Power over the Waves: Jesus and the Psychology of Fear (Part I)

calming sea

(Text: Mark 4:35 – 41)

A recent survey conducted in Australia revealed that young people now experience worry and fear at an unprecedented rate. Among the most common fears were those connected to the future, which is not terribly surprising. Almost by definition our worries and fears are about things set in our future. “What is going to happen to me?” people wonder, “What if everything goes wrong?”

Sometimes worry or fear can be so immanent in the mind that it poisons the entirety of a person’s life. A fearful mind results in waning joys; exhausted disinterest in legitimate pleasures; and God is made to seem cold and distant. Life is emptied of sunlight. And since fear exists solely in the realms of the mind, it is in the mind that fear must be dealt with.

The Bible promises that it is possible to be truly and completely happy in this life (on God’s terms, of course). This is a revolutionary doctrine in a world where great numbers of people are unhappy, where others have lapsed into glum pessimism, and where many other people believe that the best they can hope for is merely moderate levels of happiness before death. Into this defeated moral landscape, like an urgent message on a battlefield radio, comes word from heaven: full happiness is possible whatever our circumstances. But to experience “joy unspeakable” – the “joy that is full” (John 15:11) – it is first necessary that a person be set free from worry and fear. Nobody can be purely and simply joyful if he is afraid.

And this is biblical. For the stern and parched hyper-Calvinists among us who glory in preaching doom and misery like the man sitting under the shade of the last palm tree in the desert, this is the explicit instruction of scripture. Indeed, our Lord teaches his disciples “do not worry about your life” and St. Paul writes “be anxious about nothing“.

The Christian disciple, in practising the faith, should be keenly concerned about setting himself free of fear and worry. This is part of our spiritual patrimony; our heritage of joy. Happiness belongs to those who have feet that are set toward the City of God. The Spirit himself bequeaths this state of mind to those in whom he lives: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love and self-control“.

Likewise, the commandment “be not afraid” appears in the Bible (NIV) some 70 times. But the theme of fear is addressed a great deal more often if we also consider attendant teachings such as commandments to trust in God, take refuge in him, and be full of courage. “Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death“, says the king who travelled that valley many times during his turbulent life, “yet I will fear no evil because You are with me.

Freedom from fear and worry is therefore a product of right thinking. To achieve a mind liberated from fear, the Christian must understand fear and why it is a sin to worry and fret in the Lord’s universe. The Bible gives us a complete taxonomy of fear and how it works. It does this for our edification, that we might better realise that worry and fear flow downward from a stark deficiency in knowing God. It is precisely because we fail to really know God as a Person in wonder and joy – notwithstanding the correctness and orthodoxy of our doctrine – that we become afraid. The remedy therefore (which I will address in a later post) is found primarily in the manner in which we relate to God.

Faith and Fear on Display

In the text referenced above, Jesus tells his disciples to set off across the lake. The Lord being tired out by a day of teaching and healing falls asleep in the back of the ship. A terrible storm erupts on the lake. St. Luke tells the reader that the ship was in serious danger. So much indeed that the disciples, the experienced fishermen among them concurring, thought that they were at imminent risk of drowning.

In their fear, the disciples wake Jesus. Each evangelist records a slightly different statement helping the reader to imagine the hubbub of fearful cries:

“Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” (Luke 8:24)
“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25)
“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)

St. Matthew tells the reader that Jesus’ first response upon being roused by this urgent din was to rebuke his disciples. Carefully note that St. Matthew tells us that this rebuke occurred before Jesus calmed the wind and waves. “You of little faith? Why are you so afraid?” Having said thus, he then issued a command to the furious storm and immediately there was a great calm. The Lord turns to his terrified disciples and says, “Where is your faith?” (Luke). “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark).

Fear is not legitimate for the disciple

Jesus’ rhetorical question to his disciples presupposes a remarkable truth. It tells us that from Jesus’ perspective, which is the only right and valid one for a disciple purporting to follow him, there were no legitimate grounds for them to be afraid. This is astonishing on the face of it given that all the evidence would suggest the reverse. It would seem to us that the disciples had good grounds to be afraid since they were totally at the mercy of the storm. Not so, says our Lord. Quite the contrary!

Jesus firmly impresses upon his disciples that had they possessed genuine faith in him they would never have been afraid. Faith would enable them to see the hidden realities behind the storm and the surfaces of the world around them.

But, in lacking faith, they saw the world as a colourblind person sees the world: in flat and brutal monochrome, unable to tell a red door from a green one, or a tomato from an apple. Severe indeed is the myopia of the faithless soul! For without faith men are doomed forever to view the world as though standing on their head. And in so doing, life, and the world at large, and everything in it is seen through the wrong end of the spiritual telescope, so that things which are small loom large, and things that are truly great appear insignificant.

The story gives a number of insights into the psychology of fear:

1. Fear is now native to the human mind.
According to Jesus, his disciples had “no faith” or “little faith“.

Faith is alien to us in a fallen world and does not come naturally to anyone. This is why St. Paul says that faith is a “gift from God”. It has to be since we cannot manufacture it ourselves. Yet this intruder – the condition of faithlessness – creates an existential vacuum in the mind and heart of man (who was, after all, designed to be a creature faith-filled and trusting). This void is filled with another in-rushing spiritual element. Fear. Fear has displaced faith in the human condition. In fact, the first recorded human emotion in Genesis is fear. (Genesis 3:10).

Without faith the grandeur and scope of man’s understanding shrinks to the orbit of a pinpoint, and fear, as it were fixed on a sliding scale, increases in the same direct proportions. Whereas once man in his innocence saw all things under the great unifying governance of God, such that we could confidently have walked the stars had we wished or trod on the flames of the sun which would not have harmed us neither overflowed upon us, now we are conscious only of ourselves, our smallness, weakness, fragility, and the tyranny of our circumstances. The world seems massive. Life in it appears to be the only thing that matters. The titanic and eternal depths of the spirit seem ethereal and insubstantial. Our various problems seem insurmountable.

Faithlessness pretends the universe is all about us, and God is pushed to the periphery of his own creation, distant or even absent altogether. To be alone in the universe is to be a spiritual orphan. To be abandoned by our Spiritual Father is to invite fear into the soul.

Without faith, our native reaction is innate distrust of God. Even the Christian, in his unguarded hours, may be both suspicious and cynical about God’s power. Yes, we can readily believe theoretically that God is all-powerful, all-wise and all-good. On paper, of course, the theory is extremely straightforward and childishly easy to grasp. But when things get difficult and worries and fears emerge from the surf of the fleshly mind, we find it much harder to function on the basis of our cherished theory.

It is like a man who has been told that there is an invisible bridge crossing the span of a deep chasm. The man learns about the bridge. It is a strong bridge, he discovers, and never fails. He comes to confidently proclaim the existence of the bridge to others.

But all the theory in the world is meaningless until the man places his foot over the chasm and puts his weight on the invisible surface he has claimed is there. At that point we get to see whether the man really believes what he says. If he steps forward, we see that his message is more than mere fantasy because now, at last, he is operating as if he knew that his theory were true. He trusts his life to it.

The same goes for faith in God.

2. Fear is the product of having our godlike pretensions exposed.
The first sin was not just disobedience to God but an effort to assume his status. This insufferable pride colours the thinking of every human being to one degree or another. We prefer to be in control of our circumstances and destiny. Self-determination!

We also hunger for knowledge that belongs only to the Almighty. Humanity has had a fascination with foreknowledge, and therefore always longed to peer through the mists of time and see the future. Clairvoyants and mediums have always ranged from cheap parlour entertainers, to mendacious tricksters, to shameless carpetbaggers, to properly deluded souls with a demonic odour rising from their clothing. But they have always been in demand, in every culture, because they promise access to the future. And lest we readily despise such a culture, even in a scientific age, predicting economic, meteorological, sporting, environmental, and social and political outcomes are big business. Humanity craves to know what it is not entitled to know.

For the disciples, the storm stripped away these pretensions. The Twelve realised that they were powerless. The storm was big and they were small. The storm was strong and they were weak. It was beyond their resources to cope with and they did not know what to do or what was going to happen. They probably did not think even Jesus could do much to save them, except lend his strength to an oar.

They were certain that their fate rested with themselves and since they were unable to deal with the storm on their own, they expected the worst.

The Christian disciple is most afraid when he most convinced that his fate rests with himself. He is afraid when he is convinced that God will not intervene in his life and that he is thrust into the cosmos alone. He is afraid when he thinks that he alone is ultimately responsible for dealing with his circumstances and problems. He is afraid when he distrustfully assumes that God’s intervention in his creation is miserly and capricious, instead of ongoing, omnipresent, constant.

We are most afraid, in other words when we assume a godlike perspective and attitude, and forget that God is God and we are not. That God is sovereign over ever square inch, every particle, and every happening in his creation.

3. Fear mangles the future and looks to it with distrust.
The problem with both lacking faith and at the same time pretending we are little gods who can confidently speculate about our future, is that we tend to assume the worst. The future looks painful, difficult, problematic, and downright frightening when we adopt the godlike perspective.

This attribute of the psychology of fear is fully displayed in the inspired narrative. Since the disciples could not deal with the storm, they assumed they were going to drown.

That was a perfectly logical atheistic deduction and would make sense if the universe was a godless one. But this is not an atheistic universe and neither we nor our circumstances and limitations are the deciders of our fate. God is.

4. Fear mangles the past and jettisons all memory of God’s mercies and care.
Don’t you care if we drown? asked the disciples, with the heavy implication that Jesus did not. If he did care wouldn’t he be bailing water and hauling on the rigging too?

Yet in the space of a few chapters, St. Mark has already shown us that Jesus handpicked his apostles. The evangelist gives us the deeply touching scene of Jesus surrounded by a circle of his disciples, exclaiming, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” And just a short while earlier Jesus had told his apostles that it was their privilege, unlike those outside, to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.

A fearful state of mind quickly forgets the past mercies and care of God. It forgets the storms through which God has already led us; the answered prayers; the loving guidance through the valleys of the shadow of death. Indeed, the faithless mind makes past mercies seem small compared to the present crisis (although if we recall accurately, very often past crises also seemed to be the worst thing ever at the time).

Fear and faithlessness rounds upon God. Don’t you care if we drown?

Even if it does not emerge as a railing accusation against the Almighty, the same attitude can be expressed in other ways. In quiet despair, in nervous exhaustion, in persistent gloom, in listless brooding, in anger directed against human targets, or trickles of fear.

We so quickly and readily take the view that although God has helped us in the past, somehow he is going to desert us in the present. Or, we take the view that past challenges were far smaller than the present crisis and that while God was adequate to those problems maybe he is neither willing nor able to help us with the present problem.

5. Fear is a product of thinking we know better than God what is good for us.
The disciples woke Jesus probably in the expectation that he would help them operate the ship and fight the storm. From their perspective that was the best help that Jesus could give to them at that moment. They certainly were not expecting deliverance from the storm. They were not expecting Jesus to stand up in the ship and address the sea. They were not expecting a miracle at all. We know this because once Jesus had calmed the sea the text tells us that the disciples were terrified. What kind of man is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!

Fear often emerges when the Christian comes to understand that God is not going to dance to our tune, we must dance to his. Yet over and over again, we become convinced that we know better than God what will make us fulfilled, holy, happy, content, joyful, and peaceful. And when it looks like God is not going to assist us in the way we think he should, it produces fear. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God because we are confronted with the reality that we are not in control.

It can be a frightening thought that God is going to make us happy, holy, and peaceful by the means he has determined. It can be a fearful thought that God will save and sanctify us according to his wisdom, and not ours. We do not like this because of our innate distrust of God’s motives and methods. We never seem to realise that God does what he does for his glory and our benefit, and that ultimately, at the end of our days, at the dawning of eternity, we will be satisfied with the work that God has done in us. With clarity we will see the love and wisdom in it and we ourselves would have it no other way.

In short: trust God. He knows what he is doing. And we will increase in joy and peace through the process of his dealings. Always.

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The Healing of the Paralytic

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“Son, be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven.” (Mat 9:2)

In the ninth chapter of his gospel, St. Matthew relates a remarkable miracle.

Some men brought to Jesus a man who was a severe paralytic. So immobile, indeed, that he needed to be carried on a mat like a patient on a stretcher. St. Matthew does not tell us precisely how the man was paralysed, but one is left with the impression that this was not a congenital paralysis. Usually the gospel writers are very careful to mention whether an illness or disease was “from birth”.

We do know that severe accidents were relatively common in the ancient world. Our Lord even references a number of people who were tragically killed in the collapse of a tower.

In the ancient world, people unfortunate enough to be badly injured usually died. Medical technology of the era simply could not cope with extreme conditions and so the injured were “left in the hands of God” – as we always are, even if modern medicine sometimes deludes us into thinking we are not.

People who survived accidents with broken and deformed bodies – especially men – lost most of their economic capacity. They essentially became beggars, reliant upon their wife, children, or friends to provide the essentials of life. It was an unenviable and pitiable condition. Particularly if they lived with chronic pain.

St. Matthew tells us that our Lord “saw their faith” – the faith of the paralytic’s friends.

This is a remarkable observation. We know that Christ could see into the hearts of men with perfect perspicuity. But St. Matthew intends us to see that the faith of these men was demonstrated in action: they invested effort to bring their friend to Jesus, and they came with expectancy. This was not a scholarly expectation. It was not theologically complicated.

Their comprehension was simple and straightforward: This is the One who can heal!

When Jesus saw the paralytic he did not immediately tell him he was going to be healed from his paralysis. Instead, the Lord tells him to “Be of good cheer! Your sins are forgiven”. Do we get what St. Matthew is saying here? Forgiveness of sins is the first order of business. Indeed, righteousness with God was always the foremost priority in the economy of our Lord who sees and knows all things.

The forgiveness of sins! If we see things rightly, then we understand that reconciliation with God is greater than even being able to walk again. People who have found salvation come to understand that this is the foremost source of “good cheer”.

Could there be anything greater? To be a criminal engaged in a longstanding civil war against our Creator and King, only for him to set aside his royal robes; step down from his throne; and descend to our level in order to tell us that all who lay down their weapons; all who sign the Armistice; all who surrender and come into his presence – even if only with a trembling, weak, solitary sinew of faith – will be received. Will be forgiven. Will be reconciled. They will be given the right to call their former enemy, “my Father”.

It is only after addressing the paralytic’s soul that our Lord heals his broken body. Yet even this is done with purposeful deliberateness, to confirm the reality of the forgiveness he had bestowed.

No matter what the devil will try to tell us about the importance of earthly gain, or that we should look for happiness in sin and material goods, the reality is that a man can only really be at peace – to “be of good cheer” – when he has encountered Christ in faith and heard his words spoken as unto the very recesses of his soul:

“My son, your sins are forgiven.”

Do you hear that welcoming voice? Has your heart ever yearned for unconditional, compassionate and understanding love – the love of Christ, a wellspring of affection that is reserved just for you from the centre of heaven itself?

Have you grown weary of the dusty wilderness tracks through the desert of unrighteousness? Do you feel any tug on your heart at all?

You do not need it to be complicated. You do not need to have the same experience someone else had. You do not need complex doctrinal understanding. You need only to have an atom of desire toward Christ and enough faith to come – fainting, wounded, paralysed – into his presence. For all who truly come, he will never cast away.

In the words of the old revival hymn:

I hear Thy welcome voice,
That calls me, Lord, to Thee;
For cleansing in Thy precious blood,
That flow’d on Calvary.

I am coming, Lord!
Coming now to Thee!
Wash me, cleanse me, in the blood
That flow’d on Calvary!

Though coming weak and vile,
Thou dost my strength assure;
Thou dost my vileness fully cleanse,
Till spotless all, and pure.

And he the witness gives
To loyal hearts and free,
That every promise is fulfilled,
If faith but brings the plea.

A Broken World: Family Is Destiny

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A family gathered around the table together for a meal. Note the absence of television and the home cooked food. Both the mother and father have cups of tea or coffee, a silent indication of adulthood. This kind of scene was nearly universal within living memory. Today, a regular family meal around a table involving interaction, fellowship and the practice of table courtesies is now so much a rarity as to be noteworthy when it does occur.

Family life for many people has radically degraded over the past half-century:
Recently I completed a seminar on the mental health problems faced by today’s adolescents and their families. One of the things that interested me was the insight offered by our facilitator. She was an experienced psychologist who trained in the years shortly after field began to really explode in many directions in the 1960’s.

As such, she was in a position to comment on the way things had changed over nearly a fifty year stretch of her professional life. Like many older psychologists, she believed that family life – and especially childhood and adolescence – had grown tragically complex over this time frame. Issues that are now commonplace were once rarities.

It is impossible to convey to a casual reader the feeling I took away from those 16 hours of instruction. The statistics were shocking. The stories that were shared were heartbreaking. Stories about broken families, dysfunction, mental illness, and all the other issues that are sandwiched in between, like unemployment and poverty make one realise that we live in a hurting world that is far, far from the straight path of our Creator.

A number of things were powerfully reinforced to me:

1.) Welfare services and government intervention only address the tip of the iceberg: It is a comfortable, middle-class delusion that massive welfare spending addresses the constellation of suffering of the poor or the dysfunctional. It does not. In fact, welfare only brings relief to a very small percentage of people. The majority of people with family problems or with, (say), mild psychosis, fall through the gaps.

This means many more people are suffering than we often realise. In fact, quite ordinary people just like ourselves who do not look noticeably different, may well be living in their own personal hell in their family life. Something to think about when you next brush shoulders with strangers in the supermarket.

Partially, this is the result of the great difficulty in collecting any reliable data about family or mental dysfunction. Any data that does exist is almost always drawn from a self-selecting sample, and there are strong biases in the system that prevent other data from being reported. For instance, coroners are extremely reluctant to ascribe a death to suicide unless there is such overwhelming evidence it is impossible to come to any other conclusion. This means that the number of suicides that are reported in the official figures are without a doubt greatly underestimated. In fact, any apparent suicidal death in which there is the slightest shred of doubt will not be counted as a suicide.

What the inadequacy of the figures means is that our society is more sick than even government figures will tell us. Amidst dramatic prosperity and material wealth in our society, there lurks a broken, sinful, wretched mankind, robed in the darkness that attends those who are far from God.

2.) Family is destiny:
If ever there was evidence that forsaking God’s design and purpose for marriage produces social decay and disharmony, then the current state of our society would be Exhibit A. When marriage is properly observed as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for mutual support, love, and the nurture of children, it produces functional and generally happy offspring. It is the very foundation of human flourishing.

The extreme acceleration of divorce over the last few decades was noted by a number of attendees at the conference. I paid careful attention their comments chiefly because of what they told me about the moral changes that are fast unfolding around us in a way that is not always evident. One woman, who was probably not much older than I am, made the following observation:

When I was at school, I never heard about divorce. Well, maybe there was one or two. But it was hushed up and kept behind closed doors. It wasn’t talked about. But now it seems that partners get divorced at the drop of a hat. If they have some conflict with each other they just get a divorce. And then six months later they’ve found a new partner. And then you end up with families where there are all sorts of relationships, with children belonging to this partner and not to that one, and so on.

Divorce and changing partners has become so prevalent that it is earned its own label: serial monogamy. Furthermore, as families become more blended, marriage is increasingly being reserved for a point long after the consummation of the union. In fact, long after the production of children and long after the couple have settled down into home together. I have been at weddings where the children of the couple are the bridesmaids. In times past this would have been an utter impossibility, both definitively and legally.

So great is the dysfunction among families that I am beginning to understand the flat truth that no society can prosper when the family unit has broken down. I used to think John MacArthur was somewhat exaggerating by putting it so bluntly, but I have certainly changed my mind on that score.

Bad family situations produce deeply traumatised children. These children will frequently go on to develop depression or to commit suicide (which is the leading killer of young males in my country – even more so than motor car accidents). Many will self-medicate their pain through the use of alcohol and drugs, which leads to a life of criminality. But this criminality is not just “someone else’s problem”, which can be a comforting narrative that once may even have been true. Not anymore. For as the number of young criminals increases, the likelihood of everybody’s life being touched in some way by that criminality also increases.

It almost goes without saying that these sorts of children seldom receive a meaningful education. How can anyone learn if they eat dinner at McDonald’s every night in the presence of a parent who is high on heroin or methamphetamine? How can anyone think about homework when the safest place after school is out of the home and on the streets? The offspring of dysfunctional families are unable to learn and ready themselves for the future. Therefore the number of skilled and capable people entering the workforce also diminishes, necessitating ever escalating welfare budgets to care for them.

In addition, these children tend to live reckless lives themselves. They smoke, drink, and take drugs. When they try to establish their own families, they have no example from which to draw of loving, wise discipline of children or even the operation of a home. There are Youtube videos teaching people how to make beds, for instance, since these skills are no longer routinely conveyed from generation to generation within the family home. It goes without saying that these parents often lack the social graces to deal with others in a way that will contribute to a peaceful life. Additionally, egotism and arrogance and contempt for authority are ingrained since these young parents had no such respect for the primal authority figure in everyone’s life: their parents.

It has become very clear to me, as I have looked at the evidence and the information provided by professionals in the field, that if you want to sabotage a society and plunge it into lawlessness, indulgence, a perpetually dangerous “party” atmosphere, into poverty, into a valueless wasteland dotted with the mirage of tacky entertainment, and to actually change society into a machine for producing sad and sick human beings, there can be no better way of achieving this than by destroying the family.

The prevalence of divorce; the glorification of the singles life; the celebration of sexual unions that are by definition sterile; the cheapness with which people enter marriage (unprepared and unfortified by the Christian instruction on the sacredness of the union); and the lack of the sacred in daily life – of prayer, church attendance, communion, daily devotional reading, the practice of walking in good works in “which God foreordained that we should walk” all results in a world that is truly broken.

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Parish life. It still exists in some places around the world. The parish organisational unit has some advantages over the congregational model, since it compels a community of believers together based on location. Thus local Christian families bonded through the Church; learning the Gospel of Christ. This was transmitted to their children, and reinforced through community events like this where different families and generations would come together and interact as Christians, neighbours, and friends.

What It Once Was:
It is all light years from what our society was not so long ago, when families were headed by husbands and wives who were adults both in body and in mind, prepared for marriage by a long process of training in which the qualities of stable family life with its routines and patterns were modelled by their own parents and grandparents.

They entered marriage “soberly, advisedly” as the prayer book puts it. They embarked on this sacred undertaking seriously in the full knowledge that divorce was either impossible or extremely hard to obtain. There was no artificial nonsense about marriage being a great “adventure”, which is a description that is custom-designed for an age fearful of humdrum realities; for a time period that celebrates excitement at the expense even of peace and routine. Neither was marriage about Disneyesque notions of romantic love that never faded, but rather about two people supporting and caring for each other and working together in their respective spheres to raise their children.

Mothers occupied the home life; fathers went to work. The Pauline concept of the headship of the father was unquestioned.

Parents disciplined their children because it was God’s will. They also disciplined their children for the sake of the family honour as much as from the fear that their children would grow up in some crooked habit. Ideas of virtue and nobility, that put our time to shame, were accepted by everyone as necessary imports into a child’s mind and heart while it was still young. Even class snobbishness – as it is maligned today – actually contained a kernel of Christian values, for parents were desperately concerned to keep their children from degraded patterns of life, and to live with the greatest amount of dignity possible.

Children were taught respect. Disrespect was seen as a social evil that, ultimately, threatened everyone. And most assuredly it does. We live in a society that has decided to dispense with the experience and wisdom of our forebears (enjoined upon us by God) and now indulges rampant disrespect for property and for people. The corrupting effect of this disrespect is visible on every bus shelter, every subway, every alleyway. It is visible in the portable public urinals set up in the centre of London to try to prevent party-goers from urinating or vomiting on the streets. It is visible on the acceptance of psychologists of adolescence being an age of rebellion, even declaring this “normal” and “healthy”. If this is so, then previous generations must have been dreadfully abnormal, producing teenagers that were productive and respectful.

There was a time when open discourtesy and contempt for authority would have been seen as a nightmare scenario worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the not-so-distant past, children learned respect first for the authority of their parents, for God, and then for their teachers, priests, ministers, the police, the King or Queen, and so on. In 2016, the vast majority of children learn respect for very few of these authorities.

No society can long survive an era where authority is hated, despised, received with suspicion, and rebelled against openly. No society can long endure when comedians and cultural agents actually celebrate naked defiance. Our society endures because of the residue of respect that remains from the past, and from the handfuls of people in the present who manifest continuity with the lived experience of those who went before us, and exhibit this in their values and their approach to life.

In the rear-view mirror of history, the 1950’s – so frequently derided as an age of frustration, of “white picket fences”, and patriarchy – begins to seem infinitely more civilised than the society that is evolving around us.

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Reflecting on The Temptations of Christ

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Immediately following his baptism, our Lord is led into a desolate place where he lingers for forty days and nights. After this time, Satan appears and the two engage in spiritual combat. The stakes could not be higher. Their battle echoes in eternity.

If Satan is victorious then God’s entire purpose is frustrated and the salvation of mankind is a failed project that must be swept into the cosmic trashcan. If the Saviour failed, then mankind would have suffer the same doom as the devil himself.

But if Christ emerges victorious – in the most weakened condition a man can reach without succumbing to death – then he is truly revealed as the Second Adam, the Man who is without sin and who does not submit to sin, unlike the first. Christ shows himself worthy to be the head of a new human race.

This incredible passage of scripture uncovers a glimpse of the deep and abiding spiritual realities that lay beyond the membrane of our seemingly ordinary existence. If we could only push aside these fragile, yet clinging surfaces that so captivate our minds, we would discover a spiritual dimension that is constantly interacting with, and influencing our experience of life. C. S. Lewis exposed some of this beautifully in The Screwtape Letters, but the account of Christ’s temptations does this best of all.

When reading this inspired passage of text one cannot help but raise the question: why does Satan bother to tempt our Lord at all? Surely he knows that Christ is fully God and fully man. Surely he knows it is futile?

The scriptures provide us with very little information about the psychology and motives of Satan and the demons (the fallen angels), but from what it does tell us we can deduce a few common-sense lessons.

Firstly, the fact that Satan and the demons are so concerned to corrupt and twist humanity and to subject us to the wrath of God, is surely a symptom of Satan’s contempt for humanity. For it is only a being who regards others as less worthy; less deserving than themselves that can engage in persistent and calculated cruelty toward them.

Most assuredly, Satan and the demons are cruel beyond measure. We need to recognise that Satan is not a sexually promiscuous fun-loving red devil, as the unbelieving world would vainly imagine and even celebrate. Rather he is the foul creature who worked to bring about the Holocaust. Who conspired to spark off the blood vendettas in Yugoslavia. Satan and his demonic host are behind every genocide and war; every torture chamber; every starved child; every dirty prostitute kicked around on the streets; every maltreated animal. All this, and more, are the products of Satan’s influence at one level or another.

Such cruelty is wedded to pride. Only the supremely prideful can inflict pain and harm on others without their conscience screaming. Satan possesses such pride, suggests C. S. Lewis, that it runs to anger and malice at the thought that God should both create and love humanity; we fragile race of beings formed from flesh and spirit. Satan attacks humanity with such vigour not because we are terrifically important, but because we bear the moral image of God. Unable to attack God himself Satan resorts to trying to efface, vandalise, graffiti, pollute, and twist the image bearers as his sole means of expressing his hatred of God.

Thus, when God assumes flesh and actually becomes man as part of his saving purpose, and when he faces down Satan – not in his divinity but by assuming our humanity – he demonstrates unimaginable power and unimaginable love.

The Truth Will Set You Free: The First Steps to Christian Happiness

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There is such a thing as a miserable Christian.

It is an unfortunate reality that many followers of Christ do not live – as the Westminster Confession of Faith would have it – “enjoying God”. For that, according to the Confession, is the chief end of man. He is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Of course, most Christians take seriously the need to glorify God. Our Creator and Sustainer is worthy of praise, respect, reverence, obedience, love and worship. Yet even God-centred worship can become dry and mechanical when performed without a sense of delight in God. Worship can even become a superficial posture wherein we know that it is good to glorify God, but become painfully conscious that there is a very limited amount of passion in what we are doing. A Christian, therefore, cannot properly be said to offer to God a fulsome worship, unless this also includes an enjoyment of God. A man must find God’s company pleasant; he must find his cheer in the presence of Christ; and he must come to discover that holiness is a sweet and lovely thing.

At this juncture, it is important to be careful of legalism. We cannot afford to establish rigid criteria and boundaries that are not biblical. A person, after all, can still be a Christian even if he does not seem to find much delight in his Maker. A man can have salvation with the merest particle of faith in the grace that is in Christ, as evinced by the dying thief on the cross. We are saved by faith, not by joy.

But sadly, for many Christians, life and the devil has worn their faith down to the joints and marrow. Some struggle with their circumstances. Relationships, for instance, are one of the greatest causes of pain to man, and a ceaseless reminder of the selfishness and wickedness that lies within his heart. Relationships between husband and wife; between parents and children; between nations; between employee and employer – these are fraught with breakdown and frequently much pain. One of the clearest evidences that man is sinful is his inability to live in harmony with other men. At other times, Christians can carry great burdens. Worries and fears about the future. Or even existential angst, as if one’s life is passing away and one feels that so little is being achieved. Other Christians live in lands that are not prosperous and safe, and struggle against rulers and principalities and the fear of torture and death.

Never, therefore, should we look upon a weary, sad, miserable, and weathered Christian with jaded eyes, and simply dismiss them if they lack the abundance of joy that Christ has promised. In their case, it is not that Christ has failed them. Rather it is that His people often have yet to learn and discover the way to the joy that He promises to give. So, dear reader, if you lack a steady stream of joy and happiness, then this is not cause for further gloom. Perhaps in God’s sovereignty He has brought you to this blog precisely so that you too may begin to learn about true Christian joy!

Let us first begin with a foundational principle. This principle is contained in two verses that will illumine everything else that will follow in this article. I invite any reader to consider these words with a purity of contemplation. Yes, most certainly, these verses are often wrestled by mystics and charismatics; and misapplied by liberals; and even cited by civil rights activists as if they conferred God’s imprimatur on their protest marches and political campaigns. I have no intention of following such groups in their error. We will, instead, draw one or two undeniable exegetical truths from these words:

So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

The Lord speaks of “being set free”. Setting aside the nature of that freedom (and indeed, the nature of the oppression that makes the offer of freedom necessary), the Lord clearly demonstrates in this passage the avenue by which a man is properly set free.

Man is not set free by swords and spears or money. The Lord did not give His listeners a battle strategy against the Romans or give them all their dreams come true, as He surely had the power to do. Instead, our Lord declares that a man is set free by truth. And therefore, what Christ gave to them was words. Words uttered by humanity are so feeble and transient, but the Lord offered His words – His words, which reliably convey truth. Christ’s words contain true knowledge. They carry true information. These are the very words given to Christ by the Father himself (“These words you hear are not My own, they belong to the Father who sent me“). A man’s freedom, then, is obtained by receiving and continuing in Christ’s true words; by applying and living out the truthful information He has brought to us from heaven.

Of course, not every person who listens to the word of Christ will be set free, because many listen without faith and without any will to apply the words. For some people, His word makes no imprint in their heart whatever. Yet for those who take the Lord at His word, and believe what He says, they will find the power of truth in their life that establishes a glorious freedom. It is this true information that overturns darkness and shadow. It is this true knowledge and this true way of looking at things that liberates a man.

Now, then, what is the nature of the slavery that makes this freedom necessary? Our Lord himself tells us: it is sin. The Lord is adamant on this point – as indeed, is St. Paul when the apostle uses the imagery of slaves being mastered by unrighteousness. Sin, properly understood, exercises an enslaving quality upon every aspect of the human person. Not merely his body, which is only a small component of human sin, but more essentially his mind, heart, emotions, desires, and aspirations. Indeed, every part of the human personality is attacked and affected by sin. From physiology to psychology, all the constituent parts of a human person in his native condition is enslaved to sin and futility.

This is why the Lord’s teaching sometimes seems to be so alien to what we would expect and desire. For instance, in the New Testament, people come to Him complaining about an unfair share of an earthly inheritance. He points them to eternal treasure. People come to Him with news of frightful atrocities perpetrated by the Romans. He points them to the spiritual condition of their own hearts and the need to repent. His disciples speak admiringly of the great stones and decorations of the temple. He tells them it will come down to ruins. As our Lord is going to His death, women cry out in mourning for Him. He tells them to weep for themselves for a great tragedy will shortly befall them and their final condition would be both pitiful and lamentable (all the more so because it was entirely avoidable).

Just exactly what manner of Man is this? Our Lord is constantly, relentlessly, persistently, endlessly determined to tear away from our eyes the fluttering cobwebs in which we invest so much effort and energy. The things we instinctively feel hold so much importance.

And the Lord will confer His divine blessing on none of our indulgences. He does not grant us the slightest comfort for our earthly existence, no promises of the “good life” as we so often wish it to be. Our longings for a quiet and uneventful life, with sufficient levels of prosperity, with a semi-functional family, and with regular dollops of colour, friendship and laughter may seem to us to be an entirely reasonable expectation, as if we were equals engaged in a negotiation about our future with the King of kings, and as if we could exchange our worship for a fair package deal for life. Yet, our Lord will have none of it. He speaks very little of this temporal existence, and does not permit us to bargain with Him. Our condition is too hopeless and His salvation too vital for any man to deserve a say at the negotiation table. Rather, Christ engages in unilateral spiritual diplomacy. Christ talks. He pushes the instrument of surrender at us. We accept His terms for peace. End of discussion.

It is hard to escape the Lord’s persistent long-term focus even from the briefest, most cursory reading of the New Testament.  So often we sin-damaged beings can see hardly further than the nose on our face. We are born with spiritual myopia, and the world around us and all that is in it appears to us in burred form and is often difficult to interpret. Worse still, we get so accustomed to things being blurred that we begin to believe that this is normal vision, and that we are therefore interpreting our lives correctly. We peer closely at things, beholding only small areas of their surface at a time, and then think we are geniuses because we manage to figure out what an object exactly is as it looms before us.

The New Testament ceaselessly reminds us that the Lord’s eyes are laser precise. There He stands on the mountain, far above us, gazing with incredible clarity toward the horizon. But we rush to the Lord, tugging at his garments, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? What about now? What about here? What about my happiness?“. The Lord lowers his gaze, almost unwillingly from the glory beyond, and he points us to the horizon.

“Can you see over there?” he seems to say, “Look a little further! There are far greater concerns; richer and more glorious matters! And if you cannot see it, then you must trust Me when I tell you that I can see it, and that I am pointing you always in the right direction.”

The essential point, then, is this. If we are to begin to be happy in Christ and to enjoy God – and we all must begin somewhere and at some point – then surely the first step is to accept these basic biblical principles.

Firstly, that there is such a thing as a joy unspeakable in Christ, for He tells us this is so (John 15:11). He tells us that there is complete joy, and, indeed, that this is part of the very purpose for which Christ has given us His words.

Secondly, we must accept that we are naturally slaves to sin. And, moreover, that we have a native tendency to run back to our first master. Even a Christian sins, sometimes grievously so (e.g. St. Peter and the churches at Corinth), which is why we need an Advocate to plead our cause (1 John 2:1). At the same time, we must embrace the realisation that our psychology, our interpretations of life and our interpretations about what is happening to us, indeed, our entire view of things is wrong, and always tends toward wrongness. Even that which we feel – and too often we think our emotions give us reliable information – is subject to the same contamination. Our hearts – down to a man – are”deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

We cannot understand accurately even half of what is going on within us. Our own hearts are an impenetrable mystery much more often than they are understandable. Think how many hours we have each spent in our lifetime trying to decode our own emotional state and to figure out what it is that we feel, and why it is that we feel it! Or trying to force ourselves not to think or feel along certain lines, in order that we may think or feel along others! Given that we struggle with something so central to our being, how much less can we think that we may accurately interpret our own past or discern our own future? It is foolish. It is foolish because we are sick in our native and natural condition. We are spiritually crippled, addicted to the cause of our symptoms; allergic to their cure, and therefore in constant and terrible need of a Great Physician who deals not only with flesh and blood, but also with the spirit, with the mind, and with the heart that lies within us.

Thirdly, we must come to the realisation that the cure for our complaints lies in possessing true knowledge and true information. Christ’s truth will uplift the heart and ennoble a life. Long-term exposure to His truth will liberate a man from dread and darkness forever. Truth – Christ’s truth – applied to a life will shatter the power of sin over us, which makes men so wretched and miserable. And this will continue until we get to a point where we can sing hymns in the stocks in prison, like Paul and Silas (Acts 16:25); where we can rejoice while the blood is still wet on our backs from a beating like the Apostles (Acts 5:41); where we can encourage other people to rejoice always in the Lord even from a cell (Philippians 4:4). To advance so much in the Spirit and in the Lord’s teaching that we derive the sum of our joy no longer from time and circumstance but instead from Him alone and what he points to over the horizon, and which he ever reassures us is not actually that far off at all. Indeed, the kingdom of God is close at hand.

Imagine what it would be like to be unspeakably happy and joyful; at peace and at rest in YOUR current condition without any external changes, any editing of your circumstances, and additions or deletions! Would that not constitute riches and bring much glory to God? Most assuredly, it would.

Amy Carmichael, who poured her life out in India, wrote: There is nothing dreary or doubtful about [the life]. It is meant to be continually joyful. We are called to a settled happiness in the Lord whose joy is our strength. 

Hudson Taylor once observed: There are three great truths. First, that there is a God; second, that He has spoken to us in the Bible; third, that He means what He says. Oh, the joy of trusting Him!

The beginning of true happiness, therefore, is to renounce our own beliefs about how to obtain it, and to begin to realise that it lies not in what is in front of our nose, but over the horizon to where Christ is always pointing. How, a man may wail, can I stop believing that my happiness is dependent on my circumstances? Well, not with your own wisdom, or your own reasoning, or your own effort, or your own power. It comes from purposeful exposure to the liberating truth of Christ, and we grow into it through purposeful, diligent prayer. And then we advance to the level of our Master, who was never fazed by his circumstances, and was never miserable.

Some of the Lord’s saints have proximated to it closely, like St. Francis of Assisi who, although he had his mystic tendencies, entered a life of joyful poverty and service, and in his poverty, discovered the joy of Christ unspeakable which has eluded kings.

 

 

 

 

Why Church Discipline Matters

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While vices are always destructive, few people seem to realise that a virtue taken to extremes is equally destructive.

Take, for instance, the man who practices the virtue of charitable giving by handing his entire wage to the homeless while his own children are left to starve. To do such a thing is to twist the intended virtue into something dark and ungodly.

Or, to use another example, the woman who practices the virtue of cleanliness in her home by using such dangerous chemicals and cleansers that her family grows ill. By going to the extreme, she completely defeats the value and goodness of the virtue.

Unfortunately we live in times when virtues are practised in this fashion. The great Christian virtues have become detached from the Faith and the Person of Jesus Christ, and have instead gone wandering through the world on their own, being taken to extremes, and wreaking havoc everywhere. Like black holes, these virtues have acquired their own cloud of satellite ideas that swirl around them. These prove to be ultimately destructive and are never conducive to human flourishing, despite so promising.

Communism, for instance, was predicated on the noble virtues of helping the poor and relieving the oppressed. It morphed into a dreadful and murderous justification for corruption and power. Feminism was built on the virtues of treating women fairly and giving them dignity. It has transformed into the mutant creature of third wave feminism which seems intent on unloosing the anchors of civilisation itself.

Virtues on their own, are not good. Virtues must always live in balance with other virtues. They must be disciplined and guided. There must be careful thought invested into how best to practice them. Virtues must always be lived out in such a way that they hold the integrity of their form, and achieve God’s purposes rather than ours.

In church history, the question of how to balance the virtues of doctrinal purity with mercy has occasionally arisen. It is not an insubstantial issue. If one goes too far in either direction, the virtue collapses into error and irreparable damage, most especially to people’s immortal souls and eternal future.

For instance, the virtue of sound doctrine – taken to extremes – becomes an excuse for inquisitions, interdicts, and mass excommunications. It results in suffocating, merciless dogmas. Nearly every denomination that once took doctrinal purity to an extreme has receded into a cold, empty formalism.

On the other hand, the virtue of mercy and love – taken to extremes – results in the jettisoning of God’s word and a toleration for every aberration and error within the culture around us. For instances of this, one need look no further than various Anglican communions around the world where, under the umbrella of “love” and “mercy”, there is now such a broad latitude in these churches, that they show indifference to the doctrine of their communicants and clergy.

You hardly even need to believe in God to be part of the Anglican communion nowadays, much less be a Christian. There are atheist clergy walking the ecclesiastical ranks. There is toleration and celebration of nearly every trendy left-wing cause, no matter how unbiblical. Practically the only thing that can get you tossed out of an Anglican communion these days is to espouse something politically to the far-right, like fascism. On the other hand, you can be an atheist, a neo-pagan, embrace historic heresies, and deviations and still find comfort, embrace, and inclusion. Because that is “loving”.

On page 10 of the recent edition of the Diocese of Toronto’s Anglican Newspaper, there was a recent article in which an Anglican church there is devising ceremonies and rituals to bless people who undergo gender changes. It is a testament to the speed at which the transgender movement has gained credibility and acceptance within the Diocese of Toronto that their Anglican newspaper does not once question any of the assumptions surrounding the rite and the individual involved. It is taken for granted that the whole matter is entirely consonant with the Holy Scriptures, because it is about “love” and “celebration”, ergo virtuous.

The photograph features two female clerics performing the rite. The church building is adorned with a rainbow flag. The only visible remnants of any link with our ancient Faith are the vestments worn by the two women which constitute merely the sad vestiges of a past era. The fact all of this is contained in a “Christian” church is illustrative of the compounding nature of error. It grows, steadily but surely, until it reaches a point where it chokes everything else and renders its host a corpse.

(As an aside, the presence of traditional vestments always interests me. This is one the most remarkable things about the culture warriors in these churches: though they are willing to jettison nearly every biblical doctrine, create novel new rituals, embrace fashionable causes, and design hideous new churches with “hip” architecture, the one thing they cling to with tenacity are the robes and collars, the titles and insignia of the clergy.

It is an irony, really, that among orthodox clergy, those external trappings of office are often put aside. Former Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney (Australia) preferred casual clothes or a tidy suit. Most Reformed local churches have done away with vestments entirely. Even Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who wore the traditional preaching gown in church, had no interest in collars and robes. Leonard Ravenhill gave those things up and even came to repudiate them as unnecessary innovations. Yet, among liberal, heterodox clergy, those things are always last to die. They seem to exalt in their purples and silk.)

How does a church so spectacularly collapse as these Anglican denominations have done? Precisely because they made a choice in generations past not to try to walk that narrow road in which one rightly balances the affirmation of doctrinal truth with mercy and love.

Neither of these virtue can (or should) undo the other. Both must be present in harmony, the one feeding the other. Pure, sound, biblical doctrine gives rise to a ceaseless flow of love and mercy. And love and mercy to the sinful, broken and the lost reinforces the beauty of orthodoxy; the loveliness of biblical truth; the necessity of God’s holy precepts. Both virtues, properly attached to the True Vine – the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ – are filled, animated, actualised, motivated and energised by Himself. For love is only true love when it is His love. And doctrine is only any good when it is His doctrine.

How does one walk this fine line? By having an apostolic fidelity and allegiance to the Holy Scriptures as the first and final authoritative centre of Christianity.

And the only way to maintain this in any church is with loving, but firm church discipline. Toleration of heresy; the embrace of false creeds and doctrines; the widening of boundaries to the point where there is no longer an identifiable marker between non-believers and believers is a certain recipe for a church’s death. The Anglican communion has now reached a point where its evangelicals and orthodox are evacuating it. This process is very nearly complete. And once finished, there will be nothing left to sustain and maintain these denominations who are already consolidating an ever-shrinking catalogue of churches.

How sad it is and yet how eminently predictable. Church discipline matters because it keeps a church alive for the following generations.

Neglect it, and there is nothing more certain than that the next generation will go into captivity.

The Cult of the Extraordinary

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(The above is a sadly typical image, representative of most of what I found on the internet when doing an image search on this topic. The thirst to be extraordinary, it would seem, has produced reams of images and “inspirational” quotes telling people never to settle for the ordinary and that they not only deserve to be extraordinary but also to be treated in extraordinary ways by others. This thirst for significance is exceeded only by the delusion that fails to recognise that most of us – nearly all – are ordinary people who live ordinary lives.)

A number of articles have appeared lately in newspapers and on blogs regarding what might be called “the cult of the extraordinary”.

One woman wrote that growing up in the 1990’s, she was told that her generation was special. They were the most enlightened and most privileged, and the world was their oyster. They could do whatever they wanted. They were made for extraordinary things.

As it happens, she become a mother and a wife, and now spends her days doing housework and occasionally writing a blog. But, she writes, a voice goes through her head sometimes that what she is doing represents a failure in comparison to what she might have done.

For instance, when she is arguing with her husband, a voice says to her, “You could have been something, but now you’re just a wife”. When she does the dishes, the voice says to her, “You could have really done something, but now you’re just a mother”. When she writes a blog article that nobody reads, “You could have done something, but now you’re just writing a blog everybody ignores”. And on and on.

What is interesting about this experience is that it was echoed in the same week in the Guardian newspaper. There, the writer described the tremendous internal pressure young people – especially those raised in the 1990’s or early 2000’s – feel to be extraordinary. Somehow that particular message has been conveyed to young people, probably through a variety of mediums: schools, entertainment, television shows, video games and so on.

It is a popular message, to be sure. “You can do anything you want to do and your life can be whatever you want to make of it“. But this is a destructive message not only because it is untrue, but also because in trying to make it true (or living as if it were true) places a person in an impossible situation. Nobody can suck the savour out of life at each moment. Nobody is able to live in a constant exhilarating whirlwind of accomplishment.

Something in our culture has transmitted a deep inward pressure within people to have an extraordinary material existence. The serial television show probably plays a role in this. Watching a cast of zany characters doing impossibly exciting things every evening, and then multiplying this by many orders of magnitude (for there are many such shows), might indeed contribute to a warped sense of possibly.

Those warped possibilities really are a parody of reality. For instance, the idea that all relationships and romance should be mind-blowing leads people to conclude that a partner they harmonise with but do not have “chemistry” with must be inadequate and unsatisfactory. The same goes with career. Since one’s career “must” be amazing, filled with every escalating achievement, a person who finds themselves doing a relatively simple job must conclude that it is unsatisfactory. If you’re not a CEO or a lawyer defending high profile clients, or a presidential aide, then something must be wrong!

Perpetual dissatisfaction results from the cult of the extraordinary. The dissatisfaction arises, largely, from the belief that there are other options out there which are better, more satisfying, and more remarkable than one’s current circumstances. Sometimes, of course, that may be true. But much of the time it is needless discontent.

The cult of the extraordinary and the attendant belief that our lives should be extraordinary and amazing, can be explained primarily as the result of an absence of a Christian worldview. A perspective grounded in Christ clearly recognises that the only truly extraordinary things are the Lord himself and the works of his hands. We are not therefore summoned to be extraordinary, although it is certainly the case that some people may live exceptional lives. Rather, we are summoned to be filled with, and immersed in, and awed by that which is truly extraordinary: that is, Christ himself. And Christ alone.

It can be a great liberation to be able to say, “I’m ordinary and unimportant and insignificant, but I worship and know a Christ who is extraordinary, truly important, and wholly significant. And that is sufficient adventure and accomplishment to last a lifetime. It is riches beyond comparison. It is more than I could ever deserve apart from God’s amazing grace. To him be glory and praise!

Ordinary People.Extraordinary GOD