In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Jesus’ Ignobility

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.

~

Jesus’ Ignobility

Darkness blanked the fields close to Bethlehem. Shepherds kept watch over their flocks by the light of stars and moon, their eyes having grown accustomed to the sight granted by the distant luminaries. The night, like the men, was unremarkable. There was no static in the air hinting at events to come. Anticipation was absent. Somewhere in Bethlehem town a young woman was crying out in the anguish of child birth but the only sounds that reached the ears of the shepherds were the bleating of sheep, the rustling of grass, and the howling of wayward winds.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst
Gerard van Honthorst – Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

Suddenly the sky was alive with an unearthly light and a heavenly figure appeared saying, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 NIV). As the angel continued the shepherds’ terror turned to wonder, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12 NIV). Without warning this solitary angel was joined by an army of heavenly hosts armed with praise, announcing,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

(Luke 2:14 NIV)

Echoing the words of Isaiah, the shepherds must have wondered as, after finding things just as the angel had told them, they shared the story of what had happened to them this night,

“Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

(Isaiah 53:1 NIV)

Indeed, this seems to have been the consensus among those who heard the shepherds’ tale: “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:18 NIV). Who would believe the word of a shepherd? You can’t trust a shepherd, they’re a disreputable sort. Besides, the Messiah won’t be born in such base circumstances as to necessitate re-appropriating a manger as a makeshift cot. And his birth certainly won’t be announced to the likes of shepherds, and by the angels of heaven in song no less.

What happens in Jesus’ birth narrative sets us up for what is to come: that God is doing something unexpected in Jesus. It wasn’t that God was acting uncharacteristically, rather, he wasn’t acting in exactly the way the Israelites had expected or even hoped he would. They wanted a Messiah with all the frills: a palace, an army, a king who would dash the oppressive Romans with a sword of steel. They wanted him to renew Israel’s religious life freeing it from the tyranny of the Pharisees and the politicking of the Sadducees. They wanted a conquering king riding on a warhorse with a glittering sword in his hand come to make the world right, and establish ethnic Israel in pride of place, by force. What they saw in Jesus was a king, but a king riding on a donkey weeping as he approached the city of the king. No sword, no army, only a lament:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

(Luke 19:41-44 NIV)

When he entered the Temple he brought no religious revival. Instead he interrupted the sacrifices bringing worship to a standstill (cf. Luke 19:45-46) and later prophesied the destruction of the Temple, the very centre of Israel’s worship (cf. Luke 21:5-6, and following), because he himself was replacing the Temple as the centre of worship.

What are we to make of this Messiah? He wasn’t the Messiah Israel was looking for:

“Jesus fitted no ready-made categories… To be sure, the categories were themselves flexible… But, even at their most flexible, Jesus both fitted and didn’t fit… It was as though he filled the existing categories, flexible as they were, so full that they all overflowed, and in that overflow he overwhelmed his followers, his hearers, the enthusiastic and the suspicious alike, and ultimately those who were attempting to put him on trial, both Jews and pagans.

The story, as we have it in the different gospels, is punctuated with moments of clarity, moments that steer the narrative away from the banal attempt that readers have made from time to time to squish Jesus into this or that box. Instead, these moments open the story up to the possibility that maybe, after all, heaven and earth would come together, God’s time and human time would coincide, and the physical reality of this world might indeed become the bearer of the fresh new reality of God’s new creation.”

(Tom Wright, Simply Jesus, pp.164-165)

The world can be an intolerably cruel place to live. But we have a God who cared enough to step down from his heavenly throne in order to take upon himself the entire weight of that cruelty so that he could exhaust it. This is what God was doing in Jesus. Jesus’ message – “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV) – was that in himself God was coming, indeed, had come, to reign on earth as in heaven, and in that process heaven would begin breaking through into earth. Changing it, renewing it, restoring it. God cares enough about this world to enter into it so that through him it will be redeemed from the corruption that has so long festered within (Romans 8:20-21).

Moreover, he invites us to join his restoration project. We do this as we share the gospel story of how God has become King in Jesus: in healings, in exorcisms, in forgiving, in living righteously, in loving even to death. And we must endeavour to live as Jesus lived, not only in our words but by our actions, as we bring the kingdom of God to bear in our spheres of influence. We must live in righteousness – actively seeking to do what is right – and justice – seeking to right wrongs when we find them. But most of all in loving the people we meet, the people we live with, the people we work with, even our enemies. Even when it costs us. God will work unexpectedly in us to bring about his purposes for his people and his world, through his Messiah and through the people of the Messiah. Expect to be surprised.

In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Rachel’s Tears

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.

~

Rachel’s Tears

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

(Matthew 2:2 NIV)

When the Magi asked King Herod this question it is unlikely they envisioned the horrific events that would follow. I wonder if, as outsiders, they understood the full import of what they were asking. Did they know how loaded their question was and its significance concerning the one to whom they asked it.
It is telling that when faced with this question Herod consults the chief priests and the teachers of the law regarding the birth of the Messiah (Matthew 2:3-4). scanner-fear-3-1251133As the renovator of the Temple in Jerusalem Herod harboured aspirations of being the long awaited Messiah. Moreover, as one who had brokered a pseudo-peace with Rome – allowing the Jewish people to retain their distinctive Jewish identity and a certain degree of national autonomy – Herod probably saw himself as something of a liberator. To his credit Herod played the game well and, as history had previously shown, most other Jewish leaders with Messianic ambitions opted for an openly hostile and aggressive approach towards their pagan oppressors in the pursuit of freedom and peace.

For ‘the king of the Jews’ – installed by Rome and accepted by the Jewish people – to be asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” It is unsurprising that “he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3 NIV) because the surest way to threaten a would-be Messiah is with the rightful one. Consequently, Herod hatched a plan to find his rival by turning the good intentions of the Magi to further his own ends and secure his own dynasty. He sent the Magi on their way to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8 NIV).

Eventually enough time elapsed that Herod became convinced he had been betrayed by the Magi. In his jealous rage Herod perpetrated an unspeakably horrific atrocity: “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16 NIV). So great was his need to remain the uncontested Messianic King that he sacrificed the lives of countless innocents.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

(Matthew 2:18 NIV)

It is impossible to imagine the unqualified horror experienced by those in Bethlehem. This was not how a king was supposed to act. The Messiah was to bring righteousness and justice, not infanticide. Herod was no true king; he was a false Messiah.

“In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.”

“I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.”

(Ecclesiastes 3:16; 4:1 NIV)

Before Herod had a chance to enact his heinous plan, Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Herod was denied his prize; the trueborn king and Messiah yet lived (Matthew 2:13-15).

History may be linear but cruelty is cyclical. We remain plagued by the same evils that have afflicted every generation of humanity because of our two greatest enemies. The two great enemies of humanity, one from without and one from within, are Satan and ourselves. Both have proved insurmountable to us in spite of our very best efforts. We are too weak to defeat our own natures and we are easily dominated by someone stronger than us.

We live in an immeasurably cruel world. But that is only half of the story because history has been irrevocably altered and is heading towards an end where every painful, cruel thing will be undone, where “everything sad is going to come untrue” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King).

In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Mary’s Scandal

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.

~

Mary’s Scandal

This year I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. When it’s kind of – but not quite – sequel Go Set A Watchman was released I quickly bought a copy. Both books take place in Maycomb (a fictionalised Monroeville), Alabama, where the author Harper Lee was born and grew up, during the 1930s (TKAM) and the 1950s (GSAW). While both of these books were enjoyable there were a number of occasions of culture shock that were slightly disorienting for someone not familiar with the time period. One of these occasions pertained to how enormously scandalous the pregnancy of an unwed woman was; the shame was of such magnitude that the poor woman felt she had to leave town to lessen the disrepute that would ever after attach itself to her family.

Image by Cristiano Galbiati
Image by Cristiano Galbiati

To modern readers like ourselves the real scandal is not in the pregnancy of the unwed woman but in the culture of shame that compelled her to leave her hometown, her family and friends, everything familiar to her for a strange place with strange new people but the same abiding culture of shame. However, what this story does is remind us that at a different time in history from our own to be unwed and pregnant was a great scandal. And this was certainly the case in and around the year 4 BC when Mary found out she was all of a sudden with child while still a virgin.

Yet in spite of all this Mary displayed incredible courage and faith in God: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:28 NIV). It is really quite shocking when we consider that she would have a social stigma attached to her for the rest of her days, not to mention what people would whisper about her future husband, Joseph, after hearing that he was still going to marry her. To say nothing of how her firstborn might be treated even by his immediate family. And then she bursts into song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

(Luke 1:46-55 NIV)

Even though she faced a life coloured by scandal Mary was able to face it with confidence because of who God was for her. He is the Might One who performs mighty deeds; yet not so mighty as to look down upon the humble who trust him, except to lift them up.

Mary is inspiring, her response to her unique situation is incredible, and her song sublime. She reminds us how God really is for us and how we can be confident in his care. Moreover, she was a human being just like us and that gives us hope that no matter what comes our way it is possible to respond to life’s circumstances in ways that incarnate our faith in God.

In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Elizabeth’s Infertility

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.

~

Elizabeth’s Infertility
The opening narrative of Luke’s Gospel brings a painful experience, both in the ancient and modern world, to centre stage; a hardship often relegated to a shadowy corner, left to steep in its own shame, is suddenly brought into the light of God’s redemptive purposes.alone-1431667 Before Luke mentions the infertility of Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, he makes the point of telling us how God sees them. They are not primarily Elizabeth and Zechariah the infertile couple, which is probably how many people viewed them, whether sympathetically or otherwise. Rather, they were Elizabeth and Zechariah “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6 NIV). Would this alleviate entirely the pain they felt at being unable to conceive? Did it mean they were unfeelingly stoic regarding their cruel circumstances? Had they simply given up hope and given in to bitterness? Of course not. Their pain was very real and immediately present. It was something they mourned as a great evil upon God’s good creation, a cruel oppression of God’s image bearers. And bitterness did not consume their hope because they refused to be defined by their circumstances. In a world marred by cruelty they had faith in a God who cared for them beyond their understanding. We know this because “both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Their hope in God gave birth to lives marked by the kind of obedience unattainable by those who wish to put God in their debt.

“But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” (Luke 1:7 NIV). It is entirely plausible that Elizabeth and Zechariah knew other couples who were experiencing infertility, who likewise put their hope in God and resisted the temptation to define themselves by their circumstances. Moreover, it is just as plausible they knew couples who had died with their hopes of having children unfulfilled but whose hope in God remained unwavering. Like many couples before them Elizabeth and Zechariah embodied the yet unwritten words of the Apostle Peter, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19 NIV). In their suffering they learned something that often eludes most of us. What they came to understand was that God owes us nothing. Suffering has a way of throwing this truth into sharp, heart-piercing relief. It is like being awakened by the shock of having a bucket of ice water poured on us. And when this happens we are faced with a choice: if God owes us nothing will we pay him back in kind or will we, in hope, trust that even though he owes us nothing believe his promise that he has already begun to freely give us all things, along with the one who is most precious in his sight (Romans 8:32 NIV)?

It is this kind of hope – humble and confident all at once – in the God who not only reveals himself to us but also freely gives himself to us in Jesus the Messiah that emboldens us to ask for the seemingly impossible as Elizabeth and Zechariah did (cf. Luke 1:13) while also leaving the answer, whatever it is, firmly in the lovingly faithful hands of our Creator:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

(Romans 8:31-39 NIV)

We are not to be defined by our circumstances. We belong to God as sons and daughters, freely adopted into his family, lovingly accepted – never to be rejected – because of Jesus. Because of this we can ask God for anything and know he will give us what he knows to be the very best for us because no one loves us more than he does.

“Love Believes All Things” 1 Corinthians 13:7

Love: Misinformed And Misplaced

The first recorded letter we possess from Paul to the church in Corinth explores a diverse range of topics and issues. In his letter, Paul answers many of the Corinthians’ questions as well as offering sage wisdom at crucial junctures. He also discusses controversial matters such as the practice of spiritual gifts in the church and reminds them of the inestimable importance of the reality of the Christ’s resurrection. But perhaps the most well known part of this letter is Paul’s famous discourse on love. In this context – of questions, controversies, and quarrelling – Paul seeks to reorient the attention of his readers to the heart of all their problems: misinformed and misplaced love.

In spite of living almost 2000 years after Paul and the Corinthians we still face many of the same controversies, questions, and concerns – as well as more unique to our own age and culture – yet our most significant problem remains unchanged: we do not love as we should. This is particularly apparent in the manner we address many of the issues that face us. In light of the Corinthians’ sectarian spirit which predisposed them to show favouritism and malign those with whom they disagreed or disliked (cf. 1 Corinthians 3), and our propensity to follow in their footsteps, Paul exhorts them, and by extension us, to be a people possessed by love who “[believe] all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NRSV) of others.

Love That “Believes All Things”

The Greek words Paul uses here shed light on what he expects of Christians: “[Love (agapé)]… panta pisteuei.” love2Pisteuei, derived from pisteuen, carries an ethical sense denoting confidence (or trust) in the goodness of others, so we could legitimately translate Paul’s words here as: “Love… always trusts that others are acting with the best intentions.” Consequently the NIV translates Paul’s phrase as, “[Love]… always trusts.” This calling to, from a heart controlled by love, believe all things, or always trust, is chiefly a summons to develop a gracious attitude towards others, most notably, towards those with whom we disagree; its essence is: to believe the best of others. Calvin elaborates on this in his Commentary on First Corinthians,

“as we are naturally spiteful, we are, consequently, suspicious too, and take almost everything amiss. Love, on the other hand, calls us back to kindness, so that we think favourably and candidly of our neighbours…
…Love believeth all things not that the Christian knowingly and willingly allows himself to be imposed upon — not that he divests himself of prudence and judgment, that he may be the more easily taken advantage of — not that he unlearns the way of distinguishing black from white. What then? He requires here, as I have already said, simplicity and kindness in judging of things; and he declares that these are the invariable accompaniments of love. The consequence will be, that a Christian [person] will reckon it better to be imposed upon by [their] own kindness and easy temper, than to wrong [their] brother [or sister] by an unfriendly suspicion.”

Love always trusts that others are acting with the best intentions, it believes the best of them. Love seeks to judge people and situations in best possible light, to give them the benefit of the doubt.

However, Paul’s summons to believe the best of others is inseparably connected with his surrounding panta (always) ecphoneses: “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NIV). As well as trusting that others are acting with the best intentions, Paul calls us to act in their best interests, desire the best for them in the future, and to never give up on them. Consequently, Paul is asking far more of us than merely our begrudging acceptance of others but rather a persistent commitment to their well-being and flourishing, even of those with whom we disagree or simply do not like because they too are our neighbours or our Christian brothers and sisters. Therefore, what Paul has in view here is an entire transformation of self because, as Calvin has noted above, we are by nature suspicious of the good intentions of others; we are inclined to think worse rather than better of them. For example, in conversation do we consider what people are saying in the best possible light, or do we immediately interpret them negatively? When hearing news of others, whether great or small, do we “rejoice with those who rejoice [and] mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15 NIV), or are we envious of their success and relish in their disgrace? On social media, are we quick think well of our friends and acquaintances or do we jump at any chance to judge them? And harshly. Is our first instinct to give others, even those we perceive as enemies, the benefit of the doubt, or have we already judged them as guilty before hearing them out? Shouldn’t we rather extend to others the grace we would want extended to ourselves?

Love, On The Other Hand…

Are we so forgetful of God’s grace to us in Christ? Have we ascended so far above our fellow believers, and our neighbours, even our enemies, that we consider ourselves unassailable and therefore beyond reproach? If God responds to our faltering obedience with grace, and with a love that delights in our best intentions and efforts. And if he knows our many weaknesses and yet loves us all the same. If God always acts in our best interests, desires the best for us, and never gives up on us. Then surely it becomes our duty to act thusly with those with whom we come into contact whatever the medium. For this is how God has treated us, he has showered us with grace upon grace: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 NIV).

Our thoughts and actions towards other betray us for the cynics that we are. We would rather extend suspicion instead of grace, misanthropy in place of kindness. We are not, in any way, deserving of God’s grace and kindness. But still he loves us. And it is his love that will transform our distrustful hearts into hearts which seek to believe the best of others intentions, to give them the benefit of the doubt. His love enables us to freely and prodigiously share the love he has lavished upon us with others as we repent of our cynical attitudes and rest in God’s love towards us in Christ.

In an age that celebrates cynicism we should recall Calvin’s words, “Love, on the other hand, calls us back to kindness, so that we think favourably and candidly of our neighbours.” And consider afresh Paul’s summons in his discourse on love, “[Love] always trusts.”

A Caveat On Discernment

“To love at all,” observed C.S. Lewis, “is to be vulnerable” (The Four Loves, p111). It is to risk, as Calvin put it, being “imposed upon” – to be taken advantage of – and consequently to be made to look foolish in the eyes of others. However, as Calvin notes, love that always trusts that others are acting with the best intentions and chooses to believes the best of them – giving them the benefit of the doubt – does not divests itself of prudence and judgment, that it may be the more easily taken advantage of. Love wants to believe the best of others and trusts they are acting with good intentions, but love also takes the time to understand each situation and determine which course is the most loving and wise because “love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4 NIV); love doesn’t act rashly.

Often love and discernment are perceived as being pitted against one another, as though the more loving a person is the less discerning they must be. And vice versa. However, the reality is much different. Love is discerning but our natural cynicism easily masquerades as discernment. We must, therefore, with God’s help, endeavour to understand what is controlling our heart: love or cynicism? A heart controlled by love immediately wants to help but takes the time to listen and evaluate how it may be of service, whereas the heart controlled by cynicism immediately looks for an excuse. Consequently, in spite of our very best efforts to be loving as well as discerning, there will be times we are taken advantage of. We are only human and we can’t know every facet of a situation. In these circumstances it will be more to our benefit, and God’s glory, that we have, given our limited understanding, chosen the path of love because, in the end, “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8 NIV).  As Calvin concludes,

“[Paul] requires here, as I have already said, simplicity and kindness in judging of things; and he declares that these are the invariable accompaniments of love. The consequence will be, that a Christian [person] will reckon it better to be imposed upon by [their] own kindness and easy temper, than to wrong [their] brother [or sister] by an unfriendly suspicion.”

Christmas Meditation #5: Christmas Bells

In 1863, during the American Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet, penned the words that for many of us may be more familiar as the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The poem, Christmas Bells, which appears below, was originally written on Christmas Day (1863). The inspiration for Longfellow’s poem was born out of the recent loss of his wife, Frances, and the impending possibility of losing his eldest son, Charles, who after having ran away to become a Union soldier had been severely wounded in combat.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

It is a poem composed in the midst of immense sorrow and suffering but which climaxes on a jubilant note of hope. It is reminiscent of many of the psalms of lament such as Psalm 13 (NIV),

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Both of these poems, Christmas Bells and Psalm 13, remind us in the midst of profound sorrow and suffering that God has not forgotten us, nor does he hide from us, but has in fact been good to us. They encourage us to drown out the voice of despair with words of hope:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

They remind us that our hope is in God’s unfailing love towards us in Christ. During this Christmas season, which can be replete with sadness as much as it is with joy and food and gifts, let’s rejoice in God’s salvation, singing praise to him, as we celebrate and remember the first Advent of our Lord Jesus and eagerly anticipate his second.

Choosing A Bible Translation: What You Need To Know (Part 3)

The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.

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The Most Important* Factor For Choosing A Bible Translation

The most important* factor for choosing a Bible translation for regular reading, etc. is, in my opinion, readability. We’ll explore this under two headings. Firstly, when I say readability I’m talking about a translation that is enjoyable to read; a translation we find it enjoyable to pick up and read as individuals. Of course, all translation are readable in the sense we can read and understand all of our modern translations (some may take a bit more work than others but they are, nonetheless, readable). Secondly, we should also consider how our choice of Bible translation will be understood by others. This is somewhat subordinate to the first heading. We all live in and are part of communities which are made up of many different kinds of people but we tend to share common cultural experiences and vocabulary so our choice of Bible translation (particularly in church) can help or hinder our effectiveness as we engage evangelistically and missionally in our communities. But before we get into this in more detail let’s consider why readability may be the most important factor* for choosing a Bible translation.

bible reading 2I say it’s the most important* factor with an asterisk because we know that, really, it isn’t the most important factor. As we saw previously, a literal translation would be almost entirely unreadable in modern English yet at the same time we certainly wouldn’t want a Bible that compromised accuracy for an enjoyable read. I have plenty of novels that read much better than some (perhaps all) of my Bibles translations, but I don’t look to them to find the God of the universe revealed to me in their pages (though this does occasionally happen. However, this only happens because I know from Scripture who God is and what he’s like).

It is again important for us to remember that all of our modern translations are accurate translations of the Greek and Hebrew. This position is not without contention, as a quick Google search will reveal, however, a gracious and informed reader will conclude, as I’ve discussed earlier, that all translations have their strengths and weaknesses and none are able to perfectly capture every nuance of the source languages yet they are all accurate and good translations that will benefit the church because they all accurately convey the grand narrative of God’s redemptive purposes accomplished through Jesus the Messiah. Certainly, there are points here and there, minor points, where scholars will disagree over how certain words should be translated but these points, while important and necessary, do not detract from the overall accuracy of a translation. So then, accuracy becomes almost a non-issue in choosing a Bible translation because all modern translations are accurate reflections of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.

A Translation You Enjoy Reading

Likewise, all of our modern translation are readable. Just as it is foolish for us to argue over translations on the grounds of accuracy it would be equally foolish for us to start dividing over readability. All translations can be improved in both of these areas as scholarship and our skill at translation develops but there will never come a day when we’ll have a translation we are completely happy with because any translation, of any kind, whether of the Bible or War and Peace, will always be an imperfect reflection of the source languages.

In light of this, that all our modern Bible translation are both accurate and readable, we should choose a translation we enjoy reading because a translation we enjoy reading is one we are more likely to actually read! Moreover, it is one we will actually want to read.

One of the greatest challenges facing the church today, from within its own walls (so to speak), is Biblical illiteracy because many Christians aren’t reading the Bible for themselves. This is not to say the problem consists solely, or even primary, in people being unable to find an enjoyable translation (the issue is very complex being made up of a plethora of factors that we can’t get into now). Nevertheless, one way to combat this growing problem in our churches is to encourage our fellow believers to find a translation they enjoy reading and, to heed the words heard by St. Augustine, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” (Confessions 8:29).

Unfortunately, what has happened is that churches and individuals (even pastors/elder/leaders) have tried to present one translation as the best or somehow better than other translations. As we’ve seen there is no best or better translation, to try and make that case is to misrepresent the translation process and to show that you really haven’t understood the issue in its complexity. Pastorally, this is dangerous territory to venue into because it will, whether intentional or otherwise, lead to tribalism wherein we pit ourselves against anyone or group who disagrees. This is sadly evident in our recent past (and to a lesser degree remains present today) when some churches and individuals have tried to make the case that the KJV is the only acceptable and accurate Bible translation. However, this kind of tribalism over Bible translation has not dissipated. Instead it has simply changed it guise. Like the tribalism of our past, this new tribalism is fuelled by misinformation and misunderstanding. We can see this particularly from the North American debates over Bible translation which has become disproportionately heated. We ourselves are not immune to this kind of tribalism, it seems to immigrate with ease to our green shores.

To guard ourselves against this tribalism over Bible translation we need to be generous and gracious in our dialogue over different translations. We need to see the good in all of our modern Bible translations and understand that their good far outweighs any of their deficiencies (and they all have deficiencies). We can only become generous and gracious as we come to know our generous and gracious God who has supplied us with so many wonderful translations of his word; we come to know him as we read his word, as we repent of our tribalism, as we thank him for his generosity and grace in the multitude of ways he bestows them upon us, chiefly through his Son.

So then, let’s put aside our tribalism and encourage one another to read God’s word and to enjoy reading it. Let’s thank God for the many great translations he has allowed us to have in our own language so we don’t have to learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic in order to have access to his word, and through his word to himself. Let’s find a translation we enjoy reading and read it! And let’s encourage others to do so as well.

A Translation For Our Communities

The New International Version began with one man in the 1950s. His name was Howard Long. He didn’t know Greek or Hebrew, he wasn’t a scholar or a pastor, he probably wasn’t even very well known but he was a Christian who wanted others to come to know Jesus, particularly as they read the Bible. The Bible he knew and loved was the KJV, he could quote it at length and when speaking to others he did so they might come to know and love Jesus. But he was faced with a serious problem: when he shared with others from his beloved Bible he found that often the words were met with incomprehension, people simply were unable to understand the language of the Bible because it was not the language they themselves spoke. Frustrated, he turned to his pastor which in turn led to the formation of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) and the rest, as they say, is history.

One of the factors that should influence our choice of Bible translation (particularly in a church setting) should be that it is understandable to the people in our communities who are not yet Christians, as well as the Christians (old and new) who make up our congregations. As the above story illustrates, the KJV is no longer appropriate because it is incomprehensible to modern readers and after many years of faithful service to the church it deserve to enjoy its retirement. Similarly, different translations may be more appropriate for different contexts. There are no easy answers here, it’s up to each church to discern which translation is most appropriate for their context and the people they are reaching. However, generally speaking, for most situations all of our modern translations will function well in this role. Nevertheless, there will be certain contexts when a particular kind of translation will function more effectively than others. For example, in a community made up mostly of retirees a formal translation may prove more effective particularly if they are familiar with the KJV but will allow younger generations to come along and be able to participate and understand what is happening during the service. In another case, such as an unchurched area, where the majority of people have no church background or have never read the Bible a functional translation may prove more effective because it will go a long way towards helping them get a better grasp on the Bible’s big picture without obscuring it with technical language that more formal translations tend to retain.

Conclusion

As I conclude this brief series on choosing a Bible translation I am purposefully not going to give a recommendation. Not because I don’t have a preference but because I recognise that I do and I also recognise that my preference is just that, a preference. My only recommendation is that you choose a modern translation that you enjoy reading, one you want to pick up and read regularly, and that you read it often. Hopefully, what I’ve written will help you to make that choice or, at least, will have made you more informed about your current choice and be a helpful resource as you discuss Bible translation with others. If you’re interested in going beyond my summaries (which is really all they are) I would highly recommend Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (2013) as a good starting place because the contributors are people involved in the translation of the version they are writing about. I found this helpful because it meant I heard the best arguments in favour of each translation and I came away with a greater appreciation for the different philosophies behind our various modern translations; at the end of each chapter I was left thinking, “That is a really great translation!”

Choosing A Bible Translation: What You Need To Know (Part 2)

The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.

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Is That A Literal Translation?

When it comes to discussions concerning Bible translation there is quite a lot of misinformation available (sometimes propagated by the translators themselves!) because explaining translation philosophy is a difficult task and we often want it explained simply, however, sometimes it happens that the explanations we receive are simplistic rather than simple (an important distinction).

bible reading 2Simplistic explanations are essentially caricatures. They reduce issues in such a way that misrepresent them so people come away feeling like they know much more about the issue than they really do. By contrast, a simple explanation breaks down a complex issue and explains each point so that when taken together we gain a basic grasp of the issue but we are left knowing that we’ve only just scratched the surface.

With regards to Bible translation, simplistic explanations abound. Chief among these simplistic explanations is the idea that any of our modern translations are literal (or word-for-word, usually contrasted with thought-for-thought which is another misnomer). To describe any Bible translation as literal is a misnomer because if we were to translate the Bible literally the end product would be, at best, excruciating to read, and at worst, entirely unreadable. To demonstrate the veracity of my assertion we’ll look briefly at four translations of John 3:16, the first three will be modern translations which have differing translation philosophies and the final one will be a literal translation from the Greek New Testament.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (NLT)

As we can see, the translations are all very similar. However, none of them translate the verse literally from the Greek text:

Thus for loves the God the world so that the Son of him the only he gives that every the one believing into him no should be being destroyed but may be having life eternal.

Cleaned up a little it might read like this:

Thus loves God the world that the Son of him – the only – he gives that everyone believing into him should not be being destroyed but may be having life eternal.

Even in the literal translation the meaning is not unclear but can you imagine reading, let alone explaining, John 3:16 from either of these woodenly literal translations? And this is a verse that, in each of the modern translations, adheres quite closely to the form of the Greek; there are places in the Greek New Testament that if they were to be translated literally would be unrecognisable as well as unreadable.

Rethinking Our Paradigm

The inadequacy of the language of ‘literal translation’ is apparent. A literal translation (as shown above) has its place in the study and in discussions concerning how best to translate Greek and Hebrew into comprehensible modern English but it doesn’t cut it as an option for being our choice of Bible translation for regular and communal reading for the simple reason that it’s too difficult to read and understand. What we need, therefore, is a better way of talking about translation philosophy that isn’t misleading in the way the term literal is. Thankfully, we have just that!

The best way to discuss Bible translation and translation philosophy is by employing the language of formal and functional equivalency. However, the discussion is not one of either/or rather it is of the degree to which each is employed in the translation process. Therefore, the committees responsible for producing our Bible translations have a clear goal in mind. Some will want to produce a more formal translation while others will aim for a more functional translation, others still will try to produce a translation that doesn’t favour either approach but which combines the best of both approaches. Consequently, all modern Bible translations combine both formal and functionally equivalency in their overall translation. It would be impossible to produce a Bible translation that is simply one or the other because it would either be unreadable or it would cease to be a translation and instead become a commentary on the text. But what does all this mean?

When we speak of formal equivalency what we mean is that the translators have sought to retain (as much as possible) the sentence structure and distinctive style of the biblical authors, in other words, they have sought to retain the form of the text. As a result of this, formal translations are unique in their stylistic composition. Some people argue this makes the Bible sound distinctive when it’s read, i.e. hearers know the Bible is being read because it sounds like the Bible. Formal translations can also help modern readers discern textual links (such as the repetition of key words and phrases) because they tend to translate words and phrases consistently. As a result, a formal translation may prompt further study because it will be necessary to understand the meaning behind these textual links before they are of significance.

Functional equivalency, on the other hand, seeks to translate the biblical text so it reads like natural English (or whatever the receptor language happens to be). Sometimes the form of the source language translates well into natural English, in which case, the functional equivalent and the formal equivalent can be one in the same. However, this is not always the case. Functional translations are also concerned with modern readers experiencing the text as its original hearers/readers would have because the authors originally wrote using language their hearers/readers would have immediately grasped but when translated formally into English some of that meaningful impact may be lost because idioms or ideas are foreign to us.

To get a idea of what these two approaches look like in practice we’ll consider one brief example. The ESV aims at formal equivalence, the NIV tries to balance formal and functional equivalence, and the NLT favours functional equivalence. All three are great translations!

Amos 4:6

“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the LORD. (
ESV)

“I gave you empty stomachs in every city
and lack of bread in every town,
yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord. (
NIV)

“I brought hunger to every city
    and famine to every town.
But still you would not return to me,”
    says the Lord. (NLT)

In Amos 4:6 the ESV translates the Hebrew idiom for hunger formally which gives us the phrase cleanness of teeth while the NIV and NLT translate the idiom into natural English so we are able to appreciate the immediate impact of God’s word through the prophet. In a formal translation we get a glimpse into the ancient Israelite culture and their turns of phrase which can be very interesting for building a picture of their culture, similar to how J.R.R. Tolkien included broken references (such as the Cats of Queen Berúthiel which no one blinked at) in the Lord of the Rings to create a world that went beyond the Shire in both space and time. In all three translation the meaning is apparent as the second line clarifies the first: lack of bread/famine so the reader (as long as they are aware of parallelism in Hebrew poetry) will not misinterpret this verse as God providing free dental care then sending a famine (the Lord gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord?).

Conclusion

All translations are a combination of formal and functional translation. And each approach, however much it is used, contributes certain unique benefits to the translation produced which will help readers in different ways (another good reason to own/use multiple Bible translations when studying the Bible – don’t forget that they available to view online for free!).

In my next, and tentatively final, post on Bible translation (for the time being) we’ll consider what I think is probably the most important factor in choosing a Bible translation for regular reading which will hopefully bring all that I’ve said so far together in a helpful and meaningful way.

Choosing A Bible Translation: What You Need To Know (Part 1)

The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.

Asking the Wrong Questions:

“Which Bible translation is best?”

The unfortunate truth is that there is no best translation, in spite of what you may have heard elsewhere. If you want to understand all the nuances of Scripture as the original readers did then you’re going to have to learn Greek and Hebrew (and even then you’re going to miss things – just look how many Bible commentaries are out there! – not to mention that we don’t actually have the original manuscripts).

“But surely some translations are better than others?”

bible reading 2Yes (a tiny yes) but mostly no. There are some bad Bible translations, like those produced by cults or heretics (e.g. the New World Translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Jefferson Bible, which is similar in concept to the Bible compiled by Marcion in the second century AD). But for the most part it’s a matter of understanding that all Bible translations have their strengths and weaknesses. So in light of this it’s my opinion (with a small caveat[1]) that the vast majority of modern translations are accurate and can be used profitably by Christians. When it comes to deciding whether or not a Bible translation is accurate (an important criteria!) then we have to say that all the most popular translations fall into that category because all of them accurately convey the truth about who God is and what he has done, and is doing, in and through his Son, Jesus the Messiah.

There are also other kinds of translations that should be avoided when it comes to choosing a Bible for regular reading (but which can be helpful in other contexts). These include translations by individuals and translations not based on the best and earliest available manuscripts.

Translations by Individuals

Bible translations are usually the work of a committee so as to avoid personal or theological bias and to create a translation that can be read and understood by as many people as possible. This doesn’t make committee translations perfect or necessarily mean bias is altogether avoided but it is a good way of reducing said bias and creating a translation that is a more accurate reflection of what the manuscripts record.

When an individual produces a translation there is greater likelihood, perhaps unintentionally, of personal and theological biases creeping in because the translator will be inclined to see how certain words or phrases, in their opinion, support their position when the text may be more ambiguous, and open to interpretation, than they’d like to believe. These translations can be immensely helpful for study but they shouldn’t be our translation of choice for regular reading.

Translations Not Based on the Best and Earliest Manuscripts

It almost seems redundant to make this point but English Bible’s are translations. Bible translations are translations of the Bible from other languages. And the original manuscripts are gone – lost to time and decay! What we possess today are copies, many copies, of those original manuscripts. Some of those manuscripts are very, very old dating back very close to when we believe the originals were penned while other manuscripts have been dated to hundreds of years after the originals. These earliest manuscripts are relatively recent discoveries (when you consider just how old the Bible is) and so it is only modern translations that have benefited from the insight they’ve provided us with concerning what the original manuscripts recorded. Older translations (such as the KJV and its revision the NKJV) were based on later manuscripts which contain scribal errors that have been corrected by new translations based on earlier manuscripts. What is amazing, however, is that the earliest manuscripts and the later manuscripts are incredibly similar (only around 5% difference). Nevertheless, it is of upmost importance that we, in our choice of Bible translation, choose a version that makes use of the best available manuscripts because the Bible isn’t a book where we get to pick and choose which bits we like but the Word of God under whose authority we should humbly submit.

Coming to the Right Conclusion:

“It’s difficult to choose one translation.”

Hopefully, by this point it’s become a little clearer just how difficult it is to choose a Bible translation because we have access to an abundance of good translations. In itself this is a real blessing but it can also be quite frustrating when it comes to choosing a translation for regular use.

Finally, while it’s important to choose a translation for regular reading – because as we read one translation regularly it will imprint itself into our memory, shaping our vocabulary, making it easier for us to recall passages for prayer and talking about God with others – it shouldn’t be the only translation we read. It’s good, especially for study, to compare translations and so benefit from the wisdom and insight of other translators and translation philosophies because no translation, or translation philosophy, is able to provide us with a  perfect translation of the Bible.

Next week we’ll consider how translations come about and the different philosophies of translation but in the mean time why not check out the different versions that are available for free online to get a flavour of what’s out there.

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[1] When I say the vast majority of modern translations what I’m referring to are the most commonly read translations available in English as you might find on your Bible app or book shop. The fact is that there are tons of Bible translations available online but the debate surrounding the choosing of a Bible translation is, in my experience, limited to the most popular versions and it’s those translations I’m here endorsing (for example: ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, NET, etc.).

Don Draper, C.S. Lewis, and the Missio Dei

Who Is Don Draper?

For fans of the hit period drama, Mad Men, Don Draper needs no introduction.

But for everyone else…

Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, is the Creative Director, and a junior partner, for the Madison Avenue Advertising company Sterling Cooper set in 1960s New York City. madmen posterThe show focuses primarily on Draper’s life, the lives of his work colleagues and his family, and the agency he works for. Throughout the series we receive a surprisingly, and often horrifically, honest look into what life was like for people living within the spheres of power and influence during a period of rampant bigotry, racism, and sexism. Where other shows would seek to soften the attitudes and behaviours presented or provide characters who, often untrue to their own time and culture, openly rejected and battle such injustices Mad Men does neither. The show makes a good case for the doctrine of Total Depravity, not because it is overly gratuitous (it is, for the most part, very modest), but because the characters are often unapologetically selfish and self-centred using one another in order to stoke their considerable egos. The scant goodness exhibited by the characters is for all the wrong reasons. Mad Men has no heroes or heroines; it just shows people infatuated with money, power, and sex who lived during a period when the rich and powerful were better able to get away whatever they wished because there was little danger of being crucified on social media. And it is for this reason I like Mad Men: because it’s honest about the sinful selfishness and self-centredness that resides in all of us, even within our virtues.

Draper’s Chronological Snobbery And Ours

At this point it would be very easy to write off Draper and his associates on account of their degradation of women, African Americans, one another, and the like because, of course, we know better. And yet to do so would be to commit, what C.S. Lewis termed, chronological snobbery:

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” (Surprised by Joy, p207-208)

That the attitudes and behaviours of our age are superior to those of every other age by merit of their newness. That somehow ours is the age that has gotten beyond all the nonsense of previous generations. Yes, it needs to be admitted that previous generations got many things wrong, particularly in regards to women and race, and repentance and forgiveness need to take place there but the bigger, more important, point we should take away from Mad Men is that, by and large, most people were completely unaware of their erroneous, not to mention sinful, attitudes and behaviours. They were men and women of their age, blind to the injustices they themselves were perpetrating. To borrow a phrase from Paul, “[they] acted in ignorance” (1 Timothy 1:13 NIV); they were, as Lewis would put it, chronological snobs. This by no means excuses the injustices carried out by previous generations but it should give us warning that we are not immune to similar chronological snobbery because they themselves looked back with distain upon the previous generations considering them prudish and puritanical.

In light of this we should be humbled and so behave accordingly because in generations to come our descendants will look upon many of our attitudes and behaviours with scorn and wonder how we could have gotten so many things wrong and thought ourselves so enlightened. We haven’t made it and we need to be aware that we are, just like previous generations, blind to our own blindness: we often don’t see where we are going wrong. And if we take this to heart it will humble us which is exactly the attitude we need if we are to play our part in the Missio Dei (the Mission of God) because a humble follower of Jesus learns to repent and forgive quickly; they are patient, not expecting the world, or people, to change overnight; they pursue justice graciously and courageously, showing respect even to those with whom they disagree; and they treat others with love and mercy because that’s how God has treated them in Christ (cf. Micah 6:8).

Learners, Not Just Teachers

As followers of Jesus we need to cultivate these Christ-like attitudes and behaviours as we share the good news with others because the days are gone when it was simply enough to tell someone what they already knew. We live at a time when people have access an almost endless number of religions, philosophies, and worldviews that each proclaim themselves to be the good news and so if we ever hope to gain a hearing with people of other faiths (or no faith) we need to adopt a posture of listening and learning. To even begin to do this require the courageous humility we talked about earlier that respects the beliefs of others, that treats everyone patiently and graciously – not becoming enraged that others don’t see truth of the gospel, we know they can’t apart from a work of God (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10) – out of merciful love for people we genuinely care about (not just souls we want to see saved from hell) because mission (and evangelism) today require a long term commitment from the people of God to the holistic well-being of individuals and communities, not 5 minutes of monologue and a dated gospel tract.

In order for us to gain this hearing with others we need to be learners, not just teachers. We have to be able to interact generously and graciously with people who disagree with us, showing them and their beliefs the respect we would want them to show us and our beliefs. The strategies of previous generations, of simply telling people the good news because they need to hear it, are ineffective today because they are perceived as coming from a place of arrogance. They often begin with the assumption that the other person (the unbeliever) is wrong and we (the Christian) is right. At the theological level this is true but at the relational level this is the entirely wrong way to go about things, is it any wonder most people don’t want to listen to us when we talk about the gospel? We can no longer approach mission and evangelism in this way because our method is getting in the way of the message and is putting people off even listening to us. We need to listen humbly and then speak graciously but courageously.

Gospel Humility

So how do we become the kind of person unbelievers will talk to? How do we become both respectfully gracious and unflinchingly courageous? Most of us gravitate towards one end of that spectrum or the other, we are either quietly respectful or outspokenly bold, because that’s the kind of person we are by nature. What makes us courageously humble?

The gospel doesn’t change our personality, if you’re an introvert you won’t suddenly wake up an extravert or vice versa. However, the gospel makes the timid courageous and the bold humble.

At first this seems paradoxical, how can these two qualities exist together in one person? And yet, we see both of them living harmoniously in Jesus who alone epitomises what it means to be truly human. In Jesus we find our perfect example of what it means to be courageously humble and through him we too experience this gospel humility.

The same Jesus who turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple courts and drove them all out with a whip (John 2:13-17) is the same Jesus whom Matthew describes in these words,

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

(Matthew 12:18-21 NIV, cf. Isaiah 42:1-4)

Our faith in this Jesus, who paradoxically combines courage and humility, is what will transform us into courageously humble people who trust and obey him as we take his gospel into the world and will empower us to face all the challenges of sharing the good news in a pluralistic world.