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Fear

By Ben Swift

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

Anyone who has ever stood in close proximity to a great male lion – the king of the beasts – and looked into its majestic, yet terrifying face would awaken a sense of fear of what such a beast is capable. The roar of a lion can send thunderous vibrations through the ground on which you stand, indeed through your very being. To come face to face with a hungry lion in the wild would elicit such fear that any normal human being could only freeze and be subject to the desires of this beast. Perhaps this explains why the lion was chosen by C.S. Lewis as the character for Aslan.

While Lewis’ fictional character of Aslan the lion does provide us with some powerful imagery into the awesomeness and majesty of God, we would do well to consider that creatures such as the lion are just that; creatures.

In terms of fear then, are we Christians living in today’s world in danger of losing our sense of who God really is? Are we so blinded by theologies that allow us to create God into whatever image we desire, losing our fear of Him that is far greater than any beast?

Consider the following words from Jesus to His disciples:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

Surely true wisdom is to allow these words to penetrate deep within our understanding and consciousness. Who is man and who is God? Isn’t this the question of all questions? We need to continually ponder it, relying on the Holy Spirit to hold us to the truth that exists in its answer. The answer however, should not be sought simply philosophically or scientifically but theologically through what God has revealed to us about Himself. It all begins and ends with Christ as through His living Word the nature of the Triune God is revealed.

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14: 6)

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14: 9b)

If we consider the purpose of humanity as revealed in the Scriptures to be to live as image bearers of Christ and therefore to reflect the nature of our Creator back into the world, it would make sense to hold a healthy fear tied to a true understanding of the Creator and His creation. But is this the reality for the church of today, or even for those who claim to follow Christ?

We certainly don’t need to venture very far to see that the Church today does not consistently reflect the nature of God as revealed in Christ. One of the basic principles in reading and interpreting the Word is to interpret Scripture with Scripture but what about interpreting our Christian lives under the same lens. If the Christian life is reflecting cultural norms rather than standing apart from them, surely alarm bells should be ringing?

So why is it that we consistently live as though it is the world we have to fear rather than the One who created the world, holding sovereign power over it? Surely it must come down to human arrogance. C.S. Lewis cleverly puts it in these words:

“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride….It was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”[1]

Pride or arrogance is easily developed and expressed as it comes so naturally to our fallen nature. Perhaps the most effective cure for this diseased state of mind is to be subject to an inescapable reality check, one that breathes life into our fear once more. Like the lion’s breath-taking roar, God can take us to this place as we listen to His voice speak through the Scriptures. The book of Job provides us with perhaps the most humbling starting point. Consider the words of God to Job as he was reminded of the answer to the ever important question of God and man:

“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (Job 38: 2-5)

What if God is asking all of us these questions? Listen to His voice. Brace yourself like a human because you are not God and He alone is all powerful. Like Job, all who claim to follow Christ must come to the same understanding of Job. That is, we must humbly develop a healthy fear of God, echoing Job’s response.

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, “Listen now and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 2-6)

Surely to know God is to love but also fear God; to listen to His voice; to shed our arrogance and to follow Christ in humility. Here lies true wisdom, foolishness to the world.

[1] Lewis. C.S., Mere Christianity, (C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1952) p. 69

Eyes Wide Open

By Ben Swift

“I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven, I look at my daughter, and I believe. I don’t need no proof, when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset and I perceive.” (Lyrics from ‘Heaven’ by Live)

Despite the terrible things of this world, there is an undeniable beauty that most certainly exists around every corner we turn, under every rock we overturn, even in the most terrifying aspects of nature. While it is easy to be drawn towards a focus on the darker tones of life, hugely influenced by the bombardment of the press in all its forms, we must not lose sight of the overwhelming beauty that has been gifted us by the Creator God through what has been spoken into being.

‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.’ (Psalm 19:1)

When you consider the complexity of creation, it doesn’t matter at what level you enter it. With eyes wide open one cannot help but be awestruck. The human being is a case in point, each individual person made unique through the process of meiosis, each cell carrying with it a genetic code reflecting an individual melting pot of family traits ensuring each of us as a one of a kind, even to the point of our fingerprints. Who could even begin to calculate the number of fingerprint patterns that must have existed throughout all of time, let alone the number of unique patterns represented in snowflakes. And yet the Bible speaks of a God who knows us so intimately that he has numbered the very hairs on our heads.

What’s also incredible is that God’s revelation to His creation would not be possible without the gift of perception. Have you ever wondered why it is that any of us wonder at all? Why is it that we are drawn to the colourful palette of the setting sun, the contrasting blues of the ocean or the soft, white fur of the baby seal? Humankind has certainly been given a gift when it comes to reflecting on beauty and meaning and the source of it all.

Our ability to reflect the creative nature of our God has enabled us to create all sorts of tools for investigating creation at a deeper level. Consider the evolution of the microscope and our ability to understand the nature of cells including the role of DNA as our genetic blueprint. On the other hand, consider the telescope and its ability to open our eyes to what is only the beginning of the vastness of space. Our ability and artistic ingenuity has allowed us to not only reflect on the here and now but to capture it on film, opening up access to areas we personally may never have travelled to or even dreamed of.

Perhaps one of the greatest films to capture and invoke a sense of awe for the natural world was ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’.[1] Sean O’Conner, a photographer in the film made the following memorable quote when sharing a rare view of a snow leopard through the lens of his camera:

“If I like a moment, I mean me personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of a camera. I just want to stay in it. Right there…right here…To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind the walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the meaning of life.”

The character Sean O’Conner certainly resonates with many of us and he comes close to the truth but fails to go the full distance by defining the meaning of life in the absence of the source of life.

So what does this all mean for the human? Is it enough to simply take hold of the gift of perception and reflection, drawing no further meaning from it other than appreciation?

N.T. Wright suggests, “We must acknowledge that beauty, whether in the natural order or within human creation, is sometimes so powerful that it evokes our very deepest feelings of awe, wonder, gratitude and reverence.” But importantly, “The beauty of the natural world is, at best, the echo of a voice, not the voice itself.”[2]

The Apostle Paul understood this well.

‘For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.’ (Romans 1:20)

God has indeed revealed Himself to every human being. A general revelation that should never be regarded as simply ‘general’ in that it is so incredible, so humbling and awe-inspiring that it surely points to a Creator beyond anything we can comprehend. Theologian J.I. Packer suggests that God in His general revelation, “actively discloses aspects of Himself to all human beings, so that in every case failure to thank and serve the Creator in righteousness is sin against knowledge, and denials of having received this knowledge should not be taken seriously.”[3]

Surely God the Creator is not a hidden God in that He has revealed Himself to us. While we cannot know all of God, creation has His fingerprints all over it, from the human being to the venous fly trap. We simply need to approach life with our eyes wide open. Let’s not stop there however, but humbly acknowledge God for who He is, worshiping the Creator, not the creation, and letting creation point us to Christ in whom God has been truly revealed.

 

 

[1] Thurber, James and Conrad, Steven. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Harcourt, Brace and Company, United States, 2013).

[2] Wright, Tom. Simply Christian. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 2006.) p.38.

[3] Packer, J.I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois, 1993). p. 9.

Growing Pains

By Ben Swift

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” (C.S. Lewis)

When it comes to the problem of trying to make sense of pain and suffering in this life, surely no human being has been exempt from their own personal set of tribulations. Perhaps that’s why the country music scene has such a huge following as people identify with the melancholy, story-telling lyrics of broken relationships and the struggles we all face in the changing seasons of our lives.

As the old saying, “There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain,” suggests, the experiences of life can be perceived as pendulum-like, swinging us from emotion to emotion as our circumstances drag us from ecstasy to despair and everywhere in between. If we pour all of our energy into bringing this pendulum to a grinding holt, however, what will be the consequence? If we attempt to walk the fine line between pleasure and pain, placing ourselves in protective bubbles, will it lead to the exclusion of life itself?

If we turn to the book of Ecclesiastes and to Christian existentialists for advice, we begin to gain some interesting perspectives on what C.S. Lewis refers to in the opening quote. The goal common to much of humanity in seeking above all else personal happiness through wealth, fame and physical pleasure, are in fact likened to chasing the wind. The values of the common man are reduced to vanity.

‘Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labour on which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

The thirst for comfort, wealth and fame is unquenchable and consequently snuffs out the parts of life that point us to truth and meaning. Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, took this line of thinking to the extreme. It was said that Kierkegaard refused a parsonage which would have brought him a steady income, left his fiancée and the chance of a settled family life and deliberately used his talent as a thinker to bring ridicule upon himself. Why? Because he recognised that comfort, money and public approval are inferior values.[1]

To anyone living in a modern, Western society, this way of thinking seems absurd as it goes against everything that the world has programmed our minds with since the day we left the womb. But then again, is it absurd to recognise the futile pursuits of the world, attempting to replace them with a way of living that actually awakens us to who we really are and who we have been created to be?

In relation to suffering Karl Barth suggests, “Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.”[2]

Whether we willingly plunge ourselves into suffering in the way that existentialists do or not, the reality still remains that to live is to experience both pleasure and pain. This is life. This is a truth that cannot be avoided. The problem with pain and suffering is that we cannot avoid what is outside of our control. We cannot eliminate life’s continual bombardment of factors that contribute to the world in which we exist.

Consider the phenomenon known as ‘The Butterfly Effect’. As part of an idea used by physicists in Chaos Theory, a minute alteration to an initial state of a physical system can result in a large, significant difference to the state at a later time. The concept famously uses the exaggerated example of a butterfly flapping its wings in one country only to cause a cyclone in another due to the initial environmental change caused by the beating of the wings.

In a sense, The Butterfly Effect can help us to understand the problem of pain because life appears chaotic. It is chaotic in that outside factors such as other people, the natural world, financial instability and disease can be the cause of our suffering and we have little to no control over how they will affect us personally and collectively. What we do have control over is how we will respond when bad things happen, not in the sense that we won’t feel broken and torn apart, but in relation to who we turn to in order to make sense of life and its tribulations. It is here that by the work of the Holy Spirit we will see that only in Christ the perceived chaos is actually all under control; there is an endpoint and there is comfort in the refuge of our God.

Theologian Martin Luther was certainly subject to his fair share of trials and tribulations and offers us the following thoughts:

“It is impossible for the human heart, without crosses and tribulations, to think upon God.”[3]

“When left and forsaken of all men, in my highest weakness, in trembling, and in fear of death, when persecuted of the wicked world, then I felt most deeply the divine power which this name, Christ Jesus, communicated unto me.”[4]

As frail human beings we need to become wrapped in the One who is greater than ourselves. If we are to take up our cross and follow Christ, we would do well to embrace the following words of David:

Hear my cry, Oh God; Attend to my prayer. From the end of the earth I will cry to You. When my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For You have been a shelter for me, a strong tower from the enemy. I will abide in Your tabernacle forever; I will trust in the shelter of Your wings. (Psalm 61: 1-4)

As life continues to pour its heavy weight on your shoulders, may you learn to shelter in the wings of your Heavenly Father. There you will find rest.

[1] Olson, Robert. An Introduction to Existentialism. (Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, 2017). p. 2.

[2] Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, translated from the 6th Edition by Hoskyns, Edwyn, 1968). p. 301.

[3] Luther, Martin. The Tabletalk of Martin Luther. (Christian Focus Publications, Scotland, 2003). p. 364.

[4] Luther, Martin. The Tabletalk of Martin Luther. (Christian Focus Publications, Scotland, 2003). p. 186.

The Gift of Christmas

By Ben Swift

Liquid and lungs swiftly part ways

As the Christ child gasps for breath in the world that He made

The Word that breathed life into all that has been

Now lay fully human that God may truly be seen

For knowing the Father is in knowing the Son

A divinely-gifted revelation wrapped in Trinitarian love

A frail, helpless child, His little eyes first awake

The eyes of a perfect saviour, born to suffer our rightful fate.

Being Human Beings

By Ben Swift

‘Science does an excellent job of telling me why I don’t have a tail, but it can’t explain why I find that interesting.’ (Rob Bell)

The question of what it is to be human is one that has surely bounced around in the minds of any person who has the mental capacity to reflect on the deeper things of life. But just how far must we travel in our search for a satisfactory answer; an answer that we can confidently call truth or at least reality? Finding answers to such questions can and will take us in all sorts of directions and so we firstly need a starting point, a contemplation that serves to steer us in the right direction.

A few years ago, the band ‘Casting Crowns’ released a song titled ‘Who Am I?’ that serves this purpose well. In the tradition of the psalmists of old, their lyrics cry out:

Who am I, that the Lord of all the earth, would care to know my name, would care to feel my hurt….

I am a flower quickly fading, here today and gone tomorrow, a wave tossed in the ocean, a vapour in the wind…

Surely such anguish-driven thoughts have paved the way for many a search for meaning. But before we head down the philosophical road, let’s take a detour and see what Science has to say.

At a scientific level, humans, like all other animals, consist of cells, the very fabric of life. These cells work together to enable the physiological and biochemical processes required by the organism to take place as it lives in an environment that meets the conditions needed for its life. The specific bundle of cells known as the human are classified as mammals, along with apes and lemurs, and belong to the order Primates – the highest level of mammal. They are first in the animal kingdom in brain development with especially large cerebral hemispheres. (Hickman, Roberts, Hickman) That’s right, humans have, in terms of the animal kingdom, relatively big brains. But it’s what drives these brains beyond biological explanation that is of greater interest.

Science – recognised as a discipline closely associated with logic – has led people to strange places when it comes to finding answers about the human condition. In 1907 Duncan MacDougall, an American physician, conducted a bizarre investigation known as ‘Weighing the Ghost’. He actually attempted to measure the weight of the human soul. His investigation involved placing humans literally on their death bed, enabling a difference in weight between the alive specimen and the dead specimen to be taken at the exact moment the soul was to hypothetically leave the body. Not surprisingly, nothing was really gained from these experiments. (Rooney)

Science as a discipline can teach us many things but it has its limits. Obviously, as humans, we are more than complex cellular organisms and not everything about us can be tested and measured scientifically.

Unless we are prepared to tackle the, ‘Who am I?’ question at a psychological and spiritual level, rather than at a material level, something of crucial importance to the understanding of what it is to be human remains a mystery. (Vardy)

While it would be foolish to deny that genetics plays a role in many aspects of the human being, just as it does throughout the animal kingdom, it cannot explain why we, unlike other animals, have a consciousness that calls us into a place of reflection and a search for meaning. You will find no written accounts reflecting on the longings of the heart from the perspective of a lemur. There’s just something higher about the human race, something that cannot be explained by including us purely as a piece of the evolutionary jigsaw puzzle.

It turns out however, that there are many voices trying to flag down our attention, hoping to convince us that they have the keys to the vault holding the truth about who we are. Thoughts from humanists, philosophers and religious teachers among others. Consider a thought from The Buddha:

‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.’

But what is the basis for such a claim? If we choose to venture down this path, our meaning as humans lies completely with the self, and it seems that the self has been unable to truly satisfy its own desire for higher meaning. The truth about who we are must transcend ourselves. Denial is a powerful mental state but surely we can’t deny that reality exists simply by thinking it into being something more palatable.

Alternatively, Genesis 1:26 clearly illuminates the special creative intentions that God has for human beings, explaining why we are the way we are.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Theologian Neil McKinlay puts it this way:

‘He gave His own reflection five senses to appreciate His beautiful creation. And with His own finger He delicately wrote His law of love on His little mirror as He breathed life into him. As the three persons love the eternal Godhead, so man was to image his Creator by loving God and his neighbour personally, perfectly and perpetually.’

It is exclusively through our understanding of who we are in relation to who the Triune God is that we come to comprehend what it means to be human. We have been gifted with the capacity to reflect the very nature of our Creator. Who we have become as human beings is often far from who we have been created to be and perhaps that’s why throughout history we have so widely missed the mark when it comes to answering the question of what it means to be human. The more we close our eyes and ears to all that Christ reveals to us about ourselves, the more we use our creative capacities to construct meaning from a source separated from truth and life itself.

Let us not be reduced to a complex clump of cells answerable only to our DNA or philosophies that preach the death of God and the power of the self. Instead let’s turn to a God who knows us better than we know ourselves; a God who has experienced what it is to be human.

“Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh.” (John Calvin)

Such is Love

By Ben Swift

Dedicated to Christy Jean Clarke (1974 – 2017)

“The beautiful simplicity of our faith is that it distils down to the exact same bottom line for both the brilliant theologian and the five-year-old child: love God and love each other – period.” (Richard Stearns)

Recently after attending the memorial service for a well-loved colleague who had passed away, I was overwhelmed by the intimate affect that one person could have on the lives of many people. Upon reflection, this remarkable woman’s legacy was so profound because her life, once unfolded and relived through those closest to her, embodied the essence of Stearn’s statement. It was said that while some people collect all manner of things, she collected people; people who responded to the genuine love shown for both God and others. To attend such a celebration of life is to hold a ticket to ride a rollercoaster of emotion, one that carries you from sorrow to joy to pure inspiration.

Several years ago, singer songwriter, Stevie Nicks, wrote a song called ‘Landslide’. Her lyrics, although reflecting on her personal issues, run deep and can serve to help us understand that life can sometimes take us to the top of the world, but in an instant, a landslide can bring us down. Consider the words of Stevie Nicks:

Oh mirror in the sky, what is love?

Can the child within my heart rise above?

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?

Can I handle the seasons of my life?

And there lies the question that no human being can avoid. Can any of us handle the seasons of our lives? While there are many different ways we as people seek to sail through the changing ocean tides, few would disagree that ‘love’ must be part of the answer. But what is love? Or more importantly, “What is real love?”

It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, “God is Love” but it’s the way in which we interpret this statement that becomes important to how it impacts our life. Our understanding of God as love will be shaped by our understanding of God in relation to both Himself and His creation. It is only in the relationship expressed in the Trinity that we can fully understand love, as this is the source of all eternal love.

‘Love is not eternal because the poet may ever so beautifully say so, but rather because God is eternal and says so. Each person in the Godhead eternally loves the other Persons. God eternally loves God and His neighbour as Himself. Love, therefore, protects and promotes the wellbeing of others.’ (McKinlay)

Stemming from this understanding of ‘God as love’, we who seek to love as Christ loves must see ‘God’s love for the world calling out an answering love from us, enabling us to discover that God not only happens to love us but that he is love itself.’ (Wright)

To the Christian it is clear that to understand love, and indeed to be truly loving, we must be in Christ, whose love exists eternally in the perfect loving relationship of the Trinity. This is because all aspects of love have been and are continually experienced and expressed in the relationship of the Trinity. The Triune God can identify with our human stories because He has firsthand experience with the emotions tied to our experiences of love. We see this time and again as we explore the revealed God of the Scriptures in the life of Christ.

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9b)

Louis Berkhof, in his book, ‘Systematic Theology’, suggests that ‘since God is absolutely good in Himself, His love cannot find complete satisfaction in any object that falls short of absolute perfection. He loves His rational creatures [us] for His own sake….He loves them in Himself, His virtues, His work, and His gifts.’ In other words, God’s love for us is tightly intertwined with us as His image bearers, sinful but perfected in Christ.

As we come to see love in light of God’s true nature, we come to a deeper appreciation of how great the sacrifice made on our behalf as Christ took upon Himself the sins of the whole world. Christ the Son, eternally existing in perfect love with the Father, being separated from Him as he took upon Himself the curse rightfully owned by humanity, is an act of love we will never fully comprehend. Jesus does however, give us a glimpse of His anguish both when praying in the garden before His arrest and from the cross.

“He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. And He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.” (Mark 14:35-36)

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Although many would agree with the words of Jesus in John 15:13 in that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for another, the question of how a loving God could sacrifice His one and only Son is the flip side of ‘The Cross’. While there is mystery surrounding the events of the cross, just as there is mystery as to why people have love for one another at all, what was achieved through Christ on the cross helps us make sense of our own love.

We love because Christ first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

When it comes to ‘love’ there is much to be said and much that has been said. I wonder when the band, ‘The Beatles’, bombarded the airwaves with, “All you need is love”, if they had any idea of the truth that lay behind these words. While these words ring true in many ears, their power becomes real only when they acknowledge that ‘God is love’. All we need is God and the perfect love that can only be found in the Trinitarian relationship of God. In the Father’s deep love for the Son, we who belong to Christ have been given to Him as a loving gift from the Father.

Let us thank God for the people in our lives who truly bear the image of God by reflecting His love in their lives. These are the people whose theology becomes brilliant in their simple acts of loving God and loving others.

Grace Story

By Ben Swift

You’ve always been there

You watched the pendulum of time unwind

Before the bells could sing their chime

Man’s Christ bearing image forged within your mind

A revelation intimately signed

Creation’s gift of breath and beauty intertwined

But breaking your heart, man’s sin denied

The true place of man and of God only divine

Yet in grace, Father, Son and Spirit cried

Let our perfect love shine its’ Christmas light

In Christ man can truly be justified

As Satan’s skull is crushed forever from life

Sadness and the tears of man will be wiped from their eyes

Now eternally loved and sanctified

In the heavenly dimensions of God his sheep will reside

In fields of gold, beholding the Tree of Life.