It’s amazing how forgiveness can be used as a weapon.

Sometimes telling someone you forgive them can come across a highly offensive claim to the moral high ground. And the person who doesn’t believe they are in the wrong takes an offer of forgiveness as an insult.

And yet, to the person who is genuinely remorseful, the person who is desperate to be forgiven and reconciled back to the person they have harmed, there are no sweeter words than, “I forgive you.”

Prophecy and Interpretation

Here’s something that I think is really important for Christians to understand about prophecy:

Prophecy isn’t about predicting the future. It’s much more about interpreting the future.

If you look at the example of Old Testament prophecy, it was never mere prediction, but always interpreted prediction.

Likewise, the primary purpose of prophecy in the Church is not prediction but interpretation – and not only of the future, but also of the past, and even of the present.

Sometimes we place a lot of weight on whether a prophecy is falsifiable. A pastor prophesies to his church something like, “This year is going to be full of new challenges that we haven’t experienced before, but these challenges will bring new opportunities.” And, yes, it’s vague. And so we say, “That’s vague; there aren’t really any eventualities that are incompatible with this prophecy, such that if they happened it would prove the pastor wrong. It’s an unfalsifiable prophecy.”

But when we say this we miss the point. God isn’t trying to prove himself to you through prophecy. He’s already proven himself more than we could ever need him to in Jesus. He is trying to build you through prophecy.

He doesn’t want to just tell you the future. He wants to tell you his interpretation of the future. And that is far more important. Because it’s not about proving himself or informing you of events; it’s about preparing you for the events by getting you to see them the way he sees them.

The main point of any prophetic word is not, “This is what is going to happen,” but rather, “This is the meaning of what is going to happen.” Because God’s purpose in prophecy is to align our hearts, our thoughts, and our worldview with his. Not producing in us knowledge, but producing in us faith.

Communion

Communion
[Originally posted 17/4/2017]
Christianity is a very un-ritualistic religion. In fact it has only two official rituals. One is that of Baptism: at the beginning of the Christian journey a new believer is encouraged to be baptised, symbolising the death of their old self, and their rebirth in Christ. But after that singular event, there is only one ritual that Jesus commanded his followers to engage in as a continuing life practice. It is known as The Lord’s Supper, or Communion.
The ritual reenacts something that took place during Jesus’ final supper with his disciples before he was crucified – Jesus took bread and wine and gave it to his disciples, instructing them to take, eat his “body”, and drink his “blood”, which he said were given for us. Jesus told his disciples to retain this tradition in remembrance of him, and indeed the tradition continues today in churches across the world and is naturally a central part of Easter services with its intrinsic connection to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Reflecting on it this year, something struck me all of a sudden: Isn’t it amazing that of all the activities Jesus might choose as the single ritual his followers would have by which to remember him, he gave us the act of eating and drinking. That it is an act that nourishes us. An act not of giving, but receiving.
What an incredible God, who would have us remember and honour him not by performing some activity like walking a mile, or bowing down seven times or waving our hands in the air. Not an activity that expends our body’s energy, but one that provides our body with energy. Eating and drinking are the way that we humans receive what our body needs to live, to walk, to work. It is not an activity that represents giving something to God, but one that represents receiving him.
Could any ritual better encapsulate God’s heart for humanity?
What is the main thing God wants from us? How can we honour God? We might think that the way we can honour God most is by giving everything of ourselves to him. But while I wholeheartedly believe we must do that, I suspect that the most significant and important way we honour God is by receiving him. I suspect that the man who takes everything God offers him pleases God more than the man who merely endeavours to give everything to God. Because I don’t think God wants to possess quite us as much as he wants us to experience the joy of possessing him. As C.S. Lewis said: “God created us not primarily so that we could love him, but so that he could love us.”
By instituting the tradition of Communion, Jesus was saying, “You need me. So take, eat and drink. Nourish yourself with me.” And there is nothing we can do that exalts him more than taking.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
– Isaiah 55:1-2

12 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Date a Non-Believer

Let’s start by saying it out loud: I’m single. So here comes another single guy, writing about relationships as if he’s qualified on the topic. But actually, I’d want to suggest to you that perhaps my singleness is in fact exactly what qualifies me to talk about this. Because, while I have never been in a relationship, I have had several serious opportunities for relationships that came close but which I ultimately decided not to pursue. It’s not that these girls weren’t Christian, but I had my reasons for knowing that pursuing a relationship with them would not have been the godly thing to do. So while I may not know that much about dating, I do know a thing or two about, well, not dating. And that’s precisely what this article is about.

So. This is an article about why, if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t date someone who isn’t. I’m writing this in part because it is a common issue in most Christian communities – all of us will have at some point at least known a Christian who was dating a non-Christian. But it’s mainly because I’ve often thought, from the conversations I’ve had about this topic over the years, that there is a lot of unclarity and maybe confusion around how some people in church think about this. It seems to be a bit of a grey area for a lot of Christians. I want to argue that it’s actually pretty black and white. I want to argue that because I don’t want Christians to be confused and unsure about this. So I hope to bring clarity and definition to the issue for people, so that they can have a conviction about it that is not merely a product of Christian culture, but is the product of their own engagement with God’s word on the matter.

Of course life and people are complicated things, and knowing clearly what’s right doesn’t always produce a lifestyle to match. It’ll take more than one blog post to change a person’s life choices. And the huge premise here is that, regardless of where we’re at on this particular issue, we’re all together in the fact that we’re messy, idiotic sinners who get stuff wrong all the time. And so I would hate for my exhortations here to come across as a self-righteous sense of moral superiority. I assure you I have no delusions that I am a good person. But as a starting point, whatever we do with the information, it is beneficial or all of us to be informed about how God wants us to live, and to know the reasons for our beliefs. Because we definitely can’t live right, or help our friends live right, if we don’t know what right is.

  1. How good or bad a boyfriend/girlfriend they are to you is not the issue

I think this is the first thing that needs to be said. This is not about how good or bad a partner a non-Christian will make. When I say you shouldn’t date a non-Christian, it is not based on some prejudiced, unrealistic notion that unbelievers are selfish, debaucherous people who won’t treat you right. This needs to be said because, personally, I am very perplexed by the frequency with which I hear the argument that goes, “A lot of unbelievers will treat a girl better than a lot of Christians out there.” This is so confusing. Why would you say that? Is it because you believe this is about how well someone treats you? It’s not about getting someone who will be good to you. It’s about something so much deeper than that.

Yes, there are plenty of Christian guys and girls out there who are after your affections and who don’t deserve them. There are some Christians out there who would treat you worse in a relationship than some non-Christians. But the answer to that is not to ditch those loser Christians and pick up the decent unbeliever. The answer is to neither date the inadequate Christian… or the unbeliever. The answer is to raise your standards – not lower them. The answer is to wait for someone who belongs to Jesus’ Kingdom, and will treat you right. Because Christians aren’t perfect, but you’re stuck with them. If you don’t want to marry a Christian, you might be in the wrong religion.

  1. The Bible says no

Sorry to be blunt. (I promise this article gets more tenderly pastoral towards the end.) But I really do believe God has spoken on this topic. Well, almost. The Bible doesn’t forbid dating unbelievers. But then again, “dating” is a foreign concept to the authors of the Bible. What the Bible does forbid is Christians marrying unbelievers. We can see this in 1 Corinthians 7:39, where Paul says a widow is free to marry anyone she chooses, “only in the Lord,” which is First Century Christianese for “only if he’s a Christian.” Continue reading

A Lesson From Prayer

This is not a lesson on prayer. This is a lesson from prayer. Sometimes God teaches us things through our own prayers. As we talk to him, he shows us something new. This is a lesson I learnt from a recent experience praying to God about something.

See, there was something I wanted. Something in my life that I really wanted to happen. I’ll leave you to speculate about what it was, because it doesn’t matter what it was. The point is that I wanted it. I really did.

And yet, as I talked to God about it, I somehow found myself saying, “God, I only want this if you do too.” From where I mustered the faith to say such a thing I don’t know, but there I was, telling God that it was more important to me what he wanted for me than what I wanted for myself. There was something so therapeutic about the very act of saying this to God, because it meant that I wasn’t trying to attain this thing by my own power or finesse. Believing that the outcome was in God’s hands, believing that he was in control over whether or not I got what I wanted, I had no choice but to believe that if I didn’t get it, it’s because God didn’t want me to have it.

And what a difference that makes. Because a “no” from God is so much easier, so much more tender than a “no” from just… life. It is so hard to handle the idea that the thing that has prevented you from getting what you want is nothing other than the blind, mindless processes of chance. But if this thing was withheld from me by an intelligent agent, a personal being who was consciously aware of my desires, and who does things for reasons, and not only that, but whose reasons include the fact that he loves me and is deeply and intimately concerned with my life. That is something I can handle. That’s something I can be okay with. That my “no” comes from God proves that I didn’t need what has been withheld. A “no” from God comes with a smile, and with the promise of a better alternative. As the old adage goes, that God answers every prayer in one of three ways: ‘Yes,’ ‘Not yet,’ or ‘I have something better.’

But that’s where the fears started coming in. What exactly does God consider “better”? Given that God’s ways and thoughts are so much higher than mine, what if his ideas of what would be best for me consist of things that I would consider abhorrent and miserable, and will only understand the benefit of in the next life or when I’m like 80? What if it’s best for me to go through decades of suffering? What if he needs to teach me a painful lesson? What if God wants me to live a truly hard life, overcoming some serious, heart wrenching battle in order to humble me or something? And while I’m slightly exaggerating, don’t write off questions like these. It’s not a stupid thing to wonder about. A life of suffering is literally what God, in Acts 9:16, explicitly had planned for the Apostle Paul.

And can anyone say, “Job”?

This stuff isn’t beyond the realm of realism. Earthly exemption from suffering (of whatever kind) is never promised in the New Testament. What God promises is to empower us to experience joy through pain. And that’s great, but it doesn’t come easy. It requires a journey. And that journey is terrifying. And what doesn’t help is Christians coming around you with empty promises, saying “God’s gonna do this, and give you that,” when they’re often just platitudes based more on hearsay and the hopeful thinking of folk theology than on God’s own words to us.

Yeah, some days I really was worrying about stuff like that. Because, while I knew that God, according to Romans 8:28, was doing everything for my ultimate benefit, I feared what kind of journey that might entail – and what kind of crazy, ridiculous, deep trust in him I might need to find in order to be okay with whatever journey he has planned. And so, at this point, for God to say “no” to my prayer, would to me have been taken as more evidence that God’s plans for me might be radically, painfully different to my own.

Well. I found the answer about an hour before the “no” came. One night, the door was shut to the thing I wanted. But, to the Devil’s dismay, that door shut itself right after a church service. And I guess God used that service to prepare me for the impending denial. Because as I was standing in worship that night, I can’t remember what song we were singing, but for some reason it reminded me of Romans 8:32, which says:

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

It’s funny how God works. Because he usually doesn’t answer your questions. He just distracts you from them. Our questions are stupid, and so rather than answering them, he gives us something better to think about. While I had all these fears running around my head about the scary things God might put me through, I was hit with this… thing… from the Bible.

God gave me his Son. How could I not trust him? He has already given me his best. The very best thing he had in his possession, he has already given me.

Now I guess the usual lesson we take from that would be the fact that, “Jesus is enough.” And that’s true. But that’s not what God was showing me that night. He was simply showing me that he was worthy of absolutely all of my trust, because he is the kind of God that would give me his greatest and most prized possession.

On that day God withheld something from me. And I don’t like speculating about what his reasons for that might be; how could I possibly figure that out? But the fact that he has already given me his very own Son, tells me what isn’t the reason he withheld it from me:

He didn’t deny me this thing because it was too good a gift.

It’s not because it was too good for me. It’s not because I’m not worthy of it. It’s not because I don’t deserve it. How could it be? If he denied be some earthly gift because of my lack of merit, how the heck could he possibly give me his priceless, glorious, eternal, majestic, only begotten Son? If he gave me his Son, then I just know for a fact that he’s not in the business of withholding things from me because they’re too good. The giving of his Son showed me what kind of value he places on me, what kind of a giver he is to me. He’s not holding out on me things that he knows will bless me. He doesn’t look at me and look at the gift and think, “Hmm, nah this is to valuable a thing for me to give away to him.” That’s not what’s going on, because that’s not what he did with his Son – the best thing that anyone has given to anyone.

How could I not trust him?

Sometimes our forgiveness is patronising.

Because sometimes the only way we manage to take the high road is to look down on someone such that we expect nothing from them. In order to hold nothing against someone we take on the role of the indestructible giver, who never takes, never needs.

But sometimes it is more loving to need someone. Sometimes it affords more dignity and respect to someone to expect them to do right by you, and to be hurt when they don’t.

It is in daring to care enough about people such that it is possible for them to hurt us, in becoming breakable before people, that we honour them.

And it is in requiring of them that they don’t break us that we dignify them.

And though we mustn’t do it carelessly, we must do it, because it is in this great leap into the possibility of pain that we leap into our humanity.

Sometimes, if we have forgiven someone too quickly, perhaps it is because we have forgiven wrongly, and dehumanised someone in the process.

Sometimes we give something up because God asks us to, but at the time we don’t even know just how costly our choice of obedience will turn out to have been. With great anguish we sacrifice something for him, only to find out later that the sacrifice we made was even bigger than we realised – that the consequences are more numerous and more painful than we saw coming.

God doesn’t always act with our informed consent. He doesn’t always give us all the information before asking us to do something.

Perhaps this is for our good.

Dirt (an Easter message)

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How hard it is for us to conceive

That it was right there on the ground,

In an obscure corner of the Earth,

Within the flesh and blood of a man,

Hanging on a plank of wood shooting up from the dirt,
Audienced by a handful of fishermen and tentmakers,
That in the quiet of that man’s slowing heartbeat…
Something cosmic was happening.

And none of the fishermen knew that in that moment the world was being changed forever.

In the cross of Jesus, the astronomical met with the biological.

In the mundane, down here in the mud, God was fixing the universe.

The Christian story was, to my mind, so clearly imagined by God and not by man, because God, the mature storyteller, required no grand display in the climax of his narrative. No exploding stars, no shining lights from Heaven.

Almost no clues at all that what was being acted out in that Jewish town that afternoon had the undivided attention of every single angel and every single demon.

The finale of an ancient celestial battle between good and evil, all within one man’s body.

Power not exhibited, but exercised.

The power not to dazzle and amaze, but the power to save.

The power to change forever the very meaning of life and death,

By a single death and a single resurrection.

Incarnation (a Christmas message)

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This is something I posted on Facebook for Christmas and am now belatedly posting on WordPress for longevity’s sake, or just in case you missed it:

Just nearly two weeks ago I was in Paris, sitting at the top of a basilica named Socré-Coeur. Atop this church on Paris’ only hill, you see a marvellous view of the otherwise completely flat city – other than the Eiffel Tower sticking up like a needle off in the distance.

As I sat there I was thinking about how this vantage point enabled me to gain an understanding of the city of Paris that couldn’t be gained from walking its streets. You don’t really know what a city looks like until you’ve escaped it, risen above its walls, and seen it from the outside.

Then I thought about how life is so often like that. Things always look different when you’re in the middle of them compared to how they look from the outside. I thought about the slightly crappy situation I was going through those few days, and realised that in a few weeks or months I would look back on that situation with an entirely different perspective.

You haven’t really understood your situation until you are no longer in it. It’s only from the outside that you can examine and appreciate the whole shape of one of life’s episodes. It’s only when you’ve come through the other end that you can view it with a clear enough mind to really learn from it.

But then I thought a bit harder and realised that the exact contradiction of this idea seems equally true. If I had only seen Paris from the top of Sacré-Coeur, and never seen it from the ground, a Parisian might rightly ask, “What do you know of the real Paris when you haven’t walked it’s streets?” If I had only seen Paris from the outside, surely I would be missing some vital experiential knowledge of the city. It seems like one could equally say that you don’t know what a city is like until you have been in the thick of it, touched the walls and breathed in the air.

And likewise it seems that you haven’t fully understood a situation until you’ve seen it from the inside. This is why we are so familiar with the words, “You don’t understand,” that meet us at our attempts to criticise the addict, or console the grieving parent. Of course we never understand a situation that we haven’t been in ourselves.

And so I thought, “Which is it? Which viewpoint gives us the best knowledge of something? Is it the view from within, or from without?”

And then I realised that it’s both. We need both.

This is when I wrote these words, which you might have seen on Instagram, if you were paying attention:

“The fullest knowledge of something can only be attained through viewing from both outside and in, above and below, as both a part of it, and as the other.”

And then I thought about this world we are in.

There is only one person who has viewed our world from both within and without. You see, none of us really understand this world, because we are in it. Our exclusively interior view of the world strips us of the ability to see its true shape, to understand where it fits within reality, and to know its purpose, or whether it has one at all. Only a creator who stands outside of it, and distinct from it, has a high enough view to see it as it truly is, unbiased by this low-down, narrow viewpoint each of us has.

But then in his distant objectivity, we petition, God is missing something. He is missing that experiential knowledge of what it is truly like to be a part of this world: to be weak, limited, fragile. To know what honey smells like, what blood tastes like, what it feels like to run out of breath as you run a mile, the awe of looking up to the stars and wondering what they are, and the pain of a broken bone or a betrayed friendship. God is distant, we say. He doesn’t understand what it’s like.

But Christians worship a God who knows, who understands. Christmas is the story of the incarnate God, the God who became flesh – an insider in the very world he created. God, who had looked over the whole universe with perfect objectivity, now found himself amidst it, viewing it through two human eyes. The God who at first only knew the world in a way that we couldn’t, now also knew the world in a way that only we could.

The God of Christianity knows pain, thirst and hunger, not just because he can conceive of them with his perfect, divine imagination, but because he has felt them. There is only one person who has been both an outsider and an insider, both one of us and incomparably other, who has seen the world with the clarity of a spectator, and with the detailed empathy of a player.

No other religion in the world has ever proposed a God like this. Only Jesus knows what it’s like to be a part of our world without being limited by it, because he also sees us from above. He knows our pain, but he also sees its purpose. He can sympathise with our struggles, but he can also see the part they play in the whole story.

This is to me what makes Christmas a day of hope. God is with us. But he’s still God. As the old carol says, “The incarnate deity.”

Merry Christmas.

When faced with all the crimes the Church has committed in the past and the present – the judgementality, the bigotry, the discrimination, even the violence – the Christian who doesn’t understand unity will turn to the world and denounce and condemn these “other Christians”, distancing themselves from their works.

But the Christian who understands unity will turn to the world and say, “I am sorry.”