A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 2

The second phrase I want to look at is one I picked up from Americans. I think it’s brilliant, but I have found that there are English folk who have a problem getting their heads round. It’s this: I always think I’m right, but I don’t think I’m always right! So let’s take this apart and find the sparkling gems of important biblical principles so succinctly and brilliantly stated by it.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which Christians can fall concerning how they apprehend the truths of scripture. One is to be so un-definite and wishy-washy that it’s difficult to know quite what they believe about anything. Many believers are so ‘shades of grey’ through fear of being thought of as being too black and white, so woolly- and double-minded in their desire to avoid ever being thought of as being overly dogmatic, they end up virtually conviction-less and pretty much useless as far as serving the Lord goes. Evangellyfish with no backbone! In his letter James states that a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways, and this is one of the major reasons why so many Christians are so hopelessly compromised and cowardly in their discipleship and witness to the surrounding culture. Because they are not clear on even the basics of the faith, they just wobble all over the place having little to saying just keeping their heads down and to avoid controversy.

The opposite error, however, is when believers hold understandings and convictions regarding the teaching of scripture which, once embraced, become fixed and unalterable in their thinking. They then deem their doctrinal positions to not even be open for discussion, let alone possible re-examination and re-assessment in the light of increased scriptural awareness and knowledge. And of course there is a spectrum in-between these two extremes which, given that none of us are ever in perfect balance, each of us is somewhere along at any given time. It is, after all, quite possible to have intractable convictions regarding those bits of the Bible we take a liking to and especially agree with, whilst being conviction-less – indeed, probably just completely ignoring – those parts about which we might simply not be bothered. All this is error and imbalance, and we need to be doing everything we can to get it right. So let’s break our phrase down into it’s two constituent parts.

First, I always believe I’m right! Think about it! Why would we believe certain things, thereby acting and behaving in whatever way those beliefs demand, if we didn’t believe those things to be right? Definite biblical conviction is meant to be the very basis upon which we live! Jesus said, “They shall know the truth and the truth shall set them free.” So if I am living on any basis, in any area of my life, that is not a positive embracing of, and obedient response to, clear biblical conviction, then I am not, by definition, being faithful to the Lord and am living in bondage in such regard. If we claim to be disciples then the only thing that should matter to us is being in conscious obedience to scripture. Jesus also said, “If you love me you will obey my commands.”

This is obviously an ongoing process which progresses over time, but once we are saved our whole intent should be to be continually adjusting our thinking, and therefore our lives, in order so as to conform with our growing understanding of what the Bible teaches. Wherever we find ourselves at variance with it, whether in belief or action, then the evidence of discipleship, as opposed to us proving to just be carnal Christians, is that we duly repent. That is, that we change both our thinking and our behaviour accordingly.

There are obviously also going to be those things concerning which, at any one time, we are genuinely unclear on regarding what scripture teaches, the jury, so to speak, still being out, but even then we should still be continually seeking to understand more and more of its teaching in order to adjust ourselves and our lifestyles accordingly. We cannot truly follow the Lord and grow in Him without also growing in clear progressing biblical conviction regarding every area of life.

So yes, of course I always think I’m right. If I didn’t think I was right regarding whatever I believe, such being the basis for how I live, then what business do I have believing whatever it might be in the first place? James also states quite clearly in his letter that if a man knows what is right but doesn’t do it, then that to him is sin. Notwithstanding, as we have already seen, there will always be things we don’t yet understand from scripture (but of course one isn’t then claiming to be right regarding them), we are nevertheless meant to be crystal clear on the basics. Should such not be the case, then we should realise how important it is that we start putting that right as soon as possible.

Secondly, but I don’t believe I’m always right! This is crucial! The safeguard to always believing that we are right is the ongoing realisation that we should only believe anything at all should it be what scripture actually teaches. So we must now introduce another thought, and it is simply this: I don’t know what I’m wrong about! And neither do you! Think about it! If I thought I was wrong about something then I would, presumably, correct it, put it right and therefore not be wrong any more. Should we ever remain knowingly and wilfully wrong about something then that is obviously sinful and without excuse, but even when we truly are being as genuinely honest as we know how, it still remains the case that we are sinners who are naturally prone to deception, and who could therefore be wrong about absolutely anything, at any time, without realising it! And of course the answer to that is what the Bible teaches concerning humility, and about the importance of us being genuinely correctable and willing and open to having others show us where we are wrong. But of the course the important thing then is that any such correction must itself be demonstrably what scripture actually does teach! In order to properly correct someone it must be made absolutely clear to them from God’s Word that they are wrong, otherwise there is no basis to even think they are wrong. The only basis upon which to expect a believer to change their mind concerning honestly held biblical conviction is to demonstrate from scripture that the conviction in question is actually wrong.

This is one of the reasons why being in close and significant fellowship with others is vital, and why it is so important that we never expect anyone to accept anything we say or teach just because we say or teach it. Indeed, we should always encourage others to satisfy themselves whether or not anything that has been stated is consistent with God’s Word. As a Bible teacher I have always insisted that no-one accept anything I teach unless they are satisfied for themselves that it is what the Bible teaches. I would rather believers disagree with me because they have honestly searched out scripture for themselves than agree with me just because I said it, or because I merely sounded convincing when I did. Conversely, however, if someone does disagree with something they hear taught, then it is for them to demonstrate from scripture that one teaching it is wrong, as opposed to merely rejecting something just because they don’t like it, or because it doesn’t fit in with their own pre-conceived ideas or pet doctrines.

I have certainly become accustomed to being thought of as being fay too definite about various biblical issues which many Christians seem to want to remain obscure, and concerning which they consider it offensive to be dogmatic because they don’t want to have to be in obedience regarding them! But whether it’s what I teach in regards to church life, the differing roles of men and women in family and church life or the scandal of divorce and remarriage, I have always made it as clear as I know how that I welcome correction, whether concerning those issues or anything else. My position has always been this: Like anyone and everyone else, I have no idea what I am yet wrong about! Therefore, if anyone thinks they can see where I am wrong about something then please, please, please, feel free to show me! I honestly and truly don’t want to be wrong about anything, yet am nevertheless fully aware that I am wrong about things which I genuinely and honestly think I am right about! But here’s the condition! You must show me what you think I am wrong about from scripture, and you must do so fully aware that it might also turn out that it is you who is wrong concerning the matter, and not me after all! To just say someone is wrong about something without clearly demonstrating your biblical basis and authority for so doing is actually an example of monumental arrogance and presumption. Do you really expect others to accept that what you say is correct merely because you say it? The whole point is that, in regards to what we are here talking about, it doesn’t matter what you think, or what I think, or what anyone else thinks! The only thing that matters is, what saith the scriptures? Am I right or wrong about this, or the other? Are you right or wrong about this, that or the other? The only way to establish anything is such regard is for all concerned to turn to scripture with as honest and as open a mind as we know how!

So yes, I always believe I’m right, but I don’t believe I’m always right! And that should be the deal for every believer. Every Christian should be able to honestly say such of themselves. It simply boils down to this: We must be definite about, and therefore faithful to, our biblical convictions, yet whilst being genuinely humble in our acknowledgement of our, as yet, unrealised and unacknowledged ignorance and error!

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A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 1

It has been well noted that England and America are two nations separated by a common language, and as an Englishman who spends much time there I can confirm that this is indeed the case. But although English is my first language I’ve managed to pick up some Americanese and can occasionally bridge the gap!

There are a couple of turns of phrase which I use quite often that seem to cause confusion in both countries, but for completely different reasons and depending which side of the Atlantic I happen to be when I use them. One is a phrase very commonly used in England, which oft-times raises eyebrows amongst American believers, and the other is a phrase I picked up from American believers which causes a bit of confusion in the Motherland. So in an attempt to undo the confusion I continue to cause on both sides of the Atlantic, let me define these terms (hopefully) to the satisfaction of both my American and English brothers and sisters. I will deal with one today, and the other in the morning.

The first phrase, which I have used since childhood, and which I have never known an Englishman to misunderstand, is the simple phrase, ‘Agree to differ.” And this comes up because I often teach that one of the most important things Christians need to learn to do is to master is the art of being able to agree to differ. However, what Americans seem to hear when I say that is that is the suggestion that Christians should just avoid addressing difficult issues and not try to come to one mind, so as to reach agreement in order to maintain the unity of our faith. They perceive me to mean that we ought to accept a kind of lowest-common-denominator-type stance on things, pretty much just ignoring what scripture teaches regarding them thus leaving the tough issues undefined, ambiguous and un-dealt with so as to keep the peace. Such would, they say – and quite rightly too – be to not take what the New Testament teaches about striving to be of one mind very seriously. So let me clarify what I mean by saying that believers need to learn how to agree to differ.

I think it is is probably the case that there aren’t two followers of Jesus alive on the planet at any one time who would agree with each other about everything. Indeed, how many even godly husbands and wives tick the same boxes about absolutely everything? It is therefore vital that we understand that what holds us together in fellowship is obedience and faithfulness to the Lord, and not the need for comprehensive or complete agreement on what that necessarily looks like in every circumstance. Further, because everyone is at a different place in their discipleship, it is simply ridiculous to assume that every Christian will share the same outlook and understanding regarding everything, even though we are all reading the same Bible.

This is not, of course, to say that there are no red-lines. But it is to say that a lot of Christians seem to have so many red-lines it’s just crazy. I have known believers to fall out and break fellowship with each other over such secondary matters as differing understandings of the relationship between election/predestination and free-will, whether it’s alright to read Harry Potter books or not (and even the writings of C S Lewis), the timing of the Rapture and even over which political party o one votes for. And such fallings out and divisions between Christians, which scripture condemns as being actually carnal and sinful, occur precisely when we don’t properly understand what it means to be able to simply agree to differ.

I am not implying that such differences shouldn’t ever be pursued to see if things might be resolved and agreement reached, but it is simply the case that often, no matter how much discussion and debate ensues, neither party has a change of mind (why should they?), and to try to then pursue matters beyond that point is at best simply a waste of time (having the same old debate again and again and again and again and again), but at worst to actually risk introducing the temptation to end up with wrong feelings towards one another and actual relationship breakdown.

Definition: agreement to differ is simply the mature biblical response to intractable disagreement over issues that are not foundational, thus guarding the wider unity of the relationships being put potentially at risk because of the ongoing discord. I don’t mean that we dumb everything down and continue to just fellowship willy-nilly with believers in serious unrepentant black-and-white chapter-and-verse sin, or who push serious doctrinal error such as denies the very foundations of the Christian faith, but what I do mean is that there are somewhat wider parameters and scope for acceptable differing understandings of things, both doctrinal and practical, than we often think. Whatever our understanding might be regarding, for instance, the timing of the Rapture relative to the Second Coming, or whether the Church has replaced Israel permanently or temporarily Or anything else of a similar vein), it doesn’t make any qualitative difference to the godliness, or lack of it, of our everyday lives. Likewise, if a truly godly family likes Harry Potter as entertainment whereas you disapprove, then what does it ultimately matter? If they aren’t demanding that everyone else approves, or that others ought to do likewise, then what possible harm is done?

In both Romans and Corinthians Paul teaches that there are things regarding which the Lord has not provided any black-and-white-chapter-and-verse definitive instructions. The way to handle such things, he says, is for each believer to simply be true to their own conscience and to leave everybody else to theirs. Whether it’s meat-eating versus vegetarianism, or observing or ignoring special days such as sabbaths, Christians are to just leave each other alone and make no judgement. I must do what my conscience dictates regarding such matters, and you must do likewise. And although Paul obviously gives examples that pertained then, there are a gazillion ones that would fit the bill today. and which are therefore our equivalents. Drinking alcohol or not, watching TV or not, celebrating Christmas or not, reading Harry Potter books or not – the list is endless!

Regarding such matters scripture teaches that there is no necessity whatever for Christians to be in agreement, or to even try to come to agreement. Each is free – indeed, commanded – to be true to their own conscience and we must never interfere with other believers freedom to do the same. So this is what I mean when I say that, when biblically appropriate so do do, Christians need to learn how to just agree to differ.

I will deal with the second of these phrases in the morning. So see you then!

A Revelatory Drive!

I was out driving the other day and a most striking thing happened. It actually happens a great deal, but for some reason, probably the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, the situation spoke to me rather powerfully.

I was driving through a non-dual-carriageway section of road through the beautiful forest that surrounds where I live. The sun was shining (doesn’t happen quite so much here as this other thing I’m going to describe) and, as usual when driving on my own, I had my music on full blast. (Some wonderful old 70’s classics if I remember correctly! You know, that whole Bubble-Gum music thing!) In other words, I was as happy as Larry and having a total blast; and because that rather long stretch of road has a 40 mile an hour speed limit I was driving – yes, you’ve guessed – at a sedate 40 miles an hour.

I then noticed that the gentleman driving the car behind me was not having the same great day that I was. In fact, from his waving arms and quite un-mistakeably less than polite gesticulations – all clearly visible in my rear view mirror – he was having an extremely bad one. And it was very clear why! He was angry because he was wanting to go faster than 40 miles an hour, but couldn’t because I wasn’t going faster than 40 miles an hour and because he couldn’t, for a few miles, get passed me. I was quite clearly the cause of some considerable disquiet in his life. But let’s just think about this a bit and ask some questions as to why I was driving at 40 miles an hour and causing someone such great distress.

Was I, for instance, driving at 40 miles an hour in order to be offensive? Well, no! I was driving at 40 miles an hour because that is the speed limit on that particular stretch of road, and because it is my understanding that God’s Word teaches that we should obey the governing authorities. Might it have been because I am a self-righteous person who just wants to show everyone how well I obey the law, and who wants to oppress anyone who doesn’t see things my way? Again, no! It was because that’s the speed limit on that stretch of road! So could it be that I am just a rather unpleasant individual who takes pleasure in upsetting people? Er…this is getting boring…no! It was just because I believe I should drive that section of road at 40 miles an hour irrespective of what others think of me for doing so or how it makes them feel.

It might also be worth asking whether it might be the case or not that I have got the speed limit wrong myself on that stretch of road, and that it might be 60 miles an hour and not 40 miles an hour. after all, should such be the case then one could, I suppose – but it would still be a stretch – say that this guy then at least had a point. Doing 40 in a 60 area for some distance when it’s difficult to overtake is, arguably, a bit annoying. But my answer here is simply this: Having lived in this area for over 50 years all told, I am pretty sure that I have repeatedly seen the signs that set the speed limit of that stretch of road at 40 miles an hour.  I could, of course, be wrong. (I could be wrong about absolutely anything!) My eyes may well be deceiving me. So if anyone thinks that might be the case, and has a beef with me for driving the road at 40 miles an hour instead of 60 miles an hour, then all I ask is that they show me the evidence. Just prove to me that I am wrong! Show me the sign that has the number 60 on it and not 40! I would then be more than happy to acknowledge that I have been getting it wrong all this time, being then free to drive that stretch of road at 60 miles an hour knowing that I am within the law in so doing.

So what it boils down to is this: I made someone extremely angry because my right-doing got in the way of their desire to do wrong. For absolutely no other reason than that I was doing the right thing, someone who had been doing the wrong thing (speeding), but who had been stopped in their tracks and forced to slow down and do the right thing because I was in now front of them, got angry with me and wasn’t holding back showing it. I wonder if you can see where I’m going with this!

I cannot tell you how many times Christians have gotten angry at me for no other reason than that I simply believe, teach, live and practise things that God’s Word seems to pretty clearly teach which, for whatever reason, they don’t happen to like. I have, for example, had Christians get angry with me again and again because I believe that wives should submit to their husbands – just as I believe that husbands should love their wives to the moon and back – and that women should not be in a leadership function in the church, or do teaching to the gathered body of saints. I have also had Christians get angry with me, again and again, because I believe, teach and practise that churches should be small, home-based and non-hierarchical. I have even had brothers and sisters in the Lord get angry with me, and on a good many occasions too, simply because I make clear that I believe all Christians should go purely by God’s Word and not in any way by extra-biblical man-made traditions which go against it.

But of course the very worst of the anger happens when one has, through whatever means, become a focal point of sin being revealed in believers lives. I have been slandered to the ends of the earth and back for trying to encourage believers with whom I have had to do to be honest about such sins in their lives as greed, immorality, resentment, slander, un-forgiveness, dishonesty, lying, hatred…and so the list could go on! When put like this it is easy to see how – just as with someone who wants to break the law regarding speeding, but who finds someone getting in their way – simply doing right can cause Christians who are doing wrong to get angry, just as the same right-living causes believers who are living wrong to be convicted of their sin. The anger and resentment is because they aren’t willing to come clean and simply put their hands up, be honest and repent.

And to any who do find themselves angered by what I teach (and not just me of course, it could be anyone), or what I practise, or even perhaps anything I have ever said to you personally, then I simply say this! Just show me the road sign that says the speed limit is 60 miles an hour and not 40 miles an hour, and I will change my driving accordingly. In other words, if you think I am wrong – and about absolutely anything too – then just show me that I’m wrong from scripture. Don’t get angry and skulk off into the shadows to do the whole bad-mouthing thing about me to others behind my back, or directly sound off at me in anger! Let’s talk! Let’s reason together, just like the Lord wants to do with us! Let’s open the Bible together and ask prayerfully, “What saith the scriptures?”

One last thing! Having established that I was driving at 40 miles an hour the other day simply because it’s what the law of the land says, and not because I wanted to upset the guy behind me, or because I want to do anything to upset or anger anyone, so too with what I believe, teach, live and practise. I can assure you that I have never wanted to upset anyone. Neither have I ever desired to make anything harder for anyone than need be. Yet I have been accused by other Christians of living how I live, and teaching what I teach, and saying what I say from every vile motive they seem to be able to think of. But of course the reality is that they are just angry and resentful because sin has been exposed in their lives to which they don’t want to admit. That guy in the car behind me the other day was having a veritable fit, and I have no doubt that he was calling me every unpleasant name under the sun. But not because I was doing anything wrong, but precisely because I was doing right. I had simply, though quite un-desiringly and inadvertently, become a stumbling block to him in his wrongdoing.

Christian, the next time you find yourself angry with someone and doing that whole “How dare they say that to me! They offended me!” thing, just ponder that the odds are that it is most probably evidence that you are being convicted by the Holy Spirit of something in your life which you don’t want to recognise and own up to. In your desire to avoid the message you just want to shoot the messenger. In order to deny and wriggle out of the sin that is being revealed in you, and in order to try to justify yourself in both your own eyes and eyes of others, you are seeking to discredit the person God is using to convict you. You can then tell yourself that you don’t have to listen to someone who is so discreditable and wrong.

Just remember though that the Pharisees did this to the Lord Jesus all the time!

 

The Ezekiel Factor

“The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the LORD on me. And I came to the exiles who lived at Tel-Abib near the Kebar River. And I sat where they sat overwhelmed among them for  seven days.” (Ezekiel 3:14-15)

The intent of the above verses follows on very much from the previous post concerning Jesus’ view of Nicodemus and the uniqueness of each individual. Two vitally important things are inter-twined in them! The first is that Ezekiel had already received the heart of the Lord concerning the situation into which he was being sent in order to speak the Word of the Lord; but the second is that he also then had to embrace, feel and share the hearts of the people in those situations before uttering a word!

The Hebrew of the text conveys the idea of the silence of deep mourning, anguish and distress. In other words, it wasn’t enough for him to feel what the Lord was feeling concerning the people he was being sent to, he had to also feel what they were feeling in the situation, thus sharing in their pain and distress, before delivering the burden of the Lord to them. Hence the need for him to sit silently with them for seven days so that he could become properly identified with them, share their hearts, and feel their pain. This is what compassion is: to enter into the distress and anguish of those you are seeking to share the Lord with. It is to feel their pain, to vibrate in sympathy with the distress they are going through, only then bringing to bear any truth or wisdom such as they need to hear. It is what Paul means in 1 Corinthians when he says that believers should “weep with those who weep.”

This is yet another facet of a theme that anyone who knows me will know that I return to again and again: the biblical relationship between grace and truth, stated elsewhere by Paul in terms of the need to “speak the truth in love.”

We should never just dole out truth and advice left, right and centre, irrespective of how true and scriptural that truth might be, or how biblical, inspired and wise the advise. No! Not in a million years! We are to rather bring the Lord’s heart to bear on the hearts of whoever His burden through us is for. This means that, like Ezekiel, we must first actually receive His heart and mind concerning whatever the burden might be, but then become one with, and feel the pain of, those for whom the burden has been given. This is what intercession is, and what compassion actually looks like. It is to become one, and to vibrate in sympathy with, the pain of those to whom we are called.

Truth is obviously always objective, but what we are highlighting here is that so often we lack this subjective emotional element of actually feeling for people, of resonating in identification with their hurts, joys and fears. It is not mere sentimentality because what we are speaking of issues from, and will always apply, the objective truth of God’s Word. No! It is rather to become more and more like the God Who feels the pain of every man, woman and child whom He has created.

At the heart of everything God is, and has done, is incarnation. In the Lord Jesus He has incarnated Himself into every aspect of human life. And this He has done because not only is He the God of Truth, He is also the God of all Grace. And what this issues in is a principle that underlines everything concerning the manner of His dealings with us, and it is simply this: God beats the problem by becoming the problem! Think about it! What was the problem? Human beings! A fallen human race! So what did God do? He became a human being called Jesus! He beats the problem by becoming the problem! But of course it’s so much more than just that because what was the underlying problem that had made men, women and children a problem in the first place? Sin! Human beings are a problem because of their problem with sin! So what did the Lord do about that?

“God made Him who knew no sin to become sin, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21. Emphasis mine.)

In our relationships with both unbelievers and our fellow Christians with whom we fellowship, incarnation is at the very heart of how we should live, and the kind of people we should be. Seeking to identify with those around that we might feel what they feel. That we might vibrate in sympathy with them, and sit where they sit, overwhelmed among them, in order to discern, and then meet, their needs.

“And I came to the exiles who lived at Tel-Abib near the Kebar River. And I sat where they sat overwhelmed among them for seven days.”

 

A Little Bit More on Aliens!

Many moons ago now, when I was a young man and dinosaurs ruled the world, I (of course) went to the cinema to see the (then) groundbreaking first Alien movie. It was, to my mind, both a masterpiece and complete revelation. However, what spoiled it somewhat was the fact that it was slightly out of focus, a fact I complained about at some volume at one point during the showing. (Yes, I know! But I was young!) How ridiculous, I mused, that a projectionist can’t focus his projector properly. But hey, no-one’s perfect all the time!

A few years later, whilst I was still young man but recently and gloriously married to Belinda, I quickly discovered that I had a little helper in the car. She helped me with all kinds of things…how fast I was going….when traffic lights were changing….when someone was crossing the road in front of me etc etc. And one of the things I couldn’t help but notice was that she would see what road signs said a few seconds before I did. This, I concluded, could only be down to one thing, so off I went to an opticians……only to find…..yes, you’ve guessed……that I needed glasses for distance viewing.

In the days that followed after getting my first pair I couldn’t believe how sharp, colourful and crystal clear everything was, and just how much fine detail I had been missing all that time. And then I remembered…..going to see Alien…..and complaining that the film wasn’t properly in focus. We have a word here in England that describes anyone functioning on significantly less than a full brain-load of grey matter….pillock! And yes, I felt a right pillock! It wasn’t that the film was out of focus and that the projectionist wasn’t doing his job properly, it was that my eyes were deficient and that I wasn’t seeing the screen properly.

You probably know where this is going now, and indeed it is! I have learned to be very careful to not jump to conclusions when I perceive something to be wrong, and not to make quick judgements until I am happy I have all the angles covered. I still get things wrong at times, of course, but the principle stands! But the main point I want to make here though is this:

I have spent a lifetime teaching things from God’s Word which no-one has ever actually been able to refute from that Word! I have been disagreed with and disavowed by lots of people on many occasions, but the things I teach that so upset folk have never been countered and shown to be error actually from scripture itself. Somebody once well said that it wasn’t the bits of the Bible they didn’t understand that troubled them, but precisely the bits they did. There are bits in the Bible that are obviously there, but which just don’t suit a great many Christians.

The next time you knee-jerk react against something you hear someone maintain to be biblical because it offends you, make sure you first establish whether it is actually biblical or not. Then still don’t react, but rather respond! There is every chance that it is not that something unbiblical is being said, but merely that you just don’t happen to like it and want to justify and excuse yourself! Or to put it another way, it’s not that the projector isn’t in focus, but rather that we need glasses!