How To Be A Welcoming Church

I happened to catch an episode of “Veggie Tales” the other morning while my children were watching it. If you are not familiar, it is a kids show starring Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. In this particular episode, Bob had taken on a job of Chief Greeter at a local shop. He started off enthusiastically and later grew more and more weary, growing hoarse from saying “Hi!” so often and his cheek muscles no longer able to hold his smile.

It got me thinking about the subject of this week’s post on how to be a welcoming church.

It is essential that every church be good at welcoming people. It is especially crucial for those visiting for the first time. I once heard it said that people have decided whether they are coming back long before they hear the sermon or the worship music, but based on the kind of welcome they receive.

What follows is not an exhaustive “how to” guide, but rather a few thoughts on how to improve the welcome people receive when coming to your church.

Churches are never as welcoming as they think they are.

I once went to a church where, without anyone saying a word, I knew I had taken somebody’s seat. I just felt that I had done something wrong, and that I had somehow happened upon a seat which had been sat in by the same person for a very long time. As I recall, no one came to sit beside me or to welcome me.

Unfortunately, this is not as uncommon as it should be. If you are outside of the church, then you probably wonder what is so wrong with sitting in someone’s seat – and you’d be quite right! If you’ve been in church for any length of time, then you know how such habitual seating patterns can occur!

If I asked representatives of your church if they thought it was welcoming, there is a good chance they will say yes. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who said that their church is not welcoming. Yet, so many come away feeling unwelcome or even unwanted.

This should not be!

Irrespective of how good your church is at welcoming people, there is always room for improvement.

It’s not all up to the welcome team

At a church where I was once an elder, we discussed at length whether we should recruit people into a “welcoming team”. We wanted to ensure that when someone came to our church, that they felt at home, knew what to do, knew where to take their children if they wished and other such things.

Welcoming can often suffer from the bystander effect. This sometimes happens when there has been an accident or emergency, so many people are standing watching, that no one does anything to help. If we stood alone, we would know it was up to us, but it’s very easy in a group to assume someone else will do it.

On the one hand, we thought a welcome team would be a good idea as it would ensure that there was always someone there, ready to welcome and who knew it was down to them.

The problem was that those who were not on the team no longer felt it was their responsibility. “I’ll leave that up to the welcome team…” they would think. Not so!

It is everyone’s responsibility to welcome people into the church. Whether you are the pastor/minister, or on the leadership team, or a church member – it is down to you!

Discernment

The most important thing when welcoming someone is discernment.

When we approach someone to welcome them to the church, we must allow the Holy Spirit to guide us and to discern what the person may need or want.

There are times when people come to church and want someone to sit beside them, hold their hand, or guide them through an unfamiliar service. They may want to be invited for coffee afterwards, or have someone to chat to before the service begins.

On the other hand, they may be a more timid person, or someone who has come because of loss or grief. In such cases, the person may simply want to slip in, sit on the back row, encounter God and then slip away before they are “cornered” by an over-friendly Christian!

While these are perhaps extremes, the point is that everyone who comes to church is different. They may want company, or they may want to be left alone to observe. Either way, when you welcome them, try to discern what is best. If you are not sure, you can simply ask! “Would you like any help?” “Would you like to sit with me?” “Can I show you where to get a service sheet or cup of coffee?”

The answers to such questions should give you a good idea of what the person is wanting. You just need to pay attention.

Everyone wants a friendly welcome, but beyond that we need to be a little sensitive at times.

It is not rocket science

Welcoming people really isn’t rocket science! If you see someone you don’t recognise, just go over and introduce yourself. Make them feel at ease like you would any guest to your home. You don’t have to pounce on them the second they come through the door, but don’t wait until they are putting on their coat to leave either.

We often overthink these things because we know that welcoming people is important, and we don’t want to make a mistake and “scare them off!” If you are a naturally shy person, then you might find it more difficult to go over and speak to a stranger. If you are – let’s say – socially overdeveloped, then you might find it harder to not talk their ears off!

I cannot say that a bad welcome is better than no welcome at all, as I’ve heard some pretty horrendous things about the kind of welcome people receive at times. However, if you are sincere, all you need do is be friendly.

Welcome Pack & Domestics

It is sometimes a good idea to have a welcome pack handy too offer to visitors. It might include information about service times, children’s activities, home groups, details of the pastor or leadership team etc. Some churches offer a small gift, such as a book, to those who visit. It can be a very helpful thing to someone who is not familiar with your church or how it does things.

Similarly, in our effort to welcome people, we can forget the obvious things. For example, offering a service sheet so people know when to respond to prompts (if your church has a particular liturgy) or directing someone to the toilets, creche or refreshments.

For some, it is a big step to walk into a church and it can be embarrassing to not know what to do or where to go. For many people, the children’s work is critical. Introducing parents to the children’s workers is important so that they have some confidence in leaving their children in a Sunday School or junior church setting.

Some even say that the quality of the coffee is important! If a visitor is used to Starbucks, then handing them a volcano-hot, watery cup of mud may not fit the bill! Is it important? Not compared to the church’s theology say, but for someone who’s never set foot in church before, I can assure you they are not really considering the kind of theology you practice. A bad cup of coffee won’t put someone off i’m sure, but why not aim for excellence in everything we do?

At what point do people stop being visitors?

Most of what I have said so far is probably more applicable to brand new visitors. But at what point does the visitor become another member of the congregation? After three visits, are they then “absorbed” and so no longer need to be welcomed?

I recall overhearing a conversation once where someone welcomed a visitor to the church. “How long have you been coming?” They asked, “I’ve not seen you here before?” The answer was unfortunate. “I’ve been coming for 18 months…”

While many churches are good at welcoming brand new people, they are rarely good at bringing people into the congregation. My wife visited a church once and on her first morning was asked to join the AV rota! On the other extreme, I know people who attended a church for several months and knew only a handful of names and faces. At what point does such a person give up and walk away feeling like they just couldn’t crack the shell?

It is not advisable to put someone into any position of authority or responsibility until you get to know them. But sadly too many people feel like they go to church and are just never integrated – for want of a better term! Our welcome should not be limited to those “new” to the church, but to everyone.

 

As I said up front, there is no church that cannot improve their welcome. Every single one of us has a responsibility in this area, and it is not up to the pastor, leadership team or welcome team. It is up to us!

Some refuse to welcome because they feel they are not good at it. However we will never get any better if we don’t practise!

As I have written this post, I appreciate it is a lot of practical things and sharing of experience rather than my usual biblical based teaching. I hope it has still been useful to you. Have a think and a pray about you and your own church this week. What can you do to improve the welcome your church offers? Perhaps you cannot get up and greet people, but maybe you can put together a pack or welcome leaflet to give to new faces.

The church is not a building, it is a group of believers. We are all part of it, and each of us can do something to help make the church a great place to be!

Come As You Are

I saw a pamphlet recently which gave me pause for thought. It was all about welcoming people into the church, and was specifically aimed at a particular group of people. The leaflet pointed out that God loves everyone, and so everyone is welcome into the church – irrespective of their lifestyle or background. It went on to quote Jesus, and told the reader that He welcomed one and all.

I take no issue at all with efforts by the church to be more welcoming. Churches are rarely as welcoming as they think they are, nor are there any that cannot be improved. The word “welcome” has a specific meaning though, and sometimes we think to be “welcoming” we must change everything that we believe and do, so that we do not offend. Wrong!

We think to be welcoming means to accept everyone who comes through the door, no matter what their lifestyle and never point out biblical truth to them. Take a practicing serial killer who refuses to give up their lifestyle of murder – how might we welcome them? Does welcoming them mean we also welcome their life of crime?

Next week, let’s look at what it means to be a welcoming church. For now though, I want to think more about what some seem to think welcoming means.

Quoting Scripture

One issue I had with the pamphlet is that it did not actually quote Jesus properly. In fact, it misquoted Him. I am all for quoting Scripture, but not for taking it out of its context and even editing it to make it say what we want it to.

In this case, Jesus was quoted as saying, “Come to me all of you and I will give you rest.” A nice message indeed, but not strictly what He said.

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28 (WEB)

We see that actually Jesus did not say, “Come to me, all…” but “Come to me, all who labour and are heavily burdened…”

I know that some will think i’m splitting hairs here, but the danger is that we can take any Bible verse we like, tweak it slightly, apply it wrongly, and then make it say whatever we like.

Too many of us – and this can often apply to us “bloggers” – quote single verses here and there without giving sufficient thought to its wider context. We “google” a Bible verse which seems to support our point, and then paste it in. Sometimes that’s ok, but sometimes we take such verses out of their proper setting and imply a meaning that is not there.

Scripture must be interpreted by other Scripture. We must understand who is speaking and to whom, what the context of the chapter is, what the context of the book is, and finally how it fits into the whole of the Bible.

As I’ve written more lately, working on books, blogging, writing and recording sermons, I’ve felt the weight of responsibility. I do not want anyone to be misled who reads what I am teaching. No one has perfect understanding, and so we will all make mistakes along the way, but I hope and pray with fear, that God helps me to share only His truth.

Welcoming is not the same as approval

We believe in welcoming people to church, and preach the message “Come as you are!” Quite right too. No one needs to clean themselves up before they come to church! The church is full of people who know they need a Saviour! None of us is perfect, and if we were, we wouldn’t need Christ!

The problem is that many churches aren’t just saying “Come as you are,” they are adding on, “Stay as you are.”

“Come as you are” is welcoming, but “stay as you are” is not biblical.

Jesus welcomed everyone, but He taught them the right way to live. His message was not “Come as you are and stay as you are,” it was “Come as you are and repent!”

Let’s look at the woman caught in adultery from John 8.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the middle, 4 they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What then do you say about her?” 6 They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of.

But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.

9 They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest, even to the last. Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle. 10 Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.”

Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”

John 8:3-11 (WEB)

The first thing we notice is that the scribes only brought the woman to Jesus. Last time I checked, it took two to commit adultery. Where was the man?

The scribes here are clearly not trying to exercise moral law, but rather thinking they can catch Jesus out. If He condemns her, then it ruins His reputation as a Man of the people, and yet if He lets her go free without punishment, He breaks the Jewish law.

Jesus is cornered – right?

He drops down and begins to write on the ground with His finger. Many are frustrated that they do not know what He was writing. This is a mark of authenticity for the Bible, because if this story was fictional, then the writer would not have put such an untidy detail in. It suggests that the eye witness simply could not see.

Many have speculated about what Jesus could have been writing. I personally favour the idea that He was writing out the Ten Commandments. The ground where he stooped was not sandy or muddy, like we might imagine, but stony. And so the finger of God wrote on stone… remind you of anything?

He gave to Moses, when he finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with God’s finger.

Exodus 31:18 (WEB)

Assuming I am correct, then as the scribes began to read the Ten Commandments on the ground, they became acutely aware of their own sinfulness. And notice that the older ones left first. Perhaps the older we get, the more aware we are of our failings.

Jesus, fulfilling the Law, says essentially that she should be stoned for her sin – but let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. The only One who could do that was Jesus Himself, and He chose not to.

Acknowledging that no one had condemned her, Jesus tells her to be on her way. But He adds something very important. “Go and sin no more!”

Jesus welcomed this woman, despite her sinful behaviour. Praise God for this! However, He did not lower His standards in order to do so. Jesus was very clear that He did not want her to carry on living as she had.

When we welcome someone into church, we should absolutely meet them where they are. I am not at all suggesting we had them a list of rules as they come in, and expect them to abide by them from then on. However, at some point, we must share what we believe. If they want to go on and become a member of the church, then they must start living their lives in line with Christ’s teaching. Refusing to do so is a refusal to submit to Christ as Lord.

Where does the welcome end, and the teaching begin? That is not an easy question. As per my silly example at the start of this post, even if we could bring ourselves to welcome a practicing serial killer, they cannot continue this way and claim to be a follower of Christ.

Likewise, whatever sin we replace serial killing with, we too must give it up to follow Christ.

Being welcoming does not give any of us the excuse to accept sinfulness and not challenge it with God’s Word.

We will think about what it means to be a welcoming church next time. For now though, consider your own life. Are there sins you continue to hold on to, despite knowing what God thinks about them? Ask for His help to change, for you cannot do it in your own strength.

What is a Christian?

This may seem like an obvious question, but what exactly is a Christian?

Let me say up front that simply going to church does not make you a Christian. I think it was Joyce Meyer who said that sitting in church won’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage will make you a car!

I’m deeply concerned about those who attend church each week, and yet are not really Christians. I do not want them to mistake church attendance for salvation and relationship with God. I do not want them to stand before God one day and find out – too late – that being a Christian is not about going to a particular building on a Sunday morning.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.22 Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ 23 Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity.’

Matthew 7:21-22 (WEB)

Before I answer the question, I am not saying that church attendance is somehow bad. Far from it! In fact, it is necessary for all Christians to engage in regular fellowship with other believers. I am simply pointing out that our salvation is not based on our attendance record.

Being a Christian has nothing to do with where you were born either. Years ago, if you were born in the UK, then you might consider yourself a Christian because you lived in a “Christian country.” Sadly I do not think you can describe the UK this way any longer. Despite that, simply being born in a particular place also does not make you a  Christian.

You are not a Christian because your parents were, or because your grandmother was. Neither are you a Christian because you were “christened” or baptised as a baby. Again, I am not saying that baptism is unimportant, but just that baptism does not equal salvation.

So what is a Christian then?

A Christian is a follower of Christ – someone who not just believes that Jesus existed, but someone who has given their life to Jesus as both Lord and Saviour.

A Christian puts God first in their life. A Christian takes the Bible seriously. A Christian obeys the teachings of God, and a Christian is known by their fruit. This last part means that you do not identify Christians by their clothing, a fish on their car or a cross around their neck; rather, you identify a Christian by the contents of their life.

I can call myself a Christian, but if I act like the devil, then my actions speak louder than my words. That’s not to say that a Christian is 100% perfect the whole time, as we are imperfect and make many mistakes. However, we cannot claim to be Christians without some evidence that the truth of Christianity has impacted our lives.

James, in his letter, said this:

You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder.

James 2:19 (WEB)

Putting this in my own words; “You believe in God? Good for you – so does the devil! And he trembles!”

James makes the stark point that believing in God is not enough – not nearly enough. Even the devil and all the demons of hell “believe” in God. They even “shudder” at the thought of God. It is sad that this is more than many people do today.

I am stunned at the hubris of those who not only deny God, but blatantly mock Him. It is one thing to reject God, but quite another to poke fun at Him. This extreme irreverence is deeply worrying.

Many claim to believe in God, but few actually do something about it.

I’m paraphrasing CS Lewis who said that God is either the most important thing, or not important at all. The one thing He cannot be is moderately important.

If you believe that God exists, and yet do nothing to serve Him or find out what He wants you to do with your life, then surely you are acting foolishly. At least one who hates God is clear where they stand, but how does one respond to someone who says they believe in an Almighty God, and yet makes not one single ounce of effort to know Him. Strange indeed!

So let me ask you – do you believe in God? Great – so then what are you going to do about it?

Are you a Christian? Could we recognise that from the contents of your life? Are you “producing fruit in keeping with repentance?” (Matthew 3:8)

By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree produces good fruit; but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit.

Matthew 7:16-18 (WEB)

A Christian believes that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came and lived on this Earth. He died and was buried, and then on the third day He rose again to life. He suffered a terrible death on a cross to make payment for the sin that separated us from God.

We become Christians when we ask Jesus to come into our lives as Lord and Saviour. He is our Saviour because HE is the one who has rescued us from the punishment of sin and death.

He is our Lord also. That means we put Him in charge of our lives. We no longer rule in our lives, but He does. We defer to His judgement, His will and His way of doing things.

Do not let anyone tell you that the Christian life is an easy one. It will mean putting yourself to one side, and keeping God at the centre. That takes faith and courage, but is absolutely worth it.

None of us know how many chances we will get to make a decision for Christ. All I know is that life is short, and that Jesus promised to return one day soon. We must make a choice for Him before that time.

It only takes a moment to ask God to forgive you, to ask Jesus to come into your life and to receive the Holy Spirit as your Helper and Friend. Don’t put it off – I urge you! What else is more important? If God really is God, then ask Him in right now!

If you do, feel free to contact me as I would love to hear from you.

Get into the Word (PoW#23)

Pearl of Wisdom #23

If you get into the Word of God, then the Word of God will get into you!

You will never be a strong or successful Christian unless you get into the Word of God in the Bible. Consider the Bible as your spiritual food!

As you begin to study the Word of God and absorb it’s truths, those truths will begin to shape your life. As you get into the Word, it will begin to get into you as well.

This means that when you need it, the Holy Spirit can bring the Word to your memory. He can bring that Word to life in any situation. The Bible describes the Word of God as a “sword of the Spirit,” and the Spirit can put that “sword” in your hand when you need it.

As you read and study the Bible, the truths you learn will change your mind – how you think. It will shine light on areas you need God’s help with, and it will encourage and strengthen you.

Get into the Word this week, and let that Word shape your life!

The Christian Life

What should the Christian life look like?

There are many ways to answer that question, and I cannot tackle them all here. But I have been pondering some of the extremes of Christianity in recent days. This follows on from my thoughts on Christian Worship in last weeks post – Christ is… Enough?

To illustrate, here are two verses.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

Ephesians 1:3 (ESV)


I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33 (ESV)

If you were to flick through the typical Christian TV channels, then there’s a chance you will find someone extolling the blessings of God, promising healing, financial prosperity and success in every area. Alternatively, you might look to more traditional settings and learn that life is difficult, even with Christ, and you should just hang on tightly until you get to the other side.

Both can’t be true.

In a small way, the verses above demonstrate  how such extreme views can happen. The verse from Ephesians tells us we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing! And it’s my belief that “spiritual” is because it is a gift given by the Spirit, not that it is spiritual in nature. Christmas gifts are given at Christmas, not because the gifts themselves have anything in particular to do with the season.

Then, Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel tells us that we will certainly have trouble in the world.

My point is this; one extreme says we are blessed and should never have a problem in life. The other suggests that Christianity makes little difference to life on Earth aside from a free ticket to heaven one day.

So, which is true?

The reality is rather more complex, and the truth can be found between these two extremes.

I am adamant that God has indeed blessed His people beyond anything they can imagine, and stand firm on the promise offered by Ephesians 1:3. But I would be a fool indeed if I took that to mean I will never have another problem.

Similarly, I am very mistaken if I believe that my Christian faith is meant only for life after death. In fact, I cannot see how anyone who really knows God the Father would be able to live like everyone else in the world.

Deception can be found in the extremes.

Such an example can be seen when talking about finances and what is often called the “Prosperity Gospel.” Some Christians believe we ought not to be rich, while others follow the “Name it, claim it!” regime where they believe they can use their faith to obtain virtually any material blessing.

I have read the Bible many times, and really cannot see an instruction for believers to be “poor.” There are plenty of warnings against the dangers of being rich of course, but this does not equate to meaning all believers should have nothing.

Equally, while the Bible does talk about God meeting our needs and receiving blessings, I also do not see anywhere where it says we can use our faith to get whatever we want and wallow in luxury all of our days.

Again, deception lies in the extremes.

Poverty is not a good thing, but neither is it a sin. Very few of us living in the West can really claim poverty. To us, poverty might mean owning only one car or not being able to take foreign holidays. This is not what most of the world would describe as poverty.

Wealth has clear dangers. God must and should be the primary things in our lives, but wealth can become a “god” to us. Instead of relying on and trusting in Jesus, we can place our trust in our bank balance instead.

So, returning to our original question: what should the Christian life look like?

Being a follower of Christ must make a difference, both in this life and the one to come. If it does not, then we must ask if we really know the Lord. We cannot claim to follow Christ without actually following what He has told us to do.

Christians should have different priorities than those in the world. Our ultimate aim in life is not to make money and retire early, but to serve God in our communities. How that is done will differ for all of us.

Christians, I believe, ought to be more focused on eternal things than the things of the Earth. Now don’t get into the extremes, as I am not saying we should not engage with the world or have possessions or anything like that.

We must be led by the Holy Spirit. What He has planned for me is no doubt different to what He has in mind for you. A certain possession might draw me away from God, and so He does not allow me to have it. For you, such a possession might not affect your relationship with God at all, and so He can allow it in your life.

There is a great deal more to say about what a Christian life should look like – and I’m referring to general principles of course. What’s right for me, may be wrong for you and vice versa.

My thoughts turn to the narrow path that Jesus spoke of.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.

Matthew 7:13 (ESV)

Jesus wasn’t exactly addressing the same issue as I am today, but the picture is a helpful one.

When on a narrow path, you can stray off to one side or the other. Say there was a ditch running down either side, it would matter whether you went right or left of the road, you would end up falling.

Having Jesus is our lives is not just critical for the life after this one, but also for the every day here and now. Knowing Him and His surpassing greatness, cannot help but leave us changed forever.

It is helpful to think about what we believe from time to time and ask if we have wandered off of the narrow path.

Seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and He will lead you into all truth. Study God’s Word in the Bible and it will act as a mirror showing you what might be wrong. Renew your mind in the Scriptures and stop thinking as the world does.

What does your Christian life look like?


 

Just a note to say a massive thank you to everyone who bought a copy of my book. I was overwhelmed by the support and again thank you.

If you haven’t yet got your copy, then you can do so here:

Kindle eBook or Paperback

Large Print paperback Edition

Christ is… Enough?

I’ve been thinking about worship songs recently. In particular, their content and origin.

This began several months ago when singing the song “Christ is Enough for me…” It got me thinking… is Christ really enough? Of course He is, but what I mean is – is enough an adequate term to describe the One Who redeemed us?

Perhaps it’s just semantics, and maybe some feel it doesn’t matter all that much. I understand that, and certainly don’t want to come across as overly picky here. But for me at least, Christ isn’t just enough, He is everything – He is so far above enough that it can’t easily be put into words.

Maybe that’s the point – some of these truths can’t easily be put into words and so writing a worship song isn’t as easy as we might think.

I listened to a discussion the other day about this very subject. This particular group were rather critical of certain well known churches and ministries where many famous worship songs originate. They were especially scathing of Hillsong, Jesus Culture and Bethel.

Similar to my point above, they were disecting the song “Wreckless Love.” A quick examination of the definition of “wreckless” will show you that it really doesn’t apply to God. Again, perhaps it’s just semantics and there is no adequate way to describe God in words, and so, we must make do with the limitations of our language.

Likewise, we often sing about being “desperate for you,” when referring to God. The word desperate comes from the same word as “despair,” and again is not a suitable term for our relation to God.

So, what am I getting at?

Firstly, I think we should be very careful about the words we use, and sing. Words are extremely powerful and important, and I believe have a great impact on us. Many do not respect the power of our words, and yet the Bible teaches very clearly that words have power.

God made the world with His words, and so words can be creative. They can also be destructive too. I’m sure we can all remember a time when someone else’s words cut us deeply, and we still feel those wounds today.

James, in his letter, said this:

Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

James 3:4-9 (ESV)

Some very strong words about the power of the tongue.

The point I am making is that the words we sing do matter. And therefore we should choose them carefully.

So what ought we to consider when choosing appropriate worship songs?

Theology

For some it will seem obvious, and for others it may not be something you’ve thought about very much.

The theology of songs matter. Put simply, what we are singing must be biblical and accurate.

The most important thing about a worship song is not a catchy tune, but instead a good sound theology.

For example, a song that pleads with God to forgive us over and over is not good theology. Of course we must seek forgiveness, but once received from God through Christ, we no longer need to plead over and over again.

Think of some of your favourite worship songs, and ask yourself if they are biblical. It may be that you’ve never thought about it before, but we live in a time now where just because someone is singing about God, does not mean it is biblically sound.

Sadly, there are those writing worship songs who do not have a strong grasp of the Bible.

Similarly, there are churches and ministries who have questionable theology and the music coming from them mirror that theology. As mentioned above, there are those who criticise Hillsong and Jesus Culture, and it’s not my intention to comment on that here. But let’s say you did not agree with their stance on certain doctrines. It may be that some of their music reflects those doctrines.

Just be sure of what you believe the Bible says, and try to ensure your music reflects those biblical beliefs.

Romance

Worship is an expression of love – no doubt. It is right for us to love our God and Father. But worship is not romance.

Some songs you hear are more akin to love songs than worship songs. Is that wrong?

We need to be a little careful in this space I believe. While the Bible does use romantic imagery between God and His people, such as the church being the “Bride of Christ,” we need to be clear what we mean by “love.”

We love God, and He loves us. No arguments here. However, it is not accurate to describe this as a romantic kind of love. I grow concerned when I hear certain songs which seem to portray our relationship with God as a romantic one.

Repetition

I once heard someone describe modern worship songs as “7-11” songs – meaning the same seven words repeated eleven times. This was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but has a ring of truth about it.

Are you familiar with the song “Set a Fire” by Jesus Culture? I was humming it the other day and wondering not just about its theology, but also the constant repetition.

The song asks for “more of God,” over and over again. This can be taken two ways. Firstly, I cannot see how God can give us any more than He already has. He gave His Only Son to us that whoever believes in Him will not perish (John 3:16). He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3). He has given us His Spirit to dwell in us, His forgiveness, His justification, His redemption, He has promised never to leave us nor forsake us, and on and on and on.

Given all of that, can we really ask for “more of God?”

I appreciate that if you accept what I’ve said, then perhaps the song is really asking for God to help us receive more fully the things God has already done. In that sense, I have no issue.

The constant repetition concerns me though. I know I’ve mentioned “Set a Fire,” but don’t want to single that out. There are other similar songs too.

Most songs have a repetition in them, such as a chorus or repeated verse – that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to those songs which repeat short phrases over and over again, in a melodic way.

There is a danger here – either willingly or unwittingly – to wander into Eastern practices.

Hinduism and Buddhism use mantras to “concentrate the mind for meditation.” A mantra is a phrase which is repeated over and over. Rather than increase concentration, it actually dulls the mind.

Singing the same phrase over and over, even if a good one, can have the same effect. Add to that the loud music and flashing lights that often accompanies large worship gatherings now, and we can open ourselves up to risk.

Jesus told us to avoid repetition in prayer:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Matthew 6:7 (KJV)

Entertainment or worship?

Worship is not entertainment.

As mentioned above, some worship services are more like concerts now. I have no problem with worship being modernised, or the use of instruments, lights and AV, as long as it enhances worship.

Worship can be fun, and at times it absolutely should be! But worship can also be hard. It also can require sacrifice on our part. King David said that he would not give to God that which cost him nothing. Worship can sometimes be costly to us also.

Worship is not about making us feel better, nor about us having a great time. It is not about us at all.

I’m not trying to spoil your fun, nor do I want you to stand motionless in worship singing to a church organ. I just want to highlight the dangers of forgetting what we are there to do.

Give it some thought

There are many songs from many ministries, and we don’t always know where they come from. You could read the above and start crossing out lots of songs, even your favourites perhaps.

The point of this post was not to ruin your favourite worship songs. I just want you to give it some thought.

What we sing does indeed matter. How we worship does matter too. If you are being handed earplugs on the way in, then you have to wonder if worship is the primary focus.

We were made to worship God. Let’s do so appropriately!

From an Apostle to the Saints

Ephesians

My recent wanderings through the sovereignty of God led me to study the book of Ephesians in my quiet time. I am not certain if this will turn into a series, but it is such a rich letter with so much to explore that I’ll no doubt write a few posts about it.

In fact, in my study time, I’m still in chapter 1, which has more than enough to keep me occupied!

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 1:1-2 (ESV)

Like any letter, Paul begins by introducing himself. We often skip over these opening verses to get to the “meat” of the letter, but by doing so, miss out on important things.

Paul not only gives his name, but his role as well. “Paul, an apostle…”

An apostle is simply “one whom is sent,” but in the church context it is one of the founders of the church – often a church planter or one who has seen the Risen Lord.  The role of apostle was mentioned as one of the five-fold ministry gift or positions, which we will later encounter in Ephesians.

While “role” is one word, another is calling. Paul is not just some self-appointed saint, but is an “apostle by the will of God.” I’ve thought a lot lately about the will of God, and we will see in this first chapter of Ephesians that it comes up time and again. We cannot escape or resist God’s will.

We are sometimes a bit obsessed with our calling. We ask people, “What is your ministry?” or “What is God calling you to do?” While these questions have their place, I think sometimes we spend our lives searching for some grand call on our lives instead of getting on with the business of life.

Am I saying that calling is not important? Certainly not. I believe all Christians have a calling and should live it out as best we can. For many, if not all of us, we can summarise our calling as follows: we should glorify God in our life right where we are.

Certainly we should be listening to God for His direction, and this also should come from our relationship with Him. God is not a stone idol we pray to with nothing in return. Our prayer life should be two-way, and too many of us are talking when we should be listening.

It can be hard to achieve of course (regular and constant communication with God), but I believe life is to be lived with Him. Set times of extended prayer are definitely important, but so are moments of prayer throughout the day. Living like this, we can serve God wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

So we see this letter is from Paul, but to whom is it written?

The saints at Ephesus

It may be that this letter was in reality a circular which was shared among several churches. Some manuscripts omit the words “at Ephesus” and the lack of personal greetings suggest this. The letter was likely written around AD 60 while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. Some scholars dispute the date, believing it to have been between AD 80-100, and also that Paul was the author at all.

It is interesting to me that the New Testament epistles are always written to “saints,” “holy people,” or “consecrated ones.” We never see a letter written to the “sinners in Ephesus,” or the “heathen in Rome…”

This is an important point because I often feel we misunderstand our identity.

We sin, no argument from me, and we did so both before and after we gave our lives to Christ. Sin is a critical issue for the world at large, and is indeed the whole point of Christ’s coming.

Some churches focus too much on sin, and too little on the completed work of Christ. Other churches focus too little on sin, and fail to instruct their people on the dangers of committing “sins” and the overall effect of “sin” on the world.

Christ is the cure for sin. If we continue to think of ourselves as “sinners” after the work of the cross, then we are in danger of making that work of little effect. What do sinners do? They sin. And what ought we not to do in our lives? Same answer.

Rather, our identity (in Christ) is not as an old sinner saved by grace, but rather as an imperfect saint. When we give our lives to Jesus, God puts a new heart inside of us. That is the born again experience. That new birth is something which happens inside of us (in our spirits, not our internal organs). From that time on, we are re-training our mind, will and emotions (sometimes called “the flesh” or “sinful nature”) to come into line with what God has done in our spirits.

If you are still just a “sinner” then what has the cross achieved for you?

I appreciate this is partly down to semantics, and may not seem a point worth labouring, but I think it helps in our reading of the rest of this chapter. Paul emphasises what is ours in Christ, and that must begin by us accepting we are transformed in Him.

As we work through chapter one, I will point out some of the things that belong to us in Christ. Not things we have earned, but rather things which were bestowed upon us because of God’s great grace.

Grace is where Paul begins his letter, and it’s where I’m going to draw this post to a close. He wishes the saints both grace and peace from God. A deeply meaningful greeting and opening to his epistle.

Likewise, I pray God’s grace and peace on you this week.

The Sovereign God

In my last post (Wrestling with the Sovereignty of God), I discussed the idea of God’s Sovereignty, and how it was at odds with my previous belief. Little else has occupied my Bible study time lately, and I’ve continued to grapple with this matter. Here follows some further thoughts on this, and hope you find the discussion helpful.

I should warn you – it’s not for the faint of heart!

I spoke briefly last time about Romans 9, and how Paul was debating the same matter that we are. Does God’s Sovereignty mean He controls everything, and indeed who does and does not get saved?

Let’s read Romans 9:9-25 (and sorry it’s a long extract, but it’s hard not to include the whole chapter!)

For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:9-25 (ESV)

The thrust of this passage is that God does indeed “elect” some and not others. This is not based on their performance or on their character, but rather a sovereign act of God’s will.

There are two main objections here I think (both of which Paul answers). Firstly, that if God chooses some and not others then that is unfair. Secondly, that if God controls everything, then no one can resist His will and so should not be held accountable for their actions.

Let’s take these in turn.

It is unfair of God to choose some and not others

For some people, the very idea that God has an elected group He chooses to save is completely objectionable. I believed it myself I think, on reflection. The problem is that it does appear to be the case – if you study the Bible thoroughly.

Is it unfair of God to choose some and not others for salvation? On the face of it, it does appear so. Through no action of their own, they are specially selected to belong to God’s family, while others are rejected. Surely this is the very definition of “unfair advantage”.

What do we mean by “fair” however? Do we mean that all should be treated the same? If so, then I don’t think we want that at all. Why? Because not one of us “deserves” to be saved. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and so in reality, the “fair” thing would be to reject everyone.

Given this, I’d say the last thing we want from God is fairness. Rather, we want grace.

When we look at it this way, we realise that actually for God to save anyone is a miracle.

I’ve been over this argument many times in my mind, and have come to accept that it is the case. I have only one remaining objection really, and one I’ve not yet worked through.

We are sinners, no argument there, and we need saving. So if God saves anyone, it is a great act of His mercy towards us. The issue for me though is that if God controls every action, and we have no free will whatsoever, then is it fair to say we all deserve punishment? Could I sin without God allowing it?

Here we encounter the second issue mentioned above.

If God controls everything, even our actions, then how can we be held responsible?

I touched on this last time, and there is no simple answer. Look at what Paul says in verse 20.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Romans 9:20 (ESV)

Indeed, who are we to talk back to God?

I don’t mind telling you that in the midst of this journey or battle with the sovereignty issue, there were times when I felt a whole host of negative emotions. I’ve never really been taught these things, and in fact, was taught that God does not control everything but leaves it up to humanity’s will as stewards of the Earth.

I don’t think that can be supported biblically.

What really caused difficulty for me was the conclusion of this line of thought. If God controls everything, then you cannot separate our experience from His will. If His will is paramount, then everything we all experience is exactly what He foreordained. All the suffering and pain of this world must be exactly as He willed it.

It doesn’t end there. If God does indeed control everything, and it was all planned in advance, then not only the cross was foreordained, but so was the fall of humanity.

At the time I came to that thought, it was too much for me. I had to go back over all of my study to find the flaw in my logic and understanding. Can it really be that God planned for mankind to fall in the Garden of Eden? If so, why?

I am not sure it is even possible for us limited humans to answer such a question.

Does it in any way suffice to say that it is because it brings Him glory?

I cannot, and will not, try to convince you on this point now. It is really the only natural conclusion of understanding that God’s sovereignty does mean He is in total and complete control.

We elevate ourselves in pride if we try to fathom this and question the One who made us. As uncomfortable as it may be, we cannot select the parts of the Bible that we like and ignore the rest. We must take the whole counsel of God and understand Him as best we can from it.

So how can God claim He wants all to come to repentance and be saved?

In 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, we read the following.

who [God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 (ESV)

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)

A question I posed last time was how can these verses be true if God only elects some for salvation? Surely that is contradictory.

I began to read materials about the “Two Wills of God,” which I, at first, rejected. The idea is that God has a “revealed” will and a “secret” will. I struggled to find chapter and verse on such a concept.

The idea is this. I, the parent, am going out Christmas shopping for my children. When they ask, “Where are you going?” I answer, “I’m going out.” We see that my “revealed will” is “I’m going out.” But that my “secret will” is “I’m going out Christmas shopping.”

As an illustration, this works well. It is clear to see that I as a parent may not want to tell my children every little detail of my plans. This may be my choice, or it may be that they simply wouldn’t understand.

I can, to an extent, apply this to God and accept that there may well be things He chooses not to reveal to me, and so I should focus on what He does reveal. Where my illustration breaks down is that in terms of election AND God wanting all to be saved, they appear in direct contradiction.  My example of revealed and secret will going Christmas shopping fit together and are both true. We can’t obviously see that here in our Scriptures.

Again, it may be beyond our minds to be able to see the wide-angle view here.

For some, the “all” in these verses from Timothy and Peter refers only to the “elect” and so there is no contradiction at all. That is neat, but I’m not sure you can obtain that from the text alone and have to apply this interpretation.

Another way to look at it is a well-known ethics test. A train is hurtling towards a junction. On one side is your spouse, and the other a group of eight individuals. You have control the lever and can divert the train away from your spouse and into the group. What do you do?

Perhaps God is faced with such a dilemma. His will (revealed) is that He does not want anyone to perish, but He chooses to only elect some – this choice may be considered His “secret will”. It is impossible to put ourselves in God’s shoes here. If He owns the train, the tracks, the junction and the points, then how can it apply? I can safely say it’s beyond me.

Prayer, evangelism, healing and the rest

As I hit the bottom of the valley in this journey through sovereignty, I realised that much of what I had been taught was perhaps based on false foundations.

If you cannot separate God’s will from our experience, then you cannot say it is God’s will to heal someone if they remain sick. If it were, the sick would be healthy. This flies in the face of what I have previously believed God’s word to say.

It doesn’t end there though, and some of the classic questions about sovereignty are as follows:

  • If God is sovereign, then why pray?
  • If God is sovereign, and has an elected group, then why evangelise?
  • As I mention above, I would add – If God is sovereign, and healing (appears in my view) is His will for His people, then why do some remain sick?

This is already a long post, and I am keen to share my conclusions with you. I can’t answer the above questions fully in what little space I have left, but here goes.

Prayer

Prayer is problematic because the logic goes like this: If I pray for God’s will, then I am praying for something which will happen anyway. And if I pray against His will, then there is no possibility of it occurring. In both cases, prayer is pointless, right?

Paul, who wrote Romans 9 and stated emphatically that God is sovereign, had no issue telling people to pray. Indeed, just one chapter over in Romans 10:1 we read:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

Romans 10:1 (ESV)

If Paul saw no contradiction between Romans 9 and 10, then neither should we. Perhaps he knew something we have not yet uncovered.

I was musing about time. If I pray, when does God hear it? The simple answer is straightaway. But there is no “straightaway” for God. Not wanting to drown in physics I don’t really understand, time is a physical property and (I think) linked to gravity.

I think Einstein proposed an experiment which said that if you take twins born at the same time, and send one to our nearest star at 99.9% the speed of light, then on their return, the traveler will still be a baby and yet the one left on Earth would have grown up. Time on Earth passes at a different rate.

Hope that didn’t melt your brain!

Put it like this, God is not subject to our time constraints. We think that we pray, and God hears and then acts, influencing our future. God knows the end from the beginning, and so knows our prayers before we were even formed. I’m not sure if it breaks the sovereignty of God to suggest that maybe He heard our prayers before the foundation of the world. Perhaps in making His sovereign choices, He takes our requests on board. Just my considerations here, and nothing I can support scripturally.

Evangelism

Likewise, if prayer remains valid, then so must evangelism. You simply cannot argue that the Bible does emphatically tell us to share our faith, and by that, the full number of the elect can be reached.

Healing

If God always gets His way, and if we remain sick, we must conclude that it is not His will to heal us. And yet, physical healing is certainly Scriptural. Could it be that God wanting us well is His “revealed will” and when we don’t, it is His secret will coming into play? I leave that thought with you.

Conclusions

How can I hope to conclude such a post! My head spins writing it, let alone you reading it. This is the culmination of much thought and study, and so I cannot expect you to just swallow it whole and accept it. I urge you to look into it yourself and see what you think the Bible says.

But what does it matter?

I don’t mean to be flippant there, of course it matters. Understanding the nature of God and how we can relate to Him must matter a great deal.

My point is this. What difference does it make to the way we live?

If God is Sovereign, or indeed if you believe He is not, the Bible is very clear about how we Christians should live. Whether it is God ordaining it, or you choosing it, we must determine to live our lives in a manner worthy of God.

We cannot do it in our own strength, and must rely totally and completely o Christ, but our lives should reflect His glory. The way we live should be a witness to the rest of the world so that by their acceptance or rejection of Christ, God is glorified and praised.

Praise the Sovereign and Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!

Wrestling with the Sovereignty of God

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been wrestling with a tough issue of late – the sovereignty of God.

This began a while ago, when after a comment in a previous post, someone challenged my view of what sovereignty means. I am determined not to shy away from such challenges, even if uncomfortable, as it can only lead to growth of understanding to review one’s position. You either confirm what you already thought, or learn something new which changes your perspective.

In this case, I am certainly reviewing my previous view.

What does “Sovereignty” mean?

This, I think, is part of the problem. We all have a slightly different understanding of what we mean by the term “Sovereignty”.

One definition is simply that God being sovereign means He is the Supreme Being, Ultimate and without equal. I hope that no Christian can take argument with such a definition.

Going further though, some take sovereignty to mean that God controls every aspect of our lives here on Earth. Nothing happens by chance and everything happens according to God’s will.

This definition I struggled with. Like all who have faced this subject, the obvious question is “If God controls everything, then how come a) bad things happen, and b) how can anyone be held responsible for their actions?”

I previously did not hold to this view. I did not believe that God’s Sovereignty meant that He controlled every little thing in life, and that our very decisions were ordained on high by Him.

I could be wrong…

Two texts

There were two main Bible texts which challenged my view. I should clarify that I mean two main texts which I examined, rather that the big two.

The first is Ephesians 1:4-5, which says:

just as [in His love] He chose us in Christ [actually selected us for Himself as His own] before the foundation of the world, so that we would be holy [that is, consecrated, set apart for Him, purpose-driven] and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined and lovingly planned for us to be adopted to Himself as [His own] children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the kind intention and good pleasure of His will

Ephesians 1:4-5 (Amp)

This idea of being chosen by God opens up the heart of the sovereignty issue for me. Did God choose me first, or did I choose Him? Did He choose me, knowing that I would choose Him? If this doesn’t make your mind tilt, then you’re a wiser person than I!

The key here is to look to when God made the choice. “When” is a difficult one to apply to God, as He is outside of time. We think linearly, there is a start, a middle and an end, but we can’t think that way with God. He has no beginning, middle or end, and He just is.

What does the verse say? “Before the foundation of the world…” This means, put simply, before the Creation. If this is true, and as it is Scripture, it is, then it means that before you and I were born, before we did anything right or wrong – then God had chosen us.

The next obvious question is – on what basis did He make this choice? If it was before we did or said or thought anything, then it cannot be on our performance and behaviour. God did not choose you because you were “good” or “bad”, rather it was an act of His will.

We want to understand how and why God made His choice because we want to understand something fundamental. Why me and not them? A scant understanding of the Gospel should tell us that it is nothing to do with us – not our performance or how well we did or didn’t do, but completely and totally on the finished work of Christ.

The second text is from Romans 9:18-20

Therefore, God has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. 19 You may ask me, “Then why does God still find fault with anybody? For who can resist his will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?”

Romans 9:18-20 (ISV)

Here, Paul addresses what is at the very heart of this issue. Indeed, verse 19 asks the precise question we hope to answer. “If God controls everything, then how can anyone be held responsible for their wrongdoing?”

What is his answer? And I warn you, it may not satisfy…

who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?

Who are we to ask such a question of the Sovereign God? We are trying to wrap our limited minds around an unlimited concept. Human thinking cannot comprehend the sovereignty of God. Who are we to question Him in this matter?

If, like me, you feel somewhat unsatisfied by this, then I understand.

I want to give you a “better” answer here. I want to be able to explain this to you in such a way as to enable you to accept and understand it. I tried. Then it dawned on me that if the great apostle Paul can only give the above answer, then how can I expect to come up with something better?

One author suggested we approach this issue in the same way that we approach the Trinity. That is, we approach it knowing that it is true and having no human understanding of how it can be so.

I sigh at this point, realising that theologians have considered this for centuries and no “good” answer exists. God is God, and we are not. His ways are higher than ours, and this is one of those (few) occasions where we cannot explain or understand Him.

We can do nothing except humbly accept it.

Conclusion?

Hardly! I can’t hope to conclude such a topic in a few simple lines here. Like many who have gone before me, we can only walk this road our own way. At each step we must try to see the Bible as a whole in a systematic way. There will always be things, this side of heaven, that we do not comprehend.

Does it make God any less? No, if anything it highlights how “Sovereign” He is.

Does it somehow weaken our faith? It should not.

I’ve asked God the big questions as I’ve begun to examine this subject. It can only weaken our faith if we allow ourselves to engage in pride. “I should be able to understand this” or “How can God choose some and not others?” This betrays an attempt by us to somehow reach God’s level. When we question His ways, we are on some level suggesting that we know better. Such thinking is not only futile, it’s comical.

My journey has not come to an end here. I began this post by saying it had led to me to review my way of thinking about God’s Sovereignty. This is true, but I’ve not completed it yet (and I suspect I never will!)

I have questions, and I’m guessing you do too.

If what I’ve shared above from Ephesians and Romans holds true (and it does), then I prayerfully wonder how the following Scriptures fit with this. It’s a heavenly jigsaw puzzle if you will, and I’m quite certain all the pieces fit. It may simply be that only God can see the big picture.

Abraham negotiates with God

In Genesis 18, we read a story where Abraham (very respectfully) negotiates with God. God sets out His intention to inspect Sodom and Gemorah (verse 21) with a view to destroying it, and yet Abraham appeals to Him.

This is relevant to our discussion because it seems contradictory. What was God’s will in this matter? Was it to destroy Sodom and Gemorah without any regard for any righteous people living there? Was it always God’s will to save the righteous before He destroyed it? A close reading may suggest that God never intended to destroy it while even one righteous person was there.

Although Abraham very cautiously “talks God down” to withholding the city’s destruction if only ten righteous are found there, in the end we see that it only took one. Indeed, the Angel of the Lord “could not” destroy the city while Lot was still within its limits.

Hurry and take refuge there, for I cannot do anything [to punish Sodom] until you arrive there.” For this reason the town was named Zoar (few, small).

Genesis 19:22 (Amp)

So how do we determine God’s Sovereign will in this matter? The destroying angel could not do a thing until Lot was safe, meaning God had given His Word that the city would not fall while Lot remained.

What does that mean for what God had discussed with Abraham right at the beginning? – did Abraham’s intercession somehow restrict God’s will, or rather his prayers cause God to give grace to Lot who dwelt in Sodom?

It is God’s will that everyone be saved?

Likewise, these are key passages for me that suggest God does not always get His way. If He does, and He does indeed control everything as we have expounded above, then how can we reconcile these verses?

who wishes all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge and recognition of the [divine] truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 (Amp)

The Lord does not delay [as though He were unable to act] and is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is [extraordinarily] patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (Amp)

We can clearly see that it is God’s will that everyone be saved. And yet, they are not. How can we place these verses alongside the verse from Ephesians 1 (discussed above) and fit them together?

If God wants all to be saved, then why only choose some?

One way to fit them together  (and it is completely flawed) is the idea that God chose everyone, and that means all will be saved. Indeed, some teach that God will have mercy on everyone irrespective of what they did with Christ on the Earth, and therefore both verses can be true. This is false.

Such teaching does not take a serious view of Scripture and indeed cheapens the sacrifice of Christ. If all are saved irrespective of Christ’s sacrifice, then Christ had no need to come at all. Clearly this is not the case.

There must therefore be another way that these verses fit together.

Your will be done (the Lord’s Prayer)

Finally, we look to the Lord’s prayer. While it is my belief that this is a template for prayer, rather than something we should repeat over and over, one of the points is rather clear.

“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Given what we have said above about God being in ultimate control of every aspect of life, why should we pray for His will to be done? Surely His will being done is a given?

Extending this thought, why pray at all? Indeed, if God’s mind is already made up and His will already established, how can we expect to change anything with our act of prayer?

The Bible makes it absolutely clear that indeed we should pray. Moreover, that our prayers make a tremendous difference on the earth.

And finally…

We could go on. We could cite Scriptures about God controlling the weather from Isaiah, or hardening Pharoah’s heart in the Exodus, or sending a great fish to swallow the reluctant prophet Jonah. Equally, we could look to Deuteronomy 30:19 where life and death, blessings and curses are set before us, and God encourages us to choose life!

Is it God, or man, who makes such choices?

We could go on…

I can’t hope to bring answers to all of these questions here. I also do not want this to come across as a crisis of faith – far from it. If anything, my conviction about the absolute supremacy and infallibility of Scripture is even stronger. I do not doubt His kindness or love, nor do I question His intentions.

I hope this makes you think if nothing else, and it certainly helps me to lay out my thoughts before you. Thanks for reading!

I say again that I can do no better than the apostle Paul who said, “who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God?

Indeed, I am not God, but I worship the One who is.

Stepping Into Prophecy

Let love be your highest goal! But you should also desire the special abilities the Spirit gives–especially the ability to prophesy.

1 Corinthians 14:1 (NLT)

I’ve been reflecting on the reasons I originally started this blog. Of course, it was partly to share the Bible with people and some of my thoughts on it. But it was also to explore the spiritual gift of prophecy.

It has slowly become clear to me that I do have a spiritual gift in this area, but it is also something I’ve had little opportunity to really step out into. This blog was a chance for me to exercise this gift. It has taken me a long time to identify this in me, and so I don’t want you to think I’m arrogantly claiming this or that. I’ve found it quite humbling, but also realise an unused gift brings no glory to the Giver.

So that’s what I’m going to do… It may seem a little odd at first, and I hope you will bear with me as I go. But first…

What is the spiritual gift of prophecy?

The word “prophecy” can mean different things in the Bible. There is the “Office of Prophet” both in the New and Old Testament, and there is also biblical prophecy, such as some of the book of Daniel, or Ezekiel or Isaiah.

What I am referring to here is the spiritual gift of prophecy, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

It is not about predicting the future, although there may be an element of understanding things that are to come. Rather it is sharing God’s will with people. Perhaps that may mean a word of encouragement, or pointing them towards Jesus, or confirming to them something God has already been saying to them.

It may mean receiving words, pictures or visions from the Holy Spirit, and describing them to the person concerned. It can take different forms, but must always be done in love.

During a conversation with a non-believer, I was once asked about the gift of prophecy – “How is it any different to what a psychic does?” That’s an insightful question from someone outside the church.

The spiritual gift of prophecy differs from what a psychic or medium might do for a number of reasons. Firstly, ignoring any fraudulent psychics who are only seeking money, the main difference is the source. Psychics may be tapping into the occult, or demonic powers, whereas when we use the gift of prophecy, we are seeking God’s Holy Spirit.

Secondly, they differ in terms of the goal. A psychic or medium may be offering words of advice or giving direction in one way or another, but if the source is “wrong”, that is, demonic, then those words as nicely framed as they may be, will only lead to trouble.

The enemy comes only to kill and steal and destroy (John 10:10) and so we ought to be very careful.

The spiritual gift of prophecy is intended to encourage and uplift believers. It’s an opportunity to share God’s will and purpose with someone, and to support them in time of need. Put simply, it is an expression of love.

Should it be used to correct a believer?

There are times when a prophetic word may be a warning or rebuke to a believer, but that should only be done in certain circumstances. The authority of the church, or in marital or parental situations for instance. A pastor may need to correct a member of the flock (with love and care) or a spouse or parent may need to do the same thing.

That does not mean anyone with a word of prophecy has the right or authority to do so.

In this blog, I want to listen to what God is saying and share it. Prophecy is not more difficult than that. However, it is not my place to bring correction to my readers. I can’t easily establish a relationship with people reading the blog, and nor do I see this as a place of authority over believers, as a church family might be. You will not therefore find words of correction or rebuke here.

How will this work?

Good question, and honestly, I’m not entirely certain yet. It is my intention to sit quietly and seek the Lord in prayer. I’ll then write down what I believe God is showing me.

Please keep in mind that I am not perfect, but thank God He is! I may make mistakes, misunderstand or get things wrong at times. Don’t ever take something I say here and base a major decision on it! That would not be wise. Instead, please use it as confirmation or inspiration. Discuss it with Jesus and be sure it is right and right for you before you act.

I hope that what you read is both encouraging and uplifting. If it speaks to you personally, then please get in touch by leaving a comment or writing me a message.

 


I see a barren landscape, with rocky ground here and about. There is a single yellow flower sprouting up from the ground, and before my eyes it is starting to spread and multiply. Before long, the entire landscape is covered in bright yellows, pinks, reds and blues. The rocky soil that was there before is completely gone, covered up and good ground in its place. 

It feels to me that this is a picture of hope. Perhaps you are a Christian, alone in your situation (maybe at work?) and feel like that single flower in the middle of the wilderness. God encourages you to stand firm and hang on, because your faithfulness will birth other “flowers” and the dry, stony sand will be replaced with new life. 

You may feel the ground is too dry, the wind too strong and the conditions just aren’t right for you. You wish to leave, to find somewhere more comfortable, but God is wanting you to stay put. It may feel difficult right now, but He is strengthening you and before long you will not be the only one. Your faithfulness at sharing the Gospel will bear much fruit until God changes the entire landscape through you. 


I see a gold pocket watch on a chain. This could symbolise time, or the passing of time but perhaps it is a specific object of meaning to someone. Someone is clutching it tightly and I wonder if it means that time is running out in some situation? Or maybe it just feels that way.

God is never late or early, but will always be on time. He has not forgotten you and has not abandoned you. Time’s not up yet!


I have a picture of waves crashing against a sea shore. They are refreshing, cold but invigorating. This seems to be a time of refreshing for someone who needs it. You feel weary and tired, but the waves are the rejuvenating of your spirit by the Holy Spirit. He has come alongside you and is holding you up. He will never leave you nor forsake you. I’m reminded of Philippians 4:13 from the Amplified Bible which says:

“I can do all things [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose—I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency; I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace.]”

God is likewise infusing you with inner strength. Don’t rely on your physical strength, as that can drain. Instead, draw on the Spirit who will never run dry or grow weary. You are able! 


 

Faith and Unbelief

I want to draw this mini series on healing to a close by thinking about a passage from Matthew 17. There is, of course, much more to say about the subject of healing and this was not meant to be an exhaustive study.

One of the major questions people have is, “Why was I not healed when I asked?” Great question! Some will say that it is not always God’s will to heal, in which case, that is one possible answer. I personally don’t hold that view, but understand I am perhaps in the minority.

There are some things we can learn from Matthew 17, which says:

As they approached the crowd, a man came up to Jesus, knelt down in front of him, 15 and said, “Sir, have mercy on my son, because he is an epileptic and suffers terribly. Often he falls into fire and often into water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”

17 Jesus replied, “You unbelieving and perverted generation! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him here to me!” 18 Then Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him, and the boy was healed that very hour.

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

20 He told them, “Because of your lack of faith. I tell all of you with certainty, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. 21 But this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.”

Matthew 17:14-21 (ISV)

These events happen shortly after the Transfiguration of Jesus. He and the chosen disciples returned from the mountaintop to the unfolding scene described above.

A man approaches Jesus, seeking healing for his son who is described as an epileptic. He had first gone to the disciples, and the text clearly states that they (the disciples) were not able to heal the boy.

Before we dig into this, look at Jesus’ reaction… was He pleased by this turn of events? Clearly not! In fact, He had some rather strong words to say about it.

Jesus replied, “You unbelieving and perverted generation! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him here to me!”

Matthew 17:17 (ISV)

Jesus was clearly not impressed with this situation. He did not react with comforting words, or reassure the disciples that it was not their fault. Instead, He rebukes them! Obviously Jesus was here expecting them to be able to minister to this young boy. If not, He would have said so – “Don’t worry lads, this was too difficult for you to achieve. I’ll have to do it myself.” No, instead He criticises them for their unbelief.

Jesus healed the boy immediately. Don’t miss that fact. He clearly wanted this person well, and delivered him from this sickness.

Verse 19 is important. The disciples ask a similar question to what we often ask, “Why couldn’t we heal him?” Or rather, “Why didn’t it work when I prayed?”

The very fact that they asked this question shows that they expected him to recover from this sickness. If they didn’t expect that, then they would have just moved on. It also shows that they had prayed for and healed others, but for some reason this time it had not worked.

What is Jesus’ answer?

He told them, “Because of your lack of faith. I tell all of you with certainty, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. 21 But this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.”

Matthew 17:20-21 (ISV)

Let’s read these same verses in other translations so we get a proper picture.

The NIV says:

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:20-21 (NIV)

The ESV says:

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:20-21 (ESV)

And the KJV says:

And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

21 Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.

Matthew 17:20-21 (KJV)

So, put simply, Jesus says you couldn’t heal this boy because of “something”. This “something” is translated slightly differently in the verses above. I think the differences are critical to understanding what Jesus was saying.

The “something” is:

  • Little faith
  • Lack of faith
  • Unbelief

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Little Faith

If this is correctly translated, then I struggle to understand this verse. Jesus says, you couldn’t do it because of your “little faith” and then says, “You only need little faith to move a mountain.” This is an apparent contradiction. On one hand, little faith is not enough and the other it can move mountains.

Lack of faith

This, if correct, makes more sense to me. Jesus says they lacked faith to heal, but points out they only need faith the size of a mustard seed to perform a miracle.

The issue I have with this is reflected in some of the comments I received in earlier blog posts on this subject.

An individual seeks prayer for healing, does not immediately receive it and is then told they “lack faith” for healing. They come away feeling condemned, unworthy and offended. It leaves them in a worse state than they were before.

Let me say this categorically. If you seek prayer for healing, and the individual or church tells you that you lack faith for it, they are letting you down and you should walk away. Such a person is not ministering to you, but judging you. They lack compassion and beyond that, I think they lack understanding of what the Bible teaches.

Am I saying you don’t need faith to be healed? Of course not, clearly having no faith in healing would prevent healing, but that is not the situation above. When a faithful believer seeks healing, they do so “in faith”. If they lacked faith, they would not come forward to ask for prayer in the first place! Something else is happening here.

Unbelief

The KJV translates this as “unbelief” rather than “little” or “lack” of “faith”.

In the Greek, we see that “unbelief” is the word – apistia – and “faith” used here as in “mustard seed sized faith” is – pistis. They are two different words – although clearly connected. This leads me to conclude that actually the KJV is probably the more accurate translation here, and even that “unbelief” is something different to little or no faith.

Many suggest that faith and unbelief are somehow mutually exclusive. If you have faith, then you have no unbelief, and vice versa. I don’t believe this to be true however, and don’t take “unbelief” to mean the same thing as “disbelief”.

In Mark 9, a man approaches Jesus seeking help. Jesus tells him not to doubt, and to only believe.

And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

Mark 9:24 (KJV)

 

Jesus did not correct this man, saying, “You’ve got it all wrong! You can’t have belief and unbelief at the same time!” So it seems possible to me that we can both believe and “unbelieve” at the same time. That, in my mind, is distinct from “believing” and “disbelieving”, which clearly cannot be done at the same time.

I think that this man believed, but that he also had unbelief. We might use the word “doubt” instead.

It is entirely possible that we should have faith in God, and yet have doubts at the same time. We don’t question God’s existence, or our salvation, but perhaps we do have doubts about God’s will to heal, or our ability to receive. Many feel unworthy and so have faith that God heals, but doubt God heals them.

I believe that a sufficient amount of doubt can hinder our faith. So how do we deal with it?

We lack space here to truly deal with the matter at hand, but here are a few ideas of mine.

Focus on the right things

Our minds generally guide the direction of our lives. IF our minds are focused on the wrong things, then that can certainly increase our doubts. If we focus on the problem, rather than the solution, which is Christ, then we cannot help but have doubts.

If you are seeking healing, are you spending time with Jesus and understanding what His Word says about the subject? Or are you googling the symptoms you have and telling everyone how terrible you feel? Don’t misunderstand, i’m not saying you cannot talk about your problems or gain understanding of things through research, but we must try to do these things in a positive way.

Paul says in Colossi ans 3 that we must keep our minds set on the “higher things” that is, the things that are above and not on the things that are below. I’m not talking about “positive mental attitude” here, as that alone saves no one. Rather, I’m saying we should train our minds to focus on the things of God – His promises – instead of the garbage this world offers.

And finally…

What I have said over the last few posts is by no means definitive evidence of guaranteed healing. Nor was that my intention. The subject of healing is more complex than we have had time to really get to grips with .

Some of you will disagree with much of what I have said, and that’s ok. I, like all of us, am still growing and learning. If nothing else, then I hope that what you have read has given you pause for thought. If you disagree, then that’s fine, but I have tried to evidence my points from the Bible and offer alternatives to the traditional views.

I state simply that I believe God wants His people to be well. The healthier we are, the better we can serve Him. The longer our lives are, the more opportunity we have to share our faith with others. That’s not to say anyone who is sick cannot do these things, but what more could we do if we were not hampered by ill-health.

If nothing else, then please pray about these things and seek the Lord for yourself. Pray for me also, not only that I would have a deeper understand of God and His Word, but that I too may be in good health. Thank you.