How do we know what true Christianity is?

or, Whose orthodoxy is the right one?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Islamic State militants are truly Islamic. They of course claim to be the true representatives of Islam, but mainstream Muslims argue that I.S. absolutely do not represent them.

With Christianity also, mainstream and progressive believers often feel that what we see as the true Christian message is being hi-jacked by the fundamentalists and fanatics with their homophobic, racist, sexist or anti-science agendas.

But how do we know that our version rather than the extremists’ is actually the right one? Is it even possible to define what is and isn’t genuinely and authentically Christian?

Religion – monolithic or messy?

Recently I was at an interfaith gathering in Croydon, designed to promote harmony and understanding between different religions. Ironically, I ended up drawn into a fruitless conversation with a militant anti-theist.

This good fellow had, he maintained, studied the history and scriptures of all the major religions, and could authoritatively pronounce that they were all fundamentally and historically brutal, bloody and bad.

What struck me was his utter conviction that he as a self-proclaimed atheist academic knew the reality of my faith better than I did. And the more I said ‘but I don’t recognise what you’re describing as my religion’, the more he assured me that his was the reality, and mine was mistaken.

Interestingly, this approach mirrors that of the religious fundamentalists, insisting that only their version is true and all others false.

I’ve encountered before the anti-theist insistence that each religion is a homogeneous and monolithic entity. If some Christians once fought the Crusades or conducted the Spanish Inquisition, then that’s the reality of what Christianity is. If some churches have used the Bible to justify homophobia or apartheid, then that’s what the Bible says and what the church is.

But this just isn’t my experience of the confusingly complex, diverse and often conflicting set of people, beliefs and practices which make up my own or any community of faith.

Re-defining Christianity to suit ourselves?

I can see it from the anti-theist’s perspective. It must be very annoying when they’ve chucked at us all the awfulness that’s been done or daftness that’s been believed in the name of Christianity, and we just say ‘oh, that’s not our kind of Christianity – we would never condone that.’ We can’t always just disclaim all responsibility for our co-religionists’ views and actions. But neither do we have to accept as ‘Christian’ everything that’s ever been taught or done under the guise of Christian orthodoxy.

It also seems obvious to an outsider that there should be a single officially-designated, objectively-definable version of Christianity, which we have to agree to and abide by or else not call ourselves Christian. We can’t just re-define Christianity to suit our preferences and leave out the unpalatable or embarrassing bits – that’s not cricket!

Well, I do accept that it’s mighty inconvenient, inconsiderate and unfair for there not to be a correct version of Christianity that others can hold us to and beat us up with. But the trouble is, there just isn’t – at least not that anyone can agree on.

Whose orthodoxy is right?

Many have of course tried to define an absolutely orthodox, standard, authorised version, but they generally disagree – hence the estimated 40,000+ Christian denominations. And a similar principle holds for Islam, and Hinduism, and Buddhism, and pretty much all the other faiths.

For sure, there are some historical creeds and catechisms and a few core beliefs that give a broad, general outline, some basic common ground. But within and around that there are almost as many variations of Christian belief and practice as there are individual Christians. And there are almost as many interpretations of the Bible as there are people who read it. One believer’s creed is another believer’s heresy.

And that’s just the thing with religion – however much some parts of the official churches try to control and define it, it’s an inherently diverse and evolving phenomenon, not a uniform or static one. And I for one am very glad of that.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that an absolutely orthodox set of beliefs and practices could ever be possible to determine, nor that it would be of that much benefit if we could. But that’s for next time…

Posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Fundamentalism, Heresy/blasphemy, Liberalism, Orthodoxy, Religion | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

God is love, light and life

So reality, relationship and redemption are at the heart of what it’s all about for me.

Another pleasingly alliterative way of expressing these interconnected ideas is light, life and love. They don’t map exactly, but broadly speaking light relates to reality, love to relationship, and life to redemption.

You could call love, life and light the ‘Johannine trinity’ (I prefer ‘the Johnny three’ ;) ). They’re based on three statements about God made in the gospel and letters associated with John the mystic apostle. ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8b, 4:16b); ‘God is light’ (1 Jn 1:5; Jn 9:5); and ‘God is life’ (1 Jn 1:2; Jn 14:6).

Light, life and love: for John at least, these three ideas above all sum up God’s essence, his nature, his reality. Let’s start with love.

God is love

Love is not merely one of God’s attributes; it is perhaps the profoundest statement of who he, of his most fundamental nature and character. ‘God is love’ is a revolutionary, even shocking statement. It’s not that God is merely loving, or lovely, or love-like. God is love. Love is who he is; that’s how he chooses to make himself known. He is not primarily force, or power, or wrath. He is love.

Love is a mystery. Love is real, but it cannot be measured, manufactured or destroyed. Love has qualities that transcend the physical, and anyone who’s felt its force will laugh at the idea that it’s nothing more than an evolutionary strategy to ensure our genes’ survival.

Love is a paradox. It’s the greatest power in all the worlds, yet also the weakest. Love can move mountains, break down mighty walls and melt icy hearts, yet cannot force the weakest will to change or do anything; it can only woo, not coerce. Love cannot make others respond to it or reciprocate it.

Yet perhaps in the end it’s love that guides and directs the universe and history.

All you need is love?

We are created in love, by love, and for love. We all need love – to love and be loved. Without love we wither and die. And there is a deeper love, a love beyond and behind natural loves, which creates and permeates the universe; the love of the divine being, ‘the love which moves the stars’.

Love of course has many meanings, not all of them equally helpful. In religious use, it means something like the steadfast commitment to the complete wellbeing of another person, spiritually, emotionally and physically. When Jesus calls us to love one another (even our enemies), he means to care for people, to actively seek the best for them, to assist them in their need.

Love is quite easy in the abstract, but very hard in the particular. We can be generally philanthropic towards humankind, but mean to those in our house or on our doorstep. And love always has to be particular. It’s only actual relationships with real people that count.

God is light

Physical light is a riddle. It appears (impossibly) to be both a particle and a wave. It’s the fastest known quantity in the universe, almost able to be in two places at once. It travels across unimaginable aeons of time and space to show us the far reaches of our universe and even the distant past.

Light, like love, has an almost spiritual, non-material quality. Like the mystical view of God, light is simultaneously one and three and seven – the pure unity of white light made of the three primary colours, and refracting into the rainbow’s sevenfold spectrum.

We don’t generally see light itself, but by it we see everything else. And we experience God in a similar way – not as something or someone we (usually) see directly but as one whose light illuminates all else, making all other reality known to us. We sometimes wonder why God hides; but perhaps as the old hymn has it ‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee’. Perhaps we’re looking at God all the time, but we don’t see him for light.

Light, in one sense, changes nothing; it just reveals what is already there, shows it in its true colours. But in doing so, it changes everything.

Light in the darkness

Light is also a potent metaphor. It’s the universal symbol of hope, truth, goodness and purity since time immemorial. Light banishes darkness and drives away fear; light exposes error and reveals truth; light gives us sight, insight, illumination, enlightenment. Light also represents reason and wisdom – the original ‘logos’ or divine Word; the law that shapes and forms the universe, making it a cosmos not a chaos.

‘God is light’ is a metaphor of course; God isn’t literally physical light. But perhaps it’s better to stay with the symbol rather than trying to ‘unweave the rainbow’, separating out light into its spectrum of meanings. There’s a reason John uses the metaphor; it lets us glimpse a fuller picture and gain deeper understanding than more concrete terms.

So the spiritual ‘light’ of God acts within our deep being, illuminating, revealing, leading us into truth. As plants need sunlight to grow and flower, so too our souls need the sunlight of the Spirit to flourish. A lot of this probably happens without our input, but perhaps we can put ourselves in places to receive more or less light. And we may also to a greater or lesser extent be able to shut out the light if we choose to.

So I believe we’re called to receive and reflect God’s light to the best of our abilities, cracked mirrors as we are.

God is life

What is life? It’s an enduring enigma. We still really don’t know how biological life arose or even exactly what it is beyond a description of how it behaves. Science may answer these questions one day, but I’m not sure that will detract from life’s mysteriousness. Like love and light, life seems to have almost a spiritual essence, something apart from merely physical existence.

Life has the almost magical ability to heal and regenerate itself, to replicate and recreate itself, to adapt and develop, survive and multiply, diversify and specialise. Concrete over the earth and life will spring through, pushing up between the cracks, breaking out into the light. And life is even able to hold its own against the universal forces of entropy and disintegration, by borrowing energy from the Sun (light again).

Just to be physically alive is a tremendous miracle. To breathe, to feel, to be aware – these are unparalleled gifts. And there is I believe also a spiritual life that flows in us, making us alive more than biologically; alive to God.

In our physical beings we need the things which sustain and promote life. And spiritually we need the life of the Spirit flowing through us, the ‘spring welling up to eternal life’ as Jesus put it.

This is the redemptive aspect of religion – God’s new life in us, his eternally renewing life healing and transforming us into his likeness. Again, some of this may happen without our awareness; life flows and grows in us without our conscious input. But we can also seek God’s life and those things which nurture it. And perhaps again we can also block them out, though we may not succeed.

Love, light, life and the world to come

Love, light and life are deeply interconnected. Love gives birth to life which grows towards the light, which sustains life, which looks for other life to love.

Love, light and life seem to come from somewhere beyond this physical realm of time and space. They shine in like the foretastes of a new kind of world, a new way of being.

Within the shell of this current order are hints of a new one being formed, like a seed in the ground, a butterfly in the chrysalis. The new realm is being made out of the transfigured material of the old creation. And the laws of this new order are love, light and life.

There are the tales, the whispers of something unprecedented yet expected; non-predictable, yet clearly right. Rumours of incarnation: of Reality made flesh, of Love come among us, of the source of Life born among decay, of the true Light beyond the stars come into the world.

And then, more surprising still, the other end of the tale: rumours of resurrection, of Love and Life and Light that cannot be stopped by mere physical death.

In Christ’s birth, imperishable love, light and life have been woven into the very fabric of space and time; in his resurrection from death, the redemption of the cosmos has begun. Death and decay, sin and evil no longer have the final word.

For now the old laws still operate, but they will not win. Love wins. Light wins. Life wins. They must, for they are aspects of the very nature and being of God; and the new realm being born among us is God’s Kingdom.

Note: Parts of this piece have been unashamedly nicked from earlier post The forces of chaos and the forces of life.

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Religion = 2. Relationship and Redemption

So I was saying that the heart of true religion for me is the pursuit of reality.

It seems to me that the world we experience bears the marks (however damaged and disguised) of reason, goodness, beauty and love. These qualities are all elements of personality, and I find it hard to imagine how they could arise in the universe apart from an underlying Personality or Person.

So to me, the heart and core of reality is Personal. Reality at its most fundamental has the characteristics of personality, of a personal being rather than a force or impersonal energy. And if reality is personal then it (or he/she) is also surely relational. Or to put it more simply, God is love.

So pursuit of reality is also pursuit of a person. It’s the pursuit of the One who alone is truly real and who makes us truly real. It’s perhaps most like a passionate love affair, a romantic relationship.

Engaging with a personal reality

I said that we need to seek to understand and to line ourselves up with reality. Because reality is fundamentally personal and relational, we also need to engage with ‘it’ personally and relationally. And this is what worship and prayer, contemplation and mysticism are essentially about. Religion is not just a matter of the intellect or even just of ritual practice, though it can involve both. It’s a matter of the whole being in relationship with the divine being, the divine essence.

Indeed, worship and contemplation are ways in which we can start to align ourselves with the ultimate, foundational reality of God. They’re not the only ways of course; and there are other things we may need to do too. But the crux and nub is that religion is a relationship; a relationship with reality at its truest, deepest and most personal.

The Christian understanding of God has from very early on been the Trinity – a perfect unity of three persons in one being. How this works is beyond our ken, but it does say something very important about the kind of God we’re talking about. The Triune God is fundamentally and above all a God of relationship, of love, with an eternal and joyous communion of three persons always at its or his or their living heart. And that Trinity of love reaches out and draws all others into the circle of God’s embrace.

Which means that not only is true religion a relationship with the divine reality, but it is also a relationship with each other and even with ourselves. Relationship, love, is the heart and meaning and essence of reality; it’s what it’s all about. We are drawn into the magnetic love of God, and we become magnets drawing others to him and to ourselves.

I’ve often secretly felt that I’d be a better Christian by myself – without other people who distract and tempt, infuriate and provoke, and who I so easily hurt or am hurt by. But that would entirely miss the point. Periods of solitude can be spiritually helpful, but Christianity is fundamentally relational and can’t be lived in permanent isolation. How we treat people and how we relate to people may even be the most crucial part of our spiritual lives, more important than how we worship or pray or read Scripture.

Redemption

The third and final strand for me is redemption – which encompasses liberation, healing, transformation, renewal.

Putting them all together, religion at its truest is a relationship with Reality which redeems us and others; a relationship in which we ourselves are redeemed and also participate in the redemption of the world.

Redemption is the process of being transformed from within from our ‘false’ or partial selves into our true and whole selves, and (simultaneously) into the full likeness of Christ. It is the process by which all our faults and flaws are overcome and even turned to the good, all our ugliness and brokenness becoming something of beauty. It is the process by which our sufferings and failures are transformed, given meaning and purpose, brought out to good ends.

Incarnation and resurrection

Redemption brings good out of bad, life out of death, victory out of defeat, hope out of despair. Redemption is the great work of God in a broken and messed-up world of broken and messed-up people. Redemption is the great message of Easter, of the resurrection of Christ.

And at the heart of redemption for me are both of the primary miracles of Christianity – resurrection and incarnation. The risen Jesus comes to live in us by his Spirit, enabling us to become Christlike, or if you prefer, to become Real. It’s by his active presence in us that we’re redeemed, raised to new life, made whole and healthy and real. And it’s by his active presence through us that we participate in the redemption of the world.

Incarnation and resurrection are not just for Christmas and Easter; not just ideas we recite in the Creed. They’re the living heart of Christianity, the dynamic engine of God’s redemptive purpose to raise and restore flawed nature and broken humanity, bringing us up into his utter reality, his life and light and love.

So redemption is relational, and is about restoring reality. Or you could say that reality is primarily about relationship, and that that relationship is redemptive. All of these elements tie up together, flow one into the other and back again, like a Celtic knot, like a picture of the interconnected Trinity of God’s being. This is religion I can believe in and want to be part of.

Posted in Religion, Salvation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Religion = Reality + Relationship + Redemption

So what’s the nub of religion (or faith, or spirituality) for you – what’s it all about? Is it  about religious observance and believing the right things, or leading a decent life, or getting to heaven and avoiding hell, saving souls or making the world a better place?

As I may have given away in the title, for me the essence of religion is three things – reality, relationship and redemption. Let’s start with reality.

The pursuit of reality

‘Mysticism is the art of union with reality’ Evelyn Underhill
‘Mental health is a commitment to reality at all costs’ M. Scott Peck

God is Reality (which isn’t to say that reality is God). God is the ultimate Reality, the great ‘I AM’; the source and ground of all that is; the underlying Reality behind our reality. All other reality – all that we see and touch and are – springs from the original, essential Reality of God. ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.

So for me, religion is about first seeking to understand Reality in all its fullness, and then doing our utmost to align ourselves with that reality – the reality of God. Religion is the unswerving pursuit not of happiness or success or prosperity, but of the deepest and truest reality.

Many see religion as the avoidance of reality, an escape into a comforting fantasy world because real life is too hard to face. And that’s certainly tempting. But true religion (or Christlikeness) is never about avoiding painful reality; it’s about embracing it and seeking the deeper reality beyond or behind it that gives it context and ultimately meaning.

And the pursuit of reality can and should include the practical insights of science and psychology. I’ve argued elsewhere against the idea that atheism is the true embrace of reality, and that science is inherently anti-religious or vice versa. I’ve also argued that physical things are spiritual things.

All pursuit of truth is good, whether mystical or scientific. But I think some truths are more foundational than others, and that science makes more sense when seen in the context of a God-illuminated universe.

Embracing reality, warts and all

I believe that a good way of evaluating the goodness and usefulness (or otherwise) of any beliefs is the extent to which they line up with reality, or help us line up with reality. Or to put it another way, how much they promote emotional and spiritual health.

So anything that just promises to give us comfort without effort, or to shield us from all unpleasantness and pain, probably isn’t the real thing. Anything that over-simplifies the complexity or airbrushes the messiness of reality probably isn’t the real thing. And anything that just sounds like pseudo-spiritual bunkum quite probably is what it seems. Though not always.

We need to seek, face and accept the full multi-faceted reality of God, of the world, of other people and (perhaps most difficultly) of ourselves. In other words, we have to accept these things as they truly are, not as we want them to be or think they should be. It’s reality, warts and all.

That isn’t always easy of course. We tend to fear and avoid reality, because it’s often painful and unpleasant, at least at first. We often have to go through pain to the good that lies beyond, like pushing through the pain barrier when we’re starting to exercise.

The path to healing and freedom always lies through honesty and reality, not denial or fantasy.

Real vs ideal?

But of course ‘reality’ means very different things to different people. We talk of Realpolitik and ‘living in the real world’, meaning a pragmatic, anti-idealistic approach to politics and people and religion. In this view, we have to work on the basis that everyone is basically selfish and unlovely, and that we have to accept and even exploit that to achieve what we need to. Is this what it means to ‘line ourselves up with reality’; to ‘embrace reality, warts and all’?

This is a thorny issue and one I’d like to devote a whole post to sometime. For now, I’d just say that to an extent, yes, we do have to live in the world as it is and not as we’d like it to be. Sometimes there is no perfect solution, and we may have to compromise, to accept the lesser of two evils. Sometimes the ‘right’ way isn’t clear or isn’t possible. But that’s only the start, not the whole story.

Present and future reality

I’ve written before about the two kinds of real – the ‘present imperfect’ of this broken and messy world, and the ‘future perfect’ of the coming Kingdom that is now in bud. And when I talk about lining ourselves up with reality, it’s primarily the latter I’m referring to – the deeper, better reality currently hidden in God. (Or mostly hidden – just occasionally it breaks through into our lives, giving us a glimpse of what will be.)

In other words it’s the potential reality of what can be (and what we can be) in God, more than the present reality of what now is – though that’s important too, as that’s where we have to live for now. But we’re always seeking to bring our current imperfect reality more into line with the perfect reality of the Kingdom – the burgeoning realm of love and beauty, of redemption and restoration.

So our current reality, our actual lives in the physical world, is the raw material of redemption. It’s our real lives that are changed by and into the greater reality of God as the two kinds of reality come into contact with each other.

Rejecting unreality

C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is the best book I’ve ever read about heaven and hell. In it, Lewis depicts heaven as more real, more solid and substantial than our current reality. By contrast the ‘shades’ who dwell in his hell have ever-decreasing reality and substance to the point where they barely exist at all. To be able to dwell in heaven, the characters in the book have to become more substantial, more real – otherwise they would simply be crushed by the weight of glory.

I love this image, and it sums up what I’m trying to get at about the two kinds of reality. The reality we possess and experience now is only partial and incomplete. We need ultimately to become more real than our present reality, and one of religion’s great tasks is to point us to the greater Reality, prepare us for it and gradually transform us into its (or ‘his’) likeness.

So perhaps the easiest way to think of Reality is simply as the opposite of unreality – of falseness and lies and self-deluding fantasy, which for me is what hell is about if it has any meaning at all. God’s reality leads us out of these traps and prisons, sets us free to be fully alive and truly ourselves.

Though of course, I might just be talking a load of pseudo-spiritual bunkum ;)

Next time – relationship and redemption…

Posted in Religion, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 22 Comments

Why doesn’t God just save everyone? II: Arminianism and Universalism

So last time I was looking at the Calvinist idea that God could sovereignly choose to save or redeem everyone, but doesn’t, for whatever mysterious reason. I said that though this view has some scriptural backing, there are other Bible passages that present a different (and I think better) picture.

Option 2 – God wants to save all but can (or will) only save those who are willing

Also known as Arminianism after the 16th-century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, this is the alternative mainstream view for those who (like me) reject Calvinism.

The deciding factor in this view is human choice and free will – whereas Calvinists think only God’s will should decide. But you could also put it that the deciding factor is God’s generosity or love; his willingness to let us have a say in our own fates.

A key verse is ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:4). This says clearly that God wants to save everyone, which instantly undermines the Calvinist approach (that he could save everyone but chooses not to).

An obvious related verse is ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). This can be read in a Calvinist way – that only those who are called by God to believe in Jesus have eternal life. But the more obvious reading is that since God’s love is for the whole world (literally the cosmos), then he wants everyone to turn to Jesus and so be ‘saved’ – but it’s likely that not all will.

Not everyone wants to be saved?

This interpretation can then be read back into the texts that back the Calvinist view. Rather than meaning that God only calls some, only gives faith to some, they could perhaps mean that God calls everyone, but not everyone listens; offers faith to all, but not all accept. It’s not such an obvious reading, but it makes more sense to me in terms of what it says about God’s character and human nature.

So the bottom line here is that God wants to save all, but not everyone wants to be saved. Or to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, there won’t be anybody in hell (whatever that is) who hasn’t chosen to be there.

There are different variants of this view depending on whether you think people need to make an active choice to accept or reject Jesus, on whether or not everyone gets a chance to make such a choice, and on whether God takes account of the factors that may have hindered people from accepting Jesus.

Forced conversions don’t work

Assuming that we do need saving or redeeming in some way, there’s certainly a good argument that God won’t just rescue us without our consent and cooperation – because that would be coercive, disempowering and would lead to spiritual immaturity (even slavery). We need to struggle, to try (and fail), to be willing and active participants in our own redemption.

But what of cases where God apparently does override human free will to bring about a conversion, as with Paul on the road to Damascus? The difference is that Paul was already zealous for God, and his conversion was a radical change of direction within his existing commitment to God. Furthermore, what I think God will not (even cannot) ultimately force is our love, and that he works to woo and win us rather than using coercion.

So God doesn’t just save everyone or make them Christian with a wave of a magic wand, simply because that’s not how it works. It’s a relationship of love and freedom, and that can never be forced or imposed.

Option 3 – God saves all in the end

This is the ultimately hopeful option for those who don’t wish to believe that in the end anyone perishes. It’s certainly the one I hope for, even if I’m not fully convinced by it.

There are two main variants of this viewpoint – either that God simply saves everyone in the end (Universalism), or that he saves all who have any kind of religious faith (Inclusivism). If we say that even atheism and agnosticism are forms of religious faith, then the two versions come back to the same thing – everyone is saved. Lovely.

For Christian universalists and inclusivists, what then is the point of being a Christian at all – why bother with any faith, and why settle on this particular one?

Christian inclusivists might say that religion is like language – the underlying grammar is universal, and it doesn’t matter in the end which language you speak, but only one language will ever be your native tongue. And to those of us (like me) who still hold that Jesus is unique, the Christian inclusivists would argue that Jesus is present in other religions too, albeit in a more hidden way (though I might personally draw the line at Satanism and Scientology). If so, God doesn’t need to make people Christian to ‘save’ them.

Christian universalists might say that the role of Christians in the world is a bit like the role of priests in the Old Testament community. We become the priests of the whole world, and through our presence (or rather God’s presence in us) the whole world is sanctified and made clean, is brought into God’s presence.

Calvinist universalists

Oddly, support for universalism comes from the two extremes of the theological spectrum. So there are (surprisingly) a few Calvinist universalists, who argue simply that the utterly sovereign God must ultimately get what he wills. And since he wills for everyone to be saved (1 Tim 2:4 again), in the end all will be saved. You can find out more about ‘evangelical universalism’ here.

As I don’t share the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty I don’t fully go along with this kind of universalism. But I do believe that God wishes all to be redeemed, to be part of the heavenly community of his Kingdom, and I hope that in the end all will.

At the other end of the spectrum (but with the same conclusion) are the liberal universalists, who don’t necessarily view the Bible as inspired, nor Christianity as necessarily the Only Way, but rather believe in the supremacy of the love of God, a God who is perhaps encountered in all religions, albeit in different ways. For them, this overwhelming and all-conquering love will ultimately win over all hearts; none will in the end be able to resist God’s great welcome.

So which is it?

So which is the true answer – that God could save all but chooses not to, that he wants to save all but can’t, or that he does in the end save everyone? I don’t know. It depends what you believe about God and about people and about the Bible. It also depends on what we mean by ‘saved’, and on whether or not that requires our cooperation. But though I don’t think we can know for sure, I do believe we can trust God’s great goodness and love.

So if I had to choose, I’d be somewhere between options 2 and 3. I believe God genuinely longs to redeem everyone and does his utmost to achieve that, and I greatly hope that he will ultimately succeed. But I’m just not sure it’s possible for God to redeem those who steadfastly refuse to accept his love or to participate in the process of redemption.

Posted in Bible, Evangelicalism, Salvation, Theology, Universalism | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Why doesn’t God just save everyone? (or does he?)

I talked last time about why I’d stopped trying so hard to ‘save’ everyone, or to impart to them a particular version of the gospel message about Jesus saving them from their sins.

These next 2 posts follow on from this, but from a less personal, more theoretical and theological angle. The question I’m trying to answer is, Why does God leave other people’s eternal fate in our hands – or indeed does he?

I was listening to a friend give their ‘testimony’ the other day, the story of how they came to faith in Christ from having been a drop-out; of how he felt God calling him in his darkest hour. It struck me for two reasons – one, because it bore parallels to my own story. Two, because if God chose to or managed to get to both of us in our similar places, why not all the many others like us? And why not everyone? Why us at all?

Or to put it another way – why doesn’t God just save everyone?

What is salvation, who gets it – and why?

Firstly though, what does it even mean to be saved, and is it the same as being Christian? My rough working definition of both (which many will disagree with!) is:

Being drawn into a redemptive relationship with God in which one is gradually inwardly transformed into Christlikeness, and in which one participates in the redemption of humanity and the world.

But I’m not sure one has to be ‘Christian’ in the usual sense for that to happen, though again many would disagree.

Still, ‘Why doesn’t God save everyone?’ has long been a puzzling question for Christians. Different believers have attempted different answers over the ages, starting with the very first apostles. The views seem to fall broadly into three camps:

  1. God could save everyone because he is utterly sovereign, but for his own mysterious reasons only chooses to save some (Calvinism)
  2. God wants – and tries – to save everyone, but he respects our choices and he will (or can) only save those who are willing (Arminianism)
  3. God does ultimately save everyone (Universalism); and he doesn’t require people to make a Christian commitment in this life in order for them to be redeemed finally (Inclusivism).

Option 1 – God could save everyone, but chooses not to

This is the classic Calvinist position, based on a view of God as utterly sovereign and in control of everything that happens. I don’t like it and don’t think it’s true. Still, I acknowledge that it seems to have fairly strong backing from some of the New Testament writings – and even apparently from the words of Jesus himself.

So in John’s gospel Jesus makes two statements, ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6) and ‘No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me’ (John 6:44). Accepting for now that Jesus actually said these things, and taking it at face value, it sounds unequivocal – only those whom God directly calls can come to Jesus and receive his eternal life.

Paul of course appears to reinforce this in several passages: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’ (Eph 2:8-9); ‘What if God… bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction’ (Romans 9:22).

For me, there have to be alternative ways of reading these passages – or else (in the last resort) I may simply have to reject them as mistaken. Because the view of God they present seems to me so utterly abhorrent, and so unlike the God I think I know a little.

A monstrous God?

If it’s true that God simply chooses some to be saved and others not to be, then to my mind it makes him controlling, unlovable and almost monstrous. Indeed the extreme version holds that God not only actively chooses those to be saved but also actively chooses those who are to be lost or damned – which ends up in the same place but makes God seem even nastier.

How can you unconditionally and freely love someone – indeed how can you love them at all – knowing that it’s only the luck of the heavenly lottery that God has chosen to love you, and that you could equally well have been chosen for eternal destruction? How can you love someone who is actively and deliberately choosing to consign billions of your fellows – perhaps your family and friends – to hell, purely on the basis of his sovereign right to choose?

And how can God simply choose to love some and not others anyway – surely love doesn’t work that way? Unless they’re massively psychologically scarred, a parent has no choice about loving their children – they just do, like it or not. (Though Calvinists argue we only become God’s children by his sovereign choice.)

God’s will and God’s glory?

And what is the mysterious reason that Calvinists put forward as the basis for God’s choice to save some and condemn others? For some it’s simply pure will, the divine right of choice – which amounts to a meaningless tautology to my mind.

For others it’s ‘for God’s glory’. It glorifies God to show mercy to some who don’t deserve it (which could be any of us), and equally glorifies him to punish others who do (which again could be any of us). Maybe so, in a legal or even mathematical kind of way – but I find it hard to see how it would be possible to love such a God.

Indeed, the Calvinist view has understandably been responsible for causing many to hate and reject the Christian God, even to oppose him. And if such a view were true, I might be tempted to join them.

Scriptural error?

Obviously rejecting these difficult scriptural passages as erroneous does present us with some other difficulties, which for some will be insurmountable. But it seems to me that Paul was wrong about some things – most notably about the imminent return of Jesus within his lifetime – so he may have been mistaken about this as well. We don’t have to discard all of his writings just because they aren’t completely infallible or inerrant.

Another approach is to accept these ‘Calvinist’ passages, but to uncouple them from the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment that normally accompanies the Calvinist viewpoint. This softer version still holds that God chooses only some people for eternal life, but not that he consigns the rest to an eternity of punishment and suffering; rather, he merely lets them cease to exist (Annihilation not Damnation). I’m still not entirely happy with this idea, but I think it’s an improvement.

Of course, there are alternative ways of interpreting these difficult passages of Scripture (more on this next time). But even if we’re sure they mean what they seem to, and we accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word (which I’m no longer sure I do in a strictly evangelical sense), that’s not all the Bible says on the subject.

Which brings us on to options 2 and 3 – that God wants to save all but can’t, or that he does save all. Next time…

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Evangelicalism, Salvation | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Why I gave up trying to save the world

And by ‘gave up’, I don’t mean ‘throwing in the towel’ so much as giving up a bad habit, an unhealthy addiction.

For many years I tried my best to save the world and my friends – with limited success in either case.

I tried to save my friends by telling them ‘the gospel’, convinced this was my primary task on earth as a Christian, though my awkward attempts were equally embarrassing to me and to them.

I tried to save the world by going on short-term mission, by giving to everyone and every charity that asked, talking endlessly to homeless guys, welcoming needy strangers into our home, campaigning for justice, volunteering for charity, holding prayer meetings for the world, and things of that sort.

The pressure to evangelise

Among evangelical/charismatic circles, it felt like you had to evangelise or ‘witness’; that was the Christian’s primary (almost only) purpose in this life. The time was short, the task urgent. Anyone who didn’t receive Christ was heading for eternal torment in hell, and it was every believer’s job to save as many as possible, by any means possible. We were to ‘pour out our lives like a drink offering’, sacrificing all other needs and priorities to that of winning souls for Christ.

I remember going to a missionary event and reading a sign on the wall, ‘Every second a soul passes into a Christless eternity’. I also recall some famous Christian’s dream of countless souls blindly walking the wrong way towards a great precipice, and our call to turn back as many as we could.

So almost everything was viewed through the prism of mission – meaning evangelism, meaning ‘sharing the gospel’ of Christ crucified to save us from our sins. Friendships were primarily for the purpose of ‘friendship evangelism’. Any conversation that wasn’t turned to Jesus was a missed opportunity. The arts were valued only for their missional potential as vehicles of gospel propaganda. I exaggerate perhaps, but not massively.

Accompanying this was the need to learn evangelistic techniques. You were supposed to learn your ‘testimony’, your conversion story, so you could wheel it out at any likely opportunity. You were encouraged to memorise formulas like ‘The Romans Road’ or the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’.

So I read evangelism books, went to evangelism seminars, prayed for opportunities to share the gospel and tried to work it into conversations. Without notable success.

So what changed?

The turning point

In 2001 I and my wife were on the brink of signing up with a well-known missionary organisation (who do great work), and going off somewhere like Gambia to pour ourselves out bringing God’s Word to the lost. We’d been on the orientation weekend, we’d met up with former missionaries for advice, and we were looking into funding.

I’m still not entirely sure what changed our mind – perhaps God, who knows? – but in the end we decided to buy a house in a multi-cultural part of the UK rather than going to the other end of the world as missionaries. That decision was the start of a sea change in our lives.

Over the last decade of (amongst other things) helping bring up children my life has changed, my outlook’s changed, and my faith and theology have changed. I’ve stopped trying to save the world and my friends. Why?

Changing perspectives

For one thing, I began to realise that many of my world-saving attempts were unhealthy, compulsive and short-termist. Far from being signs of devotion, they were tied into my own personal issues, and to a false model of service. I realised I needed to adjust my priorities; to stop putting the needs of all those I’m not directly responsible for before the needs of those I definitely am responsible for.

We also discovered the hard way that living to save the world and all our friends just didn’t work, and was more counter-productive than beneficial. We’d poured time and energy into friendships for the Kingdom’s sake, but had ended up with unhealthy, unbalanced relationships without proper boundaries or mutuality.

My theology was also changing. I was no longer so sure about the narrow version of the ‘gospel’ I’d learnt and had been trying to pass on. In particular I was no longer so convinced that non-Christians all automatically went to hell in the way I used to understand it.

We’re not all evangelists

Perhaps most importantly though, I realised that I just wasn’t very good at evangelism (at least the kind I’d been trained in). Over all my years of trying, I’d never successfully ‘led anyone to Christ’.

I also realised that I hated evangelising and felt deeply uncomfortable with it. And furthermore I came to see that discomfort not as a sign of failure to be ashamed of, but as a sign of God’s leading to be listened to. I’m not an evangelist, and that’s okay. What a blessed relief.

I’d dreaded evangelism for as long as I can remember. Years ago as a nominally churchgoing teenager, the idea of having to evangelise had been what most put me off making a full-blown ‘commitment’ to follow Jesus.

Of course there are healthier and better ways of sharing the good news of Christ than the ones I was taught. Clearly not all evangelism is bad or unnecessary (quite the contrary); I just think that we’ve too often bought into an unhelpful model.

So many evangelists seem to be spiritual salespeople, with evangelism a technique-centred means of ‘pushing’ God as though he were just another consumer product on the market. I don’t want to be sold God, nor do I want to sell him. And people aren’t projects; friends aren’t merely evangelism targets.

I believe that true evangelism, like true prayer and worship, must be authentic and from the heart, rather than a learned technique. It takes place when the time is right, rather than being forced or contrived.

Giving up the fight?

But have I just given up the fight and deserted my Christian duty, to others’ eternal loss? I don’t believe so.

Rather I’ve started to learn my limitations and, tentatively, the shape of my calling. I’m a rubbish evangelist, but quite good at other things which I believe are as valid and valuable as evangelism.

One body, many parts; we aren’t all eyes or ears or feet, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) all do all the tasks of the kingdom. We have different roles, and different gifts accordingly. Some folk are evangelistic, others pastoral, others good at teaching and so on. So long as we work together as a community and a body, we can enjoy and benefit from each other’s differences. If you’re genuinely an evangelist, that’s fantastic; just don’t expect everyone else to be one too.

Authenticity and creativity

Of course I do still talk to people about my faith, and contribute to ‘world mission’, but in rather different ways and with different motivation. I’m no longer trying single-handedly to save the world, nor spending my limited time and energy on things I’m unmotivated by, useless at, and not sure I really believe in.

I was never fully convinced by messages like ‘every second a soul passes into a Christless eternity’. But even if they’re true, I find them paralysing rather than motivational. Ironically, now I’ve stopped worrying that without my evangelistic efforts everyone’s hell-bound, I’m far more likely to represent the gospel, precisely because I’m not trying to do that. I’m freed up to be my full self in Christ rather than desperately trying to perform some ill-fitting and inauthentic role.

I also now feel free to enjoy and practice the arts without needing to turn them all into either Christian worship or evangelism, or to see them through the narrow prism of their Kingdom usefulness. Again, that doesn’t mean these arts are ‘unspiritual’ or have nothing to do with the Kingdom. Pretty much all art, music and story has a spiritual aspect and can be a means of grace if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We just don’t always need to spell it out by adding a Bible verse.

It’s been said that God doesn’t need our prayers, but he wants the relationship that prayer entails. Similarly he doesn’t need our evangelistic efforts, but he does desire our creative involvement in the world he’s redeeming. As we receive Christ’s love and life in us, incarnationally bearing his image in our daily lives – each in our own unique way – we participate in and contribute to the redemption of the world. And that’s evangelism I can believe in and sign up to.

Posted in Evangelicalism, Salvation, The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

Christianity and Jihad – is there such a thing as a Just or Holy War?

A recent ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ opinion piece written in a Christian magazine argued that proselytising faiths such as Christianity and Islam have always relied on war and violence to spread their message. It’s a point worth thinking about – is there any truth in it?

There is of course a contentious tradition of ‘holy war’ within both Christianity and Islam (‘jihad’). And it’s true Jesus did say ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’. But most commentators interpret this not as a foundation for a theology of Christian violence (an oxymoron if ever I heard one), but rather a simple prediction of the subversive, disruptive and divisive effect of Jesus’ message.

Turn the other cheek

Jesus’ teaching on non-violence is clear and repeated. ‘You have heard it said “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”. But I say do not resist an evil man’.  ‘Turn the other cheek’. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you’. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’.

Furthermore, Jesus not only taught non-violence, and indeed anti-violence, but modelled these principles in all his life and actions. When his followers apparently wanted him to enter Jerusalem as a conquering king, he chose instead to ride in on a donkey as the Prince of Peace. When Peter tried to take up arms to prevent Jesus’ arrest, cutting off the ear of a centurion’s servant, Jesus chided him ‘Put away your sword; those who live by the sword die by the sword’, and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus’ death was of course the ultimate act of non-violent resistance. He let himself be taken, making no attempt to resist capture. He offered no defence of himself in his trial or before Pilate, but submitted to abuse and humiliation. From the cross he forgave those who crucified him, and welcomed the thief at his side into Paradise. He did not repay evil with evil, or violence with violence, but rather took the evil and violence upon and into himself and in so doing disarmed and neutralised it.

The apostles Paul and Peter took up Jesus’ message: ‘do not repay evil with evil’ appears in letters written by each of them. And of course they and all the apostles lived and died by this, suffering all sorts of indignity and harsh treatment – and ultimately death – without fighting back.

And Jesus’ example has inspired countless peacemakers from St Francis who preached to the Crusaders on the front line to dissuade them from fighting, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King who famously said ‘with violence you can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder’.

Fighting the good fight?

So what of all the war-like, apparently violent language in Christianity, the talk of ‘fighting the good fight’, and ‘Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war’? We have to remember that these are, and always have been, metaphors. As Paul put it back in the earliest Christian times, ‘Our struggle (or fight) is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and principalities of darkness in the heavenly realms’. Or again, ‘though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does’ (2 Cor 10:3).

We are, metaphorically, engaged in a struggle or battle, but it’s never against people or nations or other religions or any human enemies. It’s a spiritual struggle against the ‘powers of darkness’, however we understand that; the forces of chaos and evil and destruction, of disintegration and dehumanisation. And more often than not the battle is within ourselves, with our own inclinations and impulses and attitudes. That is the true meaning of ‘holy war’, of ‘jihad’.

Christians are not called to fight as the world fights. Our fight against evil is predicated on Christ’s cross, where his fight against evil took the path not of violent resistance but of acceptance, even surrender; of taking all the rubbish and hate and horror that evil could throw at him and turning it to good.

Onward, Christian soldiers?

A crucial point to remember is that Christianity was never meant to be a religion of state power and state force. It is at heart and root a religion of the marginalised and oppressed, the powerless and voiceless. The vast majority of the early Christians were not people of wealth, power, influence or renowned intellect. The way of Jesus is never the way of state rule, and the principles and practices of Christianity have little to do with the business of governing nations.

So the decision on whether to embark on armed national or international conflict is not one which Christianity generally even tries to address.

But should Christians ever be soldiers, ever engage in armed conflict on behalf of their own nation or another country? That I think is a complex and nuanced question.

Firstly I do not believe that war is ever anything but a tragic and terrible waste of life, to be avoided at almost all costs and entered into only with extreme reluctance and sorrow.

And ultimately I do not believe that the end ever justifies the means, nor that violence is ever the right way to achieve our goals.

Just war?

Nonetheless, I also have to acknowledge that we don’t live in an ideal world where all solutions can always be fully good and as God would wish. Sometimes it really is a choice of the least worst option, the lesser of two evils.

Aquinas (after Augustine) famously formulated the concept of a ‘Just War’, a set of criteria for deciding whether a conflict could be justified in Christian terms. For myself, I’m not convinced that there can ever be such a thing as a just or justified war, in Christian terms. But what there may be (perhaps) is a war that is on balance the least worst option, the lesser evil which may at least achieve some good amongst the inevitable and terrible bad.

And perhaps there may be times where the principle of defending the weak and vulnerable against the oppressor may lead us to consider taking up arms as a viable course of action. Though so often the hidden or unforeseen consequences for ill threaten to far outweigh any good that fighting might achieve even in these cases. Morally, I think I’d always prefer to opt for Gandhi’s or Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance – an option which may at times require more, not less, courage than fighting.

But even if we do feel in conscience that, on balance, armed conflict must be entered into, it must always be with the deepest regret and sorrow, with full acknowledgement that in war there are no winners and death is the only victor.

War in the Bible

I don’t have space to do more than touch on this here, but I can’t completely overlook all the war, violence, bloodshed and even genocide in the Old Testament – much of it seemingly commanded by God.

I wrote a fuller (though still incomplete) treatment under ‘Is God homicidal?’ For now, all I can say is that I don’t believe that the OT model is meant to be normative for us. I don’t know whether God really did command any or all of the bloodshed that the OT records – I very much hope not, and I think there are good reasons for thinking not.

But even if God did command violence then for whatever reason (and there are possible reasons), that doesn’t mean he does now. The world we live in is not the world the Israelites inhabited. Most crucially, Christ has come, and in his death and resurrection has put an end to violence and the need for violence. I believe that the ‘war to end all wars’ actually took place on the cross, though we have yet to heed its message.

Postscript: C.S. Lewis, Narnia and war

One of my Christian heroes, C.S. Lewis, was a surprising advocate of fighting. One of the most problematic lines in his otherwise-beloved Narnia series is “Battles are ugly when women fight” (spoken by Father Christmas in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). The sexism aside, the implication is that battles aren’t ugly normally – that indeed they can be beautiful.

Lewis directly experienced the horrors of the trenches in WW1. Yet in later years he would argue passionately against pacifism and write almost lovingly of wars and battles in the Narnia stories (4 of the 7 books contain full pitched battles).

True, these are fantasy battles in a fantasy world; the medieval chivalric ideal of noble knights fighting with valour and honour rather than the brutal realities of modern warfare. And we can – probably should – interpret them metaphorically, as battles against evil and injustice rather than a human enemy.

But Lewis’s support – at times glorification – of fighting and war, albeit in a just or honourable cause, does strike a jarring note for me. Yet so too do some of his other ideas and attitudes, which now look to us dangerously like sexism and racism. Lewis is a great Christian thinker and writer, but he’s flawed like the rest of us, and not everything he says is gospel.

And of course I’m flawed too, and my own perspective is partial and biased. I’m conflict-avoidant by temperament so of course I hate the idea of war and fighting, even in a good cause. Ironic really, as my name Harvey translates roughly as ‘Warrior’ or ‘Battleworthy’…

Posted in Bible, Controversies, Evil | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Is anger wrong?

“You have heard it said, Do not murder… But I tell you, whoever is angry with a brother will be subject to judgement” (Matthew 5:21-22)

In the last two posts I’ve been looking at the place of violence and rage in Christianity. Before tackling the big one, war, I’d like to look at the more basic question of anger. Is it okay for us to get angry and to react in anger?

Anger isn’t generally a very acceptable emotion in the church, at least not in the Anglican Church to which I belong. Anglicans, being extremely English, tend to be very nice, polite and controlled; and anger just isn’t very nice, polite or controlled.

We do get angry of course, but we tend to repress it or else express it indirectly or passive-aggressively. We tut, we give disapproving looks, we silently exclude, we post polite but pointed notices (quite often while still smiling fixedly). Often you wouldn’t even realise we’re angry at all.

Accepting our anger

Anger was a bit of a taboo emotion for me growing up. I learnt that anger was something dangerous and uncontrollable, to be avoided and buried deep down. I have deep-seated issues with anger, both what to do with it when I feel it and what it does to me when others are angry with me. I avoid conflict and argument from fear that I might lose control and inflict damage, or that I might be rejected for saying or doing unacceptable things.

For the last few years though I’ve been seeing a secular counsellor, a wise chap. One thing you learn quickly in counselling is that feelings and emotions – including anger and hate – aren’t wrong in themselves; feeling them doesn’t make us bad or nasty. Furthermore you can’t help feeling them, nor stop them from arising, and it’s counter-productive to try.

Feelings are natural (if not always proportionate) responses to events and circumstances. In certain situations you just will feel anger, whether you like it or not, and indeed that may well be a good response to what’s happening. Trying to deny, hide or repress that anger won’t help; it will only force the anger underground where it’s far more dangerous. Repressed anger is like volcanic magma bubbling below the surface, which may later burst out unexpectedly over innocent bystanders.

Furthermore, anger can actually be a very useful emotion if managed and channelled properly. It can be creative rather than destructive. Rather than destroying relationships, handled well it can lead to deeper intimacy and honesty. And in the wider world, we can use our anger to fight against injustice, inequality, poverty, prejudice.

Anger is an honest, open response. Sometimes it’s just how we feel, and it’s important that we feel that. If we can’t get angry with people or let them get angry with us, our relationship with them isn’t completely real, or really complete. Sometimes we may even need to get angry at God.

Jesus’ anger

But what are we to make of Jesus’ words quoted at the head of this post? Can he really mean that it’s wrong ever to be angry with someone? How can that be?

Hang on just a mo though. Jesus himself got angry, fairly often. Much of the time it was low-level exasperation with his disciples for being so slow on the uptake – but that’s still anger. And he railed furiously against the Scribes, Pharisees and religious leaders – expressing righteous anger at their arrogance and self-blindness, their grasping of petty power and making of petty rules at the expense of the poor and ordinary people.

We’ve looked at the famous occasion where Jesus turned over the moneylenders’ tables and drove the sellers out of the temple. John’s gospel says he was consumed by ‘zeal’ – or you might say righteous anger, even white-hot rage.

Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite, a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ person. He lived out his teachings with perfect consistency. So anger can’t be wrong per se. There are situations in which anger, properly expressed and handled, is clearly the right and godly response.

“In your anger, do not sin”

Paul perhaps sheds a bit more light with his famous lines ‘In your anger, do not sin’ and ‘don’t let the sun go down on your wrath’. These both assume we’ll get angry; it’s just part of the human condition. The issue is what we do with our anger; how we respond to it, and to the people who’ve angered us.

In your anger, do not sin. We will at times feel rage or frustration or exasperation; that’s okay, normal, even maybe good. But in the grip of that emotion, however powerful it is, we always have a choice not to act out of it, not to lash out, not to say or do something harmful that we’ll regret. We can’t stop ourselves feeling angry, but we can choose whether to act destructively or creatively with our anger.

Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Don’t let the hot magma of your anger harden into resentment, bitterness, a long-term grudge, a cold settled attitude of hostility towards another person. Deal with your anger before it goes underground. Use the anger not to provoke revenge and recrimination but to prompt resolution and reconciliation.

Of course we won’t always be able to resolve all conflicts straight away, but we can work towards resolution. The wounds that led to our anger or arose from it need to be acknowledged and healed, so they don’t fester and go bad.

Are angry thoughts sinful?

I’ve said that it’s okay to feel angry. But Jesus does seem to imply that even just thinking or feeling something is as bad as actually doing it – that looking at someone lustfully is equivalent to adultery, and being angry with your brother is on the same level as murdering him. What on earth is he getting at here?

I think it’s partly Hebrew hyperbole to make a point, and partly context.

The initial thought or feeling of lust, anger or whatever just comes to us – we can’t help it, so surely we don’t need to feel guilty for it. What I think Jesus means is not then to dwell on that feeling or thought; not to nurture it, let it grow and take shape, because then we’re giving it power in our lives – and making it more likely that we’ll act on it.

So when we protractedly fantasise about hurting or getting back at someone we’re angry with, we’re veering into potentially dangerous waters. We’ll probably all fantasise briefly, but if it becomes something we can’t let go of, it becomes harmful. Even if we never act out on it, it will be a bitter canker within us.

We can’t forgive when we’re holding onto resentment, or desires to get back at people. And forgiveness is such a fundamental principle of Christian faith, albeit such a hard one. There are people who hurt me years ago who I still struggle to forgive, and at times I catch myself wishing them ill. I just have to give them over to God time and again and ask that he’ll release me from this bitterness which does me no good. And I know that God wants to – and can – redeem them and me and these part situations of hurt.

Is God angry?

So much for our anger – what about God’s?

The idea of God being angry seems very Old Testament. It’s something we associate with scary fundamentalists, Bible-thumping hellfire preachers and overly strict sects. Mostly now we’ve opted for a God of love and mercy alone, a friendly and only-benevolent dad rather than a Righteous (and sometimes wrathful) Judge.

God is love, not anger. But God’s anger rightly understood arises from and is a vital aspect of his love. Even in the Old Testament God is ‘slow to anger’; but when God does get angry it’s because he cares passionately. His anger arises from things that harm or damage those he loves, or from things that damage our relationship with him and each other.

Unfortunately we associate horrific and terrifying things with God’s anger – mighty smitings, mass genocide, sending people to eternal fiery hell. But God’s anger is usually much smaller-scale than this, and with much less dire consequences.

Being a parent has taught me most about God’s loving anger. I love my children and I can’t change that – it’s my default position towards them; a simple fact of our relationship. They quite often infuriate me and I get angry with them – but that anger is always in the context of a relationship of love. My anger towards them doesn’t mean I’ll cut them off, shut them out, torture them or destroy them. And if I wouldn’t, I can’t believe that God would either.

A God who was never angry would be merely indifferent, uncaring. But God’s anger is not necessarily – perhaps not ever – the violent, vengeful anger we see in parts of the Old Testament. (I’ve written more about the Old Testament genocides here.)

So anger – ours and God’s – is okay; it can even be good. I still don’t much like it though…

Posted in Bible, Love of God, Psychology, Sin | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments