what God is doing and will do.

The Year Ahead

There are two texts that I want to consider as we think about what God is leading us into in the year ahead. The first is from Philippians 3:7-11.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.[2]

Every time I pray about Christ’s priorities for this church in the year ahead this is what I come back to.

We want to know Christ more deeply, becoming ever more truly his followers.

I believe God wants us to keep on being missionally active, pastorally close and theologically deep. But through all of those things our aim is to become an ever more Christ Centred Community.

I’m going to explain what I mean by this. Then next week I’m going to explore some ways that we can make it a reality for us.

Becoming an increasingly Christ Centred Community means:

  • Encountering the Presence of Christ.
  • Becoming the Presence of Christ.
  • Presenting the Presence of Christ.

Encountering the Presence of Christ

We are nothing unless we are people who have and are encountering Christ.

Everything flows from meeting the risen Son of God.

  • It is when we encounter Christ that we meet God and receive his grace.
  • It is the presence of Christ that we find forgiveness for our sin and freedom from its power.
  • The presence of Christ brings hope for those who are despairing and peace for those in turmoil.
  • It is when we have met with Christ that our mission and work becomes effective.

It was said of the first Christian leaders that people could recognise that they had been with Jesus. He is contagious.

To put it another way, they were a community which knew what it is to be saved by the grace of God in Jesus.

This isn’t something that happens just once. Salvation has to have a beginning in the moment when we meet Jesus and decide to trust him with our lives. Yet it continues past that moment.

I have been saved yet I am still being saved as I meet Jesus:

  • In worship.
  • In scripture.
  • In bringing our sins to Christ and finding forgiveness.
  • In learning to receive peace in the midst of trials.
  • In coming to the Son of God and asking him for mercy and a new heart.

My desire is that we pursue the presence of Christ so that he is encountered in our worship, in our small groups and in our separate lives.

Becoming the Presence of Christ

This brings us to the second text that I believe God is putting in front of us this year.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.[3]

When we truly encounter Christ we are changed by him.

This is what I long for in my life: to be like Jesus.

I want God to remove the bad things in my life and to embrace the good. I want to flee from sin and pursue holiness and through that process come to share in God’s nature.

This is also what I believe God wants for us.

We want to be a community not only of forgiveness but also of transformation. To use theological language, we want to know not only God’s justifying grace – the grace that makes us right with him – but sanctifying grace – the grace that makes us like Jesus.

This is what we are created for – to be like Jesus and to enjoy being with Jesus. It is the destination our hearts yearn towards, to be free from sin and full of holy love, and it flows out of our encounter with Christ as we cooperate with God’s Spirit.

Presenting the Presence of Christ

Finally, I believe we’re called to present the presence of Christ to others.

To put it another way, I want us to become a community of love, sharing Christ with others.

A part of this is what we do together – the events the church puts on to demonstrate God’s love to those around us.

But it goes beyond what the church puts on to the way that we are in our separate lives. It is caring for our physical neighbours, looking out for the child at school who is left out, loving our family, inviting our friends to the Parenting Course or to Alpha or to Church, and resolving to demonstrate God’s unearned love in acts of kindness and grace to those who have no reason or right to expect them.

Application

We’re going to think about how we can work this out in my next post.

For now, however, let me offer three suggestions.

  • One of the best ways to encounter Christ is to read the Bible regularly. There is no hard and fast way to do this. If you have never done it before, why not pick a gospel and read a chapter a day? It only takes about 5 minutes. Or if you have a smart phone you can try the Bible in One Year app which is excellent and sends a reading and a short reflection straight to you every day.
  • The best way to be transformed to be like Jesus is to join a Life Group. Our Life Groups are on Sunday night and Tuesday afternoon. We meet together to encourage one another, share our trials and triumphs and pray for each other.
  • The easiest way to present Christ to someone else is to begin to pray for them and keep your eyes open. If you want an easy way to invite someone to church try the diary or the Parenting Course.

[1] Paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 15:10.

[2] Philippians 3:7-11

[3] 1 Peter 2:3-4

Serving One Another: Power and the Christian

From heaven you came helpless babe
Entered our world, your glory veiled
Not to be served but to serve
And give Your life that we might live[1]

Introduction

We’ve been thinking about holiness together for the last few of months. We began with the foundations of holiness, in God himself, progressed through the character of holiness, the heart of holiness and then looked at the how of holiness.

In my last post I described some of the problems that power (the ability to obtain something whether from other people or from somewhere else) brings. Power itself is neither good nor bad. Yet as with anything powerful, power itself is dangerous if it isn’t handled properly In short, it promises autonomy but brings isolation, it promises significance but corrodes our character, and it promises control but controls us.

This week I want to suggest how we can approach power in a more healthy way as Christians before looking at the example of Jesus himself. I should say that I’m not going to deal with ideas about how Christians should relate to the state or government. My concern is more how can ordinary Christians (like me) live faithfully.

Created and Loved

We begin by knowing both that we are created and we are loved by our Creator. In fact, God is at the very centre of our understanding of love. St John puts it this way:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.[2]

There are two aspects to this.

We have a Creator.

That is the most liberating and humbling thought. It spares us from the exhaustion of trying to be God, trying to control the world around us, to bend others to our will and the frustration of our inevitable failure. It also humbles us because we see that we are accountable. We cannot use and abuse our power over each other with impunity – we will have to account for it to another.

Yet we are more than just creatures; we are infinitely, extravagantly loved.

  • There is no need to obtain approval from other people – we are already loved.
  • There is no need to earn or justify God’s love for us – we are already loved.
  • We do not need to create lives of significance – we are already loved.

When we think about how we exercise power, we start from the humility and security of created people whom the Creator considered worth dying for.

Submit to One Another

Once we have understood that we are loved by our Creator, we can confront the idea that power relationships are inevitable. They are part of each of us being an effective and full moral person. Moreover, groups could not function without people being willing to exercise the power they have and even, at times, to lead.

Nevertheless, we should be careful that we approach the obtaining and exercising of power in a way that honours God and expresses his character.

There is much that could be said about this but a good starting point for us is Jesus’ teaching in Luke 22:24-27

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.[3]

Jesus emphasises that where we have power it is to be exercised for the good of others and not ourselves. In turn this means not seeking results that benefit or enrich ourselves but others. This includes being accountable to others, being willing to be challenged on whether we are pursuing appropriate goals and are using proper means to achieve them, and being willing to defend others even at our own expense.

Exercising power with the heart of a servant and not a master means showing respect for others. This includes being firm when we’re resisting sin and evil while being patient and gentle with those we seek to persuade. We try to lead in our homes, our workplaces, our schools and communities not by force of personality, threat of censure or financial muscle but by the graciousness of our words and the attractiveness of our example. Through all of this we respect the freedom of others to agree or disagree, to follow our path or to choose another.

Follow Jesus

We see this worked out when we look at Jesus’ example. St Paul puts it beautifully:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

   In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

  Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

      Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father
.[4]

This is how Jesus handles power, even that of being God himself. He doesn’t count it as something to be grasped but is willing to give it up for the sake of others. He uses it not for his own advantage but for the sake of those who are lost and need to be found. This should be how we do it too.

Further Reading

You can find a book of 9 reflections covering the material I’ll be sharing in these posts by clicking here. You can also check out our website to hear talks on the same subject.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are some of the resources I have found particularly helpful and which I have used to prepare these articles.

Foster, Richard J., Money, Sex and Power (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009)

Hays, Richard B., The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996)

Hosier, Matthew, Sex Talks (Amazon, 2011)

Piper, John, Living in the Light: Money, Sex and Power (Epsom: Good Book Company, 2016)

Wesley, John, The Complete Sermons (Hargreaves Publishing: Kindle Edition)

 

[1] Graham Kendrick, The Servant King, © 1983 Thankyou Music

[2] 1 John 4:9-11

[3] Luke 22:24-27

[4] Philippians 2:3-11

We Can Rule the World: The Problem of Power

Yeah you and me we can ride on a star
If you stay with me girl, we can rule the world[1]

Introduction

We’ve been thinking about holiness together for the last few of months. We began with the foundations of holiness, in God himself, progressed through the character of holiness, the heart of holiness and then looked at the how of holiness.

In my last few posts I have started to examine how this affects three of the major areas of human life: money, sex and power. This week we’re thinking about the problems of power. Then we’ll follow that by examining how we understand power as Christians.

What is Power

First, what do we mean by power? Power is simply the ability to obtain something whether from other people or from somewhere else. It is a natural consequence of a world in which we are free and where we interact with each other.

Power isn’t limited to politics or business, each one of us has power in different ways and in different areas. For example, a parent has power over their children yet the child also has power over her parents.

Money brings us power. So does our looks or physical presence, Each of us will have power in particular areas and relationships.

Power itself is neither good nor bad. Yet as with anything powerful, power is dangerous if it isn’t handled properly.

I want to examine three of the problems that power presents us before looking at how we can follow Christ in our relationship with power.

The Problems of Power

We can learn a lot from the story of Adam and Eve. You can find it in Genesis 3.

Power Promises Autonomy but Brings Isolation

Part of the allure of power is the promise of independence. Healthy independence is good – we are designed to be autonomous individuals. Yet it can also be destructive. We are not only created to be independent, we are interdependent.

When we obtain what we want from other people by whatever means we can, we may become more autonomous but we also become more distant.

We can satisfy whatever desire we have without worrying whether it is what we were created to experience or

In the Biblical narrative when Adam and Eve took power for themselves they found that they were immediately alienated from each other and then from God and then from the world around them. There is a lesson here. We were not created to be alone. I need you and you need me. Together we need to be in relationship with God.

When we seek power over each other and against God we can jeopardise those relationships and we all suffer.

The promise of autonomy and happiness was true for a moment but in the end it was destructive.

Power Promises Significance but Corrodes Our Character

Adam and Eve wanted to be like God. They could not bear simply to be people.

I wonder how much ambition, how much desire to obtain promotion or fame, or control over people around us and our environment is driven by a deep anxiety and insecurity about who we are.

Deep down many of us desire to be the one who really matters. We may achieve some fleeting significance but we can do so at the expense of our characters.

We see this played out in our story as Adam immediately turns on Eve and Eve turns on the snake.

We see this pattern repeated throughout Scripture.

  • Power can feed our pride.
  • Power can blind us to what is important.
  • Power can cause us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise dream of.

This is supported by contemporary research.

In 2010 journalist Jonathan Lehrer published an account of the work of Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California, Berkley and Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Lehrer explains that in his work Keltner ‘compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making.’ Similarly, Galinsky argues that ‘[the myopia of power] makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else.’[1]

Power Promises Control but Controls Us

Finally, power is addictive – it promises control but comes to control us.

There are many ways to understand the story of Adam and Eve, one of which is to see it as essentially about the desire for power.

When the serpent comes to Eve he gives her the promise of wisdom that will make her like God. More than that, she is taking power over her husband and over the world around them.

It was not enough to have control over everything else around them; Adam and Eve had the chance to be like God and they took it.

In fact, so profound is the temptation to obtain and abuse power that it is among the temptations that Satan brings to Jesus at the beginning of his work. The story is told in Luke 4.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry…

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’[2]

All of this could lead us to despair. But fear not! Christ shows us a better way. We’ll be thinking about this more next week.

Further Reading

You can find a book of 9 reflections covering the material I’ll be sharing in these posts by clicking here. You can also check out our website to hear talks on the same subject.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are some of the resources I have found particularly helpful and which I have used to prepare these articles.

Foster, Richard J., Money, Sex and Power (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009)

Hays, Richard B., The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996)

Hosier, Matthew, Sex Talks (Amazon, 2011)

Piper, John, Living in the Light: Money, Sex and Power (Epsom: Good Book Company, 2016)

Wesley, John, The Complete Sermons (Hargreaves Publishing: Kindle Edition)

[1] Rule the World (2007, Take That)

[1] Jonah Lehrer. ‘The Psychology of Power’, Wired, 14 August 2010 < https://www.wired.com/2010/08/the-psychology-of-power/ > [accessed 16 November 2016]

[2] Luke 4:1-2, 5-8

Image Credit

The Promise of Money

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone[1] 

Introduction

Before the summer we were studying holiness and had begun to think about how this is worked out in our relationship to money, sex and power.

In my last post I looked at the way Jesus and his followers spoke about money. We saw that Jesus spoke about money in two ways – a light side and a dark side. Naturally money tends to control us rather than being controlled by us. Yet when Christ died he made defeated the powers that control us and made it possible for us to be free.

I unintentionally left the series on that note over the summer. Now I want to return to examine the lighter side of money. I can only touch on these issues. I highly recommend following up with the materials I mention at the end.

The Lighter Side

When we are free from their tendency to control us, money or possessions can be a source of blessing for us and for others and can be used to deepen our relationship with God. For example:

  • when the wise men came to visit Jesus they brought extravagant gifts fitting for a king;[1]
  • wealthy women supported Jesus and his followers;[2]
  • Barnabas, whose name means ‘son of encouragement’, used his property and investments to support the early church;[3]
  • Cornelius, an early convert, is told by an angel that God has seen his ‘prayers and gifts to the poor’; and[4]
  • St Paul speaks about the spiritual benefits of giving. [5]

These are just examples but they should suffice to show us that in its proper place, under God, money can be good.

In the rest of this article I’m going to set out some principles for how we can cultivate the light side of money, and then look at practical steps we can follow to implement them.

God is the Provider

A good and godly attitude to money and possessions begins with the acknowledgment that God is the provider and owner of everything.

God has made a beautiful and bountiful world for us to use and enjoy. It is this creation that is the source of our wealth and which we receive as a gift.

Jesus’ brother, James, who is severely critical of people getting rich at the expense of others, writes of the joy we can take from God’s gifts to us:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.[6]

Scripture goes further, however. Not only is God the provider of everything, He is also its owner. So we are told that God said to Job:

‘Everything under heaven belongs to me.’[7]

In the same way, the Psalmist says:

‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.’[8]

Ultimately, therefore, all our wealth, all our money, comes as a gift from God.

This removes a reason for us to be anxious and prevents us being too possessive. As Jesus taught:

[W]hy do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.[9]

Controlling and Using

If God is the true owner of everything then we do not truly ‘own’ anything. We are entrusted with it by God not only to enjoy it but to use it for the good of others – to bless and build them up, to care spiritually and physically for them.

We see this in the life of the earliest church. Luke records that in those days:

‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.’[10]

This is more than just giving our possessions away. In some ways that is too easy. We are trusted to take what we have been given and work with it so that we can care for each other. For example, Barnabas managed his property well and therefore was able to help others when they needed it most.

‘Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.’[11]

This shows that the issue is more subtle than not earning money or managing property it is what we intend to use it for. My hero and spiritual guide, John Wesley, famously put it this way:

Having, first, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.[12]

Wesley lived this out. John Piper, the American pastor and scholar explains quite how far Wesley took this:

In 1731 he began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. In the first year his income was £30 and he found he could live on 28 and so gave away two. In the second year his income doubled but he held his expenses even, and so he had £32 to give away (a comfortable year’s income). In the third year his income jumped to £90 and he gave away £62. In his long life Wesley’s income advanced to as high as £1,400 in a year. But he rarely let his expenses rise above £30. He said that he seldom had more than £100 in his possession at a time.

This so baffled the English Tax Commissioners that they investigated him in 1776 insisting that for a man of his income he must have silver dishes that he was not paying excise tax on. He wrote them,

‘I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.’

When he died in 1791 at the age of 87, the only money mentioned in his will was the coins to be found in his pockets and dresser. Most of the £30,000 he had earned in his life had been given away. He wrote,

‘I cannot help leaving my books behind me whenever God calls me hence; but in every other respect, my own hands will be my executors.’[13]

In all of this our pattern is Christ himself, [w]ho being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross![14]

Practical Steps

So, how do we put this into practice? I want to suggest four disciplines that will make money a blessing for others and for ourselves:

  1. Read Scripture with an eye to the teaching on money and how used.
    It is easy, particularly in the West, to miss quite how often Jesus and his followers talked about money or how often the Old Testament prophets railed against the abuse of the poor. The first step we can take to change how we think about and use money is to notice what Scripture actually has to say about it and then resolve to follow it.
  2. Pray about how we should use money and talk with other believers about it.
    If we’re going to make the good use of money an important part of our lives then we need to be willing to talk about it. Obviously we will want to choose those we trust to share this aspect of our life with but we need the help, support and prayers of others about our finances just as much, if not more, than we do about other areas of life.
  3. Give money away.
    There is nothing better for breaking the anxiety that money brings us, or its tendency to dominate and subsume everything than to give it away. It is a way of trampling on a false god. We encourage people to give money to care for their families, to build the church up, and to care for others both for the good it does for others and because it liberates the giver to be free from money’s grasp.
  4. Finally, work hard but work to live, don’t live to work.
    In the area I live (the London commuter belt) this is a big one. We need to regularly ask ourselves why we’re doing what we are doing, whether it is truly necessary, and whether we are valuing people over profits.

Money can be a tremendous blessing but only if it is used under God. Ultimately he is the source of our blessing and our treasure.

Tune in next week when we’re considering how our pursuit of holiness affects how we respond to power.

[1] ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, Joni Mitchell.

[1] Matthew 2:7-12

[2] Luke 8:2-3.

[3] Acts 4:36-37.

[4] Acts 10:2.

[5] 2 Corinthians 9:6-8.

[6] James 1:17.

[7] Job 41:11.

[8] Psalm 24:1.

[9] Matthew 6:25-34.

[10] Acts 2:44-45.

[11] Acts 4:36-37.

[12] From Sermon 50: The Use of Money

[13] John Piper, ‘Happy Birthday, John Wesley. Two Silver Spoons and Thousands of Souls’, <http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/happy-birthday-john-wesley-two-silver-spoons-and-thousands-of-souls> [accessed 1 November 16]

[14] Philippians 2:1-11.

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