Beautiful, but Deadly.

Courtesy to Mathiole (DevientArt)

So many things in this world are aesthetically pleasing but potentially deadly. Brightly coloured plants, flowers and animals scatter the earth that could end our lives if we made direct contact. Often I marvel at these things in creation, beautifully and wonderfully made by my opinion.

They also come to mind when I consider the spread of the gospel. Throughout Paul’s letters in the New Testament he often warns new churches against sugar-coated messages. The genius that allows these messages to survive is that they contain just enough of the truth within them that they could be seen as plausible despite being spiritually deadly. We live in a time where “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suite their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

I see these churches that include false messages and promises growing rapidly. People are drawn to them because they appeal to their passions. Often these churches grow faster and larger than those that preach the straight truth.

Why is that? Wouldn’t people want to hear the truth? The gospel is essentially offensive. Since “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel”(2 Cor 4:4) we can often be discouraged by our efforts to spread the word in light of the growth in these other churches. But Paul urges that since “this ministry is by the mercy of God, we of not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:1-3).

In sadness I have seen friends committing their lives to Christ in these churches that have promised things such as healing, earthly comfort and wealth and on seeing none of these fulfilled have been disoriented, discouraged and essentially lost all confidence in our Lord. So I urge you, as Paul does in his letters to “always be sober-minded, endure suffering, so the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.” (2 Tim 4:5). Be aware of the teachings in your church and test them against the word of God.

As an interesting aside, if this interests you, Cole Brown has written a short and relevant account of his challenge to his church. It’s called Lies My Pastor Told Me, Cole pulls apart these lies, often common amongst these churches, using  gospel evidence. Check it out, the e-book is free to download here.

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The Moon Is Round

A 14 year old girl who was slowly decaying from cancer was asked by her family to keep a journal. When she died, they found a note that said: “The moon is round.” As they read your journal they learnt that she meant that even when you can only see a sliver of the moon, you still know it is round. In the same way, she knew that even though she couldn’t fully understand what was going on, that God was sovereign.

That was an illustration in a talk over KEC 2012 that I was really encouraged by. I went back this year to yet again serve the senior high kids and they in turn were such an encouragement to me. One of them said one day, that in our busy city lives, when we look up at the stars we can’t see them. But when you strip away the busyness, head out into the country and lie in the middle of a field, all the glory of God’s creation is stretched out before you and you can’t help but marvel. I was so encouraged to not let my earthly life cloud my vision of God’s immense holiness and wonder.

As we sat together under the word of God we were blown away by the infinite becoming intimate as God transfers his holiness to us as we are made right by God and for God. (Isaiah 6:1-9). And how perceiving truly his holiness we should be driven to our deeds as we see the horror of our sin. We learnt how unfair the truth is. That Christ would lovingly save his enemies from what they deserved, so that we can have no punishment, no penalty but peace (Romans 5:1-11). So that even in suffering, we can have tears of joy, knowing we are united in Christ and that even our sin and shame can’t prevent him from loving us.

Even though God will continue to forgive us our sins, this grace is not a licence to sin. Instead, the old person that we were is crucified along with Christ so that we bear condemnation no more. We are made a new creation, born again, united with Christ in his resurrection. Our new selves are called to do things that are not to our earthly advantage, but these earthly risks are for eternal values. No longer does God dwell separate from us but instead with us, as the Holy Spirit, no longer slaves to sin, we are empowered to face and overcome sin. (Romans 6:1-14)

We have a God who is faithful to his promises, Merciful to his people and so we endure in the hope we have been given and are driven to share that hope.

As we were talking in our discussion group, someone said, “But we’re young and often I don’t feel equipped to tell people what I believe.” Someone pulled out Job 32:6-10:

“And Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite answered and said:
I am young in years,
and you are aged;
therefore I was timid and afraid
to declare my opinion to you.
I said,’Let days speak,
and many years teach wisdom.’
But it is the spirit in man,
the breath of the Almighty, that
makes him understand.
It is not the old who are wise,
nor the aged who understand what
is right.
Therefore I say, ‘Listen to me;
let me also declare my opinion.’

He gives and He takes away.

Something that has really struck me over the past week or so is the combination of God’s sovereignty and human suffering. As I’ve started reading through Job, looking into common lies taught in churches and heard some bad news I’ve come to face the reality that God controls all.

Good news, or bad news first? Let’s start with the bad. Just a few days ago I heard news that a young girl, the sister of one of my old friends, suicided. I can’t say I’ve faced this before. I thought about writing a post about suicide, but what can you say? Not much in the way of practical methods or understanding in order to deal with it.

Here’s the good news: That’s when I realised what God had been showing me and teaching me in the lead up. I’ve been reading up on awful misinterpretations of the Bible and how these are used (very often in fact) in churches. I was planning a few blog posts on these. One of them, just to spoil the surprise, is the idea that “God heals those who have faith”. Without going into too much detail, this claim essentially renders sick people as without faith and without the Holy Spirit. Which is evidently wrong. It claims that the more faith you have, the more healthy you will be. But God doesn’t promise us any of this, in fact, many of the apostles (Paul and Timothy) were sick and were not healed despite their prayers. Instead of health on earth, God promises us spiritual health and that he will get rid of physical sickness and death when he returns.

“So it will be with the resurrection ofthe dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable,; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” 1 Corinthians 15:42-44a.

Secondly, I’ve been reading through Job. Job was this guy that feared and respected God, and was blessed with material wealth – he had lots of stuff, heaps of kids and was known for it. But get this, God says to Satan:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”

Job 1:8

God suggests Job to Satan. And Satan’s response is he’s great and all ” But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (v10). So God takes him on his claim and gives Job over to Satan: “all that he has in in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (v12) So off goes Satan and he takes everything that Job has, his stuff burns down, all his kids are killed, his family is destroyed. He has nothing left but himself. And what does he say? Surely, he would prove Satan right.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21

Strange, right? But it makes sense. All those things were given to him as gifts, he existed before them. They were given by God and thus, God has the ability to take them away. Not only this, but he praises God.

Job’s hardship continues as Satan plagues him with illness. Jobs friends come to comfort him but all they can do is sit “with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (2:13).

That’s as far as I’ve read in Job, but I am just so grateful that God is working even in suffering. That even before it happened he directed my attention to these things. He has challenged me to praise him as Job does, because everything on this earth is an undeserved gift, that he can easily and rightfully take away.

Forgive and Forget?

Forgiveness. The act of letting someone off the hook. In moderation, forgiveness feels right. It makes you feel like a great, kind and generous person. But when it reaches a threshold, it’s no longer an act of kindness but an ignorance towards injustice, is it not? So where is this threshold, if there is one? And why should we even bother forgiving, when really it isn’t just?

Jesus disciples had the same question:

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Matthew 18:21-22

Now, Jesus isn’t setting a threshold here, he’s not giving us a number to count up to before we seek revenge. It’s the equivalent of when you pull out the wildcard when you argued with your siblings when you were young: “I’m better that you times infinity.” Jesus says, there is no threshold, you should just keep forgiving without number.

Now, that just seems unreasonable. You can’t just keep forgiving, where’s the justice in that? To make his point Jesus uses a parable, which he often does:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.”

Matthew 18:23

Just as the King wants to settle his debts with his servants, so does God want to fix our debt to him. Our rebellion has a cost, Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death.” Our actions bring us to owe God our life, he has more than the right to take it. However, the story continues:

“When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents [1 Talent = 20 years work; thus 10,000 Talents = 200,000 years work]. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and the payment had to be made.”

Matthew 18:24-5

Not a pretty picture. The servant obviously hasn’t got the years in him to work off this debt and the only thing that seems to solve the problem is the life of him and his family. Just as we are incapable of paying for our sin with all the good deeds and action we can muster, this servant can’t pay back this debt.

“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'”

Matt 18:26

As any sane person would do in this situation, they would try and save themselves. It almost seems like the instinctive response to this kind of debt is to promise the unfulfillable. I’ll pay you back, don’t worry, even though it is humanly impossible, I’ll make the promise because it gives a sense of false assurance. I’m in over my head.

You may be thinking, what does this have to do with general forgiveness, it’s not like majority of issues are debt related. Just bear with me, I’m getting there. Jesus continues:

“And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”

Matt 18:27

Obviously the servant’s promise was a cry for mercy that came out of a fear and understanding of the hopelessness of his situation. There was no way he could get himself out of it. The master sees this, has pity on him and just lets him off the hook. Just for a minute, close your eyes and imagine the emotions, the sensations that the servant must be feeling. Thankfulness isn’t a big enough concept to even encompass the experience.

This is the extent to which we are forgiven through Christ. That is why Christianity is such a different religion: it asks for nothing in return for salvation, for there is nothing that humanity can offer that can satisfy the debt. The verse from Romans that I mentioned earlier also has the same ending:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23.

However, the parable continues:

“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [100 denarii = a days work], and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe me’. ”

Matthew 18:28

So off skips this free servant and he stumbles upon someone he happened to lend money to. You have to notice, his methods are a little more violent than his masters.

“So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you’. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”

Matt 18:29

Just as the servant pleaded with his master, so too does his friend plead with him. You’d think after having experienced such mercy that the servant would feel more inclined to give mercy himself but he doesn’t. This has consequence:

“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I has mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:32-35

The servant has his master to answer to. His behaviour has cost him the mercy he received initially. It seems almost illogical that he didn’t see how little his act of mercy would have been in comparison to the mercy he received from his master and yet he could not forgive.

So this is how forgiveness should work, then. God offers us mercy and forgiveness in our sin because there is no way we could fix the problems we’ve created on our own. Thus, this forgiveness should spur us to forgive others their wrongs which are so much less in comparison to what we’ve received.

Everyone’s Religious: whether you like it or not.

 

To some this may come as a shock, maybe not to others, but it’s true: everyone is religious.  People often think of religion as a set of defining rules that guide life based on some supernatural power they call their God(s).

Check out the Oxford dictionary definition of Religion: “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.”

I don’t think one can go through life without having an interest that they devote themselves to. Even the atheist, they have devoted themselves to denying the existence of God, a sportsman has a religious attitude towards their sport, or a businessman has devoted themselves to growth and profit, etc etc.

Think about some of the things you devote yourself to, are they worth the effort? Or are they essentially futile and keep you busy while you live on this earth?

I was reading Acts 17 this morning and I was struck by how little humanity has changed, if at all. After Jesus ascended into heaven, his disciples took the truth to the nations. Paul, who was once called Saul, and he was “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3). He was heading off to Damascus to find “any belonging to the Way, men or women” to “bring them bound back to Jerusalem”(Acts 9:2) when he had a revelation, and became one of the most influential people in the Bible.

So Paul travels around, going into churches, starting churches and just telling anyone and everyone the truth offered through and in Jesus. Acts Chapter 17 records Paul’s work in Athens. So he’s arrived at Athens and walked into the Areopagus to address them. The Areopagus is the judicial body of aristocratic origin that subsequently formed the higher court of modern Greece.

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god’. What therefore you worship is unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23

Paul’s picked up on all the things these people dedicate themselves to, many of which are man-made and some they can’t even name or know. He addresses Athens because “he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives all mankind life and breath and everything.”

Acts 17:25

Paul reveals the real God, who doesn’t need us to help him out, who isn’t restricted to temples. A God who is the creator and the provider and the sustainer providing mankind even with breath. Is that not more worthwhile of devotion than an ‘unknown god’ or a material god? But why devote yourself to a God that has no need of us? Paul continues:

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

‘we are indeed his offspring.'”

Acts 17:26-28

Why should we bother following God? Because God created us with a purpose, he gave us life so that we should ‘seek God’. But God isn’t this abstract force, we are made in his image, ‘his offspring’. We exist because of him, so isn’t that reason enough to exist for him?

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:29-31

Not only should we seek God, but there are consequences for your decisions. Because we are in his image, his ‘offspring’, we shouldn’t replace him with things he’s made. How ridiculous to think that a material object that God has created is more worthy of devotion or pursuit than the being that created it!

God has not just left us with no direction as to how to come to him, he sent us his son Jesus Christ (who is the man appointed to judge). He’s given us the opportunity to repent and have assurance, even through judgement, despite the fact we’ve offended him by replacing him with these inanimate objects. This judgement is guaranteed by Jesus resurrection. He is often referred to as the ‘firstborn among the dead’ (Col 1:18). Everyone will be judged based upon this decision. So what are our options then?

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this”. So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed.”

Acts 17:32-34

A claim like this demands a response. Either you can see a vivid reality of judgement and a conviction of your offense toward the Creator and repent, or you can see this as the folly of ignorant and mislead people. Think about it. This decision has real consequence, eternal consequence.

So what have you placed where the living God of the universe should be? Or do you think He is unworthy of that position and you would prefer to devote yourself to the created, the mortal and fleeting? It’s up to you, but it’s not a decision you should treat lightly.

Life, Death and Everything in Between so far…

I’ve just come back from serving a church alongside a group of students from uni. During those few days, a number of us shared how they came to know Christ and how God has been working in their lives. It made me realise the value of testimonies to reveal the power of God in your life. I’ve never really thought about my testimony, and when one of the team members asked me about it I decided it would be valuable if I had a go at it. Most people when presenting their testimony centre it around a certain period in their life but I’m just going to give it a go.

To begin with I think I’ve always been a Christian, I grew up in a Christian family and many of my extended family are also believers. There has not been a moment when I would deny having faith. I asked my Mum this morning if she remembers if there was a time in my childhood when I came to trust Jesus. She said that as early as three years old I told her I was friends with Jesus. So my story is one of periods of growth rather than massive leaps in understanding.

Through my early days Jesus Christ was my friend, I learnt about him and I prayed to him. I understood him as my protector and someone who loved me. My father had a significant role in the youth group programs at our church so I tagged along and hung out with the big kids, some of which I’ve run into in recent years. We moved when I was about 5 so I could start at a Christian school. At this stage I ignorantly assumed that everyone knew Jesus and I distinctly remember being confused that one of my friends in my class didn’t believe in God.

Moving into high school I was confident in my faith. I changed into the public system and confronted many things I hadn’t really been aware of before. Most of my friends had broken families, some had alcoholic parents. God really used me in these early days, I started high school without any friends and as I made them I brought them along to youth. I have to admit I invited them partly because there were few people in my age group but now I can see the transformations God has made in these people. I became so confident in my faith that I started inviting people to church that I would normally never speak to. In Christian Education classes I had noticed some of the ‘popular’ girls were asking hugely profound questions so I gave them John Dickson books and invited them to youth, although none of them came I prayed that they’d read the books.

As I reached mid high school, I was on fire for God. I revelled in his word and often shared it with others. I read it with people at school in recess times and prayed with people when they struggled. When my friends, even non-Christians, faced issues such as abortion and family struggles they’d come to me and ask me what my God said about it. I prayed for them.

When I was in year 10, I was at a stage where I felt most stable and established in life. I was getting amazing marks, I had a great group of friends, I had just been elected into the prefect team for the following year. Life was going amazingly. I was counting down the days to my 16th, when reality reared its ugly head.

I remember distinctly sitting in a meeting about our prefect induction, I was totally pumped about my birthday that weekend when my friend turns to me and tells me the news. All morning people had been talking about a car accident a few suburbs over, but she told me that it was one of my friends from primary school that had died in it. At 15, I had confronted death before, but only that of my grandparents which in a sense is more natural. It was one of those surreal moments when the news became a reality. So often i would let these tragedies just roll
over me but now when i hear them. i think of the effect this had on her family and friends and I pray for those affected.
This was someone who was the same age as me, who I knew, who I had grown up with and was just like me, I had learnt to ski with her and holidayed with her. She was someone who trusted Jesus just like I did.

I spent the rest of the week struggling with the injustice and the fragility of life. I was confronted with the concept that all the plans I had for my life could be thwarted just as easily. Her family all followed Christ, she had followed Christ, so why did she die? I didn’t go to school but instead I searched through my Bible and read every passage on death and eternal life. And one that stayed with me and I meditated on for hours was Job 1:21:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;

may the name of the Lord be praised.”

I came not just to know but to deeply understand what was valuable in life. The life I had built up around me and the achievements I placed value in meant nothing in comparison to the eternal value of salvation in Christ. The death of my friend brought to light all the things I took for granted and the fragility of life on earth but also it revealed what is important in life. Every year on the day that she died, my best friend and I pray together and thank God for her and what He has taught us and we praise Him for what he has blessed us with. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not in control of my life but He is. That by his grace I am alive in this world and I should use that life to glorify Him instead of building up my own empire.

As I entered my senior years I was well aware of my desires to do really well and set a goal to keep going to youth, Bible Study and church regardless of how stressed I felt. The HSC year was one of the hardest for me. I’m one of those people that places pressure on themselves to get high grades, so when teachers started using their scare tactics it lead to a number of emotional breakdowns. During that year, my relationship with God fell into a routine that fit in between my study, instead of being the centre of my life, it became the peripheral that calmed my breakdowns.

When I reached the end of the HSC I realised how I had compartmentalised God. He was still a part of my life but I didn’t entirely trust him with everything, and I had been seeking approval and respect from my peers through my grades. I started to struggle with bouts of guilt which plagued me throughout my first year of uni as well. During this time I was really challenged by Pauls attitude in Philippians:

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
Philippians 3:7-9

I noticed how my Bible readings had become shallow and so I started this blog, where I planned to post things that forced me to reflect on the word of God. The funny thing is, I started this blog with selfish intentions – to enrich my personal relationship with God, to feel that fire I had in my early years of high school. It was about satisfying myself. But then, a friend of mine started asking me questions about my beliefs, I began the “Itching Questions” tab for him. And as he questioned me, I had to do research of my own and I came to learn and understand that my purpose in life was not to merely satisfy myself, but to find that satisfaction by seeking to glorify Jesus Christ and through that I would find fulfillment and all that I needed.

Late last year, my Nonna grew very ill. She had a heart attack and miraculously survived but still with great suffering. She was a faithful follower of Jesus but a hater of the medical industry. She refused to get help so as a family we took turns looking after her. During that time, I prayed really hard and often for her. She was someone I really loved and respected, she had always seemed strong and invincible to the extent that her heart attack at 92 came as a surprise.

For months, all my aunties and uncles took turns babysitting her. She often had difficulty sleeping and would often wake up crying out to God to stop her suffering. It was a great time of tension and conflict with many family disagreements and regrets. Just when she was looking better she had her second heart attack early this year. I spent many hours by her hospital bed. I read her Psalms and sometimes we’d sing her hymns. She moved in and out of consciousness. Even through these times she cared more for her kids and grandchildren than herself. She would asked me if I was hungry or wanted something to drink even if the breathes it took to say the words caused her pain and energy. In her struggles I was shown a woman who through her own suffering, continued to be self-sacrificial, placing the well-being of others before her own even on her death bed.

As her hours grew short, we were given a private room. Most of the extended family were there – and there’s a lot of us – a classic Italian family. Each of us were permitted to speak our last words to her alone. It is one of the most vivid memories of my life, trying to form the words to say what she meant to me. Instead, I held her hand and watched her short breathes, praising God for blessing this world with such an amazing woman and prayed that I could learn her self-sacrificial ways. Her death came as a comfort for me, because she loved Christ and her life was given to serve him. It is amazing the comfort in death Christians can have even to the extent that Paul struggled to choose between which was better, life or death:

“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Philippians 1:21-24

Heading to University was the next stage and joining the Christian group there has lead me to realise that I had placed God in a grid and as I read his word I squished, twisted and folded it to fit what I wanted it to say. This year as I reflect on what I’ve learnt, I realise that the people I have met have challenged me to read God’s word for what it has to say, not what I want it to say.

After the conference I attended just a few days ago, Rory Shiner forced me to come head to head with my bouts of guilt. I had been struggling with the idea that I continually fail and don’t deserve God’s grace. I had fallen into the trap of trying to deal with these things thinking that it would make Christ accept me.

Rory preached from Romans 6:15-23. I realised that in Christ I am no longer a slave to sin, but a slave to righteousness. I had been freed from sin, but I had become the slave that still responds to her old master even though sin no longer owns me. Christ bought me at a price and freed me from sin so I no longer have to respond to it. Such a burden off my shoulders! So there’s a brief rendition of my testimony, I hope you are encouraged by the way God has worked in my life and I encourage you to think about your own testimony too.