Believable and Beautiful. Why Christianity is Compelling.

Can we really believe what we read in books written so long ago? With so many world-views and so many religions, how could we ever pick just one? Does it really matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere, and don’t bother others with it? Don’t people need to leave their brains at the door of a Christian church? Many people are reluctant to consider Christianity. However, in our series we have considered how Christianity is compelling, both in being believable, and beautiful.

First let us review why Christianity is believable, why one need neither leave their brain at the door of the church, nor their faith in the university parking lot. (Click on the links to read the corresponding “Shrunk Sermon.”)

BELIEVABLE

  • Compelling Truth.  People who are “relativists” when it comes to faith and religion suddenly become “modernists” when they need surgery. Truth can be known and does matter. We consistently live as people who know truth can be known and does matter. The truth about Jesus can be known and does matter.
  • A Compelling Cosmos. We considered that the universe had a beginning, the “fine-tuning” of the universe to be life-permitting, and the fact that anything exists at all. What we learn from studying the universe points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Morality. Very few people will say that there are not certain behaviours that ought to be considered evil for all people at all times in all places. The reality of objective morality points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Life. Life began and now flourishes in a world that seems ideally suited for it. The realities of life point to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Minds. Thinking people point to the reality of a thinking God.
  • Compelling Religion. The appetite for the spiritual points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Evil. The existence of suffering and evil is consistent with what the Bible teaches about our experience. Suffering and evil point to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Holy Books. What caused each of the books of the Bible to be written? The documents that make up the Bible point to the reality of God whose interaction with the world stirred up much writing.
  • The Compelling Man. The most compelling man in history, compelling in his activity, his teaching, his ethics, his presence, his good works, his love, and his impact, points to the reality of God.
  • A Compelling Turn of Events. The tomb was empty and disciples were going about telling everyone that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. They were willing to die for that testimony. Naysayers like James and Paul, changed their minds. Devoted Jews took radical shifts in their theology. The events of, and following, Easter, point to the reality of God.

Cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace speaks of a cold-case trial as being a cumulative case. That is, the best explanation of the evidence is the one that explains all the evidence. With regards to religion and faith, certain world-views may explain some of the evidence. For example, with regards to suffering, Eastern religions have a nice tidy explanation. If you suffer, it is because you deserve it. Your karma is catching up to you. There is a cosmic justice and suffering makes sense. However, there are still many things that don’t makes sense. If Eastern religions are correct, then how did the Bible come into being? Why was the tomb of Jesus empty, why did the disciples go around telling everyone that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead and why were they willing to die for that? Why did naysayers like James and Paul change their tune about who Jesus is and what he is about? Likewise, atheism also gives a good explanation as to why there is suffering. However, again, atheism can not explain all the evidence. Christianity explains all the evidence! Therefore, not only are the truth claims of Christianity believable, there are compelling reasons why we can see them as being the best depiction of reality. God is for real, and in Christ, God is for us.

We can further ask if each worldview is consistent in where it leads. It would be strange if, while the evidence points to the existence of a good and loving God, belief in, and devotion to, that God led to a terrible way to live, and a horrible society. We have used the example of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. If you have read the novel, or watched the tv series, you will see the dominance of a worldview which leads to ugliness and not beauty. Does Christianity lead to ugliness, or to beauty? In our series we considered how Christianity leads to beauty.

BEAUTIFUL

  • Compelling Evidence. Science and Christianity point in the same direction. Christianity helped science get started. A perspective which denigrates science is ugly. That Christianity can work with science is beautiful!
  • Compelling Religion. While religion can, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “poison everything,” a Biblical Spirit-led Christianity leads to healing. This is beautiful!
  • Compelling Grace. The love of God for people is beautiful. God’s grace and forgiveness is beautiful!
  • Compelling Grace, Part 2. The call to grace, forgiveness, and wisdom in human relationships is beautiful!
  • The Compelling God. The perfect justice and wonderful mercy of God is beautiful. Only at the cross do we see God being perfectly just while also being merciful. This is beautiful!
  • Compelling Mission. The sharing of good news is always beautiful. That we share the good news through words, rather than by force, and give people the space and freedom to choose for themselves, is beautiful!
  • Compelling Family. The Christian vision for parenting and marriage is beautiful. Yet the flexibility that no one is forced to fit the mold of “married with children” is also beautiful!
  • A Compelling Life. The Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled, life lived in wisdom is beautiful. That we don’t just follow rules, but grow in character, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Society.. Christians are not called to takeover the government and set up a society that enforces Christian living. That Christians are called to be salt and light is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Perspective on Humanity. No one has greater value than anyone else. That all people are created in the image of God, without exception, and without exception Christ bore the cross for all people, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling People. That the Church is to be a people who do good works in Jesus’ name, in allegiance to Jesus, under the influence of the Spirit, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Future. The future of every single person, whether they receive Jesus or not, is reasonable & consistent with a good and loving God. This is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Invitation. Everyone is invited! You are invited! This is beautiful!

The outworking of the Christian faith is consistent with the good and loving God the evidence points to. There are many aspects of Christianity that make us say “of course that is how a good and loving God would do it.” However, Christians have often made a mess of things and been the cause of ugliness rather than beauty. When this happens, it results from a disconnect from Jesus, and often, an unfortunate understanding of God’s WordThe inconsistency is ours. The ugliness is ours. But there is beauty. There is beauty, because there is God.

Perhaps you still have questions. I do. We don’t need all the answers. I have long thought of faith as being like a jigsaw puzzle. As we are figuring out our view of the world, our spirituality, and the way things are, pieces come together. Some people start with the most difficult of questions and give up. But for many of us, the puzzle pieces come together in such a way that the picture begins to form. It is a beautiful picture. So beautiful, in fact, that we cannot help but keep working on it. Sometimes there are pieces that we cannot yet place. Sometimes we have the sense that we are forcing certain pieces together that don’t fit. Sometimes we need to take pieces out that we thought fit, and fit them in where they really belong. This is all a normal part of growing and maturing in our understanding. The picture that comes together as we grow in our understanding is beautiful, and well worth the effort. It is a picture of the cross, of God’s love in Christ.

My prayer throughout this whole series is that you would find the Christian faith to be believable and beautiful, that you would find Christ to be compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here.)

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Compelling Grace, Part 2. How Loving Others Points to God.

For a worldview or religion to be compelling you would expect it to nurture good relationships. This is especially true where offence is involved. Where there are relationships, there are hurting people, for people hurt people. We are human. If a worldview or religion is true, we should expect that it will help us relate to one another and navigate the nasty quirks of our humanity.

Does Christianity provide a compelling vision for relationships including a method of dealing with offence? Some would say “no, Christianity is all rules which makes people get all judgemental.” Others would say, “no, Christianity is all forgiveness which turns people into doormats.” So which is it?

Last week we looked at the compelling way God relates to us. To summarize, God’s relationship with us is based on His grace, not our performance. How are we to relate to others?

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. 2 Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. Ephesians 5:1-2 (NLT)

As God relates to us, we relate to others; with love and grace. Consider the following verses:

7 Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . .
10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. . . .
16 God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other because he loved us first.
20 If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? 21 And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. 1 John 4:7,10,16-21 (NLT)

We are to relate to others in the same manner God relates to us; with love and grace. There are some things we can say about this . . .

First, grace provides a compelling atmosphere for relationships. Some relationships are like sailing in a thunderstorm or like walking on eggshells. Fear is a constant. However, “perfect love expels all fear.” God drives out our fear for He does not treat us as our sins deserve (see Psalm 103), but rescues us, and relates to us, by his grace. What is true with our relationship with God can also be true in our relationship with others. Grace provides a great fear-free atmosphere for people to thrive in growing relationships. In marriage, in family, among friends, at the workplace, in teams, the experience of grace given and received provides a great atmosphere to live, work and play.

Second, grace provides a compelling response to offence. People often deal with offence by either “fight or flight.” Neither work well. The Christian is to do neither. Rather than lash out and risk an all out war, we are to turn the cheek. Some will say that is not at all compelling.  Won’t people will walk all over us and take advantage of our grace? Well, no, grace provides for a flexibility in responding to offence.

Suppose a spouse is abused again and again, and each time the abused spouse is expected to forgive the abuser as if nothing ever happened. Is that compelling? No. I call this “doormat grace.” Some would say this is the vision of Christianity in dealing with offence, but it is not. The Bible teaches the need for grace, love, and forgiveness in relationships, yes, but the Bible also teaches the need for wisdom. The Book of Proverbs is still in the Bible! We need not offer doormat grace, but wise grace. Grace toward offenders means wanting the best for them, it does not mean putting up with the worst for yourself. When you respond with grace, you do not seek the destruction of the offender, but neither do you open yourself up for destruction. The gracious person turns the other cheek instead of hitting back. The wise person also takes a step back.

Grace, when applied with wisdom, sounds like this: “I will not seek your harm, though I think you deserve it, however, I do not trust you and so have set boundaries so that you can not harm me further. There may be opportunities for changing these boundaries in the future, but right now I discern these to be appropriate for my own safety and well-being.” Grace leads to not seeking revenge. It does not lead to acting as if the offence never happened, that trust has never been broken. Wisdom considers trust. Grace considers the possibility of future relationship. Wisdom considers the possibility of future harm. Grace leads to treating people better than they deserve. Wisdom leads to not letting people treat you worse than you deserve.

Grace in relationships is compelling. It provides a compelling atmosphere for relationships and a compelling response to offence which includes flexibility in applying wisdom in responding to offence. Within Christian relationships there is space for growth, reconciliation, boundaries, and safety for oneself. Christianity when practiced in emulation of God, in the Spirit of Christ, and keeping in step with the Holy Spirit, provides a compelling vision for relationships, including a compelling method of dealing with offence. The manner in which Christians are to relate to others is really compelling. This is no surprise of course, for it comes from a real God.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

Compelling Grace. How the Love of God Points to the Reality of God.

Is the manner in which God relates to us compelling? That is, does the relationship offered by God make us go “wow, that makes sense and is is consistent with a good creator God.” Is it consistent with what the Bible teaches about God, namely that “God is love” (1 John 4:8)?

Many would answer, no. Their impression of Christianity is that you try to keep the rules, then you go to hell when you die because you couldn’t. If that is it, then no, it is not compelling! However, that is not it! Many religions are based on performance, that is, your relationship with God is dependent upon how well you keep the rules. Many people, including many Christians, think that Christianity is based on performance. That, however, is not Christianity.

What does Christianity teach? What does the Bible teach as to how God relates to us?

Let us first go to the Old Testament.

We might be quick to point to all the rules of the old covenant law and assume that relationship with God was, and is, based on performance. However, look closer. Long before the law was given at Sinai, God continued in relationship with humanity. Adam and Eve sinned, which introduced death and separation from God. However, God stayed in relationship with Adam and Eve, and with humanity. Israel was called to be a different kind of people, a people who followed God’s lead. They often stumbled, and yes, bore the consequences. However, despite their poor performance, God stayed in relationship with stumbling Israel, and with stumbling humanity.

In the Bible we have a long record of relationship between God and humanity. Within this, to use literary language by way of analogy, the old covenant is a sub-plot which is essential to the unfolding of the main story. Yes, in the sub-plot Israel’s performance was tied to Israel’s future. If they rebelled against God, they would be exiled. They did rebel. They were exiled. But God stood by them anyway! Through Israel God was working out his plan for relationship with all of us. That plan was not dependent on anyone’s performance, but on God’s grace.

The old covenant law was not the main story, even of the Old Testament. The main story, from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s relationship with humanity, not through our performance, but by His grace.

. . . . God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:8-10 (NRSV) 

Second, let us consider Jesus.

How do you begin your prayers? Is it “O all seeing, all knowing judge, who is ready to pounce on me for every sin”? Jesus, in teaching us to pray, taught us to begin with “Our Father.” The Lord’s prayer begins in away which reminds us that we belong. We begin prayer with a reminder that when we are praying in the presence of God, we are exactly where we ought to be. We belong, even when we are aware that belonging is not what we deserve. In teaching us to pray, Jesus reminds us that we relate to God, not through our performance, but by God’s grace.

Consider too, how Jesus related to people in the Gospels. We have Jesus being gracious to all, being known as a “friend of sinners” (see Matthew 11:19). Jesus did have harsh words, but he reserved his harshest criticism for the religious perfectionists who harped on performance of the law. Jesus modelled a grace-filled life. God relates to us in the same way people related to Jesus, not by our performance, but by his grace.

Consider too, the cross. We sinned; he died. He rose; we live. That is all grace. Eternal life is a gift made possible only by the grace of God.

Third, let us consider Paul, as an example of what the apostles taught.

Paul teaches about grace Ephesians 2:1-10;

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV emphasis mine)

Though we were in a mess, God rescued us. Paul himself, is an example of grace, since he messed up terribly in persecuting God’s people. If God’s grace can reach Paul, it can reach anyone.

So how does God relate to us?

The Bible teaches that God’s relationship with us is marked, not by the performance of perfect people, but by God’s grace for imperfect people. This is a compelling aspect of Christianity.

Grace provides a great atmosphere for our relationship with God. When a relationship is based on performance, it can be like sailing in a thunderstorm, scary. When a relationship is based on grace, it is like sailing with a good breeze on a sunny day. There can be adventure, enjoyment, and progress. Grace provides an atmosphere perfect for flourishing and growth. When we receive God’s grace, we do not come before Him like a distrusted employee before a cruel boss, or a hated criminal before a harsh judge. The Christian comes before God as a child welcomed into the presence of a good, good father. The Christian experience of grace is therefore consistent with how God would relate to us if “God is love.” The manner in which God relates to us is consistent with a good and loving God. Grace points to the reality of the God we meet in Jesus, God as revealed in the Bible.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)