Walking the tightrope, and on which side of it do we fall?

Christmas is a classic example of the tightrope we Christians have to walk in this world. And we can fall off on either side.

On one side of the tightrope is condemning Christmas for all its obvious faults and ironies, like making gift giving an obligation, or chopping down perfectly healthy trees, or going through the usual exhausting rituals for a few days pleasure, and, of course, its total disconnect in most people’s minds with Jesus’ birth. On the other side of the tightrope is condoning Christmas and everything to do with it, because it’s “all about the kids” and getting together as families, and for Christians it’s a way of introducing kids to Jesus using Christmas icons and rituals as illustrations.

Well, condemning doesn’t help, because it confirms people’s impression that Christians think everything in this world is wrong, and only what Christians believe is right. But condoning doesn’t help either, because it confirms the impression that Christians are scared they won’t be liked and accepted if they don’t run along with everyone else. So Christians are arrogant if they condemn, and cowards if they condone.

Halloween too is a tightrope Christians have to walk. Should Halloween be condemned for making light of evil, or should it be condoned as just another day of harmless fun for the kids, making it easy for Christian kids to join in too? And Remembrance Day as well: Should it be condemned for ignoring the propaganda that drove good men to kill good men and Christian to kill Christian, or should it be condoned and even celebrated for war’s selfless sacrifice of life?

On which side of the tightrope do we fall on these things? But if we do fall on one side it’s going to upset people on the other side, so is there a middle ground, a narrow tightrope between the two sides?

Yes, there is, according to Peter, who lived in a world similar to ours that wanted to blot Christianity out, which faced Christians back then with difficult choices too. Peter’s advice to Christians in such a world was simply to “have an explanation ready for the hope you’ve got” (1 Peter 3:15). That’s the tightrope we walk, that everything about us is driven by hope. Whether we do or don’t participate in Christmas, Halloween or Remembrance Day, therefore, our explanation for our actions remains the same, that we live in hope of a world that either expands on the good of these days, or remedies the bad in them. And the reason the expansion or remedies are possible is because Christ promised them, and he’s now in a position to make sure they happen.

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Is there hope for murdered children and their killers?

We live in a world that allows lethal child-murderers back into the community, many of whom are still dangerous predators and always will be. They show no remorse, no desire to understand the impact of their crime, and they do not seek help willingly. And we still haven’t come up with a failsafe way of protecting children from them.

Unfortunately, our inadequacy causes both the innocent and the criminal to suffer. The criminal suffers because the community views him with fear and revulsion, and he lives the life of a caged animal. Children suffer greatly too, because their joy-filled view on life is frequently shattered by news of hideous murders, perhaps in their own neighbourhood, requiring stern warnings from their parents to never talk to strangers. What child nowadays can wander alone without a care in the world? It’s absolutely ludicrous that we think of ourselves as a civilized and advanced society when we still cannot guarantee protection for our children or healing for the addicted.

The only thing that keeps me sane in such utter futility is the hope of a better life after this one, because this life is brutally unfair on the innocent and woefully inadequate in restoring the mentally ill. I hang on to the hope Jesus offered – and staked his own life to a cross as our guarantee of it – that he would personally lift us to a life beyond this one where the innocent won’t ever suffer again and restoration is guaranteed for all. The Bible’s underlying message is about another world being formed, described in the book of Acts as “the times of restitution of all things,” which God guarantees through Jesus Christ.

I like that phrase “all things,” because it covers everything and everybody, criminals and innocent alike. If an innocent life is cut tragically short by murder in this world it’s not the end of life forever. But nor is it the end for a life wrecked by addiction, either. Both will be restored.

Applying that same hope equally to all people, both guilty and innocent, is what keeps me going in this ridiculous world. I rest assured that one day innocent children will stand beside their killers and they will all receive the life and rehabilitation they couldn’t get in this life.

It doesn’t remove the horror of evil now or the helplessness of our inadequacy, but to those who are trying so hard to protect our children and reintegrate lethal criminals into the community, it offers hope and encouragement that God will make happen later what we couldn’t make happen now.

Is our hope only in the future?

A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses dropped by to offer me a message of hope. It was based on Jesus bringing an end “very shortly” to all the frightening things going on in our world. I asked the leader how she knew it was going to happen “very shortly,” and she replied, “Prophecy.” The signs of the end of this godless age, she said, are all there in Bible prophecy and the conditions exist right now that prove we’re in “the last days.”

I asked her which Bible prophecy proves we’re in the last days, and she replied, “Matthew 24.” She hastily added that not all the events predicted in Matthew 24 happened in 70 AD. Jesus was also referring to “our age now,” she said, and the signs are all there for anyone to read and recognize that this age is near its end and the Kingdom of God is coming “very shortly.”

I asked her what Jesus meant in Matthew 24:34, when he said, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened,”and in verse 36 when he said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In the very chapter she mentioned, Jesus states that nobody actually knows when “the end of the age” is (verse 3), and secondly, that all the events he predicted in that chapter would happen in THAT generation then, not at some time in the future.

I also asked her why her hope was only in the end of the age happening at some time in the future, when Matthew 24 makes it clear that the end of the age happened in Jesus’ day, and the book of Acts then makes it clear that a new age has ALREADY begun in which Jesus has been establishing his Kingdom on the earth in his Church through the Holy Spirit.

My hope, therefore, is not in the Lord coming soon, but in the Lord already having come. He’s not here in person, but he is in the Church, which he calls his body. And the reason for him being here in the Church is to pass on the message of hope that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 2:6, where the Father “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” Ephesians 1:3. Jesus is already in the process of healing all humanity. We don’t have to wait and hope until some time in the future – because it’s happening right now.

Proof God exists? Hope, impossible hope!

“And what do you wish for in the New Year, Jones?” “Well, sir,” Jones replied, “I’d like some hope.”

“Hope?” his boss asked, looking shocked, “I can’t offer that sort of thing, Jones. Hope isn’t what we offer any of our employees in this business. We do our work, get paid, run out of steam after forty years and retire. There’s no hope in any of it, Jones, just a steady treading of water until you can’t tread water any longer.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that, sir,” Jones replied, “but you’ve been here for years, so what keeps you going? To me it all seems so pointless.”

“You’re quite right, Jones, it is pointless. Utterly futile, actually. So I asked myself some time back why, if I was God, I’d make most people’s lives so tedious they’re counting the days to retirement. Forty of the most productive years of your life and you can’t wait for it to be over for something better. Doesn’t make sense, does it? So why bother working at all, I wondered, especially when most of what we produce in this company is a criminal waste of the Earth’s resources, and we’re not contributing anything of lasting value to anyone?”

“And did you find an answer?” Jones asked.

“Well I can’t help wondering why – when I know what I’m doing here has no future whatsoever – I’m able to function quite normally. Despite the uselessness of it all, and despite knowing that this year isn’t going to be any better than the last one, I can still go out for coffee with friends and we talk as if everything is fine. It’s an amazing phenomenon. But you experience it too, right? We all have this amazing capacity for hope, even in the worst situations, that keeps us clinging onto life even when we know it’s hopeless.”

“So I asked myself why, if I was God, I’d do this for people. Why give us hope in a hopeless world? But what better proof could God give us of his existence than providing us with something impossible? Hope in our world? Don’t be daft; who in his right mind has hope in a world like this? We live and die and we’re soon forgotten, end of story. But we have hope to keep us going anyway.”

“So that’s my answer, Jones. I keep going because of a hope I cannot explain I have, outside of God giving it to me. And it somehow keeps me going in this ridiculous world for another pointless year. So don’t come asking me for hope, Jones; it’s a miracle you’ve already got.”

(Based on Romans 8:20-25)

“For in this hope we were saved” – part 3

Paul defines “hope” in Romans 8 as waiting eagerly and patiently for our adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies, verses 23-25. One day, we’ll be free of this ridiculous, insane, frustrating world forever. And it was in this hope we were saved; it lifted us out of the empty, purposeless, fear-filled, death-ending life we were in, and into this new life God offered as his child. It was hope that did it too, because we had no proof at that point that this new life actually existed.

So where did this hope suddenly come from, and where does it come from every day, too? According to Paul, it’s the Spirit’s doing. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children,” verse 16. This isn’t something we need to cook up for ourselves; the Spirit does it for us. It’s the Spirit who helps us realize who we are. It’s way beyond our ability to understand, so the Spirit “helps us in our weakness.” If we could grasp what it means to be a child of God, we’d surely have no trouble praying, but the Spirit has to help us with that, too (verse 26).

And what the Spirit prays on our behalf is beyond our capabilities too, because he “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” When it comes to grasping the enormity of having God as our Father, we’re at a loss for words, but with the Spirit praying on our behalf and “testifying with our spirit,” verse 16, understanding comes, hope grows and an eagerness for “the glorious freedom of the children of God,” verse 21, fills our heads and hearts every day, enabling us to keep functioning as Christians in this horrible, futile world.

This is what we can look forward to the Spirit doing for us, then. This is why the Father and Christ gave us the Spirit in the first place, to “give life” to these mortal bodies of ours by helping us realize we are no longer governed by the fears and frustrations of this world, we’re “sons of God,” verse 14, who literally and truly “belong to Christ,” verse 9. And what worries can anyone have who belongs to Christ, Paul asks (verses 35-39)?

But that’s what adoption as God’s children means. It means we belong to him. And belonging to him means we have his Spirit living in us, living his thoughts in us, so that when God “searches our hearts” what he sees is the “mind of the Spirit” working his heart out in us, “interceding for the saints in accordance with God’s will,” verse 27.

“For in this hope we were saved” – part 2

Following on from Part 1, the obvious proof the Sprit is at work in us is the hope that the Spirit gives us, a hope that enables us to “wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” Romans 8:23.

But what does that mean, “adoption as a son of God” and “the redemption of a human body?” Clearly they’re important because Paul tells us it’s our hope in these two things that “saves” us (verse 24). Adoption and redemption are what keep us Christians alive and kicking in this dreadful world, no matter what it chucks at us, so what do they mean?

Paul gives us a couple of clues in Romans 8. The redeeming of a human body, for instance, is crucial because, verse 10, a “body is dead because of sin.” Keeping God’s law doesn’t change that either, for “when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died,” Romans 7:9. The law only makes our sins more obvious. We also have a sinful nature that won’t let us keep the law anyway. So we live in a “body of death,” chapter 7:24.

To redeem our body of death, God did two things: first, he “condemned sin in sinful man” by “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering,” Romans 8:3. God sent Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sin to rescue our bodies from death. But that was only the first step, because we still have a sinful nature that’s bent on killing us all over again. It doesn’t like our bodies at all. It wants us dead.

But God took care of that, too, in the second thing he did for us, in Romans 8:11. “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit, who lives in us.” God not only rescues our bodies from death, he also gives life to our bodies from that time forward, through the Spirit. And how does the Spirit give us life? By making us sons of God not slaves to our sinful nature. Anyone “led by the Spirit” is a son of God (verse 14), the result being we have the desire and the power to “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” verse 13, because we want to please God. We can now kill off what’s trying to kill us. So God not only redeems our bodies from death caused by sin, he also gives life to our bodies by enabling us to stop sinning…(continued in Part 3)

“For in this hope we were saved” – part 1

Wouldn’t it be great to have proof that the Spirit is working in our lives? Where’s the evidence of the Spirit producing “life and peace” in me, for instance, when I still get to thinking I’m not doing enough for God, I’m not praying enough to get results, I’m not in tune with God’s will, and I’m not doing my part properly? I can’t help but wonder “Where is the evidence of the supernatural in my life when my thinking is still so stuck on the natural plane?” I feel like one of the audience in the church at Corinth when Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:1 – “I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly.”

But there’s one obvious proof the Spirit is at work in us: it’s hope. Despite everything we have hope. And what makes that so clearly the work of the Spirit is – there’s no logical reason for hope. How can anyone have hope living in this world? It’s awful, and it only threatens to get worse as the population increases, the Earth’s resources cannot keep up with demand, climate change causes havoc, politicians dither, and greed rules. Our world is exactly as Paul described it: “subject to frustration” and “in bondage to decay,” and no one has come up with a solution that everyone agrees with or is willing to commit to.

And then we have our own problems to deal with, living in this world. It affects our health, our jobs, our hopes and dreams of financial stability and a good life in retirement. We have no control over taxes, prices or things breaking down. And if you’ve got family conflicts, troubles with bullies, weird neighbours, and your church (your one source of comfort) is gradually disappearing as well, there’s not much reason for hope, is there? In reality, in this world, there’s no reason for hope at all.

Any hope we’ve got, then, has to be supernatural. And Paul talks of a supernatural hope too, “For in this hope we were saved,” he writes in verse 24. That’s powerful hope. It has the power to “save” us, even in a world like this. So, where does it come from? It comes from the Spirit, verse 23. Because we have “the firstfruits of the Spirit…we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We can actually see what God has in store for us. Yes, we still “groan inwardly,” verse 23, as we wait it out in this world, but the Spirit breaks through the gloom for us with a vision of what’s coming to give us hope in such an awful world…(continued in Part 2)