In between birth and death what’s supposed to happen?

As I gazed down at my one day old granddaughter I wondered what life would have in store for her. Would life be tough for her, in which case what was the point of her being born at all? It made me wonder why we have children. Is it because this is simply what humans do, we have children, so why analyze it? But does that mean that humans have no purpose more meaningful than animals or insects, that exist merely to reproduce, play whatever part they’ve been programmed to play, and then fade into nothing? Is that life, just adjusting to whatever happens? Or with humans is something else supposed to happen between birth and death?

I was thinking about all this for the lecture I felt I ought to give to my son, now that he had a daughter. It got me thinking about why any of us are here on this planet, existing together, having families, training for careers, taking vacations, having hobbies, and getting sick. The years fly by with little time to actually think about what we’re supposed to be learning. But then I watched my son gazing down at his daughter, unable to take his eyes off her. He sat there in enraptured silence, oblivious to the hubbub of doctors and visitors.

And I knew then what my lecture would be about. It would be, “Love your daughter like you love her now, because that’s what we’re here for as humans, to experience the staggering power of love.” And now it would be his turn to demonstrate the staggering power of love to his daughter, as he loved her for the rest of their life together, no matter what she did, or how she turned out, or how many dreams she shattered.

Love her as you love her now, because if she’s adorable as a helpless, utterly dependent, completely self-centred food and poop machine why should that change when she grows into a flourishing, fiercely independent, totally unique being with personality, wild ideas, cheeky humour, sparkly eyes, and a growing awareness of how much she’s valued and loved causing her to want to love and value others in return? And will she then want children for that reason too, to repeat in the life of someone she herself has created what she learnt from her Dad who loved her for nothing else than being her?

And what would be the purpose of all this love? To get a glimpse of the love that awaits us all when we meet God for the first time, who loved us for nothing else than us being us too.

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To see God push the Jesus button

“If only I could see God then I might believe in him.” But God doesn’t turn up at meeting halls with inspiring messages, or appear at the United Nations with solutions to world problems. He isn’t a superstar filling huge auditoriums, nor is he in the headlines like Spiderman for saving the innocent. Instead, he remains hidden and invisible, letting us figure out for ourselves what kind of God he is, or if he exists at all.

But Philip wasn’t satisfied with that. “Show us the Father,” he said to Jesus in John 14:8, “and that will be enough for us.” If we can just get a peek at what the Father is like, then we’ll believe you. But, Jesus replies in verse 9, “Anyone who has SEEN ME has seen the Father.” The whole point of me being “among you such a long time,” Philip, was to do exactly that, show you the Father, so “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father'” when I’ve been showing him all this time?

Oh, thinks Philip, and wonders what he missed. Fortunately, Jesus tells him.

First of all, Philip, you can see the Father in “The words I say to you,” verse 10, because everything I’ve been saying came from “the Father living in me.”

Ah but, Philip could have replied, “How do I know the Father is living in you?”

Simple again, Jesus replies in verse 11, “the evidence of the miracles.” How do you think I did all these miracles, Philip? By myself? No, it was the Father doing them, because he’s revealing himself in me, not only in everything I say, but in everything I do as well.

But if you really want to see the Father, Philip, there’s a button you can push that always slides the door open to him. Here it is, in verse 13: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” You can see God in his glory by simply coming to me with all your life concerns, because it’s in what I do for you personally “from now on” that you will come to “know him” and realize you “have seen him,” verse 7. The Father now reveals himself in how Jesus answers our prayers.

So that’s three ways in which we can see God in Jesus: In what Jesus said, in what he did, and in his answers to our prayers, because in all three ways the Father was, and is, the power behind them. It’s always through Jesus that the Father reveals himself. Jesus is the only button we ever need push, therefore, to see God.

Who answers our prayers, the Father or Jesus?

In John 14:13-14, Jesus says he answers our prayers: “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” and “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

But Jesus also says in John 15:16 that “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” which sounds like it’s the Father who does the answering, not Jesus. On the other hand, in John 16:15, Jesus also says, “All that belongs to the Father is mine,” so whatever the Father gives us in answer to our prayers comes from Jesus as well, so now it sounds like both of them are answering our prayers.

John doesn’t make things any clearer either, when he writes later in 1 John 4:21-22 that “we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask.” No mention of whether it’s the Father or Jesus answering; just “God.” And it’s just “God” again in 1 John 5:14, when John writes of “the assurance we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”

John doesn’t separate the Father and Jesus as to who answers. But the process by which our prayers are answered does separate them, because in John 15:16 Jesus directs us to the Father as the source of every answer, but in John 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands,” so Jesus is the agent of every answer. All answers to our prayers, therefore, originate with the Father, but they come to us through the Son. That’s why we pray to the Father, in recognition that everything comes from the Father originally, but we also pray in Jesus’ name, in recognition that everything is now being administered by Jesus, with the Father’s full authority and approval.

What we are acknowledging, then, when praying to the Father in Jesus’ name is the relationship of the Father and Son. By praying to the Father we acknowledge the Son’s love and respect for him, and by praying in Jesus’ name we acknowledge the love and respect the Father has for the Son. We know, then, that when we receive an answer to our prayers it came from that relationship, from the Son wanting to give all glory to the Father by answering us exactly as his Father wishes, and from the Father wanting to give all glory to his beloved Son by giving Jesus his full power and authority to make his wishes happen.

So who answers our prayers? The Father does, and so does Jesus. And we acknowledge that by including them both in our prayers; the Father as the original giver and Jesus as the bringer.

Visions, dreams and “messages from the Lord”

It was documented brilliantly in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ that the human mind can create people and events that seem utterly real but aren’t real at all, caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. How can a person say with certainty, therefore, that he’s receiving supernatural visions, dreams and messages from the Lord when they could have a natural cause too, like a change in medication, mental illness, intense stress, or simply eating too much before bed?

The human mind can be easily manipulated too. A hypnotist can make people think and do all kinds of crazy things, none of which are from God. Who can say with certainty, therefore, that the vision he saw, or voice he heard, came from God, when it could simply be his own mind playing tricks on him?

History has also shown how visions, dreams and “messages from God” can lead to all sorts of charismatic visionaries starting new religions that conflict with other religions in their beliefs and ideas about the afterlife. History is now littered with warring religions, denominational splits, wild speculation, failed prophecies, arrogant know-it-alls, chronic self-deception and horrible disillusionment, all caused by people who claimed they were receiving direct revelation from God.

So how can we know if something is from God, or not? Fortunately, God himself provided the means for detecting a real message from him. He sent Jesus Christ with all the messages we’d ever need, and then confirmed his choice of messenger personally by bringing him back from the dead. So all we need do when someone says he or she has a vision or a message from God is compare it to the message of the one messenger we know for certain came from God, and if it agrees, great; if it doesn’t, ignore it.

It won’t stop people claiming their visions and revelations are from God, of course, because it’s a great attention-grabber and it gives average folks centre stage and a following of adoring groupies. It won’t stop people making great pronouncements about their absolute authority as a prophet either, or stop their ugly warnings to those who “dare challenge the Lord’s anointed.”

But we CAN challenge them, because we’ve already got all the messages from God we need, delivered in person by God himself when he was here on earth with us. The only vision we need, then, is a clearer vision of what he’s already told us in his word. And to aid us in that quest, God promised us a Spirit helper (John 14:26), who also happens to be the “Spirit of truth,” enabling us to recognize a self-proclaimed prophet talking through his hat.

“The Lord spoke to me….”

I’ve had several people tell me the Lord spoke to them, with messages meant for me. On one occasion I was told I’d have a dream that night that would change my life, and not knowing any better I believed the man, but the dream didn’t happen, nor did the predictions by other people that I would rise to a high position in my church denomination, and that my local congregation would grow into many hundreds of people.

All three predictions failed, but the people making them were utterly convinced the Lord was speaking to them, despite the statement in Hebrews 1:1-2 that “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”

God’s not in the habit anymore of speaking direct messages through human prophets like he did in the Old Testament. Instead, he concentrates our attention on what he revealed to us through his Son with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). The Lord has already spoken to us what we need to know through his Word, Jesus, and it’s the Spirit’s job to help us understand it, not give us new messages through other prophets.

Ah but, some might say, I hear things in my head, like an inner voice, that I should talk to someone, or send them a card of encouragement, or offer help of some kind, and on so many occasions when that happens a crucial need is met. Like the story of the Christian zooming past a stalled car who suddenly felt the need to go back and help. He was late for an important meeting, though, so on he zoomed, but the thought kept pressing on his mind so strongly that many miles later he turned round, drove back to the stalled car, where he easily pinpointed the car’s problem and everyone was on their way in minutes. “The Lord spoke to me,” the Christian said, and who can deny it when the fruits were so good?

So what’s the difference between saying “The Lord spoke to me” through an inner thought that led to an act of love, and saying “The Lord spoke to me” with a direct message from God about a person’s future? The difference is clear from Scripture, that “in these last days” God isn’t speaking through the voices of human prophets, he’s speaking through his Spirit into our hearts (Galatians 4:6) to create belief in his Son and love for one another (1 John 3:23-24), and it’s when those things are happening that we know the Lord is speaking to us.

A Remembrance Day prayer – with a difference

“Let us pray,” the minister mumbled into the microphone. Here we go, I thought, another tired old prayer on Remembrance Day. But this prayer was different.

“Great Father of us all,” he began, his voice rising, “We, your suffering children, come to you in our embarrassment and shame to say how sorry we are for all the death and misery you’ve had to witness for yet another horribly violent year. And here we are on Remembrance Day, sorry yet again that we have to put you through the same old routine. We march, we cry and we pray, and we get terribly serious about the horrors of war and we seek your comfort for the bereaved, but nothing changes. Year after year it’s the same. We never bring you good news, only bad.”

“We think of you shaking your head at our blindness, because you told us in your word how wars happen, but do we see it? You’ve given us warning and wisdom like a good Father should, but do we heed it? You told us what to do when evil threatens, but have we listened? You told us of powers much greater than ours we could trust in, but have we believed you? You told us you sent your Son to bring us peace, but are we interested? So now you have to watch us shuffle off home for another year, and we’re none the wiser, as usual. And we’ll be back at this time next year too, with more sad stories to tell you of those who died in wars and our helplessness in protecting the innocent – as if you haven’t heard enough of such stories already.”

“What must it be like to be a Father to children like us? Could we ask you, therefore, to do something for us, that would bring some joy to this day instead? Could you give us the sense this year to go home and read what you wrote about peace and for you, then, to help us understand and believe it, so that next year we can come to you with different stories, of the courage you gave us to try your way, and how surprised we were by its success.”

“Here’s hoping, then, we can bring you some good news in a year’s time as we take up your offer and your challenge to be living examples of your promise that one day peace will reign on this Earth and sadness will no longer be the tired old routine it is today. We humbly seek your intervention, dear Father, because we, your struggling children, are in desperate need of help.”

Does God solve everything in this life now too?

In 2 Peter 1:3 Peter writes that God has “given us everything we need for life and godliness.” God’s already sorted out our salvation and eternal future for us, which is wonderful, but what about life now? We’ve got all sorts of problems now – physical, emotional, family and financial – so does God fix those things for us too?

Well, when Paul had a health problem he wanted God to fix in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8, God’s answer in verse 9 was, “My grace is sufficient for you,” or – as ‘The Message’ translates it – “My grace is enough; it’s all you need,” which sounds like God is saying, “You’ve got all you need for life and godliness, Paul, so don’t bother me with all that physical stuff too.” But is that what “grace” meant here, that it only covered Paul’s eternal life, and that’s what counted, not his physical life too?

There’s a bit more God has to say in verse 9, however, that suggests “grace” here isn’t just talking about the salvation Christ has procured for us forever, it’s about the power he provides for us now. It’s there in the second part of God’s reply in verse 9, when he says, “My strength comes into its own in your weakness.” 

“My grace” in the first part of verse 9 becomes “My strength” in the second part. In context grace means strength, and it means strength right now too, in our desperate times of “weakness” (verse 9). This is when Christ really pulls through for us and makes himself real, as we discover again and again that his grace, in the shape of his strength, is sufficient for every situation we come up against in this life now.

And “Once I heard that,” Paul writes in verse 9 (The Message), “I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift.” What gift? The gift of “Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness,” enabling Paul to function and carry on in THIS life, no matter what hit him.

It changed Paul’s attitude to his problems, verse 10: “Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size – abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”

Paul literally experienced Christ lifting him out of the doldrums, out of his fears and desperation, and out of his worries that his handicaps would reduce his effectiveness. Paul learnt from experience that God solves everything in this life too, by “moving in on his weakness” and involving himself intimately in every problem Paul faced to get him through it.