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Monday, 24 February 2014

How do we mature spiritually?

What does spiritual maturity look like?
Most believers earnestly want to "grow" and "mature" and "advance" as believers. A desire to grow is a mark of true life wherever it is to be found. But what does spiritual maturity look like? This "what question" must come before the "how question".

According to the New Testament, spiritual maturity is first and foremost becoming more like Christ (Ephesians 4:15; Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18), who was filled with grace and truth, John 1:14.

We know someone is advancing if they are becoming more filled with grace and truth, more like Jesus, more filled with the fruit of the Spirit of Jesus (Galatians 5:22). Not just filled with truth, but filled with grace in equal proportion.

False spiritualities
There are false spiritualities, counterfeit maturities. One is the Pharisaical version, where the emphasis is on personal outward 'goodness' or 'righteousness', to the detriment of a humble contrite heart. This variety of maturity leads only to a judgemental spirit.

Then there is the Pietistic variety, where the emphasis is on lots of personal Bible study and prayer, with very little connection with others. This kind of 'maturity' is largely head-knowledge growth, "truth" without "love" and it can easily lead again to a fearfully judgemental spirit, and uselessness in the kingdom of Christ  - because no church can stand up under the scrutiny of our new found knowledge.

We must studiously reject all such false spiritualities for what they are - counterfeits of Christ.

A personal journey
I know what I am talking about when it comes to counterfeit spiritualities because as a young man, hearing doctrinal preaching for the first time, I grew in truth very rapidly, at the expense of grace. I do not even want to remember that proud young man anymore for I have had to repent of him many times before God. I was all knowledge and little grace. I could see error everywhere. Frankly I was the only one on the right track in the whole world, let alone my local church. Error here, error there, error everywhere. Except in my own judgmental heart where I was unable to see the biggest sin, the devilish sin of pride.

For years I was useless and unteachable, but by the grace of God, he rescued me from myself.

Some reasons false spirituality develops
(i) A wrong emphasis on knowledge. One of the reasons I am so hostile to the encroachment of the academy on the church is its poisonous "knowledge is all that matters" attitude. This was a deep influence on me. I read tons of books and with each one became one notch prouder and one degree more useless. I am deeply suspicious of any church or movement that pushes knowledge.

(ii) No discipleship. One reason I am so passionate about discipleship is because I was not discipled. In the crucial years when I was growing in truth at the expense of love, no-one took me under their wing and pointed out my foolish errors. That's because I was going to one of those "come three times a week to a meeting" churches. No organic connection with one another, just a formal connection three times a week in one of those, what do they call them? "church buildings", whatever they are. 

The only way to grow is in the body
There is only one way to grow into Christlikeness and that is in the body of Christ. In deep and meaningful connections with brothers and sisters, recognizing we are no more than an ear, an eye, a foot, a hand, and growing together. In fact I am not even convinced any longer that there is such a things as individual personal growth or at least that it is as important as many say it is; what the New Testament sees is the church corporate growing as each part does its work:

"Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (Ephesians 4:15-16)

The only mark we are growing as believers is that we are becoming more and more like the Jesus we read of in the Gospels. Someone who is profoundly connected to others and whose knowledge is tempered with grace and love and mercy and kindness. And the only route to this maturity is radical connection to the body of Christ in which I realise I am just a hand, just a foot, just an eye, just an ear in desperate need of my brothers and sisters and the gifts they bring to the table.

All other spiritualities are counterfeit, no matter what stable they come from.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Are these floods judgement from God?

The highest river levels in Worcester
Hylton Road/River looking out of town
As I write this blog the river level is 5.63m (at a place called Barbourne) and rising: the highest level at this point was 5.64m in 2007 [normal level for this place, 0.6 -3.4m].  Local bridges are closed and many roads need renaming, "New Road Brook", "Hylton River", and so on. What shall we make of these unprecedented floods, called "biblical" by the Prime Minister David Cameron?

Are they judgement from God?

No and Yes.

On the one hand, they do not come into the category either of the Genesis flood which wiped humanity from the earth, or the waterine destruction meted out to the Egyptian army as it tried to cross the sea in pursuit of Israel. In both these cases the "flooding" was by direct command of God as a response to wickedness - of all mankind in the first instance, and of the haughty Pharoah in the second.

We do not say the days of such 'supernatural' destruction and judgement are over, for the earth will one day be destroyed with fire, according to the Scriptures (1 Peter 3:10). But we do not live in the era of  a national theocracy any more.

Under the Old Covenant (Old Testament), Israel was God's chosen nation and the means of judgement upon wicked nations. In case someone is offended, other nations became God's instrument of judgement upon Israel, when Israel turned wicked. Under the New Covenant (New Testament) God's kingdom is no longer of the world, according to Jesus (John 18:36). His kingdom is spread across the world and resides in the hearts of those who follow him and bow their knees to his loving rule (Luke 17:21). There is no nation any longer on the earth through which God wields "political influence and power." Vatican cities and crusades are redundant - and non-sense - in the new and glorious kingdom of God's Son.

But there is more to it than that. First, there is what we might call the passive judgement of God. We reap what we sow. If we abuse the earth and alter the atmosphere and increase the global temperature of the earth with our wasteful pursuit of stuff, then the consequences are increased sea levels and new - and potentially disastrous - patterns of weather. We mustn't blame the government, we have only ourselves to blame.

Second,  God is still the sovereign ruler and Judge of the earth. Nothing happens in the world that does not cross his desk. Even Satan has to get permission (Job 1) from the King of kings and Lord of lords. If God allows something in his infinite wisdom, it is for a purpose and the mere fact that people are seeking a purpose is a good thing. Why has God allowed this? What is he saying?

The loving Purpose is Warning
On one occasion people came to Jesus with a recent tragedy - the Romans had massacred some Jews. Nothing new, but it had affected the people and they came to Jesus asking if it was a specific judgement on those people. They thought that the ones who had been massacred were worse than those who had escaped. No, says Jesus, adding "Unless you repent you too will all perish." In other words, "Don't get caught up in the good/bad people debate, but instead see this terrible thing as a warning for you: if you don't turn to God, a greater fate will befall you - you will perish", meaning hell (Luke 13).

In other words, the singular lesson everyone should take from tragedies of all kinds is this: they are designed to lead us to God. They are purposed to make us think, "Am I right with God? Because if I am not, then an even greater tragedy lies ahead of me."

The Reason in Repentance
So these floods, and every other tragedy that befalls us has God's loving purpose in mind - to turn us back to God and spare us from the certain judgement that is to come.

Repentance means "turning to God", repentance means "change of mind towards God", repentance means, "turning away from our sins", repentance means, "seeking righteousness.

The floods say one thing: Turned to God in repentance and faith.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Six Steps to Successful Parenting

By successful, I don't mean "rich" or "educated" (the two success criteria of the western world) I mean successful by the only standard that matters - parenting that honours God.

God has given his people rich resources for parenting. There are numerous Scriptures that talk directly about parenting. There is the example of God the Father towards his only begotten Son. There is the example of God the Father towards us his adopted children, and there is the example in the church of successful parents passing on their godly experience. Add this collective Biblical wisdom together, and you end up with these six steps (at least)....

Love your kids unconditionally.
Nothing more resembles divine love than its enduring nature, the compassion of God never fails (Lamentations 3:32). God the Father told God his Son on at least two occasions (his baptism and transfiguration) that he loved him. Love your kids no matter what, and tell them you do.

Discipline your kids wisely.
It is very possible, according to the apostle Paul for discipline (and for general parenting for that matter) to result in angry kids (Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21). Perhaps the parent has failed to distinguish between childish irresponsibility (which does not need discipline, but needs patient instruction) and willful disobedience which does need discipline: they end up shouting at the children for everything - that'll get 'em mad. Perhaps the parent is hypocritical, expecting one thing from the child but doing another thing themselves. Perhaps the parent is too harsh. Perhaps overprotective, perhaps showing favoritism, perhaps inconsistent in discipline, perhaps negligent. All of these faults will result in anger in the child, not the correction of bad behaviour.

Affirm the positively.
Sometimes a parent has to do so much correcting that it seems as if they are being wholly negative all the time. At these seasons catch them doing something good and commend them for it. There is always something good to find. God the Father said he was "well pleased" with his Son.

Give them practical guidance about life.
The first chapters of Proverbs are full of rich instruction for parents of teens. Here Solomon takes his son(s) aside and lovingly warns them about violent men and loose women. It isn't only when they are children they need instruction, they need it when they are teens - and beyond. 

Nurture them spiritually.
"In the nurture and admonition of the Lord" says Paul in Ephesians 6:4. Impress the word on your children, urges Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4-7. In both formal and informal ways, instruct them in spiritual matters. Remember on the last day you and not the church will be held to account.

Pray for them continually.
It's obvious but all too often neglected. I grew up in a family of eight. By the grace of God all six children were converted. And I believe to a large extent, under God, this is due to the godly example and the prayers of my parents.

On the 8th August 1979, when my mother was 58, she wrote this note about the day:

"This is my 58th birthday. It has been a happy one. It was not without weeping though as this morning I pleaded with God to turn Dianne (a backslidden daughter at that time) to Himself and remove all obstacles from her life… I prayed for all eight of us … that he may be glorified…"