Category Archives: Theology

Growing in Christ-likeness doesn’t mean giving up your personality

Do you snort when you laugh? Do you get frustrated with your kids? Does your house look like a bomb site? Do you like a drink with dinner? Do you like dressing up? Do you laugh at slightly inappropriate things? Does the odd swear word slip out?

You’re not alone.

A follower recently reached out expressing anxiety and confusion about what she was supposed to look like as a follower of Christ. And she is not alone either.

The anxiety comes from two things. First, we compare ourselves to others. Second, we know that we are not matching up to what we see in the Bible.

Let’s take comparison. We all know we do it, and we all know it’s a fatally flawed way of looking at the world. But we still do it. We compare ourselves to those people in church who are just amazing at doing Christian life. We compare ourselves to Instagrammers who post filtered shots of themselves hanging out in a beautiful garden with coffee and a Bible. We compare ourselves to the people we see on Facebook who talk about how intentional they’re being in their Christian parenting or how blessed they are to be serving madly at everything.

That’s not me, we think. I feed my kids toast for dinner when I’m too tired to cook. I waste too much time looking at cat videos when I’m lying in bed at night, knowing I should be going to sleep. I like to hang out with the girls over a drink and laugh a little bit too loudly. I’m not godly. I’m not this picture of quiet Christian respectability.

When we compare ourselves to what we see in the Bible, we feel inadequate, small, helpless. I don’t have the faith of the bleeding woman or the disciples that drop everything and go, or Paul, or Barnabas or Timothy. They gave everything. They lived their faith deeply and passionately.

That’s not me, we think. I like wearing nice clothes. I like going out for dinner. I like having enough money to go on holiday.

Here’s the thing though. We need to stop trying to measure up to other people. Firstly, because they have their stuff going on as well. They aren’t perfect. And if they are further along the Christian journey that us, we need to look to them for inspiration, not comparison. Talk to them. Learn from them. But see them as the real, flawed humans that God knows they are. Only God is perfect.

Also, have confidence in yourself. In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul says “By the grace of God I am what I am.” God made us in his image and He saved us at our most broken. We are how we are because of God and He loves us. And we are jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-9) – we are supposed to be jars of clay! So we don’t glory in our brokenness, but we can recognise it and take heart that God loves us and chose us because of who we are in and of ourselves, not in spite of what we’ve become.

That’s not to say we can’t improve. We should and we must. But not because we come out unfavourably by comparison to other flawed humans – because we are so deeply grateful to God that it spurs us to action. This spur is a response to what God has done. If we don’t feel this spur, then we need to go back to the cross. It means we have forgotten (as humans are prone to do) or drowned out the truth of the cross with the noise of the world. We need to re-remember and re-orient ourselves back to Him.

We also need to be close enough to Him (through prayer and mediation) and His word (through Bible reading, church and small groups) to be able to self-reflect. I am me, by the grace of God I am what I am – but where are my rough edges? Where do I need to rein in my worldliness? We do this by looking at our motivations. You might like to wear nice clothes. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. But are you wearing them because you are wanting to attract attention? Are you wearing them to show off?

Similarly, if you’re posting things on Facebook, is it to share joyfully? Or deep down, is it to show off? To make others feel a little jealous?

If we look at our motivations honestly, it will show us where our rough edges and blind spots are – where we need to do some business with God and ask the Holy Spirit to help us progress this good work that Jesus started in us. It is OK to be motivated by taking pleasure in things God has blessed us with. It’s not OK to want to dabble in sinfulness, or lead others into sinfulness too. That’s a sign our hearts are not where they should be – and again, we need to go back to the cross.

J. C. Ryle in his book Holiness (I HIGHLY recommend reading it – it speaks beautifully and truthfully into this issue) says “A true Christian is one who has not only peace of conscience, but war within. He may be known by his warfare as well as by his peace.”

This is so true. We have the peace of God, and yet we struggle with our sinfulness. And bizarrely, that’s a good sign. It means we are aware of humanity’s proneness to wander. It means we are struggling with things we are supposed to be struggling with. But the struggle is not the star of the show. God is.

This is a journey and the focus is God. See my awesome sketch below showing the journey…..

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We are broken and imperfect but we are justified. We are sinful but we are being sanctified. And Jesus will complete this good work in us but we have agency and the ability to make choices.

This does not mean that a sanctified person becomes some kind of Christian robot. We are not all supposed to be clones. You are YOU. God loves us in all our uniqueness and rubbishness. In God we can be more ourselves than anywhere else because He knows us inside out – there is no hiding from Him.

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10).

The Christian journey is not about fading into the shadows so that we all merge into an amorphous Christian blob. We let our sinfulness diminish as our focus on Christ increases. And we keep our unique personality and experience that has shaped us, just re-oriented toward God, rather than ourselves. That remains just as unique and individual in how that re-orientation is expressed in your life through your personality.

Self-reflect. Learn. Grow. Sanctify. Be yourself, but be yourself for God. And you will be more you than you ever were before.

What makes a “good man”? (Or a good anyone?)

I was going to call this blog “Don’t high-5 each other just because you never raped anyone”. OK that’s a super provocative title, but I wanted to get people’s attention. The other problem with that title, is that it only relates to men and the issue that I wanted to talk about is actually an everybody-issue.

Let me explain.

I was reading an article recently. That’s it – not a madly exciting thing to happen, but its what it said. It talked about what makes a good man. As a mother of boys this is important to me. One of the criteria pulled me up short – “A good man will never abuse you”.

When did that become a criteria for being a good man? Have we become so used to despicable behavior that the mere absence of it is considered “good”?

So let me be clear:

Not hitting, stalking, raping or killing, or in any other way abusing someone, isn’t “good” behavior – its normal behavior. As humans, these are things we have, through time, collectively agreed are the opposite of good behavior. We have framed laws and protections against people who engage in them. To now be at the point in history that we would define someone’s goodness by the absence of abnormal behavior makes me heart-sick. And I am outraged on behalf of my sons and all the young girls out there that we would have them think that not being raped or abused by someone makes them a good man.

It would be easy to make this piece about culture-whinging and man-bashing but that’s not my jam. My aim with all these observations is to look at where we can get a course corrective that is positive and collaborative. The place always for this is the Bible. What does the Bible say is a good man?

Here’s some examples:

  • good man obtains favor from the Lord, but a man of evil devices he condemns Prov 12:2
  • The backslider in heart will be filled with the fruit of his ways, and a good man will be filled with the fruit of his ways. Prov 14:14
  • for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. Acts 11:24
  • And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” John 7:12

According to these passages, a good man “obtains favor”. How does a man obtain favor? Isaiah 66:2 says “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”

A good man will be filled with the fruit of his (good) ways. This looks like its saying a man reaps what he sows, but there’s more to it. The word translated as “filled” is the same for the backslider and the good man. It is the Hebrew saba and can mean both “satisfied” and “paid back”. From the context it appears apparent that the backslider will be paid back and the good man will be satisfied. How is one satisfied? As famed preacher Jonathan Edwards said: The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. Check out some of the Psalms which give us a fuller picture of this:

As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness. Psalm 17:15

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Psalm 16:11

The Acts passage describes Barnabas as he goes to Antioch. As a good man, he is full of the Holy Spirit and faith. And in John 7, we see that some saying Jesus is a good man being opposed by those who say he can’t be a good man because he is leading people astray.

This just starts to build a picture of what a good man is and gives me, as a mother of boys, a foundation for building my boys in character. We see a definite pattern here of being in God, knowing Him, seeking Him, having faith, humility, integrity and strength.

Of course the person who exemplifies these characteristics is in God himself, in His son, Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice for us, washes us clean and we get to start again, rebuilding a new life in Him. He sent the Spirit to help us in this growth in Christ-likeness and we are to be led by Him. This is what Paul discussed in Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

This. THIS should be the criteria that defines a good man – and a good woman.

We must always remember that the air we breathe can influence the course of our thoughts and beliefs and attitudes. This cultural air proliferates everything in our lives through TV and radio, music, film, advertising and social media. As Christians we have a bigger picture than that and our God is bigger. And we are His image-bearers.

If we are to live in the light of Jesus’ sacrifice, we must assess ourselves against these criteria – not the absence of despicable behavior, but a passionate pursuit of God above all else, and the deliberate growth in Christ-likeness.

And if we are deficient or immature in these areas, we need each other as Christian brothers and sisters, to help each other grow. We must ask each other – what would gentleness look like in our contexts? What would self-control involve? Are there things to repent of in these areas? If we truly look at ourselves, are there things we need to change, develop, mature? This is the higher bar. It takes courage, self-reflection, honesty, humility – a big God, and trusted Christian friends.

God commands us to be different to our culture. And looking at our culture, our sons and daughters need us to be different too.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. James 1:22-25

Does the Bible oppress women or not?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. A while back I wrote a blog on sexual coercion in marriage  followed by a live Q&A on the same subject with GuruNow  (you can watch it here). There were a lot of questions and a lot of discussion afterwards – it touched a nerve for a lot of women. What was apparent was many feelings of frustration, feelings of being treated differently – not in the “equal and different” sense but in the “equal but inferior” sense. What it brought up for me, was a tangle of doctrine and culture that had apparently become intertwined over the centuries and that desperately needed to be untangled.

Over the years, the church has been accused of oppressing women and allowing abuse to happen. There has been an equal push of denial from the other side. The result is each camp has been pushed to opposite extremes with one side pushed into an (apparently) increasingly conservative corner and the other pushed into feeling they actually have to fight for their corner. The result is women feeling further ignored, frustrated and oppressed. The result is also the church feeling under attack from within. Neither of these is a good outcome.

To find equal ground we have to strip away centuries of cultural barnacles and try and get to the truth. When I say “truth” I mean the truth as communicated to us by God Himself. What did God say? What did Jesus communicate? Are we equal and different? Or equal and inferior?

Much is made of Genesis 2:18 in which God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” For a long time, the assumption has been that as man was created first, he is more important. Women were created second and are merely helpers. What this ignores though is the ontological equality – that is, as image bearers, men and women are equal in being. One is not inferior to the other.

What it also ignores is the nature of the term “suitable helper”. The Hebrew word that has been translated as “helper” is ezer and it is used elsewhere in the Bible in a context that challenges our understanding. In Psalm 89:17 “For you [God] are their [the Israelites] glory and strength.” The last word here has been translated as “strength” but is ezer. God is Israel’s ezer.

John McKinley* notes that “the issue in ezer is neither equality nor subordination, but distinction and relatedness. She is to be for the man as an ally to benefit him in the work they were given to do. Just as ezer tells of God’s relatedness to Israel as the necessary support for survival and military perils, the woman is ally to the man, without which he cannot succeed or survive.”

For me, as a woman, that’s pretty huge. I am to man what God is to the Israelites. Someone without whom the other party can’t do what they need to do. So our function is ezer. How that is expressed in our lives is as unique and varied as our individual contexts (and there is is a lot to be said about this – perhaps a blog for another time!)

We are meant to be different so that what man is missing is supplied by woman, and vice versa. This is not oppressive. That feels liberating to me.

BUT – it also seems clear to me that this has become part of a cultural attitude to women that feeds the idea of inferiority. Even by Jesus’ time there was a large cultural divide between men and women. Some of this is (in every culture) based on our obvious differences – we are physically different, we (generally speaking) think differently, communicate differently, approach issues differently, respond differently (remember I said generally speaking!).

For the Jews, a biological difference (menstruation) created a ceremonial difference. A time of menstruation was niddah where a woman was considered un-clean and was not “clean” until menstruation was over and a ritual cleansing had occurred. What is important here is that “clean” and “unclean” have no moral judgement attached to them. It is not “good” or “evil”, it is solely a diagnostic for a person’s state and ability to be in the presence of God. Many things could cause a state of uncleanness and Leviticus is chockers full of how a person becomes clean again. What is key though is that, since people in a state of uncleanness couldn’t stand before God, and menstruation occurs regularly but in changeable cycles, the chances of being in a state of uncleanness regularly and unknowingly was too high. This meant that women could not take ceremonial roles in the tabernacle. By the time we get to temple, a biological difference has become entrenched in the cultural consciousness.

Of course there are many other factors at play but the entanglement of religion and culture is what can make things problematic. When we strip this away, what does God say? The story of the bleeding woman in Mark 5 gives us a clear window (there is a Bible study on this here). This woman had been ceremonially unclean for years. Jesus shouldn’t have gone near her let alone engage with her. What Jesus’ simple action does is remove the barriers of clean and unclean for women – women became liberated to be disciples in whatever physiological and biological state they were in at the time. By his actions, Jesus affirmed functional difference in a variety of settings, he freed them to follow him.**

So we are to men what God was to the Israelites. We are ontologically equal and functionally given a specific and different role as ally, but without which men cannot succeed. And Jesus up-ended any ceremonial barriers – while recognising biological difference, we are freed to be disciples and engage in religious and faith matters.

So lets turn to Paul’s letters which have caused much controversy and pain over the years. Firstly, he talks about women submitting to their husbands. This is uncomfortable and feels wrong. But again, we forget the context:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:21-28)

There is whole books written on this subject (and rightly so) but here’s some takeaways:

  • Submission is mutual – we submit to each other. The emphasis is not on the woman alone.
  • Submission is voluntary – we submit to God willingly and voluntarily. Submission cannot be forced or coerced in any way. If it is, it is NOT submission and husbands cannot expect or demand it. God does not expect or demand it. Husbands must be the kind of person to whom submission is willing and voluntary.
  •  Submission is a response – The onus is actually on the husband. He must love his wife as he loves his own body and as Christ loved the church (Christ died for the church). Our submission to God is a response to this great truth. So it must be for women. Our submission can be faked to break an impasse, but the onus is not on us to forever be submitting to make things right. It should be a response to the love and sacrifice of the husband.

But sadly culture has not used this passage that way. It have been taken out of context and used by people who will use whatever tool will get them what they want, or feel they deserve. This is a gross misuse of scriptural truth.

We see this particularly in 1 Corinthians 7 – another passage that has become misused and even weaponized.

“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

Firstly, what is this “marital duty”? It sounds old fashioned, like we’re supposed to “lie back and think of England”. The original Greek that “duty” is translated from is opheilo. This word is usually used to translate a commercial debt and the only place it is used in a non-monetary sense is in Romans 13:8:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

This “duty” is love! The husband owes a debt of love to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. This is different to how we imagine it to be – and how it has unfortunately been used in the past.

What about bodily autonomy? In the women’s movement this has been such a key issue. As physically weaker (generally speaking) and culturally subordinated, there has been centuries of our bodies being used and abused without our consent or permission. Culture in fact, has perpetuated it. In Australia, marital rape was not made illegal until 1981 (and not in all States and Territories until 1992). As recently as 2018 in the UK, a study found that “more than a third of over-65s” do not consider forced marital sex rape, along with 16% of people aged 16 to 24. Overall, one in four Britons believed that non-consensual sex within marriage did not constitute rape.”***

In 1 Corinthians 7, it looks as though the Bible is saying that our husbands have authority over our bodies in just this kind of fashion. Except it doesn’t say that. Look again:

“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

Neither person has authority over their own body but choose to yield it to each other in an act of mutual giving. It doesn’t say that the woman doesn’t have authority but her husband does. No. It says she doesn’t but yields it. So who does have authority? If we don’t, and the husband doesn’t – who does?

Just prior to our passage, in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul says “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

God has authority over our bodies.

This obviously will be hard teaching for some, especially because bodily autonomy is such a key pillar of the women’s movement. And I understand why. Issues of permission and consent are so profoundly significant for anyone, particularly women who, culturally, have been subordinated for so long. But Christianity has always been counter cultural and the comfort that I (or rather the Bible) gives, is that God deserves this authority because we were created as His image bearers, and He cares so deeply for us (body and soul) that He sacrificed His only son for us. What is also important – and so central to the reason for the fight for bodily autonomy – is the man/husband doesn’t have authority over it. And if they claim it, this is also a gross misuse of scripture.

Of course, Paul in various texts talks in ways that seems to diminish women. I’m not going to explain that away or pretend it doesn’t mean what we think it means. In various places, we are told to wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-6), we are told to be silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34) and should be silent and not teach (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not the place to exegete all these passages, but what I will say is that these letters are responses to pastoral issues. These letters are the pastoral outworking of Jesus’ teaching in the context of what is. This teaching is descriptive, not prescriptive. That doesn’t mean that we should disregard it as being only relevant to Paul’s time, there are still biblical truths to abide by. So no, we don’t cover our hair, but there is still teaching on humility that is relevant.

Where does this leave us?

Well, there is an awful lot to unpack in here, but I hope this is a neat summary of some of the issues I think have been misused by our culture over centuries. The Bible places equal dignity and importance on men and women. It also shows that we have some key differences, and crucially a functional difference. But that functional difference does not diminish us. The Trinity shows the ontological equality of the godhead, and yet they can have functional differences that in no way makes one superior or inferior to the other.

Further, I hope we, as women, can have confidence in our standing before God. When scripture has, or is, used against women (and sadly even weaponized against women sometimes) it is a gross misuse. There is a reason for it (pride, greed, arrogance) but no excuse.

Culture has twisted what is God’s good creation. In a broken world, women have been treated as “equal” (in a theoretical sense) and inferior (in the practical sense). This is not what I see in scripture. What I see is a massive gap between what God intended for us, and what we have made. That will always be the case with everything until the last day. Until then, know that scripture, when stripped of culture and its use for personal gain, is pure and clear and beautiful. Until then, embrace that we have a God-made functional difference with a specific purpose – we are to men, what God is to the Israelites.

But because of our cultural advance, so many cultural icons and views are embedded to such a degree that there is still a subconscious bias, sometimes even a conscious decision, to view women as inferior. It’s not just the views on marital rape. Until the 1980s in Australia, a woman couldn’t get a passport without her husbands permission. In the last 40 years, a woman was still sacked if she got married and/or got pregnant – and it was an expectation. To fight it as unfairness got you a soft smack on the butt and a wink at best. In 1997 in the UK, new Labour leader Tony Blair presided over a new government that included over 100 female politicians. They were called for a group photo and the headline was “Blair’s Babes”. If that wasn’t patronizing enough, in 2014, new Conservative leader David Cameron was photographed with his 80 female politicians and they were tagged “Cameron’s cuties”. And that’s just in first world countries. Our culture is so far behind treating women as equal.

Of course, in response, we can run the risk of swinging the pendulum too far the other way. This is understandable from a group of people who feel they have been silenced for hundreds of years. We must be guided by scripture though – not what our gut says. Our gut will send us into freeze, flight or fight. We need to train our instincts to send us to God’s word.

So, until the last day, know that God did not create you to be, nor does he see you as “someone’s babe”. Until then, know that if you see a misuse of scripture, or an injustice in the name of scripture, have confidence to use your voice. Speak to your pastor. Speak to a Christian friend. Speak up. Don’t be guided by hurt, be guided by scripture. If we hold fast to that, we will avoid pushing the pendulum too far the other way in reaction and will hopefully, under God, find the truth again expressed in our culture.

The gospel is not the issue. Sadly, as with everything, people are. Let us equip ourselves with the truth and build our confidence and our identity in that.

 

* John McKinley, “Necessary Allies: God as Ezer, Woman as Ezer,” lecture, HIlton Atlanta, November 17, 2015, mp3 download, 38:35, http://www.wordmp3.com/details.aspx?id=20759 quoted in Aimee Byrd, No Little Women, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2016, p25-26

** Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p117

***https://www.theweek.co.uk/98330/when-did-marital-rape-become-a-crime

 

 

 

“I believe! Help my unbelief!” The struggle I have between God and me (Mark 9:14-29)

At church yesterday we recited the Apostle’s Creed. It’s a statement of belief and I love hearing the voices of the congregation together as one voice saying this. I believe these things. So why then do I struggle with faith sometimes?

I believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and yet I struggle to have faith in the possible outcomes of his infinite power – for the job I need, for the child to heal, for an authority to act kindly, for the relationship to mend. If I believe in all these things, why don’t I have enough faith in the other?

Image result for apostles creed

Maybe this is you too. And maybe you feel like sometimes its not so much that you don’t have faith in God, so much as not having faith in yourself – “Why would God listen to my prayers?” or “What could my prayers possibly do?”

Perhaps its because we know that God’s plans don’t always reflect what we’ve prayed for. The relationship doesn’t mend. The loved one doesn’t make it. The job disappears. So it makes us reluctant to express faith in God’s outcomes because we don’t necessarily understand them. We pray “if its your will, Lord….” as if to give him (and us) and “out” if it doesn’t pan out the way we hope.

Nothing says this more clearly than the man in Mark 9:14-29. A father has brought his son to see Jesus to be healed. The disciples had been unable to heal the boy. When Jesus arrives, the man says to Jesus “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22).

This to me, feels like the “If it is your will, Lord” prayer. We don’t want to presume (isn’t it arrogance to demand a result?). We’ve been disappointed before.

The man is quite sharply rebuked by Jesus: ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” (v23)

This is challenging. Is he saying that if you have enough faith we can do anything? Does that mean if we can’t do it, we don’t have enough faith? If we pray to heal our disease, and I still have it, does that mean I don’t have enough faith? No. That puts too much power on us as the individuals. And it brings in a high level of uncertainty to something that is already certain – that Jesus is enough.

If I start thinking “if I’m not healed is it because I don’t have enough faith”, then I also start thinking, “how do I know if I have enough faith? Does that mean I’m not saved if my faith isn’t strong enough?” This would be a shockingly cruel burden to place on someone.

BUT if we have faith in God, everything is possible. This is what we focus on. We must pray knowing that everything is possible. We must have confidence. We must be expectant. God can. And sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. Not because he is capricious and random, but because he has a bigger plan. So just as we pray knowing that he can, we must accept the outcome in equal faith because we know there is a bigger plan. If we achieve the former (praying expectantly), we can have a tendency to feel blindsided – but I believed. Yes. But keep believing. Because we can have confidence in the bigger plan. Praying expectantly and then feeling blindsided means our faith was  in our own prayer – and we are disappointed that it didn’t work out. If we truly have faith in God, we will pray knowing he can, and accept whether he does or doesn’t.

The man replies to Jesus “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v24). I so get this! I believe! But my faith wafts about depending on how confident I feel. I know its not supposed to be about how I feel, but in how sovereign I know God is – but I’m human.

Its also because there is a key difference between faith and belief.

Put it this way, I can believe that I would probably survive a car crash if I got into one – but I wouldn’t have faith in it. I wouldn’t drive having faith in that belief.

We can believe the Apostle’s creed, but often we don’t live as though we have faith in it. Having faith requires a complete trust that if you closed your eyes and fell backwards, that someone will catch you. And that’s not a state we attain and then stay in – that can be affected by how we slept, how our day is going, how our circumstances are. So we need to re-calibrate every day.

We need to pray to God to help our unbelief!

We should read the Apostle’s Creed. And we should believe it. And then we must live as though we have faith in it. How do we live in this faith? Knowing that God can do anything and everything. We can’t. The faith is not in ourselves. Our faith is in God. And if we ask, we should ask confidently, because everything is possible for those that have faith in him. That doesn’t mean everything will happen. It means that if we have faith in him, we have access to all the things that God can do in his infinite power. So everything is possible.

Pray knowing everything is possible. Live knowing we have access to this power.

 

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

This is an enduring question – for both Christians and non-Christians. For Christians, this can be a question spoken in pain and grief as we seek God’s presence among our trauma. For non-Christians this can be a logical question – if he is real, why doesn’t he just show himself and then we can dispense with all the doubt?

The thing is though, he did show himself. I mean, God was actually with his people in the wilderness and they still grumbled and complained. In that sense, how much evidence is enough? I get that non-believers dismiss the evidence of the Bible. It’s not an unbiased view. But it is the view of the people who believe they saw God. So I understand that people wouldn’t believe unless they themselves had been the witness, but we must allow for the validity of other people’s own experience. We believe things people tell us without witnessing it ourselves all the time. A friend of mine told me about a terrible week she’d had. I believe her, even though I wasn’t a fly on the wall.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should believe everything blindly. That would be unwise. If a biased media tells us something, we should question. If a corrupt authority tells us something, we should fact check. But in checking these things out for ourselves, we must allow for the possibility that its true. We are a very cynical generation. We tend to jump to a conclusion of falsehood almost as a faith position. If we hear something from [insert political leader’s name of your choice here] we may believe or disbelieve them on principle – because we have faith in our position. Its something we believe without any particular evidence either way.

In the same way, some people believe what is in the Bible because it is the eye witness testimony of people who were there. Others won’t believe even if God was travelling with them in the wilderness. That’s to be expected – it’s been the case for thousands of years.

What we see in Mark’s gospel in Chapter 9 is a famous episode called “The Transfiguration”. It’s where Jesus is transformed:

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4). In Luke, this is expanded to “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29) and in Matthew’s gospel he says “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2).

On first reading this episode sounds like Jesus and Elijah and Moses are having a bit of a group meeting before the move towards Jerusalem and the cross. Perhaps they’re chatting about how things are going or if everything is going according to plan.

Don’t believe it. Nothing here is by accident. The transformation is deliberate. It is a deeply profound episode because people needed to understand three things:

  1. Jesus was not just a man but something else as well. The transformation to this shining being shows the supernatural nature of his humanity.
  2. People needed to see more clearly who he was and who he wasn’t. If he is in the presence of Elijah and Moses here, then he is neither of those people. We have seen in previous passages that there was much conjecture over Jesus’s identity. This shows us clearly that he is someone and something else.
  3. Jesus is in the presence of God. The references to Jesus’ face shining is a reference to Moses’ radiance after his meetings with God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35). Jesus is speaking to God, in person.

Just after this short episode, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). God himself! And this takes us back to Mark 1:11 where God, during Jesus’ baptism had said “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Why repeat this? Because something new is happening. He spoke these words at the baptism as Jesus’ ministry began. He speaks the words here as we begin the journey to Jerusalem. And the witness is to Peter, James and John who are with Jesus at this episode. Something special is being disclosed to these three.

But Jesus tells them not to say anything until after he has died and risen again. They don’t really understand so instead ask Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). This might seem random but Elijah had been mentioned in Malachi’s prophecies. Malachi had said that God “will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5). And if they had just seen Elijah…..what did that mean…..?

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:12-13)

This passage is difficult, but can be simply put as the restoration predicted as coming from Elijah’s return will be achieved via the suffering of the Son of Man. The reason it is difficult it because Peter and the rest of the Jews were expecting “restoration” to mean something awesome and celebratory and politically liberating. The truth is much harder to swallow.

So not only did God the Father show himself in this passage, we see God the Son here too. God, with Peter – poor dim-witted Peter and the disciples who could not possibly understand what everything meant until they had seen the cross and the resurrection. But blessed Peter who tried and failed and tried again and followed faithfully. God in person with Peter – and Mark writing Peter’s eye witness account.

God was there. He did show himself.

Do we believe blindly? Partially I suppose. I wasn’t there. But there is enough evidence within the gospel as a historical document to show that it is an eye witness account and not a fable or a story. And there is enough evidence of the resurrection to make me stop and look at what happened in the lead up to it. You see, after the resurrection, hundreds of believers were persecuted, exiled, tortured and executed in the most horrific ways – and not a single one said that their accounts weren’t true. If this wasn’t true, I just don’t believe that so many would suffer for the sake of a lie. And these were eye witnesses – not later converts who died for faith. These were followers of Jesus dying over their very memories.

So I believe that God showed himself to Peter and the others. I believe that God walked the earth with his disciples. I believe that he went to the cross for me. I believe that he rose again and now reigns in heaven and walks with me every day.

And while non-believers are still looking for proof, I am content that there is enough evidence to base my faith on. On days when I am seeking his face in my circumstances, I don’t have to go far to remember that God is with us.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

 

The choice that affects your life here and your eternity. I know what I choose. (Mark 8:27-9:1)

There comes a crossroads in all stories. In real life, they happen all the time – points where we make decisions that change the course of the rest of our lives. This could be a new job, a new relationship, a new house or a new course of study. It could even be a new mind set or making a resolution to do things differently.

Each choice is a change. Some are small. Some are seismic.

The point we reach in Mark 8:27-9:1 is earth shattering. Up to now, Jesus’ identity has been a key theme. Who is he? And what is his mission? Here, is where Jesus begins to reveal the full weight of both those questions.

He asks Peter, “Who do people say I am?” It’s clear there are a variety of opinions. Jesus is only interested in one. “Who do you say I am?” Peter does not hesitate. “You are the Christ” he says. The answer seems to satisfy Jesus – for the moment.

Because it’s only half the story. But half the story is all they can cope with for now. The “Christ” or “Messiah” means merely “anointed”. The people were expecting someone who was anointed by God to come and do his work and save his people. They weren’t expecting the Messiah to also be God’s son, to be God himself. And they weren’t expecting what he had come to do.

So understanding that he was the Christ was a start. But it was not all. So Jesus now begins to teach them that he is here to die. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

Here is the hinge moment. Jesus has not yet divulged this to his disciples. But now they know he is Christ, it is time to begin to teach them the rest. He is Christ and Lord – and lamb.

This simple death prediction takes us to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 which, for the people at the time, was truly earth shattering. Never before, had the Messiah, the new king David, been associated with the suffering servant. This would take some time to digest. What does it mean? How is this person – this Jesus – to take the iniquities of all? There must have been so many questions. How is this supposed to work?

Which is why Jesus “began” to teach them and predicts his death another two times in this gospel. This is such big information, it will take time for it to sink in, and not be fully understood until after the fact.

But Jesus’ pending death isn’t the only death. It’s us too.

When Jesus rebukes Peter he calls him Satan “because you are not thinking about God’s concerns but about merely human ones!” (Mark 8:33) What are these human concerns? We should know. They preoccupy us even now. For clarity, let’s look at the next bit:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (8:34-38)

Everything in this speech is anchored in change. We must change our direction. We must change our mind. We must change the way we think. We must change how we look at things.

Our human concerns are:

  • Not denying ourselves (wanting what we want without hinderance)
  • Gaining the world (money, things, holidays…..)
  • Shame of the gospel (of standing out for something unpopular)
  • “Adultery” (ie not being faithful to God but faithful to ourselves and what we want)
  • Sinful (insert your personal sins here…..)

This is not just following a groovy teacher. This is following our Lord. This is treasuring what he says so deeply that we would change our lives. That we would consider God first in all things before we make choices based on our own will.

I like to think I’m an OK Christian, but I look at that list and I know I still think of myself first before Him. It’s my default position.

So I need to look again at what Jesus is teaching me. We slip into Christian laziness so quickly and so easily. I need to practice my focus on God first. It’s not easy, but I need to practice – because with practice we always get better at things.

And the reward! Even though Jesus makes clear that there is a cost to following him, the reward is glory in heaven. Even though we must choose death of our sins (our most comfortable and pleasant idolatries) we gain the world. We gain him.

He says himself that those who are ashamed of him in this world, he will be ashamed of as we stand before the throne. The opposite must also hold true – those who love and exalt him in this world, he will love and exalt before God as we stand before the throne.

I know which one I choose.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

I am the most unlikely Christian. But aren’t we all? Mark 8:22-26)

I became a Christian 12 years ago. I was completely fine at the time. By that I mean I had no need of religion. I had a great life and a great job with lots of prospects. I had no real responsibilities, I didn’t have to worry too much what the price tags said, I could go on holiday whenever I wanted and spent most weekends out for brunch, lunch and dinner.

When I met Jesus though, it was like someone had switched a light on and I didn’t realise until that moment that I’d been stumbling about in the dark.

For me, it was a two-stage conversion. A friend of mine who had a similar experience says that she was “a Christian before she became a Christian”. I became a Christian in my head first and about a year later, in my heart as well.

I became a believer because the more I learned, the more I realised it was more probably true than not. When I learned the evidence around the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I became a Christian. The evidence was too compelling for it to not be true. And if that was true, well….the only thing you can do is give your life to Jesus.

About a year later, I was at a large conference and with hundreds of women’s voices raised in song, I suddenly got it. What had happened in my head the year before, suddenly happened in my heart too. I got it. I suddenly understood the very depth of my sin and therefore the extent of gratitude I owed to God.

Both stages were life changing. Both stages felt like a progressive healing of what had been complete blindness.

There is a man in Mark 8:22-26 who’s experience resonates deeply with me. It’s a short story, but profound.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

In the first stage, he begins to see – there’s light and colour and shape but it’s still indistinct. With the second stage, he sees clearly. And his life is changed.

But there is more to be said here that resonates with me. I am blessed with full sight, but I can imagine that someone with impaired vision would need to trust someone deeply to allow them to lead them, especially as far away as somewhere outside the village. Jesus was someone to be trusted. And he must have proved his trustworthiness in how he led the man – gently but sure footed, reaching their destination safely.

This is something I remember. Becoming a Christian and not knowing what on earth I was supposed to do, but just trusting Jesus and allowing him to lead me as though I was a child. And that sense of seeing, but seeing things indistinctly until things started coming into focus.

I look back now and wonder that I ever became a Christian. I had no history with the church. I didn’t grow up knowing anyone who went to church. And like I said, as a grown up, life was peachy. I was the most unlikely person to become a Christian.

But really, aren’t we all? Only an encounter with Jesus brings us to the truth. Without him none of us would be Christians.

And look how far we’ve come. I look back sometimes and my only regret is that I didn’t become a Christian sooner. But just like the blind man, the stage was set for an encounter with Jesus and it happened when it was supposed to happen. So the timing cannot be regretted.

Look back at your own story. We have so much further to go – growing in Christlikeness is a life long pursuit for us. And even if you think you’re not “nailing it” right now and that your life is messy, that’s ok. Because life is always messy. But look back and see how far you’ve come. And look forward with a renewed sense of hope because we will make more progress in the months and years to come.

Just remember that we were blind, but now we see. And Jesus leads us tenderly, gently. He changed our lives. He has changed our eternity. And while we are still here on earth, we will grow in him. Because all of us are unlikely Christians, and none of us are able to do this without him.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

Sometimes the disciples remind me of my kids when they’re being really annoying (Mark 8:11-21)

As a mum, there are several things that can get really annoying.

The first is when me and my kids have had a great day filled with lots of treats – a breaky out, ice cream at the park and a trip to the cinema. And then, after lavishing my hard earned dollars on having a really special day, there begins the incessant whining about the one thing that they don’t have. A gum ball or a pack of stickers or a $700 gaming console – it doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t seem to matter about all the other amazing things we just did and had – now we want that thing.

The second thing is when they start arguing with each other in that “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!!” kind of way. It grates in the nerves. It’s like nails down a blackboard. You know you’re going to have to step in like the UN to make peace and there’ll be no “peace keeping” other than separating them and making them be quiet.

The third thing is when they ask you a question, you answer them and they say “yes, but how do you know” a million times as you keep explaining the same thing. For example, “Mummy, do dinosaurs still live on earth.” “No honey, the dinosaurs died out a long time ago.” “How do you know.” “Because I do.” “Yes, but how do you know?” “Because scientists have found their bones and they are millions of years old and nobody has seen a dinosaur since.” “Yes but how can you be sure.” Etc etc until you feel like you could literally die of the whole conversation.

WELL, this passage in Mark (8:11-21) reminds of all three of these.

In our previous passage (you can read it here), Jesus had performed yet another miracle. And yet here we are, again, with the Pharisees asking for a sign.

To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

This feels just like the dinosaur scenario. “Are you the Messiah?” “Yes” “But how do you know?” “Because I know who I am and I’ve been doing miracles for a while now.” “Yes but can you show us another one so we can be double triple sure?”

What they want is authentication. This is more than a miracle, they want some kind of sign of divine intervention since even false prophets can do miracles (see for example Deuteronomy 13:1-2). However, God isn’t a performing monkey and while sometimes he grants the request, generally people asking for that kind of sign get a pretty big slap down (like the devil when Jesus was tempted in the desert).

Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to just show people? I think there are several reasons. But one of them is that at some point, you just have to display faith. Faith is built intellectually on various proofs but the final step is allowing yourself to fall and trusting that a God will catch you. A relationship with God cannot be built on forever providing authentication – it would never end. And that, I think is the other reason. These people have seen Jesus’ signs and wonders. They have heard his teaching. They have experienced him face to face. They know the prophecies. And yet they do not or will not believe. If they will not believe on the basis of what they’ve already seen, will there be anything that convinces them? In Luke 16:31 Jesus says If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

In this way, Jesus isn’t just the son of God, God incarnate, he is a also a prophet and watchman – he has told them what is happening. He has warned them. He has shown them that the kingdom is near and they must repent. Now they must believe the good news and accept the salvation that is being offered.

The disciples are not much better at this point frankly. They are in the boat after the feeding of the 4,000 and only brought one loaf. They start arguing.

Jesus, never one to miss a teaching opportunity, says Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod (Mark 8:15). Very deep. Very profound. He is warning them. Yeast is the thing that makes the whole dough rise. A very little bit effects the whole batch. It doesn’t take much to be contaminated. They need to beware.

And what do the disciples say? Thank you, Lord? Good pick up, saviour? Cheers for the tip, Messiah? No. They argue about not having bread.

Not just totally ignoring him, but also arguing about the most trivial thing. This is so reminiscent of being grabby after a day of treats and the “I’m not touching you” arguments! Jesus has done this amazing thing and has tried to impart his wisdom, and all they can do is squabble because they’re hungry-angry.

Jesus asks them if their hearts are hard. Have they seen but not seen? Do they have ears but are not hearing? They are just like the Pharisees.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? (Mark 8:17-18)

Jesus reminds them what he just did and then says “Do you not yet understand?” (Verse 21).

This ends the scene. We don’t know what their reaction is – if any.

It could be that the disciples were like my kids. In the face of a question like that, my kids just look at me. They would exchange glances like “just say yes so we won’t get into trouble” – “Yes Mum, of course we understand” even though they blatantly don’t. They’ll just say anything to make the conversation stop.

It could be another great literary device that Mark is using. When he ends the conversation here, he is inviting the reader to answer the question for them. At this point, the reader – whether now or 1900 years ago – is screaming at the book “Oh come on!!! How much evidence do you need??? How are you squabbling when he is right there!!!”

And that is the point of this whole gospel. Mark wants his readers to read themselves into this narrative. He is telling a story faithfully, but he’s doing it in a way that draws the reader in, engages them in the story, compels them to feel the frustration, but also feel confident in the truth that the Pharisees and the disciples should be seeing so clearly.

This gospel was written for us. It transcends the ages. Jesus spoke words of truth. He performed mighty signs. He demonstrated his knowledge of God’s plans and purposes – and then he died for us. And when he rose from the dead (with enough evidence around the event to allow us intellectually to believe it is probable rather than possible) we can fall, knowing he is there. We can trust. We can take that step of faith.

We are the Pharisees sometimes. And when times are tough, which they are and will be again, we will ask for signs and authentication that God is there. We will seek worldly certainty when we should just seek Him. Because we can be certain in Him.

We are all the disciples sometimes too. We have ears and eyes but we don’t see or hear properly. We get distracted. We get the spiritual version of hungry-angry. We need to be corrected. We need Jesus to remind us again – do we not yet understand?

Being the Pharisees and the disciples is kind of like us being like my kids, except to God. We squabble. We fight. We keep asking and asking and asking – without stopping to simply have faith.

Remember. Understand. Be certain in Him. Let yourself fall again – because he is there to catch you.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark