Fighting Gravity – part 4

Gravity2We live lives pulled by gravity. Physical gravity keeps on pulling us downwards. We can be a research physicist or a playful toddler. It doesn’t matter, gravity pulls. Fallen World Gravity (FWG) keeps on pulling us too. It pulls us toward a worldview where I am at the centre, where glory is a-relational and based on how weighty we can be in competition and comparison, and where independence just makes sense.

Here’s a fourth pull that is there whether we recognize it or not:

4. The pull toward speculation. This one is less obvious to us, even if we have done some good study biblically and theologically. It is strange, but the ‘theological gravity’ of this fallen world pulls us to enjoy speculation. We seem to be naturally pulled toward speculating intellectually, or experientially, or both.

Of course, God has created us to learn and to explore, but somehow this fallen world gives us a corrupted version of that. So rather than chasing all there is to know about God in His self-revelation through the Word, we will quickly put the Bible to one side and delve into intellectual and philosophical speculation.

Or we will quickly put the Bible back on the shelf and pursue some sort of spiritual exercise that might lead us into an experience that goes beyond anything God has directly offered in His self-revelation. Somehow these pursuits are permeated by an inherent independence, and that gravity continues to pull us away from God’s good plan to a fallen and twisted theological pursuit or practice. It is strange how much this happens and, for the most part, we remain quite unaware of how strange it is.

We will preach to people who just want to accumulate knowledge so that their intellectual curiosity can be assuaged. That is a problem. We will preach to people who just want to find some spiritual exercise that might lead them to a spiritual high. That is a problem.

What is more, since FWG is so pervasive, our listeners may hear a preacher who really just wants to accumulate knowledge so that his fleshly compulsion to speculate philosophically can be satisfied. That is a problem. Or they may hear from someone who is more concerned with climbing into some sort of anointed euphoria than growing in relationship to the God who can be known in Christ. That too is a problem.

Be a learner with curiosity. Let it drive you deeper into your relationship with Christ. Let the Bible be the ground you dig, and let God’s heart in Christ be the treasure you find. Let the pulpit be a place of sharing that treasure. May our churches be communities of increasingly captured hearts enjoying knowing the God who has revealed Himself in Christ so that we can know Him!

Fighting Gravity – part 3

Gravity2Fallen World Gravity (FWG) is a silent but constant force at work in this world. It does not discriminate between believers and unbelievers. Its insidious influence is persistent and pervasive. Like known “natural laws” it works irrespective of whether we know it is there, and typically we don’t.

So we are pulled toward self-centredness, and toward a corrupted, arelational understanding of glory. Consequently our view of God is distorted, and our view of what it means to live as creatures made in God’s image.  Here’s a third feature to prayerfully ponder before we preach again:

3. FWG pulls persistently toward independence. Ever since the hiss of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, our own independence has been one of the most self-evident truths in all the world – even though it is a lie! We cannot fathom the idea that perhaps we are not individual and autonomous beings who are free to self-initiate whatever we choose.  Even when we come to know God we are still under the influence of the Lie and we tend to think we can enter into some sort of mutual arrangement with God. I am a lesser being, of course, but I still naturally try to negotiate with God as if I have some sort of independence at the core of who I am.

The Christian Gospel knows nothing of works, nothing from me. We cannot and we will not merit our salvation. This goes against everything in the world’s way of thinking.

The Christian life continues in the same vein. We are called to look to Christ, to love Him, and live in dependent response to Him. This lack of independence and autonomy continues to go against everything this world has taught to be self-evident.

Consequently, in our preaching we will be tempted to corrupt Gospel truth with worldly lies. We will be tempted to offer a two-way arrangement between God and independent beings that can choose to autonomously apply instruction. However well we present a non-independent message, our listeners will filter everything through a default lens that colours everything in hues of personal independency.

Fallen World Gravity is dangerous because we tend to ignore or deny it.  And like physical gravity it does not mind whether we believe it or not, feel it or not, understand it or not. It just keeps on pulling.

Fighting Gravity – part 2

Gravity2I am pondering the silent but pervasive impact of FWG – Fallen World Gravity.  This force is not only at work in unbelievers, but also believers. Not only do people listening to us preach live typically unaware of its impact on their perspective and life, but so do we as preachers!  Yesterday we thought about the incessant self-centred pull of this fallen world on us all. Maybe we are only aware of 5% of this pull. If so, that should cause us to pray and ponder!

Here’s another effect of FWG:

2. The pull toward a fallen version of glory.  Our fallen world makes a compelling case that glory is about the radiating gravitas of an individual.  They could be a successful sports star, or a powerful business leader, or an impressive intellectual giant, or it could be God shining out his impressive knowledge, power and position. The fallen world makes us think that glory is about an individual impressing lesser beings either in some earthly sphere, or in the heavenly sphere.

But where is love in this picture? Where is the other-centred love of the Trinity that radiates in the perfection of loving holiness, not only impressing every creature, but inviting some fallen and undeserving creatures to participate in that loving community of other-centredness?  Somehow FWG can cause us to bring a corrupted view of glory into our understanding of God and then we can miss much of the wonder of the Gospel.

At the same time we inadvertently pursue our sanctified version of chasing glory . . . and we are right back to elevating self again!

As before, this is not just the case with those outside of Christ. Our salvation does not immediately purge us of the presence or effects of fallenness. Maybe as preachers, or as listeners, we would do well to come before God in prayer and ask Him to search us and try us, highlighting where we may be pursuing a so-called sanctified version of self-centred glory-grabbing?  Does this happen in our ministry? In our self-presentation? In what we write on Facebook?

Fighting Gravity – Part 1

Gravity2One of the great challenges in preaching is that everyone tends to be unaware of a massive force of resistance against the truth of the Bible. Our listeners sit contentedly unaware that they are not neutral recipients of our preaching, but oblivious subjects to such an overwhelming force. Worse, too many of us as preachers stand to preach unaware that we are also pressed incessantly by this force.

The force working against us all is as pervasive as gravity. We cannot see it. When it is explained we don’t easily grasp its meaning. And even once we’ve been alerted to it, we quickly forget it is there working continually on us. We can all live oblivious. But we cannot live impervious. This is not natural gravity, but what I will call Fallen World Gravity (FWG).

FWG influences the way we love, the way we think, the way we function. This continues to be the case even after we come to faith in Christ. Too easily we can assume that since our sin is no longer in our column in the heavenly accounts, since there is no longer any condemnation for us who are in Christ, then the gravitational pull of the Fall no longer fully applies to us. But as believers in Jesus we are still in a world, and in a body, that feels the full force of this unseen foe. Fallen World Gravity still pulls on every listener, and every preacher. All the time.

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit and fell into sin the impact was immediate and catastrophic.  They died spiritually, death entered their experience physically and the creation itself became a stage of death.  With this catastrophic change came a profound twisting of perspective.  They could not see straight when it came to understanding God or the world He had made.  It was as if a new ‘theological gravity’ came into force, a gravity that would silently pull every one of us away from seeing clearly.

The problem is really double layered. First, FWG corrupts our understanding of God and His world (including ourselves).  Second, FWG is so silent and subtle that we are generally unaware of its effect on us. This is why it is so dangerous.

Let’s begin the list and start to ponder the pulls of FWG on our listeners, and on us as preachers, too!

1. FWG results in an incessant pull toward a new centre of the cosmos. Our view of reality is now distorted. God is the centre of everything, and yet we generally live convinced that we are. As fallen creatures we walk around believing the Lie that the king on the throne is Sir Self. Is this problem fixed by bowing the knee to King Jesus? Not necessarily. Very easily FWG will pull us into a Christian version of self-service where God becomes the greatest resource for us. In other words, outwardly we can tip the hat to God’s greater kingdom but, in reality, we can continue to live for the ‘kingdom of me.’

Does this influence how we view preaching? Does it influence how our listeners will hear what we say?  There is no question about that. The question is, how aware are we of FWG as we pray, prepare, personalize and preach each message?

Warning: Over Hyped Intros

Hype2The first moments of a message make a massive difference. Just jumping into the message without any real introduction is a wasted opportunity. But there is the other extreme to beware of too: the overly hyped intro.

Yesterday I sat down to watch a DVD set that I thought might work for the small groups in our church. They won’t work.  The speaker, who I have enjoyed in the past, turned the introduction to a short series of messages into an infomercial of hype. The first ten minutes of the first message, and then the first five minutes of the second, were taken up with what felt like sales hype.

“I was speaking at a conference, but my message wasn’t working, so I turned to such and such a passage, and I didn’t know what I was going to say next, and then out came this message that I am going to share with you…” Which was followed by a bigger conference, tens of thousands, repeat of the message, lives transformed forever, etc., etc.

Maybe I am just too cynical. I know many Christians would love that and talk in eager tones about how amazing that experience was and how faithful God was, etc. But for me, this kind of “God gave me this miraculous and direct” type of introduction left an empty feeling. I also wonder how it would sound to someone on the fringes of the church.

An introduction to a message is not the place to tell your audience the global impact this one message (via this one messenger) is going to have, or even has had. By pointing listeners to other, bigger, international, church leader audiences, there is a sense in which the introduction is crossing some line we shouldn’t cross. Are these listeners now obligated to speak in exaggerated terms about the message? If the message is so powerful, wouldn’t that power hit home even without the opening sales pitch?

Don’t get me wrong, the opposite extreme can be really unhelpful. That is, “turn with me to this passage…” and no attempt at forging a connection.

The introduction is the time to connect with your listeners, to connect them with their need for the message, and connect them with the passage with an engaged sense of anticipation.

But when the intro becomes sales hype, these connections become tenuous at best. They could feel disconnected from you, the speaker, because you are such an out-of-their-league big shot. They could feel disconnected from the message because God gave it somewhere else for other folks. They could feel disconnected from the passage, because the implication of your introduction is that direct revelation is what makes this message special. And they could feel a general distance from the whole scenario if they suspect any stretching of the truth in what you say.

Even if the hype is true, just introduce the message in a way that is relevant for this group of people and let God’s Word and God’s Spirit do his work. Introduce effectively, but hype and sales pitches aren’t necessary.

Application Warning!

Warning Sign2Listeners love applicational preachers.  Preachers love appreciative listeners.  So preach applicationally and you have a win-win situation, right?  Well, sometimes.

Every application we make in the pulpit should come with a health warning.  Perhaps a sticker with something like this should be attached to every application we come up with in our sermon preparation:

WARNING! Your listeners are very prone to auto-self whatever you say. This well-intended application will be corrupted before your closing prayer.

What does that mean?  It means that when we give an application, no matter how well intended it might be, or how well-rooted in a Christ-focused message, our listeners have a flesh filter that will cause them to hear an instruction to be applied in relative autonomy from God.  We may have spoken for half an hour on how apart from Christ we can do nothing, etc., but they will soon forget that and make the application a personal commitment.

Religious flesh wants to know what I must do in order to live a good life, be obedient, please the Lord – you pick the phrase (but recognise that underneath there is an implicit sense of “so I can keep God at arms length!”)  Our flesh thinks that if we do what the preacher says, then we can be independently successful.  So easily rows and rows of well meaning Christians will file out to comply with the devilish idea of autonomous living.

Does this mean we shouldn’t preach with applications?  Not at all.  But if we are aware of how the listeners will corrupt what we say, perhaps we can do a better job of flagging up the problem with self-moved morality and spirituality.  Perhaps we can do a better job of showing people their need for Christ.  Perhaps we can spend a bit more time offering them a Christ they might feel compelled to trust as they seek to live in response to this message.

A Different Application?

IMG_1756Much e-ink is pixelated over the need for applicational relevance in our preaching. There is good reason for this. Too much preaching is totally disconnected from real life and therefore lacks the relevance that biblical preaching should always feature. But adding applications is not as easy as it sounds.

For instance, simply culling imperatives and encouraging people how to live their lives “more biblically” may in fact be undermining God’s work in peoples’ lives.  How so?  If our applications merely add burdens to their to-do lists, thence may well be adding a new law, rather than pointing people to Christ. In fact, we may be pointing them away from Christ and to themselves – which is by definition a Genesis 3 serpentlike thing to do in our pursuit of supposedly Christlike impact.

So how to effectively apply in our preaching is important, and perhaps it is a subject for another post or two.  But I want to throw an idea into the mix with this post.

What if, instead of focusing on how this message relates to their lives on Monday morning in the office, or Tuesday evening in the family argument, what if we sometimes refocus our timings in application?

Instead of just thinking about relevance of the message to the rest of the week, as important as that is, let’s also be thinking about the applicational force of encounter in the moment of preaching. That is, how can I show God revealed in Christ during this message so that my listeners might encounter him and in so doing, be changed.

  1. In the Gospels, people were changed when they met Christ.  Yes there were those moments where he said, “go and sin no more” of course, but that was not the exclusive applicational thrust of those encounters. People were changed by meeting him.
  2. In our lives we too easily slip into self-directed living and living as if Christ is absent.  The preaching moment is a key moment for encountering God as he is revealed in the Word.  It would be tragic to miss him for the sake of adding to our to-do lists.
  3. By pointing listeners to the person of Christ who reveals the Father to us, we are giving believers and unbelievers exactly what they need. Jesus is good news for us all, and we all need it regularly, because we all need him continuously.
  4. All true application should flow from the inside-out, which requires a heart-changing encounter with God’s love, not just a code-of-living change by encounter with applicational law. That sentence deserves some unpacking, but let’s leave the thought for now – there is a difference between outside to in change (i.e. here is the list, live by it), and inside to out change (i.e. having met Christ, how is his heart-work in you going to work itself out in your life?)

Application deserves a lot more attention in our thinking as preachers.  However we do that, let’s not miss the important applicational force of meeting with the God who reveals himself in the written Word as it is preached.

Cracks Are Serious

cracks2Recently I was getting my hair cut and the radio was playing in the background. Bizarrely there was a phone-in on the radio with an expert in building cracks. Since I had no option but to listen, I listened in as callers explained the nature of cracks appearing on various walls in buildings that they own and the expert responding with, “that is not serious, ignore it” or, “you need to get that fixed or your building will collapse!”

It made me think about the cracks that we sense in our relationships. It is so easy for a crack to develop between two people. Maybe it is with your spouse or a close friend. Maybe it is with a co-worker in the church, or a fellow church member. Whatever the relationship, cracks are serious.

In Colossians 3, Paul recognizes the challenge of maintaining harmonious relationships in the church and offers the vital recipe for dealing with the cracks that will inevitably form between people. After listing several other Christlike characteristics in verse 12, he comes to patience and pauses to develop the thought. “…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Most issues between people can be dealt with by Colossians 3:13. Bear with, forgive. But it is important that we do that. Too easily we can leave the cracks to spread and to grow wider.

I really appreciated Andy Stanley’s teaching related to this. He explained how we all have expectations of one another, but what should we do when there is a gap between our experience and our expectation? We expect someone to do A, but they instead do B. There is a gap. Andy Stanley teaches that we are to fill the gap with trust. We can assume that there is something we don’t know and that the person is trustworthy. However, there will be times when we cannot fill the gap with trust. Then what? Simple. Then we need to approach them.

One of two things will happen when we approach someone over a gap between our expectations and experience. When we go and assure them that we want to trust them, but there is this gap… Either they will be able to fill us in with the information we are missing, thus re-establishing the trust in the relationship. Or they will be given the opportunity to own their sin and they will ask us for forgiveness. Either way, the relationship is honoured and Christ is pleased.

So what do we do when we sense a crack developing in a relationship? We are to forgive first, then either we can bear with, or we need to approach and proactively address the situation. Notice that forgiveness is not dependent on the other person apologizing to us. Forgiveness takes only one person. If there is a breakdown in the relationship then it will take two people to reconcile, but we should forgive before we ever approach the other person. It is vital to do this so that our manner and tone can be genuinely humble and loving, rather than confrontational and touchy.

So this leaves some non-options. There are several things we must not do when cracks appear in a relationship. We may be tempted to do all four of these, but we must not, or the cracks will only spread further or grow wider.

1. Leave it. We cannot simply leave it. Ignoring cracks in relationships will not cause them to go away. These things do not self-heal. Some cultures are very committed to avoiding any conflict, but this can simply compound the problem and create a bigger mess once addressing the issues becomes unavoidable.

2. Label them. It is always tempting to label other people. “He is touchy. She is weird. They are sensitive.” But if the crack in the relationship has not been addressed, then this is a label based on incomplete information. We like to think we know enough to make such judgments, but we don’t, and we are usurping God’s role as the all-knowing One!

3. Retreat. Not only is it tempting to leave the issue alone, it is also tempting to retreat from the other person. We can avoid people without even consciously planning to do so. Our self-protection radar beeps quietly and we can navigate life without meaningful or awkward contact, but it is awkward, because the relationship is cracked.

4. Report. How very easy it is to spread the label we’ve applied to others. Gossip occurs when our communication about someone reduces the esteem others have for that person. Do not go there. Learn to sense gossip and stop it in its tracks. When someone starts to cross the line with you, you can ask them, “have you spoken with them about this?” or “do they know you are sharing this with me?” Gossip is aggressive crack multiplication in the local church.

So how is it possible to proactively address cracks and pursue harmony in the body of Christ? Colossians 3:12-17 gives several critical pointers for us.

First, we won’t achieve this by looking to ourselves and determining to do better in this. We must first look to Christ. The whole letter points us in Christ’s direction, see 1:15-23, or 3:1-4. In fact, look at how verse 12 begins: we are God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved – our gaze needs to be on Christ and our union with Him, not on ourselves and our determination to do good.

Second, we have the peace of Christ at work in our midst like a referee with a whistle. Verse 15 in its context is not about a private guidance mechanism. It is all about how the Spirit works to promote unity amongst believers. When we say something unhelpful, or when a crack develops, God is at work with a gentle whistle to highlight the issue to us. Let’s pray for a growing sensitivity to that refereeing of our relationships.

Third, the word of Christ dwelling in us will feed our healthy mutual interactions – verse 16 underlines our need for this.

Fourth, gratitude will be a wonderful gel in group dynamics. Three times Paul points to the need for gratitude amongst the believers.

So keeping our gaze fixed on Christ, with His Word very much at home in our hearts, with the Spirit’s whistle gently nudging us when cracks develop, we can gratefully pursue a proactive unity and harmony. Always forgiving, usually bearing with, and sometimes approaching when necessary, we can be part of a harmonious group of believers whose Christlike corporate culture create a Christlike impact in a world desperate for authentic and loving community.

John Hindley: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

John HindleyJohn is pastor of BroadGrace Church in rural Norfolk (England).  John authored Serving Without Sinking and You Can Really Grow  (Good Book Company), as well as Suffering and Singing (10ofThose).  John is married to Flick and has three little ones. In his own words, “John Hindley is a wicked and filthy wretch made beautiful by Christ alone.”  I am thankful to John for offering this guest post as we head into the release month for Foundations.


To be human is to dig. At least, that is what it is after the fall. To be human outside the garden, East of Eden, is to heft your shovel and dig again. It is to hope (if there can be a hope beyond hope) that this time the guy who sold you the map was honest, despite the way his parrot kept laughing at you.

To be human, for some, is to sail against the storm, hack your way through the undergrowth and then force your spade into the earth. For other the dig comes after a lie-in and pleasure cruise. But we are all digging, where X marks the spot, because there must be treasure somewhere. One of the maps has to be right, and there has to be a chest filled with pieces of eight. Or with peace, with hope, with love, with joy, with meaning, with forgiveness, with a future, with life.

Maybe we know what we are searching for, or maybe we dig with the desperation of not even remembering what we are digging for. We dig the sands of career, health, family, hobbies, holidays, wealth, stories. We dig and dig until one day we hear the sound of a spade against a chest. Carefully the chest is unearthed, and then gently prised open.

When we look back on that day, it still makes us smile to realise how wrong we had got it. We thought we had to dig. It never occurred to us that we were the treasure.

To be human, truly human, is to be the treasure that Christ paid the highest price to win. It is to be the delight of his eyes despite our running, our striving to find treasure far from him. It is to be the blood-bought forgiven who will always be treasured by their Captain until he comes back for us. We are safe, hidden in Christ.

And now, when we dig, we find treasure everywhere.

The Why Behind Preaching

UnionWhyMost of the time we tend to focus on what we are doing.  Sometimes we ponder how we could do it better.  Too rarely we ponder the motivation behind our ministry.  Why do we preach?

Let’s ponder two simple reasons (loaded with multiplied motivations in pregnant-with-meaning summaries):

1. Because we love God.  The God we love is the God who loved us first – who loves, who speaks, who gives of his riches, who gives himself.  This captures our hearts and gives us something to say.  We love God because he is the best news we have ever received, and so we want to spill that thrillingly good news to others.  We want to see God’s work built up, and it is a work done not by force, but by proclamation, presentation and appeal.  We are not mere recipients of a good message, but we are drawn into the eternal conversation out of which that message has come – the Spirit of God is at work in us pointing our hearts to Christ in whom we see the heart of the Father.  God is at work in hearts and we get to participate in that.

Preaching as an act of devotion, an act of worship, and even preaching as obedience to God’s Word and as obedience to his calling on our lives – these could all be added.  But the bottom line surely is this: as we take stock of our own motivation in preaching, are we still gripped and driven by a vertical responsiveness?  This can so easily grow dull or become corrupted by a self-elevation and self-worship. Surely the best thing to do here is to spend time on our face before God and ask Him what our motivations are (ask yourself and you may respond with a lie!)

2. Because we love others.  Loving God shapes our loves to conform to his.  He deeply loves the people who will sit in the church on Sunday, or who will visit for the guest event, and so gradually our love for these people grows too.  We want to serve them by offering the very best news there is.  We want to preach because people need to hear the good news – both those who still live as dead in the realm of darkness, and those who are in the family, but feel the constant pull of the flesh toward self-reliance.  We preach because we want others to have the joy that comes from not only receiving, but also spilling to others according to the way God made and wired them.

Love the Lord, love your neighbour . . . simple.