Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Opening up the blogosphere

I never really read any blogs before creating my own. Now my google reader has a healthy dose of subscriptions that prolong my well-meaning "I'll just check facebook" sessions on the net. Until recently the blogroll here has been dedicated to sources on Christian apologetics/philosophy but now there's two I'd like to plug that extend the topic horizon.

5p3nc3 - http://5p3nc3.wordpress.com/  

My housemate Spence is an absolute class-A legend. He's also mentally disturbed which ought to result in social dysfunction, but for some strange God-endowed reason in Spence this results in the ability to spew the most logically unconnected utterances together into a strained communion of mirth and puzzlement. It's "random" with all the punch that word carried before it became an over used cover-up for bland eccentricity. Anyhoo, at some point Spence's mind spilt out all over the internet and ever since he's received pleas begging him to at least sweep it all up into one place. He's finally obliged and I think the outcome deserves a least a timid glance.

Christian Union Blog - http://christianunions.blogspot.com/

Anyone who's read my Relay updates will know that I'm heavily involved with Christian Unions, which are student-led groups that exist to give university folks the chance to hear about Jesus and make up their mind about him. Luke oversees the support of the CUs in the patch I work in and he's started a blog for news about what the CUs in the area are doing and for articles on evangelism and discipleship in a student context. He's got a few years of both student work and journalism behind him so it should be a quality read. Check it, yo.       

Monday, 14 February 2011

Is Christianity ugly?

The series on God's policy of communication is at a close, so time for something new. Something quite new in fact. Time to look at the beauty of Christianity. Or at least, time to ask the question, is it beatiful? Or is it instead ugly, repulsive, diseased, sickly, repressive, something that taints and chokes, rather than frees and releases life? Reflection on this matter has been inspired largely by discussing it with my Relay supervisor, Luke and by hearing him deliver talks on the subject.

I ask you now, whether you are a Christian or non-Christian, do you think Christianity is beautiful? How do you think your attitude towards it would change if you thought it was?

If you think it ugly I ask you to reflect on what I'll be sharing in the next few entries. I can sympathise. I think there are many ugly Christianities out there. Many utterly sickening, heart-wrenchingly gross Christianities. But I'm convinced the ugly ones aren't the real deal. It is like a beautiful portrait has had ink careless dashed across it from all directions, obscuring the true spectacle. I hope that in the next few entries some of the murkiness will be cleared away, and what will be underneath will draw your gaze and stop your breath.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

So how do we find God's will for our lives?

Having spent some time seeing what the Bible does NOT teach about discerning God's will for our lives, the question naturally arises, how are we supposed to discern God's will for our lives? What I'll say is really a quick summary of the position put forth in 'Decision Making and the Will of God'. You can read a more in-depth summary of this position by the authors on their website over here. If you have a deep interest in this subject I suggest looking into those resources.

The first thing to recognise is that while God does have a plan for our lives which includes things like who we'll marry and what career we'll pursue, nowhere does he promise to tell us this plan in advance. This is the kind of thing we know only as it happens. Are we left without guidance then? How are we to make decisions that please God?

We should acknowledge that God's moral will is sufficiently revealed in the Bible

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Our first course of action is to make sure that our choices allign with God's moral will - that we do not do anything that he has commanded against. This is the first filter that narrows our viable choices down. But what about when several options are available, of which none are morally forbidden? What if going to college or pursuing an apprenticeship are both on the table, and none would have immoral consequences? What does God expects of us?

Well, God gives us FREEDOM to choose, with the expectation that we'll use our freedom responsibly. He expects us to use our freedom to efficiently pursue spiritual goals.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Jesus' words in Matthew 6:28-33)

So how do you decide whether you should go to college or go for an apprenticeship? Well think with wisdom: which will be most beneficial for God's people and to the kindgom or which will produce the most goodness? And consider also, which is best suited to my talents? Which would I enjoy? Yes, desire can factor into it. If you are contemplating two different jobs, one of which you hate, why go for that? It is hard to perform a job well if you loathe it. If you enjoy it you will naturally put more effort and concentration into it.

Weighing these factors together can be tough but God has given us the privilege of being responsible agents. It is good that we are not mere puppets needing explicit commands for every smallest action. We have more dignity than that.

This then is a Godly decision making process. Could God give us special communication telling us to pursue a particular job? Yes, absolutely. Has he promised to? No. But if he does do it, it will be CLEAR. Don't frustrate yourself by trying to analyse your inner life and outer circumstances to discern messages from God. He revealed his will for us sufficiently in the Bible so we could know him. What a blessing! We should have such a deep appreciation for God's Word.

Be cautioned however that making decisions in this way doesn't guarantee that our plans will succeed. If in choosing our spouse we make no moral blunder, nor neglect any wisdom, we still have no special guarantee from God that the marriage will be a great success or will not end in divorce. Exercising God-given wisdom will obviously decrease the chances of this happening, but when we've done all we can we are left to trust God to work out all the details and take care of us no matter how that decision pans out. We are required to trust in and pin on hopes on God, rather than the circumstances of our lives. 

Led by the Spirit?

Sometimes in the New Testament a figure is shown to have been guided by the Holy Spirit in some way. For instance:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” (Acts 8:29)

Some think that such examples ought to give Christians an expectation that the Holy Spirit will communicate with them and give them instruction at least semi-regularly. Under this view a Christian should learn to listen and discern the Spirit's promptings which are often said to feel like a strong inner impression, or nudge. 

The trouble is that these passages do not describe the manner in which the Spirit communicated his message. There is no justification for reading notions of "inner impressions" into these passages. They just aren't there. In fact nowhere in the New Testament do you find Paul or anyone else giving instruction like this:

"Listening to the Spirit's promptings is very important! They'll be ambiguous at first, but they are like strong inner impressions. It can be hard to discern what is God, and what are your own thoughts and feelings, but with more practice, the better you'll get!"

I think the reason why no such instruction exists is because these encounters with the Spirit are not to be considered normal. And if they do happen, they do not require years of training in discernment to understand. I expect the Spirit is a very effective communicator and as such if he wants to tell you something it will be UTTERLY UNAMBIGUOUS. Knowing how frustrating practically the regular special communication view is, I find this take on the issue very liberating!

What of other "led by the Spirit" passages?

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Romans 8:12-14)

For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:17-18)

Do these passages support the view that we should expect and discern the Spirit's promptings? The context is key here. In both passages the authors are talking about moral concerns and are contrasting the flesh (that is, our weak sinful nature) with the Spirit. What is being discussed is not following some special communication from the Spirit, but following/pursuing the desires to please God that the Holy Spirit gives every Christian. This Spirit-given desire is contrary to the desires of the sinful nature, which are desires to sin against God. 

Again we must be wary of what presuppositions we bring to the text!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Knowing God's will?

In continuing our look at God's policy of communication we need to examine some verses that claim Christians will be able to know God's will. Some Christians might argue that the "will" referred to is God's will for our individual lives, stuff like what house to buy, what career to pursue, who to marry etc. Are they right? Let's look at one such example,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

The passage doesn't explicitly say that this "individual will" is what's in view here, so let's be careful not to read that into the text. Rather it seems likely that it is just God's "moral will" that is being discussed, after all Paul is instructing believers to be holy in this passage. So the passage is saying that our behaviour will be transformed when our thinking is renewed by it's alignment with God's truth. We will then be more readily able to discern what is morally good according to God and thus we shall worship him as he desires.

Absent any counter-observations by the individual will camp, this seems like the best way to read the passage. Next time you encounter the phrase "God's will" in a passage, consider what presumptions you might be reading into the text!

Gideon's fleece

A couple months back (over here) I started looking at God's "policy of communication" as taught in the Bible. That is, does God promise to communicate his will for our individual lives regularly outside of the words of the Bible? My answer is "no" and I began looking at verses that Christians might think supports an answer of "yes." Time to pick up that trail and examine another verse.

Gideon's fleece

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. (Judges 6:36-40)

A Christian might use this account to validate an approach for finding God's will that relies on this sort of thought process, i.e. "if X happens it means you want me to do this, but if Y happens you want me to do that." But can this passage of Scripture really be used to be establish this sort of practise as normative? I don't think so!

First of all the passage is part of a historical narrative, it is recording what happened, not giving instruction for what believers ought to do. The sort of thinking Gideon displays in this passage was common to peoples of the Ancient Near East but no instructional passages in Scripture actually prescribe it. It seems then that God does not condone this practise but he did mercifully respond to Gideon's use of it at this particular point in history. 

In addition, Gideon's resquest seems to require supernatural power to accomplish which would be more telling of God's involvement, as opposed to a more mundane conditional like, "if Mary smiles at me you want me to marry her, if not you want me to never talk to her again." For these reasons then, this passage does not legitimise using the outcome of circumstances to discern God's will for our lives.