Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Scripture (Page 1 of 10)

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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Sheep and goats redux

Goat‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

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What is God like?

5546445579_fce4e05671_oI am generally in agreement with those who say that the most important theological question we can ask ourselves is, “What is God like?”

I think this is a question we humans have been asking ourselves for many thousands of years. And I also think how we answer this question is very much determinative of our general worldview and how we conduct our lives. In other words, it is not simply an abstract, philosophical question: it has a direct bearing on the here and now.

You may have heard the expression, “You are like the God you worship”. I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. In other words, if you believe in an aggressive, warlike God, you are quite likely to exhibit aggressive, warlike behaviour; conversely, if you believe in a compassionate, peace-loving God, you are quite likely to direct your efforts towards achieving peaceful and non-violent coexistence with your neighbours in this world.

The Old Testament is, in many ways, an argument or debate between those with different answers to the question, “What is God like?” Through the Torah and the historical books, the wisdom writings and the prophets, we find competing images of God: some depict him as a punctilious law-keeper determined to mete out punishment at the slightest offence; some paint him as a warrior God who protects his servants but is merciless to his enemies; yet others portray him as a God of endless compassion and mercy whose patience never runs out.

The question is, which of these depictions of God is right? What is God really like?

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Cognitive dissonance

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The image above was shared by a friend on Facebook yesterday. I thought it was too good not to comment on, at least briefly.

Which of you if, while listening to the news, hears of an episode of large-scale ethnic cleansing, will not rush to condemn it as utterly barbaric and ungodly? (And let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of examples in the last decade or two, from the former Yugoslavia to West Africa, not forgetting ISIS’s atrocious actions in Iraq and Syria.)

And yet, when Christians read of Israel’s slaughter of indigenous Canaanite populations in the Old Testament, any remotely similar response often seems to be lacking.

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Did God change?

14148407957_cdfea81f82_oIn this short post, I’d like us to consider two passages of scripture.

Our first passage comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. In this chapter, God is giving the prophet Ezekiel instructions on how to restore his glory to the temple. I just want to pick out three verses:

For seven days you shall provide daily a goat for a sin-offering; also a bull and a ram from the flock, without blemish, shall be provided. For seven days shall they make atonement for the altar and cleanse it, and so consecrate it. When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 43:25-27, NRSV; italics mine)

Of course, there’s plenty more ritual to be performed before we even arrive at this passage, but these three verses alone are enough to give an idea of the hoops you apparently had to jump through if you wanted to be accepted by God.

Now, consider this well-known passage from the fourth Gospel:

But to all who did accept him and believe in him he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in any human way—by any human parents or human desire. They were born of God. (John 1:12-13, NCV; italics mine)

Do you see the contrast? In the first passage above, we have just one example of the myriad hurdles over which priests and ordinary people had to jump if they were to be accepted by God. But in the second passage, the only hurdle that has to be jumped is that of accepting and believing. So what changed? Why did God suddenly decide he no longer needed sacrifices and purification rituals and burnt offerings?

Did God change his mind or his mood? Did Jesus’ death appease him so he could now accept us without blood? Or is something else going on here?

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The Bible is not enough

BibleAs regular readers will know, I’m someone who has been formed in the Pentecostal tradition, which tends to lean towards a fairly rigorous, black-and-white, not to say fundamentalist view of scripture.

Within this and many other traditions, there’s an unspoken assumption when it comes to reading and understanding the Bible: namely, that for any given passage of scripture, there is one correct interpretation, and it is our job as readers to find it. Whether the issue be appropriate moral standards, the nature of God or end times events, all we have to do is find a way to dig out the one intended meaning.

In this paradigm, the most spiritually revered are those who can most authoritatively proclaim the “truth” of scripture (with little concern for where that authoritative understanding came from, be it rigorous study, divine download… or pure imagination).

But the more I think about this approach, the more I realise that there’s a glaring, Everest-sized problem with it.

Allow me to sum this problem up as succinctly as I can: the Bible is not sufficiently clear or consistent for anyone to be able to categorically and authoritatively state beyond doubt what it means.

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Letting go of fear

No fearThe fear of God, or the fear of the Lord, is a concept with which Christians are intimately familiar. It is found throughout the pages of scripture, mostly (though not exclusively) in the Old Testament. I would say the majority of Christians have been taught to believe that it is a good and necessary thing to fear God. Of the many texts that can be marshalled in support of this view, perhaps the most frequently cited is Psalm 111:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.

Most discussions about the fear of God tend to revolve around semantics: does the word fear mean terror, or does it mean respect and reverent admiration? Well, I’m no Bible scholar, but even the most cursory research reveals that the Hebrew word that is here translated fear, yir’ā(h), does indeed carry the notion, among others, of terror or dread.

On the face of it, then, scripture seems to suggest that God is to be feared, that we are to be afraid of him, and that this is a Good Thing.

And yet…

Consider the following scripture:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
(1 John 4:7-8)

So, when the author of 1 John wants to sum up as concisely as possible what God is like, here is what he says: God is love. So far, so uncontroversial.

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