Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Language

Why “God wants the best for you” is hogwash

business-163464_1280God wants the best for you!

If you’ve spent much time in and around evangelical churches, chances are you’ve heard this phrase or some derivative of it on quite a few occasions. Maybe you’re going through a tough time with your health or finances, or perhaps you’re struggling to feel optimistic about the future. Whatever the specifics of the situation, when you feel trapped in a corner and everything looks bleak, isn’t it nice and encouraging to be told that God wants the best for you?

While this innocuous-sounding expression is undoubtedly well intentioned and may indeed sound reassuring, if we stop and think for just a moment, it’s easy to see that it masks some quite problematic ideas.

First off, the idea of “best” only really works inside a system of exchange.

If I’m going to be the best in my class, it follows that no one else but me can occupy that top spot. Similarly, in order for me to have an above average income, someone else (or rather a lot of someone elses) has to earn less than the average. Seen from this perspective, the very idea of “best” only makes sense within a hierarchical system. And in any hierarchical system there are inevitably winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless.

It follows from this that we can’t all have “the best”, whatever that might be and in whichever area of life it might apply. Simply put, if we all had “the best”, by definition it would no longer be “the best”; it would simply be the norm or the average.

That being the case, does God perhaps want some people to have the best but not others? Well, Romans 2:11 tells us that God has no favourites. Hmmm.

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The imperfect Jesus

midimanYeah, I know, some of you might think I’m a heretic just for that title. Or maybe you think I’m just being provocative or going for clickbait. Bear with me.

Many of us Christians have been conditioned to believe that Jesus must have been perfect. But where does this belief come from? Well, it originates from the confession that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. This confession goes back at least as far as the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 CE, of which it was a central component. While I have no wish to argue with the conclusions of that creed, I do want to challenge the resulting widespread notion that Jesus must therefore have been perfect. Or rather, I want to challenge quite what we mean when we say Jesus was perfect.

The logic is as simple as can be: Jesus was both fully God and fully man; if Jesus was fully God, that must mean he was perfect, right?

The first and biggest problem with this idea is that perfection is an entirely subjective quality. I could play you one of my favourite songs and tell you, “This song is just perfect”. But you might, for whatever reason, find the song awful, in which case you’d be hard pressed to acknowledge its supposed perfection. Since there’s no universally acknowledged standard of perfection on which we can all agree, we’re generally forced to accept that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. And everyone is mostly fine with this.

Except when it comes to Jesus. When it comes to Jesus, we all have to agree that he was perfect. No ifs, no buts.

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Schizo Jesus

Warrior Jesus“The first time Jesus came it was as a servant; when he comes back it will be as King.”

I last heard the above words a few weeks ago. If you’ve been a Christian any length of time – particularly if you move in charismatic or Pentecostal circles – you’ve most likely heard them, or something like them, plenty of times before.

You might think this is a fairly innocuous statement. My purpose in this post is to show you that, far from being innocuous, this statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus and his life and purpose.

Let’s back up a little and take a sympathetic viewpoint.

Q: When Jesus came to earth, did he not come as a helpless baby? And when faced with brutal torture and shameful death, did he not willingly submit?

A: Yes on both counts.

Q: As those who have pledged our allegiance to this Jesus, is not our hope that he will one day return to rule and reign over a kingdom in which pain, suffering, death and injustice will have no place?

A: Again, yes: I enthusiastically endorse this hope.

So, first time around we have Jesus as humble servant; second time around we have Jesus as conquering King. Where’s the problem?

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God is good, really

God is goodA favourite saying among evangelical Christians – indeed, I saw it in my Facebook feed this morning – is “God is good all the time!”.

I agree wholeheartedly with this saying. But I suspect it may be misunderstood and/or misused by many. In particular, there are two major ways in which I see it misused, or used carelessly. Let’s unpack them a bit, shall we?

First, we sometimes hear this saying shared with those who are suffering some dire circumstance or grieving a painful loss. I’m sure it’s meant as an encouragement. I suppose the idea is that the suffering brother or sister needs to be reminded of God’s goodness lest they should come to doubt it because of what has befallen them.

The difficulty with this is that there’s a great danger that it will be understood as meaning “This terrible thing that has happened to you is actually a manifestation of God’s goodness in a way that you just don’t understand yet”. While that may, theoretically, be true, I’d suggest that it might well be the last thing a suffering person needs to hear at a time of tragedy. In fact, it might well produce the exact opposite of its intended effect by provoking a reaction of “If that’s your idea of God’s goodness, I don’t want to know your God!”

Second, this saying is sometimes used as a way to sweep aside biblical portrayals of God that are problematic. We believe that God is good; we read in the Old Testament that God commanded the slaughter of innocent women and children, the enslavement of entire cities and/or forced intercourse with captured virgins; and we wonder what to do with this troublesome information. Faced with this difficulty, we seek reassurance by telling ourselves, “God is good all the time!”

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Redefining language

DictionariesWhatever your views on evolution and the origins of the human species, you’ll probably agree with me that one of the main characteristics that sets humans apart from any other species is our capacity for rational thought. And this capacity is closely linked to our ability to communicate using language. (Indeed, without language we would certainly not be able to express our thoughts; whether we could even think in such a sophisticated way without language is debatable.)

As a member of the human race and a daily user of language, however, you’d probably also agree with me that language, as powerful as it is, is fraught with difficulty. It seems that, no matter how much care we take in communicating what we think, there’s always room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

In a recent blog post, my theologian friend Michael Hardin puts it like this:

What if language is not divine? What if language is a purely human phenomenon? What if language is not neutral, but is a bent, broken and distorted means of communication? Is it not the case that we are constantly being misinterpreted or that we find ourselves explaining ourselves to others in simple conversations? Language is not straightforward is it?

The very least one can say is that language is imperfect. Even with the best of intentions and the greatest of efforts at clarity, misunderstanding is rife. In fact, in line with Michael’s linked article, I think we can go further still.

We humans are prone to think in a way that judges and separates people into in groups and out groups – with ourselves, of course, usually in the in group and our enemies and those we do not care for or value in the out group. We define ourselves over against others. And we tend to excuse behaviours in ourselves and the groups with which we identify that we would condemn out of hand in those we consider other than us. This kind of thinking – most of it non-conscious – seems to have been deeply entrenched in us ever since the Garden.

Given how closely language is associated with thinking, it follows that our language is also subject to the same non-conscious tendencies. We use language to structure the world according to our innermost thoughts and perceptions. As we think, so too do we speak.

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