Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Christian

The voice of God

Early in my Christian life I obtained some literature that gave an intellectually logical explanation of the atonement. The theme was that Jesus had suffered punishment in hell equivalent to the eternal torment of every soul that would ever be saved. Therefore there was no way that a saved soul need ever fear hell, because his penalty had already been fully paid. On the other hand, there was no hope for those for whom Jesus had not borne the eternal punishment.

This is just the briefest of summaries of what I read, the subject was expounded at considerable length with selected Scriptures that seemed to support the view of the writers. I considered this explanation for some time. It was a watertight argument, intellectually precise with no loose ends that I could find. Yet in this mathematical precision I could find no means for a person to know in which camp he was; was he predestined to salvation or to damnation? Was it possible to know?

Finally, in the turmoil of these questions, I knelt to pray, asking God to give me an understanding of how the death of Jesus made it possible for God to forgive the sins of mankind. The response was immediate – it was silent but unmistakably from God: “You don’t need to understand.”

I was disappointed for a moment, then realized that the turmoil was gone – my mind was at rest.  I had been seeking an understanding of the mechanism of the atonement that would be intellectually satisfying and set my mind at rest. I realized now that it is not possible for that kind of understanding to bring rest and peace. Yet it only took five words from the voice of God to do that.

To know that God was aware of my turmoil, that He was waiting for my prayer, that He had answered in a way that addressed my real need, was of more value than any intellectual understanding could ever have been.

A time of testing

Now these are the nations which the LORD left, to prove Israel by them, even as many of Israel as had not known all the wars of Canaan; only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war, at the least such as before knew nothing thereof; namely, five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites that dwelt in mount Lebanon, from mount Baalhermon unto the entering in of Hamath. And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. (Judges 3:1-4)

This has been the situation of Christians from the time of the apostles till today. We are living in enemy territory, there is spiritual warfare being waged against us every day.

Yet we are comfortable here, we see no danger. The LORD wants to teach us war; is it too late for us to learn? Do we know who our enemies are? Perhaps we are too much aware of those who are corrupt, dishonest, immoral, teachers of deception. Taking all such people out of the way would not solve the ills of this world. They are tools of the enemy and he would find others to do his bidding.

Is it possible that we can live moral and upright lives, praise God with our lips and at the same time the desires of our heart and the thoughts of our mind can be patterned after the world?

Here are a few things the Bible speaks of that may indicate whether we have identified the real enemy. Do we:

  • Suppose that gain is godliness?
  • Respect the rich and despise the poor?
  • Feel discontent with what we have?
  • Speak evil of others?
  • Find it difficult to speak of our relationship with the Saviour?
  • Have compassion for those who are weak in the faith?
  • Speak disrespectfully of people in authority?
  • Look down on people of different language, culture or skin colour?
  • Attribute our salvation to the faith of our parents?
  • Judge a person’s faith by his lifestyle?

Our enemy has no problem with people who are Bible-reading, church-going Christians, as long as they don’t get enthused about it. We can know and live by to all the principles and guidelines of the Christian faith, as long as we are comfortable being passive Christians. As soon as we become active he becomes alarmed and tries to sidetrack us or discourage us.

Treacle and wizards

If you have read Alice in Wonderland and other books of that era written in England, you have encountered the word treacle. It is not much used this side of the water.

Treacle has a history. It was originally a Greek word meaning an antidote for a poisonous animal bite. It migrated into Latin, then French and then English, carrying the original meaning all the way. Then in English the meaning gradually widened to mean medicine of any kind, then to a sweetener added to medicine to disguise the taste, and finally just the sweet stuff itself: syrup or molasses. From there, it developed the analogous meaning of cloying sentimentality.

Cloying is interesting in itself. Oxford defines it as excessively sweet or sentimental, Cloy originates from the same Lain root that produced clé (key) and clou (nail) in French. The only connection between cloy, clé and clou that comes to my mind is the idea of fastening something. Thus, in my mind, something cloying is syrupy sweet and hard to get rid of.

To illustrate where my line of thought is going, here is a quote from Louisa May Alcott:
“People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays.”

I believe the part that people don’t want to be preached at has always been true. The answer is not to forget about writing anything with a moral message. Good writers, inspired writers, have found ways to demonstrate moral truths without preaching.

There are Christian books, stories and poems for children from the Victorian era that some Christian people think are wonderful. It must be an acquired taste, the result of being exposed to that kind of literature all through one’s childhood. I wasn’t; I can’t stand those books and I suspect most non-Christians would find them as sickeningly sweet and meaningless as I do,

The writers are preaching, they have a message, a spiritual lesson, that they are trying to convey. To avoid anyone finding the message distasteful they slather it with treacle. The better way would have been to leave out the treacle and make the characters and the circumstances more believable. The characters are more like cardboard cutouts than living people. I wonder if those who have been fed a steady diet of such treacle really have much idea how a real person responds to the gospel.

There is not much of a market for morality, but there is a market for a well told story about believable people who face real life problems. Let the writer weave in moral and spiritual truth; that is not at all fatal in the marketplace. Think of the popularity of books like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and the books from George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Some Christians don’t want their children to read such books because they are fantasy. I think of them this way – children know the world is a mysterious and dangerous place, that bad things happen for no apparent reason. It’s no good raising children on books that pretend everything is always going to work out for the best, because real life doesn’t work that way.

The value in the books by Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien is that they acknowledge that evil is very present in the world, but show that there is also a supernatural good present in the world that can triumph for those that trust in it. These books do not explicitly mention God, yet His presence is implicit. Other books about good and evil are popular in our day, but they show the good side triumphing by using the same tactics as the evil side. Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien never do that, evil behaves in an evil way, good triumphs by trusting in the power of good.

That is a real life lesson that children need to hear and learn. It is not taught by treacle, nor by wizards that rely on the powers of darkness.

A life-giving faith

We Christians have a lot to say about heaven and how we long to be there. Is anticipation enough to get us there? If we are not experiencing joy in the journey, will we make it?

Many Christians are experiencing a joyous and happy life, filled with joy far more abundant than they ever knew before they abandoned the way of the world. Others are burdened with care, wanting to always do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing. Their eyes are so fixed upon the ground, ever fearful of dangers that may lie on their path, that they forget to look up and see the glory of the Lord.

We don’t have to live like that. We don’t want to look for pleasure in things the world around us calls fun; but living with the dread of making a misstep is not the way Jesus wants us to live. He has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us on our way, to comfort us when we are on the right path and warn us if we are in danger of stepping off that path.

The fear of the Lord is an honest awareness of the seriousness of life, the seriousness of the choices we make every day. That kind of fear leads not to dread but to trust and joy.

May I offer this paraphrase of Romans 12:2;

“Don’t pattern your thinking after the things that are highly esteemed in today’s world, but let the Holy Spirit renew your thinking to understand the complete will of God so that your life can be transformed into what He wants it to be.”

What is needed to have a healthy congregation?

Blaise Pascal wrote; “The heart of man is so deceitful that as soon as he begins to think about getting converted, he believes he is.” A congregation largely made up of people like that will never prosper spiritually. So the starting point for a healthy congregation is that it must be made up of people who really are converted.

Is that all it takes? Let’s be honest, we are at best flawed and selfish creatures, each with out own blueprint of what a congregation should be. It as inevitable that even among spiritual people there will be frictions and differences of vision. We need to accept that and not expect that a church will be made up of people who are flawless. Not here on earth.

Another essential element in a real life congregation of real people is that there must be one or more members who do not soon get excited about differences, but who quietly work to help people lay aside their differences and work together for the honour of God.

Not a dynamic leader who has all the answers and expects others to fall in line and follow him. That eventually leads to shipwreck. I mean someone who can listen, discern where the shoe pinches and help members make the small adjustments that will ease the pain so that all can turn their attention to God and away from themselves.

Every congregation needs to have its peacemakers, because it is certain that things will arise to disturb the peace. Another name for such a person is a rassembleur. He is that special kind of leader who helps people all arrive at the same conviction without feeling that it has been imposed on them by someone else.

If there is no rassembleur in a congregation, that lack will be obvious. Little misunderstandings will not be resolved and will grow into major problems. If there is one or more in a congregation, things work smoothly and others are hardly aware of what the rassembleurs are doing.

(I have chosen to use a French word here, for lack of a good English equivalent. Rassembleur means a person who is able to inspire others to work together toward a common goal. The best English translation would be uniter, but it does not describe all that is meant by rassembleur. Besides, uniter is not a word we are accustomed to hearing in English, whereas rassembleur is a very common word in French.)

And be ye thankful

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Reading the news can can give one the impression that everything around us is changing, crumbling, ready to collapse. But when I pause to reflect, there are a lot of things in my day to day life that have not changed, and I take courage. Here are a few things that come to my mind:

  • The Lord is my shepherd
  • My wife, who has stuck with me for almost 50 years
  • I am 78 and still in good health
  • Our daughter, her husband and our four grandchildren
  • Our spiritual family, brothers and sisters who are serving God, but who don’t do everything just right and who are OK with the fact that we don’t either
  • The few cousins left whom I have known all my life
  • Every opportunity to meet new people
  • Young people who choose to follow the Lord
  • Our two cats who keep home life interesting
  • It’s almost spring and the daylight hours are increasing by four minutes each day

Feeling like a victim?

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; build ye houses, and dwell [in them]; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. Jeremiah 29:4-7

Aren’t we in much the same position as the Jews who were captive in a foreign land that did not know their God? This vile world that we live in is not a friend of grace, to lead us on to God. Do we think it should be? Do we feel like victims?

Victims we may be, but we are not helpless. God is our help and He instructs us to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and get on with living a victorious Christian life, right here where we are.  He even tells us to pray for our governments in these heathen lands. And all the countries of the world are heathen lands.

Complaining does not bring peace, it just discourages us. Why should citizens of the heavenly kingdom ever be discouraged? Jesus promises abundant life, it is within our grasp. “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet.” (Hebrews 12:12-13)

Basic nonresistance

Matthew 5:39 — But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

If I cannot forgive the person who hurts my feelings, can I honestly claim exemption from military service because I am nonresistant?

The pen of the wise

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Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I begin every day by meeting God, first in His Word, then in prayer. My French Bible is on a shelf just above the computer monitor. Most often I read and hear gentle reminders of things I know, but which are always in need of reinforcement. The strength I receive from this quiet time helps me through the day, even if the words I read seldom come to mind.

Some mornings are different. It’s afternoon now and the message of Proverbs 15:2 is still turning around in my mind, like a cat looking for the most comfortable position to settle down. I have three French Bibles on that shelf, all translations I believe to be trustworthy. One word is different in two of them, but the sense is still the same: The tongue of the wise makes knowledge attractive.

Well, of course. That’s so obvious. I knew that already. But did I really? Have I really got it yet? Why do I so naturally slip into teachy-preachy mode, reproaching others for not understanding things that seem so obvious to me?

That’s why people love to read C. S. Lewis. It’s like sitting down to visit with an old friend about everyday things. After the visit, you realize you have learned something important, without ever feeling like you were being taught. There is nothing bombastic about his writing style; no hint of: “You need to listen to what I say because I am important.”

Blaise Pascal was like that, too. He set out to write a defence of Christian faith, knowing how difficult it would be: “People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of reverence and respect. Then show that it is attractive, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.”

Pascal died young, before he could complete the book he wanted to write. All he left behind was scraps of paper on which he had written his thoughts. His friends collected those thoughts into a book; Les Pensées has become a classic of French literature on the same level as Pilgrim’s Progress in English.

I have four copies of Les Pensées (the thoughts) of Blaise Pascal, in French and in English. Each editor had his own idea of the way Pascal wanted his thoughts ordered. None of them agree. It doesn’t matter. Each time I read a few of those scraps of paper Pascal left behind I am struck with how simple Christian truth appears from his hand, his mind—and how profound.

And Wow! This is how it’s done. This is how one makes truth attractive.

Is possible for me to learn this?

Christ is in all

The following question came in my email this morning and I decided to post it and give my thoughts.  Feel free to join the conversation.

I enjoy many of your inspiring blogs and this morning read “A matter of the heart, not the head.” You wrote: “ …and there did not seem to be a closeness, a genuine trust and fellowship among the members.”

I understand the line and have noticed or experienced this too; but my question is: what specifically brings us to “closeness, genuine trust and fellowship” ? Not to downplay faith in Christ, I am thinking that a common practiced tradition and custom also play a part of the closeness you refer to. Can such closeness and fellowship exist without a common tradition ? What do you think ? H. W.

I believe that “a common practiced tradition and custom” can lead to a form of closeness.  Just not the kind we were looking for. Some of the churches we visited did have the form of unity produced by a common ethnic and religious heritage, but as I wrote “it was never clear to us how many of them might actually have a relationship with the Shepherd.”

The apostle Paul described the church this way in Colossians 3:11: “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond [nor] free: but Christ [is] all, and in all.” Let me unpack that statement. Jews were those people who believed themselves to be God’s people by virtue of their family heritage. Greeks were everybody else in the parts of Asia and Europe mentioned in the New Testament. The circumcised were the adherents to the Jewish traditions, the uncircumcised were those for whom those traditions had no meaning. Barbarians were people who spoke an unfamiliar language. Scythians were people whose culture and customs seemed bizarre to the Jews and Greeks. Bond and free refers to social status. Paul is saying that none of those things mattered; the one thing that matters is whether one has a relationship with Jesus Christ.  “Christ in you, the hope of glory” Colossians 1:27.

That must still be the grounds of Christian fellowship. My wife and I have belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 41 years. A majority of the members are of one ethnic heritage. We are not. It doesn’t matter. Mennonite in our day has been relegated in many people’s minds to an ethnic culture. I am not part of that culture, much of it is incomprehensible to me, but I am a Mennonite by faith.

By culture and tradition I still feel like a boy out of a W. O. Mitchell story. I listened to Jake and the Kid on radio when I was young, a few years later I read Who Has Seen the Wind. I felt like I was the kid in  those stories, I identified fully with this boy  experiencing the wind in the grass, watching people around him cope with life, feeling part of the prairie.

God has called me, I have embraced the faith once delivered to the saints, I enjoy fellowship with brothers and sisters of this faith, whatever their background. But I am not a Mennonite by birth, language, culture or tradition. In those things I am a kid from the prairie, this is my land, these are my people.

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