Wednesday 19 November 2014

The Conversation

Sophie bit her lip. Mark stood with his back to her, loading the dishes into the dishwasher. For a few seconds she held back, just watching him. Then she forced herself to speak.

"Mark, we need to talk".

Mark stood slowly upright and then turned hesitantly towards her. Those are never good words to hear. After wiping his fingers clumsily on a teatowel, he walked over to the dining room table and sat down.

"What's up?".

Sophie drank a mouthful of the red wine that they'd been having over dinner and set down the glass. "I need to ask you a blunt question. Do you know that I love you?".

Mark looked downcast. "Soph, please. I wouldn't be with you if I didn't love you, if I didn't know that you loved me. Why are you saying this?".

"Because lately I've been feeling like we've been going through the motions. That things have become stale. We've been together for a while now and that's good - it is. But I'm just scared that you've forgotten that I'm crazy about you. I'm worried that you do things for me because we're in a relationship rather than out of love for me. Like when you buy me flowers or put on songs about how you feel about me. I love it when you do these things but I'd hate to think that you do them just out of obligation or habit."

A lone tear streaked down Mark's face. "So...are you breaking up with me?"

"Mark, no. Really, I'm not. That's not what I'm saying here. I'm not saying that I don't feel appreciated. I'm saying that I love you, and that I'm with you, regardless of any of the stuff you do. I'm saying that I love you for you. I cared about you before you started doing any of it, remember? I initiated things. And - trust me - I don't just care about grandiose actions. I actually enjoy spending time with you. You hear me? I enjoy it. The little things. I get excited when I wake up and find that I've got a text from you. I love the way in which you see things, the way you put things even when you don't know what you're saying. The things you tell me - the things which you think aren't perfect - are so, so precious to me."

Mark was staring at the floor and fiddling with a fold in his t-shirt. It might've looked to a bystander like he wasn't listening. But Sophie knew that he was hearing every word. And, beneath the surface, it was hitting home.

Sophie finished her glass of wine and looked intently at Mark. She gently moved over and put her hand in his.

"I knew what I was doing when I chose to love you, Mark. You might not have known anything about it. But I knew all the details of your life, knew it before anything. And the cross, the nails, the blood - I didn't do any of it by accident. It was all of it intentional. And it was all of it because I love you. Not you as you want to be. Not you as some other you. You as you are."

Sunday 9 November 2014

God Need Not Be Just

Allow me, as ever, to apologise in advance.

I'm afraid I've found a gaping hole in the traditional presentation of the Gospel message. This is a little awkward – sorry about that. Perhaps it will give you some reassurance that it’s not the biblical content of the Gospel that I've got an issue with. Instead, the problem’s in the way in which we sometimes break that story down into a narrative that can be explained in five minutes. Although it's obviously not the only way to tell the story, here’s the way I've often heard it told:

1) God created everything. He created humans out of love and wants to have a relationship with everybody.
2) Humans sinned/sin, spurning God’s love.
3) Because God is just, He cannot be in a relationship with someone who is sinful.
4) Jesus died on the cross in order to pay the price for our sins.
5) This means that we can now know God again. Because Jesus rose again we can have eternal life with God.

I wonder if that sounds familiar. This is, perhaps, a more charitable summary because it includes a reference to the resurrection, which a lot of Gospel summaries seem to file under ‘additional information that can be covered later’. As summaries go, though, it’s not so bad. It gives a clear impression of the alienating effects of sin, shows how Jesus’ death changes things and points towards eternity whilst leaving the ball in the court of the person who’s listening. I have no issue with points 1, 2, 4 or 5. But notice how point 3 provides a motive for why God does everything that follows. The cross and everything else are necessary because God is just.

I've got an issue with this. It seems to me that, under this construction, the sin-problem can be solved in one of two ways. Either we can stop being so sinful or God can stop being so just. It might seem ridiculous to complain about justice as a virtue. Justice is a good thing, right? But when that virtue is the thing that brings judgement for sin to pay upon humanity then it's a theological strut which is very much worth testing. Does God really see sin as a big problem because of some intrinsic aspect of His personality that leaves Him duty-bound to act in a certain way? Because the insinuation of the five-point summary is that God would really rather not judge people for sin, but that He somehow has to because that's how He just happens to be. Again, it prompts the question: is the problem with us...or with God?

These questions take us to the heart of how we perceive God's judgement, but also to the heart of how we perceive God Himself.

Over the past few months I have been reading, very sporadically, Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel, which contains his landmark article "God Crucified". One of Bauckham's foundational claims is that Jews in the Second Temple period didn't think that God consisted of various aspects or qualities which made Him divine. Rather, they thought in terms of who their God was - His unique character or identity.
The God of Israel had a unique identity. [The biblical writers have] a concern with who God is. The value of the concept of divine identity appears partly if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is or what divinity is. Greek philosophy...typically defined divine nature by means of a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on. [For biblical writers] the dominant conceptual framework of their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature - what divinity is - but a notion of the divine identity, characterised primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. (p6-7).
In other words, for Jews, divinity wasn't so much a quality that had certain defining features. It was a specific God, whose character they knew by what He did and what He revealed about Himself. I find Bauckham's distinction between divine essence and divine identity to be useful in talking about God's justice. It points towards the chief enterprise of theology - to understand (in part) the God which we have, not to map out the essential qualities of divinity itself.

What I’m saying is that we can insist neither that God behaves in a certain way, nor that He has certain elements to His character. He created us; we do not create Him. The God who we have should dictate our understanding of God, not the other way around.

Now I’m not arguing that God is unjust. I believe in His justice passionately. I believe that He loves justice (Isaiah 61:8, Psalm 37:28), that, "when it comes to justice, no-one can accuse him" (Job 9:19), that He does what is right (Psalm 11:7) and that His justice is both as deep as the great ocean and as high as the sky (Psalm 36:6, Psalm 71:19). But what is important is that the the reason why I believe in that justice - namely, Scripture. In the passages cited above, and dozens of others which I could have cited, God's justice is proclaimed. The reason this counts for anything is because it forms part of God's self-revelation in the Bible. It's a case of basing our theology on what God tells us about Himself rather than predicating aspects of God's character from philosophy.

So Scripture declares that God is just. It does not, in my opinion, say that God judges because He is just. I believe that we need to allow God to take agency for the things that He does rather than putting Him in a straitjacket based on divine qualities. The way God acts does indeed stem from His character, but His actions and His character are determined by Him alone, not by theological presuppositions. If God judges the guilty for sin then it is because He wants to. And if He rescues and saves then it is because He wants to. All we can do is try to understand Him and His actions to a greater degree, and that's more than enough work for a lifetime.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Why I'm Anti-Grace

Let me clear something up right off the bat. This isn't a post against the grace of God. That kind of grace is something that I am very much in favour of, especially as I am such a needy recipient of it. No, this is about the pre-meal ceremony.

Let me also say this: if the group of people who read this blog post in any way intersects with the group of people I end up having dinner with then please read this with a pinch of salt. If you invite me to dinner then I shall be incredibly honoured to be eating your food and more than happy to go along with meal-related prayers if you so desire.

That said, there are two reasons why I'm against the saying of grace, and three reasons why I think it's actually undesirable.

Grace doesn't lead to actual greater thankfulness. This is the big one. What I'm not saying is that we need to be less thankful - quite the opposite. We ought to be continually cultivating gratitude to God. "Pray continually, and give thanks whatever happens" - so says Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). What I've found, though, is that grace doesn't actually help me to cultivate that gratitude. Maybe that's true for me and not for others. Perhaps one reason that it doesn't have much meaning for me is that it's so quick that it's difficult for my brain to catch up with the words. Perhaps it's because it's a ceremony, a ritual, and one which is done with great regularity. Now this is true, to one degree or another, about everything that we do frequently. It's easy to slip into stale legalism. That doesn't mean that the thing itself is bad or that we should stop doing it. But I guess I've reached the point where if grace is being said then I try and make it mean something, but that I would overwhelmingly prefer not to have to try. As I've said, that doesn't mean that I want to be less grateful. In fact, I want my gratitude to extend beyond food and to be a whole lot more regular than only at mealtimes. But, as it is, grace doesn't actually make me thankful, even when gratitude is something that I want to express.

Grace doesn't lead to more ethical eating. The cynical part of me is quick to nitpick about this. Are people who say grace the same people who care most about making sure their food is sustainably sourced, fairly priced, low-carbon or produced so as to give dignity to the animals involved? There are so many issues to untangle there that it's perhaps unfair to make the complaint. And I'm probably not any less guilty than the next guy in how I shop. Yet there's an inherent part of me which is uncomfortable with giving thanks to God about the food in front of us and not caring about any of these issues. It's an act-out-what-you're-saying thing. A people who thank God for their food without caring where it comes from are like a people that God takes to task for fasting whilst mistreating their workers.

Grace is awkward. Seriously. Every time you have dinner with Christians you are left in an incredibly awkward no-man's-land where you're totally unsure whether people want to say grace or not. The shiftiness and playing for time that takes place between people getting their food and starting to eat is a social nether-land which is totally unnecessary. Now, whilst I'm a member of the 'no grace' camp, the real enemy here is uncertainty. Somebody making a firm decision on which way to go is best to avoid the Mexican stand-off.

Grace is exclusive. Can you imagine anything less inclusive for a non-Christian who's having dinner with Christians than said Christians stopping the entire conversation to pray to the God which that person doesn't believe in? The worst part of it is that the grace-sayer might be completely unaware that they've created an uncomfortable situation. They might not know the extra friend that somebody brought at the last minute sufficiently well yet to know whether they're a Christian or not. Grace is potentially an incredibly isolating experience that could leave someone feeling like they've fallen short of everyone else's moral standards. Even if the chances of someone having an experience like that is slim, it's worth not taking the chance.

Grace is primetime for inane Christian sayings. Let me pick out three to take down.
- "Bless this food to our bodies". I have no real idea what this means. Is it a request for divine assistance with digestion? If you have a problem with that then you should probably take a pill for it rather than sharing it with the room.
- "Be present in our conversations". Does this mean that we have to talk about God? Is that compulsory? Or is the suggestion that God would otherwise be absent?
-"Thank you for the hands that made it". If you're genuinely grateful to the cooks then you should probably tell them that directly rather than praying for them in the third person.

Ultimately, though, however awkward or exclusive or full of waffle I find grace sometimes, the first point is the most important. It's an issue of gratitude. Perhaps grace genuinely helps you to remember to be grateful. For me it doesn't so I'm opting out.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

A Biblical Way Forwards For Our Nation, Or Let Us Find Wives For the People of Scotland

Tomorrow more than 4 million voters in Scotland will make a momentous decision. So much has been said, written and broadcast about the independence referendum that I'm wary of adding my voice to an already crowded marketplace of ideas. Perhaps you'll be relieved then to hear that this is not an argument for either 'Yes' or 'No'. My contribution is much smaller, much more obvious and yet, I think, needs to be said. On September 19th, we will have to choose to love one another.

The word on the street is that Scotland is a divided nation right now. 50% of the population are going to be disgruntled, upset and resentful when they find out that the side they've backed hasn't won. The scars in our families and communities will continue for years to come, regardless of how either independence or further devolution works out. So goes the narrative.

Being me, I wanted to write about this from a Christian perspective and, further still, try and find something biblical that fits with what's going on in our nation at the moment. Nevertheless, what I'm going to say applies to everyone (Christian or not) so do read on, whatever your beliefs.

Let me take you, unpredictably enough, to the end of the book of Judges. The scene is set at the end of a bitter civil war. Eleven of the Israelite tribes have just fought it out with the tribe of Benjamin. Blood on the hands, the result decided, the people come together and try to work out where they're going to go from here. The winning side gets to choose how they'll treat the losing side. The divided Israel of Judges 21 won't be a million miles away from the divided Scotland of the post-referendum era.

[Note: There's a different analogy that could be made with this story, where the conflict between Israel and Benjamin symbolises conflict between the UK and Scotland. That's not the analogy I'm making here. It's just not.]

Here's where we can learn something from how the Israelites behave. They had previously made a promise that no Israelite girl would marry a Benjaminite. The future of Benjamin is threatened but Israel isn't content to sneer just because they've won. The people of Benjamin are in need and the Israelites decide to do something about it. They decide to find wives for the people of Benjamin. Instead of triumphalism there is a coming together towards a constructive outcome.

Seeing the victorious referendum side as Israel and the defeated referendum side as Benjamin isn't a perfect analogy. And I've written before about how the end of this story isn't exactly a great argument for Godly morality. But there are at least two practical things which the Israelites do which are valuable.

Firstly, they loved the opposing side. "And the people of Benjamin had compassion for Benjamin their brother and said, 'One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. What will we do for wives for those who are left...?'" (Judges 21:6, ESV). Israel perhaps felt that they had every reason to resent Benjamin after all the fighting. But they made a conscious decision to be compassionate towards the losing tribe. Benjamin was still their brother. After the votes are counted all of us in Scotland will get to choose whether the outcome alienates us from those who think differently. Or whether we will love those people regardless of their politics.

Secondly, they took active steps to make the peace. "Then the whole congregation sent word to the people of Benjamin who were at the rock of Rimmon and proclaimed peace to them" (Judges 21:13, ESV). Whatever happens in the vote, let's hope that those on both sides can have a beer and a blether with their friends on the other side. Maybe there'll be a place for informal social gatherings for the proclaiming of peace, especially where hard words have been spoken.

Having said all of the above, I have every confidence that there won't be some great national schism of discontent. I have every confidence that the Scottish people will rise above division, whatever the outcome. Nevertheless, I sense that all of us will have to be intentional about loving our neighbour on this one. Whether Scotland is divided or united after the vote will depend not on the statements issued by politicians but on the attitude we cultivate towards one another in our hearts. I'm confident that the thing I cherish the most - the kingdom of God - won't really be affected by whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country. And, although my title may have suggested so, there's no particular biblical mandate for 'Yes' or 'No'. Christians have to make up their minds based on other issues. But the question of what kind of Scotland comes about will depend on more than the politics. It'll be shaped to no small extent by how we choose to treat our 'enemies' who voted differently.

We get to decide that.

Let's pick love.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Escape Plan: Muscle Men, the System and Breaking Free

The following post was originally written for another blog but has ended up finding a home here instead. As such, it is a little longer than normal. Regardless, here is a theological reflection on the muscley goodness of Stallone and Schwarzenegger for your salutation and enjoyment.

Escape Plan is in many ways a film about freedom. Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a master of breaking out of maximum security prisons who regularly entraps himself in the most elaborate of confines to work out the weaknesses in the system. After breaking out of fourteen maximum security prisons in seven years Breslin seems to be addicted not just to breaking out, but also to life on the inside.


After an impressive jailbreak in the opening scene Breslin is introduced to the warden of the prison he has just escaped from. The warden says that he has only one question for Breslin: “what kind of man would choose to spend most of his life in prison?”. Breslin’s expertise as a security expert more than qualifies him to assess flaws in the system but what is remarkable is that he elects to take such a hands-on role. He spends his time locked up not just in open prison but often in solitary confinement. Despite the close bond which he shares with his team of assistants Breslin spends more time by himself in a cell. He is depicted from the outset as a solitary, independent man who uses contacts within the prison to aid his escapes without establishing any sort of permanent or personal connection. He isolates himself not just from his fellow-inmates but from God. In the film’s opening seconds Breslin is shown holding a Bible and a close-up shows us that he is turned to Jeremiah 15:6, which reads:

“Jerusalem, you have left me,” says the Lord.
    “You keep going farther and farther away,
so I have taken hold of you and destroyed you.
    I was tired of holding back my anger.

The Bible page is only useful for Breslin as something which can be burned to make ash and yet the passage’s message fits well with his character in the opening stages. Breslin feels abandoned and isolated from everyone around him, including God. His sense that God is set against him embeds him within the isolation he feels inside his cell.

Moral Compromise

After making his latest escape Breslin is faced with a difficult decision. A government agent offers him a new assignment for double his usual fee but in an unknown location and without many of the safeguards which he usually insists upon. Despite warnings from his team Breslin agrees to take the job, with money being a key factor. When his assistant Abigail says that he is only taking the job because he’s “ambitious and greedy” Breslin retorts, “You say that like it’s a bad thing”. Yet the decision backfires – at the pick-up point Breslin is effectively kidnapped. His tracking chip is removed, he is given an injection which knocks him out and transported by a deranged guard who kills a fellow-prisoner on the journey. When he wakes up Breslin finds that he is in a prison like no other: one which is deep underground, where ominous masked guards regularly beat up prisoners and where his treasured extraction code is laughed at.

In the prison Breslin encounters another person who has compromised for financial reward. Dr Kyrie is entrusted with keeping the prisoners alive since each inmate’s imprisonment is extremely profitable. Breslin challenges the Doctor’s integrity, asking him, “How can a doctor work in a place like this?”. Dr Kyrie’s response is to simply ask, “Would you prefer that there was no doctor?”. Despite initially possessing a thick skin which allowed him to turn a blind eye to his moral compromise the Doctor is eventually convicted of his duplicity. Breslin challenges him to read his medical oath to work for the wellbeing of his patients, a promise which the Doctor eventually feels compelled to honour. Both Breslin and Dr Kyrie represent figures enticed into morally dubious jobs by the financial reward held out to them. Yet both eventually realise that they have been tricked into moral compromise and feel compelled to escape the consequences of their decisions.

The System

The temptation to compromise for money is an example of the larger system of confinement and restriction which the prison represents. Naturally, the prisoners are denied their freedom. Yet this prison crushes the spirits and personalities of the inmates more than any other. The warden summarises its effect in this way: “In here you have no control over any part of your life, except your breathing”. Breslin is indeed a man imprisoned not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. Explaining to his fellow-prisoner Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) how the loss of his child at the hands of a criminal motivates him in his job he says, “Taking a man’s life is nothing. Taking a man’s heart – that’s everything, isn’t it?”. Breslin, Rottmayer and the other prisoners are trapped in a place which not only denies them their freedom but which also destroys their sense of hope that freedom is either possible or desirable.

Religion plays a key role within the system for some of the prisoners. Javed (Faran Tahir) and a group of other Muslim prisoners maintain a life of integrity and faith even within the constrictive prison environment. Rottmayer remarks that he is impressed by the dedication of the group, which prays continually as a lack of daylight prevents them from knowing when the allocated hours for prayer occur. Despite the zealous pursuit of faith for those involved, religion does not liberate the prisoners. Faith is possible within the system but, ultimately, does not in and of itself guarantee freedom from the system. Javed is unique in that he persuasively uses his faith as an asset in order to gain access to the rooftop in order to help establish the prison’s position. Javed is diplomatic in his relationship to religion but ultimately uses it to aid the escape plan. Religion may not bring freedom from the system in and of itself but it can constitute an essential part of the way out.

Freedom Through the Cross

‘The system’ - that is to say, the prison network from which Breslin and his fellow-inmates try to escape – can be tied to the Bible’s presentation of sin. As Jesus put it, “everyone who lives in sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Sin is an oppressive force which traps a person within a cycle of bad choices and alienation from God. Yet Jesus was convinced that slavery to sin was not a prison from which there is no escape: “If you continue to obey my teaching, you are truly my followers. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32). Freedom, for Jesus, was not just an abstract concept but a reality which was available to be lived in through encountering truth. True freedom is the freedom from sin which is available through Jesus Himself.

Freedom allows a person the right to decide the way in which they want to live. Once he and Rottmeyer have broken out of the prison Breslin has a choice to make. Does he repeat his mistake in taking the highest offer available to go back to jail or does he choose to remain outside the system? The answer within the final scene isn’t obvious; when given a pile of job offers he merely says, “maybe later”. Similarly, the Bible is clear that everyone faces a choice about whether to remain inside the prison of sin or to break out of it. As it says in Romans 6:16, “Surely you know that when you give yourselves like slaves to obey someone, then you are really slaves of that person. The person you obey is your master. You can follow sin, which brings spiritual death, or you can obey God, which makes you right with him.”. However, this freedom from sin can’t be attained simply by perseverance or effort. As Breslin states, every successful prison break needs help either from inside or outside. Jesus’ death on the cross was precisely that “help from the outside”. Earlier in Romans 6 it states the following: “We know that our old life died with Christ on the cross so that our sinful selves would have no power over us and we would not be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). The Bible says that the cross makes the decisive difference as the one thing that can bring true liberation. It may be too speculative to suggest that Breslin has progressed from isolation from God (represented in his burning of Jeremiah 15:6) to freedom from sin. Yet his story does show the crippling effects of incarceration on the human spirit and point towards what true freedom looks like.

Monday 19 May 2014

Three Things the Resurrection Isn't

Slightly awkwardly, this blog post was originally meant to be written for Easter. Obviously I have missed the boat somewhat. Still, resurrection truths are worth thinking about at any time of the year. So here are three things that the resurrection is not, and some thoughts on how to move past them.

The Resurrection is Not Just a Happy Ending

The fact that the accounts of Jesus' resurrection - Jesus being raised to life by God in a physical body - all occur at the end of the Gospel stories might suggest to some that they're less important. Each Gospel undoubtedly builds its narrative climatically towards Jesus' death on a cross. The resurrection can seem like the happy ending which is tacked haphazardly onto the end to make everything alright. We're all so used to this style of storytelling, especially, it seems to me, in Disney films. A character falling to the ground/being shot/falling off a cliff (pretty much anything which would normally involve them dying) is only the precursor to a brief moment of suspense after which the character is found to be alive after all! We've almost tricked ourselves out of taking things at face value in death scenes nowadays, so often have we seen adventure heroes and adorable children/animals splutter back to life against the odds. Something improbable always happens to rescue the protagonist (heck, it even happened to Batman). It might be tempting to read the resurrection story in this way. To see it as just another happy ending which means that we no longer have to face up to the reality of a dead Jesus. Yet the resurrection has always been part of God's rescue plan for humanity. It is just as central as the cross, for God always intended that Jesus should both die and be raised to life. Therefore, in the predictions that Jesus gives His disciples throughout the Gospels He repeatedly foretells not just His crucifixion but His resurrection - not just how He'd die but how He'd beat death (see these various references for what He said). The resurrection occurs at the end of the Gospels because it's the final part of the story of the earthly Jesus. Yet if that was all it was then it would've been quickly forgotten. The earliest Christians didn't see the resurrection as a reassuring happy ending. They saw it as the glorious new beginning in which God was bringing new life to His world.

The Resurrection is Not a Restart Button

The resurrection is a story about Jesus coming back to life. Yet the Old Testament also has stories about people coming back to life. These include one account of someone actually coming back to life from death (1 Kings 17:17-24), several accounts of people who were in situations where they definitely should've died but didn't (Jonah 1:17-2:10, Daniel 3:16-30, Daniel 6) and prophesies about resurrection (Hosea 6:1-2). [Interestingly, these all have some sort of connection with the number three; I'm still trying to work out if this is a coincidence or not.] Jesus also brought at least two other people back to life (Luke 7:11-15, John 11:38-44). So what's different about Jesus? The difference is that He is resurrected and not resuscitated. He is raised into eternal life (life which never stops) rather than a brief extension of life before a second death. All the people in the examples above died for a second time; they're not still wondering around the earth today. Yet Jesus was not merely raised into a blip, into a momentary resumption of what came before. He was raised in order to redefine life itself.

I don't know if you've ever played one of those racing games which gives you a new life when you crash or drive off the side. You have a couple of seconds where you hover in a ghostlike fashion, perhaps flashing in and out of existence, before being dropped unceremoniously onto the track to continue your race. It's tempting to see the resurrection as the 'new life' you get in a game in order to keep going as you did before. Perhaps we might imagine it as a button on the controller that God can press every so often to zap someone back into consciousness. This is not what the resurrection is. Jesus didn't cheat death by getting a new portion of life. He redefined life (and bought eternal life for anyone who wants it) by triumphing supremely over death. Do you see the difference? Death is not cheated; it is defeated. Jesus has got the keys to death in His pocket because He is "alive forevermore" (Revelation 1:18, ESV).

The Resurrection is Not About a Shiny Jesus

Finally, it can be tempting to think that the resurrection story is all about the glory of the resurrected Jesus. Now it's obvious that it is partly about that. I don't want to deny in any way that Jesus is the central figure of the resurrection. But if we focus too much on Him then we can forget that it's also about us. Yes, Jesus is victorious, glorious, transcendent, immortal, unconquerable. But the resurrection is for us. It was not designed just to transform Jesus, who, after all, possessed all the splendour that belongs to God already before creation (Philippians 2:6). It was designed to transform us. Because Jesus lives we have access to His resurrection life, a life that does not end. Because He lives in a physical body that once died so we have the assured hope of receiving a resurrected physical body in the likeness of His body once we die. His is the glory. But it counts for nothing if we do not allow it to transform us. The resurrection is not just about a shiny Jesus. It's about a God who wants to give us a whole new way of living in the future, and whole never measures of life in the present.

Monday 27 January 2014

Newsflash: God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life*

*OK. Hold the phones. This blog title may or may not be a sensational exaggeration employed for rhetorical effect. Please don't throw anything at me. Put down your rocks. Thank you. Now we all feel better.

There was a point to that sensationalism, though. It's this: many Christians are unhealthily obsessed with what I call 'the plan'. I'm talking about 'God's plan for your life', the idea that God is pursuing "His will" in every minute detail of a person's life. That when you become a Christian everything - the job you get, the person you marry, the place you live, the weather you wake up to, the availability of parking spaces (yep, I mean everything) - is subject what God has decreed. Sometimes our understanding of God's plan for our lives balloons into a scheme of dizzying complexity. The level of precision planning involved is about the same as a heist to steal the crown jewels. A Biblical basis for 'the plan' is often based on one key verse:
"I say this because I know what I am planning for you," says the LORD. "I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future."
Jeremiah 29:11

It probably wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that this is the single most prominent abuse of reading a Bible passage in separation from its original context, and morphing it to mean something completely different. Let me be quite clear. It simply isn't possible to read this verse as an endorsement of 'the plan'. Jeremiah 29:11 is not a blank cheque that entitles us to a perfect life devoid of difficulties. It is not a ticket to a picket-fenced dream where God has our marriage partner, career path and church role worked out for us from the year dot. It does not mean that there is only one chosen route that our lives can take that God is ever happy with.

If we're going to get closer to what Jeremiah 29:11 means for us then ripping one verse apart from its surrounding context isn't an option (ignoring context is always a recipe for disaster). And that context is a letter, sent by Jeremiah to a group of exiled and captive people in a foreign land. God's chosen people were used to dwelling securely in Israel under His protection and so much of their faith was based on their land. What do you do when a Babylonian king conquers your land and trashes your Temple (2 Chronicles 36:15-21)? Is God...gone? Defeated? Where is He in all this? In other words, Jeremiah 29 is written to a people who don't have purpose. It is an injection of hope.

But what it decisively does not state is that God is going to make everything perfect overnight. In fact, it says the precise opposite. Its message is that God has not left Israel and that He will restore His people to a place of blessing - but not yet. They are going to have to wait 70 years (v10). It'll be a whole generation before God brings these promises to fruition. The message is 'settle in, build houses, grow some stuff, let your kids get married - this is going to take a while' (v5-6). The harsh reality is that God's plan for His people's lives, in the short term at least, when Jeremiah is writing is exile, exclusion and servitude in a foreign land. In fact, Jeremiah 29 is actively hostile to the idea that God's going to burst in with all guns blazing and provide a quick fix. God warns against the teachings of false prophets (v8-9). The identity of these false prophets isn't obvious but it seems reasonable that God could be referring to people like Hananiah, who challenged Jeremiah in chapter 28 by teaching that the exile would last only two years (Jeremiah 28:1-3). Claiming that Jeremiah 29 safeguards a Christian from pain, unhappiness or tragedy simply isn't being fair to the text.

Sometimes life sucks. That's when we tend to get disillusioned with 'the plan'. If we believe that God has predetermined every little detail then we wonder why God's plan for us involves so much bad stuff. What we need is a worldview that insists on God's sovereignty (on God being involved and in overall control) but also allows there to be such a thing as chance. Is God capable of determining every little thing in His universe? Of course He is (He's God, duh). We just have no reason to believe that He does. When two people bump into one another in the street that could be because God really wanted them to have a conversation. Or it could just be because they live in the same town and happened to walk down the same road. More often than not (although not every time) these everyday details will be down to pure and simple coincidence. Digging for some deeper purpose behind everything simply isn't necessary.

The truth is that the real reason why we make Jeremiah 29:11 fit into some divine masterplan is probably too close to home. We want God to have a plan for our careers, our love lives and where we live because those are the things that we care about. Ultimately, we have to ask seriously if we're way too focused on ourselves. Are we open to the possibility that God may not actually care whether we go to university or not, let alone which one we go to or what we study? Or that God could be completely apathetic about what job we choose to apply for? Or that there are a range of suitable marriage partners out there rather than just one ideal person that we have to find? This is not an easy truth to realise. It requires some tough soul-searching and the realisation that God's priorities for your life may not be the same as your own. It's a process that I'm going through myself as I prepare to graduate into the big, bad world. I'm having to continually give myself perspective about what's important. I'm happy to have a range of options open to me, and for God to give me the freedom to choose between them myself. Of course, God does sometimes call people into specific locations or circumstances and so it's always good to remain prayerful. But, frankly, Christian young people would be less stressed if they didn't feel like they had to find 'the plan'.

Back to my disclaimer. The truth is that God does have a plan for your life. I guarantee it. God's plan for you has been forged since before the beginning of the world (Matthew 25:34). Are you ready? God's plan for you has always been that you should be His child (Ephesians 1:4-5). Being a son or a daughter - this is your primary vocation. Your finite earthly life could go in any one of a million directions and that overarching endpoint wouldn't change one iota. God may or may not want you to be in specific places or relationships or situations in your future. But, fortunately, God's plan for you is so much bigger than any of those things. It is a plan which prioritises identity over vocation. Which is concerned with how we live as well as what we do. Which is perhaps not as rigid as we sometimes like to think. It's the plan that offered hope to Jeremiah's audience in the realisation that God's plans for them were so much bigger than their current circumstances. It's the plan that involves every detail of our lives but which is greater than the sum of its parts. We would be wise to pursue it first and foremost.