My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
During a long and boring but accident-prone print run this morning I happened to pick up a book helpfully left on the windowsill in our print room, a book of devotional thoughts from that great preacher C H Spurgeon. The book happened to fall open at July 3rd (today), which either means that someone else had just been devotional with it or God wanted to speak to me particularly. The verse for the day was, unpromisingly, Genesis 41:4:
‘And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows.’
Spurgeon went on to explain this verse in terms of the fact that times of spiritual gauntness quickly ate up the spiritually more healthy times. When he stayed close to God he made great strides forward, but the odd off-day quickly undid all the good that the good days had achieved, and set him back on his quest for true Christlikeness. His aim, he explained, was to make sure that every day was a spiritual high, and not to let any bad days or seasons undo all that he had achieved so far.
You can kind of see what he means, but even reading the passage made me feel exhausted! I am still pondering whether or not a) he is right, and b) whether this is a helpful kind of approach to discipleship to preach and teach around the Diocese. To me, it comes dangerously close to salvation by works, something which I would have thought that Spurgeon of all people would want to avoid teaching. It makes discipleship hard work, which on one level it is, but on another it shouldn’t be, since the Jesus whom we follow has a burden which is light. It also seems to negate those times when, according to the Bible, suffering does us good. I have grown as much, if not more, through times of spiritual aridity than I have through the good years.
In any case, the definition of a disciple is someone who fails – you can see that again and again in the gospels. I’m not convinced that failure makes us slide back down the snake to square one: rather I think it can send us forward sadder but wiser. My God of infinite forgiveness doesn’t like to watch me fall, but when I do he is quick to restore, forgive and reinstate. So no pressure!
What did I learn about God in my early years? This is going to be difficult for me to write about, because I can easily give you the wrong impression, about my church in particular and the denomination of which it was a part. So I do need to say that these were basically happy years, and the church was full of good, well-meaning, committed Christian disciples, and led by godly and wise men (and it was men!). But I can only report what I, as a child and then a teenager, picked up and understood. Sadly the God whom I believed in and sought to follow was basically not very nice.
First of all he didn’t like us doing anything, and especially not on Sundays. Fun was banned, as were things like ice-cream. We weren’t allowed to do anything which remotely involved shopping, not that there was much opportunity a) because shops didn’t open in those days, and b) because there would have been no time anyway, as we spent most of the day at church. As children we had to be quiet, because Sunday was a day of rest, and I’ve already told you about the shellfish, although I don’t think to be honest that that had much to do with God. But it all added to the general unpleasantness of the day.
Then there were the other sins. People who smoked, drank, swore or gambled were beyond the pale, and were severely looked down upon by us good Christians. The job of parents was to protect their children from any encounter with such activities. I can remember during my Beatles phase leaving the sheet music for Sexy Sadie on the piano. When it was discovered there was a major row, and the offending music had to be removed from the house lest it polluted us all with the S-word. We also had to be protected from the harsher realities of church life. I can remember our organist resigning and leaving the church, accompanied by many sage looks and shaking of heads. Only many years later did I discover that this was over some crisis of faith, but it clearly wasn’t something to the shared with the youngsters. It could have done us real harm.
Don’t get the wrong idea: my family were basically loving and committed to God, and genuinely wanted the best for us. Most of the time we got along fine. But with hindsight the God whom we sought to follow was fundamentally a God who didn’t want us to do things. I developed the belief (and please understand me that I now realise that this is not official Baptist doctrine) that your eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended entirely on what you happened to be doing at the moment of Jesus’ return. As you can imagine this led to a somewhat insecure faith, although the upside was that I did learn to sin very quickly and get it over with. But the clear message was that you pleased God by not doing stuff.
This is another excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures Published by Authentic at £7.99.
More next week!
The Noah’s Ark cycle, beloved of Sunday School children and Hollywood alike, faces us with some profound theological dilemmas. The story actually begins in chapter 6, where God looks at the state of the world he made, and is so deeply disturbed by what he sees that he regrets having made it in the first place. There’s your first dilemma – how can the all-knowing God regret anything? Has it all taken him by surprise? Then comes his decision to act on his dismay by destroying everything he has made. Does it mean that God has lost control of his creation, and that the only way to stop the spiralling evil is total annihilation? Clearly not: there are two things here which can help us make sense of the story. First of all is God’s deep grief. In Gen 6:6 we’re told that God is deeply troubled, not that he was livid with anger. His actions may seem those of someone who is fuming at the injustice of it all, but the text paints a different picture. This is more about salvation than judgement. You get the same thing a few verses earlier in 6:3: God’s limiting of the stretch of human life is an act of mercy, otherwise we’d all be caught in an eternity of evil and strife, which is very different from the eternity of peace and harmony which was his intention for the human race. So here, God’s destruction of evil has behind it the intention of saving the human race from sin. The only problem is that sin doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it requires sinners. You can’t stop sin without stopping people doing it.
But then there is the motif of mercy. This is not an angry act of vengeance by a peeved despot. God looks around, and he spots Noah. He is different. He really is trying to live in righteous and godly ways. There is someone undeserving of punishment, someone who can provide a new start for the human race. So Noah is called to be the captain of the boat which will sail into the new world, and through whom humans can be saved.
One of the reasons, I believe, that this story is so difficult for us once you get beyond the Sunday School models of little animals, is that in so many ways it subverts our culture’s understanding of God, life, the universe and everything. We don’t like a God who destroys stuff, even if it isn’t in anger (which frankly isn’t that convincing – it looks like anger to us!) We don’t think that Noah could really be that much better than anyone else, and we don’t hold with his family being lumped together with him: surely it’s about our individual response to God? In so many ways this story is counter cultural, but if we can get beyond our outrage it can nevertheless speak to us.
It speaks about the seriousness of sin and evil to a tolerant age. It speaks about a compassionate God in an age where we don’t like him doing anything nasty. It tells us that God thinks ‘corporate’ when we instinctively think ‘individual’. It teaches us that while God may not be big on ‘animal rights’ (I’m not convinced that animals have any rights, lacking as they do any responsibility), he still cares enough about his creation to save those which have no use as food. And it speaks of a God who desires not the death of a sinner, and will look around for those who are righteous, but will not shrink from destroying those who seem bent on destroying others and themselves. All this is deeply unpopular to our way of thinking, but I believe it is what the text says. And next week, of course, we’ll get the happy ending.
A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, so if you’d rather use those readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4J
This passage is all about appearances being deceptive, and about the way that as humans we struggle to see things in the same way that God sees them. Rick Warren, in his Purpose-driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) tries to analyse the nature of discipleship, and the ways in which we grow into it. His second step, after Biblical knowledge, is Perspective, which may be defined exactly as this ability to understand how God sees things, and to subdue our personal likes and dislikes to his. For example, in an age where sin has gone out of fashion (while sinning, apparently, remains as popular as ever) Christians need to understand just how repugnant it is to God, and just how harmful it is to individuals and to society as a whole. When we see sin as he does, that makes it a whole lot easier to want to avoid it.
Getting God’s perspective on things, therefore, will often bring us naturally into conflict with the values of the world around us. It isn’t that Christians are meant to be unpopular: it’s just that we’re meant to be unpopular for the right reasons and over the right issues. So how do we gain this sense of perspective? How do we learn to see what God sees, which is so often buried under the surface?
Samuel basically learns here through trial and error, and ears open to God’s promptings. On one level he doesn’t come out of this chapter looking very good at all. First of all he’s hanging on to the past: God has to rebuke him because of his over-fond memories of King Saul (whom, of course, he had previously anointed). The hard truth is that God has rejected him: God forbid that we hold onto something God has finished with – there’s a lesson for the church right there, which I have discussed elsewhere in my Ending Well (www.grovebooks.co.uk R39). His next mistake is to assume that he knows the answer himself – he has already made his mind up without a single word from the Lord as soon as he sees how butch Eliab is. So again God has to remind him that he sees things differently, and that he sees the hidden things of the heart, the irony being that while Samuel himself looks every bit the prophet, enough in fact to scare the good townsfolk of Bethlehem, his heart is so mistaken, which God can see.
From then on he seems sadder and wiser, and ready to hear when God rejects Eliab’s brothers one by one. So do we hear in his question to Jesse about any more sons the conviction that there must be, because God hasn’t chosen any so far, or rather a lack of faith in God, or in his ability to hear him (‘Of course you haven’t got any more sons, have you?’) I’ll let you decide that one, but at the end of the passage he seems at least to have learnt one thing: in obedience to God’s word he anoints this young bit of a kid, and then presumably sees evidence of the rightness of this action as the Spirit anoints David too.
I don’t think the major question is whether or not we have gained God’s perspective: we’re all on the way, hopefully. But it is about being obedient even when we’re not sure, giving God, as it were, the benefit of the doubt.
Just what is sin?
Today’s OT story is a game of two halves, almost child-like in its simplicity, and oh so true to human nature. ‘You can do anything you like’, says God, ‘except this.’ So what’s the one thing they do? There are goodness knows how many trees, shrubs and bushes to choose from, and just the one which is banned. So of course it’s precisely that one which they want, that forbidden fruit which they want to taste. Those of us who are parents have seen this scenario played out many times, giving the lie to those educationalists who, like Rousseau, believe that human nature is fundamentally good. We may even have used it to our advantage through the gift of reverse psychology: ‘Whatever you do don’t you dare eat those sprouts!’
We often label Genesis 3 as the story of ‘The Fall’. We use terms like ‘falling from grace’ to describe the action of going wrong and losing something of our previous exalted and virtuous state. But I can remember a talk long ago (although sadly I can’t remember who gave it) in which it was suggested that a much better term than ‘fall’ was that of ‘rupture’. Medically the term refers to something which has burst its boundaries and spread out into somewhere it should not be, where its containing tissues have split open and allowed it to lose shape. The danger is that it might not go back in again, with all sorts of painful and even fatal results. I was convinced that this was a really helpful way of conceiving of sin, not as falling off something, but of bursting out of something.
The creation story of Genesis 2 tells us of four things which God knows that the human race needs. In fact we were wired up to need them right from the very start, and in his love he provided them for us. Work, companionship and responsibility were all given by God, along with the fourth, slightly less enjoyable but equally essential gift: boundaries. Like speed limits boundaries are there for our own good, to restrain our stupidity, to protect us and others, to give us something solid against which to kick, and ultimately to remind us of our created and mortal status. Paradoxically it is the bursting of this boundary which brings mortality to the human race.
There are several pictures of sin in the pages of scripture: missing a target, falling short of a standard, disobedience, rebellion, offending God and harming others, but I reckon that bursting out of our God-given restraints is a good cover-all one. I wonder if it can help us to rethink what is going on when we sin. As we spend time in penitence during Lent, maybe privately and maybe in our public worship, might it be a good idea to ask ourselves when we have overstepped the mark, gone further than we ought, broken through boundaries which were there for our own protection? The slightly less biblical picture of Pandora’s box nevertheless tells us an important truth: the best way to give up something is never to start in the first place. Fortunately the Master Physician of our souls is able to perform corrective surgery, but it may well leave a residual weakness which we will have to watch carefully for the rest of our lives.
There is another application, though, for those of us who are parents, especially of young children. Our job, I have argued elsewhere, is to be like God to our children, and we have a God who does set boundaries, which to cross brings consequences. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that disciplining children has gone a bit out of fashion in our politically correct and ‘rights’-obsessed culture. Christian parents do well to ponder the benefits of boundaries and their enforcement, just as our heavenly Father obviously sees their benefits.
Leach, C and J And For Your Children (Crowborough: Monarch, 1994)