A response to Stephen Fry

Typewriters and latch-keys

Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in God. But he’s furious with him. I can sympathise.

His God is an “utter maniac” who, despite being “all seeing, all wise, all kind, all beneficent”, sits by while children die of bone cancer.

Judging by the reaction to his rant, this is the God that other people have in mind too. It’s a God I’ve had in mind, and railed at, and hated.

So I’m not dismissive of the rant, because this isn’t a God plucked from nowhere, a cartoonish fantasy that nobody with a faith has ever squared up to.

Fry knows this, because he starts his speech by describing it as “what’s known as theodicy” (Wikipedia: “the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil”). People of faith have been engaged in this attempt for thousands of years: philosophers and theologians, and those with the…

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The Sheep and the Goats

Who does God choose to save? As a younger Christian I thought that in order to be saved, one must pray the “sinner’s prayer”, which consists of expressing faith in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, pleading guilty to sin, asking for forgiveness, and promising to repent. It felt to me that the way to find salvation is by keeping sound doctrine and praying a certain way.

Jesus always came down hard on the religious leaders of his time for their similarly legalistic understanding of faith. Reading Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31 tells of a much greater, more inclusive view of God’s saving grace:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

This passage shows us that being a Christian is not about a belief system or prayers alone. God’s salvation is more magnificent than that. For it includes those who do not know the name of Jesus; children brought up in Islamic households, the mentally disabled, the isolated societies of the world, atheists pushed away by negative experiences of “Christians”. Christ’s way is love (Isn’t that always the way). God does not judge what is in our heads, but instead examines our hearts. God will look more kindly on the altruistic heart of an atheist, than the self-righteous heart of a church-goer. It is as Paul writes in Corinthians 13:

“2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

God’s kingdom is not restricted to church members. It transcends background, ethnicity, social class, all barriers and stereotypes. Such is the grace of God.

Accepting Others

Keeping Company

I was accepted by my new church. I was in my mid-20s, searching for purpose in life, and they welcomed me in. They treated me like family. Even though I am no longer in touch with many in that church, I am thankful for them. They truly wanted the best for me which from their sincere perspective was for me to have and enjoy what they already possessed – a relationship with Jesus.

Yet as I look back to those days, now 28 years later, I wonder if I would have been as accepted had they known all the sin and doubts I was carrying. I managed to hide a lot of my stuff, sins I certainly didn’t feel comfortable admitting at the time. Some of which the Lord confronted then and there. Some of which I wouldn’t deal with until years later. Some of which I still struggle with…

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when in Doubt

Becoming a Christian is about inheriting a philosophy which puts the “other” before the “self”, with a priority of care for those who are living in oppression and suffering (this includes both the oppressed and the oppressors. Christ dedicated his life to helping both, for both need healing) Living by a philosophy which requires the abandonment of our own desires and welfare is becoming increasingly conspicuous and criticised in a materialistic society that teaches us to suck the most out of our short lives. Being a Christian is to be so very different to the current culture that we are made outcasts. Being a Christian carries a cost then. Being a Christian invites mockery, patronising comments, accusations, and unfriendliness. For Christians then, there is nothing more important than the faith through which our lives are driven.

So what happens when we doubt?

DOUBTING tHOMAS

“Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life.” Deuteronomy 28:66

Every Christian will doubt the truth of what they believe, be it about God’s existence, whether he cares about us, the Bible’s credibility, or the reality of salvation.

Here’s the trick: doubt will never go away. Doubt will prevail if you pray more, or if you study apologetics, or if you surround yourself with other Christians. Doubt then is part of walking with God. To have faith is to leap over that doubt and continue living for Christ anyway. Living in faith is only possible when doubt has been accepted as a reality. We need to free ourselves from worrying about whether what we believe is true and follow Christ’s teachings for the sake of goodness itself, for Christ’s way is the way of love. Love for others is not motivated by the threat of Hell or the rewards of Heaven. Love flows from the desire to see the world changed and redeemed by the Spirit of Christ. By the grace of God, the one who doubts has not been disarmed or become useless. Our God is one who may fashion diamonds from rubbish. Our God enters in to our brokenness and doubt and raises us up to partake of the Divine love of Christ.

“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” Paul Tillich

You Have Arrived At Your Predestination

Imagine becoming a Christian was like simply switching on a sat nav and setting the target address to “Heaven”. Specific instructions would help take you out your rough, spiritually-dead estate and to the gold-paved streets of Paradise. There would be a route recalculation system in case you took a wrong turn. You could even check your ETA if you really wanted to.

The thought of being on a long journey where the road is madly confusing and the end uncertain is scary, but it is the reality for those who seek God. The search for personal, clear directions in our lives is often useless, we can be delayed or obstructed by circumstances, and we can find ourselves running in circles with the same habitual sin time and time again. The journey to Heaven set before the Christian is incredibly arduous and difficult. In truth, the path from man to God is not one we can walk at all.

lost

Fortunately and amazingly, one has already made the reverse journey. The most holy son of God left his throne and travelled to the very depths of the spiritual darkness of humanity. He shared in our suffering and succumbed to our wickedness, before defeating it all, including the powers of death itself. In doing so, Christ brought us out of our poverty so we may share in his righteousness. If we have given ourselves to him, we have no journey to make, for we already have a place in Heaven. Though we are weak and lost, Christ gives us an unassailable confidence that we will indeed arrive at our predestination.

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

Hebrews 11

Poverty of Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” -Jesus Christ at the sermon on the mount.

At first reading, Jesus’ words seem nonsensical. Many of his listeners may have wondered, “Surely a strong and courageous spirit is more befitting of the Lord’s disciples?” The truth is this wonderfully simple verse completely transfigures our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus’ followers must find themselves “poor in spirit”, rather than strong.  They must embrace a kind of poverty of the soul, a desperate emptiness in the heart, and a helplessness when life refuses to satisfy it.

This world promises us everything we imagine humans need. Money, love, respect, and security are readily available to us rich people living in the West. Many spend their entire lives chasing all these things but are never satisfied. The gifts of the world can’t meet our spiritual depression, they can’t redeem us, and they can’t deliver us from death . They only deceive us into self-reliance. Security in worldly things is what Jesus had in mind when he taught that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s because we are so addicted to and distracted by the things of this world that we are blind to how poor in spirit we are.

The Stained Glass of Calvary Episcopal Church,  New Jersey

The Stained Glass of Calvary Episcopal Church, New Jersey

It is when we reject all the world’s empty promises and admit our spiritual poverty that we are able to give ourselves fully to God. Only when a person realises he is seriously ill will he turn to the doctor and ask for treatment. Being free of the baggage of materialism brings us to a place where we can be in communion with God. Letting go of all else that pretends to satisfy illuminates our overwhelming need for he who does satisfy, the God who gives to us as the world doesn’t.

For the Christian of a poor spirit, how blessed he will be, for he will spend eternity in the presence of his healer.

“We cannot rest content in ourselves. In the elements and experiences of our life, to which we give meaning, we do not find satisfying light and protective security. We only find those things in the intangible mystery that overshadows our heart from the very first day of our lives, awakening questions and wonderment and luring us beyond ourselves. We surrender ourselves to this mystery, as a person in love surrenders to the mystery of the beloved and there finds rest.”

-Johannes Baptist Metz in his Poverty of Spirit