Tag Archives: #hope

One of the greatest motivators of all

Sometimes I find it hard to stay motivated. If my confidence and energy is low, I can look to the author and perfecter of my faith and feel insignificant and feeble, rather than energised and encouraged. I feel small and weak, and in a world that seems full of people doing significant things, I feel profoundly mediocre. I can feel like it’s not worth trying anything because if I do it will go badly, or it just won’t matter in the bigness of this world.

This can be a general feeling, but also in my Christian life. Nobody will care about my testimony, what I have to say doesn’t matter, I can’t even get control of my sinfulness. I’m distracted and moody, emotional and lazy. I catch myself in pridefulness and all manner of other states that Jerry Bridges would call “respectable sins“.

It all makes me feel lost and in a mess. And who do you turn to at those times? I have my Christian community and my trusted friends of course. But there’s a promise in the Bible that, even on the surface, is amazing, but is even more encouraging when you dig deeper.

Hebrews 12:1-2a says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

We often focus on the bit about throwing off the sins because, as humans, we tend to err on the side of the things that clearly tell us what we’re supposed to do. But the bit that I think is equally important is the “cloud of witnesses”.

Hebrews 11 gives a list of these witnesses who lived by faith. At first sight they are intimidating – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. Then judges, prophets and David himself. Great! A list of witnesses to remind me how horribly under par my life is.

But look again. All of the witnesses were not perfect – far from it in fact. Murderers, prostitutes, drunkards, liars, swindlers. The judges were all comparatively rubbish and David himself did some ghastly things. I haven’t done any of those things but it helps me to remember that these people are not the perfect witnesses that I might first think.

And then there are other witnesses mentioned, the tortured, the flogged, the imprisoned, the persecuted, poor and destitute – all mistreated for the sake of their faith. I have not had this misfortune (praise God) but this is starting to sound more like normal people – people just like me, who rose to the occasion on the strength of God.

But there are two things in particular that are important here. First, there is a cloud of these witnesses. Now for us, we might think “cloud” and envision fluffy bundles in a blue sky. But the Greek nephos is hardly used in the New Testament. Where it was more used was in Greek literature:

In a work by Herodotus who was an ancient Greek historian, he says “We have driven away so mighty a cloud [nephos] of enemies” when describing a battle in the Persian Wars. Homer in the Iliad says that “In front fared the men in chariots and thereafter followed a cloud [nephos] of footmen, a host past counting”.

A cloud of witnesses – and a cloud that has a military inference, and is a host past counting. Think about that:

Ah, burning cities, clashing armies, just another day in Rome: Total War.
Source: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/rome-total-war-exclusive-hands-on/1100-6105481/
Infantry Painting - Medieval Army in Battle - 15 by AM FineArtPrints
Source: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/medieval-army-in-battle-15-andrea-mazzocchetti.html
Source: https://cinefex.com/blog/dracula-untold-hob-army-final/

Imagine all those people who have come before us – as flawed and as broken as they are. Imagine they are shoulder to shoulder fighting for us. They are our army. And what does that tell us? It tells us we are not alone. It tells us that God has not left us unprotected.

The second thing that is significant is that when we look at these witnesses and try to measure up, we are looking at it all wrong. Those witnesses aren’t there because of who they are or what they did. They are there because of what their story tells us about God.

Through the stories of these people, we see God’s faithfulness. We see God’s grace. We see his mercy and love. We see God’s patience and his commitment to his people and his promises. We see God’s continuing work to provide support and protection for his people. For us.

These witnesses are not perfect. Many of them are just like us. They’ve done great things, they’ve done some pretty awful things. They are flawed and imperfect and broken – just like us. I find that fantastically encouraging. A cloud of perfect people might make me feel a bit self-conscious. Or it might be a barrier to me believing that they really are on my side because I am broken and flawed. Or it might make me focus on how perfect they are and how that is such an impossibly high bar.

But a cloud of witnesses who are just like me – well that’s a proper army. That makes me feel like I’m not alone. That sustains me. That motivates me. That makes me feel I can deal with my sinfulness. That helps me to know that I can stand before God, because I have all these people standing with me in whose lives God already worked and through whom his plans were brought into effect.

Where is God in the hopelessness of Groundhog Day?

OK, trick question. We know that God is there always, even in the time of global pandemic lock-down. But I pose it because recently I had about two weeks where I felt completely without motivation. Obviously at the moment this is coronavirus related, but this can happen any time.

Everything was the same. Every day. Wake up. Do parenting. Start working from home. Do more parenting. Go to bed. Repeat. I felt myself slide into some kind of stupor. Like I was running on auto-pilot. I didn’t even have any highs or lows of emotion – it was like I was just existing and wafting between days that all looked the same.

It wasn’t until someone recognised it as “Groundhog Day” that I understood what was affecting me. Groundhog Day (if you don’t know it) was a movie from 1993 and involved a rather unpleasant character who, in the course of his working day as a weatherman, is forced to live the same day over and over again. Eventually, he becomes a fine upstanding character and gets the girl (it’s Hollywood after all) but the fascinating stretch of the film is the emotional waves he goes through. Someone has worked out that he lives the same day for 8 years, 8 months and 16 days. The same day.

He goes through waves of investigation, trying to escape, acceptance, bravado and arrogance, grief, energetic thriving, careless wickedness, depression and many others.

It was the depression part that struck me when my friend said the words “Groundhog Day”. I wasn’t feeling depressed but I realised I had that sense of purposelessness. No goal. No change. No point.

And that is a problem. When you feel like there is no point because nothing is, or will, change, then we are losing hope.

I wasn’t losing hope, but I could see I was on the road to that kind of thinking. But how do you get yourself out of it? When you can feel yourself in an emotional stupor, how can you get out? It’s like being in a hole without a ladder. How do you force yourself to have motivation when you have none?

We know that God is there – we know it in our heads. In fact that can make us feel worse. Here’s me without motivation and with hope oozing away through the cracks in my purposeless day, and he is watching me. And I am doing nothing. Now a sense of shame compounds a sense of purposelessness and the immobilization gets worse.

In the Bible it tells us things like “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (1 Cor. 3:23) and “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13) and other famous passages that we use for inspirational cat posters.

So even though we know these to be true, these also make us feel even worse. Its a reminder of all the things I am not doing.

The thing is with Groundhog Day is that its a rut. And while we feel shame, its also a very comfortable rut. The motivation it can take to get out of the rut can seem insurmountable. I know I should work heartily for God but I don’t want to. I know I can do all things through God, but I don’t want to. I can, but I can’t.

How do you break the cycle?

I’d recommend not looking to “inspirational biblical memes”. They are true, but not necessarily helpful in your current state. But, the Bible has lots to say about things which are helpful.

For example, look at what the Bible has to say about:

  • God’s quiet uplifting presence. Isaiah 40 is a wonderful passage. This is spoken at a time when God’s people are going to be coming out of exile in Babylon. They have been in exile for 70 years and God is going to bring them home. The passage is gentle and loving. It is a reminder of how small and temporary humans are but at the same time how big and wondrous God is – and how he tenderly holds us and protects us. Critically, in v29 is the reminder that while we grow weary – God never grows weary and our hope and strength will be renewed in him.
  • Patience. Romans 8:18-39 is a great passage to reflect on the patience we need to endure before we meet God in heaven – and how to conduct ourselves while we wait. This is not a “should do” passage but powerful words that inspire enough to compel a shift in mind-set.
  • Hope and faith. Hebrews 11:1-12:3 gives us a picture of those who have gone before us who remind us of our hope and lift us up in our difficulties. All those people – just like you and me, living their lives imperfectly – witnessing to us and fighting for us. It reminds us that we are not alone.

Reading the words God gave us will shift our hearts. And when our hearts are shifted, we can pray more honestly, and more frequently. And it can spur us to change some things that will get us out of that rut. Even if its just doing one new thing a day. It can spur us to sit in a different place, call someone, go for a walk in the sun – anything that begins the process of lifting us further out of the sense of hopelessness. And God will be with us every step of the way.

How are Christians to make sense of gender equity in the workplace?

The gender debate is everywhere these days and there are great discussions about many issues facing women. As Christians, many seem obvious to us in how we deal with them as the Bible provides us at least some guidance. Other areas are less clear though. What about gender equity in the workplace? Once we get outside of church and family, the Bible does not provide clear guidance, so how are we to apply godly wisdom here?

First, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a complementarian. That means I believe that men and women were created with equal value and dignity. Their complementarity is found in their functional difference – we complement each other. I believe this functional difference is expressed in male leadership and authority – but I do not believe that functional difference in any way diminishes woman. We are equal and different. I believe this functional difference is seen in the Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal and ontologically the same (ie they are the same in their being) and yet have a functional difference.

I acknowledge that there are other views of the man-woman relationship and my declaration of complementarianism is in no way a slight to my egalitarian sisters. Because we are sisters in Christ and we will all be worshiping together in heaven.

As a complementarian though, believing in male leadership, how do we view the gender pay gap? How do we view female leadership in the workplace? Does that mean we can’t be project manager, team leaders, senior managers and CEOs?

Lets go first to the gender pay gap. The pay gap exists for a number of reasons and so is not easily explained or swept away. But lets take some of the reasons:

  1. If a woman is paid less than a man for doing the same work, that is not an expression of submission, it is an expression of outright sexism and is not just wrong, it is illegal under gender discrimination law. Women are called to submit to their husbands – not all men. There’s a lot in the submission issue alone and you can read more on it here in a previous blog.
  2. Women tend to drop back or out of the workforce after having children. Partially that’s by choice as our priorities change, but partially that’s because flexible working conditions don’t exist for many. Without the ability to work part time or work from home, women are left with lesser paying jobs. Again, while I fully support women’s changing priorities in support of the family (I’ve done it myself!), I find many workplace responses discriminatory – which is not biblical. Women tend to “submit” in this scenario because they have no choice.
  3. Women still carry the bulk of domestic work and primary care of the children even when working equal days to the partner. Again, this may be a choice and I fully support that. I also know many women who wanted to re-join the workforce after having their kids and found that their male colleagues could freely move around for work because they had wives to take care of the domestic scene. Women don’t have this fall-back, and so become restricted in their ability to contribute.

There are many other reasons for the gender pay gap but what I think can be seen is that it exists because women are functionally and biologically different (we have children) and because we are emotionally and mentally different (even without children, we make different choices, have different values and respond emotionally differently to things).

That said, those differences should not result in a lesser financial value of the female workforce. And this goes for the secular workforce as well as in churches and Christian institutions. Paying women less, financially, in fringe benefits, opportunities or resources, de-values her work and de-values her person. It says she is not as valuable as her male colleagues. It says that her work is not as important. And this is not a biblical picture.

It does not overturn God’s created relationships if we seek equal pay and seek to close the gender pay gap. Equal pay is about equality of being, not her function. In fact, if we see this kind of discrimination, we should stand up for those women. This shows clearly that they are of equal creation, value and dignity.

How about women leading teams and being in management positions? Because this speaks more to function, this would seem less clear. The Bible only shows two categories for male-female relationships – father/daughter and husband/wife. There is no category for women and men in the workplace. However, in Carrie Sandom’s Different by Design, she helpfully reviews biblical wisdom that can be applied in the workplace. We are going to be lawyers and doctors and vice-principals and cafe owners and project managers. We are going to be team leaders and managers with men under our authority. We should not feel compelled to remove ourselves from these situations. However, how we conduct ourselves is key. We can apply the servant leadership that we see in Jesus. We can approach leadership with missional motherhood. We can interact with people with gentleness and humility that means we can fulfill our work obligations (and excel) but is supportive to God’s designed creation.

There are many ways I think we can apply this in the workplace. It takes some thought on our part to think through how it would apply in our context. It takes prayer and intentionality. We think often about how we are building God’s house in our homes. How are you building God’s house at your workplace?

This takes wisdom, humility and great strength on our part. But Jesus never promised that following him would be easy. At the same time, Jesus also never said we should be meek women without voices.

Many things occur because we think they might upset our biblical responsibilities. Many things occur because we have been told that they will. But this is where we need to be clear about what is biblical, and what is just discrimination.

Biblical wisdom and humility must be our baseline. God must be our guide. Supporting gender equity in the workplace does not subvert His created order. If we apply our godly obedience in the workplace, we can even amplify His created order. Because we will look different to the world. People will see Him in how we conduct ourselves.

The prayer which gives an instant diagnostic on the health of my faith

We’ve all had those dark times. The relationship that fails. The job opportunity that disappears. The medical results that will blow your reality apart. The financial hits that keep coming.

When I had that time in my life, I leaned on God like I had never leaned on him before – not because I was an amazing disciple, but because it was instinct, and it was because he was all I had. I absolutely had nothing else to lean on.

I would pray every day for things to get better. They didn’t for a long time and for a while got worse. On one hand it felt like he was stripping things away from me. On the other it felt like he was preparing me for something. But, I remember thinking at the time, is that what we tell ourselves when things are not going as we had hoped? Is that the comfort we give ourselves? Like we are some kind of walking inspirational meme?

But we can’t think like that, because its by faith that we lean on God and trust that in his sovereignty he is working things for his own plans and purposes. If we discount that as false self-comfort, we are discounting faith. Believing in God’s sovereignty and providence is an entirely biblical premise.

Paul in Romans 8 talks about his present sufferings being nothing compared to the glory to come. And he talks about the Spirit helping us and interceding for us when we don’t even have the words to say.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

I remember not knowing what to pray for and starting to pray the Lord’s prayer. I felt so helpless, I didn’t even have my own words.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)

When I got to the bit about “your will be done” I couldn’t go on. Everything is his will – what if he was stripping things away from me? What if he was pushing me somewhere I didn’t want to go? What if he was pushing me towards something I didn’t want to do? What if the worst possible situation that I could imagine was his will?

Here’s the thing though. I was scared of God’s will because it was not my will. My will was about things getting easier as quickly as possible. His will for my life could be anything.

I didn’t know what God’s will for me was, but I knew it was more intricate and applied with infinite knowledge and wisdom. And I knew it is for my good.

That didn’t make it any easier but it started to help my mental processes and my spiritual strength. It meant I could pray for God’s will to be done, but ask for it to come with the kindness of strangers, or for it to play out with some help and guidance. I realised its OK to ask for things like that. Because the main thing is in praying for God’s will to be done and to believe it will be done.

And thats when I realised that this was revealing something quite amazing about the health of my faith. I was scared of praying for God’s will because I believe that it will be done.

That realisation gave be a feeling of enormous spiritual strength. I believe. Among the darkness and chaos and uncertainty, my faith was so strong that I truly believed God’s will would be done in my life. I believed it so much I was scared to pray it because I knew it would happen and that there was a possibility it wouldn’t align with my will for my life.

The confidence it gave me was huge. The strength it gave me was massive. I could pray to God for his will to be done, knowing my faith was strong and that he would eventually work all things for my good because I love him.

Now, with my life far more settled, I don’t know if what I’m living at the moment is God’s ultimate will or what comes next will be – who knows? But I have seen his divine providence over the years and I believe that he has, and is, working for my good.

From time to time now I pray the Lord’s Prayer – its a good thing to do, but it also gives me an instant diagnostic about how my faith is. Do I still feel scared to pray that his will be done in my life? If it is, I know I am close to him. If it isn’t, or isn’t as strong, I know I might be slipping into spiritual laziness.

Not that I want to be scared of God’s will as a punitive or disciplinary thing – merely that to be fearful of God’s will means being open to God pushing me outside of my comfort zone. It means knowing that God’s will for my life (which could be anything) takes precedence over my will for my life (which involves a lot more comfort and security). And that, to me, is scary.

So, if I feel my fear of the Lord slipping into complacency, I go back to scripture. I go to Exodus, I go to Psalms, I go to the cross. Anything that drives me back to God’s infinite power, sovereignty, love and grace.

That’s where I see his love for me. That’s where I draw my comfort – not in his ability to give me a comfy life, but in his salvation of the whole world, and the intricate working of his activity in our day to day lives.

If I could be anyone, I’d be Lucy Pevensie

I daydream sometimes. Sometimes its replaying events of the day and all the awesome things I should have said. Sometimes I imagine myself as the heroine of a great story where I’m winning the court case, or saving the children or winning the battle against the orcs. I’m Cate Blanchett in The Lord of the Rings. I’m Peggy Carter in Captain America. I’m clever, strong, beautiful, sassy, feminine and mysterious.

But then someone posed the question to me who was my greatest hero, and if I could be them, who would I be?

For me, there is only one – Lucy Pevensie. Cast your mind back to your childhood days. Lucy is the 8 year old girl who first discovers Narnia in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Image result for lucy pevensie

Source: costumes.narniaweb.com

Lucy is the littlest and the most courageous of all the Pevensie children. She is the most steadfast, the most loyal and the most faithful. She is beautiful and innocent and brave. “I think – I don’t know – but I think I could be brave.” she says in her little voice. “If you were any braver you’d be a lioness.” Aslan tells her later.

In Prince Caspian, when the children have returned to Narnia, she alone can see Aslan because her heart is strong and her faith is pure. “You’re by my side. Even when I can’t see you, even when I can’t understand.” she says.

She believes with her whole heart and never wavers in her faith that Aslan will be there to support and save them.

Of course C. S. Lewis wrote the Narnia books with allegorical intent – Aslan is the messianic form of Jesus who is betrayed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but gives his life for many. After his cruel death, he rises again. In The Horse and His Boy, when Shasta, the main character, finally meets Aslan, it might be the testimony of Lewis himself retelling his meeting with Jesus. There is a moment in The Magician’s Nephew when all creation is brought into being that is very reminiscent of the creation account in Genesis. All the Narnia books along the way contain snapshots of Jesus, grace, triumph over evil and salvation.

This gives Lucy her extra fascination for me. With her valiant heart and quiet faith, she has a special relationship with Aslan. It reminds me strongly of Jesus’ words in the gospels:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

The littlest people – the ones who are supposed to be quiet and unobtrusive, the ones who are seen as annoying and frivolous, who are silly and naive – these are the very same ones that have the strongest confidence and the fiercest faith. They are the ones God gathers to Him.

Its almost as though Lewis is giving us a picture of what our aspiration should be – us adults who think we are so clever and strong and have it all worked out.

Lucy gives me a ideal to aspire to. She’s a reminder of all the places where I let life get in the way of my faith. When I think of the children coming to Jesus, I think of Lucy.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-3)

Courage. Loyalty. Integrity. Faith. Innocence not cynicism.

The littlest are the greatest.

It makes me look at myself and how I relate to God. Does my faith drown out my adult cynicism? Does my faith give me courage to do what God wants of me? Am I loyal to God above any other person or thing in my life? When I look at Him does He fill my whole view? Or do I have half a mind on my life and half an eye on my idols?

It makes me look at my children and how I see them relating to God. They have much of Lucy and there’s much that rebukes and corrects me in their attitudes. God is so much bigger in their eyes. I don’t mean that in a cartoon way, I mean that my cynicism has diminished God’s size. My God is too small sometimes. I forget how much power and sovereignty and grace and love He has. Children know it. I have to remember.

So its time to go back to the beginning. Its time to go back to the cross. Remember God’s bigness. Remember God’s tenderness.

And in a world where we could be Black Widow, Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel – lets be Lucy Pevensie.

 

 

 

 

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