The Charismatic Movement: The Degraded Cultural By-Product of a Secular Age

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The charismatic movement is predicated on the idea that it is the modern outpouring of the Holy Spirit as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Each charismatic person fully expects to be able to perform (or to learn from their numerous “schools”) the same works that were witnessed in the early Church.

Charismatics commonly appeal to a passage that appears early in the Acts of the Apostles. There, St. Peter preaches to a large assembly after the miracle of Pentecost. During his great sermon St. Peter quotes the Prophet Joel and and tells his hearers:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.(Acts 2:17-18)

Despite St. Peter’s explicit application of this passage only to those who spoke in foreign languages that morning, this is taken by charismatics as a proof text for the claim that these spiritual works will continue as a normative experience for the Church.

They, thus attempt to replicate these works (and others). Not only prophecies, but healing and visions about the future. They believe Holy Spirit manifests himself with ecstatic worship, spontaneous outbursts of emotion, and the speaking of tongues – glossalalia. The charismatic movement is restless and energetic in searching for new manifestations and experiences of the Holy Spirit, and this has caused the movement to spiral into increasing extremes. Today you can find everything within its pale from the fraudulent to the occult; from practices that are bizarre to those that are grotesque.

One of the fountainheads of the movement is Bethel Church in Redding, California. Bethel Church originates and popularises spiritual practises that are frighteningly indistinguishable from the New Age movement. Unfortunately, these ideas tend to spread outward from Bethel since the church operates a “School of Supernatural Ministry”. Here its students learn spiritual arts in something reminiscent of magical arts at Hogwarts.

Bethel claims that the Holy Spirit is active in their institution and people. They go so far as to claim that the tangible presence of God appears during their worship services (as in this official video). This “presence” looks exactly like craft store glitter released from air-vents in the ceiling sometimes with a few feathers swirling around allegedly from the wings of observing angels. As the glitter floats in the air, the pastor Bill Johnson cracks jokes, children point as if they were at a birthday party, and hoots can be heard from the audience.

Like the unbelieving world in our time, charismatics pride themselves on being loud and “messy”. Their services are boisterous and rowdy. Rowdiness is taken as a sure sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Quiet, discipline and restraint are typically viewed with suspicion or disdain. Thus, hooting, shouting and whistling, once the preserve of football matches, are ubiquitous in charismatic worship. It is behaviour that is modelled by pastors within the movement. It is not uncommon for a pastor to begin his sermon with a loud roar of excitement.

It demonstrates the extent to which the movement has adopted its norms of behaviour from the sporting and entertainment world. Indeed, popular cultural references are seamlessly interwoven with their preaching. To choose but one example among thousands, Passion Church in Maple Grove, Minnesota gives an annual performance of Jackson’s Thriller. The church looks like an absolute nightmare, with zombies shuffling through green fog in a graveyard and people painted up in the grinning, voodoo visages of the undead.

But Passion Church seems untroubled by the admission of dark, creepy worldly ideas about death into their church. Instead, they claim that people are led to “overcome their fear” and “step into faith” through the performance. Or put another way, you can lead people to Christ through Michael Jackson’s pop music.

Meanwhile, at Bethel Church, Jenn Johnson – the daughter-in-law of its pastor – goes even further with the deification of popular culture. She has given a number of presentations in which she reflects on the Holy Trinity, If you thought that nobody would ever dare to apply pop culture to the Person of God himself you would be greatly mistaken. In her presentations, Jenn Johnson describes the Holy Spirit as being like the “genie from Aladdin”. She says the Holy Spirit is “blue”, “funny”, “sneaky”, “silly”, and “fun”.

As she recites this list of attributes shared by both Disney’s cartoon character and the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, her voice trembles with a straining-to-be-meaningful emotion. We are to understand from these flutters that turning a cartoon character into an icon of the Holy Spirit is deep wisdom. (See: video compilation).

The movement is so filled with “lying wonders” and gimmicks that one could write a multi-volume encyclopedia and still not exhaust the material. For example, the charismatic movement has developed a practice called “fire tunnels“. During one of these rituals, a person wishing to receive blessing will walk between two lines of congregants. As they do so, people on either side pray over them, lay hands on them, praise their qualities, and infuse them with “fire”. There is usually a great deal of hollering, hooting and whistling, and the recipient of this blessing frequently shakes or falls to the ground overwhelmed with the spiritual energy they have received.

According to the Gospel Coalition, the leaders at Bethel and others within the charismatic movement have also practised “grave soaking” or “grave sucking”. This practice involves touching or laying on the graves of great evangelists or saints in order to absorb the spiritual power (“the mantle”) from their bones. Although there has been some back-peddling from this practice, Pulpit and Pen published an article last year in which they offered photographic evidence of “grave soaking” being conducted.

FOUR POINTS

What are we to make of the movement? I think there are four sensible conclusions orthodox Christians can arrive at.

1. The charismatic movement is immutably anarchistic: Like rebels who take up firearms in the street, and shout to the heavens that they are freemen who will not heed the laws of the king for they have found a deeper truth, so the charismatic movement is also shaped by a deep longing for freedom from the “restrictions” of God’s word and law. To achieve this, the movement has a spaghetti tangle of pathways to follow that enable them to pursue their own inclinations and desires.

Spiritual anarchism is the direct result of legitimising claims of special revelation (“the Holy Spirit told me”). Since every charismatic is potentially a prophet like Jeremiah or Moses, and since their prophetic ramblings are taken seriously by other charismatics, each learns that they have a special authority. Although they claim to subordinate this authority to scripture, history has long taught us that such subordination never in practice occurs.

Imagine a society where citizen was elevated to a Supreme Court judgeship. The resultant discordant crackle of legal interpretations would be impossible to measure against any outside standard, even if every citizen claimed his authority was subject to the constitution. If everyone is a Supreme Court justice, to what degree does the constitution really hold authority?

2. The charismatic movement is functionally relativistic: Relativism is the doctrine that truth is not universal or objective but is individually discerned. Everybody has their own truth because the basis upon which each person discerns “their truth” is different. Truth differs according to person, situation, context, culture, time, and so on.

As philosopher Hillary Putnam correctly identified, the result of the doctrine of relativism is that it becomes impossible to believe that one is in error. For if there is no truth beyond the personal belief that something is true, then one can never hold their own beliefs to be untrue. Relativism, therefore, gives rise to an independent reality that is ungovernable by any facts, claims, authorities outside of the individual.

Charismatic claims of special direct revelation places them in precisely this situation. Few charismatics ever believe they are in error, because it is not possible for them to be so. Their special direct revelation thus forces them to function on the basis of relativism.

Imagine a charismatic walks up to you and announces, “The Holy Spirit told me that you must move to Minnesota“. Consider the tension in this claim.

The charismatic is saying that God the Holy Spirit is issuing you a command. You are being commanded to move interstate. This is a divine revelation from heaven, and since it comes from the Holy Spirit, it logically shares co-equal authority with the scriptures.

But here lies the conundrum. How do we know that this prophecy is actually authentic?

Even charismatics are forced to admit that there are many false prophets, faked prophecies, charlatans, tricksters, and frauds in their movement. They have to admit this because the sheer volume of demonstrable error is overwhelming. They will even accept that sometimes spiritual claims can be inspired by evil spiritual forces. Given this, how is any person to determine whether a revelation is true or just another fraud? For there is no independent authentication.

This results in a long, muddy quagmire over which the carriage of reason cannot travel. Each charismatic person claiming the “mantle” of prophecy believes themselves to be authoritative mouthpieces of God and therefore cannot be subject to correction. But, each charismatic who receives a prophecy must also accept it or interpret it according to their own inner revelation and they likewise cannot be subject to correction. Moreover, one charismatic can countermand another charismatic’s revelation by simply receiving a super-ordinate revelation.

So a charismatic who says, “The Holy Spirit told me you must buy oil stocks by the end of the week“, can be rebutted by another charismatic who says, “Well, the Holy Spirit told me that this prophecy was not for me and I must not listen to it“.

Even when a false prophecy is accidentally believed – like the apocalyptic warnings over Iran or North Korea which never eventuated – those instances are simply dismissed on the basis someone had a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit, or someone muddled the message, or did not have enough spiritual insight to interpret it.

The ultimate result of this complete dispersal of revelatory authority is that nobody is ultimately correctable. Nobody’s claims of truth can be proved or disproved by anyone else. This is why virtually nobody in the charismatic movement ever holds their own dreams, visions, prophecies or voices to be untrue, no matter how violently they disagree with reality, with facts, with scripture, with history, or even with other charismatics.

This leads to a galloping relativism as well as an imperial disposition that allows transparent charlatans and corruption to flourish within the movement. For who is to say that a charismatic pastor imprisoned for taxation fraud did not truly receive a revelation from the Holy Spirit who “told him to guard the Lord’s money from the unbelieving Feds”? If a charismatic believes it is true, his theology teaches him that it must be true. And who is one charismatic to deny the message of the Holy Spirit to another?

I once witnessed the full moral crookedness of this relativism vividly demonstrated in the fallout of a very tragic situation. A charismatic man in our community who was married to a delightful lady, had an affair with another woman. He then abandoned his children and took off with his mistress. Even while he was living in a state of separation pending a divorce, this man still claimed that God was directly giving him messages.

His graphically sinful conduct; his abhorrent lack of self-restraint; the unbelievable pain he inflicted on a very sweet and gentle woman did not give him the slightest hesitation in firmly believing that for all of his wickedness he was still genuinely in touch with the Almighty.

That is relativism to the max.

3. The charismatic movement is deeply materialistic, consumerist, and temporally focused: For all of their spiritual hocus-pocus, the movement itself is fuelled significantly by a thirst for “my best life now”, wealth, health, success, and power.

The website of nearly any charismatic church will contain terms like: “vibrant”, “fulfilling life”, “overcoming fear”, “health”, “relationships” and so on. These websites seem to have compiled every self-help buzzword in existence. They advertise a particular lifestyle characterised by ecstatic worships and “power” over all of their temporal problems. The focus is squarely on the temporal, the here-and-now.

In charismatic belief, the good life starts now. Thus people should experience healing, financial success, and all of the good things of life. Now. In tangible, measurable form.

4. Far from representing the final outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the charismatic movement is the terminal stage of a decayed Christianity. The charismatic movement is the polluted by-product of a toxic, ungodly culture. It does not subvert the world. Quite the reverse. It has been thoroughly subverted by the sinful spiritual debris of the age. It is what you get when you freely pour the acidic sludge of an ungodly, shallow and materialistic culture over the clean marble of Christianity: the acrid, stained fragments left over from this acid bath is only “new” in the sense that most of the original substance was deleted.

Everything about the charismatic movement distorts God. The movement presents God as a kind of granddaddy hipster and shows little regard for God’s supreme holiness and glory. If a person can seriously believe that glittery sparkles in the air is the glory of the Lord, then such a person has no comprehension at all – as much comprehension as the cattle have of the beauties of the stars – as to what the glory and majesty of the Lord really is like. When one has been in the true presence of God, like St. John beholding the exalted Christ, they fall on their faces as dead.

This distortion of God’s Person manifests in the triviality of their worship.

For example, there are few charismatic experiences not accompanied by laughter – sometimes even referred to as “holy laughter”. They laugh during sermons; during prayers; during healings; during fire tunnels. Bill Johnson cracks jokes and the congregation laughs appreciatively even as the “glory cloud” of God’s holy presence supposedly appears. Comedy is next to holiness, as is the nearly ceaseless turbulence of noise, motion, and music that is omnipresent at all charismatic services. People sway, they bob like Hasidic Jews, they shriek, they jitter and fall to the ground. Some wave their hands in the air. During services people run around, or walk or skip, while others stand listening to the sermon, while others sit, or others roll on the ground. There’s hollering and cheering. The band plays a nearly ceaseless sound track.

The concept of worship as a shared experience, orderly and disciplined to reflect the holiness of heaven and its King, has fled. The texts of scripture that say, “Be still and know that I am God“, could never be observed under such conditions. It seems that silence and deep reverence is only for the angels of heaven. Or, perhaps for the dead, cold Christians of the past (and present). But for the children of the fresh outpouring, the approved order is a kindergarten level of restlessness.

The charismatic movement actively feeds the narcissism that is frighteningly prevalent in the culture. The charismatic movement turns each man into an authoritative prophet who is beholden only to his own revelations.

It feeds on the present cultural fascination with supernatural powers by turning everyone into a Harry Potter. This mysticism and solipsism is deeply attractive to the culture, for it grants a hidden significance that none but the enlightened can reach.

Thus the new follower is suddenly swept into a world where they can receive secret messages, can cast healing spells, learn easy answers to all problems, and obtain special powers. It is as though they had stepped through a wardrobe into the land of Narnia. The reason they can enter this magical domain is because they are special. They have hidden discernment and insight. This is the very message that Samuel’s Mantle – a prophetic training school in Canada – gives its would-be students. Unlike other Christians, they have a particular anointing and a special calling.

To such a depth of magical delusion have some in the movement sunk, that charismatic “supernatural students” have even attempted to raise the dead as though it were a skill you could learn like sport or moves in a video game. The Gospel Coalition reports:

People in the Bethel movement believe that raising the dead should be something we aspire to. As a result, some Bethel students formed a Dead Raising Team. They go to the morgue to practice raising the dead. They also listen to the radio and try to beat ambulances to accidents to raise the dead or heal the injured before the ambulance arrives. From all accounts, they have yet to raise their first corpse.

Christianity Today reports that in 2008, two Bethel students were involved in an accident that left a man stricken at the base of a 200-foot cliff. The students believed that the man had died and so they tried to resurrect him by prayer. They waited until the next morning to call emergency services. Thankfully, the man survived but unfortunately, he remains paralysed.

Worst of all, the charismatic movement cheapens everything to do with the Blessed Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is presented as a force or a genie who is at the constant beck and call of the summoner. Receiving the Holy Spirit “fire” is as mechanical a process as an engine injecting fuel into a cylinder. Yes, the Holy Spirit is a divine Person, but apparently He functions very much like an impersonal force or energy field.

St. Paul tells us that he “purposed to know nothing” among the Corinthians, “but Christ and him crucified”. As always St. Paul was in perfect harmony with our Inerrant Lord who taught us that he would send the Holy Spirit to exercise a very specific ministry. For the Holy Spirit would not point to Himself; the Holy Spirit would not glorify himself; neither would he be “funny” and “silly” like a blue cartoon genie.

Rather the Lord said of the Spirit: “He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you“. The Holy Spirit’s work, says the Lord, would be to convict the world of unrighteousness and unbelief, and teach people about judgement.

When Christ is glorified and righteousness, repentance and judgement are declared, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is truly at work. For the Spirit does not direct men to himself, but always to the Son. The Son, in turn, points men to the Father via himself.

In charismatic circles, this divine order is entirely turned on its head. For what do charismatics emphasise and preach? They emphasise the Person of the Holy Spirit. Which Person of the Trinity receives the most attention in their gatherings, their literature, prophecies, and activities? The Holy Spirit. Which Person of the Trinity is glorified and exalted, called upon, and attributed power and strength? The Holy Spirit.

You do not end up at charismatic worship when you seek Christ and him crucified above all. You do not end up with charismatic worship when you repent of the world and the values and attitudes that are invisibly infused into it – the narcissism, self-indulgence, self-seeking, desire for prominence and power, the emotionalism that triumphs over many minds.

And you will never end up as a charismatic if you see yourself honestly and without affectation, as an unimportant servant of Christ who is privileged to have any calling at all. If you are desirous to be the smallest in the kingdom of heaven – to be a vessel that is emptier and lowlier so that it might be more at the disposal of Christ – then you will never succumb to the thirst for power and glamour; for razzmatazz and the spiritual sensationalism of the charismatic movement.

St. Paul in the discharge of his ministry teaches us the remedy against all degraded religion that would exalt the self:

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Therefore, let us make it our aim to excel in regarding ourselves as “nothing” but servants. Like St. Paul, we ought to strive to be ever more empty of self-regard and increasingly “small in our own eyes” so that we will not fall victim to the devil’s schemes. We know he tempts men with multiple forms of pride, and there is no pride as dangerous and subtle as religious pride.

As servants, let us humbly enthrone Christ on the highest pinnacle of our regard and affections. Let us flee from any desire for spiritual status or prominence. Let us forsake the noisy and revolutionary; the worldly and novel and experimental; and let us set our hearts to follow the Shepherd on the path of righteousness. “My sheep hear my voice,” the Lord said, “and they follow me… they will not follow a stranger for they do not know the voice of strangers“.

Indeed, true Christians do follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. We look to the unchanging Father for our guidance, and we find our strength and hope in the unparalleled majesty of the Son of the Living God “who is the same yesterday, today, and forever“. Follow him.

Walking with the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The Second Temptation of Christ

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Of all three temptations, it is the Second Temptation of Christ that presents us with the greatest interpretive puzzle.

It is quite unlike the First Temptation. In the First Temptation we can readily see ourselves in the light of Christ’s experience. The sight of the starved Nazarene being tempted to eat by the devil is quite analogous to our personal experience of having strong desires for things that do not glorify God. Under the pressure of this testing, the fortitude of Christ is clearly revealed to us precisely because it is earthy, and therefore corresponds to the reality in which we live. We know the weakness and limits of our own frame and we know how hard self-denial can be.

Later, the Third Temptation is even more straightforward. The spiritual immensity of being tempted with “all the kingdoms of the earth” is easily understandable because in so many instances we ourselves fail when tempted by the merest sliver of a kingdom – perhaps a promotion, or acquisition of property. The news greets us regularly with stories of people who have sold their souls for a fraction of a kingdom: politicians who seek power at the expense of their fellow man; dictators who climb to the top of their nations over a hecatomb of corpses; doctors who bully and bribe to become presidents of the local board of physicians.

The incredible weakness of mankind when offered power is a stain that cannot be washed out of the race, generation to generation, no matter how many times the bitterness of oppression is experienced. Thus, in the Third Temptation when we see Christ being assailed not by the merest part of a kingdom but by all the kingdoms of the earth in their fullness, we recognise an intensity of temptation that we ourselves would be unable to bear.

In this manner the First and Third are readily intelligible. But the Second Temptation? The Second Temptation is the outlier.

How can we relate to this? What experiences does it parallel? What aspect of the human condition does it speak to? The Second Temptation does not seem to apply to any of life’s common experiences; in fact, we can look upon the Second Temptation with jaded eyes and think, “How is this even a temptation? It certainly would not tempt me!” Thus, we can simply conclude that while something certainly takes place in the Second Temptation, it lies within a veil we cannot penetrate and at a depth we cannot plumb. It must lie under the perpetual shadow of a question mark.

Yet this is very far from the case. Although the Second Temptation may be mysterious, it is certainly not shrouded in darkness and offers serious lessons to the believer that are instrumental in an age of recurrent spiritual tremors like ours. Nevertheless, (let the reader beware), the lessons taught here are not necessarily pleasant. The passage punctures religious pride; confronts misplaced religious zeal; and overturns cherished religious convictions.

This may explain why the passage so often gathers dust in the library of God’s word for if there is one thing that unstable Christians are opposed to, it is self-examination and spiritual sobriety. If there is one thing overly-emotive Christians dislike, it is being brought down to earth. And if there is one thing that drives away theatrical Christians, it is anything that brings down the curtain on religious showmanship in favour of the humble, considered and the quiet.

A SITUATIONAL TEMPTATION

The first thing to notice about the Second Temptation is that it was situational.

The devil transported the Lord out of the desert and all the way to Jerusalem. Even more surprising, the Lord was carried to the Temple of God itself.

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple.

Scholars suggest that Jesus was taken to the south-east corner of the temple where a roof and portico overlooked the massive retaining wall that dropped about 135 metres (450 feet) straight down into the Kidron Valley. That is a significant height. It is the same height as the Xerox Tower in New York or the Fisher Building in Detroit.

xerox tower

From this we learn two things.

First, the devil was not afraid to visit the Temple. Unlike his portrayal in many worldly movies, the devil did not sizzle when he approached the consecrated mountain or the sacred precincts of the temple. Neither did the Temple location suddenly render the devil inert and harmless. To the contrary. He was quite able to engage in his evil work around the temple; and in fact, the text would have us understand that he purposefully used this religious location as a living stage for the test he had devised.

Many think that burying themselves into religion will grant them immunity from the devil’s influence, and that if they are not drinking and murdering, then they are unable to be attacked. But the devil is far more subtle than many – perhaps even most – give him credit for. The devil can use religion (even true religion) for his purposes. He can do this either by lulling people to spiritual sleep in churches, or by twisting holy doctrines and carefully inserting them into a religious environment.

One need only look to some of the “liberal” mainstream churches to see this very process in action. Blasphemies that lead to eternal death are preached from beautiful pulpits in splendid settings once built to glorify God. In many of these old cathedrals and churches, God’s holy words are sometimes carved into the surfaces themselves while the unwary are enticed to ignore them. A man in such a place can be lured into sin even while he sits in a temple once built by the faithful.

The second key thing we learn from the passage is that Lord was positioned at a great height. His precise location is not really materially important – whether it was at the south-east corner or at the north-west of the temple, for example. What matters is that Christ was elevated to a latitude that was potentially truly dangerous.

Having lifted him to this height, at this point the devil essentially invites Jesus to attempt to commit suicide.

“If You are the Son of God,” he said, “throw Yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will command His angels concerning You,
and they will lift You up in their hands,
so that You will not strike Your foot
against a stone.’”

That is, try to commit suicide with a religious gloss.

The temptation here revolves around the concept of religious authenticity and testing God with false parameters. The devil was arguing that if Jesus really was the Son of God (authenticity) and really believed the scriptures, then he would recklessly place himself in harm’s way because God would be honour bound to rescue him (false parameter).

Of course, we know the devil was not sincere in his citation of scripture. Rather this was an act of twisted cunning, and it must have seemed to the devil a guaranteed win-win-win-win situation.

For if Jesus refused to throw himself over the edge, he could be accused of a lack of faith in the scriptures. Win. After all, if Jesus really believed the word of God, would he not gladly demonstrate his radical, divine faith by going to the extreme? Failure to do so could only be the result of a lack of real faith.

On the other hand, if Jesus did throw himself over the edge, he would hurtle to his death. Win again. In this instance, the devil would have triumphed. He would have defeated the Perfect Man not by destroying him on the rocks of sin, but by tempting him with holy virtues! If even a virtuous man could be defeated by appealing to virtue, who then could be saved? The human race would be utterly doomed.

But, if the Father did step in as Jesus was plummeting to the ground and saved his Son from death, the devil would be able to accuse the Father of violating the true meaning and spirit of his own word. Win. How could any man be saved if the meaning of God’s word was in flux, and changed according to the individual and situation? If it meant one thing when it was given through the prophet but now another thing altogether?

And if that were not enough winning, if Jesus were rescued, the devil would forever be able to point mankind to this event and urge people toward religious fanaticism in service of their own reckless pretensions. Win. Go for broke, the devil could say, for had not the Perfect Man thrown himself from a great height and been saved?

Thus the nature of the Second Temptation – as shown in Jesus own rebuttal – is about putting God to the test. It is about launching into the waters of religious delusion and expecting God to confer his blessing and protection upon us because we claim to have “faith” or “trust” in things he never promised. Indeed, it stands as a serious warning about the danger of spiritual fanaticism where men attempt to do things that are not taught in God’s word. They attempt to do such things anyway in the prideful or ignorant conviction that they are.

Such spiritual delusions often arise when men and women begin to think of themselves more highly than they ought – and this is a common affliction in an age of prideful independence and the celebration of individualism.

A woman contacted me once in great sorrow regarding her husband. He had embraced some extremist doctrines that he became convinced were taught in the scripture. His church disagreed with him, and so this man in turn become convinced that his church was in error. Other churches in the area also disagreed with him, and those churches also fell by the wayside as he declared them all “false”. He thus refused to attend any church or listen to any pastor, and became a hindrance to his wife who was faithful to true Christianity. His wife wanted to continue attending her church, but her husband made life so difficult for her that she told me sadly she had very nearly given up because the fight was so exhausting.

I attempted to dialogue with this man. I did not, alas, come regard him as especially insightful, although I am quite sure he fancied himself quite intelligent. I found him arrogant, stubborn, unkind, and alienating. In the final chapter of this saga, the man had elected to study the Bible at home with one of his buddies, since the two alone had the proper doctrine. Thus, an odd little cult of two was born.

This is sadly far from an isolated case. Many examples can be found. The man in the pew who fancies himself a preacher; the woman who thinks she should lead her sisters due to her spiritual insight; the ambitious elder who craves an opportunity to teach others in a long-winded monotone – such people are many. Legion are the men and women who have come to believe they are “special” or “spiritually gifted” and then confused their own desires and ambitions for those of God.

Here in the Second Temptation, then, is a vivid, technicolored example of how it is possible to take scripture, manipulate it for our own ends, and then imagine that God will bless and preserve us because he must be subject to our corrupt interpretation of his word. It is a textbook example of how we may arrogantly pretend that if God does not serve us (as if he were a servant and we the master!) according to our delusions and pretensions, then somehow he has failed or his word has failed. God forbid.

Religious pretension of this sort is on the increase. The charismatic movement produces many such men and women who claim to be prophets and prophetesses but are not. Then there are a rash of preachers who urge their congregants toward a “radical faith” as if only by going to the extremes is one living out the great commission. As if it were not good enough to serve God in quiet and lowly manner. As if being a humble farmer like Manoah – whom scripture documents only serving in the role of father – was somehow less faithful and less God-glorifying than the calling of Samuel or St. Paul.

The pressure to be a “radical Christian” – emanating unfortunately from otherwise orthodox pulpits – often convinces people that God will bless them as they “throw themselves over” into a life of missionary work or grand evangelism, even when they are neither equipped for it nor called to it. Even when it is not wisdom for them to do this. The results of such spiritual recklessness are often disastrous.

There has been a stark example of this as recently as 2018 – the case of John Allen Chau – who died when he was killed by the natives living on the protected North Sentinel Island. This story, better than most, serves as a vivid reminder of the susceptibility of otherwise faithful Christians to the lure of “God blessed religious radicalism”, especially if it comes attired in the guise of evangelism or other causes dear to the heart of a true Christian. After all, all true Christians long for the building of Christ’s kingdom. But even such a noble desire like this can be exploited by the devil, which is why we must be on guard against the devil’s schemes.

John Allen Chau was a young man in his late twenties. Last year he attempted to convert the isolated people of North Sentinel Island, who live a primitive life, having been completely cut off from the rest of the world. The people on North Sentinel Island have made no technical progress above the level of the stone age; they are aliens to modernity.

John Allen Chau’s diary reveals a young man who was frightened of these people (and justly so for they were notorious for their inhospitable disposition). Yet so fervently did he believe that he was on a divine mission and was acting in the cause of Christ’s kingdom, that he became immune to the plainest wisdom of scripture and good sense. Indeed, his diary reveals an impetuous, death-or-glory self-belief that his preaching mission was a divine adventure. It was a belief wholly unsupported by anything but self-conviction. It was a belief that was attached to thin air.

Religious radicalism can become its own feedback loop. The more radical and audacious the act; the more dangerous and improbable its success, the more it can seem to be God’s will in line with the stories of the great saints of the past. This was certainly at work in the case of John Allen Chau. After reading his diary, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the extreme nature of what he was doing of its own accord seemed to convince him that he must be doing God’s will. “It is radical and therefore it is God’s will”, seemed to be his thinking. Yet the tragedy and failure of his missionary endeavour teach us the lesson of the Second Temptation. For this young man threw himself over the wall.

He would doubtless have been stopped had he approached his missionary endeavour under the authority or oversight of a church, bishop, elder, or experienced mission director. This he apparently did not have. He seems to have submitted his plans to no qualified Christian – certainly to none of the local churches in the area – and nobody seems to have assessed his suitability for this work.

This fact alone reminds us of the warnings in scripture regarding individualistic freelancers who seek to act independently of God’s appointed leaders of his one chosen agency on earth, the Church. This is contrary to the spirit of true Christianity.

St. Peter explicitly warns young men: “In the same way, you younger men must accept the authority of the elders.” In keeping with this theme, St. Paul strongly impresses upon us that not everyone is gifted in the same way and able to perform the same work, precisely because the Church is a body. Not everyone is an eye, or a mouth. Some believers have other gifts that are just as vital. But importantly, no part of the body acts independently; it is all subject to the head, and the head of the Church is Christ.

Likewise, in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul gives us the same principle of submission, albeit in relation to secular authorities but this is not a greater requirement than the obligation of Christians to be subject to the appointed godly men of Church leadership:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

During his missionary effort, John Chau paid men to break the law and deliver him to the island. These men were later arrested. (It is inconceivable to imagine St. Paul – the greatest missionary in Church history – paying men to breach laws on his behalf.)

While on the island, the islanders became hostile and shot an arrow at him. John Chau attempted to preach to them but unsurprisingly failed because he did not know a word of their native language. Elementary wisdom – not to mention St. Paul’s sober warnings about tongues – powerfully impresses upon us that preaching must be understood by its hearers or it has no value at all. We have the classic example of the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries of holding services in Latin to show us how effective language barriers can be in shutting up the gospel.

Despite the hostility and ineffectual nature of his first attempt, and despite his injuries, and despite his diary revealing a man gripped not by the “peace that passes all understanding” but by terror and fear, John Allen Chau returned to the island in a second effort to preach. Only this time he was murdered. Thus he withheld from the Church all of the energy he might have expended in quieter and less flashy ways, but in ways that would have been more effective and kingdom-strengthening.

His efforts succeeded only in making the people of the North Sentinel Island more isolated than they were before, with renewed efforts to shut up the island and keep them in an unfortunate condition of a severed relationship to the rest of the human race. In liberal and progressive jargon, they have “the right to be left alone” which means keeping them in a state of cultural suspended animation.

But markedly, we see demonstrated in this missionary effort, the danger of expecting God to preserve and safeguard us in reckless religious endeavours. Extreme commitment to the service to God is appropriate only when it is truly consistent with his word; when it is subject to godly authority; is truly in line with his desires and purposes; and only when we do not put God to the test of expecting him to save us from evident foolishness. The Second Temptation serves as an inoculation against a runaway religious imagination and against putting God to the test on the basis of parameters we have devised.

God is under no obligation to our misuse of scripture to justify our religious adventures or pretences. He does not need to prove his fidelity by rescuing us from folly and fantasy. Blessed indeed are those who are slow to assume they are special, and quick to assume they have a lowly calling. Who seek God’s will first, whether it be ordinary or extraordinary. Who are diligent in separating their personal desires from God’s will, and killing off unwarranted ambitions when they are not part of God’s calling. If Jesus shows us anything in the Second Temptation, it is to be wise in “not putting God to the test” by expecting him to save us from foolishness, fantasy, recklessness, pride, and extremism.

Walking With the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The First Temptation of Christ

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Early in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is led out to the desert, where, alone, in the wilderness, there is a terrible collision of spiritual forces. It is a gripping moment in the gospel, for the devil comes face-to-face with God in human form for a moral battle. It is a unique experience for both the contestants. It is the first (and only) occasion in spiritual time where the devil sees his Maker at a disadvantage, weakened, starving, and as vulnerable as a human being can be rendered. Here indeed we see that Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7).

St. Matthew informs us that the Lord is in the desert for forty days. It is a highly symbolic number because Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness. Behold! Here is the true Israel, St. Matthew is saying, the promised Messiah whose life an entire nation has been unconsciously dramatising for thousands of years.

Nonetheless, during the forty days the Lord is hidden from our sight, as scripture draws a veil over this desert experience. We can therefore only imagine the baking heat and the chilly nights; the search for shade at noon; and the avoidance of snakes and scorpions by day. We can picture the sweat; the shimmering air; the emptiness; the stillness. But in accordance with his own good purpose, God does not see fit to grant us firm information.

All we are told is that he went without food, and by the end of the time he was “starved”, “famished”, a “hungred”. His desert experience, in other words, was marked by gnawing hunger and weakness. He was plunged into the weakness of humanity.

And then, right on schedule, the devil showed up.

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

We may note that the devil begins his vile work by targeting an obvious vulnerability of the Lord’s humanity. To a desperately hungry man – like Esau coming in from the fields – the prospect of food is nearly irresistible. Survivors of the Soviet gulag often testified that during their imprisonment they thought of nothing but food. They dreamed of it; talked about it with other prisoners; they meditated on it when they were alone, planning the dishes and meals they would prepare when they were free.

We learn here the important lesson that the devil does not fight the spiritual warfare honourably. He never assaults a man where is he most fortified, for what advantage is there in that? Rather he targets our greatest vulnerabilities. Whatever weakness of mind, heart, or body we possess, we can be sure that it will be precisely here that the devil will be most active and his spiritual artillery will focus its barrage.

Thus a man who struggles with avarice will be tempted with money. A woman who struggles with pride will be tempted with self-righteousness and vanity. A man who falls victim to lust will be tempted with sexual impurity. No wonder scripture so often advises us to engage in the self-cleansing work of repentance (Isaiah 1:16; Luke 11:39) and St. Paul urges us to put on the full armour of God that we may stand against the devil. When we “wash our hands and purify our hearts” (James 4:8) we are forced to think about our weaknesses and failures. We are made to see where our battle lines are thin and the enemy broke through and we sinned. We can strengthen those points and guard against the schemes of the devil.

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The First Temptation is a bit of a puzzle. Other than targeting the Lord’s terrible hunger, it does not appear to be an obvious incitement to sin by breaking any of the Ten Commandments.

We may ask, is it a sin to eat? No, of course not. God made us experience hunger so that we would eat. Did the Father command the Lord not to eat during his wilderness experience? Certainly, there is no evidence in scripture that this is so.

Well, then, was the sin inherent in the miracle itself? Would it have been a sin for the Lord to turn stones into bread? Some have argued that since stones by their nature cannot feed people, to use divine power turn them into bread would be a “sinful miracle”. But this is surely a weak conclusion because at the marriage at Cana, the Lord changed water into wine.

Something deeper is afoot than merely eating bread by miracle power. Charles Ellicott in his commentary (1878) put it this way:

The nature of the temptation, so far as we can gauge its mysterious depth, was probably complex.

The clue to understanding the “complex” nature of the First Temptation lies in the Lord’s answer to the devil. As in each reply, Jesus cites from Deuteronomy, which one may note were the very scriptures that were given during Israel’s wilderness years.

In this case, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The original context for these words are greatly instructive:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

This thought is continued later in the same chapter:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

Clearly there is a forceful overlap between Old Testament Israel’s hunger in the wilderness, and Jesus’ experience of extreme privation and hunger in the desert.

But what do these texts teach us about the nature of the temptation?

The constant temptation for Old Testament Israel – a term that has a broader meaning than “illicit desire” as it is often used today – was always to forsake God or grumble against his prophet when privation or hardship came. Israel grumbled about food; they complained about water to the point where Moses was fearful he would be murdered; and they praised Egypt as a slavery better than the freedom of being the chosen people of the ever-living God.

Here the devil was effectively attempting to duplicate that temptation: “You’re God’s Son? And he’s left you starving in the wilderness to the point of death? You are nearly dead! Feed yourself! End your pointless suffering.

Jesus’ answer acknowledges that a man surely lives on bread – the body must be fed or it dies – but the quote also underscores the truth that man never lives on bread alone. Life is more complex than a materialistic matter of eating and drinking. Indeed, Jesus taught in a later sermon, “Life is more than food and the body is more than clothes” (Luke 12:23). A proper understanding of life sees it as more than just a search for the fuel needed to support it. A proper understanding recognises that all the processes of life continue only at the command and behest of God.

It is God who causes the sun to rise and the rain to come so that crops can grow and man can eat. It is God who strengthens the farmer for his work and allows man to develop agricultural technologies. It is God who draws the seedling from the earth. It is God who makes the ground fertile. It is God who gives us each day our daily bread; sets the span of our days; and sends the manna in the desert. By God’s command and instruction, man lives. And when God wills for man to die, then he surely dies.

As St. James writes:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

In Moses solemn prayer in Psalm 90, he also acknowledges this great truth. Man truly lives and dies by the command of God not by his own intelligence or scheming:

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new,but by evening it is dry and withered.

So, in the First Temptation the Lord proves himself to be the true Israel. Unlike Old Testament Israel, the true Israel succeeds and passes the test. He trusts the Father with his life, without grumbling. He hungers quietly and patiently in the desert, but never doubts that the Father will sustain him.

As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus is not tempted to use his deity against the deity of the First Person, the Father. He does not distrust the Father. Unlike Old Testament Israel, he does not plot treason against the Father by taking matters into his own hands. Rather he stands secure in the splendid simplicity of faith: he knows he will live because the Father commands and wills that he should live.

St. Matthew thus teaches us something about the nature of true faith and what it means to really trust God even in the midst of temptation and trial. No matter how painful the trial may be for the moment, and no matter how tempting it might be to find an early or easy exit from our sufferings – whether it is the burning of persecution or the burning of unfulfilled sexual desire; whether sufferings great or small – the true sons of the kingdom will aim to follow the footsteps of Jesus and answer the devil in similar terms.

I live and exist because of the daily words spoken by God.

I live because in his divine government he wants me to live.

My circumstances are willed by God for his purposes. And I can have the firm confidence that he will never leave me to suffer needlessly neither does he watches me without compassion. I can have faith that my God is good and he will be with me.

In his time – whether now or in eternity – I will see the reward of my suffering and will be truly satisfied.

Fatherly Comfort in Times of Trouble

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ACKNOWLEDGING THE TROUBLES OF LIFE

Man is born to trouble,” said Eliphaz to Job, “as surely as the sparks fly upward.”

This is not a truth that we always want to acknowledge. When the sun is shining and life is good we hope that it will never end. We always want good times to roll on forever. Any reminder that trouble might come our way is hit out of field by the human psyche with all the force of a top baseball player.

But God’s word tells us about reality. It gives us the true shape of life so that we do not live under a cloud of the world’s lies. The Bible corrects our nearsightedness. Scripture will not permit us to be victims of the devil. Thus, God in his majestic truthfulness testifies that trouble is an inescapable part of life for a Christian. St. Paul goes so far as to say that no true Christian will live a trouble-free life on this earth.

This does not mean that every Christian’s troubles will be the same. Some may face extreme situations like martyrdom and exile from their homes (like the Christians in ISIS occupied territory). Others may simply face the daily weariness of work and family, and the mental struggle of living in an ungodly world.

There is, after all, a deep existential tension of being a Christian in the 21st century. There must be. There should be. Nobody can love the world, writes St. John, and love God at the same time (1 John 2:15). Friendship with the world, says St. James, is enmity with God (James 4:4). Given this, Christians can feel like they belong to a shrinking number of the sane. The irreverence and ungodliness around us can torment the mind and soul just as the things Lot saw in Sodom caused him great distress (2 Peter 2:7).

Sometimes Christians experiences trouble as the by-product of the sinful nature. Even as redeemed people, we can make misjudgements, be rash, and come to wrong-headed conclusions about things. We can make bad decisions. There are a legion of examples.

Pastor Tim Conway once related the story of a friend. This young man married a woman who was a local beauty pageant winner. His godly friends counselled him against the match. They could see her true character but like many eager young people, he saw only the surface. Shortly after the marriage the young man discovered his bride was contentious, ill-tempered, and disloyal. She withheld herself from him sexually, had flirtations with his friends, and eventually ran away with one of his buddies never to return.

Christians can (and do) make errors of judgement. We do not always faithfully observe the teaching of scripture, wisdom and the Church. Even Christians can make choices that plunge them into years – perhaps a lifetime – of trouble. No wonder the scriptures tell us to consult the words of the Lord frequently. Meditate on God’s law day and night, writes the psalmist (Psalm 1:2). Joshua commands the people to not only think on God’s word, but to have it continually on their lips (Joshua 1:8).

It is supreme wisdom to adapt our behaviour to God’s will. To walk circumspectly and thoughtfully. For this will keep us from falling into sin. It will prevent us from piercing ourselves with many needless sorrows.

But sometimes we do not stray from the narrow way of Jesus. At times our hearts are overflowing with praise to the King. Our fellowship with God in prayer can be so rich it is as though we walk in the perfumed gardens of Eden with the Lord. At times Jesus can draw us so near to the extent we can almost wonder if we are about to enter heaven. At such times, God’s holiness falls on the heart, we long for more and more righteousness, and his word is life to us.

And then trouble can come.

This is a paradox indeed! Trouble can come when we believe ourselves to be following most closely on the heels of the Master. This has been the discovery of many godly men and women throughout the ages. They often built the Kingdom of God under the weight of trouble. Amy Carmichael, the Irish missionary who spent fifty-five years in India saving girls from temple prostitution, was bedridden in her latter years. Why did such trouble come to such a powerful missionary for the Lord?

We can wonder about this. Why do difficulties sometimes come when the heart burns for the Lord and for the fulfilment of his righteousness? This is a mystery, but there is comfort from the Lord. For though a man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward, God is the Saviour and Father of all who believe.

TROUBLE, NOT SUFFERING

Notice that I avoid the word “suffering”. In the modern world the word “suffering” is an impaired word. For a start it is commonly linked to ill-health. “Poor Mrs Oliphant,” we say, “she suffers from arthritis.

Under such repeated usage dinned into our ears, we come to associate suffering with a continuous state usually afflicting the body. This raises the high bar on what constitutes “suffering”. People can mistakenly conclude that unless you have Big Bad Stuff going on in your life it is not suffering. The word tends to excludes many painful human experiences. “Oh, you are getting harassed at work? That doesn’t sound so bad. The rest of your life is OK. Can you really call it suffering?

The word “suffering” also evokes fear. It conjures up terrifying visions. It excites painful anxiety. “What kind of suffering am I to endure?” we may fret, “What is going to happen to me?

Such anxiety may be difficult to avoid but it is wrong. It is evident that by God’s grace most Christians do not experience the worst of life. Some brave Christians (whose reward in heaven is undoubtedly very great) do indeed undergo a baptism of fire and their lives are admittedly very difficult. But such Christians are always compensated with abundant joy and grace so that like St. Paul they are enabled to sing even while in the stocks of prison.

Nonetheless, this kind of deep hardship is not a general rule. It does not seem to be God’s intention that his Christian people be kicked to the curb. In fact, God richly blesses his children with many joys both temporal and spiritual. His Church – as a rule – does not go about in ceaseless mourning. God has made a time for tears but also a time for laughter, and for most Christians, there is indeed more laughter than tears.

Thus it is neither healthy nor wise to meditate on the difficulties of others. Neither should we get caught up in the stories of the disgruntled who seem angry at God for their pain. It is not for us to judge the invisible spiritual forces or God’s mysterious purposes. Neither is it up to us to work out all the details of someone else’s life. It is not our place to judge the Judge of All the Earth. A speculative mind on the issue of trouble is polluting.

God has set before us lives to ponder in scripture. These people were no strangers to trouble. But the lives he offers to us to consider are ultimately triumphant ones. All of them. That should be the focus. For as Dr. Martyn-Lloyd Jones once preached, “Some Christians seem to think that God wants them for the same reason the devil does: to torment them.” Such thinking always arises from error and it produces a calumny against God. God is a Father to his people. That is a solid, unassailable truth.

Thus the word “trouble” is better. For a start it is more expansive. It covers a lot more ground and includes the full panoply of Christian struggle. From the minor to the major.

FATHERLY COMFORT

The Letter to the Hebrews contains comfort for anyone who experiences trouble.

It comforts in three ways. Firstly, by reassuring readers that Jesus is a faithful and compassionate high priest whose heavenly intercession is truly efficacious. Secondly, the letter gives a long list of people who were able to face many difficulties through their faith in God. Faith is not just an esoteric feeling, the letter tells us, it takes concrete forms. The letter shows us how to have faith. Thirdly, the letter provides us with answers. It teaches us that our troubles should be regarded as God’s fatherly dealing with us.

There is far too much to mention all at once. But reading this letter prayerfully, with special attention to Hebrews 11 and 12, will surely offer substantial joy, comfort and strength. Here are some thoughts.

The chapter opens with the following statement:

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:3)

This truth comes first because it is the foundation of peace in the turbulence of the storm. If we do not believe that God created all things then we do not have the sort of faith that can receive God’s comfort.

It is not sufficient to simply “believe” in God’s creative acts on an intellectual or mental level. We are surrounded by talk of evolution and the Big Bang. The unbelieving world operates on the basis of this grand deceit and pummels the Christian relentlessly. Unbelief is so ubiquitous that it can chip away – slowly at first – at the Christian’s certainty. Evolution and Big Bang cosmology can quite easily leak into the mind of the Christian so that he plays a double-game. One the one hand he can persuade himself that he believes in creation, while in his heart he doubts and secretly thinks these theories have validity.

A conviction of creation must be deeply internalised so that we come to see that Christ stands behind every painted surface in the universe; whether the rise and fall of a leaf, or the roll of thunder, the rays of sunlight. We must know that Jesus governs all creation.

If this is our faith, it transforms into a source of comfort. It is a great encouragement to know that we can pray to the King of Creation, a King who governs not merely a nation, but all existence. This is the King who sculptured the planets and ignited the stars. If he can do that which is very great, can he not help us in our times of trouble? Can he not perform miracles of grace in our lives? Most assuredly, he can.

The writer goes on to provide a long list of saints who accomplished things by faith. Many of these saints – in fact, all of them – endured struggles of many kinds. But by faith in the Living God, they not only endured, but triumphed over them.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8).

Here the writer emphasises faith in God as we plunge into the unknown. Times of trouble can be frightening precisely because often we do not know what is going to happen. The unknown can make our trouble seem unbearable. Will I be ruined? Will I be outcast? Will I be killed? Will I lose my faith?

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Abraham also was sent on a journey into the unknown. He left behind all that was familiar and safe. He did not know where he was going. He journeyed in the dark but he had the faith to believe God would look after him. And God led him safely all the years of his wandering.

The writer goes on:

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

By faith, Abraham and Sarah did the impossible. They produced a child when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah’s barren womb was unquestionably dead. No child had been conceived within her for 90 years. Her past history with childbearing – that is to say, zero children – could have left her with little hope for the remaining years of her life.

For indeed the years had made their mark on the pair. No doubt both were grey-headed and growing gaunt and feeble. They had been allowed by God to age to the point where they were past all possibility of reproduction. Physiologically it was impossible. Barrenness had been a source of trouble and grief in their lives. And God now promised to relieve them at the point where it seemed they had missed the boat.

Yet, hoping against all hope, and believing against all belief, they had faith in the promises of God. God used the material before him. He caused Abraham to desire his wife; and he caused life to flare into existence inside Sarah. After such a long wait, she experienced the joy of being a mother.

In times of trouble; in times of sadness, loneliness and grief we can wonder whether God will ever come for us. Will joy ever lighten our way again? We may sometimes patiently wait and pray for a long time. But faith is always rewarded in God’s economy. And the longer we wait, the greater the reward tends to be. This should serve as a great inspiration to cling to the promises of God in his word. To take him at his word in faith. To keep praying, to keep doing good, to keep plodding heavenward. It is a Christian cliche, of sorts, but it is nonetheless moving: keep on keeping on.

In the 12th chapter, the writer tells us:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.

Sometimes Christians experience trouble due to God’s corrective discipline in our lives. The writer tells us that this discipline is for our good. It is intended to make us more holy and thus more ready for our meeting with the King at the end of the world.

When God lands blows upon his children in the form of troubles, he does so out of fatherly concern for their soul. Perhaps we are starting to flirt with spiritual danger. Perhaps we are growing cold or arrogant. Perhaps we are hardhearted and need the carapace of self-regard cracked apart. Perhaps we have sinned (or are sinning) and need to be yanked back onto the path of Jesus.

Whatever the case – even if sometimes we may not know the reason for it at all – this corrective discipline, the writer assures us, produces peace and righteousness when it is finally over. Correction and discipline does not feel pleasant for the moment. It is painful and grievous. We do not like it. But the results make it well worthwhile. It leads to the Christian surrendering bad attitudes, habits or desires and learning to love and follow Christ more wholeheartedly. It leads to a life that is more abundant. A life that is brimming with Jesus. A life that is more flourishing like the tree planted by a spring, with its branches that grow over the wall heavy with fruit (Genesis 49:22). It leads to a life that is more joyful, more complete, more rich, more free, and more godly.

It leads to a life that is more full of Jesus; He who is the source of all goodness, joy, laughter, peace, and righteousness. He who is the light of the world.

Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

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When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Aspiring to Servanthood: The Transforming Power of Humility (Part I.)

servanthood

PRIDE AND HUMILITY

It was a job so terrible only a Christian would do it“.

So it was said of the midwives who served in the East End of London during the early 20th century. Midwives laboured up to their neck in squalor, disease, and mortality. All tragic byproducts of poverty, alcohol, and violence. Who would wish to work with such people under such circumstances?

Only a Christian.

In hellholes around the world, you find “only Christians”. They do jobs no one else will do. They are found in the places too dangerous; doing work too revolting; caring for people too broken for any one else.

It is Christianity alone that creates servants. Not Buddhism with its serene meditative calm. None of the thousand Hindu deities inspire missionary love. Not Islam with its fiery dogmatism. Certainly not animist religions with their efforts to squeeze power from nature. Only Christianity. Because only Christianity has at its centre a living King who became the Servant of all mankind.

Humble servanthood is so much the product of the Holy Spirit that Christ taught it is not possible to be one of his people without also becoming a servant. Aspiring to servanthood is a mandatory marker of true Christianity. Such profound self-lowering attends all authentic conversion:

 “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Being a servant has never been popular. Despite the language of service still hanging limply from the lexicon – “serving on the counter“; “serving my country” – the true subordination of oneself for the sake of another is a dead practice in our culture. We need only look at politicians to see the nakedly self-serving character of their craft, notwithstanding the pretence to “public service“.

Humility has always been the leper among virtues. It is a virtue despised by the thinkers and movers in this world.

The German philosopher Nietzsche, to select one example, claimed that humility was nothing more than the subversion of the strong by the weak. Humility, Nietzsche claimed, was just a fiction created by people with “slave morality”.

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Later, the influential psychologist Abraham Maslow claimed that the highest level of human fulfilment would be a stage he termed “self-transcendence”.

Maslow argued that if a person’s needs were fulfilled, their personality would expand into a star-burst of wonderful self-sufficiency, creativity and competence. They would reach their full potential and crack out of their cocoon as amazing enlightened beings. No wonder Maslow was popular among the Human Potential Movement of the 1960’s.

Outside of Christianity, one must search hard to find any philosophy or scheme that is founded on humility. Rather, the human story seethes with pride. From kings and queens swanning around in diamond encrusted robes while their people went hungry, to popes assuming divine titles and having their fingers kissed by the men and women they claimed to serve. Even in our own time we see ample news coverage of people grasping for power, privilege, wealth, fame, control, and the fulfilment of appetites at the expense of others. Few hands reach for the scrubbing brush of servanthood, and nearly all of those are Christians.

In fact, humility is frequently diagnosed as a disease of the mind or defect of character. Talk to people about taking the lowest place, putting yourself last; letting others go first; and being content to be unnoticed by any but God, and it will not be long before adjectives like “doormat” or “spineless” or “weak” will come at you like stones. Humility is seen as psychological defect needing correction. More self-esteem is the fix! It is considered a flaw that is detrimental to your health. To be humble is to be weak. Ignoble. Contemptible. Unworthy of respect. A human punching bag.

Christ speaks to this cultural delusion with sparkling and uncompromising clarity:

“Truly I tell you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The struggle of the convert is largely the fight to forsake the tentacles of pride that wrap themselves around the soul like a hungry octopus. Human nature is proud. By birthright we are selfish and conceited. Fierce in absurd self-admiration. Constant in self-idolatry. Desirous of elevation and applause.

C. S. Lewis wrote that the essence of pride is comparison. Pride, Lewis observed, always wants to be in some sense better than someone else:

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over.

I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’

The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.

They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

I would add to Lewis’ observations. Pride is also about deceit.

St. Paul says that if any man thinks of himself as something when he is nothing he deceives himself. Pride is self deception. But if a man wants truth then humility will eventuate. The essential characteristic of humility is truth. You desire truth in the inward being (Ps. 51:6).

The more a person sees the truth about themselves the greater their humility will be. This is because humility is not a form of conscious, unwilling abasement. That’s merely the imitation of humility and quite as bad as pride. A person can still feed their pride on fake humility. “Well, I didn’t get the attention I wanted but that’s because I was being humble and more virtuous than those who did“.

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Humility is about reality. When the painted layers of self-glory are sanded away, a man will eventually come to the real surfaces of his true being. And we have it on God’s authority that what a man will find is not nice or worthy or good. We are not self-actualised beings (sorry Maslow). We did not make ourselves (sorry Darwin). We are not powerful and self-sustaining (sorry Nietzsche). Quite the reverse.

No good thing dwells in me, wrote St. Paul. Not one thing.

St. Paul saw the reality of his own being in the blinding rays of Christ’s perfection. And he saw so clearly that he completely disowned himself. I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live. But Christ lives in me.

Paul saw the reality about Paul. And when he did, he crucified him.

crucfiedwithChrist

That is the nature of humility. The nature of truth. This is authentic conversion that breeds a deep yearning to serve out of gratitude and love for Jesus Christ.