Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Way ‘They’ do Things These Days

The World in HurricaneIn her latter years my mother would explain to herself an increasingly confusing world with the words, ‘Well, that’s the way they do things these days.’ From free love to microwave ovens this phrase explained it all, ‘I don’t understand it, but that’s the way they do things these days.’

Most people follow the way they do things these days, whoever ‘they’ are. From the clothes we wear to the opinions we hear and retail, from what we choose as entertainment to our eating habits, and ther company we keep we all do things the way they are done these days.

But what if ‘they’ make bad  lifestyle choices, express dangerous, destructive opinions? How would we even know those choices were unwise if the way ‘they’ do things is our only measure of what is good, If man is the true measure of man?

I am reminded of the adage, ‘Who marries the spirit of the age will end widowed.’

James, in his letter to Christians scattered across the empire, writes about the trials of many kinds that come and test our faith (Js.1:2-3). He encourages us to have a firm faith, warning against doubt, or we will find ourselves ‘like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind,’ driven by the way things are done these days. Does that sound familiar?

When Jesus spoke of John the Baptist he said, ‘What did you go into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’ (Lk.7:24) A single reed was the personal emblem of Herod, a man blown about by every political wind, driven by the way things are done these days, defined by expediency, nothing to cling to but the latest piece of fashionable flotsam.

What we learn from my mother’s ‘explanation’ of the way things are done these days is that the spirit of the age will pass. The way things are done is not the way they were done in her lifetime, neither is the way things are done today the way things were done in my memory, The way you do things will pass too, another generation will rise and do things their way.

We are mistaken, of course, if we assume the way things were are preferable to the way things are, to imagine a golden age. At the same time it is folly to assume improvement is inevitable with each passing generation. Things can’t only get better, as history teaches us. What can we find to cling to in this process of rising and dying ages, this sea of life that tosses us this way and that?

James reminds us, ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach and it will be given him.’ (Js.1:5) The Father, he reminds us, is one ‘who does not change like shifting shadows’ (Js.1:17) and Jesus, we are told, is, ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever.’ (Heb.13: 8)

Isaiah reminds us, ‘All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field…The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever.’ (Is.40:7-8)

If you’re looking for stability in a changing world look no further than the word of God. It will often make you unpopular with those married to the age, but when this age has died and another rises, you will still be standing faithfully doing things God’s way, while they seek yet another marriage of convenience leading inevitably to another funeral.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Inventing the Individual: Book Review

Inventing the Individual 2The book Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop, works on the premise that liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity. That it emerged as the moral intuitions generated by Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church.

He traces the development of society, beginning with its earliest model, the family under the absolute authority of the paterfamilias, guardian of the family god and the sacred flame, through the wider family unit, the clan, to the tribe and the city state. The problem of transferring loyalties from family, to clan, to tribe and city state is addressed, with the establishment of hierarchies of gods, mirroring the hierarchical nature of society.

It is when we come to the Greek/Roman world that the influence of the church is first felt, with Paul establishing an entirely new concept of individual freedom in Christ. Where someone's value had always been determined by their role in society, Paul brought the idea that a 'soul' has worth apart from societal status. In place of the traditional assumption of natural inequality there was, for the first time, a moral equality, a common humanity, with citizens and slaves rubbing shoulders 'in church.'

With the fall of the Roman world and the fracturing of society, the church had to carve out a role for itself as a sovereign power whose area of authority was the care of souls. In doing this the church established canon law that defined its role and proscribed the role of secular powers. Indeed, it was the church, in seeing to its own affairs and survival, that first separated the spiritual from the secular.

The book traces the development of church authority alongside that of the secular world, describing the growth of papal authority and how successive generations wrestled with the inherent dangers in establishing in one man an absolute power, thereby re-establishing the hierarchical model of leadership followed in the ancient world.

There were long periods of conflict, with secular rulers, as well as within the church, as they addressed the question of where authority lay in the church, in the 'servant of servants' or in the church as a body of believers, represented by councils, cardinals, bishops, and clerics. Were Christians 'equal in submission,' as was thought by the Dominicans, or 'equal in liberty,' as taught by the Followers of St Francs? The growth of universities gave a space where these issues could be battled over, the main protagonists being Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham.

The book is well organised, with chapter heads and endings giving good summaries of where we have got to so far and where we are going. Near the end of the book Seidentop writes:

'We have seen how Christian egalitarianism (the 'care of souls') first shaped the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority, creating a sphere for individual conscience. We then followed the gradual but far from complete penetration of this egalitarianism into traditional beliefs - emerging as a kind of schizophrenia among Carolingians.

Finally, we discovered its full potential for transforming institutions in the papal revolution of the twelfth century, when the idea of a 'sovereign' authority over individuals, embodied in a coherent legal system, not only transformed the church, but also began to inspire secular rulers with the project of creating 'states' out of a jumble of feudal jurisdictions.'

Here is the nub of it. The role of the church, as it carved out its own space in the world, is powerful in the development of European, therefore Western liberalism. The 'Renaissance' is a product of this process, and not a break with it, as is popularly believed. Chapter by chapter we see how church government develops, who were the characters involved, what were the respective roles of reformists and traditionalists, what were the issues they struggled over, and what the outcomes.

Addressing the implications of losing sight of our roots, Siedentop e ends with a challenging question:

'If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?'

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Christian Narrative

In speaking to someone about faith issues I dropped into the conversation the, to me, uncontroversial term 'non-Christian,' only to be challenged, 'That's not a nice thing to say, that someone isn't a Christian.' Rather taken aback, I nevertheless realised the problem was one of definition. I was speaking to someone raised to believe a Christian is a good person, as in, 'He's a good Christian man, he'll always do you a good turn.' Of course, the Bible knows nothing of such a man and defines a Christian as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, indeed, as a bad person who has turned to Jesus seeking forgiveness and salvation.

I replied that there are many people in the world who would not thank you for calling them Christian. This was met with sudden incredulity, and I was asked, 'Who?'

Muslims, I replied, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, Atheists; When you think about it the list is formidable, and all those communities comprise many good people without being Christian people, non-PsychobabbleChristians.

In his book Psychobabble Dr Stephen Briers, addressing the subject of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, writes about the power of narratives, the stories people tell themselves:

'The stories we tell ourselves are powerful organising forces. They exercise an inexorable pull over our actions, feelings and choices, rather like a magnetic field draws scattered iron filings into alignment with its own invisible lines of influence. When dealing with the steady undertow of someone's implicit narrative, reason and logic often prove feeble instruments. If an action, or feeling or belief 'fits' within the dynamic of the tale being told it will be embraced, however illogical or absurd it may be. Recasting and rescripting such stories is always destined to be an art as much as a science.'

The person in my story found it impossible to relinquish their narrative explanation of what defines a Christian. No amount of logic, or reason, no appeal to the authority of the Bible was going to change their mind. For them, for over seventy years, 'Christian' had been a good person, and 'non-Christian' was an unkind label.

If we want to understand how very powerful someone's implicit narrative can be, consider how seriously God takes this question in addressing it. God delivered Israel out of Egypt, the 'house of slavery,' and having brought them to himself, making them a holy people, set them apart as special before God. You might think such a people would prove eternally grateful, faithful, and uncompromised in their love for him. Yet, in Exodus 19, God must remind them through Moses:

'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.' (Ex.19:4-6)

Chapter twenty of Exodus begins with the ten commandments, that are further unpacked throughout the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and beyond. Two things stand out here. One is the undiluted devotion Israel is to offer to the God who saved them. It is worth noting that the first five commandments remind us to offer honour to those who gave us life, the first four to God, the fifth to parents.

The second notable command is to avoid being like other nations. As Israel entered Canaan they had a raft of laws designed to make them different, make them stand out, remind them of their special status before God. Their diet was to be different, even the clothes they wore were not to be made of mixed fabrics (Lev.19:19; Deut.22:9-11). Several reasons are offered to explain this, which is not a moral law, one of which is that it was a reminder that they were not to mix Israel's customs with those of the surrounding nations; a sort of daily and visual mnemonic.

Yet Israel so often compromised, adopting the ways of surrounding nations, from demanding they be given a king, 'like other nations,' when they had God for their king (1 Sam.8:5), to practising child sacrifice to Molech (2 Chron.28:3; 2 Kings 21:6) even when God had expressly forbidden it (Lev.18:21) and made clear the precious worth of children (Pr.17:6; Ps.127:3)

Israel proves that if we are not attentive to our covenant faith in God, our narrative, the way we explain the world to ourselves and our place in it, will increasingly be defined by the world around us. Whether via social media, friendships, even family, the clamour of voices vying for our attention, seeking to mould our thinking, is increasingly loud.

Tragically, many follow the clamour and find themselves, like Israel, compromising and compromised. They deny the authority of Scripture, disobey God's commands, avoid the gathering of God's people, find easy fault with the church for which Christ gave himself, and make themselves deaf to the one voice that speaks true words of salvation. The writer of Hebrews gives a clear and urgent warning against such things:

'As the Holy Spirit says:

'Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts

as you did in the rebellion,

during the time of testing in the


where your fathers tested and tried me

and for forty years saw what I did.

That is why I was angry with that


and I said, 'Their hearts are always

going astray, and they have not know my ways.

So I declared in my anger,

They shall never enter my rest.''

'See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.' (Heb.3:7-15a)

It was B.B. Warfield who observed, "If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything designates nothing."

It may be comforting to think a good deed makes a good Christian but it does not do to allow what has already been defined clearly, definitively by God in Scripture, to be redefined indiscriminately simply because it suits those who embrace the spirit of the age. So what is a Christian?

Jesus said in Matthew 7:

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. [...]

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’."

There is doing in the life of a good Christian, good works, but that doing is according to the will of God, whose will so many feel they can ignore while still calling themselves by the name of Christ because they are decent people. This is the spirit of our current age and, for so many, the imperative narrative. But as William Ralph Inge wisely observed, 'Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.'

What defines our imperative narrative, that story about the world and our place in it that is not easily changed or compromised? Is it the world itself, that changes like the weather, now forbidding, now commanding, approving and disapproving, moving this way and that depending on whose voice is loudest? Is it the Word of God, that is consistent, unchangeable, guiding God's people as we navigate this troubled world, offering hope to a dying world, looking to a promise of a new world in which God reigns supreme, even as he reigns today in every heart that trusts and obeys him?

Monday, 8 May 2017

What is a Man?

GrantchesterIn a recent episode of the 'charming turning to seedy' British TV drama Grantchester the lead character, a vicar, ended the episode in his now familiar Jerry Springer way, with a little homily to his dwindling congregation. 'Live for today, in the now,' is the sum of his message, before he rushes off to have sex with a now married, but once his secret sweetheart, friend. This is a live-for-now hang the consequences sort of world in which our desires, hopes and dreams are frustrated by a nebulous entity called 'society.'

A eulogy in an earlier episode reminded us we cannot be what we want to be because 'society' wouldn't allow it, as though we were meant to fulfill our immediate desires without judgement or hindrance. If you were looking for something encouraging and uplifting, Grantchester is eminently avoidable. But this seems the spirit of the age, if it feels good, do it; what else is there?

The neo-atheists, channelling Thomas Hobbes, would have us believe nothing makes sense at all and life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Richard Dawkins, when espousing his particularly spiteful form of atheism insists life has no purpose, there is no objective right and wrong, and certainly nothing as asinine and vulgar as good and evil. Yet he dedicates his life to teaching us dullards the correct way to think about things. Lucky us!

The Psalmist wrote that if, 'the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,' it is because, 'Lord you have assigned me my portion and my cup. You have made my lot secure.' (Ps.16:5/6) Not so, Dawkins would insist, if your portion and cup prove pleasant and secure it is the luck of the draw. Of course, whenever he seeks to demolish any arguments against his bleak world view, he is prepared to label religion as evil, to cry 'not right!' and more than a few have had fun with that.

I don't know what sort of world you live in but I find that even the most militant God-denier instinctively seeks purpose in an apparently purposeless universe, justice in a life that has no seeming obligation to be just, reason in an existence that is evidently blind and aimless. Indeed, so important are purpose and justice that the typical atheist cannot actually do without God for, without God, who would they blame?

It is popular to jibe that Christians pray to an 'invisible friend,' but don't atheists aim their ire at an invisible enemy? It is rightly observed, the first two principles of atheism are, 'there is no God, and I hate him!'

Deny purpose in creation as we might, who doesn't identify with the words of Hamlet; 'What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?'

In his Confessions, Augustine famously wrote, 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.' Surely something in us has us recoil from the bleak prognostications of Thomas Hobbes? Some part of us agrees with Hamlet, what is the point if we simply live, eat, breed, and die? What are we - cattle?

And even if we are not yet drawn to Augustine's defining conclusion yet, even as people deny God, I find they seek him in one form or another. Either to blame him or to find, finally, rest for themselves. Either way, it seems, only God can satisfy.

If God is there, what difference does it make? If, unlike Thomas Hobbes, we instinctively seek community, richness, kindness, civility, and purpose in life then surely it matters how we live? Not for the moment, like a character in a play, but for the more we find ourselves reaching out for. If God is there, and if purpose is instinctive but frustratingly elusive, we must surely seek God, discover his purpose for us, and like Augustine, find our heart's rest in finally being the more we were made to be.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Strangers in the World

Fellow CitizensFollowing on from my last two posts, God’s Plan for your Life, I thought it good to republish this from March 2015. God may not have a plan for your life but we do have duties and responsibilities as cotizens of his kingdom. Do we know who we are in Christ, what are the implications of our kingdom citizenship? Lets talk about being God’s elect in the world.

The apostle Peter’s first letter is addressed, ‘To God’s elect, strangers in the world.’ Does it feel like that to you? If you are a Christian do you find yourself out of step with the world? The world, of course, is familiar to us. We know how it operates, we engage with it, and we negotiate our way through it in our every-day lives but, ultimately, Peter seems to be saying it is alien to us. In his second letter to Christians in Corinth the apostle Paul insisted, ‘we regard no-one from a worldly point of view,’ and goes on to describe Christians as, ‘Christ’s ambassadors.’ (2 Corinthians 5:16&20)

As ambassadors, we may be adept in the arts of tact and conciliation, speaking the truth with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15) yet we never lose sight of where our duties lie, of who has first call on our loyalties. As Paul makes clear, we don’t look at things by the standards and values of the world, but by those of the one we now represent. We are to represent his interests in the world, ‘God making his appeal through us.’ (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Going back to the beginning, we see that it was in a fallen world that Abel brought a better offering. It was ‘at that time people began to call on the name of the LORD.’ (Gen.5:26) In a sinful world Enoch walked with God and ‘when the wickedness of men was great in the earth,’ Noah found favour with God (Gen.6:5-8) Discipleship is not popular. It follows a different path.

Sometimes it can feel as though we are overwhelmed by the world, and we find it easier to ‘go with the flow.’ Perhaps that is why Peter writes as he does to ‘God’s elect…throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,’ in other words scattered among the nations and in danger of being overwhelmed. That is one of the pitfalls of representing one country, or one business from one country, to another; going native. Sometimes called ‘clientism,’ or ‘localitis,’ it is when a representative comes to regard the people and officials of the host country as ‘clients,’ when he or she defends the interests of these ‘clients’ as though they are the employers.

Of course, in many respects, this can make life, at least in the short term, easier. The people with whom you have to do every day seem somehow easier to get along with once you see things from their point of view, while the people you represent seem distant and out of touch with the way things are, ‘on the ground.’ Ultimately, however, as Peter reminds us, we are, ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

We do things God’s way, see things God’s way, and we describe things as God’s ambassadors, however diplomatic we feel we need to be. Peter reminds us that we are ‘chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of his blood.’ (1 Peter 1:2) It is no accident that we find ourselves ‘strangers in the word,’ for God the Father has chosen to make us citizens of a heavenly kingdom. He has done this by a work of the Spirit that sanctifies us, prepared us for that citizenship and calling, and he has given us the work of obedience to Jesus Christ. Our ways now are as alien to the world as are the world’s ways to us.

This means that only other Christian believers properly know and understand what it is to be chosen, an ambassador for Christ, sanctified, and striving to obey that call. Only other Christians fully appreciate what it means when we obey Jesus and reject the world’s self-centred-ness. Such a course is alien to the world and ever has been. Just like those early Christians, first in Jerusalem, then scattered across Asia Minor and ultimately the world, we finally have each other in this world because the rest simply don’t ‘get it.’  Paul writes in his first Corinthian letter:

‘This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things  that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgement: For who can know the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 2:13-16)

Think of it! We even have a different ‘language’ we speak, ‘expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words,’ a language the world considers unintelligible, foolishness. We have the mind of Christ with which to discern and make sound judgements concerning the affairs of his kingdom, and a language in which we express that kingdom business. But remember that, ‘it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21) Our speaking, acting, and doing are not futile, for those who believe may come to know that language, to have that mind, to be ambassadors of the one who chose them, just as once we did. The question is, are we speaking the language of the God who chose us, uttering spiritual truths as we go about kingdom business? Or have we fallen victim to clientism, speaking the language of the world that is so familiar to us?

The world doesn’t speak our language, doesn’t know or accept Christ, and is proving increasingly hostile to his kingdom and rule. It is surely up to us, we who have the mind of Christ, who speak the language of spiritual things, to stand together in advancing the work of the kingdom entrusted to our care in this generation, and for the benefit of the next.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

God’s Plan for your Life 2: That you may Test and Discern

We have looked at Jeremiah 29:11 and its misuse in understanding God’s plan for your life. Countless Christians hang on to this verse as a personal promise from God but we discovered this is misguided. You can read more here. So what is God’s plan for your life? How do a saved people live, what does God expect of us, what has God promised? Sinai Covenant

Remember God had miraculously brought Abraham's descendants out of the house of slavery and commanded them 'now live like this,' giving them the Law through Moses. The Law didn't bring people to God, God brought people to himself then gave them the Law - Exodus 19:3-6. The Law describes how a saved people live. Why give a saved people a code to live by if they are already saved? The Proverb tells us:

'Where there is no revelation [prophetic vision ESV] the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law' (Prov. 29:18)

To an unsaved people the law prescribes and proscribes. To a saved people the law describes how a saved people live in the light of God’s love, how we are blessed and a blessing, and how we need never again cast off restraint and incur God’s displeasure. A code to live by describes God’s purpose in us as saved people. The prayer of every believer is:

‘Two things I ask of you, O LORD...Keep falsehood and lies from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.' (Prov.30:7-9)

The code by which God would have us live is not constraining but liberating, freeing us to live such that we don't forget or dishonour the God who saved us. That is the Old Covenant but what of New Covenant people, what is the Kingdom code for Christians?


The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes are the basic values the world is meant to, but doesn't, live by. Paul writes:

'And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.' Eph.1:22-23

The rule of God extends over all but finds special focus in his concern for his own, the church. Not all keep his law but kingdom people live according to the values the world despises, but which God holds dear. Those who live kingdom lives are blessed.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…’



Ashrey is the word used in the Old Testament to talk about blessing. The psalmist writes of blessings that will come to those who delight in the law of the LORD (Psalm 1:1-2) This is a promise of future reward in material goods.

Makarios is the New Testament word and the emphasis is our present state. Adopt these values and know God's presence in your life. There is some confusion about these beatitudes, what role they play in God’s plan, whether they are practical in a fallen world.

Some teach that the beatitudes are a salvation message – live this way to get right with God. This doesn’t account for the problem of sin, the fact that Jesus calls us to repent, not to do better. Others have thought it a kingdom truth - One day, in God's kingdom, we will live this way. The problem with this view is it excuses us when we fall short. Others still think it a message that is exclusive to the church But Jesus he is king over all, even those who reject him, although he has special concern for those who are his own.Cristo_e_gli_apostoli by Sergio Bramante

I suggest the sermon is a description. The sermon describes the way in which we are freed to live when we commit fully to the kingship of Jesus. When Jesus is near we are free to obey. Matthew begins his account of the Sermon on the mount:

'He went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them...' (Matt.5:1)

The Sermon on the Mount is for people who have chosen to be Jesus' disciples and have freely committed themselves to the King.



When we think of kingdom we think of a place. When we think of God's kingdom we tend to think eschatologically, of that day when Christ will rule unchallenged on the earth. But Jesus said, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near' (Mt.4:17)

How is God's kingdom near? It is not a place, or a promise, but an action. It is God breaking into our universe and moulding times, places, people, and events for his purpose. The clearest expression of this is Jesus' life and ministry. The expression of that action today is the people of God, Christians, the church.

  1. The kingdom is near in the person of Jesus.
  2. The kingdom is here in the fact that God's people, indwelt by God's Spirit, are here.

The sermon on the Mount is Jesus' values for his people. It implicitly rejects the values of the world. It is difficult to live among people who reject God's values and not be influenced by the airbrushed lives of the 'beautiful people.' We appreciate, value, and are drawn by others' lives and can too easily fall into line with them. They are appealing because we tend to associate them with fulfilment.

Jesus shatters this illusion and sets up an alternative set of values that he assures will truly fulfil us. Jesus' values are not in pleasure but in longing, not in satisfaction but in hunger, not in popularity but in commitment to an unpopular cause, not in competition but in helping others to find peace with God and each other.

"Only those who throw the full weight of their confidence on God as a King who acts in and for them now can ever locate the courage to live the startling lifestyle Jesus lays out for his disciples. (Mt.5:1) The Sermon on the Mount is for people who have chosen to be Jesus' disciples and freely submitted themselves to the King. In it Jesus explains to his disciples of every age what living as a citizen of heaven's kingdom involves. Abandoning the ways of the world to adopt a diametrically different set of values and commitments." (Lawrence O Richards, Small Group Members Commentary)

How are we to live in this new, born-again, kingdom society? How are we to negotiate this fallen world as citizens of that kingdom, followers of King Jesus? What is God’s plan for my life? Paul helps us in his letter to Christians in first century Rome:

‘Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve [discern] what God’s will is-his good and pleasing will.’ (Romans 12:1-2)

In an ongoing process our minds are renewed. The plan of God for your life is that you should be equipped with a new mind, able to test and discern what is the will of God, what pleases him, make kingdom choices in every day life. Someone has said that if you want to hear from God take the Bible and read it aloud. Here in the Beatitudes we find God’s plan, we begin to understand the code of the kingdom. Now we must choose to live it.

Of course sometimes, in the midst of our kingdom living, God has a specific call for us. When the call comes it is encouraging to remember Jeremiah was a timid man (1:4-6) He was not the prophet 'type' and felt much as we do when we consider what God is calling us to. What made him a prophet was not his own character but God's provision (1:17-19) God always provides grace for the day, whether it is a routine day that tests our discernment and choices, or a stand out day when God meets us with a particular calling to serve. Either way, Christ frees us to serve.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

God’s Plan for your Life 1: Do You Know It?

God the ArchitectAre you one of those many Christians who has asked what exactly is God’s plan for my life? What do you think of when you hear those words, 'God's plan for your life?' Maybe you think everyone else has got this sorted but you have missed out. Where does this idea of God having a plan for your life come from?

''I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'' (Jeremiah 29:11)

Our local Christian bookshop manager – who does understand this verse – assured me she can sell about anything in the shop if it carries this text, they just fly off the shelf. Near the bookshop is one of those generic stalls that sells New Age trinkets and junk, from a lucky cat, through fairies and angels, to Buddha in repose. Its the sort of thing people have in their home to feed their wishful thinking. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a life as serene, magical, lucky.

Life is never as serene as Buddha sitting under a Bodhi tree, angels and fairies don’t sit on your shoulder to grant wishes, and cats are – cats. Jeremiah 29:11 is to many Christians what the lucky cat is to the wishful thinkers, comforting to contemplate but of no practical use. This is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied texts in the Bible and Christians could save themselves a lot of trouble and troubled introspection if they understood it..



Jeremiah 29:1-2 tells us the context is the exile of Judah, including Daniel and his companions. The verse comes in the text of a letter sent by Jeremiah from Jerusalem to exiled Judah. The 'you' of verse 11 is plural, the promise of v.11 is very specific in those to whom it is being made, the exiles. If it is for us at all it is plural and for the church, not for the individual. Heaven preserve us from post-modern individualism - Context people.

Further, if you want Jeremiah 29:11 to be a promise to you, you must also have the previous 28 chapters, because they lead up to and contextualise the verse. They are full of warnings and exhortations, accusations, threat of drought, condemnation, and judgement. It isn't pretty. One example is 16:1-4. Look it up and ask yourself if you still want to enjoy the promises of God through Jeremiah – Context people.

Jeremiah 29:11 is not about God's perfect plan for your life but about restoration of a rebellious people after 70 years in exile. Context again.

God had miraculously brought Abraham's descendants out of the house of slavery and commanded them 'now live like this,' giving them the Law through Moses. The Law didn't bring people to God, God brought people to himself then gave them the Law - Exodus 19:3-6. The Law describes how a saved people live. I say again Context.

Leviticus 26:14-15, 31-33 describes what God will do if his people reject his Laws and violate the covenant. Terror, disease, fever, hunger and defeat at the hands of enemies, terror, ruin, waste, scattering and exile. Context teaches us.

Leviticus 26: 39-42 describes how God will, nevertheless, keep his promises and restore his people, 'Then I will remember you...For I know the plans I have for you...' Lev.26:42; Jer.29:11) God's plans are never thwarted. Context is understanding.

Even though we might take comfort from the general understanding that we are in God's hands and care - In all things God works for the good of those that love him' Ro.8:28 - we cannot reasonably apply Jeremiah 29:11 to us. It is an example of what has come to be known as narcisegesis, the unbiblical habit of making all Scripture revolve around me.

If God doesn't have a plan specific to my life what does he have? Is there a plan at all?


God’s Plan and Purpose

In his letter to the church in Ephesus Paul tells how God, through Christ, has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing (1:3); chosen us to be holy and blameless (1:4); predestined us to be adopted as sons (1:5); redeemed us through the blood of Christ (1:7); lavished on us grace, wisdom and understanding (1:8). We are not meant to be mere creatures but sons. Sons who understand and, in understanding, exercise wisdom. No surprise since we were made originally in the image and likeness of God, to have dominion (Genesis 1:26) to understand and steward the world in which we live. All this, Paul insists, is, ‘to the praise of [God’s] glorious grace’ (1:6)

Paul explains explicitly the purposes of God, revealed to all who trust in Christ:

‘And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment-to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)

The thought here is that everything that fails to make sense in this world will be summed up and given perfect meaning in Christ. Its not about me, its about Christ! Everything about us, our being chosen and predestined, serves God’s purpose and plan in Christ, ‘for the praise of his glory.’ (1:11-12) Do yourself a favour and read Ephesians 1:3-14 and count the number of times ‘in Christ’ or a variant thereof appears. It is all about Jesus, and once you realise this your doctrinal understanding will be revolutionised.

God may yet have a specific purpose for particular individuals, at particular times, in church service, mission, etc. For some it is a lifetime call. But what does a purposeful Christian life look like when there isn't a specific 'plan for my life?' We will look at that next time.