Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the second talk and for the audio click here.
Good morning and welcome to City Church. A special welcome if you’re visiting us this morning.
As part of our short series ‘If I could ask God one question . . .‘ we’re looking this morning at the second of the three questions we voted we would most like to ask God from our survey over Christmas time. Twenty-one percent of the 500+ votes cast were for this one; ‘God, why did you create a world with so much misery?‘
‘How are atheists produced? asked George Bernard Shaw” ‘ln probably nine cases out of ten, what happens is something like this. A beloved wife or husband or child or sweethearts is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, stuck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria; and the looker-on, 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.‘
There is a certain logic to Bernard Shaw’s point isn’t there.
A) The problem of pain
Our world is a world full of pain and suffering so if God exists he must be to blame. There are, finally, so the argument goes, only three possibilities; either God is not good in which case he is not worthy of our worship, or he’s not sovereign in which case he’s not really God at all or he doesn’t exist.
Well what can Christians say in response. I don’t want to suggest that in the short time we have that I can possibly do justice to this question. Not least because for so many of us suffering has a very personal dimension. Maybe you are someone here this morning for whom this is a very difficult question because you are right now experiencing it.
But I do want to offer some pointers that will help us.
And I want to start with the question as put – is God responsible for creating our broken world? In our evening series ‘In the beginning – Genesis 1-3‘ that ran through the autumn up to Christmas we gave quite a bit of time to thinking about the world that God had made and what went wrong. We saw that the Bible is quick to point out that when God created the world he created it good. At the end of the creation account in Genesis 1v.31 we read ‘God saw all that he had made and it was good.’ So, the Bible insists that the problem of pain does not lie at the hands of a faulty designer.
Rather, what we see in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis is that in making human beings God made them good and to be in relationship with Him but he also made them with the freedom to choose good or evil. And pain, suffering and misery only entered our world after the first human beings choose rather than to obey God to decided to do his own thing without reference to God. It is from that first rebellion that suffering entered our world.
So, as Philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, ‘the source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom.’ Death itself enters our world and human beings begin to function in selfish and cruel ways. The whole created order itself is fragmented. This is what our world looks like when humanity turns from its creator and to selfish ruin.
But, as many have suggested, that doesn’t quite let God off the hook. If people only got hurt because they did something sinful or just plain stupid that would be one thing but it’s the fact that suffering seems so random and out of proportion that troubles us.
Here is how theologian John Stott puts it in his book the Cross of Christ ‘the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.’
It’s not just that the innocent and vulnerable suffer but so often they suffer the most? Isn’t God just vindictive and cruel to allow it? I want to highlight three responses the Christian can make in just a moment but before I do let me say that the problem of suffering isn’t just a problem for believers.
B) The problem for atheism
On the surface atheist seems a better option. Maybe it’s easier to believe that it’s not a God that causes random suffering but a random universe that results in random suffering. But I want to suggest that the problem for atheism is that we find it almost impossible to live with the atheists conclusion to the suffering question. Human beings seem unable to settle for the answer that ‘stuff happens’ and we yearn for a higher answer. Doesn’t the fact that after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris that the phrase that trended in the social media was #Pray for Paris suggest so?
After the Boston Marathon bombings Eleanor Barkhorn wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled Why People Prayed for Boston on Twitter and Facebook, and Then Stopped. In the article she comments on the “Pray for Boston” messages. Here’s what she then wrote ‘It was jarring . . It was . . .strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren’t especially observant. . .what I saw on Twitter and Facebook . . wasn’t just faithful people reminding other faithful people to . . .pray. It was also the non-religious invoking prayer.’(HT: Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering)
In the same article she also tells of her own journey to faith as a secular New Yorker after the attack on the Twin Towers in 9/11. She describes how ‘an involuntary urge to call on God’s name’ grew into a full-blown Christian faith.
The problem for atheism is that we seem unable to accept that suffering is a brute fact. We can’t or won’t just get over ourselves. We insist of seeking meaning in suffering. As Tim Keller notes in ‘Walking with God’ ‘the secular view of life simply does not work for most people in the face of suffering.’
What’s more, as CS Lewis himself came to discover, the argument used by atheists against the existence of God in the face of suffering, actually, quite inadvertently, serves to bolster the argument for God. You see here’s the problem of pain for the atheist:why do we feel not just pain but moral outrage in the face of innocent suffering?
Evolution might explain the pain but it can’t account for outrage. Moral outrage is more than saying it hurts – it’s saying it’s wrong.
Stephen Fry’s answer to Gay Bryne’s question ‘What will Stephen Fry say to God?’ on the programme The Meaning of Life is full of such outrage. Here’s what Stephen Fry had to say:
‘I’d say, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” That’s what I would say.’
There is moral outrage. He talks not just about pain but the moral categories of evil and injustice. Fry seems to suggest that God has failed to do the right thing. He is guilty of breaking a moral standard. But where does an atheist get the idea of an absolute moral standard from in the first place and by what standard are we judging how anyone ought to behave?
Fellow atheists Richard Dawkins is been honest enough to admit in River out of Eden:
‘The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’
The simple fact is that there is no place for moral outrage in an amoral universe. To even use the language of good or evil, or right or wrong is to assume things that can’t exist without God. As Keller notes in making the argument Stephen Fry makes ‘in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.’ CS Lewis came to conclude that our awareness of moral evil was in reality an argument for the existence of God, not against it. For surely, if I believe in evil I must believe in God.
But can we find any hope and reassurance in the face of suffering that God does indeed know what he is doing?
What I’d like to do in the remainder of the time we have is suggest three answers to the problem of pain from the Bible. I don’t claim any of them are answers that fully resolve all of our questions but I do think that they are comfort and reassurance
1) God’s purpose in our pain.
Could we possibly ever come to accept that God himself might be at work in our suffering?
The Bible affirms just this point to suggest that God uses suffering to help us find not just temporary happiness but ultimate meaning. In Romans 5:3-4 the Apostle Paul expresses it this way: ‘We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’
That is not to in any way suggest that this process is easy or automatic. There is a whole book of the Bible, called Job, in which we find a believer in God struggling to come to terms with his suffering. And he doesn’t hold back from God. Here he is speaking to God early in the book (Job 3:11-16, NIV).
“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?
Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed?
For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest
with kings and counsellors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver.
Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?”
Job’s sense of sadness in his suffering is revealed in 6:2;
“If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas.”
Job’s pain is raw and real. He does not take it passively, yet by the end of the book he is a man who has found his suffering has changed him and changed him for the better. He comes to a point where he is ready to trust God but not because God has given him an intellectual answer. Job 42:5 ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.’ Could it be that God allows us to suffer because there are lessons we learn about ourselves and God that we could ever have learned in other ways. By the end Job realised that more important than the ‘why’ question was the ‘who’ question.
One of the things that I’ve seen in my time as a church pastor is that the bad news or tragic circumstances that might at first push us away from God seem to have the habit of bringing us back to him. What makes suffering a particular challenge in our western culture is that as secular people we often have no higher goal than our own comfort and sense of happiness. And that leaves little or no room to learn through adversity and struggle and pain in our world-view.
Let me ask you this question ‘could God have a purpose in our pain?’ I have seen it happen too many times.
Fiona was a member of our congregation for a number of years and she suffered from a degenerative disease of her nervous system – not too dissimilar from Stephen Hawking. It was a horrible disease – the result was that little by little her body was failing her. She was interviewed at the front of the church shortly before she died – by which time she could not move any of her limbs and had little control over her head. She was going deaf, her eye-sight was failing her and she could only speak very slowly and deliberately yet she could still say ‘I would rather be in this wheelchair and know Jesus than be able-bodied and not.’For her eternal happiness – a relationship with God – trumped everything. Even a life that most people would pity.
If you’ve come this morning to church and your first thought is that God’s job is to simply make you happy – well first, you’ll be disappointed because that isn’t how life works, and secondly, you’ll never make sense of the deeper work that God wants to do in your life.What if God’s purpose is not to make me happy in this world – in a simply superficial sense – what if his goal is more to make you happy in the next? What if suffering could be redemptive?
The book of Job teaches us that God knows what he’s doing and we can trust him.
The great news this morning is that God has more to say
2) God experiences our pain
John Stott was honest enough to say ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross . . .In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’The comfort and consolation for any of us experiencing suffering is that if the gospel of Jesus Christ is true then we can say ‘God knows exactly what I’m going through.’
Tim Keller comments ‘we do not know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not. It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He understands us, he has been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually wipe away every tear. Someone might say, “But that’s only half an answer to the question ‘Why?’ Yes, but it is the half we need.’
In a room of this size there will be some who have experienced suffering at the hands of another. Things that have been said or done that should not have happened to anyone – acts of hate or spite, criminal offenses for which no charge has ever been brought. And you struggle to ever think that God could have allowed these things to happen to you. I don’t have an answer but I would like to ask you to consider the fact that it was the ultimate act of evil that resulted in the ultimate good. the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the death of Jesus – the supreme example of innocent suffering – ended up resulting in the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the salvation of sinners.
Yet, it wasn’t obvious was it. Maybe like you wonder what was going on in the minds of the disciples at the time. But was it not something like this ‘Lord, this is the best man that has ever lived. How can you allow this to happen? How can you abandon him? What possible reason could you allow this innocent man to suffer?’ It would be some time before they would really understand.
As Peter Kreeft comments ‘I don’t know why God allows evil things to happen, but I am glad that he did allow one evil thing to happen – He allowed Jesus to die on the cross.’
3) God will bring an end to pain
Pain is hard and suffering is real but for all of those who trust in Jesus Christ there is still a great hope for the future.
Paul writes in Romans 8:18 (NIV) ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’
One of the problems of pain is that evil people seem to get away with hurting others and we ask How can God do nothing? And God’s answer is that people aren’t getting away with it. For there is a judgement day to come and on that day God will right every wrong. At last, justice will be done and be seen to be done – fully and perfectly. And God will bring about a new world. We read of the future in our reading from Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV);
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
It will be a new world in which there will be no more suffering, misery or death. It is of course the world we all want.
Horatio Spafford is the author of the hymn ‘when peace like a river’ and we’ll be singing it together in a few minutes. An American lawyer Spafford decided that he, his wife and four daughters should enjoy a holiday in England. Delayed by business he sent his wife and four children on ahead. The ship they were on the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship midway across the Atlantic. All four of Spafford’s children drowned, only his wife survived. The pain of such a loss must have been unbelievable. Later Spafford set sail to join his wife in England and the ship’s captain showed him the very place where his daughters lives were lost. It was on this journey, in the depths of his grief that he penned the hymn;
When peace like a river, attends all my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll
Whatever my path, you have taught me to say,
‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’
The tune to which we sing it is called Ville du Havre – the name of the ship on which his daughters lives were lost.
Is misery the inevitable consequence of suffering? No. Our three reasons for confidence offer us hope and reassurance that God is working through our suffering, that he knows our suffering personally and that he will bring in an end to our suffering.
Gerald Sittser wrote a book entitled A Grace Disguised in which he describes the horrendous fall-out of losing his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law in a car crash caused by a drunk driver coming the other way.
Yet his conclusion is a testimony to God’s grace even in his suffering;
‘I am still not over it; I have still not recovered. I still wish my life were different and were alive. The accident remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me. But I have changed and grown. . . What I once considered mutually exclusive – sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life – have become part of a greater whole. My soul has been stretched. My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God. Though I have endured pain. I believe that the outcome is going to be wonderful.’
As we read in Revelation 21:6 (NIV) ‘He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’
Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the first talk (you can also listen to the talk here).
If you were here over the Christmas period then you’ll know that we’re giving these first three Sunday mornings of January to discovering how the Bible helps us answer three really important questions about God. They are the three most popular questions as voted for by you from the over 500 votes cast over Christmas. And the question we are starting with this morning wasn’t the most popular question voted for in our poll but 21% of people did vote for it. And it is a really important question for our times – it’s this; ‘God, if you’re there, why don’t you make yourself more obvious?’
Now that’s a question important for all of us whether we would call ourselves Christians or are taking a look at Christianity because there are plenty of people who think God isn’t playing straight with us. When I play hide and seek with my youngest son the one thing I know is that he wants to be found – for him that’s actually the best bit – he’s not going to stay hidden for long. Well if God is there why doesn’t he do more? Maybe like many others out there you wonder why God if he were there wouldn’t choose to make himself clearer. Why doesn’t he make it blindingly obvious? Surely there is no good reason why God would hide and remain hidden from us. Well in one short talk this morning I hope you won’t ask too much of me. The best I can do is sketch some kind of response.
So, I want to start this morning by suggesting
A. God has made himself clearer than we might think
Now if you’re challenge to Christianity goes something like ‘if what you’re saying is true, then you ought to be able to prove it’ then I’m in trouble. Because the truth is that I can’t prove God’s existence as if it could be solved through a mathematical formula or a scientific experiment. The truth is that there is very little that can be proved in that way.
The reality is that none of the things that really matter to us can be proved mathematically or scientifically and yet I’m sure as I can be that they are true.
Let me give you three examples:
‘My wife loves me’
‘Mozart was a genius’
‘Murder is wrong’
I believe that each of those statements are true and what’s more I don’t think that there is anyone who can tell me otherwise. But I can’t prove them. Most of the things I believe about the world cannot be proven scientifically.
But what I can do for each of those claims is look at all the evidence and ask what makes best sense of evidence – what offers the best explanation.
I want to sketch what I think should be the beginning of the answer this morning by looking at four pieces of evidence that God isn’t hiding from us but rather has made himself clearer than we might think
1) God reveals himself through creation
We read in Psalm 19:1-2 (NIV),
The heavens declare the glory of the God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
Through-out human history and indeed for the majority of people in our world today the very universe is a declaration of God’s existence. And yet in the western world over the past 200 years we have rejected this evidence because we have increasingly argued that science tells us all we need to know without God.But I would argue that modern science rather than make it harder to believe in God is giving us more and more reason to believe that he is there.
Professor Anthony Flew of Reading University was an outspoken atheist and critic of religious belief. But later in life he had a quite dramatic conversion from atheism to theism. He came to believe in God and he wrote a book about it. He gave it this title: There is a God – how the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind…
In it he writes ‘I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence….why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century?’ ‘The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.’
Flew argues that science, far from disproving God, makes it pretty much impossible to explain our universe as we know it as an accident. The mathematics are truly staggering. Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the expansion rate of the universe was different by one part in a hundred thousand million million one second after the big bang the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or never developed galaxies. If the gravitational force were different by 1 part in 10 (40) our sun would not exist.
Flew, looks to modern science and finds overwhelming reason to believe in a god. For him as a philosopher it was simply no longer credible to believe that this universe of law and order, of complexity and apparent design could have originated from nothing.
And to those who remain sceptical Flew put the following challenge: ‘What should have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for us a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?’
Arnos Penzias is an American physicist, radio astronomer and Nobel laureate in physics who co-discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, which served to establish the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe.
Rather strikingly he stated in the New York Times, ‘The best data we have . . are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms and the Bible as a whole.’
2) God reveals himself through conscience
It’s not just the universe out there through which God is speaking, it is also what is going on in our very minds that reveals God to us. Quite simply the things that matter most to us as human beings – truth, beauty, love, right and wrong, depend on God. If there were no god the most basic truths of reality that cover the most important aspects of life would lose their foundation for meaning.
Will Provine, a Professor of the history of Science at Cornell University in the US in a debate not many years before his death: ‘Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear . . .There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me.’
And the result of such thinking becomes clear in his conclusion:
‘There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans either.’
In a similar vein Biologist Stephen Jay Gould when asked the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ for Life Magazine concluded ‘we are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists.‘
But I’m not sure any of us can live that way. In fact I’m sure that we all insist on living as if the world had meaning.
If you revisit the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich what is striking is how many of them refused to recognize their crimes or to apologize in any way at all. They went to their deaths unrepentant. Now if there is no God, no right or wrong, or higher answer, then who’s to say.
Tim Keller in Reason for God writes ‘the Nazi’s who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.’
And the Bible says that our conscience – our moral compass- has been put there by God. God’s standards revealed in the Bible are also written on our human hearts. In Romans 2:15 (NIV) we read ‘the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’
God isn’t a nice idea he is a necessary being if all the things that matter most to us (love, truth, right, wrong, . . . ) are to survive. And so the very fact that we refuse to tolerate living in a world without meaning is God’s way of speaking to us.
3) God reveals himself through Christ
Our reading this morning was taken from the very beginning of a letter called Hebrews in our Bible and we read of how God has spoken through-out history to his people but THE way in which he has spoken to the world is through his Son. In Hebrews 1:1-4 (NIV) we read
‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.’
The most remarkable claim of the Bible is that God is far from hidden away in the sky. But has actually entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ. I know of one Christian who when asked ‘Have you ever seen God?’ liked to reply ‘I would have seen God if I had lived at the right time. Have you seen Queen Victoria?’
At the heart of my confidence that God is there is the person of Jesus. We read ‘the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.’ Only Christianity claims that God has spoken by turning up personally in our world. And the great news is that we can investigate that for ourselves. We can read one of the gospels – discover what happened in the life of Jesus.
For as we read we learn all about the character of God – what he makes of us – what he wants from us.
Romans: 5:6-8 (NIV) ‘ You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
4) God reveals himself through the church
God is at work in the world today building his church. The church remains imperfect in so many ways but the testimony of many who have found God to be real is that one of the things that helped them to arrive is getting to know other Christians. Seeing a little bit more at first hand the difference God makes to individual lives and to the lives of a community. We read in a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Ephesians (3:10-12, NIV)
‘His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus.’
If you’re trying to discover whether God is there can I invite you to keep coming. Decide for yourself whether there is anything in the life of the church here at City that suggests God is at work amongst us – in our relationships and community. Next Sunday we’ll be looking at our second question ‘Why did you create a world with so much misery?’ and then as we do once a month here at City we’ll be staying on for a church bring and share lunch. We’d love you to stay for that.
So those are four reasons why I think it’s fair to say God is far from hidden away.
1. The extraordinary odds against our universe even existing is evidence of a creator God. Our universe could simply have not happened by accident.
2. Our own consciences testify that atheism cannot be true. We simply refuse to live as if morality is false.
3. In Jesus Christ God has entered our world. His death for our sin is God’s great statement that he is a God who is for us not against us and his resurrection from the dead as an evident in history
4. The church is a living testimony to the difference knowing God makes and I encourage you to take a closer look.
When the evidence is taken all together I want to suggest that it’s not just a possibility but it is in fact the only explanation that makes sense of all the evidence.
I don’t know what your favourite tv viewing was over the Christmas time – mine had to be All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride. It featured a traditional reindeer sleigh fixed with a camera and featured two Sami women – the Sami people live in the artic circle – pulled by reindeer across the snows of the north in temperatures of minus 20 degrees.
And one fact in the programme grabbed my attention – between the months of November and February the Sami people do not see the sun in the sky. There is some daylight but no sight of the sun itself it is too low on the horizon.
They know the Sun is there – they feel its effect but they do not see it. And it reminded me of something Oxford Professor CS Lewis who became a Christian having been an atheist at the age of 30 once wrote:
‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’
Ass we draw towards our close I want also to say
B. God is willing to make himself clear to you
Here’s a question : ‘If God is there, would you want to know?’ Maybe there could be some truth in the suggestion that it’s not so much that God has hidden from us as much as we are not sure whether we want to find God. I wonder whether I could respectfully ask whether there is just a possibility that the problem could be on our side at least in part. I have friends who have been honest enough to say to me that they would rather not find out if God is there. They’d prefer not to think about it.
Thomas Nagel, studied philosophy at Oxford and complete his PhD at Harvard. He is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. Which is just a way of saying he is a very bright individual. In a book he wrote in 2001 entitled The Last Word he said the following:
I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Is there anything in me that doesn’t want God to be there? Nagel doesn’t want at the heart of the universe to discover a God – how about you? God could have written words in the sky, God could speak to you in a vision or a dream, God could show you he’s real through a bizarre series of inexplicable events but God has chosen to make himself known through Jesus at a moment in history for a very good reason . . . so that he could die for you! Surely that is the God who is worth knowing and know this please as we finish. Jesus never refused anyone. God does not discriminate – he says to each of us if we draw near to him he will draw near to us.
For all those thinking through issues of what the Bible says when it comes to the subject of homosexuality here is a response by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York to two new books that are both supportive of same-sex relationships within the church.
‘Contextualization is not – as is often argued – ‘giving people what they want to hear.’ Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.’
Tim Keller, Center Church, chapter 7 Intentional Contextualization
Which means that if we are to reach our city with the gospel of Christ we will need to establish churches and ministries that are committed to the city and that can also effectively engage the people of the city. The future of the city is therefore our theme because it has never been more important to discern all that is required to contextualise the never-changing gospel in an ever-changing city.
At this year’s 2020birmingham conference we will ask:
- What are the challenges and opportunities?
- What does the church need to do and be?
- What does it mean to serve the good of the city?
- What might it look like to not just live in the city but to love it now and in the future?
This year’s 2020 conference will equip you and your church to better understand what lies ahead so that, with humble confidence, we can do effective ministry now and in the coming years. We want to cultivate ministries that both honour God and bless the lives of those who live in our great city.
We are delighted that the Rt. Revd. David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham will be one of our speakers.
‘From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.’ Acts 17:26-27
2020birmingham is a catalyst for church-planting in our city seeking to assist in the planting of 20 new churches in our city between 2010 and 2020. For a brief introduction to the story so far visit Momentum. We are also part of City to City Europe.
In an earlier post we reflected on the fact that the virtue of compassion belongs, properly and uniquely, to a Christian worldview. In this second and concluding post we consider our response to the call of the gospel to live out lives of compassion.
Compassion: Our virtue
No wonder Brian Borgman in his book Feelings and Faith insists the Lord Jesus is our pattern for compassion. We need not only to see people as he saw them but feel for them as he felt for them.
How is compassion something that we can cultivate? Without doubt it is a deep reflection on the gospel of Christ that produces and promotes compassion within us. Tim Keller argues ‘to the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need.’ Once I consider that Jesus was moved to meet my need I begin to see that others share my neediness and I can choose to cultivate compassion wherever I see need.
A Christianity without compassion is a Christianity unmoved by the gospel and where there is little or no concern for a world in need there can be little of Christ in our hearts. It’s quite possible for even a prophet of God to fail in this regard. Human nature, unmoved by the gospel will, like the prophet Jonah, place limits on those for whom we ought to be concerned. Jonah was indifferent to the fate that awaited the people of Nineveh when sent by God to warn of impending judgement. That God was a God of compassion was a cause of complaint because the heart of Jonah was not shaped by the heart of God. So much so that when the Ninevites repented and God’s anger was assuaged Jonah’s anger only grew! As far as Jonah was concerned God’s compassion ‘ seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.’ (Jonah 4:1-2, NIV). My problem, Jonah concedes, is that you are a God of all compassion.
Compassion: A unique opportunity
Bruce Sheiman isn’t the first to see something unique in the kind of love shown by Jesus and his followers. Emperor Julian (332-363 AD) was the last Roman Ruler to persecute Christians yet even he could not fail to recognise that a love shaped by the cross of Christ is radical. He wrote of how the cause of Christianity ‘has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.’
Brian Borgman invites us to join him in praying; ‘May God the Father, who is full of compassion, and the Lord Jesus who is our model of compassion, fill us through the Holy Spirit with the holy emotion of compassion that compels us to relieve suffering, misery, loneliness, and lostness wherever we can. When we do that, people will see Jesus.’
This is the final post in a three part series interacting with Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow. In the first post I reviewed this very helpful book looking at how to grow your church, in the second post I suggested three reasons why a church might not grow that were not the focus of his book and in this final post I ask three further questions related to the issue.
4. Is growth always desirable?
Another suggestion, woven into the structure of the book is that churches progress if they go from small through to large, and that this is the best way to grow. Evans argues ‘the wise use of scarce resources (money, time and ability) means that growing a large church may be better than developing many smaller churches, all of which need gifted speakers and leaders to take them forward.’ I don’t find the logic of the argument compelling. Further thinking needs to be given to considering the question of whether growing large churches is the way to maximise gospel effectiveness. Whilst some churches remain medium to awkward size because they can’t grow, others remain that size because they choose to give away growth. The approach our church has taken in Birmingham, along with a number of others in the city, has been to pursue growth through multiple church-planting. The result has been the multiplication of gospel witness as we minister in more communities across the city. By working closely together we also ensure ideas, resources and vision can be shared. We reach many more people, raise up many more leaders and mobilise many more members into ministry than we could as a single congregation. It is a decision to grow, but to grow through multiplication, and is a decision at the same time not to grow quite as much as a mother church.
5. Is growth achievable given our current resources?
Evans says ‘great leadership is about character and skills combined.’ True enough, but for growing a church, a third aspect of great leadership cannot be overlooked, and that is gifting. Ready, Steady, Grow does not address to what extent the reason a church does not grow is the God-given limitations of the leadership. I use the word limitation advisedly because I do not want to suggest in any way that a limitation is a failure. Do some churches grow because God not only gives gifts but the measure of a gift? We ought to expect leaders to be leading to their full potential, and yet be leading different sized churches. We ought to expect the gift-mix that God has given different leaders to enable them to serve congregations with different dynamics.
Leaders can be made to feel guilty if their churches are not growing – how many dread the question ‘how many attend your church?’ Measure of gifting can be a blind-spot in thinking. Some leaders have simply been unable to recognise that reality. It’s not an easy thing to recognise our own limitations, and that perhaps the greatest barrier to further growth might be me!
For some churches, if the desire of a congregation is growth through to large church, a leader may need to demonstrate leadership by appointing someone more gifted to pastor a larger church. Learning to lead may well mean leading through the leadership of others.
6. How important is contextualisation for church growth?
One significant factor in growing Biblical churches that is not the focus of Evans’ book is contextualisation. Many churches don’t grow because they (no longer?) are able to effectively engage their communities. The apostle Paul memorably wrote ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ Until and unless we recognise this issue, growth will be limited.
Tim Keller has commented that ‘culture is complex, subtle, and inescapable.’ The consequence is that if we want to grow our churches, we must always be deliberately thinking about our culture. Keller concludes: ‘No church can be all things to all people. There is no culturally neutral way of doing ministry. The urban church will have to choose practices that reflect the values of some cultural group . . .nevertheless, the ever-present challenge is to work to make urban ministry as broadly appealing as possible and as inclusive of different cultures as possible.’
If our churches are to grow, sooner or later we need to help leaders engage with culture and contextualise faithfully to their ever-changing communities.
The contents of this series first appeared as a review for Foundations Journal.
This is the third post in a look at the question ‘What is marriage?’ We began by recongising that there are at least 5 reasons why we need to look at this issue afresh. In the last post we considered the consequences that have flowed from the radical redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract that has taken place in our society since the 1960’s.
Now I want us to reflect on just how what the Bible teaches us about marriage as a covenant relationship changes the way we might think about marriage. The five headings I’m using come from Andreas Kostenberger’s book God, marriage and family. As we go through each one I’m going to touch briefly on how a marriage covenant points us to a better understanding of God who has made a covenant with us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If marriage were merely a contract between two parties then it could be temporary but because it is covenant established by God it is permanent. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4-6 and in particular his conclusion ‘what God has joined together let not man separate’ makes that clear.When Christians marry we must never marry thinking to ourselves well if things don’t work out for me in this relationship, if I am unhappy, unfulfilled, or if our lives are pulling in different directions then I can always leave.
As Tim Keller says ‘to break faith with your spouse is to break faith with God at the same time.’
James Dobson wrote a letter to his finance shortly before their wedding day and he said ‘I want you to understand and be fully aware of my feelings concerning the marriage covenant we are about to enter. I have been taught at my mother’s knee and in conformity to the word of God that the marriage vows are inviolable and my entering into them I am binding myself absolutely and for life – the idea of estrangement from you through divorce for any reason at all will never be permitted to enter my thinking. I’m not naive on this on the contrary I’m fully aware of the possibility, unlikely as it now appears, that mutual incompatibility or other unforeseen circumstances could result in extreme mental suffering. If such becomes the case I am resolved for my part to accept it as a consequence of the commitment I am now making and to bear if necessary to the end of our lives together.’
How does this point us to God?
This costly sacrifice that comes from committing ourselves by way of covenant is what we see demonstrated by God in the gospel. He made a covenant to love us and he has kept that covenant even though it caused considerable pain to do so.
2. The sacredness of marriage
Because marriage is a relationship not just ordained by God but as John Stott says ‘sealed by God’ only God can end a marriage. It is not for us to decide that a marriage is finished but for God to say it may be finished. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:1-12 address marriage, divorce and singleness and in this series we will spend quite a bit of time in this passage. In his comments on divorce we read very sobering words that tell us that if we end a marriage for reasons that God has not permitted then any subsequent remarriage is sinful and adulterous. Jesus says, Matt. 19v.9, I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ What Jesus teaches in this declaration is that there might be divorces that, whatever we might like to think, are not divorces in God’s eyes. For him the first marriage is not over.
Sealed by God, our marriages are sacred. As his children so we must therefore work on my marriage, invest in it, nurture and feed it.
How does this point us to God? In the gospel we see God practicing what he preaches. However weak our love is and however many times we may fail God his covenant loyalty means that he will not break promise with us or himself. It is a sacred bond. Our relationship with God is not performance-based and he will not withhold his love or his affection because we struggle to honour our commitments. That said, Scripture’s warning is also clear that if we deny Christ and forsake him our covenant with God is broken. ‘If we disown him, he will also disown us’ (2 Tim. 2:12).
3. The intimacy of marriage
In the beginning God says everything in his perfect world is good. That is the constant refrain of chapter 1. But there is one thing that is not good and that is that the man is alone. Now, interestingly, God says it is not good before Adam appears to have noticed that it is not good. There is no evidence in the passage that Adam is lonely. As Christopher Ash points out in Married for God ‘marriage is not there to solve the problems of loneliness.’
Our culture tells us that we will be unfulfilled unless we one day marry. That is not so. In heaven we will not be married, the Lord Jesus never married and many Christians down the ages have testified to lives lived fully for Christ as single people. We will return to this theme later. Rather it is the job that God has given Adam to do that means it is not good for him to be alone.
Marriage is a gift of God to help us fulfil the work God has given us to do. In Genesis 1v27-28 we read ‘so God created man, in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’
Part of God’s purpose for marriage is godly offspring. Christopher Ash says ‘we ought to want children in marriage because we want to serve God. The Creator entrusts to married couples the awesome privilege and responsibility of pro-creating.’
There are many ways to serve God but the distinctive way in which couples in marriage are to serve God is bringing up godly children. Ash says ‘never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God! For many, especially mothers what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering careers in the eyes of the world.’
God’s purpose for marriage addresses two big questions of our day.
Why would God not approve of same-sex marriage?
If marriage is about companionship then it might be that a stable, loving, committed homosexual relationship would be considered equal in God’s eyes with a heterosexual one. But, whilst not the only argument against that conclusion, a key one is that God’s purposes in marriage are pro-creation. I want to point you to this little book called Is God anti-gay? It’s written by a friend of mine, who is a church leader and whilst preferring not to use the title ‘gay’ to describe himself he is someone who is attracted to other men. Drawing on those words of Genesis 1 he says ‘God’s purposes in marriage depend on hetero-sexual relations.’ Marriage is designed to bring children into the world.
Whilst in a perfect world God’s design for every marriage is children, living as we do this side of the fall, sadly, not every marriage enjoys the blessing of children. Jane and I know something of that pain personally having waited 12 years to have kids. If this a personal struggle for you or friends can I commend the book Just the two of us written by a friend.
Why is sex outside of marriage wrong?
God’s design for marriage is that Adam and Eve should express their perfect intimacy through the union of their bodies. In Genesis 2:24 we read ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ Sex is the body-language of perfect self-giving intimacy that befits marriage. Sex outside of marriage is to tell a lie with our bodies because when we give our bodies to another – when we are united to them – and yet are not commitment to them through the marriage bond we make one promise with our bodies that we are not ready to make with our whole lives.
The intimacy of marriage does point us to the greater intimacy that God offers to us in the gospel. At the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:4, we read ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’ Our need for close, intimate relationship will be fully met in Christ. What many of us are looking for from a marriage is actually to be found in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the next post two further ways in which marriage as covenant changes our view of marriage.
What is marriage?
There can be no doubt that one of the most significant events of 2013 was the passing of legislation by Parliament re-defining marriage. At the heart of the debate, whether acknowledged or not , was the question ‘what kind of relationship is marriage?’ And the reason that Christians and our non-Christian friends have found ourselves talking past each other and have failed to find any common ground is simply this; in our society there has been a silent revolution that has taken place over the past 40 years or more in which marriage has ceased to be understood as a covenant and come to be understood as a contract.
What is the difference?
At the heart of the idea of marriage as contract, Tim Keller argues, is the idea that personal fulfilment and individual happiness. So much so that therefore ‘we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs.’ Many might talk of a marriage being over because ‘we have fallen out of love,’ or ‘have drifted apart.’ Marriage vows still give the impression that marriage is a covenant – huge life-long promises are still made – yet the change in mindset that has also seen the introduction of no-fault divorce demonstrating the reality that marriage in our culture is a contract masquerading as a covenant.
Unlike a contract, in covenants we bind ourselves to another ‘come what may.’ The relationship, rather than personal fulfilment, is the centre. Keller argues that perhaps the only covenantal relationship that we can still relate to in our culture is that of parent and child. Parents put the child and the relationship ahead of individual happiness and comfort. Parents sacrifice and serve and seek the well-being of the other ahead of their own. It’s practically unthinkable to imagine someone coming into work announcing that their relationship with their kids was over. Well until relatively recent times it was almost as unthinkable that the marriage relationship could end.
Here’s a table showing how the change from covenant to contract has impacted marriage. In 2011 there were 117558 divorces, in 1860 there were 103. After the 1969 reform act the figures grow exponentially. Why was divorce so rare for so long? Because in our culture marriage was regarded as a binding covenant.
At least three things flow from this biggest redefinition of marriage away from covenant to contract.
1. Falling marriage rates. The reason people say marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’ is because they are viewing it as an economic contract. Whether or not to marry at all is now really no different from going into the phone shop and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of a contract phone vs. pay as you go. Co-habitation is simply pay as you go. So the table tracks that general decline over 40 years.
2. General acceptance of no fault divorce ad steep rises in divorce rate. Again, that’s what the table shows us.
3. Freedom to redefine marriage and therefore who may enter the relationship. Why should we exclude same-sex couples who wish to make their commitment to each other if marriage is a contract the terms of which we define. And now that same-sex marriage has been accepted by society it’s not surprising that growing numbers of people want polygamous relationships recognised too. Why should we limit a love agreement to 2 people? So in Brazil last year a civil union was established between a man and two women.
What does this mean for Christians and their view of marriage?
The real danger for us in establishing healthy marriages will probably not come from the challenge presented by the re-definition of marriage that took place last year but the cultural shift that represents the redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract over the past 40 years. What tv and Hollywood have done to redefine marriage is far more likely to shape the way you think about marriage, even your own, than recent events.
Tim Keller writes ‘the very idea of ‘covenant’ is disappearing in our culture. Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we must take time to understand it.’
For, as we will see in our next post, Jesus says marriage is not a contract but a covenant.
So far in this series we’ve considered how preaching needs to be both biblical and gospel-centred. A sermon is biblical if the big idea of the passage being preached is the main application of the text. A sermon is gospel-driven if the preacher shows how the big idea of the passage is fulfilled in Christ and points to him as saviour and Lord. We turn now to consider gospel-driven preaching.
What is gospel-driven preaching?
A gospel-driven sermon is one that not merely shows how the passage is fulfilled in the gospel but then builds further to show how the gospel enables both our justification and sanctification. The gospel enables the Christian life from beginning to end and thus drives our lives.
Whether or not we have grasped how the gospel enables our obedience of faith will shape the way we preach. Bryan Chapell has said Ultimately, the issue all preachers must confront is what they believe to be the relationship between people’s conduct and God’s acceptance.
How does gospel-driven preaching work?
1. The goal of gospel-driven sermons is to make real to everyone who hears them, both Christian and non-Christian, that they need Jesus more today than yesterday. In particular the Christian increasingly grasps the sense in which he needs to continually trust in Christ and look to him in order to live the life he wants to live.
2. In application, gospel-driven sermons celebrate that the Christian life from beginning to end is a work of grace and a work of God. Our justification is a free gift of God and our sanctification flows from our justification as the spirit-enabled work of God in our lives.
Typically, as we consider Christ, we ask that by his Spirit he might stir up godly-affections, renew our minds and motivate our wills to live for him. But importantly we give the necessary time and consideration to ask just how the gospel, rightly appropriated, can enable the life of faith.
Reading through Ephesians 4:17 to 6:9 we see, time and again that Paul uses gospel indicatives to drive gospel imperatives. Perhaps the most developed example in this passage is Paul’s instruction to husbands to love their wives. He gives us gospel reasons and incentives to obey: we love our wives because Christ loves the church. But through-out the section we find micro-examples eg. don’t get drunk on wine but be filled with the Spirit.
5:1-2 summarises the principle when Paul says Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Good preaching won’t just tell you to do it but will i) move you to obedience and ii) show you what that obedience looks like.
3. Gospel-driven sermon must avoid both legalism and moralism
Tim Keller has helped me, more than any other, to realise that the non-Christian listening to your sermon thinks your message, unless you correct him, is one of legalism. He thinks that religion amounts to ‘obey to be accepted.’ The gospel of justification is the message of free grace. It says ‘because you are accepted, obey!’ Romans 6, Romans 12:1-2, Titus 2:11-14.
The Christian listening to your sermon thinks the message of the gospel is moralism where Christianity amounts to ‘because Jesus has done this for you, you now do this for him.’ Moralistic preaching has terrible consequences for both the individial believer and the church.
The basic problem, is that even Christians do not ordinarily live as if the gospel is true. We don’t really believe the gospel deep down. We are living as if we save ourselves. – Tim Keller
4. Gospel-driven application works hard to make the connection between
- The message of the text as understood by its original hearers
- How it is fulfilled in Christ
- How it leads to gospel change in the lives of Christians and non-Christians
5. Gospel sermons recreate what Tim Keller calls the gospel-renewal dynamic.
At the heart of gospel-driven preaching is the fundamental conviction that the Christian life we are called to live is one we cannot live but Christ can live in us.
[Gospel] preaching assures God’s people that their relationship with him is secure by virtue of God’s provision [and] nourishes the faith that becomes the motivation and enablement of true holiness. God’s people serve God out of love for him and with confidence of his provision. – Bryan Chapell.
6. The result of all of this is that gospel sermons preach the gospel to Christians and non-Christians at one and the same time.
As Keller has often said we need to preach the gospel to the Christian because she needs it for sanctification and the non-Christian who needs it for sanctification.
Some questions to ask of our sermon:
• How do I know that I have preached a gospel sermon over against a moralistic one?
• Have I just told people to obey, to ‘just do it’?
• Have they left thinking that the life the gospel calls on them to try harder?
• Is the heart of my application that the Christian life is a life we cannot live, that Jesus has lived for us and now in him we can begin to live.
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