Why Election 2016 is not The Matrix

In the 1999 sci-fi blockbuster, The Matrix, the protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) is offered a life-changing choice by the enigmatic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He is told that his future will be forever affected by whether he picks and swallows the blue pill (which will let him go back to an ordinary life of blissful ignorance) or the red pill (a gateway to a confronting, difficult and dangerous “reality”). Two choices: blue or red. Each with consequences. No turning back from either.

Red_and_blue_pill[1]

When it comes to voting, many Australians believe that our political “reality” dictates a similar choice. A simple choice between blue or red. Liberal or Labor. Without pushing the analogy too far, some of us feel that this choice does have enormous, potentially life-changing ramifications. And some may even feel it’s a choice between comfort and blissful ignorance and dealing with the hardships and realities of everyday Australian life.

But the choice is between the two. Only Blue (Liberal) or Red (Labor) can realistically form government, so voting becomes about swallowing the pill that is likely to lead to better outcomes for me, my family and perhaps a set of causes I’m passionate about.

What if I told you there was another way to vote?

Yes the next government will be led by either Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten. That is virtually impossible to change. But the duopoly between the Coalition and Labor will continue forever unless Australians stop seeing their vote as a choice between the blue pill and the red pill.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pose for a photo together at Pentagon on Jan. 18, 2016. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen)(Released)
[2]
Bill_Shorten_DSC_3004[3]

 

People need to wake up from the cleverly crafted, illusory narrative that says you should automatically vote for one or the other, because you have no other real choice. The major parties want us to think this way, because having one major opponent to defeat makes life easier for them. It’s easier to poke holes in one, main rival’s vision and plan for the nation that to have half a dozen or more to compete with.

At a time when the leadership of both major parties is incredibly lacklustre and uninspiring, there’s no better election to send them a message and start to curb their control of public life than this one. Because if the Coalition and Labor go unpunished for their choices of leader and their nebulous principles and policies, things are only going to get worse from here on in.

If you’re a Christian voter you may feel (as I do) as though the choice between the major parties is a choice between bad and worse – or two equally unpalatable options. Malcolm Turnbull represents the worst aspects of his party – the harsh economic rationalism of free-market neo-liberalism and the “progressive” social liberalism held by a minority (but growing force) of his colleagues. Bill Shorten and Labor hold positions that are increasingly disturbing if you approach social issues from a Christian standpoint.

So how should we actually vote, if we don’t want to treat the two majors as our only options? I’ve noticed Christians are already chatting about this, directly or indirectly, on social media. Articles like: “Should Christians vote for a Christian party?” and “Can a Christian vote for those godless Greens?” have been doing the rounds lately.

While my short answer to the former question is: “Possibly, but not necessarily” and “Not in good conscience” to the latter – those issues themselves will have to wait for another day.

I’m encouraging people to vote for the best candidate or party available to them – placing them ahead of the major party candidates when they fail to fall into that category.

This will mean a few things practically:

1) Not being a lazy voter

Australians are renowned for apathy – particularly in the political sphere. And while we are prone to frequent complaining about the quality of our politicians, many of us are too lazy to do anything about changing the system – or even to find out what parties and candidates stand for, beyond slogans, soundbites and smiles. To vote for the best candidate or party you actually need to know which one is the best! That means doing at least a little bit of research as to what the substance of their values and policies are. With the internet, that’s much easier to do now than it once was. I hope to look at some of the key issues for Christians and Australians in the remaining two weeks of the election campaign and where the parties stand on them, as a way of helping people think through the options beyond blue and red.

2) Understanding the new Senate voting rules and maximising your Senate vote

The Senate ballot is the best and easiest way for you to vote for a party that better represents your values and objectives than the major parties. Queensland voters will have a choice of candidates from 37 different parties, along with around 20 independent candidates. That’s way more choice than blue or red!!! The new Senate voting rules mean you number at least 6 boxes above the line (party group tickets) OR at least 12 boxes for individual candidates of your choice below the line. While you don’t need to know the ins and outs of every single party and candidate, you have plenty of options to explore if you’re dissatisfied with the major parties. Each of us should be able to find at least one or two parties or candidates that better represent our views and values than the usual suspects.
The new senate rules do make it more difficult for minor parties and independents to get elected – but some probably will, and it’s down to our vote to decide which ones will be successful.

Sample Senate Ballot (2)

The role of the Upper House in reviewing legislation means that your vote for a distinct voice there is an important one. Better senators means better scrutiny and evaluation of every bill that comes before parliament. Your senate vote can make a difference.

3) Putting the Coalition or Labor further down your House of Representatives ballot than a better candidate (assuming there is one)               

On your green ballot paper you need to number every box in descending order of preference. In the vast majority of seats, a candidate from the major parties will end up winning and your preferences will go towards the winner or runner-up. However, if enough dissatisfied people vote for a different candidate, things can turn out quite differently. These hiccups send a powerful message to whoever forms government in Canberra. Likewise, even if your first preference candidate doesn’t get elected and your second preference goes towards the winning candidate – nothing provokes soul-searching for parties and candidates than a significant decrease in their first preference votes.

Sample House of Reps Ballot (2)

Despite what the major parties would have you believe, a principled vote or even a protest vote is not a reckless or wasted vote. It’s a declaration that you don’t feel Blue or Red is worthy of your primary vote. Even if they benefit from your preferences, you’ve told them that you’d really prefer someone other than them to represent you.

It’s time to change the political reality of Australia for the better by voting for something better. Yes we’ll still get a blue or red government for the next 3 years – but you and I have the power to choose to weaken their control of parliament and the direction of society, instead of strengthening it.

To stick with the false dichotomy of blue or red is to choose a bad future with two power-players that think they can continue to have a turn at sitting in the good seat in parliament every few years – despite continuously under-delivering on policy and leadership. Let’s find a better option and vote for a better future.

[1] W Carter “A Red pill and a Blue pill” CC-BY-SA 4.0 wikimedia commons
[2]  DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, visiting the Pentagon on 18 January 2016.CC BY 2.0
[3] Peter Campbell “Bill Shorten MP” CC BY-SA 3.0

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More convinced by hell (than you or I)

In my last post I suggested that you and I are probably less convinced by hell, than many of our Christian forbears were (as demonstrated by their life, preaching and ministry). In this follow-up I’m sharing some examples of what some significant Christian ministers have expressed with regard to the realness of hell and how it affected their outlook. Of course, what is provided below by no means establishes how much of an emphasis these men put on hell across their life and ministry (that would be too enormous a task) – but it does give us a taste of how generations before us have regarded the truth of hell, which will be useful for comparison with our own emphasis or lack thereof.

Biblical

Our Lord Jesus was more convinced by the reality of hell than we are:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48, ESV)

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”  (Luke 12:4-5, ESV)

Paul was convinced enough by hell to use it as an encouragement for those suffering persecution:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering– since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

Peter convinced enough by hell to warn Christians that false teachers were headed there:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction…
Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world…if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority
…(2 Peter 2:1-10)

John was convinced by hell because God showed him a vision of what it would be like:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:12-15)

Early Church 

Early Christian bishop and martyr Polycarp was convinced enough by hell to tell his persecutors how much worse it would be than anything they could do to him:

You threaten me with fire that burns for one hour and then cools, not knowing the judgment to come, nor the perpetual torment of eternal fire to the ungodly.”

Tertullian was convinced of eternal punishment for the unrepentant:

But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility.

Augustine was so convinced by the reality of hell, he thought it should make us shudder:

“So then what God by His prophet has said of the everlasting punishment of the damned shall come to pass—shall without fail come to pass,—“their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched…”  [Jesus] did not shrink from using the[se] same words three times over in one passage.  And who is not terrified by this repetition, and by the threat of that punishment uttered so vehemently by the lips of the Lord Himself?”

Likewise Chrysostom, who thought it was better to tremble at the thought of hell than end up there through lack of due consideration:

For indeed my heart is troubled and throbs, and the more I see the account of hell confirmed, the more do I tremble and shrink through fear, but it is necessary to say these things, lest we fall into hell.”

Reformers

Luther was convinced that hell was an unending experience of God’s judgement:

The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. For the Day of Judgment will not last for a moment only but will stand throughout eternity and will thereafter never come to an end. Constantly the damned will be judged, constantly they will suffer pain, and constantly they will be a fiery oven, that is, they will be tortured within by supreme distress and tribulation.”

Calvin was convinced that hell was absolutely necessary if we have a right understanding of God and sin:

“…but then the majesty of God, and also the justice which they have violated by their sins, are eternal. Justly, therefore, the memory of their iniquity does not perish. But in this way the punishment will exceed the measure of the fault. It is intolerable blasphemy to hold the majesty of God in so little estimation, as not to regard the contempt of it as of greater consequence than the destruction of a single soul.”
Puritans

John Owen was convinced that hell would be intensified for those who have been offered forgiveness and yet rejected it:

…of this sure I am, that none shall have their portion so low in the nethermost hell, none shall drink so deep of the cup of God’s indignation, as they who have refused Christ in the gospel. Men will curse the day to all eternity wherein the blessed name of Jesus Christ was made known unto them, if they continue to despise it. He that abuseth the choicest of mercies, shall have judgment without mercy.”

Thomas Watson was convinced by the sheer incomprehensibility of the eternal nature of hell:

“The fire of hell is such, as multitudes of tears will not quench it, length of time will not finish it; the vial of God’s wrath will be always dropping upon a sinner. As long as God is eternal, He lives to be avenged upon the wicked. Oh eternity! eternity! who can fathom it? Mariners have their plummets to measure the depths of the sea; but what line or plummet shall we use to fathom the depth of eternity? The breath of the Lord kindles the infernal lake, (Isa. 30:33), and where shall we have engines or buckets to quench that fire?” 

Evangelical Evangelists, Missionaries and Preachers

Wesley was convinced by the terrible miseries of hell:

There is no grandeur in the infernal regions; there is nothing beautiful in those dark abodes; no light but that of livid flames. And nothing new, but one unvaried scene of horror upon horror! There is no music but that of groans and shrieks; of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth; of curses and blasphemies against God, or cutting reproaches of one another. Nor is there anything to gratify the sense of honour: No; they are the heirs of shame and everlasting contempt.”

Whitefield was convinced that anyone confronted with hell as it really is, should scarcely need persuading to avoid anything that would lead them there:

You have heard, brethren, the eternity of hell-torments plainly proved, from the express declarations of holy scriptures, and consequences naturally drawn from them. And now there seems to need no great art of rhetoric to persuade any understanding person to avoid and abhor those sins, which without repentance will certainly plunge him into this eternal gulf.”

Jonathan Edwards was convinced that the eternal destruction of those who refused to trust in Christ was so certain that they might as well already be in hell:

Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet – than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell. So that it is not because God is unmindful of their Wickedness, and don’t resent it, that he don’t let loose his Hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, tho’ they may imagine him to be so. The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.

Hudson Taylor was convinced that a right perspective on hell would motivate us to seek the salvation of others without rest:

Would that God would make hell so real to us that we cannot rest; heaven so real that we must have men there; Christ so real that our supreme motive and aim shall be to make the Man of Sorrows the Man of Joy by the conversion to Him of many concerning whom He prayed, “Father, I long that those whom Thou hast given Me be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory.””

Spurgeon was convinced of hell and urged his students not to allow themselves to be less convinced of its terrible nature:

Meditate with deep solemnity upon the fate of the lost sinner, and, like Abraham, when you get up early to go to the place where you commune with God, cast an eye towards Sodom and see the smoke thereof going up like the smoke of a furnace. Shun all views of future punishment which would make it appear less terrible, and so take off the edge of your anxiety to save immortals from the quenchless flame. If men are indeed only a nobler kind of ape, and expire as the beasts, you may well enough let them die unpitied; but if their creation in the image of God involves immortality, and there is any fear that through their unbelief they will bring upon themselves endless woe, arouse yourselves to the agonies of the occasion, and be ashamed at the bare suspicion of unconcern.”

J.C. Ryle was convinced that hell was part of God’s revelation, which he must urge others to think properly about:

 Who would desire to speak of hell-fire if God has not spoken of it? When God has spoken of it so plainly, who can safely hold his peace? I dare not shut my eyes to the fact, that a deep rooted infidelity lurks in men’s minds on the subject of hell. I see it oozing out in the utter apathy of some: they eat, and drink, and sleep, as if there was no wrath to come. I see it creeping forth in the coldness others about their neighbor’s souls: they show little anxiety to awaken the unconverted, and pluck brands from the fire.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was convinced by hell – to the point that it shaped the goal and approach of his preaching and pastoral ministry:

“We spend most of our time rendering people fit to go back to their sin! I want to heal souls. If a man has a diseased body and his soul is all right, he is all right to the end; but a man with a healthy body and a distressed soul is all right for sixty years or so and then he has to face eternity in Hell.”

I’m less convinced by hell (and you probably are too)

Is there really such a thing as hell? A reality/state/place where people experience eternal, conscious torment as a result of their rebellion against the God who gave them life? Are there millions of rebels already experiencing some form of unrelenting suffering, while they await final judgement for their sins before being consigned to an inextinguishable lake of fire? Are there many more millions headed there, who will most certainly perish and endure eternal death, unless they turn from their sins and put their trust in Jesus to save them?

Do you really believe in this stuff?

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Surely we want a Christianity that’s more about God’s love and less about “fire and brimstone”? Surely we’ve moved on from “hellfire preaching”? Don’t we want preaching that focuses on how good Jesus is and how full of grace the gospel is? Surely preaching too much about eternal punishment reinforces the negative stereotypes of Christianity and God: it’s just a bunch of rules and He’s a nasty tyrant ready to mete out punishment to anyone who He doesn’t like.

I think I’m less convinced by hell than a lot of Christians from years gone by. At different periods in church history, it has not been uncommon to find people terrified by pictures of eternal judgement and believers who were plagued for many years by fears concerning their eternal destination.

Often preachers and churches were all-too-eager to warn people that they were about to face the fiery reality of God’s wrath. They thundered their “turn or burn” style message at everyone – the kind of thing that makes many of us cringe today. Hell was a major component of their message. Many have come to the conclusion that it was too much of a focus and it was the main thing sinners heard.

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^Scenes like this make many Christians uneasy [2]

Now many of us have taken quite a different approach. We may speak about sin and it’s visible effects in our broken world and mention that God is just and will judge evil – but perhaps because we assume people know we mean “hell” when we say “judgement”, we’re quick to move onto the gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus. By ensuring we focus on Jesus, we are making sure our message comes across as Christ-centered, or gospel-centered – not about a woeful, fiery nether region.

I’m all for making sure Jesus is the explicit centre of everything we say and do. But I have a problem.
When I say I’m less convinced by hell than many Christians who lived before me – I say it as a shameful confession – not as a proud declaration. You see I know hell is real – but I wonder why it makes so little impact on my life and the lives of many Christians around me. I say I’m less convinced by hell, because the reality of eternal punishment doesn’t seem to have much of an effect upon how I live a typical day. I say you’re probably less convinced by hell too, because generally speaking I don’t see a widespread appreciation of how serious it is amongst the Christians I know.

We may eschew hellfire preaching – I don’t dispute that it’s been done pretty badly over the years. But I would contend that spelling out what God’s judgement is like, does have its place in our proclamation of a Christ-centered message. I agree that if our focus is on how bad hell is and that Jesus is just a divine lasso to pull us to safety, or a fire escape door to run through – we’ve magnified hell at the expense of the pre-eminence and wonder of our Great God and Saviour. But on the other hand, the more we make hell something that is out of mind, out of sight – the less we and others will appreciate how great a salvation we have. Because the gospel is always meant to be awesome goodness on the backdrop of awful badness. Without the juxtaposition, we lose something vital.
Without understanding hell, the Cross itself loses its context.

The message of hell

Hell is itself a message; a kind of sermon; an eternal object lesson. And it’s the failure of the 21st Century church in developed societies to truly appreciate the components of this message that explains why we may be prone to minimising hell. So what’s the message? It’s very simple.

Hell is a declaration that:

1) God’s holiness is absolute, paramount and inviolable.

2) Any sin or rebellion against God is an indescribably severe and evil insult to God’s supreme dignity and a provocation of his wrath against ungodliness.

3) God’s justice administers a punishment against such sin – the severity of which reflects the severity of the transgression committed against Him.

When we as a church lack a proper appreciation of God’s awesome majesty and what it really means for Him to be holy (i.e. He alone has a claim to being truly sacred, unique, distinguished in kind and value from all other things and regarded with an esteem and gravity that reflects who He is) we will find ourselves agreeing with our non-Christian neighbours – that hell seems an extreme punishment for people who have basically lived a good life but committed some petty wrongdoings along the way. We are less convinced by hell, when we’re less moved by God’s holiness. We are less convinced by hell when we don’t recognise sin for how serious it is.

Now I’m not saying we should spend all of our time thinking and speaking about hell. But I am saying we should spend some time thinking and speaking about it. Because hell declares a message about God, sin and justice that our generation desperately needs to hear. I don’t want people coming to church just because they want a ticket out of hell. But nor do I want the church to be lethargic about the fact that people around us are going to hell if they reject Jesus (and it’s not wrong to make that part of the conversation we have with them). Want I do want is a church that knows hell is real and is prepared to make it clear to people what they’re choosing over eternal life in Jesus if they reject God’s offer of forgiveness. And I want to see converts who know how great the grace they’ve received is, because they’ve recognised how holy God is, how deeply they’ve wronged Him and how great a punishment Jesus took on their behalf to grant them life.

I hope to do a follow up post, featuring the way some of the great Christian pastors, preachers, authors and others leaders have spoken about hell and how it fit into their understanding of the Christian life.

 

 

[1] Nathan Reading “Inferno” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr
[2] Erik Bishoff “Hate” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr

Oh Eye See! Solving the mystery of Matthew 6:22-23

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Matthew 6:22-23, ESV

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I sometimes think Matthew 6 is my spiritual medicine cabinet. I struggle with being well-thought of by others and with the danger of religiously going through the motions. I need Jesus to teach me how to approach prayer. I live in a society where materialism is one of the greatest temptations and despite my efforts I never fully feel I’ve conquered the temptation to accumulate things here. And despite acknowledging God’s sovereignty, I worry a lot about the future.

Jesus addresses some of my major life-issues in His best known sermon. But have you ever read this chapter and struggled to figure out how the verses above fit into the overall picture?

The above verses from Matthew 6 are one part of the Sermon on the Mount that seems to spoil the flow of what Jesus is saying. In 6:19-21 Jesus talks about having the right attitude towards “treasure”:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, ESV)

Then in 6:24 we have another warning about money/riches/wealth:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24, ESV).

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Love of Money [2]

When we consider these verses in light of the opening and closing of Matthew 6, we see a theme of trusting God to provide our needs and grant us an everlasting reward – rather than spending our lives worrying about how others perceive us (eg; living a superficial religious life) or how our financial and material needs will be met (see vv. 25-34 and the Lord’s Prayer).

So what to make of Jesus’ comments, smack in the middle of this discourse, about the eye being the lamp of the body? Is this a random thought bubble; an accidental “combo-breaker”; or could it actually be part of the key theme of the passage?

People have often interpreted these verses as a stand-alone point about our spiritual “focus” (thus the “Eye”). It runs something like, if your eye (or heart) is focused on things that are good, you’ll be filled with light (goodness), but if your eye/heart is focused on things which are evil, you’ll be full of darkness (and at risk of spiritual condemnation). While this interpretation could fit roughly with the overall theme (eg; if you focus on heavenly treasures, your soul will be “enlightened”, if you focus on earthly treasures and worldly things, it will be darkened), I discovered what I believe is a much better thematic fit, by looking at what Jesus would have meant by a “good” or “evil” eye.

Evil Eye? [3]
Evil Eye? [3]

Have you ever heard the phrase “to give someone the evil eye”? We usually think of it as a kind of superstitious hex, where one person curses the other through ill-will and perhaps supernatural powers. Or perhaps it just gets used in modern day speech as a synonym for a scowl or a dirty look. But the phrase had a different meaning in the biblical culture.

In Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Yahweh instructs His people concerning how they are to treat their poor brethren in the land of Israel: “”If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, ESV)

Verse 9 more literally speaks of someone’s eye being evil against their poor brother. Giving them the evil eye means being stingy and begrudgingly refusing to give generously to them to meet their need. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament the phrase “πονηρεύσηται ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου” is very similar to Matthew 6:23’s “ο οφθαλμος σου πονηρος”. So I’d contend that Jesus is talking about someone’s eye being evil (i.e. stingy) rather than just some vague idea of spiritual badness.

On the other hand, the eye being “good” (not “healthy” as the ESV unhelpfully translates) can also have the opposite meaning in the Old Testament. In Proverbs 22:9 the ESV has “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” Again, this is clearly speaking of generosity towards the poor. And the opening Hebrew phrase of the verse is “טוב־עין” – literally “good eye.” Thus, having a “good eye” in the OT meant being liberal or generous to those in need.

So when Jesus makes a seemingly random remark about our eye being good and full of light or evil and full of darkness – He is undoubtedly making an observation about the spiritual state of people’s souls. But He’s specifically talking about our attitudes towards money and resources and how we respond to the needs of those around us. This makes it a perfect fit with the surrounding themes of not accumulating earthly treasures; not trying to serve God and Mammon (wealth) and trusting in our Sovereign Father to supply all our needs.

My sinful tendency to be stingy in different ways comes from my rotten belief that I don’t have enough to go around. I’m not one of the rich, so I can’t give very much to others. But it’s worse than that. My attitudes towards money and my struggle to be as generous as Jesus calls me to be is because of a spiritual sickness – a lack of love for my brother or sister and a lack of trust that God will provide for my material needs (just like he looks after tiny plants and birds).

So next time you see a brother or sister in need, Jesus is saying “Is your eye good or evil towards them?” “Are you full of light or full of darkness?” “Are you generous to those in need, or stingy and bound by selfish greed?”

[1] Mike Lindsey Eye Spy (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr.
[2] Tax Credits Money Girl (CC BY 2.0) flickr.
[3] Phil Balchin 061 – Evil Eyes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr.

It’s a Conspiracy! Christians and dark, speculative theories

We’ve all heard them at one point or another. September 11th was orchestrated by the American government. Lady Diana’s death was arranged by a member of the Royal Family. The 1969 lunar landing was staged. The world is controlled by secret societies, multi-national cartels – or the Jews. There are no shortage of conspiracy theories around – particularly if you talk to people who don’t trust government agencies, corporations and foreign powers.

9-11 Theories abound
9-11 Theories abound [1]
Australia has a range of localised versions. Did you know our Prime Minister Harold Holt was abducted by a Chinese submarine while swimming off the coast and has never been seen again? Or that the fall of Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975 was done at the behest of the U.S. Government? Or that our governments are fluoridating the water supply for devious reasons? Or that we’re secretly housing nuclear weapons for the US at the Pine Gap facility in central Australia? All true – if you talk to the right people. And let’s not even get started on vaccination speculation…

Secretive Pine Gap Facility [2]
Secretive Pine Gap Facility [2]
Harold Holt - missing PM [3]
Harold Holt – missing PM [3]
I wanted to write about conspiracy theories because I’ve been watching re-runs of the X-Files – a hit 90s TV show about a government conspiracy involving the cover-up of alien activity on Earth. One reason I believe the show was such a hit in its time (and continues to have a considerable fan-base) is because many of us are susceptible to mistrust of governments and other powerful organisations.
The famous catchphrase “The Truth is Out There” resonates with inquisitive minds that value open enquiry and are cynical enough to suspect we’re often being lied to by people with power. And due to the secrecy required for international intelligence communities to thrive, we find it easy to imagine that perhaps bigger secrets are being kept from the public than we might imagine.

X-Files [3]
X-Files [4]

While the age of Freedom of Information Acts, Wikileaks and the Panama Papers often proves there are secrets that governments and corporations wish we didn’t find out about – so far there is little in the way of earth-shattering revelations coming to light.

Christians are people of the truth and should desire to see evil exposed. We should want facts rather than misinformation to guide our societal assumptions and activities. But exactly what truth we’re preoccupied with and how we go about dealing with the unknown, unexplained and unverified is very important.

The X-Files’ main character, Fox Mulder, is an FBI Agent on a quest to prove the existence of aliens.
Mulder is intelligent, capable and one of the FBI’s most talented investigators, but his incessant preoccupation with paranormal activity and extra-terrestrial life earn the ire of his superiors and the nickname “Spooky Mulder” from some of his colleagues. His most important goal in life is to expose the truth about aliens – which he believes is concealed by a top-level government conspiracy.

Christians should be ready to endure insults for what we pursue in light of our beliefs. But there’s a few very good reasons we should be unwilling to waste our time entertaining conjecture about secret government cover-ups and plots for international domination.

1) There’s only one truth many people around us are blinded to that they really need to hear about.

Christians don’t have the luxury of spending their time trying to uncover dark secrets hidden from sight by the powers-that-be, because God has given us one central truth to pre-occupy ourselves with, shape our lives by and talk to others about. Millions of people in the world are blinded (2 Corinthians 4:4) to the reality that Jesus is the Son of God; that God has a plan to save people from every nation, tribe and language through His death and resurrection; and that Jesus will take complete control of the entire globe and put every person not allegiant to him on trial. God’s mysterious plan concerning Jesus is not being hidden by the rulers of this world, so much as it is being hidden from them (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Since Jesus is returning at a time people don’t expect, the most urgent secret you can be talking to people about, isn’t what the government is up to, but what God is up to in Jesus. It’s not a dark, evil secret, but what missiologist Lesslie Newbigin called the “Open Secret” – one we need to tell everyone about.

2) We should not risk our credibility as ambassadors of the truth by engaging in unwarranted speculation

Let’s face it, we all judge people’s credibility and trustworthiness based on their past-record of truth-telling and how careful they are with evaluating and communicating information. Most people tend to value respectability of their opinions and at least give lip-service to an evidence-based approach to much of life. So if they find out you have “interesting” beliefs about government surveillance, Freemasons running the world or a celebrity’s death being a politically-motivated assassination – based purely on your own unsubstantiated speculation – they might find it harder to be open to your beliefs about Jesus when you share them.

There’s a lot about Christianity that sounds weird to the outsider. If people mock us or reject us because of their bias against the supernatural or the historical reliability of the Bible, or the incompatibility of our theology with their assumptions about the world – so be it. That’s always part of the risk of sharing our faith. But if you get the reputation for being paranoid, suspicious and prone to believing any theory that suggests dark activity by governments and corporations – it’s your credibility as a person that’s affecting the plausibility of the gospel: when the good news of Jesus comes off your lips a few days after your latest, wild theory.

3) Conspiracy theories often make light of the principle found in the ninth commandment

Another reason to distance yourself from conspiracy-theory-style-speculation is that you run a high risk of bearing false witness against your neighbour. When Christians pass on dubious news reports about on the internet without verifying the source, we often participate in the damaging of a person, group or company’s reputation without grounds for doing so.

When you say “the government is doing X” but can’t back it up with evidence, you’re using your hunch, your personal mistrust as a grounds to slander leaders by implying they are guilty of maliciously harming the public.

Unsubstantiated rumours are very often more evil than the person or group they’re about. Ironically, by suggesting “this group killed him” or “this person is secretly this” – you could well be the one obscuring the truth by spreading misinformation. In other words, you’re creating the very kind of smoky haze over the facts and public knowledge that you’re accusing more powerful people of doing.

4) There is enough openly evil activity in the world for us to worry about   

Some Christians (particularly those with a certain understanding of how to interpret Bible prophecy) see Satan as orchestrating a stealthy global take-over through corrupt governments, secret societies and would-be antichrists. They fear that our ignorance of what’s really happening behind global events will stop us from seeing the rise of a one-world government with the Antichrist at it’s head, until it’s too late. Some believe that millions of people will receive “the mark of the Beast” (effectively sealing their eternal destiny) without realising what they are doing, because it will be a cleverly implemented micro-chip program or something of the like.

I know this well, because I was one of these Christians. I was certain that the European Union was the Revived Roman Empire, that a certain European politician was the future Antichrist and that the world was all heading towards some kind of totalitarianism by stealth.

At the time I thought there was very good evidence for the above. Time proved me to be wrong. Things that needed to happen to confirm the “evidence” didn’t take place.

As I’ve come to understand the Bible better and how Jesus must always be the focal point of interpreting Bible prophecies (rather than the weekly news), I must say that I think there’s enough evil clearly visible in the world for us to worry about – rather than delving deep into the darkness to find hidden plots and satanic secrets. Psalm 2 clearly states that the kings and rulers of this world have set themselves against YHWH and His anointed one. The plotting and rebellion has been going on for centuries. Millennia even. Romans 1-3 paint a clear picture of humanity utterly compromised by sin and handed over by God to plunge deeper into the depths of our depravity.

The social changes we see in our world are often driven by the spirit of the age. But rather than a secret conspiracy, they seem to be part of an age-old pattern of people rejecting the God who made them and willingly shifting their thoughts and behaviour away from what He has revealed. Satan is at work – but the main work we should be concerned about is his blinding of people’s minds to the gospel to keep them enslaved to sin – not his covering up of a plan to take away their civil liberties and enslave them to others.

So whatever your understanding of what will happen between now and Jesus’ return – focus on the one secret that people can’t afford to be ignorant of any longer: Who Jesus is, what He’s done and what He’s about to do.

[1] Michael Gil Conspiracy Theory (CC BY 2.0) flickr

[2] Schutz “Pine Gap Sign” (CC BY-SA 3.0) flickr
[3] Public Domain
[4] sdobie Martin, Les – X Marks the Spot (1997 PB) (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr

Neither Monks nor Nominals: The Consecrated Life for all of us

First a confession: I’ve always had something of a for weakness mysticism – so ascetic or monastic lifestyles have always had a little bit of romantic appeal to me. There’s just something about the idea of getting away from the rush, pressures and temptations of everyday life and being able to pursue the spiritual life in a less hindered and distracted way.

hermit
                         Desert Hermit

 

But here’s the thing – I’ve managed to convince myself that there’s a very good reason for an evangelical Christian like me not to leave ordinary suburbia for a monastery or the tranquillity of the outback. Like many other Christians who are serious about the gospel, I am concerned that a withdrawal like this is an abdication of our duties to actively engage society with the good news of Jesus.

But there’s a deeper problem than that. I don’t think the monastic approach really delivers where it’s supposed to. There is nothing innately beneficial about taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, living a tightly regulated communal life in a monastery or withdrawing to wander in the desert. They offer no guarantee of growth in Christlikeness and in fact may be more dangerous than helpful. The Bible warns against asceticism (see Colossians 2:18-23) and against performing religious practices in such a way that makes us feel like we’re pleasing God, whilst not really dealing with what’s going on in the heart (eg; Mark 7:1-23). So a monastic life may actually be a way of deceiving ourselves and drawing us further away from Jesus.

It’s true that monasticism developed because people wanted to live fully consecrated or devoted lives to God, without things like money, worldly business and even family life “getting in the way.” But it also created a tiered spirituality, which saw ordinary Christians as still eligible for salvation, but less able to draw near to God, while those consecrated by vows were able to more fully devote themselves to things that were considered “higher instructions” of Christ in the Gospels.

Monks in Jerusalem [1]
Monks in Jerusalem [1]

In many ways, this is where our society’s contemporary categories of “very religious” vs. “not very religious” Catholics/Christians come from. Poverty was seen as more devoted than having material wealth. Chastity was seen as a higher calling to pursue than legitimate expressions of human sexuality in the bonds of marriage. And placing one’s self under the binding authority of a monastic rule of life, as well as particular religious leaders, was esteemed more than simply steering clear of sinful actions and attempting to follow the teachings of Jesus and the church.

While each of these dichotomies is false, my recent studies on Puritan spirituality and the way they valued meditation and contemplation, have suggested to me that there is a much better way than having a two-tier Christian system on one hand, or completely dismissing “monkhood” as unbiblical on the other. The solution it seems would be to encourage all Christians to live lives that are consecrated and contemplative. And perhaps we need a “semi-monastic” approach to Christian life (I’m open to a better descriptor!). One which avoids the excesses and unhelpful emphases of monasticism, while at the same time fostering a serious commitment to following Jesus and denying the legitimacy of indulgent, distracted, spiritually unengaged disciples.

I’m not proposing vows or monasteries, but here’s where I think we could get somewhere: Instead of “poverty, chastity and (monastic) obedience” for some, how about “modesty, purity and evangelical obedience” for all?

While I don’t believe Jesus requires the spiritually serious to live in complete poverty and forego having any money or valuable possessions, I think Western evangelicals are far more likely to err on the side of over-indulgence, luxury, stinginess and mass-accumulation. The biblical solution would seem to be a universal commitment of Christians to material modesty, in a world that worships Mammon (see Matthew 6:24). We deal with the problem of materialism and luxury not by voluntary poverty but by dealing with the heart’s lust for riches by believing Jesus’ promise that treasure in heaven is worth pursuing more than treasure on earth (Matt 6:19-21).

Chastity is right for those who are single (voluntarily or involuntarily so), but sexual lust is a sinful desire that must be killed in the hearts of both the married and the unmarried. The Bible clearly calls for purity of heart, mind, tongue and body for all who would be Christ’s disciples. And while it’s true that singles have more potential time and energy to be fully devoted to God’s priorities (and thus, well-used singleness should be more highly esteemed than it often is), there is nothing that automatically makes the single woman more effective or faithful than the married mother. And there is certainly nothing that makes a married man less pure than a single guy when he expresses his sexuality in the marriage bed with his wife. Purity and effectiveness come from hearts transformed by grace, rather than external life circumstances.

Finally, obedience to a monastic rule of life won’t necessarily help us grow spiritually, but dedicating ourselves to respond in repentance and faith to whatever we read in God’s Word certainly will. Born-again Christians cannot live out God’s will perfectly, but those who understand “evangelical obedience” know that he accepts our obedience when it is fuelled by genuine faith in response to the gospel of Jesus and born out of the love that God’s Spirit has generated in our hearts as He sanctifies us. Not adherence to a particular set of regulations for some – but sincere obedience to Christ for all.

If we’re not being controlled or distracted by the excesses of materialism and sexuality, nor compromised through selective obedience to Jesus as Lord, we will then see Christians from all walks of life growing in ways that monasticism promises – but fails to deliver on.

And while you don’t need to move to a monastery or desert to pursue these commitments, why not do everything you can to surround yourself with Christians who are committed to the same life principles for growth in godliness?

And why not make sure we each take time to draw aside from the busyness of life – to contemplate the great and wondrous truths of our Saviour and Redeemer, hear His voice in the Word and pray to Him?

[1] Abraham Sobkowski OFM “Catholic monks in Jerusalem 2006” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia

Puritans vs Pharisees

Puritans and Pharisees can both get a pretty bad wrap from Christians and non-Christians alike. Stereotypes affect how we (mis)understand both groups and each term easily becomes a dismissive or derogatory label, rather than a word that helps us understand members of these two religious movements in their historical context.

7019548485_a264ec1a7c_z
Pharisees [1]
But “Pharisee” deserves to be a negative byword due to Jesus’ evaluation of Pharisaism in the New Testament. It would be better if people used Pharisee specifically, rather than as a way of condemning anyone who is stricter on some point of ethics or theology than the speaker; and it would be more helpful if Christians understood what the main issues Jesus criticised in the Pharisees actually were – but there is such a thing as a “Pharisaic” outlook on life and it isn’t positive.

“Puritans” on the other hand get a bad wrap because they’ve been caricatured for centuries by people who disagree with their views on theology and their approach to the Christian life. The name itself is pejorative and meant to conjure the idea of someone who thinks they’re “holier-than-thou” and a restorer of “true religion.” But the dull and dour, no frills/no fun, legalistically strict Puritan is more a portrait drawn by their enemies (often enemies of the gospel) and often doesn’t reflect who they really were.

Desembarco_de_los_puritanos_en_América_(Antonio_Gisbert)
Puritan Pilgrims in New England

The Puritan is not in fact the Pharisee of 16th and 17th century England and America. Both may have shared a superficially similar emphasis on purity of religion and holiness of life – but the Pharisee on the pages of the New Testament and the Puritans of the still-fairly-young Protestant movement were fundamentally opposite to one another.

So what’s the main point of difference between the two? Well, generally speaking, for the Pharisee, outward displays of strict religious observance were where they placed all too much emphasis. The way they looked in front of others and the way they separated or distinguished themselves from “sinners” was often the key aspect of their daily devotion.

In perhaps the most famous denunciation of the Pharisees in the Bible (see Matthew 23), Jesus targets their desire for religious prestige before others (vv. 5-12); their selective, partial and unbalanced obedience to God’s commands (vv. 1-2 & 16-24); and their hypocritical inward corruption beneath their positive outward image (vv. 25-28). In the crescendo (vv. 29-39) Jesus effectively charges them with hatred of God, because of how they’re no different from their fathers who killed God’s messengers (and indeed they soon expressed their wicked rejection of God by conspiring to have His Son executed).

So when we use the name Pharisee as a negative label (by no means something we should do lightly!) we ought to use it to describe someone who is like an actor that dresses up as a “religious person” and performs for the approval of men and women, but who underneath is a different person (in other words a hypocrite). The Pharisee looks upright, especially in comparison to the more obvious “sinners”, but at heart he’s morally corrupt, unwilling to submit to God and in fact harbours hatred towards the true God and his servants.

Puritans at their best were anti-Pharisees. While they did believe outward behaviour and separation from certain kinds of sin (and sinners) were important (but for different reasons as we’ll see), they took Jesus’ warnings against the Pharisaic attitude very seriously. They held that godliness (which is properly understood as the right, personal, heart attitude towards God, as He reveals Himself to us) was essential for the Christian life and that anything done for God or man that was for outward show – rather than from the heart – was not only useless, but evil and dishonouring towards the King of Glory.

Consider these strong words from Thomas Watson, the Puritan I’m focusing my research on:
“To have only a name, and make a show of godliness, is odious to God and man.
The hypocrite is abhorred by all. Wicked men hate him because he makes a show, and God hates him because he only makes a show. The wicked hate him because he has so much as a mask of godliness, and God hates him because he has no more…The wicked hate the hypocrite because he is almost a Christian, and God hates him because he is only almost one.”

Being a religious hypocrite like the Pharisees, basically makes you a double loser!

Thomas_Watson_(Puritan) (1)
Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)

Watson also echoed Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees’ failure to deal with their sinful hearts or obey God inwardly as well as outwardly:
He who fears God—dares not sin secretly. A hypocrite may forbear [avoid] gross sin because of the shame—but not clandestine, secret sin. He is like one who shuts up his shop windows—but follows his trade within doors. But a man fearing God dares not sin, though he could walk invisibly, and no eye see him.”

On the Pharisaic attitude towards God, he offers:
Hypocrites obey God grudgingly, and against their will; they do good but not willingly. Cain brought his sacrifice—but not his heart. It is a true rule—what the heart does not do, is not done,” and “Hypocrites take God’s name in vain: their religion is a lie; they seem to honour God—but they do not love him; their hearts go after their lusts.”

Finally, he summarises well the goal of Pharisaic religion, versus the kind of faith he was promoting himself:
The hypocrite makes use of religion, only [in the way] the fisherman [uses] his net, to catch preferment. He serves God for applause – hypocrites look not at God’s glory, but vain glory. They serve God rather to save their credit, than to save their souls…[but] an upright heart makes the glory of God his centre.”

The Puritans condemned religious hypocrites so heavily (Watson calls them “doubly damned” in hell) that they could scarcely afford to be found guilty of the same crime themselves! And so while people may accuse Puritans of being legalistic (generally a misconception, but space won’t permit a detailed defense here), they were not at all like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. The main difference was that the Pharisees for the most part ignored Jesus’ charge of hypocrisy and selective obedience, whereas the Puritans listened to those same words and made every effort to deal with their inner corruption through repentance and faith, so that they might truly obey God from the heart by following Jesus instead of wanting to see him dead.

[1] Waiting For The Word TISSOT pharisees enraged (CC BY 2.0) flickr