Apr 1, 2013
neil

Are you ready to let marriage change you?

 I took a marriage preparation session for a number of engaged couples at our church last week. There were lots of things I would have been very happy to discuss not least all of the many practical issues that a couple face as they get ready to marry. But rather than start there I wanted to start with the biggest issue facing any human relationship: Am I willing to let this person change me?           

Tim Keller in The Reason for God writes:  One of the principles of love – either love for a friend or romantic love – is that you have to lose independence to attain greater intimacy.  If you want ‘freedom’ of love – the fulfillment, security, sense of worth that it brings – you must limit your freedom in many ways.  You cannot enter a deep relationship and still make unilateral decisions or allow your friend or lover no say in how you live your life.  To experience the joy and freedom of love, you must give up personal autonomy.’

For a love relationship to be healthy there must be a mutual loss of independence. It can’t be just one way.  Both sides must say to the other, ‘I will adjust to you.  I will change for you. I’ll serve you even though it means a sacrifice for me.’

In the most radical way, God has adjusted to us – in his incarnation and atonement.  In Jesus Christ he became a limited human being, vulnerable to suffering and death. On the cross, he submitted to our condition – as sinners – and died in our place to forgive us. In the most profound way, God has said to us, in Christ, ‘I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you though it means sacrifice for me.’  If he has done this for us, we can and should say the same to God and others.

In summary:  As God has changed for you, so you can now change for him.

That’s exactly what we find in a passage like Philippians 2:1-18.

2:5-11 tells of Christ’s willingness to leave the glories of heaven and become a man, taking the form of a servant, being willing to die, and to die on a cross (a cursed death – the worst death). From the highest place it is possible to be, at the right-hand of God, Christ now occupied the lowest place it is possible to be, cursed on a cross.

Either side of these verses are a call for our relationships with one another to be utterly transformed by this gospel pattern.

So, 2:2-4 we read: make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (NIV).

And 2:14-15: Do everything without grumbling or arguing,  so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (NIV).

The power to live well in a marriage comes from our willingness to change and to let our marriage partner be God’s change-agent. Christ’s willingness to change for us gives us every reason to change for him and to let him use others to do exactly that.  As we learn to welcome change and to say to our marriage partners,for Christ’s sake, I need you to change me to be more like him so our marriages grow stronger.

 

Mar 19, 2013
neil

No need to be embarrassed by the Trinity

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.

1. Atheism

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 rainbowWe 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.

 

Theism

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.

2. Islam

  • 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.

 4. Christianity

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.

 

Mar 12, 2013
neil

All men watch porn

A sad and sobering report in the Telegraph of a University of Montreal study in which they could not find a male student who had not consumed pornography. 

The study found that the average age at which boys were introduced to porn was 10 years old.It also found that single men viewed pornography 3 times a week for an average of 40 minutes each time and men in relationships 1.7 times a week for 20 minutes each time.

What does all this mean for Christians? Who’s keeping watch in your church? Here are 12 questions that spring to mind that need the attention of any leadership team.

1. Should we work from the assumption that our young men (and probably our older men too) are viewing pornography?

2. How and when should be raising the issue with our children? At what age? In what way?

3.  How and in what context should we be talking about these issues with the men of our church? When did we last talk to the men about this?

4. What do we need to say to wives and girlfriends? Do they understand the nature of the struggle?

5. How do we protect marriages from ‘virtual-adultery’? Are we helping husbands and wives to talk wisely and appropriately about this issue?

6. What are the statistics for women? Is this a  growing issue for both sexes?

7. What accountability structures do church leaders have in place for their own behaviour? Who is asking them whether they are viewing pornography? How can they model godliness in this area of life?

8. What support and accountability do we offer for those willing to acknowledge that this is an issue for them? What church discipline is appropriate too?

9.  What are the lies that capture our hearts and make pornography a battle for every man? Do we understand its power?

10. Do we know how to fight this battle through the gospel rather than by mere will-power of self-control?

11. What do we want to say to non-Christians who might be part of the wider church community?

12. How do we help apply the gospel to those who have a ‘past’ in this area even if it is no longer a dangerous issue? 

Mar 7, 2013
neil

Thank God for your mistakes in ministry – and use them well

If you’re anything like me your natural temptation is to want to forget the mistakes you’ve made in ministry. Some are embarrassing because they highlight our immaturity or weaknesses, others are difficult to recall because we remember the impact they had on others. Bad news is for burying, isn’t that right? But maybe God wants to teach us through our mistakes (and our failures for that matter).  

Ten most common mistakes made by new church starts is a book that aims to take our errors and put them to use. In their introduction Griffith and Easum write ‘Those of you who are already church planting will recognise yourself as we go along. If the pain gets too bad, take an aspirin or two.’

I think I probably made at least 6 of the mistakes they list. One of the mistakes I recognise was called ‘Failure of the Church to Act Its Age and Its Size.’ The key principle being that in a planting context decisions need to me made about what ministries should be started when. In other words there is the world of difference between knowing something is the right thing to do and knowing when is the right time to do it. When we started talking about buying a building as a one year old plant we certainly didn’t help ourselves or our congregation to ‘Act our age!’ Great idea, wrong timing. The same can be said of wanting to start a full-blown kids work from age 0-14 to draw in families to the plant at a time when our eldest child in the congregation was just 1.

Stepping out in faith is not the same as running ahead, unaware of the risks and at a pace that cannot be sustained by even the most servant-hearted, faith-filled congregation. Nor do plants begin ministries only to please guests. ‘It’s better to just let them walk away than to overextend and burn out. It’s also better than making promises you can’t keep.’

At our next 2020birmingham Planters meeting we will be sharing our mistakes and in turn I’ll try and share some on the blog.

God not only lets us make mistakes, he wants us to learn from them. He also wants us to teach others through our mistakes. The Bible is full of stories of those who failed from Abraham to Moses to David to Paul. Their examples are for our instruction. God has included their mistakes to teach us humility, patience, God-dependence and above all else that He is the one building His church sometimes because of us and sometimes despite us.

We live in a world where no-one will ever say they were wrong. As Christians we are free from the need to prove ourselves, our ministry successes and failures do not define us. But they do shape us and others. Let us put them to good use.

Feb 28, 2013
neil

The question our hearts face each day

The Happy, Humble Work of a Mother is a super blog post on the unique challenges of parenting pre-school kids. The heart-issue behind all of our work and especially work that is draining, repetitive and that often goes unthanked is ‘are we content to serve the needs of those who most need our help, regardless of their response?’ Well, in the gospel we remember that our work is an imitation of the work of God in Christ who came to serve us. As Melissa McDonald writes When ‘we humbly sacrifice our time and energy again (and again!). Joyfully we reflect our Savior.

 

Why not share it with those in need of encouragement in their work of raising kids today.

 

(HT: Mim Pike)

 

 

Feb 21, 2013
neil

How Patricia Machin came to forgive the man who killed her husband

Today’s Telegraph contains the moving story of how Patricia Machin forgave the man whose crime of careless driving killed her husband. Ruth Dudley Edwards reports

Mrs Machin wrote Williamson a letter to use in his defence in which she said that on the day of the accident, “however bad it was for me, I realise it was 1,000 times worse for you…” This astonished the defence counsel, who said he struggled “to find words to express what is conveyed through the contents and the intentions”. Mrs Machin was in court on Tuesday as Williamson was given a suspended sentence.

But then Edwards, herself an atheist, goes on to say But why were people so astonished? Mrs Machin and her late husband were Christians who really lived up to their beliefs.No truer word has been spoken. Christians are under an obligation to forgive in a way no-one else. There is no other creed on earth that compels forgiveness because the obligation to forgive flows from our direct experience of forgiveness. CS Lewis writes To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. Only the Christian must forgive. 

But whilst it is an easy thing to say that the Christian must forgive it is still an extraordinary thing if the Christian can find the resources and resolve necessary to forgive. Again as Lewis says Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive … And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.

The command to forgive comes from the gospel and the ability to forgive comes from the gospel too. When tempted to hate those who have hurt us and caused us undue pain the Christian seeks from God the ability to do the God-like thing and that is to choose to take the pain and hurt on ourselves rather than our ‘enemy’. God absorbed his own wrath when he suffered on the cross. In Christ, we too learn to bear the pain, commit it to God, seek his healing and hold out forgiveness to those who have wronged us. That is no easy thing. Praise God today for the example and courage of Mrs Machin

Feb 20, 2013
neil

And I thought my sermon notes were a bit untidy…

The White House have released a photo of an early draft of Barack Obama’s second inaugural address.

 

Feb 18, 2013
neil

Don’t be a martyr mother…how to enjoy your children rather than worry about them

A thought-provoking article in today’s Times (£) on the pitfall of over-parenting. Alice Thomson looks at a new book called Minimalist Parenting which  challenges the modern-day preoccupation of raising kids a world in which ‘children have become passive projects constructed by their mothers.’  The key? They discovered that they enjoyed their children more when they were doing less.

Feb 14, 2013
neil

Finding your one true love

So are you seeking love this Valentine’s Day? Are you somewhat embarrassed or depressed that you are not spending Valentine’s Day with a significant other?

Mark Vernon has written a really helpful myth-busting piece for Valentine’s Day. Here are some of his key conclusions could have been written by a Christian and they certainly serve to highlight how both Christian and non-Christian alike can go badly wrong when living according to the myth of Romantic love. Here are three of his key insights.

1) When we think that there is someone out there who can ‘complete us’  we are looking in the wrong place if we look for that in a person. Marriages can be extremely happy and do offer many blessings but when we marry we marry fallen, sinful human beings just like us. If we want someone to ‘complete us’ what we’re really asking for is someone to be God for us. He alone can  provide ‘true love’. Vernon points to the conclusion of philosopher Simon May when he says:

There is a spiritual dimension to this romantic addiction too. The philosopher Simon May has proposed that while many have given up on God in the West, we still long for the unconditional love that God used to offer.

But godless, we seek instead unconditional love from our fellow humans. We make them gods, and of course they fail us. And then love turns to hate.

2. When we put that kind of expectation on ourselves, our spouse or on a potential boyfriend or girlfriend we ask them to do the impossible and they will always be a disappointment to us. We risk damaging the relationship if we want perfection. We risk never entering into a relationship if we wait for ‘the one’ who alone is perfect.

3. We need to recognise that love is a decision rather than a feeling or destiny.

The pressure to find ‘the one’ is  socially corrosive because it idealises love, rather than understanding that love is made not found. Love is made in the gritty ups and downs of being with someone who is as flawed as you.

All of this said we should still celebrate human love and that should include romance; flowers, candle-lit dinners and all. What we mustn’t do is ask Romance to be our god for God alone IS love.

Feb 13, 2013
neil

The power to overcome the sin in your life

Last Saturday morning the men at City Church gave some time to thinking through issues of sexual purity. This post is the second part of my handout that went with the talk. Part one is here

3) Go to God with your behaviour

Know the compassion of a gracious God . ‘The Lord pities his people’ – JC Ryle

David Powlinson writes:

Your natural instinct is to turn to yourself, instead of to Jesus. This is true of all sin, but it’s obvious in your struggle with pornography because it’s a solitary pursuit. Your pornographic sins are, by definition, only about you: what you want, what you hope for, and what you long for. When you are facing hard or disappointing circumstances—boredom, loneliness, money problems, fighting with a spouse, distance from a friend—it’s easy (and instinctive) to turn in on yourself and try to escape your troubles by going to your fantasy life.

Apply the gospel to your behaviour

The gospel is not only a comfort for you as you struggle with sin. It is God’s very means of fighting sin. Just saying ‘no’ or taking cold showers is not a way to fight something that has a first-place in our hearts. The only thing that roots out sin is to replace that sin with a higher or greater love. Loving Christ more than we love sin breaks its attraction and therefore its power over us.

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) preached a sermon entitled The expulsive power of a new affection in which he set out exactly  how the Christian can and should fight sin:

Salvation by grace, salvation by free grace, salvation not by obedience but according to the mercy of God, is indispensable. . . to. . . godliness. Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the Gospel. . . and you take away the power of the Gospel to melt and reconcile. For this purpose, the freer it is, the better it is. That very peculiarity of the Gospel which so many dread as the germ of Antinomianism [permission to sin without consequence], is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against sin.

Along with the light of a free Gospel, the love of the Gospel enters. To the measure that you impair Gospel freeness, you also chase away this love. And never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart as a devoted thing to God, and to eschew ungodliness.

[Why is this grateful love so important?] It is rare that any of our [bad habits or flaws] disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom that this is done through the process of reasoning. . . or by the force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed may be thrown out—just as one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection in the mind.

So, eventually, a boy may cease to be a slave of his appetite. How? Because a [more 'mature'] taste has brought it into subordination. The youth ceases to idolize [sensual] pleasure. Why? Because the idol of wealth has. . . gotten the ascendancy. Even the love of money can cease to have mastery over the heart because it is drawn into the whirl of [ideology and politics] and he is now lorded over by a love of power [and moral superiority]. But in none of these transformations is the heart left without an object to worship. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered—but its desire to have some object. . . is unconquerable. . . .

The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. . . It is only. . . when, through faith in Jesus Christ, as we are received as God’s children, that the spirit of adoption is poured out on us—and the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires. That is the only way that deliverance is possible. 

Thus, for true change to occur. . . it is not enough. . . to hold out to the world a mirror of its own imperfections. It is not enough to demonstrate the evanescent character of your Christian life. . . or to speak to the conscience. . . of its foolishness. . . Rather, try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts, for the love of Him who is greater than the world.

4) Go to others that they might be God’s change-agents in your life

Christian growth comes in and through community. Sexual sin has a hold on us because we do not use the resources God has given to fight it. That resource includes others. Rick Warren writes:

If you’re losing the battle against a persistent bad habit, an addiction, or a temptation, and you’re stuck in a repeating cycle of good intention-failure-guilt, you will not get better on your own. You need the help of other people. Some temptations are only overcome with the help of a partner who prays for you, encourages you, and holds you accountable.

a) Who are you willing and able to talk to about these issues?

b) Who is going to remind you of the gospel in the midst of your struggle?

c) What accountability can you build into these relationships?

d) What protections can you put in place to help you in the fight?

Covenant eyes, time-lock on computer, etc.

 

Conclusion – Hope and the power of the gospel

What seems so small and so weak (an acorn) has the power to break even the strongest stone. So the gospel is powerful to set you free from even the most besetting of sins. However you feel about the battle with lust the gospel is able not only to save you from your sins and to comfort you in your falls but to give you some level of victory over sins like lust.

Tim Keller tells the following story about the power of the gospel that is in you.

A minister was in Italy, and there he saw the grave of a man who had died centuries before who was an unbeliever and completely against Christianity, but a little afraid of it too. So the man had a huge stone slab put over his grave so he would not have to be raised from the dead in case there is a resurrection from the dead. He had insignias put all over the slab saying, “I do not want to be raised from the dead. I don’t believe in it.” Evidently, when he was buried, an acorn must have fallen into the grave. So a hundred years later the acorn had grown up through the grave and split that slab. It was now a tall towering oak tree. The minister looked at it and asked, “If an acorn, which has power of biological life in it, can split a slab of that magnitude, what can the acorn of God’s resurrection power do in a person’s life?”

Keller comments:

The minute you decide to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, the power of the Holy Spirit comes into your life. It’s the power of the resurrection—the same thing that raised Jesus from the dead …. Think of the things you see as immovable slabs in your life—your bitterness, your insecurity, your fears, your self-doubts. Those things can be split and rolled off. The more you know him, the more you grow into the power of the resurrection.

 Post-script:  Why marriage won’t fix things

It’s not about sex, not even about lust, it’s about you and the gospel. Tim Chester comments,

It you’re not yet married, porn is a sin against your future wife. You’re also creating a set of expectations that bears no relation to real sex or real marriage. You’re storing up a database of images that will compete with your future wife. You’re gifting the devil, a reservoir of temptations to use against you.

Using porn is a bad way of preparing not to use it when you’re married! Every time you use porn, you’re giving it more control over your heart. You’re sowing a bitter harvest for your married life.

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