Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Christian life (Page 1 of 15)

All shall be well

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

These words were penned by fourteenth century English mystic Julian of Norwich in what would come to be known as her Showings. They have become a source of encouragement to many in times of uncertainty and turbulence; indeed, I have often quoted them myself. In the turbulent aftermath of the US presidential election, I have already seen them offered as a note of much-needed comfort to those who are understandably fearful about the future of America and the world.

However, I think a note of caution is required as regards how we understand these famous words.

It’s tempting to see Lady Julian’s words as an assurance that nothing bad will happen to us: that, whatever might befall us, there will always be some kind of providential safety net to protect us from the worst. But that cannot be so, for two reasons. First, Julian is thought to have written these words while deathly ill; as such, whatever it was that moved her to write them, it was not a firm conviction that she would recover and live to a ripe old age. (In fact, she did recover and live for another thirty-three years, but that’s another story.) And second, we clearly live in a world in which dreadful and deadly things can and do happen to even the most godly and selfless people.

That being the case, to attempt to use these words as a shield against the vagaries of life is to distort them into a cheap platitude that denies the reality both of the circumstances in which they were written and of the world as we know it.

How, then, are we to understand and take encouragement from Lady Julian’s affirmation? I think there are two ways we can do so.

First, Julian’s words remind us that, no matter how great the storm that encircles us, it is possible for us to be truly at peace with ourselves and the world; not easy, but possible. To achieve this kind of inner peace takes great self-awareness and a determined pursuit of inner silence and solitude – things Lady Julian herself pursued to what most would consider an extreme degree. In this way, it is possible for us to sincerely assert that “all is well” even in the midst of the storm, just as nineteenth century hymn-writer Horatio Spafford was able to write the famous words “It is well with my soul” even in the wake of his financial ruin and the tragic deaths of all five of his children.

And second, as those who believe that death has been swallowed up in the victory of resurrection, we can genuinely hold fast to the truth that even if the very worst should happen, it will not be the end of the story. This is surely how Lady Julian was able to remain resolutely hopeful even in the face of what she probably assumed was her imminent death.

So, in these uncertain times, let us be encouraged, and let us encourage one another, but not with trite and hollow promises about an earthly future none of us can predict. Rather, let us seek the kind of peace that is offered by the Prince of Peace, and let us hold firmly to the hope that even death, should it unexpectedly come knocking, is not the end, but merely a doorway to another part of the journey.

[ Image: Ian ]

Strength in weakness, weakness in strength

Among the Apostle Paul’s most famous sayings is “When I am weak, then I am strong”, found in 2 Corinthians 12:10. The context is a discussion of power being made perfect in weakness, and of Christ’s power dwelling in the Apostle.

This saying has widely been interpreted to mean that when we lay aside our own human “strength” – which could figuratively be taken to mean our skill, ability, confidence… more generally, our ability to take things into our own hands and get things done – we open ourselves up for the power of God to work through us. Conversely, when we rely on our own strength, skills and abilities, we fail to make room for God’s power to work through us. While this seems a reasonable enough interpretation on the face of it, I’d like to suggest that it has some serious weaknesses.

The main problem I see with this understanding is that it tends to assume that the divine power that is made room for by human weakness is a kind of controllable substance or flow, perhaps a bit like an electrical current. If the switch is in the “on” position, the power will flow; with the switch in the “off” position, there will be no divine power. To turn the switch on, all we have to do is make sure we are not operating out of our human strength and abilities, and God will provide the power. (If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say “Let go and let God”, I’d have a lot of pennies). This is a totally transactional view in which if we do X, God is duty-bound to do Y. Because God cannot be controlled in this way, and because, in any event, God simply does not engage with us at a transactional level, this view is bunk.

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Metaphysical Jesus

The farther I proceed on my theological and experiential journey, the more convinced I am that one of the most fundamental mistakes many churches and believers have made is to turn the Jesus of the Gospels into a kind of abstract spiritual persona.

Let me explain.

For many evangelicals in particular, the important thing is to have a “relationship with Jesus”. That might sound very earthy and real, but in practice what it usually amounts to is believing that Jesus somehow lives inside you, having conversations with him, either out loud or in your head, singing to and/or about him with other believers at church and, most importantly of all, believing that he is the Son of God who died to free you from the curse of sin, death and hell. Do all this and you can be assured of your ticket to heaven.

I realise that one might easily conclude from the above paragraph that I am deriding huge and important aspects of Christian practice, namely faith, prayer and worship. However, that’s not my purpose. I’d simply like to ask one question about this approach to Christianity: just who or what is this Jesus with whom one has a relationship?

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Repost: Salvation Reimagined

[My blog has many more readers now than it did a couple of years ago. With that in mind, from time to time I like to repost things I wrote some while ago. This post was originally posted in June 2014.]

A few months ago, I wrote a post called On being saved, in which I sought to address the question “What must I do to be saved?”. In other words, it was a post about the how of salvation.

Today I’d like to think about the question “What does it mean to be saved?”. In other words, this is a post about not the how but the what of salvation. Another way we could ask the question is “What are we saved for, or what are we saved into?”.

If you asked a random sample of western believers what is the purpose of salvation, I’m pretty sure a high proportion would give as their first answer something involving eternal life and/or “going to heaven” after you die. We see salvation largely as a kind of status that secures benefits for us that kick in once our time on this earth is done – a celestial insurance policy, if you will. Of course, there are also some benefits to be enjoyed now, but these largely revolve around the assurance of knowing that we are included in the group whose eternal destiny is sorted and secure.

This “now versus future” duality is so deeply ingrained in our western psyche that it’s hard for us to be aware of, let alone shake off.

In almost thirty years of being a Christian, I’ve sat through more evangelistic services than I could possibly count. The vast majority of them have operated on the premise of “selling” the benefits of eternal security in order to get people to “make a commitment” today. Often no apology is made for using extreme psychological and emotional pressure to get people to “pray the prayer”. The justification is apparently quite sound: when someone’s eternal destiny is at stake, you use any means you can to get them to sit up and take notice.

If I sound uncharitable about those who practice this approach to evangelism, I don’t mean to. In most cases, they are deeply sincere and loving people who genuinely want the best for those they are addressing.

But I’ve been thinking. Specifically, about Jesus and his ministry. If you measure evangelistic efficiency by the number of appeals or altar calls made, Jesus wasn’t much of an evangelist. He didn’t go around trying to convince people to tick the right boxes so they could be saved. He mostly just encouraged people to repent and follow him. Which could be paraphrased “Change the way you think, and do like I do”.

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Experiencing brokenness

man-1253004_1920Last week I wrote about how it is in our collective brokenness that we find our true humanity. Today I’d like to continue exploring the idea of brokenness a little further.

First, it might be useful to unpack what we mean by “brokenness” (or, at least, what I understand it to mean).

We often think of brokenness as a place we come to either when we’re faced with the consequences of our own actions or when the actions of others, or events beyond our control, leave us wounded and in pain. This is, I think, an entirely valid and appropriate use of the word “brokenness”: sometimes we are broken by the disastrous consequences of our own poor choices, by the actions of other people, or by a host of other seemingly random causes collectively known as “life”.

However, there is also another sense of the word “brokenness”, and it is simply this: that we are all wounded, and so we are all broken in various ways.

Some of the wounds we carry we are well aware of, maybe because we sustained them in some terrible experience that we will never forget, or perhaps simply because the pain of them is so great that it continues to dominate our world. Other wounds are buried under many layers of self-protective armour. Either way, and however well we might appear to mask it, there is brokenness in all of us, deep down.

So, all of us are or have been broken in some way. The only difference is that some of us know it and others don’t.

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Broken apart, together

Rail flowerLately I’ve been thinking and writing quite a bit about brokenness. While this is a subject that will always be relevant this side of eternity, there are particular reasons why I’ve been focusing on it recently. But I’ll come to that.

As I wrote in one recent post, it seems to be the case that we often need to be brought to a place of brokenness before we are ready to begin to receive the healing light of God’s loving grace. However, as I wrote in another post, we often carry a deep sense of shame that acts as a powerful pull away from the light: because we are broken, we feel shameful and unworthy, and the last thing we want is anyone else seeing what we’re really like.

So we find ourselves caught in a deadly trap: in desperate need of healing, but kept away from the healing light we so need by shame and the fear of exposure. And this often happens at a level that is below our conscious awareness. We do not know why we are hiding, or even that we are hiding; all we know is that we feel trapped, lonely and desperately unhappy.

It seems clear to me that our fear of exposure is largely driven by the deep-seated belief that our brokenness is a source of difference, and therefore something to be ashamed of. If you know about the particular ways in which I am broken, you will see that I am different from you, and you will judge me and find me wanting. And, given that our brokenness is often bound up with a deep need for approval and acceptance (and a corresponding dread of rejection), the idea of being judged less than enough is simply too devastating a risk for many of us to willingly take.

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Repost: Knowing who you are

mountain-lake-931726_1920[I wrote this post two years ago, in May 2014. I’m reposting it because it resonates strongly with where I’ve found myself recently, and because some more recent friends and followers might benefit from it.]

You cannot really know God until you know who you are.

OK, that’s a deliberately bold and attention-grabbing opening line. Bear with me as I try to unpack it.

Once we have passed the relatively innocent age of our youngest childhood, we quickly grow accustomed to living in a world that places all kinds of demands upon us. Our parents play a vital role in teaching us what to value and how to behave, but even this good and essential duty is tinged by a dark side: we begin to learn very early on what it is to perform. We come to realise that if we behave in a certain way that meets the desires and expectations of parents, family members, teachers, classmates and others, we will be rewarded with expressions of approval and favour.

This mechanism of learning how to please others is critical to our growth and development into well-adjusted human beings who can live more or less peaceably in society. However, as I suggested above, it also has a dangerous underside: we can become so trained in and accomplished at pleasing others and seeking approval that we forget – or fail to ever discover in the first place – who we really are.

First, we try to be the kind of son or daughter our parents seem to want us to be – and, since parents often have differing expectations, this in itself can be quite a task. Next, we want our teachers to like us (or at least not to dislike us), partly because this makes school easier to navigate and partly because our parents will be pleased with us if our teachers are pleased with us. Then there are our friends and acquaintances: no one wants to be the odd one out in the playground, the child who is the butt of everyone’s jokes, so we try very hard to fit in, to use whatever particular skills and talents we have to impress at least a few people and gain some kind of social status.

This sort of peer pressure is accentuated to the nth degree by the media. From the latest must-see TV show to the ubiquitous marketing and advertising messages with which we are bombarded daily from morning till night, we are continually squeezed by pressure to conform, to look like this, to act like that.

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