Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Giveaway Wednesday - 'The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus'

Today's Giveaway Wednesday is 'The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus' by Alan Thompson, a book that delves deeper into Luke's account of God's unfolding plan in Acts.

You can read a review of the book here

Enter below for the chance to win one of 3 copies!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Giveaway Wednesday - The Hope of Glory

The Hope of Glory by Sam Storms contains 100 daily devotions on Colossians. 

It's ideal for those who want to read through Colossians in manageable chunks and be encouraged, instructed and uplifted. 

Enter below for the chance to win one of 3 copies!

Monday, 24 March 2014

In defence of boyfriends

This month's Evangelicals Now includes an article by Rowina Seidler entitled "Why boyfriends are unbiblical." It's available online here. Here's the essence of her thesis:

"A boyfriend is a guy with whom we are in a committed, exclusive, emotionally intimate, physically affectionate relationship... As far as the Bible is concerned, such a relationship is only permitted to begin at engagement and find its fulfilment in marriage."

She argues that the concept of a "boyfriend" is a C20th construct and that we ought to prefer the earlier (biblical) concept of a "pursuer."

Rowina offers five reasons why we should prefer this to "boyfriends" (or, presumably, girlfriends!):
1 It's very hard to guard your heart with a boyfriend.
2 We are called to have absolute purity in our relationships with our brothers
3 We can take away his role as pursuer
4 We can become anxious about pleasing him
5 Boyfriends are un-Christ-like

I think there is quite a lot of pastoral wisdom here - there is, undoubtedly, a tendency in our culture to develop an inappropriate emotional (and often physical) intimacy with boyfriends/girlfriends. There is a constant need for us all to seek godliness in this area where we are all tempted to stray from Christ.

But it seems to me that banning the concept of "boyfriends" is a wrong, indeed possibly a counterproductive, way of dealing with this issue that shows both an ignorance of history and a failure to understand the human heart. Some observations on each of her five headings...

1 "It's very hard to guard your heart with a boyfriend." 

Yes. It is. In fact it's very hard to guard your heart in everything because the heart is deceitful above all things. Rowina tells us that in a pursuer/pursued relationship there is much less emotional closeness and therefore things are easier. Which is odd. Because all that romantic poetry written for centuries before the "boyfriend" was invented doesn't suggest that people found the emotions associated with pursuit easy at all!

She quotes Song of Solomon with its advice to not to stir up love until it pleases. But it's not at all clear in the Song of Solomon that the couple concerned are "betrothed" or "married" and it's very clear that, whatever their "status" they are finding it pretty hard to guard their hearts.

Guarding your heart is a real problem - thinking this will be achievable by not having a"boyfriend" is a false solution.

2. "We are called to have absolute purity in our relationships with our brothers."

Yes. We are. But there is a name that we generally give to people who invent rules that are not in the Bible (you shall not have a boyfriend) in order to "protect" or put a hedge around rules that are in the Bible (be pure in your relationship with brothers/sisters).

3. "We can take away his role as pursuer"

I am a complementarian. That is a battle for me - something I believe because it's what the Bible says not because I am in any way naturally inclined to believe it. But I have yet to find a Bible verses that says (as Rowina does) "God has given men the role of pursuer and leader in romantic relationships." I find some verses that say that husbands are to lead their wives and families. I think it is legitimate to infer from these verses that it is wise for men to start their marriage relationships as they mean to go on; with initiative and leadership. I would (and often do) encourage men to do that. 

But where is the Bible command on this? It's striking that the Bible verse used by Rowina in support of this position (Prov 18:22) uses a Hebrew word translated "find" in most English versions which can just as easily be passive (happen upon) as active (seek). If that's the best we've got it's not much to build her confident assertion on.

I also detect some linguistic sophistry here. Apparently it's OK for girls to be "cheerful around a guy, as well as friendly, kind and attentive." If this is the kind of kindness and friendship we should show to all then it's not going to tell him anything. If however, as I suspect, Rowina here means singling out particular men a girl likes to be more friendly towards... can we not just call a spade a spade and say it's OK to flirt with them? And if a guy flirting with a girl is "pursuit" why is it not "pursuit" when it a girl is flirting with a guy?!

In any case a glance through the Scriptures suggests that marriages come about in all sorts of ways, many of which do not involve the man as pursuer. The female character in the Song of Songs seems to do plenty of the pursuing. Ruth definitely takes the lead in initiating physical intimacy with Boaz (before their betrothal!). The Scripture doesn't comment negatively on either of these cases. I was particularly disturbed by the comment that for a girl to pursue would be to "go against Scripture." Would she really ask a woman who initiated a romantic relationship or engagement to repent? 

Probably the most common historical model in the biblical period for spouse finding is how Isaac and Rebekah got married: Abraham's servant was commissioned to find Isaac a wife and he went and chose the girl who could draw water for lots of camels. This remains perhaps the dominant global model for spouse finding across the world - why is Rowina not commending it? Presumably because she thinks that personal choice in a spouse we feel some sort of romantic feelings for is important - but you could make a pretty strong case that it's not important in the Scriptures. If by a "biblical" model of spouse finding she means "what they did in the Bible" we need to go back to arranged marriages. If she means "things that Bible specifically commands" the Bible does not specifically command not having boyfriends.

4. "We can become anxious about pleasing him"

Yes. We can. And I am prepared to bet that for centuries women were pretty anxious about pleasing their "pursuers" - reading any Jane Austen novel should be sufficient to persuade you of this. Again - the problem is a real one. The proposed solution is a false trail.

5 "Boyfriends are un-Christ-like"

Essentially the argument here is that our human (romantic) relationships must parallel Christ's relationship with his church. So Christ doesn't stir up emotions that he might not follow through on (like a boyfriend might) and Christ only treats us as his once we have committed ourselves permanently to him.

The trouble with this is that Rowina offers no biblical control on the parallels. Christ is the saviour of the church - is that what should be true of our pursuer? Christ is our enemy who will judge us, until we commit ourselves to him when he becomes our friend - is that what should be true of our pursuer? Christ chose us to be (part of) his bride before the creation of the world - is this a commendation to "love at first sight" relationships only?

Yes marriage relationships do parallel Christ's relationship with his church - but not in every way and there is a considerable danger of "over interpretation" here.

In conclusion

As I say I think there is real pastoral wisdom here - there is a constant and real temptation for single Christians to let their intimacy run ahead of their commitment to each other.

But, as one of my colleagues pointed out, saying that boyfriends are unbiblical is like saying telephones are unbiblical. True, they don't appear in the Bible. And it's possible that we can use telephones, or have boyfriends or girlfriends, in an unbiblical manner.

But not having a telephone will not change the things in your heart that make you use it to surf internet porn or text unkind things to people.

Equally, abolishing the category of "boyfriend" won't change the things in your heart that make you look for intimacy beyond the commitment you have made to reach other.



Thursday, 20 March 2014

What should we say to the suffering?


So what should we say?

Having looked at Eliphaz's bad advice what can we say to be good comforters to those who suffer? Six suggestions:

1                     Say nothing

Job’s friends were most helpful when they were least vocal.

All the people I have asked about this have said they found the presence of those who say nothing, or more or less nothing, one of the most helpful things in their suffering.

2                     If you must speak… still say nothing!

Wait until you are asked for your advice. Job never asked any of his friends what they think. His cries of why were not questions for them to answer. They were questions only God can answer. Here’s an observation from one person I spoke with: “Generally the people I actually asked for advice gave good advice.”

Trust your friends and church members to ask for the right advice at the right time. That's not an absolute rule. If you see someone going off believing nonsense in their suffering you may need to speak. But as a matter of wisdom it seems to me in such situations better to wait until you’re asked. Or at least to very gently seek permission to open up the subject first – “do you want to talk about this? Or shall we just weep and hug?”

3                     Say as little as possible.

Here are some of the things people I spoke to who have suffered found it most helpful that people said:
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I have no idea how you must be feeling.”
“Please accept this gift with our love.”
“I’m sorry.”

Several of them also said that a well timed expletive can be incredibly helpful. I'm not commending "cussing" for the sake of it, or to be cool or controversial. But there are times when the right "rude word" conveys a truckload of meaning. Something shocking happens; it’s OK to convey that you are shocked. That’s why human beings have come up with these words in a messed up world. To convey the thing we can’t convey any other way. That’s why these words should be taboo. So they actually mean something really powerful on those rare occasions we need to use them.

4                    Reflect on our status as embodied souls

When the angel of the Lord came to suffering, depressed Elijah in 1 Kings 19 he made him sleep, then gave him food, then made him sleep some more. And then gave him some pretty sharp spiritual advice.

Man does not live on Bible verses alone. But on bread. And sleep. Yes of course secular people make physical stuff (the body and brain(, everything and yes, of course that's wrong. There is a profound spiritual dimension to our lives that we must not ignore. But I do not think that for most evangelicals ignoring the spiritual element is our biggest problem. We do need to just look after people as they are.

5                    Don’t expect things to get better

Someone suddenly dies. It's devastating for the whole church. But a year later?

We've only had one death in our church in 10 years, Ruth. It was horrible visiting that little girl in her last days in the ITU. It was awful taking her funeral. It was gut wrenching. But it's not devastating for me any more. Her death doesn’t affect me daily. I can go weeks without thinking about it. That is not true for her parents. 

If we are to be helpful we have to cultivate remembrance. Putting ourselves in the painful, pinching shoes of others.

One of the things one of the people I’ve talked to this week found most helpful was when someone said: “you’ll never get over it… you will get used to it… but you won’t get over it.” We need to remember that reality as we comfort people.

At the end of the story Job's stuff is replaced. And he has 10 more children. But do you think he ever get over losing 10 children? Of course he didn’t.

6                    Expect to get it wrong and look to the innocent sufferer

You will get it wrong.

Firstly because in nature of things you will say the wrong think to a suffering person; what is right to say one day will be profoundly wrong the next as grief and suffering are often profoundly illogical. 

More than that though you will be a "Job’s comforter." You will say stupid stuff. The Bible is clear that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and your heart (mine) are wicked and selfish and sinful. So we will say stupid and wicked and selfish stuff.

That’s not OK – we need to think about this and so love people that we work really hard to not say stupid things to them.

But in another sense it is OK – because, just as Jesus is the example we can look to in suffering to show, even more than Job, that suffering and faith can go together... well he he is also the one whose suffering means we can be forgiven for all the dumb stuff we say.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Three terrible mistakes when speaking to the suffering

Christians do not have an enviable record of being helpful to others when bad stuff happens to them.

Last week I emailed some people who I know who have particularly suffered in their lives and asked them what useful and not useful things people said. Here are edited highlights of some of the responses I got:

To someone whose spouse was been diagnosed with terminal cancer:
"They are well.  You just have to believe"
"You need to have deep faith"
"I'll believe for you"
“So what will you do when they've gone?”

To someone who lost a parent when they were a child:
“Don’t cry, your mum’s in a better place now, so you don’t need to cry.”
“Don’t cry, your mummy would be sad to know that you’re upset.”

To someone whose wife is unwilling to have sex with him when he described the pain of that situation:
“Just put it out of your mind completely.”

To someone whose child had died:
“But she knew the Lord!”
“Maybe this is what we need to bring unity in the church.”

To someone single:
“It’s such a waste that you’re not married.”
“You’re not being too fussy are you?”

Eliphaz and his two friends fall firmly into the category of people who say things as unhelpful as this. He makes three mistakes:

Mistake 1: He thinks his desire to speak means he ought to speak.

Job has asked lots of questions. Eliphaz makes the mistake of thinking those questions need an answer. They don’t. But Eliphaz is proud. He is certain he has the answers and he wants to share them.

I'm not saying we can never answer “why” questions – sometimes things have obvious causes. But we must tread carefully!

Mistake 2: “What you sow you reap” does NOT equal “what you reap you sowed.”

The essence of the argument that will be offered, repeated, by each of three friends is in 4:8 "As I have observed, those who plough evil and those who sow trouble reap it."

That is an absolutely true biblical principle. You can read it in the words of Paul (Galatians 6:7) and Jesus (Matthew 7:2).

But the mistake Eliphaz makes is that he thinks it is a reversible equation. God is repeatedly clear in Scripture that if we do wicked stuff in the end will turn round and bite us on the bum. BUT that does not mean that if something bad happens must be because we’ve done something bad.

Eliphaz is so desperate to have a neat world that he ignores evidence and creates a world where good people live right and get the blessing.
 But read the Bible and you’ll see life is a whole lot more complicated than that. Some godly, generous people seem to do well and then disaster overtakes them. Some incredibly wicked people prosper for whole lifetime. Others suffer terribly. It is not neat. Not predictable. Not, apparently, proportionate.
  
Saying that you can read what God is doing in a particular situation, why someone is suffering, is almost always stupid and wrong. Now it's equally true that saying there is no reason for the suffering, that God is capricious and random is also stupid and wrong. Always the answer is that there is a reason; but mostly we just do not know what it is and we need to trust God, as Job for all his questioning, does.

Mistake 3: Someone upright did perish.

"Consider now", Eliphaz says, 4:7, "who, being innocent, has ever perished?"

We can understand his mistake. Sin universal. Suffering is universal. So it is right to make the link between them; no sin ever, would mean no suffering ever. But Eliphaz is wrong to draw the conclusion he does from that. Is an ultimate sense in which this side of judgment each of us sinners suffers less than we deserve. So no suffering ever unjust in that way. But in another sense there is much unjust suffering in the world. Suffering doe snot seen in any way proportionate to sin. Much of it seems to have no value for spiritual growth. Or for anything else

But Eliphaz is convinced that can draw a line from sin to suffering.
All suffering happens to the unrighteous, he says, so the answer is simple: 5:1 – stop complaining to God and start living differently and you’ll be OK.

But Eliphaz’s presumption doesn’t work in this case. Because Job’s protest is exactly that he IS innocent of sin. That he does not deserve this suffering. And, if we've read chapters 1 and 2 we know Job is right and Eliphaz is wrong; actually Eliphaz, somebody innocent has suffered – he’s sitting in front of you!

But because Eliphaz is so sure he’s got all his theology absolutely right he doesn’t really listen to what Job has to say. He can't see that there is no hidden, secret sin. That he really is innocent.

We know better than Eliphaz. We know that there is an even clearer case than Job of innocent suffering. A man who wasn’t just innocent within the bounds of a story to help us undersand this. But who was really, absolutely totally and utterly innocent. Perfect. And who suffered, oh how he suffered. To the point of crying out “why?”; “Why have you forsaken me?”

Someone upright did perish. If have a problem with innocent suffering you cannot be a Christian. Because at the heart of the Christian faith is an innocent who suffers. Just as innocent Job suffered to prove to all that that Satan was wrong about God. So innocent Christ suffered to prove that God will overturn all evil powers and rescue people forever.

Three terrible mistakes Eliphaz made – repeated in different ways by his friends over chapters that follow.

So, in the light of all that… what should we say? I'll explore that in the next post on Thursday. Or check out the audio of the sermon here.

Monday, 17 March 2014

What to say when you're suffering

Audio for this talk now available at: http://www.christchurchliverpool.org/talks/out-of-ignorance/

We've been looking at the book of Job on Sunday nights at Christ Church Liverpool. A week into his agonising suffering Job finally speaks. But how should we speak when we're suffering? How should we not speak? Job's experience provides some answers...


There are three things Job does it’s OK to do. And three things he doesn’t do and that we shouldn’t do either.

It’s OK to…

1. Wish you’d never been born.

In 3:1-10 Job curses the day of his birth. He wishes the day was simply wiped from the calendar (v6). If that can’t be the case perhaps simply there could have been no births that day? (v7)

Sometimes life feels so bitter that you feel it would be better not to have existed. That the bitterness of life outweighs the blessings so much that you’d rather have just never have been… ‘If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales!

It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas." (6:1-3a).

2. Wish you were dead.

"Why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child,
    like an infant who never saw the light of day?
17 There the wicked cease from turmoil,

    and there the weary are at rest." (3:16-17).

Job does not know as much about final judgment, heaven and hell as we do if we've read the New Testament. Even we're not totally certain what happens to the unrepentant at the moment of death – do they go straight to hell? Do they sleep till final judgment? It's one of those things Christians disagree about.

But, Job certainly knew something about eternity. So why does he speak of death as a place of peace, even for the wicked? Well we need to remember that apart from a few verses at the beginning and end this book is written from horizons bound by sun and sky. It speaks of appearance of things. And, as you'll know if you've ever seen somebody dead, the usual appearance of the dead is peace. Those who have suffered in agony look peaceful in death.

You can understand why someone in intense emotional or physical pain would want that. It is OK to wish for that kind of release and even more understandable if you are a suffering Christian knowing what you know: “I desire to depart and to be with Christ which is better by far.”

3. Ask “why?”

Repeatedly (3:11, 12, 16, 20, 23) Job asks why questions. If you've read the book you'll know God is not going to answer those questions; and I don't think it would make Job feel any better if he did. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with asking the questions.

If bad stuff happens to you it’s OK to do that. And it's important that we create church cultures where you can go to people in tears of anger and frustration and ask why God has allowed your child to die, your fiancĂ© to leave you, your job to be taken away – or whatever it is.

It’s not OK to…

1. Try to kill yourself

You might read Job 3 and think there’s a pretty simple solution if you want yourself dead. But, although Job appeals repeatedly (e.g. 6:8-9) to God to kill him he is not willing to kill himself.

As far as Job is concerned life is not a thing that belongs to us to take at our will but a thing that belongs to God that is his to take at his will.

Lots of us have thought seriously about killing ourselves; at least 3% of us in the last three years, and probably well over 20% of us in a lifetime.

The Bible is clear that suicide is self-murder and that murdering yourself is no less wicked than murdering anybody else. It is not an unforgivable sin (no sin is unforgivable apart from not being willing to come to God through Christ for forgiveness), but it is a deeply wicked thing to do.

Don’t kill yourself. If you are thinking about it talk to someone. Call the Samaritans. Call your pastor. Even if it's 3am (if often is!) - fine. Don’t call them then for most other stuff. But in this situation it's fine!

Complain about God

Lots of people say hard and bitter things about God. They say he has “hedged them in.” They say he has “marshaled terror against them.” Theyy he has taken away their hope and prospects.

Job too says all those things. And yet, again and again in the book, God adamant that Job doesn’t sin in what he says.

What’s the difference between Job and others?

I think the difference is that Job says his hard things to God. The fact that many of them are addressed int he third person doesn't mean he isn't speaking to God; that was a normal way of addressing great people in the ancient world (it's how Esther addresses her husband, King Xerxes in Esther 5:4-8 for e.g.).

We know there is all the difference in the world between saying something behind someone’s back and saying it to their face. With God we can never say anything behind his back, but sometimes act like we can. Don't.

Curse God

Job has already refused to do this (2:10), but this theme gets developed further.

In 6:10 we find out why it is Job wants God to kill him now. It's because he fear if he doesn't he may lose the one thing he still has; an integrity of relationship with God that he has not accused God of being a liar when he says he loves people and cares for them and is good and true and upright and kind.

Finally

You will probably fail. You may well not do some of the things you should do. And you may well do some of the things you should not do.

At that point we should be thankful that we know more than Job. Because, unlike Job, we know that Jesus can perfectly cover our failures of integrity. We know that Christ fulfils perfectly what Job here anticipates. So when we lose our integrity we have a place of safety to come to for forgiveness.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

On Pastor Mark

Mark Driscoll has been in the "Christian news" a lot recently, with allegations of plagiarism, fixing best-seller charts and, most seriously, about leadership culture

Since writing the first draft of this piece on Thursday I've had it suggested to me that it's not helpful to make public statements about any of this stuff. I respectfully disagree; it seems to me the effect of such an approach is to leave the field of discourse open to the the hard-liners on one side or another. I do, however, agree (as you'll see) that it IS inappropriate for us to comment on things we don't actually know very much (or anything) about.

Disclosure: I've met Mark Driscoll once and he seemed a perfectly pleasant and normal human being who gave a bunch of time to British pastors asking questions after a long flight and a long day preaching.

Here's my attempt to help those who have been influenced by him and his preaching and writing (which includes me) think through the issues currently being raised:
  • Whether we (and he) like it or not we live in a celebrity culture. One might argue (Carl Trueman certainly would) that Mars Hill Church should have fought against that more; they, I suspect, would say they used Driscoll's status as a way of reaching more people. That's a wisdom issue one way or the other. But in such a culture people throw stuff at celebrities and some of it sticks, whether it's true or not. Basically what I'm saying is that blogs and internet articles probably aren't a very reliable way to find out what has actually happened here and that we need to be properly skeptical.
  • If the amount of attention that has been given to all the dumb things Mark has said was given to all the dumb things I have said a lot of articles could be written about me too.
  • Ditto the wicked things I have done.
  • Lots of people suggest we can tell something is amiss because, apparently, Driscoll makes lots of money. But, American evangelicalism being what it is, there's money in the investigation and critique of him too. Our appropriate skepticism needs to flow in both directions here. As far as I can tell none of his critics have any idea what Driscoll does with his money (and I certainly don't) so I'm not sure the amount he may or may not earn tells us very much.
  • Even if it turned out that Mark had done ALL the things it is said he has done, or worse, it will not make any difference to the truth of the true things he has said and God will not allow anybody's weakness or wickedness to thwart his purposes.
  • This is primarily a matter for the members of Mars Hill Church. The rest of us can, if we choose, put the books down and turn off the podcasts. There is (I think legitimate) concern that power at MHC is concentrated in the hands of the senior staff and some outside non-executive board members. But in the end all churches are congregational - if the people in the church don't wish to have Driscoll as their pastor or listen to his teaching they are free to leave or use their collective voice to ensure that he leaves.
  • Whatever truth is in the accusations made we need to remember that as with politicians (and indeed most professions) so with pastors; it's easier to criticise the mess somebody else is making of the job than to do the job yourself (I always find it easier to pastor somebody else's church than my own). That doesn't at all invalidate criticisms - but it does mean we should be concerned about the self-righteous tone in which they are often delivered.
In summary: some false and some true things have undoubtedly been said about Mark Driscoll. Few of us really know, certainly at this stage and possibly ever, which fall into which category. Fortunately the only person whose verdict matters in the end knows everything about him (and me - and you!). So, unless we're a lot closer to the situation than almost everybody who I've seen writing about this is, it's wise to refrain from issuing either ringing endorsements or stinging condemnations.

In the meantime as you (if you) read stuff Driscoll writes and says treat it with the same healthy attitude you should read anything written by a Christian (or indeed by a human); it'll be right in parts, wrong in parts and written with a whole mixed up set of motives (and yes, that very definitely does include andysstudy!).