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Thursday, 25 August 2016

What is the Best Shortcut to Spirituality?

I’ve mentioned before that a few months ago I began working as a volunteer for an organisation called Groundwire. We chat online to people all around the world about Christianity and answer their questions. Most of the people that I have chatted with, on being asked, say that they are Christians. They are usually struggling with serious life issues, hence the need to talk to someone anonymously. The interesting thing for me is that although most people claim to be Christians, a lot of them cannot explain the basics of the Christian faith. But I have already commented extensively on this in my previous post about Easy Believism.
Today I want to talk about those who say that they are Christians and can explain the basics of what they believe. They know at least intellectually who Jesus is and what He has done for them. They appear to be Christians, having trusted Jesus for salvation from their sins, and they say that they are also following Him as Lord (see prior post.) I have spoken to a lot of people like this in recent weeks. Why, you might wonder, are they frequenting Christian chat rooms and struggling with serious life issues? What are some of the issues they are struggling with? The issues can be wide ranging; financial problems, marriage problems, lust, drugs, alcohol. But there is nothing particularly unusual in this list--these are the things that you might expect believers and non-believers alike to be struggling with. 

The surprising thing is that the vast majority of people that I speak to are not seeking advice about vices, sin or temptations and how to overcome them. They want to know: How can I get closer to God? Why do I feel far from God? Why is God not listening to or answering my prayers? How can I become more holy, more spiritual, more sanctified? Where is God in my crisis? Why is God allowing this to happen to me? Why did God abandon me? Is God even there? Does God care about me? How can I feel God’s presence and know that He is there? Where is God when things go wrong?

A large number of professing Christians have become convinced that they need to have some type of emotional experience or feel some type of supernatural power to know that God is there. They doubt God’s presence because they cannot “feel” Him or because they believe they have felt Him in the past and they no longer do so because something has changed. They long for God’s presence and are desperate for Him to minister to their thirsty souls believing that He has abandoned them.  They have lost confidence in the Bible to guide them and are seeking other methods instead.

You might think that helping people with these types of questions and issues would be very tricky. Clearly, they are already serious about God and are likely doing everything they can to get His attention and to find a way out of their spiritual wilderness. So their problems must be complex and hard to resolve.  But, I’ve often found, after asking a few questions, that my assumptions were incorrect. I usually end up giving the same advice to those people as I would to a child or someone new to the faith. On the whole people who are feeling far from God or wondering where He is are not doing even basic things to cultivate their spiritual life. It makes me wonder whether new believers are even being taught basic spiritual disciplines in their churches. 

Having established that someone at least intellectually understands the Gospel and can explain what Jesus has done for them (only God knows their heart), we can then move into areas of spiritual growth. True Christians will grow in faith and should become more like their Saviour, Jesus. We may grow at different rates but there will be steady progress over time. So, how can we grow closer to God? What should we be doing to ensure we stay on track?

I might ask the person, “Are you reading your Bible and praying each day?” Surprisingly, I often receive “no,” or “sometimes,” or even, “I don’t have time,” in response to this question. Then I ask them, “Are you attending a church or meeting with other believers?” Again the answers range from a blatant “no” to “sometimes” to “I was but then I stopped,” or “I don’t get on with the pastor.” I might then ask, “Do you have Christian friends or relatives that you spend time with?” They might say “not really” or “some.” I don’t usually get as far as asking them if they are sharing their faith with others which would be another question to check for spiritual maturity. I hesitate to encourage them to do that wondering what they will end up sharing with others if they are not feeding themselves spiritually through prayer and Bible reading.

It’s incredible that so many Christians are not doing fundamental things to ensure they stay on track. It’s hardly surprising then that they “feel” far from God (although I usually point out that feelings are unreliable as they vary day to day). This is not about methods of sanctification or of trying to earn our place in heaven by doing certain things as a ritual. It is not about a “Purpose Driven” approach, it is much simpler than that. I’m speaking of the response of a grateful believer who has been saved from eternal punishment for their sins. We know that we are saved by grace through faith. We know that Jesus paid the whole price and that His death and resurrection for our salvation was a free gift. But how can we expect to grow spiritually if we don’t spend time with Him in reading His word and in prayer daily? How will we grow If we don’t gather together with other believers to share fellowship, to confess our sins, to learn, to encourage each other, and to hold each other accountable? 

Most of the people lining up to ask how they can get closer to God or where God is in their crisis are looking for shortcuts to spirituality. But they are not willing to submit to the discipline of a personal devotional time or to the authority of a local church fellowship. They want the benefits of Christianity without the cost of discipleship. But the truth is that there are no short-cuts.

To demonstrate how confused some Christians seem to be, I spoke to someone recently who was diligently fasting about an issue. However, he was not reading his Bible regularly. The issue that he was fasting about--which non-Christian girl to pursue--was something that God has already spoken clearly about in His Word. The man seemed surprised to learn that he shouldn’t be fasting about doing something unbiblical. Maybe if he had been reading his Bible he would’ve realised this himself. The Holy Spirit could have brought relevant passages to his attention. Fasting, tithing, participating in the Lord’s Supper, baptism and other Biblical instructions should of course be considered by Christians, but we need to start with the daily basics.

As Christians, we should all recognise that our personal devotional time is the first thing that the enemy attacks and undermines. He might distract us directly or indirectly so that we end up prioritising something else. He might even use prominent evangelical leaders to tell us that we don’t need to have a personal quiet time (I was present when such a leader received a standing ovation from a several thousand-strong congregation after making such a statement. The fact is he had just given all of those people licence to neglect their walk with God and do something else with the time.)

Gathering with fellow believers will be Satan’s second target especially, if we have fallen into sin. The last thing we want to do then is to spend time with believers whose presence makes us feel guiltier. But the enemy wants to isolate us from the body of Christ and to pick us off one by one, keeping sin in the dark where it can fester. Jesus is the light of the world and brings light into these situations. We need our church family if we are to thrive as Christians. We cannot go it alone.

Those who are walking most closely with God are those who:

1.       Spend regular daily time with Him in prayer and reading the Bible.
2.       Are likely to be actively participating in their churches or Christians gatherings seeking to worship God, to serve, to encourage others and to grow spiritually through corporate fellowship.
3.       Are longing to see others saved, praying for them and reaching out to share the Gospel with them whenever there is opportunity.

It’s thankfully not complicated. There are no mystical methods or easy recipes for holiness and sanctification. Let’s simply get back to basics. It’s the same path for all true believers. There are no shortcuts to spirituality!

Psalm 1 vs 1-3

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

James 4 vs 8

“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

Matthew 6 vs 6

“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Mark 1 vs 35

“And (Jesus,) rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.”

Hebrews 10 vs 24-25

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

2 Timothy 3 vs 16-17

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Friday, 12 August 2016

Who will be the Captain to Steer your Ship?

It seems to me that one of the key principles to be learned from the life and witness of Hudson Taylor, a biography of whom I just concluded, was his whole-hearted devotion to his Master. His single-mindedness was displayed in his willingness to give up every earthly thing for the sake of the Kingdom and in his total trust and reliance on God in any and every situation. He remained calm in the midst of crisis, both in the mission and when things affected him personally. He prayed about everything in what some would say was a childlike manner knowing that he was weak but his God was strong. He was not only professing Jesus as his Saviour, but was clearly following Him on a daily basis as Lord. How many of us are doing this? Is it Biblical or does God instead demand less of us because of grace? 

The central issue here is: Who is in your driving seat? or Who is steering your ship? David Cameron recently came to the conclusion that he was “not the 'captain' to steer our country to its next destination.” His emotional speech came after a shock decision for Brexit. Because we live in a democracy, Cameron was not in sufficient control to guarantee that his desires came to fruition. He presumed that he was steering the British ship, but he ultimately only had the power that God allowed him as an elected ruler for a time. The same is true of current and future Prime Ministers, Presidents and leaders around the world. Let us not forget Who is really steering the ship.

I was amazed by the number of Christians who voted against Brexit in the UK because they feared for their jobs, their homes, their future lives and the future of their children. Although I personally voted for Brexit, this is not a political post. The real point is why are Christians voting for something because they are afraid of the consequences if they vote in another direction? What does that say about their faith in God? Is God in control and working everything for the good of those who love him or is He idle and watching in dismay as things spiral out of control? Whether we support Brexit or not, surely our decision-making process should begin with: “How would God want me to vote?” or even, “What are the likely consequences for Christians and religious liberty if I vote one way or the other?” But some Christians seem to have hung their faith on a coat rack when making their decision or looked at the whole matter from a purely selfish point of view---how it might affect them personally. They are now terrified of the economic outlook for the UK.

I think it comes back to whether we are Sunday Christians or whether we are trying in our imperfect and failing way to follow Jesus all of the time. Do we give Him access to all areas of our life or do we have areas that we want to manage ourselves? Do we think we can do a better job in those areas without God or do we recognise our weakness and utter dependence on Him in everything we do? Is it hard for us as intelligent beings to even acknowledge the need of God. I mean Christianity is a crutch, right? It is common to hear atheists making comments like that. But sadly, although most Christians are saying the right thing (“I do trust God and am following Jesus as Lord.”), the way we are living our lives tells a different story to those looking on. Why would others be persuaded to submit themselves and their lives to God if they can see that we are not even doing that ourselves? Why would they be willing to trust God if we do not?

My last post was about “Easy Believism” and “Decisionism,” or making an instant, on the spot decision to “accept Christ” without considering the cost. This practice again speaks to the heart of the issue and may explain why so many people profess Christ but are not following Him as Lord. They are not truly saved and are carrying a false assurance of conversion. Those who are saved know that the Bible teaches that things on earth will get very tough, one passage from Matthew 24 vs 6-13 details what we should expect: 

“And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Is that not what we are seeing now with the frequent terrorist attacks, and wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, to name just a few. There is palpable tension on the world stage and relationships between countries are strained. Those who are hoping for peace are going to be disappointed as the Bible tells us that there will not be peace, at least not for Christians. The world is heading towards the final magnificent event when Jesus will return and take all those who have believed in Him to heaven forever. But before that, we will face some terrible times.

Did God include these things in the Bible to scare us? Maybe they should be seen as a warning that we need to be ready and not put off a decision about salvation to another day. Jesus could return at any time. But note the text clearly says, “See to it that you are NOT alarmed.” If we are true Christians, these verses should cause us to sit up and pay attention. They should cause us to pray and to trust God more in times of crisis. We have been told what will happen to allow us to prepare and to make ourselves ready. Why are some professing believers terrified of terrorists?  Isn’t God bigger than these things? Doesn’t He have the power to stop it all if He so desires? Since He allows it we must conclude that it is part of His plan. Who are we to question God who is so far above us in every conceivable way?

God knows when each of us will die. It is predetermined. We cannot die by accident or at the hand of someone else unless God wills it. Perhaps you are afraid of the pain of death, I can relate to that. It’s not death itself I fear but the pain and possible suffering is obviously hard to envisage. But we can pray for the strength to endure whatever we might face knowing that God knows how much we can bear and that He alone is faithful. Some of the missionaries of long ago were tortured and martyred but they stood strong in the face of this and even prayed for their persecutors. 

As global events propel us towards a final conclusion one day. We don’t know the day or hour---no one does. But we can observe signs and events which are fulfilling those things long ago predicted in the Bible and know that we are living in the end times. We need to be asking ourselves whether we are truly Christians. Are we trusting in Jesus death and resurrection for our eternal salvation? Have we confessed our sin and received forgiveness? Are we now following Jesus as Lord of every area of our lives? Does our faith impact every decision we make and everything we do? Is Jesus in the driving seat or are we battling Him for control? Are we afraid of the consequences, of Brexit, or the atrocities committed by terrorists? Or are we confident that God has a plan and is in control?

Who will be the Captain to Steer your Ship? Let it be God with Jesus at His right hand!

Monday, 1 August 2016

Easy Believism--The Broad Road?

I have been going through my journals and reflecting on the things that took place whilst I was on Logos Hope and later in the Philippines. This was when my eyes were opened to the dangers of ‘Easy Believism’ or ‘Decisionism.’ These titles are attributed to methods of conversion which encourage an instant, on the spot decision in order to become a Christian. They usually use forms of commitment like an ‘Altar call’ and ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’ in order to lead someone to ‘accept Christ.’ They are not always a bad thing but we need to be aware of the dangers. 

Thinking back, I realise that these methods were around when I was a teenager. I would often re-commit my life to God during an emotional moment at a worship service or large Christian event. I did this every time I fell into sin, promising God that this time I would really change my life and make a new start. But this only lasted until the next sin and recommitment at the next event. What was this? It was a failure to understand that Jesus’ death had already paid the price for my sin; past, present and future. It was a belief that somehow if I had had a ‘good’ day and my good behaviour outweighed my bad, God was more pleased with me and that therefore I was more acceptable to Him. The root of this is a subtle belief in salvation by works or good deeds. If I live a good enough life, I will be saved. But if I don't I need to keep starting the Christian life again in order to reset the balance to zero. I had no assurance of salvation.

There is a tendency for us all to think like this. It's human nature to want to do something to earn our place with God. But the reality is that we can never do enough good things to get right with God. All of the things that we consider righteous God sees as filthy rags. That’s why Jesus had to die. He was the perfect sacrifice for our sin and His gift is free. My frequent re-commitments were the result of a lack of depth in my Christian understanding and a lack of understanding of God. The right response would have been to confess my sin every time I messed up and seek not to repeat the sin (repentance.)  This, not for fear of losing my faith and being condemned to hell, but out of thankfulness to God for sending Jesus, knowing that I could not measure up without Him.

Responding to ‘Altar calls’ and frequent recitations of the ‘Sinner’s prayer’ acted as a method of getting right with God for me but they didn’t change my behaviour or my heart. I hear many stories of teens, and even older people, that go through this process, especially those who have been brought up in the church. They are sometimes responding to an awareness of God ingrained in them from a young age. It can be hard for them to separate their own beliefs from those of their parents or other adults in the church. They may not yet be truly born again. 

Maybe you are thinking, so far so good; that it will take time for a person to mature in the faith and to find their feet spiritually. Maybe you're thinking that ‘Altar calls’ and the ‘Sinner’s prayer’ can be part of this process, reminding people and convicting them of their sin and the need to get right with God. Certainly this can be the case, which is why I hesitate to dismiss them completely. I know people that are clearly saved that trace their moment of new birth back to a decision made at a rally or church where these methods are frequently used. There is no doubt that an ‘Altar call’ can be used to prompt someone to make a decision that they have been hesitant to make, that it can cause them to take their commitment more seriously as they are making it public by walking to the front. The ‘Sinner’s prayer’ could be offered to someone as a guide for how they could pray to become a Christian. But why do that when we already have Jesus’ example in the Lord’s Prayer? Surely that is more significant. Why give someone words at all when God is examining the heart?

Now let’s look at the dangers. Statistics in the West show that 83% of Americans and 53% of Brits still describe themselves as Christians (despite only 10% of Brits attending church.) We can explain those statistics in terms of culture; I was born in England/America therefore I’m a Christian. But an incredible 27% of Americans actually identify as Evangelical. The numbers are lower in Britain but it’s still larger than you might think. But how many of these are actually following Christ? How many counted the cost and gave up everything to follow Him, having turned their back on their past life? How many are really trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection for their salvation?

The Bible tells us that the way to hell is broad and many are on that road. But the way to heaven is narrow and there are few who will find it. It tells us that the Christian life is hard and that when we decide to follow Jesus we will face trials, persecution and struggle as we fight spiritual battles and encounter the results of the curse of original sin. How many are really experiencing this in their day to day lives? Are we telling people to expect this when we lead them to Jesus so that they are properly prepared for the Christian life? Maybe you think that’s too gloomy, but is it really fair to give a one-sided picture of what following Jesus is all about? We should obviously highlight the hope, joy and peace that are found in Jesus but what about the other things that the Bible says?

‘Easy Believism’ and ‘Decisionism’ are likely responsible for those earlier statistics. There are millions of people who believe they are Christians and are heading for heaven because they signed a card, put their hand up in a meeting, said the ‘Sinner’s prayer’ with someone, or answered an ‘Altar call.’ They were probably prayed for and sent on their way in most cases never to be heard from again and with no resultant change in their life or behaviour. Some people have done all of these things and yet are still not saved. What is going wrong?

The main problem I have witnessed is the lack of follow up by churches and those that are using these methods. They proudly announce that 17 people ‘accepted Christ’ in a meeting and then move on to preparing for the next meeting with little concern about those people that they have apparently just helped to the start of the Christian journey. There is no checking a person’s understanding and little discipleship. We don’t want to embarrass someone or make them uncomfortable by asking clarification questions so we settle for a superficial understanding. We even tell them what to say to God or sometimes say it for them by using the ‘Sinner’s prayer.’ Not all churches and ministries are like this and many have good follow up programmes but there are a lot that don’t. The emphasis has become so much on soul counting and in some tragic cases competing with other churches for numbers or an over-emphasis on church growth that the individual is lost in the confusion. They have become part of another statistic of people who have been given a false assurance that they are going to heaven. That is the greatest danger.

How do we know that this is happening? I have witnessed it particularly in Asia where in some places a foreigner is seen almost as royalty. Asian culture dictates that you must agree with everything that is said to you to avoid conflict due to the potential shame. No wonder there are overstated and inaccurate conversion rates. But ask some of these people even basic questions about the Christian faith; What do they believe about Jesus? What did Jesus do for them? Who is Jesus? And they don’t know! The person who has just walked away happily adding that ‘new covert’s’ soul to their piece of paper has done serious damage to this person by telling them they are now a Christian. They have no idea what it means to be a Christian or where they can go to find out. They have been led astray. Sadly, I saw this happen far too many times in Asia and mostly it was done by Pastors and church leaders who had obviously been taught this themselves. When I asked what they had been talking to the person about I would receive a casual ‘Oh they just accepted Christ.’ This was even in reference to multiple persons, as if this was an everyday event. There was no joy or excitement or interest in the person as an individual. It was a duty well performed and then they turned their attention back to their Smartphone. This is happening everywhere.

So what should we do? We all know it’s easy to criticise. But how can we make sure that we don’t give people false assurance and that those who profess Christianity are truly following Jesus? Of course we need to examine the Bible. We need to look at God’s methods and not our own. What happened when God had already prepared someone’s heart in the Bible? They cried out ‘What must I do to be saved?’ These people were ready; they knew that they were sinners before a Holy God and that they couldn’t rest until they found peace with Him. What was the answer to their question? It was simply “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16 vs 31). And again in Romans 10 vs 9 the clear answer is, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

They were not told to recite a special prayer or sign a card or anything else. They were told to confess and believe. It was primarily a matter of the heart. If someone is ready, we can tell them that they need to get right with God by themselves through prayer. We can help them understand how to talk to God if they have never prayed before and we can explain what a Christian is and what we believe. But we really shouldn’t be putting words in their mouth or asking them to ‘repeat after me’ parrot fashion. We can also give them this free booklet ‘Ultimate Questions’ which explains the basics of Christianity, and of course we must regularly pray for them. 

We need to be involved in this person’s life ensuring that they understand the commitment they are making and that they have counted the cost. This is not about making salvation complicated. We know that the Bible teaches that children can understand. It is about being clear, both about our message and about the demands that being a Christian makes on a heart and life. Jesus Himself was clear whilst He was on earth that those who wished to follow Him must be willing to give up everything. Some who understood this rejected Him because they were unwilling. He didn’t soften His message, He let them go. They had heard the truth; the seed had been planted. God would give the increase in those He had chosen.

The Gospel is urgent and it is true that we do not know how long a person has left but God knows. Demanding or putting pressure on someone to make an instant decision without them really understanding that it will change their life will not help them persevere when trials come. They may even blame you if you didn’t explain the Gospel message properly. But most likely they will not do that. They will just quietly slip away never to be seen in church again. Another lost soul, what a waste.

Let’s be sincere and genuine telling people that the Christian life is difficult but that Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life. They must find Him in order to be free from their sin and to live a new life with God. It is good news!