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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

How to Move From Despair to Joy

The root cause of despair
Suffering. Illness, job loss, financial problems, family or marital stress. Suffering is often the root cause of despair: we see no way out, no resolution, no solution.

So it was for the two disciples talking on the Road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The suffering, the crucifixion of Jesus seemed an insuperable problem. They did not expect the Messiah to suffer. There was no constructive room in their theology for suffering, "they crucified him, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel..." (Luke 24:21)

The Masterful response of the Master
In their despondency and confusion, Jesus comes beside them and teases out their wrong theology of suffering - so that he can correct it. Their problem was two-fold:

First, they could not see any constructive role in the suffering of the Messiah, and conveniently overlooked all the verses which spoke about his suffering. They were selective in their readings and listenings! They loved the bits about power and glory, but not the portions which spoke of suffering, death and defeat. Jesus had to show them that suffering was in line with God's great plan for his Messiah, "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things?" Suffering played the constructive role of paying for our sins!

Second, they could not see that suffering was an essential step to glory! "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then  enter his glory?"  Suffering was the route to glory. There could be no glory without suffering, no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. Jesus was raised and exalted because he laid down his life.The Messiah could not leap over Good Friday and get to Easter Sunday!

You see their big problem? Suffering had no constructive place in their theology, and as a result they could understand neither the cross nor the resurrection of Jesus.

Our Problem too
This is exactly our problem too. When suffering comes we whinge, moan, complain and are perplexed - because we too have an inadequate theology of suffering. We want glory and power and think that this ought to be the normal Christian life, and so we are surprised by pain, loss and pain. We want it all to be zapped, prayed and slain away!

And there is no doubt that God is sometimes pleased to relieve us in this world, and no doubt that he will completely deliver us of pain in the world to come, where there will be no curse. But in this fallen world, that is not always - and perhaps not even very often - his way.

What we need is a three-step theology correction plan:

(1) The cross and resurrection are the pattern for our lives too
Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not merely events that happened to Jesus way back when; they are also models for our lives. To be a disciples of Jesus we must place our feet in the footprints of suffering and resurrection.

(2) We should expect suffering
Far too many verses to list, but here's one, "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him." (Philippians 1:29). One of God's gifts (unwanted by most of us) is the gift of suffering.

(3) We should expect glory - to follow suffering
We should also expect glory, to be sure; but only in the wake of suffering. We don't get to glory, by which I mean fruitfulness, power, holiness, Christlikeness, directly, but only through suffering. Remember, Good Friday first, Easter Sunday second. Far too many Christians want to get to glory without the cross. This is the great attraction of meetings which promise instant solutions to problems. But God's way, the Jesus way, is glory following on the heels of suffering.

Despair to Joy
Those two disciples, their theology of suffering now transformed were filled with understanding and joy, and made the trip back to Jerusalem to tell their friends!

And we too, armed with this theology of suffering now face our suffering in a new light. We see it as necessary and even the prelude to glory of one kind or another. We can see, at last, what the apostle James was on about when he wrote:

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything..." (James 1:2)

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Blessings (and Problems) of the Charismatic Movement

Lots of Pluses
No-one should deny the tremendous blessings that the so-called charismatic movement has brought to the western evangelical churches. Here are some....
  • New songs - the false notion that old hymns are the only way to express our praise to God was broken by the many new songs and hymns introduced by our Charismatic friends
  • New wine - new ways of doing things and especially a re-evaluation of how we do church, going back to the New Testament has been a tremendous blessing (the idea that a hymn sandwich, for example, was the only way to 'do church' was exposed, for what it was - a human tradition, nothing more, and nothing less)
  • New emphasis on the Spirit - we westerners live in a culture which screens out the supernatural (unless its wacky) and this enlightenment spell was if not broken, at least questioned by the Charismatic Movement.
  • New emphasis on small groups - a wonderful 'going back' to the New Testament, where Christians not only met together but encouraged and taught one another 
  • New emphasis on all-member ministry - when you think of it, how crazy - only one man's gifts in the church (the pastor's gifts) recognised as valuable! Now we expect everyone to exercise their gifts and think of the church much less in clergy/lay terms and more in brother / sister terms. 
From these points, we ought to think of the charismatic movement as a true move of God's Spirit, renewing the church. But since men and women are involved, we discover some flaws. Here are four, none of which detract from the above:

Weakness #1:  A reduced emphasis on God's Word
There is no doubt that as a general rule (noble exceptions abound, this is a generalisation I am aware) the charismatic movement (CM) is weak on the Word. By this I mean, the Word is not so fully or faithfully preached, and believers are not so encouraged to be rooted and live out of the Word.

Weakness #2:  An over-emphasis on the overtly supernatural gifts
All too often the 'showy gifts' are exalted while gifts like administration, giving and helping are either ignored or underplayed. And yet these gifts are just as necessary to the work of the Kingdom and we need just as much empowering to employ them.

Weakness #3:  A failure to be honest about miracles
Let me come clean: I have been to dozens of healing meetings ranging from Kathryn Kuhlman to Toronto Blessing and I have never yet witnessed nor heard of a miracle-meeting or healer whose healings come anywhere near the category of the radical miracles of the NT. I believe God can heal, and I have heard of real healings. But all too often the miracles of our charismatic friends are small fry: back pains gone, headaches subside, and so on - which we don't deny could be of God or are of value - they just do not come into the league of Jesus' or his disicples' miracles. It is for this reason that 'critics' believe that all too often the 'miracles' of the charismatic movement are psycho-somatic - i.e. they deal with symptoms that are caused by mind problems such as stress, rather than dealing with biological ailments.

Weakness #4:  A real problem with glory-through-suffering
None of the above compare with this, my biggest problem with the CM. You and I live under the shadow of the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. His way is more than something for him, it's a paradigm for us. To follow Jesus is to understand in our own life two things: suffering is part of the deal, and suffering precedes glory. The two on the road to Emmaus completely misunderstood this (Luke 24). They read the good bits about the Messiah (reigning, etc.) but didn't want to take on board the bad bits (suffering). Further, they did not see that suffering was not only part of the Messiah's work, it was necessary to it. There is no glory without suffering.

If whenever we have problems of whatever kind in our lives, we get out our spiritual guns and zap them away, we misunderstand the cross and resurrection of the Lord. Problems are allowed by the Lord to prepare us for glory. Out of suffering we become more sympathetic, more holy, more humble, more Christ like. Out of the bitterness of sowing, comes harvest. Suffering is not only part of the Christian life, it is a necessary part of the Christian life. Zapping it away with an experience isn't always the best thing. Working through it, asking for strength in weakness, learning to triumph in sorrow, victory through temptation is a more Christ-ian way of handling suffering.

Sometimes God may want to 'zap' away our problems. More often he chooses to teach us through them and ultimately, through this valley of sorrow, to bring us through to the triumph of the new heavens and new earth.