Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Faith (Page 1 of 2)

Questions many Christians are afraid to ask

Note: I will be away on business for the next two days (Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 June). As such, my posting schedule is likely to be interrupted; this may well be my last full-length post for a few days. You’ll just have to wait!

Question markIn some Christian circles, asking questions will get you labelled, ostracised and banished faster than you can say “Heretic!”.

Just for fun, here’s a short list of a few questions many Christians are afraid to ask or discuss:

  • If the Bible is the infallible word of God, how come it contradicts itself in numerous places?
  • Why is God so often angry in the Old Testament but gracious and merciful in the New Testament?
  • Did Jesus ever do anything wrong?
  • Why would a “good” God predestine anyone to eternal conscious torment?
  • If perfect love casts out fear, how can the fear of hellfire possibly be a valid basis for evangelism?
  • If material wealth is sometimes a sign of God’s blessing, how come it’s often amassed on the backs of poor people in the third world?
  • If God answered your prayer for a parking spot when you were running late, how come he didn’t answer my prayer for a dear friend to be healed of cancer?

Many Christians – including church leaders – fear questions about their beliefs because those beliefs are built on sand. If your faith can’t withstand honest questions, that’s a good sign that it seriously needs to be questioned. God is bigger than your questions, and he’s interested in your journey towards him, not your accumulation of static knowledge about him.

In the words of veteran Welsh troubadour Martyn Joseph, “Treasure the questions”.

[ Image: Ethan Lofton ]

The spaces in between

Open roadI feel like I’m living in the spaces in between at the moment.

Let me unpack that a bit.

First, my kids have reached an age where they are both increasingly independent. No longer do they need me to regulate every aspect of their lives. Yet at the same time, neither are they completely independent. They’re trying to work out how to be fully functioning, autonomous adults, which means I’m trying to work out how to still be a parent but in a different way from the past nineteen years or so. It’s not easy, I can tell you.

Second, I’m at a time in my life where I can no longer really claim to be young. Though I remember the days of my youth as though they were yesterday, in reality they were a long time ago, and much has changed in me, my life and the world around me. Yet at the same time, I’m not old enough to be anywhere near old (in spite of anything my son might say to the contrary). I’m pretty much exactly half way between graduation and official retirement age. One thing I’ve wrestled with in recent years is how to let go of the past, and particularly its regrets, and embrace a future that sometimes feels intimidating and bleak.

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The why of faith

WhyPeople come to faith in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons.

For some, faith in God helps make sense of complexity. They consider the galaxies and the stars, the physical intricacies of the universe from the sub-atomic through to the intergalactic level, and the place of our tiny little blue-green planet within this great cosmic sweep, and are inevitably left with a number of questions: Where did it all come from? How did it happen? What does it all mean? Why are we here and where are we going? For these people, God provides the foundation for the most robust answers to these types of questions.

For others, it’s still about meaning, but at the personal rather than the cosmic level. They look at the world around them – the rat race, the endless pursuit of status and comfort, the unending quest for some kind of satisfaction amid a sea of emptiness – and find within themselves a longing for something truer and deeper. For these people, God gives a genuine sense of identity and purpose that they can’t find anywhere else.

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Faith for the rest of us

FaithThroughout my Christian experience, faith has mostly been held up as a highly prized commodity.

Those who have faith can move mountains, those who have faith will pray for the sick and see them healed, those who have faith will experience extraordinary breakthroughs and see their dreams fulfilled… the list goes on.

It’s almost as though faith were some magical substance which, if you manage to procure it, can power your life up to the next level. Or some mysterious power source which, if you can just find the socket and plug into it, will give you access to amazing superhuman powers.

As a result, faith is often seen as a marker of spiritual “success”. There are the masses of “ordinary” believers whose lives are not obviously remarkable in any particular way; and then there is the elite society of faith ninjas who have somehow tapped into this secret power source and who regularly walk on water, heal the sick and raise the dead, usually all before breakfast.

Oh, and the really successful ones make serious amounts of money speaking and writing about principles, methods and techniques whereby you too can tap into this mystical, invisible substance called faith and maybe, just maybe, if you’re one of the chosen few you might be able to graduate from the mundanity of ordinary believerhood and join the super-league of faith-wielding uber-Christians.

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Faith and works are inseparable

We shall be judged according to our works – this is why we are exhorted to do good works. The Bible assuredly knows nothing of those qualms about good works, by which we only try to excuse ourselves and justify our evil works. The Bible never draws the antithesis between faith and good works so sharply as to maintain that good works undermine faith. No, it is evil works rather than good works which hinder and destroy faith. Grace and active obedience are complementary. There is no faith without good works, and no good works apart from faith.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship


TroubleAs I’ve mentioned before, preachers, and Christians generally, often like to do violence to verses of scripture by yanking them out of their context and making them say, basically, whatever they want them to say.

But here’s a portion of scripture you’ll rarely hear a sermon about:

In this world, you will have trouble.

Jesus said this, and it’s recorded in John 16:33.

Now, before you tell me I need to read the surrounding context (which is true), let’s just a take a moment here.

The setting is the Last Supper, and Jesus is talking to his disciples. Since it’s the last opportunity he’ll get to talk to them before his arrest, trial and crucifixion, we can safely assume he’s choosing his words carefully. Time is short, and he knows the disciples will think back to this evening and pore over everything he’s said, so he isn’t wasting his words on anything of less than paramount importance.

And right in the middle of this extended heart-to-heart with his closest associates, this is what Jesus says: you will have trouble.

It seems to me that, as statements go, this one is pretty bald and unambiguous. No ifs. No buts. No maybes. No “some of you”. You are going to have trouble. All of you. Jesus doesn’t specify when, or what kind of trouble. But of this you can be sure: trouble is coming.

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House of cards

House of cards

Since publishing my post about essentials and non-essentials, I’ve been thinking further about the issue of just what our Christian faith is built on. And I think it is often built very substantially on non-essentials.

As I’ve indicated before, when I became a Christian, I came into a church culture that had a very particular and unwavering stance on all kinds of issues. From the role of Israel in the world to the rapture, miracles, the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, observance of the Sabbath — not forgetting, of course, a particular emphasis on and interpretation of Revelation and the end times — there was a sanctioned and acceptable doctrine on just about any question you could come up with.

With the passing of years, some things that once seemed very black and white and clear-cut now appear less so. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, life is so much easier when you have an answer and a pre-defined stance on Every Single Issue. (Believe me, that is a space I used to enjoy inhabiting.) On the other hand, the only way to begin to see the folly of the polarised thinking of what Richard Rohr calls the first half of life is to wait for a few years to go by. There are no short cuts to the wisdom of experience.

And so, as I’ve pondered on my own journey away from a kind of low-key, respectable fundamentalism, I’ve begun to try to identify just what it is that defines the type of all-embracing certainty that I now tend to see as so limiting and, ultimately, so contrary to the kind of life and message to which Jesus bore witness.

One of the things that’s dawned on me is that the kind of belief system I used to embrace was like a house of cards. Just as the carefully constructed house will collapse if you remove one card, so the carefully constructed belief system that often masquerades as genuine Christianity begins to unravel as soon as any one of its components is revealed to be unfounded.

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