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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.

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