Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Thinking More Like Christ

Occasionally I will be exploring some of the ideas raised by Dallas Willard in his fantastic book, Renovation of the Heart. I'll be looking in particular at some of the ideas Willard raises regarding our thoughts, our feelings and finally our will.

When Willard writes about thought, he suggests that the realm of thought involves four main factors:
  • ideas
  • images
  • information
  • our ability to think

Idea systems can be the very centre of our thought life, and often what we hold to be certainties in life are often just ideas. Every world view presents a series of ideas. Everything is to some extent ideological. If it isn't an idea, then quite simply, it will never be anything.

Images are strong seeds that can grow into powerful ideas, or at the very least they can nourish or smother ideas we already hold. Images might be presented pictorially, as the name suggests, but images can just as easily and sometimes much more powerfully be presented as metaphors or verbal illustrations. So when Jesus tells the disciples "Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves." (Luke 10:3 NIV) he is presenting a very strong couple of images. Likewise, when John says of Jesus "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29 NIV) he, too, is presenting a very strong image, which in this case nourishes the idea that there is sin to atone for in the world. He also creates the new and radical idea that Jesus can take away all of the sin of the world.

Willard also suggests that Satan uses ideas and images as his primary means of attack. He presented Adam and Eve with ideas: God cannot be trusted, you can be like God. There are also many ideas and images in the world today that can damage and destroy the very good ideas we have about God and ourselves. The biggest idea that drives all temptation is the idea that God is depriving us of something that would enrich our lives. This idea is not uncommon today, with much of popular culture - expressing a very different world view - funishing this idea with many images and illustrations. These mainly perpetuate the myth that living a life in relationship with God is necessarily going to mean being repressed and denying yourself things that you deserve.

Our thoughts drive our feelings and our actions, as I'll explore in the next two posts, so it is important that we make sure we transform our thoughts to be more like those of Christ. To this end it is important to be aware that the images we expose ourselves to sometimes can actually diminish the power of the very good ideas we have about God.

Willard states:
The process of spiritual formation in Christ is one of progressively replacing the destructive images and ideas with images and ideas that fill the mind Jesus himself.

So instead of the modern maxim What Would Jesus Do? maybe we should asking What Would Jesus Think?

His suggestion for correcting our ideas, images and thinking is to
draw certain key portionsof Scripture into our minds and make them a part of the permanent fixtures of our thought.

I would also add to this the importance of avoiding ideas and images in the popular media that celebrate or condone actions and attitudes that you wish to stop yourself from condoning. For a long time I told myself that I didn't need to worry about what I watched on TV or what values were contained in the songs I was listenening to, because I was a sensible and intelligent person. I would never be led astray by such superficial things. But the truth is that these things do have a very profund effect on my thinking and I have noticed a huge shift in my thinking as a result of expose myself to less of what I don't want. And truthfully, I'm not even that good at removing these things from my life and replacing them with things that will foster good thinking, so the very real change I have experienced with just minor adjustments really encourages me to believe that amazing change is possible with just a little more committment to this idea.

Part of the reason I am starting up this blog again after such a long hiatus is because it keeps me thinking about the things I really want to think about.

My goal is to be more like Jesus today than I was yesterday, and more like Jesus tomorrow than I was today.

That's a simple image and a wonderfully powerful idea.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Hebel | הבל

The tenth fragment from Pascal's Pensées is as follows:

The basis of all this lies in the wretchedness of human existence. Realizing this they have taken to diversions.

This echoes the cry of Solomon in Ecclesiasties:

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

The word 'vanity' as it is rendered in the KJV comes from the Hebrew word הבל (hebel), which is also translated as 'meaningless' in the NIV. The Hebrew word also means 'breath' or 'vapour'. Life is a vain, meaningless vapour. All that we do is a vain 'chasing after the wind'. With this kind of attitude towards life it is easy to see why Pascal believed that human existence is meaningless.

Yet by most people's criteria for a well-lived life, Pascal himself had much to convince him that his own existence was far from wretched. He had a reputation as a brilliant mathematician, scientist and inventor. Similarly, Solomon also had much in his life that most people would consider the ingredients for a wonderful life. He was the last king of the united Kingdom of Israel, the wisest man in the world, rich beyond measure with many, many wives and concubines. He tells us in Ecclesiastes that,

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.

So how did these two men come to the conclusion that all is vanity and human existence is wretched?

Ecclesiastes explores the idea in much detail, focusing on the ultimate transience of life and how everything that is done "under the sun" must come to an end. Pascal suggests that this is something we all realize and we therefore seek diversions in our lives, and evidence for these distractions abound. We can see people, and even ourselves, searching for distractions for this 'fact' that life is meaningless in all sorts of things. People throw themselves into their work, family or social life with such gusto that we assume that these things in themselves are the very meaning of life, and yet as Solomon points out, all of these things fade away and are also in themselves meaningless.

Before we become too depressed about this state of affairs though it should be remembered that Solomon is referring only to those things that we do 'under the sun'. As mentioned in the previous post, Pascal asserts that 'nature is corrupt' and that this is self evident. It is this corruption of nature that renders all else meaningless. 'Under the sun' here can be taken to mean 'on Earth', or on this 'corrupt Earth' as Pascal might have it. Therefore the thing in which we find ultimate meaning must be something that does not fall under the corrupting influence of nature (or human nature). Pascal concludes his thought in fragment six with "There is a Redeemer, proved by Scripture." If all is meaningless because all is transient and temporary, the answer lies in something fixed and eternal. If all is meaningless because of death, the answer lies in something that has conquered death. So we arrive back at John 3:16, as we so often should:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

When Jesus tells us he is the "bread of life" he is telling us that he is not a 'breath' or a 'vapour', but something that is both substantial and sustaining. So while life 'under the sun' is meaningless, life under the Son most certainly is not.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Gospel in Two Lines

Back in April last year, Rob Bell stated that one could not "tweet the Gospel" since it was far too enigmatic and complex to be summed up in a mere 140 characters.

However, when reading through Pascal's Pensees one quickly comes across the following in fragment 6:

"First part: Wretchedness of man without God.
Second part: Happiness of man with God.
First part: Nature is corrupt, proved by nature itself.
Second part: There is a Redeemer, proved by Scripture."

In the second half of this fragment, Pascal wonderfully explains the essence of the Gospel, at least to my mind. To those that have not heard a fuller explanation of the Gospel it might be just a little too concise, but as far as delivering "The Good News" concisely goes, Pascal has done an admirable job.

That nature is corrupt can indeed be seen in nature itself, no more so than in human nature. Of course, the Christian knows the cause of this corruption, and therefore the Redeemer proved by Scripture makes perfect sense. The wretchedness of man without God is also a cause of the problem of corruption. So what is the cause of this problem? Sin.

Sin is not a very fashionable word these days. Actually, it may be a little to fashionable in popular culture, but it is a notion of sin that falls short of the full weight and meaning of the word. Nowadays the word sin is usually intended to mean slightly naughty as is evidenced by Google when you type the word 'sinfully' into the search bar and the auto-completion helpfully suggests "sinfully delicious" as the term you are most likely searching for. The focus for the modern day understanding of sin is on things that we like doing but feel a little guilty about afterward. There is therefore no real harm in 'sins', at least nothing that an earnest New Year's Resolution can't temporarily fix. If that was indeed all sin really was, then we wouldn't have a problem. However, we do have a problem, and understanding sin and accepting the hold it really has over your life is the only way to begin to understand how to overcome that problem.

In Romans 7:15-24 Paul explains his struggle with sin this way:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Paul doesn't just see sin as something he does, which it is, he also sees sin as something that has a power over him, something he is a slave to. In Romans 3:23 he also writes that this is universal: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Paul recognizes that sin has a power over all of us and that we need to be saved from our sins, hence his cry from the quote above "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Paul also tells us in Romans 6:23 that the "wages of sin is death." Indeed, without sin there would be no corruption, no sickness and no death. That's why sin is the problem.

The latter portion of Pascal's fragment also gives us the solution to the problem: The Redeemer proved by Scripture. Now of course there are those that dispute the Bible's ability to prove anything within itself and would therefore dispute the existence of a redeemer, but the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus paid the price of our sin in his own sinless death. The theology behind that that statement again is too simplistic to tweet a full explanation of, but as far as delivering the Good News goes, Pascal at least provides the right starting point for those that want to explore the Gospel for themselves. So where does the Bible prove that there is a redeemer? Well the oft quoted John 3:16 would be the obvious starting point: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." This simply states that belief in Jesus is the thing that can undo the "wages of sin" and give us eternal life with God the Father. Jesus put it into his own words in John 14:6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

So while the Gospel may be hard to explain fully in 140 characters, the first principles of the Gospel can be summed up very succinctly. Nature is corrupt, proved by nature itself. There is a Redeemer, proved by Scripture. Or even more simply: We are broken; Jesus can fix us.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Splashing About

Ok...so I was up at seven to deal with the practicalities. Well, that and I couldn't stay in bed because of the excitement.

Decided to plump for the brown corduroys for the water, as I didn't think I'd ever get over the shame of being baptised in jeans!

[Note to future baptees - Cords take more water than a sponge...wear jeans to your baptism.]

I practiced the testimonial over and over again, and then set out of the door to a wonderful sight:

Unseasonal snow! My favourite weather, at the wrong time of year...as I am wont to take these kinds of things as signs, I took it to be a good'un. It felt like God was just sprinkling a little extra presence on the day...just for me! The walk from Leigh station along the waterfront was bitterly cold but incredibly tranquil, and rather beautiful. Dog walkers and elderly sunday strollers greeted me with a 'good-morning' (which never happens on the walk to church...) so this put me in to a rather 'goodwill to all humanity' kind of mood.

I got to the church early to get settled and speak to the minister about what we were going to do etc. As people started trickling in, I said my hellos to my friends, but was getting increasingly nervous. There were a lot of people trickling in! But no family or invited friends as yet. I had to tell the greeters on the door to point my family in my direction when they eventually came (right to the front...just to be cheeky!) and then the service started...

Of course, it being an Easter Sunday family service there were actions and noises to learn that had to be performed when certain words in our associate ministers story were spoken. After we've all been told what to do or shout...my family came in and sat down.

The associate minister starts telling the story of Jesus' resurrection while my baffled family try to figure out why everybody keeps sniffing their fingers when they hear the word 'spices', why they draw a halo around their heads and shout 'DING' every time they hear the word 'angel' and why everybody cheers "HOORAY!" at the word 'alive'

I honestly think they thought I was part of some absurd cult by this time!

My mum and uncle were raised Catholic so the notion of enjoying church struck them as a bit odd.

Anyway...fast forward to my bit.

As I got up on stage to give my testimony my heart was beating so hard I thought people in the back rows would be able to hear it. But I am a teacher - I know how to disguise terror! Specifically, by pacing back and forth in a nonchalant manner. Of course, with an open baptismal pool two feet behind me and an electrical microphone in my hand that is not particularly wise! Luckily, I didn't fall in.

So I rattled through my testimonial - my mum later commented that I seemed like I thought I was a stand-up comedian - I guess that Bill Hicks influence hasn't completely died out. Also, a few people after the service told me that I really spoke to them and I'd given them a lot to think about - that was about the biggest honour and thrill for me to hear I could imagine.

Then into the pool. Almost forgot to take my glasses off until someone motioned to me! Then the 'Do You's and the 'I Do's. Then the dunking...with water up the nose, just for good measure.

And then out to shiver through the final hymn.

I went out to speak to my family after the service and they said they really enjoyed the day, that it wasn't what they'd expected at all and that I'd given them food for thought. They were also surprised to hear a lot of what I said in my testimonial, particularly about my Dad. As I told them, it's not really something we ever talk about as a family. I guess that's the reason it was so important for me to have my family there yesterday, as a way of bridging that gap between what goes on in my head and what they see day to day. I think it was an important day for us as a family in that respect.

Anyway, there is more to say...but I'm out of whatever the typing equivalent of breath is, and I doubt I'll continue this post adequately later...so that'll have to be that.

Needless to say, it was an amazing experience.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Combining interests!

I was bored so made an animated Gif picture of the God Billboards...

Click on the image to see the 10 different messages:

Yes, this is how I spend free time.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008


Ok, so despite actually being called Momentum, the small group I was to join at my church didn't really take off for me. I am, however, still attending the other small group Journey, which is exactly what I need at the moment. It is designed to follow on from Alpha and is run by the same guy. It is a particularly good group to be a part of as the discussions are extremely interesting and thought-provoking...much more so than I found Alpha.

I think that although I had only recently become a Christian prior to the Alpha course, I had already answered all of the questions for myself that Alpha addresses. However, this new group takes the fact that you are a Christian as a given and it is much more about how to be a Christian and what that means for us practically and spiritually.

Plus we get to study and discuss Bible passages as well, which I absolutely love as there is nothing an English teacher/former literature student enjoys more than discussing personal readings and interpretations of good books. And books don't get much better than THE Good Book!

To that end I was going to buy a study Bible that had been suggested to me by someone on the Christian online forum I've been a part of for some months now, but trying to save a few pennies here and there I instead plumped for a free piece of software (I love my free software, I do) called E-Sword...and oh WOW, it is incredible.

Download it here!

Not only can you load it with alterante versions of the Bible (although translations such as NIV, NLT, Message etc come at a price) but you can also load it with maps, encyclopaedias, dictionaries (including concordances and Strong's numbers definitions) and a plethora of other salient reference material such as libraries of books by Wesley, Newton and Bunyan, and historial documents like Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews.

In short everything a computer/bookish geek that recently became a Christian could ever wish to install on his hard drive!


I can't stress how excited I am about this new toy!

Having said that, as the pen is mightier than the sword, or even E-sword, I still find scribbling notes in the margins of bible passages much more satisfying...

Friday, 7 December 2007

Cut Flowers

Last week the service at Church was led by former convicted bodyguard/debt-collector Kung-Fu world champion turned evangelist Tony Anthony.  (He must have large business cards...)

He introduced a large, bald and scary looking Finnish man to the congregation and this huge and imposing man gave his testimony.  Within minutes the big guy was in tears explaining the way Jesus had changed his life and how as a result he would spend the rest of his life in faithful service to Him.

Tony Anthony then proceeded with a sermon in which he criticised those Christians who were like cut flowers, by which he meant they were outwardly beautiful and seemingly good Christians, but whose faith was not strong enough to see them really living their faith everyday.  He was speaking specifically of those who are so good at keeping all of the Christian etiquette such as arriving on time and standing at the right time and so on, but whose growth in Christ has somewhat stagnated.

His message was that cut flowers don't last long.  That we need to be in the garden, or to make the biblical allusion, on the vine.

It was a challenging sermon, and no doubt to some people almost offensive!  But it spoke very powerfully to me.


The Alpha Course is now over, and I shall dissect it more thoroughly in a later post.  The Thursday home group I've joined has got off to a faltering start, but is encouraging since I have finally met some local young Christians.  I'm looking  forward to seeing how it develops over the next few months.