Responding to Extreme, Religious Covid-19 Reactions

I hope you are well, and this difficult period is allowing you some opportunities to rest. But if you are actually one of the workers during this partial lockdown period – thank you for your service! Stay well.

 

I’ve noticed over the past few days an increase in the volume of some quite extreme Christian groups. These groups seem to say things ranging from:

1 – true Christians will keep meeting in their churches despite the Covid-19 lockdown.

to

2 – this virus is a punishment from God

to

3 – true Christians will be immune to this virus

 

True Christians Will Keep Going To Church Despite Covid-19

An example of the first one is a quote I saw from Matthew Schmitz who said, “Unless religious leaders reopen the churches, they will appear to value earthly above eternal life.”[1] In his article, Matthew seems to rail against the way Christian churches have stopped holding public services. He views this response as basically stating that, “church is a non-essential service. We are capable of taking prudent measures to keep our supermarkets open, but not our sanctuaries.”[2] His opinion is that by doing so, the church views church as a non-essential service.

This reaction seems very strange to me. My own home church in Gloucester, and other churches I interact with in the UK and US, have adapted to the Coronavirus situation by conducting services online. They are working hard to grapple with the technology required to make this happen. If anything – I am seeing church leaders working much much harder to keep the heart of their church community moving forward, even if it is only virtual for now. I saw one hilarious tweet last week – “And just like that, we’ve all become tele-evangelists.” Well – yes, but rather in a positive and community affirming way.

I also know that churches are stepping up their services to folks in their local communities during this lockdown period. Churches in Gloucester (Kingfisher church included) are seeking to help the vulnerable by delivering food parcels to doorsteps. And, to provide increasing online support groups to the vulnerable – and I include everyone in that group. For myself, my Christian Apologetics group has moved online, and it is busier than ever.

So – I don’t share Matthew Schmitz’s opinion. Churches who value their members health – and also feel it important to set a Godly example by respecting the authority of national government – are right to move from in person to remote services. This shows the adaptability of Christian communities, a respect for authority, and consideration for believers and non-believers in our society. This does not devalue the Christian gospel. Rather, it applies the timeless principles to a new cultural moment.

 

The Virus is Punishment from God

I’ve also encountered Pastors who are calling this crisis out as an example of the wrath of God. Except doing so requires them to appeal to very time-specific events reported in the Old Testament that relate to periods of history unconnected to today. I’ve yet to hear any of them justify why any of those events have anything whatsoever to do with Covid-19.

So – my advice is – if you notice the book of Ezekiel talks about pestilence and what God thought about it, don’t assume that this has anything to say to events today.

 

True Christians Will Be Immune from the Virus

Margaret Court has reportedly claimed that “the blood of Jesus will protect the faithful in her church from the virus.”[3] The problem with this idea is it is completely foreign to historic Christianity. John Dickson observes this is actually root in the health and prosperity gospel. On the cross Jesus did not just take our sins upon himself, he also took our ailments too, so we don’t have to be physically unwell. This is a modern phenomenon and is not found either in the Bible or in church history.

The Bible

Ancient Israel was given specific promises in Deuteronomy about their wellbeing in the land if they hold to God’s promises. But there’s no evidence these specific promises would apply to other nations later in history, and the new covenant. In the New Testament, we are taught that everyone shares in human weakness and frailty. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:23, “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.” There is no evidence that Christians would be immune from this. So the Bible contradicts the health and prosperity gospel.

Church History

History contradicts it too. There have been many pandemics since the birth of Christianity, and these tend to show the church’s willingness to put itself in harm’s way to serve the needs of the suffering. For example, in 250AD, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, led the church through a 10 year empire wide pandemic. Yet he gave no hint that Christians would be immune from the disease in his writings. Like the pastors of today, moving to online services, he wrote hundreds of sermons down so that his suffering people could read and be encouraged in their suffering. In his work Mortality, he warned the Christians against expecting special protection in this fallen world:

“we should have no fear, no dread at the storms and whirlwinds of the world, since the Lord predicted that these things … It disturbs some that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the heathens, as if the Christian believed for this purpose, that he might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills; and not as one who undergoes all adverse things here and is reserved for future joy…So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race.”[4]

Cyprian flatly contradicts the claims of the modern prosperity gospel. Christians are no more immune to this disease than anyone else. And – he encouraged those at his time who were discouraged that they were not immune. What Christians do have are two things:

First – the promise of eternal glory after death.

Second – a gratitude of spirit that motivates them to serve and support the suffering people in this world, whatever the physical outcome for themselves in the here and now.

It seems to me that the churches I am engaged with today are a lot closer to Cyprian’s ideas, then the modern prosperity gospel ideas that sadly pervades Christianity today. And – I’m happy and encouraged that is so.

 

[1] Matthew Schmitz, Church As a Non-Essential Service, First Things, Published 27th March 2020, accessed 30th March, 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/church-as-a-non-essential-service.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Dickson, Pandemic Equality Single, Undeceptions Podcast.

[4] Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 7, Mortality, New Advent, accessed 30th March, 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050707.htm.

Hope Still Flickers in Fearful Times

C S Lewis gave a talk entitled, “Learning in War-Time.” He was speaking to a group of undergraduates at Oxford University as they each faced the terrifying prospect of being called up to military service, and to fight in the war. He spoke words of encouragement and hope to those young lives. But his talk also speaks wisdom that applies to us today as everyone is facing the COVID-19 virus.

 

Here’s my own version of Lewis’s talk for us today:

This COVID-19 virus forces each of us to remember death. Is that grim? Well, this reminder would have been a great encouragement to the Christians of the past who always taught that we should be aware of our own mortality during our lives. They would have approved.

But this awareness brings a dawning realisation along with it. All our precious personal plans, hopes and dreams were always facing a final frustrating end. We just forgot about it. Yet we’ve been living in a universe all along that we must finally and personally come to terms with. If we used to think that human culture was unstoppable, then this crisis shows us how wrong we all were! If we thought we were building heaven on earth, a permanent place for us to experience ultimate satisfaction in our lives, we have finally had our illusions completely shattered. Culture is in tatters and in crisis now. But – these shattered illusions have come not a moment too soon! This shattering is good for us. We each need to reflect on our mortality. Urgently.

Yet for those of us who are beginning to realise that life is actually all about learning and humbly offering our lives to God, then there’s an important truth here. We are the ones who are pointing to the ultimate reality that faces all of us. There is true beauty to be  experienced in heaven after the end of our earthly lives. It’s not too late for everyone else to get on board with viewing life this way too, because doing so may just mean we lose this broken human culture, but finally gain God’s wonderful and everlasting joy in its place. And that – is a very worthwhile exchange.

 

That’s my feeble attempt to apply C S Lewis’s wisdom to each of us today.  You can read the original in – C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (San Francisco:Harper Collins, 1980), 62 – 63.

 

Finally, here are Jesus’ words on the matter:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27, NIV)

Why Might God Allow People to Suffer?

Over the last 10 years, I have spent time in Africa amongst rural peoples in Malawi and Mozambique. These folks do not have the comforts that we enjoy. Their lives are much more challenging as a result. The practicalities of gathering food and freshwater, and keeping people sufficiently fed is often a battle. Also, unfortunately, sickness is common. People are struck down by Malaria, and Aids remains a serious problem.

The reason I visited my friends in Africa was to encourage them in their Christian faith. These folks would often ask me tricky questions about many things. But – here’s one question I never got while in Africa:

“Why does God allow suffering?”

Isn’t that odd? The folks living in those regions probably suffered a lot more than I have in my entire life. I might wonder why I am going through a hard time. Yet they do not seem to think about this question to the same degree. What might that be about?

I wonder if it speaks to something that the Bible says. For example:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15, NIV)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:19 + 24, NIV)

“And he himself has promised us this: eternal life.” (1 John 2:25, TLB)

1 – Don’t Get Too Comfortable

God’s message here seems to be this. Don’t get too comfortable. He’s warning us specifically not to get too attached to the world because our true home is where we will eventually live. Our true and lasting home is with God after death. It seems to me that the difficult daily lives of my African friends has firmly impressed this truth on them. They are aware that life here is short and hard. There’s not a lot to love about daily life, yet life is full of hints towards everything God has for them to look forward to. Therefore the suffering that is experienced here and now – is something to endure for a short time only. And it is part of the plan God is working out in their lives. So, asking why God allows suffering is actually pretty irrelevant. They expect this world to be hard. Suffering is as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow. There’s not much to love about the world. But the future is worth holding on for.

 

2 – Many People Have Made Themselves Comfortable

By contrast, we in the more developed countries have the opposite view on life. We have lots to love about our lives because they are full of lovely things. So – we’ve made ourselves comfortable. But we have a problem – our problem is that we’re not here to stay. We’ve forgotten that one day we’ve got to leave this world, we’ve got to give our seat to someone else. One day will die. Oh, we might admit that if we are pressed, but even so we’re hanging on to our seat and gripping tightly to it. We’re dearly hoping that we DON’T die for a long time. Also, while hanging on, our lives have become about maintaining our comfort level. So – when something comes along to challenge our comfort levels, it disturbs us greatly. What a contrast there is between us, and my African friends.

 

3 – Maybe We Need To Change Our Perspective on Life

There are many people who claim not to be interested in God, and who are sceptical about Christianity’s claims and God’s existence. Why would I have any expectation for life after death if I don’t think there’s a God, and it’s just all nature, matter and nothing else? Well – I would ask you to consider one thing that we can both agree on. One day, we will die. There’s nothing we can do about that. Sure, we can try to delay it by eating healthily and exercising. We can put it out of our minds by focussing on our careers, and doing really good and important work. Even buying things to make ourselves feel good. But in the end – none of those things changes the fact that – we will die whether we believe there’s a God or not.

From the perspective of the skeptic, I totally get why this question IS important. “If God is there and he’s good and powerful, why would he allow evil and suffering?” This is the cry of someone who is comfortable in the world!

If this life is all I’ve got. How dare I have my one and only life messed up! Well – can I suggest this complaint is less an argument against God’s existence, and it is more a consequence of our mistaken comfort in our lives. We don’t like the idea of our comfort being disturbed, but it MUST be disturbed to cause us to move. However much me try to hang on – we have another destination that we are heading to after we die. Perhaps we have to change our perspective, and live in the expectation that this new destination awaits us?

 

4 – Maybe God Has Purpose in Suffering

But if there is a God – who created us and is good and wise – wouldn’t he have a much higher perspective than we do? Think about this for a minute. How much do we actually know about the universe? Not a lot. So, why do we think that we might understand whether or not there are higher purposes at play in our suffering? If there is a God, wouldn’t he be able to permit suffering to happen for a greater good? Even if we don’t understand what these purposes are yet? After all, as parents, we do this with our kids all the time. We say something like, “you can play on the Xbox after you have finished your homework. You will thank me later.” Suffering – for a purpose. After all, if God exists then he made us, we didn’t make him. He’s our parent.

Maybe an important purpose in suffering is to disturb our comfortable lives, to get us to view life more like those in Africa do. I’m here for a while, I’m not here to stay. But – I’ve always got my eye on my ultimate destination.

Finally – wouldn’t it be reasonable to presume that when God says in the Bible that you will live forever, and then he sends the man Jesus to die and then be raised from the dead to demonstrate that fact, isn’t it at least possible that there actually is life beyond the grave? Isn’t it worth considering that as a possibility?

Can We Blame God for a COVID-19 Pandemic?

If God exists, then why do people die from disease? There have been many pandemics in human history. The worst in recorded history may have been the Black Death in the 1300s. One estimate claims it killed around 60% of the population of Europe.

It is always a heartbreaking tragedy when people die as a result of disease. Covid-19 is at the top of our minds right now. But there are also other natural disasters going on, like tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis.

Here’s my point – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of people in these situations. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for COVID-19

I heard the biochemist Michael Behe talk about Corona Viruses this week. No one knows why viruses exist, but we do know that they are an important part of nature, and have a positive role to play. They keep bacteria at bay, and they break bacteria up into its constituent parts.

He then used a metaphor. He likened viruses and the cells that makeup life to water. Water is vital for our survival, we need to drink it, and our bodies are composed of it. There are large oceans on our planet that are necessary for life. Water is all good. But – if one day we find ourselves on a sailing boat in the middle of the ocean in a storm, it would be natural to ask why storms have to happen. We’re in danger! But if the laws of nature exist, and oceans are a necessary good, then from time to time storms will arise. It’s just a consequence of these good things.[1]

In the same way, viruses do a lot of good in nature. They coexist with organisms, and given their large number, the way they interact with life there will sometimes be a storm in the “virosphere.” The virus does something unintended like a storm in the ocean. So in the middle of an epidemic…it’s bad…but it’s simply part of how nature is built. It’s an unpleasant side effect of something that’s good.

But – things WILL calm down. We just need to hang on. Behe advises this is a good way of thinking about the Covid-19 crisis right now. Hang on in the storm – stay sensible, follow guidelines and wash your hands. This will pass. The sun will come out again.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters Either

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly, the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harm’s way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics is just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – it’s possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Always Save People from Disease and Natural Disaster

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from disease and natural disaster?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from these situations is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every disease and oncoming car…what might happen?[2]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunchtime, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the driver’s seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty-two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

[1] Intelligent Design the Future Podcast, Michael Behe on COVID-19 and ‘Why Are There Viruses, Anyway?’, Monday 16th March, 2020.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Why Does God Let a Child Die?

When my wife miscarried our first child, we did not know why it happened. When I sat with my parents as my sister died of cancer, I saw in their eyes the same question, “Why?” We are rightfully concerned about our children and our families in light of Covid-19. But the loss of little ones at ANY time is a crushing experience.

The singer songwriter Gary Barlow put the devastating experience of the still birth of his daughter Poppy like this:

A head full of madness
And no where safe
When tears aren’t big enough,
And love turns into hate[1]

I don’t know why God allows particular children to die. I would not presume to give you an answer to that question. And in the rawness of this loss, there are no answers to give, only love and support. If that is where you are at right now – please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you, and my hope is that you have people around you that can grieve with you.

But as I’ve lived in the aftermath of my own loss, as the years have passed for me, I have come to make some important general observations that could help those who are further down the road with loss. I do not think the death of children somehow represents evidence that there is no God. Actually – quite the reverse is true. I think these losses speak of God’s good character.

What do I mean?

Well – I’m guessing that you, like me, value your free will? Ultimately, you don’t want to be forced into going along with anything, right? You make up your own mind, and you have a will that you intend to use. Also – presumably you, like me, put a lot of respect onto the observations of science. You notice how scientific methods have allowed us to work out how the physical laws work in our universe?

Here’s the thing. When children tragically die, it is usually the result of some form of natural event. Perhaps it is neglect. Maybe the result of natural law. For example, the law of gravity means that our planet orbits the sun. But it also means that if a child falls far enough, they will die. Disease is something we often cannot predict, but its relentlessly natural. It’s a destructive process that wreaks havoc on the child’s young body, and doctors can often observe the process unfolding. Natural law in motion.

Children do die in our world. Often it is preventable. But not always.

How are we going to change that? Well – let me ask the question another way. If children are not going to die for these reasons, then how long should they be indestructible for? Because that’s what we would be asking for. Right? If children must not die – they must necessarily be indestructible. Natural law is still law. Falling would still be a possibility, neglect and disease a risk. If children were not to die as a result, then none of these things would harm them. Perhaps because their bodies are impregnable, or because God miraculously intervenes every time to rescue them. So – the question is – how long should children stay indestructible? To what age?

It’s an absurd question, right? Here are some more significant problems with a world filled with indestructible children:[2]

1 – People would fail to learn that irresponsible actions towards children result in tragic consequences. We would not learn to act responsible towards children if they could not be harmed. The vulnerability of the young must be a constant reminder of our need to care for them properly.

2 – We would have unmistakable evidence that God absolutely does exist. Because kids would be supernaturally saved. And what would that do? It would be an onslaught on our own, personal free will. We would not be free to choose whether or not to believe in God because his reality would be staring us in the face. Yet that’s not how God wants it to be. He wants things so that we can choose whether or not to believe, and so that we are not coerced in any way.

3 – Tragedy like the death of a child teaches and moulds us as people. And while it can make some people very bitter indeed, if we respond to it in the right way, it can form courage and compassion for others within us. It can make us people who patiently support other people who are suffering the pain of loss.

 

You know, I love my children and my grandchildren deeply. I will do everything in my power to fight for their health, their safety, and I want to enable them to grow and flourish in their lives. But none of these kids can be my ultimate source of happiness. Because I do not know what the future holds. There must be a firmer place to locate my security and my happiness. And this is God’s call to me, I think. To find it primarily in relationship with him.

Barlow goes on in his song to say:

Fly high and let me go
That sky will save your soul
When you pass by then you’ll know
That this gonna take a bit of getting used to
But I know what’s right for you
Let me go[3]

In a sense, I agree with him. The time must come when we must let that lost little one go. But it’s not the sky that’ll save your soul. Rather, it’s the God who might not be answering your “why?” question, but offers security and happiness in the midst of this loss.

And what of the children that I, and my friends and family have lost? What of them? Well, Christians observe evidence from the Bible that suggests that young ones go straight to the wonder and safety of God’s presence if they die before they have had a chance to really live.[4] Whether they die inside or outside the womb…these little ones are safe in God’s hands. That’s the Christian’s hope for the child that has been lost. A firm hand under us as we grieve.

[1] Let Me Go (Gary Barlow Song), accessed 27th November, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_Me_Go_(Gary_Barlow_song).

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers to Life’s Toughest Questions, (Harvest House Publishers, 2017).

[3] Barlow.

[4] For example, 2 Samuel 12:22.

Why Wouldn’t God Eradicate the Covid-19 Virus?

Why doesn’t God eradicate the Covid-19 virus that is causing so much distress for people, and disruption for businesses and healthcare around the world? Must we conclude that – because no end is in sight for this crisis – that if he is there, God does not care about us?

 

This question reminds me of a memory Elie Wiesel recounts from his time in a Nazi camp during the second world war. As he stood in a crowd watching the authorities execute a young child, people were rightly horrified by the scene. The child was so emaciated that he took a long time to die as he hung there. The suffering was terrible as he died. Suddenly, the horrified silence was broken as someone shouted from the crowd, “Where is God!”

We aren’t facing such a stark horror ourselves. But – I imagine many people might be asking this question to themselves, if not anyone else. If there is a God, then where is he right now? If he exists, doesn’t he want to help us? When he reflected on the incident with the child at the end of a rope, Weisel concluded this. God was there. He was suffering at the end of a rope along with the child.

So – does that make God powerless and weak? No. Christians believe in a God who is not distant, but intimately involved in the lives of those who allow him access to them. He’s even generally supporting the lives of those who want nothing to do with him. So where is God during times of suffering? He’s in the midst of the suffering. All of it.

Christianity is built upon the life of the man Jesus who himself endured suffering. Think of the worst kind of humiliation that could happen to someone. Well – in his culture, this is what Jesus faced by being nailed to a cross. Jesus wasn’t just executed. He was publicly humiliated in the worst possible way in front of the authorities, and the people he grew up with and lived life with.

Yet – the point of his suffering is profound. Jesus accepted a period of defeat and humiliation so that the powers of evil in the world would themselves be defeated. His suffering ultimately leads to God’s offer of victory to us. He died on a cross on Easter Friday, but he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. And he holds out the offer of life to each person who believes in him.

The Bible puts it this way:

Christ also suffered. He died once for the sins of all us guilty sinners although he himself was innocent of any sin at any time, that he might bring us safely home to God. But though his body died, his spirit lived on (1 Peter 3:18, The Living Bible)

 

But now God has shown us a different way to heaven[f]—not by “being good enough” and trying to keep his laws, but by a new way (though not new, really, for the Scriptures told about it long ago). Now God says he will accept and acquit us—declare us “not guilty”—if we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, by coming to Christ, no matter who we are or what we have been like. Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal; yet now God declares us “not guilty” of offending him if we trust in Jesus Christ, who in his kindness freely takes away our sins. (Romans 3:22-23, The Living Bible)

 

So – what can we do during our time of uncertainty and suffering right now?

 

First – know that there is a God who cares and knows what suffering is like.

History shows that when the black plague swept the world, many people ran from it. But it was the Christians who ran TOWARD those who were suffering. Even though this placed them at personal risk. Why? Because Christians know a God who is with us in our sufferings, and asks his followers to be like him. To help and support those who are in a bad place.

Perhaps we would love to have supportive people in our lives today – but we just don’t see it. All we see are folks panic buying supplies and emptying shelves so that we cannot feed and protect our families, acting thoughtlessly and in a self centered way. That’s not what God’s like. Its not what we see in the life of Christ, and its not what he calls Christians to. My hope and prayer is that you can know encouragement from a Christ like Christian church community. This is one of the things the church is here for.

 

Second – consider the claims that Jesus made and the offer he holds out to all people.

You may not consider yourself a follower of Jesus. But, at this time of possible self-isolation and down time, why not pick up a modern copy of the Bible. I would recommend starting with Mark’s Gospel in the New Testament. I’ve been reading it myself recently, and it’s fast paced and easy. Its only 16 chapters long. Reflect on the person that you find in those pages – look and consider who this Jesus is. He’s still alive, and even though you can’t physically see him, he’s involved in the world in more ways than we might realise. All God calls us to, is the decision to give our lives to follow this living person Jesus. And when we do that, we find God starting to transform our hearts from the inside out.

 

Third – persevere in and through this time of suffering.

It will not last forever. As is often said, “this too shall pass.” There is more for us to experience and do in our lives. But persevering through suffering is a very Jesus thing to do. He persevered because he knew what great things were waiting for him and for us on the other side of his suffering.

Perhaps God’s permitting this global crisis because he wants us to wake up to these realities. He’s forcing us to think about eternal things, things that are facing us at the end of our lives. When we invite Christ to be in and part of our lives NOW, this fresh perspective opens up for us too. It might be tough right now, but we have wonderful things to look forward to not just in our natural lives, but in the reality to come when with Christ’s help, we return safely home to God.

Might COVID-19 Disprove God’s Existence?

Hey there – I hope you are feeling well and you are not suffering the effects of the Corona virus. And – if you have done, I’m hoping and praying you have recovered quickly. I’ve not knowingly contracted the virus at this stage. I’m not worried about myself, I am more concerned about my elderly parents and parents in law who have other health conditions. I will do all I can to help them and support them at this time of uncertainty. And – I hope you can do the same for the vulnerable in your life.

But – you know – every day is a time of uncertainty. Today is really no different in that sense. That there’s a pandemic in progress doesn’t change that fact. If we think we can control what happens in our lives – we are sadly mistaken. The unexpected is always around the corner for us.

What the pandemic might do, however, is cause some people to pose the question, “where is God in the midst of a pandemic?” Do viruses disprove God’s existence? My response to that question is – no they don’t. Rather, viruses serve as evidence of a Designer of nature. Covid-19 points to the existence of God.

In what way?

First, viruses point to the exquisite complexity and beauty in nature. If you want an interesting look at how Covid-19 attacks human cells, have a look here. All life is composed of cells. Viruses are different from cells because a virus cannot reproduce by themselves. It must enter and transform a healthy cell to reproduce.

That means a virus depends on the incredible and beautiful complexity of the cell for its existence. All of the incredible molecular machines that process information, build new proteins and assemble them – all this staggering cellular complexity is required for the existence of a virus.

Fazale Rana is a biochemist who says, “the cell’s complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life’s origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator.”[1] I would agree with him. The complexity of the cellular machinery, and the viruses that interact with them, point to a Creator of this highly complex and finely balanced biological system

 

Second – viruses are thought to have important roles in nature. Bacteria are complex, single celled organisms. Scientists are still learning many things about viruses. For example, we have bacteria living inside of our guts, and bacteria is actually critical to the existence of life. They harvest inorganic compounds, and make other compounds that serve other biological life.[2] Bacteria can reproduce very quickly indeed. Yet, some types of bacteria are harmful to life. If there was nothing keeping bacteria in check, then the world could simply be inhabited by bacteria and nothing else. How incredible then that there is delicately balanced system involving bacteria, and a system to keep that bacteria in check. What does that? The virus! An important role of the virus, is to stop bacteria from dominating life in destructive way. So, we have viruses to thank for breaking up bacteria and stopping us being overrun by them.

Also, when a virus infects a bacterial cell, it breaks that cell up producing raw materials that can be usefully consumed by other life forms. So – again – the virus is serving nature in a positive way by creating food for life to consume.

 

Third – Christianity predicts the breakdown of nature. A tiny fraction of known viruses are dangerous to humans. Covid-19 is one of those. There are vast numbers of different viruses in nature and only a tiny fraction of them can harm us. Of course – if my loved ones are at risk of even just one of those viruses…it’s a big deal. But how does Christianity predict something like this?

Well, the beginning of the Bible recounts humanity’s rebellion against their Creator, and this rebellion resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and God’s subsequent cursing of the ground. You and I were not involved in that rebellion directly. But – we have inherited the consequences of it, and we live our lives in the light of rebellion against God. There are consequences to all this. Nature is broken, and this has happened as a consequence of our rebellion against God.[3]

So, what? Why a diversion into theology? Well, there are a tiny number of viruses that threaten humanity. Of course there are. This fact is consistent with the idea that nature has become broken as a result of humanity’s Fall. It’s not a nice and comfortable truth, but it is there all the same.

 

Four – Christianity suggests that God may allow human suffering to draw us to think about eternal things. We are built to live for ever. That’s what the Bible says. Even when our current bodies die, our spirits will survive and we will receive new bodies beyond the grave. And – we will live there forever. Yet, few people actually live their lives considering their eternal destiny. We are so wrapped up in the issues and problems of our current lives here and now. Yet – if we have an eternal future beyond the grave, perhaps we would be wise to consider that future and how to orient ourselves towards it? Why? Because while this life is momentary, that future life will last forever. So why might God use suffering? As a way to wake us up to our destiny. As Sean McDowell says, “God may allow us to suffer so we move beyond our momentary pleasures and focus on what lasts forever.”[4]

Don’t get me wrong – I want to do all I can to protect the vulnerable and to help them. But – I do that in the knowledge that their ultimate destination – and mine – is actually beyond the grave. And so it is good to remind ourselves of that. When life is good and going along without any problems – its easy to forget this fact. Suffering isn’t caused BY God, but I wonder whether he permits it to waken us up to the eternal future awaiting us all.

 

 

Conclusion

This pandemic is not a good situation, and my prayer is that you and your loved ones come safely through it with minimal disruption and suffering. Yet – at the same time, I think this difficult time right now points to the amazing design of nature, the seriousness of the consequences of mankind’s rebellion against God, and our future destination in eternity. And for all of those things, I am thankful for Covid-19. As C S Lewis once said, ““Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[5]

[1] https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Genesis 3:14-24.

[4] https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/why-does-god-allow-the-coronavirus-4-christian-insights

[5] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

What Makes Christianity Unique?

Did you know that it’s estimated that 4200 distinct world religions exist, and they all teach something different? Yet amongst all the world religions, Christianity is unique. Here are five important reasons why I think that.

 

First – Christianity is based on evidence that is open to scrutiny. For example, the New Testament says this:

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[1]

This evidence is of the historic variety. If Jesus’ resurrection can be shown to be historically false, if we can find a better explanation for the claims of the New Testament, then Christianity can be dismissed. Does it surprise you that Christianity could be so quickly disproven? With Christianity, if the historical basis can be dismissed, then the claims of Christianity can also be dismissed. So far – 2000 years in – no one has made a convincing attempt at doing this…the historical basis is simply very strong by ancient standards.

Notice that this is not the case with Islam, for example. There is nothing to the claims of Islam of a testable, historical nature. We must just embrace it as a worldview and hope for the best. We won’t know whether we backed the right horse until the other side of the grave. As Welch describes the life of a Muslim, “throughout life people are tested by their Maker, as the Qu’ran says in 21. 35/36: ‘And We try you with evil and good as a test; then unto Us you will be returned.’”[2] Islam is a long term experiment requiring all your eggs in its metaphorical basket and giving no option for a simple historical evidential test like Christianity does. It’s a similar story with Buddhism. Craig Hazen puts it this way, “you had better get yourself a Zen Master and you are going to be working at that thing for a long time until you ultimately experience enlightenment. You might want to put that on the back burner until you push Christianity out of the way.”[3] Christianity is an evidential belief system, so if you are shopping for a religion, it makes sense to start there first.

Secondly, Christianity is the only religion where God gives salvation to us as a free gift. Christians refer to this as grace. What is grace? Well, grace is sometimes described as “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”. In other words, God generously gives us the richness of his love based not on anything we have done but based solely on what Jesus has done in his atoning death on the cross. Christianity offers a free gift of salvation and it’s the only religion to do this.

Islam doesn’t come close to this. Canon Andrew White, who has recently returned to the UK from leading the church in Iraq, is an expert on working with Muslims. He says this. “The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me.”[4] Further, some eastern religions place demands on us around meditation and walking over hot coals. Why put yourself through that first? Does it not make sense to check out something that is free first? Anyway, as Hazen suggests about salvation, “given that we are limited beings, it would make sense that God would have to give it to us.”[5] Christianity has a ring of truth about it.

Third, Christianity is a completely holistic life. In other words, Christian belief always holds in whichever sphere of life the Christian is currently in. We think the same way whether we are at Church, or our work or at home. We “get to live a non-compartmentalised life.”[6] Chan Buddhism, on the other hand, is about “cleansing of the mind from concepts and information by meditation and spontaneous action which can lead to natural illumination (tun-wu). This is sometimes provoked by riddles (koans) or questions such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”[7] The Buddhist may deny logic in his religious life, but in his financial dealings or even simply in caring for his family, logic is essential. Abandon logic in the real world, and the Buddhist risks going bankrupt or putting their family at risk. Yet a Christian can remain the same, whatever they are doing.

Fourth, Christianity just fits and makes sense of the world. The Buddhist claims that “Suffering exists, but there is no-one who suffers”[8]. But how can that be? Hinduism is just as confusing. Joseph Campbell recounts a visit to Indian teacher Sri Krishna Menon where he asks, “Since in Hindu thinking everything in the Universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to …brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness? And he answered, ‘For you and for me – the way is to say yes.’”[9] In other words, it is not for us to use judgement, the Hindu way is to accept everything however moral or immoral, reasonable or unreasonable, fair or unfair. This cuts across everything within us that cries out for reason and justice.

On the other hand, Christianity looks our broken world full in the face. Our world is full of suffering because mankind has rebelled against the God who created us, and so our world is, “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”[10] We look at the Universe around us, and study the exquisite complexity of nature. From our limbs to our organs to the cells of which they are composed, life looks designed. There’s a good reason for that. The God we see in the Bible claims responsibility for that job.

Fifth, Christianity has the person of Jesus right at the very centre. Strangely, other religions want Jesus in their boat too. There is something about this guy! The Qur’an mentions him in a way that puts him beyond even Mohammad when it says, “When God said, ‘Jesus I will take thee to Me and will raise thee to Me’”[11]. Further, Hazen reports that, “Hindus have him as an avatar incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhists call him the enlightened one.”[12] So it would be reasonable to ask if all the other religions mention Jesus respectfully in one form or another, does it not make sense to start with Christianity that has Jesus at the very centre of everything it believes?

 

 

Conclusion

Study the different world religions, and you will find that Christianity is unique in these five important ways. BUT – you don’t need to do all that hard studying. Instead, try and dismiss the compelling historical evidence of Jesus death and resurrection. Decide whether you want to reject God’s free offer of love and forgiveness in favour of a works-based religion instead. Consider the benefits of a life that is holistic and that fits with the world as it is observed today. And finally, consider the person of Jesus who is at the centre of the Christian message.

Makes sense – right?

 

 

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:4-6 NLT.

[2] John R. Hinnells, The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions Second Edition, (Penguin Books, 1997), 176.

[3] Craig J. Hazen, PH.D., Christianity and the Challenge of World Religions, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[4] The Vicar of Baghdad: ‘I’ve looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any’, The Spectator, accessed November 24th, 2015, http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/isis-bombs-have-exiled-the-vicar-of-baghdad-to-surrey-but-hes-itching-to-go-back-to-the-middle-east/.

[5] Hazen, disc 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spurgeon’s College, Exploring Other Faiths, (Spurgeon’s College, 2003), 9.4.

[8] Spurgeon’s, 8.5.

[9] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (Anchor Books, 1988), 83.

[10] Romans 8:22 NLT.

[11] Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, (Oxford University Press, 1991), 53.

[12] Hazen, disc 2.

Why We are Fortunate to Live Here

If you want a fun physics book exploring the scientific basis for the claim that nature seems set up ahead of time for intelligent life, and also the philosophical arguments for why we may find ourselves living here – I can recommend “A Fortunate Universe.” Luke A. Barnes and Geraint F. Lewis are talented and passionate professors of Astronomy who both study the universe, and want to discuss the observation that it appears to be set up – or fine-tuned – for intelligent life. It’s not the universe that’s fortunate. Actually, it’s us!

Definitions

The book starts here. The term “fine-tuning” does not imply or assume a creator of the universe. Rather, it implies the sensitivity of an outcome to input parameters or assumptions. Fine-tuning for life observes a contrast between a wide range of possibilities and a narrow range of outcomes that lead to life.[1] Their definition of “life” is a pragmatic one; “life is characterized by the capacity to grow, metabolize, actively resist outside disturbance, and reproduce.”[2] They also clarify that the universe’s physical laws have mathematical forms that only accurately predict natural occurrences when particular constant numbers are inserted into these equations. These constants, like electron mass and force strength, can’t be arrived at by theory, they can only be measured experimentally by scientists.

The Fun Stuff

The meat of the book, is an exploration of the implications of what would happen if natural constants and the laws they support were changed. With particle physics, the electron is fundamental, the proton and neutron are composed of different configurations of other fundamental particles, up and down quarks. Crucially, Barnes and Lewis observe fine-tuning in the properties of the members of this particle zoo. Change anything, life is not possible because chemistry and the periodic table are lost! What about natural forces? If you change the nuclear force holding atomic nuclei together, you are facing an uncertain universe where anything is possible. They also observe the beginning of the universe, pointing out the low entropy starting point. This means, much free energy was available for universe creation. But – it need not have been that way at all. There are many ways the universe could have been born, and so the wealth of free energy that must have been available at the start is surprising.[3] In summary, in these and other ways, they show our universe to have a particular initial state, and a set of life-permitting laws, masses, and forces that play out in three dimensions of space and one of time. “With so many potential ways the universe could have been, we cannot ignore the apparent specialness of our existence.”[4]

This book is a great resource. It goes beyond just saying that there is a narrow band within which the natural constants can be set for a life-permitting universe, and it actually shows what the universe might be like if each of these natural constants were different. Starting with particle mass, they move to forces and onto energy and entropy. Taking basic principles of physics and chemistry, they reveal how a life-permitting universe would easily be broken if each of these constants were adjusted. This lends further weight to the argument for fine-tuning because it tangibly demonstrates the narrowness of the life-permitting band in a convincing way.

Cool Question and Answer Session

Towards the end of the book, they switch gears. Chapter seven is a compendium of common reactions to fine-tuning, and the authors response to them. For example, one reaction observes the largely inhospitable nature of the universe. If the universe is fine-tuned for life, why is so much of it hostile to that life? They answer that inhospitable areas have nothing to do with the conditions on planet Earth. The phrase ‘life-permitting’ does not mean ‘crammed with living beings.’[5] Rather, it means the universe has some necessary physical conditions in particular locations. Even the vacuum of space, which is hostile to life, plays its part in making the universe life-permitting and a place where scientific discoveries can occur.[6]

Philosophical Answers to the question, “But Why?”

Yet my favourite chapter is the final one. Gears shift again, and Barnes and Lewis launch into a discussion together about the issues around fine-tuning. It is clear that, while Barnes prefers a theistic answer to fine-tuning, Lewis opts for the multiverse explanation. William Lane Craig has observed that the fact that they fundamentally disagree on this point gives their book an aura of open-mindedness and credibility.[7] I would add that it also makes the book a powerful tool for the Christian apologist who seeks to engage skeptics on these issues.

Theism is raised when Barnes states “there is another, older answer,”[8] for why fine-tuning exists. While theism is challenged by Lewis, Barnes does reply with a thoughtful exploration of the argument for evil and suffering, and I think it is wonderful to find this content in a physics book. Perhaps the readers who come for the physics may receive more than they were bargaining for. I hope many physics enthusiasts who are undecided on “THE G WORD!” are challenged to think more deeply. In the course of their discussion, they also touch on the fact that the universe is not just a physical construct, it is also an inherently moral one. A universe capable of producing and sustaining moral beings is one that God may create.[9] I agree with Tripp, who opines, “Barnes … challenge[s] atheistic arguments of the Richard Dawkins variety …a universe that tends toward living, moral agents is simply more likely with a God who is also a moral agent.”[10]

Lewis and Barnes also uncover the argument between naturalism and theism. While Lewis seems open to both options, Barnes clearly favors theism and presents solid arguments against the ability of naturalism to answer the big questions. Barnes reminds Lewis that the conflict is not between science and theism, but rather between naturalism and theism. The theist is no less rigorous a scientist than the hard naturalist, and the “success of science looks the same on naturalism and theism.”[11] But while the naturalist is left with a narrow interpretation of the scientific results, the theist has a much more open field available to him. To the naturalist, there is no explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Why would the naturalist expect to find simple equations that govern nature, combined with specific and significant constants which orient it for life? Surely on naturalism, the likelihood of any physical universe is the same as any other. There are no facts or explanations for why the universe is as it is, “there is nothing that explains the ultimate laws of nature.”[12] Yet Barnes concludes that theism naturally points to, and so explains, the tiny subset of possible habitable universes including our own. With God in the picture, it is more probable that a habitable cosmos would occur, over the infinite sea of uninhabitable universes across parameter space.[13] I appreciate their openness and feel they have encouraged me to more firmly point out the consequences of naturalism to the skeptic in my discussions.

Conclusion

This book is relevant for skeptics and Christian believers alike. It models healthy interactions between these two groups, and it guides the discussion through the important empirical and theoretical science of fine-tuning, as well as the philosophical resources available to explain it. It is strongly illustrated with graphs instead of complicated mathematics, and there are no spelling errors in the text. I felt that some of the scientific chapters became tougher going, and personally, I found their treatment of probabilities and Bayesian Theory quite challenging. Yet I think their brief introduction to these and other topics lays the groundwork for further learning. I strongly recommend this popular level physics book to the mainstream audience. While it may sometimes frustrate the professional physicist, I feel it does an excellent job of explaining the issues in the fine-tuning discussion. This is not simply a numbers game. The science points to fine-tuning, and there are rational philosophical approaches to understanding why this state of affairs exists.

 

 

 

[1] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), kindle edition, 3.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 127.

[4] Ibid., 236.

[5] Ibid., 246.

[6] Ibid.

[7] William Lane Craig, Philosophia Christie, Volume 20, Issue 2, (2018): 596 – 599.

[8] Barnes and Lewis, 322.

[9] Ibid., 340.

[10] Jeffrey M. Tripp, “A Fine-Tuned Universe, or These Scientists Sound Like Theologians,” Religion & Theology 26, Issue 4 (October 2019): 562-567, accessed February 29th, 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/rirt.13642.

[11] Barnes and Lewis, 336.

[12] Ibid., 335.

[13] Ibid., 343.

When the Pastor Lets Us Down

What do we do when the Pastor lets us down, maybe even wounds us? Where does that leave us as far as church is concerned? Do we decide to withdraw from church completely? Or is there a better way?

First – I have been a church pastor, and I am sure I have disappointed people in that role. And I’m sorry about that.

Second – I have known a number of church pastors during my life, and virtually all of them have let me down in one way or another. So – there is a pattern developing here. Church pastors are people, and people are imperfect. They let other people down, and they do things they are ashamed of.

Consequently, pastors just do not belong on the pedestal that so many in their congregations want to place them on. It’s tough when the pastor is a likeable, and gifted communicator. You want to hold them up there. But – it is never a good idea, and it does not reflect reality. It’s worse when the pastor seems to think they deserve to BE on a pedestal! Spoiler alert – church pastors get it wrong, just like the rest of us.

Perhaps you’ve been in a church setting and had a touch of this. Sometimes it can be more serious than that. Maybe you’ve experienced bullying, intimidation or manipulation. You’ve endured the pastor’s need to control and be the power person. Perhaps you’ve suffered gaslighting, being undermined and misrepresented in public and private, and this has been a horrible experience for you. Recently, various serious and heartbreaking stories have come to light about high profile church pastors and their unseemly behaviour. The latest report is of the late Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, who abused multiple women during his ministry.

So – what do we do with all that?

First – we recognise that Christianity is all about saving broken people. The church is there to rescue those who are lost. And the reality is that, when we respond to Christ and become a Christian, we are just at the start of a process of life change. We don’t become perfect right away. Rather, God starts the job of changing us from the inside out.

Pastors are also people who have been saved by Christ, and aren’t perfect. But crucially, they need to cooperate with Christ in the process of life change. Everyone is on that road, church pastors included.

Second – Christianity says clearly that the only perfect person that has lived – is Jesus. And so, he is the only one deserving of the pedestal that we may have mistakenly put the pastor on.[1]

Third – every person has weak spots. Maybe it’s how we use our tongue, or maybe it’s sexual temptation, or something else. What the pastor finds in the course of their job, that their weak spot is attacked when they are in their public position. Everyone has weaknesses – we might hide ours, but we might learn about the pastor’s weaknesses because they are a public figure.

Fourth – this does not minimise the seriousness of a leader’s sin. It was Jesus himself who encouraged little children to come to him, and warned that anyone who caused little vulnerable ones to fall, would be in serious trouble with God.[2] So, there is a warning here for leaders. We are given the responsibility to care for vulnerable people. We are heading into trouble if we abuse the very people we are supposed to care for.

 

If I’ve been wounded by a leader, does this undo all the good that leader did?

I like the way the Christian leader and Theologian N T Wright puts it. It doesn’t undo the good they have done but it casts a shadow on it.[3] The good messages they shared remain good, the positive arguments remain good arguments even if the person sharing them has a shadow in their life.

Actually, this leaves us as the wounded party to do some work to do in OUR lives.

First – we must remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”[4] So – we need to be looking at those words, accepting them and believing them and applying them to our situation as we pray them every day.

Second – our job is therefore to forgive the pastor who has hurt us. Why? Because if we are a Christian we enjoy God’s forgiveness, and so he expects us to share that with others who need it. Pastors included.

 

What do I do with feelings of betrayal?

Wright observes that our culture either wants people on pedestals, or it wants them crashing down to the ground, Harvey Weinstein style. There’s no “in-between” allowed. Yet the “in-between” is the reality because life and human beings are complex. Yet God’s big enough to deal with this complexity.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”[5]

We enjoy God’s free acceptance even though we let people down. We need to give our feelings to him and allow God to make us into people who share the undeserved love we have ourselves received. Even to our betrayer.

 

But what if the pastor doesn’t think they have done anything wrong, yet I am still feeling hurt?

Well, sometimes the pastor needs to feel they have the moral high ground at all times. We may be sceptical of the truth of that, seeing it just as another lever of control. Yet the truth is, it is not our responsibility to police them in this. That’s God’s job. Our responsibility is to keep our side of the street clean, to ask God to help us forgive them…and walk God’s road of forgiveness for us towards them. It’s probably not going to be a short road!

 

What do I say to people who point to this situation and say, “All Christians are hypocrites.”

Well – frankly, everyone is guilty of hypocrisy in some way shape or form. When we take a position of judgement on someone else, we are probably conveniently forgetting everything we would rather keep hidden in our own lives.

But even tho Christians are as broken as everyone else, Christianity has always from the beginning focussed on developing some particular areas of virtue. N T Wright observes that these 1st-century virtues were distinctly Christian:[6]

  • Patience
  • Chastity
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness

Christians just admit their need to grow in these and other virtues. And as we grow in virtue, we become ever more conscious of our weaknesses. As the old hymn says:

And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.[7]

I am not perfect. But – I’m painfully aware of my weak spots. And I’m pretty sure I’d be a whole lot worse if I was not a Christian.

Maybe you aren’t a Christian and you think that, “Well, I’m not a Christian and I’m doing just fine thanks.” Well – maybe you are doing better than me in your life. But what additional potential awaits you if you were to become a follower of Jesus? Lots!

 

But what if I’m wounded and I just don’t trust the church anymore?

Perhaps we need to heal, and to take the opportunity to do that.

But if we are a Christian who remains isolated from church family, we will lose a lot. And – we will struggle to hang on to our faith in Christ. As N T Wright says, find another good Christian church where you will receive kindness, affirmation and friendship.[8] That’s what the church is for, and it’s what all Christians need.

[1] Hebrews 2:10.

[2] Matthew 18:1-6.

[3] Ask N T Wright Anything Podcast, 33. #31 Jean Vanier and when leaders let us down, February 28th, 2020.

[4] Matthew 6:12.

[5] Romans 3:23-24, NLT.

[6] N T Wright, podcast.

[7] At Even When the Sun Was Set, hymnal.net, https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/757.

[8] N. T. Wright, podcast.