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US conservative Christians’ spiritual blindness on guns

7 Nov

Another week, another tragic and unnecessary mass shooting in America…

This time it was the death of some 26 worshippers and the injury of at least 20 others in a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas that made grim headlines across the world. Many of the dead and injured were young children.

While the tiny First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs grieves the slaughter of the majority of its congregation and tries to come to terms with such unimaginable carnage, it is the reaction of some church people that grieves me.

I imagine that this reaction is also incomprehensible to a great many other people, both in the US and across the world.

The image below shows one series of quotes from Twitter, beginning with the one in the middle, and including my response:

Mollie guns

Typical conservative Christian reaction to mass shootings? I fear so.

Max Boot makes an undeniable point here. Sometimes our thoughts and prayers are not enough. God demands action! Biblical author James certainly thinks so:

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

James is crystal clear: sometimes praying and sending our neighbours positive vibes is not enough – no matter how powerful or sovereign the God to Whom we pray.

God demands that we act to prevent suffering and injustice.

For all of you contextualists out there: Does this apply only to Christian brothers (and sisters) who are lacking clothes and food?

Of course not. James immediately widens the scope by laying down the general principle that faith must be accompanied by actions. This could apply to a whole lot of issues.

Is Max Boot wrong to ridicule prayer and faith? Yes, if he is ridiculing all prayer and all faith. But since he is calling people to action, I’d say he’s right in line with James. Is Max Boot a Christian? For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter. God often uses people outside of His redeemed community to call His chosen people to truth and obedience. Truth is truth, no matter who speaks it, and even if they are wrong about other issues.

Meanwhile “faith” and “prayer”, if they consist merely of good intentions and no substantial actions, do not please God.

What does Mollie Hemingway bring to the debate? She sums up the attitude of many conservative Christians towards gun control: mass shootings are not an issue of too many weapons being too easily available to too many of the wrong people. Rather, it is simply because there is evil in this world that such atrocities occur, and the only thing to do to combat these terrible slaughters is to pray.

In other words: some people are bad. They can’t be prevented from doing bad things by legislation or any form of action. Only prayer can stop them. Indeed, it is wrong – and not only wrong, but heretical, ungodly and idolatrous – to employ any other form of prevention.

I wonder if James agrees with her. I certainly don’t.

Mollie and others, with all due respect, your argument stinks.

It is naive, handwringingly passive, politically impotent, and theologically illiterate, and here’s why:

We are not called to pray and then do nothing.

We are also not called to pray and then helplessly sympathise with the victims as if their plight was unavoidable, like being struck by lightning or drowned in a flood.

Somebody, somewhere, has to act. Somebody has to be the person who leads the way in restoring wisdom and justice to society in order to prevent these massacres. Somebody – or some group of people – has to employ the principles of taking reasonable steps in the name of harm reduction in order that there will be fewer mass shootings, and fewer casualties as a result of such events, in the future.

Yes, prayer is powerful. But if the answer to our prayers lies in human obedience, and we humans don’t obey, where does that leave our prayers?


Why does this attitude exist? Quite simply:

American conservative Christians – or many of them – idolise guns.

They – particularly the less-educated – have made idols of their guns. Those with more learning idolise the notion that private gun ownership keeps Government from perpetrating injustice against the common folk.

Never mind the fact that millions of abortions take place every year under their noses,  divorce and fatherlessness are rampant, gay marriage was legalised without passing through Congress, and men are now encouraged to use women’s restrooms if they feel somewhat effeminate, leaving women and girls no recourse if they feel intimidated.

Clearly American conservatives are stockpiling their bullets for something really big.

While they idolise the illusion of safety and self-defence that privately-owned firearms bring, very real dangers stalk their schools, their cinemas, their concerts, and now their churches. These dangers are caused by the largely unfettered proliferation of the very weapons to which Americans look to save them.

Politics, wisdom and the law

Besides the fact that the roots of gun culture are deeply enmeshed in the church, where does Hemingway’s line of thought leave politics and the law? I haven’t read much of her writing, but she appears to be a conservative Christian – the type who usually have considerable respect for moral law.

She is not alone, nor am I trying to single her out. Many writers whom I otherwise admire take the same line as her when it comes to gun control. I quote Hemingway only because her tweet was the first relevant one on the topic that popped into my Twitter feed. Numerous influential Christians, whether in pastoral and teaching ministry, prophetic ministry, or the media, agree with this idea that prayer against “evil” is the only key to overcoming mass shootings.

Don’t misunderstand me – I think prayer is hugely important. I believe in praying to remove the scourge of crime and violence from society, and this includes gun crime and gun violence. I pray for God’s kingdom to come so that the hearts of men and women are changed and redeemed from all kinds of evil. I would expect, too, that the prayers of righteous men and women would avail much in this regard.

Nevertheless, I do not see prayer as a means of abdicating our responsibilities in other areas.

Conservative Christians who argue against gun control appear to be blinkered to their own attitudes to legislation. Christian leaders who call for laws to restrict abortion, criminalise drug use and possession, and curb pornography and prostitution – it’s the will of God, doncha’ know? – suddenly become deeply agnostic when it is put to them that legislation might have a role to play in stemming the flow of blood from mass shootings.

This overlooks the clear evidence of the Bible itself. The Old Testament is replete with laws governing every area of life, including crime (“Thou shalt not steal” – Exodus 20:15) and laws requiring people to consider one another’s safety:

“When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

If a homeowner is required to make it more difficult for someone to suffer a fatal accident by building a fence around his roof, why should he not be required to take the same kind of steps to ensure that people cannot be hurt by his guns – or that the criminally insane cannot buy weapons that are designed to kill a maximum of people in a minimum of time?

Of course, many conservatives also oppose regulation of the building industry as a clog on capitalism and the free market, so maybe they are immune to this line of argument. But I do wonder how they will answer to Jesus on the final day for having put profits – and indeed their guns – above the lives and welfare of people.

The role of legislation

I studied law – including criminal law and criminology – for four years and in two European countries. I didn’t study it very well, but I did learn a few things.

One thing that stands out is the capacity of law to shape culture and to bring effective change to society. Sometimes that change is destructive. Roe v. Wade unleashed the slaughter of millions of unborn children, creating and affirming an abortion culture that was exported all over the world. The boundaries of abortion law are still being pushed back in many countries, even as abortion clinics are being closed in the US.

Sometimes the effect is positive. Drink-driving legislation has made driving under the influence of alcohol taboo in many societies, and has saved countless lives. The same applies to seat-belt legislation – we now see it as normal to wear a seat-belt while driving and this too has prevented a great many deaths and injuries.

Is that a “godly” outcome? Sure sounds like it to me!

For some reason, Christian conservatives do not see this logic as applicable to gun control. Attempting to impose any kind of limit on the availability of assault weapons is “praying to the god of Goverment”.

I have news for Christian conservatives: God is present in good government.

Indeed, God requires it.

The abundance of laws in the Old Testament, as pointed out above, testifies to this. It is expressly stated in the Bible that good law is from God:

“I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just.” (Proverbs 8:12,15)

Of course, Christians who oppose any form of gun control might go on to assert that any form of gun control is an example of laws that are not just. But clearly Government is not per se a false god or the exclusive preserve of Satan.

Again, we don’t hear Christians calling for the repeal of other types of legislation so that we might defeat the god of Government and leave the problem of evil to the God of prayer.

We don’t hear Christians calling for alcohol to be available to minors and prayer vigils to be held instead for them to maintain their sobriety.

For that matter, most Christians would argue that it is wrong to put a glass of whisky and an open bottle in front of an alcoholic, because we would not want our weaker brother to be led into temptation.

By the same token, no responsible church leader would leave pornographic magazines lying around on tables at the church youth retreat and simply pray that the young people would not find the naked images enticing.

Prayer doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect others from obvious sources of harm.

So why put guns in the hands of a generation which finds mass murder tempting?

And why resist introducing legislation that might have prevented many of our recent shootings?

It is true that many godless people in politics believe that only politics can solve mankind’s problems. It is also true that many godless people believe that having more money can drive away their woes and give them more of a sense of meaning in life.

No Christian argues against having money – we recognise that we need to earn money to provide for our families and pay our way in life. What we are against is the love of money – putting our faith in money to save us.

The same is true of politics. Yes, godless people may be excessively dependent on politics in the same way that many are excessively dependent on wealth. The wise Christian recognises the good in these things without making them the ultimate authority.

The truth is that conservative Christians simply don’t want to give up their guns. It matters not to them how many children die, or how many people are injured, or how many families have to grieve the loss of a child or a parent.

They say it matters – but it doesn’t matter enough to them to make changes that would save lives.

Too many of them – I have had discussions with some – are too in love with their hunting and rifles to contemplate any restriction on any form of firearm. In contrast, I have friends and relatives here in the UK who hunt with rifles and shotguns. All of them think that the situation in the US is insane. I too have been trained in the use of firearms. It is not as if we are all scared of guns here. We simply deplore the death toll in the US and the intransigence displayed by those who oppose quite reasonable forms of gun control.

America’s conservative Christians apparently stockpile guns and ammunition against the day they are confronted with an imaginary foe – a possibly-maybe foe – while ignoring the very real foes rampaging in their midst.

They urge us not to bow to the god of government – while ignoring God-given wisdom about good governance.

They resist enacting desperately-needed legislation as if it were some kind of capitulation, while failing to see that good lawmaking is given to us by God to protect the weak.

They argue that “criminals will always find a way to commit their crimes” and “murderers will always find a means to kill people”, without recognising that the availability of a firearm constitutes a source of temptation, without which many such incidents might never occur.

Could it be that while we wait for God to answer our prayers to put a stop to mass shootings, God is waiting for us to rend our hearts and start changing our attitudes and behaviour?

While Christian gun lovers utter hollow words, the bodies of men, women and children lie bloodied on hallowed ground. And this will continue to be the case, while God’s people fail to act.

The author graduated in Law and French from the University of Bristol, England in 1997, and has also served on the ministry staff of a local church.

Tempora mutantur?

3 Apr

People keep telling me we have to reappraise our understanding of the Bible because society’s attitudes have changed with the times.

What if God wrote what He wrote in the Bible because He didn’t want society’s attitudes to certain things to change?



Me every day on the internet

11 Mar
Things I repeatedly find myself saying on the internet and social media:
– That’s not true.
– That missing person was found weeks ago.
– That person was never missing in the first place.
– That’s a very old hoax.
– That hoax is older than your Mom.
– That’s a new hoax.
– Just kidding – it’s even older than the first one.
– And your Mom.
– No, Jesus didn’t say that.
– And Christians don’t believe that.
– Or do that.
– Or that.
– Not if they are serious about following Jesus, anyway.
– Which is what actual Christianity is, y’know, about.
– Yes, we do have evidence.
– Again, that thing you reposted on Facebook is a hoax – check Snopes.
– And Wikipedia.
– And any reputable news source.
– And real life.
– The effect of that change in social mores has not been nearly so beneficial as you claim, on any number of metrics that are commonly accepted as indicators of health, security and wellbeing.
– I know it’s only “one study”. It’s not the only one, and I’m telling you to keep an open mind.
– You’ll get the “lots of studies” when I find time to write a book about it. Otherwise, the research is out there. Has it occurred to you that maybe the real science doesn’t sell newspapers?
– Or that politicians don’t care about it?
– Yes, man did land on the Moon.
– No, we have not collaborated with aliens to build a secret base there.
– The second shadow comes from sunlight reflected by Earth, not studio lighting.
– No, not everything you read on Snopes is true.
– Because not everybody on Snopes understands what they are talking about.
– Or that opinion is not the same as logic, analysis or an impartial and thorough review of actual evidence.
– Nibiru? No.
– Because we would have seen it in all kinds of ways.
– But not on your mobile phone.
– Nor as a second sun mysteriously caught on a TV camera in one broadcast but also mysteriously invisible to billions of other people, millions of other cameras and the whole scientific community.
– Could you take my word on this one? Or make a common-sense assessment?
– Please?
– Nor Planet X.
– Nor chemtrails.
– Guns. Kill. People.
– Yes, there is a Planet 9.
– But it doesn’t do the things you say Planet X does.
– Which would make it not actually proof of your crackpot theory.
– Well, the person who first published the Nibiru theory claimed to have been spoken to by aliens.
– But who am I to judge?
– No, Hitler and the Nazis weren’t Christians.
– Pretty sure, actually.
– And they didn’t get caught up in a secret plot to perpetuate the Third Reich through the 1960s space race.
– The proposed changes in the legislation are not nearly so benign and neutral as this pressure group makes out.
– It’s not homophobic to point that out.
– Or transphobic.
– Or bigoted.
– It’s called freedom of speech.
– And thought.
– Yes, if it has a penis and testicles that produce sperm, it’s probably still a man.
– It’s not homophobic to point that out.
– Or transphobic.
– Or bigoted.
– It’s called scientific fact.
– And thought.
– Which was what we believed in before we decided feelings were the ultimate arbitrator of reality.
– And after we did away with God.
– Look, just let me know when Caitlyn Jenner starts menstruating.
– Could you please actually read the Bible?
– And try to understand that a New Testament can repeal sections of an Old Testament?
– Or ask a Christian what they believe?
– And how they come to that belief?
– And how they live it out in practice?
– Rather than telling them they believe and do what Richard Dawkins told you they believe and do?
– Or that lobby group.
– Or the National Secularist Foundation of Societies for Freedom From Religion And Anything That Questions Our Unquestioning Self-Regard.
– *yawn*
– Yes, I do eat prawns.
– But not oysters.
– You may have misunderstood the purpose of that commandment in the Old Testament.
– And imposed a 21st-century, post-modern view of justice and democracy upon it.
– Because an unmarried woman who had been raped couldn’t just go and claim social security in 1500 BC Sinai, that’s why.
– Ditto that commandment.
– And that commandment.
– Seriously? Yes, that commandment too.
– It’s not just an unfeeling clump of cells.
– Three words: Abortion to term.
– Liberal Christians don’t want to believe the Bible any more than you do. The clue’s in the name.
– I know Rob Bell said it.
– But Jesus didn’t.
– If Jesus didn’t talk about that thing, maybe it was because it was already commonly understood in that era from 1,500 years of Jewish history and law.
– Have you seen oysters? Seriously, no, thank you!
– No, it’s not a Delusion.
– And the translators do know what they are doing.
– And the real history of the Crusades is not like that.
– The evidence is there – you just have to investigate it honestly.
– For yourself.
– Because if Richard Dawkins is as blinkered, unresearched and biased as you are,* then it’s the blind leading the blind.
– Well, there’s a chance that if you investigate these things for yourself you will achieve that thing that you’re always insisting I should do.
– “What’s that?”
– Learn something that will open your eyes.   :o)
– No, Jesus won’t turn you away for believing in Nibiru.
– Salvation comes by faith in a God who has revealed Himself in numerous ways.
– Not by passing a science test.
Thank you for reading.
*There is plenty of evidence that this is so.

Don’t worry, Church – secularism has your back!

22 Dec

Does the church really need society to be secular to ensure religious freedom?

A commentator on this blog post helped to crystallise a few thoughts which have been circulating in my addled brain recently on the subject of secularism’s claim to be interested in religious freedom.

What the lady said was: “…the purpose of a secular society… is not to restrict, destroy or ban your right to believe, but to protect it. And not just for you, or for other Christians, but for everyone.” She’s by no means unique in this view; it has been on my mind for a while just how the secular lobby seems to see itself as the referee in matters of religious rights, apparently ensuring that all the believers from different religions play safely in an arena run by non-believers for the benefit of all.

How cute, I thought as I read her comments. And how naive.

It’s cute, because I’m delighted that the church, after struggling for 2,000 years to make headway in the world, finally has a bunch of unbelievers who are willing to look out for it.

I hope my sarcasm is shining through.

And it’s naive, because anyone who thinks that the agenda of the secular lobby is to protect, ensure, or otherwise facilitate the exercise of religion, is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

The truth of the matter is that not only has the church been quite able to take care of its own freedoms, thank you very much, but it has also been unique in its tolerance of other religions.

Okay, so strongly Christian local councils in western democracies may not be rushing to grant planning permission for new mosques, but look on the flip side: Christians in Muslim lands are routinely arrested and imprisoned for their faith, with some facing the death penalty.

As a religion of state, Christianity grants unparalleled freedoms to those of other religions, while other national religions (with the honourable exception of Judaism – could there be a connection?) are openly and obviously hostile to anything that smacks of apostasy or competition. In countries where religions other than Christianity dominate, life can be anything but safe for those who possess a Bible or who assemble to worship God in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is often unsafe for followers of other religions not sanctioned by the state as well.

Christian missionary organisation Open Doors has a watchlist of countries in which Christians are persecuted for their faith. Most of the Islamic Middle East is on it, along with North Africa, China and parts of Asia.

In the vast majority of Christian lands, however, anybody of another religion has the right to worship Allah, Buddha or Krishna (or the deities of a myriad of other religions) without fearing a knock on the door, imprisonment or deprivation of normal human rights. If there is a Christian nation whose government imprisons non-Christians for being non-Christian, I’m hard pressed to think of it.

So why does secularism offer itself as the guarantor of religious freedom and so glibly imply that Christianity is not up to the job? It is breathtakingly arrogant on the part of secular people – the kind of breathtaking arrogance of which secularists normally accuse Christians when they state that Jesus is the only way to God – to suggest that they are best placed to have religious people’s interests at heart. I’m pretty sure my Muslim, Hindu and other religious counterparts would agree on this point. “Thanks for the offer of help, but really, no thanks,” I imagine them saying.

Why can’t religions be their own advocates, without secularists meddling? While it’s true that secularists and Christians are standing together to preserve freedom of speech in the face of parliamentary bills that could criminalise street preachers, coming together in that fashion to protect a right from which so many movements can benefit is a bit different from asserting that the church can only thrive if secularism is there to protect it. Most religions seem to be perfectly at home with arguing their own case. Since no actual oppression of other religions by Christianity is taking place, why get involved? Obstacles to the building of mosques don’t really count – it is hardly persecution, and if Christian faith is to be both recognised as a good thing and if its tenets are to be properly observed (one of which happens to be exclusivity as regards what is divine), it does not seem right to pour resources into promoting other religions. They have the right to make their own way, free from persecution.

What secularists really believe, of course, is that religion is of no significance. With that established, it naturally makes sense that no religious person should be allowed to advocate for religious freedom, lest they foul it up for everyone by, y’know, actually taking their beliefs seriously.

And why should we let secularists impose any form of control on religion, even in the name of religious freedom? A quick feel of the pulse locates the secularist in one of two views. In one view, all religion is dangerous and should be eradicated. This is the view of Richard Dawkins and a great many others. The other view has religions back-to-front: when you hear a secularist (and indeed some “spiritual” or superficially religious people) saying “Islam is a religion of peace” and then blaming Christianity for the Crusades and virtually every other war or tribal conflict since, you know that (a.) that person hasn’t bothered to study either, and (b.) they intend to use this obfuscation to undermine Christian belief and practice, since that is the real target of their obvious misrepresentations.

Neither of these views offers much comfort for the religious people whom the secularists purport to serve. At least the National Secular Society and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are honest about their goals, but the “we’re here to ensure freedom for all” brand of secularism is disingenuous.

If Dawkins-style hostile atheism is a frontal assault on Christian belief, the supposedly supportive version of secularism is an attempt to render Christianity ineffective by making it as bland as possible – with the help of a smiley, faux-concerned appeal to our desire for religious survival.

As the Proverbs put it, “Whoever flatters his neighbour is spreading a net for his feet.” (Prov. 29:5)

So let us not be impressed by the claims of secularists to represent religious freedom. The very name “secular” indicates quite clearly how many figs they actually give for God, Jesus, the Bible, or the values Christians should be standing for. And let us, as this blogger argues, stand up for Christianity in the public space.

Because atheists and secularists sure as hell aren’t going to do it for us.

So you’ve “studied” religions…

15 Nov

Helpful Truth Of The Day: If you’ve “studied all religions” and can’t see any difference between them, you haven’t actually studied religions.

The Christian gospel is the Bible’s clear and inescapable message that God became man in Jesus Christ, and died to take the punishment for sins that each of us deserve. Jesus then rose again from the dead on the third day, ensuring that those who believe in Him could also be raised to new life after death.

This “substitutionary atonement” (Jesus paying the price for sin in our place) is the distinctive element of the gospel that sets it apart. While other religions may make mention of Jesus, usually incorporating Him into their roll of prophets, no other religion sees Him as God, or as capable of dying to bring us redemption and salvation from sins.

Religions are not all the same, and any believer who has genuinely studied their own religion will know this. While some religions may share similarities in terms of their moral codes, they have entirely different approaches to God. Yet only in Christianity is it the case that faith in Jesus Christ saves us from sin and reconciles us to God. In most other religions, people have to hope that their religious observance and good works are enough to save them.

Jesus came to do away with that uncertainty and that need for people to feel they have to try to earn salvation. And in raising Him from the dead, God showed that Jesus is the one He had chosen to be the saviour of the world, rather than Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, or any other religious leader.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6,7)

If you want to know God, get to know Jesus!

Keep searching!

There’s nothing wrong with divine reward

28 Oct

Dear reader, you may think I’m being too picky or too sensitive to seeing criticism where there is none, but indulge me for a few minutes.

The picture below popped up on my Facebook feed today.

But is it true?

It bears the slogan: “Caring people help others, not because they expect a reward, but because it is natural to show kindness.” It is one of many “positive thoughts” hosted on this blog and Facebook group.

It seems like a lovely thought, on the face of it. What could be better than doing good things for other people without expecting anything in return, and to have that generosity bubble up out of one’s very nature?

But is that what this proverb is getting at?

I have noticed recently that there are increasing numbers of messages sent out over social media which affirm certain desirable and uplifting behaviours, yet which also seem to take a subtle dig at Christian faith and practice. Atheists have all the right views, in other words, and you don’t need any of that God stuff in order to be Mother Teresa.

Atheists claim, “We don’t need God to be good!” They argue that any good they do is far more altruistic than that of the Christian because the Christian’s giving is motivated by hope of reward (bad) or fear of damnation (worse).

But does divine reward undermine charity, or even common decency?

Might the idea of reward in fact produce greater, more enthusiastic generosity?

I see it this way, from experience:

1.) Knowing that God rewards me frees me to be generous.
The Bible says, “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” (Proverbs 22:9) It also adds that “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” (2 Corinthians 9:6)

Knowing that God is able to provide for me releases me from worrying about how my needs will be met – and hence frees me to be generous. Does this work? I regularly give to support others whilst not having much money myself – even while in need, to the point of having bills to pay and not knowing how I will pay them. God always provides! It’s called living by faith: expecting God to provide for us as we provide for others, according to the promises of His Word such as those quoted above, which are based on the principle that in order to be receivers, we need to be givers first.

2.) Eternal reward frees me from making my life all about me.
There may be ardent atheists who are deeply altruistic, self-sacrificial and giving. More power to ’em. But atheism, with its emphasis on personal autonomy and fundamental philosophical commitment to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, is not a system by which to produce generosity or compassion in those who are not already inclined to be generous or compassionate. How could it? Indeed, it might be argued that most of our financial crises (particularly those involving fat cat bankers) have been precipitated by an atheist-evolutionary worldview: selfish gain replacing the deeply biblical notions of stewardship and accountability. The idea that we can be good without God may seem persuasive at first, but if there is no God, what motive do we have for doing anything other than what feels good or seems convenient?

What about soldiers giving their lives for their buddies in combat? Heroic, yes; altruistic, certainly, but you’ll notice that soldiers are generally inculcated during their training with a strong code of ethics and commitment – something that atheism, the Great Negative, outstandingly lacks.

What is there that pulls us towards generosity, in the way that a planet’s gravity pulls a wayward asteroid towards itself, even from afar? What are we being drawn by, or aiming towards, if not God?

Knowing that my life is most significant when set in the context of eternal judgment and its consequences – in this case, reward contingent upon obedience – sets me free at a fundamental level. If this life is all there is, it only means as much as I make it mean to myself, by whatever means seem most attractive to me, and all of that will be swallowed up by nothingness soon enough. Forgive me if I’m not blown away by that as a cast-iron guarantee of any of us Doing The Right Thing For One Another.

If, however, this life is only a brief trailer for a reality that goes on forever on the other side of death, then I can afford to live this life radically, unbounded by self-centred materialism. This life is not all there is, dying with the most toys is not the highest ambition, and my eternal future is secure in Christ, so why hang onto whatever I can get my hands on during my short stay on Earth?

3.) Reward for kindness is kindness.
Forget for a moment (if you’re sympathetic to the atheist position, at least) the idea that God is mean, nasty, a killjoy and a tyrant who is out to get us. What if God wants to be kind to us because He is naturally kind? And the reason He wants us to be kind is because He wants to see more kindness in the world? And that the people He most wants to be kind to are the ones who demonstrate the most of His kind of kindness?

Think of it this way: suppose you and I both work for a multi-million pound (1.5 multi-million dollar) company run by an older man who has no family of his own, but has real family values. His values extend to the point that he treats customers as family, and his staff too. His idea of a good way to run the company is to invite the staff and employees who give the best customer service to stay at his huge ranch, where they enjoy delicious meals in the fresh air, swim in the lake, walk in the beautiful countryside, and sit with him around the fire.

One night at the campfire, he says, “You guys are my heroes. Because you share my values and demonstrate them unfailingly to my customers, you are the people who I want to inherit the company when I am gone.”

Where is the self-seeking in those employees’ treatment of their customers? There is none! They have simply been best at adopting and reflecting the boss’s desires. Essentially, they have made his nature their own, and in so doing, have reaped a reward. The boss wants to share the best that he has to offer with the people who identify most with him.

(That sounds a little like God to me…)

Does the principle of caring for no reward – which secularists have staked out as their own – work?
Who Really Cares is an enlightening book by Prof. Arthur C. Brooks. In it, he investigates, with the benefit of considerable independent research, whether religious or secular people and/or conservatives or liberals are the most charitable. The answers surprised even him: it is Christian religious conservatives who are most inclined to give by way of personal charity. Secular liberals are most likely to support government giving money to those in need, but (some of you may be way ahead of me here) this also leads to lower personal giving amongst secular liberals as they see it as the government’s responsibility to address inequality on their behalf rather than their responsibility to meet the needs of those less well-off.

“I gave at the ballot box,” in other words.

It stands to reason, doesn’t it? If it is the government’s responsibility to give to those in need, you and I don’t need to. And if the government doesn’t live up to its brief to feed the hungry, and instead embarks on making the rich richer, selling off the National Health Service to cronies in business and school meal services to companies that feed children nutrition-free rubbish, well at least we have the right liberal-secular values, right?

Pat yourself on the back; you deserve a Nobel Prize for Nice Thoughts.

If Christians are giving more (and not palming that responsibility off on Government), it must be because something in Christianity prompts them to do so. If secularists are giving less than Christians, it must be because something in secularism causes them to feel inclined to give less, or because there is something they have given up by rejecting Christianity that results in them giving less.

Could it be that the sure hope of eternal reward, backed by Almighty God and demonstrated in the sacrificial death and consequent reward-resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the ultimate motivation for compassion and charity? And that we can’t do without God after all, if we truly want to see more people caring?

Keep searching!

“Spirituality” does not mean “morality” or “wisdom”

9 Dec

“I’m spiritual, not religious.” That’s what people say today when they want to make out that they are taking care of their inner man or inner woman. “I take deep, spiritual things seriously,” they want to tell you. Along with, “I think of myself as a good person,” and “I feel I have access to God, and am sure I will go to be part of the Great Light in the sky when I die.”

It sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is, it’s a crock. And here’s why.

“Spirituality”, as most people mean it, is divorced from “organised religion”. “No churchgoing for me, thank you!” “I don’t want to give up on the idea of there being Something Out There, but nobody had better tell me what to do!”

An example occurred just today. A Facebook friend (as distinct from a real-world friend) who describes herself as “spiritual” regularly posts cheering thoughts for the day about how to live a more god-centred, conscious and considerate lifestyle. But today she posted a picture featuring a “hilarious Christmas drinking game”.

I didn’t consider this suitable for the young people who would be viewing it, and I said so, appealing to her to consider that alcohol abuse leads to all kinds of negative consequences for young people. Earlier this year, this British teenager had three heart attacks and ended up in a coma after downing ten Jagerbombs (shots of Jagermeister spirit in an energy drink) at a nightclub. The fact that it was the caffeine that did most of the damage is beside the point – it was a lack of common sense around alcohol that put her in the situation.

Needless to say, my expressions of concern fell on deaf ears: “My family and friends know this is all just a joke.”

Where is spirituality here? How spiritual are we being if we still think fun and games come from a bottle? Doesn’t “spirituality” teach us to find contentment in things that are truly fulfilling, rather than reaching for an easy chemical fix? Apparently not.

And here’s where spirituality comes up short as a system of values. The Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ give us not only spiritual life, but also morality, by teaching us what is right and wrong, and wisdom, by showing us how to live in ways that do not lead ourselves or others into trouble. Spirituality, with its undertone of liberal morality and “anything goes as long as you’re not hurting anyone” values, has none of this. As long as nobody gets hurt – that you can see, anyway – what you’re doing is all right.

Never mind the children and young people who might see a post like that shared by my Facebook friend and think it’s a great idea. Never mind that one of them could end up in hospital, or in a drunk-driving wreck, or the victim of a sexual assault they cannot prove in a court of law because they were too wasted either to fight it off at the time or to remember what happened afterwards. Tragedies only just happen, right? I mean, they are never the responsibility of anybody who planted the idea in that young person’s head, or of the individuals who together make up a society that has lost its way morally. We can’t actually be leading anybody into temptation, can we?

But they are. And we can. And this is what the Bible teaches:

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak… Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8:9,10)

So you can carry on fooling yourself that spirituality – thinking of yourself as godly while not allowing your godliness to affect your actions – is enough if you wish. But to see the Kingdom of God established; to see people lifted out of their misery and distress; to build a society that does not condemn people to suffer the consequences of actions they should have been equipped not to choose in the first place, we need something more.

And that means repenting of our sins and living the way God says to instead of how we want. We need to stop telling ourselves God’s all right with us, and instead come through faith in Jesus Christ to get ourselves right with God. And then we can start exemplifying what is right to those around us.

Of church, community and monopoly

1 May

One of the arguments frequently used by atheists in their attempts to undermine the truth and distinctiveness of Christianity is that we Christians don’t have a monopoly on [insert half-understood view of a cherished Christian belief, characteristic or practice here].

Apparently we don’t have a monopoly on decency, on good citizenship, or on love. I can’t think of many Christians I know who claim that we do have a monopoly on the milk of human kindness, yet I think we should be pointing out that one of the hallmarks of our faith is that it makes us grow those characteristics in increasing measure, and often in ways which the world cannot match. Besides, we possess other very real distinctives such as holiness, godliness, redemption and transformation into Christ’s likeness, attributes for which atheists don’t even have a vocabulary, much less a rival claim.

Yet many of us believers are increasingly being swayed by this kind of criticism, to the point that we are forgetting what makes us distinct, what makes us salt and light in a dark world. Liberal Christians are quick to fall for this kind of deception, and where liberal Christians lead, those of us in the evangelical church who don’t know who we are in Christ may quickly follow.

The pearl of ignorance that plopped onto my screen this week was formed from the idea that Christians don’t have a monopoly on community. It followed a forum discussion of a BBC News article on an “atheist church“. Again, it is true in one sense that we don’t have a monopoly on community – you can see community taking place in any pub, sports team or special interest group in the land – but what followed truly astounded me, for some of those contributing to the discussion were convinced that God is among these atheists in their atheist “church” – and any other grouping of generally like-minded people – just as much as He is among committed Christians in a real church. One contributor was asked if that meant that God was also present amongst a gathering of Satanists. Her response? A firm and unequivocal “Yes.”

Surely being Christians must bring something else besides togetherness, or else what is there to differentiate us from atheists or any other group?

We really have to start questioning what kind of faith we are of if we claim that there is little to no difference between a gathering of pleasant but deeply anti-Christian people and a gathering of people who are there to worship and revere God.

If God is amongst Satanists, was He also present and blessing the sense of community felt by all of those fine, athletic and committed young German men and women who gathered to sing rousing patriotic songs, heard Adolf Hitler preach his message of hatred, and then put their hands to the locks on the doors of the gas chambers, or who marched young teenage boys in their thousands out onto the battlefield, never to return?

Is God amongst Islamic terrorists as they shout “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great!) and then strap on suicide bombs, before going out to shred the flesh from unsuspecting people’s bones in a high street or a station?

Is God so weak, so diluted in our thinking, that He cares not what we think of Him, as long as we’re having fun? And if people are being transformed by their experience of community, but not into the likeness of Jesus Christ, then what are they being transformed into? And how can that be good for us – in the sense of ultimate good; the kind that results from genuine salvation – since it would only be transformation into man’s image rather than God’s?

The truth is that Jesus says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) It is God’s special promise that He is willing and available to dwell amongst His people. He makes no such guarantees for those who hate Him.

When we gather as Christians, we should make sure that God is amongst us, if He was truly amongst us in the first place, for He says that He has judgment in store for those who honour God with their lips, but whose hearts are actually far from Him. (Isaiah 29:13) Many of us have adopted a faith that makes excuses for our sins: we go to church and claim to love Jesus, but it’s business as usual all week whilst we continue to do what we please rather than allowing God to bring us to repentance.

If we lose or forfeit our godliness – whether in our godly lives or in the presence of God with us – what would be left to show that we know Him?

Elective Single Motherhood? Look Before You Leap!

19 Dec

A few months ago I came across this thought-provoking blog post (Single? You can still be a mother) by a Christian woman approaching 30, in which she mulled over the possiblity of not getting married in time to have children. Would she choose to have a baby before getting married and hope to meet Mr. Right later?

Jeremy says: With so many single mums out there, the temptation to go it alone if there’s not a suitable man on the horizon must be considerable for childless women in their thirties. However, God has instituted the two-parent family for good reasons – and bringing up a child on one’s own is not all plain sailing.

What follows is my answer to Hannah’s blog post, in which I point out some of the pitfalls and try to suggest a positive approach to her situation.

Hi Hannah! I enjoyed reading your article, and I think it’s good that you took the opportunity to think out loud. As a 37-year-old singleton, I sympathise (as far as a male person can!) with your plight. I wonder, however, if there are some other issues in this picture that are worth taking a look at.

Above all, I think some of your assumptions need to be gently challenged. Firstly, the idea that you have only a few more years in which to conceive, or indeed have children by any other method. You have more time than you are allowing yourself; even if it’s not “best-case scenario” by the time a woman hits 40, it’s by no means the end of the road. Nor should you fear losing your looks: as shallow as this may sound, the chances are you’re in much better shape than most women who have had children.

No easy path

Secondly, and more importantly, elective single motherhood is no easy path, for a number of reasons. While most single mums are fantastic parents, there are numerous disadvantages for both the mother and her children. Parenting is time-consuming and exhausting at the best of times, even when there are two parents around to share the load. You would be taking on a lot of stress, strain and responsibility, with fewer opportunities for recovery and time alone. You also need to think very hard about whether you want to bring a child into this world without a male role model, which is vital for the emotional development of both girls and boys. You could be laying the foundations for an insecure adulthood if your child does not grow up knowing the love of both parents. Yes, there are worthy exceptions: some women adopt orphans from the mission field, growing up with one parent being better for the child than growing up in an institution or in poverty. However, the fact that many children grow up with only one parent does not automatically make it a good course of action, even if it is socially accepted. Do some research into outcomes in the areas of crime, drugtaking, teenage sexual activity and pregnancy, educational welfare, and mental health issues as they each relate to single parenthood. I think you’ll be concerned. [1]

Wherefore art thou, Sir Galahad?

Thirdly, I think that the idea that the knight in shining armour will join you later also needs careful thought (which is a polite way of saying – and you’ll have to forgive me here – that you’re being a little bit naive). Ask your single-mum friends how much time they have for dating, or whether they feel like having any social life at all once they have taken care of earning a living, the school run, supervising homework, and all of the other activities that are neccessary to bringing up happy children. I bet most of them will reply that they love their children, but they miss the freedom they had to date before they had kids. They may also tell you sad stories of loneliness and longing. Being a single parent will significantly reduce your chances of meeting a suitable partner: you have less time, availability and energy; some men may not be willing to take on a ready-made family (and before you protest, bear in mind that this child is the result of *your* unorthodox lifestyle choice); you also have to factor in the necessity for your child to get on well with a prospective partner, which is by no means guaranteed. Those good looks you mentioned earlier: can you get them back after childbirth? Your move to have children before marriage could result in you being single for a lot longer than you hoped.

Where is God in all this?

Finally, as one Christian single to another, I wonder if it’s worth listening harder to what God may be saying to you in your situation. If God has not permitted you to meet Mr. Right, is it because He still has work to do in you? Ask the opinion of trusted Christian friends, including male ones: are you ready to marry? Read good Christian books (start with Dr. Henry Cloud, “How to Get a Date Worth Keeping”. As a person of considerable intellect, you may also get a lot out of “Affluenza” by secular psychologist Oliver James, which examines issues of family and career). Are you harbouring attitudes which are trapping you into patterns in which you are either meeting the wrong type of men or no men at all? Have you been obedient to everything God is telling you to do? No-one else is in a position to judge, but we know that it is true that if we delight ourselves in the Lord, He will give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4).

You seem to me to be an intelligent, well-motivated and attractive person, so there is no reason why you should be left on the shelf until you are old and grey, as long as you are taking appropriate steps to prepare yourself for a relationship. I pray God will guide you and speak to you clearly, and that you will soon meet, marry and have children with someone fantastic!

[1] I am not trying to suggest that every child who grows up with only one parent automatically goes on to commit crime, abuse drugs, drop out of school and get pregnant in their teens. What is clear, however, from the depressing statistics in this field is that children who do not have the love, support and presence of both parents in the home do not do as well in these key indicators. While not all children of lone parents go on to become official negative statistics, lack of both parents is a factor which affects a child’s development and wellbeing in ways that make them vulnerable to poorer life outcomes.
What the statistics also hint at is a huge amount of unhappiness and insecurity that is not always reported, but may manifest itself in other ways.

The “Optional Extras” of Christian Faith?

21 Jul
To say grace or not to say grace when you are in a public place?


This week I was involved in a discussion about whether it was right or expected by God that we should give thanks for our food before a meal when eating in a restaurant or elsewhere. Naturally there was a range of opinions, with some people enthusiastic, and others reluctant. What intrigued me most, however, was the argument of those who thought it to be a bit of a tangential issue, a bit of a sideshow, or some kind of optional extra for those who felt like it.


Of course when we think about the biggest issue of Christian faith, the salvation of our souls, then everything else can be said to be a side issue, but unless one is on one’s deathbed and about to breathe one’s last, once salvation is taken care of, there’s a lot more living to be done!


It’s funny how often we can be tempted to refer to something as a side issue. It’s often the line with which we end the discussion after we have been shown something in the Bible which disrupts ouir comfortable theology. It’s the line we use to comfort ourselves that we aren’t doing so badly. We argue the rights and wrongs. We ‘um’ and ‘ah’. We find a way to wriggle out of doing the thing that would glorify God, rather than seeking to submit. And while we may be stubborn and disobedient to one (or several) of God’s clear commands, at least we can point to the fact that we’ve got the main issue sorted. We then feel safe to remain just as we are.


Of course, one could argue that giving thanks for one’s food is not necessarily commanded. We do, however, see it in the life of Jesus (at the feeding of the five thousand, and the four thousand, and the Last Supper) and Paul talks about it too (see e.g. 1 Tim 4:3-4). However, that doesn’t really go to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is, literally, the heart! For while saying grace is not necessarily commanded in Scripture, it is an opportunity to involve God with one’s day, to remind oneself of His goodness, to meet with Him and to commit a time of eating and fellowship to Him. If our hearts want God to be Lord of everything, and glorified in us, our own comfort takes second place.


What changed it for me?


Since I was baptised with the Holy Spirit (a secondary, post-conversion experience, with speaking in tongues, etc.), I view this whole business of what some people deem the “optional” elements of the Christian life very differently. Being filled with the Spirit on an ongoing basis has totally changed the way I think about both God and how I serve him. It means I no longer do this little dance about whether something is a choice, or right or wrong, or tangential, or a minor issue. Rather, love for God overflowing from the presence of the Holy Spirit within me means I want to put Him first in everything and please Him in everything – the details as well as the big-picture stuff. If I was married: I wouldn’t sit weighing up whether doing something nice for my wife was the “done thing”; I would just do it to express my love for her. It’s the same with loving and serving God.


I’m not attempting to judge anybody or try to fix where they are at spiritually. What I am saying is that that when I didn’t have the Spirit in me in the same way (for a whole 6 years after my conversion) I too tended to dwell on the pros and cons rather than Just Doing It, and somehow I always came down on the side of NOT doing whatever it was that I had opportunity to do. Expressing love for God has become far more instinctive since I started living a spirit-filled life, and I would recommend it to anybody.


It’s no longer about feeling coerced into observing rules, but rather we do the things that please the Father’s heart because our hearts are full of love for Him:
“We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)


When we are full of the Holy Spirit, we seek to please God in all things. Suddenly, those issues that our legalistic minds once told us were optional extras become opportunities to meet with God and manifest His glory. God-in-us becomes unlimited in His potential to work through us when we give Him that kind of access. And that’s why I say grace in public places.


PS While I was putting this post together, a man added his story to the discussion.
He told of how he stopped at a truckers’ café for a full English breakfast sometime last year. He gave thanks for his food – and a young couple asked him what he was doing. After two hours of conversation, he led both of them to receive Christ as saviour. The couple now attend church and the man has been invited to attend the Christening of their first child. God works through our submission and sacrifice!


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