SHORT AND SWEET – 5

You can’t buy God. That’s religion, isn’t it? Paying for God’s approval. Good behavior that earns God’s favour and love. Or let’s face it, a much baser assumption, you’ll get what you want. The prosperity gospel. Ugh.

But you can’t download God either.

This is a truth we struggle to cope with. Really? Stay with me.

Almost everything we do nowadays is done through the medium of the computer. All our shopping. Our social interaction. It’s the source of our news, our entertainment, our information, even our wisdom. It’s a tool so powerful, surely it should be possible to download the Creator himself.

But of course, that’s not possible. Downloading is initiated and controlled by the user. Genesis 3 reveals that we have an innate desire to be God, to be in control, the ultimate master of our own destinies. And we know how Genesis 3 ends.

You can’t download God because you can’t control him. He is unfathomable and like the wind, he blows who knows where. The desire to download God is like wishing you could herd cats, lasso the moon, make a woman love you.

You can’t. Because ultimately you’re not in control.

Time, instead, for a little faith.

Believe it or not

My family and I have just finished watching Series One of an ABC show called Once Upon a Time. We’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. The premise of the show is that there’s a small town in Maine (Storybrooke) full of fairy tale characters who are under a curse. They’re trapped there and they’ve forgotten who they are. A young boy called Henry attempts to persuade his mother that there are two worlds: the world of Storybrooke (and the rest of the U.S.) and the world of fairy tales. He owns a beautiful leather-bound book called Once Upon a Time, which contains dozens of fairy tales, which he says are true. In attempting to persuade his mother that the other world is true, the curse is true, that Snow White and Prince Charming are now trapped in Storybrooke, he spends episode after episode pleading with her. Why won’t you believe? Why can’t you see?

His pleading raises the issue of our beliefs and where they come from. Why do we believe what we do? Can we choose our beliefs? In Once Upon a Time, we watch, anguished, as Emma (Henry’s mum) refuses to accept what we can all see right in front of our eyes. We’re privy to the story of the two worlds, but she isn’t. No wonder she doesn’t believe. Would you? If I came to you and told you that a fairy tale world existed with Rumplestiltskin and Pinocchio and Belle and Snow White, what would you say? As you backed away from me and called men in white coats, what would you conclude about my mental health? In The Matrix, we’re presented with a similar scenario. Morpheus tells Thomas Anderson (Neo) that the reality he sees . . . isn’t real at all. It’s an illusion.

So why do we believe the things we do? A little reflection on this matter is unnerving to say the least.

Try this for size. Take a look at something in the room where you’re sitting. Now tell yourself that it’s a pink elephant. Go on. Try hard. Tell yourself that your pen is a pink elephant. Not possible. Why? Because you can’t simply believe whatever you want to believe. You’re constrained. You’re constrained by your genes, your brain chemistry, your cultural background and frankly, by the worldview which you possess. That worldview – your assumptions about reality and your place in it – is itself . . . well, it’s not really a choice you’ve made. Hundreds of different factors bearing upon you have ‘created’ the belief system which you now own.

So we’re not free, then. Help!

Well, freedom is a complex subject. Yes, you are free but perhaps not quite in the way that you had imagined.

I wonder if you’ve ever seen this bumper sticker: Wise men still seek him.

I don’t like it. First, because it implies that Christians are virtuous due to their decision to follow Christ. Second, because it implies that ‘come on, if you would simply exercise some wisdom, you could join us too! And because you don’t, then you’re not wise. You’re dumb.’ Which, by the way, isn’t a very biblical term. Sinful, yes. Dumb, no. (Yes, 1 Cor 1.23 – foolishness to the Gentiles, but notice, the gospel is foolishness to them. It doesn’t say they are themselves foolish. That’s different.)

So if our beliefs are constrained, then what hope is there? Are we simply victims of our make-up and our circumstances?

Let’s leave aside the ‘magic’ of conversion, the moment when a soul is given new life. I urge most people to avoid pressing the M button for as long as possible. But Mystery is written all over that one. To choose Christ while being chosen, well, that’s a wonder to behold. (Keep visiting this blog for a subsequent discussion of free will.)

This post, however, has to do more broadly with beliefs. If it’s true that we inherit them, that they are influenced strongly by our background and surroundings, are we then powerless to choose them? And why does St. Paul include so many exhortations to change behaviour? Since belief and behaviour are so closely related, what hope is there for us?

As it happens, it’s found in the relationship between belief and action.

Many theologians and preachers focus almost exclusively on the way beliefs affect action. The subject is rich and wide-ranging. What you believe is extremely powerful. It affects how you live your life to a profound degree. I raise my children, love my wife, give, share, work, play . . . all based on what I believe about my calling, what I’m here for. My purpose is grounded in my beliefs about myself, God and others. And those are founded upon what the Bible teaches. So my beliefs influence every facet of my life.

But what about the other way round? What about the way action affects belief?

There is a lot less written about this, because it’s a subject which parts of the church have disregarded for too long. When I look at my beliefs and I desire to change them, develop them, deepen them, I’m immediately aware of how limited my freedom is. Like Henry’s mum, I can’t simply choose to believe merely through the force of my will. However, I can fill my mind with truths which come from sources which I know to be reliable. So, the first step is that I can make it a priority to read books which point me towards God and of course, the one Book which contains more truth than any other.

However, that’s not enough. Because while it’s good to assemble as many correct beliefs as possible, as a follower of Jesus, I want to go further. I want to live consistently with those beliefs. I want those beliefs to be buried deep inside me, so that they change my behaviour.

And to do that, like the heroes in our stories, I can take action. I can fight. I can struggle.

Action affects belief. Action affects the intensity of belief. Action can bring beliefs to life, so that they emerge from the closet and are put to good use. It’s not enough to believe that God is able to bring about holiness in us if we do nothing which brings us before him regularly.

By action, I mean spiritual formation. Can you choose your beliefs? To a limited degree, perhaps. But you can choose to fast. You can choose to pray. You can choose to be quiet before God. You can choose to meditate on the Word. Take a look at that pen. Choose to believe it’s a sandwich. Not possible. Now pick up the Bible nearby. Choose to read it. Regularly. Study it. Meditate on the psalms. Worship. Trust. Love. Those are things you really can choose to do.

That’s where your freedom lies.

It’s a mystery why we sometimes believe the things we do. But it’s not a mystery why we don’t act. It’s indiscipline. It’s a heart which is seduced by other things. It’s a life in which God is not the priority he should be. And that we can choose to change. Gradually. One decision at a time.

Because when you take action repeatedly, you gain a habit. And when you gain a good habit, your beliefs are developed and strengthened and you gradually become the kind of person who loves and gives and resembles your Saviour.

Beliefs affect action, yes. But action also affects belief.

To embrace, deepen and strengthen your beliefs, take action.

Good advice? You better believe it!

© Richard Collins 2014

Power 2

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question, “what makes the world go round?” Sex? Money? Religion? You may remember that I argued that in the end, it’s all about Power. And yet, near the end, I claimed that Power and Love are intimately related.

That’s what I’d like to explore today.

How are Power and Love related?

Rather inevitably, perhaps, we must turn to the subject of God. The greatest power in the universe is God himself. Of course. That’s a no-brainer. And his first act in Our Story is to create, to display power on a scale which our puny minds cannot even fathom. We might think we can conceive of the creation of the universe, but we cannot. In Scripture, it is clear very early on, that God is defined in reference to his power. He is Elohim, the all-powerful Creator.

So Power is in view from the first moment.

But so is Love.

In traditional Christian theology, the universe is brought into being out of Love. Why create at all? Given his foreknowledge of our sin and its horrendous consequences, why bother? Two reasons: self-revelation and Love. The latter drives the former. He creates and reveals the wonders of his glory because he is Love. One of his eternal attributes is his knowledge of the costs of creation. In his state of perfection ‘prior’ to creation, he knows eternally that creation entails sacrifice. And not just any sacrifice, but the most heart-rending exhibition of self-giving love which can be conceived. Carried out to restore and renew a broken world. This self-sacrificial act will be seen as the very definition of Pure Love.

So, right from the start, both Power and Love are in view. They are intimately related.

~~~~~~~

 It is not simply that God is powerful; it’s also the case that he’s extremely interested in the issue of Power itself. Our first sin was not only Pride, it was also a power grab. We actually believed, for a very short time, that we could live in our world according to our own rules. That wisdom sufficient for running our world and our lives, without the need for God, was accessible to us. The Fall is one massive, damning reminder that we are not powerful. We hurt, we hurt others, we fight, we destroy and then we die. Every day, we’re constantly reminded of how little power we have. We thrash around desperately seeking to exert power which we do not possess. In addition, God has chosen to use a particular form of power to point to himself.

This form is called the Miracle.

Right from the start, he used miracles. He absolutely loves them. Parting seas, staffs into snakes, talking donkeys, rocks spouting water, you name it, it’s all happening in the Old Testament. I don’t think there’s a book in the Bible that doesn’t either contain them, or refer to them. They’re everywhere. And of course, the most important event in human history is well, let’s just call it The Miracle. AKA The Resurrection. Why this obsession?

Given our very secular society today, I’m tempted to say, ‘he wants to irritate the heck out of atheists!’ I don’t actually believe that, though. I think he’s making a point about himself and about us. Breaking the normative rules of nature is surely a sign, isn’t it? What is more powerful than the wind and the waves which threaten to kill us? Only the one who can tame them, surely? Miracles tell us that God is powerful and we are not. Simultaneously. The dominant theme of the Old Testament is God’s saving power and the need for the Hebrews to trust Him. He’s powerful. They are not.

We’re still learning that lesson.

Faith is the correct response to God’s power and our lack of it. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Whenever I hear someone say ‘I feel out of control,’ I like to remind them (gently!) er, ‘you never were in control.’ Being human, by definition, entails ‘not being in control.’ It’s the state of not being able to control one’s environment, relationships, possessions and on and on. Faith is foundational to a fruitful, peaceful human life. No wonder we read, without faith it is impossible to please God.

One final thought.

While we may not be ‘in control,’ that doesn’t mean we don’t exercise power. Some of us exercise quite a lot of it. So, how should we use it? I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Philippians chapter 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!

Humble people don’t abuse power. They follow their Master, who gave himself up for us. And what happened to him after he showed us how to live? After he had healed the sick and cared for the outcast?

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.

We’re once again among the Great Paradoxes of God. The most powerful people on earth, it turns out, are those who humbly give their lives away. In the New Living Translation, Luke 9.24 says this, if you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.

If you seek to hold onto power over your life, you will lose it. If you love, if you give up your life, you will save it. He who humbled himself, who made himself a servant, is the one who is highly exalted.

The Power of God is seen most clearly in those who demonstrate the Love of God.

Power and Love, when conceived of correctly, are intimately related.

Praise Almighty God, whose love never ends, whose love never fails.

© Richard Collins 2014