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Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Way of the Master?

I stumbled upon a book this week, The Way of the Master by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. They run an organisation by the same name and another called Living Waters. They have produced a number of almost feature length films covering controversial topics, these can be watched on their website or on Youtube at no cost. The most recent is called The Atheist Delusion. Both organisations are committed to biblical evangelism.

They state that the modern Western church has lost its way. That due to an over-emphasis on grace and the love of God our churches are full of false converts. These people have been told that God has a wonderful plan for their lives and that all they need to do is to pray a prayer, sign a card or make a decision to accept Jesus and be restored to God. The majority then continue their lives exactly as before but now with the “saved by Jesus” or "born again" label. There was no repentance and therefore there is no visible change in their behaviour. 

When trials and suffering come to these people they lose interest in their faith or become angry and disillusioned with God for their plight. They question the “wonderful plan” they were offered and blame God for their circumstances. They then either gradually fall into sin believing that God will forgive them later as life is just too hard and God is not delivering what He has promised. Or they harden their hearts and walk away from the faith, They are thus in a worse position than they were  in the first place. They have now rejected God completely and are resentful and bitter towards Him if they still acknowledge His existence.

You may be thinking that these observations are not new and that other well-known preachers and authors (John MacArthur) have been highlighting “easy believism” and other mass conversion methods for years. 

Comfort, however, offers a solution. He suggests that the only way for someone to be soundly converted is to first confront them with the law and then outline God’s plan of salvation through Jesus. He believes that the only way to do this is by using the Ten Commandments to make a person realise that they are a wretched sinner before a Holy God.  A person needs to admit that they are a liar, thief and adulterer at heart amongst other things. Then they will understand that God’s wrath is upon them and will therefore desire to escape from the penalty of their sin which is ultimately eternity in hell.

It is only once they have acknowledged their sin that Jesus’ death is offered as the solution. The point is that unless someone realises the danger they are in they are not going to take action to ensure their personal safety. Comfort uses the analogy of a blind man walking towards the edge of a cliff. Someone comes up to him and tweaks the MP3 player he is carrying to enhance the sound so he can enjoy his journey. He is thrilled and merrily continues towards the cliff edge, presumably falling to his death. This is what we are doing when we focus on people’s immediate physical needs, comfort and wellbeing rather than their eternal destination.

At first I thought, wow what a great resource and method for evangelism. I watched all the movies on the website and looked at ordering tracts. But, I was curious and decided to research what others were saying about Comfort’s ministry—that was an eye opener! It seems Comfort is like Marmite, you either love him or you hate him. 

I expected that, to some degree, due to the controversial issues he tackles. I would’ve been more concerned if he didn’t have his critics. But, some of the comments were coming from Christian sources that I respected. 

The main two concerns were that the Ten Commandments were not designed to be used in this way for evangelism as we are now living under the New Covenant. Also, that a “one size fits all” or method approach for evangelism doesn’t allow sufficient room for the Spirit to lead and guide a believer when witnessing. That each person is an individual and should be ministered to as such. 

In relation to the first issue I can see the concern. In Comfort’s book, he goes to great lengths to explain the significance of the Ten Commandments themselves overlooking the fact that they were originally given to the Israelite nation and not to the gentiles. However, for those who think I am suggesting that the commandments don’t apply to us today--ALL, except one, of the Ten Commandments is actually repeated and confirmed in the New Testament and therefore does apply to NT believers. (The Sabbath Day command is the exception and has little relevance to this discussion about biblical evangelism.)

The question that naturally arises is, why place so much emphasis on the Ten Commandments as given to Moses when we can use the NT with its wider scope and more relevant application for today? That would avoid the common argument that we are not living under the Old Covenant and that therefore the rules don’t apply.   

Critics of Comfort’s approach argue that the use of the Ten Commandments is too narrow and excludes other effective methods. Also, that he is telling people that they will be judged according to their adherence to the Ten Commandments alone. They point out that the bigger offence is the rejection of God and of Jesus as their Saviour from their sin. The greatest commandment given by Jesus Himself is after all, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” (Matthew 22 vs 37)

Honestly, this is a tough one for me. There are people arguing that scaring or terrifying people about hell is not effective or loving. But personally, it was sufficient to convert me and cause me to give up my worldly life. I'm not sure whether the goodness of God alone would've had the same effect. Convincing people that hell is a real place and that their sins will take them there forever is important. I can see Comfort’s rationale in this respect. I can also see that he has a genuine love for the lost and desire for them to be truly saved.

If there is a choice between the shallow and false conversions we are seeing everywhere today and Comfort’s approach, I would definitely side with Comfort. Actually, the videos that had the biggest impact on me were those of the large numbers of people who claimed they were born again/evangelical Christians cheerfully admitting lying, stealing, pre-marital sex, pornography, drunkenness, drug taking etc. The shocking thing was that these “Christians” felt no shame or guilt about their lifestyles and didn’t even acknowledge that these things were wrong. The main reason given was that everyone else was doing it. They weren’t giving into temptation and repenting and trying again. They were completely unconcerned and apathetic. They were false converts filling the churches on Sundays.

Having said that, I don’t agree with a standardised or method approach that must always be used in evangelism. I have used lots of methods over the years and I think it’s important to really hear the heart of the other person. Sin must be confronted in every Gospel conversation and the Good News about Jesus offered. It is necessary for a person to understand what they are being saved from and how serious their sin is in God’s eyes. I like the way Comfort talks about a change of perspective reminding us that it is our own sin that takes us to hell. He speaks about how ridiculous it is for millions of tiny people (in comparison to God) walking around on the earth shaking their fists at their Creator as if that will change reality.

I would highly recommend the resources on Comfort’s website, Way of the Master, as I believe they will make people think. I admire him for tackling controversial issues that others have avoided. There is no doubt that his work has done a lot of good in the American church. But, personally I would use New Testament texts where possible in evangelism and ensure that the biggest sin of all—rejection of God—is highlighted in any presentation.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Does God Have Specific Plans For My Life?

Christians who are sincere in seeking God often wrestle with the question of knowing His will either for their future or in a particular situation. There are those who believe that as God controls everything they can just wait for things to happen around them without taking action. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who believe that as God has given us free will we can do whatever we want and there is no right or wrong path. But which view is biblical?

Looking back over the years there have been times when I have had to make major decisions. The pattern has tended to be that it is only afterwards that I have seen that God was at work directing me and keeping me in His will. I had to take steps of faith. At times this was scary and involved an uncomfortable change of direction or a relinquishing of something I had been holding onto.

In 2006, I decided that maybe God wanted me to sell my flat and buy a house. I put my flat on the market and prayed for a specific amount to be offered if it was right for me to sell it. I really wasn’t bothered about the money but wanted to be sure that I was doing the right thing. There was no movement for a few months and I began to think that maybe I should lower the price—maybe God wasn’t aware of what I was doing or needed a helping hand, maybe I hadn’t been specific enough for Him to understand. 

Really, I should’ve been thinking that maybe it wasn’t right to move instead of doubting God’s capabilities. It was something I had to work through, and then the offer came. But, although a decent enough offer, it was £1,000 short of the amount I had prayed for. What to do next? Accept the amount thinking that it was close enough…but that wasn’t how I had prayed. How did I then know that it was God’s will for me to move? How to explain to a non-believing estate agent, who was very happy with the offer and had explained that the prospective buyer—a young girl—had maxed out her mortgage potential with her offer. How to avoid appearing greedy, ungrateful or materialistic.

I knew what I had to do, I phoned the estate agent and explained that although it was a good offer I would have to decline it. I awkwardly explained that I was a Christian who believed that God had a plan for my life and that I had been praying for £1,000 more than the offer. I hoped I didn’t sound ridiculous but knew it must be like gobble-de-gook to him. I felt like a fraud having disappointed him as my agent and the potential buyer who had been excited about the property. I was also no further forward in terms of my own desire to move. Thinking that would be the end of the matter I hung up the phone. Shortly afterwards I received a call—the buyer’s parents had added the extra £1,000.

Having agreed the sale, I prayed for direction then began looking for a property to buy. I viewed a lot of houses but none of them seemed right. After a while I became aware of a property that ticked all the boxes and was slightly cheaper than the others I had seen. The only problem, it kept going on and off the market and seemed to be in great demand—one sale fell through. The owner was quite specific about viewing times and wanted it to be immaculate when people were shown around. My agent promised me that I would be first through the door when it was eventually made available for viewing. 

I finally got in one evening, loved the house and having been praying throughout the process, made an offer at full asking price straight away. But, there were still another five people, who had also been clamouring for a chance to view it, lined up to see the property that evening. I waited with baited breath. The inevitable phone call came. Someone else had made an offer at full asking price. I needed to make what’s called a best and final offer—the highest price I was willing to pay. This would then be compared with the other person’s final offer and the owner would choose who she wanted to sell her house to. Things are never straight-forward are they?

Having no idea what the other person would offer and not much idea about house valuations it seemed like a shot in the dark. It wasn’t of course. It was a great test of faith as I really wanted the house and could’ve offered a lot more than the asking price. But in the end, I decided only to raise my offer by a reasonable amount,  I prayed that if it was God’s will for me to have the house then my offer would win the “bidding war.” It did and I got the house.

After a while, I began taking in lodgers for company and to help pay the mortgage. In 2010, a couple moved in temporarily as they were looking for rental property in the area. Having lived with me for a few months they found another property, paid the deposit and began making arrangements to move. 

At that time, I was struggling with ill-health which was effecting my work as a police officer. I felt that God might be leading me out of the police—a career I had believed I would stay in for life. I tentatively looked around for other work and made some unfruitful enquiries but it was difficult to focus as I was still working shifts. If only I could take a break for a few months to recover my health and seek direction....

Suddenly, my police force changed their career break policy—I could take a six-month unpaid break. I began actively looking for secular non-shift work investigating fraud or similar. Nothing happened. I widened my search to include paid Christian work in England believing that I couldn’t go abroad with my ill-health and thinking that I didn’t want to rely on others for financial support. Nothing happened.

A friend suggested I should move from the South of the country to the Midlands due to having a group of Christian friends there and an associated church. But, what to do about my house? I prayed that God would clearly guide me in all of these decisions. The couple living in my house joked that it was a shame they hadn’t realised earlier that I might want to leave as they could’ve taken over my house. The thought had also crossed my mind but I knew that they were already tied into their contract with the owners of the house they were moving to. It seemed impossible for things to change at that late stage…..

The owners of the new house changed their minds a week before the move was due to take place. They withdrew from the arrangement for personal reasons. My non-Christian lodgers (they have since become Christians) said that it felt like things were being taken out of their hands. They happily agreed to stay in my house, and they remain there six years down the line. I moved temporarily back to my parents nearby.

I began looking for work and a property in the Midlands, believing that as God had clearly moved me out of my house it seemed that He was also leading me to relocate.  I couldn’t find work or a house in the Midlands. My mum then suggested that she had a friend in that area who she believed would be willing to accommodate me whilst I looked for a more permanent arrangement. Thinking this would be the final hurdle I waited excitedly as she made the phone call. The friend said that they were in the middle of decorating and couldn’t accommodate me! I had been praying that God would close doors that were wrong, I had to accept that this door had effectively been closed and that I shouldn't try to break it down.

In total confusion as all avenues seemed to have reached dead ends, I kept praying. I finally realised that I had been placing limits on what God would have me do. I opened myself up to the idea of working abroad and of relying on financial support from others. I began looking into mission work having had a heart for evangelism since I was saved. I came across OM Ships and decided to make enquiries with them. (I had been on a short term mission with OM in 2007.)

OM initially told me that there was no space for me on either the orientation weekend that I would need to attend and perhaps more significantly, their intake for the Logos Hope ship was also full—I could go to Afghanistan instead! I agreed to their suggestion not knowing what else to do, but continued praying. Someone dropped out of the orientation weekend and I was able to take their place. The ship leadership team then reversed their decision and accepted me to join the ship.

I was going to Logos Hope in August 2011, but I didn’t have any money and it felt wrong to ask my church for the full support. I tentatively approached the police and asked them whether I could return from my six-month career break two months early in order to save money for a two-year mission trip later that year. Thinking they would definitely decline as they were also trying to save money which was the reason for the granting of the short career breaks in the first place, they agreed! I returned to work for a few months and was able to pay half of my support with that money.

I approached my church elders about the trip. They said that they had been praying for someone to go to the ships as they hadn’t sent anyone to OM for a long time. They agreed to pay the other half of my support. I joined Logos Hope in August 2011 and finished my commitment in September 2013. You can read about my journey soon as I’m hoping to publish my new book The Logos Life before the end of the year. 

When I am struggling to understand God’s will and direction for my life, I look back at these events and am amazed by His specific guidance. If God wants something to happen it will happen and if not it will not. Sure, we make mistakes along the way and deviate from the path, but even then God uses those experiences for our good. He brings us back onto the right path provided we are praying and sincerely desire to do His will. His will isn’t hidden from us and He wants us to find it. He guides us through the Bible, through other people's advice and counsel and sometimes through our circumstances.

We must set our hearts to trust that He is faithful and that He has a specific plan for each of our lives. The things that we see as impossibilities are insignificant when compared to God’s mighty power. Our confusion most often stems from a failure to really trust God and to be willing to step out in faith believing that He will open and close doors according to His will. We may not understand what He is doing or why but we can know that He is faithful--that His plans for us are good and part of the bigger picture that only He can see. Let’s keep praying and trusting Him for guidance and direction in our lives.

Psalm 119 vs 105 
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path

Nehemiah 9 vs 19
You, in Your great compassion, Did not forsake them in the wilderness; The pillar of cloud did not leave them by day, To guide them on their way, Nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go.

Proverbs 3 vs 5-6
Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.

Isaiah 30 vs 21
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.

Isaiah 55 vs 9
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Romans 8 vs 28
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.