Is God a Moral Monster? (Pt 1)

Last Sunday at Grace we looked a particularly thorny issue, one that when it is raised makes even the best Christian grimace; that is, the questionable actions of the God when he commands the people of Israel to wipe out entire nations such as the Canaanites – including men, women and children. What kind of God would do this? We would certainly condemn this if anyone did this today.

If, for example, the Mexican government decided to rid their country of drug lords by blowing up every building where they knew they were hiding, killing everyone inside – men, women and children, there would be international outrage. If the U.N. decided to do away with the problem of ISIS by poisoning all their water supplies and thereby killing off entire towns and cities, they would all be put on trial for war crimes.

So why should God get away with it? The answer, according to many is he shouldn’t. Richard Dawkins, a leading voice amidst the New Atheists[1] says,

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[2]

He goes on, ‘the Bible’s story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds or the Mash Arabs.’ His words are echoed by Charles Templeton who states:

“The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians … His justice is, by modern standards, outrageous…. He is biased, querulous, vindictive, and jealous of his prerogatives.”[3]

Robert Wilson, another strong critic of the God of the Old Testament says,

“The Bible tells us to be like God, and then on page after page it describes God as a mass murderer.”

Those are pretty hefty accusations. What do we make of them? Are such portrayals of God accurate? The answers are critically important because Christians are wanting to tell the world about a God of love who is patient, forgiving, and slow to anger. Those who have some knowledge of the bible are saying, “Really? That’s not what I’m hearing.” There appears to be a real disconnect between what Christians are saying about God versus what is actually recorded in the Bible.

The Evidence

Let’s start with the evidence. Did God really command the wiping out of entire populations by the Israelites? Well, as a matter of fact, yes he did. In Deuteronomy chapter 7 we find this:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and he drives out many nations before you—the Hethites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you—and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:1–2)

Further on in chapter 20 of Deuteronomy, God says,

“However, you must not let any living thing survive among the cities of these people the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. You must completely destroy them—the Hethite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite—as the Lord your God has commanded you,” (Deuteronomy 20:16–17)

Later in the book of Joshua, which records for us Israel taking the city of Jericho, it appears they took these commands seriously and literally:

“They [the Israelites] completely destroyed everything in the city with the sword—every man and woman, both young and old, and every ox, sheep, and donkey.” (Joshua 6:21)

If genocide is to be defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people especially those of a nation or a particular group” (Oxford Dictionary), then there appears to be a case to answer. So where do we go from here?

The Defence (seeing the big picture)

Well, as with anything in life, its easy to jump to conclusions when you don’t see the full picture. If you had walked around the corner just as my dad was giving a beating to one of our farm dogs, you would have yelled in horror and reported him for animal cruelty. What you didn’t know is that that particular dog, only an hour beforehand, had bitten one of my sisters for merely stepping over him, leaving her with a nasty gash and five stitches. You also would not have seen the tears in the corner of my dad’s eyes because he loved animals and would never do anything to intentionally hurt them. My dad was trying to save the dog’s life. If it bit one us again, he would have to put it down.

It’s a poor analogy I know because we are not talking about dogs here but humans. But bear with me (no pun intended). What happens when we step back from these isolated passages where God commands Israelites to take out entire civilizations and look at them in the wider context of the entire bible? Well, what we find that they take on a whole different meaning altogether.

The bible is not just a collection of random, ad hoc, arbitrary stories that don’t relate. They are in fact, part of a bigger story – the story of redemption, which has at its focus the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you don’t understand the big story, you are going to get all the other little stories horribly wrong.

The Bible begins with a supremely good God who creates a wholly good universe. Everything is perfect. Then one day the first humans start thinking about what life would be like without God. They acted on these thoughts, rebelled against God and we have suffered the consequences ever since. All human suffering – sickness and disease, hostility and war, violence and hatred, as well as all forms of human abuse including rape, incest, and human trafficking is caused by this rebellion. It is God, not man, who takes the initiative and sets in place a plan to reverse these terrible effects by dealing with their root cause which is sin.

The plan takes time to unfold. God is in no rush. There are many twists and turns along the way. It’s not all plain sailing and people don’t respond to God’s commands as consistently as they should. But it’s all heading somewhere – a complete reversal of all that went wrong in a new heavens and a new earth where there will be no more sin or crying or tears or pain. Why should God do all this? Well, the simple answer is he shouldn’t. He’s under no obligation, as the Creator of life, to do anything to help us. But he does.

With this new set of glasses on, you soon realize that God is no monster. We are ones who are monsters.

As I said to my mother one day as she was trying to persuade me that all human beings are naturally good and they just need a little help in that direction; I answered, “On the contrary mother, there’s a little Hitler in each one of us.” She was horrified and offended at this remark. I said, “Given the right conditions and the right place, if all restraints were taken off us, the human heart is capable of the worst atrocities.” One only has to read the likes of The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, where well-educated and civilized Englishmen are dropped into the middle of Africa, where the prospect of endless wealth and power transforms them into monsters, and they commit the vilest of acts against fellow human beings. Get a copy. It makes for wonderful bedtime reading.

The cry of this generation is that of Voltaire, the French philosopher – “How can God be so cruel?” The cry of Martin Luther, the great German reformer was something quite different: “How can God be so merciful?” The reason why so many of us side with Voltaire and not Luther is we don’t understand the seriousness of sin nor the pure character of God. If we did, we would never accuse him of such things as we do today.

The more pertinent question, therefore, is not why did God command such cruel atrocities as destroying the Canaanites, but why does he not command the complete destruction of the entire human race? Because if we really knew ourselves, we would conclude without equivocation, that he should do just that.

Let’s say you happen to buy this argument up until this point. Your next question would be, then why did God target these particular nations? What did he have specifically against the Canaanites? The answer is plenty.

But that is going to have to wait for my next post.

Note: this post was based on a sermon of the same title.  It is part of a Hot Topics series we are working through at our church.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here

[1] The New Atheists (led by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others) propose that religion – all religion – is not just false, but dangerous to civilization itself. Dawkins concludes his book, The God Delusion, by arguing that raising children to be religious is a form of child abuse. The new atheism is far more aggressive than the old and could be summed up in the statement, “There is no God, and I hate him!”

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Black Swan, 2007), p.31

[3] Charles Templeton, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, p.71

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New Zealand’s Silent Epidemic (part 2)

We continue with this very sensitive and painful subject of suicide. We need to talk about it because people too many lives are being lost. We need to talk about it because those who are left – the forgotten ones, are hurting and need our compassion and understanding.

In my last post, we looked at some of the contributing causes of suicide and the impact on the survivors of a suicide. This time we look at the warning signs, the matter of a Christian taking his/her own life, and then hope for the hurting and the hopeless.

Warning Signs of Suicide

The best way to help prevent more suicides in our country is to be on the lookout for it. What are some of the warning signs of someone contemplating suicide? Being aware of these things may mean the difference between life and death.

  • Talking about suicide. This is the most obvious. Often people will talk about suicide in a hypothetical way as if they themselves are getting used to the idea. Don’t simply brush that off. It’s your first warning sign.
  • Talking or looking for a way to take their life. The person is now beyond the hypothetical. Now it’s real.
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose. They have lost hope. When you lose hope, you lose any incentive to live.
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Withdrawing from other people.
  • Showing extreme mood swings.
  • Self-destructive behaviour.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Posting notes about suicide online, or posting photos or videos about suicide.
  • Giving away possessions or “tying up loose ends.”

Be on the lookout for clues. Considering the statistics on suicide in our country, it is likely these things could be going on with someone you know right under your nose. It could be anyone – a friend, a family member, a neighbour or a co-worker. It could even be a fellow believer – another Christian, which raises a rather thorny issue: what happens when a Christian commits suicide?

Suicide and the Christian

Sadly, the church has been less-than-kind with its treatment on this subject. Augustine, in the 5th century, declared that suicide was self-murder and a violation of the sixth commandment. 13th-century Theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to moral law and charity.” The Catholic Church adopted this position, excommunicating people who commit suicide and refusing to conduct their funerals.

What does the Bible teach? Well, the bible doesn’t deal with suicide directly. It does deal, however with the root cause which is spiritual alienation from God brought about by the fall. The result is what we see in our world: sorrow and despair and sickness and disease and corruption and decay – in every part of human life. We are broken people living in a broken world. And sometimes life can be so miserable it doesn’t seem worth living.

Moses and Elijah are considered heroes of the faith. Yet they both asked God to take their lives. The Apostle Paul got so depressed on one occasion said that he despaired even of life (2 Cor. 1:8). Sometimes God’s people find themselves in a place where they feel so terrible they want to die. It happens – even to the godliest people.

You say, “So why did the church in the past take such a hard-line view?” They considered suicide to be the unforgivable sin because it allowed no possibility of repentance. But then, when you think about it, that would apply also to any sudden death, such as a heart attack or a car accident. And in fact, no one dies with a complete cleansed conscience.

So how are we to think about this as Christians? Well, we need to go back to the gospel. The gospel teaches:

  • All men are sinners. (Romans 3:23)
  • Sin leads to death. (Romans 6:23)
  • Those who trust Christ are completely forgiven of all their sins. (Ephesians 1:7)
  • Those who trust Christ know that they have eternal life. (I John 5:13)
  • Nothing can separate the child of God from the love of God. (Romans 8:38-39)

That last text is significant. Let me read it to you:

“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)

So, no matter how difficult or discouraging or bad things get – including the things we cause, nothing can separate the believer from God’s love – including a case of suicide.

Is suicide wrong? Yes, of course. People are hurt by it and God – the sole giver and taker of life is grieved by it. Is it forgivable? Of course it is forgivable, just like every other sin if forgivable, when you have placed your trust in Jesus to save you. Suicide doesn’t send people to hell. Sin sends people to hell – specifically, the sin of rejecting God’s Son Jesus, who came to rescue us.

The real issue of life and death is this: What have you done with Jesus Christ? That’s the one decision that determines where you go when you die, not whether or not you take your own life. And that brings me to my last point:

Hope for the Hopeless and the Hurting

Have a look at these words from Jesus:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)

Jesus is referring to Satan. Satan is a thief. He steals, he kills, he destroys. Everything God touches comes to life. Everything Satan touches turns to death. Behind every death – every murder, every terminal illness, every casualty of war or famine or disease and yes – every suicide, is the mocking face of Satan, delighting that he has another victim.

Jesus came to bring life. The Son of God, by way of his death and resurrection, grants the gift of eternal life – freely, instantly, and permanently. And you don’t have to wait until you get to heaven to experience that life. You can experience it now.

If you are a suicide survivor, Jesus is there for you as well. He knows. He knows pain and sorrow and suffering. He knows what it is to feel abandoned and alone. He experienced all that, for you. So draw near to him. Allow him to minister to you, through his people. That’s how God will restore you. You might say, “They just won’t understand.” Help them understand. Talk to them. Share your heart with them. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, you will feel vulnerable. But it is in our vulnerability that the grace of God flows through others to us. And after the Lord has restored you, it can flow back through to others.

Conclusion

If you feel life has become too much for you – your problems are too big for you, your sorrow is too deep for you; if you feel like you’re a failure in this world – a failure to your family or a failure to yourself or a failure to God – there is hope. There is one who loves you more deeply than you could imagine. He is the One who made you and who wants to bless you and has sent his own Son to come and die for you – just so that he can enjoy your presence with him forever.

In the end, we are all left with a choice that we have to make every single day. When Moses stood before the people of Israel as they were poised to enter the Promised Land, he ended his message with these words: “I have set before you life and death. Now choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

In the same way, I call heaven and earth to testify that I have set life and death before you. So choose life. Don’t choose death. Choose life.

Note: this post was based on a sermon entitled “Suicide.”  It is part of a Hot Topics series we are working through at our church.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.  You can also listen to the discussion forum that followed here.

Postscript: There are many working on the front line of suicide prevention. They have to deal with difficult situations, sometimes on a daily basis. Here is a short clip of a call from someone to a suicide helpline desk. When I first watched it I was shocked that nothing more was done to help the individual on the line. Then I realized this is only one of the hundreds of calls they receive in a given week. Pray for them!

 

New Zealand’s Silent Epidemic (part 1)

Back by popular demand, we are launching the second “Hot Topics” series here at Grace. We want to address the issues that people outside the church are often asking and those inside the church have difficulty answering. We’ll be covering issues such as God commanding genocide in the Old Testament, Divorce and Remarriage, Israel and the Middle East and more. Last Sunday we started the series off on a very difficult and challenging subject – SUICIDE.

The number of people who have taken their own lives in New Zealand is the highest since records began, with 668 dying by suicide in the past year.

  • According to the Ministry of Health, a further 150,000 people think about committing suicide, around 50,000 make a plan to take their own life, and around 20,000 attempt suicide.
  • The highest number of suicides was the 20-24-year-old group with 76 deaths. The next highest was the 45-49-year-old group with 67 deaths.
  • Twice as many people die by suicide in New Zealand than on our roads.
  • New Zealand also has the highest death rate for teenagers and young people in the developed world.
  • Every 24 hours, Police respond to 90 calls involving a person with a mental health crisis, including suicide attempts.

Unlike other countries, New Zealand has strict laws governing what can and can’t be said in the media about suicide. No report of a suspected suicide can mention any detail that may suggest it was a suicide, or suspected suicide, until a coroner rules accordingly. The fear is that the mere mention of the word might act as a trigger for some people and incite copycat behavior. But not talking about it is not going to make it go away. Unless we start talking about, high suicide rates in Aotearoa are here to stay.

The Causes of Suicide

It is virtually impossible to determine why exactly people chose to take their own lives. Only 1 in 4 leaves a suicide note behind, which only serves as a clue and never the exact reason someone takes their own life. A suicide might be triggered by divorce or loss of a job, but those may not be the actual causes. Suicidal desires run much deeper, and any one event could act as a trigger. A report from the Centre for Disease Control in the U.S. states,

“Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems.”

Children who witness violence in their home are six times more likely to die by suicide. Those who are divorced are two and a half times more likely to attempt suicide. 70% of teens who attempt suicide have parents who are divorced. Police Offices are more likely to consider suicide and so are war veterans. Pastors are also in the higher risk category of suicide, and those in the construction industry. Writers and musicians and other creative people are more vulnerable to depression and suicide, as they are prone to introspection and depression.

William Cowper, one of the greatest Christian poets and hymn writers of 18th century England, was plagued with lifelong depression. Despite his success and fame, he attempted suicide on multiple occasions, by way of a drug overdose, jumping off a bridge and hanging. He died in despair, convinced he had been abandoned by God. This is a very godly man we are talking about. It’s tragic.

Here are some other contributing factors that researchers have come up with:

PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS
About 2/3 of suicides involve clinical depression or a history of chronic mental illness. The depression becomes so unbearable and overwhelming one’s perception is blurred and all one wants to do is escape the pain.

SOCIOLOGICAL FACTORS
We live in a fragmented world. People are becoming more and more isolated. Sociologist Robert Putnam says society has lost its “social capital” – the networks that develop in any community. There was a day when almost everyone participated in a volunteer role in their community. Not anymore. We are more isolated than we’ve ever been.

ECONOMIC FACTORS
Financial failure, bankruptcy, and job layoffs are contributing factors for people considering taking their lives. Sadly, people equate loss of money with loss of a purpose to live.

BULLYING
Bullying is a serious issue today. Youth who are bullied have higher levels of suicide-related behaviour than those who are not bullied. LGBT teenagers, in particular, have an increased risk of suicide thoughts and behaviours. In many cases, gay identity clashes with religious or parental expectations. Elizabeth Lowe, a 14-year-old from Manchester, England hanged herself after struggling to reconcile her sexual identity with her Christian faith. She feared telling her parents she was a lesbian.

Let’s be talking and listening to our kids shall we parents? Let’s be talking to our kids about bullying at school. Let’s be asking them if anyone is sending them disturbing texts or posting anything about them on social media. They take it hard, and they need people they can trust to talk to. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Suicide is a man’s attempt to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless.” Let’s give our children and young people a meaning to live for.

The Survivors of Suicide

While suicides often take place in isolation, the effects aren’t. Every suicide leaves behind at least six survivors – sometimes ten or more. They are the ones left picking up the pieces. According to the American Psychiatric Association,

“the level of stress resulting from the suicide of a loved one is ranked as catastrophic – equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience.”

Shock, disbelief, numbness, confusion, sorrow and despair, feelings of rejection and abandonment, guilt, regret and a sense of failure, shame, anger, rage, anxiety and fear, sleeplessness and depression are some of the realities that survivors of suicide experience. And we’re not talking about days or weeks here, but months and sometimes years.

Psychologists differentiate between grief and trauma. Grief is a natural reaction to loss. Trauma, on the other hand, is more complicated. One counselor defines it as,

“the experience of something shocking happening to someone that produces some kind of inner injury and affects the person’s ability to function in normal ways.”

Often the “survivors” feel a deep sense of responsibility for the loved one’s death. They are haunted by an endless series of “what ifs” and “if onlys.” What if I’d been there? What he had not been alone at the weekend? If only I checked up on him last night. If only I called a doctor. If only, if only, if only. Then, to add insult to injury – because of the social stigma accompanying suicide, there is shame. It’s one thing to tell someone that a person died in a car accident or from cancer. It’s another to say, “She killed herself.”

We may not be able to help those who have already taken their lives, but we can help those who are left. Survivors of suicides don’t need pat answers and clichés; they need our love and compassion. They need companions on their journey.

Here’s some simple advice on what to say and what not to say:

Things Not to Say

  1. “She/he is in a better place now.” (Even if that is true, it is not helpful)
  2. “I know how you feel.”
  3. “Everything happens for a reason.”
  4. “God never gives you more than you can handle.” (Not biblical!)
  5. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” (Actual help in concrete ways, like cleaning the house or providing meals, is more appreciated than mere words or promises).
  6. Any joking about people killing themselves, like “Oh if I fail this test, I’m going to kill myself.” (Please don’t joke like that. Suicide is not something to make light of.)

Things You Can Say

  1. Nothing (Just be present)
  2. “I’m really sorry” (and mean it)
  3. “I don’t know what to say” (You don’t need to have the perfect words to show you care)
  4. “Do you want to go out for coffee?”
  5. “I can’t imagine what you are feeling right now, can you help me understand.”
  6. “Tell me your story.”
  7. “Tell me what you want to remember about him/her.”

In my next post, we will look at the warning signs of someone who might be contemplating suicide, the matter of a Christian taking his/her own life, and finally some hope for the hurting and the hopeless.

To end off here, I’ve included a video clip we played during the service. It’s called “Left Behind” and tells the stories of some suicide survivors. Warning: you may need something to wipe your eyes.

Note: this post was based on a sermon entitled “Suicide.”  It is part of a Hot Topics series we are working through at our church.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.  You can also listen to the discussion forum that followed here.

 

All In

One year ago, I wrote about five unforgettable days I had at a Student Life Conference in Queenstown. They had invited me to be their speaker. Well, they must be tigers for punishment because they invited me back. And the experience was just as rich and rewarding as the first time. In fact, I think it even topped it.

The theme of this year’s camp was “All In.” If we are going to be followers of Jesus; if we are going to live for God’s cause, we have to be all in – not half in, not even three quarters in, but ALL IN. And everything they did at camp modeled that. When they sing, they sing loud. When they have fun, it’s all out fun. When they evangelize, it’s all hands on the deck and they hit the streets. When they open up the Bible, it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – no holds barred. There are no half-baked, half-hearted, half-in-half-out Christians among this lot. It would be very difficult for that type of individual, in this kind of environment, to survive.

Students in prayer for one another after a main teaching session

This year they had a record attendance of 140 plus students and leaders, as well as a larger-than-usual number of what they call “explorers.” These are the students on the campuses who have shown an interest in the Christian faith and want to know more. While the other students were attending their various levels of training, the explorers worked their way through a Christianity Explored course with some of the student leaders. They could ask any question they liked. Nothing was off limits.

I sat in on a discussion time one day. I was really impressed with the leader (thanks Joshua) in the way he led the discussion. When a question was asked, he didn’t jump to answer it. He let it sit, and then asked some of the others what they thought about it. Then he asked another question back, and then let that one sit. This slowed the discussion down and caused everyone in the group to think and ponder about the matter. I was suitably impressed and humbled. This was not the typical way I led a discussion in a group. God was teaching me something.

On my last day, each one of these “explorers” was paired up with a Christian. I got paired up with a student called Abi. Abi is from India and is studying biochemistry at Canterbury University. Abi comes from a Hindu background and was very eager to learn about Christianity. The difficulty is Hindus believe in many gods, and when you tell them Jesus is God, they are happy to add him to their collection of other gods. But for Jesus, that simply will not do. He commands exclusive allegiance to him alone. There can be no other gods.

With Abi after our talk together

I suspected Abi might have some difficulty with this, and I was right. So I kept gently bringing the conversation back to this (putting into practice what I’d learned from Joshua) and asked, “Why do you think Jesus demands exclusive loyalty to himself? There must be a reason for this; what do you think it could it be?” If Abi is ever to come to know and understand who Jesus is, it must be revealed to him. And in order for that to happen, he must first believe who he claimed to be. Faith comes before sight and not the other way around (which is why so many in Jesus’ day were blind to his true identity).

Student Life also taught me a lot about teamwork. I picked this up in their leadership meetings. There was a certain efficiency about the way they ran things. Everyone had a part, and they made sure the job gets done. Whatever they did, they did it with all their heart and to the best of their ability. One person talks during a meeting and everyone else listens. There is mutual respect and mutual love for each other and for the work they do. When Jesus prayed for unity; that Christians would be one as he and the Father were one, I think this is what he had in mind. It’s just the way he wanted it.

Reviewing the day with the staff teams from Otago and Canterbury

The impact this team and their work has on the students is quite stunning. Not only are students finding their way into the Kingdom of God, but they are also being trained and prepared for mission. Everything is aimed at that. Take Kathy for example, who has just finished a law degree and is giving up a year to be involved in a staff internship. Why? Because she has a heart for lost students and is more interested in seeing people won to Jesus than making good money. And take Josh, who is weighing up taking an internship with his local church after he graduates this year. Why? Because he’s passionate about the gospel and helping students get grounded in the Word of God.

All the full-time staff have given up opportunities to advance in their careers and establish themselves financially in the world so that they can advance God’s cause in the world and raise up more student labourers. It’s hard work with low pay and long hours. But it is also tremendously rewarding. The impact they are making in people’s lives will go on into eternity.

Driving out of camp to the airport, I began thinking: if only this kind of energy and passion and commitment could be generated in people in the local church and harnessed for mission in towns and cities across our country, the result would be absolutely staggering. This country would be a different place. Perhaps I should stop “wishing” and start praying. As William Carey once said, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” Perhaps my expectations of what God could do, along with those of my fellow pastors, is too low. We need to up our game.

Speaking of games, here’s a clip of a crazy one they came up with in one of the main sessions. Aim: stuff as many marshmallows in your mouth as you can and then pronounce a phrase to another team member. First one who gets it wins.

Enjoy.

God’s Powerful Word

We are all aware of the incredible power of words. The right words spoken in the right way have the power to change the course of a person’s life and a nation’s future. The wrong words spoken in the wrong way can devastate a person and lead a country to war. There’s not a person on earth who hasn’t been affected in a deep and lasting way – for good or for evil, by the utterances of a few words.

If the words uttered by mere mortals – who are imperfect as well as limited in power and knowledge can have such a marked impact on our lives, how much greater the impact of the words of God – who is utterly perfect and unlimited in power and knowledge?

This is what the Apostle Paul was reflecting on as he looked back on his time in Thessalonica. When he preached the Word of God there, some remarkable things started to happen. People responded and their lives were completely changed. Paul writes back to them and described what happened. He says in chapter 2 verse 13,

“This is why we constantly thank God, because when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you welcomed it not as a human message, but as it truly is, the word of God, which also works effectively in you who believe.” (1 Thess 2:13)

This is profound. No other verse in the Bible states so clearly and plainly how the Word of God comes to us and does a work in us.

Their reception of God’s Word

When the Apostle Paul stood up and spoke to the Thessalonians, they were conscious that what they were hearing was far more than the words of a mere man. It wasn’t just Paul airing his opinions. It wasn’t someone spouting the latest philosophy. They were hearing the words of God. And they received them as such. They welcomed them as such.

Paul says, “We constantly thank God for this…” Now, why would Paul thank God? Why would he thank God that the Thessalonians grasped the divine nature of his message? The reason is that God enabled them to do so.

There is a scene in the gospels where Jesus was with his disciples and he asked them who do people say that the Son of God is. They answered, “Some say he is John the Baptist; others say Elijah or Jerimiah or one of the Prophets.” And Jesus says, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Do you remember what Jesus says to him? “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17) Peter would never have come to that himself. God enabled Peter to see who Jesus really was.

“We thank God,” Paul says to the Thessalonians, “Because God gave you the eyes to see and the ears to hear the word for what it really is.”

If you are a follower of Jesus that is what has happened to you. You heard the words of a man (or woman) and something miraculous occurred. God opened your spiritual ears. He inclined your heart. You heard the words of man, but what you were really hearing was the word of God. You welcomed it. You embraced it. You took hold of it as something supremely precious and valuable. And as a result, you were changed.

Their transformation by God’s Word

When the Thessalonians heard Paul’s preaching, they were changed by it. God so acted to cause them to welcome and embrace his message as the Word of God. And when that Word got into them, it became living and active in them. Hebrews 4:12 says,

“For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The Word of God is sharp. It penetrates. It gets into places other people and other words can’t get into. It reads our minds. It’s like a divine x-ray beaming into every part of our soul, assessing, evaluating, judging and exposing. Verse 13 says,

“No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”

No one can hide from the all-piercing eye of God’s Word. I don’t know about you, but I welcome that. Because I know I need it. I can’t trust my own heart. I know my motives are often mixed. I need God to expose what’s really there.

The Word of God is powerful. It can do accomplish things human words could never accomplish.

  • For starters, the Word is able to save us. 1 Peter 2:13 says, “you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God.”
  • The Word of God teaches us. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
  • We find in the same verse that it also rebukes and corrects us. (2 Timothy 3:16)
  • And it trains us in righteousness. It shows us where we are going wrong and then points us in the right direction.
  • The Word of God also guides us. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.”
  • It counsels us. Psalm 119:24 says, “your decrees are my delight and my counselors.”
  • God’s Word warns us. Psalm 19:11 says, “your servant is warned by them, and in keeping them there is an abundant reward.”
  • It sanctifies us. In John 17:17 Jesus prays, “Sanctify them by your truth; your word is truth.”
  • The Word of God also cleanses us. Paul says in Ephesians 5:26 that we are cleansed by the washing of the Word.
  • It also frees and liberates us. Jesus says in John 8:31 and 32 the truth will set us free.
  • It gives us joy. John writes, “I write these things so that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:4).
  • It protects us. “I have treasured your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11).
  • It strengths us. “I am weary from grief; strengthen me through your word.” (Psalm 119:28)
  • The Word makes us wise. “Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are always with me.” (Psalm 119:98)
  • And it prospers us. The one who immerses himself in the Word of God will be like, “a tree planted beside flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1:3)

The words of human beings, no matter how astute they are or brilliant they are or wise they are; no matter how eloquently those words might be expressed, cannot produce these results. Only God’s Word can do these things. It works effectively in the hearts and lives of those who believe.

Their willingness to suffer for God’s Word

Then in verses 14-16, Paul tells us how he knew God’s word was working effectively in their lives. He says,

“For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, since you have also suffered the same things from people of your own country, just as they did from the Jews”

Paul is saying, “Here’s the evidence you received my words as the Word of God. It led to suffering.” But that by itself would not prove God’s word was at work in them because they might have responded to their affliction with anger and doubt and unbelief. But they didn’t. How do we know that? Because Paul had already said it clearly back in chapter1:

“You yourselves became imitators of us and of the Lord when, in spite of severe persecution, you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6)

So the proof that the Word of God had been embraced by the Thessalonians and was working effectively in their hearts was they were ready and willing to endure suffering. This is how we know a true word of God is going in the heart of an individual. This is how we can be sure the Spirit of God is active and there is new life. They take a stand for Jesus. They take a stand for the truth. And they do this readily, willingly and gladly.

That’s not something we hear emphasized very often today is it? And yet it is a truth made plain to us repeatedly in the New Testament. No one like to be unpopular. No one likes being scorned and despised. Most of us like to be liked. But when we give our lives to Jesus, we also give ourselves to his cause. And his cause means, among other things, remaining committed to the truth of His Word.

It is, after all, the only hope for a dying world.

This post was based on a sermon of the same title. It is part of a series in our church on the book of 1 Thessalonians. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

Spiritual Parenting

Have you ever had the opportunity to pour your life into the life of another person? It is a wonderful thing to do. It takes a lot of time, sacrifice and effort. But the results are tremendously rewarding – for both you and the other person.

This is what a couple did with me in my late teens. They loved their way into my life. They demonstrated their care for me. They shared the gospel with me. And I listened – because they had already proved they really cared. Then they walked with me in those first years as a young Christian. They shared not only the gospel with me; they shared their own lives. I was so impacted by this I have been doing the same in the lives of others ever since. That’s how spiritual reproduction works.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12, the Apostle Paul describes what this looks like, as he reflects on his own time with the Thessalonian Christians. He says it’s like parenting. In order to raise a well-balanced child, you need a loving mother and a strong father. I realize in our day of broken families and relationships, that isn’t always possible. We could say, if you haven’t got a mother, you need a mother-like figure in your life, and if you haven’t got a dad, you need a father-like figure in your life. Well, it’s the same in spiritual parenting, or discipling.

Love like a Mother

“Although we could have been a burden as Christ’s apostles, instead we were gentle among you, as a nurse nurtures her own children.” (1 Thess 2:7)

Paul says, “You remember, you recall – we were gentle; we were kind to you.” How gentle? “As a nurse nurtures her own children.” Paul picks out of all the human realm the most intimate and tender human relationship – a mother and her infant child. There is none to match it. And it illustrates the personal care that he gave to these young believers. There’s no authority here. There’s no dominance. There’s no seeking prominence. There’s no seeking of honour. Just sacrificial love.

I know what it is to see this in action. The love, care, and sacrifice that Francelle made for each of our four children often astounded me. In fact, she lavished so much love on them it put me to shame. One of our kids would come home in tears – they’d lost something or some kid has said something mean and I would say, “There, there” and pat them on the shoulder and five minutes later they are still sniveling and I’m thinking, “Get over it.” Not Francelle. She would take them into her arms and say, “My poor sweet thing, come to mama. What’s wrong, tell me all about it.” Then she would talk to them and console them and whisper things in their ear.

That’s a mother’s love, you see. That’s care. That’s how God wants us to look after his children. Now there’s also a place for a father’s courage and strength, and we’re going to get to that soon, but right here, the emphasis is on gentleness and kindness and patience and genuine concern and care.

Paul says,

“We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (verse 8)

It’s instinctive for any mother isn’t it? It’s God-given. It’s what drives a mother to love and care for her children to the extent that she does. I’ve heard grandparents say, “Do you know what the best thing is about being a grandparent? We get to play with our grandkids and give them treats and at the end of the day when they’re fussy and tired, we just hand them back.” That’s the difference between a grandparent and a parent.

Paul says, “I looked after you like a mother looks after her child. I was there for you. I got up early and stayed up late for you. I was always there when you needed me. I didn’t just tolerate you. I loved you. We shared not just the gospel with you, but our own lives.”

In the work of spiritual parenting, you need to love like a mother. But it doesn’t stop there. You also need to lead like a father.

Lead like a Father

“For you remember our labor and hardship, brothers and sisters. Working night and day so that we would not burden any of you, we preached God’s gospel to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers. As you know, like a father with his own children,” (verses 9–11)

If I were to ask you to name the qualities that make for a good father, you would likely list things like strength, courage, commitment, responsibility and setting a good example. Well, the same applies the spiritual realm. They cross right over.

Paul lived a devout life. We don’t use that word a lot today. But it’s a good word. It means to be godly, committed and devoted. That’s how Paul was to the Thessalonian believers. He lived a devout life. He also lived a righteous life. That means living according to God’s standard as revealed in His Word. And he was blameless. He lived a life of integrity. Spiritual fathers have a powerful influence over younger believers because they live lives pleasing to God, in accordance with His Word and conduct themselves with integrity. Whether you are a male or female, this is what you want to emulate in your spiritual parenting.

There’s more to spiritual fathering however than just modeling. Paul says in v.12,

“We encouraged, comforted, and implored each one of you to live worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (verse 12)

“We encouraged you,” Paul said. It’s the Greek word paraclete. It means to come alongside someone and move them in a new direction. It has the sense of urging, advising, pressing – sometimes admonishing. It’s what any good father does with his children. He comes alongside and says, “Hey, let me help you here. There’s a better way to do this. Let me lead you.”

This is what regularly takes place in a discipling relationship. There have been many times in my life when other men came alongside me and were spiritual fathers to me.

Spiritual fathers do more than correct. They also offer comfort. That’s what Paul did. He says, “we comforted you, we consoled you, we sympathized with you; we showed compassion and kindness.” Comfort and correction – both are needed in the work of spiritual parenting.

Then there’s the third word – implore. “We implored each one of you to live worthy of God.” There’s a goal a spiritual father has in mind. He’s not just there to comfort and encourage. There’s an objective to reach – he wants God’s children to live lives that are pleasing to God and that glorify God. That’s the direction of where all his praying and modeling and teaching and exhorting and encouraging was heading.

Conclusion

So, there it is. This is what spiritual parenting is all about. And note that it’s wonderfully balanced. There is the tender side – the motherly love and care and then there’s the father’s influence – providing a godly example and correcting and comforting and imploring others to live a life pleasing to God.

The opportunities, to get involved in the lives of others are huge. When you put your hand up for this; when you say, “Lord – I am willing to give my life to people. I am willing to share not only the gospel but my very life with another individual,” you’ll never want for opportunities.

In the closing chapter of his book Disciples are Made, Not Born, Walter Henrichsen says,

“When word gets out that you are interested in people, they will beat a path to your door. Your telephone may ring a lot; your home may become like Grand Central Station; people who are spiritually needy and hungry may surround you. You do not have to be a gifted individual to get involved in others’ lives. Just listen to them, that is all… You will be amazed how many people will want to talk to you and the things they will begin telling you: hungry, afflicted souls looking for some answers.”

The sad thing is, Christians turn down this opportunity every day. Some say they are too busy. Some say they’re not qualified. Others haven’t got anything to say. They just won’t do it. Are not people’s lives of infinitely more value than our comfort and our cars and careers and our home improvement projects?

One day, this present creation and everything in it will be gone.  Only two things will go into eternity: the souls of people and the Word of God. Invest your life in those things. Give yourself to that which will last, not the things that won’t last.

This post was based on a sermon entitled “You can Change the World.” It is part of a series in our church on the book of 1 Thessalonians. You can listen to the full audio on our website here

Beautiful Feet

My feet aren’t very beautiful. They look like duck feet – wide, with toes that don’t line up. I was at a camp some years ago where they had a competition as to who had the best-looking feet. Photos were taken and everyone’s feet were displayed on a wall. Awards were handed out for the prettiest feet. And wouldn’t you know it, I got the prize for the ugliest feet!

However, whenever I take the good news of Jesus to someone, my feet become beautiful. Romans 10:15 says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” It’s a wonderful thing to be used by God to lead a soul one step closer to heaven. It’s the greatest act of love you can ever do for someone. As Christians, we should always be looking for ways on how we can be more effective in this work.

In 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, the Apostle Paul recalls when he brought the gospel to the people of Thessalonica. Paul reveals three important components of being effective in our witness to people around us.

I. The Right Message

Paul’s message was the gospel – nothing more and nothing less. Paul says he came and spoke about “the gospel of God” (verse 2) and then in verse 4 – he had been “entrusted by God with the gospel,” and then in verse 8, “we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives” and then verse 9 – “we preached God’s gospel to you.”

Note he refers to this message as God’s gospel. It was created in the mind of God, revealed by the Spirit of God and enacted by the Son of God when he went to the cross on our behalf. And now God commands that it be broadcasted to the world.

We are simply the “mail-men” as one author I read puts it. We simply deliver God’s mail. We tell people God has a message for them. Then we explain that message. When Paul came to Thessalonica and faithfully delivered the mail. He spoke to them God’s gospel. And the result was people repented and put their faith in Christ.

II. The Right Method

Paul makes repeated reference to the method he used to communicate this message. It was all above board. There were no smoke and mirrors. He wasn’t one thing in public and then another in private. He wasn’t a fraud. He wasn’t a huckster. He says in verse 3, “For our exhortation didn’t come from error or impurity or an intent to deceive.” Then he says in verse 5, “For we never used flattering speech, as you know, or had greedy motives—God is our witness—” And in verse 6, “and we didn’t seek glory from people, either from you or from others.”

This is so important for us to hear today because we live in a world of fakes. There are products everywhere on the market that are designed to imitate the real thing. There is plastic decking that looks like real wood. There is vinyl flooring that appears to be ceramic tile. You can purchase fake fur, fake jewelry, and fake watches. And we have fake preachers and fake ministries, that promise people the world but deliver nothing.

You’re all familiar with the name Billy Graham, the world-renown evangelist. He was a great man of God. He was greatly respected– by presidents and kings and other well-known people. And do you know why? Because of his integrity. He was squeaky clean. There were no skeletons in his closet. As early as 1947, he and his campaign team met in a motel room in California to discuss the pitfalls faced by revivalists. They identified four issues: misuse of money, sexual immorality, exaggeration of results and criticism of other ministries. They resolved that they would conduct regular financial audits, that they would never travel or dine alone with a woman outside their families, rely on independent confirmation of attendance at their meetings, and emphasize areas of agreement rather than disagreement.

I read the other week that when he checked into a hotel, his team would rip the cable TV from the wall. That seemed extreme, but they explained that they would pay for the damage. They were that serious about maintaining integrity and avoiding the temptation of watching some of the adult content.

I was in a hotel for a conference in Auckland a few weeks back. I wonder what would happen if I ripped the cord out of the wall and then said, “Bill it to Grace Church.” But you can see the underlying principle – and it’s a good one. When people look at our lives, they have to see that our lives match the message of the gospel. This doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. It means that we are pursuing integrity, and that we repent when we fall short. That will cause us to share the gospel honestly, openly and authentically.

So there are the first two components of an effective ministry. First, we need to make sure we stick to the right message: the pure and simple gospel. Secondly, we need the right method: communicating that gospel with authenticity; that is, with lives that are open, transparent and real. That leaves the last component:

III. The Right Motive

What was it, at the bottom of it all, that drove Paul to do what he did? What was the mainspring that energized his ministry and propelled him to take the gospel to a lost and dying world? He tells us in verse 4:

“Instead, just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please people, but rather God, who examines our hearts.”

It was this all-consuming desire to please God. That was what drove him. Paul didn’t want earthly honour, he didn’t want the world’s esteem – nor was he after men’s praise. He just wanted to honour and please God. And this kept his life and ministry and message pure – clean – unpolluted – uncorrupted – and authentic.

Do you want your life to have an impact? Do you want your witness to be effective? Be driven by this one, all-consuming desire of Paul’s. Seek to please God, not men.

We are always tempted to water down the message just a little in order to make it more palatable, aren’t we? I know I am. The gospel has some harsh edges to it. It talks about sin and holiness. People don’t like hearing they are sinners. It talks about heaven and hell and life and death. It calls people to make a response. The gospel is uncomfortable, and we don’t like making people feel uncomfortable.

We want people to like us. We feel that we need their approval and affirmation. So we modify the message, we tone the gospel down, we put it in terms that sound more pleasant and affirming to them and what we are left with is a different gospel, which in effect, is no gospel at all. It has no power. And it won’t change anyone’s life.

If you are looking for boldness in witness, if you want to be effective as a Christian in the world, you need to recognize your love of the praise of men and make it your sole ambition to please God. Charles Hodge writes,

“As ambitious men desire and strive after fame, so Christians long and labour to be acceptable to Christ. Love to him, the desire to please him, and to be pleasing to him, animates their hearts and governs their lives, and makes them do and suffer what heroes do for glory”

Follow Paul’s example and you can be sure that your feet, whether old and wrinkly or short and stubby become beautiful feet in the hands of God.

This post was based on a sermon entitled “How to be an Effective Witness.” It is part of a series in our church on the book of 1 Thessalonians. You can listen to the full audio on our website here