I can think of no better book to evaluate the effect psychology has had on the western mind than Theodore Dalrymple’s masterful little tome, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality. He is a retired physician, psychiatrist, and author of prophetically inclined books on the moral and social trajectories of the West. Dalrymple plots the course that psychologizing has had on morality, and his conclusions aren’t cause for much joy.
He, through the lens of history, literature, and the social sciences, outlines the inevitability of our admirable evasions –
by which we blame everything but ourselves, the prime candidate, for our lamentable behaviours.
Dalrymple reminds us that Shakespeare, in King Lear, comments on the disingenuous inclination of man to blame his actions on anything but himself … “an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star.” Some blame the stars, some their heritage, some a habit – whatever. We find some way to shift blame.
Where did this come from?
It depends on who you listen to. Evolutionists will find a way to link it to the survival of the fittest, although nobody has adequately explained how dispositions/morality metamorphosed from physical activity (muscle to morality). Dalrymple sees it as an outcome of erosion of moral responsibility, with the gratifying assistance of much of what passes for psychology. It also complicates how justice is meted out, if we are taught that responsibility no longer lies at our feet, clay that they are.
Scripture explains it with profundity and economy in Genesis 3.
You are familiar with the story:
Adam, having done something he was warned not to do, and now experiencing guilt, blamed God and Eve. Eve in turn blamed the serpent. Adam is guilty and finds others to blame; Eve blames the serpent for deceiving her. In other words, nobody was prepared to accept blame. Neither were repentant. They were sorry, but being sorry isn’t repentance. Both pushed blame away from themselves – “It’s your fault”, “She made me do it”, “The snake is to blame”, “The devil made me do it”.
Blame shift is the preferred option when caught out or exposed. We are experts at it; it’s endemic to our humanity.
Blame is something as old as humanity and as modern as the 21st century. Some segments of the church trade in guilt, Marxism trades in blame, and the social sciences trade in both.
This plays out amongst church leaders who fail – morally, ethically, or financially, or as is often the case, a mixture of all three. It is a gambling habit, or a sex addiction, or a drinking problem – but seldom is it ever a personal problem, one I’m responsible for, even if fuelled by extenuating circumstances. When I hear leaders say they have a sex addiction – and well they might, and how does that help their spouse – I hear someone failing at base one of repentance and forgiveness. It is a classic shift of blame, in that it shifts the focus away from the person’s culpability towards reasons for failure, and it is so often applauded as honesty, as transparency, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. It is nothing less than the ancient sidestep of shifting blame. The mourning of genuine repentance is still a long way from this person.
It isn’t that they are an addict so much as they are corrupt, sinful. Confessing addiction, or some such ruinous proclivity, as the reason is a failure of repentance. It will engender sympathy but will not deal with a corrupt nature. This is close to, if not entirely, disingenuous – and all too common.
A contrite spirit is loved by God, not mere sorrow or regret.
Sorrow and regret are generated by being caught out (few ever confess) and masquerade as godly sorrow and repentance from sin. But they seldom lead to change. On the contrary, they are often predictors of behavioural recidivism.
If we can’t call something for what it is, we won’t be free from what it is.
Shift the blame to where it belongs – our behaviour, our choices – us, me, you. The cross of the saviour does not exonerate admirable evasions. It demands humble self-awareness and brings profound forgiveness, healing, and restoration. Blame shift to your own loss.
Hindsight is so helpful when it comes to prognostication; we can prophesy with unerring accuracy something that has happened. Which is all a way of saying that we aren’t very good at prediction, and maybe a little better at interpretation.
If there is one thing the current pandemic has shown us, it is that those who have vital connections to God and his church have thus far fared better than attenders, onlookers, casual saints and the lazy.
It is unlikely that any churches haven’t been affected by lockdowns, stay at home orders, isolation, and quarantines –some adversely, if numbers matter, and I think they do. Some churches haven’t made it. I suspect they include churches who didn’t have the know-how to adapt with technology. I’m no big fan of Zoom and YouTube being our main means of connection, but they have been brilliant tools to help us through, even if engagement after a year started dropping, the more so in larger churches. A number of larger churches are starting back in person with less than 50% of their numbers prior to Covid. This may be because people are connecting more locally, but it’s hardly an encouragement to the leaders of these previously booming congregations. Yet, there is more at work here than the limitations of technology, or the fickleness of crowds.
The very nature of God’s church is premised on community, on proximity, on connectivity.
Christians aren’t wired, by the Holy Spirit, to live in isolation. Being in Christ is being in his church, nothing less, and that always finds a local expression, and it may be that the more local the expression the more effective it proves. The idea of watching church on a screen (excepting for when it is the only alternative) is not being the church, the saving community/body of Jesus. It is watching – not truly participating or being vitally joined.
Small churches may survive better, especially if the pandemic continues by morphing, of which the variants are salient warnings. We will always need bigger, apostolic churches but history reminds us that most churches have only ever been 80 or less. There is a sociological phenomenon that is consistent with the creational needs of humanity at play here; something that can’t be gotten around with hopes for more larger churches. And what is required for larger churches is a multifaceted and gifted team and uncommon leadership skill. The point is it is uncommon; this level of leadership is a gift that can’t be (easily) replicated by technique.
Two dynamics are currently feeding into the need for more smaller churches:
One is the fracturing of the family as the basic unit of society.
People are less connected to home and divorce continues to ravage families, especially children (I’m still amused with otherwise intelligent people saying they still love/respect their divorced wife or husband and are making sure the children are getting the best of both worlds, which like proposing that losing a leg will make you a better runner). And we are facing the fact that loneliness is a plague in our cities – the bigger the city the more extreme, where more and more singles live alone. People are craving connection and the best means of vital and healthy connections are always found in smaller settings – homes, around the table, at meals.
Which brings us to the second point.
The main means of community in the early church was table fellowship, even if some of the homes they met in were quite large by first century standards.
Christians would gather, pray, sing songs of praise to Jesus, read, and hear the scriptures, pledge to maintain biblical standards of morality, and eat together, including communion. That was essentially how they did small church together. This isn’t replicable in large assemblies. We simply can’t know one another and effectively participate with each other in large groups, unless we prefer the anonymity of crowds. But that is a sign of dislocation.
- Smaller churches are easier to start and replicate.
- Smaller churches have an agility that larger ones don’t. In an era that is increasingly anti-Christian, renting (or purchasing) larger spaces is incurring more and more community resistance, if not downright hostility.
- Smaller churches can comfortably exist (and validly so) with pastoral leadership rather than the significantly rarer apostolic/prophetic leadership.
- Smaller churches create an interpersonal dynamic that larger churches struggle with, unless their structure is, and genuinely so, small churches within the larger church. This is easier said than done, especially where the Sunday meeting is still the ‘real’ church.
- Smaller church is the form the church has historically and largely existed in. I don’t see this changing, and at this juncture this may prove to be one of our biggest advantages.
Small church is important.
They were false prophets because their ‘imaginary’ prophecies were not fulfilled. Unlike most genuine prophets they weren’t unpopular nor were they shunned, as Jeremiah was. They were included in the company of Priests and Kings. They regularly prophesied and were celebrated for their ecstatic utterances. They were part of the fabric of Israel’s national life and culture, confirming God’s continuing protection and goodness to the people – or so they said.
The prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah, gives false prophets a thorough lambasting. To some, he declares their days will be shortened, to others exile and loss, but to all stern reproof for not speaking in God’s name when claiming they were – “they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them.”
What then, was the nature of their prophetic ministry? Why did Jeremiah spend considerable energy repudiating their words of comfort and protection from encroaching enemies?
In short, the false prophets were giving false hope.
They were saying good times were ahead when, in actual fact, good times was the last thing on the agenda for their foreseeable future. Exile was decreed to them – back to Egypt (in a sense) – in the form of Babylon.
Jeremiah did speak of restoration and a restoring of God’s goodness to the people and the land – “I will restore the fortunes of my people.” And it was Jeremiah who spoke of a new covenant, wherein the Law of God would be written on the hearts of his people – not stone tablets. Jeremiah wasn’t a pessimist, but neither was he an optimist in regards their current fortunes and future. His sure hope was that God would one day revive and restore his people – but not before sorrow, loss and exile. “There is hope for your future, declares the Lord.” But in the meantime, they would face 70 years of exilic judgment. He was consequently imprisoned because the King and the nation didn’t like what he said – “why do you prophesy and say …”
False prophets tell people what they want to hear and for so doing are popular, and likely prosperous.
Because they wanted to satisfy the people, they made up what God didn’t say. But the King and the people loved it – ‘away with the doomsayer Jeremiah,’ they demanded.
It is easy to see false prophets as Rasputin-like, with glowering eyes, questionable intent, and crafty words ensnaring God’s people. But nothing could be further from the truth – they were popular, celebrated, invited into the halls of influence and power. What they said made the people happier – although, it should be noted, not for long. They accused Jeremiah of “not seeking the welfare of the people, but their harm.” They wanted the people to hear only good news – laudable in one sense, but deceptive in another.
Has anything changed?
Paul the apostle prophetically warned Timothy, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” We could add prophets to this.
A false prophet in the age of the church and the Spirit is unlikely to be saying things that are wildly unorthodox or heretical; they are likely to be like the prophets of Jeremiah’s day who appealed to the needs and desires of the people.
They aren’t always immoral, unethical, and heterodox – although false prophets can be all these things. But they only speak the positive, the palatable, the immediately satisfying. They are unlikely to challenge and convict with God’s word, as this is perceived as being negative and abusive (and when we go down that road, no discipling is possible).
We are so enmeshed in the therapeutic, the emotive, the sought-for expression of our ‘true’ selves, we are seldom any longer capable of being corrected, much less rebuked.
A prophet, worth his salt, won’t always say things we like.
Agabus didn’t get the memo from the ministry of ‘feel-good.’ He spoke of chain and pain when speaking to Paul. And Jesus told Paul how much he would suffer for him – hardly very encouraging.
Would we allow for a ‘word’ that told us our future had dark days in it, but that God would work it for his glory and our maturation?
The point being: we have to be able to take both. Sometimes things aren’t going to get better, although if we allow the Holy Spirit access to our inconvenience, we will – get better, that is.
For every three encouraging words we need one that stops us in our self-oriented tracks, calls us to account, and reminds us of the lives of Jesus, Paul and the saints (God’s church).
We are promised God’s goodness and difficult days. A false prophet only takes account of the former.
The Cross of Christ has been made many things, but ultimately it is only one thing.
To most, it is a finely crafted adornment on a chain, to be hung around our necks; it is romanticised.
It has become a symbol of Christianity and its founder – Jesus Christ.
It is found on flags – many European countries have it embedded on their national flags.
And it is now illegal to wear in places of employment in France, due to its aggressively secularized vision of the state.
The Cross is many things.
But what it actually is, is something quite different.
The cross was a brutal form of torture and subjugation employed by Rome to let its vassals know who was in charge.
Thousands of Jews were crucified by zealous Rome policy. Pax Romana was all very well if you towed the line, otherwise peace was the last thing you could expect. It was ignominious to be crucified. You were considered criminal, and publicly shamed as naked you hung, probably already viciously beaten, until you drowned in the fluid collecting in your lungs. Nothing romantic, nothing merciful, nothing but extreme pain and degradation. This was how Jesus died – just another poor wretch that crossed Rome’s power – so it seemed.
The cross was a great defeat, it appeared.
The most wonderful person to grace this earth was dispatched by the powers, without much more than a thought. And yet, what is weakness and shame to man was the display of God’s power and wisdom. In the cross, in the pain and shame, was the defeat of the dark powers that subjugate humankind – it was the crucifixion of sin and death. In the cross is a wisdom that beggars the greatest of philosophers.
This victory of God is not a once off historical act; it is re-enacted and embodied (incarnated, if you like) every time love is optioned, every time forgiveness is extended, every time God’s people don’t revel in and rely on man’s power to resolve matters.
Our celebration of military power is siding alongside the same sort of power/s that killed the prince of life.
The cross is not just something that happened, in the sense we look back on it – it is the pattern of the way of the Messiah. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was largely about their worldly perceptions of wisdom, patronage and privilege. He was at pains to show in his own life the cruciform lifestyle of a genuine apostle. He preached Christ crucified – he lived Christ crucified. He took the form of a servant. The cross was his impetus, his vision, his grid, his burden.
The cross subverts everything common to and preferred by humans. Like the apostle Peter, who died upside down, we are to live upside down – in leadership, in life, in teaching and in example. What was despised by man is hailed by heaven.
The cross is life, power and wisdom to us, death, weakness and folly to others.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
People are facing off about masks. Every man and his dog (I saw a dog sporting a mask recently) has an opinion. To wear or not to wear, that is the question? Naturally, every opinion is scientifically validated, they all insist on contradiction to one another.
In the community of faith, this divergence of opinion loses no energy – it may actually gain energy because of our beliefs about freedom, and freedom, rightly, means a lot to us.
Anecdotal evidence to hand is that some people won’t go back to physical church gatherings because people aren’t wearing masks, and equally other people refuse to re-engage with their church community because some people are wearing masks. Churches are splitting over this; it has all the hallmarks of Corinthian divisiveness.
Those that do mask up are likely to be considered the weak, the fearful, maybe the unwitting victims of so-called political oppressiveness. Those that don’t mask up see themselves as bastions of freedom, refusing to be the pawns of so-called scientific dogma, and Government legislation. They are the unafraid, or maybe the just plain careless.
Two thoughts for us to consider:
Firstly, we may find ourselves redefining freedom – which was paradoxically always about freedom from something to be being the slave of another thing, in our case, the servants of Christ.
Freedom isn’t a political agenda in the writings of Paul. Rather, it is the freedom to love and serve, and not having to exercise your freedoms. In the inimitable words of Bob Dylan – “you gotta serve someone.” A truly free person isn’t a captive of their freedom. They are, rather, a captive of love, which makes them a slave.
If freedom is to be defined by not wearing a mask, we have likely, even if inadvertently, judged the person who does wear one. We see them as weak, fearful, and no way are we going to succumb to that old devil. No way, we are making a stand!
Secondly, making a stand is about as far away as you can get from the apostle Paul’s teaching and lifestyle.
His glory was never in his freedoms, but in his imitation of the crucified Christ – who is our example (crucifixion) and not just our benefactor (resurrection). He went to great lengths when writing to the church in Rome to help untangle the issue of the weak and the strong. The weak were fearful, no question, the weak didn’t see the cosmic implications of Christ’s Lordship, no doubt, but the weak were as loved, accepted and celebrated by God the Father as the strong, and it wasn’t demanded of the weak that they change the condition of their, in most cases, cultural heritage. The Lord was their defender. The strong were the ones who had to change. This wasn’t by denying them the truth of their liberty. Not for a minute, and there were occasions when Paul refused to be hindered by the censorial attitude of others trying to rob him of his freedoms.
But Paul’s goal was to conform to the image of Christ crucified, and in so doing he would become all things to all people – to win as many as possible, Christian, Jew and Gentile. Paul became as the weak to win the weak. Gordon Fee has this to say, “The apostle’s actions, which appear (to some) to be inconsistent, have integrity at a much higher level. Whereas he is intransigent on matters that affect the gospel itself, whether theological or behavioural, that same concern for the saving power of the gospel is what causes him to become all things to all people in matters that don’t count.” Masks don’t count.
Which is all a long way of saying that Paul would wear a mask – and – Paul would not wear a mask.
He would be guided according to the need, the conscience, of the community he was with, not his freedom. The mask is nothing – people are everything. If not wearing a mask defines your freedom (your freedom thereby being supposedly supressed) – you guessed it, you are not free.
I hate wearing the flipping things. My glasses constantly fog up. So what? My concern for others is more important than the proclamation of my freedom (if you could call this an expression of freedom) and certainly more important than any temporary nuisance.
Love dictates our actions, not the establishments of our rights, be they personal or political – a sadly forgotten kindness/ethic in our rights-obsessed culture.
Mask up, you’ve been unmasked Lone Ranger.
 Slow Train Coming: Bob Dylan. 1979, Colombia Records.
 Gordon Fee. NICNT, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Eerdmans, Rev Ed. 2014.
By a case for gravity, I don’t mean, what goes up must come down.
What I refer to is a case for dignity, for solemnity, because it appears that we have all but lost the capacity, or even the desire, to present with some sense of gravity – in our words, and our lives.
I apply this to us, to God’s people, because who am I, who are we, to judge the world.
The clamor to be heard, to express an opinion, overwhelms any sense of restraint and sobriety in much communication these days.
Yet, the greatest of people say less, not more.
That is a hallmark of their greatness; less is more and more is less (more or less).
The prophet, Isaiah, speaking of the servant of the Lord when he was being oppressed and afflicted, said “so he opened not his mouth.” He said it twice in the space of one verse. He talked less; we talk too much. Isaiah also stated that the servant of the Lord, would not “cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the streets.” The picture he paints in these verses is of someone who by extreme patience will bring forth justice. It isn’t saying he won’t speak, but that he wouldn’t push himself forward to be heard.
He (Jesus is the Servant) respected Synagogue protocol as to when he could speak. He didn’t walk in and demand his messianic right to minister. On the contrary, he told his disciples to walk away if their voice wasn’t heeded, which thing Paul did, ultimately. The gentle persistence of Jesus accomplished the will and purpose of his Father. He never craved the publicity of the miracles he accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, I digress.
A case for gravity can and should be made for those that lead God’s people, his church. We should be, need to be, described with words such as restraint, simplicity, dignity, and sober-mindedness. These words are easily, but wrongly, interpreted to mean, boring, and out of touch. But if they are (which they aren’t) then so be it because it is precisely these qualities that Paul sets out for anyone in leadership. They are the job description of the necessary qualities of God’s servants.
The list of attributes Timothy is to employ placing leaders over God’s church has nothing in it that speaks of gifts or charisma. It is entirely character-based. Nearly every word in these instructions portrays a dignified, well thought of, and self-disciplined person.
- Sober-minded – not given to the fanciful. Reflective, not reactionary, neither thinking too much nor too little of oneself.
- Self-controlled – control of appetites, needs, and wants. Calm under pressure; slow to react.
- Respectable – showing grace towards and respect of others, having earned standing in the community, not given to extremes, nor consumptive of commodities.
- Hospitable – a house open to others, one who welcomes, not exclusive but inclusive, the table is for all.
- Not a drunkard – not given to dissipation, able to enjoy what is legitimate but not captured by it; this is pleasure with restraint.
- Not violent (but gentle) – able to resolve conflict without fists, not a physical bully, someone able to maintain peace under duress.
- Not quarrelsome – no need to win arguments, especially to prove intellectual or academic superiority or make a point, a kind person, silent around fools and the contrary.
- Not a lover of money (which is idolatry) – able to be the same person with or without whether in lack or in abundance, not deceitful, or a scammer/schemer. Money is a gift to this person, not a possession.
What sort of person is this?
It is a person who displays gravitas – maturity, and bearing.
Regal bearing need not be the domain of the aristocracy. A person who expresses grace and kindness has gravitas, regardless of their social status. Another word for this is dignity. A dignified person is one who knows have to handle themselves in any setting – when to talk, when to be silent, when to come, when to go.
It is a person who shows restraint.
They aren’t just restrained in being able to control their feelings so as not to spill invective on others, or lash out, but someone who doesn’t live over the top, who isn’t a walking advertisement for conspicuous consumption, who is careful not to belittle others with what they have and what others don’t.
Paul wrote to this last point in his letter to the Corinthians, where the poor and rich (both in God’s church) were advised how to do community together in such a way that the poor of God’s people got to eat at the same table in the house church/es as the rich. The rich ate before the poor thus belittling them with the plenty they exclusively enjoyed, while the poor starved. Paul said it was for this reason people were weak and ill, some having died.
Another word for restraint is simplicity. How much do you need at any one time? There is a place for God’s people in the West to examine our lives – how we live, how much we spend on the frivolous, the unnecessary. Our consumeristic clutter is not to our advantage; it makes us no happier.
A leader should live with restraint dictating parameters to decisions and lifestyles.
The New Testament gives good grounds for gravity in living – in appearance, speech, behavior, and lifestyle. In fact, it is required of the leaders of God’s church.
This is my case for gravity.
 I Corinthians 5:12-13.
 Isaiah 53:7.
 Isaiah 42:1-4.
 Acts 28:26-31.
 I Tim 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9.
 We can rightly assume that gifts mattered, but character leads to competency.
 People disqualify themselves from leadership in God’s church who don’t open their arms and homes, as a lot of discipleship is done around the table.
 Paul’s claim to be able to do all things through Christ is premised on/contextualized by him being able to be in abundance or lack. Either way didn’t change him. This takes strength.
 Dignity can at times be seen in deportment and appearance: not drawing attention yet well-groomed, fitting in yet not standing out – in a self-seeking manner.
A theme consistent with, and constantly repeated by, scripture is the goodness and majesty of God’s creation, attested so beautifully in Psalm 19.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
This Psalm has been divided into three segments that follow on one from the other: verses 1-6, 7-11, and 12-14.
Psalm 19:1-6 speaks as though creation itself talks – which it does. It tells us, loud and clear that the heavens, and the sky above, declare and proclaim God’s glory and handiwork. Who could doubt this looking at the night sky, especially when unimpeded by the ambient light of cities? The heavens are spectacularly glorious, strewn with glory like diamonds scattered on midnight blue. The colours of the nebulae and the galaxies pale the finest of the Great Masters palettes. A Real Master has been at work here.
Creation speaks to us; it is telling us of God’s majesty, His goodness, and power – exemplified in the sun, which is portrayed as a strong man running his course with joy. What a magnificent and vibrant description.
Psalm 19:7-11 develops this theme of Creation talk stating that, even though God is apprehended in creation, he is known more clearly and perfectly as he speaks and reveals himself in scripture. In other words, creation is good, but his law is perfect. God speaks of himself in what we see, but God speaks transformatively to us in what we hear. Creation doesn’t redeem us; his word, his law does.
The Psalmist sees delight and joy in his Law; as these verses list the many wonderful ways that God’s word speaks to us: it revives, it makes wise, rejoices the heart, and it enlightens. This is because his law is: perfect, sure, pure, true, righteous, more valuable than gold, sweeter than honey, a warning, and a reason for reward.
Creation speaks in declarative terms (V1-6), the Law of Lord is perfect and transformative (V7-11), and now the final part of the Psalm speaks to the inner person, the hidden person, the compromised person. These verses invite the Lord to look inside of us, into the ruin of the human condition, asking him to moderate and tell us what we don’t and can’t know of ourselves, because of the deceptiveness of the human heart. The Psalmist’s prayer is that the Lord would keep him, and by inference us, from errors, hidden faults and presumptuous sins. It is these that obfuscate the pictures of creation and law.
We may know of God in his creation, and experience him in his word, yet we don’t truly know ourselves. Only God does. It isn’t just a Creator we need to know and appreciate, it is a Redeemer, the Lord, we must experience – my rock and my redeemer. Only he can keep us from the folly and danger we pose to ourselves.
Psalm 19 directs us to contemplate God’s majesty in creation and see him in the perfection of his law. But it also reminds us of the all too human creatures we are, and our need for a redeemer, one who knows, one who sees and saves.
We can look upon the heavens in awe, agree with the wonder of his Law, and yet hardly know ourselves. To this end, David’s heartfelt prayer in the last stanza of this Psalm is that we would be kept from the danger we are to ourselves, from faults and sins that have dominion over us.
His prayer is that our words would be acceptable, as the words of God are – the words of creation and the words of the law of God.
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Holiness, without which no one will see God, has become either a despised term or, worse, a forgotten one.
We most easily associate holiness with a list of prohibitions, and we are well enough versed in scripture to know that “do’s and don’ts” don’t make the Kingdom. It was strict prohibitions in regards to the normal enjoyment of foods and sex (in marriage) that Paul reminded Timothy had infiltrated the church and were a sign of the teaching of demons. We don’t want a return to those days.
But has our freedom become our snare? Is holiness ever best defined as the things we forbid ourselves and others? Could we have fallen into the trap of, in trying to reach the world, it covertly reaching us? Yes, no, and yes.
Paul answered a rhetorical question in Romans 5 where anyone following the logical consistency of his argument would conclude that we are “to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul came to the conclusion that with the law essentially forcing an increase in sin, God, in grace, abounded all the more in righteousness – to us.
So then, his opponents conjected, the more we sin, the more God’s grace is made manifest. That is where logic takes you, and I suspect that is the unstated conclusion in any theology that overemphasizes grace and underappreciates sin (not that we are wanting to appreciate sin – you know what I mean).
Paul is adamant that our freedom is never an excuse for sin, and that freedom is always to be modified by the exercise of love.
In regards to being an excuse to sin, Paul reminds us that we are dead to sin by being in union with Jesus’s death and resurrection by baptism – how therefore can we continue in sin, when dead to it?
In regards to freedom and love, we are to moderate our freedom (and remember this often related to the practice or not of various aspects of the law in regards to holy days, food, Sabbaths, and the exercise of conscience) by our love for others. The truly free believer has no need to exercise their freedom if it offends a weaker brother or sister – and they do, like grace, abound. Love demands something better than an insistencece on freedoms.
Holiness is better defined as:
- a life lived to the glory and majesty of God,
- a life that exhibits the nature and reflection of God in Jesus Christ,
- a life glorious and enviable,
- a bright life of moral integrity and beauty,
- a life where restraint is more to be admired than excess,
- a life more defined by what we can do than by what we can’t.
In holiness there are some things we don’t practise, some behaviours we are to avoid, but these are not what it is to define holiness.
God’s holiness includes his separation from sin, but that isn’t its place of origin. Holiness is part of that divine essence that makes God so “other” to us that it is only by revelation that we know anything about God in the first place. Firstly, God is a lofty mystery and inconceivable majesty. It is this that separates us from God – this is his holiness. To be a part of this, in and through Christ, is surely much more than a list of what we don’t do.
There is a porous membrane between God’s church and the world. However, it is only meant to allow the church to reach and evangelise the world, not the world to reach and evangelise the church.
We have become so familiar with the world that we have all but forgotten the nature of the ‘called out ones’ and the desire of God to form and inhabit a people that are actually separate from the world and all that defines it – power (militaristic and oppressive), division, unrighteousness, moral corruption, the rule of principalities and powers (demonic and human), etc.
Christians, especially in the West, are often barely recognisable from the world around them – in thinking and in living. We have umbilical cords attaching us to the life of the world, from which we feed.
These are not simple matters, but they do simply matter.
Appealing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul reminds them that God’s church is a temple, a place of his Spirit’s dwelling. This has implications and promises attached to it.
It was God’s presence that made Israel different from all the other nations, leading Moses to ask of God, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” It meant everything to them, it should mean the same to us – God’s Holy Spirit with, around, defining, comforting and changing us.
Before expanding on the temple metaphor, Paul asks a series of self-evident questions about unequal yoking, partnership and fellowship. His point is that believers and unbelievers, righteousness and lawlessness, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, temple and idols, have no common ground; they are unequally yoked if linked. He then states that to be the temple requires separation of the believer from partnership of and fellowship with the world. The two don’t mix – oil and water. And yet you’d think we have made a way for them to mix because separation and difference are difficult to differentiate.
But God’s promise is that he would be a father, and we would be his sons and daughters if we come out from, and not otherwise. Because of this Paul appeals to them to be free of “every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” This is not easily done, but it is worth doing.
Every age requires the church to, in some ways, redefine holiness, as it becomes quickly anachronistic.
Whilst there are many things we can do and enjoy with biblical impunity/freedom there are some things we are wise to not involve ourselves in.
I have no intention of writing a list and falling into the prescriptive trap, but we should all be alert to what makes us worldly(un)wise.
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The ministry of healing is core to the identity of Pentecostalism. It is a distinctive that’s modeled on Jesus’ ministry, who always combined healing with proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Understandably, this makes the proclamation of the Kingdom relevant by making the Word incarnational to the human experience. It shows how the Kingdom of God can affect one’s existence by providing empirical evidence that can be observed or physically experienced. This has been a key to the growth of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement which now represents more than a quarter of all global Christians.
There are, however, extremes in Pentecostal healing ministry theology and culture, affecting both attitudes towards medicine and science, and those who are permanently disabled.
A belief that wholeness can only be attributed to the physically able creates a perception that those with permanent disabilities are living somewhere beneath their best life.
This is alienating towards people with disabilities and permanent illnesses, making them feel somewhat excluded from the able body group and thereby undermining the church’s first priority of inclusion and community.
What is wholeness from a biblical standard?
Before the fall it would appear that Adam and Eve were completely whole physically, emotionally, and psychologically. In Genesis, we read man and woman were made in His image and God declared that what He had made was “very good”. The definition here, amongst other things, is “exceedingly good, cheerful, at ease, joyful, loving, kindness, well”. All these attributes imply they were perfect in their thought patterns conducive to good health and emotional wellbeing. They experienced no shame or guilt until the fall and then their image was marred. This has affected all humanity throughout the ages.
Through Jesus, redemption came to mankind. According to 2 Corinthians 5:17 “we are a new creation,” however this is a spiritual formation process, and “the believer lives in between the now and not yet”. This means wholeness will always be somewhat limited to our mortality this side of Heaven and can only be realized to that extent. Healing or wholeness may be fully available but can never be fully appropriated for “now I know in part; then I shall know fully”. 1 Cor 13:12
Andy Stanley once asked the question, “is it a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?”. There seem to be many spiritual tensions that need to be managed in the church’s mandate to proclaim the kingdom of God and make disciples of all nations, including healing the sick. To have faith that God can heal and at the same time accepting not all will be healed requires dialectical thinking to manage this tension.
If physical healing is the priority, then at what point does one accept the permanence of disability for one person and maintain faith for healing for another?
However, if the priority is for people to be in Christ, who offers the fullness of life through meaning and purpose, then the goal is for people to flourish in life regardless if they’re able-bodied or disabled.
This may better define the role of healing ministry within the church.
A disability does not limit one from flourishing, in fact, it may enhance their meaning and purpose in life. An example of such a life is Fanny Jane Crosby who was permanently blind six weeks after her birth and yet wrote over nine thousand hymns including some of the most famous hymns of all time.
It may be necessary for us Pentecostals to revise theology surrounding healing ministry that better prioritizes inclusion and community, that is, to “bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame”. At the same time in the process of theological revision, the challenge is not to erode and compromise faith for healing. The ministry of healing is a Pentecostal distinctive, and in the quest to become more inclusive and acceptable, there may also be a danger of losing identity.
Healing ministry has contributed to the explosive growth of Pentecostal churches and not giving up this spiritual territory seems to be equally important, even if it means making some uncomfortable. As faith for healing is generally about taking a risk, and challenging the status quo, and not just bringing comfort to what is.
Brown, Candy Gunther. Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011
Wimber, John and Springer, Kevin. Power Healing. Hachette: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986
Clifton, Shane. “The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing” Pneuma 36 204 -225 (2014)
Allen, E. Anthony. “What is the Churches Healing Ministry?” International Review of Mission Vol. 90 Issue 356-357 (2001)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009
Nikkanen, Markus. “Participation in and with Christ” Ex Auditu Vol. 33 (2017)
Stanley, Andy. “The Upside of Tension” Vialogue (August 5, 2010)
Alexander, Kimberley Ervin. Pentecostal Healing. Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, 2006
Carlson, Lindsey. “Fanny Crosby: Her Story, Her Song” Revive Our Hearts (Feb 25, 2016)
Wright, N.T. “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in his Complex Contexts” NTWright Page (March 2011)
In the Dark
Globally we are facing a very troubling and confusing season. Making sense of it is like asking a blind person to solve a Rubik’s cube. I don’t pretend to have solved even one side out of the six, although I do have some comments, questions, considerations and conclusions.
Importantly, this is not a position paper. Two elements preclude us from writing one. Firstly, your context is going to inform your response. As an example, the Dutch Govt is using words such as, “we strongly advise you to isolate,” re Covid, in these circumstances. They are not legally demanding prescribed action, with pursuant penalties in case of failure. This is unlike the UK Govt, and others, who are demanding isolation in prescribed cases with the full backing of the law. Secondly, conscience is a deciding factor, and by nature, conscience is not the same in every person, everywhere, except that we all have a conscience. Can you allow certain things with conviction? Some can and some can’t, so you will need to choose. Your private actions may have public implications but that is for you to face if you are acting in faith.
Comments and Questions
It is a virus and it is highly contagious. But is contagion, an ominous-sounding threat, not the common pathway for airborne and physically transferrable diseases, such as the common cold? It isn’t the common cold, granted, but most who catch Covid are either unaware or beset by minor symptoms. Of course, those with underlying predilections aren’t so sanguine about it, nor the families of those who have lost loved ones. We all know of someone.
Our governments have been scrambling from the word go. They are constantly behind the eight ball of confusing and changing scientific prognostications. Masks on, masks off, lockdown, easing of lockdown before reimposing lockdown, children at school are safe, teachers might make children at school unsafe, vaccines are now being made ready, vaccines are realistically a long way from being made ready, the economy is failing, the economy is bouncing back – it’s enough to make you giddy. Scientists are making educated guesses, with pressure from governments and the burden of science being the new saviour when it is no such thing.
The infection numbers are going up, but is this because more people are being tested, therefore recorded, or are the numbers actually going up? This question seems unsatisfactorily answered if it can be answered at all, and at the same time, answers are being used to lock cities down again. The base percentage rates might be a good guide but only if the numbers are actually rising and not just because they are being reported. And the problem here is that the rate might have been considerably higher earlier on, but many may have been asymptomatic, or it might have been lower because we were all shuffled off into suburban exile. Who knows? And, the reporting of deaths has gone virtually silent? What does this say? Fuel for speculation at least.
Unravelling lockdown is like trying to unpick the Bayeux Tapestry, 230ft long, with your fingernails. It’s close to an impossible job when you stop nations and their economies.
As a normal citizen, I am confused and getting slightly more agitated as time goes on. Others are getting somewhat more than slightly agitated: Germans protesting in Berlin, US unrest around their appeal to 2nd amendment rights, Australians living and reacting under draconian legislation, Brits flagrantly snubbing rules … this isn’t likely to lessen, on the contrary. Boris is unhappy, Trump is confusing, Morrison is falling out of favour, Macron is wrestling, Sturgeon is combative, and Ardern isn’t smiling so much.
What will happen when taxes take a hike because someone, us, has to pay for the massive borrowing countries have taken out? The UK’s debt is now a trillion pounds (or dollars). Nobody really knows what that figure is, so vast is it. Debt is becoming meaningless unless you owe taxes or overdraw an account.
Should I wear a mask? I do! If wearing a mask, which would seem axiomatic in containing spray, is going to help then it is a common courtesy to wear one, and it seriously doesn’t impinge on my rights. If our rights, wherever you source them, are compromised then how fragile are we? Freedom, the kind fought for, the kind embedded in our national founding documents and constitutions, is of a different genus than that being demanded by not wearing a mask. I look better with one on.
Considerations and Conclusions
The British economy, normally very robust, has taken a 20% hit in the first half of 2020. That is enormous. We see it at a local level with numbers of businesses closing, for good, on our high streets. Some of this is natural attrition hastened because of online shopping, but as much of it is due to people not being allowed to go shopping, owners concerned for their staff, rents not being paid, etc.
Families have been kept away from funerals and marriages, which are some of the most important and profound social events that bind families and communities together. The impact is not lightweight, and, I believe, grossly underestimated.
- Domestic violence has risen dramatically.
- Mental health is taking a turn for the worst.
- Suicide is on the up.
- Stats, damn stats.
I don’t know all the answers. You would be wise to avoid me if I suggested or claimed I did.
Our founding document, Genesis, gives us some answers.
If we see, as we do, the first chapters of Genesis as archetypes of our behaviour and creaturely image-ness, our glory and our degradation, our possible future and our lost past, then we have insight unparalleled. (Some secular philosophers credit Genesis with an outstanding capture of the human condition – applicable today as much as it was when written.)
Two things stand out when Genesis comes to defining the human. Firstly, is the need and normality of relationship/s, and secondly, the matter of work. As to the second, the clearest indication for what constitutes the image of God in humankind is the mandate to rule. The fact that is has sunk into an abyss of oppressive power doesn’t take away from the original purpose of ruling by working, subduing, and cultivating. In this, we bear the divine image.
We are in all sorts of trouble when we aren’t gainfully employed – when we don’t/can’t work. Shutting down an economy is about much more shutting down an economy; it is robbing us of the creative juices which nourish us, yes even when the work is considered menial.
Work gives us an internal equilibrium and satisfies the need and necessity to productively go outside of ourselves with hands-on physicality. In short, we were made to make; we do best when incarnating.
As to the first, relationships, these are not just important, but fundamental to our well-being. Quarantine from relationships, family, friends, from community, is an ill-conceived disaster waiting to happen. I understand the reasons we are being asked to, or, more to the point, told to, but this won’t obviate the pain and stress people are experiencing. This cost may be higher than deaths by Covid, and by the economic cost.
You, simply, can’t minimise the very things that make for our well-being as communities, and not expect a reaction. It is as if we are told to stop being human for a season so that we can continue to be human. I fear no good will come of it, partially because fear is driving the narrative.
Our Governments may have to make some bold and potentially dangerous decisions that recognise the massive cost to the reasonable and desperate need of non-online relationships, and the creational mandate to work. You can’t try to reconfigure or put on hold the human with impunity; if a person loses both legs they can’t walk.
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