This Sunday we are holding an Easter Special of the Intro Course called “Life After Death?” so I thought I would jot down what I think are the 4 main different options/ideas out there at the moment for what people think happens when you die. I am sure there are more and even the ones I give have further nuances and differences within them but hopefully this will put our discussion on Sunday night in context.
An Encouragement to Doubt
My hope with this blog, and in my talk on the evening, is to provoke discussion, get us thinking and to provide a moment for us to question (even doubt!) what we believe about life after death. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? How certain are we of what we believe? What are the implications in this life of what I believe happens after this life? And as this Sunday will be the beginning of Holy Week, I want to look at whether the death and resurrection of Jesus give us any greater certainty of what happens after death.
To push the point a bit further, Tim Keller, in his New York Times Bestseller: ‘The Reason For God‘, starts the book by calling us all to doubt. He says, regarding those that doubt the existence of God,
All doubts, however sceptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs…my thesis is that if you come to recognise the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs – you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.
My encouragement is for us to start by doubting what we believe about life after death in order for us to examine whether what we believe has any substance or is just a nice idea that we would like to be true. The idea of the The Intro Course is to provide a relaxed environment where people can ask and discuss the big questions of life. All views, backgrounds and opinions are welcome – no question is too feisty and no question is too simple and there is no pressure for you to come away from the evening subscribing to any set of beliefs. Our aim is to give people an opportunity to discuss questions that are often neglected even though they are the biggest questions of life. And that is certainly the case with the question: “What happens when I die?”
On Sunday we’ll be looking at four different views: that of the Atheist, the Eastern religions, the ‘Modern Person’ and the Christian. For each view we are going to look at the implications of the view with regards to meaning, suffering and justice. For now I simply want to list the options that I hear in every day conversation and read in the textbooks and raise a few questions about them…to start to help us doubt.
4 opinions of what happens when you die
This is the atheist’s view and it is very simple. This life is all there is; when you die you rot, end of story! We are all here by chance and human life has simply evolved as a random collision of atoms without any guidance or help from a greater being. Nothing happens when you die.
The challenge/question I have for this view is that I have never met anyone who fully believes it or lives by it. To fully believe this is to believe that there is no greater purpose in life or death and that ideas such as love, beauty, truth and justice are all human inventions to help society progress. In and of themselves, they don’t have any objective or inherent meaning. As Keller says in chapter 8 of his book:
“Beauty and love are nothing but a neurological hardwired response to particular data…simply a biochemical response, inherited from ancestors who survived because this trait helped them survive.”
I am not sure any of us really believe that do we? And if we do believe that nothing happens when we die and that death is a natural and normal part of natural selection, why then is death so painful and why does it seem like an unwanted intruder into our world?
If people don’t believe in God they normally go for number 1, nothing happens after we die. If people do believe in God they normally go for number 2, the doctrine of universalism, which states that everyone in the end will be saved. This was first put forward by the early church father Origen in the 3rd Century and more recently Rob Bell in Love Wins in the 21st Century. There are numerous versions of this and we’ll touch on a few related ideas below. The simplest version states that no matter who you are and what you have done, God is so forgiving and loving that he will forgive you anyway. Many have a version of purgatory or ‘hell’s back door’ which means that after you die there is a certain time where you are punished for your sins but then eventually you see the light, have paid the penalty you sins deserve, are fully repentant, so God lets you into heaven. The two main versions of heaven will be spelled out later.
The challenge/question I have for this view is twofold. Firstly, as C.S Lewis so brilliantly argued in his essay The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, if we do away with punitive justice then we are saying to people “your decisions don’t matter”. But the moment we do this we are saying “you don’t matter”. To not take someone’s actions and decisions seriously is to not take them seriously and treat them as less than human. Lewis goes on to argue that hell is God’s greatest way of saying to humanity “you matter and I take you seriously”. If everyone in the end is saved then it actually means we are treating ourselves as far less significant creatures than we really are. Secondly, and relating to this issue, what does this do for our sense of justice? If God lets everyone in in the end, then there is no justice for those like Idi Amin who, in this life, got away with their evil atrocities and were never brought to justice.
This view comes from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions and within each there are variations and subtleties. However, broadly speaking, living beings are seen as having an endless series of lives achieved through a continual process of reincarnation into which all are locked until they can be freed through enlightenment. Only then can one be unfettered from the cycle of life and death, and ascend into higher planes of existence outside the reach of space and time.
So how does the eternal and endless cycle of birth and rebirth of the soul happen? Through the idea of karma. Karma is the law which determines the form in which one is born in the next existence. If one has lived a good life, one builds up good karma and will be born in a higher station, or to a happier life. Good and bad are built up over the reincarnations, the balance being passed on to future lives. And this applies to all living things; humans, trees and animals are all essentially equal.
So the view is straight forward to understand and though it typically clashes with traditional western world views, it is gaining more traction in the west. So what questions/challenges are there? I think there are three big ones. Firstly, what evidence is there of such reincarnations and cycles? Secondly, what is the value of one’s life? One writer, David Burnett, said:
Everybody is believed to be reborn thousands of times through a multitude of levels and castes. In practice the value of an individual life becomes of little value. A Hindu mother consoles herself over the death of her baby saying “Never mind there are more babies”. What does it matter if a beggar dies on the street – he may be reincarnated into a better form…one reaps what one sows.
Thirdly, is such a worldview liveable in the face of suffering? Are we really to deny our senses (whether pleasure or pain) in order to find Nirvana? How does the mother whose child has just died deal with her pain?
(4) Eternal Life and Eternal Judgement
This has been the traditional historical Christian position, though again there are still some variations, so let me break both of these ideas into a number of further ideas. In each case I am going to present the most extreme caricature without apology.
Eternal Life is for those that put their trust in Jesus and follow him.
- Eternal life as eternal spiritual bliss – The picture here is of spiritual beings and spiritual souls sitting on white fluffy clouds wearing white nighties playing golden harps…and Jesus is somewhere in all this. I think this comes from a greek platonic worldview which sees the physical as bad and the spiritual as good
- Eternal life as a new heavens and new earth – The picture here is of a renewed physical cosmos which has been joined again with heaven where we will have new physical bodies and enjoy doing many physical things. We will indeed sing but we will also work and play and eat and dance. This comes directly from a biblical hebrew worldview and is seen in the final chapters of the four Gospels in the Bible when Jesus is raised from death into a physical human body and appears to numerous people where he talks and eats and clarifies that he is not a ghost. It is further clarified by Paul in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 and John in his final vision of eternity in Revelation 21.
Eternal judgement is for those who chose not to trust in Jesus and follow him.
The picture here is of us all appearing before the judgement seat of Christ where we are judged for what we have done in this life. Those who trusted in Jesus’ performance will be given eternal life as the judgement for their misdeeds was paid for by Jesus himself on the cross. Those who chose to reject God and remain unrepentant will face the judgement they deserve. How will this judgement work? There are 3 main views:
- Judgement as annihilation - God punishes us for our disobedience by destroying us in the fire of his judgement. This comes from the idea of conditional immortality which many theologians throughout church history have ascribed to. It states that human beings contain the potential to live forever (if they know Christ) but they are not born with inherent immortality and therefore they simply ‘cease to be’ or ‘pass out of existence’ at death.
- Judgement as ever increasing dehumanisation – This idea was put forward by C.S Lewis in his masterpiece The Great Divorce. The Bible talks about God’s judgement as him giving us over to our desires (Romans 1:24, 26 & 28); God’s judgement is to give us what we want. However, our desires end up enslaving and destroying us. We see a small picture of this on earth now with an untold number of psychological, sociological and ecological problems. When we get what we want, the thing we wanted often ends up destroying us and that is why burnout, stress, depression, suicide, wars, abuse of the planet, family breakdown, eating disorders, visiting of counsellors and much more is so common. We were made to worship God and reflect him (therefore being truly human) but when we worship other things we reflect them, and therefore become less and less human. We see “hell” writ small now. In this view we are not annihilated but we become less and less human by our own choice. We continually reject God, we continually choose the selfish path and that means we eventually become subhuman. We exist forever but in a God-hating subhuman form (this which explains why the judgement is continual and eternal, because our rebellion is continual and eternal). Lewis asks us to imagine the results of an increasingly self-centred and self-promoting universe that continues forever. He famously says this:
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”
- Judgement as eternal conscious torment - This idea comes from the lips of Jesus himself and the book of Revelation. Jesus in Mark 9, referring back to Isaiah 65-66 talks about hell as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die. In Luke 16 Jesus also tells a Pharisee a story about a rich man being in eternal torment and separated from God by a great chasm because of how he lived his earthly life. The book of Revelation has numerous pictures of eternal life and darkness. Even though these pictures are probably not meant to be taken literally, they point to a reality that is literal.
The biggest challenges/questions to do with the Christian view nearly all focus on the judgement side of things. None of us (in the west at least) recoil at the idea of people being given a second chance and eternal life. However, many find they have intellectual and emotional doubts regarding the goodness of God and the fairness of his justice when we consider the idea of hell, particularly as eternal conscious torment. Our minds wander to questions such as: what about those who have already died? What about those who have never heard of Jesus? What about children? How can the punishment for a finite life be eternal? And many more…
How do the death and resurrection of Jesus play into all this? Well, here are three things I want to explore on the night about Easter regarding this question:
- They give us a basis for our beliefs about life after death which is not determined by what we would like to be true, or what we think might be true, but based on what has happened in history as an example and proof of what is true. I appreciate many people doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened and we’ll touch on this briefly too.
- They give us a worldview that we can live by in the present. The resurrection of Jesus assures me that the physical does matter, that ideas of truth and beauty and love and justice are objective realities given to us by God and demonstrated most perfectly in the death and resurrection of his Son.
- They help us with our doubts about the goodness of God and the fairness of his justice because he has demonstrated, at the cost of his own Son, how just he is (he had to punish sin) and just how loving and good he is (he sent his Son to die in our place). We may not be able to tie up all the loose ends but if we, in our limited understanding of justice, love and goodness, find our hearts recoil at the idea of judgement, we can trust the one who demonstrated these three things at infinite cost to himself.
So hopefully I have painted a clear picture of the options and have stimulated much thought. I hope I may have even made you begin to doubt your existing position so that you might be open to how Easter could give us a fuller answer than we already have.
I hope to see you on Sunday.
So I realise I am walking a fine line as an Englishman by paying tribute to one of Ireland’s greats, but hopefully that highlights his brilliance (I should also add that conflict is developing within the Vaughan family as Jacob is very firmly a ‘greens’ and not a ‘whites’ fan!!). After watching his last home game at the Aviva stadium yesterday here is why I think BOD so magnificent.
(1) His Ability
There can be no question that he is one of the greatest players of the last 2 decades, some are saying of all time and maybe they are right. His speed, his offloads (the first 3 tries yesterday wouldn’t have happened without his superb offloads), his ability to run the right line, his hiding behind the ruck and squeezing over the line (a number 7 in a 13 jersey!), his link-up play and so on and so forth are second to none. When he is on form he is just fantastic to watch. I listened to a program this week by Shane Hogan who had heard Brian’s Dad Frank say that from a young age he had incredible balance (riding a bike without stabilisers at 3 years old). Shane then remembered a story when they were on tour and it was a rest day so they had gone water skiing. BOD had never water skied before yet he was straight up. However one of his skis then fell off but it didn’t affect him one bit and he finished his go with one ski and one bare foot. Incredible natural balance.
(2) His Courage
O’Driscoll arrived on the international scene when he scored three great tries against France in 2000. This was the beginning of the golden age and brought belief to Irish rugby. However BOD is not just great offensively but, like all the greats, he is a fierce tackler, with great technique and strength. But particularly over the last few years as his body has got that bit slower we have seen his courage, putting his body on the line for the sake of the team. Regularly going off injured to get himself bandaged up and then coming back on to finish the match. He has warrior-like courage on the pitch with last ditch tackles in the dying moments of a game.
(3) His Longevity
What makes BOD one of the greats is that he has more international caps than anyone else in the history of the game, overtaking the Australian scrum half George Gregon yesterday, with his 140th cap. What an achievement!
He has had his injuries but has managed to bounce back, and although not the biggest player on the field and unlike many modern day centres, he has managed to keep his body fit, strong and healthy for a long time! His records speak for themselves, not only is the most capped player in rugby union history he is the highest try scorer of all time in Irish rugby, the 8th of in rugby union history and the highest scoring centre of all time. He has the record for the most tries in the Six Nations and the most tries scored by an Irishman in the Heineken Cup. Wonder the Leinster and Irish faithful say “In BOD we trust.”
(4) His team focus
It is very hard to be the best and also be a team player. Often the best players’ egos get the better of them and they are more concerned about their performance than the team performance, more concerned about their accolades rather than the result. BOD is an example of a team player; that is why he puts his body on the line, comes back from injury and comes back on the pitch with a bloody bandage around his head. He loves to wear the green jersey and represent his country. A great example for any young rugby player.
(5) He’s one of us
Linked with his team focus is his down-to-earth nature. He hasn’t let his fame and success get to his head. Everyone I have spoken to who has met him says he is a genuine guy and that is how he comes across in interviews and talk shows. He seems like a humble family man who loves his rugby but doesn’t think he is better than anyone else. You could see that he enjoyed (and was overwhelmed by) the praise he received yesterday but he managed to accept it without brushing it off with false humility (which fails the fans) nor glorying in it unduely at the expense of the game at hand (which fails the team).
It was amazing to read on Facebook and hear on Radio/TV today comments like
“he has helped our country through these tough times”
“he has bought smiles to our faces when little else has.”
He is a great role model and inspiration for many. People can relate to him and find him a great source of strength themselves. He has not taken his position in the limelight trivially but has played, lived and led in such a way as to give hope to a nation.
These are my 5 reasons why I think Brian O’Driscoll is magnificent. Do you have any others?
Dublin has just celebrated the 2014 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival so it felt topical to write a short post on why Christians should watch films.
For many years now Leanne and I have run an informal film club in our home, with between 10-25 people attending each time. We used to do it nearly every week; now we do it once or twice a term. Our next film night is this Sunday and we are watching Robot & Frank, Do come along if you are interested; all the details are here.
So why do we do run a film club? Why do we watch a film and then discuss it? Well, there are three main reasons!
(1) To Build Community – Films are fun
Films are popular. In 2012, $10.84 billion was spent on movie tickets. Where people spend their money is always a good indication of what is important to them (this idea goes all the way back to Jesus, see Matthew 6.21). So it’s pretty clear that people like films, enjoy films and will happily spend their disposable income to watch films. Even when people are tired and fed up, they watch films. We think it is important to build community and make friends and so we provide a place where we can enjoy films with others who enjoy films, make friends, build community, eat popcorn, drink beer and have fun. Get the picture?!
We live in a world where more and more people feel isolated and lonely, so if you want to build community, watch films!
(2) To Understand Our Culture – Films reveal world-views
Every film, advert and trailer we watch is a sermon in that it has a message and a world-view (a world-view is a set of assumptions about the world – things we believe but take for granted). Films are trying to make you believe something and desire something and live in accordance with those beliefs and desires. It is telling you “this is how you find true meaning, joy, hope, power etc.” If you want to understand your culture, look at what is important to our culture. If you want to understand what is important to culture, look where people spend their money and why films are so attractive to them.
If you want to understand your culture, watch the films your culture is watching!
(3) To Understand Ourselves – Films reveal our hearts
Even more than helping us understand what is important to our culture, films actually reveal our hearts because they reveal our dreams. The reason films are so powerful is that for 2 hours we can forget reality, be consumed by another story, another worldview (where true romance is always found, things end happily ever after, good triumphs over evil etc), and we live in the world we dream was true.
If you want to understand your own heart and what is important to you, examine how you react to the various story-lines and characters in the films you watch. Your reaction (whether of disgust or ‘if only’) reveals your heart.
Okay, so there are three reason that you might find interesting as to why we should watch films. But why should Christians watch films? Isn’t that the title of this blog post? Well as someone that has been a pastor in different churches for over 6 years and met with dozens of people 1-2-1, the three reasons can be pushed a bit further for the Christian.
Christians should watch films to…
(1) Be Engaged
I don’t think Jesus ever imagined that Christianity was going to be cool or popular (just see what he has to say in Mark 8.34-38 and his example in Mark 10.32-45) as it would always involve taking up your cross, denying yourself and being a servant (bummer!). However, Jesus was very concerned that the message he came to share about the Kingdom of God would be understood by the average person on the street. That is why his teaching refers to shepherds and farmers and landowners. He was speaking their language. More than that, he engaged with ‘the salt of the earth’ and was found eating and drinking with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. In fact he was called a drunkard and a glutton (Luke 7.34). Jesus was very much engaged with the culture, world-view, thought-forms, language and aspirations of the people of his day.
Just as films are great for helping us build community, so they are helpful for the church to engage in culture.
(2) Be Constructive
Every film is a mix of sin and grace. Common grace means that every film will have elements of the gospel story in it. As C.S Lewis put it, “Every great story contains the gospel story.” That is, there will be themes of sacrificial love, forgiveness, justice – issues that are central to the gospel. However, every film will also be tainted by sin because we have all fallen short of God’s glory and turned away from our creator. We have then exchanged the truth of God for a lie and have worshipped the creation instead of the creator (Romans 1). There will therefore be themes of selfishness, insecurity, malice, cheating, violence, hurt and pain. Additionally, the default mode of every human heart is self-justification (be good, work hard, prove yourself and then you will be accepted). We have become autonomous and want to live life without God. So every film will contain the gospel (common grace) and contradict the gospel (inherent sin) – some films will contain the gospel more than contradict it and vice versa. This provides a great springboard for healthy discussion!
Just as films help us understand our culture by revealing world-views, so they are helpful for the church to add a constructive voice about truth, morality, meaning, identity and destiny. Films provide a great platform for discussion on these big topics. This would be very much the same idea behind the Intro Course (intro-course.ie). We want to provide a relaxed environment where people can ask the big questions of life knowing that no question is too feisty, no question is too simple and no-one is under any pressure to conform to any one belief system.
(3) Be Provoked
The original sin came about because Adam and Eve listened to another voice (the serpent) which caused them to believe a lie and desire something else more than God. Put simply, they started to believe another story about the world – they were taught a different world-view. This happens everyday in dozens of ways. We are being told another story about the world from many different voices. One of the biggest voices is film. As we have already reflected upon, films inform us of what is important in life, how to get true joy, how to prove yourself etc. If we are not careful we imbibe that message. What is so dangerous is that we are unaware that we are imbibing it. Films are not neutral. They inform us and can mould us. For example, the number of people who genuinely believe sex is going to be like it is in films is startling! It is therefore vital that Christians are able to watch films and critique the voices that oppose God’s story about the world and learn from the voices that reinforce God’s story about the world. If this critique does not happen we’ll easily be led astray as we believe lies and desire false gods. We need to reflect on films using a biblical, Christ-centred world-view.
As you watch the film you will find your heart being revealed (whether positively as you feel compassion and love etc) or negatively (as you identify with greed and lust etc). If done rightly, you will find that you are able to grow and change as a Christian just as much by watching a film reflectively as you are by reading the bible and praying (though the former should not replace the latter…haha!!). Films have the ability to provoke you like nothing else so it’s worth watching them for that reason alone.
Anyway, on our average film night we would not normally probe as deeply as in these last 3 points; we mainly stick to the first 3 points. However, this is something that I think the church should get better at. If you want to look deeper into this then I can recommend Ted Turnau’s essay “Reflecting Theologically on Popular Culture as Meaningful: The Role of Sin, Grace, and General Revelation”
Let me know if you think there are any other reasons why we should discuss films…and do come along and check out one of our film nights.
This year I am going through Everyday Prayers by Scotty Smith and this mornings prayer was all about freedom which links nicely with my last blog post on true freedom. Here it is
A Prayer for More Freedom
If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36
Dear Jesus, I’m still not nearly as free as you intend me to be. Though you’ve already freed me from trying to earn my salvation by anything I do, or based on anything in me; though you’ve already liberated me from the illusion that I can earn more of God’s love by ramping up my obedience and decreasing my foolishness; though the chains of condemnation have already been broken and the fears of death, Judgment Day, and the future have been sent packing—I’m still not as free as you intend.
I’m still a babe, a neophyte, a raw rookie in so many gospel freedoms. Only the gospel helps me see and acknowl
edge these things. Only your grace keeps me from going to shame and self-contempt as I offer these prayers.
Jesus, please free me so I can be less irritated, and less often, with fewer people. Please turn my hair-trigger reactions into slower, wiser responses. Help me use fewer words and more listening when engaging others. Please unshackle me from the illusion of control and my commitment to a pain-free heart. Free me for extravagant adoration of you and sacrificial giving to others.
Jesus, please liberate me from thinking about the next thing, so I can be present in the current moment. Please help me make better eye contact and heart connection with others. Please help me to be more intrigued with people I don’t know and less timid around strangers.
Jesus, please break even more of the chains of my insecurities. Please free me from the grave-clothes of feeling incompetent about important things in life. Please unfetter me from thinking too much about what I’m not, by showing me more of you and who I am in you.
Jesus, please free me for greater spontaneity, louder laughter, saltier tears, and quicker repentances. I want to be free, by your grace and for your glory. So very Amen I pray, in your powerful and loving name.
In our church gathering tonight we are looking at Romans 6 in the Bible which one famous commentator on Romans described as “the most liberating chapter in the bible”. So I thought I would jot down a few notes on what the Bible says about true freedom.
This issue of freedom very much dominates the modern mind and I think there are three good reasons for this.
(1) Nelson Mandela – a man marked by freedom
With the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, the world has been reflecting on his remarkable life, particularly his unjust imprisonment and then his leadership of South Africa into a new era where black and white people are treated fairly. His life was marked by freedom and he is truly one of the greatest statesmen of the last 50 years. His autobiography is aptly called “Long Walk to Freedom”.
However Mandela realised that freedom wasn’t just about social and political equality (which South Africa eventually achieve) and it wasn’t just about physical freedom (which he eventually received), it is also about something deeper, more personal and more penetrating. He famously said:
As I walked out of the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
Mandela knew that to be truly free, it meant you had to experience a freedom within. This ultimately is what the Bible wants to help us with and is the source from which all other freedoms (physical, political and social) come.
(2) Sex trafficking – modern slavery
I recently attended the Rubicon conference where we spent a day reflecting on and discussing the issue of justice. It was a very stimulating and encouraging day. However, one sad statistic came across during one of the talks regarding sex trafficking. This is a form of slavery as people, usually against their will, are trafficked to other parts of the world so that a pimp can sell their sexual services to make money. The lady speaking told us that because this industry is so prominent there are actually more slaves in the world today than ever before. We often think that we are moving forward as a civilisation but maybe we are actually just repeating old mistakes/crimes in new guises. It is well known that the only way to eliminate modern slavery is to eliminate the demand for it. And the only way to eliminate the demand is to experience a change of heart, to experience inner freedom. The fact that sex trafficking is so rife reveals that our world has not found an inner freedom, but is in fact enslaved to pleasure, power, money and sex. This leads me on to my third introductory comment on our desire for feedom.
(3) Freedom – today’s battle cry
The greatest desire of our generation today is ‘freedom’ and by that I mean, self-discovery through self-fulfilment. People want to be free to choose the life they want to lead because they believe that if they are free to make the choices they want to make, they will discover the fulfilment they desperately desire. People pursue all kinds of things to find this freedom they crave. Some think they’ll find fulfilment in romance and relationships, some in sex and pleasure, some in alcohol and partying, some in work and achievement, some in money and fame, some in good works and deeds of justice, others in family and friends…the list is familiar and ever increasing. Whilst all these things are good in and of themselves, in fact they are all gifts from God, if we pursue them to satisfy our need for freedom and fulfilment, they actual lead to slavery and despair. The things we thought would set us free (work, money, relationships, good causes) become our masters and demand more and more of us until either (a) we fail them or (b) they crush us to the ground, by demanding more and more time and energy from us.
What Mandela’s quote and the statistics about sex trafficking reveal is that for all our talk about freedom, we are actually all slaves – something or someone is commanding our time, emotions and decisions and ultimately controlling our lives. No-one is really free; even the people who say “I am free, I do whatever I like” are actually enslaved to their own desires and other people’s pressure.
So how do we find true freedom? How do we find the fulfilment we so desire? How does inner freedom occur? Well the Bible states very clearly there is only one master who (a) always forgives you when you fail and (b) exalts you higher than the heavens by giving us a status and worth beyond our wildest dreams…and his name is Jesus. He is the giver of all the good gifts we so often try and build our lives around and the way to freedom is to enjoy all those things but to build our lives around him.
Galatians 5:1 in the Bible says this: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” So what bondage has Christ set us free from? What masters does he deliver us from? Well there are three, and we’ll start with the master Galatians 5 is specifically talking about.
(1) Freedom from the law (self-justification)
Inside each of us is a desire to prove ourselves, to acquit ourselves, to justify ourselves. We do this in different ways. Sometimes we do this through moral obedience, sometimes by pointing out that “we are not has bad as those bad people”, other times by hard work or by being faithful in our deepest and dearest relationships, sometimes by giving to charity or by going to church or confession etc. However we do it, we are all doing it. In the New Testaments there was a group of people, the Pharisees, who tried to justify themselves through obedience to the Old Testament law. Moral obedience made them acceptable to God and superior to their fellow men. Jesus didn’t seem to have too much time for them (just read Matthew 23)!
When Jesus died on the cross, the Bible says that his perfect record (of obedience) was credited to us and all our failures and mistakes were credited to him. We therefore learn that God accepts us NOT on our performance but on his performance (his perfect life and sacrificial death). All his courage, beauty and perfection are given to us. This is truly the most profound and wonderful mystery and the theological term that sums it up is “union with Christ” which is the doctrine running throughout Romans 6. I share in the life, death and benefits of Christ before God. We therefore no longer need to prove or justify ourselves as Jesus has done that for us. His record has become our record. We are not defined by our performance but by his performance on our behalf. Hallelujah!
(2) Freedom from guilt (our past and our mistakes)
Inextricably linked with our freedom from needing to obey the law and be morally good to be accepted before God is our understanding that, as Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Because Jesus took all the punishment that our sins deserve we don’t need to atone for our sins (point 1 – try to justify ourselves), nor do we need to wallow in them feeling more and more guilty. We can thank God for his forgiveness, that his justice was satisfied in Jesus and live free from guilt and shame. Again, we are not defined (and haunted) by our past; we are defined (and set free) by Jesus’ performance for us. Hallelujah!
(3) Freedom from sin (our spiritual masters)
Here I return to the introduction. Each us of us is ultimately living for something. We are offering ourselves to something. We have entered into a covenant relationship with something. We need this thing for our satisfaction, significance and security and that thing defines us, commands us and controls us. This spiritual master then leads us to do things that we know are not good (sin) and in turn we feel more and more inadequate.
How does this show itself? It all becomes clearer when we are in danger of losing or failing that which we are living for. We lie or steal or cheat to get it back. Instead of a reasonable amount of anger, worry or sadness at losing it we over-react with bitterness, anxiety or depression and are paralysed. Our behaviour and emotions reveal our slavery.
So how does freedom come? When you find all your identity, value and confidence in what God thinks of you because of what Jesus has done (and your union with him), then you can let go of these others things, enjoy them in their right context and in the right way, and be controlled by the only master in the whole universe who wants impart life, goodness, peace, wisdom and joy into your life. He forgives you when you fail and exalts you higher than the heavens. As you let your life be defined more and more by Jesus you’ll find a freedom from sin and your other spiritual masters.
True freedom is ultimately not external, either politically, socially or physically, although these matter deeply to God as well. True freedom as Mandela highlighted, is something that happens internally and becomes the source, power and motivation with which to fight for all other freedom. This is how Paul puts it at the end of Romans 6.
Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that [in Christ]…You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
So this Sunday, as a Valentine’s Day special, the Intro Course is hosting what is likely to be one of the most fun and fiercely debated evenings so far on the subject of ‘God and Sex’. Now because people generally think God has a negative and a low view of sex, to give people a taster of what we’ll be looking at and to get the discussion going I thought I’d write a short blog post, backed up by the Scriptures, about 10 things you probably didn’t know about God and sex.
Let me know if you think differently.
(1) God knows how to get the best sex.
This may sound surprising but think about it; (a) God invented sex (Genesis 1-2), (b) God is all knowing (Psalm 139:2-4)) and (c) God created us for the greatest pleasure imaginable (Psalm 16:11). When you put all that together you have to agree that above any human being or sex expert, God knows how to get the best sex.
Let me get more provocative…
(2) God knows the best sex positions.
Now some of you may think me irreverant for saying so (I was going to call the title of my talk on Sunday “Jesus is a sex God” but I thought that may seem irreverent to some so didn’t!) but again, think about the logic. If point number 1 is right, then it goes without saying that the all-knowing inventor of sex who made us to know the greatest pleasure possible knows the best sex positions.
If you are cringing at the thought of God knowing sex positions, your view of God is too small and based on culture, upbringing, religion, church experience and the Priest/Minister more than what the Scriptures say. For example, in the bible you’ll read stuff like this (from the Song of Songs, a 3000 year old sexual manual):
How beautiful your sandalled feet, O prince’s daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of a craftsman’s hands. Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies…How beautiful you are and how pleasing, O love, with your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” May your breasts be like the clusters of the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.” (Song of Songs 6:13b-7:9)
When you have a Hebrew worldview like those in the Old Testament where everything in this world is a gift from God to be enjoyed, then you will have no trouble acknowledging that God knows the best sex positions. By the way, I have been told our bible translators have not had the guts to translate this verse as accurately as the original Hebrew and “navel” is not the best translation…you can work it out!!
(3) God tells us to have lots of sex
It is easy to overlook that the FIRST COMMANDMENT in the bible is not “thou shalt not…” but rather “go forth and multiply” (Genesis 1:27). Is that not amazing, that the first thing God tells humanity is to go and have sex? Now, that is my kind of God!
Here is a verse from the book of Proverbs which follows a similar line; a father is counselling his son:
“Drink water from your own well — share your love only with your wife… Let your wife be a fountain of blessing. Rejoice in the wife of your youth. She is a loving deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts satisfy you always. May you always be captivated by her love”. (Proverbs 5:15-19)
(4) God is cool with oral sex and sex outside
The song of songs is so graphic at points. Here is a clear reference to oral sex:
“Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. He has taken me to the banquet hall and his banner over me is love. Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.” (Song of Songs 2:3-5)
…and here is a reference to making love outside:
“Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom— there I will give you my love. The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover.” (Song of Songs 7:11-13)
(5) God says a wife and a husband have a responsibility to make sure their partner is sexually satisfied.
1 Corinthians 7 is a great passage on God’s design for sex, marriage and singleness. I like verses 2-3 particularly:
Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.
It is well worth telling your other half that “God is speaking to me through 1 Corinthians 7:2-3” – haha! But the chapter goes on to say…
(6) God says one of the greatest tricks of the devil is to STOP people having sex.
Someone famous once said that the greatest trick the devil played was to convince the world he didn’t exist. Well another great trick of his is to stop people having sex. We often think that God is the spoil sport and the devil is the one offering us all the pleasure. The BEST the devil can do is twist the pleasureable things God has given us.
If you don’t believe me just read these two verses:
Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 8:5)
Or this one says that it is the “doctrine of demons” to stop people having sex:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons… They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe…(1 Timothy 4:4)
(7) God wants us to stop selling ourselves short in the area of sex
Given everything I have said so far, it stands to reason that God is not ‘tut-tutting’ at us and our views on sex but rather wondering why we are selling ourselves so short. C.S Lewis put it brilliantly when he said:
“Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity)
(8) God is in the room when you have sex
Just as God is all knowing, he is also omnipresent which means he is everywhere (Psalm 139:7-9). This means he is in the room every time you have sex.
Ever thought of that? Does it change your view of sex? It shouldn’t if you have a Hebrew worldview!!
(9) God is more interested in our hearts than our actions (kind of..)
Jesus famously said in the Sermon on the Mount:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
And he said this when a woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned by the religious folk of the day:
Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (John 8:7)
Jesus is more concerned with what is going on in our hearts than what is going on with our sex organs…kind of! Why do I say that? Well Jesus says the most important thing to him is our hearts and you can (a) live a very moral life but do it for your own self-worth and not for him; in which case all your righteous acts are but filthy rags to him. Or (b), you can live a very licentious life but your heart yearns for him to help you; in which case, he may not be pleased with your actions but he can see your heart and wants to help you. In both scenarios, Jesus is more interested in the position of our hearts than our past/present sexual activity.
Why do I say “kind of”? Because Jesus tells us that our actions are always an overflow of our hearts; they reveal what is in our hearts (Matthew 6:19-24). So ultimately you cannot separate the two.
(10) God wants us to be more humble when it comes to sex
We live in a sex obsessed culture, but it is a culture that is sexually out of control. People are hurting and people are turning to counterfeit forms of sex to satisfy their desires. We think we have it all sorted and we think God has nothing helpful to say to us about sex. It is my contention that we have got this all wrong and actually since (a) God gave us the gift of sex (b) he is a good and all knowing God and (c) he wants us to experience the greatest pleasure, we should actually listen to what he has to say without dismissing it outright.
The book of Proverbs puts it well. Chapters 5-7 are about a father counselling his son about sex and one refrain is helpful for me:
“Keep my commands and you will live, guard my teaching as the apple of your eye” (Proverbs 7:2)
Maybe we should stop and consider the commands and teaching of God when it comes to sex. Maybe I am wrong to think that, but it is surely worth a conversation don’t you think?
Do come and discuss and share your views this Sunday, 7.30pm at Third Space Café in Smithfield.
Let the games begin…!!
So Leanne and I are coming up to our first anniversary in Dublin (September 24th) so it felt appropriate to write a short post on why Dublin is such a great place to come and live. The media often talks about why so many people have left Ireland in the last 5 years that it can be easy to forget that the Emerald Isle, the land of Saints & Scholars, is still very much a great place to live, not least in its capital.
Dublin is a great place to live because of…
(1) The History
Dublin has so much history embedded into the very structure of the city that as you walk around you are regularly captivated by a building or a statue that links back to a key moment in Irish history. There are the Guinness & Jameson distilleries, the bullet holes in the General Post Office (not England’s finest moment!!), Trinity College, the Book of Kells, the Chester Beattie Library, not to mention places slightly further afield like Newgrange or Glendalough – places that take you back centuries, even millennia, to great and important moments in history.
(2) The Sea
One of the reasons Leanne and I and the kids love the city is because whenever it is a hot sunny day we are able to drive for 20 minutes to an hour and find a number of beautiful beaches. Just this week I was diving into the sea from the rocks of Sandycove and back in July we enjoyed the beauty of Silver Strand and Brittas Bay as well as other local beaches. What is so nice is that these places are totally unspoilt by mass tourism because the weather is not consistently nice enough for them to become tourist hubs all year round or even every year (but this summer has been the hottest and nicest summer in years…hallelujah!). Without exaggeration I can say that a hot sunny day on a beach in Wicklow rivals the beaches I have visited in Hawaii (and on the west coast of Ireland you even get the enormous waves as well – Mayo is the surfing capital of Europe). It has been my joy to cycle up and down the beach road every day to work this year.
(3) The GAA
The Irish love their sport! They love their rugby and as an island of just over 6 million they punch well above their weight with 4 high level provincial teams and a great national team. They love their soccer (and especially The English Premiership). But as I experienced last week when I went to Croke Park for the All Ireland Semi Final (Dublin vs Kerry – touted as maybe the greatest match of all time), I came to understand how much Ireland love their GAA and especially Gaelic Football, known here just as ‘football’. GAA stands for Gaelic Athletic Association and covers Football, Hurling and Camogie. As far as live sporting occasions go it was about as good as I have ever been to. 80 000+ packed into Croke Park (with Hill 16, another famous historical sight…again another reminder of some of England’s unpleasant history) to watch a game that is action-action-action, high scoring, physically demanding, very skilful and full of passion. I saw the Irish in all their zeal and the Dubs win in the most dramatic of finishes. What was particularly fitting was that that morning I had been playing for my local football team, Kilmacud Crokes, in Phoenix Park (another great location in Dublin, full of history) and had seen a similar standard of football being played…not!! But in all seriousness I have loved learning a new sport and all the craic that goes with it. #EnglishmanPlayingGAA
(4) The Wicklow Mountains
Not only has Dublin got great beaches to choose from, it also has great mountains – both the Dublin mountains (which I can see from my house) and the Wicklow mountains. I have yet to explore these great places by bike or foot (my biggest regret from my first year) but I enjoy the sights and know they will provide many adventures in the future. Dublin is a city surrounded by beauty from both the seas and the mountains.
(5) The Google effect
This point could have been called “Dublin is great to live in because of the Low Corporation Tax” and you have probably seen a few scandals in the papers in the last few months about that. But the bottom line is Dublin has attracted ALL the coolest hi-tech companies such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and further afield companies like Apple and Pay-Pal. Dublin is the hi-tech capital of Europe and still growing with all the new start-ups joining in. These companies are not only transforming the world we live in by changing the way we shop, communicate and learn, they are also transforming the workplace itself, bringing in a culture of fun and innovation, free food and beer, flexible working hours and excellent perks. I have had the privilege of working for Oracle for the past 9 months and am looking forward to starting with HubSpot this Monday (an American start-up that has just arrived in Dublin to establish its European and International HQ). The city’s IFSC (International Financial Services Centre) and Docklands area is buzzing with an international young workforce and is an exciting place to be.
(6) The Guinness
(7) The Irish
I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the Irish really are the friendliest people I have ever met. Leanne and I have only been here a year but feel very settled and are developing a growing circle of friends and a widening community.
(8) The Size
Dublin has all the benefits of a capital – great history, a world class music venue, two major sporting stadiums (Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium which, by the way, is a beautiful piece of art!), a great night life, some touristy stuff, universities, theatres, the government houses, the business and financial HQs and everything else you find in a capital BUT it is all within touching distance and the countryside is never that far away. This ‘small capital’ feel is great.
(9) The Zoo
Every child needs a zoo in their life to be truly happy…well it’s a bonus at least. But having annual membership so that each week you can go and visit lions and tigers and elephants and giraffes is fantastic. Plus it’s a really nice zoo.
(10) The New Culture
Dublin has seen seismic cultural changes in the last 15-20 years which makes it a very interesting place to live. Firstly mass attendance has declined rapidly and the 18-35 year old generation have, by and large, fallen out with the Catholic Church. The city saw a huge boom between 2000-2008 and then a major financial crash, which it is slowly recovering from. Thousands of new migrants have come into the city (the second largest population group are Polish with around 120 000 residents in Ireland) and then there was been a massive exodus of both Irish and other nationalities in the last few years. All of that has led to an increasingly secular and cosmopolitan culture within the city which is searching for a new identity. This makes Dublin an exciting place to live because the new cultural identity has yet to be defined.
So there you have it, 10 reasons why Dublin is a great place to live. I am sure there are many more. If I have missed anything then please do jot it down.
Here is to year 2!