Radicalised by Jesus: Serve the King, No Matter the Cost

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Jesus is always forthright when he deals with people. He is clear; uncompromising; and honest. He lays down on the table the price of discipleship. He will deal with us if we are prepared to deal with him on his terms. And one of those terms is that Christians must be willing to pay any price to know him, to follow him, and to abide with him.

What if this is too frightening? What if the price is too steep? Then Jesus flatly states that such a man cannot be my disciple. There is only one way. And if we are not prepared to pay the price, then we need to be honest and just admit that we do not love him enough.

When Jesus speaks to his Apostles in Matthew 10 he calmly outlines the stratospheric level of commitment he expects from them. It is one of the most remarkable passages in Matthew’s narration because here it is Jesus of Nazareth himself who is defining what it means to follow him. The words he speaks are radical and illusion-shattering because they were meant to be. They sound dangerous, because they were meant to show us how great salvation is. And how fearful damnation.

Here the Lord was expressly intending to radicalise his disciples and thereby to thin out the ranks. For if this is what following Jesus looks like, anyone with a superficial or fleeting enthusiasm would not stick around for very long.

Jesus lays out five key points. This is his criteria for discipleship:

  1. Do not fear death, for to be killed in service to Jesus is victory
  2. Do not be afraid of any harm done to the body by unbelievers
  3. Be bold in publicly proclaiming the lordship of Christ
  4. Love Jesus more than every other love, passion, or relationship
  5. Prepare for social exile; discipleship will be a final departure from the world

Top of the list is a willingness to die. Literally die. This is utterly contrary to the west, where people are so soft and cossetted that they do not even like to talk about death, much less talk about how to die well. Neither is this true only of unbelievers. It is a sad reflection on the church that too few western Christians really contemplate martyrdom. Too many Christians are not mentally and spiritually prepared for it. It is not preached. It is not our concern. We do not cultivate a willingness to put our lives on the line if it should ever be necessary for our testimony to Jesus.

When Jesus speaks of taking up the cross he means an inward disposition toward the world and toward life. We are to live as if martyrdom were around the corner. Taking up the cross gives us a new enlightened outlook in which we start to see the world for what it really is: our temporary camping ground en route to the Promised Land. Cross carrying yields a disposition that punches through the materialistic, languid illusions of our age. For once a man is condemned to crucifixion, and walks the dusty road up to Calvary with the crossbeam over his shoulder, what does he think about? What holds his attention? How does his view of things change?

The man on the march to crucifixion no longer existed. His community reviled him. He might have to walk between rows of a jeering crowd. He had no possessions. Even his clothes were up for grabs by the guards on execution duty. He no longer was master of his own life for it was shortly to be taken from him. The man on the road toward his own personal Calvary would see no future for himself on this side of eternity. If he believed in God, at the hour the nails were riven home, amidst the flaming agony, he surely believes with all his heart. There is no longer anything left to cloud his faith; no longer anything of this earth to hold him down. He is truly free. Free enough to die for God.

Faith that sneers at death, and holds pain in derision for the sake of Christ is in short supply today. And this is why the church withers in the west. Christianity was never meant to be transmitted in safe and cosy ways, without price, without sacrifice, and without tears and sweat. It is a shortage of these things that suggests to unbelievers that Christianity is not really believed, even by those who profess it. And maybe we don’t. Maybe, in the west, we don’t believe in eternity and the glory of God. Not really. And that is the real reason we are so scared of the radicalism of Jesus.

Leonard Ravenhill – the great evangelistic preacher whose ministry blazed with indefatigable zeal for thirty years – once remarked that the Islamic world had seen a revival that was even then causing the Muhammadan creed to be transmitted deep into Western nations:

My dear country of England, in the last 25 years, they’ve closed 600 branch churches of the Church of England alone, leave out the Methodists and others.

But in the place of 600 churches, we have now six hundred mosques. The greatest revival in the world right now is amongst the Muslims. Why? Because they’re prepared to die. You can’t scare them.

Leonard Ravenhill had his finger on the pulse of Islam ten years earlier than most Christians in the west, who remained blissfully unaware of the Islamic Revival that began in the early 1970’s until it crashed into their awareness in a swirl of burning wreckage and splintering metal on September 11th, 2001. Despite the efforts of global authorities and the expenditure of uncountable pyramids of gold, radical Islam continues to spread across the world. Why? Because they are not afraid. Islamic radicals impress their fellow Muslims with the sheer weight of their courage. Although their religion is false, men and women will always recognise genuine belief when it manifests itself in a person unafraid to die.

Before Christianity will revive in the west, it is going to take the outbreak of this kind of faith and consciousness of the eternal stakes. This is something that Ravenhill understood very well.

Few men have looked, worked, prayed for the approach of Christian revival like Ravenhill. He was a watchman on the city walls who strained his eyes for a lifetime searching for the first rays of sunlight that would herald the dawn. As far back as 1959 he wrote the book that has become one of the modern classics of Christian literature: Why Revival Tarries. In this book, he flatly declares that there is no Christian revival because modern Christians do not really want it. Too many Christians are too contented not to see great movements of the majesty and work of God. There is a shallowness in our witness; in short, we have lost the dangerous, radical dynamism of the earliest disciples who embraced the cross with a full willingness for the glory and the cost.

This spirit of self-preservation was unknown to the earliest Christians. They were mostly poor people, and they lived in the shadow of death cast by the sophisticated totalitarian government of ancient Rome. For them, martyrdom was not repellent, but a privilege. They drank deeply from the spirit of the words “take up the cross and follow me“. Some of the earliest saints were so desirous for the promised martyr’s glory that they courted death. Some of the more radical Christians set pagan temples on fire, and then waited purposefully for a howling mob to show up and kill them.

They revelled in the chance to die. This fact alone teaches us in our timid 21st century how much we have drifted from the fiery, self-sacrificing zeal and eternal outlook known by the first Christians. This, we see in the life of Ignatius of Antioch, who was famously taken to Rome for martyrdom. En route to his certain death, he wrote numerous letters that were soaked in the craving for a victor’s crown from Christ. Many of these express an eagerness to die and exalt in suffering for Christ’s name. The most famous is his letter written to Christians at Rome, “I am God’s wheat”:

I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.

The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.

Ravenhill predicted the return of martyr flames in the West. Certainly the walls are closing in on the church. The day is already here when orthodox Christian belief fits so uncomfortably with the spirit of the age it is even now irritating it like a particle of sand under the skin. This is a sign of our times – a demonstration of great spiritual realities unfolding around us – that in the space of less than a hundred years, the ancient landmark of Christianity which stood unchallenged for centuries has made the transition from being normal to completely offensive and alien.

Biblical Christianity is only tolerated because it is not understood. When the core tenets of Christianity are explained unbelievers reject it as “hateful”. Each point of the doctrine taught by our Lord is questioned and challenged by this world.  Dr. Michael Jensen, rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Australia, wrote a few years ago to prove this very thing:

It is pretty obvious from recent public discussions of the place of faith in public schools that completely orthodox, historic Christian teachings, held by the vast majority of Christian denominations, are held by some people to be “extreme”.

Recently, a fellow panellist on an ABC TV show “accused” me of believing that Jesus was the only way to God – which I do believe – as if this was somehow news, or evidence of cult-like weirdness. In another context, something I had written about the sinfulness of humankind – the most easily verified of Christian doctrines I would have thought – was thrown at me as if I had just called for a holy war.

The NSW Greens Education spokesman John Kaye was aghast that Christian material taught sexual abstinence outside of marriage, again as if this was somehow evidence of the kind of radical extremism that we ought to use the force of law to stamp out.

A great movement of God is desperately needed in the west – that Christians would again be radicalised by Jesus and filled with so much courage that we can throw caution to the wind in service to him. It is for this that we ought to be earnestly praying; for ourselves and for our fellow believers. We have become so weak! So pallid and limp. We are spiritually sick and have so little appetite for spiritual bread and spiritual riches in Christ that we no longer even realise it. The patient’s pulse is nearly undetectable.

Meanwhile, our brethren in China forsake their possessions and comforts for the sake of Christ, and the church is now at least sixty million strong. Our brethren in Africa are shot by marauding Islamists, or they travel for miles on foot to worship the living God and have not a bite to eat when they return home. But though they have nothing – like the church at Smyrna – yet are they rich! They do not meet in polished buildings or have flawless services, but they have a habitation that is secure for all eternity; mansions of glory.

The Spirit and the bride say, Come Lord Jesus! This must be our prayer. That there would be a great movement of God in our hearts and the wider church. That we would be transformed so that that Christianity would no longer be a hobby confined to Sunday morning and a few prayer sessions, but that it should be the ceaseless motion of our lives. That a pursuit for holiness and sanctification would dominate our passions, and overcome our fear of loss. That we would invest serious time on our knees, travailing as in birth, for a greater awareness of God and the true conversion of precious souls.

Come Lord Jesus, indeed. That we would have the vistas of eternity open large before us, shrivelling the few years of this life up before our eyes. That we would thirst for God himself, and for holiness. And be so set on fire with love for our Lord Jesus Christ that we would truly take up our cross daily, and 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.

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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.

Yes, Christmas Is Culturally Degraded: What Do You Expect From the World?

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In the hands of secularists and unbelievers, the austere Christian observance of Christmas has mutated into a vivid expression of spiritual decay. It proves that while Western civilisation may have prosperity to the rafters and an extraordinary quality of life, it has obtained these things in a truly Faustian bargain. To get them, it has sold away eternal meaning, temporal purpose, moral significance, and existential depth.

Christmas is a season for frantic gift purchases, drunken office parties, quaint Victorian tropes (like stockings), gluttony, and schmaltzy movies about saving Christmas and Santa Claus. In fact, this jolly deliveryman from the North Pole has become a cause célèbre in his own right. The extraordinary lengths that parents go to in order to convince their children of Santa’s reality range from cookie crumbs on the mantelpiece to the planting of elaborate evidence (footprints, torn pieces of red cloth, and so on).

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Indeed, an aggressive debate now rages over telling children the truth about Santa. Each year, some child somewhere is told that Santa is fictional and their anguished tears are reported in the tabloids, dripping with pathos. My favourite story happened a few years ago. During his annual Christmastide talk to a group of primary school children in his parish, a Church of England vicar let slip that Santa was not real.

No doubt astonished that any clergyman of the Church of England would say anything that was not vague and wishy-washy, the children ran home to tell their parents. Rather than accepting the reality that eventually someone, somewhere will tell little Chanel or London Jr. that it was a bit of make-believe, the parents responded with extreme anger. How dare someone disabuse their child of the falsehoods so painstakingly inculcated into them! They were far more upset about Santa, one suspects, than they would ever be about the promotion of disbelief in Christ.

The most amusing part of the story was the response by the church. The Church of England, in its ceaseless quest to offend nobody and thus enter total irrelevance, was put in the unenviable position of needing to defend the nativity of Christ as the actual historical Christmas account, while concurrently appearing not to condemn the fantasy character that had supplanted the Lord in the affections of the parents.

Fictitious stories are serious business to a lot of people it seems. This nonsense has been taken so seriously that The Atlantic put together an article some time ago that featured professional-looking graphs depicting the age when people lost their faith in Santa.

Of course, this is what happens when unbelievers want to inject a transcendent vibe into an annual celebration. They either must seek it in extreme consumption – for what could be more transcendent in a materialistic culture than stuff – or they must seek it through a saccharine sentimentality related to childhood. Transcendence is found in the merry eyes of a child, sitting in front of the TV, watching a Christmas movie, gobbling M&M’s, whilst excitedly waiting for an imaginary fat man to deliver parcels of DVD’s, video game consoles, and remote-controlled drones down the chimney. Only this can truly capture that special emotion known “the spirit of Christmas”.

As silly and sad as it may be, we can hardly blame unbelievers for their parasitic simulacrum of Christian joy. Not for them the indescribable wonder of the birth of God in the flesh, and the lowly manner in which he was born that he might seek and to save the lost. Not for them the joy of confessing the Messiah as Lord and Master. Not for them the overwhelming gratitude at being chosen by God – though unworthy – and the grateful ecstasy at having value and significance in the eyes of God. “God sent the Messiah into the world for me – a rebel who has given God nothing – and yet he still came for me!” Not for the unbeliever the relief and release of sins forgiven, of a cosmic sense of belonging to the household of faith, to the family of God.

Thus, let us put aside the now-traditional lamentations from Christians about the loss of the meaning of Christmas. What else do we expect from unbelievers? Why is anyone surprised when unbelievers act like unbelievers?

The mourning over the loss of a religious Christmas season really amounts to tiresome and redundant hand-wringing. In the process of this emotional bloodletting, Christians get caught up on a mere tradition. They become evangelical about divisions between the world and the Church that are inevitable and healthy. There should be a vast and stark difference between a Christian Christmas and the celebrations of the pagans.

For Christians, Christmas ought be a sombre reminder above all that Jesus Christ is the centrepiece of Time. While the unbelieving world thinks they need not reckon with him and can safely erase him from history or reduce him to a footnote, the birth of the Lord is an annual reminder that the human story is God’s story. He is in control of it. And events are marching forward in complete accord with God’s eternal plan and timetable. We can rejoice because we have passed a key milestone. The Messiah has come, and just as the Prophets taught, the everlasting gospel has flowed out of Israel – the rivers of salvation – as the news is spread throughout the earth. Christ really walked on the earth, drank the water, breathed the air, performed miraculous signs, and taught living truth. His one perfect life has left a mark that will never, never fade.

birth

But if Christmas is the story of the Lord’s first advent on that starlit night so long ago, if it tells us the glorious message of the arrival of the King through a quiet birth to an unremarkable couple in the lonely countryside of Israel – it also is designed to underline his second advent. The return of the King with the fullness of his majesty.

Christmas is a time to acknowledge that the Messiah has come, and this same Messiah is going to come again. The purpose of his first advent was to begin the defeat of Satan, and to redeem for himself a new human race from under the curse of sin. The process of building his new creation started; the Second Adam is the progenitor and head of this race, as St. Paul so clearly taught us.

But, his second advent will be even more glorious than the first. Christ will come again to usher in the fullness of his Kingdom of which there shall be no end.

The nativity scene reminds us that we are living in the valley between two advents. Behind us lies the land of Egypt out of which the Church has had its exodus. We have journeyed together from the darkness of paganism, slavery, sin, and the unmerciful rule of Pharaoh. In front of us lies the Promised Land, and we are marching toward it. But St. Paul  tells us that we are not there yet: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil 3:12).  We have not yet obtained the promised blessing, though it will certainly be ours in the grace and power of Christ.

Christmas is not just about looking back but also looking forward. If there was one advent, there will certainly be another. This is joyous news! The Messiah has come, and he is also coming again. He is shortly to appear. And on that day he will destroy the works of Satan; judge the living and the dead; redeem his people; and the praise of his glory shall never end.

The Future of the West: Perverted and Deluded

the end

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days…. evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3:1, 3:13)

So wrote St. Paul to Timothy regarding the trajectory of human society.

Notice that St. Paul does not write about wars and explosive catastrophes. These epic events are so beloved by the charismatics who see signs of doom in their morning cornflakes, but they are not mentioned here. Indeed, the scripture writers show remarkable disinterest in providing us with a historical timeline of events regarding what will happen in the future. The apostles are not in the business of equipping us to be professional fortune-tellers.

This has not stopped many people – including good and faithful Christians – looking for current events in the word of God. Nuclear Armageddons, world wars, missile strikes by Iran, and imminent biological threats have each, at different times, been “unearthed” in the scriptures. Some claim that certain symbols in the Book of Daniel or The Revelation speak of Hitler. Or the Pope. Or the President of the United States.

This has always been a temptation for Christians. For example, in 14th century Europe amidst the ravages of the Black Death that killed approximately half of the continent’s population, Christians “discovered” that the scriptures predicted disease and the end of the world in their times. “It must be so,” they reasoned, “for if the horsemen of the apocalypse do not refer to times like oursthen what could they possibly refer to?” The same questions have been asked whenever great evil befalls the human race.

But this is not the sort of information the scriptures offer us about the Last Days. We may be thankful God does not paint out the future for us in lurid journalistic detail, for who could bear the weight of it?

Yet this does not mean the Bible offers us no information at all. In this letter, St. Paul provides us with extremely valuable information. But observe where the apostle’s focus lies; take careful note of what is important in the estimation of the apostle.

For St. Paul is chiefly interested in the moral dimension of the Last Days. If you want to know how close the Lord is, says St. Paul, look at the moral fabric around you and compare it to what has gone before, both in degree and intensity. Look at sin’s prevalence and acceptance. To paraphrase Christopher Wren, “if you want to see a monument that shows us how close we are to the end of days, then look around you”.

For it is precisely the moral context of any age or epoch that shows us mankind’s alienation from God and our proximity to Christ’s return.

Some have argued that St. Paul must be describing all time since Christ’s ascension. They argue this on the basis that all of these sins have always been common to mankind in every era. You could always find greedy people. Or disobedient children.

But the Apostle’s own writing here would tend to suggest he was thinking of a definite future point. He clearly says that these terrible times will come. He does not say that terrible times have already come – even against the backdrop of bloody assassinations of emperors in Rome and the deplorable morality of a pagan people. Rather he says terrible times will come and they will come just prior to the Lord’s return.

What will make the last days terrible? St. Paul answers, “The moral quality of the people”.

During the Last Days we will see sins that are not merely on the charts, but are so extreme, so intense, so common that they will exceed the charts of human depravity. St. Paul writes about people loving money and lacking self-control. Being lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God. He speaks of rebellion against parents and ingratitude. He writes about men being conceited and brutal. He paints a compendium of immorality. St. Paul pictures a society in shocking decay, where life becomes precarious, evil becomes the main survival strategy, and goodness carries a great personal cost.

Moral evil, St. Paul points out, will intensify as human society endures. Each succeeding generation will outdo its predecessor in unbelief and in sin.

Thus, what constituted a love of money in the early 1900’s – for example, the Roaring Twenties and the tragic greed for shares that ruined countless lives – may change in form. It may be expressed differently on the surface. Yet the underlying love of money continues and will become all the more severe as time goes on.

If the Global Financial Crisis proved anything it was the existence of epic greed on a scale never witnessed before in human history. Moreover, this was not just limited to a few wealthy fat cats. Large masses of people were so indebted nothing they had was really theirs. And still the lesson has not been learned! Already, so soon after the alleged “recovery,” once again we see large masses of people up to their neck in debt.

roaring twenties

In Australia, the ME Bank issues a bi-annual report on the condition of Australian households. It surveys 1,500 households regarding income, expenditure, saving, and financial stress. The most recent findings show that no moral wisdom has been gained from the global financial downturn. It shows that people no longer even abide by common proverbial wisdom and “save for a rainy day”. Instead, people live close to disaster and ruin. So close, indeed, that it would terrify our frugal forebears:

The report showed that households’ confidence to raise money for an emergency dropped three points below the average since the survey began, and fewer households reported they are saving. The estimated amount that Australians are saving each month decreased by just over 10% during the first half of 2018.

More Australians are also overspending – households who ‘typically spend all of their income and more’ increased 3 points to 11% during the six months to June.

“Clearly, this is a potential tipping point. At the moment, Australians generally can dip into their savings to get by. However, some households may get to a point where there’s no more savings to draw from. Currently, around a quarter of Australian households have less than $1000 in cash savings,” Oughton said.

This is not just an Australian phenomenon. This year it was reported in The Independent that a quarter of British adults have no savings at all:

…the poll of 2,620 respondents in the UK found more than a tenth of the population admit to being ‘terrible’ with money.

Also concerning is the fact one in 10 admitted they typically spend more than they earn.

And 28 per cent sometimes go over budget.

Additionally, the study also found one in 10 adults over the age of 55 don’t have a penny put away for their future – compared to 38 per cent of 25 to 34 year-olds who are already saving.

Of course there are cases where people experience financial disaster due to no fault of their own. Such people are deserving of compassion and support.

But one of the leaders of the financial group that commissioned the report could not help but point to the self-inflicted nature of the situation. It is not that many of these Britons do not earn money. It is simply that they are unable to control themselves.

They cannot govern their own impulses. And so they spend.

“But our results found people are more prone to splurging money on things they don’t need, rather than saving it and it’s this that has the greatest impact.”

And more than one in 10 admit they often spend their money as soon as they get it.

In the last month, fifteen per cent of respondents have spent money on cigarettes, and 58 per cent have bought chocolate or sweets.

Four in 10 have splashed the cash on a takeaway, with 45 per cent opting for one at least once a month.

Lovers of money are frequently impoverished.

selfcontrol

But self-control is evaporating right across the landscape of human experience, not just in the realm of money. St. Paul taught us that as we approach the last days we should expect to see an explosion in the number of people who are unable to control themselves. We should expect to observe a general loss in the ability of people to restrain their appetites; to discipline their desires; to be governed by the mind and not by transient emotions and lusts.

To an unprecedented degree we see this very problem emerging at a galloping pace in Western culture. Self-control is fast diminishing.

A hundred years ago people would have associated drunkenness and violence with a lack of self-control. But a lack of self-control was much less of an issue in a society that used corporal and capital punishments; had high expectations of personal behaviour; and demanded people take full responsibility for their actions. Nobody thought to excuse their bad behaviour on the grounds of a difficult upbringing, or one’s parents, or society at large. Nobody would have taken it seriously. Moreover, overall there were far fewer opportunities for people to truly lose control of themselves. Western society still had a Christian backbone and regarded personal morality as a public matter.

Yes, there were infamous Victorian brothels or gin joints that offered people some scope for their sinful impulses. Morphine addiction might have been enjoyed by wealthier men – as Sherlock Holmes was famously portrayed as using by Arthur Conan Doyle. A person might be able to be violent in the family home and rule it like a malignant tyrant. But the censure of polite society was heavy. Drunks were reviled. Wife-beaters were held in contempt. And sexual impurity was so scandalous it could ruin career and reputation (not to mention body and mind should one contract a sexually transmitted disease).

All such intemperance was held to be shameful and was denounced by top-hatted leaders as evident evils.

V0041979 The dance of death: the dram shop. Coloured aquatint by T. R

But as society has grown more affluent it has also grown more lax in the policing of morality. Opportunities for people to behave without inhibition continue to expand, just as St. Paul predicted. Sin has intensified because it has gained traction, popularity, and social approval. Sin is also aided by technology. Technology can be a great blessing. Discoveries and inventions of all kinds have been ordained by the grace of God so that the human race can expand and truly “fill the earth”. Unfortunately, in the hands of sinful men and women, technology also provides the means for the promotion of sin.

One realm in which we see this vividly is in modern entertainment.

New forms of entertainment now focus deliberately and calculatedly on tacky, sleazy, and childish aspects of uninhibited conduct. Their much-ballyhooed “stars” are encouraged to be aggressive, dirty mouthed, oddball, and blatantly sexualised. Reality television shows like Love Island even try to give promiscuity a certain glamour. Its contestants consist of scantily clad men and women who are thrown together into intimate situations, with the crackle of sexual expectation constantly underpinning conversations, choices, and behaviour.

Love Island displays camera footage of contestants in bed together. Contrary to all notions of moral purity, unmarried contestants sleep together in the same bed. They are filmed as they engage in intimate caressing and stroking. In recent episode a male contestant was shown running his hands over a female contestant’s buttocks, hips and body as they lay in bed together. A day later, the female contestant who had been fondled told the camera team that she needed time to warm up and therefore “nothing risky happened”. She added that the male contestant she was in bed with “was keen”, as if this were a striking flash of insight.

Unmarried sex is portrayed as normal and exciting across entertainment platforms. In movies, television shows, and video games audiences are seldom shown examples of noble self-restraint and honourable conduct because virtue is not the goal. It certainly is not the goal of reality television. This is because moral conduct is insufferably boring to a society that neither fears God nor cares about their personal accountability before him on the Day of Judgement.

God has promised that his wrath is upon the sexually immoral. Yet this is a trivial matter to most people in the Western world who have been successfully deceived into thinking that there is no God (or if there is, he is a liberal, jovial Santa Claus-type figure who will never punish and never condemn). Most people now believe that we are not created beings. They ascribe human beings some place in the world of animals. This downgrade in human dignity supposedly permits behaviour that even the beasts do not engage in. Most of Western society now thinks there is no absolute moral law that is binding on the human conscience. They laugh at the Final Judgement.

It is hard to believe that it was only a hundred and twenty years ago, in 1896, that the first on-screen kiss was filmed and shown as a Vitascope movie aptly titled The Kiss. This short movie, less than 30 seconds long, simply showed a middle-aged man and woman kissing each other. Despite its tame content by 21st century standards, the film resulted in moral disgust both from the media and from churches. Several years later, another short kissing film was actually censored by theatres.

vitascope

A hundred and twenty years later the moral quality of entertainment has plummeted to depths the average person could not ever have imagined in the 1890’s. Film now includes nude sex scenes of all kinds; full frontal nakedness; casual sexualised language; not to mention gratuitous violence in which human beings are bloodily hacked apart for horrific effect; and a fascination with dark spirits, demonic activity, and re-animated corpses.

Yet, it will not end here, of course. The development of 3D virtual reality systems opens new frontiers. Entertainment system builders are scrambling over themselves to combine sex with new technology.

For those who do not know virtual reality technology involves a user wearing a headset that contains high-definition projectors or screens that can simulate an alternative world. The user can interact with the simulation to different degrees as he turns his head, or motions with his hands, or walks around. The technology is designed to simulate an “alternative reality” to an extent that traditional screens cannot.

Phone or television screens show images in a defined frame. The frame is the screen itself. A television screen, for example, usually has a black plastic border around it. A mobile phone screen is edged by the shell of the phone casing. In both cases, the screen has a measurable surface; a beginning and an end. These sorts of screens exist within a real environment. For example, the family television in a living room shares the environment with furnishings, ornaments, windows, floors, and people. With little effort, you can lift your eyes from the moving images on the screen and look at something that is real.

Virtual reality headsets, on the other hand, are meant to be fully immersive. They are designed to block out as much of the real environment as possible and replace it with a simulation that is as realistic as possible. The illusion is heightened by allowing the user to interact with the simulated world; by giving him some degree of control over what he sees. The aim is to create a bubble of fantasy that approximates to real life.

An article published in September 2017 in Asia Times documents the eagerness with which sexual content is now combined with new entertainment products:

“Every time a new technology is introduced into the market, adult content always tends to be the new technology’s earliest and most eager adopters,” Hahn said. “This happened in the past [with technologies] like VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, and is now happening on VR.”

According to Google trending analysis, people search for VR porn far more than for VR games and sports. Currently, around 38% of VR headsets are purchased by people who want to enjoy adult content, while 3% of all VR users pay an average of US$35 for adult content.

By 2025, the VR adult-entertainment business will be worth an estimated $1 billion, third-largest in the VR sector after video games ($1.4 billion) and content related to America’s National Football League ($1.23 billion), Hahn said.

The effort and energy that is now being expended to expand the boundaries of sexual sin is staggering. The full pornography experience includes virtual reality headsets, gadgets that produce scents, and devices that are attached to the genitals. It is a grotesque technological monster that aims to give a person the nearest approximation of sexual activity without actually involving another person:

To create lifelike intimate sexual experiences in the virtual world requires a combination of visual, sensual and intellectual components, which is made possible with gadgets such as VR headsets, scents emitted from the device, and synched vibration of intimate parts.

“To fully gear up for VR sex now requires at least US$10,000. That’s a very expensive [sexual experience],” Hahn said.

Michelle Flynn, director and owner of Lightsouthern Cinema, who has more than 10 years of experience in the adult-entertainment industry, expressed excitement at the new technology.

“VR porn provides more realistic experiences and greater immersion,” Flynn said. “Instead of being a spectator, you become a participant. It is so immersive that when the performer leans into the camera when you are watching, you move your head back too.”

What moral “progress” has been wrought by the entertainment industry since the Vitascope kissing film of 1896!

Another measurable demonstration of St. Paul’s principle is seen in the way people eat.

Food requires self-control. This is necessary both in the selection of food that is eaten and in the actual amount consumed. In the past, people could seldom overeat. They could indulge only at certain points in time which were almost always tied to a communal celebration. Harvest festivals, religious days, or wedding ceremonies would be observed with feasts and banqueting. Sometimes these could continue for many days. Yet, outside of these times, people’s eating was limited by several unavoidable forces that acted as restraints.

The first was the imperative to perform daily manual work which was often time-consuming. The second force was the natural limitations on food production and storage in pre-industrial societies that made economy a necessary virtue for survival. In other words, a person could not regularly overeat because too much of their time was spent in work, and food was rationed so that it lasted for the period between harvests.

In the modern Western world no such limits exist anymore and the result has been an explosion in sloth, obesity, and people who destroy their own health with food. Neither is such a lack of self-restraint isolated only to Western nations. Sin is, after all, universal. And if the West has a cultural backbone of Christian virtue, other historically non-Christian nations have no such heritage and are even less resistant to sin.

Thus, food-related diseases are rapidly appearing in the Third World. There are obesity epidemics occurring in places traditionally associated with hunger, like India. In fact, there is now a 5% morbid obesity rate in India and it is rapidly galloping upward. In a country of nearly a billion people, this translates to fifty million overweight people with millions more growing obese by the year. But South Africa leaves them in the shade. In 2015, around 65% of its population were obese.

It was relatively difficult for most people to be obese a hundred years ago, and because of this historical fact, obesity is often explained away as a government problem, or the effect of technological development, or as a by-product of the industrialisation of labour. Like many human problems, obesity is seldom examined as a moral problem. Seldom is obesity even seen to have a moral dimension – for that would require personal responsibility – even though our eating is unquestionably governed by moral choices.

Television shows like TLC’s My 600 lb Life reveals the morality behind eating. It documents the lives of people who have reached gargantuan proportions. These people never deny themselves food. They consume far more than is necessary. In all cases, they will easily eat in one sitting as much food as a family of six might comfortably share between them. Moreover, as the television series investigates their lives, their personalities come to the forefront. Even under the scrutiny of the cameras, what is often revealed is selfishness, laziness, self-pity, and a habit of bullying and blaming others. One of the ways in which these ugly moral lapses work their way out is through gluttony.

600lb

Some of these people reach the point of immobility before they decide to change. The solution they hit upon is surgery. Of course, the assumption behind weight-loss surgery is an absence of self-control for the rest of a person’s life. Since these people cannot control themselves, an artificial constraint must be placed upon them by literally cutting away their stomach or using gastric bands to squeeze it.

The latest development in the loss of self-control is the emergence of movements that seek to redefine what is healthy. Like other forms of identity politics, the basis for doing this is not empirical science but an ideological fantasy.

The “body positivity” or “size acceptance” movement is now at the forefront of enabling people to delude themselves that they can be “healthy at any size”. This is a movement that quite openly aims to overturn the concept that slender bodies are beautiful, and it particularly attacks the idea that some people are more beautiful than others. “Every human body deserves to be celebrated regardless of size,” they say. Thus, fat people should be able to wear what they like. There should be fashion models of different degrees of obesity. Fat people should “feel comfortable in their own skin”. You can have “beauty at any size”. These are the keystone slogans.

The body positivity movement has very quickly morphed itself into a victim group. This demonstrates something of the psychology of identity politics and the complete intellectual anaemia of Western culture that such a thing could be taken seriously. In a world that still knows starvation, the absurdity of overweight people claiming to be victims, or the risible notion that someone is “brave” for being overweight and wearing a bikini in public, demonstrates how bottomless is the pit of irrationality.

Despite the foolishness of their assertions the body positivity movement has learned the lessons of identity politics very well. It understands how to pull the levers of manipulation and the importance of enlisting the liberal media to their cause. Almost lock, stock and barrel, it has copied its strategy from other successful identity movements. This is why it is experiencing unqualified support in the liberal media. It can also command an army of outrage like other identity groups. One need only consider the fury over Netflix’s new series Insatiable to see this in action.

Body positivity advocates have dressed themselves in the garb of oppression. They claim to have been bullied at school for their weight thus demonstrating the systemic discrimination against fat people, no different from the “hate” experienced by other victim groups. They point to slender models in advertising and claim this is dangerous. It is dangerous, they say, because it teaches young women to starve themselves and hate their own bodies. “This kind of advertising,” they assert without evidence, “is harming young women. It is telling every teenage girl, ‘You are not good enough’.

The body positivity movement has invented terms like “body shaming” or “fat shaming”, which are roughly congruent with terms like “victim shaming”. These terms are so construed as to encompass any criticism of obesity or any negative opinion whatsoever about a person’s appearance. This extends even to common and logical associations such as the relationship between obesity and inactivity.

Activists in this movement, many of whom are obese women, will appear on cameras and insist that obesity is merely the normal state of their particular body. They will often claim that they perform extensive physical activity and eat healthily – as was the case of one advocate who weighed over 300 pounds and visibly struggled to fit into the studio chairs. These claims are flatly biologically impossible. Nobody who eats a mostly vegetarian diet and performs extensive daily physical exercise would possibly be able to approach 140 kilograms. Yet the obvious lie – so clearly contradictory of objective reality – is seldom allowed to be challenged without shrieks of “insensitivity” and “body shaming”.

Other key concepts  in the movement include “structural discrimination”. This relates to the alleged oppression inherent in an environment that is not designed for people of their girth. For example, seats in an aircraft are frequently too small for overweight people. Doorways may be too narrow. Aisles in some stores may not be navigated comfortably by mobility scooters. Rides in amusement parks may exclude people over a weight category. Some surfaces may crack or break when walked upon.

None of this is interpreted as a sign that a person has become so overweight that they have exceeded the spectrum of sizes for which the built environment was designed. Rather it is interpreted as a subtle form of discrimination. Builders, designers, architects, and engineers are constructing the world for the slender and thereby marginalising and excluding the obese. This is presented as being similar to the now infamous “microaggressions” that have become sources of tremendous concern to college students.

The ultimate aim for the body positivity movement to enrol these concepts into the pantheon of public virtue. They want to force the world to accommodate them. Aircraft will need to provide them with broader seats for the same price of an airfare as someone who might be given a smaller seat. Stores should be mobility scooter friendly. All clothing lines should come in gargantuan sizes. And “body shaming” should become so politically incorrect and dangerous that eventually it is regarded as “sackable” evil. Some progress has already been made toward the goal with the banning of the “Are you beach body ready?” advertisements in the London Underground. These advertisements showed a fit woman and were decried as unrealistic and exclusionary.

Taken to its logical extension – and given the ever-expanding waistlines of citizens in the Western world – it will eventually become very difficult for any health advice about obesity to be issued to people.

If there is one thing that definitively marks Western culture in the last few decades – and will continue to mark Western culture into the foreseeable future – it is the development of sophisticated frameworks to deflect personal responsibility for the choices and problems in one’s life upon others.  A smoker, for example, will blame tobacco companies for their cancer. Or the government, because it once allowed tobacconists to advertise their products. The liberal press will try to exculpate the poor for quite literally burning up their precious money on cigarettes. And now a whole movement has come into being that not only celebrates overweight people under the guise of “acceptance”, but actually encourages obesity by trying to suppress inconvenient information or bullying people into silence who would appeal to the verdict of medical science.

St. Paul foresaw this many centuries ago. If he were to visit us in the 21st century, none of this would have surprised him, and it should not surprise us that this sort of delusion will continue to increase. Western society is bound to get sicker, fatter, more economically precarious, more sexualised, more obsessed with pornography, more perverted, and ever more thoroughly riddled with other forms of evil.

St. Paul’s warning to Timothy enables us to make predictions about the direction society is heading. Of course, the Lord can – and frequently has – radically altered the course of history to fulfil his plans. Nothing of the future can be known for certain, other than what God himself has chosen to reveal to us. And, as human creatures, we lack our God’s perfect omniscience and must never fancy ourselves wiser than our Maker. Yet thanks to his word, we are able to see something of the future unfolding before us.

As the days grow darker and immorality and vice more omnipresent, we can find our consolation in the certainty that the Lord’s return is growing closer. God will not allow the darkness to long envelope the world, for he is a God of light and justice. It is an exciting thought that our Lord may descend upon the clouds in the very near future.

The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.(Romans 13:11)

time

 

Fatherly Comfort in Times of Trouble

father

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.