Finished

It’s Labor Day weekend here in America.

Most countries that acknowledge a Labour Day-type holiday do so on 1st May, but that was way too Communist for the United States when the holiday was established, and I have a suspicion that these days most Americans don’t even know it’s any different overseas.

A day celebrating labour – work and workers – is quite appropriate to the latent workaholism of US culture; indeed, the minor irony is that it’s celebrated with a day off.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans love the idea of hard work. “Working hard or hardly working?” my father-in-law will sometimes greet people; smugly boasting that you’re hardly working is not considered a normal reply.

In a lot of ways this is an excellent trait. The present administration notwithstanding, Americans normally excel at getting things done, and laziness is far from common due to its status as perhaps the cardinal cultural sin. It’s easy to forget in these days just how revolutionary the American Dream really was: with hard work and initiative anyone can rise to the top; you don’t need the titles, breeding or aristocratic patronage of the old autocracies of Europe. Amazing!

However, when it comes to the Christian doctrine of justification by faith and not by works, this cultural predilection can work against the understanding of the truth.

I comment almost every time my church starts a new published Bible study about the high profile always given to the matter of grace and works and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To me it seems a little odd; this is such a basic Christian doctrine that is it really necessary to rehash it every single time? We’re saved by grace, through faith. We understand. We understood last time.

It strikes me today, though, that perhaps I haven’t given the writers enough credit for knowing their audience.

My British-born cultural mindset gives far less pre-eminence to the idea of hard work. I’d never heard “Working hard or hardly working?” as a greeting or even a serious question before I came to the States, and the cultural acclaim given to entrepreneurs and businesspeople is something that just leaves me cold. Yes, yes, well done and all that. But not everyone can be an entrepreneur or be fortunate enough that their venture succeeds, so what about the rest of us?

In short, just because I don’t feel I need to rehash grace and works again doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who might. This central tenet of American culture is working directly against the notion of grace. It’s rather like my instinctive “how is that fair?” question over God’s selection of Jacob rather than Esau. My own culture’s valuing of fair play and justice is baffled by the apparently arbitrary, unfair-seeming choice.

Americans value hard work, and the idea of receiving something as a gift and not being expected to work like an ox to make up the debt strikes at that. But such is the truth. It really is a free gift, not something you have to repay, not something you can repay.

I’m told that the only time the Bible ever tells us to “strive”, it’s “Strive to enter His rest”. And a lot of Americans aren’t very good at rest.

With the US’ excellence at getting things done and acclaim for those that do, however, I wonder whether you Americans might not have a greater appreciation, once you stop trying to earn it, of the effectiveness of Jesus’ finished work.

Here is a Man whose life-work really did get it done. He did the job, he put an end to the power and guilt of sin. He brought many sons to glory, as the song puts it. He destroyed the power of the devil, and snatched the keys of death and hell. He accomplished the task for which He came into the world: reconciliation between holy God and sin-stained humanity.

The work is finished. The book of Hebrews says that “having provided purification from sins He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven”. Secure in the knowledge of a job well done, He kicked back and put His feet up. It’s done. He completed the work.

So let’s hear it for getting it done.

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The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.

Heart

“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they lose heart” -Colossians 3:21

It being Father’s Day, this verse was the text preached on at my church on Sunday. The NIV that I often use puts it differently: “exasperate” and “so that they do not become discouraged”, but I think I prefer the older language in some ways. Losing heart seems so much deeper and more profound than mere discouragement.

I started to think about the implications of this verse. The instruction is clear enough: don’t go out of your way to rile your kids. Be a Good Dad.

But the reasoning is interesting: “so that they do not lose heart”.

Discouragement and losing heart is so easy in this world. All around us there are attacks on our worth, our self-image, our value. Temptations to believe that only if we look or behave in a certain way are we valued and productive. We call a lot of these “advertising”, but they aren’t what I want to focus on right now.

No, what struck me on Sunday was the idea that a large part of a father’s role might be summarised as creating heart in your children.

If “losing heart” is more than just discouragement, building heart is more than just being an encourager as we normally think of it.

I sometimes believe that the spiritual gift of encouragement is the gift most misunderstood by all the various spiritual gift inventory questionnaires I’ve seen; to a one they all seem to envision a middle-aged woman whose gift finds expression in the sending of cards.

This isn’t very cool if you’re a young woman, and even less helpful if you’re a man. By and large, most men don’t express the gift in that prissy sort of a way, if they have the gift. In some cases it can lead to a lot of misapprehensions about encouragement and what it really is.

Creating heart might be a more useful way of expressing what I’m talking about; it has at least the advantage of not having any baggage of which I’m aware.

So what do I mean by “heart”?

Heart as I’m meaning it encompasses a number of different qualities, foremost among them courage, conviction, integrity, hope, fervour, compassion and faith. It’s a valorous blend of characteristics embodied in every true hero, a blend that enables them to slay the monsters, face down the odds, oppose the tyrant, stare death in the face and spit in his eye. It’s also the blend of qualities that reaches out with compassion and aims to make the world a better place, looking beyond oneself to others.

This is what I want for my daughters and son.

Courage has been described as “the first of qualities, because it guarantees all the others”. I’m not sure this isn’t going a little too far, but certainly courage is important, and a vital part of what I mean by “heart”. In the Colossians verse, losing heart is expressed in the NIV as “becoming discouraged”, and courage is at the heart of that word. Many spiritual virtues take courage: it takes courage to show faith, courage to love, courage to show compassion in a world where it’s thin on the ground. The quality is never listed in any Biblical list of spiritual fruit or character qualities, but perhaps that’s by design, because so much of the time we reduce courage to the physical exigencies of the battlefield and the toughness of mind and body that calls for, when much of what I’m talking about here is moral courage.

Conviction and faith are part of what I mean by heart, because unless you have your heart involved then your “faith” isn’t true Biblical faith at all, merely a sort of cold mental assent. Unlike believing in the Loch Ness Monster, simply acknowledging the existence of the Godhead isn’t enough if your life doesn’t change as a result. As a father, I pray that I’m raising my children to be men and women of conviction, knowing what’s right and pursuing it with vigour.

Integrity goes along with this, because heart encompasses the unification of the inner and outer person. It’s the opposite of wearing masks and hiding: knowing who you are as well as Whose you are, living out of your deep inner self with the courage not to hide and the conviction that there is a purpose for which you were created that will take all your God-given powers.

All of this takes Biblical hope. Not the wishy-washy vague feeling we’ve demeaned it into, but the strong certainty that God has plans and a future for me, to prosper me and not to harm me. That if His purpose takes my life, then it’s not the end, but in His economy some things are worth dying for.

Fervouris involved, because you can’t have all of these qualities and not live with passion. And compassion, because unless it’s directed outwards into the service of the Lord and the blessing of other people, what good is it all? No-one wants to be around a fervent, courage-filled person of conviction who hates other people.

A lofty task and a worthy goal, but how do we do this? I hope I’m building heart in my children, but I’m not always very intentional about it.

I guess it begins here, with this verse. Don’t provoke your children. Don’t exasperate them. Don’t aggravate them. Be reasonable, able to be reasoned with. When you have to lay down the law, do so with grace. Set the example you wish you’d had; everyone comes from an imperfect family and a father’s care that had holes in it, but you need not reproduce all of that.

At its most basic, building heart in your kids means not tearing it out of them. We fathers are often considered the disciplinarians, but correction needs to be delivered in a way that makes our kids want to get it right and which builds into them the ability to do so. That means not tearing into them for trifling offences, but it also means bringing correction when it’s due. Our kids aren’t perfect either, and we who might have had harsh parents need to be careful we aren’t becoming so permissive that our children have no boundaries at all.

Something it’s taken me a while to learn is that my kids respond to different things. One of them, physical discipline just makes her stubborn. If you want to get through to her, she needs to understand why. Another of them, the prospect of reward works wonders (ok, so I bribe my kids sometimes. It seems to work). As their father, I have to tailor my engagement with each of my children, knowing that what encourages one may exasperate another, and yet trying to be even-handed in my approach to them. Nothing poisons family relationships like favouritism (look at the book of Genesis); that would be provoking them.

I’m not trying to claim I’m there or that I do it perfectly, because I’m painfully aware of just how far I fall short. I hope I’m building heart in my kids more than I’m making them lose it, but I expect they’ll have their individual hangups from well-meaning mistakes I made. Hopefully none beyond the grace of God, though.

Eyes Off The Waves

It’s already five days into 2017, and I’m still not ready for it.

Christmas was our first Christmas in our new home, and while I was concentrating on that, New Year sort of snuck up on me.

Most years I’ve spent some time in prayer and have some idea about a direction for the New Year, but this year, nothing. When my wife asked me on New Year’s Eve what I wanted from the upcoming year, I thought about all the craziness of 2016 and said “to survive it”.

Surviving is a pretty low bar, though. And if I’m honest with myself, I want more than mere survival.

But as for more precise direction? Not a clue.

The New Year feels a bit like standing at the top of a precipice; political weirdness in both my country of origin and my country of residence make the future a decidedly uncertain and unresolved thing. Hope seems in short supply. All bets are off; anything could happen. Look at the past year.

Maybe that’s the focus. Developing the sort of Divine confidence and expectation of God’s goodness that really does laugh at circumstances.

It would be easy to get disheartened. The less said about current politics, the better, but I have to say that I worry about the anti-reason, anti-fact, anti-truth nature of what appears to be current politics. And it’s conservatives who claim to believe in absolutes like truth I mean at least as much as liberals who claim to believe in relativism.

As someone who places a high value on truth, I find this disturbing. Fact is the least form of truth, and if we can’t even agree on what the facts actually are, then Pandora’s box is standing open and all the demons that have ever troubled Mankind are loosed upon the world.

In that kind of environment, Biblical Hope is a powerful weapon. The confidence that God is still good and hasn’t dropped the ball, regardless of my personal situation.

Like the Apostle Peter, here we are in the unnatural position of standing on the water in the middle of the storm. The winds are howling, the waves mount up like jagged cliff-edges. The other followers of Jesus are back in the limited safety of the boat, afraid of the storm themselves and even more afraid of doing what Peter did. The invitation to fear is everywhere. It’s reasonable to be afraid; that’s what reason tells us to do.

But there’s Jesus, holding onto my hand as I call desperately for salvation. Eyes off the waves, son, back onto Me. I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

The One who raises up kings and dethrones them – as messy as that gets when rule is for life and dynasties matter – is still Sovereign of the universe. The One who promised to build His church with no people or empire on earth to provide shelter and support for us – and then did so – is still Lord of all the earth.

These aren’t even very big waves compared to what the early church experienced. The persecution still hasn’t begun in America, despite the occasional rumour to the contrary.

I talked a good line through 2016 about God’s Kingdom being our paramount concern, about how these light and momentary trials reveal how small our view of God is, about how vital it is for us to act like followers of Jesus towards Muslims and other people who do not trust Him for salvation.

Now it’s apparently time to prove it.

I need to keep my eyes off the waves and on the Lord enthroned over the flood. I need to act with kindness and grace even to those believers who I deep down think are bringing the name of my God into disrepute. I need to have a large enough and Biblical enough view of my God that it puts these momentary troubles into proper perspective.

That Thou Art Mindful of Him

The one thing I insisted on in our wedding ceremony that I might do differently now was that I wanted to be pronounced “man and wife” rather than “husband and wife” like the pastor preferred to pronounce.

At the time, I was coming out of a long process of trying to understand my manhood and what it means to be a true man, and I thought it was a significant reflection of that struggle to be pronounced a man.

These days, I wonder if I wasn’t feeding one of the many cultural lies about what it means to be a man. The Man Gets The Girl is a subtle one, because there is something powerfully attractive in a man being a true man, but if that’s what you’re using to define your manhood and masculinity, I’d suggest you may be missing it.

The subject of what makes a man is one I’ve looked at before from time to time, but it’s an important one because our culture doesn’t have good answers. I sometimes wonder whether some of the rise of modern homosexuality may be a reaction to these bad answers about what manhood is all about, but there’s probably more to it than that, and I’m no expert on that subject. I’m relentlessly straight and I find the idea that (for whatever reason it is that people turn out as homosexuals) in a different universe I might not be… disquieting.

Anyway, in this post I want to start to unwrap what it might mean to be a true man in God’s sight. To try to begin to answer the question, using the old King James language, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”

The American culture of my experience (Texas over the last 10 years or so) is far more gender-segregated than I consider normal. For the record, I’m a Brit, specifically an Englishman (they aren’t the same) but I’ve been out of the UK for at least that long, and a decade is long enough for memory to start playing tricks. In Texas, there are very definite “men’s areas” and “women’s areas” of activity and social interaction. Women cook, men grill. Men watch and play sports, women chat and interact over the preparation of meals. Weddings are almost entirely Woman’s Domain, with male input reduced to providing labour and the slightly odd custom of the “groom’s cake” – an excuse to have chocolate cake at a wedding that’s traditionally decorated to showcase the groom’s personality or interests. I found about weddings being designated female territory when I tried to relieve some of my wife’s pre-wedding stress by doing some of the phoning-around inquiries about the flowers. Florist after florist gave me short, abrupt treatment and I was left with the distinct flavour of “I don’t want to talk to you, you interloper!”

My wife calls the same florists – instant helpfulness and charm. Like it wasn’t even the same people.

Utter foolishness, particularly in sales representatives, but this is Texas.

My land of birth doesn’t have a lot of these unmarked zones of gender-based interdiction (not that I remember encountering, anyway) and I was caught totally unprepared.

To this day I consider these unmarked zones to be the adult equivalent of cooties. Hedged about with social opprobrium bordering on shame, they seem to define masculinity and femininity based on arbitrary cultural standards that have little to do with Biblical values.

I’ve learned (the hard way, sometimes) that if we build our lives and our identities on relative human standards and values, we are building on shifting sand. I’m far more interested in what God thinks a Real Man ought to look like than in what the cowboy-derived Texan culture has to say about it.

The “masculinity culture”, if I can use that term, around me places a high value on machismo, separated gender roles, strength and hard work. By “masculinity culture” I mean the cultural expectations that get used to define what being a Real Man is about.

Personally, I think machismo is juvenile, most if not all separated gender roles are arbitrary limits on the breadth of diversity God has created, and hard work is a particularly American cultural value. And strength need not be defined solely, or even mostly, in physical terms. If I hadn’t sorted out my sense of identity as a man before I got married, I’d be in a world of hurt over the issue right now, because there seems little for me in the general Texan expectations.

It’s not just in the secular world, either. In the church, too, we have our ideas about what proper manhood looks and acts like, and even some of those seem like they owe more to the surrounding culture than to the Lord. For example the idea that “women need love, men need respect”. This idea is fine up to a point; men and women do tend to perceive their relational needs differently and respond to different things. But beyond that point it can become a self-serving lie that encourages men to be out-of-touch with their own emotions and desires (men need respect, not love) and disrespectful of their wives (women need love, not respect). Unfortunately I’ve seen it happen.

I may touch on this some more in a follow-up post; for the rest of this one I’d like to return to the issue of machismo.

We all know what machismo looks like, whether it’s opening beer bottles with your teeth or biting into the ghost pepper or flexing in front of the mirror or the trophy buck heads on the wall. It’s swagger. Brag. A constant drive to prove that you’re worthy to be called a man.

And yes, I did use the word “juvenile” earlier.

You see, it looks to me very much as though machismo is based almost entirely on fear: fear of what other people think.

At best, constantly having to prove you’re a man looks insecure. At worst, I’ve lived according to fear of man, and it’s a pretty worthless way to live. It’ll suck dry everything of value and leave you an empty shell full of other people’s expectations. I don’t want any part of it.

To me, one of the signs that you’re a real man – an adult, not a boy in a grown-up’s body – is that you don’t have anything to prove.

Forget trying to prove you’re a man; just be one.

Of course, to do this we have to come to a place of security in our God-ordained identity, not just as a human being but as a man (or a woman, but I’m talking particularly to men here), and not just as a man but as me.

And therein lies the difficulty, which is why so many of us men get stuck in the endless insecure loop of having to prove ourselves over and over again.

The Real Man doesn’t need to swagger and brag. Does an iceberg keep leaping out of the water to show everyone how big it is? A true man goes through life without the swagger of insecure arrogance. Head up and shoulders back, as my wife puts it, not compromising or downgrading who they are either, but strong where it counts: in their character and inner sense of self.

For me, one of the big things has been getting my heart around the idea that God doesn’t think I’m junk. I’ve talked about this before, but being told (as we are so many well-meaning times) that “you may think you’re junk, but God loves you and paid a high price for you” did little to squash my inner conviction that I was junk. Junk that God happened to love and was willing to pay an outrageous price for, but junk nonetheless.

I needed something extra, and it came in the realisation of some of the implications of God’s omniscience. As I said before, the implication that God is all-seeing means that He sees everything as it really is, without camouflage or falsehood or mistake. So if He says I’m worth the price He paid, that is my true value. Jesus loves me, this I know. Do not be afraid.

How can I possibly need to prove anything?

Sin Pardoned, Right Restored

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

In the case of all the militant old crusading hymns, I suppose it’s a good thing on balance. The word “crusade” as anything positive has almost completely died a death, and on that at least I have no regrets. The Crusades and all the bloodshed, death and atrocity committed therein remain one of the most horrible sins of the global Church, and I for one don’t see any advantage to trying to use the Christian equivalent of the word Jihad for what ought to be the spread of the Good News by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Still, for all that there’s a large part of me that regrets the apparent demise of all the martial old hymns: “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We Rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender”, “Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided”, “Fight the Good Fight”.

For one thing, I happen to groove to the bombastic strains of that sort of music. I find the sheer pompous martiality of it deeply satisfying on a primal level. It should be little surprise, given how my taste in Classical music runs: the Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Yes, of course I’m aware that the words can be easily misconstrued by those who don’t understand. Someone is always going to hear “Marching as to war” as a call to actual physical battle, if only to make an objection to it.

But surely many of our modern worship songs have words that are equally fraught with the potential for misunderstanding? You’re trying to tell me that the sloppy wet lyrics of Oh How He Loves Us aren’t going to be misinterpreted as a perversity by anyone not determined not to? Or that anything recorded by Mandisa isn’t a redirected boyfriend song?

We’re quite willing to re-image the Godhead through the lens of Venus, it seems, but to do the same through the lens of Mars is still apparently anathema.

I mention all of this mostly as an introduction, because I recently rediscovered the wonderful old martial hymn Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, it has one of those wonderfully sprightly, military-march kind of tunes, and though its lyrics are less martial than some, they’re really quite instructive:

Thy hand, O God, hath guided

Thy flock from age to age

The wondrous tale is written

Full clear on every page

Our fathers owned Thy goodness

And we their deeds record

And both of these bear witness:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy heralds told Thy message

To greatest as to least

To all the invitation

To share the great King’s feast

Their Gospel of redemption –

Sin pardoned, right restored –

Was all in this enfolded:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy mercy shall not fail us

Nor leave Thy work undone

With Thy right hand to help us

The vict’ry shall be won

And then, by men and angels,

Thy name shall be adored

And this shall be our anthem:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

It’s actually the second verse that particularly struck me. I think it’s one of the best and most personally helpful depictions of evangelism that I’ve seen in a while. Ok, there’s no particular emphasis that we ought to be numbered among those “heralds”, but in the context of verse 1’s focus on the deeds of those who have gone on before us it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that actually needs to be in there, because I can’t hear those soaring strains without being filled with a desire to emulate those bygone heroes of the Faith.

The message is told to “all”, to “greatest as to least”. It may be my latent Mediaevalism that seizes on this so strongly, as it’s not a social division that would readily come to the mind of someone raised in the republican democracy of the modern United States, but it’s worth bearing in mind. How many of us, even if we are comfortable telling the Message to “the least of these”, are comfortable telling the Message to the rich and the powerful?

The “invitation” is not to get your needs met. Not to discover how much God loves you, not even to get your sins forgiven. The image is a different one: sharing in the great King’s feast.

I have to say I love this image. I love the overtones of celebration, magnanimity and the raising up of the bowed down, the notes of fellowship that do not drown out the clarion-call of majesty. For me at least, it strikes the right balance between God’s Immanuel nearness and His YHWH Sabaoth power and royalty.

Not that getting your sins forgiven is completely ignored, you understand. The song immediately transitions to “sin pardoned, right restored” as a summary of the “Gospel of Redemption”. I’ll admit that the Gospel being “in this enfolded:/One Church, one Faith, one Lord” wouldn’t be my normal pithy summary of the Good News, but maybe there’s more even to that that it appears at first glance.

Anyway, “sin pardoned, right restored”. I like this as a summary of the Gospel. Not merely getting your sins forgiven, but being transferred to the side of righteousness. The call to bring justice and mercy in the world, restoring Right. There are so many places and spheres in our modern world that need “right restored” that we neglect this aspect of the Good News, and yet this is no mere social Gospel or substitution of activism for right relationship with the Father. It goes hand in hand with “sin pardoned”; the two are part of the same Gospel of redemption.

Not only that, but “right restored” in our own lives as well. Not just the requirement to live holy lives pleasing to the Lord, but also the ability to do so. Not in our own strength, but through the power of His indwelling Spirit. This, too, is the Gospel of redemption. Because if we’re only forgiven of our sins and left in our fallen old natures, we only have half a redemption.

So, “enfolded” in “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”?

I’ve always had a strong interest in church unity, but I don’t think even I would go so far as to say it “enfolds” the entirety of the Gospel. Still, Jesus did say that “by this all people shall know that you are My disciples: that you love one another”.

One of the most persistent objections of those who reject Faith concerns the dividedness of the church. In my native Britain, at least, I believe we’re mostly past the hard division of ourselves along denominational lines and its accompanying suspicion and denigration of “those Baptists/Methodists/Anglicans/Pentecostals/whatevers”. America has yet to fully catch up, but I am confident she’ll get there, if only that in the upcoming generations there aren’t enough of us to make Christian domination of the spiritual marketplace an assured thing any more. On a purely human level, we’re no longer competing just with ourselves for market share; there are Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists and Shinto, not to mention atheists, outright pagans and everyone else.

Even maintaining our different denominational names (and there are good reasons to do so), being “One Church” in the important sense of being “one in spirit and purpose” cuts the ground out from under this argument like only the truth can. One Faith, because we do all believe the same core body of doctrine. One Lord, whom we all worship. It’s important.

Then, too, “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” speaks more subtly to the absolute right He has to our service.

This isn’t something we talk much about as Christ’s followers. It’s a truth we find uncomfortable; it strikes directly at the heart of our independent-minded “no-one tells me what to do!” determination to have our own way.

More, it’s something that runs directly counter to this present age’s glorification of rebellion and self-will. There is a truth in this present age: no-one but you are answerable to your own conscience. But the fact that God has a right to expect our worship, loyalty and service – our fealty, to use the old Mediaevalist term? No, we don’t talk much about that.

It’s true, though, and the sooner we accept His right to our obedience the better off we will be for discipleship purposes. As others have said, the Gospel preached by the Apostles wasn’t “Come to Jesus and get your needs met”; it really was “Jesus is Lord; what are you going to do about it?”

The link to this from “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” isn’t all that overt, I’ll admit. But the fact that there really is “one Lord” to whom we owe our highest allegiance as His right, “one Faith” alone, “one Church” composed of all those who call on His Name, that to me communicates Jesus’ absolute right to our allegiance.

Evolving Perspectives

I was a creationist in Britain, where it’s hard. Where disbelief in biological evolution is considered the same as disbelief that the earth is a globe. Where with only a few exceptions, Christians tend to say that God created the world but He probably used evolution to do it. Where believing in a literal six-day creation is considered as fundamentalist and unbalanced at the Taliban and Westboro Baptist Church.

In that kind of a milieu, you’d better have good reasons for doubting the prevailing orthodoxy, and be prepared to back them with hard science.

Worse, my degree is in biology. The question was not “how can you call yourself a Christian and believe in evolution?”, but “how can you call yourself a scientist and not believe in evolution?”

However, I consider my creationism to be more or less scientifically-based. There was no conscious decision that I had to accept that the Biblical creation account was historically and literally factual. I simply got to the point where evolutionary theory was asking me to accept so many one-in-a-million chances and improbabilities in the origins of life that it finally just became less improbable to postulate a single act of special creation.

Interestingly enough, one of the main spurs toward this intellectual position was my reading of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dawkins, he’s one of my country’s leading biological scientists and one of my country’s leading proponents of atheism. He makes a logical case for evolution underpinning atheism, or rather, undermining faith in God, but his willingness to accept biological millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance in his quest to bolster the idea that God wasn’t needed as an explanation just got to the point where it crossed my threshold of disbelief. This was too much improbability.

I was initially quite a reluctant creationist. As a dinosaur-loving child, I’d somehow absorbed the idea that believing in an act of special creation meant you had to discount all of palaeontology as a lie, that there were no dinosaurs (the fossils were probably put there by God to fool scientists or something), and that the world has always been pretty much like it is today in terms of species range. Creationism wasn’t scientific; it was the product of a mind in retreat; a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately trying to make new gaps. A deliberate step away from knowledge. I didn’t initially want very much to do with it, but I found that evolution wasn’t believable any more.

Then I encountered the Creation Science movement. It’s very fringe in the UK; you almost have to go looking for it. But at least here was a way that I could reconcile my scientific disbelief in evolutionary theory with still being a scientist. There might be some evidence that the long ages required by evolutionary theory need not necessarily have been, or that, as the Intelligent Design scientists maintain, biological and physical systems show the mark of being the work of an organising Intelligence. As a result of finding these guys (in the Creation Science movement), I got quite into it. I even went to a talk given by Ken Ham (an Australian who founded Answers in Genesis and is one of the movement’s leading lights). I’d bend people’s ears about it at the slightest excuse.

Being a vocal creationist in Britain, it’s you, alone, against the world. Even those who share your faith in Christ probably aren’t going to agree with you on this one, but will instead look at you suspiciously as if you’re some sort of lunatic or dangerous fanatic.

So you might think that moving to the United States, where in Christian circles the idea of creationism is practically mainstream, I’d be rejoicing in the company of like minds.

Not so much.

I’m actually uncomfortable with most of US Christian creationism. It often seems way too close to how I initially characterised the idea of creationism – a rejection of science, a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately seeking more gaps. I don’t like this. Really don’t like it.

The “God of the gaps” idea is that “we need God in order to explain those questions science can’t answer”. This, to my mind, is backwards. For me, science isn’t an alternative to belief in God but a result of it. I can do science because the universe is the rational creation of an intelligent Mind, not a chaotic result of random processes. Science is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”; the whole enterprise has theistic underpinnings. Because we believe that the universe is a real, good creation of a rational God, subject to His rules, we can study the world. We can do experiments, because we are studying a real, good creation rather than trespassing on the domain of some malicious little sprite or trying to study something fundamentally illusory. We can make useful observations, because the universe is ordered, not a random product of blind forces. We can do science. It’s a result of Christian worldview.

I don’t believe in a God of the gaps; I believe in a God of science who is a Revealer of mysteries. We can find things out and make discoveries because there is a God, not in spite of there being a God. God’s domain does not shrink with every scientific advance; instead, human knowledge inches closer to God’s perfect Knowledge. All truth is God’s truth, even if it doesn’t look that way at first.

I sympathise with the plight of the Intelligent Design folks, recognising my own journey in theirs. They’ve bravely come to the point where the evidence of some kind of designing Intelligence in the biological and physical world is so strong that they’ve had to doubt the evolutionary orthodoxy that it all happens due to random processes. They, like me, have come to the realisation that a designed universe implies a Designer, through their science, not in rejection of it. And then their theories are apparently hijacked by a load of science-rejecting ideologues (as they see it) and used to justify their rejection of science and what scientists tell them, whether that’s evolution or climate change or anything else.

Maybe I’m being a “creation snob”. Not everyone has a science background or really grasps the biology. Is it really fair to look down on fellow-believers just because they aren’t scientists?

Well, no, it’s not fair. I hope I can cope with the idea that not everyone’s a scientist, but we Christians have no excuse for being rejectors of science either, and I find way too much of that in a lot of US Christianity.

I still find the idea that the omnipotent God whose existence I acknowledge could have created the world in six literal days to require no great stretch of faith or imagination. I still find the level of improbability which is necessarily part and parcel of atheistic evolution to be frankly beyond my personal credulity. But equally, God could have chosen to work through the process of evolution, and the Biblical creation account could be as figurative as the Psalmist’s description of God having feathers, or as symbolic as Daniel’s description of four beasts. It doesn’t affect the Bible’s ultimate credibility to believe that Genesis 1-2 is something other than a historical record, any more than it damages belief in the Bible’s authority to recognise that the Psalms are poetry, not literal history, or that the book of Jeremiah contains both historical-narrative and prophetic genres.

For that matter, which Biblical creation account are we to accept as the literal and factual one? There are at least four (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Job 38 and John 1), and they don’t agree in all of the details. For example, Genesis 1 states that animals were created before people, whereas Genesis 2 reverses that order. If this part of the Bible is to be understood as a literal description of events, how do we reconcile this discrepancy?

For me, it’s still simpler to believe in an act of special creation by an all-powerful God than in the same all-powerful God working through a long-winded process of “natural” selection, but I recognise that God could have done it that way. It’s not a big deal either way.

So I find myself caught in the middle. I can’t make myself really believe in evolution again, but I can’t stand the apparent rejection of science that appears to characterise your average US Christian creationist. Some of these people really do look like flat-earthers or like they believe in a Ptolemaic cosmos with all of its epicycles and the sun going round the earth. As far as I can tell, they think modern science is “atheistic” and they want no truck with atheism. Safer to reject science than faith. The Bible is all we need anyway. Just believe it and close your mind.

I don’t really want to be associated with that. It’s the opposite of the way I came to most of my beliefs, scientific or Christian, and it looks dangerously unthinking. We don’t have the luxury of closing our minds. We have to worship God with them.

Why are we so dogmatic about how we should interpret this passage of the Bible? We none of us were there, as God reminds Job. Making dogmatic statements about things we have not seen seems a little like the hubris we accuse evolutionists of. A little less dogmatism and a little more humility might do us all a world of good.

And as for the Bible being all we need, why do we believe the Bible anyway? We believe it because there is good evidence for its reliability. It’s been proven time and again to be historically credible when it talks about stuff we can hold it to account on, so we are on solid ground when we believe it on more unusual events like miracles. We trust it because we believe it’s true, and there’s good evidence to support the contention that it is. If the Bible is demonstrably unreliable in what it says, we shouldn’t be believing it, so how dare we say that “the Bible is all we need”? We don’t believe things “just” because the Bible says them and we’ve decided to believe the Bible in spite of what our reason and observation tell us, we believe the Bible because we know that when it talks about things we can prove and observe, like historical events and human nature, it has a really good track record of accuracy.

The Bible isn’t, in a very real sense, all we need. We first have to be convinced that the Bible is reliable, and for that we must use the tools of science: reason and observation. Anything else is a blind “believing something you know isn’t true” faith of the sort atheists accuse us of having.

I’m not trying to weaken anyone’s faith. But questions of origins are difficult ones involving epistemology (how can we know anything?), several of the sciences, Bible interpretation and matters of faith. No-one currently living on the earth was there at the time and saw it happen, and we don’t always interpret the book written by the One who was there with perfect accuracy, so we ought to be cautious about making sweeping statements about what really happened. Sometimes it’s ok to not know.