Tuesday, January 02, 2007

2006 in review: some thoughts for evangelism

A couple of days late, but as I've been reflecting on what happened during 2006, I've been thinking about what this means for Christian witness. Of course, none of these trends are new, but took something of a new direction in 2006. Here are the main ideas I've come up with:

Sexuality

There’s plenty of evidence that sexuality and sexual freedom is likely to increasingly become a source of tension between Christians and those holding alternative worldviews. It's now often simply assumed by non-Christians that all forms of sexual activity are equally acceptable and equally good. Anyone who holds an alternative view - such as Christians who believe that God has given a blueprint for the proper use of the gift of sexuality - is likely to be ridiculed or vilified.

Meanwhile, in public discourse, increasing formal recognition is being given to homosexual relationships, and homosexual sex is endorsed as a valid activity. In the USA, the New Jersey Supreme Council unanimously ruled in October in favour of marriage equality for homosexual and heterosexual marriages. By the end of 2006, five countries had already legalised gay marriages with exactly the same legal status as heterosexual marriage.

Popular culture also endorses homosexual sex as a valid choice. Brokeback Mountain was highly acclaimed in 2006 and won several awards, including an Oscar for its director, Ang Lee. Aside of any cinematographic issues, the film has a powerful message: that homosexually oriented people are wasting their lives if they are not in sexual relationships. A sexual relationship is seen as necessary to be a properly fulfilled 'human'.

The fact that sexual choice is becoming an increasingly important gospel issue has shown through the controversy surrounding the ‘PURE’ course on several university campuses in the UK. In Britain, as in many countries around the world, to call certain behaviours 'right' and 'wrong' is no longer acceptable.

All this has big implications for Christian witness. Those people that we meet will commonly hold the view that sex in any form is fine. Often Christians will be labelled as homophobic before even being given an opportunity to explain our position.

Christians need to be clear that homosexual orientation and homosexual sex are not the same thing. Homosexual orientation is not sinful. We also need to remember that any form of sexual activity outside of heterosexual falls short of God's blueprint for sex. We also need to be heard to be saying that everyone - Christians included - have turned away from God in the sexual realm, and need to be forgiven. And finally, we need to remember that true life as a human is not being in a sexual relationship, but having a relationship with God. This is what we were created for (John 17:3).

Scepticism

Another key theme from 2006 was disillusionment and scepticism. Particularly, as war in Iraq rumbled into a third year, popular culture increasingly showed a real disenchantment and distrust with institutional politics. Situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia (to name a few) feel hopeless - and Western intervention is no longer seen as the answer. The lack of confidence in political leaders like George Bush and Tony Blair (but also in pretty much any political leader) reflect the fact that many people feel let down and confused. One friend I spoke to recently said that he felt as though he had been 'used'.

This scepticism at great claims is nothing new. It's been part of the post-modern mindset since the Second World War. However, it's noticeable that claims to truth are now not only being treated sceptically, but in an actively hostile matter. The fear is no longer just that truth claims may not be true, but - even sharper - that these truth claims may make a situation even worse. A claim that the situation needs to be dealt with in Iran, for instance, isn't just met with scepticism, but with fear: might our involvement make things even worse?

All this means that gone are the utopian ideals of the 19th Century. The population at large now has a far more accurate (and Biblical) picture of humanity - that we are part of the problem as well as potentially also being part of the solution. However, the flip-side of this is that claims to gospel truth are likely also to be treated by many with utmost scepticism. There is a fear that such 'grand claims' could also be used to excuse violence (a key theme in Richard Dawkins' book, 'The God Delusion'). Increasingly, people need to see that Christianity is not only true, but that sin really is bad, and that the way that God calls us to live genuinely is the best way of living. People need to see the 'goodness' of the gospel.

Secularisation

The aforementioned book, 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins is the latest atheist attempt to dismiss and marginalise belief in God. Dawkins' vitriolic attack on religious belief - particularly Christian belief - is something which has been matched in the political realm. February 2006 saw the failed attempt in the UK Parliament to put into place a 'religious hatred bill' that would have criticised 'abusive and insulting' religious teaching. Naturally, Christians should oppose genuine hate speech - but the Bill could have potentially put serious limits on gospel proclamation by Christians. Further attempts to whittle away gospel freedoms may come in the future in the name of 'tolerance'.

At the same time, Islamic and Christian 'fundamentalists' are often branched together in one category. Many writers, including Dawkins, simply assume that any 'fundamental' belief is dangerous and will inevitably lead to violence. The unease in Britain following the failed 7/7 London attacks, where the bombers were middle-class, educated British Muslims has led many to seriously worry about 'fundamental' teachings (as seen in many of John Reid's recent speeches). Unfortunately, very little discrimination is made between the substance of this teaching.

Again, activity on our campuses bears witness to such an attempt to silence the voices of those who hold on to 'truth'. Christians have been hard hit. The controversies across several UK universities, where some Students' Unions have sought to disaffiliate Christian Unions who ask for those in leadership to sign a Doctrinal Basis of orthodox Christian beliefs, is one symptom. There may well be more to follow.

Christians are not called to be tolerant - we are called to love. 'Tolerance' - at least in the contemporary sense - means to silence voices that dissent against the norm. Love means hearing another's point of view, respecting a person's freedom to say it (even if false), robustly holding on to the truth and loving them even if they continue to disagree. In the present climate, such love will be especially conspicous. This will surely then give Christians plenty of opportunity to challenge people with the objective and historical ontological roots of the gospel: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It's sometimes bewildering when we think what challenges might face us in 2007. Paul needed to remind the Corinthian readers of the authenticity of the apostolic gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-9. And that confidence is ours as well as we continue to implore people: be reconciled to God.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Untangling Postmodernism

As the resident postmodern, I was recently asked to give a 'seminar' at church on reaching postmodern culture. It followed a seminar the previous week on the difference between modernism and postmodernism (which I didn't give). That talk outlined the changes that have taken place, and some of the key features of postmodern. But his of course left the following question in everyone's minds: “If the world is seeing things from a postmodern point of view, how does this affect the way we tell them about Jesus?”

I learned a huge amount by listening to the talks from the Desiring God 2006 conference, which was on “The Supremacy of Christ in Postmodern Culture” (see below for a list of helpful references). Tim Keller made reference to a talk by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It's from a talk about revival he gave about 60 years ago (I've abridged it slightly)...

"I see a very great difference between today and... even one hundred years ago. The difficulty in those earlier times was that men and women were in a state of apathy. They were more or less asleep... there was no general denial of Christian truth. It was just that people did not trouble to practise it... in a sense, all you had to do then was to awaken them and to rouse them, and to disturb them out of their lethargy. The problem for us is not apathy... it is something much more profound... the very belief in God has virtually gone.”

[From The Urgent Need for Revival Today, and address by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1959!]

Lloyd-Jones saw this happening 60 years ago. The problem has, unsurprisingly, got worse since then (although I wonder how things would have turned out if people had listened to him – have a look at Preachers and Preaching and see how many of the warnings he gives have come true...).

When those with a modern mindset (or who have been trained to do evangelism from a modern mindset?) try to reach those with a postmodern mindset, they can bring assumptions which no longer hold true. Tim Keller, in his DG talk, identifies 3 basic problems in reaching postmoderns with the gospel...

Truth – to postmoderns, truth claims are seen to be exclusive (which is bad) and power-play, claiming authority over others.
Guilt – older ways of communicating the gospel assumed people have a guilty conscience. (as per Romans 2v15). But today, in the absence of authority or moral absolutes, it is deeply hidden and easily ignored.
Meaning – words and texts no longer have a fixed meaning, which makes communication difficult and extremely relativistic.

In reacting to modernism, postmodernism has rejected a lot. But the reaction to modernism has also led to postmoderns seeking certain things. Particularly...
Authenticity – in a world of spin, being 'real' becomes more important than ever.
Community – our culture is individual and separated. Postmoderns are searching for real community.
Plausability – as truth is downgraded, what works becomes key.
Answers – to deep questions, like “who am I?” and “why am I here?” Those offered by postmodern secular humanism are pretty bleak.

Many people claim that 'traditional methods' are becoming increasingly less effective (although I'm not sure what those people base this claim on). If this is true, where does it leave us? We're usually given three options...
1. Keep doing the same thing – a position which evangelicals are particularly guilty of. We assume that if God has used one method in the past, he will continue to use it. It is postmoderns who have the problem, not us. Eventually they'll get over it.
2. Change our methods – we can think up new and creative ways of presenting Jesus to postmoderns, but without trying to understand how postmoderns think. This has led to some interesting new ways of doing things, which connect with postmoderns. But there are dangers to which it is easy to succumb...
Compromise the Gospel – the Gospel is changed to make it more acceptable, by leaving bits out or 'reinterpreting' key terms.
Add to the Gospel – the Gospel is elaborated, the wrong bits are emphasised, or false promises are made (e.g. prosperity gospel, promises of healing etc).
Hide the Gospel – the Gospel is kept the same, but hidden so as not to offend (e.g. building relationships, but never actually sharing the gospel with those people).
None of these will bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ.
3. Dive in! Think like postmoderns, talk like postmoderns, live like postmoderns. Here, I don't just mean 'contextualisation or attempting to engage, but actually rewriting our theology incorporating the postmodern worldview and thinking. This usually has the same outcomes as point two, but it represents a change to the foundations as well as to the structures of theology, in that key ideas like authority and absolutes are questioned.

I don't think any of the above solutions represents a complete answer, because each one puts the wrong thing at the centre. What we actually need is to go back to the Gospel. So we should not move away from it or 'develop' beyond it. But this will also be radically different to just doing the same thing we've been doing for decades.

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”
[Romans 1v16]

This hasn't changed! The Gospel is still “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”. Faith still comes through hearing the Word of God proclaimed (Rom 10v14). So the answer cannot be to give up on preaching the Gospel! But we need to make sure that when the Gospel is proclaimed (whether up-front or one-to-one), we frame it in a way that will connect (and it will, because it carries the power of God!).

Yet this isn't just a case of finding new illustrations or using film clips. For this really to happen, we need to rediscover the Gospel for ourselves! The Gospel is not just the bare minimum that we have to believe to be saved – it is the whole truth of what God has done for us, in Christ. The gospel has been filtered through modernism, which has left us with confessions – lists of propositions of truth. If they are Biblical, they are helpful and true, but they are not the whole Gospel. And they don't scratch where postmoderns itch. But the Gospel itself will. If we get back to the heart of the Gospel ourselves, it will affect us, and it will address the needs and desires of postmodern people.


  • The Gospel is authentic – it connects with real people, and deals with real problems. We need to let our lives show, so people can see this.
  • The Gospel brings community in a way that nothing else can.
  • The Gospel is plausible. Simply, it works. We should be willing to show people it works, by sharing our lives, our struggle and hurts, and how the reality of the Gospel affects them.
  • The Gospel gives answers; not just propositions of truth, but answers which address every area of life, to a depth which nothing else can reach.


This all raises a lot more questions than it answers (which was actually my intention). Some of the questions which occurred to me were...


  • What common ground do we share with postmoderns?
  • What is the place of preaching (particularly expository preaching) in postmodern culture?
  • What is the place of apologetics?
  • What priority should holiness and lifestyle issues be given?
  • How would a postmodern feel in church?
  • Who should change, us or them?


I want to try to answer these questions, and I'll share my thoughts here as they appear. But, in the mean time, I'd love to hear feedback.

Helpful Resources:
All of the following are excellent...


For getting your head round postmodernism, try Meltdown, by Marcus Honeysett. For a slightly more in-depth look at how this relates to the church, have a look at Carson's Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Some thoughts on hell

I've been giving some thought recently to the Bible's teaching about hell, having been asked to give a lunchbar on 'Why Christians deserve hell'. My thoughts are very much work-in-progress, but here are some of the ideas I've been wrestling with.

On speaking of hell: the background
  • Our basis for speaking about hell at all comes from Jesus. Jesus himself warned his hearers of the eternal punishment awaiting those who reject Him [see Matthew 13:40-42 etc.]. If we clearly and compassionately expound the truth about hell, we should expect to find people responding to it in faith.
  • However, Christians should speak about hell, as Francis Schaeffer put it, 'with tears'. Ultimately God's justice is something in which to rejoice, but the sort of self-righteous triumphalism common in some Medieval Christianity is something we must reject. Biblical teaching on hell must be set in its proper setting and spoken of with prayer and compassion. I'm reminded of Jesus' words as he mourns the fate of Jerusalem - see Matthew 23:37.
  • Hell is an emotional and emotive subject of conversation. Nearly 75% of Britons believe in heaven, but only 28% believe in hell. Of course, this proves nothing - but if hell really does exist, belief in its non-existence is just a psychological crutch.
  • The Bible's teaching about hell is misunderstood and by many people, both Christian and non-Christian. In particular, hell is often raised to 'prove' that the God of the Bible is primitive, barbaric, old-fashioned, hypocritical and immoral. When there is talk of hell, it's not at all unusual to hear people say things like, 'Well I wouldn't punish people forever, and if God is good, then he wouldn't do that to me. Your God is morally inferior to people like me.'
  • It's generally assumed that only the really evil people - the Hitlers, Stalins and Shipmans - will suffer punishment in hell.
Jesus on hell
  • People sometimes say that the Old Testament God showed a God of wrath and judgment, but Jesus proclaimed a message of love. But this is not true at all: most of what Christians teach about hell came straight from the mouth of Jesus, who claimed to be God in human form. In fact, read through Jesus’ teaching and apart from teaching about his own identity, Jesus spoke about judgement and hell more than anything else. More than half of his parables were about these subjects.
  • One of Jesus’ most common ways of describing existence after death was 'Gehenna'. This comes from the name of a place: the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In Israel’s history, this was the place where the Israelite kings Ahaz and Manasseh had sacrificed their children to pagan gods, by burning them in the fire. It was an infamous place. The nearest equivalent today would be somewhere like Auschwitz, with a horrific reputation. By Jesus’ time, Gehenna had become the city’s rubbish tip, thereby explaining several of Jesus’ metaphors: it was a place of decay, where the maggots and worms never stopped feasting; it was a place of burning, where the fires never went out. And so Gehenna is the place that came to be used as a symbol for the place of final judgment on the evil.
  • Jesus uses a lot of picture language when he speaks about hell, and it’s sometimes difficult to know whether he’s using these words as a literal description of hell, or whether it’s metaphorical. Either way, hell is a horrific place. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. He spoke of hell as the consequence of God’s holy wrath upon the ungodly – a place of torment and agony, where Jesus says the fire is never put out. Although much of the description of hell appears symbolic, this is only because the reality of hell is unimaginable; it is greater than what symbols could convey. Either we accept that Jesus knew what he was talking about, and meant what he said, or we decide that we know better than he does.
Sin, God's holiness and the cross of Christ
  • As Douglas Groothuis helpfully states, 'The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian horror story. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God's holiness, and the cross of Christ.'
  • Our inclination is to think that it is unjust that people should face the suffering of hell for sin. But the Bible claims that hell is a place of dreadful justice. In other words, when the question, 'Why do good people go to hell?' is asked, the Bible's clear and loving answer is this: they don't. The problem is that none of us is good.
  • We long to see justice in our world. When people are exploited or snubbed, we cry out for justice. Hell is God's place of justice for our rebellion against him.
  • Each of us has ruled God out and rebelled against him. We have crossed him out, having taken his good gifts – including our every breath, on which we depend from God. We’ve taken all of the good things that God has given us in his word, but then snapped our fingers in his face and told him we don’t want him to be God. We are sinful - see Romans 1:29-32.
  • And so as rebels against God, we all deserve punishment, Christians included. But is hell too extreme? Jonathan Edwards argued that because God is "a Being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory," he is therefore "infinitely honorable" and worthy of absolute obedience. And so he goes on: "Sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and deserving of infinite punishment."
  • Left to ourselves, we have no grounds for confidence before God and every reason to fear hell. God, who is angry with sin, could justifiably send the sinner to hell at any moment. Jesus himself warned, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell" [Matthew 10:28].
  • And so, JI Packer states: ‘Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God's action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less.’
  • We convince ourselves that we are innocent, we’re fine, and that we do not deserve to be judged. But there are no innocent people in hell - only the evil go there, and there is no second chance. The idea of purgatory is not a Scriptural idea. But it’s not rejecting a second chance that would make us guilty. We are already guilty.
The good news of the gospel
  • The truth of John 3:16 is that God so loved the world that he'd rather sacrifice his Son, Jesus Christ, God in human form, than send people like us to hell.
  • Sin against God is so serious that only the death of the sinless Son of God could atone for it. We see the reality of hell when Jesus screams out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mark 15:34]. Paul explained, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" [2 Corinthians 5:21]. At the cross, the sinfulness of sin, the holiness of God, and the reality of hell are satisfied through Jesus' sacrifice. Only through Christ taking on our hell through his death could sinners be reconciled to a holy God. Once this is understood, hell takes on real clarity. Other than the cross, there is no hope for forgiveness or reconciliation. Hell is the only alternative.
  • Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God's love. God's love took His Son to the hell of the cross for our sake. This is a costly love that has no parallel in any of the world's religions. Although other religions [particularly Islam] threaten hell, none offer the sure deliverance from it that Christianity offers through the sacrificial love of God himself.
  • We have been given a incredible opportunity! All we deserve is hell. The really amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that God has given us an opportunity to repent, to turn back to him and to place our trust in Jesus’ sacrifice [see 2 Peter 3:8-9]. The amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that we are not all there today! The amazing thing is that heaven will be populated by humans at all – this comes only through God’s intervention.
  • Heaven is not made up of good people – none of us is good, but it will be made up of forgiven people. Those who are trusting Jesus can know their place in heaven is secure, because they can say with confidence that Jesus has paid the price for their rebellion against God. And because it is paid, it does not need to be paid again.
'This the power of the cross: Son of God, slain for us! What a love! What a cost! We stand forgiven at the cross.'

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Oh, you of little faith....

As I write, we're half way throughout the CU mission week at St Martin's College in Lancaster. Already I'm feeling the effects of the lack of sleep and a lot of busyness during the days.

Last night's event was a first for me - a 'text and toastie' event. The idea is this: the campus was showered with flyers explaining that a person could get a free toastie by texting a special number with their address and with a question about Jesus or Christianity that a CU member and CU mission guest would then come and answer as they brought the toastie. Now I'm all for novel evangelism, but I wondered if this event would really work. Surely people would just text in stupid questions? Surely it would be a waste of time? Surely there would be little opportuntiy for proclamation of the gospel? Oh, me of little faith.

Not only did the CU get through forty loaves of bread, and tonnes of cheese, ham and beans, but the questions came thick and fast. Of course some questions were irrelevant and asked just to get the toastie (of the sort, 'How many full stops are there in the Bible?'), but for the main part, the questions were genuine. Many people took up the opportunity of asking questions. Conversations went on with people well into the night, and questions that were asked in earnestness included, 'Can God really forgive me given my past?', 'What will happen when I die?' and 'What does God think about different religions?'

One question was, 'Is Jesus alive and still in human form today?' Those that went to answer the question explained that Jesus was born in human form, died in human form, and is coming back in human form. The news that Jesus is coming back was a complete shock to the person who asked the question, who asked for a copy of a gospel to find out more. And there were dozens of other similar conversations.

The thing I was reminded is this: people really do have questions and they really do have answers. As Ravi Zacharias says, 'People want answers to the questions of the mind and the wounds of the heart.' As Christians, we need to make it as easy as possible to enable the real questions that people have to be asked. Events like 'Grill-a-Christians' are a start - but this event reminded me not to limit creativity in taking the gospel out.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Westlife and Jesus on love


So here's the post you'd never have expected: Peter Dray on Westlife.

OK, so I'm not exactly a fan, but Irish boyband Westlife have just made it into the Guinness World Book of Records for the most singles to debut straight in at #1. Their latest song, The Rose, is their fourteenth, and their latest album, The Love Album, is set to hit #1 next week. Now the cynic in me tells me that Westlife's songs probably won't stretch very far in our memories [so memorable are their songs that when I recently challenged an advocate of Westlife to name more than five songs, she'd couldn't!] - so why on earth is their music so popular?

I guess it's for a combination of reasons. Partly it's because they are well-groomed and good looking young men. Partly it's because their music is slushy and inoffensive. Partly it's the key change and change to a slightly slower tempo that we always know is going to come for the final repeat of the chorus. And partly it's because we long for what they sing about.

Take their most recent offering, The Rose:

Some say love it is a river / That drowns the tender reed /Some say love it is a razor / That leaves your soul to bleed

Some say love it is a hunger /An endless, aching need / I say love it is a flower / And you, its only seed

It's the heart afraid of breaking / That never learns to dance / It's the dream afraid of waking / That never takes the chance

It's the one who won't be taken / Who cannot seem to give / And the soul afraid of dying / That never learns to live

When the night has been too lonely / And the road has been too long / And you think that love is only / For the lucky and the strong

Just remember in the winter / Far beneath the bitter snow / Lies the seed that with the sun's love / In the spring, becomes the rose

Interesting stuff and, in fact, very typical of Westlife lyrics. Love is presented as something dangerous - it can drown the tender reed and make your soul to bleed. And yet, at the same time, it's something that is perceived as something that we need to be truly human. And so, say Westlife, take the chance and realise that love isn't just for the lucky and the strong. Even when you have been hurt by love, even when made bitter, don't be frightened as deep down 'lies the seed that with the sun's love in spring becomes the rose.'

It's true. We love and we are hurt as we do so. We crave relationships and yet they damage us. Being in a relationship is someone is at the very heart of what makes us human, and whilst they bring us more joy than anything else, they can also bring us more pain. They can leave our souls bleeding. Westlife's answer is to pluck up your courage again and take the plunge, hoping that next time it might be better [perhaps this is something ex-Westlife member Bryan McFadden also needs to hear following his public spat with former wife Kerry Catona].

Yet, on reading John 4, we see that Jesus' answer is much more radical. As he speaks to a woman who has at least five previous partners, he shows the woman that her relationships keep failing because she has ruled God out. Her problem is not with men, but with God. She had tried to do love her way, and in so doing had ruled God out. And because her relationship with God was wrong - she wanted to have the universe revolve around her - her relationships with others kept falling apart. If we get the Creator wrong, then we get our creatureliness wrong too. And, because all of us have ruled God out, it means that all of our relationships are imperfect.

What's Jesus' answer to the woman? It's this: worshipping the one true God, something that will bring her the satisfaction we're looking for, because he is the good giver and the one that won't fail us. As 1 John 4:7-10 shows, and as I wrote in a previous post on James' Morrison's lyrics, this is the love that drives out all fear. This is what we were created for - relationship with God, through Jesus' death on the cross for us. As John 17:3 puts it, 'Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.'

Human relationships will always fail us somehow, even those relationships where we are trying to live out God's blueprint for sex and relationships. And the answer is not to plunge yourself into another relationship hoping that the next man will be Mr Right. He won't be, because none of us are Mr Righteous. Yet, 'Christ died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God' [1 Peter 3:18].

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"I used to be a Christian too..."

One thought that has been turning over in my head for the past few days regards a conversation I had earlier in the week. I had quite a long conversation with a student, who said that he 'used to be a Christian up until the age of 11.' However, having listened to him for quite a while, I asked him what he thought 'being a Christian' meant. It was clear that he'd never really thought about it, and so I took him to Mark 8:27-38. We spoke about how being a Christian meant recognising what it meant for Jesus to be God's King, the Messiah, about what it meant for the Messiah to die and, crucially, what it means to be a follower - to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Jesus.

As we spoke, the student said what a relief it was to hear this. It was a relief to him that he had never really lived as a Christian. He said how he had assumed that because he thought he was a Christian and it 'hadn't worked' - he hadn't felt any form of existential satisfaction, that he had assumed that Christianity was invalid and untrue. He said that it came as a massive relief to know that what he had rejected was not authentic Christianity. Of course he could not have known any form of satisfaction, as he his relationship to God had not changed, his sin remained unforgiven and, therefore, he had no cause for joy. Off of the back of our conversation, he agreed to look at the Bible again for himself.

This episode has made me think carefully. Often I hear the phrase, 'I used to be a Christian...' and I have often let this comment go, preferring to focus on other gospel issues. Now, however, I am wondering if it is more important to show people the deficiencies in their 'Christianity' than I had previously thought. Surely it's important to show folks that what they have rejected is not authentic Christianity but a form of Christless and joyless and graceless moralism. This is not what it means to follow Jesus and it is not what Jesus called 'true life'. It is not 'to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent' (John 17:3). Yet until people realise this, they will assume that Jesus is someone to leave in the past, and not someone that can meet all of their needs.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

CS Lewis on pain

I'm currently looking over my material on suffering for a talk I'm giving for the Christian Union at St Martin's College in Ambleside later this week. I've been reminded of this incredible quote from 'The Problem of Pain' written by a man who knew a fair bit of pain in his own life, C.S. Lewis:


'The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakeable evil; every man knows something is wrong when he is being hurt... Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.'


We live in a painful and broken and cursed world. It is only by God's grace and mercy that he does not make us face the horrible fate of living forever as sinners in this world (see Genesis 3:22), without hope of ever having relationship with him again. Likewise, God could have let us muddle on in our sin, never realising the seriousness of our predicament.

Instead, God reminds us something is wrong - most graphically in pain and suffering - telling us that we are twisted people living in a cursed world. It is through pain that God screams at us that life is not as it was meant to be. Whilst pain is horrible, its effect is in itself grace from God: through pain, humanity is given an indicator of the seriousness of our rebellion and speaks to us of the urgency for our repentance (see 2 Peter 3:8-9). This certainly isn't the whole Christian truth on suffering - and even the Bible's explanation leaves some unanswered question. We don't know why particular people or particular groups experience pain as they specifically do. I don't know why a particular man was murdered in Preston last week in a street I often walk down myself. I don't know why a friend of mine has just contracted cancer. As Christians, we get in trouble when we are trite and won't admit that there is an element of mystery to the question of suffering and pain. And yet, this is part of the Bible's revealed truth: God graciously shows us the something of the horror of our sin, in order that, in repentance and through Jesus' sacrifice, we might be welcomed into the new order of things, where sin is no more and we can live with our God forever (see Revelation 21:1-4).