Category Archives: Bible

Not all desires are equal

Not all desires are the same.

Kind of obvious? Yes! But important in a world whose ethical arguments depend so much on desire. What rights rule today, in the western world? The right to self-determination, to self-expression, and to self-definition. Desire is all-knowing.

If I will it then it is OK. (The usual illogical caveat that follows is as long as it hurts no one.) And more than OK, if I will it then it’s morally required. Desires reign.

Proverbs 6 shows how false that is. The back end of the chapter warns at length about giving in to the desire for illicit sex: don’t go to the strange woman, the adulteress, your neighbour’s wife.

But in the flow of the argument, there’s comment about stealing food. Why? Have a look at these verses (29-32).

So [burned] is he who goes in to his neighbour’s wife;
    none who touches her will go unpunished.
People do not despise a thief if he steals
    to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
    he will give all the goods of his house.
He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

In the middle of warning against adultery, here is a hungry thief. He steals out of poverty and hunger. His desire for food is reasonable. We understand, and we don’t despise him for his crime. But we still punish him.

Theft remains theft, even when driven by the understandable desire for food.

But the point is not that the thief will still receive punishment. Not ‘the thief gets punishment, so too will the adulterer’.

The point is this: theft driven by hunger (though wrong) makes sense, but adultery is just plain stupid. Adultery is always self-harm.

He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

Proverbs compares two desires here – the desire for food, the desire for sex. The comparison is in the realm of wrongdoing (stealing and adultery). And the comparison tells us to treat different desires differently.

Now there are lots of ways we need to heed this point. It’s pretty plain that there’s a trendiness in pushing for same-sex marriage. And it would be easy for me to go there (‘just because two people desire sex with each other does not mean it is good, or needs state validation’).

But I’d prefer us to see that ethical difference between desires applies all over the place. Perhaps I – and maybe you too? – need to consider where I err in this matter?

We might think of:

  • Any sexual desire outside of committed, life-long marriage
  • The desire to enjoy alcohol
  • Longing to see more of the world
  • The desire to succeed in your chosen employment
  • The longing for a successful ministry
  • A desire to be well thought-of
  • The desire for physical or mental health, for self or a loved one

And on and on we could go. Again and again, I believe, our desires take us. Then our reasons and arguments follow along to justify what we want.

So let’s remember that our desires can take us into error. Even the good desire for food can go feral. Jesus (in the final verse quoted below) said to desire first what is truly first – God’s kingdom.

The desire of the righteous ends only in good;
the expectation of the wicked in wrath. (Proverbs 11:23)

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

 


 

Ashley Madison and the search for security

The folly of sin is when we flee from security in search of security. We run away from what’s good and justify it as the search for good. It’s a daily universal pattern. Sometimes this pattern becomes even more clear than usual.

Earlier this year there was big news for the customers of Ashley Madison – their personal details had been hacked and published on the internet.

This would be poor form for any online business, but was more nerve-jangling for these clients since Ashley Madison exists entirely to promote infidelity and sexual unfaithfulness. Who cares about credit card details once the whole world knows your secrets?

The irony of this hack is that it was a security breach of the company whose business model was to breach security.

Ashley Madison promote married dating (ie, cheating). They target people who have made promises to a partner, people who have also heard promises from their spouse.

Of course no marriage is perfect. Yet it’s wonderful that men and women seriously promise each other the security of life-long commitment, “until death.” That’s a basis for security!

But at some stage the clients of the Adultery Madison Ashley Madison opted for the fragile security of an on-line business. “Oh look”, they might have thought, “they have secure socket layer security. I will definitely trust that!”

And so the potential adulterer says farewell to the security of a spousal promise, and entrusts privacy to the security of the internet. Dumb choice.

That is like sin in the heart of every person. Just as in the Garden of Eden, where the man and woman lost the whole garden because they opted instead for the one banned fruit.

Or, in the Lord’s words through his prophet, “my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

The folly of sin: we run away from what we really want, under the impression that we will find what we want.

So Ashley Madison is a jolt to all of us, not only the individuals named.

  • It’s time to turn back from seeking good things in bad places.
    Repent of the adultery sites, of ‘financial security’, of looking as good as whitewashed tombs.
  • It’s time to turn back to the living water himself, Jesus Christ our good Lord.

 


 

The Christianity of Les Mis

Les MiserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a huge novel. Imagine how much was left out for the stage musical. And imagine how much is left out in any review.

And I am also a leaver-out. Because, apart from enjoying the storyline, my reaction to Les Miserables is to ponder the kind of Christianity it presents. Everything else I will leave out.

This novel’s Christianity has high regard for Jesus, but not for the gospel. It loves the practice and consequences of Christianity, but not the heart of Christianity.

Consequently, I think, it is deficient. But more than deficient – this deficiency is also misrepresentation.

Time for some detail, to see if my impression fits the details.

Firstly, the high regard for Jesus. This is from the start to the end. The first primary character is a humble, servant-minded bishop. He lives on almost none of his stipend, in order to give it away – he copies Jesus. It’s the encounter with this bishop that transforms the life of Jean Valjean, Les Mis’ central character.

In the final pages, Jesus and the cross appear again. A crucifix features, with subtle significance, and Jesus is named as the true martyr.

But secondly, I think there’s no gospel. Jesus is good as an example to follow but no more. The bishop imitated and sacrificed, Valjean sacrifices too. Therefore they are demonstrated as real Christians.

They sweat and toil in efforts to copy Jesus. They do not seem to have any time to joyfully rest by faith in the grace of God’s forgiveness. There is no grace, and therefore no ‘faith apart from works’.

Valjean’s immense strength is physical, but I believe it’s also a symbol of his spiritual status – he’s a hero because of what he does. He’s an impressive man, and it feels like it’s all his own work.

It’s telling that the frequently-used divine name – the good God – is perfectly austere and distant. The God of the Bible is not Immanuel, God with us in the grace of Christ’s gospel. He is, rather, the mysterious force who ordains, and desires that we turn ourselves into good people.

Finally, this is not just a deficiency but misrepresentation.

It is perfectly possible to talk truly about God, but never possible to say everything about him. There is a point to God-talk, despite our limits! This is, we might say ‘deficiency but truth’.

Unfortunately, Les Mis is so lacking that the omissions twist God into a lie. The God of Valjean is not Father, gracious, forgiving, welcoming. He is instead austere, stern, and clinically pure. This God is not quick to condemn, thankfully – not judgemental over minor error. Yet neither is he the Abba, Father of Romans 8:15.

Going back to the plot, I think this deficiency drives one of the features of the novel. Valjean is decidedly committed to following his conscience (which is actually called ‘God’ at one point). But he remains disconnected from people, hiding facts and ‘protecting’ those he cares for. I think, in the end, Valjean’s relationships with people are all duty and not really love. In this, the hero relates to people just as he relates to God.

So, let’s enjoy Les Mis! It’s rightly a classic. And let’s enjoy the fact that it does not disparage God, but places him at the centre of concern for the miserable of the world. But do not be tricked – this novel does not present to us the God of the Gospel, the true God whom we meet by faith in the Lord Jesus.

View all my reviews


 

Optimism unbounded

Reading Les Miserables is a lot longer than going to the musical. And it’s full of a lot more (extreme!) detail, including heaps of politics and social theory. That makes sense, since the novel is about the underclass of miserable suffering.

Written in the 1860s, it often harks back to the glories of the French Revolution (1789, but not ignoring the violence of 1793), and Napoleon’s career. It’s not disdainful at all about Christian religion, either. But I’d say the real topic of the novel is the future.

Specifically, how good that future will be, because of human progress. The narrator thinks so. Characters in the novel think so too.

Here are the words of Enjolras at the barricades of 1832, a stirring ‘sermon’ on why they rebel:

Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then, there will be nothing more like the history of old, we shall no longer, as today, have to fear a conquest, an invasion, a usurpation, a rivalry of nations, arms in hand, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, on a birth in heredity tyrannies, a partition of peoples by  congress, a dismemberment because of a failure of a dynasty, a combat of two religions meeting face to face, like two bucks in the dark, on the bridge of the infinite; we shall no longer have to fear famine, farming out, prostitution arising from distress, misery from the failure of work and the scaffold and the sword, and battles and the ruffianism of chance in the forest of events. One might almost say: There will be no more events. We shall be happy.

Well. How did that seem to you?

The long sentence of extended prediction, I think, contains a perfect description of what actually did happen in the happy twentieth century.

There’s a note of warning for us, especially if Christian.

One: never underestimate the serious problem of human sin, it’s not so easy to ‘fix.’ Two: never overestimate the importance of those who believe in progress.

 


 

John’s gospel signs

I finished a sermon on John 4:43-54 with a ‘take-home exercise in believing’: Find the signs of John’s gospel.

John’s gospel includes a number of signs, but he only numbers the first and the second. It is as if John says to us, “I made the first two easy for you, now you find the rest – pay attention!”

These signs (as I said in the talk) are not dead signs. They are living signs. Dead signs are like street pointers. Once you can find the street you forget the sign. Dead signs do their job once or twice, then disappear. They point 100% away from themselves.

Living signs, in contrast, never outlive their use. We meet Jesus precisely in the signs of John’s gospel. As we see and reflect on the sign we trust Christ – if we do it right.

So to help you in this take-home exercise, here are the places where John mentions a sign or signs. There can be signs where he does not use the word, so view this as a starting point.

2:11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

2:18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”

2:23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.

3:2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

4:48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

4:54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.

6:2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.

6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

6:26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

6:30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?”

7:31 Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?”

9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them.

10:41 And many came to him. And they said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.”

11:47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.”

12:18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.

12:33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

12:37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him

18:32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

20:30-31Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

21:19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

(All verses quoted in English Standard Version.)

So what do you notice? How does this help you to know John’s gospel, and to trust Jesus?

 


 

 

One minute’s silence

At this morning’s ANZAC dawn service in Albury, and undoubtedly in many other places, we peacefully observed a minute’s silence. It’s a sign of respect, and so simple that’s its power remains.
Albury Military Cemetery
The death of a soldier seems, so often, needless. Perhaps the battle was a failure (as for the ANZAC side of Gallipoli). Perhaps the death in service was far from any battle (as for a number buried in Albury’s military cemetery who died in a level-crossing accident). And even if the battle was decisive, loved ones still ask, ‘Why him?’

The minute of silence, at first blush, looks the same – near useless. What, just a minute? And all we do is, well, nothing? How can that honour the dead?

But the deeper we go into that brief minute, the more profound it becomes. We realise we are doing nothing because there is nothing that we can do to adequately mourn a death – the lives and deaths we remember were indeed great, after all.

And we discover that one minute is not a desultory gift. We find this minute to be but one example of time, and all time is now marked by the death of those service personnel. It is not a minute different from the rest of time, but a minute to show how all time is now different.

Finally, a minute to think also allows us to ask: Would we put ourselves in such a position of danger? We wonder what reasons could move us to risk all in the same way (if we are not already in such a position). For me, at least, I realise how significant was the life of all who freely took on such risk.

I tend not to make comparative links between defence deaths and Jesus’ death for our sins, and will not make that comparison here. Instead, I think the minute of observed silence makes a different comparison: it compares human to human, uniting us as those who face our common enemy, the grave.

At its most potent, the minute’s silence is a minute’s humanity.

 


 

 

Hope for the sake of Jesus

Hope is going somewhere good, by the work of Jesus and for the glory of Jesus.

That is what I have argued in three posts on hope. In summary, Christians look ahead in hope, with joyful hope, and our hope is trust-filled confidence. This final part of the series reminds us that hope is not selfish. Instead, the good outcome of all our hopes is praise to Jesus.

It’s significant that the fulfilment of all Christian hope is the revelation of Jesus Christ, not the revelation of Christians. The focus is him. And the success of our hope results in praise and glory and honour (1 Peter 1:7) – praise to God, I take it.

In my view, the whole of 1 Peter is chock full of the idea of a final reversal: those who presently hope in Jesus, and are slandered for this hope, will be vindicated by the final glory of God. Jesus’ greatness trumps everything – ‘To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Peter 5:11)

This reversal means Christians persevere in honourable conduct knowing mockers will glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:12). Slaves are to endure, modelling themselves on Jesus who entrusted himself to God for final vindication (1 Peter 2:23). Reversal happens for wives of unbelieving husbands (3:1), Christians treated with evil and reviling (3:9), all who suffer the temptations of flesh (4:1-5), and believers in ‘fiery trial’ (4:12-13).

It’s as if the universe will say, ‘We judged their hope as folly. But their hope in Jesus was perfect because Jesus is perfect. Praise be to Jesus!’

Jesus is the only source of hope (my previous post). So too Jesus is the final outcome of our hope.

Therefore, putting this into practice, we live every present moment of life for Jesus.

We hope in great devotion for the day Jesus’ name is confessed by every tongue, when every knee bows to him (Philippians 2:9-11). To truly hope for this coming day, we live it today.

Today we confess Jesus, our hope. Today we bend the knee to Jesus, our Lord. Today we show the reality of hope by willingly obeying Jesus’ gospel. Present obedience to the Lord Jesus is an act of subversive hope. Despite not yet seeing his universal rule, we know it and hope for its revelation and therefore live by it.

Present obedience to the Lord Jesus is an act of subversive hope.

So, in 1 Peter, the command to ‘set our hope fully’ on the grace to come leads directly to the call for holiness (1 Peter 1:12-16). This hope also overflows in evangelism, as people quiz us about Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). In Hebrews, holding fast to hope sets us up towards love, good works, and mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:23-25).

I hope you have gospel hope! Show it to the world in obedience to Jesus.

 


 

Hope by Jesus’ work

In my first two posts on hope, I introduced this description:

Hope is going somewhere good, by the work of Jesus and for the glory of Jesus.

It does not go without saying that Jesus is the one whose work produces real hope. We need to say – again and again – that hope comes from Jesus. That’s what this post is about.

The wonderful hope of every Christian is ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3). This hope becomes public ‘at the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:7). Hope is of Jesus from start to end. Believers do not create our own hope, but we set our hope completely on Jesus’ return and unveiling (1 Peter 1:13).

This hope is absolutely unlike all other hopes in our world.

The football team hopes to win: their hope looks like training, strategy and years of effort. The movie director hopes for an Academy Award: her hope looks like obsessive attention to detail and passionate communication of vision. The student hopes to graduate: his hope looks like study, assignments and exams.

Any hope in this world depends upon human achievement. And therefore is exceptionally flimsy. Only one team wins the grand final. Most movies bomb. No student ever achieved 100% in every assignment of every course. Human hopes are often seen, justifiably, as close to dreams.

But Christian hope is different because gospel hope comes from Jesus.

Jesus has done it: death is defeated, sin’s sting is gone, the believer’s future is guaranteed. (See my first post.)

Therefore Christian hope has confidence and assurance. Our hope is already safe, so our hope is justified. Jesus is alive, so to trust his hope is right. Jesus guards our hope in heaven, so Christian hope is realism not escapism.

They say that receiving a terminal diagnosis concentrates the mind. That makes sense! “I will die soon – what should I make of my remaining time?”

Hope is just like that, but 100% good. Because of Jesus, every Christian has an ‘eternal life’ diagnosis. It should remove all fear and doubt. “I will live forever by the work of Christ – how assured I am!”

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The next post:
Hope for the sake of Jesus


 

Good hope

In this post I introduced my mini-series on hope. For each post I work of the following description:

Hope is going somewhere good, by the work of Jesus and for the glory of Jesus.

It’s amazingly important, and wonderful, to insist that Christian hope is for the good. Our future is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

Post number 1 in this series might have felt a little neutral, or unemotional. That was deliberate, because I wanted us to look ahead and to think well about the certain future we have. And I knew that post number 2 was coming!

As we look ahead and think well, we rejoice (Romans 5:2). We bless our Father in heaven who have given us this living hope (1 Peter 1:3). We’re instructed to rejoice in our hope (Romans 12:12). Our hope is what we boast in (Hebrews 3:6).

As we look ahead and think well, we love and long for the future. We love Jesus, even though we don’t yet see him (1 Peter 1:8). We desire this future so greatly that our eagerness groans (Romans 8:23).

The Christian future – our hope – is so good that of course we want it, and of course we are disappointed that it’s not yet ours. To be with Christ is better by far, even when there are good works to complete here today (Philippians 1:23).

Putting this into practice has two parts.

Firstly, and most obvious, we rejoice and sing and praise God in prayer. We love what lies ahead of us, and engage fully in this good expectation. When Christians sing in joy, it’s a reminder of this good future and it again teaches joy to our hearts.

We must not wait for joy and thanks to well up to perfection before we express them. We instead express our joy and thanks as part of discipleship, training ourselves in godly longing.

Secondly, we are to flee from dead and deathly joys. Rejoicing in the transient hopes of this world will strangle our desire for the real hope we enjoy in Christ. The downward spiral of greed is really joy in ‘things’. The addiction of watching porn promises happiness or some kind of emotional connection, but it’s a false promise.

Too much love for job and career, too much joy in the commendation of neighbours, too much time spent on hobbies and interests … these all kill our boasting in the glory that is to be revealed.

Amid all the tools we have to avoid sin, here is one of the greatest: cultivate joy in the hope of Christ. Do it, because Christian hope is going somewhere good.

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The next posts:
Hope by Jesus’s own work
Hope for the sake of Jesus


 

Hope ahead

The Bible’s idea of hope is a wonderful treasure of many parts. This post is the first in four I plan to write, all based on the following description.

Hope is going somewhere good, by the work of Jesus and for the glory of Jesus.

Hope looks ahead, because hope is going somewhere. Hope is a sure future.

This future includes the resurrection of all, just and unjust, for God’s final reckoning (Acts 24:14-15). This hope is our Christian inheritance, currently under guard in heaven until its unveiling (Colossians 1:5; Hebrews 6:19; 1 Peter 1:3-4). We hope for the glory of God (Romans 5:2). When all boiled down, our hope is Jesus himself (1 Timothy 1:1) – we long for him and we will see him.

There are, of course, false hopes in this world. Money is a greatly deceptive hope (Acts 16:19; 1 Timothy 6:17). Such worldly hopes will fail.

But Jesus does not fail and cannot fail. Hope, when it’s hope in the Lord, does not disappoint us. This hope is already won, already secure, already waiting.

Therefore, putting this into practice, we look ahead.

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:13

 

We expect this hope, and teach ourselves about it. As we look ahead, we dedicate ourselves to learning what God has said about this hope. We will ever ask: What does our Father say?, Which things has he taught us?, What is the promise of God?

After all, angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:12). We would be fools to be uninterested or uncaring! As much as God has said to us about our hope – and no more than God has spoken – let us learn, and so hope well for the guaranteed future we have in God.

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Future posts in the series:
Good hope
Hope by Jesus’ own work
Hope for sake of Jesus