Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Society won't work right if we don't work right

Another passage from Mere Christianity that I think is particularly fitting as we struggle and argue as a country about how society should or should not work, and what the rules for our society should be.  Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there is a belief that society would work best if it were structured "that" way.  The sad truth may be that regardless of how the rules are set up, if that society is populated with broken people, the rules make very little difference in its success.

"What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?  I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system.  What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly.  It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system.  You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.  That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Integrity requires a choice

Mark 2:10  " 'But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.' ”

The verse above is from Jesus' exchange with the teachers of the law, who were appalled at some of things he was saying and the authority with which he claimed to act.  Think about what He is saying here- He is telling them that He has the authority to forgive sins.  He's not saying I have the ability to forgive someone who has wronged me personally- we all have that ability.  If something rises to the level of "sin", it involves God.  Therefore, whoever says they have the authority to forgive a sin is saying that they are God.  Who says something like that?

I am continuing to read in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (which I cannot recommend enough as a plain spoken, logically progressing discussion of Christianity.)  He addresses something that I have heard Matt Chandler speak on before, and have written about in other blog posts.  It is the dilemma Jesus presents to us all in deciding what we believe about Him.  The dilemma lies in the fact that He left us no middle ground to safely land upon.  Based on the things He said and the claims He made, he leaves us two and only two choices.  Lewis describes this paradox in the following passages:

"Then comes the real shock.  Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God.  He claims to forgive sins.  He says He has always existed.  He is coming to judge the world at the end of time.  Now let us get this clear.  Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was part of God, or one with God; there would be nothing very odd about it.  But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of god.  God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else.  And when you grasp that, you will see that what this Man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.'  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to."

Many people who are not believers take the more politically correct route described above when in public or in conversations with believers.  It feels too confrontational or disrespectful or just plain mean to not at least say that Jesus had some very worthy ideas.  But I hope we can all recognize this for what it really is- "patronising nonsense", as Lewis termed it.  In their heart of hearts, I hope that a non-believer will be strong enough and have enough integrity of belief to state what their belief really is- that Jesus was a raving lunatic the likes of which the world has never seen.  If they can't go so far as to make this statement, then the question they should be asking themselves is "Why can't I make this statement?"  If there is something deep in their hearts that won't let them take this position, then they owe it to themselves to explore that in more depth. 

I would submit that there is nothing worse than living in a place where there is no power of conviction or belief, one way or the other.  Although it would grieve me to know that someone had settled on the belief that Jesus was not who He claimed to be, I would at least have more respect for the person knowing that they had confronted the issue and had chosen one of the only two options before them.

If you live in this middle ground, you owe it to yourself to move to one side or the other.   

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

If God is good, His plan is good

Isaiah 39:8  " 'The Word of the Lord you have spoken is good,' Hezekiah replied.  For he thought, 'There will be peace and security in my lifetime.' "

The verse above is King Hezekiah's response to Isaiah, who had just foretold that Judah would eventually become a captive nation of Babylon.  As Isaiah told him, Hezekiah's palace and all his worldly possessions would be carried off in a relatively short time.  His loved ones would be taken into captivity and put to work in Babylon. 

I would have thought his response to the prophecy would be much different.  Either he would challenge it and say it will never happen, or brush it off as impossible given that the nation who supposedly was going to overtake Judah was not even an independent nation yet. 

Most kings described in the Bible would have responded aggressively and defensively at the mention that their reign was coming to an end.  But Hezekiah was one of Judah's most faithful kings.  His response shows trust and faith in the Lord, even though the particular circumstances might not have made sense to him.  He trusted that the ultimate outcome of God's plan would be peace and security.

He certainly could not have seen the ultimate outcome just by looking at the circumstances Isaiah described.  The only way he could be confident of the ultimate outcome was because he knew Who was behind it.  Because he knew God was good, he knew His plan must also be good.

May we have the same foundation of faith and trust in God's plan.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Use and Misuse of the term "Christian"

Acts 11:26  "and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch.  So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.  The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."

I will not claim the bulk of the words in this post to be my own, but rather I simply relay the words of C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity regarding the use and misuse of the terms "Christian".  I think the distinction is an important one for us to be mindful of as we casually throw around the word and assign it (or deny its assignment) to others.

"Far deeper objections may be felt- and have been expressed- against my use of the word 'Christian' to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity.  People ask: 'Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?' or 'May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the Spirit of Christ, than some who do?'  Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive.  It has every available quality except that of being useful.  We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it.  I will try to make this clear by the history of another, much less important, word.

The word 'gentleman' originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property.  When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact.  If you said he was not 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information.  There was no contradiction in saying John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. [I believe this is the abbreviation for one that holds a Master of Arts degree, but I am not certain]  But then there came people who said- so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but useful- 'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour?  Surely he is the true gentleman that behaves as a gentleman should?  Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?' 

They meant well.  To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms.  But it is not the same thing.  Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about.  To call a man 'a gentleman' in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is 'a gentleman' becomes simply a way of insulting him.  When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object.  (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.)  A 'gentleman', once it has been refined out of its old, coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man the speaker likes.  As a result, 'gentleman' is now a useless word.  We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand, if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations.  It has been spoiled for that purpose.

Now if once we allow someone to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word 'Christian', it too will speedily become a useless word.  In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone.  It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the Spirit of Christ.  We do not see into men's hearts.  We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge.  It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense.  And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word...

When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say that he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian."

The takeaways for me are these:

1.  Whether someone is or is not a Christian is a matter of fact, not opinion.
2.  Whether someone is, in fact, a Christian or not is beyond my ability to determine.  To the extent that I try to make such a determination, I am displaying "wicked arrogance" by implying that I can see into the heart of someone.  Only God can do this.
3.  The only thing I or anyone else can comment on are our observations regarding the person's behavior.  These are opinions, not facts.  And thankfully in my case, behavior is not a factor in determining whether someone is or is not a Christian.