I just heard an interview with Mark Sayers, as part of the Newfrontiers Global conference. Mark is a cultural commentator, writer and speaker who leads ‘Red Church’ Melbourne and is well known for his podcast ‘this cultural moment’. It’s hard not to be both impressed with Mark’s cultural insights, but also excited at his deep passion to see God move in this generation. I’ve rarely come across someone with this particular kind of intellectual gift who is so open to the power of the Holy Spirit.
During the interview Mark talked about how ‘post Christian culture’ has offered a safe, stable, alternative for the western world but now, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic it doesn’t feel safe or stable. It was obvious that Mark feels this is a unique opportunity for the church. He talked about how developing countries are ‘catching up’ with the west and even beginning to feel sorry for the western world as we realise that our ‘enlightenment myth’ of a perfect world is not attainable. The western myth also led to the expectation that the rest of the world world become like ‘us’, but in actuality we’re becoming more like the rest of the world, as we have to come to terms with our mortality and failure to live up to our ideals.
But how is the Church to respond to all of this? (By ‘this’ I mean the pandemic, the destabilized power structures, and increasing diversity) Mark’s first response was to say that in this destabilizing time, where culture and technology is moving rapidly and ‘culture’ is becoming ‘super diverse’, and almost unending in complexity, the church’s offer is a stable, authentic, community, living out the true narrative of Jesus Christ. This suddenly looks a lot more attractive. The church has something subversive and compelling to offer. We don’t need to try and wrap it up in something we can sell.
‘There’s something magnetic about a community centred on the presence of God, living out a different story, who realise they can’t conquer the environment but they can actually let God conquer them.’
He went on to add that during this time of unique opportunity for the church the most impressive thing we can offer is the kind of ‘spiritual authority’ that intangibly emanates from someone who is wholeheartedly following Jesus. Don’t ‘try’ to be relevant. Authentic, quiet, humble commitment to Christ IS relevant. People are disarmed by it and attracted to it. This is a wonderful challenge for Christian leaders.
‘[Spiritual authority] is…”totally cross-cultural and has such cut-through at this moment. I think people are looking for that more than ever…If you’re using relevance to gain authority, I think that’s where it goes wrong.’
What does this mean for our churches right now as we move forwards in a time of unknowns? Mark reflected that in this time the church needs to learn to be adaptable, taking advantage of opportunities that arise, rather than focusing on efficiency. We can’t plan for more than a week or two but we do have the Holy Spirit. This is the time to learn to follow the Holy Spirit and become more dependent on him.
‘The lesson for my church at this time is less about what’s our plan… we’ve actually got a Person and Jesus is going ahead of us and he’s actually teaching us voice recognition at this moment…I will never have a one-hundred-year pandemic opportunity again to become more calibrated to Jesus going ahead of me and leading me and my church.’
The interview finished with an exciting invitation to personal integrity in our Christian discipleship. Again, Mark’s enthusiasm was infectious and left me with a great sense of hope about what God might be doing in this time:
‘The battle for the new land is often won in the old land, and I think God is encouraging people to win battles in their personal lives, in their situation.’
What personal battles of personal integrity is God calling you to win right now?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the ‘sermon on the mount’, that is Matt 5-7. But there’s also part of me that’s also seen it as a bit puzzling. Like much of the Bible, it really does take some effort to understand. But recently I’ve been reminded again of how important this big, central block of Jesus’ teaching really is. This is discipleship 101; something that every Christian really should know and understand. I think that many evangelicals have avoided giving it the attention it deserves for fear of falling into ‘works righteousness’, and so preferred to centre their understanding around Paul’s letters. But, properly understood, ‘the sermon’ is infused with the grace and mercy of God. It contains a staggering call to radical discipleship. It also has an amazing way of helping us understand and interpret the Old Testament, which many of us also run the risk of neglecting. No, we cannot afford to miss Jesus’ teaching here. Not if we claim to be one of his followers.
So what is it about? Essentially, I think the sermon on the mount is about how to be free from the slavery of sin and brokenness by trusting God. Jesus gets up to speak to his disciples as we know them, and presumably a load of other Galilean peasants crowded around them also wanting to follow him, and talks about life for the person who trusts God. For the person who trusts Yahweh (Israel’s God) there is the promise of blessing, the promise of life, the promise of restoration. Jesus stands on the shoulders of the prophets and proclaims ‘Good news to the poor’. He echoes the ones who speaks of sorrow turning to laughter and curse turning to blessing. And he’s speaking to people who are downtrodden, broken and bruised by the storms of life.
Right now I have two sets of friends whose baby has died quite recently. I have another friend who’s daughter had a stroke and is struggling to recover. A few years ago I worked with a young lady who was so abused, neglected and mistreated by the person who was supposed to be nurture her that reading her social services file reduced me to tears. Two of my own daughters are affected significantly by particular needs that are the consequence of a fallen, broken, sin and sickness filled world. And there’s ‘Coronavirus’. Jesus comes to my daughters, that young lady, my friends and this world and says, ‘don’t despair. There’s hope yet for this world. Blessing is coming. God will restore. Trust in God’.
For those who will trust in God, despite desperate social and economic conditions, despite pain and despite the absence of full answers, there is hope. Those who would follow Jesus when it looks crazy, feels crazy and even leads to outright persecution there is blessing. The kingdom of God/ kingdom of heaven is a proclamation of vindication for the oppressed, of comfort for those in grief, and reward for the humble. For those of us with our eyes open to the brokenness and pain of this world, there’s a promise that healing is coming. Jesus promises mercy for the merciful, an encounter with God himself for those who strive after him for purity, and peace and a great reward for those who trust him in the face of kickback.
Within the brilliantly crafted and memorable poetry of ten lines (Matt 5: 2-12) is the promise of restoration to Eden. Right now we inhabit a world that is crying out, a planet that is weeping, a garden of thistles and pain. But the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is the announcement of the return of the true and rightful king, the reverse of the curse, a return to the ‘good’ and ‘blessed’ garden where God and humanity walk hand in hand. Jesus prophecies hope, healing and blessing for anyone who would follow him and trust God. It is a sure blessing but it’s faint. This is because it’s ‘now and not yet’, it’s eschatological, it’s ultimate, it’s coming, it’s permanent.
For those who would follow Jesus we will not be immune to poverty, grieving, being overlooked or experiencing pain. In fact, following him means that we will sometimes face more of that for his sake. Christians in most ages have a ‘bad rep’. But our counter cultural discipleship will involve showing mercy where others call for revenge, striving for purity where others call us naïve, making peace when others call for war and continuing to do right and speak truth even under persecution. As I begin to explore this sermon further let me invite you into it: read it, meditate on it, memorise it and do it. There’s nothing more exciting than learning afresh to follow Jesus. And there’s nothing this world needs more right now than a community that can embody the true of Jesus.
As we wake up today many of us will be wondering, ‘What is going on?’, ‘God where are you in this?’ The authors of the New Testament constantly looked back at Israel’s history to understand the patterns for what God was doing in their confusing times. Through God’s revelation they understood that Jesus was the Son and King that David had been promised, they understood that they were living in the new age that Isaiah prophesied and they knew that the God of the Exodus would bring them safely through. Praise God that we can also know these truths today.
Since the Corona-virus situation has gripped our nation many Christians in the health services and frontline workers have recalled Esther 4:14, ‘For such a time as this’, as well as Daniel’s and his friends trusting God for strength and deliverance in the fire of adversity. I want to encourage all of us today that each of us who follows Jesus has been shaped by God for times like this. Every adversity we have faced in the past, be it grief, loss, disappointment, or whatever, has prepared us to stand in this time. Every act of worship, praise, reading of scripture, time of prayer and fellowship has prepared you to love and trust God right now.
Like Barnabas, inspired by the Spirit in Acts 11, God’s Holy Spirit would say again ‘remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose’. God says again, ‘hold fast to what you have, so that no-one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.’ (Rev 3:11-12) How do we conquer? Keep trusting in Jesus alone. Look to him.
In the fantastic film, ‘Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2013)’ Captain Sully faces the greatest challenge of his life (spoiler alert!!). In an unprecedented event, both engines on the plane he flying blow and there is no-where to land. Despite incredible stress and difficulty he manages to skilfully land the plane full of passengers on the Hudson River, and no-one is harmed. How did he do this? Thousands of hours of training, flying, checking and small challenges. It all prepared him for this challenge.
In trailer above Sully says, ‘no-one had ever trained us for anything like that’. You may think the same about the Corona virus. But you’d be wrong.
Whether today you are attempting to parent your kids in whole new ways and pulling your hair out, whether you are anxious about food supplies or being alone, whether you yourself are ill and scared or whether you are one of the NHS workers and others, working on the front line- you, like Captain Sully, have been trained by God for this moment! He has shaped you to do what you need to do in this next few days and weeks. He has prepared you. Maybe your calling is to just ‘hold on’, maybe it’s to disciple your kids, maybe it’s to reach out to others who are vulnerable. Do not fear: God knew this was coming and your training was perfect for what he requires from you. Jesus wins, and because you’re in him, so do you. Your eternal resurrection is sure! This is not just ‘positive thinking’ it’s truth rooted in the history of God’s people and our God is the same, yesterday today and forever. Nothing can separate you from the love of God, and he has prepared you perfectly for such a time as this.
As we begin 2020 many of us will be putting thought into our physical fitness, health and well being. Although it can be quite funny, or slightly depressing, when we look back on our new years goals later on to realise that we didn’t sustain them, a new year does provide a helpful opportunity to reflect and think about what is truly important. Whilst physical fitness is of some importance our spiritual health is even more important.
Let’s face it: we don’t live in a culture where it is easy to follow Jesus. Although we don’t face outright persecution from the government as some countries do, there are significant social hostilities that Christians face daily in the UK. The subconscious philosophy of our prevailing culture also means that it can feel difficult to believe. Our culture has generally rejected all supernatural understanding for an entirely natural order. Most people appeal to meaning from an entirely humanist viewpoint. And the big story that we’re fed is one of chronological snobbery: now humanity has developed enough to reject all supernatural belief. This postmodern philosophy is not without it’s victims. Most of us will know people who are struggling hugely with the lack of apparent meaning in their lives.
But as well as having an answer to give those who are searching, and caring for those for those who are struggling, we need to work at our own ‘spiritual fitness’ in such a climate. Personally, I know that I have a tendency towards melancholy and anxiety and so have to build into my life ways of bringing this tendency to God. Even as someone involved in church leadership the prevailing cultural narrative means that I often have to ‘catch myself’ trusting in human ability and reason and remind myself that there is God in whom I can trust. And so, as we begin this year, I’ve found myself thinking about how I, and those for whom God has given me responsibility and oversight, can allow my life to be formed more into the likeness of Christ.
I come from a tradition of Christianity that has many strengths but, at times, people can feel scared of drawing from ‘spiritual disciplines’ or the practices of the established church for fear that it leads to legalism. But if we want to be faithful followers of Christ in a powerful climate of unbelief we need to pay attention to our spiritual fitness. With this in mind here are some of the practices that I seek to live out, that I find keep me open to the work of the Holy Spirit, reliant on the grace of God and knowing Christ in my daily life. You may want to consider if some of these could be practices that could help you this year.
Have a ‘Sabbath’. I have learnt that if I don’t build in a clear day or period in my week in which I ‘down tool’, my spiritual and mental health will suffer. Choosing to not work for a day is a powerful act of worship to trust God that he’s in charge. I often have to resist the temptation to work and don’t find it easy, but doing this blesses my family and friends because it recharges me and reminds me to celebrate the good and the rest of God that is coming.
Make a regular space with God. Over the years I have had all sorts of patterns for spending time with God, depending on the season. In my early twenties I usually had a morning ‘quiet time’ before work given to reading through the bible and prayer. As my daughters’ disability got more severe I struggled to do this so gave time to worshipping or listening to things in the car. I’ve had seasons of being able to study the bible in depth, and seasons where I have just fallen on my knees in prayer and exhaustion. Recently, I’ve found myself using a short version of the Anglican ‘book of common prayer’ to anchor me throughout the day. However we do it I am convinced that a regular space to encounter God each day is necessary to sustain Christian discipleship.
Go to church regularly. There are times in life when church life can be inspiring and there are times when it can just feel like hard work. But our worship is the act of going along in itself. Too often we talk about what we’re ‘getting out of it’ but that is to misunderstand Christian worship entirely. Serving one another, forms our character. Listening to and encouraging one another allows us to express love. Just being there is a statement to God that we need him and his church. It’s a statement that we don’t have all the answers and it’s a statement of worship.
Serve other people regularly. The call to follow Christ includes the call to be a servant. In a culture that has a surplus of comfort and a deficit of meaning this can be so powerful. So serving one another in a church context can be an important way of reminding ourselves who we are. But there are many ways we can choose to serve our communities, our colleagues, our families too. Regularly serving people helps break the cultural mould of consumption. It can also be great fun.
Have an honest space where other believers can speak into your life. We all deeply need this. And a Sunday worship service will rarely allow those deep and important conversations. Every one of us needs to fight our cultural individualism with the biblical vision of a church as a body. We need to invite other people’s voices into our lives. No matter how well we know the bible or how old we are, if we’re not allowing a few people to speak into our lives we are lacking in our discipleship. This could a church small group, a prayer triplet or whatever works. But at the end of the day we all need honest, vulnerable, open friendships.
Learn to lament. It is wonderful to learn to praise God in any and every season and it’s powerful. But one aspect of worship that we find in the Psalms is to come honestly to God with our frustration, pain and anger. Some people find that reading these Psalms personally or corporately gives them permission to express pain to God. Writing your own lament psalms can be helpful too. Personally, I may often shout out my anger to God or prostrate myself on the floor. I find that the physical expression is helpful. The danger if we don’t learn how to do this is that we build a fake or dishonest relationship with God. Learning to lament is vital.
Build in celebration. We live in a culture that has generally lost the sense of ‘high’ and ‘low’ times. We no longer celebrate the harvest or particular religious festivals in the ways that people used to. But celebration is so important for corporate life. Yes there is a discipline to the Christian life but there is also a joy. After all, Jesus partied a lot! Me and Han used to put in a day a month to do something a bit lavish that we wouldn’t normally do (we called it a ‘dee-dah day’). In our married life we still have a special date night every week where we make a real effort to enjoy ourselves together. Some people are naturally great at celebrating. They can be great to imitate if, like me, it doesn’t always come naturally. Celebration and joy is vital.
Care for your body. Actually, some level of physical fitness and health is really important. Taking time each week to exercise and care for the body God has given you is a spiritual act because as a ‘soul’ we are both body and spirit. It can also be so helpful for your mental and spiritual health, giving you space to process things and time to reflect. Personally I find it vital.
Work with God on your worry. Many of us are worriers and it has a big impact on our health, relationships and faith. When we allow worry to overtake us we are essentially forgetting about God. It’s so important to ask God and other Christians for help with worry that could so easily strangle the joy out of us. Right now I feel convicted to work on not rushing so much. This helps me remember that God knows my day and is with me.
Give things away. After years of being bombarded by advertising many of us have a fear that we won’t have enough that can really strangle us. Generously giving away money, time or possessions can be a wonderful joyful act of worship that reminds us of our generous God and gives us a wonderful sense of purpose and ‘connectedness’ to others.
Retreat. Alongside daily space with God it can be so healthy to have a monthly or termly longer time to reflect, pray, read, write and dream. Retreat centres can be helpful, but so can the countryside. Getting away from distractions to hear God and listen to his priority for our lives is so helpful.
Engage with Creation. Just as looking after our bodies is a spiritual act of recognising God’s Lordship so recognising the splendour of creation reminds us who created it. Spending time away from the man made city to be in nature or just planting some vegetables or taking steps to better care for the planet can all be acts of worship and formation.
Be creative. We are all creative beings. Even if you express this in maths, organisation, science or whatever, we are all imaginative, expressive and creative. It can be so helpful to find ways to do creative things that you enjoy. It’s so good for you. Personally, I’ve been provoked to enjoy making music again. I find that ‘creating’ releases ideas and joy and reminds me of the joyful creator I serve.
Limit distractions. Probably one of the most helpful things most of us can do is manage our technology and use of social media. Technology has given us so much but can also bring a lot of stress and anxiety into our lives. Last year I put up a ‘phone shelf’ in our hallway where we aim to leave our phones. I’ve also removed nearly all notifications and work email from my phone. Maybe you could try something similar to aid conversation, community and rest.
Stop and eat with others. Whether it’s in work or at home, stopping what you’re doing to enjoy good food and commune with others is so important. It’s something that we have to really fight for. But as we follow a Lord of was accused of always eating and partying, I think there’s something in this. There’s something about sharing food that allows people to open up in conversation and can bring a moment of rest that helps us reset. It also helps us resist the constant rush and stress.
Get some input. I’ve often sought to have spiritual mother and father figures who help teach and lead me. I’ve not always used the terms ‘mentor’ or ‘discipler’ but I think that the concept is so helpful. Seeking someone who you know has wisdom or a closeness with God that you want is a great way of continuing to grow. Just be aware that they might not always say what you to hear! Feedback can sometimes be painful but it’s worth it.
Share your faith. The final words of Jesus in the great commission are a powerful imperative for every single Christian. Whether it’s sharing our faith through words, actions, wonders, friendship we all need to remind ourselves to look outwards. Although the Christian life is more than evangelism, our discipleship is lacking without it. Our culture trains us to be consumers and very quickly churches can become introspective. Looking outwards is a great reminder to ourselves that we have good news, we have hope and that there’s a bigger picture than my little life.
There’s probably more that I could add but these are practices that I find helpful in ‘staying spiritually fit’. It’s not always easy to ‘believe’ in the culture we live in but there are things we can do to strengthen our walk with Christ. Are there a few practices I’ve mentioned that could really help you in following Jesus this year?
OK, so I’ve got your attention. Why on earth would I bring up something that so many would seem so distasteful and to others so banal? That’s why. Contemporary views about masturbation, even among Christians, highlight something of the moral and ethical change that has taken place in western culture over the last forty years or so. In our churches there can now be a huge diversity of beliefs on issues of sexuality. Because most of these topics are so visceral and emotionally charged it’s hard to even begin discussion. But, perhaps because masturbation seems to be less of an attack on a personal identity, I think it gives us a starting place for discussion of Christian sexual ethics. I think it also gives us some pointers as to how we might begin to address other subtler or more visceral topics within the larger debate. Furthermore it gives some insights into the Christian nature of love and our own spiritual formation.
To be clear, in this particular post I’m not pushing more accountability among Christians about masturbation, although this may well be helpful. Rather, I’m suggesting that it gives us at least one remaining topic, related to sexuality, that we might be able to think about logically and Christologically, without everyone getting so angry and emotional that the conversation devolves into a mud slingling context. Therefore, it may give us some clues as to how we can handle the larger debates we find swirling around us, for which most of us feel ill equipped.
As this is an informal blog I won’t use academic references. However, I do think it’s important to say that these ramblings are a synthesis of ideas from Jon Tyson (Church in the City, New Work), Mark Sayers (‘This Cultural Moment’ podcast), Glynn Harrison (‘A better story’), Jonathan Haidt (‘The Righteous Mind’) and, probably, Tim Keller.
Previous generations of western Christians, such as those born before the 1980s, would generally have seen masturbation as something that is ethically or morally wrong. Why? Because, they may say, it perverts the sanctity of human sexuality as designed by God. A Christian of these generations may also appeal to the Bible as an authority, to say that masturbation takes something that the Bible promotes within marriage, sexual satisfaction, and re-orders it outside of marriage. Jonathan Haidt points out that previous generations would often have appealed for morality to things such as ‘sanctity’ or ‘authority’, and some conservatives may even today. Previous generations would also have held a more corporate sense of morality, which balances the well-being of an individual with the well being of the community. On these grounds it may be pointed out that sexuality should be expressed within marriage, as marriage is a bedrock of a society and the best way to raise children. Certain things are right, because they’re better for society as a whole. Or so the argument goes.
But this framework is lost to the age we live in. Authority can no longer be appealed to because authority is seen as the thing we’re trying to free ourselves from. Authority, tradition and institution is seen as coercive, even abusive, by nature. As a result, a young Christian finds themselves in a culture which appeals, morally, to things such as ‘care’, ‘fairness’ and ‘oppression’. Within such a framework, based exclusively around the freedom, rights and satisfaction of the individual, masturbation could never be ‘wrong’ in any moral sense, in fact it could be viewed as quite helpful. Why? Contemporary western culture may say that an individual’s need for self expression, sexually, might be met through such individual satisfaction. In fact, to deny your inner desire could even be damaging or repressive, someone may argue. Anyway, what’s it got to do with me what another individual does in their own time? There’s no longer much sense of ‘society’ as a whole, so as long as no-one’s getting hurt it doesn’t matter.
How do people with these opposing world views even begin to speak to one another? And, bearing in mind that all cultural moral frameworks have blind-spots, how can Christians of either generation find Jesus’ way in all of this? After all, Jesus practices and preaches both justice and care for the individual and an appeal to the authority of the scriptures. In Haidt’s language, Jesus appeals to moral taste buds from both ‘the right’ (conservatism) and ‘the left’ (progressives). And surely, part of the Church’s witness to the world is that young and old can talk, debate, relate and learn from one another.
Perhaps the most helpful approach I’ve heard is the concept of spiritual ‘formation’. This is an ancient Christian understanding, grounded firmly in the Bible, that many of our churches have forgotten. The idea goes a bit like this: we are all being formed, spiritually, all of the time. Throughout the day, every day, we are engaging in practices that will either make us more ‘other loving’ (based on the Christian concept of ‘agape love’) or form us in another way. The other main option in contemporary western culture is probably ‘self love’, which I think often quickly turns into ‘self hatred’. But it’s clear that the Christian aim is to become more like Christ, who laid down his life for others. Agape love, ‘other-love’ is our aim. Christians believe that Agape love leads to the flourishing of both society and the individual. It is the pattern set by God in Creation and Christ in incarnation and atonement, thus appealing to both views of morality.
So the question is: are your daily practices forming you into a person that is loving others more or less? Are your daily habits forming you to be more like Christ or into a different image? For example, using and engaging in social media throughout the day. This is a formation practice. A very strong one. For many people it’s the first thing they do in the morning, the last thing they do at night and the first thing our dopamine addicted brains turn to at any possible moment in between. It will be forming us whether we like it or not. So, for you, what is it forming in you? Agape love? Worship? Or narcissism and anger? Patience or impatience? Is this formative practice growing your love for God and making you more like Christ? It’s possible but quite unlikely!
Let’s apply this concept now to Masturbation. When you or I have a desire for sexual satisfaction how we act on that desire will ‘form’ us. I would suggest that acting on masturbation forms us gradually into the kind of person who wants instant gratification and takes it without consent. After all, the images used for masturbation, whether in your mind or on a computer screen, don’t have to consent. On the other hand, the practice of submitting your sexual desires to God, i.e. not masturbating, begins to form in us self control, patience and consideration of others. This means that when we are functioning in relationship with another person, whether sexual or non sexual, our formation instincts have taught us to honour the other persons’ desires, not just our own. We are remembering to see a person as a person. We are learning to be patient. We are learning to submit our desires to God and to others.
C.S Lewis, of course, puts it brilliantly:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself . . . ‘
So perhaps the question we should be asking, when it comes to sexuality issues such as masturbation, and other much more emotionally charged topics, is how is this practice forming me? Or As Jon Tyler says, there are two questions: How am I being formed and who am I becoming? These questions can really help us stand back and examine our daily practice in a huge variety of ways. Are your daily practices, routines (disciplines?) helping you grow in agape love?
When, instead of being marched through each day by our impulses and desires, we turn back to the ancient Christian formation practices of praying for others, meditating on God’s word and Creation and pursuing Christian virtues in our lives, these normal Christian practices can have a radical and transformative effect on our mind and relationships. The Holy Spirit begins to form in us the ‘mind of Christ’ and an attitude like that of Christ Jesus. All from a conversation about masturbation!
A friend recently recommended a podcast to me called ‘This Cultural Moment’. In the episode I listened to an Australian church leader, Mark Sayers, discussing what he called the Western postmodern ‘system’ (to paraphrase) and how it’s impacting us. I found it incredibly illuminating in terms of society as a whole, but also for Christian church culture in the UK.
Here’s a brief summary and some additional thoughts:
All of us want ‘human flourishing’. We all want ourselves and those around us to thrive. In order to do this, Sayers suggests, we need three ‘tanks’ flowing into our life system. We need the (i) tank of freedom, (ii) the tank of meaning and (iii) the tank of relationships. Humans need all three of these tanks to flow into our lives to thrive, grow and flourish.
There are some cultures where freedom is extremely suppressed to the detriment of a society and it’s individuals. History is littered with authoritarian regimes that suffocate human life by removing it’s freedom. But that’s not where we find ourselves. For many of us in Britain our freedom tank is full, in fact it’s overflowing and probably bursting. We have so much individual freedom and choice that it often brings on a sense of anxiety. Personally I can feel this if I ever try to clothes shop online. Trying to choose from 108 pairs of jeans in my size is completely overwhelming, to the point where I prefer to just wear my old ones and deny my need for new ones!
This overwhelming surplus of choice overflows into potential relationships, through apps like tinder, certainly into our choice of entertainment and even into church life. But the effect on the other tanks is detrimental overall. Sayers suggests that our ‘freedom’ has become so extravagant that our ‘meaning’ and ‘relationship’ tanks are running dangerously low, leading to deep unhappiness for many.
You see, freedom is great but at some point too much freedom limits relationships and meaning. Committing to a relationship, whether ‘romantic’ or a friendship, limits your freedom. Choosing to spend time with one person means that you can’t spend time with others. But commitment to a relationship is something that most people find brings happiness into their lives. After all, God designed us to love others. It’s a huge part of what we’re made for. Similarly, choosing to care for someone when they’re struggling requires sacrifice. We limit our freedom to serve another but find that our ‘meaning’ tank starts to fill up.
Sadly, in many churches we are simply echoing our culture’s deficits. We create consumer cultures which require little commitment or sacrifice so people feel very ‘free’ but eventually their expression of faith feels shallow because their relationship and meaning tanks are running low. As individual Christians we may want to emphasise the ‘freedom’ of God’s grace but soon find that when this doesn’t work itself out as actual allegiance to Jesus, sacrifice and loyalty, we wonder why we’re not growing in our faith.
What’s the answer ? Perhaps it’s time to start intentionally limiting your freedom, for the sake of your overall flourishing. As Sayers points out, most of us seems to understand this when it comes to Sport. Nobody expects to be a world class football player without limiting their freedom by spending hundreds of hours practising and seeking guidance. So is your current ‘system’ working for you? Or, like most of us, is your freedom tank bursting and overflowing while relationships and meaning feel illusive.
For Christians we can begin to address this by simply living out our allegiance to Jesus. Submitting our freedom to him, in relationships, sexual ethics, work, time etc. Giving time to read the bible, where we wrestle with life’s meaning, and praying each for others. We could sacrifice the freedom of our time on an evening to serve other people: a youth group, a community project, something for others. We could commit more to fewer relationships and choose to go ‘deep’ through something like a prayer triplet. In fact, when we start thinking about our Christian growth in terms of giving and sacrifice, not consumption, it’s amazing the meaning and transformation we can experience! What if we really committed to a church that we attend? What if we worked hard there to serve others and give of ourselves, contributing sacrificially and building deep relationships. What if we choose, like Christ, to sacrifice our freedom for others? Perhaps Jesus knew a thing or two about human flourishing? Perhaps it is better to give than to receive?
If, as I suggested in part 1, many Christians have drifted unknowingly into a vague future hope in heaven that misses the big picture, what can we do to address this? How can we return to the ultimate hope of resurrection and new creation and does it really matter?
I think the first thing to do is to rediscover the New Testament’s language of eschatology. Simply reading 1 Corinthians 15, or 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, and then returning to passages like Romans 8, is very powerful. Turning to key passages like Isaiah 65 and 66, Ezekiel 37 and Daniel 12, before re-reading Revelation, can be very illuminating. Knowing that passages such as Mark 13 and Matthew 24 are based on Daniel 7:13, and therefore have much so say about Jesus’ ascension and the temple’s destruction, not necessarily Jesus’ return, is helpful.* I think that reading the New Testament in the context of Genesis and Exodus, and the context of Exile, is also important. Of course, this is just a starter but gaining confidence in the central Christian Hope of a God who rescues, resurrects and is making all things new, is powerful. It allows us to pray ‘Come Lord Jesus’ alongside the early church, with faith and passion. We can have a great hope that God has not abandoned this world and our co-work with him now matters.
Secondly, I think we can return to the passages about Heaven, now in their proper context. The Bible seems to talk about the believer’s spirit going immediately to be with God and sometimes the word heaven is used for this. In John 14 Jesus talks about going to prepare a place or a room (mone), and in Luke 23 he promises ‘paradise’ to the thief on the cross. Paul talks (Phillipians 1:23) of a desire to be and be ‘with Christ’. In other words, the biblical picture seems to one of the believer going to be with God, to a wonderful but temporary place of rest. But we mustn’t confuse this with the ultimate hope: that Christ will return and bring everything under his rule; The defeat of sin and evil and the death of death is the ultimate Christian hope; The brokenness of creation restored, a new creation, a new ‘heavens and earth’.
But does it matter? Is it ok for most Christians to have a kind of child-like ‘folk Christianity’ view of heaven and not understand the true Christian hope. I think it really does matter. Personally, understanding that God’s plan is to right all wrongs brings me much more peace and reassurance than a vague belief in a disembodied existence that has nothing to do with this life. And it starts to speak to us on so many levels: What we do in this life matters. We are not waiting to just escape and disappear, as if all this is a warm up. Instead we are called to work with God now, for the renewal of his creation. It teaches us that the physical world matters and that stewarding creation is important. Although new Creation will indeed be new it will also, in some way, be a renewal of what is. We are not just waiting for God to come back and ‘nuke the planet’ to start again, so environmental matters matter.
The hope in a future physical reality also means that our bodies matter. Western culture has generally moved towards a vague gnostic belief that only ‘what’s on the inside matters’ (This is really pushed in Disney films. For example, see Mary Poppins Returns ‘A cover is not a book’). Christianity doesn’t let us get away with that kind of thinking. Instead we are called to work with our hands, care for the world, care for the sick, and see our physical bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The physical is important. We are both physical and spiritual beings.
So how do we respond? I know that during my own studies when presented with suggestions that my current world view or biblical understanding may not be right I’ve been tempted to freak out, resist the new ideas or throw out everything I thought I knew! The process can certainly be disconcerting. But we don’t need to do that. However, we do need to continue to wrestle with the Christian hope from the New Testament texts, not just settle for popular ideas. I urge you to read afresh through some of the chapters I’ve suggested above: Pray, read, discuss, listen, read again.
Does our belief about the future matter? Well, Christianity is, on the one hand, a belief set on a past event (Christ’s bodily resurrection). This is our firm foundation. But this is a past event that has huge implications for our future (our bodily resurrection). On the one hand the biblical writers call us to trust in God for the future and hold fast to our hope, on the other hand much of what’s said about that future is less clear than we’d like. Reading the Bible well means learning to hold these tensions and trusting God for what we can’t know. Reading the bible well also means holding in view the big picture, which includes the story of Israel and humanity, not just me. Reading the Bible well means continuing to read, seek, discuss and debate and, ultimately, to place our faith in Jesus, that what he did in his resurrection and ascension changed everything on a cosmic level. Anything less is just not big enough.
*It also helps to know that the Greek word ‘erchomai’ means both coming and going. Context helps us see that the ‘coming of the Son of Man to the ancient of days’ is actually about Jesus’ going to the father, based on the vision in Daniel 7:13-14. In other words, it’s usually about his ascension not his return. ‘Parousia’ is the word usually used for his coming.
In the last nine months I’ve thought a lot about the Christian Hope. Starting some Theology modules, preaching through the Apostle’s Creed and walking with people through death and grief has made me look more closely at what the Bible and Christian tradition says about our future hope in God . Would it surprise you if I said that most of us focus on the wrong place or, controversially, that Heaven is actually not our ultimate hope?
For example, the ‘Apostles Creed’ (a statement of Christian Orthodoxy general accepted by the world-wide church over the centuries) does not mention heaven as our hope. The word is mentioned, as the place to which Jesus ascended, and this is a hugely important idea which we often ignore. But ‘heaven’ is not mentioned in the creed as our future hope. In stead, ‘Jesus’ return to judge’ and ‘the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ are the focus. Why is this? Why doesn’t it talk about going to heaven when we die like many preachers do?
We could look at other church creeds or survey the current theological landscape to see the same thing. ‘So… errr… where is Heaven?’, we might ask. And while we’re at it, ‘What does Heaven mean? Is it actually central to the Christian Hope? And what is our ‘resurrection’ and why is this all so confusing? Here’s my attempt to clear things up a bit. Obviously in an attempt to simplify things I run the risk of oversimplifying, but I will do my best to summarise what I’ve seen as I’ve recently studied in the Bible, tradition and current New Testament scholarship. Also, I might be wrong!
In the Old Testament there is a hope that God will overcome death and sin, rooted in Genesis 3. The Exodus story presents a God who rescues and beats his enemies. The Hebrew narrative, in general, shows a people trapped in sin and death, unable to be the true humanity that God called them to be, unable to fulfil his mandate. Sin leads to exile and exile leads to a prophet cry for a new dawn in God’s plans. This dawn is seen in visions such as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones coming to life, Daniel’s picture of resurrection and eternal life and Isaiah’s many visions of a new creation. There is a deep cry within the later prophets that God’s plan has not failed, he can still rescue his people and that this rescue will lead to many nations also being re-united with God. So where is heaven?
Heaven, put simply, is where God is. The Old Testament presents the paradox of a world sometimes in touch with heaven, through the temple or the Ark of the Covenant, but clearly not the same as this world. There’s continuity and discontinuity. Transcendence and Immanence. The Jewish people did have a strong sense of the place where God is (called Heaven) but, because Jesus’ arrival took place in a prophetic and cultural context, the main central first century Jewish hope was ‘resurrection’ and ‘new creation’. Yes, many reflected and meditated on the mystery of God’s glory and presence (Heaven) but the hope was for God to come and rescue: rescue from Roman rule; rescue from pagan oppression; rescue from sin and shame. In summary, we often think of the Christian hope as going to God but really it’s God coming to us. This is where incarnation is so closely related to salvation and eschatology.
And so, when we come to read Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s letters and other writings such as revelation, this is the focus. Yahweh will come to rescue, God has not given up on his creation, he will put everything right and defeat the enemies of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15, for example). So why do modern Christian focus on ‘going to heaven when we die’ and rarely speak of resurrection and new creation? That’s a big question, but here’s a few thoughts.
Firstly, the New Testament does indeed speak of a temporary place in God’s presence for those who know him, before the resurrection of the dead. To this we will return. Secondly, there has been a strong tendency in the last hundred years or so for evangelists to simplify complex bible teaching into a ‘heaven and hell’ dualism, without explaining anything else. Churches have often neglected to teach further into this perhaps because it can seem quite complicated and confusing. Thirdly, the effect of neo-platonic Greek thought meant that many Christians came to think in more of a Greek philosophical mindset than a Hebrew one. The big picture in platonic thought is of a divine source of everything and to whom everything will return. This was useful for Christians such as Origen who wanted to converse with philosophers and bring some credibility to Christianity. And there are close parallels but also some important differences with the Biblical picture of God. Finally, there have been whole cultural movements which have sought to divide natural from supernatural and led to a common kind of simplistic folk Christianity which prefers a simplistic view than the hard work of grappling with scripture.
I’ve also often wondered if the origins of the Pentecostal movement in the awful context of African-American slavery may also have, understandably, emphasised a desire to escape, rather than believe for redemption now. Perhaps the songs from this movement, and it’s rapid growth, have had more of an impact than we realise. Having said this, I’ve not come across anything written by anyone else that has seen this link, so I may be wrong. So, bearing all this in mind, do what do we do? Do we abandon speaking of Heaven? In part 2 I will explore how we might construct a more biblical view of heaven and new creation…