‘Last is first.
Giving is receiving.
Dying is living.
Losing is finding.
Least is greatest.
Poor is rich.
Weakness is strength.
Serving is ruling.’
So writes R. Kent Hughes in summary of the teaching and life of Jesus.
Paradox, according to G.K. Chesterton is ‘truth standing on its head calling for attention.’
If we love to read some authors because they confirm our opinions we learn to appreciate others because they change them. A good writer might just change our minds. GK Chesterton (1874-1936) was such a man. A brilliant mind and a prolific writer I discovered that he wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer.
Over the summer I’ve been reading his book Heretics . One of the reasons he was so good at getting around my defences was through his appeal to paradox. He works to show you how they very thing you seek is not found in the way you seek it. In fact, he warns, seek it in the wrong place and you lose it altogether.
The following extracts from his essay On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family is an example of just how powerfully paradox works as a literary device. Subverting our assumptions, we find our views challenged and our minds changed. A whole new way of looking at things not only opens up but begins to become attractive to us.
The argument is simply this: if we really want to live life how do we do it? Chesterton asks where do we really experience life; is it in moving to the big city? Is it in travelling the world? Is life found in seeking after all kinds of new opportunities and experiences? Or might we find that the truth is found in deliberately pursuing just the opposite? Is life actually found in learning to love those who live right alongside us? Might we see more of the world by staying just where we are?
In a culture where we are desperately concerned not to miss out Chesterton argues we miss out when we fail to invest our live in a meaningful community.
1. Where life is really lived
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.
2. Why large societies are about life-avoidance
A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
3. Life is discovered not in seeing places but in loving people
If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals — of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles.
4. What God is trying to teach us through community
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. . . we have to love our neighbour because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.
All of Chesterton’s arguments, powerfully and persuasively made I’m sure you’ll agree, serve to challenge our view of church. For example, is church a place to visit or a community to learn from? Do we like our large churches because that way we can avoid people? We can decide who to love and when we don’t want to love others, especially those who differ from us, we can easily ignore them? Is a large church a decision not to grow-up through sharing in the joys and sorrows of our Christian brother and sister?
On holiday on Sunday in a small family church when one couple shared the news that the wife had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer Chesterton’s observations were confirmed in an instant. The news would impact every member of that church family who by virtue of their community life shared life together, week in and week out.
In marriage preparation at City Church we ask engaged couples to complete the following questionnaire on their expectations for married life. It’s one we adapted and added to from a questionnaire I did 20 years ago in my marriage prep. classes at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.
Our approach is to ask the couples to complete the worksheet separately and then talk through their conclusions with each other. We don’t then go through the answers, question by question, with them in marriage prep. classes but we do ask them to talk through with us any areas of significant disagreement or uncertainty.
Expectations in marriage worksheet
A. Spiritual life
1. Where and when do you generally read your Bible and pray?
2. Do you expect to have devotional times together? How often?
3. How important is God in your life? How is this manifest?
4. Are you growing as a Christian? In what ways do you envisage your spouse being able to help you grow? Be specific.
B. Daily living
1. Are you a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ person? What time do you like to go to bed in the evening and get up in the morning?
2. How important are music, radio, TV, social media, surfing the internet and computer games to you? Do you think anything will need to change when you are married?
3. If you were given £25,000 what would you do with it as a couple?
4. From the list below, what jobs around the house do you expect to do, what might you share with your spouse and what do you expect your spouse mostly to do?
Mowing the lawn, Car maintenance (if relevant), Washing up
Cooking, Cleaning the toilet, Food shopping
Ironing, Paying the bills, Wiring a plug,
Unblocking a drain, Sewing on a button, Changing the bedding
Doing the washing, Driving the car (if relevant), Taking the bins out
Husband will do:
Wife will mostly do:
We will share:
5. Do you expect to keep some secrets from your spouse? For example:
- Private letters?
6. In what areas do you expect to disagree most? For example:
7. Is there anything you feel it will be difficult to discuss with your spouse? Are you willing to try?
1. How would you like to celebrate your first wedding anniversary? What about your tenth?
2. How do you view your (future) in-laws? How often will you visit them? How often will they visit you?
3. What about your own parents? How often will you visit them? How often will they visit you?
4. How often would you expect to speak to your parents and other close family?
5. How do you think your relationship with your parents will change once you’re married?
6. How might your parents and in-laws be cared for in old age?
7. How do you view your future spouse’s friends? Will you encourage these friendships?
8. How many evenings a week would you expect to be:
- Out, with your spouse?
- Out ,without your spouse?
- In together, with friends?
- Left at home alone?
- In together, alone?
- Out together, just the two of you?
9. How important is time on your own to relax? Do you relax best in the company of others or in your own company? Do you think you will need time alone when you are at home or on holiday together?
1. How was Christmas for you growing up?
2. What traditions did you have as a family that you would love to keep/prefer to lose?
3. Do you look forward to the Christmas season?
4. How would you like to spend your first Christmas together?
5. How might you balance time spent with your respective families over the years?
1. What makes you nervous or afraid at the prospect of having children?
2. If you are able to have children, how many children would you like? How important would financial considerations feature in your thoughts? What other factors would apply?
3. How long would you like to wait before trying for children?
4. How would you respond if you became pregnant on honeymoon?
5. What would be your top three priorities for your children?
6. What is your view about infant baptism?
7. Do you anticipate parenting in a similar manner to which you were brought up? Why or why not?
8. What sort of education would you want for them?
9. How do you see your responsibility as regards ‘bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6v4)? How about your future spouse’s responsibility?
1. What areas of church life do you currently serve in?
2. Are there any responsibilities you should consider giving up once you are married?
3. What particular contributions to church life do you anticipate having as a married couple?
4. In what particular ways do you want to serve God together? Be specific.
5. How do you want God to use your marriage and home?
6. What part will hospitality play?
G. Communication and Conflict
1. Are you good at communicating “basic” information: diary planning, phone messages, short- and medium-term plans? If not, how will you improve?
2. Are you good at the kind of communicating that builds and strengthens intimacy? Do you think you need to improve at making space for that in your relationship?
3. Do you think your spouse does? How can you help?
4. Do you find it easy to talk about things you are struggling with? How can your spouse help you?
5. How good are you at “speaking the truth in love”, saying difficult things in a loving way?
6. Are you willing for your spouse to be frank with you regarding any personal habits you have that they find unpleasant or simply unhelpful? How best might they address or initiate the subject?
7. How do you respond to conflict? Do you go quiet, sulk, become argumentative, become defensive?
8. How do you anticipate resolving conflicts?
9. Do you consider your future spouse to be good at communicating? How could they improve?
10. Do you consider yourself to be good at communicating? How could you improve?
1. What do you enjoy doing in your leisure time? Is this something you plan to continue to do when married? Would you anticipate your spouse being involved in this? How?
2. How often do you expect to have a holiday? What would you expect these to look like?
1. What is your attitude towards work? Do you find it difficult to stop working? Do you find it difficult to switch off after work?
2. How important is having a career to you? What expectations or hopes do you have for your career?
3. How would you respond to an expectation from an employer for you to work overtime, or increase your hours?
4. How do you feel about the role of housewife and mother? As a mother, how soon would you consider returning to paid employment, if at all? As a father, how would you feel about your wife going back to work?
1. What standard of living have you been used to?
in your childhood
2. What expectations do you bring into marriage in relation to this? Do you expect a steadily rising standard of living?
3. What debts do you have?
4. What about savings and assets?
5. What is your attitude towards money? Do you generally save up before buying larger items, or do you buy these on credit and pay back?
6. When you buy something, do you prefer to pay more for quality instead of pay a lower price?
7. Do you budget carefully?
8. Are you giving to the church in a disciplined manner? What will that look like when you are married?
9. Will you have a joint account when you are married?
10. Do you plan to save together? How much? What will these savings be for?
11. Will you maintain a savings account, pension, life insurance?
12. Who will be in charge of the money when you are married? Who will be responsible for paying different bills and how?
13. Do you expect to talk about every purchase you make, set a threshold for this, or each be free to spend what you want?
14. How much money do you think you ought to spend on holidays?
1. Do you expect to be living in Birmingham in 5 years? What about in 10?
2. What are your priorities in choosing where to live?
3. How important to you is where you live and what sort of house/flat you live in?
- In 10 years?
- At retirement?
4. What sort of home would you expect in 5 years’ time?
5. How important is it to you to be buying your own home?
6. How much of a practical handyman/woman are you? Do you enjoy doing things around the home, for example: putting up shelves, mending things, decorating, making curtains, etc.?
7. How tidy are you? How important is it for you to have a clean and tidy home?
1. Try to write down in a sentence or two about why you want to get married and why to this person in particular?
2. How do you hope being married to your spouse will benefit them?
3. How do you hope being married to your spouse will benefit you?
4. What could undermine these benefits?
5. How often do you expect to have sex?
6. Where would you turn to if you were having problems with the sexual relationship within your marriage?
7. Do you think romance is important? How do you intend to be romantic towards your spouse?
8. How will you keep God central in your marriage? How might you keep a check on that?
Notes for discussion
For the Christian the goal of the Christian life is to become increasingly like Christ. Paul writes: And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18 NIV). John writes we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1 NIV).
But what do we mean when we say we want to be like him? It seems to me that we most often mean we want to be like him in character or godliness. Maybe we wish we had his self-control, his trust in God, and so on. Or maybe we want to be like Christ not just in character but in wisdom. We want the mind of Christ to know how to live to please God in every situation.
But what about like him in our circumstances? Would we actually want our lives to look like Jesus’s life? In becoming like Christ it seems to me that the Bible wants us to share his experiences too. The reality is that discipleship may well take us where we don’t want to go. It will involve a life that includes suffering (1 Pet. 2:20-21), rejection (John 15:20), personal injustice (2 Tim. 3:12). The battle in discipleship is a battle to be ready to go wherever He may take me. Perhaps that is because the hardest lesson to learn is that the mind of Christ and the character of Christ were formed in him in adversity. It will be our experience too if we truly want to be like him.
Francis Chan in interview once said:
You passionately love Jesus, but you don’t really want to be like Him. You admire His humility, but you don’t want to be that humble. You think it’s beautiful that He washed the feet of the disciples, but that’s not exactly the direction your life is headed. You’re thankful He was spit upon and abused, but you would never let that happen to you. You praise Him for loving you enough to suffer during His whole time on earth, but you’re going to do everything within your power to make sure you enjoy your time down here.
In short: You think He is a great Savior, but not a great role model.
Pete Wilson, in his book Plan B, puts his finger on the dilemma modern, western Christians face:
Whatever you wanted for your life, if you’re a Christian, you may well have assumed God want it for you as well. You might not admit it, even to yourself but you were pretty sure God was going to sweep down and provide for you as only God could do. The problem is, what you assumed was not necessarily what happened.
Nobody ever grew up thinking, I’m going to get cancer at forty-one. Nobody ever grew up thinking, I’m going to get fired at fifty-seven. Nobody ever planned to be divorced twice by forty-five or alone and depressed at age thirty-five. Nobody thought their child would end up in prison at age twenty. You never imagined you wouldn’t physically be able to have children. You never imagined you’d get stuck in a dead-end job. You never imagined the word that might best describe your marriage would be mediocre. But it happened, and you’re frustrated. Or hurt. Or furious. Or all of the above.
We are preaching through a series on Sunday evenings at City Church called Perfected in weakness we are looking at the weakness of physical suffering. What CS Lewis called the problem of pain. It is a problem for Christian and non-Christian alike. Maybe for you suffering is the reason you are not a Christian. George Bernard Shaw once said:
How are atheists produced? In probably nine cases out of ten what happens is something like this. A beloved wife, or child or sweetheart is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, struck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria. The onlooker, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.
The problem of pain is also a problem for the Chrsitian. It works a bit differently for us, however. Our problem is not simply that as believers we might fall ill, or suffer as much as unbelievers. No, our problem comes in trying to reconcile what we know about God with what we experience in our lives. The problem for the Christian is that we do believe in a God who loves us and is sovereign over their health and it’s because he is in control that we know that when we suffer it is God who sends it. Our problem, to put it in the words of Christopher Ash is not ‘just that it hurts . . . it is more than this: it is the conviction that it is God who is doing the hurting.’
No wonder that we suffer in this way we find ourselves deeply perplexed as to what God is doing. Some Christians try to resolve it by denying that God does stand behind suffering and prefer simply blame Satan or put it down to ‘living life in a fallen world.’ Others wonder whether God is really sovereign in troubling times: a good God wouldn’t do this to me, maybe God doesn’t know everything that will happen to us.
Or if we can’t escape the idea that God must allow it, we begin to fear that although God is good we wonder whether he is good to me. What if our suffering is a punishment from God for sin in our lives. Christopher Ash writes of a suffering believer ‘in a way, the deepest question Job faces is this: ‘Is God for me or against me?’ For ultimately nothing else matters.’
Can God be both loving and sovereign and still allow his people to suffer?
In two places in the Bible we gain a particular insight into what is going on when we suffer, Job 2:1–10 and 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. We find something of an answer, although we may find the answer is not be the one we were hoping for. Christopher Ash identifies 5 truths in the story of Job that we also find in Paul’s thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. In both stories of suffering we find the same five truths at play:
1. God’s servant (Paul or Job) is blameless. This does not mean sinless but it means in a right relationship with God. God says of Job ‘In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.’ (Job 1:1 NIV). In their suffering, neither man has any reason to fear that he is being punished for sin.
2. Satan has real influence. He is the immediate, direct cause of the suffering they experience. Paul describes the thorn in his flesh as a ‘messenger of Satan’. In Job we read ‘Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.’ (Job 2:1 NIV)
3. The Lord is absolutely supreme. Satan and the Lord are not two equal and opposite forces at work in the world. Limitations are placed on Satan by divine command. Quite simply, there is nothing that Satan can do unless God allows him. See Job 2:6 and 1:12.
4. The Lord gives terrible permissions. God is in control and it is God who allows his servants to go through the suffering they do. It is not pleasant. It involves real pain and discomfort. If God is for us then God must have a purpose greater than our immediate personal happiness.
5. God’s servant grows in grace. In their suffering both Paul and Job trust God with what they don’t understand. Paul and Job both discover that their faith is not only proved but strengthened –by what they go through.
In the next couple of posts we’ll consider
1. Suffering – Who’s to blame? 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. Our suffering is meaningful only because God stands behind it
2. Suffering – who’s in control? Job 2:1-10. Suffering is not only meaningful because God is in it but it is purposeful because God will use it to teach us about himself.
3. Suffering – what is God trying to do achieve through our suffering? Job 38:1–11, 40:1–5; 2 Cor. 12:7–10. We will discover that, finally, suffering is redemptive. It humbles us and therefore serves to keep us close to God. We learn to trust him with what we don’t understand as well as what we do. We learn to rely on him for strength when we have none of our own.
We’re preaching through a series at City Church entitled Perfected in weakness. Here’s an extract from the sermon I preached last Sunday entitled the weakness of inadequacy.
Madonna once said:
My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.
Clinical psychologist Oliver James in his best-selling Affluenza puts his finger on just what is at work here:
Constantly comparing your lot with others leads to insecurity. You will have a nameless sense that there is always something you should be doing, a free-floating anxiety. You will be obsessively running yourself down because you do not do as well as others, moving the goal posts if you do succeed.
That sense of inadequacy is something we bring with us into church life. Maybe you look around your church and think ‘I’m not as good looking as that person, I’m not as trendy as that person, I’m not as godly, or gifted, or confident as the person sitting next to me.’ And you fear being ordinary at best and what you really fear is being irrelevant.
If ever there was a passage written to help us with the weakness of inadequacy, it is 1 Corinthians 12.
1) God’s design: unity in diversity
If you are a Christian you share with every other Christian the same identity; an identity that has nothing to do with your performance or popularity. We are children of God, united together with other Christians through being united with Christ. Through the same Spirit of Christ we know Jesus Christ – that’s the thrust of Paul’s introduction in v.3. But our unity is expressed in diversity. In verses 4-7 three times Paul talks of ‘same’and yet ‘different’. It’s surely impossible to miss Paul’s point: unity is not uniformity.
What works for a British Lions rugby team, made up as it is of 15 players of all shapes and sizes, and the very thing that makes the sound of an orchestra sublime, is true of the church. The God who loves us the same has given us different abilities and roles. Paul wants us to know that God is a God who loves us and loves diversity: that includes personalities, characters, abilities and gifting.
Paul says that God gives gifts to each one (11), he arranged them . . .just as he wanted them’ (18), God has combined the members (24), God appointed the gifts (28).
It has been said ‘when we freeze water, we make ice cubes – everyone the same. When God freezes water, he makes snowflakes – each one different.’ And David Prior notes that ‘we differ from one another because God wants those differences to be moulded into a special unity which is demonstrably his own doing.’
1. If the gifts we have are from God then we should use them
2. If the gifts we have are from God then we should be thankful for them
3. If the gifts are from God we should trust that he knows which gift to give us (even if we would rather he had given us a different gift)
4. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be useful
5. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be used for the building up of the church
David Prior says that every Christian is ‘unique, distinctive, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. . . this is the glory of the church as the body of Christ.’ Is this how we think of ourselves and each other?
The problem is that we, like the Corinthians, have a hard time accepting what Paul is saying.
Two tendencies that we’re going to look at in turn. The first is to say ‘but I don’t belong’ and the second is to say ‘but I don’t need you.’ You see, we can’t expect that the church will be healthy unless we have the right attitudes to ourselves and our place; we need to have the right attitudes towards one another. We need to know that we belong together and that God has made me to play an important part.
To help us understand this Paul uses a powerful analogy for our life together and the picture he uses is the human body. There it is in v.12 (NIV), ‘the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.’ And yet for some Christians the weakness of inadequacy is always at work. And we recognise it has a paralysing effect. So, v. 14, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong’ and again in v.16, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong’. The church is full of people who can see all that others have to offer, but very little sense of why they are needed.
Well, what is Paul’s response?
2) ‘I don’t belong’ – Accepting the way God has made me
If we were all the same, v.17, all an eye, or all an ear, we would be useless. God knows what he is doing when we remember, v.18, God has arranged the parts, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. The reason Paul’s analogy works so well is that it’s pretty obvious to us that for a body to function the various parts must be different. The eye can’t do the job of an ear nor the ear the job of an eye. The whole point of a body is that it depends on diversity. It simply must have many different parts to function. And God knows what he needs and what he’s doing in putting you in this body.
Now I don’t know quite how my body works, I just know the various parts do their work and God puts it all together. In one sense it’s a relief to me that I don’t know or need to know. The one thing I do know is that I feel a whole lot better when every part of my body is working as it should. So with the church. Just as I don’t need to know how my body works, so, I don’t need to know quite how God will use every member to play his or her part to build up the body of Christ. I don’t need to know quite how we will make a difference in the body of Christ. We simply trust God to build the body as we each get on with playing our part.
You and I don’t have to try and measure your contribution – we simply have to trust that God wants to work through you. Sometimes we get an insight. Sometimes someone says a particular thank you for something we’ve done, but not often. So don’t require or expect uniformity. That’s not the way God made us. And if God has put us in the body, to play our part, there’s really no place for feeling inferior on account of difference.
But Paul goes further than simply saying we’re all different. He wants us to see that in the way God has designed the body, he turns the standards and expectations of the world on its head. Paul is quite sure that it is precisely those who think they have least to offer who often make the greatest contribution.
Our key verse for that idea is v.22 those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Do you see that in this verse Paul recognises that in a human body there are what he describes as weak organs? He has in mind the internal organs that need protecting; our liver, lungs, heart. You don’t see them, they are fragile, but they are indispensable.
I think v. 22 is a really encouraging verse. What it seems to say is that weakness is something from which we are all to learn. Maybe it is true that you are not as gifted as someone else, or have the same place of honour in the body but God says through this passage ‘be content to be who God made you to be, because God has a purpose for you.’ When it comes to the human body it is the weakest members who have the greatest impact. I can manage without an eye or an ear. If tragedy strikes I can learn to live without the use of my legs or arms. But the liver is essential and the heart is indispensable. In other words the weakest members of the body only seem weak. And so with the church. Those who appear to have little to offer often make the biggest impact, don’t they?
In our own congregation those going through sufferings or struggles of various kinds are often the greatest encouragement. A mother raising a disabled child, a member battling cancer, whatever it may be, there is much to learn from those who seem weak. Quite simply, because God works through weakness. Pablo Martinez writes: ‘God can use us in very different ways from those we might have expected or imagined, even in surprising ways . . . God wants to give meaning to every life, however limited or useless it may appear to human eyes.’
There were those in the church at Corinth who felt they had nothing to learn from weakness. And today there are those who cannot see that Christ is powerfully at work in someone battling same-sex attraction, depression, loneliness, and so they fail to learn, and they fail to be encouraged or inspired, and they fail to give glory to God.
3) ‘I don’t need you’? – Learning from those who are weak
As you go on in life and as you grow up in life so you realise that you have more to learn than just the theology of Wayne Grudem, and that God has given the church teachers in many forms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945 has written arguably the greatest book on Christian community, Life Together. In this he states ‘the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.’
If we only seek out the impressive, the connected, the intelligent, I wonder whether you would ever have sought out Christ? In Isaiah 53:2-3 (NIV) we read ‘He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’
When we think of Christ’s origins, raised in a working-class town in the north of the country and when we think of his appearance dressed as he was in ordinary clothes and when we think of his ministry and reputation, rejected by the thinkers and leaders of his time, if we were looking for someone to impress us we might just have missed him.
It is so easy to overlook the presence and power of God in the church – it is found in weak people.
Paul rejoiced in weakness and therefore if we share his joy we too will look to learn from those who are conscious of weakness. Once you realise that one of the primary ways, if not THE primary way of growing up in the Lord is through your weaknesses, then your attitude to the weak begins to change.
The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak – because he sees something he didn’t see before – Christ’s power at work. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he seeks to learn from them. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he longs to be blessed by them.
If Jesus’s highest priority was your immediate personal happiness wouldn’t he always answer your prayer of faith? That we know he doesn’t, suggests that it isn’t. In our series Perfected in weakness, we are learning that God has a purpose is saying ‘no’ to genuine prayers of faith. Sometimes God has a purpose in disappointing us. Paul says of the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12 v.7–8) ‘three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient.’
That God may answer our prayers in ways we would never think of is seen in the story of the raising of Lazarus. For Mary and Martha must deal with their disappointment with Jesus. In John 11 we discover that Lazarus is sick, v.1, and so his sisters Mary and Martha send for the one who heals the sick, Jesus. They know what Jesus can do and they know Jesus loves Lazarus. Their message (prayer) to him in v.3 is ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’
Jesus loved not only Lazarus but Mary and Martha too (v.5), and so we know what we expect to happen next; on hearing the news Jesus will hurry to the aid of Lazarus.
But what we read is not what we expect; yet, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days (John 11:6, NIV, 1984).
A deliberate purpose in delay?
The little Greek word ouv plays a crucial part in our understanding of what Jesus is doing. The word reveals why Jesus’s love leads him to a decision not to go to the aid of Lazarus. After all, if Jesus loves Lazarus, why is his response to their urgent cry for help, delay followed by disappointment?
Part of the problem is that the NIV 1984 translation does its best to obscure the relationship between v.5 and v.6. In fact Don Carson, in his commentary, maintains that it is ‘without linguistic defence’. When it translate ouv as ‘yet’ we find ourselves juxtaposing Jesus’s love with his delay. It reads like an unresolved tension; even a mystery.
Better translations are offered by ESV: ‘now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ And by the new NIV: ‘now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.’
What difference does it make?
Correct the ‘yet’ to a ‘so’ and a causal link is revealed. As Carson points out, ‘this means that the two-day delay was motivated by Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus. ’ It doesn’t so much mean Jesus heard that the one he loved was sick and yet he didn’t go, but rather Jesus heard the one that he loved was sick and so he didn’t go.
What’s the difference? Read it the first way and you start thinking Jesus loved them and yet it might remain a mystery as to why he didn’t go. Read it the correct way and you start to realise that Jesus can love someone by not answering their prayers in the way you would expect. Maybe that helps us to understand that God always answers our prayers according to his love for us, but often in unexpected ways.; ways that have in mind not our immediate happiness, but our salvation and what may work to achieve it.
Now, that is a massive difference to your theology of prayer. It means that sometimes Jesus says no to your desires because he loves you.
John Calvin and his wife had only one child and this precious son died not long after he was born. Calvin wrote a letter to a friend, and in it said the Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children. Jesus loves Mary and Martha and knows what is best, so he does not answer their prayer in the way they would hope.
God’s goal is greater than our goal
Now that only makes sense, it can only make sense, if God has a greater good in mind than that you should have a happy life now. It only makes sense if he has a greater good that, in some sense, might even be threatened by giving you a happy life now.
John 11 dares to ask us ‘can we trust God enough to allow him to disappoint us?’ To watch your brother die while you wait for Jesus to come must have been a terrible experience. Yet Jesus had his reasons. Some of us struggle to put ourselves in Mary & Martha’s shoes, but others can relate to their tragic circumstances. To be sure that Jesus loves you and the one for whom you are praying, to know he has power to heal because you have witnessed him healing people many times and then to wait for him to intervene, only to wait in vain, is a test of faith.
Lazarus has been dead for four days by the time Jesus arrives. Mary meets him and says (v.21) Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. It wasn’t because Mary didn’t believe that she spoke as she did, it is precisely because Mary did believe that she said what she did. This is not a statement of doubt in Jesus; but a cry of confusion.
Asking the right question
When we know the truth about God, when we are sure that he is good and that he is for me, and then he doesn’t seem to show it, wouldn’t we ask why? As a pastor I would be worried if you didn’t ask ‘why?’, not least because asking the question is a statement of faith and a desire to know God better. Who wouldn’t say to Jesus ‘where were you?’ Who has never cried out in confusion ‘God what are you doing?’
Within a year of starting City Church, a member of our congregation died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She was a woman in her early 30′s, who had given her life to serving Christ, she worked for a mission organisation in the city and therefore it made no sense to us that the Lord should allow such a tragedy. It made no more sense than the loss of his son did to John Calvin.
Can you think of unanswered prayer in your own life even now? Prayers that have been uttered in faith, prayers that you have seen God answer for others and yet God not answer for you. We need to learn that we can trust Jesus even in such circumstances. In our passage we learn that Jesus had a deliberate purpose in disappointing Mary and Martha. He allows their prayer to go unanswered for a time and three reasons stand-out:
1) This way will bring more glory to God (v.4). Only if Lazarus dies can the world begin to see that Jesus had the power of life and death in restoring him to life. God’s son was glorified through this tragedy.
2) This will strengthen the faith of Mary and Martha. Through this trial they grow closer to Jesus and just a few verses later (John 12:1-3) Mary adores and worships Jesus in an extravagant act of devotion as she pours perfume on his feet.
3) This will bring about the salvation of many, John 11:45.
Learning to trust God with our circumstances
Sometimes God says no and we see quite quickly what he is doing. Mary and Martha witnessed the power of Christ not only to heal the sick but raise the dead. They witnessed many coming to faith in Christ through his delay and they saw what glory it gave to God. Their confusion was real but relatively short-lived. At other times God says no and we don’t understand, but even then we begin to see that in our helplessness God strengthens our faith and he speaks to others through our experience. When God says no to our cries for help, our only option is to trust and obey. All we have is a choice to believe that he has a greater goal in mind than an immediate personal happiness, and all we can do is to look for God’s purpose to refine our character. We begin to learn that God’s purpose is to use this experience to shape our characters, cast out our sin, increase our hope, and to build our trust.
As we explore the theme at City Church of how true strength is found in weakness, I’m reading the story of Gerald L. Sittser who lost his mother, wife and young daughter in a tragic accident. His book is called A Grace Disguised and the inside cover reveals this is not a book about one man’s sorrow. Rather, it is a moving meditation on the losses we all suffer and the grace that can transform us. Here is a short extract that helps us to see what that looks like in one man’s experience.
Loss forces us to see the dominant role our environment plays in determining our happiness. Loss strips us of the props we rely on for our well-being. It knocks us off our feet and puts us on our backs. In the experience of loss, we come to the end of ourselves.
But in coming to the end of ourselves, we can also come to the beginning of a vital relationship with God. Our failures can lead us to grace and to a profound spiritual awakening. This process occurs frequently with those who suffer loss. It often begins when we face our own weaknesses and realize how much we take favourable circumstances for granted. When loss deprives us of those circumstances, our anger, depression, and ingratitude expose the true state of our souls, showing us how small we really are. We see that our identity is largely external, not internal.
Finally, we reach the point where we begin to search for a new life, one that depends less on circumstances and more on the depth of our souls. That, in turn, opens us to new ideas and perspectives, including spiritual ones. We feel the need for something beyond ourselves, and it begins to dawn on us that reality may be more than we once thought it to be. We begin to perceive hints of the divine, and our longing grows. To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely. In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true and deepest selves. We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.
I have just begun an evening series at City Church entitled Perfected in Weakness. The goal of the series is to move us, as a church family, from a position where weakness is seen (or at least thought-of) as something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. In our church culture weaknesses are often things we hide from others as we give the pretence of being sorted Christians. As a church we need to arrive at a place where we can be open and real about our weaknesses because we recognise that it is precisely in our weaknesses that God is most glorified. As we do so we will be increasingly able to speak to one another in appropriate ways.
Has it ever been easier to claim to be able to live independent, self-sufficient lives? Here’s one example of what that claim looks like: a book by five-time Olympic Gold medallist, Steve Redgrave. It’s not aimed at high-achievers but at people like you and me. It’s called You can win at life! Unlock your potential and go for gold! As you flick through the chapter and section headings you get a sense of its message; identify your dreams, your boundaries can be limitless, and winners are people like you. Through-out the book are encouragements to recognise the huge potential for success within you. The blurb on the back cover of the book reads In you can win at life! Steve reveals the secret of his success and shows how we can ALL learn to achieve our goals, given the right balance of self-motivation, vision and hard graft.
The book is a summary of the message of the age – and all too often the message in our churches. The power is there within you. It’s like north sea oil the only real challenge is how to get it out. And that is what makes what God wants to teach us through the apostle Paul so radical. For he writes:
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2 Cor. 11:30, NIV)) and I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor. 12:9, NIV)
For Paul the secret to life is that there are no strong people (to borrow from the title of Jeff Lucas’s new book). The reality is that the world is not divided between the strong and the weak but divided between those who know they are weak and those who don’t. It is only in learning that we are weak that we are ready to begin to look outside of ourselves and to the God of all grace for help.
Paul writes of the painful lesson that was so hard to learn; that is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2Co 12:10, NIV). Steve Redgrave just might be able to motivate you to run a sub-4 hour marathon, he might just persuade you to start your own business but what he hides from you in his book is that most important lesson of all – there are no strong people. Despite the boastful words of every candidate on the apprentice it is our own mortality that serves as the reminder that whatever our strengths might be we are wearing out and our lives are running out. In the book of Common Prayer we read ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. I wonder whether that is something we are ready to accept?
We may have some strengths (our gifts and abilities given by God) but we are all weak people who have some strengths. So when God allows us to experience our weakness, whether that might come through physical, mental, or spiritual incapacity, it is a severe mercy. God is teaching you that you cannot make it alone. We all need to know that our lives are in his hands. That our future is found not in depending on our strength but on his strength at work in us.
The tension we experience in our Christian lives is that our weaknesses are the things we most want God to take away and yet our weaknesses are the things God finds most useful in growing us up in our faith. You and I want God to take away are the things he most wants to use. Paul did not enjoy his suffering but he learned that For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:10, NIV).
It is a lesson we really need to learn because we think weakness is wrong and yet Jesus says weakness isn’t wrong – weakness is the way to eternal life. Weakness is the path that Jesus walked. He was crucified in weakness (2 Cor. 13:4, NIV). Weakness is where we learn that you and I need God – we don’t just need to know about God, we don’t just need to believe in God, we need to depend upon God – because only through Christ can he take us through death to eternal life.
Are we ready not just to serve Christ but depend on his strength because our own resources are not enough.
Paul Tripp writes in Broken-down House:
When you stand back and consider, you are confronted with how little is actually under your control. When you stop and look, you are faced with your smallness, your weakness, and your limits. But don’t get discouraged and don’t panic; reality is a healthy place to be. Think about it. Only when I humbly embrace my weakness, humbly admit my limits,and humbly recognise how small I actually am,can I begin to reach out for the help of the loving, powerful, and gracious Redeemer who is the true source of my strength, wisdom, and hope. Only then can I begin to function as an instrument in his powerful hands, rather than being in his way because, in forgetting who I am and who he is, I have been trying to do his job. He concludes, you do not have to fear your limits. They were designed by the God.
We were made to live not just God-honouring lives, but God-dependent lives. The problem is that even after God saves us, even then, we don’t naturally turn to him. As Christians we simply get on with our own life. So Paul boasts of weakness because they are they very place where we learn that the power for the Christian life comes from Christ and weakness is where that truth is most often discovered.
In our weakness we realise, maybe for the first time, that we need to depend on the God of all grace and depend on him as never before.
A small group of Muslim men turned up at church from the local mosque to ask a few questions on Sunday evening. Unsurprisingly conversation soon turned to the Trinity. As it turned out we had just returned from a church weekend away reflecting on how essential the doctrine of the trinity is if we are how to live well in the world. Here’s a sketch of my notes from a talk I gave on the weekend.
A. How does God define our relationships?
I wonder when you last spent some time thinking about the Trinity? I guess many Christians find understanding what it means that we believe in One God in three persons a little confusing if not a little awkward to explain. Maybe we find the trinity intellectually embarrassing if and when we are challenged by a non-Christian and I suspect we do find the doctrine a little irrelevant when it comes to living everyday life.
Well this morning its not my place to give a defence of what Christians believe or the history. But my job in just 30 minutes is to show you how life-changing it is to know that you love and serve a God of relationships.
The Bible affirms that there is One God in three persons. That means because God is eternal relationships (between Father, Son and Spirit) have always been at the heart of ultimate reality. And my big point this morning is that ONLY the Christian can say that!
And that means that only the Christian has a foundation for relations.
Whoever we are, our doctrine of God IS the foundation for our relationships.
B. What we think of God defines and shapes the nature of our relationships
Maybe the best way to look at this truth is by way of comparison with the other ways of looking at relationships.
The dilemma of modern man is simple: he does not know why man has any meaning. He is lost. Man remains a zero. This is the damnation of our generation. – Francis Schaeffer in He is There and He is not silent.
We don’t know how to live in the world and we cannot agree how we should live in this world;
- If there is no God then there is no basis or standard for relationships (there is nothing informing our relationships!)
- We can recognise the problems in our relationships but cannot find a binding answer (the world would be a better place if we all got along…but we can’t agree on what that means)
- We define relationships for ourselves (every man, and woman, does as he sees fit)
- Relationships are an aspect of ‘survival of the fittest’
Richard Dawkins summed up how the absence of God impacts his ethics in the following sobering words: If someone used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose I think I would be fairly hard put to argue against it on purely intellectual grounds.
Fellow Oxford intellectual Peter Atkins puts it this way when quoted by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the rainbow: We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.
Is it enough to believe in ‘god’ to understand the nature of relationships and living well in the world? As we will see the answer is ‘no’. All depends on the nature of that god.
No word is as meaningless as is the word god. Of itself it means nothing unless content is put into it. – Francis Schaeffer.
- God is not a personal god. He exists in ‘splendid isolation.’ Even in paradise God will not be with us.
- God and relationships are separate thing – God is not a God of relationships for before he ever created he was alone.
- God cannot inform our relationships (we cannot look to him to teach us) and our relationships are not an aspect of image-bearing.
- When God is teaching us about relationships he is not teaching us about himself
- God may be loving (toward his creation) but he is NOT love because in eternity he has no-one to love. He had to create in order to love and experience love.
3. Pantheism (Hindism, New Age, etc..)
- God is an impersonal force
- Impersonal forces cannot define or inform personal relationships. In fact, more than that, they undermine relationships. The holy men of Hinduism retreat from relationships and community.
- Our final goal as human beings is to join the impersonal ie become one with the impersonal force.
- Relationships and personality are temporary
The truth is that if you exchange the truth about God for a lie it will not only damage you but destroy community and confuse society.
Look with me at Romans 1:18-30. What is the result of humanity suppressing the truth about God. It is two things i) a turning to worshipping other gods and ii) a break down of relationships. The SIN of rejecting God leads to all sorts of SINS damaging to community. Looking at the list at the end of the chapter (vv.28-30)
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
Only Christianity has at its heart a God who IS a God of relationships and God’s own relationship makes your relationships meaningful.
C. What can we learn from the God of relationships?
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always existed in perfect relationship. They express and define perfect love.
Therefore (for example) we can learn how to love one another within a marriage by learning from the relationship between Father and Son.
|Bible verses||Nature of relationship|
|John 14:31, 3:35||Perfect love seen in a desire to bless the other.|
|John 17:1,4||Other-person centredness. A seeking after the glory of another ahead of own. Love involves service, sacrifice.|
|John 10:30||Unity. One in Being. One in purpose. One in ministry.|
|John 5:30||Difference. Unity does not mean uniformity. There is an order to the relationships. The Son does the will of the Father and obeys him even though they are both fully God.|
As God’s image bearers in the world God shapes and defines our relationships. Whether that be relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, authorities and those subject to authority. All our relationships reflect in some way the God of relationships. Our relationships are defined by love, other-person centredness, unity yet difference.
Reasons to rejoice in the Trinity!
There is no other sufficient philosophical answer than the one I have outlined. You can search through university philosophy, underground philosophy, filling station philosophy – it does not matter—there is no other sufficient philosophical answer to existence, to Being, than the one I have outlined. There is only one thought, whether the East, the West, the ancient, the modern, the new, the old. Only one fills the philosophical need of existence, of Being, and it is the Judeo-Christian God –not just an abstract concept, but rather that this God is really there. He exists. There is no other answer, and orthodox Christians ought to be ashamed of being been defensive for so long. It is not a time to be defensive. There is no other answer. – Francis Schaeffer, He is There and he is not silent
Part 2 of this series will consider just how our relationships are to be based on the God of relationships.
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