One and the Same?

I’ve blogged about this before, but with Wheaton College’s recent dismissal of one of their professors for claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it seems like a timely subject to revisit.

It seems as though this is a sensitive as well as timely subject, as evidenced by Wheaton’s reaction to what some Christians (even Bible-believing Evangelicals) would see as a legitimate intellectual position, and it’s not really one that the Bible itself weighs in on very clearly. In the period in which the Bible was being written, there were no other extant monotheistic faiths about which the Bible authors saw fit to comment. Even Akhenaten’s solar monotheism goes unremarked in Scripture, and Islam was several hundred years in the future at the time of Christ. At the time of writing even the last books of the New Testament, Christianity wasn’t even fully divorced from Judaism, the only other existing monotheisting faith..

So we’re dependent for an answer largely on our own reasoning and wisdom, and our interpretation of certain few Scriptural precedents.

There are simplistic arguments and poorly-reasoned responses on both sides. It would be incredibly oversimplifying the question (as well as denying the real differences between us) to say that since both Muslims and Christians believe in one God who created and rules the universe that therefore the Muslim and Christian views of this God are identical at all points, but equally, it would be oversimplifying the question (and denying the considerable body of basic truth that we do hold in common) to say that since the Muslim and Christian doctrines of God are not identical at all points that therefore the Islamic Allah and the Christian God are fundamentally separate beings.

What the debate boils down to is how significant are the differences, and how significant are the commonalities?

It should be evident to anyone that Muslims and Christians do have several crucial differences in how they conceive of the Divinity. Christians believe in a Godhead who is Triune. Muslims consider any attempt to compromise the singularity of the Divinity as the ultimate sin of shirk, or blasphemy about the Divine nature. Christians believe in a God who is Love. Muslims see this as an anthropomorphism at best and almost certainly a heretical notion. And so on.

But it should also be obvious that there is a lot of overlap in how we perceive the Divinity. The Muslim Allah and the Christian God are both shown in the relevant texts of the two religions as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. They are both known as Creator, Sustainer, Almighty, Ruler of the angels, Lord of the Universe. It’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that we might be looking at the same Being from different angles.

Ah, but that relativises revealed Christian truth and undercuts missions by suggesting that Muslims don’t need to be saved, we are told sometimes.

Personally, I find that to be avoiding the question. Jews who are not Messianic also consider the Christian concept of the Trinity to be blasphemous, yet no-one I know about is suggesting that the Jewish Adonai is not the same Being as the Christian God. Indeed, our very foundational theology rests on the fact that they are one and the same: “Christianity is Judaism fulfilled”, as we sometimes put it.

So what makes Islam different?

Saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not the same as saying that Islam is wholly right. Some of their theology is wildly divergent from mainstream Christian doctrine, as I have said. The real question is over how significant those real theological differences are to the question of whether or not we worship the same God. After all, Calvinists and Arminians sometimes hold some wildly divergent theological doctrines, yet no-one seriously claims that Baptists and Methodists are following different gods. Or Protestants and Catholics, for that matter. I don’t hold with the Catholic elevation of the Bishop of Rome or their doctrines of purgatory and penance, and some of their veneration of the Virgin Mary and other saints is a little too close to outright worship for my personal comfort, but I don’t try to say that Catholics are worshipping a false god. That would be rather ridiculous, in my opinion.

In other words, just because we have some different beliefs and teachings about God, it does not necessarily mean that there is a black-and-white separation and “our God” is the true one and the fact that their teachings differ from that is prima facie evidence that “their god” is a false one. That seems rather simplistic. The truth is a little more complex.

For those who believe that Muslims and Christians are worshipping different beings, the crucial difference comes down to character. They point to the apparent capriciousness of the Muslim Allah, the recorded harsh, demanding aspect of his character and the total lack of any sense of the Christian idea that “God is Love”. They point to the absolute and uncompromising monotheism of Islam, with no room for the complex Christian idea of the Trinity. They point to the apparent distance of the Muslim Allah from his believers.

These are all valid points and critical differences. Muslim concepts of Allah and Christian concepts of God are really not the same.

But is that the same as saying that therefore they are two separate beings? I’m not sure.

If we were to encounter a new tribe of polytheistic pagans who had a notion of a “high god” who was a good Creator deity, but distant from humans and uninvolved, most of us would probably identify that “high god” with the God of Scripture, even if the local religion’s concept of that God was that He was limited in power, presence and knowledge. After all, isn’t that what Paul did with his Mars Hill speech to the Athenians, proclaiming the “unknown god”?

Paul was even prepared to repurpose pagan poetry (functionally almost equivalent to Judaeochristian prophecy for the ancient Greeks) addressed to the vengeful, capricious and lustful Zeus to convey Christian truth about the Divine Being.

Was Paul saying that all of the Greek ideas and stories about Zeus were right? No, of course not. And honesty compels me to admit that he wasn’t saying that the pagan Zeus and the Christian YHWH were the same being, either. But historians tell us that at this period the more philosophical among the Greeks were beginning to dimly grasp that humans needed a Deity who was higher than the pagan stories. Though framed in the language of Zeus, there was a groping towards the notion of a High God. Zeus at his most exalted begins to approach Yahweh at His lowest ebb.

Can we build on that? Paul thought so.

Can we do the same with Islamic ideas about the Divine Being? Why would we be unable to? They are far closer to the whole truth.

A lot of the argument seems like a deliberate misunderstanding of one another’s position. To those who claim that Muslims and Christians are worshipping the same God, saying that we aren’t is perceived as a simplistic and unhelpful denial of the very real overlap in conceptions of the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. As one who holds this position, I often want to point out that it is unhelpful, when trying to lead a Muslim to faith in the Messiah, to start out from an attitude of “everything you believe is wrong”. Because it isn’t so. He (or she) already knows the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, just as we know the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He already knows that there is a spiritual world. He acknowledges angels and demons, the Messiahship of Jesus and the reality of the Last Judgement. It seems foolishly ignorant to dismiss all of that.

However, it cuts both ways. For many of those who say that Muslims and Christians are not worshipping the same God, this is merely a way of acknowledging that the Muslim doctrine of Allah does not entirely square with the Christian doctrine of God. They are (most of them) not saying that Muslims do not believe any Biblical truths about the Deity, just that the differences are significant enough that it is perilous at best to equate the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. They really aren’t the same.

As for me, I’m more comfortable with giving Muslims the credit of at least worshipping the same Being that we are, even if, like the pagan polytheists in my hypothetical example, they get some of it wrong. To me, what the differences largely come down to is a difference in focus on various aspects of the nature of God. We look on the differences as largely differences in character, and they are (given that we are prepared to believe that Jewish people worship the same God despite their rejecting the notion of the Trinity), but to my mind that obscures a very interesting difference in how we approach the nature of God.

Both Muslims and Christians hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Or in simpler words, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere at all times. We both hold that He is both good and eternal. But we have different areas of focus, and they affect the way we perceive His character.

Muslims acknowledge all of those attributes, but the really important one to Muslims is His omnipotence. God is first and foremost great, supreme in power and without rival. To Muslims, even His justice and goodness are second to His omnipotence; whereas Christians believe in an objective standard of right and wrong to which even God is subject, to a Muslim the idea that God could be subject to anything, even the idea of right and wrong, is nonsense. Whatever Allah does is right, not because Allah constrains Himself to never do wrong, but because whatever He does becomes right. It’s right because God is doing it.

By the same token, referring to God as “Father”, “Lover”, “Bridegroom” or many other of our Christian titles is to do the all-powerful, supremely exalted Godhead the blasphemous disservice of equating Him with our human expressions of those titles. We’re bringing God down to our level, as far as they are concerned. God isn’t like a fallible human father in all ways, much less the equality that “lover” can sometimes communicate.

By contrast, for many Western Christians the really important attribute of God is His omnipresence. Yes, God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. “Emmanuel” is a truth that much of Christian doctrine rests upon, but even beyond its meaning that “The Word became flesh”, we focus on God’s nearness and readiness to act on our behalf. Look at our worship songs. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus”. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”. “Your Love Reaches Me”. And so on. We acknowledge God’s transcendence and power, but it’s subordinated to, and in service of, His with-us-ness.

If Muslims err in bending all of God’s other attributes around His omnipotence, it seems like a lot of we Christians err just as much in bending all of God’s other attributes around His intimate Presence. Emmanuel does not mean that Jesus is my Boyfriend, after all, though we often seem to sing and make music as if it does.

But the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a nuanced and subtle one, as much a matter of interpretation as various “difficult” passages of Scripture. I personally believe that it is reasonable to suggest that we are, but I take the point that we do indeed really believe some very different things about Who we are worshipping.

In other words, the debate is still open. And in light of that, I’m afraid Wheaton College’s dismissal of one of its professors over this question is not going to do anything to further the debate. At best it seems counterproductive; at worst, a little like intellectual dishonesty. This is apparently, in Wheaton’s eyes, not open for discussion. If you even dare to suggest the possibility, it is as much grounds for dismissal as claiming that the Resurrection did not physically happen.

I’m a little saddened that not even a respected academic institution like Wheaton seems able to have an adult discussion about the issue.

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The Dark Side of the Force

I watched the original Star Wars trilogy again recently. I was introducing my kids to it, trying to wait until the younger ones were old enough to vaguely grasp what’s going on. And beginning with the original trilogy because The Phantom Menace isn’t actually all that good as a film (particularly not compared to A New Hope), and because I’m a purist like that.

Lots has been said already about the Star Wars conception of “the Force” and how, despite what we’d like to believe sometimes, the Force isn’t a direct equivalent of God.

The Force isn’t God, because the Force is an impersonal energy field that is created by living things, whereas God is a personal Creator of all that is. The Force is dualistic, with good and evil both a part of it, whereas God is good, solely and purely.

I know all this, and it isn’t what I want to talk about.

Being fully aware that the Force isn’t God, the original trilogy can serve as a metaphor or parable of sorts, describing a great spiritual conflict of good and evil like the one we find ourselves in here on Planet Earth. So long as you treat it as a metaphorical story and not a direct allegory, you can still find glimpses of truth in it. It’s become a part of our modern cultural lore, and we can use it to communicate certain truths at need, just like we can use other stories.

No, what I wanted to talk about was Yoda’s speech about being a Jedi; the one that comes in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

You know the one: “A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side are they. Easily they flow; swift to join you in a fight. But once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

I’m willing, with certain caveats in line with what I’ve already said, to interpret the Force as being a dim reflection of the Godhead, and the Jedi as the Miles Christi, the soldier of Christ in the spiritual battle in which we find ourselves. So “a Christian’s strength flows from the Lord”.

Thus far so good. This is a truth which we hold to be self-evident, and is in line with Scriptural teaching that “without Him we can do nothing”.

But it’s after that that we begin to run into troubles.

Anger, fear and aggression are deemed to be irreversibly corrupt products of darkness and evil, along with hatred.

This we need to be more careful with. Certainly hating one’s fellow man is no Christian thing to do. Jesus died for him as much as He died for me; He loves the most hardened ISIS fanatic as much as He loves me.

Not that the hardened ISIS fanatic is doing His will, you understand, but that even his evil deeds do not change the love of the Lord for him.

But the Bible instructs us to “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”. If hatred is intrinsically evil in and of itself, we’re in a bit of a quandary. Or in other words, it’s ok to hate the devil, so long as we recognise those who have made themselves his footsoldiers on earth as dupes as much in need of salvation as we. Hating the devil is fulfilling the will of God, and in line with His character. Hating sin is Godly, so long as we love the sinner.

We’re typically not very good at that, but it’s nevertheless a mistake to follow half-remembered Star Wars lore and make this sort of hatred wrong.

When the Emperor tempts Luke to give in to his hatred and strike him down, we have to be careful how we let ourselves interpret it. Luke, hate the evil that the Emperor represents, but the Emperor himself is a human being made in the image of God, and worthy of your compassion, not your hate.

Similarly, anger, fear and aggression.

I’ve talked about anger before on this blog, pointing out that God Himself is “slow to anger”, not incapable of it. He’s capable of feeling anger and acting righteously at all points. We sometimes aren’t, yet it’s not anger itself that’s the problem, but what we do with it. Anger is a normal, healthy and good response to a situation in which a wrong has been done. Luke does not sin by becoming angry at the Emperor’s manipulations and contempt. But he does have to be careful what he does with that anger.

The Jedi response is apparently to get rid of your anger somehow. Either by stuffing it down and sitting on the lid, or by the Buddhist means of killing your sense of self. If you can destroy your own capacity to feel these dark emotions, then the anger and hate goes away, because we can’t feel them any more. This is the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, as closely as I can make out, and it’s wrong and unhealthy. God made us with the capacity to feel angry about injustices and to hate sin. If we destroy our own ability to feel anger or hate, we cripple ourselves for the spiritual battle the Lord has called us to. We open ourselves not to “positive emotions” like peace and happiness, but to feeling nothing at all. This is unhealthy, and opposed to God’s design.

Fear is a dark power when it masters us, causing us to do all sorts of crazy, unhelpful and sinful stuff. But even fear is not evil itself. The proper purpose of fear is to alert us to danger and ready us to flee or fight. If we cripple this capacity in ourselves we are not behaving in a healthy manner, and are in danger of extreme foolhardiness.

We’re instructed to fear the Lord, because He’s dangerous. He’s described as a lion, a consuming fire, surrounded by whirlwinds. He made the great white shark and called it good. He is, as CS Lewis rightly pointed out, not remotely safe.

But He’s good. He truly loves us and wants the best for us, but that shouldn’t lure us into deciding that He’s a sort of supernatural teddy bear.

He loves us and wants the best for us, yes; but He’s all-knowing and really does know what that best looks like. More, He has nothing invested in perpetuating our comfortable sins, He wants to set us free from all that and isn’t really so interested in how much it’s going to hurt us to give up the destructive sins we love. Just like it isn’t loving to buy a drink for an alcoholic, so the Lord would not be truly Love if He allowed us to continue in our comfortable sins.

Fearing the Lord is the antidote to this. If we truly recognise how very unsafe He is, it will restrain us from pursuing such things.

Aggression is a trickier one. This is allied to Yoda’s statement that “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence; never for attack”.

It’s seductive because it sounds so reasonable. We don’t want to be hurting other people or attacking them. We don’t want to be the aggressor in a conflict.

But what if we are attacking evil? According to a strict interpretation of Yoda’s words, this is wrong because it’s aggression, which is the Dark Side. So by these lights, the right thing to do is to stand by until you are attacked. Evil can flourish so long as it doesn’t actually make a direct assault.

To be fair, the Star Wars universe never goes this far down this particular pathway, but we must remember that Yoda’s counsel to Luke was to sacrifice his friends, even let them die if necessary, and continue his training.

Now, I’m all in favour of being fully trained, but knowing that an evil is occurring and deliberately standing by and doing nothing is a grievous wrong.

And this is what’s wrong with the Jedi. They’re supposed to be the guardians of right and order, but the Old Republic is riddled with smugglers, gangsters, criminals, oppressors and exploiters, all proceeding about their business apparently unmolested by Jedi interference.

The spiritual Christian soldier sung of in the old hymn is supposed to be an aggressive attacker of the enemy’s domain. Jesus’ words were that “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”. The picture is of an active church aggressively assaulting the domain of the devil, taking ground in the spiritual realm and rescuing the prisoners of darkness, not of the gates of hell assaulting a beleaguered church. Passivity is a Jedi ideal, not a Christian one.

The Biblical ideal is that ultimate Good will emerge victorious and that evil will ultimately be done away with. The problem with the Jedi is that their theology is as uninterested in the ultimate triumph of the light side of the Force as it is in the ultimate triumph of the dark side. They are keepers of the balance, seeking a world in which good and evil cancel one another out somehow, not a world in which good reigns supreme.

And I know which world I’d rather live in.

Anger, fear and aggression are not the enemy, any more than earthly nations or political groups are the enemy, or individual Muslims for whom Christ died are the enemy, or homosexuals are the enemy.

We do have to be careful what we do with our anger, fear and aggression, and careful not to let them control us, but it’s a mistake to paint them as intrinsically evil. It’s when we’re controlled by anger, fear and aggression that we begin to paint human beings as the enemy, and this is wrong, but properly-disciplined anger at injustice is Godly and righteous. Fear of the Lord is wise and leads, paradoxically, to freedom from other fears, and aggression directed at a Godly end and channeled through righteous means is a powerful force for good in the world.

The last line of Yoda’s speech is “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”.

This is another line that sounds almost Christian. Once you start down the path of sin, it will have mastery over you and you canot be rid of it by your own strength.

But the problem is that we have all “started down the dark path”, and Yoda’s words and actions lead to no hope or possibility of redemption.

Turning Vader back to the light side is prtrayed as Luke’s idea, not Yoda’s. Obi-Wan counsels Luke to abandon this hope that even Darth Vader can be saved.

This is wrong and unbiblical. No-one is beyond redemption. God “so loved us, even when we were dead in sins and trespasses, that He made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up and seated us together with Him in the heavenly places”. Paul the Apostle started out as the ISIS or Taliban of his day. Surely there was no hope that he would be brought to faith.

And yet God did it anyway. Saul the persecutor and militant fanatic became Paul the fanatic for Christ, as committed to seeing the Good News about Jesus proclaimed as he had been to seeing it extinguished. Who knows whether the leaders of ISIS might not be potential Pauls in the making?

The other thing is that in Darth Vader’s turning back to the light, there’s nothing said about any price to be paid for his previous life of evil. The past is apparently gone, all that matters is that he’s now on the right side. There are no consequences for his previous evil deeds.

This could only play in a semi-Christianised culture where we’ve accepted the idea that we don’t have to earn our way back into God’s good graces, but it’s only partly true. The thing is, there was a price to pay, a terrible one. One that we could not begin to pay. But it’s a price that God did pay. It doesn’t make it any less real; sin and evil is still sin and evil, and God is just in what He says the punishment is. But with Him there is forgiveness.

So I guess the point of this is that we shouldn’t strive to be like the Jedi in all things. Star Wars can serve as a parable of the spiritual battle, up to a point, but there are things we need to be aware of as believers seeking to have the mind of Christ. Yoda is one of the good guys, and has a certain amount of wisdom, but he doesn’t speak with the voice of God, and sometimes even what Yoda has to say can be unhelpful.

“A Wretch Like Me”?

Grace. Philip Yancey called it “the last best word”. As Christians we sing about it, rest on it, depend on it. Getting the good things of God that we don’t deserve.

But it occurs to me that sometimes the way we preach about it and proclaim it is kind of dysfunctional.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me” is true, from a certain perspective. All our righteousness is like filthy rags. We fallen human beings aren’t capable of achieving the righteousness God is looking for on our own. Sin gets in the way. We’re saved by grace, not because of anything we’ve done. Alongside God’s righteousness, even the best unaided human is, well, “a wretch” isn’t too far off.

But I think sometimes we go just a beat or two too far with it. It becomes “you are junk, but God loves you anyway”. God is willing to pay an incredible, ludicrously high price, for junk. Because He loves us.

But we’re still junk.

On Sunday I heard an interesting message about God’s grace depicted in the story of King David and Mephibosheth. It was a pretty good message, but it definitely did this.

For those of you less familiar with the story, after King David’s kingdom was established, he called in his servants and asked them if there was anyone left from Saul’s family to whom he might show kindness, for Jonathan’s sake. Saul’s son Jonathan was his best friend, not sharing his father’s enmity to David. And David, for his part, never seems to have hated Saul the way Saul hated him, consistently refusing to take his life even when given the opportunity on a silver platter.

His servant Ziba, who had once been one of Saul’s retainers, tells him that there’s one of Jonathan’s sons still alive, a man crippled in both feet by the name of Mephibosheth.

David brings Mephibosheth to his palace. Mephibosheth comes, probably fearing for his life – after all, he is the last descendent of David’s enemy Saul.

“Don’t be afraid!” David tells him, saying that he intend to show kindness to him on account of Jonathan. He gives him all the property that once belonged to Saul’s family, instructs Saul’s servants to work the land for him, and invites Mephibosheth the cripple to eat at the king’s table.

“What is your servant, that you take notice of a dead dog like me?” is Mephibosheth’s response.

So often, we seem to want to let this response stand. Mephibosheth’s story is a picture of God’s grace to the undeserving. King David is the picture of God, and we are Mephibosheth. And we still think we’re a dead dog and that there’s no earthly reason why any sane God should love us and show favour to us.

Jesus died for you, with all of your mess and chaos. No matter how messed-up you are, He loves you and died for you.

You’re junk, but God is willing to show you favour anyway. Even die for you. For junk.

No!

God is omniscient. We focus a lot on His omnipresence – His nearness and with-us-ness and care for us – or His omnipotence – His power and might, the One who made the starry universe almost as an afterthought – and omniscience is a sort of poor relation that just rounds out the three but doesn’t really mean much.

But His omniscience is the foundation of many of His attributes, so when we downgrade it we’re in danger of doing violence to His character. In this case, what it means is that He sees truly. He knows all things, so He knows exactly what anything is truly worth. There are no smokescreens or marketing ploys that can deceive Him.

So if He says I’m worth the ludicrous price He paid, then that is really what I’m worth. God is not insane; He doesn’t die for junk. He knows better than we what we’re worth.

Mephibosheth is indeed a lot like us, and King David in this story does behave like God. But we’re missing the point if we think Mephibosheth’s own judgment of his value is accurate.

The first thing that needs to be brought out of this story is not actually in the story at all, but predates it. When Jonathan was the King’s son and David merely the young warrior who killed Goliath, David and Jonathan made a covenant. A covenant is like a promise, in this case a promise of friendship, but in Old Testament Hebrew culture covenants were inherited. By looking for a descendent of Saul to whom he could show kindness for Jonathan’s sake, what David is doing is exhibiting God’s character trait of Covenant faithfulness.

Similarly, God made covenants with human beings. Specifically with Israel, but study of the Scriptures can show that it was always His intention that that covenant relationship not be exclusive – that the Gentile nations would be grafted in to the same covenantal root. God shows kindness because of that covenant, which is why Abraham and Moses can both talk Him down out of destroying sinners. They appeal not only to His mercy, but also to His Covenantal faithfulness. This is also why we can rely on His grace and mercy today. If it were just like a human feeling, it might evaporate tomorrow, but He has promised to show mercy and grace. It’s who He is; He cannot turn His back on His own nature.

The second thing I want to bring out is Mephibosheth’s situation.

Cripples in Bible times were looked down on. Most cultures excluded them; they couldn’t fight or plough or do much of anything. Even the descendent of a king might be reduced to beggarhood. In a society in which good physical circumstances were seen as evidence and result of Divine blessing, a man crippled in both feet would be looked at as under God’s curse.

Worse, Mephibosheth’s family had been fighting against the current king. It seems like all the other descendents of King Saul had died fighting David. Mephibosheth was the last one left, maybe surviving only because no-one thought he was important enough to be worth killing.

He has, however, apparently had all or most of his property taken from him. He wasn’t able enough to stop people from taking his stuff, and with the King being the enemy of his family, no-one else was going to stand up for him either.

His response to David’s kindness shows what he thought of himself and his situation: “What is your servant, that you notice a dead dog like me?”

A dead dog. An animal doubly unclean – it’s a dog, for a start, but it’s also a corpse. “I’m junk. Worthless. Why are you doing this?”

How like our response to God sometimes!

And we think it’s the proper response!

“I’m junk. Messed up. Crippled by sin, and I’ve been Your enemy. I’m worthless. Why would You die for me?”

“Because I love you” is true, but not as helpful as we like to pretend. Because “because I love you” doesn’t address the issue of our value. I’m still junk, but God happens to like junk and is willing to pay a high price for it.

Tosh.

The real response of God to our junk self-image is not “I love you anyway” but “you aren’t junk”!

Trust Me. I know all things. I know what you’re really worth. I don’t lie. If I say you’re worth the price I paid for you – that is your true value!

The third thing I want to bring out is what King David does for him. What Sunday’s message focused on was that David brought him into his palace to eat at his table. It’s a picture of God bringing us into fellowship with Him. We eat at His table, in His presence from here on.

But it’s not the only thing David does for Mephibosheth. It’s not even the main thing; in fact, without the other, Mephibosheth is left in the position we often think of ourselves in. I’m at God’s table, in fellowship with Him, for some bizarre nonsensical reason, because I’m a dead dog.

No, what David does first is to restore Mephibosheth’s dignity and value. He restores his property. By Old Testament inheritance law – encoded in the Law of God – as the sole surviving descendent, all the property that belonged to Saul was rightly Mephibosheth’s. He didn’t have it, because people had stolen it from him and he hadn’t been able to stop them. But it ought to have been his.

David’s first response to Mephibosheth is to give him back his own. This doesn’t say “you’re junk, and the only way you’ll amount to anything is because I’m going to feed you”. It’s not “you’re worthless, so I have to give you stuff for you to have anything”. It’s not patronising charity, it’s a hand up. Here is what belongs to you. You are a valued human being and ought not to have been stolen from like that. You can’t get it back on your own, and you have no-one else to fight for justice on your behalf, so I will provide you with justice. You are valuable, valued, worth it.

Here are the servants you should have had all along. They will take care of the land for you.

This is also what God does for us. As fallen human beings, we’re in Mephibosheth’s shoes. The devil has stolen from us all the stuff that God intended for us to have – joy, peace, dignity, value, integrity. Relationship with the Father. Ability to walk in righteousness. The prosperity of our souls. We weren’t strong enough to stop him, didn’t understand what was happening, couldn’t or wouldn’t fight it. Fell for his lies. Whatever. And with God our enemy because of sin, there was no-one on earth who could or would plead our case in the heavenly courts.

What God offers is ourselves back. Here are all the things you ought to have had, but for sin. It’s a restoration of our dignity and a flat contradiction of the lie that we are actually junk that God just happens to love.

Being brought to the King’s table is just the icing on the cake. Without the other, Mephibosheth is right about his value. But King David isn’t seeing junk. He sees a son of Jonathan, the inheritor of his covenant. Son of kings.

And this is who we are! Sons of the King by creation, through Adam. Inheritors of the covenants made by God to all mankind through Adam and Noah. Valued. Worthwhile.

Like with Mephibosheth, the devil has stolen our perception of our value right along with everything else. We think we’re dead dogs, and get utterly amazed that God would pay that high a price for us. We’re so convinced we’re junk that it sometimes feels wrong of God to do that.

But God is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows the real value of everything.

And if He says that what I’m worth is Jesus dying on the cross, that is really what I’m worth! He’s not lying to make us feel better. Not trying to butter us up – why should He? Anyway, He doesn’t lie. He’s not paying a ridiculous price to give us value, but to affirm our value.

I’m not a dead dog. Really!

I Want…

How many times have we heard the accusation that Christianity is just an angry God telling me not to do stuff I want to?

It’s sometimes a fair accusation. Sometimes we Christians act as though angry is God’s natural state, and a lot of the time our “standing up for moral principles” involves a lot of telling people not to do things. Combine the two, as we’ve all seen happen, and it’s entirely understandable that someone who doesn’t know any different would come to that conclusion.

And then we come to Luke 11:9-13.

Jesus is teaching on prayer. He’s just taught the disciples what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer”, and told them a parable about a man knocking on his friend’s door late at night asking to borrow some bread.

Even if the friend won’t get up just for friendship’s sake, Jesus tells them, he’ll get up because their friend asked boldly. They exhibited faith that their friend would help them if they asked.

And now Jesus says “Ask, and it shall be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened. For whoever asks, receives, he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened”.

In order to ask, you have to have a desire. You need to want it. Jesus doesn’t say that’s wrong. He doesn’t say stop wanting. Buddhism does, but this is one of the big differences between Christians and Buddhists. From the same problem – people want to do wrong things – two vastly different solutions. Buddhist teaching, as I understand it, is to stop wanting anything. Followers of Jesus trust Him to purify our hearts so that we stop wanting what is evil.

“Whoever asks, receives” is pretty broad. So broad that we often want to try to protect God’s reputation by hedging it about with conditions and nuances. We have to have pure motives. We have to be seeking first His Kingdom. We have to ask according to His will.

It tends to become an exercise in what I call “magical thinking”. Fulfill all of the preconditions and you can manipulate God into giving you a pony.

Jesus pares all of that away, leaving the crux of the matter.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”

God is a good father. He’s not going to give His child something harmful when they ask for something good. He’s not going to give them something harmful if they ask for it directly, any more than I’m going to leave my four-year-old unsupervised around power tools, or give him a cup of WD40 to drink if he asks for one.

We fallen, fallible human beings – human beings who do terrible things and commit all manner of crimes against one another – know how to give good things to our own kids when they ask. And we think that God, the Source of goodness and the One from whom every good and perfect gift comes cannot be trusted to do the same?

When he says no, we can trust Him that what we’re asking for really is power tools in the hands of a four-year-old. We might hurt ourselves and other people with it if He lets us have it.

“If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

Give what now? The Holy Spirit? Well, that’s nice and all, but what I was needing was food. A healing. Wisdom and guidance. Whatever.

Sometimes we act like the gift of the Holy Spirit is a nice extra for church time and the spiritual part of life, but not really what we need.

Wait a minute, though.

We believe and teach that the Holy Spirit is God. So what God is saying He wants to give us is the gift of Himself. Provision? He’s Jehovah Jireh. Healing? He’s The Lord Who Heals You. Wisdom? He’s the only wise God, our Saviour. Cleansing? With Him is forgiveness.

And on a God-sized scale, too. This is the One who created billions of galaxies full of trillions of stars each many thousand times bigger than our own sun. This is the One who fills meadows with hundreds of wild flowers, who created the Paramecium and the Parasaurolophus. Whose greatness – perhaps the least of His divine attributes – no-one can fathom.

He gives royally, because He’s a Royal giver. He gives greatly, because it reflects His greatness. Not with a dropper, but with a downpour. We can trust Him to meet our needs with His abundance.

A Man Under Authority

“I tell you the truth; I have not seen such faith even in Israel!”

An awful lot has been said about this incident between the Roman centurion and the Son of Man. People have interpreted the centurion’s comments about being “a man under authority” in all sorts of ways. Some of them are definitely weird – like claiming that this teaches that the Kingdom of God is a hierarchy like the Roman Army – but others seem to make some sort of sense.

It’s a puzzling statement, though, and I thought we might take a look at it.

The situation is that one of the local Roman occupying troops’ commanders has a servant who is seriously ill.

In a time before antibiotics, the understanding of germ theory or modern medicine, the likelihood was that if you got sick you would probably die. And even if you survived, you might be seriously weakened or blinded or something like that. This isn’t a mild case of a 24-hour stomach bug or something. In fact, Luke makes it clear that the man’s servant was near death.

But the man is a Roman, an oppressor. A member of the army of occupation tasked with keeping the people of God down. If this was the American Revolution, he’d be a commander of the Redcoats. If this was World War 2, he’d be in the Gestapo.

But this man isn’t like your regular run-of-the-mill oppressor. He seems to be what was known as a “God-fearer”; that is, someone who respected and worshipped Israel’s God, but who had not taken the step of getting circumcised as a full Jew.

Some respected members of the local community come to Jesus and ask Him to do something about the situation. Apparently the centurion had heard about Jesus and put them up to it, but whether because he thought they’d stand a better chance of persuading Him, or as a tactful way of approaching someone who might be the Messiah without looking like he was coming to arrest Him, we are not told.

Asking the One who might well be your long-awaited Messiah-King to do something nice for someone in your oppressors’ army is potentially an impolitic thing to do, but the community elders have an answer for that.

“This man deserves to have You do this for him because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue!” He may be a Roman, but he’s demonstrated that he loves our nation and our God as surely as Rahab hiding the spies or Jael taking a tent peg to Sisera. You can do this without compromising Your Messiah-hood.

There may be an element of works mentality here on the part of at least the elders who come to Jesus asking Him to do this. I’ve heard it said that this shows that they thought that it was the man’s works of building the synagogue and loving Israel that made him merit Jesus’ help. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. And in either case, it is evident from what follows that the centurion himself was under no illusions in this regard. All the giving to build the synagogue that the Bible records that he had done was done out of pure love for God, not to try and make God love him. God loves him anyway, whatever he does or doesn’t do. This is what “unmerited favour” means.

Jesus agrees to go to him, but while he’s still some way from the house, the centurion sends a messenger, with the message that has prompted so many thoughts and interpretations.

“Lord, I don’t deserve to have You come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one ‘go’ and he goes. I tell that one ‘come’ and he comes. I tell my servant ‘do this’ and it is done.”

I know I’ve done nothing that should merit Your special favour. I didn’t build the synagogue just to earn points with You. But if You want to do this, just say the word, and I know it will be done.

I know that no mere man has the authority You do to heal diseases and cast out demons. That authority is God’s, and He exercises it in You. And the reason I know this is that my authority isn’t my own, either; it comes from above. That’s the reason I can just issue a command to my men and have them do it. They are being commanded by the Roman Army, not just me. If it was just me in my own self I’d have to stand over them to make sure it was done, but it isn’t. To my men, I embody the Army. It’s the Army issuing the commands. Just say the word, because I know that it’s the same as God saying the word. You embody Him; He acts through You.

It really is an extraordinary demonstration of faith, not just that Jesus could heal at a distance but in Who Jesus is.

Somehow this Roman had stumbled into faith that Jesus is God before even the Twelve had got there. No wonder even Jesus is amazed!

The Work of the Spirit

What is the main ongoing work of the Holy Spirit?

Ask different types of churches and you’ll get different answers. Look at the actual practice of those same churches and you may come to different conclusions yet.

Draw people to Jesus. Regenerate the spirits of those who trust in Him. Enable believers to know that they personally are children of God. Empower the believers for miraculous signs and wonders. Empower the believers to live holy lives. Bring the Word of God to the church through prophetic utterances. Make the Scriptures come alive. Convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.

They’re all good answers, and most of us would probably agree that all of these are the work of the Holy Spirit today, unless you’re cessationist about miraculous signs.

The difference between our churches on this is mostly a matter of what we emphasise in practice.

More traditional, less Pentecostal/Charismatic type churches tend to emphasise the inward work – enlivening the Scriptures, quickening the spirit, enabling holiness of life – while more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches tend to emphasise the outward – demonstrating the Kingdom of God through miraculous signs and the prophetic word. We acknowledge it all as the work of the Holy Spirit, but in practice we tend to major on one or the other.

Most of the more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches have tended to so emphasise the outward at least in part out of a reaction against the cessationist or pseudo-cessationist milieu in which they came to be. It was a recognition that no, the Bible doesn’t actually say that once the canon of Scripture was completed that no-one could expect miracles any more. God is the same God today as the One who gave life to Lazarus, cleansed the lepers and parted the Red Sea. It might be that we don’t see many miracles today for the same reason that Jesus couldn’t perform many miraculous signs in Nazareth: because of unbelief.

But in some cases the pendulum has swung so far to the outward demonstrations of the Holy Spirit’s work that we have no practical place for His more behind-the-scenes work. We acknowledge in theory that the Holy Spirit’s work in us ought to result in changed lives and holy character, but practically speaking we only talk about His demonstrative work of miracles and healings. When we don’t know what to do, sometimes we seek a prophetic “now” word from the Lord rather than implementing the answers He has already given in the Scriptures. We don’t teach people how to study the Bible; we teach them how to hear from the Lord in prayer.

It’s important that we expect God to show up in miraculous ways. It’s important that we expect God to continue to speak to us. It’s important that we train people to listen to His voice. It’s unnatural when we don’t: He’s the same yesterday, today and forever, and He calls Himself “The Word”.

But part of hearing His voice is learning to recognise who is speaking, and if we don’t know what He’s already said in the Scripture how can we identify if this new word is really Him or not? Part of God showing up is that our lives are changed and we don’t act like we once did, not just that we’re breathless with emotion and feel all tingly.

It’s vital that our emotions be involved in our Christianity. We are whole people, and our whole being must praise His name – emotions too.

But we are whole people, and our whole being must praise His name – mind as well. It’s not enough to really feel emotionally that we are His child, as important as that is. We must learn to be like Him and think our Father’s thoughts as well.

What if the answer to our sung “I want to know You” is “There’s a Book in your hand that’s all about Me. Read it!

What if God shows up in our worship service without all the tingly feelings and bangs and noises?

What if His guidance and speaking comes mediated through His indwelling Presence in other believers and a big discussion and debate like the Acts 15 Council of Jerusalem?

What if the demonstration of His Presence is that we are all pouring out onto the streets to tell people about Him rather than that we’re all bouncing around in here practicing using His gifts on one another?

What if the evidence that we’ve really met with God is Jacob’s evidence? He spent all night wrestling with God face to face in bodily form, and he came away from the expecience not with new power for success and victory, but with a new name and a limp.

Not an empowering, but an impediment.  And not a temporary impediment, but a permanent reminder to him of his new-found dependence on the Lord and of God’s trustworthiness to be all that Jacob needed Him to be. If God were to do that in one of our modern Holy Spirit-led worship services, would we even recognise Him?

Sometimes I’m afraid the answer for a lot of us might be “no”.

Unexpected Connectivity

Last Friday was my birthday, and I got LEGO, which automatically means it was excellent.

This is probably going to be another LEGO-nerdy post, so if you’re not interested, feel free to stop reading now.


Still here? Great!

In terms of sets, I got only one, but it’s an awesome one that I’ve wanted ever since I discovered it: the LEGO Ideas Exo-Suit originally designed by the amazing Peter Reid.

Building has certainly come a long way from the days of the original 1979 Space Cruiser and Moonbase. In those days, the 338 pieces of the Space Cruiser made it a huge set; now you get almost that many in a low-end to midrange model.

What’s the difference? In a word, greebles.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “greebles” is a sci-fi modelmakers’ term for all of the pipes and flanges and nodules and things that contribute to the illusion of functionality. In LEGO terms, I’m using it to refer to all the tiny bits and pieces of clips, pipes, connectors, robot arms and other elements that not only make wonderful meaningless detail but also offer new and unique construction possibilities.

The Exo-Suit, for instance, is assembled almost entirely from the things. In the entire model there are maybe ten or twelve bricks that would have been familiar to me as a child; the rest is all new pieces. And even what would have been familiar is used in unfamiliar ways: 1×1 “eyehole” plates fuse with old-style robot arms, bricks stand on their sides or upside-down, minifigure tools get new life as structural connectors…

It’s going to revolutionise my building.

The other things that are going to revolutionise my LEGO building are the two LEGO books I got for my birthday. The first, Brick Wonders, details various “wonders of the world” built in LEGO. Beginning with the Classical seven Wonders, it goes on to detail other ancient wonders including Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China and Stonehenge, modern wonders including the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam, and natural wonders including the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.

Along the way, there are lots of instructions for building several mini-models, such as triremes, fountains, wind turbines and Mediæval houses, and it’s these that are going to contribute to revolutionising my building, as well as one crucial piece of information concerning relative LEGO geometry.

Any LEGO builder knows that one standard brick is exactly three of the flat “plates” high. This is basic building geometry and lets you combine plate elements alongside brick elements for different effects.

But what I didn’t know was that two studs’ width is exactly the same as five plates’ height.

Oh, I knew that you could pin a Technic 1×4 brick’s 3 holes vertically to 2 horizontal Technic bricks by sandwiching 2 plates between them, but I hadn’t calculated out the implications of that. Specifically, I hadn’t worked out what that meant in terms of the new-style bricks with studs on the sides: that you could combine vertical and horizontal bricks into a single shape without gaps.

The other book that’s going to revolutionise my building techniques is Peter Reid and Tim Goddard’s LEGO Space: Building the Future.

Yep, this is the same Peter Reid that designed the original Exo-Suit mech, and it tells the story of the exploration of the Solar System and beyond through those early LEGO Space sets, or more precisely, from new creations derived from that unique visual style but making full use of the building capabilities of new bricks.

His vision of the Classic Space LEGO universe is vastly different from my own – I always pictured the action happening on far more distant worlds orbiting other stars – but it might be truer to the LEGO Group’s original concept; after all, it was the “Space Cruiser and Moonbase”. But this is not really going to affect how I perceive the old Classic Space sets. Peter Reid’s LEGO creations are awesomely cool, but his near-space vision is only one possibility among many. Yes, the crater baseplates they used to sell were grey. But all that meant to me was that it probably wasn’t Mars (I did, however, consider spray-painting my crater baseplates orange to make Martian terrain, but I wasn’t sure I wanted anything that permanent).

No, what’s going to change is my whole style of building.

This book, too, has instructions for a number of the models, usually the simpler and less cool ones. But it also serves as a massive visual reference for what might unexpectedly connect to what.

Already my LDD (LEGO Digital Designer – a computer program for building things in LEGO) modeling is changing. Witness the hoverbikes I produced before the revolution (very much in the style of the ones I made as a child) and after (my own unique design, but definitely drawing on Peter Reid’s creations for inspiration):

Hoverbike from before my birthday

Hoverbike from before my birthday

The new Mark 3 Hoverbike

The new Mark 3 Hoverbike

I haven’t had much time around my paid employment to put the new techniques to work in a model using real bricks, but I have several ideas Stay posted on my LEGO blog Square Feet.

If I want to draw a serious lesson from all this, I guess it’s how things can unexpectedly fit together. I often get comments from people wondering how on earth my wife and I are together. Apparently there’s something about the way our relationship works that completely baffles many Americans’ expectations.

Now I have a new metaphor for why it works. It’s like LEGO. You see a modern Master Builder creation with pieces used upside-down and on their sides and in , and it looks like “how on earth did those fit together?”

And then you put on your own Master Builder glasses and begin to trace out the shapes of the pieces, and you go from “what on earth…?” to “Aha! I could do that!”

Maybe that’s the point. Stop freaking out about how it’s so unnatural or bizarre that it works, and maybe learn something you can replicate in your own situation. God, the One true Master Builder, put us together. I guess I should be thankful you weren’t in charge.