Should we be afraid of God?

I had an older brother who was very wicked in many respects, and it was a provision of God, because it has given me plenty of good sermon illustrations. One very wicked thing I remember witnessing my brother do one day was the time our youth fellowship visited a young family from our church. They had a little girl about 5 years old, and this little girl had an imaginary cat she was quite attached to. Apparently it is quite common for children, particularly when they are an only child, to play with an imaginary friend. This little girl, Joanne, had an imaginary cat she was devoted to- she would pat it, feed it, sleep with it, take it everywhere, and show it to everybody.

We were sitting round this family’s lounge room, and someone suggested that Joanne introduce us to her little cat. She very foolishly agreed to let us pass it around the room, and each of us had a pat and said something complimentary about it- until it reached my brother Stephen. Stephen I guess had a strong conviction that kids should face reality, and get over their imagination, so Stephen received the cat, gave it a few pats, and then promptly put it into his mouth. He gave it a few chews, and then with a big gulp, swallowed it. At first poor Joanne thought it was a bit of a joke, but when she asked for her cat back, Stephen said, “I’m sorry, I’ve eaten him. I can’t give him back- he’s scattered throughout my digestive system”. I think even Stephen felt a little guilty after seeing Joanne break down into wails of grief on the passing of her imaginary cat.

Today I want to do what my brother did to Joanne that day- to snatch from you, not an imaginary cat, but an imaginary god which you may carry around with you. I want to confront you with the brute reality of what the true God is really like. Because many Christians carry around with them an imaginary god- and they have ceased to worship the true God.  Moses over and over again warns the Israelites of the danger of idolatry- and what is idolatry? It is creating an idol and worshipping it instead of the true God- it is dumbing God down, and creating an imaginary God, a god who conforms to what they might like to imagine what God is like- instead of what the true God is really like.

A few years ago a survey was done in Australia about teenagers views on life and religion, and they found that consumerism reigned supreme. Most teenagers viewed God as a sort of heavenly butler- a God who exists to serve them when they are in need, a God who may be called upon, but who preferably should stay out of sight except when required. He is like an imaginary cat we carry around with us, to comfort us, to speak to when we get lonely, to make us feel better. He exists to come to our rescue when we get in trouble. He is a teddy-bear God. He is a God who never gets angry, He never makes demands of us, other than suggesting we try to be nice, and try to make ourselves happy.

Similar to this is the “old man upstairs” God or the “my best mate” Jesus. A classic picture of this idea of God is in the movie Bruce Almighty- where Bruce Nolan, a TV reporter, is having a rough time in life, and so he complains that God isn’t doing his job very well. Consequently God, appearing just as a laid-back humble sort of guy dressed in white overalls, meets up with Bruce,  and says to him, “Well, if you think it’s so easy being God, I’ll give you a go of being God and see if you can do any better”. So he lets Bruce be God to see what it’s like. And what is God like according to Bruce Almighty? God just wanders around, appearing to people sporadically to give them a little gem of wisdom here and there. When Bruce blasphemes to God’s face, God just responds with a little chuckle, and plays a practical joke on him to get him back. God is just a very tolerant friendly fun-loving family uncle who tries his best, who never gets angry, who finds it hard to get around to listening to everybody’s prayers, let alone answering them, who needs to go on holidays every now and then, and who exists to provide amusement  to people he takes a shine to.

What is God really like? Well, God is a God of love. God is a God of faithfulness. God does care about us. God is always near to us. It is right that we call to him when we are in times of trouble. But God is also a God of holiness and righteousness. God is a God of great majesty and power. God is a God we should fear. God is  a God of anger and judgement. Really? An angry God? Well, does it anger you to hear of terrorist madmen beheading and crucifying random individuals for the most trivial of crimes? Does it anger you that the most common offence local courts deal with is possession of child pornography and sexual assault? Does it anger you that now one of the biggest types of child abuse comes from children abusing other children in the playground because they have become so messed up? Should it anger you that there are so many countries in which the masses are living in abject poverty, and yet they are run by a corrupt dictator who uses his people’s suffering to live a life of luxury in a palace?

God is a God of righteous anger. God is a God of jealousy- righteous jealousy. This is the God which Israel encountered at Mt Sinai. And when Israel meets God at Mt Sinai, and God gives them His 10 commandments to live by. What happens? Israel starts trembling. The people of Israel think they are going to die. God is a God who makes us afraid when we come near to him.

Should we fear God? I’ve heard many Christian people want to back away from this thing about fearing God. And they say, fearing God is not actaully being afraid of God. Wait a minute. What is the difference between having fear and being afraid? Isn’t it exactly the same thing? And at Mt Sinai, weren’t the people afraid? Some people say, fearing God is just respecting God. But I’d want to say it’s more than respecting God. Reverence is getting closer, but I’d say it is still not close enough. Awe? Yes, but does awe make you tremble? Does awe make you feel like you’re going to die? That’s what happens in the Bible when people meet God.

When Jesus’ closest disciples see Jesus revealed in glory up the Mount of Transfiguration- what is their response? It says they were terrified. John was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, He walked with him for 3 ½ years, He is so close to Jesus that he lays his head on his breast to show his affection. That was before Jesus died. But when John sees the risen, exalted glorified Jesus, Revelation 1 tells us he falls down at his feet as if he was dead. He was overwhelmed. He was speechless. He was overcome.  And Jesus touches him, and says, “do not fear”. You see, his natural response was utter fear. Then Jesus lifts him up, and says, ‘you may have confidence in my presence’. But you know what we have lost- we have lost that sense of natural fear.

No one has explained this better than CS Lewis in the Narnia tales when the 2 beavers are describing who Aslan is to the 4 children. Lucy says, ‘Is Aslan a man?’ ‘Certainly not’, replied the beaver. ‘Aslan is a lion- the lion, the great lion, the king of the beasts’. ‘Oh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake’, said Mrs Beaver. ‘If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ asked Lucy? ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver. ‘Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the king’.  “I’m longing to meet Him, even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point” said Peter.

Should we fear God? Yes, we should fear God. But of course, there is something more which Christians can also do. We can also love God. If we just fear God, we will run away in terror from Him. But if we fear God and love God, then we will be drawn to worship Him. Because that is what worship is- it is a response to God of the fear of God and the love of God perfectly mingled together.

Do you fear God? You should. Because you don’t even have to read the Bible to discover that at the heart of our universe, at the heart of our existence, there is someone who is infinitely majestic and awesome. At the heart of the universe is someone who is infinitely great. Behind this physical world we see and touch, there is something or someone utterly majestically awesome. At the heart of our universe, exists a being who is unimaginably powerful- He is the one who created a star in the sky for us which lets off a 400 million tonne hydrogen  bomb every second in its core, to keep us nice and warm on planet earth.  He is the one who is unimaginably big- not in his physical size, but in his scope, the extent of His influence. He created a universe that is at least 100 billion light years in diameter. You could travel nonstop at 8.5 million miles per hour during a lifetime of 80 full years, and the distance would total about one light year – and that’s just all we are able to see at the moment- who knows how bigger the universe actually is. I think it’s telling that God allowed us only to discover how big the universe actually is in the twentieth century, when our human arrogance and pride with its technology reached a maximum, just so that we would know something of how puny and insignificant we are in comparison to Him.

He is a God who is infinitely clever – He has written the code for the DNA for each living thing on earth, and it is vastly more complicated than all the computer programs we have ever written put together. Do you know if you were to get hold of a tiny piece of our DNA, the size of a pinhead, and write out the information content of that tiny DNA, how many average size books would you need to write it all down? 10 books ? 20 books? A stack of books as high as the ceiling? No, as high as the distance from earth to the moon, and back- multiplied by 500. He is an infinite God.

He is a God who is infinitely beautiful. Do you know why all around the earth everywhere we look, we see things of beauty? Because God Himself is an infinitely beautiful being- His creation is an expression of His nature.  Furthermore- God is also infinitely pure and righteous and holy. He is perfectly loving.  Our levels of morality just do not cut it. No wonder the Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No wonder that when God gave his 10 commandments to the Israelites at Mt Sinai, their response was one of fear.

Some people ask- where did God come from? Answer- He has always existed. Some people ask- why does God exist? Consider this- God is the source of existence itself. God is self-existent. Existence comes from God. The question should be- why does the concept of existence exist? The very property of existence comes from God.

Can you see why it is right for you to fear Him? Can you see why, when you are brought into His presence, you will fall down, and you will be speechless? Can you see why in Revelation 4, we read about 4 living creatures, angelic creatures- they are in God’s throne room, and all they ever do, day in, day out- year after year, century after century- all they ever do- is cry out “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come. ” You see, a really good movie, a really good football game, it might keep us captivated for an hour or two- eyes to the screen. But if you are in the presence of God, you will be overwhelmed and awe-struck with the infinite beauty and glory of God- it will captivate you for all eternity. Do you follow?

Can you see how blasphemous it becomes to commit idolatry, and bring God down to our level, and make Him our heavenly butler, who exists to serve us? Can you see how wrong it is to trivialise God, to say, “I’m doing fine in my life, I don’t need to worry about God too much”. The question is not whether we need God- of course we need God. The real question is, ‘how much do you owe God?’ The answer is an awful lot. An infinite amount.
There are many people in our society, they don’t worry too much about God. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought like this- most people don’t worry about God, and they seem to get on okay. You know, they never really talk about God on any of your morning breakfast shows, yet they seem to be happy sorts of people. The consensus of our society seems to be that the main thing in life is to try to be a decent person, but if you want to talk about God, well, that’s just an optional extra. It’s not important. But do you know, there is something more powerful and more compelling than the consensus of our society that we don’t need to worry about God. That is, the reality that there is an infinitely glorious and holy God. His glory compels us to worship Him- no matter how many millions of people around us neglect him.

You might go through times where you think- I have tried Christianity, it hasn’t worked for me. My life is no different from a non-christian. My Christian life is just a struggle, and sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the bother. But there is something greater than our disappointments and failures- the infinite glory of God still compels you to worship him, whether you have made something of your life or not. You may have been hurt and discouraged by the behaviour of other Christians in your life- and you think, if that is how Christians can behave, I’m going to forget about Christianity. But there is something that transcends the many failures and sinfulness of other Christians- the infinite glory of God compels you to worship Him, whether you have been wounded by the sins of Christians or not.  You might say, I have unanswered questions which trouble me from time to time. Ok, that’s fine, but the reality of an infinitely glorious God still compels you to worship him, whether you ever get those questions answered or not.

God is a God whose nature demands your worship. When the day comes in which you stand before Him, you will be full of fear, because suddenly you will be full of an awareness of how miserably inadequate you have lived your life, how you’ve failed to live up to the 10 commandments, and how you are deserving of his judgement. But there is one more thing. There is another mountain in the Bible where God revealed Himself at. Just like Mt Sinai, this mountain surrounded by darkness, there were earthquakes, people were trembling. But God didn’t descend from a cloud and speak from Heaven. This time the great infinite God of the universe had taken upon Himself a human body- just like you and me- and His destination was a wooden cross at Mt Calvary. There 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ, God in human body, was crucified. And in the death of God the Son, an amazing transaction was completed- the penalty was paid for all our failures and sinfulness, and sinful human wretches like you and me can now stand accepted and forgiven before an infinitely perfect God.

The Bible says, For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. All that we have to do is place our faith in Jesus, who did this incredible act on our behalf, so brilliant it could only have come from the mind of God- we must place our faith in Him, and we will stand accepted, and forgiven before God- and we will not only just fear God, but we will also love him, as our Heavenly Father.

We cannot trivialise God. We dare not procrastinate with God. The infinite God of the universe demands your worship, your allegiance, your obedience. Maybe you realise that you’ve just been treating God as a low priority amongst all the other busy things of your life- and you realise that in fact you’re guilty of idolatry- because you have trivialised God of His glory, and imagined him to be far less glorious than what he really is. You have imagined him to exist for your purposes on the rare occasion that you need Him, rather than realising that you exist totally for his purposes. If that’s you, then you need to repent, before you come under the judgement of a totally holy God for your idolatry. There is mercy for us in Jesus, freely available for us all- but we must not, we dare not take this mercy lightly. We must cast ourselves upon it while we may.

Missional Communities- why I’m such a fan.

internet_man_personDefinition: A missional community (aka community group, gospel community, mid-sized community) is a group of 20-40 people living as a community of disciples on mission to a specific people group. It functions as a group distinct in its function in church life from that of the large congregational gathering on Sundays, and the smaller discipleship group of 6-10 people.

Here are 10 reasons why I’m such a fan of missional communities as a model of ministry:

  1. Provides an experience of the biblical style of house church alongside the larger congregational service experience.

There is a biblical basis for large gatherings of God’s people for worship and teaching. We see this for example in Exodus 19-24, 2 Kings 23, Ezra 9-10, Nehemiah 8-10, Acts 2. However, the most common experience of church gatherings in the New Testament was of a smaller household gathering around a meal, in which there was space for many to participate in prayer, teaching and worship, and which operated as a sense of family rather than a crowd. For example, we see this in Mark 13, Acts 2:42-47, Acts 20:7-12, 1 Corinthians 11-14.

The beauty of missional communities is that they allow both the congregational service style of church to operate side by side with the smaller household church style. The church experiences the benefits of both styles of church. Normal discipleship groups of 6-8 people usually lack the social dynamic that is present in the larger community sized group.

  1. Provides space for non-Christians or fringe Christians to find belonging and community.

Increasingly, more and more non-Christians are wary or negative about attending church services. Many will respond far more positively to being invited to a social environment, such as a bbq in the park, or a party. As they come to missional community activities, they will start to observe Christians doing activities such as praying for each other, sharing their life story, sharing from God’s word, and serving the community. This is a really helpful place for many non-Christians to experience Christianity in a friendly environment even before they come to a church service.

Church services are good places for some non-Christians to come to, if they are open-minded towards the church. They may attend a service and remain fairly anonymous. However, such people often will find it hard to make deep connections with people from church by merely attending services. They will need to develop genuine relationships with people if they are to keep coming.  Furthermore, they may feel rather intimidated by attending a small discipleship group in which they may have their ignorance of the Bible revealed. Missional communities are of the ideal size in which they may stand on the fringe of the group and observe the spiritual components of the community, while slowly becoming more confident on spiritual matters, and at the same time building deeply into relationships within the community.

It is also a great place for Christians who are new to church or on the fringe to connect at a deeper level with others. People can be easily invited along to community activities sometimes on their very first visit to church, whereas normally people wouldn’t normally want to sign up for a Bible study group on their first visit to church.

  1. Provides space for raising of new leaders in safe environment

Missional communities require leaders to run many activities such as:
a) sharing a devotional thought;
b) organising a social event;
c) co-ordinating prayer lists;
d) helping with pastoral needs;
e) lead discipleship groups
f) leading a time of worship

Because a missional community is only of a smaller size- ~30 people- it is ok for leaders not to be perfectly polished in their skills- for example- in sharing a devotion. They get to practice in a zone where they would not usually get so many opportunities to practice in the larger sphere of a normal church service.

  1. Provides an ability to create multiplying missional foci within a church that mobilizes individuals for mission and is sustainable.

Often a church may have no specific mission focus, other than just having a vision to reach everybody in the community around them. This may lead to a lack of intentionality in thinking about how to reach the specific people of that community.

Alternatively, maybe a church will have a specific mission focus- such as a school community. But because it is the focus of the whole church of ~100 people, many people within the church don’t really feel they are needed to get involved, and all the work is thus done by the small “faithful few” of the church, while a large number remain uninvolved.

Alternatively, maybe a church will have several mission focuses at the same time. However, this may often lead to the same faithful core of the church being pulled in several directions at once, and being unable to invest quality time in a single direction.

Missional communities provide a better solution to these alternatives. By intentionally creating groups of around ~30 people in the church, each of whom have a different major missional focus, this stimulates a greater mobilisation for everybody to have some active involvement in mission, as in a group of ~30 people, everybody is needed.

Although all people will be encouraged to think about how they reach out to the individuals they cross paths with in their personal lives, the group as a whole also has to consider how as a group they can focus on their specific people group. This gives people ownership in a joint mission, which teaches people the skills and thinking for their personal witness, and gives them a role in mission even if they have no personal strong connections with non-Christians.

Having multiple specific mission foci allows a realistic plan for reaching the specific pockets of the local community, rather than people bouncing between different opportunities of people groups in the community. Examples of mission foci could be: a geographical area; a school community; a sporting community; a workplace community; a people group such as disabled families or refugee community.

 

  1. Missional communities are “small enough to care, but big enough to dare”.

How can churches keep growing and yet keep the intimacy of community where people feel they belong and are just not individuals in a crowd? Missional communities provide a good solution. They allow a church to grow as large as they like, but also always provide people a community of ~30 people to find their place of belonging in, as well as their smaller group of ~8 to do discipleship in.

Rather than the pastoral care of the whole church being just dependent upon the pastoral staff, missional communities stimulate the provision of (low level) pastoral care being largely provided by the community itself, with this being overseen by the pastoral staff. A missional community of ~30 have the numbers to provide meals for those who are sick, visiting the elderly, helping the needy, when it is understood that the missional community needs to operate as a Christian family caring for one another. This is something which is often too big a task for the normal small group.

Conversely, a missional community of ~30 people is a group big enough to make a real difference and impact on a missional target. For example, a small group of 8 could hardly be expected to take on a state school of 500 as their mission target- they would quickly become exhausted. However, a group of 30 people which had several parents enrolled in that school could be the links with the rest of their community to inform them of opportunities to be involved in serving in the school, and have the manpower to make a real impact.

However, when a whole congregation of say 100 people all adopt the same mission focus, inevitably, many people will not feel as if their participation is really necessary, and the usual pattern will be that the majority of the work falls on the faithful core of ~20 people, and the rest of the congregation has little involvement. A missional community of ~30 means that everybody is needed to make the mission work.

  1. Provides an integration of discipleship in which all Christians are expected to be involved in discipleship, mission, serving activities, etc.

Often churches seek to provide a wide variety of ministries or activities for Christians to be involved in, such as Bible studies, social justice projects, social connection times, kids ministries, womens ministries, etc etc. These are all good activities and provide benefit for the church. However, the problem can be that they are often done in isolation from each other, and the effect is that they provide a smorgasboard which people can pick and choose from in what they want to get involved in. For example, some people will commit to doing Bible studies because they like to display their Bible knowledge, but not do any social justice activities because they aren’t very practical people. Other people will avoid Bible studies because they will feel insecure about their Bible knowledge, but may be happy to get involved in serving at a kids ministry. Some people will get extremely busy by being involved in nearly all of the activities on offer, leading to a problem of burnout over time.

Missional communities may provide a more holistic, simple and sustainable model. All Christians have one main commitment to a missional community- although they may also be part of other ministries if they wish to, such as music teams, mums ministries, etc. However, the missional community is the main tool for doing both discipleship and mission in the church. As part of life in that missional community, everyone is encouraged to be part of discipleship groups, as well as being involved in missional activities which the community organizes. Although you cannot force everybody to do everything, at least you can present an expectation within a community for everyone to be committed together to a common core of basics which is fulfilled in a holistic way within that community.

  1. Provides a simple and sustainable model of ministry, rather than one which fragments families and requires large organisation.

One of the challenges of our contemporary society is the busyness of life which many people get swept up in. Many forms of church life unfortunately only add to the problem rather than helping, by offering multiple types of event-focussed ministries which are done in isolation from each other and which require volunteers to run.

Missional communities emphasize a simplicity of lifestyle, in which people have only one main commitment to a missional community, within which different functions are met. Generally speaking, activities are done with families as a whole rather than seeking to cater for the needs of different individuals within families, so this leads to families being brought together rather than split apart. (Teenagers and young adults may be best served by having their own specific missional community to be part of).

The main focus of community activities is building relationships rather than running events, and the result is that while the community may have many connections happening within a given month, not everyone will be required to be at everything and the effort of doing these activities will be minimal. The result is that people have genuine time to spend deepening relationships and authenticity with one another.

  1. Provides a natural pathway for multiplication and church planting.             

Multiplying small groups can often be a difficult process as the 8-10 people form very close relationships, and become reluctant to divide in two to start a new group. After a group has gone through the process of dividing to start a new group once, they may be even more reluctant the next time to split another new group up again. The advantage of missional communities is that this process becomes easier as when a missional community multiplies to begin a new community, it may be divided using existing small groups within the community, and thus discipleship groups may stick together in the creation of a new missional community.

Another exciting benefit of missional communities is that it is a safe and risk-free strategy for church planting. Essentially starting a new missional community is a way of starting a new church without starting a new Sunday service, as a missional community begins to do everything that a church should do, other than run a Sunday service. When your church has multiplied enough missional communities, then church planting becomes a relatively simple and natural step forward, as it is simply a matter of sending 2-3 missional communities which are already operating as a healthy church family to commence their own church service as a new congregation.

  1. Allows the major focus of church life to remain on a healthy relationship with God, rather than running events.

Often a program-driven church has so many activities requiring organisation that sadly all the energy goes into ensuring a polished production of events and services which the public are invited to come and consume. Christian growth becomes an optional extra when there is time for it, as so much energy is required to run the programs the church is offering.

By contrast, a focus on missional communities provides a refreshing emphasis on the church simply living out their Christian worldview in community together in everyday life, and inviting their friends to be part of that. This is a process which is more focussed on seeing authentic Christian growth occur rather than just crowds attending impressive Christian programs and events.

  1. They work!

The all important question for many people will just be- but “does it work”? It would be obviously very silly to say that no other model of ministry can work. It would also be a big mistake to put one’s trust in a slick formula or model for ministry, rather than in the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. There are challenges involved in seeking to establish effective missional communities which may make any numerical growth slower than a model which just seeks to attract a crowd through offering various programs. The reason for establishing missional communities needs to be because of conviction of its principles rather than out of pragmatism for its results, as such motivations may not be deep enough to provide the required persistence when things are not going to plan.

Nevertheless, it may be said that missional communities have a track record of success amongst those who have firmly followed through on such a model with discipleship and mission at the centre. I became intrigued initially with missional communities through reading of their success in secular Europe in the book “Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide”, in which it is claimed they saw 725 new churches started in 3 years using missional communities. I quickly realised that the sort of incredible growth experience described there will not necessarily be reproduced elsewhere without the hard work required to place the necessary foundations in place, which will take quite some time, and who knows- perhaps the story there may not be as impressive sounding if it was given closer examination. However, my personal (limited) experience with missional communities is that they have been a breath of fresh air for myself, and I have seen more traction gained in mission and discipleship than in any other ministry tool I’ve been involved in.

Furthermore, it is interesting observing the general move towards them in many western churches over the last decade. The Baptist Union in Victoria is encouraging their development, with Crossway Baptist, the largest Baptist church in Melbourne, considering their use as “best practice”.[1] The Anglican diocese in Tasmania also has intentionally supported their implementation throughout parishes. In the UK, the Church of England uses them widely, as is seen in the “Fresh Expressions” movement and 3dm. Groups like 3dm and Soma are having a wide influence amongst church leaders in the US, with the largest church planting conference Exponential recently having a whole conference devoted to the topic of missional communities.

Similar models are also seen amongst other churches who do not formally use “missional communities”. Ed Stetzer, one of the most widely respected church growth consultants, argues for the importance of small groups having a missional component in his book “Transformational Small Groups”. Holy Trinity Brompton, encourages the use of large size groups they call “pastorates” as being the preferred method of integration of new Christians into churches after completing Alpha courses. Willow Creek Community Church implements “Sectional Groups”, where 4-5 small groups sit together in the same section of church and get together every month for a bbq together. Personally I have seen really encouraging traction in mission and discipleship in doing life this way, and have found them so invigorating and refreshing that it’s fairly deeply rooted in my DNA for ministry from here on in.

[1] https://www.buv.com.au/buvblog/entry/crossway-and-3dm

More blind faith please

Christians are often at pains to point out that, contrary to popular perception, Christian faith is not blind but rather rests on a solid foundation of evidence and reason. Yet there is a place for blind faith in some measure, for didn’t Jesus say to Thomas “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe”?

John’s gosbelievepel is written so that its readers might believe that Jesus is the Christ and so have life through his name, and it narrates the signs Jesus gave so that all may have reason for believing. Yet it also seems to suggest that there is a superior kind of faith that does not merely believe on the basis of sight, but actually believes without sight as well. Why might this be?

Possibly we see a glimpse of some of the inherent weaknesses in faith-by-sight in John 6, in which a crowd has witnessed the incredible miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and is now pursuing Jesus in search of a repeat performance (6:30-31). Faith that rests on sight is never satisfied – it always wants more evidence, more feelings, more experiences that will replenish the faith tank.

We have a tendency to forget the things we have already seen the hand of God in, and demand an ever-present display of miracles. I have a funny feeling that if Jesus started to turn water into wine on my dinner table each night, pretty soon it would be no more remarkable to me than the provision of breakfast cereal each morning, and I would then be needing Jesus to part the Brisbane river each day (which would certainly save me paying the toll) for my faith to be bolstered.

Furthermore, faith that rests on sight tends to become focussed on the physical rather than the spiritual. In John 6, Jesus critiques a large crowd of people for that very thing – their desire is simply to have another free lunch provided rather than to feed on the living bread of life, Jesus Himself. Faith by sight may get excited by miracles, apologetic arguments, or spectacular experiences, and yet fail to focus on the wonderful person from whom these may come.

Every evening I have great faith that I will enjoy a wonderful meal – but it is not just the smell of the food, or the history of past meals, that convinces me. It is the presence of my wife that makes the meal wonderful, and the food is just an added bonus. When we become fixated on the physical, we run the risk of placing faith in Jesus because of what He can do for us rather than who He is to us.

Jesus wishes to push us beyond mere faith-by-sight. Because sometimes we will not be able to see Him, and He will appear to go missing as He did in the case of Mary and Martha on the death of their brother (John 11). Yet His purpose is to push us to a deeper recognition of our fallen weakness, and of His sufficiency for all our needs, resulting in a faith which loves Jesus on a far deeper level.

So let us keep encouraging one another to have blind faith – faith that is not unquenchable in its thirst for ‘proof’ but instead is satiated by the person of Jesus.

3 Types of Leadership Insecurities

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If you want to know how to totally muck it up as a Christian leader then take a look at King Saul, the details of whose reign we find mainly in the books of Samuel. He provides some quite brilliant examples.

His main weakness, which eventually became his downfall, was that he was driven by pride. He was terrified of losing the respect and love and praise of others, and his obsession with keeping those things overrode his desire to obey God.

It’s interesting to observe how this one sin mutated into three different forms throughout Saul’s life, neatly offering us three keys things to avoid if we want to be godly and effective leaders…

1 – FEAR OF FAILURE
In the first stage of Saul’s kingship recorded in 1 Samuel 9-12, he is becoming established as a leader, and God reveals through various means that he will be Israel’s first king. Saul, however, appears to be very hesitant to take on the job. He comes across as a very shy, bashful, humble chap. Now of course it can be a great virtue to be humble and modest, but sinful weaknesses are often hiding deep within our virtues and this was almost certainly the case with Saul. Why was he reticent to stand up and take the job thrust upon him? Probably because of a fear of failure – a fear of the pressure of being constantly in the eye of the public, running the risk that his people might not love or respect him. Hiding behind his seemingly virtuous modesty was actually a great deal of pride.

2 – DESPERATION FOR AFFIRMATION
In the second stage, we see Saul well and truly established as king. Now he is obsessed with keeping his people’s respect. In chapter 13 he becomes terrified into offering a sacrifice as he sees his people scattering away from him. In chapter 14 he makes a foolish vow in order to try to force his soldiers to stay with him. In chapter 15 he lets his people disobey God’s command because he follows their desires rather than God’s. In contrast to his faithful son Jonathan, whose faith is in God rather than the number of soldiers behind him, Saul chooses to follow his people rather than to lead them, desperate for their love and support. His fear of man flowers into disobedience of God.

3 – REFUSAL TO LET GO OF POWER
In the final stage, from chapter 16 onwards, Saul quickly degenerates into a murderous tyrant, seeking to massacre any threat to what he held most dear to his heart: the exclusive love of his people. David has emerged as his likely replacement, and it is clear that he is God’s choice, but Saul’s concern is not for the will of God or even for the wellbeing of his people – his concern is entirely for himself as he faces losing his power. It is the same underlying weakness which has been there all along, now revealing itself in a different form – murderous jealousy.

The story of Saul is a powerful reminder for all aspiring to Christian leadership. Unaddressed weaknesses can end in leadership catastrophes. Our eyes need to be on Christ our perfect leader, believing and obeying Him out of a desire to do His will, not to nurture the praise and love of self.

How Christian growth is not just a matter of gruelling disciplines

ID-100355387When we ask how a Christian grows in their relationship with God, the answer given often sounds like a long list of gruelling routines which are not for the faint-hearted. The basic list of duties always includes at least the following: Bible reading, prayer, church and sharing your faith. The fine print often includes more which people have to sign up for if they really want to grow in their walk with God:

a) reading the whole Bible through each year (4 chapters a day), as well as regularly reading other theological books and listening to celebrity preacher’s podcasts.
b) at least 30 minutes of prayer a day, with the use of prayer lists for friends, missionaries, family, and the persecuted church
c) Attendance at a Sunday church service, a midweek Bible study, and involvement in at least one church ministry.
d) really committed Christians will sign up for some part-time Bible College study as well.

The problem with such an answer is that this places the emphasis for my growth with God entirely in the wrong place- on the things which I do. My walk with God all depends on how hard I try, and how successful I am in my Christian duties. When the emphasis is all on the things which I do, there are 2 very real possible results. Firstly, a person may be successful in mastering these activities, but they cause the person to be filled with pride and self-righteousness, which robs of any real enjoyment of God. Alternatively, a person may try but keep on failing to keep up the list of duties, and so their life becomes filled with guilt and shame, and again, no enjoyment of God.

The error in this thinking is as old as the sin of Adam and Eve- that we can become somebody because of the things we do. Satan said to Eve that if they ate the fruit, they would become like gods. The Bible is full of warnings about people who think that God will be impressed with them simply because of the things they do, whether it be offering sacrifices, fulfilling religious routines or just by doing good works. Christians too commonly   think, if only I can do lots of Bible reading, prayer and other Christian duties, then I will earn God’s approval, I will be a really good Christian, and God will love me even more. This is not what true Christianity looks like, but this is a lie which is natural to our hearts, and which we constantly fall prey to.

What is the truth of the gospel? The truth of the gospel is that God accepts us as his beloved children not because of anything that we do or don’t do, but because of his grace and perfect love given to us in Jesus. Our actions must flow out of this identity which God has already given us- they aren’t required to give us our identity.

The Bible often talks about God’s work being like a plant or a garden growing. Plants need certain things to grow- sunlight, healthy soil, clean air, and water. If plants are not given these ingredients, there is little chance of any growth taking place. But growing plants is a bit different from baking a cake, in which, it really is all up to me to put in exactly the right ingredients and bake for the correct period of time. Plants grow not because of my skill in digging dirt, or in my watering technique. Plants ultimately grow because it is in their DNA to grow as plants, provided they are in a healthy environment and receiving access to sunlight.

It is in our DNA to grow as Christians, if we are consciously living out our identity as sons and daughters of God, received by faith through grace. It does not happen because of any duties which we do. Sometimes we might behave like the toad in the old children’s Frog and Toad stories, who planted some seeds, then yelled at his seeds, “Now seeds, START GROWING!”. Upon their failure to show themselves, he started reading them stories, singing them songs and playing the violin to coax them into appearing. Sometimes Christians behave similarly in thinking that if they just do a list of activities, then they deserve to grow, and they fail to realise that their focus has shifted from God’s grace and love given to them for free in Christ to their own works of Bible reading and praying.

However, Christians do need to cultivate a healthy lifestyle which will allow God’s grace to do its wonderful work and bring growth within us. Just as a farmer applies discipline and even hard work in creating a healthy environment to allow plants to grow, there are structures which we can place in our life to allow our love for God to really grow. Here then are some tips for the sort of lifestyle we can seek to put in place.

Cultivate gratitude. If the key to our growth with God is accepting God’s grace rather than doing Christian duties, then it makes a lot of sense to intentionally pursue the discipline of living life with an attitude of thanksgiving and joy in what God has done. This could mean:
* starting each week by thanking God for 3 things He did in your life the previous week;
* writing out a prayer to pray which thanks God for His grace and love which relates to a specific issue you struggle with. For example, if you struggle with resentment to parents, write a prayer thanking God for the way He is your perfect Father, thanking Him for the lessons he is teaching you through your (sometimes difficult) parents, and thanking him for the many good things you can see in your parents.
* Begin each day by reading out and praying thanksgiving prayers you have written.

Listen to God in the Bible. Much could be said about how to get the most out of reading your Bible than what can be mentioned here. The key however is to aim for quality rather than quantity. That is, don’t just read the Bible and then close it after reading the amount of verses or chapters you aimed for. It really doesn’t matter how much you read- the important question is whether you are listening to what God is saying to you in it. The best way to do this is to read slowly, and after you have read a certain amount, consider the passage again and ask yourself what truth or verse is the most important thing which God wants you to listen to at the moment in your life. Develop the discipline to consider that you have not spent time in the Bible if you cannot say what God has said to you from it each time.

Commune with God in Prayer. There are many aspects to speaking with God: worship, thanksgiving, confession of sin, asking for various needs. Jesus provides us with a great pattern to follow in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 in which these various aspects can be found. The biggest challenges to overcome for a healthy prayer life are often tiredness and distraction. So plan to vary the way you pray to keep it fresh and overcome these challenges. Prayer walking is a great way to overcome tiredness and the distractions of the internet or young children. Meeting with a friend to pray can be helpful at a time of the week when you struggle most with tiredness. Singing songs to God alongside a favourite worship album can awaken your mind when you may not be in the mood. Speaking out loud or writing prayers down can be helpful to focus your attention. Prayer should become a great joy for you in your walk with God- not just a duty to perform.

Recognise what God is doing in your Circumstances. Do you believe that God is at work in your life, every day of the week? When you take time to reflect on what is going on in your life, you will begin to see lots of moments which can be seen as the working of God to teach you more of his character, more of your sinfulness, and more of his grace and love to you. Think back over the last week- did you suffer from depression, stress or anger? These are indications that God has work to do in your soul and opportunities for spiritual breakthroughs if you let God do his work. Did you see anybody whose example inspired or challenged you? Did you see anybody in need of compassion or assistance? Intentionally reflecting on the events of your life will open up new opportunities to grow in your relationship with God as you see him at work in every circumstance of your daily life.

Take Time Out to Rest and Recharge. The idea of resting on the Sabbath day was really big in the Old Testament- and the principle is still there for us to obey in the modern world. Our culture unfortunately values busyness as a symbol of success, and unfortunately that involves living a life frantically running from one activity to the next without any space to breathe. Intentionally planning to have days where you enjoy time spent with God, various types of recreation, and your relationships with friends and family is a vital part of cultivating our relationship with God. Don’t neglect it.

Establish a Pattern of Life.
  We all use patterns of life for the things which are important. We eat three meals a day at various times. We have start and finish times for school or work. If you want to prioritize your relationship with God, you will be wise to make a plan to help you fulfil it. This will probably involve looking at your pattern of life on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, and set routines in place which may help you act out the different activities we have discussed here.

There is one other vital component of growing in your relationship with God. Anyone who starts out on the journey to know God will find that the road is difficult. Most people who seek to do it on their own will find that they make little progress. That is why we need each other- knowing God is a team sport rather than an individual one.